Thursday, October 30, 2008

Love and Rockets and Ranma

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Love & Rockets: New Stories volume one (Fantagraphics, 2008) and Ranma ½ volume two (Viz, 2003).

Though it pains me to say it, this is a little bit nonessential. Jaime Hernandez's fifty-page tale (broken in half, and with a cliffhanger ending) of bizarre superpowered tomfoolery among his world's supporting cast is pretty fun. Basically, Penny Century finally gets her odd wish to become superhuman, and wacky hijinks involving a pair of all-female superteams follow. It's not at all bad, especially when compared to what passes for this sort of action among contemporary comics. His linework and storytelling are clear and easy to follow, and it probably only fails for not providing what I narrowmindedly was hoping to see. But it's incredibly difficult to connect with characters whom you'll likely never meet again, and who have been drawn in such broad strokes, as these characters tend to be.

Gilbert's stories are even harder to love. No longer working within his extended Palomar narrative, he's apparently turned to illustrating his own nightmares. His fifty pages include some genuinely freaky little tales, including one about some zombifying worms that get into packed lunches out in that nebulous, rural Central American somewhere that he draws so well, and another which reimagines Martin & Lewis as unkillable oddballs punching their way across an alien landscape. They're both great storytellers, and there's nothing here that's not worth reading, but these are creators who have each moved me to tears in the past, and there was no chance of that happening here. Recommended for devotees.

Well, at AWA last month, I picked up the next five volumes of Ranma ½, after confirming that my kids liked the first, each for less than the cost of a current newsstand comic. I'll be spacing these out a little myself, although my daughter is impatiently stamping her foot for a seventh volume, which, sorry for her, I don't intend to buy anytime soon.

Anyway, once upon a long, long ago, I picked up the original first collected Japanese edition of Ranma ½ only to conclude this wasn't for me. Not only have I been proven wrong, but had I picked up the second book, I'd have never made that conclusion, because it's incredibly funny. The high point may come towards the end, when Ranma, wearing his female body, gets a gigantic, drama-stopping smooch from some fancypants ice skating dude and returns wearing his male body roaring with anger like somebody out of Kirby's Asgard. This is great stuff; I'm not certain how many of these damn books are going to warrant individual reviews (Ranma ½ vol. 30 is recommended for anybody who read Ranma ½ 1-29...), but I think the series as a whole deserves looking into. Although, I must point out that the greyscale scanning of the sporadic eight-page color sections is pretty poor, even by Viz's standards, and I'd like to see another edition one day which includes the color as it originally appears.

(Originally posted October 30, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

I Yam What I Yam and I Didn't Think it Too Many

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Slaine: The Horned God (Rebellion, 2008) and Popeye: Well, Blow Me Down (Fantagraphics, 2007).

The Slaine epic "The Horned God" was one of the biggest events in British comic publishing in the late '80s. Originally serialized in three chunks across eighteen months, the series by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley was repackaged into three albums and republished throughout Europe and America, turning Bisley into a star and making fully-painted art all the rage in Britain. So how does the story, in which the wandering warrior-turned-tribal king seeks to unite all the tribes of ancient Ireland to war against invading sea demons and the nightmarish army of the Lord Weird Slough Feg, hold up?

Surprisingly well. Contrary to its popularity, "The Horned God" is certainly not the greatest of Slaine stories, but the novel use of the dwarf Ukko's long-after-the-fact narration allows Mills to retell events from the earlier stories from a new perspective, and what you get in this volume feels less like the fourth book in a longer series than a solid, satisfying read in its own right. Bisley's inventive, perhaps mercurial use of different styles throughout the saga gives it a sense of really huge scale, that what you're reading is an epic greater than something from a twenty year-old comic. I think that there are certainly better Slaine stories, and its impossible to separate "The Horned God" from all the heavily-musculatured painted posing that would bury Bisley's talent in time, never mind impact the look of British comics for at least the next seven years, but it's very solid in its own right, and should be judged very positively on its own merits.

There have been several editions of the story over the years, but Rebellion's new edition knocks them all out of the water. They have been really setting the bar with their 2000 AD books, but this one might be the best one yet. The cover and paper stock are as good as ever, but Pat Mills contributed a remarkable set of annotations to close out this volume, and they had me looking over pages to see things I'd never noticed before. Simply great stuff, and something you really need to order right away.

Hold the phone. You're going to want this as well.

Popeye is another series where I'm well behind the current editions - this is about a year old and the third book is due out soon, but as I'm not gettin' comp copies from anybody, you just have to take 'em as you get 'em. This second edition of Segar's old newspaper strip features Thimble Theatre stories from the early 1930s, and is about equally split with about 90 pages of dailies and 80 pages of Sundays. The dailies tell one amazingly fun continuity where Popeye and Olive go west to manage a ranch deep in criminal badlands, and get drafted to stratergerize a war between two dingbat kingdoms somewhere in the Mediterranean or someplace. The Sundays tell a separate continuity on the homefront where, when he's not being set up for another completely ridiculous prize fight, Popeye's wooing his lady love and eating at the greasiest greasy spoon you've ever seen, and arguing politicks with the owner while the friendless layabout Mr. Wimpy tries to get hamburgers on credit.

It is completely addictive, totally silly, and some of the most emphatically laugh-out-loud material I've sat down to read in ages. I knew this going in; the first volume completely knocked out that considerable stack of skepticism I'd built up over the years, thinking the comic was anything like the mediocre cartoon series. I wish it was not worth wasting space restating in the future, but I fear it'll take a while for the word to get out: don't judge these comics based on all the immunity you'd built up over the years to those godawful King Features cartoons stacked up on your UHF channel afternoons in the late 70s when you were waiting for something good to come on.

The print Popeye was a totally different beast, full of bizarre wordplay, plot twists, spectacular sight gags, and the fantastic lead character, swaggering without compromise as he socks and bludgeons his way through an unbelievable enemies' list. Two-fisted violence never looks quite so hilarious as when Popeye lays somebody out among the swee'peas, and the panels of Wimpy standing on a lunch counter shouting "HEY!" while Popeye and Roughneck scream at each other how Congress never helps either sailors or restauranteurs make me chuckle just thinking about them. Actually, the best thing in the book might be a surprising, yet simple, Sunday strip in which Wimpy pilfers sixty cents from the cash register. Jesus, this is a good book. Does the third volume ship this week?

(Originally posted October 27, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fun Home and She-Hulk

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Fun Home (Mariner/Houghton-Mifflin, 2007) and She-Hulk vol. 5 (Marvel, 2007).

You know how sometimes you just hear that there's a really great book or film or something out there, but you never actually hear what the art in question's about? Sometimes there is good reason for that. Fun Home is a memoir of growing up in rural Pennsylvania, and of course I heard all of the praise and commendations heaped upon it (Book of the Year in Time, you know), but not one word about its subject or content. Well, until some bluenose students at a university in Utah got their panties in a twist about a sex scene, anyway. I think that's the way it should be. Fun Home is a remarkable book that evokes everything from F. Scott Fiztgerald to James Joyce as it tells its incredibly moving story, and Alison Bechdel completely pulls you in with her narrative style, occasionally telling of the same incidents in different ways as they fit each chapter's flow. It's a very effective and very wonderful book, highly recommended.

Well, this is the fifth and final collection of Dan Slott's three-year run writing She-Hulk, and it is the least entertaining of the five, but still very worthwhile and very clever. I was disappointed in it because the earlier editions felt for the most part like they existed, happily, in a nebulous non-continuity, where knowing the ramifications of Marvel's soap-like universe was not essential to understand the subplots that drive the story. Having some idea of what came before has always been part of this iteration of She-Hulk's winking charm, and in fact, a character gets out of a scrape in this volume specifically because he remembers old Bill Mantlo plots from late '70s Marvel black and white magazines.

But while Slott's She-Hulk started as a more reader-friendly, unique book in its own little corner of the shared universe, I suppose its low sales prompted Marvel to start incorporating it into their line-wide changes with constant "everything will change!" events. Since I couldn't care less about the fallout from Civil War or World War Hulk or whatever, this didn't feel like a book that wanted me to read it anymore. Although there is an amusing and well-timed conversation about Marvel's reliance on double-page establishing shots in expensive comics, and how Kirby could have done the same in a single panel, which was an unexpected surprise. When a character complains that he doesn't appreciate spending 27 cents of a $3 comic just to be told that a Helicarrier is big, you can't help but agree. Recommended for Marvel fans.

(Originally posted October 22, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dororo and Girls With Slingshots

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Dororo vol. 3 (Vertical, 2008) and Girls With Slingshots (self-published, 2007).

It's not long since we last saw Hyakkimaru and Dororo, hunting evil spirits and getting on the bad side of samurai and thieves, but their demon-killing mission hasn't changed much. They have a lengthy adventure involving a lunatic obsessed with sharks, and there is a demon in a lake in another... and no sooner did I get over that last little quibble with the off-putting occasional moments of anachronistic comedy and embrace this little work of genius wholeheartedly - around the time that Hyakkimaru finds a breathtakingly novel way to bring down a charging horse - than it ended. Apparently, Osamu Tezuka was contracted to provide a year's worth of episodes, and once finished, he had other projects to jump into. The story goes that he always intended to return to this one, in much the same way he would draw a few months' worth of Phoenix episodes every couple of years, but never found the time. So it reaches an ending, but the overall quest is never concluded. In sum, it might be a bit much to call this a masterpiece, but it's an exceptional series and every comic lover needs all three volumes on their bookshelf. Next up: Black Jack!

I'm such a fickle lover of webcomics. I guess that if I can't get the darn thing to appear as one of my three (three!!) strips in My Yahoo, it eventually falls off my radar. At least four times this year, I've slapped my head with the shock realisation that I haven't looked at Subnormality in ages. Heaven only knows how many webcomics, their bookmarks stored on a long abandoned browser, I have completely forgotten about.

I mention that because it's reasonable to note my fair-weather fandom about things that I want to love, but something about the delivery medium prevents me from committing to. I need to have something to carry around, to read at lunch, or while kicked back on my couch. So since Danielle Corsetto's delightful Girls With Slingshots has been one of those periodic every-once-in-a-while interests, on the strength of its bawdy humor, bizarre situations and great artwork, I was pleased to buy a collected edition of the first 200 strips... just as soon as I remembered, after many months, to stop by the site and see what was new with the grouchy Hazel and her free-spirited best pal Jamie.

Corsetto did a fabulous job in compiling material for the book. Apart from the strips, there are fifty pages of additional features, ranging from examples of the high school antecedent of GWS to ads and commissioned art of the characters. Obviously, webcomickers have a tough time ahead in convincing buyers to shell out for collected editions; after all, the material is freely available on their website, and stacks of bonuses like this might be necessary to make people pony up. But heck, this is exactly the sort of thing I want to see in every collected edition; I can't stand bare-bones efforts like you see from Marvel or Vertigo these days.

Anyway, this is the first in a projected series of GWS editions, and I certainly hope it continues. You can sample the comic at its website and you can read an interview with Corsetto at Comicon and I happily recommend this collection for mature readers.

(Now, can we get Jeph Jacques to start cranking out some Questionable Content books... pretty please?)

(Originally posted October 15, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Slump and Skrulls

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Dr. Slump vol. 16 (Viz, 2008) and Skrull Kill Krew (Marvel, 2006).

Well, now the last time that I spoke of Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump in these pages, I was incredulous over the shark-jumping awfulness that was Turbo, the closest thing in Japanese comics to Scrappy-Doo that I'd ever seen. Of course, the problem with Scrappy-Doo was not the introduction of a new supporting character; it was the introduction of a new main character, knocking the existing cast into a gang of second bananas. So it was with Turbo, the magic baby that could do anything, except perhaps save a gag strip that had run its course for another year.

So I was in no particular rush to continue with Slump, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that after Turbo's initial three-month domination of the comic, he was quickly sidelined in favor of more fun Arale strips, particularly a three-parter where she and Senbei are turned into flies, along with some bizarre meta-commentary in which Toriyama, along with his assistant Takashi Matsuyama, interact with their characters, answer reader questions and look at life a decade down the road for the cast. This is definitely material past its prime, but I laughed more than once, and the work suggests that maybe if you've made it this far, you may as well see it to the end. (Volume 18, apparently.) Recommended for existing readers.

(Bonus: Rumic World has a 1986 interview with Toriyama and Rumiko Takahashi available on their site. You should check that out.)

Now here's a book I've been intentionally avoiding for better than ten years. In the mid-90s, Grant Morrison was co-writing a lot of subpar material with Mark Millar, and Marvel Comics had introduced a line called "Marvel Edge" where they could publish all their EXTREME!! stories. The mid-90s were a time for lots of EXTREME!! everything, and intentionally misspelled words, and comics that could be safely avoided. But for a buck and a half at one of the Great Escapes in Nashville, I figured the collected edition was worth it. And maybe it was, just.

So the idea here is that some people have contracted an alien virus that allows them to see the shapeshifting aliens who have infiltrated our society, but the virus is terminal and they are quickly dying. Five of these people resolve to spend their last days motorcycling around killing as many aliens as possible. There are nods towards such concepts as subplots and character development, and Steve Yeowell's art is occasionally very nice, if badly colored.

Skrull Kill Krew was intended as an ongoing set in the Marvel Universe, but was culled to a five-part miniseries before its launch. The second and third issues feature the Krew getting in the middle of a fight between Captain America and Baron Strucker, and perhaps the failure of this comic can be explained best by putting it this way: five days after I read this, I remember Cap and Strucker's verbal sparring and the dynamic work Yeowell put into their fight, but I couldn't pick any one of the Krew from a police lineup, nor tell you any of their names but one. Recommended if you've got a spare buck and a half.

(Originally posted October 13, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

More British stuff

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Charley's War: Blue's Story (Titan, 2007) and Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files Vol. 10 (Rebellion, 2008).

In the fourth of Titan's collections of the amazing Charley's War, the action shifts to the home front. On leave in London, Charley Bourne meets a deserter from the French Foreign Legion. As the military police pursue them, the man who calls himself Blue tells Charley the story of the battles at Verdun and Fort Vaux.

The detour from the principal Charley's War narrative into this look at the rest of the war originally ran for six months in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly and was notable for a number of innovative cover pages. Most memorable of these is a great image of the trapped, starving soldiers, their supplies cut, holding Fort Vaux and looking out helplessly while a German taunts them, pouring a canteen of precious water onto the muddy ground.

If you've been reading Charley's War, as of course you all should, then you already know that Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun managed something genuinely amazing and moving in every installment. If you're new to the series, this is actually a fine place to start before you go back and pick up the first three books. The reproduction is a little dark and fuzzy in places, and greyscaling the color covers does not always work as well as we would like, but the presentation is great, with introductory material and lengthy afterword commentary by Mills. Highly recommended.

(Note that the fifth book of Charley's War is actually supposed to be in US shops today. Diamond was extraordinarily late shipping this book to my store of choice, hence the belated review.)

The tenth Case Files edition, featuring around 50 episodes originally published in 1986-87, is among the best in this series. Oddly, Judge Dredd is all the better for the lack of a consistent, regular artist, even the good ones like Ron Smith, who, I understand, had taken a sabbatical to do advertising work around this time. With so many great artists all vying for space, there are more opportunities for individual work to shine.

Brendan McCarthy makes a huge splash with the four-part "Atlantis," for instance. Kevin O'Neill gets three episodes in this book, and they really are something to see. "Varks," a story about aliens that reproduce by turning other lifeforms into creatures like them, would have been a creepy and gruesome story in anybody's hands, but O'Neill really turns it into a freakfest. Other artists with standout work include Steve Dillon, Ian Gibson, whose "Paid With Thanks," about a ghost who does not appreciate innovative accounting, is a riot, John Cooper and Cam Kennedy.

John Wagner and Alan Grant were reaching the end of their celebrated regular partnership around this time, but hindsight doesn't show any cracks or tension in these episodes. They are having a ball coming up with more and more goofball citizens and criminals, and letting Dredd reach the end of his patience with their quirks and foibles. Absolutely essential reading, and highly recommended for everybody from longtime fans to newcomers.

(Originally posted October 08, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Time Lords and Showgirls

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Doctor Who: Agent Provocateur (IDW, 2008) and Nevada (DC/Vertigo, 1999).

In 2007, IDW got the license to make Doctor Who comics for the US market, and decided that six-issue miniseries were the way to go. They got Gary Russell, who's been writing Who novels for ages, and feature stories for Doctor Who Magazine since the mid-eighties, to be their first writer, and parceled his six scripts among four artist teams, only one of whom, Nick Roche, depicts the manic energy of the David Tennant series with anything approaching the job I'd like to see done. The other artists are at best passable.

"Agent Provocateur" is weighed down by a remarkably complicated plot and a giant cast of supporting characters, but where it is weighed down the most is in the dialogue. Certainly, Tennant is the Motormouth Doctor, but there has to be a better solution to accurately write for him than filling the most overpacked word balloons you've ever seen on a comic page, leading me to understand at last what the expression "tl,dr" means. Seriously, they were making editorial cartoons a hundred years ago that were easier to read than this mess. Not recommended.

Steve Gerber's fiction has been so important to me over time that, the first time I ever looked back at my own work and realized that I had unconsciously ripped off somebody's work for Marvel Comics - as opposed to intentionally cribbing from somebody like all kids learning to make comics do - it was this soul-crushingly embarassing eight-page proto-GMS Legion episode I did when I was thirteen. It had something to do with a character having a terrible nightmare for some forgotten but critically important reason, reminding him of some nebulous philosophical lesson. About two months after I wrote it, I realized I'd pulled it straight from one of Gerber's Adventure into Fear episodes about a nebulous philosophical lesson that I didn't understand then, either, but I'd somehow subconsciously come to understand that these were the sort of stories that comic books were supposed to tell. Ashamed of my theft, the notebook paper episode in question was crumpled into a ball immediately afterward.

Nevada has been the first Gerber story that I've reread since he passed away earlier this year. Originally published as a six-issue miniseries by Vertigo in 1998, and preceded by an oddball one-off episode in one of that label's periodic anthologies, it is the story of a Las Vegas showgirl and her pet ostrich getting caught between dueling cosmic forces with an interest in our reality, while the management of the hotel where Nevada performs deals with a rash of grisly murders.

Honestly, it's not a complete success. Episode five is really nothing but nebulous philosophical lessons, but you can certainly look at the many examples of Gerber working through his issues with our existence by putting comic book characters through an emotional wringer and railing at someone who claims to be their creator, and see a vision throughout his work quite unlike anybody else in the medium. While this stuff may be a bit heavy for many readers, Nevada herself is an oddly engaging character, despite her abrasive personality and distance. The police procedural stuff, from investigating the grisly murders to questioning a homeless, drunk former academic - a foreshadowing of the Dr. Fate revival he was working on when he passed - is really interesting stuff. Frankly, I found Nevada's cosmic resolution a small disappointment compared to the human possibilities and potentials that the plot promised, and I use "human" with the caution flag of one antagonist having a lava lamp for a head.

Nevada never returned after this outing; I suppose it didn't sell enough to warrant a follow-up, which is a shame. Despite her short shelf life and cosmic detour, Nevada was a classic Gerber character and we're better for having met her. Recommended for mature readers.

(Originally posted October 07, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Needs More Ezquerra

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Preacher: Ancient History (DC/Vertigo, 1998) and Strontium Dog: The Final Solution (Rebellion, 2008).

As I mentioned in Thrillpowered Thursday a few months back, I really don't enjoy Garth Ennis's Preacher and its uncensored, over-the-top brutality and ugliness, despite its wealth of incredible ideas. However, I decided to give a used copy of this a try to get even more Carlos Ezquerra on my shelves. The book compiles a mini-series and two lengthy special editions which tell stories of some of the main title's supporting cast. The mini-series looks at the violent history of the Saint of Killers, the first special gives us the pathetic origin of the tragic Arseface, and the last story recasts the loathsome Jody and T.C. as protagonists in a parody of an action film.

Steve Pugh is not my favorite artist, but he is perfectly suited to the violent western tale of the Saint and the incident that sent him to Hell. Pugh illustrates the first two episodes and they're fantastic, a studied mix of Western tropes and ideas that suggests he and Ennis would be well-matched on Jonah Hex. In episode three, the Saint awakes on the road to Hell. Ezquerra illustrates this episode, and man, does he ever bring his A-game. With the story now shifted from pulp Western to myth and fantasy, Ezquerra turns in some work that's so amazing that when Pugh returns for the final part and the return to the mortal world, it's an unfortunate and unfair disappointment. Still, it is a great story.

Arseface's tale, illustrated by Richard Case, is an oddly affecting parody of mid-90s suburbia, with outcast teens, uncaring parents and rock and roll. I'm not certain whether the story needed to be told, but I really enjoyed reading it, and any chance to see Richard Case at work is worthwhile. Ezquerra returns for Jody and T.C.'s story, and it's played for laughs. You can't call these two monsters "heroes," but the clever recasting of roles lets the superhumanly powerful jerks take control of a spiralling, ridiculous situation while Ennis mocks the tropes of modern action thrillers. If you enjoyed Ennis and Ezquerra's work on Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, you'll probably like this one.

Overall, I ended up preferring these escapades to the one in the main Preacher storyline. The collection is very reasonably priced, and the Saint of Killers story is so darn good that everybody should see it, regardless of your opinion of Preacher. Recommended for mature readers.

The story goes that in the late 80s, as the fight for creators' rights hit British comics, some of 2000 AD's talent and editorial and publishers all began crossing swords over royalties and loyalties, and it was decided that one of the comic's most popular features, Strontium Dog, would be cancelled and its lead character, the bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, killed. It was a traumatic event for many thousands of readers - see episode 2.6 of Spaced - and one which Alpha's artist and co-creator, Carlos Ezquerra, declined to draw, electing instead to work with Pat Mills on Third World War in the new biweekly Crisis. So Johnny's concluding storylines were taken over by writer Alan Grant and up-and-coming artist Simon Harrison.

There is probably a very good story in the mammoth, 28-part "Final Solution," but Harrison's artwork is so incredibly unappealing that we can't swear to that. To his credit, he's a novel and inventive artist, full of energy and the shock of the new. On the other hand, his anatomy and his faces are so poor, and his storytelling so confusing, that what could have been a great tale of Great Britain finding a terrifying solution to "the mutant problem" becomes a chore to decipher. It's a tragic missed opportunity.

At the time, "The Final Solution" was an even greater chore, as Harrison's workload only allowed him sporadic opportunities to complete the art, and his 23 episodes were printed in four chunks over the course of a year. There followed a thirty-week (!) break before the great Colin MacNeil was drafted to complete the story. So the last part of this epic looks remarkably superior to the first 100-odd pages. Rebellion has assembled the story in a very nice package along with three bonus episodes from old annuals and specials, including the incredibly fun story in which Alpha tries to collect a couple of bounties in Mega-City One under Judge Dredd's nose, but while it is nice to have a complete set of the original series in such nice editions, really, the only thing this book proves is that Strontium Dog without Ezquerra is like a day without sunshine. Recommended for completists.

(Originally posted October 03, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)