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.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Best of Tharg's Future Shocks

Speaking of Tharg's Future Shocks, in a nice bit of timing, we hit their return in this reread [over at my Thrillpowered Thursday blog -- grant] just as I finished Rebellion's new collection of several dozen classic ones. The title stretches the truth ever so slightly: rather than somebody's subjective take on the actual best one-offs from the comic, excepting the ones by Alan Moore which have already been compiled, this is a collection of episodes from four of 2000 AD's best-known writers. So it contains a pile of John Smith Shocks, a majority of Peter Milligan episodes, all but one of Grant Morrison's offerings ("Candy and the Catchman" is omitted), and everything that Neil Gaiman ever wrote for the comic.

Certainly the resulting book is uneven and choppy, but there are some real gems to be found in its pages. Grant Morrison's early attempts at channelling Alan Moore are pretty revealing, and not just from an archaeological standpoint. "The Shop That Sold Everything" is really funny, even if the end isn't so much a twist as it is an inevitability. I've also always enjoyed John Smith's "A Change of Scenery," which was the first appearance of some of his Indigo Prime characters, among many other strips in this book.

Seeing characters like Indigo Prime and Ulysses Sweet here actually makes me think that the book's only real flaw is that it didn't collect the five or six one-off adventures of Joe Black by Kelvin Gosnell from the early eighties. That's just quibbling, of course, those are outside the perview of the book, but one of the many things that did make 2000 AD interesting in the early 80s was the existence of characters who only showed up in one-offs or very short series. Dr. Dibworthy and Abelard Snazz were compiled in the big Moore book from a couple of years ago, and it's a real shame Tharg doesn't have any characters like that today.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday, Feb. 19 2009.)

Punk Rock and Trailer Parks

The gentleman behind this fun coming-of-age story, telling the tale of a bouncer at a punk club in Akron in 1979-80, calls himself Derf, and he's an excellent artist. Like Peter Bagge, he's chosen to work in a visually repellent style, with remarkably ugly drawings of really ugly people, but once I got used to his quirks, I was completely blown away by how densely he packs his pages with detail, and how well he uses the format to tell his story.

The book's focus is a big, gawky band kid who calls himself the Baron, and he spends his senior year of high school working the door of The Bank, a legendary club that played host to Klaus Nomi, the Ramones, the Plasmatics and several of the era's underground stars. But really, it could be any kid in any American town at any time, struggling to get by, dealing with hormones and awkwardness and hoping there's something better out there somewhere, especially when all the idiots around you in high school listened to much worse music than you.

Slave Labor Graphics loses a point or two from me in their selection of the lousy, thin paper of the book, but the $16 price point is very reasonable for an original novel of this length. It's not a book for kids, but it gets a recommendation from me for anybody else, especially so if you're in your thirties and will enjoy all the musical references.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Roy and the Huntress

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 The Bumper Book of Roy of the Rovers (Titan, 2008) and Huntress: Darknight Daughter (DC, 2006).

This is a very fun little curiosity, albeit one with pretty limited appeal to a pretty small subset of American readers. Roy of the Rovers was a strip about a famous soccer player, and it ran for about forty years. Titan landed the reprint rights, and this is their second release of the property. It is a compilation of the best bits from about a dozen of the Christmastime annuals that I enjoy so much, and is a mix of comic strips and short stories, along with quizzes about footie rules, profiles of famous stars, and charts of various clubs' team colors.

I've been assured that if you follow soccer, you will probably find this a charming little book. If you're like me and enjoy old British annuals, you'll also get a kick out of its quaint little charm. If you don't fall into one of those categories, I can't see this providing very much appeal. These can't, objectively, be called very good comics, although the one where a supporter of a rival club is convinced that Roy is paying off the referee is pretty amusing. One thing that I did like is that Titan resisted the urge to market this towards the collector's end of the marketplace, as they do most of their other classic releases, without checklists or credits or background information. This is just 120 pages on crummy paper, reproducing the experience of reading this sort of thing as a kid on a Christmas afternoon. Recommended for nostalgists.

DC used to publish some comics where the superheroes who debuted in the 1930s and 1940s aged in real time, instead of being stuck in their mid-to-late thirties. In those books, Batman and Catwoman were said to have married in 1955, and as time marched on and age forced the Dark Knight to put away the tights, their daughter, crusading attorney Helena Wayne, donned costume and crossbow to defend Gotham City in the late seventies.

This book collects most of the Huntress's appearances as a solo character up to about 1982, starting with some features in DC's anthology titles before the feature, by Paul Levitz and Joe Staton, became a regular eight-page backup in Wonder Woman. The Huntress herself is a terrific character, confident in her training both as a detective and a vigilante, and I was reading these books at the time more interested in her than in the increasingly dull lead feature.

Levitz's use of strong, ongoing subplots elevates the material above standard DC fare of the day, but the collected format also exposes holes in his long-term plotting. Readers probably wouldn't have noticed this at the time, but the twenty or so episodes, including fights with four separate costumed villains, a citywide crime wave and a prison break, seem to happen across maybe five days, during which our heroine is knocked unconscious about seven times. This is surely a candidate for "the worst week ever," but since the episodes were written over the course of two years, it might not have occurred to the creators to address it.

As for Staton, well, his artwork is for the most part completely wonderful. I love his use of perspective, and the way Huntress always seems to have a way to swing from a wire to any location without question as to how she got there or where she's going. On the other hand, I found myself really actively bothered by the way he draws the Joker's elongated chin as extending down to around his stomach.

Overall, despite some dated stylization in presentation, such as characters' tendencies to recap the plot while talking to themselves, these are very good comics for their day and have aged quite well. They're not a patch on what Levitz would do with Legion of Super-Heroes right around the same time, but on the other hand, they're considerably more readable than DC's contemporary output. Recommended for superhero fans.

(Originally posted February 13, 2009 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Slaine Vol. 3

Speaking of reprints, in other news, I finally tracked down a copy of the third Slaine collection a few months ago. This, The King, was one that Diamond never saw fit to deliver to my local comic shop, along with Mega-City Undercover, which was released the same week. Fortunately, I found a copy at The Great Escape in Nashville in November. This is a really spectacular shop, worth driving a hundred miles out of your way to visit. The book reprints close to forty episodes which originally saw print between 1985 and 1988.

Much as Pat Mills has a story to tell, the star of the book is Glenn Fabry, who illustrated about half the episodes. When these episodes originally ran, it felt like there was one delay after another pushing back new Slaine stories. Fabry drew just a handful of the pages in the "Tomb of Terror" storyline, a 15-part diversion from Mills' ongoing goal of reuniting the warrior with his tribe. The bulk of "Tomb" was illustrated by David Pugh, and was accompanied by a pencil-and-dice role-playing supplement with each new episode. The RPG pages, with artwork by Garry Leach, are included as a bonus feature in the back, making this one of the cutest little extras that Rebellion has presented.

After "Tomb," there was a break of about nine months before Mike Collins and Mark Farmer took on art chores for a seven week, Zodiac-related serial. Then Fabry got the reins for the twelve-part "Slaine the King," which originally ran in two chunks over five months. Ever behind on his deadlines, and probably deep in debt with his local Dick Blick for all the ink he was using, Fabry's amazing work was worth the wait at the time and just looks better on these pages. The definitive Slaine artist is probably McMahon to me, but Fabry's a very close second.

It was originally thought that Fabry would be illustrating the classic "Horned God," to appear in the standard black-and-white with a color centerspread, shortly after the completion of the Judge Dredd epic "Oz" wrapped up in 1988. As 2000 AD changed paper size and increased its color pages, it was eventually decided that Simon Bisley would paint the epic instead. A little more than a year after the conclusion of "Slaine the King," four last black and white Fabry episodes appeared as a teaser strip and a three-part miniseries. These served as a taster prelude for the forthcoming "Horned God."

Around the same time, Mills and Fabry collaborated on a color newspaper strip called Scatha which was truncated by The News on Sunday's imminent failure. You can read more about that and see some sample episodes over at Bear Alley. Fabry also contributed a color pin-up of Slaine's enemy Megrim as a taster for his unproduced color epic which ran on the back cover of prog 524. It might have been frustrating twenty years ago waiting for each new storyline to get going, but it really resulted in some great comics. Even if you don't like the character of Slaine, this book is certainly recommended for Fabry's glorious artwork. Hopefully Diamond will treat your store better than mine and get you a copy quickly!

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday, February 05, 2009.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bond and Tobey

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 James Bond: The History of the Illustrated 007 (Hermes, 2008) and B. Tobey of The New Yorker (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1983).

This is a very interesting overview of James Bond's lengthy career in comics, ranging from the newspaper strips to cameo appearances to adaptations of the films. Alan Porter has done an exemplary job tracking down stories from all over the world and interviewed many of the writers and artists who've worked on the character to flesh out the backgrounds behind the stories.

The book is gorgeously presented, with dozens of illustrations on very nice paper, but I found the layout occasionally aggravating. The bulk of the book is comprised of a list of stories, with creators, plot points and reprint details, arranged into two columns of text per page. This might be dismissed as a nitpick from a frustrated wannabe designer, but this leaves an awful lot of dead white space on many pages, and starting each entry with the title of each story in nondescript Impact font doesn't strike me as the best solution. I really enjoyed kicking back and following the presentation of stories throughout the 1970s, popping from British newspaper strips to Swedish comic books, but I wonder whether the book might work better as a secondary research source had each thread of Bond continuity been given its own section.

If you're not like me, and are able to avoid second-guessing the presentation of everything you read, you probably won't find these sorts of quibbles. Those aside, it's a genuinely fine book. If you really like James Bond, you're probably enjoying Titan's reprint series of the newspaper strips already, and this is a fabulous companion to those volumes. Porter's commentary is honest and informed. He doesn't hesitate to point out when some of the storylines get eyebrow-raisingly silly, and the background commentary to Bond's occasional truncated adventures-in-progress (such as the Thunderball strip or Topps' aborted adaptation of Goldeneye) is very interesting. In all, this is a perfectly good addition to any Bond-lover's bookshelf.

Barney Tobey, who passed away in 1989, specialized in dry panels where middle-management suburbanites were confronted with modern art, or visited Europe as baffled tourists. I might say that very little in this collection of 120-odd cartoons is on as consistently a knockout level as Tobey's New Yorker colleagues Charles Addams or Jack Ziegler, but I don't think potential readers should view that as a dismissal, either.

I read this yesterday during that agonizing weekly visit to the allergy clinic, and at one point turned a page and laughed so loudly and for so long that we had the full attention of every bored, suffering person there, much to the absolute, acute embarassment of my son, who was chuckling all the way through the latest Dr. Slump volume with much less noise.

Every decent library should have at least one New Yorker collection. I wouldn't pay an exorbitant price from an out-of-print specialist for this, but it certainly shouldn't be passed up if found in a good used bookstore, either.

(Originally posted February 04, 2009 at hipsterdad's LJ.)