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?


Jog said...

I like the irony of your being distracted away from Ganges #2 by video games... you'll enjoy that once you read it...

The Fortress Keeper said...

The EC sampler could have been stronger, but I always enjoyed Under Cover for its Wood art and the fact that evil was so clearly triumphant at the end. As for the Toth/Kurtzman story, I still like the strong anti-war sentiment and non-insulting portrayal of Asians.

The werewolf and Feldstein story ... not so much.

MarkAndrew said...

Shoot. I got their late, and only picked up the IGNATZ book. Would've liked to have grabbed all the ones you mentioned.

Joe Willy said...

Is it just me, or does Sergio Ponchione's art look like Dave Sheridan's at times?

No, it's not just you. I got that too. I love Sheridan's work.

I can't ever seem to get any of the indy FCBD books at my local retailers. They tend to stock up on the kiddie fare and the Big 2.

Dick Hyacinth said...

It's true that Kurtzman avoids stereotypes with the Koreans, but it seemed kind of sentimental in a way I don't remember his war comics normally being. Could be faulty memory on my part; also, given historical context, I guess the qualities FK mentions probably stand out the most.

There's just something about "Under Cover" that bugs me, though. I understand why Feldstein and Gaines were reluctant to specifically mention the KKK and their activities by name, but I'm personally irritated by it. It's not just that the faux Klan wins at the end--it's that there really isn't any message except the editor's note at the end. And since the story doesn't really specify who's doing what, I think that message is a little weak.

I guess my ideal lineup would have been a Wood or Williamson SF story, a Craig crime story, a Kurtzman war story (like with his own finished art, which I always liked the best), and a Jack Davis horror story. Not sure if any of that is compatible with what they have to work with, though.