Thursday, August 28, 2008

Too Cool to Be Forgotten and Shirley

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 Too Cool to Be Forgotten (Top Shelf, 2008) and Shirley (DC/CMX, 2008).

I came late to Alex Robinson, getting two of his better-known books in the last year or so while he was in the studio working on this strange little time travel story, where a fellow undergoes hypnosis in a bid to quit smoking and finds himself stuck in the past, given a new chance to never start in the first place... but is that the only "fix" to his own history that he can make?

I liked it very much, and I'm being hopelessly unfair to Robinson by finding quibbles, but what made Box Office Poison and Tricked so engaging was the effortless juggling of POVs among multiple protagonists. There isn't anything wrong with the comparatively slim Too Cool to Be Forgotten, and its remarkable evocation of 1980s high school is great fun, and we should certainly applaud creators who can avoid expectations so well (which brings me to the next subject, below), but, selfishly, I will impatiently wait for a new 600-page Robinson tome with a huge cast as soon as is feasible. Recommended.

What interests me most about Kaoru Mori is her exquisite artwork, especially in period architecture and costume, immersing readers in her Victorian/Edwardian romances through outdoor crowd scenes and huge parties. But the seven stories in this collection predate her better-known Emma by some time, during which Mori was (slowly) learning to draw more than just faces and bodies. Five of the stories are wish-fulfillment tales of a practically perfect in every way thirteen year-old who finds work as a maid, and the others are not-disagreeable short stories with maid protagonists. I don't know what her interest or fetish is, either.

Emma, itself, was a very frustrating read which I could only recommend on the strength of the gorgeous art, which is what led me to try this. I'd recommend this about as strongly as I would Gregory Maguire's umpteenth revisionist fairy tale. If I wanted a one trick pony, I'd buy one, and the next thing I sample from Mori better not have any more goddamn maids in it.

(Originally posted August 28, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Defenders and Dororo

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 Essential Defenders volume four (Marvel, 2008) and Dororo volume two (Vertical, 2008).

This is very iffy stuff. This is late-seventies Defenders, scripted almost entirely by Ed Hannigan, who's got some pretty good ideas, but his artists are really conspiring against him. Most of the art here is provided by the period's agonizing superhero bores Herb Trimpe and Don Perlin, both of whom have studied the right playbooks, but don't know what to do with them. You can see, for instance, that Trimpe knows that a good Kirby pose involves someone pointing in shock just beyond the camera, but he doesn't know how to make the frame energetic or involving in any way. There's a nice sequence of stories where the Sub-Mariner and Black Panther get aggravated with each other, leading to war between Atlantis and Wakanda, and there's a huge storyline about a war in another dimension against a foe called "The Unnameable," so called because you instantly fall under its control upon learning its name. Another big skirmish in Asgard sees some pretender to Hela's throne bring up a big, army-crushing, locomotive mountain which just rumbles across the battlefield.

But with art as uninspiring and dull as this, and with enough boring Earth-based subplots to counter the wild ideas, this really did become a slog. The superhero Nighthawk literally spends almost three years fighting a tax evasion complaint, and the embarassingly dumb villain the Mandrill, with his army of gun-toting chicks in bathing suits, shows up every three issues or so. It was kind of nice to fill in the holes of the old collection of these I had in middle school, but this is about as far from "essential" as the law will allow. Recommended only for 70s Marvel fans.

Now, this on the other hand: you know, I've mentioned Dororo before (follow the Tezuka tag below), and I had a long day at work and can't do this justice right now. These are damn good comics, full of wild medieval swordsplay, bizarre technology and freaktastic demons, done by one of the medium's real geniuses about forty years ago, and it kicks the crap out of practically anything else you can buy today. It's admittedly slight, with no greater goal than to entertain, but wow, it does that in spades. There's only one more volume of this to come, and I'm going to miss it.

(Originally posted August 26, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Battler Britton and Cowa!

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 Battler Britton (DC, 2007) and Cowa! (Viz, 2008).

I enjoyed the daylights out of this comic. The character originally appeared in some of the UK's older, digest-styled anthologies such as Air Ace Picture Library and this was his first outing in better than thirty years. Garth Ennis clearly has a lot of reverence for the original series and plays things straight, giving readers a solid wartime adventure in north Africa, with derring-do and human tragedy. This didn't sell as well as DC/Wildstorm were hoping, despite Ennis's other successes, putting the brakes on other period revivals. That's a real shame, because this is a truly fine comic which deserved a wider audience. Recommended for anyone who likes war comics.

Well, this is just about the cutest damn thing ever. I've mentioned before that since completing Dragon Ball, Akira Toriyama has not committed to any long-form comics, merely short serials which run for only 13-14 weeks. Cowa! is one of these, a very fun all-ages story featuring a mischievous, well-meaning vampire kid in a monster village. To say more about Paifu, as the back cover does, gives too much away. Paifu and his best friend, a ghost named Jose, have to enlist the aid of a retired human sumo wrestler when all the town's monster adults come down with a deadly disease, and the only cure is 750 miles away.

Toriyama inks with a heavier line than he used to in this story, which was first published in Japan in 1997, but his storytelling prowess is every bit as good as in his Dr. Slump heyday. He still lays out the action better than anybody, and the old smacked-into-the-stratosphere gag is every bit as funny here as it ever was. Viz's new collection of this story, in its first American edition, actually includes the first episode in its original color, which is the first time I've seen that from Viz. Highly recommended for people who like fun, and especially those who have kids. Every elementary school library in the country should stock this book.

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

Friday, August 15, 2008

Showcase Presents Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2 and Sandman Mystery Theatre vol. 6

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 Showcase Presents Legion of Super-Heroes volume two (DC, 2008) and Sandman Mystery Theatre volume six (DC, 2008).

This is the second Showcase collection of 1960s LSH stories and it's pretty fun stuff, although unbelievably dated. It's more than just the design, although that's quite problematic itself. The Legion's "clubhouse" - a mysteriously bigger-on-the-inside rocketship which is routinely drawn as not much larger than a port-a-potty - is probably the worst offender, but the whole book is full of these dorky 1950s visions of the world to come, where everything that flies has huge tail fins and interior cabins with a lot more open space than a rocketship would need. Actually, the fact that I've had to use "rocketship" twice in one paragraph probably tells you everything you need to know about how emphatically 1950s all this stuff looks and feels.

I'm a lot harsher on this than I should be; it's very much a comic for children and it's done with so much more enthusiasm and verve than many other DC books of its time. There's still a strong degree of innocence and ignorance in its presentation and pacing - rocketing to another solar system is done with as much complication and complexity as bicycling down to the corner store on a lazy spring afternoon - but you can tell the writers wanted to make something of this sprawling cast of characters. Around the same time these were being printed, DC was also employing a fellow named Robert Kanigher, who just proudly regurgitated the same repetitive plots and tropes in the pages of his comics. By contrast, LSH seems to have accidentally repeated the same storyline about the new member turning out to be a traitor, and you can almost feel the embarassment on the page, a sense that the characters know that their naive trust is not just misplaced, but exploited by their enemies.

Much of the book continues in this vein, and is of principal interest to people who've been LSH fans for quite some time. But towards the end, in 1966, things suddenly get very interesting when Jim Shooter arrives as the new writer. Shooter was a high schooler at the time, and I recall reading somewhere that he decided to pitch for LSH because he believed that was the book most in need of help at the time. I won't say that he makes a quantum leap in storytelling when he arrives, since he was, like, fifteen years old then, and the retention of these deathly-dull Dick and Jane illustrations prevents Shooter's vision from becoming "the shock of the new," but there's a marked and very interesting difference from what came before.

Across town, DC suddenly had a strong competitor in Marvel Comics, where Lee, Kirby and Ditko were crafting the best comics of the 1960s. That's where Shooter's mind was; that's where he'd later thrive. Shooter is much less wordy than his predecessors Edmund Hamilton and Jerry Siegel, using the comic space in a totally different way than they would. There are panels with only a single word balloon, with only a single sentence. That may seem unimportant to us, but after 450 headache-inducing word-filled pages, leaving as much room for the art as Shooter did really was novel. Unfortunately, the art is by the likes of Jerry Forte, Curt Swan and George Papp and not someone vibrant like Kirby, Colan or Heck, but at least Shooter is looking forward. (Actually, I see that Shooter actually did the layouts for these issues himself, and the final pages redone and inked by Swan, Papp and Sheldon Moldoff. Now that is interesting.)

The storytelling is massively improved. Shooter's emphasis is on the heroes and their interactions, rather than long-winded schemes of aliens who look like accountants and their thought-bubble recollections of recent villainy. Most surprisingly for the time, Shooter's three issues - a two-parter and a one-shot - feature bad guys who actually get away to fight another time. Baddies in these old DC Comics were always either arrested by the space police and taken to space jail, or they met an unfortunate end as a result of their misguided actions. I'm not calling this stuff essential or anything, but it's pretty fascinating from a historical standpoint, and recommended to people with an interest in books from the period. The next volume, set for the spring, will have a lot more Shooter and should be a real winner.

I did a writeup on Sandman Mystery Theatre a couple of years back, when four collections were available. Go check that out for more information on the series. The sixth book was released this year, and I'm a little ambivalent about it, to be honest. It features two stories, and the first is a real firecracker. It's illustrated by Guy Davis and in it, our hero matches wits with another costumed adventurer from the late '30s, a fellow who takes a drug that gives him remarkable strength and endurance for one hour. Davis's work is just amazing. It sure isn't pretty - he captures people at their most mundane and ugly, setting himself at a blissful polar opposite from most mainstream American comic artists, who just want to draw supermodels - but his pacing, his likenesses, his architecture, his use of shadow and foregrounding and period detail are just perfect for this kind of story. It makes you long for a feature film adaptation.

Unfortunately, it's paired with a second four-parter which has not aged nearly as well. "The Python" features early work from Warren Pleece, who has since done far, far better work, including Second City Blues for 2000 AD and the recent Life Sucks with Jessica Abel. His work here is very amateurish and while Davis draws good pictures of ugly people, everybody in Pleece's pages is just plain ugly. The story's not as compelling as I remembered either, although the stunning stumble in Wes and Dian's new relationship is the real draw, and not the mystery, which wouldn't fool anybody. But what disappoints most, especially in light of DC's breathtaking restoration of Starman, mentioned in the last What I Just Read, is how dull and no-frills this book is. This is not surprising, particularly in light of the last decade-plus of half-assed Vertigo collections, but when you know the company can do a bang-up job with nice paper, introductions, supplements, commentary and background, it's a little disheartening to see the closest thing to a bonus is the original periodical cover used as a chapter break. And heck, in Starman they just gave the original artwork without all the text and ad copy on the front. Here, they just laid the original comic on a flatbed scanner. Get it together, Vertigo!

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

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"New editions of books I'd already bought" special

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 The Starman Omnibus volume one (DC, 2008) and One Pound Gospel volume one (Viz, 2008).

I don't have a great deal of time today, and these are both collections of material that I have mentioned before in a little more detail in this blog before, so I'll direct readers to those entries for more details about the actual stories.

Starman is a work of simple genius, easily one of my two or three favorite American comics of the 1990s, a story as much about family and place as it is heroics. I wrote more about Starman here. Its run had previously been compiled into ten trade paperbacks which, under various editorial regimes, were assembled in different fashions, with stories skipped or moved to later books. Now the whole series is being reassembled into six big hardcovers which will collect everything, on nice paper, with lots of supplemental information.

Volume one was released this summer. For a dollar less than 17 new comics will cost you, this book contains the first 17 issues of Starman. Since, honestly, nobody in the US is publishing anything right now that's as good as Starman, your money is better spent here. Unmissable.

One Pound Gospel is a sweet, breezy comedy about a young boxer with willpower problems and the young nun who believes in him. I wrote more about One Pound Gospel here. Its truncated run had previously appeared in Viz's old format of Western-format Japanese comics, overpriced and with the art flipped to follow English language left-to-right reading. Now the whole series is being reassembled into four digest-sized books which will collect everything, including the stories not released in the US previously.

Volume one was released this summer. For five dollars less than the old version would cost you, this book contains the same stories in their original Japanese size and configuration. Since Viz has finished up its American editions of Ranma, Rumiko Takahashi's fans can try this series out. Recommended.

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

Monday, August 4, 2008

Doctor Who and Hembeck

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 Doctor Who: Endgame (Panini, 2005) and The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus (Image, 2008).

That eyepopping cliffhanger from the end of the last Doctor Who season evoked an earlier stunt that the comic had pulled. The time was 1997, and conventional wisdom, much as people (like me!) who enjoyed Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor would prefer it to be otherwise, was that the '96 TV movie was a franchise-killing failure. Nevertheless, when the comic took the massive, unannounced step of regenerating the hero, and giving us a new, Ninth Doctor, one "played" by actor and producer Nick Briggs, it was a big shock. There was an accompanying photo feature of our new, balding, tea-obsessed leading man in his eccentric costume with a toothbrush in his jacket pocket. Since the wheeze wasn't revealed for four months, during which the real Doctor had been busy behind the scenes disrupting the plans of the villainous Threshold, there was plenty of time for an outraged fandom to fill the letters page and the old Usenet group with angry screeds.

Those were great times, and these are great comics. Most of them are scripted by Alan Barnes, and I suppose my only quibble is that the Threshold bunch are pretty obnoxiously snide, but I guess they wouldn't be decent baddies if you weren't sneering when you read them. Martin Geraghty's pencils are inked by former 2000 AD art editor Robin Smith, and while I've never been a fan of Smith's solo work, he really pulls off some great work here as part of a team. But the nicest thing about the Eighth Doctor's comic life - as convoluted and/or expensive as the other options, it's the one that I choose to think that matters most - is that the later volumes, to be reread soon, are even better. Recommended.

This is such a huge, fun book. It's funny, but you sort of know going in that it's a 900-page monster, about as thick as two of Marvel's earlier Essentials combined, and still it's a surprise just to see the thing. And since Hembeck can fill a page with lettering better than anybody else in the industry, you will definitely get your money's worth from this book.

But what is it? Well, if you know American comic fandom, then you'll surely know Fred Hembeck, who's been lampooning and celebrating the medium for about thirty years in the pages of various fan publications and APAs, by way of mini-histories, interviews with fictional characters and recreations of classic moments from comics, all done in his inimitable style. This is an exhaustive collection of damn near everything that can be collected, in one mammoth book.

It's tremendous fun, but certainly not the sort of thing you can breeze through. When Hembeck gets on a joyous rant, with his cartoon alter ego and Dr. Strange, for instance, trading tales of Steve Ditko highlights, the page can become unbelievably dense with dialogue, with more words appearing on a single page in this book than in an entire issue of Brian Bendis's Avengers. And the reproduction is smaller than in the larger magazines where these originally appeared, so you'll want good lighting and possibly a lens to read some of this stuff!

What makes this a winner all the way through is Hembeck's genuine love and respect for the medium and its creators. There are certainly books he's enjoyed less than others, but you really get the impression reading this of a guy who wants to share his enjoyment, and toast the often unsung creators behind comics. It's very Ameri-centric, unsurprisingly, but it's far more than mainstream superheroes; everything from Little Lulu to Preacher gets some page time within these covers. That brings me to my only real complaint: it's absurd that a book this thick should be published without page numbers! It's also a sad reality that a book this thick will soon have livid cracks running up its spine, but a two-volume slipcased hardcover probably wouldn't sell as well... Well, until the day my volume falls apart, it'll have a place of pride on my shelf. You won't be able to miss it; I don't know that I have any other books this thick!

(Originally posted August 04, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Put One of These Books Back on the Shelf

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 Put the Book Back on the Shelf (Image, 2006) and Dr. Slump vol. 15 (Viz, 2008).

Well, it's very difficult to come up with a review for this. I read a good chunk of Neal's copy of the similar Tori Amos collection Comic Book Tattoo and was equally stumped as to how to convey it. It's an anthology book inspired by various songs, in this case by the often wonderful Belle & Sebastian. It is nice to get a really broad sweep of material from all across the spectrum, ranging from impossibly cute little sunshiny strips with cartoony animals ("Legal Man" by Joey Weisner) to challenging, oblique pages of expression without narrative ("Fox in the Snow" by Jacob Magraw). On the other hand, I kind of want plot in my comics, and not expression either without narrative, or with it utterly obscured by the layout and presentation.

Most of the strips, mercifully, go for the obvious and feature definable characters in their early twenties, and most of them are pretty good, but some kind of editorial control still would have been nice - a couple of these stories don't actually end, they just seem to stop when they hit their page count. Overall it is a pretty good book and never less than interesting. It's always nice to see work by the very talented Laurenn McCubbin - who also has some pages in Comic Book Tattoo, I noticed - and I'm pleased to say I enjoyed Chris Butcher's script for "Expectations," which is turned into a story of backstabbing in the teen-publishing market, a whole lot. This one was illustrated by Kalman Andrasofsky & Ramon Perez and might be my favorite art in the book. I'd love to see more of Andrzsofsky's work, which is, I think, the most important thing about reading a book like this. It's one thing to go in saying, "oooh, Laurenn McCubbin, I loved her stuff in Rent Girl," but you should also leave finding another creator of whom you want to see more. Recommended for older readers, especially if you like Belle & Sebastian.

On the other hand...

What is this shit?

I considered continuing for many, many more paragraphs than that, but nobody ever read the rest of Greil Marcus's review of Self Portrait; the opening sentence said it all. But to explain briefly why I react in this way, let me continue.

Don't get me wrong; regular readers know that I'm a huge fan of Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump, and think every home, especially the ones with elementary school-aged kids, should have the first 14 volumes on the shelf. But suddenly there's this cute baby called Turbo who can do anything in the cast. Every panel feels like the work of a creator who just does not care anymore - he was clearly burning out his contracted time getting ready for Dragon Ball at this stage. I did not laugh once.

And this baby? The producers of The Simpsons might have thought that, in "Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie," they were creating the ultimate parody of an obnoxious cute sidekick added to a show and ruining it instantly, but they had no idea that Toriyama had already done it, and a hundred times worse, and he wasn't parodying anything. Volumes 1-14 are recommended. Stop there. There's a sixteenth coming out in a couple of months. You probably won't want that, either.

(Originally posted August 02, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)