Wednesday, August 27, 2008

More thoughts on potential best of 2008 books

-I know I'm in a really small minority here, but I kind of think I might prefer a dark Superman movie. I've never been a fan of the character at all, and I always found the movies to be pretty dull and, frankly, dorky. In fact, I think it might have been those dorky movies which eliminated all my childhood interest in Superman, firmly placing me in the Batman (and, later, Spider-Man) camp. I'm still more interested in takes on the character which play around with his alienation from humanity, but not in a mopey "would that I were more like them" way, like the interminable Superman Returns. Actually, a few steps beyond that might be good. I think I find the character so boring that the only cinematic interpretation likely to hold my interest is the sort which destroys all licensing revenue for about a decade. (Tucker Stone almost convinces me that I should check out that Azzarello/Lee Superman comic here, but I'm not sure I care enough about Superman to read something which tears down his mythology. And that, plus the fact that I haven't seen either Iron Man or the Dark Knight, probably disqualifies me from further comment on the subject.

-On a similar note, do we have an up and coming blog commenter here? Like, at long last, a comics version of Raiderjoe? Let's see if he shows up in the comments at other blogs first. Please, no mention of names; we don't want him Googling himself and coming here, realizing he has an audience, then playing to us.

-Unpleasant comics bloggers (and you probably don't know who you are): motivated primarily by pettiness, or is pettiness the only discernible aspect of their online personalities?

-More of my ongoing efforts to think about a best of 2008 list: I posted a provisional best of 2008 list--really a best of the first half of 2008 list--back in May. Which means, I suppose, that it's not even a full half--more like 5/12. Anyway, as one would expect, there have been a lot of worthwhile books to come out since then. Here are my thoughts on those I've read which deserve consideration for a best of 2008 list:

Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw
I really need to re-read this book. I liked a lot of the formal play in it, most notably the depiction of the youngest son. And, just as my brother had told me, it was rather reminiscent of Wes Anderson's films, most notably The Royal Tenenbaums. (I like Anderson's work, so I consider that a positive.) I thought it was good, but not quite as good as some people seemed to find it. I worry that missed something important--not just because other people whose opinions I respect liked it, but because it just felt like I missed something. Will try to re-read sometime between now and the end of the year.

Goddess of War #1 by Laura Weinstein
Another one which I liked, but not quite as much as other people did. I've become a bigger fan of underground comix in the last couple of years, and I appreciated the tonal similarities here. And, unlike some people (can't remember who--Jog, maybe?) I did like the extended (alternate) history lesson at the end. In fact, that's what pulled the whole book together for me. I enjoyed Goddess of War #1 quite a bit, but I think I'll like future issues even more.

Delphine #3 by Richard Sala
I've never read anything by Sala which I didn't like, but, naturally, some of his works (The Chuckling Whatsit) are stronger than others (The Grave-Robber's Daughter). Delphine #3 is the first transitional issue in the series, serving mostly putting everything and everybody in the right place for the final issue. Alternately, it also felt kind of padded out, as if Sala realized he couldn't finish the series in three issues, decided to make a fourth issue, but didn't actually have enough plot for four issues. That's not to say that I actually think this was the case, but it certainly read that way. It's still much better than nearly everything else on the stands, especially when compared against other periodicals/pamphlets (I know I'm stretching the definition a bit to include something with the frequency/format of Ignatz titles, but whatever). I just didn't think this was as good as the first two issues. Can't wait to sit down and read the whole story, start to finish.

Grotesque #2 by Sergio Ponchionne
This, however, was significantly better than the first issue, and I liked the first issue a lot. Ponchionne's art is even better than in the previous issue, just bursting with life, a real joy to behold. The story is a bit more straightforward, but doesn't exactly seem to line up with the previous issue. The characters in this issue, however, are much better realized, and perhaps better suited to Ponchionne's strengths as a cartoonist. Very impressive; maybe the most underrated comic of 2008 so far.

BTW, it's generally too bad that the lesser-known European cartoonists in the Ignatz line don't seem to be getting the attention they really deserve. I mean, it's not unexpected that artists who are relatively unknown in North America would be overshadowed by the likes of David B. or Kevin Huizenga, two of the five or ten best cartoonists working today. But Ponchionne is doing tremendous work on Grotesque, and Gabriella Giandelli's Interiorae is also excellent.

Disappearance Diary by Hideo Azuma
Some people--not just ill-informed superhero-only fans shooting off their mouths, but also people whose opinions are worth considering--seem deeply suspicious of autobiographical comics. I'm not entirely unsympathetic to this position, actually, but there are a number of autobiographical works I find compelling. This is one of them. Hideo Azuma has certainly lived an interesting life, and his approach to putting it in comics form is pretty interesting as well. Azuma includes a disclaimer warning the reader that the events depicted in Disappearance Diary will eschew reality for positivity. That's sort of true to an extent, especially for the first third of the book, but bits of darkness begin to seep into the second section. The third, dealing with Azuma's treatment for alcoholism, is actually quite dark. And there are certain prima facie issues raised by Azuma's life which the upbeat tone can't fully disguise. Is the manga industry so exploitative that it has driven Azuma to voluntarily choose homelessness, not once but twice, despite no apparent preexisting interest in this lifestyle? What do we make of the interview in the inside cover? And why does Azuma try to be so relentlessly upbeat? This is a much deeper book than one might assume by browsing it in the bookstore. (Not that it's readily available in most bookstores, being a Fanfare/Ponent Mon release.) I'd strongly recommend tracking this down if you haven't already.

Where Demented Wented by Rory Hayes; edited by Dan Nadel and Glenn Bray
This is probably the book I was most anticipating for 2008, and I was certainly not disappointed. If you've read the Nadel-edited Art Out of Time, you're familiar with Hayes' work. And, for that matter, you've read his best single story, "Evolve," which I consider one of the great short stories in comics history. That's here, along with the complete Cunt Comics #1, Boogeyman Comics #1, and assorted high points from the remainder of Hayes' career. None of it is quite as good as "Evolve," but there's plenty of essential material here which you can't easily track down anywhere else. Of particular note is an alternate version of "Terror From the Grave," all in pencil. The original, single page story from Arcade #6 crams dozens of panels onto a single page; here we see it at a more subdued pace, extending to four and a half pages. I would imagine this would be a valuable teaching tool for anyone interested in the mechanics of pacing in comics; more importantly, it reveals Hayes' sophistication and versatility as a storyteller. Hopefully this book will help reestablish Hayes as something much more than a primitivist shock artist; readers might even be surprised by his aesthetically pleasing line in some later strips. There's a lot to chew on here. It's inconceivable that I would place this outside my top 10 for 2008; I would bet that it will end up in the top five.

Tales Designed to Thrizzle #4 by Michael Kupperman
Has there ever been a funnier comic than Tales Designed to Thrizzle? As I've said before, I think this might be the funniest issue to date. Kupperman jams the pages with jokes, working in a text-heavy style that isn't always exactly comics. It really sort of reminded me of the much-lamented Motorbooty, unquestionably the greatest zine of all time. It was in that very zine, in fact, where I first saw Kupperman's work. Has anyone ever talked about Tales Designed to Thrizzle as a gateway comic? I showed it to a friend who (literally) only bought no-adjective X-Men, and he loved it, buying a copy for himself immediately. My wife voluntarily reads it. Why isn't Michael Kupperman rich yet?

The Rabbi's Cat vol. 2 by Joann Sfar
Possibly even better than the first volume. Actually, I thought the first story was a little weak in comparison, but the long, final story (concerning a Russian Jewish painter who accidentally arrives in Algeria) was as strong as anything I've ever seen from Sfar. His art is as good as I can ever remember, and the themes of the book all seem to come to a head in this final story. Some might complain that the cat is more peripheral in this volume, which is true, I guess. Is there enough additional material in France to support a third American volume?

Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, JG Jones, et al
I'd like to echo Sean Collins' recent comments on superhero comics vs. alt comics here. Or maybe go a step further. Final Crisis is good, potentially very good when all is said and done, but at present, it's nowhere near as good as anything above it on this list. It's not that Grant Morrison isn't capable of writing excellent comics; I would certainly put Seven Soldiers on a hypothetical 50 best comics of the 00s list, and I might put New X-Men on such a list as well. Probably definitely on a top 100. (I will likely make some sort of list of this nature when the decade draws to a close; I guess we'll see then.) See also: Tom Spurgeon re: Watchmen vs. contemporaneous alternative comics.

(I'm tempted to say something about Vertigo here, but...I'm not sure how to finish that sentence. I can say this: Vertical > Vertigo.)

Invincible Iron Man by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca
This is probably the superhero comic I'm enjoying the most so far in 2008, a worthy successor to The Order (my favorite superhero comic of 2007). Do see disclaimers in item above, however.

Still to come: Sammy the Mouse #2, Babel #3, Aya vol. 2, Black Jack, Kramers Ergot vol. 7 (see Tom Spurgeon's interview with Sammy Harkham if you're not convinced you want to shell out for it), Nocturnal Conspiracies (upcoming David B. collection; not getting that much attention, but there's a really good chance that this will be the book of the year), Gemma Bovary Tamara Drewe (North American release--thanks for the correction, Chris), Travel (new Yuichi Yokoyama book), Alan's War (upcoming Emmanuel Guibert--thanks again, Chris), Breakdowns (thanks yet again, Chris)

Haven't read yet: Abandoned Cars, MOME vol. 12, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, Typhon vol. 1

Haven't finished reading: Dororo vol. 1, What It Is. I know this is pathetic--these books have been out for months!--but I once again plead innocence by virtue of interrupted life due to move across country.

Own but have not attempted to read yet: Good-Bye, Red Colored Elegy. See excuses made in item above.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Almost forgot to title this one

-After talking about the best superhero comics of the 90s, I started thinking about how that decade compares to the best offerings of the 70s and 80s. And upon further reflection, I was kind of surprised to realize that I wasn't as familiar with some of these comics as you would expect from a know-it-all blogger. I mean, it's not like I'm completely unfamiliar with Steve Gerber's Defenders or John Byrne's Fantastic Four--it's just that I've only read bits and pieces, enough to have an impression, but not enough to really say anything meaningful. It's the sort of thing that makes you want to get up the next day determined to begin the long, arduous process of filling in these many gaps, then you remember that you still have about 2/5 of Disappearance Diary to read, and you'll probably like it a whole lot more than anything Byrne's ever done. And that's just the tip of the to-read stack. Time, she is a cruel mistress.

-If you're out buying comics today, and you're lucky enough to be in a store selling Tales Designed to Thrizzle #4, you really have no choice but to buy it. It's got what I think is Kupperman's funniest gag yet--the first full page advertisement, maybe about 4 or 5 pages in. That's worth the price of admission by itself, and thankfully nobody's posted a scan of it yet (at least not that I've seen).

Also: you might already be planning on getting Delphine #3 and Where Demented Wented, and those would both be very fine purchases indeed (as would, I'm guessing, the latest volume of MOME, especially given the presence of the incomparable David B.; unfortunately, I did not pick it up last week, so this is merely an assumption, though a fairly safe assumption, to be sure). But don't forget Sergio Ponchione's Grotesque #2, which is even better than the last issue. In fact, you don't need to read the previous issue to understand what's going on here, since the first issue is just a prologue. Or maybe the entire series will be nothing but mysterious story fragments. Either way, you need this comic.

-I know some people are mad because Final Crisis contradicts Countdown, but I've interpreted this sentiment as a continuity cop type thing, rather than an expression of affection for Countdown. (In fact, it's usually the opposite--"I read all 52 (or is that 51?) stinking issues of this horrible comic, and now you're telling me it doesn't count?") But are there people out there who hate Final Crisis not because of any continuity "errors," but because it isn't enough like Countdown? Like, "There isn't nearly enough of the Monitors in Final Crisis"? Or "I was hoping for less Darkseid and more Lord Havok and the Extremists"? Or, "Countdown was perfect because it had almost all the characters from my erotic fan fiction--Kyle Rayner, Jason Todd, and Donna Troy. The only one missing was Alfred Pennyworth!"

Maybe that was the real problem with Countdown--too many characters primarily identified by their civilian names because they can't lay exclusive claim to their superhero names. I guess "Donna Troy" sounds better than "the Silver Age Wonder Girl," and "Kyle Rayner" sounds better than "the Chromium Age Green Lantern," and "Jason Todd" is better than "the BitTorrent Age Red Hood."

-That new Kramers Ergot looks sort of interesting, but I bet it's no Toupydoops.

-And, uh, speaking of this kind of thing, I'm not sure if there's been enough attention paid to this highly entertaining comments section. Special bonus: a completely irrelevant and mostly counterproductive run-in by the immortal Alan Coil, the Raiderjoe of the comics blogosphere! Well, not really, sadly enough. Comics need their own Raiderjoe (scroll to bottom)--maybe someone who's a dogged and delusional fan of Judd Winick or Wonder Man.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Seriously, what were the good superhero comics of the 90s?

The title to my previous post was mostly a joke, but Alan David Doane answered it seriously in the comments field, suggesting three runs I've never actually read (though I've always meant to read Joe Casey's Wildcats--in fact, there was a copy in a used bookstore which I always considered buying, but I thought they were priced too high). But it's a good point--what were the good superhero comics of the 1990s?

As I've mentioned here before, I quit reading superhero comics somewhere around spring of 1995, and didn't start up again until the middle of this current decade. So that's about half of the 1990s supehero output that I've only read after the fact, if at all. As for the first half of the decade, I was reading way fewer comics than most (I didn't have such a huge allowance, you see), plus my taste ran a bit towards cool, hot artist of the moment.

So what follows is an almost certainly incomplete list of well-regarded superhero books below (I'm hoping some of you will fill in the blanks in the comments), with my thoughts on them. I'm not going to try to do any kind of summary on the decade as a whole, mostly because I think I'm kind of grossly underqualified to do so. My general impression is that it was a pretty terrible decade for superhero books, even (especially?) after the worst of the Image excesses had passed. It was a pretty great decade for alternative and non-superhero independent comics, though.

What follows is a more piecemeal set of thoughts, beginning with an awful lot of Kurt Busiek:

Avengers by Busiek, Perez, et al.
I've read the first of the hardcovers, and part of the second (never read the Ultron story, which is widely considered the zenith of the run, IIRC). These are solid, generally entertaining stories, from what I recall. But they're awfully mannered, almost self-consciously neo-Classicist. That's a strange approach to take towards old superhero comics, since the best of them shine with an incandescent stupidity that's half the appeal. At least for me--if you're more interested in the idea of superheroes (both broadly or specifically, as in "I specifically like Wonder-Man"), I could see this being an all-time favorite. My impression is that its reputation is largely due to readers' joy of having access to a solid team book featuring A-list characters after enduring six or seven years of toxic sludge from Marvel.

Astro City by Busiek, Anderson, et al.
Probably the best of Busiek's work in the 90s. It's the sort of thing which requires substantial familiarity with the original characters and stories being referenced; otherwise, most of the unexpected plot twists carry way less weight. Since I'm reasonably well-versed in superhero mythology, I'm not really complaining. Anderson's art has a sort of living realism--there's a lot of realistic detail, but the Spider-Man analogue bounces around like you would expect. (As opposed to someone like Alex Ross, whose work exchanges liveliness for cold, dead realism.) I don't think Astro City suffers from the kind of poisonous nostalgia I usually associate with these books, but there is a prevalent sort of baby boomer navel-gazing. Like, it's not that far off from Forrest Gump, except instead of Gump meeting Lyndon Johnson you have Average Joe characters interacting with Captain America. Or his stand-in. I'd much rather read this than most of the other stuff on this list; in fact, I've been meaning to check out the more recent volumes from the library. But it's not the sort of comic I feel obliged to actually own. I don't feel its absence on my bookshelf.

Marvels, by Busiek and Ross
I've always thought this was dreadfully boring, but that might be partly due to Alex Ross' art. Tim O'Neil recently said something about Marvels being a successor to Watchmen in a sort of interesting way. I'd re-read it to see what he's talking about, but I got rid of my copy before our recent move.

Thuderbolts by Busiek, Bagely, et. al.
I've read the first issue of this and came to the conclusion that this series' primary appeal is to those who were suckered in by the first issue, or who were suckered in by the hype surrounding the title after the first issue. That goes double for fans of Fabian Nicieza and Tom Grummett's New Thunderbolts, one's enjoyment of which is directly proportionate to one's willingness to repeat the mantra "Baron Zemo is the best character in comics today" on various message boards and blogs.

The Flash by Waid, et. al.
I think I've read two volumes of this, and I still can't figure out the appeal. It just seems like a competently-written (but cliche-laden) superhero book with bad art (in some cases by people who would go on to do much better art a few years down the road). I seem to recall Mark Waid, in the introduction to one of the TPBs, saying that the heart of the comic was the love between Wally West and Linda Park. I guess you'd find that relationship compelling if your only other exposure to human romance was the robotic love Barry Allen shared with Iris West in the Flash comics of the 1960s.

Kingdom Come by Waid and Ross
Everyone here hates this, right? We don't really need to go into it again, do we?

JLA by Morrison, Porter, et. al.
Okay, so I didn't like Rock of Ages. How about the rest of the run? I remember two good stories--the angelic invasion of earth and the original story with Prometheus. I can't remember anything about the evil sun (or whatever it was) story that closed out Morrison's run. Again, I can't emphasize enough how much Porter's art dragged everything down.

Incredible Hulk by David, et. al.
I actually read this when I was a wee lad, mostly because I liked Dale Keown's art (it was the 90s and I was 14, so give me a break). Even at the time, I remember thinking how lame all the Illiad/Odyssey stuff was--I mean, the Hulk was wearing a jump suit, for chrissakes! David's solution for tying up all the Hulk's various manifestations was fairly clever, although the sort of thing which you knew would eventually get reversed (you can't keep the raging green Hulk down forever). I'd certainly rather read David's Hulk than Waid's Flash, but I'd have to be rather desperate for entertainment to read either. In other words, I'd be all over this if it were in an otherwise poorly-stocked prison library.

Batman: The Long Halloween by Loeb and Sale
This is alright I guess, as far as less interesting/more commercially viable versions of Batman Year One go. I think most of the hoopla surrounding it was due to its being a more classic Batman story in an era of Bat-quakes and whatnot. Better than Hush, for whatever that's worth.

Starman by Robinson, Harris, et. al.
This is probably the most sacred of cows on this list. I read the first six or seven issues as a teenager and liked it, but generally found it to be inferior to Hellboy (the art, which was the sole reason I tried Starman in the first place, begged the comparison). I tried re-reading these issues a few months ago, in hopes of writing a review to commemorate the announcement of Robinson's return to full-time comics writing. I've got a bunch of notes, so maybe I'll go back to it one day. For now, I can say that I thought those first few issues were fairly good, but not as good as some things on this list (like Astro City). Harris and Robinson each had significant craft problems at this time; the former had numerous storytelling lapses, while the latter wasn't much for writing dialogue. The main thing setting those early issues of Starman apart from contemporary superhero comics was the attempt at some thematic depth beyond "here's what Superman means to Metropolis" or the like. I did find the execution a little ham-fisted, though. Maybe I'll try to read a few more issues--maybe up to #20 or so--and write a couple of long reviews.

The Golden Age by Robinson and Smith
Sort of the spiritual sibling of Kingdom Come--lots of stern hand-wringing about the nature of power and costume-wearing, but none of the guts to show the protagonists doing anything too unheroic. And wasn't the villain the Ultra-Humanite or something? You know, instead of the paranoia inherent in humanity? It's kind of like finding out that pathetic old supervillain was the mastermind at the end of Watchmen.

Stormwatch/The Authority by Ellis, et. al.
I wrote about it here. Wow, I was talking about moving even back then. Geez, how little I knew back then. Dick of three months ago, did you suspect that the sedatives you had acquired to give your cats would magically stop working about halfway through the trip, thus subjecting you to two long days of near-constant crying and attempted cat carrier escapes? Did you know that cleaning your apartment would take approximately twice as long as the period you spent living there? Would you have expected that the mechanics who fixed the air conditioner in your car would leave a tool in it approximately the size of a golf putter? Could you have ever guessed that Iowa would have so many bugs in it? That Nebraska would have so many trucks in it? That no human beings actually live in Wyoming? What a wonderfully horrible adventure you have before you, young man!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

So, were there any good superhero comics in the 90s?

So I went to the local comics shop last week hoping to buy two comics, with the faint glimmer of hope that I might buy three (I suspected, based on experience that the store doesn't buy copies of Criminal for the shelf). I left the store having only bought a copy of Final Crisis #3. Based on this and previous expeditions to this store, I considered myself lucky to come away with even that. And it's not like the other comic (Invincible Iron Man) was obscure or anything--it's just that this is a store which basically requires you to set up a sub list in order to receive the comics you want to buy. I haven't done that for a few reasons that I'll explain at some point in the near future. (Short version: I'm trying out a mail order service.)

But I was happy to have the new issue of Final Crisis, and I read it pretty soon after getting home. As I've said before, I enjoyed the first couple of issues quite a bit. This one, however, was a bit of a disappointment, partly because of the reasons Jog mentioned. More worrisome, for me at least, was how the (SPOILER) end hinted back to Morrison's previous work on the Rock of Ages story in JLA.

Now, for all I know, message boards across the internet are ablaze with similar complaints, accusations that Morrison is out of tricks, reduced to rehashing his older work (and, I'm guessing quite a few people are saying, his better work). If you were to use the spectrum of visible light as a metaphor for comics bloggers' devotion to Grant Morrison, with red being Douglas Wolk or Brian Cronin and violet being the sort dude who will never forgive Morrison for contradicting some old issue of New Mutants, I'm probably somewhere around school bus yellow. I'm deeply skeptical of the adulation All-Star Superman has received, and I'm sympathetic to the argument that Morrison is kind of weak as a visual storyteller (more on that in a minute). On the other hand, I think Morrison's New X-Men is the only truly meritorious run featuring those characters, and that Seven Soldiers was about as good as modern superhero comics get.

I don't think Morrison is rehashing his past work in those final pages of Final Crisis #3; if anything, he's probably deliberately referencing it. I can't help but think of Morrison's interest in superheroes as contemporary gods and comics as their modern myths. One could thus see Final Crisis as an alternate telling of the myth of how superheroes traveled through time to a future where Darkseid conquered Earth. (I assume that Final Crisis, like Rock of Ages, will also tell how superheroes were able to prevent this potential future.) This fits in with Morrison's explanation of continuity errors between Final Crisis and Countdown/Death of the New Gods as temporal disruptions (or whatever) caused by humans' inability to process the events taking place. Likewise, Final Crisis and Rock of Ages could be different tellings of the same story.

Hurting this theory is that Rock of Ages is not actually very good, leading one to wonder why would anyone want to retell that particular story. Rock of Ages didn't really go anywhere, didn't really have any lasting consequences, and didn't really have any larger message to impart. At least that's how I remembered it; but since it had been a while since I last read it, I decided to reacquaint myself with the story which (if memory serves) helped establish Morrison's reputation among superhero-only readers. Sadly, it turns out my memory was correct; Rock of Ages really isn't all that good.

The first thing that stands out about Rock of Ages is the terrible, terrible art. Howard Porter, though never a favorite of mine, has certainly improved dramatically over the last ten years. Unfortunately, this is the Howard Porter of the late 90s we're dealing with here. The art in Rock of Ages is inept in every way. I remembered Porter as being at least capable of drawing a cool splash page, but it seems that I was thinking of his later work on JLA. There is absolutely nothing commendable here. Porter's storytelling is just about as abysmal as one would guess, but his rendering is almost as weak. Look, I don't have a problem with distorted anatomy if it works to emphasize the themes of a comic, but Porter is working directly against the aims of the comic. There's nothing heroic about a bunch of Hobbits dressed like Aquaman.

Especially if we're talking about the ridiculous angsty Aquaman of the 90s. Is there any ill-advised revamp that combines ridiculousness and visibility on such an epic scale? This is the version of Aquaman that an entire generation of children came to know, via the Justice League cartoon--a shaggy blond dude with a harpoon for a hand.* But the dated visuals don't stop there! We also have that stupid mask that Green Lantern wore back when he was another guy in the 90s, plus electric blue Superman. Almost every superhero comic looks dated once you're far enough away from its original publication, but harpoon Aquaman, electric Superman, and crab mask Green Lantern are quite the trifecta.

But I'd wager that the vast, vast majority of people reading Rock of Ages today are doing so less out of love for the characters and more out of love for Grant Morrison's writing. Unfortunately, that's rather problematic as well. Rock of Ages is as convoluted a superhero story as I've ever read (bearing in mind here that I'm not all that well-versed in mid-90s X-Men comics). Part of that is due to the time traveling angle, in which several JLAers are hurtled into a future where Darkseid rules the earth. But before then, they are coerced by Metron (who, as it turns out, is an evil future version of Metron) into trying to destroy the Philosopher's Stone/Worlogog, a borderline MacGuffin which is in the hands of Lex Luthor, who is busy with the destruction (or "corporate takeover"**) of the Justice League back in the present. Fake Metron convinces Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the Flash that they must destroy this titular rock in order to prevent a future ruled by Darkseid. He sends them through time and space to do so. Why this is necessary is unclear, since Superman, back in the present day, destroys the Philosopher's Stone to keep Lex Luthor from using it. But, AHA!!, this was apparently what Darkseid wanted all along, since somehow or another the destruction of the Philosopher's Stone paves the way for his takeover of earth.

How? I have no idea--it certainly is never explained here. It's also never explained why Evil Future Metron needs to send anyone on this wild goose chase for the stone, given that Superman destroys it without any aid or abetting. But that's not all: the Philosopher's Stone is largely peripheral to Luthor's "corporate takeover," which mostly relies on the powers of a reformed Injustice Gang. But wait--despite his access to the infinite powers of the Philosopher's Stone, Luthor's takeover is somehow foiled by Batman, who Morrison (as in every issue of JLA he wrote) imbues with godlike mental prowess. Batman's plan is implemented mostly off-panel, BTW.

Somehow or another, Batman, Superman, and Aquaman (in a rare portrayal as the equal to Batman and Superman) decide that this all means that the JLA is broke, and thus needs to break up and reform into a more efficient unit. (As is explained in the subsequent issue (not included in the Rock of Ages collected edition), Batman thinks the group needs more "thinkers.") Thus, it appears that this entire story mostly serves to set up the next phase in Morrison's run on JLA (plus Aztek, and maybe the DC One Million event). Not exactly the stuff myths are made of.

I can live without MINDBOGGLING CHANGES TO THE STATUS QUO from my superhero comics, but I do expect a certain standard of execution that Rock of Ages lacks. The Injustice Gang plot ultimately feels like an excuse to set up Darkseid's dystopian future, but it takes about half the book to get to that point. Worse yet, this dystopia seems rather off-the-rack. Aside from a few references to the Anti-Life Equation, this could really be any other "heroes face future in which evil wins" scenario. The Fourth World stuff is basically window dressing; with a few minor changes, this dark future where Darkseid won reminds me of the dark future where the villain won in about a million other comics and cartoons. There are a few interesting touches, such as the helmets which enslaved humans are forced to wear (three pairs of hands covering eyes, ears, and mouth), but mostly this is generic supervillain dystopia.

Once again, most of that is down to inadequate visuals. Much of the blame rests at the feet of Porter, whose Darkseid mostly resembles a gorilla made out of rocks, and whose urban hellscape tends to just look like darkened city streets--the sort of thing you would expect in an early issue of Spawn. But Morrison also deserves much of the blame for writing a script with so much shit in it that only the most accomplished artists could create an evocative sense of doom. If decompression is responsible for eliminating stories like this, then I would like to absolve it of all its other sins. Rather than give us a chance to learn what exactly this terrible future entails for Earth, Morrison keeps throwing future versions of superheroes at us--which is exactly what most of JLA's readers were probably eagerly expecting. But it makes for a confusing, overstuffed story. I'm still not sure what's up with Batman and Desaad (the former having replaced the latter at...some point? And then continued to imitate him for a number of years?).

I'm also kind of shocked at how poorly written many of the characters are. Morrison doesn't seem to have a clue how to write the Joker, who's in full-on manic gab-bag mode here. Plastic Man is pretty much intolerable. And Darkseid is reduced to uttering lines like "No. My zombie factory" (as he watches his zombie factory on the moon explode, naturally).

Which isn't to say there aren't a few rewarding moments here. I like that Morrison subtly suggests that Green Lantern didn't fall prey to Circe's mind control because his willpower was too strong--this is the sort of plot point which other writers would hammer into the ground. And Wonderworld is the sort of thing which I read Morrison's comics for--crazy, mythic, and kind of funny as well. And it's an appropriate tribute to Jack Kirby, given the presence of his characters in this issue. Still, I have to complain that the art keeps Wonderworld from being quite as wondrous as the name implies. The scene with Adam One certainly imparted an appropriate sense of scale, but otherwise, Wonderworld looked like the JLA headquarters. Or Darkseid's headquarters. Or every other setting.

Of course, the failings of Rock of Ages won't necessarily befall Final Crisis. One immediately obvious improvement is in the pacing; there's actually some breathing room here. While the first issue didn't seem to resonate with the masses, I appreciated the way it set the tone for the rest of the series (to date). Morrison also seems to be juggling multiple plotlines with a bit more ease, giving us time to savor the creepiness of Libra, the mixture of hope and fear surrounding the return of Barry Allen, and the emergence of new heroes (and, presumably, New Gods) in Sonny Sumo and Shilo Norman. It's not all so compelling--I'd echo Jog's complaints about Green Lantern and Superman. But there are none of the flat-out storytelling failures we see in Rock of Ages.

A lot of the credit for this has to go to JG Jones, who is a much more accomplished artist than the Howard Porter of 10 years ago. It's certainly easier to establish atmosphere when working with an artist so easily able to capture a variety of settings. Jones' designs (which presumably featured substantial input from Morrison) are excellent as well; the new Female Furies (with the possible exception of Catwoman) are phenomenal. Improvements in coloring technology probably don't hurt either, and Alex Sinclair certainly uses them well in establishing a much more convincing dystopia than that which appeared in Rock of Ages.

Most important of all is Morrison' improved handling of the Fourth World characters and concepts. Darkseid was essentially the only representation of Kirby's vision in Rock of Ages, and he was brutally generic there. Here, we have a variety of unsettling New Gods, both in original form (like Mokkari) and the new manifestations. The reincarnation of the New Gods is turning out to be a remarkably successful strategy by Morrison. This is much closer to Kirby's vision than almost any subsequent version I've ever read; more importantly, it really works for this story.

Though I'm quite impressed with Final Crisis as a whole, I'm still curious to see how Morrison handles its similarity to Rock of Ages. I wouldn't really be disappointed to see no mention of the similarities, but I don't think it's Morrison's nature to ignore it. Maybe Morrison will provide his earlier attempt at an apocalyptic Fourth World story with some ex post facto fortification. Until then, Rock of Ages is totally inessential to all but the most devoted Morrisonologists.

*Which is not to say that the smiling, orange-and-green Aquaman from Superfriends is any less ridiculous. It's funny that this character's presence on said show made him so recognizable as to ensure endless revamp attempts, yet it's the stupidity of Aquaman's portrayal on Superfriends ("I'll be in the ocean if you need me!") which ensures that practically no one between the ages of 25 and 50 will ever take him seriously. And now those younger folks unfortunate enough to read any recent comic featuring Aquaman will be wondering why he's wearing that stupid orange shirt instead of that stupid metal harness.

**Apparently Morrison has Luthor use this term because he plans on replacing the soon-to-be-deceased Justice League with his own "corporate" League, led by largely-forgotten Morrison creation Aztek. This is only briefly mentioned, and mostly seems to be here in order to set up a new storyline in Aztek's own ongoing comic.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Review: Fatal Faux-Pas (plus: more on my convention phobia)

Fatal Faux-Pas
Samuel Gaskin
Secret Acres

I've repeatedly mentioned here how much I hate the idea of comics conventions. Not so much the reality--the only noteworthy convention I've ever attended was the 1994 Heroes Con in Charlotte--but the very idea of spending time in an enclosed space with people who know more about Red Tornado than me (not that my knowledge of Red Tornado is especially deep by internet standards, but I surely possess greater knowledge of the character than the sort of person one might typically describe as living a rich, fulfilling life). I don't even like shopping in a comics store on a busy day; the last thing I want to do is spend hours with such folks in an environment which encourages them to completely surrender to all their nerdly impulses. And that's not even counting all the industry schmoozing, the presence of G4's on-air personalities or Star Trek extras, or any of the other things about San Diego which made me too depressed about comics to write anything here for several weeks.*

And, frankly, there's some social anxiety at work as well. I don't like crowds, I'm sort of shy with folks I don't know, and I'm kind of suspicious of using alcohol as a social lubricant, mostly because I'm sentimental and long-winded when drunk. And so I have no idea the last time I was drunk in public. I'm not really sure when I was last drunk--probably when I last made risotto. Cause, really, there's not much else to do besides drink a beer or two when you're trying to cook risotto. Oh, and I don't like bars. So nothing about a convention seems as unpleasant to me as hanging out in a crowded hotel bar with a bunch of people I just met, just drunk enough to start pontificating on the role of comics in my childhood relationship with my father within the earshot of any other living human being.

But, having said all that, I'm still planning on hitting the two big west coast alternative comics cons (APE and Stumptown) because I really like the idea of a convention from the perspective of a consumer. I can completely understand why the folks at IDW are skeptical about the advantages of a convention--even the horrible comic store in my new city of residence** carries IDW titles, so it's not like they really need the exposure or sales that come with a convention appearance. But a small press show (theoretically) exposes you to material you wouldn't normally find in a local comic shop, no matter how good.

And that, at long last, brings us to Samuel Gaskin's Fatal Faux-Pas. This isn't a comic you will have to go to a convention to track down--it's on Amazon--but it seems like the sort of amazing discovery you read about people making at shows like SPX. Actually, it seems like several amazing discoveries put together, as Gaskin works in a number of veins. There's heavily ironic, pop-culture referencing strips, sketches, avant-garde passages, satires of other comics (most notably John Porcellino's King Cat), and a couple of longer, funny stories as well.

Those two stories probably are my favorite out of everything in the book, but they're really nothing alike. The first, "My Kinski," deals with a mainstream filmmaker who decides to make an "independent" film by copying the worst excesses of Werner Herzog. The latter, "Escape," is the story of someone escaping from prison; maybe it's because I recently read Boy's Club, but I found it somewhat reminiscent of Matt Furie, especially a scene in which the protagonist eats the filling out of a taco. The very loose plot primarily serves as a venue for Gaskin's humor, much of which involves grotesque/surreal body manipulation. "My Kinski," however, has a much tighter pace, delivering precise gags intended to highlight the absurdity of the situation.

I thought both these stories were pretty funny, which speaks well for Gaskin's range as a cartoonist. Perhaps even more impressive was the success of the strips referencing pop culture. I generally hate this kind of humor, especially if it's the lazy, Seth MacFarlane-ish recognition humor. (You know, "Hey, do you remember old toothpaste commercials? So do I! Awesome!") These were much funnier, not entirely reliant on the reader's familiarity with pop culture artifact (with the possible exception of the Harry Potter/Black Sabbath strip, which probably makes no sense at all if you aren't familiar with Sabbath and at least one other band (I won't spoil who), and which is probably even better if you are more familiar with Harry Potter than I am; my wife, who is familiar with both Harry Potter and Black Sabbath, seemed to really like it).

I was especially impressed with the Saved By the Bell strip. I've never seen an episode of the show, and my knowledge of it is limited to knowing that Screech is the one who is a nerd. But Gaskin keeps my interest with some pretty clever formal play and off-kilter execution (for instance, all the speech balloons snake around, the tails exiting the speaker's mouth in a somewhat unsettling way). And it was still funny.

Fatal Faux-Pas has a very tossed-off feel to it, the more developed strips sitting alongside sketchbook material and short, hastily-drawn comics. I guess you could interpret this approach in two ways: you could think of this as a hint of Gaskin's potential, or you could appreciate its loopy, eclectic charm. I'm kind of in the latter camp, even though I thought the more polished material was generally much stronger. So I guess I do expect greater things form Samuel Gaskin in the future, but there's plenty here to enjoy right now. If you appreciate the work of Michael Kupperman or Sam Henderson, or possibly even CF or James Kochalka, you'll find Fatal Faux-Pas well worth your time.

*Also I was busy. And distracted--we get Boomerang and NFL Network now. I never thought I'd be having conversations with my wife about the merits of Jabberjaw vs. Muttley, or Brett Favre's unwillingness to put in time in the film room.

**More on that in a few days. Man, am I bummed about this situation.

Review copy provided by publisher