Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Supernatural Not-So-Serious Edition with the Phantom Stranger and Bec & Kawl

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. Today: reviews of Showcase Presents: The Phantom Stranger vol. 2 (DC, 2008) and Bec & Kawl: Bloody Students (Rebellion, 2006).

I've always had a soft spot for the Phantom Stranger, a pretentious dandy who wanders through the DC Universe offering portentous warnings about impending doom in creepy little occult stories. You'd call them morality tales, but they all have pretty much the same moral: don't be a greedy jerk.

The first volume was weighed down by an overreliance on a the Phantom Stranger's skeptical opposite number, a short-tempered loudmouth named Dr. Thirteen who doesn't believe in the supernatural. Dr. Thirteen doesn't make as many appearances here, mercifully, but there is a small supporting cast who show up from time to time, so it is not quite as episodic and patchy as this might otherwise feel. But speaking of short tempers, so many of the characters in this book are on their last nerve before the Stranger shows up that it's no wonder everybody's shouting all the time. The Stranger also makes an enemy of a "scientist" who's so utterly demented that his illogical, idiot ranting is quite unlike anything else I've seen in comics.

Anyway, it's a good buy, just under 500 pages for $17, and I found it consistently entertaining, and would recommend it to readers of all ages. The same can't be said for the next entry...

I think I like the idea of Bec & Kawl more than the reality. This is a series which appeared in month-long bursts in the pages of 2000 AD periodically from 2002-06, and it's occasionally very funny, but also equally frustrating. It's about a pair of university students who keep having brushes with the uncanny and impossible. Beccy Miller is a goth in the fine arts program who dreams of world domination via demonic assistance, and Jarrod Kawl is a film student who'll probably never amount to anything because he spends most of his time stoned.

Bec & Kawl was the first ongoing series for Simon Spurrier and Steve Roberts, and frankly, it shows. The storytelling, particularly in the first half of the book, is simply awful, with no feeling of flow from panel to panel. Both creators have improved dramatically over time, but even the last two stories here are overwordy, with confusing climaxes. When Bec & Kawl does work, it works very well. I quite liked a mumbling friend of the pair with no self-esteem who spends three episodes being overlooked, finally exploding with so much to say, seconds before she's killed, and there's a hilarious page where Kawl spends an entire day with the same goofball expression of happiness. And then there's Kawl's pothead uncle, who owns some pretty substantial real estate in Hell which a certain former British prime minister wants to privatise. But much as I want to champion this series, great moments like these are few and far between. It's sort of like that great Star Wars essay where it's explained that Star Wars fans actually hate everything about Star Wars, apart from the idea; the promise itself is what they love.

There's an interview with Spurrier in the back where he notes some forthcoming storylines, but Bec & Kawl has been MIA for more than two years at this point, while Spurrier has been spinning his wheels doing trademark protection at Marvel. I'd certainly prefer to see him back at work on his wonderful characters Lobster Random, Jack Point, Harry Kipling and even these two than wasting his time on past-their-prime bores like Silver Surfer and Ghost Rider, who should have been retired thirty years ago. I can't give this a really strong recommendation, but the occult comedy would probably go over well with fans of Lenore and Emily the Strange.

(Originally posted May 21, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

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