Monday, April 28, 2008

Breif reviews of recently-read comic-type things

BUT FIRST, if anyone went to Stumptown this weekend would kindly leave a comment or send an email informing me of your thoughts and feelings re: the show, I would greatly appreciate it. I wasn't there, but my impending relocation to the Pacific Northwest means that I almost probably certainly will be present at future shows. If only the convention organizers had the foresight to plan around my schedule (and the prescience to know I was moving months before I knew) by staging the thing in late summer or later, I'd have been there for this festival. But hey! My brother, under circumstances eerily similar to my own, will be moving to northern California this summer. So maybe I'll be able to check out APE this year.

And now, the REVIEWS~

CRIMINAL v. 2, #1-2
Okay, yes, this is a major leap forward for a series I already liked quite a bit in the first place. I had previously thought of Criminal as a very enjoyable series for me in particular: I like Sean Phillips' art quite a bit, especially with Val Staples' nice, atmospheric coloring. I like reading comics. I like crime fiction (though I don't really read as much as I probably could). So yes, Criminal was a good series for someone with my interests. Now, however, it's moving beyond that, to the realm of active recommendation for people without all those aforementioned interests. Like, I told my wife she would probably like it. I don't say that about too many comics (though I have been trying to get her to read The Chuckling Whatsit for years, like even before we were dating).

I'd like to again specifically mention how much I appreciate the subtlety of Ed Brubaker's writing. I'm specifically thinking about the way he depicts the death of a character in the second issue. The character drives much of the events of the first issue as a victim, but, at least from the perspective of the POV character, is the antagonist in the second issue. It makes for some chilling moments. Other writers might have overly signposted this tension, thus robbing it of its resonance, but Brubaker trusts the reader to note this sort of thing on their own. I like that a lot.

After reading and greatly enjoying Paul Goes Fishing, I decided it was time to check out some of Michael Rabagliati's earlier work in the series. I found Paul Moves Out to be a little closer to what I had assumed Rabagliati's work was like: "winsome and engaging, but not especially deep," to quote myself. Rabagliati is a wonderful artist, and his characters are all very likable. The tone is similar to Monsieur Jean, though much less melancholy (and, as much as I like Rabagliati's elegant linework, Dupuy and Berberian's rich colors make them much more visually stimulating, at least for me).

Really, reading this makes Paul Goes Fishing seem that much greater. Rabagliati maintains the look and tone of his earlier work, but adds in a great deal of thematic depth. I'm still impressed how he weaves the macro (modern hunting/fishing, changes in industry) in with the micro (Paul and Lucie's attempt to conceive a child, Clement's alienation from his daily life). In contrast, Paul Moves Out lacked this emotional heft and the thematic unity. It's a good book, but its successor is in a completely different league.

My fellow internet pundits: you are wrong about this book. You're all focusing on Mark Millar, whose writing is mostly incidental. The real reason you should read (or perhaps just look at) this book is the gorgeous art: John Romita Jr. as inked by Tom Palmer! This is much, much nicer looking than World War Hulk, partly because the excellent work by colorist Dean White. Ideally, this would be colored in watercolors with an actual brush, but White is a pretty accomplished computer colorist. There are a few clumsy looking brushstrokes, but White's digital colors come closer than most to duplicating the delicate washes one might associate with, say, Moebius. Or even Lewis Trondheim's Les Petit Riens/Little Nothings series. It's not quite there, of course, but it's still very pretty.

Oh, the story? I don't know--some kid beating people up and getting beaten up. I thought it was less annoying than the first issue, partly because Millar doesn't write as many false-ringing slice-of-life scenes. It's mostly exposition, then a big fight. Which is fine--Millar, as I've said many times, writes action as well as anyone at Marvel or DC these days, and Romita certainly draws a good brawl. One might argue that the fight scene in this issue undermines the realism which Millar allegedly wants to convey; there's no way that a small teenager can beat up three large men, even if equipped with night sticks. But anyone who's read enough Millar knows there's a substantial difference between realism and Millarian realism. And why are you paying so much attention to the writing when you could be looking at the pictures? I swear, Image really screwed all of you up.

Ah, finally and unexpectedly found a copy of this. As was the case for his easier-to-find Multiple Warheads, I like Graham's work best when he's working in that Moscoso vein, like that train from the page Jog excerpted in his review. I appreciate the combination of mainstream western comics and manga which Graham brings to the table, but it's really those underground touches which set him apart from (and above) contemporaries who also straddle the east-west fence. On the whole, King City's digest format gives Graham a much smaller canvas to work with, somewhat blunting the visual appeal. At least for me.

On the other hand, Graham shows greater storytelling acumen than I remember seeing in Multiple Warheads. I like how Graham sets up visual gags, like the handoff of the key in a bar, or the flashback to his first kiss with ex-girlfriend Anna. And Graham does a better job of what you might call world-building. Multiple Warheads seemed more Graham showing off neat ideas (mostly visual). King City seems more like the beginning of a longer narrative, a world which might sustain many more volumes if Graham chooses to go that direction. I'm not sure that it makes it a better comic than the more visually impressive Multiple Warheads, though. I'd like to see Graham combine the strengths of the two formats: a long work in a larger format. Hopefully we'll see that in the future at some point.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New and Improved Vertigo?

I haven't really been busy lately, but having a car is kind of a distraction. Suddenly, instead of walking three blocks to buy a half gallon of milk, it makes more sense to drive about a mile away since, due to 48 hour parking limits, I had to move the car anyway. It's like I'm making up for leaving a lighter footprint from all those years taking the bus to get a week's worth of groceries.

But, much to my surprise, there was some news from this weekend's New York convention that I feel compelled to comment on: Vertigo will start publishing a more diverse array of graphic novels, many of which don't appear to have anything to do with the legacy of Alan Moore or Warren Ellis. This is a major (and welcome) departure for Vertigo, which seemed to be suffering from a case of arrested development given the number of revamped DC properties launched or scheduled in the last few years. This may also be good news for Rich Veitch, whose Army@Love series never took off in pamphlet format, leading to a recent hiatus. Perhaps the series will reemerge in a serialized graphic novel format.

Three graphic novels were announced with the news: Second Lives by Peter Bagge, The Nobody by Jeff Lemire, and Luna Park by Kevin Taylor and Daniel Zezelj. Luna Park sounds much more like the sort of thing I would expect to come out of Vertigo; its plot, concerning the Russian hitman and his fortune teller/prostitute girlfriend, doesn't sound too far removed from something like Scalped. Admittedly, the inclusion of Zezelj on art and the promise of flashbacks to historical Russia make this sound a great deal more interesting than what I usually associate with the imprint. But all the same, I don't think I'd be blogging about Luna Park if it was the only thing announced this weekend. (For comparison's sake: if I had only read this summary of the NYCC Vertigo panel, I probably would have concluded that the line was basically spinning its wheels, what with the announcement of a new series about a magical stewardess. In fact, I probably would have stopped reading right there. Which would have left me without a few interesting pieces of information--more on that later.)

The other two forthcoming graphic novels are far more interesting. Lemire is known primarily for his Essex County series of graphic novels, which did pretty well on the 2007 meta-list; it was particularly successful among critics writing for general-interest publications and websites, ranking eleventh with that subset of list-makers. I also seem to recall the Essex County books doing well with the mainly-interested-in-superheroes-but-also-read-other-things bloggers.

Given all that, Lemire seems like a good choice and a definite step in the right direction, both in terms of sales and quality. The only work by Lemire I've read is Tales From the Farm, the first volume of the Essex County series. I'm not sure how the traditional Vertigo reader would react to that book--Lemire's art is much more expressionistic than the even the most outre of Vertigo's current stable of artists, and the tone is much more subdued than the usual foamy style I associate with the imprint. The ending, however, introduces an element of magical realism which I imagine was a real crowd-pleaser. And if you've ever taken a gander at the illustration section of his site, you'll see that Lemire can work in a variety of styles; it looks like his inking will be a little softer on The Nobody, more in the Paul Pope-ish direction he occasionally pursued in Tales From the Farm. Given the very limited preview images available, as well as the description of the book as a modern update of HG Wells' The Invisible Man*, I think it's reasonable to assume that he might be working in the same "ground level" terrain as Pope, Paul Chadwick, or Jeff Smith. This print, in particular, probably bodes well for his association with DC (I especially like his Batman).

Publishing work by Peter Bagge also makes sense for Vertigo. Bagge is one of the biggest names from his generation of underground/alternative cartoonists, and it's certainly arguable that Vertigo's potential readership (at least in the Direct Market) is more familiar with his work than any of his peers. Bagge, of course, has published a couple of titles with DC before: Yeah! with Gilbert Hernandez and Sweatshop with several collaborators. This will be different in that (a) Bagge will (presumably) be illustrating his own stories, (b) it's being published by Vertigo rather than DC, which probably allows Bagge a fuller range of expression (ie, dirty words and nekkid bodies), and (c) it's an OGN, the success of which will presumably be measured by a very different set of criteria than his previous work. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the single Vertigo comic I've most anticipated in the history of forever.

What's interesting here is that both these projects seem to be a bit more light-hearted than what I would have expected had somebody told me that Vertigo was publishing OGNs by established alt comix cartoonists. That impression could be wrong, of course. Lemire's Tales From the Farm was pretty downbeat, but The Nobody looks to be somewhat lighter in tone based on the preview art including a promotional piece Lemire posted on his blog. Bagge's work is specifically described as a "dark comedy," which is about what one would expect. Still, I would have thought Vertigo would have sought material more along the lines of Fun Home or Exit Wounds--something with a social-political hook, the sort of thing that would rustle up some NPR coverage.

A couple other things of note: both Lemire and Bagge's forthcoming OGNs were acquired by editor Bob Schreck. Schreck is kind of an interesting figure in the comics industry, having previously worked at Comico and Dark Horse, and eventually co-founding Oni. He's also partly responsible for foisting Brad Meltzer on the comics world, so it's not like his record is exactly clean. I'd say that it's worth keeping an eye on what else Schreck brings to the imprint, but I'm not sure exactly how one would do that.

Also: the details of the aforementioned Vertigo panel make it sound like a bit of a downer, frankly. When asked if they had read various recent Vertigo books, it seems that fewer members of the crowd responded than might be considered optimal--a development which apparently frustrated editor Jonathan Vankin. In general, there seemed to be a bit of hand-wringing among both panelists and audience members that Vertigo didn't get the attention it deserved from the comics-oriented or general-interest press. I have to think that this new push towards artsier graphic novels is intended to remedy this alleged problem, but I'm not sure that the lack of coverage is really that hard to understand. Books like Scalped and Army@Love get plenty of coverage, at least on the blogs I read; perhaps there's a lesson about quality control to be learned there. I suspect that the overwhelmingly negative reaction to God Save the Queen might have poisoned the well a bit for Vertigo OGNs. Banking on proven talents like Lemire and Bagge isn't a bad response.

The question now is how Vertigo will market these new graphic novels. I'm a little put off by Karen Berger's description of Bagge's style as "kind of goofy." I mean, it's true enough in the sense that Bagge is usually trying to make us laugh. But that doesn't seem like the right way to put it when you're introducing a new creator whose work is wildly divergent from the existing house style. I would think it would be better to emphasize the humor and expressiveness in his style. To be fair, this is only a fragment of what she said; it may have sounded better in its full context. But the point stands--Bagge and Lemire work in styles not normally associated with Vertigo. I've never thought that Harvey Pekar got the attention one would expect from someone of his stature; I've seen almost no fanfare for the second American Splendor miniseries. Hopefully we'll see a bit more hoopla for these new graphic novels.

I'm a little skeptical of whether this new direction will mesh with Vertigo's traditional formula of streetwise magic and cheeky political commentary, but I'm hopeful it will. Actually, I'm more hopeful that the Vertigo will bear a closer resemblance to Top Shelf or First Second more than Vertigo c. 1998, simply because I would prefer that more resources go to support the kind of material I find worth reading. I'm almost surprised that a new line wasn't launched for this kind of thing, but I guess DC has launched a bunch of new initiatives/imprints in the last year or two. And you can't really fault them for taking a more cautious approach. I'm happy to support anyone providing a venue for Peter Bagge.

*Not to be confused with Ralph Elliot's (or Ellison's, if you want to be, you know, accurate) Invisible Man, which would be a very daring source of inspiration for a Vertigo OGN, the tepidly-received Incognegro notwithstanding.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A black mark on comics fandom

More evidence that comics fans are focusing on plot to the exclusion of art:

Leinil Yu draws Captain America with a discernible package, and nobody freaks out--presumably because they're too wrapped up in the plot! What's wrong with you people? Where's the outrage?

EDIT: On further inspection, Cap seems to lean a little to the right. I'm not sure what to make of that.

(Image shamelessly yanked from here.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

My aching wallet

-I'm working on a review of a beloved 1990s superhero series right now. Hopefully I'll have it done tomorrow or Thursday.

-Tom Spurgeon's interview with Comic Foundry editor Tim Leong is well worth checking out. Spurgeon really hits on some of the issues which bug me about the magazine. Based on what I've heard, that is--my comics dealer still doesn't carry it. Maybe I'll flip through it if I see it for sell in some other shop at some point in time.

Related: Tucker Stone reviews the latest issue of Punisher Totally Dubstep. I'd never even heard of dubstep before. This is what happens when you're over the age of 30 and don't live on the east coast. On the other hand, I'm reasonably confident that I will make a good batch of pretzels when I attempt to do so later in the day. This is a tradeoff I would have gladly made 10 years ago.

-There are way, way too many new books out this week: Aqua Leung, Haunted (finally), new issues of Criminal and Castle Waiting, The Rabbi's Cat volume 2, Jessica Farm, and I think this might be the week that Diamond finally sends along the second issue of Ganges. (I know, it's been out everywhere else for a couple of weeks--it just hasn't shown up in my local store yet, even though it was ordered.) That's probably a hundred bucks or so, way more than my usual comics-buying budget; it's going to be hard to decide what to buy this week.

-Speaking of conspicuous comics consumption: my latest used bookstore purchase is the first sixteen volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub for $40. I'll probably read about four or five of them when we fly out to Oregon in a few months.

-Stuff I wished I'd put on my best of 2007 list department: Matt Groening's latest Life in Hell collection, Will and Abe's Guide to the Universe, is as funny as any comic I can remember reading in the last year. It's strange to think of what it's like growing up as the subject of comic strips. The real Dennis Ketcham hasn't had the best life, but I'd guess that the overwhelming success of the Simpsons greatly overshadows any Life in Hell appearances by the brothers Groening.

-Been thinking about this, but I haven't made up my mind: is Final Crisis worth buying? Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know that I don't really bother with the mega-event comics, and (like many) consider them to be a somewhat unpleasant and unwelcome facet of the current comics industry. On the other hand, I do generally enjoy Grant Morrison's comics, and the solicitation copy I've read makes this sound somewhat weird and potentially interesting. I'll probably buy the first issue and try to decide from there. Anyone else pondering this?

Friday, April 4, 2008

[The Hyacinth family seal, pressed into red wax]

Hail to thee my liege, the great and revered overlord of the New York comics publishing industry, Emperor Paul Levitz,

I have made note of your truly generous decision to grace the Blog at Newsarama with a question and answer session. We loyal readers of your product do greatly appreciate this gesture, your lordship, and we have already learned much from one mere session; it boggles the mind to think of what incredible, unspeakable knowledge we might accumulate over the course of this feature. In answering these questions, you have justified the very existence of the internet.

However, my worship, I do have some grave concerns about the venue you have chosen for this interrogative feature. I am but a lowly wretch in your magisterial presence, and I do not mean to question your decisions. But I cannot help but notice your majesty bristled at the thought that Vertigo-brand periodicals are published on paper fit for protecting a bird's cage from its occupant's leavings. This is a most unseemly way of asking a question, most unfit for the solemn occasion of a question and answer session with the overlord of DC Comics! If I had been present, my grace, I surely would have beaten the impudent whelp within an inch of his life for daring to suggest that any DC-published title should rest anywhere other than a snug mylar bag, nestled safely in an acid-free box, in the most secure part of one's parents' basement.

I humbly prostrate myself before thee, oh gracious admiral of the inky seas, to beg that you not provide these hordes of lowly commoners with an opportunity they cannot fathom, let alone take advantage of. (I apologize for ending this sentence in a preposition, your majesty; my rage has overwhelmed me, I fear.) Instead, I beseech you to answer these following questions here, which I am certain will provide the masses with sufficient enlightenment for another fortnight:

1. How shall the mighty war machine of DC Comics, in association with the dread legal forces of Time-Warner, castigate the Siegel family for its shocking affront in attempting to assert ownership of your holiness' wondrous Excalibur, the incomparable Superman? My lord, do not think that I ask this out of fear that such an event shall not transpire; I have no doubt that the streets of Manhattan will run red with your opponents' blood, and Superman will remain on newsstands and comics specialty shops throughout this fair land. I merely wish to hear a few wisps of detail, so that I might better bask in the warmth of the One True Comics Company and its glorious ruler.

2. Is there anything that might be done about the new Brave and the Bold cartoon? I fear that its jocular tone shall undermine the all-encompassing mood of dread and terror which you have worked so hard to establish during the last several years. This program seems appropriate for children, my sire! Surely this is contrary to your wishes for the intellectual properties entrusted to your care by the fearsome shareholders of Time-Warner!

3. When shall Jemm, Son of Saturn be collected in a proper "graphical novel" format? I know that you would agree that it is a shining beacon on the horizon of the comic book industry, a feeling I have had since I read it between paternal, character-building beatings at the tender age of eight. I do, of course, have a complete set of the originals, but I have stained these pages with my abundant tears of joy (which some have linked to repressed feelings of terror, but this is unmanly talk). Furthermore, your highness, I would humbly suggest that the next generation of comic book professionals could learn something from this heart-wrenching tale of an alien and his human friend. (Some have suggested that the same experience might be had by watching ET the Extra-Terrestrial, but I fail to see how the lessons of one medium might be applied to another. Motion pictures and comic books are two different things!) I do not mean to say, of course, that Gene Colan's art should be copied; clearly, the great and exalted Jim Lee, Baron of Wildstorm, Marquis of the Metaphorical Exchequer, and Grand Duke Artist-in-General, is the only model which modern comic book artists should seek to follow.

I beg thee, o wise and mighty demigod of the squarebound and the stapled, to consider these questions. I hope you will accept this humble Youtube video as you consider these things.

May Marvel Comics be forever damned! May DC rule forever! Godspeed!

Your servant,
Count Dickard Wozencraft Hyacinth, Esquire

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

At least typing doesn't hurt

-Some assorted thoughts; there are a few comics-related ones somewhere down there.

-Sorry I've been remiss in posting this week. Two different ordeals have been distracting me--a case of bursitis in the hip and a broken XBox 360. The former is much better now, thanks to elephantine doses of ibuprofen reducing the pain, thus allowing me to move around again (which, in turn, further reduces the pain). As for the 360, I've been pretty lucky with consoles, I guess. In my adult life, I've owned or been domiciled with the owner of about five different consoles, and this is the first one to expire prematurely--after the warranty had ended, naturally. But everything is fine now, and I'm happily playing Half Life 2 in my spare time.

And that's kind of surprising, actually. I've never been much for first person shooters, mostly because I found them really confusing. The first one I ever played, some Star Wars-related game in the mid-90s, frustrated the hell out of me because I could never figure out how to jump onto ledges. Worse yet was Goldeneye, an obsession among literally all my friends at the time (even those who didn't ordinarily play video games). After countless hours of running around in circles and being shot in the back, I finally took to reading while my friends were playing.

I'm not sure what has changed since the late 90s, but I'm now able to play these games in a much less spastic way than before. It might partly be due to the tremendous fun I had playing Oblivion (which can be played in the third person perspective, but that always feels clunky to me) and Bioshock; now that I recognize the value in first person games, I can play them unencumbered by mental blocks. Or something like that. It could also be that I'm smarter than I used to be (god, I hope that's true). Also possible: the graphics in these games are much better now, meaning that the virtual world doesn't consist of assorted polygons spraypainted with unconvincing textures. So it's easier to get my bearings now.

In any event, this has opened a new world of games which I haven't yet sampled. I'm perfectly willing to give Call of Duty a try, but I'm a little reluctant to dive into Halo. That game has always seemed like some kind of ominous membrane, the penetration of which puts you squarely into no-more-self-respect territory. It's like the difference between reading superhero comics and buying superhero merchandise; guests might view a complete set of Halo games in the same light as a three foot Booster Gold maquette or a bust of zombie J. Jonah Jameson.* I've gone three decades without drinking Mountain Dew, and I don't want to start now.

*The comics equivalent of owning Halo merchandise, BTW, is actually dressing as Booster Gold at a convention, then putting up a display case for the costume.

-Finally got the chance to read Exit Wounds yesterday. I don't have a copy of it handy, so I won't attempt to discuss it in much depth, but I didn't come away deploring its placement at the top of the meta-list. I wouldn't have pushed anything out of my personal top 10 of 2007, but I would definitely have included it in the just-outside-the-top-10 section. It was very good, and I think the mainstream-oriented reviewers acquitted itself very well in voting it the best graphic novel of 2007. It's also interesting to see how much Rutu Modan's craft has improved over the last few years; see, for instance, her story in the fifth volume of the Drawn and Quarterly anthology. I have high expectations for whatever she does next.

-I've had a couple of nice used bookstore hauls in the past couple of weeks. Yesterday I got, among other things, the first (and, to date, only American) volume of Martin Kellerman's Rocky, a book I've been meaning to buy at full price for a few months now. I also found a copy of Dick Tracy: America's Most Famous Detective, a retrospective on the character which will surely whet my appetite for IDW's series of reprints (which should be getting to the good stuff later this year, I'd imagine). I see that the author, Bill Crouch, Jr., also compiled many of the old Pogo collections which I read and loved as a teenager. I'm having a hard time finding any other information about him online, there being more William Crouch, Jrs. than one might expect. Anyone out there familiar with him or his work?

A few weeks ago I found a couple of older Peter Bagge collections--Studs Kirby and Stupid Comics. The latter is out-of-print, but you can order the former from Fantagraphics or on Amazon or maybe even through Diamond (but I wouldn't bet on it). I haven't read much of Stupid Comics yet, but Studs Kirby holds up pretty well. Studs is actually kind of reminiscent of Buddy Bradley at his worst, minus most of Buddy's occasional moments of insight. It's hardly Bagge's best work, but I found it to be very funny, cutting stuff. But then again, I consider Peter Bagge to be one of the all-time great cartoonists, and really regret not putting his Reason strips on my best of 2007 list. Remind me of this oversight in November, will you?

-And while I'm advocating stuff I really like, let me direct you to the latest Graham Annable cartoon (via Tom Spurgeon). Or actually, let me just embed it here:

It's a crying shame that Graham Annable doesn't get name dropped more than he does, because he's probably the funniest cartoonist working today. His animated shorts share the incredible sense of timing on display in his comics; you can see them all here. I've pushed Annable on here before, but I consider this reminder to be a public service. You really need to check out his work.