Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Great Outdoor Fight and Nick Fury

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 Great Outdoor Fight (Dark Horse, 2008) and Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (Marvel, 2000).

This is the first collected edition of Chris Onstad's Achewood comic, and it's a simply gorgeous book. It looks exactly like it would have been designed fifty years ago, sort of like an old high school yearbook with an elk or a caribou embossed on the front.

I have to say that the overall appeal of Achewood continues to elude me, though I will, very occasionally, bust a lung laughing, which is more than the zero appeal of many strips. I know it gets lots of critical love, but the characters all talk as though Chris Onstad finally snapped after the umpteenth suburban kid with a crew cut shouted WHAT UP DAWGGG outside his window, and if he has the talent to draw with more style than Scott Adams, he hasn't exercised it yet. Setting aside the deeply unappealing character designs, this really works against The Great Outdoor Fight visually, because I just don't believe in this gigantic world, with thousands of bare-knuckled combatants, that he keeps telling us is there without ever showing us. Perhaps Achewood's fans are taken by Onstad's use of language. He's extraordinarily funny sometimes, and I had to put the book down more than once from laughing.

There's something well-written here despite the artwork and the obnoxious, cross-the-street-to-avoid characters, and I certainly recommend you give the webcomic a spin of a month or so to see what you think. If you enjoy its online presence, then the presentation of this book will really impress you, because Onstad provided some remarkably funny extras in the form of background for the annual fight, and Dark Horse's design team just knocked this one out of the park. It's good stuff, but a step or two away from great.

You know that feeling you got when, after hearing so much about The Man from UNCLE, you finally sat down to watch it and it was dated, slow and just bafflingly old-fashioned? Meet Nick Fury, a comic so firmly 1960s that its appeal outside of that decade is entirely down to Jim Steranko's frankly amazing design skills. This book compiles nineteen episodes which originally appeared in Marvel's anthology Strange Tales from 1966-68. It starts with some episodes by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby which wrap up some earlier storylines, and it feels like labors from an overworked team - eighteen months of previous episodes are not included here - and Steranko becomes the inker in the second story, gradually taking over the book completely.

Fury's snappy tough-guy patter and New Yawk "sock it ta ya" cadence is obnoxious from the outset, and none of the outcomes of any of these stories are ever in doubt. Invariably, a shirtless Fury will overpower any obstacle with the assistance of unbelievable spy gadgets while his comedy sidekicks marvel at his stamina. The artwork is periodically inspired, and every once in a while Steranko pulls a completely unnecessary-but-jawdropping flourish out of his hat and leaves the production team baffled as to how to print the weird thing, but really, these stories were never meant to be read all in one go, and the monotony will wear anybody down. Not really recommended.

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rogue Trooper and Sha

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 Rogue Trooper: Realpolitik (Rebellion, 2007) and Sha (Heavy Metal, 2008).

Rogue Trooper is a perennial 2000 AD franchise featuring a blue-skinned clone soldier, gone AWOL to track down a traitor and wandering a chemically-wasted future landscape. The character was dusted off for a new series of adventures by Gordon Rennie to tie in to Rebellion's spiffy video game in 2005. Rennie wrote most of the episodes in this book, with a final three-parter tackled by Ian Edginton and Steve Pugh. Overall, they are not bad, and the structured, overarching plot is more engaging than the patchy, episodic nature of the character's 1980s series. There are a couple of stumbles, mainly built around a ponderous "they were soldiers and they died heroes and war is hard" two-parter that reads like Garth Ennis-lite, but there are some great new characters devised for the run, and some great black and white artwork from contributors like PJ Holden and Dylan Teague. Recommended.

I've always been curious about the comics that Pat Mills writes for European publishers. If I understand correctly, many of these appear as annual 48-page serialized editions in France, and are later translated back to English to run in the pages of Heavy Metal.

Sha orginally appeared in France as three books from 1997-99 and tells the story of a police officer in the ugly, dystopian future city of New Eden trying to solve the horrific murders of some corporate overlords. These "men" are actually demonically possessed avatars of constantly-reincarnating beings who, centuries before, had put a witch to the stake, and she called upon a spirit of vengeance called Sha to avenge her death...

I don't want to call it Mills by the numbers, but this certainly follows familiar patterns from Mills' other work in the 1990s. Especially in the first storyline, the way the villains emphasize their fetish for technology and firepower only to be thwarted with minimal effort by Sha's use of bizarre magic is very reminiscent of his early '90s series Finn. The crusading, repugnant Christians remind me of Torquemada and his crew from Nemesis the Warlock, as does the use of constantly-reincarnated lives. And there is much, much more one could see.

It's certainly not bad, and Oliver Ledroit's glorious depiction of such a horrible future will keep any reader's attention. Yet there's much here which, to my overcooked, over-analytical eye, looks a lot like work I've read before and follows a very similar template, with little variety in emphasis or tone. Recommended for Mills devotees.

(Originally posted September 24, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Two Doctors

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: The Glorious Dead (Panini, 2006) and Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality (DC, 2007).

I've been rereading the complete run of Eighth Doctor adventures (sidelining, for now, the most recently released World Shapers), and grudgingly have to admit that this one is the weakest of the four collections. That's not to say it's without a great deal of charm, as two light-hearted one-offs, each illustrated by Roger Langridge, demonstrate. Langridge also got to tackle a three-part story called "The Autonomy Bug" which concerns a hospital full of incarcerated robots who might be demonstrating sentience, and this brilliant little lump-in-the-throat story is as good as Doctor Who ever gets. Scott Gray handles cliffhangers amazingly well; there's a moment where the same guy that we've been thinking is an alien time traveller wakes up in bed with his friend Grace Holloway having dreamt the whole thing, and that's just flooring. But heavens, the titular epic, all ten agonizing parts of it, evokes the worst of bloated Marvel storytelling, with two opponents locked in a battle of wills for some nebulous, reality-shaping MacGuffin. Even without the specifics, it feels overly familiar and unsurprising. Recommended with reservations.

DC Comics has published thousands of stories featuring thousands of characters over the decades, but every so often they revise their internal continuity into one squished order of things, and some worlds, tales and oddball characters devised by creators no longer actively working don't find favor, and therefore don't find a place in the new scheme of things. Doctor Thirteen was one of these guys, a short-tempered loudmouth ultra-skeptic, sort of what you'd get if James Randi started acting like Sean Hannity. But he was trying to tell a world of Phantom Strangers, Supermen and Sandmen that there were no such things as ghosts, aliens or other-dimensional superbeings, and that simply stopped making sense a long time ago.

Brian Azzarello's weirdly compelling little story receieved enough positive reviews for me to want to read it, and I'm glad I did, even if I knew too much about it going in. Heaven only knows how much more I would have enjoyed it had I been following its original appearance in 2006-07 in a miniseries anthology with the top-billed The Spectre, a comic I still have no interest in reading. Suffice it to say that over the course of the series, with the assistance of several other timelost fictional properties who are also on the losing end of the argument as to whether they should "exist," Dr. Thirteen learns a lot more about his odd place in his even odder universe, and Azzarello doesn't mince words letting the "architects" of the current DC Universe know that whatever hard-and-fast rules they'd like to nail down for their playthings, they'll just be rewritten by somebody else in fifteen years. The art by Cliff Chiang is just gorgeous; I wish they'd get that guy on a book that I'd like to read. Highly recommended.

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

Thursday, September 18, 2008

American Empire and Japanese Boxing

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 A People's History of American Empire (Metropolitan/Holt & Co, 2008) and One Pound Gospel volume two (Viz, 2008).

I always enjoy glancing at the Amazon reviews for a book when I get the URL for the link to help you readers purchase your own copy. I was exceptionally curious what I'd find waiting for me in this case. This is a lengthy, narration-filled companion to historian Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, weaving in the writer's own story from a lieutenant in the Army Air Force in World War Two to rabble-rousing civil rights agitator among the Spellman College faculty to toast of the left-wing intelligensia today, and it's a scathing indictment of the military-industrial complex that's kept the United States in a perpetual war footing for most of the last century.

I think that it's a book that deserves honest critique on its own merits. Is the storyline factually sound? Does it treat the subject fairly? These certainly seem to be true. Where I think it is on shaky ground is in using the medium of comics to its full advantage. At its worst, the book reminds me of the wordier passages in some of Paradox's old Big Books, where you are taken out of the experience of reading a comic and are just reading text with sequential illustrations. If I understand correctly, while Zinn gets top billing, it's David Wagner who provided the actual script and Mike Konopacki the art*. Konopacki's caricatures and clever iconography are very amusing, but the herky-jerky, unnaturally paced script has him working at a huge disadvantage. The imagery is just fine, but the storytelling needs a little work. Few of the topics seem to get the space needed to come alive, while others cry out for much greater detail. I am not certain what the solution could be, but it really feels a draft or two short of where it needed to be.

For my part, I was chilled by what I learned, and it made me want to read more of Zinn (in prose form, mind), so it certainly accomplished its goals despite the rough narrative, and so I certainly recommend it to open-minded readers. But I mentioned the Amazon reviewers, and they didn't disappoint. None of the handful of one-star reviews that the book received came from people who assessed the book honestly, but rather were so incensed in their land-dat-I-love Archie Bunker mentality that Zinn would question our nation's motives that they could only cast aspersions on Zinn himself. I was amused, briefly.

*A commenter noted that while Paul Buhle gets a cover credit, he was actually the editor of the volume and David Wagner the writer. This entry was revised on 9/19 to correct my error.

This is the second revised, resized edition of Rumiko Takahashi's charming little comic about a boxer with an all-powerful punch but no willpower to make a championship career from it. I first gave this a mention about a year back, but I don't know that I gave it enough of a thumbs-up, at least where the incredibly fun and clever first story, "The Lamb Resurrected," is concerned. Taro Matsuzaka, with his fixed, fake grin, is a really delightful enemy, particularly as a little more about him is revealed over the course of the story.

The second tale truly is a drop-off; perhaps, since it had been two years since she'd last written the characters, Takahashi had forgotten that Kosaku shouldn't be quite as stupid as he comes across in this tale. Maybe that face-full-o-ramen reveal makes up for it and maybe it doesn't, but this is certainly the weaker of the first two One Pound Gospel collections. The third is due next month and the last in December.

(Originally posted September 18, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Love and Look-In

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 Amor y Cohetes (Fantagraphics, 2008) and The Best of Look-In: The Seventies (Prion, 2007).

Having assembled all of the Hernandez Brothers' Palomar and Locas stories from the first fifty issues of Love & Rockets across six unmissable volumes, Fantagraphics has most recently compiled all (or at least most) of the remaining odds and ends from that comic into a big anthology volume called Amor y Cohetes.

I think it would be simple and repetitive to cough up a list of what all's in this book because content rundowns are available just about everywhere you look. In fact, you can follow the Amazon link in the image for two, and there you'll find an comparison I certainly enjoy. It's like a B-sides and rarities collection, the Hernandez version of Dead Letter Office. Some of these comics are amazingly self-indulgent and showy, some are very clever, and at least one - Mario's "Somewhere in the Tropics" - is completely stunning.

There's also this demented, stream-of-consciousness installment called "Hernandez Satyricon," in which Gilbert uses Jaime's "Locas" characters in a rambling, nutball, nightmarish sci-fi tale. At one point, all of the characters swap genders, allowing Gilbert to ever-so-briefly give us Hopey & Maggie yaoi. Well now. Recommended for mature readers.

I first learned of this collection shortly after I posted my Reprint This! feature on Sapphire & Steel. Look-In was a long-running magazine for teens and preteens in Britain, one that mixed comic strip action with features on the week's TV offerings and the current flash-in-the pan pop fad. I have a few issues, and so I certainly enjoyed Lew Stringer's recent look back at the title.

The thing about the seventies is that you still aren't sure elements of them ever really happened. This compilation book finds room for an article about a new series of interview LPs, with the host of some yoof-teevee program interviewing the likes of Gary Glitter and the Sweet for a monthly record release. And then there's Flintlock. The only reason anybody ever heard of Flintlock, a boy band which followed the Bay City Rollers' playbook and troubled the top 30 exactly once, is that their drummer was one of The Tomorrow People. And yet they're all over this book, with concert reports and a comic adventure. Somehow the editors also found room for a two-page feature on Our Kid, who don't even have the Tomorrow People connection. Roxy Music only gets a half-page.

Anyway, the comics of course reprint a Tomorrow People story, along with multi-part adventures of Black Beauty, The Bionic Woman and Sapphire & Steel. Artists on these stories are John Burns, Mike Noble, John Bolton and Arthur Ranson. There are other comics as well, including generally unfunny humor strips based on Man About the House and Benny Hill and a lightweight ABBA biography which reads as even more woeful in the wake of the Gilbert Hernandez bio of Frida Kahlo in Amor y Cohetes.

And it's full of old ads, for Doctor Who Weetabix (some sort of British breakfast cereal, I think) and Six Million Dollar Man dolls. I think this book is incredibly fun and proved to be a very silly read, particularly when some award ceremony from 1977 gives The Tomorrow People a "best drama" nod, and The New Avengers "best family programme." (Shurely shome mishtake!) That said, I kind of think you need to have been born prior to 1980 to find much charm in this.

And we're still waiting for proper compilations of all the comics, without interruptions by articles on the thrilling new hobby of badge collecting. Make it so, Prion!

(Originally posted September 12, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rampaging Outlaws Nation

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 Outlaw Nation (Image, 2007) and Marvel Essentials: The Rampaging Hulk (Marvel, 2008).

There are certainly elements of genius here, and the seeds of a truly great tale. For my part, I can't help but find Jamie Delano's Outlaw Nation, originally published by Vertigo in 2000-2002, a really aggravating read for what it didn't accomplish. The series concerns a family of exceptionally long-lived miscreants called the Johnsons, who reside here and there in the American badlands, and whose exploits have been fictionalized by one of their own, a cousin named Story who went MIA in Viet Nam and finally made his way home many years later to find out what a mess he left behind with his family and his writing. Pursuing them is a half-blood relation who goes by the name Mr. Gloves and is the most sadistic thug you can imagine. Unfortunately, Gloves and his Howard Hughes-esque father have a lot more resources than Story and his ragtag associates, and Johnson blood can keep the old man going for decades more...

It's not fair to Outlaw Nation to burden a writeup with complaints, but while I did enjoy it, and find it incredibly fascinating, I also found it very frustrating. First up, Delano made the very odd choice to keep everybody's dialogue very naturalistic, and none of the characters discuss their background or their place in this wonderful tapestry, until a very natural time to do so emerges. In some cases, this doesn't come along for quite a few chapters. One thing that comic books can, and need, to do is contrive an appropriate way to forward information to the readers as quickly as possible. Delano's approach is more realistic, but leaves much of the first few issues very confusing the first time through. Put another way, had I been reading this as a monthly, I'd have dropped it after the second issue.

There's so much threatening, without follow-through, in this book. I was actually reminded of The X Files around its third season, when every other week, Mulder would pull a gun on Krycek or the Cigarette Smoking Man and everybody would yell at each other, but all that Quantico training would vanish under some gobbledygook about Mulder's sister and nobody would get a bullet between their eyes like you were hoping. This is like that.

Anyway, after 15 issues, just when a new plot complication was introduced along with some new characters, Delano was told he was cancelled and had four months to wrap everything up. So the conclusion is rushed, and I can't imagine he was especially pleased with it, but I was quite satisfied. The full run was collected in black and white by Image last year, and very nicely priced. This was originally a Vertigo book, so it's recommended for mature readers. Not emphatically, you understand, but it's certainly worth consideration.

Why, why, why did I buy this? What was I thinking?

Well, okay, I know. See, around 1976, Marvel decided to challenge Warren, publishers of black and white horror mags like Creepy, Vampirella and Eerie, with its own line of black and white magazines, which included this title. I never read one, and now the whole fifteen-issue run is available in one book. And it stinks, but it was 30%-off week at Borders.

So the book gives you nine stories which recount previously untold Hulk tales set between The Hulk # 6 and The Avengers # 1, for all seventeen people in America who demanded those tales be told. Then, recognizing the success of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series on CBS, the magazine was rejigged to get rid of almost all the superhero elements, with only token weird science, lots of Banner being a sympathetic hero, and supporting characters including abused kids and elderly cancer patients. So there, half the book is retarded retconning of old Lee/Kirby material, stories so bad that Bill Mantlo later retconned the retcon into merely being a series of feature films on an alien planet, and the other half is the worst kind of mawkish million-dollar-movie melodrama. Don't buy this book during 30%-off week at Borders. Don't buy this book at 90%-off week at Borders, for that matter.

(Originally posted September 10, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Batman and Bad Company

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 Showcase Presents Batman volume three (DC, 2008) and Bad Company: Kano (Rebellion, 2007).

More of the same. Depending on your opinion of mid-to-late 1960s Batman, agonizingly more of the same. The book features several television-friendly villains, even ones they never used in the 60s TV series such as the Cluemaster and the Getaway Genius, but sometimes in grandiose schemes that could never have been realized on that show's budget. It features the old-styled, retarded Catwoman who was obsessed with stealing anything with "cat" in the name, be it catamarans or catawba grapes. There's some nice artwork from the likes of Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane, but you'll probably like this book a lot more if you're one of us who love the show.

Oh, I wish I could recommend this a little more strongly. The first series of Bad Company, back in 1986-87, was really amazing. Peter Milligan's been a really uneven writer, ranging from utterly compelling (as seen in that first series and, say, Enigma), and then there's well, the last two years of Shade the Changing Man and most of this. The book reprints two storylines. The first, in which the battle-scarred Kano attempts to retire to a farming community beset by ghosts and by creatures in the forest, has elements of genius, but it's completely undermined by Brett Ewins' artwork, which is even more stiff than usual and colored in that garish watercolor he seemed to be using throughout the early 1990s. The second features far better, more vibrant black and white work that recalls the earlier adventures, but the story is Milligan on autopilot. There's very little here which will convince new readers just how amazing that first series was.

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