Friday, March 29, 2013

Time Warp, Verigo's Latest Sci-Fi Anthology

Time Warp, new from Vertigo
Anthologies can be very hit or miss with the material in them. You can get fantastic short stories sandwiched between comics so bad you wonder what the hell the editor was thinking. And sometimes you get something like Kramer's Ergot 8, which was 100% unexpurgated gibberish. Time Warp, new this week, is the latest science fiction anthology from the rather moribund Vertigo, and it is quite good.

Time Warp is a follow up to the previous one-shots in the series, May 2011's Strange Adventures, October 2011's The Unexpected, May 2012's Mystery In Space, and October 2012's Ghosts. Each of these 80+ page anthologies have featured contributions from some of the best independent creators working in comics as well as new team-ups of DC talent. A couple had the initial chapters of larger upcoming Vertigo series or serialized multi-part stories, but for the most part the stories were self-contained while thematically similar in each issue. As a whole, the anthologies have been fun but containing equal amounts killer and filler.

Time Warp breaks the mold by having only one weak story among the nine presented, that being a part of a Dead Boy Detectives serial. There's quite a bit to enjoy in the rest of the issue. The opening is an amazing Rip Hunter Time Master tale ("R.I.P.") written by Lost creator Damon Lindelof and illustrated by Sweet Tooth's Jeff Lemire. Lemire's style here is perfect for the dinosaurs and time sphere mashup and Lindelof's script is concise and wonderfully, logically (and emotionally) plays with multiple Rips through to the final R.I.P. The next short story, Tom King and Tom Fowler's "It's Full of Demons" is a heartbreaking tale of madness through a distemporal alternate history lens, and one of two utterly different Kill Adolph Hitler stories (the other being the closing tale, "The Principal" by New Deadwardians' Dan Abnett & I.N.J. Culbard).

Andy MacDonald art from "00:00:30:00"
Gail Simone turns in an unexpectedly moving short story about a candy shop where the chef's creations will let you live "ten perfect minutes of your life," Gael Bertrand's art whimsical and stylish."The Grudge" by Si Spurrier & Michael Dowling is a completely and deliciously absurd tale of scientific one-upmanship through creative and sophomoric insults written across decades by two scientific rivals. "The Grudge" is a really funny, really absurd, oddly tragic, inventive short story.

"She's Not There" by Peter Milligan & M.K. Perker is a tale of spousal control not even limited by the bonds of death followed by "00:00:30:00" by Ray Fawkes & Andy MacDonald, a story I really liked. In a future war in space, when all seems lost, pilots can hit a time dilation field, giving them minutes of local time in just seconds, allowing them to complete mission objectives before being destroyed. But one pilot utilizes her time for more than just her duty, resulting in a lasting cultural change.

The penultimate story, "Warning Danger" by one of the best cartoonists working in mainstream comics, Matt Kindt, breaks away from the time travel theme shared by the other stories in the anthology. Like a mashup of Kindtian artistic flavor and Brandon Graham-like inventive sci-fi labeling, Kindt tells the story of a future war fought between just two combatants, enhanced and upgraded by years of research and billions in R&D. Two combatants, fighting on behalf of their respective worlds, the victor deciding the outcome of the entire war. Like the battle it portrays, it ends quickly but with a hint of the potential for abuse that such an arrangement could have.

If you've been enjoying the more frequent but more uneven anthology Dark Horse Presents, you should pick this up. A really solid jumble of time travel stories from a bunch of great creators, all for less than eight bucks.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sophomore Jinx: Are You My Mother

Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Are You My  Mother, out this week in softcover, is Alison Bechdel's shockingly dreadful follow-up to her previous memoir Fun Home.

Fun Home, published in 2006, widely praised and deservedly so, is a masterpiece of graphic memoir. An astonishing piece of literature, it was smarter, deeper, more incisive and perceptive than almost anything I've ever read and it can safely be called one of the Greatest Comics Of All Time. In it she recounts her childhood and her coming of age (and coming out) against the backdrop of her somewhat unusual upbringing with a big focus on her relationship with her father. The art is finely detailed, her prose richly allusive and vibrant, her storytelling engaging and sophisticated. This is one of comics' most important works, a piece that will be looked at as one of the gold standards of both autobiography and non-fiction graphic novels for years to come.

Every amazing thing that Fun Home is, Are You My Mother is not. It is dull, whiny, frankly insufferable. Once I started it, I resented having to finish it. The memoir aspects are thin and repetitive, often covering material already vividly and memorably portrayed in Fun Home. Indeed the amount of times she references Fun Home (the actual comic as much as the material already covered in it) should be a big red flag. It's an unenviable task to follow up such a well regarded masterpiece, but you do yourself no favors by constantly reminding your audience about it. I repeatedly found myself in the position of wishing Are You My Mother was even just a fraction of the book Fun Home was, and repeatedly being disappointed, page after page.

Is it unfair to Bechdel to hold Are You My Mother to Fun Home's standards? Possibly, but I'd like to think I approached the work as its own piece. And as its own piece it is a failure. Too much of the book is bogged down in the psychosocial history of what being a mother is, focusing vast swaths of the work on notable psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (and others). Where even Fun Home's most obscure allusions and references were apt and varied and fascinating, all this philosophizing is really, really boring. Her relationship with her mother - the work's ostensible raison d'être - isn't any more interesting, a pretty big problem. Her art also seems to have devolved, perhaps focusing more on digital techniques rather than her own assured fine line of Fun Home (but that's an assumption on my part - point is the art ain't as good either). And the parts about her experience in therapy, whining and about as incisive as a butter knife, almost made me put down the book permanently. I wish I had.

I know my views here go against the critical consensus for this book, but this is honestly an awful, regrettable, boring work. It certainly has the veneer of Importance and Crossover Success, but junk is junk. And while I cannot recommend Fun Home enough, I cannot more vehemently recommend avoiding this at all costs.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Quick Hits: Ten New Comics for Wednesday, March 27

Young Avengers 3 is by Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie and good grief is this a fun comic. Weird interdimensional baddies are pretending to be the team's mommies and daddies and fisticuffs ensue. Meh concept, A-plus-plus doublegood execution, and McKelvie makes my heart flutter. We get some Billy & Hulkling & Kid Loki then Miss America Chavez shows up and you yell BOOWAH THAT WAS AWESOME because trust me homies, it's the best entrance in comics this week/month/maybe-year. Part of the nu-nu-nu-Marvel new wave of quality supercomic in the league of Hawkeye and Daredevil and Fraction FF (the Allred/Allred one). Worth the trip home by the issue and then the trade because you can never have too much of such a Good Thing and this is a Good Thing.

Journey Into Mystery 650 is the conclusion to a so-so-Sif story but Valerio Schitti on art is the reason for the buy. Schitti's stuff ain't shitty (sorry, couldn't not do it), far from it. Kathryn Immonen wrote this but Schitti's stuff is Stuart Immonen-ish in its energy and style and underrated nature because Immonen was the most underrated penciler on the planet til he blew up Fear Itself and All New X-Men (though he was honestly the coolest kid on the block since Nextwave). Bold, fun art from someone who oughtta be on the marquis and if he continues pulling out art this good he will be.

Garth Ennis had four great comics this week, all of them war comics in some fashion, and there is no-one in the world better at war comics than Ennis.

Fury Max 10 with Goran Parlov continued his tale of America's forays into murky international conflicts. This time Fury finds himself enmeshed in the Contra/Sandinista clusterfuckety in Nicaragua in the 1980s. American Special Forces are training rebels for dubious gains and Fury has been sent in to check up on the outfit, run by none other than Ennis & Parlov's best creation from their Punisher Max run, Barracuda. There is much discussion by the principals on what America is doing here and why, as well as Barracuda's own decidedly shady financial motivations in the region. Like with so many Ennissian dramas, complex seas of grey are what the characters find themselves in, and the path forward is expectedly labyrinthine and murky (and if anyone loves moral murk it's Ennis).

Ennis is still the best writer to utilize the playground he created in Crossed in this week's Crossed Badlands 26. The moral quandaries of a completely screwed post-apocalyptic world in his always entertaining and thoughtful parable about man's inhumanity to man get equal play to the true horror of the situation and the visceral thrill of some really, really twisted imagery. The first double page splash had me frankly guffawing Barracuda style, the horror that followed left me quiet like an awkward silence in a crowded elevator. What's left of an English military unit have decided to bombard populated areas with biological weapons, because logically this would wipe out the Crossed. It would take out any uninfected humans, too, but that's the cost of war. The characters do not come to this plan lightly, and the arguments and counterarguments - more moral murkiness - are presented equally. We know how the characters feel, at this point in his creative career we have a pretty good inkling of what Ennis feels, but he never tells the reader what to feel and the answers are never easy. (And the art by whomever Avatar keeps locked in their basement is quite crappy but if it ain't Jacen Burrows on your Avatar comics this week you're playing Russian Roulette with your eyes.)

Red Team 2 revels in uneasy answers, though counterarguments are less as the characters are more sure of their righteousness if not the really the legality of their actions - and we know damn well where Ennis comes down here. A group of elite NYPD have taken it upon themselves to, in essence, be team Punisher. But unlike the Punisher they are more concise with the vengeance the mete out, and work out in great detail where and how they will do what they do. There is a cold, immutable logic to what they are doing. We're not troubled by their actions because their targets have it coming, but when we put ourselves in their shoes could we do the same?

And then there's Battlefields 5, pure war comic and desert-island-worthy like all his pure war comics. Here we get The Fall and Rise Of Anna Kharkova Part 2, his latest in the epic of one Russian fighter pilot and her battles both against the enemy and against her own culture. Ennis excels at taking forgotten aspects of wars gone by (to borrow Fury's subtitle) and shining a light on them that is eye-opening, told with respect and humor and bracing reality and is easily is the best historical fiction you can find in comics. Anna Kharkova, returning in her second arc, had a rough end to World War 2, crashed, captured, then imprisoned by her own people, paranoid officious shitbags. She makes it out and into north Korea a few years later training pilots to fight Americans, but her desire to fly Migs and her insubordinate nature may do her in. Amazing stuff with nice art from frequent collaborator Russ Braun,

Elsewhere, Guardians of the Galaxy 1 was just alright, BPRD: Vampire 1 had Moon & Ba being creepy wonderful moody MOON AND BA (muito bom!), and Age of Ultron 3 made me think of Are You My Mother and how I just wanted the comet from Asterios Polyp to show up and put both out of my misery. At least we'll always have Alias and Fun Home to remind us of what great comics can be.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Run: Naoki Urasawa's Pluto Volume 2

In The Run I review multi-volume works over several weeks. This is the second of eight reviews of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto. Click here for my other reviews in the series.

Pluto Volume 2 Written & Produced by
Naoki Urasawa & Takashi Nagasaki
Illustrated by Naoki Urasawa
Translated by Jared Cook & Frederick Schodt
Based on Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth
 Created, Written & Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Shogakukan 2005/Viz Signature 2009
We left off at the end of Pluto Volume 1 - the first volume of Naoki Urasawa's brilliant adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy - with a serial killer on the loose, targeting the seven most advanced robots in the world as well as human beings in the robot rights movement. Two robots have been killed, and the lead investigator, Gesicht was warning the robots that they are potential targets. He met up with Brando, an advanced humanoid robot who, like the other advanced robots, fought in the brutal 39th Central Asian War a few years before. In battle, Brando utilized a "pankration" suit, an exo-armor which he now uses in his role of a world-famous professional wrestler. In Pluto Volume 2 we are introduced to another robot who also competes in armor, Hercules, who Brando is set to fight in an upcoming match. The unifying theme of the robotic targets of the Pluto Killer is not just that they are the most advanced robots alive, but that they are walking weapons of mass destruction who played key roles in the previous War. Hercules and Brando are old War buddies and the scars of that conflict still haunt them as it does Gesicht, as it did the late Mont Blanc and North No. 2.

When we met Brando for the first time, it was with his large and boisterous family. With his wife he is raising five kids. Gesicht, invited to dinner after warning Brando of the Pluto Killer, is initially surprised by the children, but quickly acclimates to the lively family environment. We get a sense of that such a large family being raised by a robot is both unusual and completely natural. But by Volume 2, just like with North, Brando begins to sense that a confrontation is imminent. He is willing to sacrifice everything to protect his family, and goes out to confront the Pluto Killer before the killer can come after him. He prepares for battle, completely confident that he can win - because of his beautiful family and his professional success, he considers himself "a lucky man." But luck cannot defend against such a powerful force as a killer who earlier so easily dispatched a machine made for war. As Brando fights for his life, his friends and former colleagues remotely plug into the events transpiring and bare witness to the tragedy that unfolds.

One of those super advanced robots witnessing the end of Brando is Atom - Astro Boy - the most advanced robot ever created. We saw Atom in Japan for the first time at the very end of Volume 1, and his place in the story represents a seismic shift in the evolution of robots. Atom, despite being the most advanced robot in creation, himself a potential WMD, looks and acts like a normal human boy. (Indeed, Urasawa plays with our expectations of what Atom should look like, completely reinventing Tezuka's seminal creation by going away from futuristic and cartoony and into the realm of the completely normal.) When Gesicht meets with him in Volume 2, he can barely register Atom as a robot. Gesicht is instantly able to recognize other robots, even advanced humanoids, because, among other things, "humans make a lot of unnecessary movements." But Atom is so human-like that Gesicht's recognition system is "nearly going haywire." Gesicht takes Atom to a restaurant where Atom eagerly devours a bowl of ice cream. More than an affectation of human habits that most of the robots in the series seem to be doing, Atom really enjoys eating. He acts like a boy of his appearance, nine or ten years old, but he is no different - indeed he is more advanced - than Gesicht.

Atom believes he can help Gesicht with his investigation and Gesicht allows Atom to upload his memories, but what Atom really discovers is as much about the investigation as much as it is about Gesicht himself. There is a dark secret, a hidden mystery of missing time that Gesicht is only just now coming to discover, and the revelation so disturbs Atom that he is left in tears. Something happened in Gesicht's past, something that caused a year to be replaced with artificial memories, something that is haunting him.

And it is in Volume 2 that we begin to see the larger geopolitical picture at play and the forces manipulating things from a distance. Gesicht is being manipulated by Europol, and the whole world is being manipulated by the secret power behind the US President. (It should be noted that the only places given any specificity to today's global landscape are several countries in Europe, and Japan. The United States is referred to as The United States of Thracia, Persia is Iran/Iraq, and similar obfuscations, but we get the picture.) We also get a better understanding of the 39th Central Asian War: The United States, after spearheading the banning of superpowerful robots, walking WMDs, calls for the war to stop the King of Persia, Darius XIV. Darius began invading neighboring countries, subjecting humans and robots alike to inhuman treatment, and allegedly developing a super robot program. The Bora Survey Group was a group of humans sent into Persia by the UN to report on the country's robotic capabilities. There were discoveries of terrible experimentation, rumors of a superscientist named Goji, but no WMDs. But by that point it was too late. The US and the world had made up their mind and War rained down on Persia. And where the common theme of the robotic victims is their presence in the war (and even Atom played a part), the common theme of the growing body count of humans was their presence on the Bora Survey Group.

Naoki Urasawa's Pluto is an extraordinary series of stunningly illustrated graphic novels in gorgeously designed presentations. This phenomenal manga is a murder mystery, a riveting international thriller, a transcendant work of science fiction. Again we see the world coming to terms with the the developing intelligence around them and what that means for Robots and Humans. More than once its seems the characters are finding themselves in a moment of transition, where robots may be involving into something more. When Atom and the noted robot scientist Ochanomizu are discussing Brau 1589, Ochanomizu notes that there was no error found in Brau, he was perfect in every way. Atom pauses... "Perfect... and yet he killed a human...  

"Are you saying that's what being human is?"

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Exclusive Review: Ark by Peter Dabbene and Ryan Bayliss

Ark by Peter Dabbene & Ryan Bayliss
Arcana, 2013
Ark, written by Peter Dabbene and illustrated by Ryan Bayliss is a new graphic novel coming out in the Fall from Arcana Comics, available for download via Comixology this Wednesday, March 27.

Unfortunately, it is quite dreadful. A sci-fi story about a group of humans and sentient human-animal hybrids sent into space 13 years ago, communications from Earth are suddenly and mysteriously cut off. Up until this point, the passengers were split between human crew and hybrid passengers. The hybrids are all very silly combinations of animal (and even plant) and human characteristics. The social structure of the ship isn't very believable for a group of people living together for over a decade. The mystery of the hybrids' presence on the mission and the reason for the cutoff from Earth is revealed like a brick through a window, and some ludicrous shit goes down including a couple of murders and a revolt for good measure. Nothing about this comic, neither the story and nor the art, are remotely capable of meeting the suspension of disbelief necessary to get through its 140 pages. The exposition (and the sci part of the sci-fi) and the art throughout is hamfisted and sloppy at best. The characterizations are as one-dimensional as the art. This is a pretty dumb, poorly illustrated comic.

The download price when it goes live on Wednesday is $4.99, and there are worse things you can blow your money on in comics. Many mainstream work-for-hire comics at the same price aren't any better than this, and at the very least you're getting a whole original graphic novel and supporting independent comics. The creators get a grade for effort, but trying is not always succeeding. And potential readers would be better off trying something else.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Run: Naoki Urasawa's Pluto Volume 1

In The Run I review multi-volume works over several weeks. This is the first of eight reviews of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto. Click here for my other reviews in the series.

Pluto Volume 1 Written & Produced by
Naoki Urasawa & Takashi Nagasaki
Illustrated by Naoki Urasawa
Translated by Jared Cook & Frederick Schodt
Based on Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth
 Created, Written & Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Shogakukan 2004/Viz Signature 2009
In 2003, Naoki Urasawa, one of Japan's premier modern master cartoonists behind such seminal works as Monster and 20th Century Boys, took it upon himself to adapt one of his nation's most beloved manga stories, Astro Boy: The Greatest Robot on Earth by the one and only Osamu Tezuka. The resultant work he produced, the eight volume Pluto, is not just a fine example of a superb modern adaptation, but a fiercely original work in its own right, and frankly one of the finest comics of the 21st century.

We open with death and loss. Mont Blanc is a sentient robot who is beloved by millions around the world. An environmental engineer, an accomplished poet, he was fighting a forest fire in his home of Switzerland when someone or something violently killed him. Mont Blanc was a vision of innocence, a gentle being who had a direct positive impact on thousands of lives, and someone murdered him. This is a crime that shakes society to its core, but this is still a society that devalues artificial life, a society that is still coming to terms with the alien sentience developing around them.

This is an advanced future populated by sentient robotic beings, some indistinguishable from humans, in a society where robots and humans peacefully coexist. Robots in this future are not simply thralls to human whims and desires (though some certainly are), but active members of society with jobs and careers and lives of their own. And the technical vision of the future Urasawa presents is not so alien from our current reality. The design aesthetic is sleek and futuristic but not unrecognizably so. Urasawa's richly detailed renderings of densely packed cityscapes and sleek advanced technologies share equal space with men and women in clothing and domestic settings indistinguishable from western fashions of today. The focus is not the setting, but the mystery and human drama being played out.

Mont Blanc's murder is unusual in its similarity to the death of a human who was a controversial robot rights advocate, Bernard Lanke. Both deaths featured ritualistic presentations of the corpses with horns representing the Greek God of the Underworld, Pluto. The lead investigator of the Lanke murder is a German police inspector, one of the top agents in Europol, Detective Gesicht. When we first meet Gesicht, overworked and world wary, he is planning on taking a vacation with his wife but gets called into to take this case. With the similarity to Mont Blanc's murder and the lack of biological evidence at the scene, Gesicht believes a robot may be involved... Except Robots can't kill humans - it's not just the law but a directive at the very core of every robotic being. But only a robot could have been powerful enough to kill Mont Blanc, and it seems Mont Blanc and Lanke's murderers were the same entity.

In all of the modern history of robotics, it is believed that only one robot has killed humans, Brau 1589. Brau is in a robot prison, far removed from other prisoners. Humans and robots alike are terrified of him. He is a serial killer of humans and robots, and despite repeated attempts at evaluating Brau, investigators have not been able to figure out how or why he was able to kill human beings.  Seeking understanding, Gesicht visits Brau in prison. Brau is intelligent and devious, and he immediately sees the patterns in the killings that Gesicht cannot. Whoever killed both Lanke and Mont Blanc is going after and killing the most advanced robots in the world.

And Gesicht is one of those robots.

It is this murder mystery that initially drives the story, but it is far from the central theme of the work. We are soon introduced to North No. 2, one of the planet's most advanced robots. North has been sent to be the personal aide to artist Paul Duncan, a blind musician of international renown who has become a bitter recluse who hasn't produced anything noteworthy in years, looked down upon by those who previously rewarded him. North is not a normal aide robot, but a war machine in every sense, a potential weapon of mass destruction who covers his body so as not to alarm humans. North, as well as Gesicht, Mont Blanc, and a robot we meet later named Brando, are all the most advanced robots on the planet and all veterans of the 39th Central Asian War, concluded just a few years prior. The War was a brutal global conflict involving the deaths of thousands of humans and robots, and the psychic scars of the War run deep in those who participated in it, North No. 2 included. North is plagued by nightmares of his time in the War, and in his interactions with Duncan he hopes to overcome what many would see as his nature. He wants to learn how to play the piano, to create art like Duncan. Duncan initially rejects North's desires - to him, artificial life cannot appreciate or create art. But after some time Duncan comes around and develops a friendship with North No. 2 and North begins to excel at making beautiful music.

But North No. 2 is also a target. Where we only get glimpses of Mont Blanc, in North's chapters we make a strong emotional connection to the character - his sense of pain and loss at his experiences in the War, his efforts to bring out the best in Duncan, his own creation of music. The events that occur represent a true emotional blow to the reader.

In North's story and in small, quiet scenes throughout the work we begin to get a clearer sense of the larger story Urasawa is telling. The first volume's most powerful scene is one largely unconnected to the mystery and the war. Early on, a simple junkie assaults two police officers, one human and one robot, partners. Gesicht was nearby and pursues the assailant and handles the aftermath. The human officer survives but the robot officer, "Robby" is killed. It is up to Gesicht to inform his widow. Like Robby, his wife is not a humanoid robot with recognizable facial features, but a service robot in the classical sense. Gesicht visits her home, informs her of her husband's death. Her grief is palpable and real, even if she cannot express it. Clothed in a summer dress and an apron, Urasawa's portrayal of her reaction is brilliant - three simple silent repeat panels of her expressionless robot face.The reader projects their own fealings and thoughts onto this blank slate, evoking pure empathy in a way that a literal expression might not achieve.

(Remember to read right-to-left)
"I work as a maid for a family," she tells Gesicht. The family had a dog, and the young son cried for days when the dog died. "I tried my best to comfort him, but only now do I understand how he must have felt." The sense of loss and grief we the audience feel and project onto her is profound. Gesicht offers to wipe the memory of her husband from her memory banks, but she refuses. She wants to keep her memory of him. Indeed she wants to access his memory chip, to feel his presence in her life again, despite the pain that such memories may evoke.

Robby was an honored member of his police force, but at the end of the day his body is simply disposed, thrown unceremoniously in a dumpster. Despite the advances in robot rights, robots are still just objects to many humans. But robots are alive and aware, they dream and love and grow and the point in time we find ourselves in this extraordinarily powerful and transformative work is one of transition, between natural and artificial, between past and future. This is a story of ideas, of what is life and sentience, the steps into an unknown future where robots are beginning to develop increasingly human characteristics, the question of subjective and objective reality, the cost of war on the collective human soul and on the individual souls of those who fight it.

Urasawa expands on Osamu Tezuka's original creations and crafts an original and mature story of startling power. Pluto is a riveting mystery of murder, horror and war, an exploration of love, loss, and life, and a visionary work of science fiction that utilizes futuristic set-pieces to movingly examine the very root of the human condition. Urasawa's bold vision is met by his equally astonishing art, nuanced and detailed, as good as the best mainstream art being produced in comics today. This is a work that sticks with you long after you finish it, the ideas and emotions and visions turning around and developing in your mind. And as good as this volume is, it only gets better from here.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tintin on the Moon and Beyond, Herge's Odd and Wonderful Sci-Fi Espionage Adventure

The Adventures of Tintin, the hugely influential adventure series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, were the first comics I read as a child. My mother was born and raised in Germany, so naturally growing up my family had an affinity for these comics long before I ever discovered superhero comics (and my mom played a role in my love for those, too, but that's another story). I remember going to the local public library and borrowing the albums - I honestly don't think I took out a prose novel of any kind for the first how-many-ever years until I discovered Arthur C. Clarke and Madeleine L'Engle and Isaac Asimov. I'd take them home and soak in the adventures of ageless young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy and the large and wonderfully ridiculous cast of supporting characters. But before a few months ago I hadn't read these comics in over twenty years, and rediscovering them has been been a joy.

It is simply not possible to understate the influence and importance of Hergé (nom de plume of Georges Remi) and Les Aventures de Tintin on the global comic landscape. First serialized in Belgian newspapers and his own magazine from 1929 to 1959 and then periodically until 1976, the collected adventures were packaged in 23 internationally best-selling albums, a quarter billion copies translated into over a hundred languages. These collections are trade paperbacks, indeed graphic novels by any other name, many decades before the term would be popularized. Hergé produced massively researched stories and clean, technical and wonderfully eloquent cartooning - a style he popularized called ligne claire ("clear line") that would dominate European comics. When considering Tintin, I like to put these within the context of the American comics of the same time periods. When compared to the comic books being produced stateside the difference in consistency of style, creator vision and length of stories is startling. A better comparison might be the masterpieces being produced by contemporary American comic strip artists, but even these important and influential works (for many decades) could not find the second life as books that Tintin immediately found. Some things about Tintin don't age well, especially the early colonialist and downright racist characterizations. (There is much that can be discussed about such portrayals but that is for another essay.) But it is Tintin's timelessness, sense of wonder, and beautiful art that keeps these books in circulation.

The Adventures of Tintin Volume 5
Little, Brown 2007
The titular and entirely mononymous Tintin is, ostensibly, an internationally renown reporter in his early twenties (though he could just as easily be a teenager). He finds himself on adventures all over the globe, every time becoming the story rather than reporting on it. Indeed, at no point does he ever file a story with anyone. He is always referred to as a "reporter," but I guess a more accurate description would be brave, smart, tenacious, plucky international investigator. An otherwise ill-defined everyman, the early stories (aside from the cultural insensitivity) are defined by Tintin's penchant for being repeatedly captured by various nefarious types and stumbling blindly upon the solutions to his cases. The stories get better after the first few volumes with the introduction of the large extended cast of entertaining, colorful and popular characters. There is the deaf superscientist Professor Calculus, the alcoholic blowhard sea captain Haddock, and the insanely incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson. These supporting characters often find themselves intertwined with Tintin no matter where his cases take him, and despite providing comic relief are often more fleshed out than Tintin himself.

Some years ago I got for my sister and her children a box set of all the gorgeous Little, Brown omnibus volumes. Each omnibus reprints three of the Casterman albums in wonderfully designed, compact hardcovers, which have also been released individually. In my re-exploration of the material I started at the beginning, which reprints the third through fifth albums (the first two albums are almost never reprinted in the United States). These stories are rough and not quite yet living up to the potential of the latter stories. I read through the first few albums like this then put it to the side, distracted by other comics, real life, the usual. Then the other day I saw the fifth Little, Brown omnibus on the shelf of the comic shop I work at, collecting the fifteenth through seventeenth albums, and I absolutely had to read it as soon as I could. I've seen these covers staring at me for years, but for some reason I just couldn't resist it this time - here, in all it's glory, was the chronicle of Tintin going to the Moon.

The first story in the omnibus is the wonderfully representative Tintin in the Land of Black Gold. War is brewing around the world and weird stuff is happening to gasoline and the answer may lie in the Middle East. After some misadventure getting arrested and kidnapped by insurgents, Tintin finds himself roped into finding the local Emir's kidnapped son. There is a lot of shadiness involving different geopolitical forces at the beck and call of multinational petroleum conglomerates, and plenty of comic relief from Haddock and Thomson and Thompson and the rotten little malcontent that Tintin is trying to rescue. We also get a good example of the recurring rogue's gallery of villains often spearheading the nefarious plots or interfering in Tintin's attempts at do-goodery, a rogue's gallery that will come into deadly play in the following stories. The story then easily segues into (for me) the main event, the two-album journey to the moon. Not figuratively, the actual Earth's moon. So why is a young reporter and his sea captain friend going to the moon? Because it's Tintin and shit like this just happens. That's why.

Destination Moon by Herge
Casterman 1953/Little, Brown 1976
The story begins in Destination Moon. Professor Calculus has been commissioned by the recurring, vaguely Eastern European country Syldavia and its government to build a rocket to the moon. See, they're sitting on a ton of plutonium so they're building a space rocket, because that's just what you do with plutonium. Calculus has devised a unique and never-before used method of propulsion for a rocket with the intention of exploring the moon. Calculus, Tintin (with Snowy, naturally), Haddock, and the Syldavian engineer Frank Wolff are the chosen crew for the mission. But first the new rocket has to be tested, and a small-scale version is launched. But nefarious plans are afoot - agents of an unfriendly nation (somewhere, we never really see) have their own designs on Calculus and Syldavia's rocket and intend to remotely hijack it. We frequently see the clandestine plannings of the lead enemy agent and references to a spy within Syldavia's organization. Attempts are made at infiltrating the facility, at one point resulting in Tintin getting shot in the head by an enemy agent. But a bullet can't keep a good reporter down, and after a few months recovery while the rockets are built, the indomitable Tintin is soon assisting with the test launch. The ever perceptive reporter expects chicanery and convinces Calculus to secret a self-destruct device aboard the test rocket. Sure enough, enemy agents hijack the rocket signal and the device comes in handy.

The launch is seen as a successful test of concept and the manned mission to the moon is given the green light. Why a crew of untested, mostly untrained amateurs are going up instead professional astronauts or test pilots isn't explored, but by this point in Tintin's adventures you just kind of accept the improbable. Which is nice because the improbable is wildly entertaining. Haddock is reluctant if not downright recalcitrant, Calculus is fumbling at first then genius in the end, and Tintin just is. Some specific preparations are shown, but mostly we get vignettes of passing time intercut with extended scenes of lighthearted slapstick comedy.

These stories were originally serialized between 1950 and 1953, and much of the design sense is reflective of the wide-eyed, romantic science fiction of the era. Hergé's detailed draftsmanship and extensive research ethic play big roles in establishing the beautifully realized vision of the story. The rocket ship is purely classical in design, and the details lavished on the page with his trademark clarity is a visual feast. Everything from the nuclear facilities to the internal and external design of the rocket to the equipment at their disposal is cleanly rendered, continuously astonishing practical sci-fi set-pieces. Hergé's science certainly tries to get it right, with many technical details about such a journey spot-on, while managing to be way off the mark in so many other areas endemic of sci-fi works of the era. By the time they get to the moon, it's less the magnificent desolation of Armstrong and Aldrin and more the gee wiz sci-fi wonder of early fifties guesswork. Which is just fine. It's easy to overlook such naivety because the execution is just so wonderful.

Destination Moon ends on the cliffhanger of the launch that begins Explorers on the Moon, and the it doesn't take long for the shenanigans to ensue. Two pages in and Thompson and Thomson pop up, accidental stow-aways, of course. Their comic relief isn't really needed when you've already got Haddock's inspired exasperation (I reckon there could be entire treatises crafted about Haddock's inventive alliterative cursing that he frequently unleashes - Billions of Blistering Blue Barnacles! Thundering typhoons you Bashi-Bazouks!) but what the hell, why not have the two fools hanging around gumming up the works. There is much misadventure on the way, involving everything from a drunken space-walk to accidental zero-gravity acrobatics, but the anxiety and pressure of the ground crew over the fates of the erstwhile crew never lets up. Soon enough the seriousness of the proceedings makes itself evident, especially with the portentous looks at nefarious and underhanded subterfuge afoot.

Explorers on the Moon by Herge
Casterman 1954/Little, Brown 1976
Tintin is soon the first man on the moon and the interplanetary adventures begin. We see the joy of exploring the unknown in an alien, gravity-light environment. There is much serious science and exploration to do, too, but this unknown world is not without its dangers from crevasses to caves to human error. And then there is the man made threat. The plans of the enemy are no longer limited to cutaways of obtuse declarations of evildo. With little room for error or interference, things take a deadly turn with the enemies' plans coming to scary fruition. At first the extent of the enemies' plans and one agent's thirst for revenge elicits a hearty laugh, and deservedly so for it is more than a little ridiculous. But things take a quick turn. In what is as much a tale of spycraft, sabotage, espionage and revenge as much as a science fiction adventure, the crew finds themselves fighting for their lives against a heartless enemy in the most difficult and inhospitable of environments.

It's the espionage angle that is the most surprising element of the story, the element that drives the climax of Explorers on the Moon and what gives the story its narrative kick. Lives are lost, sacrifices are made, and the tense and dangerous journey home is anything but a safe prospect. One of the aspects that makes the spy story work is the lack of definition in it in terms of the global players responsible - this isn't a cold war parable, but could be (from either perspective).

The expected, welcome humor comes back in the end, and we end up with a funny, entertaining, dramatic golden age science fiction-adventure-spy-humor graphic novel. In many ways Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon is atypical of Tintin with its overt science fiction tropes, and in every other way exactly like every other Tintin story. Tintin is about a determined, tough, young, smart investigator and his funny cast of friends (and his dog) having adventures of drama and humor set against entertaining geopolitical backdrops and improbable set-pieces. The Moon stories have all of these things, and rocket ships for good measure.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Quick Hits: Six New Comics for March 20 including Ultimate Spider-Man, The Private Eye, BPRD and More

In this week's Wednesday Review, I review Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman's latest Marvel superhero offerings, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's revolutionary The Private Eye, BPRD and more.

Ultimate Spider-Man (issue 21 out today) may very well be my favorite purely superhero superhero comic, if that makes any sense. There is nothing more complicated than superheroics going on, not that superheroics are simple for young Miles Morales. Miles, the best new character in comics, is still coming to terms with his powers and all the responsibility and risk to himself and his friends and family this means. His father is in the hospital, a victim of Peter Parker's old enemy Venom, a case of mistaken identity. For not-all-that complicated reasons, Venom thinks his dad is the new Spider-Man. Miles feels that he and his power set are responsible for his family's situation, and in many ways he is and in many ways it was an unavoidable aspect of what it means to be a superpowered human. The path forward is fraught: in an America fractured by catastrophic war and political strife, how does he confront the menace that Venom represents while protecting his family? And how does he protect his identity when the government knows who he is and the police are sniffing around his door? He's not alone in his drama, and people from the martyred Peter Parker's past come into Miles' life to aid him in his struggle. The formula that made the original Steve Ditko/Stan Lee Amazing Spider-Man works so purely timeless and remarkable - young man in over his head just trying to live his life and do right by his values and be there for his family, filled with drama and humor -  is perfectly encapsulated in Ultimate Spider-Man. The dialogue and personal encounters are presented effortlessly, the plotting logical and tight. Brian Bendis is home with this setting, this universe, these characters. His scripting is simply flawless, and he - and we - are spoiled by the artistic talents of Sarah Pichelli. Her increasingly assured art - seamlessly alternating between angular Spidey-in-fight (although Miles does not appear in costume in this issue) to the nightmare monstrosity of Venom on through to extended sequences of people, wonderfully acted, simply talking - is frankly exhilarating. Where everything that is bad and wrong and ugly with superhero comics is represented in Bendis's truly abysmal Age of Ultron, everything that is fun and stirring and electric about superhero comics, the potentiality of the form in all it's wonder, can be found in Ultimate Spider-Man.

The stakes for Miles in Ultimate Spider-Man are more personal, singular, where the stakes in Jonathan Hickman's Avengers work are global, universal, multiversal. A superb example of decidedly epic superhero sci-fi storytelling in the long-form can be found in this week's New Avengers 4 and Avengers 8 both written by Jonathan Hickman. In Avengers we get the fiery birth (more accurately violent intrusion) of the New Universe in the Marvel Universe. A new Star-Brand, a world-protector, has been forged in the form of a young unassuming college student, at the cost of thousands of lives. The Avengers, expanding their ranks to include many of the Marvel Universe's heaviest heavy hitters comes to the scene to retrieve the Star-Brand and control the potential outcome. But vast new power comes with fear and uncertainty. Hickman's S.H.I.E.L.D. collaborator, Dustin Weaver turns in an issue of the wonderfully detailed and well-drafted art we have come to expect from him. In the more insular but no less epic New Avengers, the new Illuminati continue to dig the trench deeper as the dark cost of their actions begins to effect them. Nothing short of the Universe is at stake and they are willing to sacrifice an entire Earth to spare their own. But despite their own willingness to do the unthinkable, there morality prevents them from inaction when inaction would achieve their goals. This is a book of big ideas, from Dyson Spheres to Galactus and the anti-matter kitchen sink thrown in. Steve Epting's art here is some of his best, on Earth and an Earth and space, in heated conversation and a perfectly executed display of powers at odds. Everything that is and can be is at stake and the outcome is far from certain.

Moving on to my other favorite vividly realized shared universe in comics, Mike Mignola and John Arcudi's B.P.R.D. 105 continues to use the foundation of years of great storytelling and fun and unique concepts that make the Mignola-verse so continuously fresh and exciting. The Earth is a dark mirror of the one we know, with humanity in a state of constant war against interdimensional monsters who have overrun the entire globe. This is an international fight with borders being meaningless lines on a map. Splitting our time between the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense headquarters & the unexpected awakening of a key player, and the brutal environs of Siberia, the first part of "A Cold Day In Hell" effortlessly utilizes the rich setting and history and - always a dangerous concept - continuity that we've come to expect from the Hellboy/BPRD Universe. Where the various BPRD books have been hit-or-miss of late, this issue hits solidly on the sweet spot, the dark vision of a screwed world of monsters and menace wonderfully realized by Peter Snejbjerg and on art duties. Indeed Snejbjerg is probably the best artist to tackle BPRD-proper since Guy Davis left the book last year, and I look forward to a lot more from him here.

The world of comics was rocked this week (in a good way) by the literally unheralded release of the new Brian K. Vaughan/Marcos Martin comic The Private Eye. One could write volumes on the about the release, online under a frankly revolutionary DRM-free pay-as-you-please model in multiple languages. There have been webcomics for ages and all kinds of different models for payment, but nothing quite like this from two bona-fide A-listers on the cutting edge of their creative game. A widescreen 32 page comic, the story and high-concept - 70 years hence in a world of disguise and obfuscation where the press have a unique power and standing in a radically different internet-abolished society - and art, in all its technicolor futureshock glory just leap off the screen. That they are releasing it in the format that they are is a big factor in what will put this on the map, but if the story and art weren't there in quality the experiment would be a failure. Thankfully Vaughan and Martin are unimpeachably amazing and they execute what would be an assured head-turning best-seller in any traditional model. When so many comics are 20 pages of mediocre pap for four dollars, you can get 32 pages of amazing comic storytelling for whatever you want to pay, and where all the money goes to the creators. Try it for free then double back and pay for the value of pure story you receive, a high value indeed.

Private Eye and Saga from Vaughan and MIND MGMT from Matt Kindt came out this week, all superb examples of the true vanguard of the creator-owned renaissance. But all is not good in creator-owned land: last week saw thew release of a truly dreadful piece of nonsense in Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti's Trigger Girl 6. Serialized in their mercifully canceled Creator Owned Heores anthology, I picked this up based on Phil Noto's artistic contributions. Though credited on the cover as almost an afterthought, his art here is just fine. It's the ham-fisted, downright stupid story from Palmiotti and Grey that makes this so awful. It starts out strong, with a futuristic superassassin targeting the President. Then the plot happens. It's a pretty bad when, even in a genre and medium accustomed to ridiculousness, that I can't accept (or even want to remotely explain) the gibberish that ensues. Just take the $5.99 that you thought you might want to spend on this and put it towards The Private Eye.

Private Eye is currently available for download at This week's comics provided by Jim Hanley's Universe, New York City's premier comic book store, Where Art and Literature Meet. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Post-Apocalypse Now: Brian Wood's The Massive, Volume 1 Reviewed

The Massive Volume 1: Black Pacific by
Brian Wood, Kristian Donaldson & Garry Brown
Dark Horse, 2013
The Massive Volume 1: Black Pacific, out this Wednesday, collects the first six issues of the latest ongoing series from writer Brian Wood. On a near-future Earth, there has been a ceaseless series of environmental and geopolitical calamities. There has been a complete global environmental and economic collapse (referred to as The Crash), and when I say complete, imagine the worst that can happen, then imagine the worst thing that can happen about once a month for a year. The Massive takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Earth's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year.

The setting is a ship, The Kapital, the floating operational base of the one-time militant environmental activist group Ninth Wave. Founded and run by shady former mercenaries and a multinational crew of far too-willing volunteers, the ship's mission has changed from environmental activism (think Whale Wars just with more competent volunteers with an eco-terrorist edge) to coming to terms with the nigh-apocalypse and the search for their missing sister ship, the titular Massive.

It's the search for The Massive that drives the leader of the group, internationally wanted man Callum Isreal, and also the book's weakest element. It's Israel's white whale and possibly one Massive MacGuffin - maybe the bloody thing just sank, who knows. He's fairly certain the ship is still out there, but why it's so hard to find (or unwilling to hook up with their brethren) isn't remotely explained yet. Thankfully the search for The Massive isn't the central plot point, as the series immediately focuses on the Kapital's exploration of the post-Crash world. Where your average post-apocalyptic fiction piece tends to be focused on a small aspect of a larger conflict or conflagration, the book's setting of a ship abroad affords a unique look at the entire geo-political post-apocalyptic landscape. Coupled with flashbacks to the days of the Crash Year and to Israel's mercenary past, you get a broad milieu of an Earth in political and environmental transition.

The book's expanded cast is made up of environmental nuts who suddenly have nothing to be nutty for because the environment is well screwed by this point. Their motivation for continuing, beyond simple inertia or lack of choice, is not really explored. Israel's closest allies up the chain of command do get a little more play, and have their own mysteries and hidden motivations that are slowly (and effectively) being doled out.

Brian Wood is really excelling at world building in the book, far more than he was in DMZ, constructing a vivid and well-delineated landscape recognizably built from the soggy ashes of the world we now inhabit. Things are very different here, but it's not too far removed from the present, nor our present understanding of the world, to get into Mad Max-like post apocalyptic territory. There is a great deal of narrative setup in play, but more in setting rather than plot, to the point where we can see that we will always be in a kind-of set-up mode because the world has been so profoundly changed and there is quite a lot of world out there left to see.

It's not quite clear where the book is going - unless, of course, the search for The Massive is the point, which would be most unfortunate. The other big mystery is what precipitated the Crash - we know very well and in great detail what happened, but there is some mystery as to why it all happened at once. I honestly doubt the book will be about the search for why, because no answer could really be satisfying (and how can a lone crew on a single ship discover the answers to such huge questions anyway?).

The initial story arc features nicely detailed art from Kristian Donaldson, who decidedly excels at building the environmental landscape and producing the look of the Kapital. Garry Brown, the series' current ongoing artist, takes over in the second arc of the book, with a slightly rougher but perfectly appropriate style. Dave Stewart's colors and Brian Wood's impeccable design centers the overall feel of the book.

The first volume of The Massive is an attractive graphic novel with an assured voice and viewpoint from what is Wood's best ongoing work, and presents enough of an intriguing mystery and setting to keep readers wanting more. At $20 it's a nicely valued trade paperback from Dark Horse, who are, to the benefit of readers and creators alike, very much keeping pace with the recent Image-spearheaded creator-owned renaissance.

The Language of Pain: Black Lung by Chris Wright Reviewed

Black Lung by Chris Wright
Fantagraphics, 2012
It feels like my brain is still trying to digest Black Lung by Chris Wright, an unusual graphic novel of pain and anger and loss from Fantagraphics. The setting is vaguely the mid-nineteenth century, and the initial story threads are spread between an underworld of casual licentiousness and brutality, compassionate higher society, and brutal poverty. The disparate and somewhat meandering story threads coalesce with shocking frenzy into the story of a heartless, disgraced teacher getting shanghaied into service on a pirate ship. He becomes victim and witness to unspeakable brutality, and the aims of an intelligent, erudite pirate captain looking to sin as much as possible to reunite with his lover in hell.

The characters and story inhabit a violent and profane world, the vulgarity less like Johnny Ryan and more just an aspect of the reality presented. Wright's cartooning is completely original, his characters grotesqueries of the human form, all disproportionate limbs, asymmetrical bodies, bizarrely decorated heads. This is decidedly different, so other, in a way only achievable in the comic form. The cartooning style here creates a unique effect: when we see atrocities and violence, the unrealistic style forces the reader to build the scene in their mind - like with a novel - but without having to read through descriptions of the horrors. The images are the descriptive language almost like (and decidedly above) simple prose.

The novel climaxes in a torrent of reminiscence, a complete and total breakdown of reality into narrative and visual abstraction. What Wright achieves here is fairly remarkable, an interpretive phantasmagoria of imagery and non-linear cartooning language like the best works of Kevin Huizenga or an unhinged Chris Ware.

In Black Lung Wright presents a world of ceaseless violence and pain, his reflectively brutal cartooning interwoven with elegiac prose, with the very syntax of comic storytelling breaking down under the memory and transformative agony of loss and obsession.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Quick Hits: Delicate Creatures, Persepolis, and Last Day in Vietnam

Delicate Creatures
by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Michael Zulli
Top Cow/Image, 2001
Reviewed in this week's Quick Hits, three works that reflect on the cost of war and revolution, in two memoirs and a modern fantasy.

Delicate Creatures is often listed as one of J. Michael Straczynski's graphic novels, but this is not a comic by any standard - it's an illustrated novella in album format, featuring art by Michael Zulli. At first blush a light modern fantasy story about tiny whimsical children's story characters living within the walls of a castle in war-torn Europe, it quickly evolves into a parable of loss, pain, freedom, death and revenge as these creatures witness and try to come to terms with the horrors of human war and occupation unfolding before them. Soon, one of these Delicate Creatures intervenes in the conflict with ramifications that can destroy everything around them. Straight-forward, beautiful, and heart-breaking, the only weakness is in the art which again isn't any kind of graphic narrative but simple representative fantasy illustration. Straczynski's exemplary storytelling takes the forefront in this, one of his better early works.

The Complete Persepolis
by Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon, 2007
Marjane Satrapi was 8 years old when the revolution started. Born into relative wealth and comfort in a western, modern Iran, it was in her formative years that a popular uprising unseated the US-friendly Shah in favor of a restrictive, conservative theocratic government. This was an uprising committed by the people, against the people. In her stunning and influential memoir Persepolis (originally serialized in France by L'Association), Satrapi tells her story and her country's story with gripping simplicity from the perspective of a child witness to the confusion and loss that such a revolution (and resultant brutal war with Iraq) can cause. The revolution and war took its toll on her home country and her people and played a unique role in her own personal development. While uneven in its second half, the narrative hits all the right notes in a fascinating and brutally honest character study flawlessly interwoven with the developing cultural history of one of the world's oldest and most complex countries. Perceptive, entertaining, educating, Persepolis is one of the new century's truly required reads, a graphic novel of unique power and importance, a vital historical document and startlingly fresh and important work in the often uninteresting genre of the graphic memoir.

Last Day in Vietnam
by Will Eisner
Dark Horse, 2000/2013
While not the inventor of the graphic novel, Will Eisner is often duly credited with popularizing the term and the form - although many of his works were in reality collections of short stories. Last Day in Vietnam, his 2000 collection re-released last week in a fantastic new edition by Dark Horse, is one of his most focused and best. A memoir of his experiences in World War II as a soldier and later conflicts as a military journalist, most of the short stories are simply told in engaging, first-person vignettes, relating tales that re funny, thought-provoking, and most of all honest and real. The collection's concluding comic, A Purple Heart for George, is an astonishingly concise synthesis of story and art, relating in less than ten pages one of the Second World War's tiny personal tragedies in a conflict full of them. It's works like that again put Eisner on the map after an already long and influential career, one of the medium's true giants.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Best Superhero Comic of 2012, Now In Trade Paperback - Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life As A Weapon Reviewed

Hawkeye Volume 1:
My Life As A Weapon
by Matt Fraction, David Aja & Javier Pulido
Marvel, 2013
Today sees the release of the first volume of Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja & Javier Pulido and I haven't been this excited about a trade paperback since the first volume of Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples' Saga. Not a superhero book in any remotely traditional sense (more a book happening to take place in a superhero universe), Hawkeye plays with and expands the boundaries of the genre. You won't find Clint Barton in uniform or fighting supervillains here. This is a comic about a somewhat ordinary guy (he's kindof deaf, has really great aim, and can - and often does - take a beating) with an extraordinary job (he works with gods and superpeople and sometimes the government) just trying to do right by his friends and neighbors.

It's the relationship to his neighborhood in Brooklyn, and more specifically the people who live in his apartment building, that drives the book. This isn't Hawkeye doing Avengery stuff but Clint Barton on his day off trying to keep his life together while helping out the people he cares about. In the first arc, after finding out his apartment building has been targeted by shady gangsters, he outright buys the building, in part to keep together the vibrant community built there, in part to deny the gangsters what they want. And this really angers the gangsters, hilariously dubbed the Tracksuit Mafia (they are Russian, wear tracksuits, and love to say "Bro"), who target Clint for interfering with their plans. Throw in a mysterious femme on the run from the gangsters, and Kate Bishop (Marvel's other Hawkeye) and you get one hell of a grounded action adventure with Brooklyn as the playground. David Aja's art here is extraordinary. The story is Hawkeye on his day off, just a dude living his life, though with a unique set of problems. It's surprising how many artists can't do "regular," regular clothes, regular people. Aja does it with a unique, almost Mazzucchellian style that is engaging, fun, stylish and blissfully unlike anything else in its reserved elegance.

The volume's second arc features exemplary art by Javier Pulido, who had a career year last year (and between this and Shade he has cemented himself as one of the best artists working in the mainstream today). A cabal of villainy types has their hands on a tape that has on it something that could put Clint and the Avengers in the cross hairs. And they are auctioning the tape in Madripoor, the Marvel Universe Black Market City du jour. Clint's mission is to get the tape, but things go pear-shaped and it ends up in the hands of Marvel's best villainess, someone Fraction has proven quite good at writing, Madame Masque. Things aren't as they seem and Kate Bishop makes her star turn in Pulido's finest Marvel work to date.

Hawkeye is an artistic triumph in script and art, Marvel's more consistent answer to the high art we get at DC from J. H. Williams III and the perfect follow up to the heights achieved by Mark Waid, Marcos Martin & Paolo Rivera the year before in Daredevil. Uniquely flavored in an industry built on knock-offs, consistently exciting and fresh, this was the Best Superhero Comic of 2012, and (unusual for Marvel of late) packaged in a reasonably priced, gorgeously designed trade paperback.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Shade by Various Artists (But Really Starring Javier Pulido)

Shade by Robinson and
Hamner, Pulido, Irving & more
DC Comics, 2013
Shade - not Ditko's Changing Man but James Robinson and Tony Harris's re-imagined golden age DC super-villain - is best known for his enigmatic appearances in Robinson & Harris's Starman opus. A twelve issue mini-series featuring the character, written by Robinson, with story arcs illustrated by various artists is an inspired choice and a good value for just $20. But it is a very inconsistent read, with the focus inevitably shifting from the mediocre story to the great lineup of artists chosen to tell it.

Shade, the immortal and extremely powerful Richard Swift, is a somewhat reformed villain who has a sharp wit and a mysterious past. He's nigh invulnerable and can wield a dark shadow force that can do all kinds of Unpleasant Things to people. What foes he does run into throughout the twelve issues he tends to dispatch with complete ease, his strength representing the story's biggest weakness. Despite his colorful vocabulary and his connection to Robinson's modern classic Starman, the story here - some descendant of his is trying to kill him and he runs into various adventures along the way - is honestly rather dull. Thankfully, the art is anything but dull.

The initial three issues by Cully Hamner are rather uninspired. Thankfully issue four features art by the amazing Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone in a wonderful World War 2 era flashback story. Stuff like this is Cooke's home turf and the one-shot shines compared to the content of the overall story itself. The book also features serviceable one-shots by Jill Thompson, and Gene Ha (doing the sadly anticlimactic origin end-piece). But before the expectedly moody three-issue arc by the inimitable Frazer Irving is the story's unintentional centerpiece and one of the best superhero stories put out last year featuring the art of Javier Pulido.

Pulido's three issues make him the star of this book, and between this and his superb Hawkeye work with Matt Fraction he has had the best year of his career. I would not fault the casual observer in noting that at first glance his stuff seems like a Marcos Martin clone, and to be fair some of his early work was with Martin or immediately following him. But starting with his recent Spider-Man work of the last couple of years, he has been making his own name, one that readers sat up and took notice with Hawkeye. And in Shade, he blows everyone out of the water with his trilogy of issues. In a story with vampires and zealots, Pulido's penciling possesses a mastery of shot-framing; bold inking creating stark, energetic imagery; and fluid, naturalistic action. It really is quite a wonder to experience and makes the whole package worth the price of admission.

For those more familiar with Shade and the DC Universe, I'd imagine the overall work would be more entertaining, alas for this reader it is just too uneven. But the artistic contributions make it worth the trip home, and again, at $20 for 12 issues it's a pretty good value for your comic-buying buck.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lovecraft and the Heart of Ice: Nemo Reviewed

Nemo: Heart of Ice
A new League of Extraordinary Gentleman story
by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill
Top Shelf and Knockabout, 2013
Nemo: Heart of Ice is the latest graphic novella from Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill set in their League of Extraordinary Gentleman universe. In essence, a spin-off; unlike their previous novellas that make up the Century trilogy, this is a stand alone tale utilizing the rich setting and cribbed public domain characters and concepts that makes their League work so much fun, and without necessarily playing a specific role in the Mina Murray stories that make up most of the League mythos.

We open in 1925 with Janni Dakkar (the new Captain Nemo first powerfully introduced in Century: 1910) and her crew of pirates as they rob a mysterious and influential monarch of her treasure. Soon, via Charles Foster Kane, a group of Americans are hired to hunt down Nemo and her crew and take back what was stolen. Janni, looking to step out of her father's prodigious shadow, heads to Antarctica to succeed in exploring a region her father failed at - with her pursuers hot on her trail. As she takes a select crew into the wilds of Antarctica she is soon ambushed by her hunters and only barely manages escape. Lifting heavily from Poe and Verne's stories of the Antarctic, Moore and O'Neill's characters soon find themselves essentially inhabiting the pages of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. Nemo and what is left of her crew must find a way to survive both the murderers on her trail and the abject, ancient horrors all around her.

A key facet of Lovecraft's work is that of humans encountering beings and ideas beyond the human ability to understand, and Moore and O'Neill utilize some pretty nifty trickery to translate that sense of confusion and distemperal horror. At one point, Nemo and crew encounter horrors in an area of the Antarctic that messes with their perception of time and indeed their very memory. Moore presents panels out of sequence, flawlessly woven into dialogue so that the effect is jarring on the reader, easily translating the seemingly untranslatable.

O'Neill's art and Ben Dimagmaliw's colors are stunning throughout. From human emotion to a wonderfully playful sequence at the beginning of the Antarctic journey to the ancient, alien terror of the bulk of the novel, Moore gives them plenty to play with and they execute the broad range of necessary imagery flawlessly. And like the other League stories, the work is densely plotted in story and art, packed with the type of minutiae that keep writers like Padraig O Mealoid and Jess Nevins in business, interpreting and analyzing the never ending references and allusions and sampling. But even if you don't know the many sources that inspired Moore in this run, like with all the League stories the narrative is enough to drive the reader forward in an entertaining, dramatic and uniquely flavored bit of graphic fiction.

While not as strong as Moore and O'Neill's early League work in terms of depth of characterization and plot, it is certainly the most accessible of the new League stories, in a gorgeously designed and affordable hardcover. A new reader can easily dive into and enjoy this work, a perfect entry into Moore's fictional universe of overlapping fictional universes and a fun study in horror and survival.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Quick Hits: Avengers 7, Hellboy In Hell 4, Adventure Time With Fiona and Cake 3, and Age of Ultron 1

It's a solid week in new graphic novels, including the Sleeper Omnibus by Brubaker & Phillips, a new printing of Eisner's Last Day in Vietnam, Humanoid's gigantic printing of Jodorowsky and Moebious's The Luminous Incal, and a superb value in the complete Shade - all 12 issues in one GN by for just $20. Right now, though, I'm going to highlight four new individual issue releases out today, Wednesday, March 6.

Avengers 7
Avengers 7 continues Jonathan Hickman's visionary turn at Marvel's flagship team. Of the several Avengers books, it's Hickman's two ongoing series that take the cake week in, week out. After a few issues featuring fantastic origin pieces, things dive back into the thick of it with the encroachment of the New Universe into the 616, a new White Event in the modern era. The Multiverse is collapsing and a new Starbrand is sent to Earth, but things go terribly wrong. Featuring a nifty twist and expectedly fantastic art from Hickman's S.H.I.E.L.D. collaborator Dustin Weaver, this is a fantastic bit of storytelling. This is just the beginning of a very long story that gives us a truly unique turn with the Avengers, utilizing the best of Marvel's large catalog of unique characters otherwise gathering dust in dime bins. I'm getting a Grant Morrison vibe reading these, not in the sense that Hickman's stuff is derivative or like Morrison's at all, it's not: What it is is a fresh turn featuring big stakes and bigger ideas, so many the pages can barely contain them. This is the best thing to happen to the Avengers since the Earth's Mightiest Heroes cartoon and that little movie that came out last year. Extraordinary stuff.
Hellboy In Hell 4

Hellboy in Hell 4 is unbridled Mike Mignola, an assured cartoonist with a unique storytelling style working gleefully with his best creation at the top of his game. Every little trick of narration that Mignola invented in his moody, horror noir stlye is on display, in a creepy, dark underworld inhabited by mysteries and questions and demons. Hellboy is in Hell, and Mignola is like a kid in a playground. This is some of his best stuff, creepy, moody, funny, dark. And Dave Stewart's colors proves why he is one of the best in the business.

Age of Ultron 1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Bryan Hitch is everything that is wrong with event comics and superhero comics. An ugly mess from start to finish, we open with a destroyed New York under the apparent oppression of a returned Ultron. Hawkeye is on a solo mission to rescue Spider-Man (Superior or Amazing, does it even matter here?) from some C-listers who made a deal with Ultron or something. Whatever, when he finds him and brings him back to the small handful of surviving heroes, they aren't too pleased because Ultron could have infected them or something and there's lots of Bendisian arguing and blahhhhhh. We're dumped into this mid-story to, I guess, shock us that things have fallen so badly, that Ultron has somehow completely taken over and our heroes are helpless. What we get is another event comic where everything is destroyed and everyone is at risk, and nothing matters because in six months everything will be shiny and new again but until then every other comic will feel the Age Of ULTRON!!! and it's all so pointless and ugly and stupid and I'm sick of stories like this. Widespread wanton death and apocalyptic destruction for the tenth time this year. And of course, this is an Event, hoho, and There Will Be Tie-Ins, because every Marvel comic should be just as shitty. Bendis's dialogue is his standard overlapping useless mess, Hitch's needless hyper-detailed art is just as hopeless and ugly as the whole bloody concept, and to make matters worse there is a 1990s style Chromium foil cover thing. You can put chrome on a turd, but it's still a turd. The worst part is that there are, like, 11 more issues of this tripe. It's books like this that make a True Believer truly bitter. Please stop, Marvel, just... stop.

Adventure Time!
But then I got to Adventure Time with Fiona and Cake 3 and all was right with the world. Natasha Allegri is having so much fun with her gender-swapped versions of Pendleton Ward's extraordinary cartoon, it oozes out of the pages. There is a glorious moment when Fiona and Cake absolutely revel is candy-gore. A bunch of stuff happens, and it's wonderfully illustrated and even the lettering is inspired and whimsical and fun. Thank Kirby for are comics like this. It's funny and pretty and exciting and wonderful and... just buy it.