Friday, April 26, 2013

An Embarrassment of Riches: El Anatsui and John Singer Sargent at the Brooklyn Museum

I found myself at the Brooklyn Museum tonight. I say "found myself" as I never really plan to visit the Museum, I usually just kind of show up if I'm near by and go in on a whim if it's still open. Even if there's nothing really new to look at my favorite pieces are always worth revisiting, and I really am a sucker for the Luce Center for American Art on the fifth floor. The Brooklyn Museum is a remarkable facility, but very often large chunks are usually closed off either for art installations or for the extensive renovations the museum has undergone in the past few years. It's worth it though, especially when you visit and are presented with remarkable exhibits you haven't seen before, which is what happened this evening.

Just a small bit of the massive Sargent Watercolor exhibit
After working my way to the fourth floor I went towards Judy Chicago's always visitable The Dinner Party, which has a fascinating new exhibit ringing it, Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts.1 Then, through a set of doors and whoosh - a massive exhibit, an entire wing of the Museum, dedicated to one type of work from one prolific artist: John Singer Sargent Watercolors 2 is a gargantuan exhibit of over 100 paintings from a titan of American art. In his life Sargent produced thousands of watercolors, but his legacy is largely held to be in his oil portraiture. The exhibition cogently makes the argument that not only was Singer's watercolors a vital and important part of his creative output but that he was undeniably an unparalleled master of the medium.

John Singer Sargent's Bedouins, 1906
The watercolors on display here are from two collections, one owned by the Brooklyn Museum and the other owned by the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, both purchased from the artist en masse at the beginning of the twentieth century. The paintings show a wide range of subject matter from the portraits that he is best known for to studies of architecture and nature that range from life-like detail to abstract impressionism. The broad range of subject matter and style show his mastery of the form. There is historical context for most of the works, showing the remarkable lengths Sargent would go to to produce his work, always painting from life, almost to the level of being a documentarian in his paintings of a quarry at work in Italy or of his remarkable studies of Bedouins in Syria.

Process junkies will have a field-day here. The Brooklyn and Boston Museums went to great lengths in producing this exhibit, doing (and presenting here) advanced research into the paintings including advanced microscopy, x-ray fluorescence, infrared imaging and a lot more. There are photographic comparisons for some pieces, mini-documentaries on Sargent's processes from the types of paints used to how he accomplished what he did, and even a video presentation of a full-on attempt at recreating one of his works, going into great detail all of the things that make his watercolors special. And these are special watercolors in their broad range of style and subject matter, and this exhibit is a special one indeed, containing dozens upon dozens of his watercolors and even some of his more well-known oil paintings for good measure.

So after spending a good 90 minutes with Sargent, I managed to tear myself away to go up to the fifth floor and quickly made my way towards the Cantor and Seaver Galleries which usually have some pretty excellent exhibits. I wasn't expecting to get my mind blown but I'm pretty sure that Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui 3 left bits of my consciousness strewn across nearby Crown Heights and the Botanical Gardens.

Al Anatsui's Peak (as displayed at the Brooklyn Museum)
El Anatsui is a Ghanian/Nigerian artist and educator who exploded onto the international scene six years ago with his massive and complex, interpretive metalworks. Defying any national or racial or gender or frankly artistic label, Al Anatsui's astonishing sculptures utilize recycled and found objects, woven together into unique and malleable abstract pieces. From a distance his extraordinary tapestries appear to be multifaceted fabrics of shiny silvers and reds and gold. But walk up close and you will see that these monumental... somethings, are made of bottlecaps and tins and aluminum strips from cans and liquor bottles. Both El Anatsui's chosen medium and output are completely unique.

Monumental doesn't scratch the surface of what El Anatsui achieves and what is on display in this exhibit. The title piece, Gravity and Grace,4 is 12 feet high and nearly forty feet long - utilizing tens of thousands of strips of aluminum woven together with copper wire by dozens of workers over weeks into a building-sized blanket - flowing and undulating like a gossamer sheet on a wall. The more you consider his tapestries, the more detail you see and the more you realize how revolutionary this work is, how much it simply defies.

And beyond the huge blanket-like, painting-like, sculpure-like tapestries are his "sculptures" which are always tailored and tweaked by the artist to fit the space provided, or perhaps to become something different based on the artist's always changing vision. Peak, above, left me transfixed, stunned. Using woven tin lids, El Anatsui positioned the work as it's displayed at the Brooklyn Museum into an undulating, shifting series of waves, of tendrils, like something reaching out, dancing up, up, waving. That he created this using tin lids, salvaged, recycled, that the piece is never the same between locations and time, adds to its unique power.

Gli (Wall) by El Anatsui, 2010
Making metal seem like something it is not is the key to El Anatsui's genius. The only stiff, unchanging pieces on display are a series of massive, apparent papier-mache sculptures representing bags. The closer you get, and you see they are made from newspapers. And then you get closer and you see they weren't made from newspapers, but discarded newspaper printing plates, warped and woven to look like papier-mache. I guarantee you've never seen or experienced anything like El Anatsui's art. Each work is evocative and unique and powerful in their own ways. The first thing you see when you enter the exhibit is the piece above, Gli (Wall), a startlingly translucent and airy blanket hung from the museum's dome some three stories up. As you approach it, you see that it is strips of aluminum, rolled into circles and connected with copper wire to the circles around it, like a giant piece of chain-mail. It announces a bold new vision and a bold new type of art from a bracingly unique voice.

Both the comprehensiveness of the Sargent retrospective and the sheer, seismic cultural importance of the El Anatsui exhibit represent sterling examples of The Brooklyn Museum's role as one of this great city's premier artistic institutions. I am going to pull out an old cliche here, for which I apologize, but you need to run, not walk to see these exhibits. (Hell, teleport if you need to.)

John Singer Sargent Watercolors is a presentation of the Brooklyn Museum and The Boston Museum of Fine Arts produced with the support of a ton of different foundations. It is on display at the Brooklyn Museum through July 28, and will be on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts October 13 through January 20. Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui is originally a production of the Akron Art Museum, presented at the Brooklyn Museum with the support of grants from the Knight Foundation, the Broad Art Foundation, and Christie's. It is on display at the Brooklyn Museum through August 4. For more, go to

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Run: The Conclusion of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

In The Run I review multi-volume works over several weeks. This is the seventh of eight reviews of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto, on Volumes 7 & 8. Click here for my other reviews in the series.

Pluto Volume 7 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 2009/Viz Signature 2010
Volume 7 of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto is the weakest volume in the series, but even a weak turnout from Urasawa is stronger than most comics. His and Takashi Nagasaki's writing is just as sharp, his art no less emotive and powerful. It's just that not much happens here, especially compared to the extraordinary heights achieved in Volume 6.

By now we know that Pluto is the robot Sahad, manipulated and fed with hatred by his creator, Abullah, and forced into the ultra-powerful body designed for climate manipulation, modified into a war machine. Abullah is seeking vengeance on those who he feels destroyed his family and his homeland. It is here in Volume 7 that we get our first clear look at Pluto, before only hinted, effectively obscured by shadow or clouds. Pluto is a gargantuan, black, armored behemoth, his external appearance reflecting the turmoil within his tortured consciousness.

Another robot whose appearance reflects their inner being is Epsilon, the pacifist sun-powered robot and (apparently) last of the greatest robots alive. Epsilon does not want to fight Pluto - he is not Epsilon's enemy. Epsilon wants nothing more than to be a foster dad to the youths he rescued from the ruins of Persia, but even Epsilon is not free from Abullah's intractable rage. Abullah contrives a kidnapping of one of Epsilon's charges, the traumatized Wassily who witnessed Bora at the end of the War. So Epsilon travels from his home in Australia to Scandanavia where Abullah holds Wassily captive, knowing that this may lead to his destruction.

Pluto Volume 8 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 2009/Viz Signature 2010
The battle that ensues is as much between Epsilon and Pluto as it is Pluto with himself. Pluto has grown increasingly unstable, his soul blackened by the hate that has been forced on him by Abullah. But he cannot overcome his orders and the blackness of the emotions driving him, and openly Epsilon meets the fate.

But all is not lost. Helena, Gesicht's widow, delivered his memory chip to Professor Tenma, Atom's creator. Like Tenma's last great creation, Atom lies in a state of nondefinition, in a coma that can only be broken by the introduction of extreme emotion. Tenma had been reluctant to go forward but in the end gives in, introducing Gesicht's memory and personality into Atom just as Epsilon is destroyed, his essence crashing into Atom at his moment of reawakening. Atom is alive, but now he is fueled by sadness and hate. And as we get into Volume 8, he is the only one left that can stop Abullah and Pluto.

Before Gesicht died, he had completely figured out the series of events leading up to the Pluto murders. Just Prior to the War, Abullah - otherwise known as the rumored Goji - created a massive Earth-changing robot, Bora. In this regard, the WMD program that the United States accused Persia of having was quite real, even if it didn't go to fruition before or during the War. Abullah's attempts at creating WMDs met with repeated failure, so he commissioned Tenma to create the greatest robot on Earth. Except this robot could not be activated except by extreme emotion - the emotion provided by Abullah from his own memory when he died. Abullah, Goji, is that robot, made possible by his grief and his anger and his hate of all humanity.

Abullah was an Artificial Intelligence so advanced he lied to himself, keeping his own nature from himself. When his true nature is revealed to him by Tenma, he goes even further down the path of madness than before. Completely overcome with hatred for humanity, he sets out to destroy the world. As Bora, he will ignite the Yellowstone Caldera in the United States, destroying most of the world and wiping out almost all of humanity in the process. Bora's presence as a world-shattering bomb is revealed to the U.S. President by the only sympathetic U.S. character in the story, a weather forecast robot. The president goes to the AI that has been guiding his actions and secretly manipulating all of the events that have transpired, the trapped Dr. Roosevelt, the most advanced AI on the planet revealed by Brau 1589 much earlier in the series. The president is furious, how could Roosevelt keep such information from him? "You know, that weather forecast robot didn't need to feign such alarm. Sure, it will cause almost universal death. But we robots will survive."

With no less than the world at stake, it is Atom that must go out and face Pluto and somehow stop Bora. But that path is fraught. Upon awakening, Atom is mad, scrawling mathematical formulas on walls, formulas for an anti-proton bomb to shatter the world, the same anti-proton bomb at the heart of Bora. Escaping captivity, he catches sight of himself in a window: "You'd better not make me angry" he tells his own reflection. He is driven by hatred and sadness now, but there are other human elements within him. Just like the first time we met Atom, he comes across a snail on the sidewalk. And just like the first time, he gently puts the snail on a leaf and walks away. Gesicht, who is part of Atom now, wasn't just filled with hate, he had decency and deep love in him as well.

Before the inevitable conflict and sacrifices that must come, Atom visits two people, important to him and the story. He visits Brau who immediately recognizes the change in Atom. "You appear to have grown up. You have... a heart." Then he visits Helena, lost in the world, going through the motions of life, alone in her grief. What transpires is one of the story's most heartbreaking moments in a series predicated on loss and heartbreak. And just as heartbreaking, we finally see the genesis of Gesicht's hate. Robots cannot lie, yet Atom does here, not telling Helena of where Gesicht's hate came from, or the mystery of the missing time of her past, just of the love Gesicht had for her, the love that in the end transformed him. Because in the end, love is more powerful than hate.

In the end, the final battle becomes about overcoming nature, be it the darkness that exists in all of us or the programming and orders given to a tortured soul. Urasawa's art throughout this last volume is frankly astonishing. His depictions of human emotion and suspenseful character drama are matched by his world-shattering battle sequences, quiet moments of pain and loss and explosive action. The quiet of Volume 7 is the calm before the storm of Volume 8.

This is a story about the transformative power of loss. It is about the darkest aspects of our nature that makes us human. It is about the evils of war and the scars of war that echo down through the years. It is about the subjective reality of memory. It is a story of evolution and change and becoming human through trial and pain. And it is about the power of love to break the cycle of hate, the beauty within to overcome the darkness.

Next week, my final review in the series, a (lengthy & spoilery) overview of the whole story and all that Urasawa accomplished.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Quick Hits: 9 Newish Comics for Wednesday, April 24 including Jupiter's Legacy, Adventure Time, Batwoman, FF and More

It was a huge week of releases - my stack was thirty books deep - with some truly extraordinary comics to give quality to the quantity. In this week's Wednesday Review I look at a bunch of new comics from the past two weeks including Jupiter's Legacy, Adventure Time, Batwoman and much more, and I throw some love at FF and MIND MGMT which were a couple of the best single issues I've read this year. 

Leading with Adventure Time again, this time the series-proper. Adventure Time by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline & Braden Lamb has been consistently entertaining, but for me often lags behind the spin-off minis like Fiona & Cake and Marceline & The Scream Queens. Indeed, when I voted in this year's Eisner Awards, I didn't vote for Adventure Time despite its many nominations (I did vote for Meredith Gran's Marceline, however). As I've said before, Adventure Time isn't bad at all, it's just that the several serialized stories, while entertaining, have been too long and don't quite hold up over several issues. But Adventure Time 15 is a self-contained one-shot, and it's also the best issue of the series so far. In the issue, Magic Man shows up and ruins Princess Bubblegum's Princess Tea Party, and naturally Fin & Jake save the collected princesses from his evildo. Unfortunately, they're blasted with a magic ray that removes their ability to speak - EXCEPT they can talk in pictograms that appear over their head in word balloons, word balloons the other characters can see and try to interpret. This is a wonderfully ingenious use of the language of comics within the very story and word balloons themselves. In a story where the Princesses are the ones saving the day, there are plenty of laugh-out-load moments throughout including priceless Lumpy Space Princessisms. This feels like a solid episode of Pendleton Ward's astonishing television series, full of energy, fun little character moments and snappy dialogue, except it exists so solidly within the language of comics that it can only exist on the comic page. Adventure Time 15 is inventive, clever, and a hell of a lot of fun - it almost made me regret snubbing it at the Eisners, but if North, Paroline & Lamb keep giving us issues like this they'll get my vote next year.

In a week where The Massive (literally) almost jumped the shark, MIND MGMT (along with this week's FF) had one of the best single issues I've read this year. In MIND MGMT 10 Matt Kindt gives us a largely self-contained issue that continues to build on the labyrinthine superspy epic he's been building to since the beginning. The focus is on Duncan, a private investigator who is also a very powerful telepath: he can sense the thoughts and desires of every living thing within a fifteen mile radius. (For a man who can pretty much get whatever he wants, this is a profession chosen out of ennui rather than challenge or desire.) Rather than being overwhelming, the key element of his power - like a supertelepathic version of Laplace's Demon1 - is that by knowing the position and intention of every living thing around him he can process the direction of reality and even bend it to his whim by subtle manipulation. Lyme and Meru need Duncan and the power he wields, and the second half focuses on the central question of how to get to someone, how to surprise someone as powerful as Duncan. The first half is a layered and detailed examination of character and intention, the thoughts and feelings swimming around Duncan throughout as an effective and integral part of the milieu as Kindt's beautiful watercolors. From the telepaths of the Marvel Universe to indy works like Bodyworld, explorations of telepathy in comics are frankly nothing new, but here Kindt's presentation of Duncan's powers and Lyme & Meru's attempts at confronting him utilize Kindt's unique visual style in breathtaking and effective ways. Kindt is consistently upping the creative ante with every issue of this phenomenal series, and you can even read issue ten as a stand-alone tale. (If you've been meaning to read MIND MGMT, pick this issue up or get issue one as part of Dark Horse's One for $1 reprint series, or read my review of the first volume here.) And as for this week's aforementioned issue of Brain Wood's The Massive (also from Dark Horse), Declan Shalvey's art is a decided disservice to the tale, not that Wood's absurd story is much better. Hopefully this is just a hiccup in an otherwise interesting and well-produced series, but if the downturn continues one could easily see issue 11 as the point where the book figuratively - and quite absurdly enough, literally - jumps the shark.

One of the best new Marvel Now books is Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers. This book is fresh and entertaining and such a joy to read, and Gillen has a solid grasp of these characters. In each issue, Gillen utilizes the many strengths of his longtime collaborator McKelvie, who's bold line and innovative layouts are a perfect fit for the story. About once an issue Gillen & McKelvie come to the line represented what we usually get in superhero fare, and they obliterate it. In their work on this series they are simply shattering mainstream conventions, with wit and a smile. More than a gimmick, their stunning and inventive constructions play with the language of comics like it was their own personal toy, all while dropping bombs rooted in interpersonal relationships and genuine character drama. This week's issue four finally brings the team together ("Come with me if you want to be awesome." Yes, please.) while showing that Kid Loki is still Loki, the liesmith, the manipulator of truths, the seeder of doubt. It exists in triptych with Matt Fraction's Hawkeye and FF as the best of Marvel Now, modern, post-superheroic superhero supercomics. And this week's FF - with fill-in Joe Quinones aping Allred/Allred fairly effectively - was just as good as Young Avengers, achieving extraordinary heights in its self-contained one-shot. The Yancy Street Gang are up to shenanigans that Scott Lang deviously unravels, Dragon Man looks for a missing Bentley in a cutaway Baxter Building to take your breath away, and one of the single best pages of the year gives us a moment of acceptance and beauty and love, funny and touching and exhilarating throughout. Fantastic Four has always been about family, and that even when you're not related, its the family you chose and fight for and love despite and because of who they are that matters. Astonishing stuff.
The only reason I read Batwoman is for J.H. Williams III's art. Williams is an extraordinary artist, utilizing multiple styles of illustration and innovative whole-page layouts that make his work distinct from pretty much everyone else working in comics. The downside is that his work takes a while, so we are often left with mediocre fill-ins. And I really have not been liking his work as a writer on the title - the whole story with La Llorna just doesn't interest me, and I miss the work Greg Rucka did with Williams on Batwoman when she was introduced in Detective Comics a few years ago. That's why Batwoman 19 was a pleasant surprise. Trevor McCarthy's art utilizes a lot of the same visual tricks that Williams often uses without it seeming like he was ripping off Williams' style. McCarthy's stuff finds the balance where his art is visually cohesive with Williams' while being just different enough. It feels right for the title even though it obviously isn't Williams. And the story holds up, too. In it the DEO are manipulating Batwoman into going after Batman (with a nice little twist at the end), and Batwoman & Flamebird's family come to terms with Flamebird's new vigilantism. The Flamebird stuff is really fascinating, actually. Jacob Kane, who supports Kate Kane's work as Batwoman, is also supporting Kate's cousin Bette in her new identity as Flamebird. There is some craziness that must come into play when you risk your life and get dressed up and go out and punch criminals. One could make the argument that supporting someone who does this makes you partially responsible for what happens to them. Bette has almost been killed once already, and yet her family are choosing to enable her dangerous activities. Ultimately how is this different than a family that ignores a person's drug addiction or self-abusive behavior? Even worse, the Kanes are actively encouraging it. Unsurprisingly when it comes to the Bat-family of characters, someone is put in a situation they shouldn't be, be it small children or just plain untrained people fighting supervillains. And far too often with the Bat-books, these issues are raised but not ultimately addressed - sure Batman got his son killed, but that's not going to stop him from recruiting another Robin, indoctrinating another child soldier. In Batwoman, we see the role family plays in this brand of superheroics, and in their irresponsible enabling it is a profoundly negative and potentially destructive one.

Reading a Frank Quitely comic not written by Grant Morrison is like reading a Sean Phillips comic not written by Ed Brubaker (and we get one of those, too, in this week's Dark Horse Presents). In the first issue of the much much much anticipated Jupiter's Legacy out this week from Image, Mark Millar and Frank Quitely give us a superhero tale focusing on the latest generation of superpowered people, the immediate descendents of the first generation of superheroes that rose up in the dark hours of Depression-era America. The first third is about the quest for those powers, one man's dreams infected by a mysterious island and the island that gave rise to superheroes. The second third is a modern-day battle between some superheroes and some random supervillain that has a really, really cool moment & panel that brings the fight to a stop only to devolve into tired arguments about the role of superheroes in the modern era of corporate malfeasance in the great recession. The last third is a dull look at some young superpowered twentysomethings as they hang out at a club and overdose on spacecoke. The entire thing is startlingly underwhelming. There is great focus on the idealism of the golden age heroes and the cynicism and lack of service in the modern age heroes, but the idealistic golden-agers and their motivations in the 1930s are more than a little silly, and the modern-agers are just dull celebutantes. And the argument about the role of modern superheroes was overwrought and just plain dumb in a been-there-done-that kind of way. The ending of the issue is sudden and barely shrugworthy. Quitely's art is of course stunning, but he's trying to spin gold out of straw and it's just not working. The anticipation for Jupiter's Legacy has seemed to reach a fever pitch, as a new creator-owned superhero book from a couple of the industry's top-flight a-list talents should (though, lets be honest, Millar is a huckster's huckster, a hustler's hustler who can sell water to a fish). It's just a damn shame that the book isn't very good.

And speaking of pretty and dumb... If there's something that can be said about Frank Cho, it's that he's good at drawing dinosaurs and boobs and butts and, apparently, big gorillas. There's much to criticize about his style, mainly the lack of variation in the female form - but the one body he loves to draw he loves to draw well. Beyond the eye-rollingly scantily clad women populating his stories, he's a damn fine craftsman with a detailed style. It's cheesecake, for sure, but it's high quality cheesecake. In Savage Wolverine 4, writer/illustrator Cho keeps on giving us a Shanna the She-Devil story with Wolverine and Amadeus Cho in the Savage Land. There is much stabbing and there are dinosaurs and it's all very dumb. But it is pretty in a shallow, vacuous kindof way. Far less shallow and far more entertaining is Chris Samnee's art in Daredevil 25. Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera are hard acts to follow but Samnee manages to pull it off with style. In the story written by Mark Waid, someone with powers similar to Daredevil is coming after the Man Without Fear, and DD may have met his match. While the ending is a little silly (just finish him off!) the art throughout is pretty amazing.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Advance Review: Silence & Co. by Benshemesh & Randall, Out May 29

Silence & Co
By Gur Benshemesh & Ron Randall
Crystal Productions, 2013
Silence & Co. is a new original graphic novel written (and, it seems, published) by newcomer Gur Benshemesh and illustrated by Ron Randall, coming out at the end of May. The story opens with Alexander Maranzano, a hit-man for a legendary New York Crime family rolling up on a federal judge in the dead of winter and putting a bullet in his head; the judge was prosecuting his father for something crime bossy. Alexander was raised by his uncle because he was the illegitimate son of his father and a Puerto Rican woman - as such he was largely disowned by his family but still does hits for them. A one time special forces military type, he heads to Marakesh to lay low from the heat. While chilling at the pool, he's approached by some cokehead assassin to run a quick job out there. After deftly handling it despite the myriad problems, the (now dead) cokehead's employers - some mysterious organization called Silence & Co. - hire Alexander for an elaborate hit on a Colombian drug lord, for the unreal sum of ten million dollars. This all happens fairly quickly, and it was at this point that the story devolves into a complete mess.

Now to be clear, the story is cohesive, the stakes clear, the action straightforward. But it strains, if not outright breaks, the suspension of disbelief. Silence & Co. hire Alexander, who is a family hitman and not a free agent, but whatever, and offer to pay him the completely unbelievable sum to coordinate the hit on the drug-lord, when it becomes obvious that Silence & Co. are more than capable of handling the operation themselves. The operation itself is this insane over-the-top military assault featuring attack helicopters and dozens of paramilitaries. The story, which started out as a promising noir about a disillusioned hitman becomes this ridiculous and completely unnecessary wargasm. And then naturally there are double crosses and a pretty girl Alexander refuses to kill. See, the pretty girl is the mistress/accountant of the crime boss, so that somehow makes her a civilian, and Alexander doesn't kill civilians, although he does kill lots and lots of worker bees in the crime organization, but she's a pretty girl so she gets a pass. Oh! And also, not only was Alexander a military special forces officer but he was ALSO some kind of secret super-hacker for the government and at one point he creates some kind of superworm that infiltrates and wipes out the computers of some crime organization that's been around for centuries. And despite being a known assassin he's given control of an Internal Affairs sting on an FBI senior agent. And then there's more double crosses. And then, and then, and then. And then. Sometimes too much is too much.

Ron Randall's black-and-white art is decent, though there is one silly splash page that seems like something swiped from a Kirby Sgt. Fury issue. His stuff is stronger in the straightforward noir scenes but can't quite live up to the inanity/insanity of the war-stuff. Randall doesn't receive any kind of cover credit which is frankly unacceptable. I guess Benshemesh - who has not previously written anything and is also credited here as "producer" - paid for everything and is publishing it himself, but that doesn't make you the sole author, dude. There are also odd bits about the final product, like the needless use of quotes within the narration captions and the use of asterisks with explanatory captions noting that the characters are speaking Spanish in every single word balloon that characters speak Spanish. Amateur foolishness like that almost seems like a parody (not to mention easily caught production mistakes like comas where apostrophes should be).

Silence & Co. is a self-published vanity graphic novel from a writer who is not frankly ready for prime-time. Maybe if he held back and did a New York crime story instead of throwing all that spaghetti at the wall it would have been a stronger work. In the first few pages I honestly thought the comic would be a nice follow up to fill the void left by the superb hitman graphic novels from Europe, The Killer. But in the end I was just left thirsting for more of the subtle, psychological international thrillers in Matz & Luc Jacamon's killer Killer to clear the bad taste left by this repeatedly sharkjumping mess.

Silence & Co. will be released to comic shops on May 29. For more visit

Friday, April 19, 2013

Valiant's New Archer & Armstrong by Fred Van Lente & Clayton Henry

Archer & Armstrong: The Michelangelo Code
By Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry
Valiant Entertainment, 2013
I've never read a Valiant comic, but I can attest there was a lot of anticipation and excitement among the Wednesday crowd when the company returned last year. Valiant was founded in 1989 by Marvel castoffs Jim Shooter and Bob Layton, one of the largest and most popular publishers in the 1990s boom era featuring comics not dissimilar in style to the other major company founded by Marvel castoffs, Image. But after a period of massive success, the company fell on hard if not weird times and folded, was bought out, came back, went away, and came back again in full force last year with the resurrected properties X-O Manowar, Harbinger, Bloodshot, Shadowman and Archer & Armstrong. The new Valiant is not a continuation of the old books but a full line-wide reboot created by a bunch of mainstream superhero veterans. While the new books inhabit a shared universe, they largely stand on their own. I'd heard good things about a couple of the titles and decided to give the first trade of Archer & Armstrong a try.

Archer & Armstrong Volume 1: The Michelangelo Code, collecting the first four issues of the series written by Fred Van Lente and illustrated by Clayton Henry, is a largely entertaining and slyly clever if occasionally trite superpowered buddy comedy cum Da Vinci Code pastiche. Obadiah Archer is a highly trained assassin raised in a creationism amusement park by ultraconservative Christian nutcases. Archer's mission is to hunt down the Anti-Christ or something like it but in reality he's been manipulated by his parents, the heads of a secret society, into retrieving the last bits of an ancient device that may hold the key to immortality. The sheltered Archer comes to New York and quickly finds Armstrong, an immortal drunkard with connections to many people and events throughout history. They are both captured by the secret society - The One Percent - and Archer quickly learns of his parent's treachery. Archer & Armstrong team up to keep The One Percent from getting the device and global misadventures from the Vatican to the Himalayas ensue.

The dynamic between Archer & Armstrong is fairly conventional in terms of the buddy comedy genre, something Van Lente is very skilled at executing based on his wonderful Hercules/Amadeus Cho work at Marvel with Greg Pak. The unique bits are in Armstrong, a good-natured and ebullient immortal fellow, and Archer, lethal yet hilariously reserved by effect of his upbringing ("Flipping Bullcorn!" he swears). The initial pages setting up the big bad of the One Percent are very, very funny and clever. The One Percent - meeting under Wall Street - are the ultimate secret society, composed of elements of most global secret societies. They want to destroy Greece to stabilize the Euro, and at one point one member, preparing a sacrifice, chants "Bagabi laca bachabe... lamac chi achababe... EXCHANGE-TRADED DERIVATIVE CONTRACTS!" Heh. Then there are the telepathic mountain nazis and underground ninja-nuns to contend with. We get hints of the larger shared universe in play but not in a way that interferes with the stand-alone story.

But despite this manic villainy the whole thing feels almost kindof dull; it's entertaining, but only just so. Van Lente is a competent storysmith, and Henry's art is fairly decent. But at the end, despite the obvious nature as a continuing story with still much left to tell, I wasn't exactly jonesing for more. Overall this is a well-produced, solid if slightly trite, somewhat fun read. I do not want to damn this with faint praise: it's is an excellent value at ten bucks, and despite it's somewhat well-worn nature it's got enough going for it to recommend.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Run: Naoki Urasawa's Pluto Volume 6

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

Pluto Volume 6 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 2007/Viz Signature 2009
When Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki set out to adapt Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy they brilliantly made the robotic police inspector from The Greatest Robot on Earth the central character. It's Gesicht around which the story revolves. It is not just his investigation into the Pluto killings that drives the plot, but the hidden mystery of his own past that makes the emotional core of the story, especially in this volume. Urasawa continues to pull out a virtuoso performance of comic storytelling. Extraordinarily powerful and moving, this is a work of art that says volumes about the human condition, one of the finest accomplishments of the medium.

Pluto Volume 6 is a tightly plotted thriller with equal parts explosive action and riveting suspense-filled conversations. Gesicht's investigation takes him across the world, from what's left of Persia to interview the imprisoned King Darius XIV and Dr. Abullah (who lost his family and even his body in the War) to Amsterdam on the trail of the mysterious Sahad. Gesicht reaches a breakthrough in the case - he discovers the Artificial Intelligence behind Pluto and the secret of Pluto himself. We get far more answers than we could have hoped for, but the cost may be too high.  

Before the War, Dr. Abullah commissioned Dr. Tenma to create the most advanced AI in the world for Persia. But the AI was too advanced, trapped cycling through six billion personalities, unable to find its true identity. Every aspect of the AI was in balance, and the only thing that could awaken it was to introduce emotion: hatred, sadness, fear. The true fate of this robot is one of the great twists in the story, and it is soon revealed that the Greatest Robot left on Earth, the (second) most advanced AI, is not Gesicht or Epsilon, but the force behind Pluto, seeking revenge for the loss of his country and his family.

And then there is the tragedy of Pluto himself. The roots of his story comes back to the recurring theme of the field of flowers, the field that Pluto draws for Uran, that Darius draws in his cell. Before the war, Sahad, a brilliant botanist created the perfect flower, a tulip that could live forever, but at the cost of all life around it. Persia was going to bloom. But then War came, and all was lost.

And we come back around to the way hate poisons the soul, the scars of war reverberating down through the years, the power of loss, the lengths of revenge, the very bounds of death itself.  The humanity of the robots, the inhumanity of the humans. Visionary representations of love, hatred, sadness, and truly terrifying horror. What Urasawa accomplishes in this volume cements the work as a whole as one of the great masterpieces of the comic medium.

Gesicht tracks down Pluto at the same time that Professor Hoffman, his creator, is being held hostage. He makes a practical decision to save Hoffman, at the same time breaking himself free from the cycle of hatred and revenge. He was built as a police robot, but he is something more, now. The revelations of his own past, the truth behind Sahad and Abullah, it all adds up to a fever pitch of change. He rejects the orders of his superiors, violating the robot laws. Hate and loss evolved him, forgiveness and compassion made him more human. But the powers in play are too strong, the stakes are too high, and the events that transpire and how they come to pass are heartbreaking and unspeakably tragic in a story already rooted in profound sadness and tragedy.

He plans that vacation to Japan with Helena which he's been meaning to take with her since Volume 1. And when they finally get there, it once more signals the evolution of robot kind, this time born in tears.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dave Roman and John Green's Wonderfully Absurd Teen Boat

Teen Boat by Dave Roman & John Green
 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
I'd been selling Dave Roman and John Green's Teen Boat for a solid year, and while I've glanced at the cover a dozen times it never once occurred to me to actually look at it until two of our cooler regulars (whatup Bernardo and Isabella!) pointed out to me the absurdity of the tagline on the cover that I never bothered to read: "The ANGST of Being a Teen, The THRILL of Being a Boat!" In a state of minor awe we flipped through this nicely produced little graphic novel and were thunderstruck by the inspired silliness of it. (Inspired silliness if not outright hilarious absurdity.) The collection features a bunch of short stories of Teen Boat (real name: Teen Boat) a teenager with the power to... well, turn into a boat ("Actually, I'm more like a small yacht"). Sometimes he has control of it, sometimes he doesn't, like if a little bit of liquid drips into his ear. Green's illustrations are clean and have a nice straightforward energy to them, TB's transformation an exercise in ridiculousness. Roman and Green play it straight: Teen Boat just is a Teen Boat, he's dealing with standard teenage dramas (crushes, trying to get a job or learn how to drive, pirates, being used as a gambling haven by his friends in international waters). There's a certain zany stoner logic to the whole exercise, a nice illustration of comics potential anything-goes ethos. I really dig Green's illustrations and Roman's stories are short enough to not get bogged down as the concept doesn't hold up to too much scrutiny. The production values and overall presentation are top-notch, though. Would I actually recommend Teen Boat? Depends. It's not much more than a novelty, a great looking, well packaged novelty that doubles as a competent exercise into the absurd, but a novelty nonetheless.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The 2013 Eisner Nominees, and My Picks

The 2013 Eisner Nominations are in, and it is a big year for IDW with their gorgeously designed archival material and reprints, Image with their plethora of quality new creator owned works, and Chris Ware for his masterpiece Building Stories. All of the nominees are deserved and unlike last year's debacle, there are no glaring omissions (except for maybe Fiona Staples).

Now, I'm not an Eisner voter, so I have as much say in this as a potato. Well, I just found out I can vote in the Eisners. So here is this year's list of Nominees for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to be given out during the 2013 Comic-Con International in San Diego, as well as who I voted for in each category, in order of ascending importance (with a few I have no clue about at the bottom).

(The full list and my picks continue after the jump.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Comics as Visual Performance Art - Jenna Marbles' Amazing Draw My Life

I recently discovered the YouTube videos of comedian and filmmaker Jenna Marbles. She's been making videos for a little while now, and is very popular, racking up over a billion views on her channel. Unsurprisingly, I'm usually a fair bit behind the curve on internet memes and celebrities and the like, but the recent New York Times profile on Marbles (real name Mourey) opened my eyes to her hilarious short comedy films, and Marbles' latest video opened my eyes to a new subgenre of video-blogging that blurs the lines of the language of comics as performance art.

Marbles' comedy is irreverent and incisive, tearing down conceptions of beauty and gender. Her videos are short, lo-fi, completely self-produced and largely self-shot, featuring consistently funny critiques or observations often quickly jump-cut in the five-ish minute videos. Part of a new generation of comedians whose videos are simply made and often shot straight-on in classic vlog-style, Marbles has parlayed her extreme popularity into a wealthy living without resorting to product endorsements or changing the style that has made her a household name to millions.

Though much of her work is shot in her home and often features her pets, her work is not necessarily autobiographical, so her new video Draw My Life (below), the latest in a wave of similar autobiographical cartoon-perfomance pieces, breaks the mold of what she has done before. It also remarkable illustration of a new subgenre of videos appearing on YouTube that breaks the mold of what is possible with the language of comics.

The video is representative of the "Draw My Life" genre, a straight-down shot of Marbles drawing on a simple dry-erase board, sped-up with Marbles' straightforward narration laying out a brief outline of her life, from childhood to her current fame. While some "Draw My Life" videos use post-production effects, Marbles' sticks to just her cartooning. The problem with so many autobiographies, comic and prose, is that they are boring, about uninteresting people or lack focus. The same goes for most of the "Draw My Life" videos. Marbles' video is funny, but it is also a pensive, honest, reflective work of autobiography touched with loss, uncertainty and sadness. Marbles covers the broad strokes of her life in eight minutes but it works because it is about the emotions of life and the small things that make us who we are. Any memoir is selective, and here her narrative here can be seen as rather sad - ultimately it isn't. Life is a weird journey filled with professional and personal mishaps that build to who we are. The video is ambiguous. While she may not be happy with her personal situation and the losses she has suffered along the way - the loneliness and uncertainty of life that we all share - she has found some modicum of professional success and artistic satisfaction, a success she knows may be fleeting.

But is the work just a straight-forward presentation of her drawing things out as she describes the events of her life? Is it animation? Or is it a unique form of comics?

First, as noted Marbles' approach here is not unique. Of the wave of "Draw My Life" videos on YouTube now, Marbles' is just the latest and now likely most viewed. (It is also really, really good.) If you coupled her narration as written prose presented underneath her drawings, the work would undeniably be considered comics, perhaps on the outside edge of the commonly accepted view of comics that we find in illustrated non-sequential narrative panels. Draw My Life - both the genre growing on YouTube, but especially Marbles' video - is comics as performance art, where the production of the piece plays a role in the piece itself, the finished product a sequence of moving (but not animated) images underlined by the audio component of the narration. Here it works better as an audiovisual presentation because of the pensiveness in Marbles' narration that we may not necessarily get in just still images and prose, though its role as an audiovisual piece could move it outside the realm of comics. And some could argue that her narration could carry the piece on its own, without the need for any imagery. But her rough, whimsical cartooning presents vital representative illustrations of her life story, and adds to the comedy of the piece. The combination of the images and her narration play with the same exact mechanisms of standard comic storytelling, but where Marbles controls the pace with the added audio aspect of the work. To say this is a comic may be a stretch for some, perhaps it is better understood as animation. But I'd make the argument that not only is Marbles' Draw My Life (and most of the Draw My Life videos) a comic in its own right, but a damn fine one at that. A unique melding of the comics language with the added bit of performance, it tells a story of someone's life in all its sadness and joy, briefly but with an acute perceptiveness.

Many of Marbles' videos show her to be a funny and very comics-geeky comedian. Draw My Life shows her potential as a graphic memoirist.

View Draw My Life here. Visit Jenna Marble's YouTube channel here.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Super Spies, Secret Histories: Matt Kindt's MIND MGMT Volume 1

MIND MGMT Volume 1: The Manager
By Matt Kindt
Dark Horse Books, 2013
Matt Kindt is a cartoonist with a unique visual style, often coloring his distinct drawings with watercolors or other mixed media that bleeds past the borders of the narrative art into the edges of the art boards. He'll reproduce the whole board with meta-messages plastered in the margins, the grain of the paper coming through and giving texture to the rough imagery.

As a storyteller, in his creator-owned works Kindt excels with stories dealing with espionage, deeply invested on the effect spying has on societies and the individuals who wage the never-ending shadow wars that steer the course of history. The technologies used in spying and the winding pathways of interpersonal and intergovernmental treachery share equal focus with stories of human beings giving everything of themselves for an ideal or profit, often caught up in waves of human events beyond their control, sometimes controlling those waves themselves. In a similar way to Garth Ennis's masterful cornering of the war genre - not just his entertaining and historically accurate war stories but the deep psychology of those who wage war - Kindt masterfully utilizes espionage and everything it entails to explore unique facets of human interaction and global history. Kindt's breakthrough work was Super Spy (as well as its spin-off 2 Sisters), richly detailed and beguiling graphic novels exploring spies and spying from various conflicts throughout human history. His follow up graphic novels all played with similar themes but in increasingly unique and exhilarating ways: Revolver, his mind-bending story of a man caught between alternate realities, and even 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man, his modern fantasy of a man whose body grows to extreme heights in his short and tortured life, are at their hearts spy tales. MIND MGMT, his new ongoing series from Dark Horse, is a natural extension of the work he has dedicated so much of his career to, a perfect distillation of the ideas and themes he excels at exploring, a vastly entertaining mystery set against the backdrop of sci-fi superpowered spycraft and secret histories.

MIND MGMT Volume 1: The Manager (released this week) is the first graphic novel in the series collecting the first seven chapters, packaged in a gorgeous hardcover with fantastic and innovative trade design. The story opens with journalist Meru working on a book about the notorious Flight 815, a plane where everyone aboard were afflicted with amnesia. Meru is at the end of her rope, for reasons to be revealed constantly finding herself blowing deadlines, behind on bills, becoming increasingly obsessed with the flight and what happened to it. Her investigations take her around the world, getting wrapped up in a deeper mystery, the recurring theme of some secret organization told in whispers, a group called Mind Management. Meru finds herself trapped in a web far larger and deeper than even she realizes, illuminating hidden corners of a world dominated by secret agents of a defunct organization who have unbelievable powers, telepathy, telekinesis, even the ability to warp reality itself. The mysteries abound, who are these people, what is Mind Management, and what is Meru's connection to it all. The answers may lie with a man named Henry Lyme, but the quest for Lyme may just be a symptom of a larger disorder that is afflicting the very fabric of history itself.

MIND MGMT is an enthralling journey into a world of superspies and secret histories, unique powers and the unknown forces of global manipulation. This is a bracingly original work, the first in what promises to be a series of unique and attractive graphic novels from one of the medium's most distinct creative voices.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Run: Naoki Urasawa's Pluto Volume 5

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

Pluto Volume 5 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 2007/Viz Signature 2009
At the beginning of Pluto Volume 5, Brau 1589 laughs at Gesicht, who he was expecting: "How does it feel to have killed a human?" Gesicht knows now what happened three years ago, or at least most of it. The memories are coming back to him, memories deleted by Europol without his permission, part of a massive cover-up. Gesicht knows that he was investigating a serial killer of child robots, that he cornered the subject, that he killed him in cold blood. That he committed murder outside of the bounds of normal police activity, in contradiction of the very code within him that should keep him from taking human life. And he now knows that the one thing that made it possible for him to kill, that one thing that is still giving him nightmares, is pure hatred. Deep within him, for reasons he is still coming to terms with, is pure, all encompassing hatred, a hatred that should not exist in robots, that scares Gesicht. A hatred shared by Pluto, by the power controlling Pluto, by the surviving victims of the War.

It is the role of hatred in the human experience that drives this volume. Professor Tenma created an Artificial Intelligence so advanced that it could only be woken by the introduction of a violent emotion to tip the balance. It may be hatred that is the key to robot evolution, hatred the key to what being human is. It is Adolph Haas' hatred of robots and of Gesicht for his role in his brother's death that has put Haas' own life and his family's life in danger. Epsilon is a pacifist who is trying to break the cycle of hate that began in the War in Persia - by refusing to fight, then by raising war orphans. Darius XIV hates the United States and the United Nations and the Bora Survey Group for their roles in turning his country to ash.

Hercules is not driven by hate, but he must fight the legacy of hate represented in Pluto, in the spirits of all those who died in the War. He has no choice but to confront Pluto, and he knows that he will likely be killed. But he goes forward anyway. If he cannot beat Pluto, he can definitely harm him and broadcast the results of the battle out to Epsilon, forced by his moral code to watch and to not interfere. These broadcasts during various characters' battles with Pluto are like telepathic transmissions of minds flashing through the end of their lives, the thoughts and emotions and memories that unintentionally come to the fore when confronted with inevitable mortality. Each time it happens is no less moving than the last and is a window into the characters' very soul. The battle that comes is the most violent and vividly presented yet, finally getting a clear picture of what Pluto is really capable of.

Uran is driven by sadness, but not just her own. Dealing with her own loss, her empathic powers send her across Tokyo, instinctively helping those in need. From lost kittens to lost wallets she comes across sadness so profound, sadness compounded by grief and despair, the sadness of Atom's creator Tenma. The revelation of Atom's origins in loss are the emotional core of the second half of the volume. The lengths that Tenma was willing to go, the questionable ethics, the universality of his intention. He created the most advanced robot in the world to be his son in place of the son he lost  - but despite Atom's advanced nature, there is no substitute for the real thing. Tenma resented Atom for being a simulacrum, a facsimile he created, a pale shade, and he rejected him so completely, so violently - he sold him, like an object, not like the sentient being he was. And now Atom is gone and Tenma's own abilities as one of the most brilliant scientists alive are not enough to bring him back. Just like he failed to bring back his son, failing Atom in death like how he failed him in life.

Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki's scripting continues to leave you breathless, as does Urasawa's astonishing art. From a robot compulsively washing its hands, unable to clean the metaphorical blood on them, to a quiet dinner packed with subtext, the quiet moments of pain and loss and grief which fill the book are seismic.

And amongst all the pain and sadness there is hope, bleeding in around the edges. But things are darkest before the dawn and under gathering storm clouds, we are still far from sunlight.

Mesmerized by The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
By Junot Diaz
Riverhead, 2007
I came for the comic book references. I can be shallow like that.

Junot Diaz's debut novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is absolutely louse with absolutely perfect geeky references to superhero comics and alternative comics and science fiction & fantasy novels and role playing games and more and more and more. This novel was speaking my language, a language steeped in knowledge of classic Marvel and Love & Rockets and The Lord of the Rings (and more and more and more). I'm a cheap date and I was hooked from page one. Seduced by my culture of geekery, I ended up getting absorbed into the mesmerizing narrative of Dominican culture and history and the immigrant experience of one very remarkable family. And geekery.

(The novel was also speaking Spanglish, and my Spanish ain't that great, but context is everything and it's easy enough to follow.)

It's the 1980s, teenager Oscar de Leon (Wao is a nick-name making fun of his literary predilections) is the son of a hard working immigrant, overweight, obsessed with anime and comics and gaming, helplessly out of touch, taken to verbal affectations, and terrible with the ladies. Really, really terrible. Which isn't easy on any day but Oscar is Dominican and certain things are expected of Dominican men. He doesn't have (m)any friends, lives with his cancer-stricken mother and his devoted but occasionally wayward sister, Lola. Our narrator (for most of the novel) is a version of the Author himself, Yunior as he prefers to be called, who finds himself woven into the story through his relationship with Lola. Yunior, a Dominican player's player, would end up Oscar's roommate in college, attempting to change Oscar's backwards women-repelling ways. But there are more powerful forces at work than just Oscar's hopeless awkwardness.

There is a powerful Fuku at work.

Diaz introduces us to the deeply, uniquely Dominican concept of fuku right from the start, the idea of a powerful curse that can travel generations. The fuku isn't a given, this isn't a supernatural thriller or anything of the sort. But it's clear Dominicans believe in this and it has a profound pull on their lives. And this is a novel about Dominican culture and history as much as it is a chronicle of one lonely geek in Paterson, New Jersey.

The novel bounds around generations and is steeped deeply in the Dominican experience, both on the island and in the diaspora. So much of being Dominican is colored by the experience of living underneath the iron fist of the country's brutal, genocidal dictator of more than 30 years, Rafael Trujillo. The grip Trujillo had on the soul of the nation and it's people cannot be understated, and everything that happens in Oscar Wao can be traced back to his brutal regime.

The novel is named after Oscar but this is the story of a family and a people. As much of the story focuses on his mother and his sister and his grandfather. The stories of his mother and grandfather are tragedies laced with brutal abuses by those in power, Oscar's mother only escaping the regime by the thinnest of margins. (The harrowing story of his mother is guaranteed to stick with you long after you put it down, and is only a quarter of the book.) Tragedy follows this family (fuku), but so does unexpected hope (zafa). Where the novel will end up is telegraphed from the start, but the odd details of the how keep you hooked.

This is a mesmerizing, enchanting and endlessly entertaining novel of family and country told with humor and footnotes and energy by an author with a unique voice and perspective. The narrative focus jumps around people and decades but reads seamlessly. The prose is electric, equally elegiac and poetic and the voice of the street, filled with Spanglish-infused slang and layered geek culture allusions. In the end the story is a tragedy, yes, but it is also a comedy and a chronicle of a people, equally at home in the every day life of the third world and the Dominican diaspora and the geek experience.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in a word (obvious, I know, but true): wow.

This book was suggested to me by my good friend Julie, who has consistently amazing taste in books. See her twitter @CoolHandLoo

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Quick Hits: Ten New (and Newish) Comics and Collections for Wednesday, April 10

In this week's Wednesday Review I look at a bunch of new comics from this week (and last week, while we're at it) including Thanos, Batman, Spidey, Adventure Time, Marvel NOW and more.

(And while you're here, check out my reviews on the new releases Indestructible Hulk 6 and Julio's Day.)

Adventure Time, come on and grab your friends. Fionna and Cake 4 drops today and we get yet another fabulous comic written and illustrated by Fionna creator Natasha Allegri. Much like Meredith Gran's superb Marceline mini-series - truly actually seriously one of 2012's best comics - the side series continue to be better than the ongoing Adventure Time book. Which isn't to say that Adventure Time proper is bad, it's quite good. It's clever and fun and zany but it just doesn't click the same way Fionna and Marceline do. Part of the appeal of Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake is that this isn't just some all-ages perfunctory hackwork thing for Allegri, she created these characters for the Adventure Time television show, and they are clearly near and dear to her heart. The gender-swapped universe of Fionna and Cake is far more than just a Rule 63 version of the Adventure Time universe, these are fully fleshed out characters with their own unique perspective on the world of Ooo. Allegri's Fionna is a fierce, independent teenage girl who likes to punch stuff and she's pretty awesome. In this week's number 4 we get a largely stand-alone issue: the ongoing drama of what the Ice King did to the Fire Elemental gets a sliver of exposition, but the focus is on Lumpy Space Prince, just as divinely ridiculous as L.S. Princess. He steals Fionna's magic wand to make himself beautiful. The introduction to this sequence is just as stunning as the first magical pages of issue one, with the mini-series characteristic flowing script on an all black page, "To be on the cusp of impossible beauty has been my curse since the day I was born..." A remarkable sequence of simple beauty, followed by a series of wonderfully silly misadventures, cured by good ole fashioned punching. Allegri's cartooning is inspired and full of love and life. This is a wonderful comic in every aspect, delightful, whimsical, funny, elegant in story and art and lettering. Even for casual fans you can dive right into this without the other issues, and the rewards to loyal Adventure Time fans are legion. Not as deep as Gran's Marceline and the Scream Queens but just as good, this is shaping up to be one of the best series of the year.

I'm a huge fan of Jason Aaron. Scalped is one of the comic medium's true masterpieces, and I have always been consistently entertained by his superhero work for Marvel. Thanos (the world destroying Mad Titan) is a big deal for Marvel right now - for Marvel the comic publisher he will be playing a significant role in Brian Bendis's cosmic books and Jonathan Hickman's Avengers, for Marvel the movie studio he's the Big Bad of Phase Two. Marvel's got a lot invested in Thanos right now, so an origin-type mini-series written by Aaron sounds like a pretty awesome idea. Except the execution of the opening chapter that new series is just kind of lame. Thanos Rising #1 not bad, it just kindof is, and that's all. Featuring art by Simone Bianchi, (who I've never really cottoned to, to be honest) the book opens with Thanos meandering the ruins of Titan (Saturn's moon which once hosted an advanced sentient species). Titan, and many another world, lies in ruins because of Thanos, and his perambulations are a trip down memory lane, back to when he was but a wee lad, many years before he would develop his infatuation with the lady Death. Born with a mutation that made him all purpley and odd looking, his father was a well-regarded (royal?) scientist-type who always accepted him. Thanos's mother on the other hand, immediately upon his birth (with possibly the best case of mother's intuition in the history of the galaxy) tried to kill him. She was rewarded with a lifetime stay in the looney bin for her prescience. Anyway, we get small vignettes of Thanos as a kid mercilessly taunted um, completely accepted by his peers. As a student he gleefully tortured animals uh, was queasy around scientific dissections. There was a small incident where some of his friends died and a weird girl was taking a liking to him, but nothing all that traumatic. Aaron doesn't exactly follow what one would expect of such an origin, which is nice, but honestly, the book is kind of toothless. It's unimpressive fluff. I didn't know what to expect going in, but I didn't expect the book to be boring, which, sadly, it was. (This week's Thor was really, really good though. Read that.)

Oh, Dan Slott, you continue to surprise me by how much I LOVE Superior Spider-Man including last week's new number 7. I was mad-skeptical going in and every issue you win me over more and more. Spider-Otto has been going a bit too far of late, killing a dude a couple of issues back (a really bad guy, sure, but still killing). This murder had a handful of the Avengers debating what the dilly with Spidey, killing is just too far, though they do nothing at first because of the Avengers discussing this - Captain America, Spider-Woman, Black Widow, Thor, Wolverine - all have killed in the past (a couple have killed lots of folks). The final straw is Spidey's mercilessly savage beatdown of some c-list publicity hounds and the good guy Cardiac. Killing is one thing, but Spider-Man losing his cool before the world and going after those below him is just bad for business, and the Avengers finally confront him, much to ghost-Peter's delight. About damn time, too. Slott's scripting is energetic, logical, nasty fun, Humerto Ramos on art is Humberto Frickin' Ramos just killing it. Most of the issues are self contained or super easy to dive into, so if you've been on the fence about reading this, just do it. It's so weird and different and fun and cool.

DC's Animal Man 19 from Jeff Lemire and Steve Pugh was the first issue after the recent, long cross-over with Swamp Thing involving something called the Rot. Swamp Thing is the avatar of the Green, Animal Man Buddy Baker (actually his young daughter) is the avatar of the Red (animals, logically), and for far too many issues they fought the rot, death and the like. Whatever, I stopped reading both when that crossover began and issue 19 was the first part after that whole mess, a nice jumping-back-on point. Unfortunately, the issue was one long extended bit of hand-wringing over the death of Buddy's son in issue 18. A lot of Buddy confronting the elders of the Red demanding they bring his son back to life, his wife leaving him over the death, lots of boohoohooing. Yeah, kids' deaths suck, I get it, but when can I get the entertaining comic about Buddy Baker that the initial New 52 story arc showed was possible? Because if there is more of this slog through grief and yadda yadda, I'm just going to drop the bloody book again.

Everyone! Buy lots of these! They'll put your kids through college, for reals!
Hey, speaking of getting your son killed, lets check in on Batman! Things are dark and weird in Batman and Robin 19. Bruce Wayne is frankly off his rocker, going after Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (Frankenshade to the cool kids) because Frankenstein is some weird undead dude and Batman can totally use him to resurrect Damian! Riiiight, Bruce, chill out homie, you're barking up the wrong tree with this and - oh, too late, you're already disassembling Frankie stitch by stitch while raving like a madman and oh, look at all those cadavers you totally just stole. Red Robin shows up and tries smacking some sense into him, but that dude too far gone. Bruce is a mess, this book is a mess, at least there' symmetry. Oh, and about that cover - Batman on the front, and behind the gatefold (oh, yeah, DC is doing gatefolds this month, viva la 90s) is Carrie Kelly as Robin. That would be the Future Robin from the Frank Miller Dark Knight Returns continuity. What the Frankenstein is she doing on the cover? Is she the new Robin? Well, no. See, unknown to Bruce (and conveniently the audience) she'd been giving Damian acting lessons or something and shows up at Wayne manner demanding payment and to know where the kid is for more lessons. Bruce eventually tracks her down to her place where she's having a costume party and she's dressed as Robin, hoho! Kelly is written as a firebrand of some entertainment, but the concept is as messy as the whole Frankenshade A-story and doesn't actually end with her as Robin or even going in that direction. Sure this is the first DCU appearance of the character, but its a bit disingenuous, to be generous. Over in Batman 19 there are some mistaken identity shenanigans going on that are obvious, really. Plus some Bruce brooding over dead Damian that's more effective than the siliness in And Robin. A very efficient, straight-forward, really well put together Batman comic. Snyder and Capullo for the Bat-win, as usual. Also, a Superman/Batman back-up with art by Alex Maleev? Say what? That shizz isn't even on the cover. A nice little surprise for your $3.99.

A few new Marvel NOW collections came out last week, including All-New X-Men by Brian Bendis and Stuart Immonen and Fantastic Four/FF by Matt Fraction, Michael & Laura Allred and Mark Bagley. First, in All-New X-Men: Yesterday's X-Men (collecting the first five issues in hardcover), Bendis has the X-Men team from the 1960s brought to the present by a dying Hank McCoy to teach current Scott Summers a lesson. A shifty premise that I doubted even more than Superior Spider-Man going in. I tried it out because of Immonen on the art, and I stuck with it because it's a surprisingly entertaining comic that doesn't stretch believability too much. A nice opener for the new era of Scott Summers renegade, the book is just a lot of fun, plain and simple, and holds together very nicely. In Fantastic Four: New Departures, New Arrivals, we get the first three issues each of Matt Fraction's Fantastic Four with Mark Bagley and FF with Michael Allred. Marvel's decision to alternate the two titles in one volume is doubly perplexing because the storylines don't really alternate lock-step after the first issues, and they didn't do this with the end of Jonathan Hickman's superb run which absolutely did alternate. Frustrating, but whatever. The Bagley stuff has the first family going out on a trip through time and space on Reed Richards' behest, FF follows the gloriously Allred/Allred illustrated adventures of the replacement heroes at the Future Foundation. I've been enjoying the Allred stuff way more than the Bagley stuff, weird heroes and odd story be damned, and would have much more appreciated an Allred only volume (though it looks like subsequent volumes will thankfully be separate). This is Marvel and you take what you can get, and at least at six issues of content the $15.99 price point is a great value, so unlike Marvel of late. (And also new in hardcover is Iron Man: Believe, collecting the first five issues of the Marvel NOW relaunch. Well, I can't believe how wretched Greg Land's art is. Not even the normally excellent Kieron Gillen can overcome it. Just spend fifteen bucks more and get the first nineteen issues of Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca's superb run in one fantastic deluxe hardcover instead.)

And speaking of Fantastic Four, aw, gee wiz, this week's new number 6 was a BLAST. The Fam Four (well, six, but that's not as alliterative) goes back to the Big Bang and run into a Big Bad who's a BLAST from the past. (Once you read the issue, my puns here will be infinitely more clever to you, I swear.) The issue is packed with sci-fi adventure, humor and action. It's a damned fine superfamily superhero comic. A good stand-alone issue, too, and I love a good one-shot.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Gilbert's Year: Julio's Day Reviewed

Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez
A Love And Rockets Graphic Novel
Fantagraphics, 2013
Gilbert Hernandez is one of the most prolific cartoonists on the planet. The man seems to work at Jack Kirby levels of productivity, and the quality of the material he puts out is usually some of the best stuff being published in the comic medium. This year alone we get collections for Julio's Day, New Tales of Old Palomar, Fatima: The Blood Spinners, and the OGN Marble Season (his hotly anticipated autobiography) not to mention more Love and Rockets New Stories.

So Julio's Day, new last week from Fantagraphics, is just the first salvo in the Year of Gilbert. Collecting a bunch of material largely serialized in Love and Rockets, Julio's Day covers a man's life, one hundred years in one hundred pages. When going into reading this and thinking about whether or not I was going to review it here - because, honestly, if your last name is Hernandez of the Love and Rockets Hernandezes, at this point in your career you are review-proof - I was thinking of analyzing it along with Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library 20. More commonly know as the graphic novel Lint, Ware's Acme 20 focuses on the life of Jordan Lint (a minor character from his Rusty Brown cycle), with each page of the graphic novel representing one moment from one day of one year in Lint's life. Hearing about the 100 page/100 year concept made me think that Hernandez did something similar, but this is not remotely the case in Julio's Day - to appraise it with Acme 20 would do both an injustice. And damn the review-proofness of it, Julio's Day work certainly leaves an impression worth discussing.

Now, the story certainly covers a century in 100 pages, but by no means is it a page-per-year. The story is told in fits and jumps, covering events over a day or two for a few pages and then jumping forward a few months, or a few years, or a few decades. And the focus is not on just one character, but in flavor and tone so similar to his Palomar masterworks, the story encompasses Julio's family, his hometown, and society at large. In 1900, the titular Julio is born into a Mexican family in a poor town somewhere in the United States. We see his early upbringing, his large extended family, his hometown. The story's leaps are minor at first and easy to anchor in a point in time, but as the narrative drives forward, focusing on members of his family and the other residents of the town, the time of the story jumps forward. We are never told outright when we are, but must discern that from bits of dialogue, characters' dress, the apparent age of the people themselves. Exactly when is never as important as the who. This is a character piece that manages to weave in a lot of characters and in a very small amount of space tell volumes about them.

There is Julio, devoted to his mother, with his share of secrets - not dark secrets, just not easy ones. There is Uncle Juan, definitely hiding a dark secret, darker whispers surrounding him, whom none of the women trust. There is the "white trash" local boy Tommy, Julio's best friend who, like Julio, never leaves the town. There is Araceli, a school-mate of Julio's who volunteers to be a nurse in American war zones, a Florencia Nightengale of World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf. There is Julio Juan, Julio's grand-nephew, unapologetically bounding forward in his life in ways that Julio could only dream of. It's easy to say that Julio is only a supporting player in the story - the title is of his day, the time period on this Earth that he inhabits and those that inhabit it with him, around him, after him. Julio says little in the work, but with so much narrative focus spotlighting others this is never a problem.

¡Viva 'Beto, viva Los Hermanos Hernandez!
The pacing of this work is unique, never stopping in any time period for very long, giving just enough of a picture of when we are to build the larger story. And our picture of the people, who they are, come in tiny bursts, and the reader infers details, builds existences for the characters, that Gilbert only delicately hints at. Like in any life, there are tragedies, small and large, from Juan's betrayal to an epic case of mistaken identity. The unexpected quest for deserved vengeance. And there are victories. Julio Juan, who breaks free of the small town, seems to have the fullest life, in ways that speak of an entire generation of people who could be themselves when so many of their forebears were driven into the shadows.

This is a Gilbert Hernandez work through and through. Gilbert revels in certain things like sex, sex, sex (not licentious or pornographic but a simple element of the human condition) and bizarre gross shit (sometimes combined). After some vignettes of Julio as a child, the focus shifts to his father, on some journey, walking a far way. He gets caught in a landslide but gets infected by a mud-borne parasite, the results very extreme and very unpleasant.

Gilbert's cartooning throughout is magnificent. From pages of mood-defining storm clouds to extended sequences of walking or magnificently rendered dancing. His line is supremely confident, bold line is striking throughout.  Like life, characters flit in and out, sometimes only encountered decades apart, sometimes only seen once, briefly from a window.

This is a fantastic book, yet another example of a master cartoonist at work, an excellent representative Gilbert Hernandez for those unfamiliar with him, and a fine addition to the library of those who have grown with his work over 30 years.

For my definitive guide to Love and Rockets and all things Los Bros Hernandez, click here.