Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Halfway point (more or less) best of 2008

-Couple of quick plugs before getting started:

(1) Alan David Doane is selling a bunch of comics at absolutely ridiculous prices. Looks like a lot of it is gone already, so check it out pretty soon. $20 for all of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers is staggeringly low, and I would have bought it myself if I didn't already own it all.

(2) Tucker Stone will be live-blogging his way through the first Uncanny X-Men Omnibus on Saturday. I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the classic Claremont X-Men--I like Dave Cockrum pretty well (more for his work on LSH), but this run of X-Men seems like the root of many things wrong with mainstream superhero comics. So I'm eager to see Tucker sink his teeth into this massive, hernia-inducing volume.

-Everyone who is aware of this blog probably knows by now that I'm greatly interested in various forms of discourse, especially year's best discourse. I like best of the year lists because it gives the writer a chance to look back on a year's worth of comics after several months of contemplation; these are opinions that have been stewing for some time. On the other hand, they're also opinions that are of the moment. Many list-makers will admit that their best-of lists would look quite different if made a year or two, or even a month or two, down the line. I thought it might be useful, then, to make a best of 2008 list at the year's halfway point. Sort of. We're not quite halfway done with 2008, but I'm not sure if I'll have the time to do this at the end of June.

I'm basing my reactions entirely on first reads, with no additional perusal for the sake of this article. When the time comes for me to make a final best of 2008 list, I obviously will re-read the books I'm considering, but I wanted to rely on my early (and alarmingly hazy) impressions for now. I assume that this list will look similar to whatever I come up with in January 2009, but I'm interested to look back then and see how my opinions have changed in the interim. So if these opinions seem a little half-baked, as well they might, please bear in mind the rough nature of this project.

1. Little Nothings by Lewis Trondheim
Still my favorite of 2008 so far; it's going to take one hell of a comic to unseat it. I haven't looked at this in a few months, but I do read Trondheim's French-language Les Petits Riens when it gets updated. Even with my rather anemic understanding of French, you can still kind of pick out the jokes just based on the pacing and cartooning. That tells me a lot about Trondheim's cartooning skills. I'm also struck by just how vibrant these strips are--I don't think Trondheim's art has ever looked better.

2. Paul Goes Fishing by Michael Rabagliati
I was meaning to email Tom Spurgeon to discuss his review of this book, but I guess I'll do it here instead. Tom argues that Paul Goes Fishing is weakened by two things. First, Tom argues, Paul is too likable a character, especially compared to other characters who are denounced as "creeps" or the like. I have no real response to this, but I'll be thinking about it when I re-read Paul Goes Fishing.

Tom's second criticism is that the book "fails to cohere...you'll remember a string of incidents more than an overall arc." I bring this up because it's the exact opposite of what I thought after finishing the book. I felt that Rabagliati effectively played with the theme of nature vs. technology throughout the book, beginning with Paul's objection to the modern hunting/fishing tourism industry. We also see his brother-in-law's alienation from a changing workplace, where his natural talents are held back by a company adopting Japanese "just in time" production strategies. As a result, he increasingly finds fishing, a communion with nature, as his only respite from work. On the lake, Paul's brother-in-law's natural fishing talents eclipse those of his fellow fishers, who rely on more technologically advanced forms of angling. There's a very pro-nature, anti-technology message.

But then the ending seems to reverse course. After Paul and his wife (Lucy, I believe?) twice try unsuccessfully to conceive, they find themselves turning to technology to solve their fertility problems. I couldn't help but think back to Paul's earlier disgust at fish-stocking and bear-bating. Fertility drugs are not "natural," but they do allow Paul and Lucy to find happiness in having a child.

I do wonder if drawing parallels between commercial hunting/fishing and childbearing is somewhat warped; I need to re-read the book to fully flesh out my thoughts here. And it's certainly true that the extended sequence in which a teenage Paul runs away from home doesn't seem to be relevant to anything other than perhaps establishing Paul's thoughts about parenting. I thought it was the weakest part of the book. Maybe there's a thematic connection with an overall parenting theme, just as Paul Moves Out had a marriage/long-term monogamy-related theme. Another thing to consider is that these books have a forward narrative thrust in detailing Paul's life; Rabagliati doesn't always completely succeed in linking this meta-narrative to individual themes in single volumes of the Paul series.

I did think this volume improved on establishing this kind of thematic coherence, even if it Rabagliati might not quite be all the way there yet. As it is, I was impressed enough with the power and skill with which Rabagliati explored these themes. And, of course, Rabagliati is one of the more distinctive craftsmen in comics, working in a style simultaneously timeless and idiosyncratic.

3. Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
I liked Criminal enough to put it somewhere in my top 20 or so for 2007, but there's been an astonishing degree of improvement this year. The larger page count seems to be allowing Brubaker to craft deeper, richer single issues. He's also better taking advantage to the pamphlet format, creating a Rashomon-style narrative which seems to be unfolding in a very subtle way, rewarding multiple re-readings. As Jog and others have pointed out, the storytelling has also taken a great leap forward, particularly in an issue dealing with an alcoholic character suffering from frequent blackouts. As much as I like Brubaker's work on Captain America and Daredevil, we might retrospectively consider the opportunity to write Criminal as the most significant aspect of his relationship with Marvel.

4. Jessica Farm v. 1 by Josh Simmons
I was ambivalent about last year's House. There were a bunch of interesting sequences, but I didn't think Simmons consistently established the sense of place necessary (IMO) for the persistent atmospheric dread he was going for. Jessica Farm, however, does much more to deliver on this promise. Where House felt overly calculated, Jessica Farm feels dangerous, oozing with inexplicable characters and settings, all tied into the title character's murky psychology. There's a lingering dread and mystery which I really appreciated. And I'm happy to say that Simmons' much-publicized production/release schedule for the book isn't just a gimmick--it seems like a good way to ensure that Simmons will resist the urge to go into any single direction for an extended sequence. That hopefully will mean more of more of the weird, loopy pace we see in the first volume. Of course, we'll also get to see how Simmons changes as an artist and writer over the next, uh, forty years. Hopefully I'll still be alive to see the end. For now, Jessica Farm volume one provides plenty of disturbing, exhilarating thrills in its 96 pages.

5. Ganges #2 by Kevin Huizenga
I like the dot com boom/video game subject matter for this issue. I especially appreciated the way that Huizenga depicts the events in the game in more-or-less the same manner as the real-life parts of the book, rather than in the first person perspective which define the actual game(s) Glenn and his colleagues are playing. It serves to break the illusion of immersion one gets when playing an FPS, which is appropriate when paired with the (from our perspective, inevitable) dissolution of Glenn's employer. I'm not so sure what to think of the sequence involving the other players'/employees' tribute to Candypants. It seemed lame and pathetic when I initially read it, the kind of cliched, impotent gesture you see in bad sports movies.* That might have been Huizenga's point, but it didn't seem as cutting as I would have expected. It's something to focus on when I re-read this issue.

*Is that redundant?

6. Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa
I seem to recall reading a review of this (by Chris Mautner, maybe? I try not to read reviews too closely before reading a book myself) which mentioned a major stumble in the last third of the book. I definitely concur; Pedrosa set up the situation well enough, but I thought the resolution was way too external to the established plot and themes of the book. Still, I thought Three Shadows was excellent overall. Pedrosa's composition is as good as anyone actively working in comics--page after page of dazzling birds eye views, beautifully spotted blacks, and curvy city streets. Add in some absolutely stunning (and varied) linework and attractive character design, and it's hard for me to dwell too much on the missteps. Pedrosa is basically the best Disney alum possible, taking the very best aspects of his experience and none of what you might imagine the negatives could be (like overly cutesy design work or unabashed sappiness).*

I'm also impressed that, even with the aforementioned narrative hiccup, I still thought that Three Shadows was a pretty moving commentary on coping with loss. I probably would have placed it somewhere on the list for the incredible art alone, but I'm happy to say that its virtues are not limited to that. Hopefully Pedrosa's subsequent work will see a quick release in North America from here on out.

*I must admit, however, that his page on Lambiek suggests that his working in black and white might have tempered a tendency towards Flight-style over-slickness. Hopefully some more of his work will make its way to these shores so I can figure it out first-hand.

7. Never Been by Stuart Kolakovic
I read Never Been when several blogs linked to it a month or two ago, and it really knocked my socks off. I'm not really well versed in the world of webcomics, but this strikes me as a terrific example of the "infinite canvas" approach which Scott McCloud and his followers often speak of as the overwhelming advantage of digital comics. I particularly appreciated the way that the form of the comic reinforced the theme of seasons passing. Plus the whole thing was terribly entertaining, frequently very funny and always charming. And since it's free, there's no excuse for not reading it before making your own list.

8. Aqua Leung by Mark Andrew Smith and Paul Maybury
It's kind of amazing to think Paul Maybury is still relatively new at the comics game, cause there are some absolutely jaw-dropping storytelling moments here. I'm specifically thinking about Aqua entering the giant monster's mouth and a sequence involving archery. Mark Andrew Smith gives him a lot to work with, with a menagerie of bizarre allies and enemies for the title character to interact with. The trilogy structure leads me to think the next volume will be a bit more dramatic, especially given the hints that Aqua Leung will take a turn toward the dark in volumes yet to come.

9. Haunted by Philippe Dupuy
I found this similar to, but less successful than, Josh Simmons' Jessica Farm. Haunted largely consists of vignettes framed around Dupuy's jogging--presumably the sort of half-formed story ideas which percolate in his mind as he's running. As one would guess with a book of this nature, some sequences work better than others. I'm having a hard time remembering a few of them less than a month after reading Haunted. I also wasn't crazy about Dupuy's sketchy line here. It seems appropriate, at least in theory, for a book of this type. Still, it seemed surprisingly disharmonious with the overall tone--too self-assured, almost self-consciously informal. And it just wasn't aesthetically pleasing, something I never thought I would say about a comic drawn by half the creative team of Monsieur Jean. Still, I did quite like a number of the vignettes (especially one dealing with anthropomorphic forest creatures trying to cope with their friend's misfortune and subsequent alienation), and I sort of expect to like this better on subsequent readings.

10. Achewood by Chris Onstad
I'll probably be putting this on year's best lists until the day when Onstad finally gives it up, unless there's some unexpectedly steep decline in quality in the years ahead. I still think 2006 might have been the peak year for the strip, but I'm liking 2008 better than 2007 so far.

Partially read: Little Vampire by Joann Sfar. I'm actually pretty sure this would make the list if I had finished it. As it stands, I've only read the first story, and I thought it was awfully good. Sfar is actually at the peak of his comedic talents here, and his art is as charming as usual. I'm also impressed that Sfar adds a fairly hefty pinch of tragedy and bitterness to a children's comic. It's an obvious slam dunk for anyone who enjoys cute horror (like, say, Scary Godmother or The Nightmare Before Christmas), especially since I'm having a hard time thinking of anything which succeeds so well at pulling off this sort of thing. Not sure where I would put it on the list based on a first read. Probably somewhere between #4 and #6.

Own but have not read: Rabbi's Cat 2; Dororo v. 1; Hieronymous B., 1997-2007

Do not own but plan on reading: Bottomless Belly Button

Bought from ADD: Kaput and Zosky

Also do not own and plan on reading, but am not sure if I should count it as a 2007 or 2008 book: Tamara Drewe. Any thoughts on this? I think it technically came out in December, but I don't think I remember any North American list-maker including it. A lot will depend on how many people are including it on best of 2007 lists, so we might be revisiting this question in January or February.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Over here

-Heidi MacDonald asks "where is everyone?", which I guess probably applies to me, since I've been averaging about one post a week for a while now. It's been pretty busy around here, more than usual. My in-laws were in town last week, and we were responsible for entertaining them for a few days. So we extracted every last bit of fun within driving distance, and I feel like we can now leave Wisconsin knowing that the most noteworthy thing/place we've neglected is the Dells. And I don't really want to go to a Midwestern Myrtle Beach, so I'm okay with that.

I was happy to visit House on the Rock one last time before moving on. I love House on the Rock; one of the reasons I enjoyed Bioshock so much was that it was kind of like Silent Hill set in the House on the Rock.* If that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is. I kind of feel stupid endorsing it so strongly, given that it's only a few miles away from Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, which I've never visited. But it's a whopping $50 to take the tour that actually goes inside Taliesin, more if you want a more exhaustive experience. The complete House on the Rock package is half that, plus you can now choose to visit only only a segment of the house, which is a good option for those (like me) less interested in the dollhouses and more interested in the rooms full of sort-of-automated instruments or the enormous whale sculpture. It's true that there's something lost by not taking the complete tour, but it's a good option for those who have seen the house before, and/or are traveling with people who are skeptical of the whole House on the Rock phenomenon.

We've also been busy with Craigslist rental ads, veterinary appointments, estimates for moving costs, cleaning out our basement, donating massive quantities of old clothes and appliances to the thrift store, returning equally massive quantities of books to the library, packing, and a bunch of other stuff related to moving. So there's probably a whole summer ahead of me not updating this blog regularly. Sorry about that; things should be back to normal by the end of the summer.

*The Bioshock aesthetic is much more urban, with lots of neon and marble, but there's a deeper similarity. The artificial neighborhoods in Rapture remind me of the indoor street in the House on the Rock, and each share an aesthetic of decadent, decaying nostalgia. It's hard to describe if you haven't experienced both.

-I was planning on saying something or another about Tom Spurgeon's post about the expense of pamphlet-style comics (which would have apparently made me about the hundredth person to do so, but I don't recall reading any reactions other than those of Dirk Deppey and Greg Burgas). I kind of have a hard time getting myself all worked up about it, though. At this point, I probably only buy about five comics one can reasonably expect to be out on a monthly basis: Matt Fraction's new Iron Man title, Shooter's LSH (and I'm waaaay behind on reading it), and Brubaker's Captain America, Criminal, and Daredevil. I had been reading Iron Fist (will drop it once Fraction and Brubaker leave), The Order (canceled), Brave and the Bold (waaay behind, missed an issue, just gave up), Batman (missed an issue, starting to think I don't care anymore), and Casanova (on hiatus, which is fine with me because I was at least a couple of issues behind). There are a couple of incomplete miniseries I'm still picking up, most notably Speak of the Devil and All-Star Superman. I'm also buying Castle Waiting, but I missed an issue somewhere along the way and haven't been keeping up. I'll definitely buy any future issues of Tales Designed to Thrizzle. And I'll keep reading Kick-Ass for the foreseeable future, I guess, so long as John Romita Jr.'s art continues to overshadow all other aspects of the book.

That adds up to probably about eight traditionally-formatted comic purchases a month, and it's more likely that this number will decrease before it increases. There really just isn't much three-staple material on the horizon that especially intrigues me. As noted here previously, I will grudgingly attempt to read Final Crisis whenever it appears (is it just me, or does it seem like it should be half over already, even though we've never seen an issue?). I'll probably also read Grant Morrison's Seaguy sequel. Beyond that, though, I just don't see myself following my favorite writers on to whatever they're doing.* I guess Mark Waid is busy being the editor-in-chief or publisher of some company whose output I've never even considered reading, plus maybe he's writing Amazing Spider-Man now. Along with, what, seven other people? Meanwhile, Brubaker and Fraction seem to be following up their collaboration on Iron Fist with dueling story arcs on Uncanny X-Men. I didn't much care for Brubaker's previous work on that title. Maybe I'll check out a couple of Fraction issues whenever that happens, assuming it's not already happening or that I don't forget between now and whenever it does happen.

Ed Brubaker mentioned yesterday how much he likes some new Captain Britain series by somebody who apparently writes for Dr. Who. I've never seen an episode of Dr. Who in my life, but I don't feel strongly enough about the subject to let that keep me from trying it out (assuming, once again, that I remember--or that I don't have too much other stuff I'd rather buy next week in the store, and bear in mind here that The Bottomless Belly Button didn't show up at my local shop this week, and that I do want to buy it when it finally does, and that its cover price is slightly above what I usually spend on comics in any given week). Other than that, I can't recall hearing anything lately which would sway me to flip through a pamphlet-style comic on the shelf, let alone buy it or try to download it from somewhere. But then again, I've stopped reading DC/Marvel solicitations. Maybe one of those companies have a seldom-discussed, forthcoming book which would be right up my alley. That seems pretty likely, right?

This is more than just a statement on the quality of current comics offerings, at least for me. When I finally move, I (probably) won't be living in a city with a shop that I can rely on to order a wide selection of material that interests me, meaning that I'll have much less incentive to visit a store every week. I suppose I could preorder, but if I'm going to pay full retail, I want the luxury of picking up a book and flipping through it before choosing to buy it. Otherwise, why not just buy from Amazon at a discount? I buy from my current local shop because I want to support a store which carries things like Mome without my having to specially order it. If that's not going to be the case going forward, I'll probably choose savings over supporting a local business which doesn't stock much of interest to me. I would greatly prefer to patronize a store which carries the kind of comics/graphic novels I want to buy, but those kind of stores are tragically uncommon.

So anyway, going into the future, it's possible that I won't be going into a local shop every week, making it far less likely that I'll be buying superhero and ground-level comics in pamphlet form. I still enjoy reading Captain America in monthly chunks, but I don't especially want to set up a pull list for only a handful of titles. This isn't exactly a dilemma which is keeping me up at night--in fact, this is the first time I've really given it much thought. Maybe I should set up a pull list after all. I guess it all depends on just how much I can tolerate the store in the city I'm moving to.

*I don't have too many favorite active Marvel/DC artists, which is probably partly why I don't read too many Marvel/DC comics.

-UFC 84 picks~! I had said earlier this year that I was going to try to make predictions, but I keep forgetting to do that. Which is kind of a good thing, since I've been way, way off most of the year. But I'm excited about Saturday's card: top to bottom, it's the strongest I've seen in quite some time. I'm at least somewhat interested in nearly every fight on the card. My predictions:

BJ Penn vs. Sean Sherk
One would have to think Penn is getting under Sherk's skin, given what he said at their press conference. It's probably true that Sherk is getting short shrift here (possibly because people enjoy the alliteration); the guy would probably be a top five welterweight if he still competed at 170. On the other hand, Penn is a former champion in that weight class. I think Penn will stop this by the third round, possibly sooner.

Wanderlei Silva vs. Keith Jardine
A lot of people are pulling for Silva for sentimental reasons. I never liked Silva much; he's a great fighter, but I never cared for his in-ring demeanor. Plus he's like Quinton Jackson's arch-rival. How could I pull for him? I guess that means I should pull for Jardine, but I'm not really a fan of his either. I mean, he's alright as a fighter, but then there's that stupid goatee. Having said all that, I think this is a tremendously important fight for the future of the LHW division, as well as the future of Silva in that weight class. Despite lacking any strong rooting interest, I'm very much looking forward to this fight, which I think Jardine will win by decision.

Wilson Gouveia vs. Goran Reljic
Probably the least compelling fight on the card, at least for me. Gouveia has looked like a gatekeeper-level talent, and Reljic has exclusively competed on the soft European circuit (primarily Croatia). Gouveia has strung together four victories, including one over the rather underrated Jason Lambert, which might signal a major leap forward as a fighter. On the other hand, he's nearly 30 years old, at which age this kinds of significant improvement is less likely for normal human beings (ie, dudes who aren't Randy Couture). Still gotta go with Gouveia, who has the far more impressive resume.

Tito Ortiz Vs. Lyoto Machida
Why is UFC listing this fourth on their website? I'm totally sick of Ortiz. It would certainly make financial sense for both Zuffa and Ortiz to stay together, but I'd be much happier if they were apart and Ortiz was fighting dudes like Kimbo Slice and Alistair Overeem on EXC cards, where one really would appreciate his WWE-style fight-hyping. He's never going to be a contender in UFC again, especially with a stacked LHW division.

As for the fight, Machida's certainly the hotter, younger (but not by much!) fighter, but he's never fought a big wrestler like Ortiz. It would be a mistake to bet the farm on either guy, but I think age and wear and tear will probably give Machida the edge here. Oh, and by decision, assuming that even needs to be said re: Machida.

Thiago Silva vs. Antonio Mendes
Silva is one of the most exciting young fighters in the world, and I have to think he'll make short work of Mendes (another European circuit veteran). I'm mostly bummed that the fight between Silva and Rashad Evans got scrapped so Evans could step in for UFC 85 in place of an injured Shogun Rua to fight Chuck Liddell, who subsequently pulled out after tearing his hamstring. Evans was then scheduled to fight James Irvin, who also dropped out due to injury. So now Evans won't be fighting on UFC 85 at all. Maybe Zuffa will pit him against Shogun; that would be a good fight for both those dudes. As for Thiago Silva, I hope they figure out someone decent to put him up against soon. Maybe Jardine (if he loses) or Sokoudjou (if he wins).

Ivan Salaverry vs. Rousimar Palhares
Palhares is the latest product of what's left of Brazilian Top Team, a once-great camp beset by a number of departures (including the Nogueira brothers and Paulo Filho). I guess BTT is still in better shape than their old rivals at Chute Boxe, who are basically down to Luiz Azeredo, Cyborg, and a bunch of dudes you've never heard of. Oh, and Fabricio Werdum I guess, though I expect he'll be on his way elsewhere before too long. Salaverry's career is probably winding down at this point, but he's wily enough to beat the young Palhares. I don't think he will, but I think he'll push the fight to a decision.

Rameau Sokoudjou Vs. Kazuhiro Nakamura
This should totally be on the main card in place of Gouveia-Reljic; one almost would think this is a snub of Pride (or the memory of Pride) by Zuffa--and I'm not exactly a Pride apologist. Admittedly, neither of these guys have won a fight in Zuffa, and the average fan has no attachment to either one. So I guess I should just accept reality: the average UFC fan cares more about Wilson Gouveia than either of these dudes. I've never been impressed by Nakamura, who tends to do just enough to win or else drags superior fighters to dull decisions. I think Sokoudjou should be able to KO him here.

Rich Clementi vs. Terry Etim
Ahh, geez, another one I don't much care about. Clementi, I guess. He has to be the least interesting gatekeeper in UFC.

Jon Koppenhaver vs. Yoshiyuki Yoshida
Yoshida is a very talented Japanese welterweight, which is to say that he probably should be fighting at lightweight. He should be good enough to get past this War Machine dude, but we'll have to see how he does against stiffer competition. In the meantime, I hope we'll get the chance to see this fight.

Jason Tan vs. Dong Hyun Kim
Similar to the Yoshida-Koppenhaver fight, in that I'm pulling for the veteran of the mid-level Japanese circuit to beat a fighter he should beat, yet am concerned that he might not be big enough to make it at welterweight.

Christian Wellisch vs. Shane Carwin
Possibly the dark match with the most riding on it. Carwin is part three of Zuffa's let's-replace-all-the-heavyweights-with-relatively-untested-yet-promising-youngsters strategy. I'd find this plan much more annoying if it were being implemented in any division other than heavyweight, which generally sucks. Of the three prospects UFC is banking on, Carwin is probably the least interesting/promising. Brock Lesnar has the pro wrestling intrigue and the amazing athleticism; Cain Velasquez is young, comes from the top-notch camp, and has the most buzz from those in the know. Carwin is a protoge of Ron "H2O" Waterman, which isn't exactly a reassuring thought. On the other hand, he's a decorated wrestler and a big, big dude. I expect that he's going to be too much for Wellisch to handle, but Wellisch is the best submission artist he'll have fought. I'll go with Carwin by first round (T)KO, but I wouldn't be surprised to see an upset here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More pruning, part two

(See this previous post for more about my current project of trimming down my comics collection. Also note that I've only read the first three collected volumes of the comic under discussion here, so my knowledge is undoubtedly woefully incomplete compared to those of you who read the series in pamphlet form.)

As I've been trying to determine which comics are no longer essential for me to own, there are a naturally a few whose long term value I struggle to assess. Case in point: Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary. I have the first three trade collections, which I remember liking quite a bit when I first read them. But that was a bit of a while ago, and I'm (a) probably less fond of either man's work (especially Ellis') now than I was three to four years ago; and (b) I'm way, way less fond of the thinly-disguised-cognate school of superhero comics now than I was three to four years ago. Still, I do remember liking Planetary more than comparable works like Astro City, and I definitely preferred it to other Ellis-written comics. Obviously I needed to reassess these comics before I could determine their future.

I've always thought of Planetary as the Warren Ellis comic for people who don't generally like Warren Ellis comics. The owner of my local shop, for instance, recommended Planetary in almost exactly those terms, with special mention of Cassaday's art. I'm only moderately familiar with Ellis' oeuvre, but this does seem like the least Ellisian of his major works; protagonist Elijah Snow suffers from amnesia, preventing him from being such the sort of insufferably infallible badass like Jenny Sparks or that dude from Excalibur.* That does change over the course of the series; as his memory returns, he becomes more prone to professions of badassery. Even still, Snow is much less annoying than Jenny Sparks in that Ellis seems to be writing him as the embodiment of the American Century. Snow is gruff and brash, but his bold pronouncements smack of overconfidence rather than smug declarations of the obvious. In other words, you don't necessarily believe him when he says he's going to kick the villains' collective ass.

None of that is really obvious in the first volume of Planetary, which is more like Warren Ellis' tour of sci-fi and genre fiction of the 20th century. According to the back cover, Planetary is a three-man team of "mystery archaeologists, explorers of the planet's secret history." This essentially gives Ellis the opportunity to recast concepts like Godzilla or Doc Savage in late 20th century/early 21st century guise, eliminating silly SF concepts like atomically radiated lizards with silly SF concepts like sliding doors into parallel dimensions. I find that a little grating; the sight of an island filled with giant monster corpses wouldn't mean as much if we weren't familiar with Mothra or Ghidorah. Ellis is depending on the reader's connection with those old Toho kaiju movies, so I find it a bit disrespectful that he would mock the silly psuedo-science of yesteryear, especially since his SF explanations will likely seem just as ludicrous as scientific knowledge advances. Admittedly, Ellis probably knows more about particle physics (or whatever) than Ishiro Honda (or whoever) knew about the effects of atomic radiation. On the other hand, I'm guessing that radiation poisoning had a very different meaning for Honda and his c. 1954 Japanese audience than particle physics did for Ellis and his c. 1999 audience. If you know what I mean.

These early chapters resemble nothing so much as X-Files episodes; there's an overarching plot somewhere in the background, but a given installment might focus on some unrelated form of weirdness. As the series wears on, however, Ellis focuses more on forward plot momentum dealing with the series' villains, essentially an evil version of the Fantastic Four. It's around this point that the series becomes less X-Files and more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In fact, there's a coalition of old pulp heroes (including, if I'm not mistaken, versions of the Shadow, Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Fu Manchu). And eventually we learn of a 19th century equivalent, which included Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. (And they're sort of evil, which makes me wonder if this is some playful commentary on Alan Moore and LOEG or part of Ellis' larger exploration of the 20th century--more on that later.) Ellis also gives us his take on the Hulk, James Bond/Nick Fury, Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman.

One would assume that this would lend itself to meta-commentary on the nature of super/pulp heroes, but this isn't generally the case. The best one can say for Ellis' take on Tarzan is that he kept the White Man's Burden overtones surprisingly understated.** In fact, Ellis really only indulges in full-on Alan Moore/Grant Morrison levels of meta when the Planetary team attends the funeral of a John Constantine analogue. I'm of two minds about this sequence. On the one hand, Ellis makes an excellent point in emphasizing that the celebrated British comics of the 1980s and early 90s arose from an very grim political/social environment, and that the concepts and approaches of that era lose their power when ripped from that particular context.*** On the other hand, Ellis chooses to make this point in the most self-serving manner possible by having his Constantine analogue transform into Spider Jerusalem, the star of Ellis' own Transmetropolitan. Which, I believe, was still being published when said issue of Planetary was published. Warren Ellis: "Look to me, for I am the future."

But aside from this one issue, Ellis' use of super/pulp hero analogues serves no real narrative or thematic function. Which isn't to say that Planetary lacks a theme. I see Planetary as a commentary on the tragedy of science and technology in the 20th century. If you've ever spent much time thinking about the last century, you've probably considered the exponential advances in science and medicine which largely defined those hundred years, and perhaps reflected that they have greatly increased quality of life for many human beings. And yet, despite these incredible advances, human beings are still plagued by old evils like war, disease, and hunger, and new ones like pollution. Throughout Planetary, Snow condemns the Fantastic Four analogues (the Four) for having access to a wide array of incredible technology, but using absolutely none of it to benefit humanity. Ellis clearly has the 20th century on his mind here, since Snow (like several other characters) was born on January 1, 1900, and explicitly defines himself in opposition to the 19th century in one flashback. Thus, the Four represent the troubling dichotomy of unprecedented technological progress and continued human suffering. I still don't know what any of this has to do with the Fantastic Four, though.

I see two distinct levels of criticism for understanding this tragedy. One could make a sort of anti-capitalist argument: in the same world where GPS devices are increasingly mundane, millions of people die every year due to lack of access to clean water. That's a pretty incisive criticism of modernity, and I could see someone successfully incorporating that theme into a comic about superheroes. But that's not what's going on here. The Four in Planetary are not motivated by greed so much as exaggerated pride and ego; they refuse to share technology because they consider themselves explorers uninterested in human suffering. They cruelly experiment on the victims of the second Red Scare not out of any political leanings, but because they are the most easily exploited test subjects. (BTW, for those who care, Ellis' dates don't line up. The Four, since they are Fantastic Four analogues, get their superpowers in 1961. Anti-Communist hysteria was still running high in the United States, but the second Red Scare was over by then.)

Alternately, one could make a more pessimistic, anti-progressive, antihumanist argument about technological advancement by noting any number of cases in which science and technology were used to harm people in ways which were impossible in pre-modern times. The Holocaust is the most obvious, and there are a few allusions to it in Planetary. At least one member of the Four has ties to Nazi Germany, and the experiments in Red Scare-era concentration camps reminds one of the sort of "science" that went on in German death camps. But this analogy doesn't really fit for Planetary either. The Four seem to subscribe to a fascist, might-makes-right philosophy, but this is largely irrelevant to the population of Earth. The Four don't seem interested in our mundane world at all; aside from their unfortunate test subjects, average people wouldn't even be aware of their existence. There is one act of genuine genocide, but it's so ridiculous ("they killed an entire planet just to have somewhere to store their weapons--and I don't mean massive, Death Star type weapons, but more like sabers and axes!") that the entire thing seems much more silly than horrifying. These acts of brutality aside, Ellis makes it clear that the Four's sins are primarily ones of omission; it's not what they did, but what they didn't do that initially makes Snow angry.

Later we learn that Snow has more personal reasons for his grudge against the Four, but that initial encounter seems to be more about Snow pitching a fit that the Four aren't sharing their toys. That's generally the entire tone of the series, though. Characters generally express the greatest wonderment at places, devices, and concepts rather than actual people. It's a very different approach from Moore or Morrison, who tend to emphasize the power of fictional characters in their writing. Ellis is more likely to glorify a hidden city or an antique spaceship than any individual character.

And that's what makes his incessant use of analogue characters so pointless. The most effective comics dealing in such characters use them either to celebrate the power of fiction or to comment on the media from which they came. Ellis really does neither. The Four are defined primarily by their intimidating power and shadowiness; what exactly is the comment on Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's creation? What is the commentary on superheroes in general? There are a few mild suggestions about power fantasy in that the Four are pretty unsavory folks, but it's not terribly well developed. Once again, I'm tempted to praise Ellis' discretion in sparing us yet another reductive commentary on superheroes as a fascist fantasy, but I still wonder what exactly is his point?

This pointlessness is especially ironic in that Planetary's popularity, as best I can tell, largely arises from Ellis' use of superhero cognates. Recasting the Fantastic Four as villains seems terribly clever on the surface, even if there's no deeper point to it. Having these villains slaughter Ellis' Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman equivalents probably does more to establish them as villains in readers' eyes than any of Snow's speeches about potential cures for cancer being held back. It's a cheap tactic, one that plays on the readers' love of these intellectual properties without providing anything meaningful in return.

And that's a shame because Planetary works just fine as an entertaining piece of genre fiction, especially if you look at all the stuff about technology and power less as half-assed messageering and more as a plot device around which to explain the conflict between Planetary and the Four. I frequently found the superhero analogues to be an impediment to my enjoyment of the series, especially in the more violent sequences. Ellis' occasional tendency to try to outwit the creators of the original properties (see the part about Godzilla above) makes it even worse. "Mystery archaeologists" seems like a strong enough concept to eliminate the need for fake Nick Fury to watch his subordinates being shot in the face, eyeballs flying through the air.****

Unfortunately, John Cassaday's art doesn't complement Ellis' approach to storytelling. Cassaday's people are some of the most convincing in mainstream comics; they have a weight, a sense of realness that one doesn't often find in highly detailed superhero art. However, he fairs rather worse in trying to draw the sort of spectacular vistas that Ellis' script seems to necessitate. The hidden African city of Opak-Re is greatly overshadowed by the people living in it. We never get any sense of its dimensions or architecture; all we see are geometric golden forms jutting out of the greenery. There are lots of dead monsters (and one living one) on Island Zero, but Cassaday's compositions don't inspire an appropriate sense of awe. It's a widescreen comic without the widescreen art. Where are the double page spreads? Where are the majestic panoramas? What we get instead are mostly mid-shots and closeups of characters.

Despite all these reservations, I'll be keeping these comics. I'm curious to see how Planetary turns out (DON'T TELL ME), and I'd feel pretty stupid getting rid of these volumes and then buying the last volume. Especially since my memory is bad enough that I'll have forgotten a number of important details before I get the chance to actually read the fourth volume, which almost certainly won't be out in softcover by the end of the decade. I know this sounds like a rather lukewarm endorsement; I guess that's probably right. Still, I think my interest in seeing Planetary through to the end testifies to the core strength of the central concept. It's a high stakes power struggle over forbidden knowledge; it doesn't need a bunch of geek culture references mucking it up. I think Ellis would have us see all those references as the icing on the cake. If so, it's a particularly unpleasant type of icing he's concocted here; I'd prefer just to have the cake. But I'm guessing there are a bunch of fans who just want the icing.

*Or so I've heard; I've never read any of Ellis' mutant work.

**Not that this is an invalid criticism of Tarzan; it's just a very old and, frankly, obvious one. On a quasi-related note: I've heard that the John Carter of Mars books have surprisingly ambiguous and interesting commentaries on race. Any thoughts on this?

***Does this mean that the current crop of (mostly) American Vertigo writers and their comics are the product of the Bush administration? I mean, clearly quite a few recent Vertigo series are basically responses to the current political environment. Maybe they'll get better should conditions deteriorate over the next decade or so. I guess that's something to look forward to, assuming that we don't have to burn our comics for fuel.

****From a creative standpoint, at least. I recognize that Planetary probably wouldn't have enjoyed such a long lifespan if superhero-only fans weren't so interested in seeing things like Mr. Fantastic dissect Green Lantern. That's a depressing thought, isn't it?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

More pruning, part one

-So hey, I got a new pair of glasses today. These are the kind that turn into sunglasses when one goes outside, which kind of violates an old, possibly sexist Dick Hyacinth prescript: men shouldn't wear sunglasses. I figured women are well-advised to wear them in order to avoid eye contact with skeevy looking dudes, whereas men who wear them are over-preened jackasses. But that's obviously not true, since I'M WEARING THEM NOW. They look best in a brightly-lit room, where the tinting only shows up a little. It kind of makes me look like the chair of a department of Hitler studies or something. Otherwise, these are the same kind of hipster-ish, black-rimmed Elvis Costello/Buddy Holly glasses I've been wearing since 1997. Yep.

-I'm kind of surprised to find out that there are a lot of people who liked the art in DC Universe #0. I mean, I expected that some people would like the story, such as it is, but the art? You never hear anyone talking about art, so this has a certain flavor of beleaguered optimism: "Sure, it was a waste of 50 cents, but it at least had good art." No, it didn't. As I said in my previous post, I like a lot of the credited artists, but most of what I saw in DCU #0 didn't even resemble their art. On the other hand, it came out on time! I guess that's good for fans of punctuality.

And really, are people actually complaining about blowing 50 cents on this thing? Seriously? I'm not exactly doing backstrokes in my money bin, but I think my budget can take a 50 cent strain. Why are comics fans so cheap? Is this some kind of lingering association from the days when fans got a limited allowance, and half a buck actually did make a difference?

As for the issue itself, I've thought a bit more about it, and came to two conclusions:

1. I would bet there's some kind of Darkseid-60s Flash mixture going on or something. Like, they're going to reveal that the Speed Force has something to do with the Source Wall. Or that it's the Anti-Life Equation. Just like Swamp Thing and Firestorm and everything else in the DC universe.

2. I'm guessing that the whole upcoming Spectre miniseries is a plot device to explain why he can't come in and solve the problem at the heart of Final Crisis, whatever it is, deus ex machina style (literally, sort of). And then, once the Spectre's miniseries is over, he'll either assume that role in Final Crisis or (more likely) be a fake-out deus ex machina.

As I said before, DCU #0 makes me less excited about Final Crisis. We'll see how it goes, I guess. But there's no way I'm touching those tie-ins, except maybe the Batman thing.

-The long, tedious packing process has begun, with many thrift store donations already made and many yet to come. We're also going to be selling off some of our books, among them a big chunk of my comics which have no real use for me anymore. I'm not enough of an OCD collector type to hold onto everything I've ever bought, but I guess I'm enough of one to want to memorialize this pruning in blog form. So here's a list of about half the TPBs/GNs I'm planning on selling, with a brief explanation of how I got them and why I'm getting rid of them:

Next Men: Two volumes (the first two, I assume?). I got these in high school, brought them up here with all my other comics about three years ago. I have no idea how well these comics have aged, but I just don't see myself having the desire to read this stuff again.

2112: I remember being totally psyched to find this in a back-issue bin. For those who don't know, it's somehow related to Next Men. I think the villain in that book is from the future and 2112 shows how he traveled back in time or something like that. Don't even remember liking this much at the age of 17.

Rex Mundi: Bought this within the first few months of returning to comics-reading, probably around the end of 2004. I never finished it, mostly because I thought the art was just too, too bad. Also didn't much care for the dialogue. Sounded like a cool concept, though.

Batman: Holy Terror and Superman: Speeding Bullets: Two early Elsewhere volumes, bought in high school or maybe junior high. The first (which was hawked as "New anti-religion Batman story! HOT!" in those old American Entertainment ads) shows how Batman would have existed in a world where Oliver Cromwell wouldn't have died when he died. I think. The other operates on the premise that Thomas and Martha Wayne, rather than conceiving their own child, found the infant Kal-El and raised him as Bruce Wayne. I liked Gotham By Gaslight (which I don't plan on selling), but these were kind of goofy. I never like the idea that alternate history superhero comics HAVE to feature the same basic characters as in the regular comics. To wit, Holy Terror shows the rest of the Justice League imprisoned by the Anglican Church (or whoever the villain was in this story). Likewise, it seems unlikely that the Wayne family, had they adopted the infant Superman, would have been killed in basically the same way, leading their orphaned child to develop the same bat-themed crimefighting persona. I don't remember buying any other Elseworlds volumes after reading these two.

World's Finest: This is a three issue prestige series which Steve Rude drew. I remember liking it fine, but I'm missing one of the three issues. I don't think I liked it enough to track it down; in fact, if I wanted to read the whole story, I'd probably just try to find a collected edition. Assuming one exists.

Rising Stars: This is only the first volume. When I started reading comics again, I expressed to my local shop owner my enthusiasm for the JMS/JRJr issues of Spider-Man. Don't know if I'd still like those--they came from the library--but in retrospect the Romita art was probably what I really liked. Man, the art in this series was just awful, the Image style at its nadir. Worse yet, it's written like a first generation Image comic. Of all the books on this list, Rising Stars is the one I'm most eager to get out of the house.

Dreadstar: Three volumes I bought a couple of years ago for about three bucks each. I think they're all in B&W. What can I say, I was dazzled by the low price. Even at the time, I struggled to visualize myself actually reading these books.

Wanted: Never read it. Bought it at one of those shops that sell used everything: video games, books, comics, DVDs, CDs, etc. I think it was out of print or hard to find or something at the time, so I decided to pick it up despite its dire reputation. I'll try to at least flip through it before selling it, just to ensure that it's actually not something I want to keep.

Amazing Joy Buzzards: Sorry, Mark. I just never felt this series, despite a good concept and nice character designs. Could be that I read this too late in life, at a point when I could only see rock bands as an object of scorn. Again, I'll try to look at it again before selling.

The Authority: First volume. Remember that dude who used to write about superheroes in the Comics Journal, c. 1999? What ever happened to that guy? This was one of his favorite series, so I figured I should check it out when I started reading comics again. Thought it was okay when I first read it, but I've grown to dislike it more as I've read more by Warren Ellis. I think Millar and Hitch did this better in The Ultimates, minus all the Ellisisms. (And yes, I realize that Alan Moore probably did it best in Miracleman, but I still haven't read it.) Still, it's better than the Millar Authority run, which is one of the few comics which have genuinely offended me. Thankfully, I read the public library's copies of those TPBs.

Stormwatch: All five Warren Ellis volumes! Seriously? I really own all this? I bought the first couple of volumes to round out an order from Amazon (which, IIRC, mostly consisted of those hardcover volumes of Ultimate Spider-Man; I'm not selling those, FWIW). Bought the rest at a used bookstore. So at least I didn't pay full retail. I think I only read the first volume and a half, and was pretty underwhelmed. Figured that, given its reputation, the series must have improved at some point, so I bought the others when I saw them for half off cover price. Then I kind of lost interest in these sorts of comics. Bad art doesn't help.

New Teen Titans: Who Is Donna Troy?: Look, I still think New Teen Titans is one of the more overrated comics of all time. I can't believe people complain about Millar and Bendis' dialogue and give Wolfman's HORRIBLE dialogue a pass. But if you can get past all the teenage boys saying "m'love" and all the gooey "I love you all so much!" moments, NTT is pretty good entertainment (mostly due to Perez' art). Unfortunately, this volume consists almost exclusively of "m'love" and "I love you all so much!" moments. I'm keeping my copies of Terror of Trigon and Judas Contract, but Who Is Donna Troy? is as inessential as it gets.

Various Fourth World softcovers: Remember those B&W reprints of Jack Kirby's DC work? I have three of them (Mr. Miracle, New Gods, Forever People). But I also have the first three volumes of the hardcover Fourth World Omnibus series, and I plan on getting the fourth. These are pretty much superfluous to my collection, but they're by far the best things on this list. I think I promised to send them to my brother.

Flash by Mark Waid: Three volumes. I like some (but by no means all) of Mark Waid's work, but this stuff was really not good. Ultra-bland mid-90s-DC-style artwork, though some of these folks (most notably Mike Wieringo) turned into good artists eventually. Quick question: why is a gun-toting Betty Brant any dumber than a gun-toting Linda Park? Frankly, I prefer Geoff Johns' version. YES! SHOCK AND HORROR! I still haven't decided if I'm keeping any of my volumes of the Johns-era Flash, though.

Those books, among many other GNs, are mixed in with my regular comics. When I dig them out, I'll do another list like this of other GNs I'm planning to sell.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reviews of Free Comic Books

(Anyone else more interested in GTA4 than comics right now? I'd forgotten how much I hate New York Hardcore. Man, what a terrible sub-genre. The funk, fusion, and experimental/ambient stations all rule, though.)

My retailer offers Free Comic Book Day comics to anyone interested as soon as he gets them. I'm not sure whether or not that goes against the spirit of the endeavor, but from what I remember his experiences with FCBD have left him a bit skeptical about the prospects of attracting new readers through the promotion.

I picked up four of the Free Comic Book Day offerings. Most of these books are intended to convince the reader to buy the complete versions of whatever is being sampled. So I've tried to evaluate these comics' effectiveness as samplers in the reviews below.

EC Sampler
It's been a pretty long since I've read any EC comic other than Mad (and even that was a while ago). I always enjoyed these comics, especially when Gladstone published a series of reprints when I was 10 or 11 years old. I bought and enjoyed a bunch of reprints when I was in college as well, but put a greater emphasis on Harvey Kurtzman's war comics.

This sampler spans the full range of Gemstone's ongoing EC Archives series, encompassing four genres: crime, sci-fi, horror, and war. It's kind of an odd collection, seemingly avoiding the obvious choices for representative stories in these genres. A Weird Science reprint features art by Al Feldstein, who's certainly capable but a little stiff. The chalk pick here would surely have been Wally Wood, right? As it turns out, he's represented in a taler originally published in Shock SuspenStories. I would have expected a Johnny Craig-illustrated story in that slot, but his art and writing are instead featured in a werewolf story from Tales From the Crypt. Finally, Alex Toth (not exactly a name I normally associate with EC) provides art for a Two-Fisted Tales story, written by Kurtzman, of course (the credited writers for the Weird Science and Two-Fisted Tales stories are Feldstein and Bill Gaines).

It's possible that editor chose these stories to show off some overlooked classics, though I assume that the main consideration was to show off material from the available volumes of Gemstone's reprint series. Strangely, all these stories come from the first volumes of reprints, when there are actually two currently-available volumes of all the above-mentioned titles, as well as volumes of sister titles like Crime SuspenStories and The Vault of Horror. One would assume that there was plenty to chose from, then, which makes it especially puzzling that this rather weak lineup was chosen. Feldstein's Weird Science story suffers from the main problems I have with vintage hard* science fiction in those very rare occasions when I choose to read it; it's so comically out of date with current scientific knowledge that it's hard to take seriously. Some of the monsters do bear a resemblance to Basil Wolverton's creatures (for all I know, he might have drawn them, though the credits don't indicate this). So I guess it has that going for it. As the first story, however, it doesn't exactly strike the right tone.

As for the rest: Craig telegraphs the twist ending to his werewolf tale on about the second page; Kurtzman's dialogue is ridiculously overwrought, and the symbolism is even worse (including a dead child's teddy bear!); Toth's art doesn't really look like the Toth of legend, but it is pretty nice; Wood's art is very, very nice; the crime story is a heavy-handed social commentary on racism in the South which somehow manages to never mention the South or race, which probably served to appease Southern retailers while confusing children across the nation. It's an interesting choice, however, in light of recent debates over Frederic Wertham and his accusations of racism in comics in general. (I have to confess here: I'm not sure if Wertham ever specifically singled out EC for perpetuating racist stereotypes, so this might not be an especially compelling piece of evidence in said debate.)

All in all, it's not terribly effective as a sampler of the EC Archives series or as a testament to the genius of EC in general. You get the idea that Kurtzman and Feldstein were still working out the kinks in their approaches to war and horror/SF, respectively. The former relies on sappy sentimentalism more than I recall, and the latter lacks the queasy combination of luridness and stern morality I associate with his work. Surely a better sampler could have been assembled from the in-print volumes.

*Maybe too strong a term for what we see here--maybe "firm SF" would be a better term. Or "semi-squishy."

This contains excerpts of longer stories by Seiichi Hayashi and Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Tatsumi, you might recall, already has two volumes of material from Drawn & Quarterly: The Push Man and Abandon the Old In Tokyo. The excerpt here, from the title story to the forthcoming collection Good-Bye, seems a bit different from the Tatsumi I've read. Rather than focusing on the cruelties of the day-to-day world with the legacy of WWII as a backdrop, Tatsumi examines the direct aftermath of Hiroshima, specifically its effects on a photographer documenting the impact on the city immediately after the bombing. The end of the excerpt (which presumably comes somewhere in the middle of the full story) introduces a plot element quite reminiscent of one used in Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart's The Other Side. Not much to go on yet, but I'm going to guess this will end up being the most accessible volume from the D&Q Tatsumi reprint series. I'll definitely be picking it up.

Hayashi, however, might prove more a bit less approachable for some readers. It's hard to tell where Red Colored Elegy is going from what we're given. The description on the inside front cover suggests something fairly straightforward, but what we see here is much more ambiguous and (potentially) interesting. Hayashi's art employs a distinctive combination of realistic shadowy textures and extremely simple faces. I'm intrigued enough to follow through with my tentative plan to buy Red Colored Elegy when it comes out. That's two for two, which makes this a pretty effective sampler.

Also worth noting are the advertisements for other forthcoming D&Q publications in the back of Gekiga!, including a couple I had never heard announced: another Guy Delisle travelogue (this one in Burma/Myanmar) and a collection of short stories by Rutu Modan. I'm interested to see the reaction to the latter; the Modan of Exit Wounds is much more polished than the Modan of Jamilti (originally published in North America in Drawn & Quarterly volume five, for those wanting a taste of what's to come).

Walt Disney's Gyro Gearloose
I would think title should rightfully be Carl Barks' Gyro Gearloose, but I guess that's unrealistic. The main attractions here are two Barks stories, one a collaboration with Don Rosa from 1990 and the other a solo effort from 1960. I always liked Gyro, and these two stories do show his appeal: absent-minded yet competent, effortlessly transitioning from problem to solution and back again, usually from solutions-turned-problems. This appeal is a little less apparent in the other stories in this volume, but that's not such a big deal since this is free.

I'm no duck expert, but I am aware of the current controversy over the recoloring of Barks' work for an upcoming series of archival edition reprints. It does seems that Rosa's art, characterized by chunkier linework, stands up better to current digital coloring techniques. Barks' art still looks very nice, however, and even inappropriate coloring doesn't take anything away from his inventive plotting and clever gagwork. Time to save up for those Barks archives, I guess.

This is the FCBD offering I was most anticipating, though its success as a sampler was probably a little less crucial, since I was going to get most of these comics anyway. Pretty much everything in it was what I expected, which is a very good thing. The previous issues of Sammy the Mouse and Delphine both made my best of 2007 list, and there's a good chance that Babel #3 will be the best book released this year. Or maybe it will be the also-excerpted Ganges #2, which I have in my possession but, I shamefully admit, have not read because of video game and automotive distractions. Also, Interiorae is grossly underrated and deserves way, way more attention than it's received. And Grotesque #2 looks to be just as good as the first issue. Is it just me, or does Sergio Ponchione's art look like Dave Sheridan's at times?

One last note: I noticed that the lineup here differers from what was originally announced (scroll down), which I discussed at some length here. Most notable is the absence of Gipi, which hopefully doesn't bode ill for the chances of seeing another volume of Wish You Were Here in 2008. Likewise, the second issue of Marti's significantly less awesome Calvario Hills was supposed to be previewed here, but is not. I assume that these absences explain the previews of the already-released Ganges #2 and the already-completed Reflections. Also worth noting: the original copy noted that the excerpt from Delphine would be from the fourth issue. I had hoped this would mean multiple volumes of that series this year, but in retrospect it was probably just a typo. The preview here is from Delphine #3.

DC Universe #0
Not really a freebie, but at 50 cents I'm not going to complain. Even if it was really just an extended advertisement for DC's upcoming CAN'T MISS EVENTS for the next year or so. But even judged by that criterion, DC Universe #0 comes up short, at least for me. The art was tremendously unappealing, which comes as sort of a shock given that I actually like a number of the contributors (Doug Mahnke, Carlos Pacheco, JG Jones--what the hell did he draw, anyway?). Only George Perez really stood out.

As for the series/storylines being previewed, I couldn't figure out what was going on in most of them. The Spectre and LSH previews were especially baffling. The Green Lantern preview looked just plain depressing, in a "I'm glad the people who know I read comics don't know that comics sometimes look like this" kind of way. The Batman preview was pretty much empty calories--someone wants him dead! What a novel concept! The similarity between the soldiers in the Wonder Woman preview and Frank Miller's Spartans suggests that the upcoming story there might be engaging in some tedious meta-fiction about something or another I don't care about.*

Honestly, the whole thing makes me even less interested in Final Crisis than I was before. I'll probably pick up the first issue, which is more than I did for Secret Invasion, but I'm really, really skeptical about the whole deal. Terrible sampler, at least from my perspective.

*It's 2008! Do we still have to act like we care about Frank Miller one way or another?