Monday, February 23, 2009

Nether World and Black Jack vol. 2

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, reviews of Nether World # 1 (Studio 407, 2009) and Black Jack volume two (Vertical, 2008).

Studio 407 seems to have been launched with a heady mix of ideas and aspirations, but if the first issue of Nether World is any indicator, these aspirations have more to do with motion picture royalties than making good comics. Chad Jones' story is not necessarily a bad one, if a little familiar - all life signs have vanished from a remote outpost, so a battalion of astronauts from all walks of life are ordered to investigate - and there's a satisfying twist which will leave readers curious what will happen next.

The problem is that Jones seems more interested in how his story will play as a feature film than as a comic. As the first twelve or thirteen minutes of a movie, this material might be passable, but in a comic book it is dull as can be imagined, just endless pages of good looking folks in form-fitting suits developing their characters by discussing their fears. If it's that important to get into his characters' heads before the plot starts, Jones could definitely find several lessons in the short-form work of, say, Alan Moore in how to make memorable characters that the reader cares about far more quickly than this. R.B. Silva's artwork is not at all bad, and I liked his design work, but he's up against an awful wall trying to make the first twenty pages of this comic in any way visually interesting, because it's just panel after panel of talking heads.

I'm curious about the comic's intent and target in light of what I've written. Perhaps it's too cynical to call the book out as nothing more than "something for Hollywood to option," but a comic has to work within its own confines, as a work that uses its medium well to tell a story that is first and foremost a comic. Nether World might well make a terrific movie, and I've no objection to the plot that Jones and Silva have developed, but what's seen here, in this format is deeply flawed to the point of being useless. Not recommended.

A copy of this title was provided for the purpose of review.

In light of the above, it's interesting to consider how Osamu Tezuka developed his supporting characters. Each weekly episode of Black Jack ran for only 16-20 pages, but each contained a memorable cast of background players, each of whom is present because they serve a function to the plot, and readers will remember them naturally as they recall each episode's storyline.

I love the strange morality in each Black Jack installment, where our titular hero is the only person who can be allowed the sin of greed. Anybody else who would put their pocketbook over the needs of the sick is shown to be wrong, but Dr. Black Jack can get away with anything, and sits in a strange poistion of ethical judgement over all others. Even when he's shown up by a blind acupuncturist who doesn't charge for his services, our hero just has to wait for the other guy to make a potentially fatal mistake.

The three-hundred-odd pages in the hardcover edition of this book, only available in comic stores serviced by the thrice-damned monopoly that is Diamond, includes an otherwise unavailable story featuring Black Jack's recurring nemesis Dr. Kiriko. Watching the stories unfold and finding the solution to the latest strange and desperate situation is one of the best treats available in comics today. Highly recommended, of course.

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