Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Some Grant Morrison

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 Marvel Boy (Marvel, 2001) and All-Star Superman (DC, 2008).

As with Skrull Kill Krew, which I reviewed earlier in the month, Marvel Boy was another mid-90s comic book that Grant Morrison wrote for Marvel Comics. Since I was not interested in Marvel in the mid-90s, regardless of who was writing for them, I passed on both of these books, which, in the apparent parlance of the contemporary internet, means that I was "boycotting" them. It wasn't until my opinion shifted enough to follow Morrison and Frank Quitely to New X Men that I reconsidered. Anyway, as with Skrull Kill Krew, I found an inexpensive used copy of the Marvel Boy collected edition at one of The Great Escape's Nashville locations, although this one cost a whole six bucks, and decided to read it.

Well... it's certainly a lot better than SKK was, but it's still a very difficult book to love. I've really started to think that there are at least two very different kinds of Morrison books - the ones where the rush of brilliant ideas overwhelms the heart and soul of the characters and the work, and the ones where you connect emotionally with the characters as they overcome whatever unbelievable obstacle that Morrison has constructed. Marvel Boy is definitely one of the former; at no point did I feel any connection with the Kree explorer Noh-Varr and his opponents Oubliette and Dr. Midas, but there were certainly occasions where that just didn't matter, so wild were the goings-on.

Briefly, the story's about an explorer from another universe forced to survive on Earth after his party's ship is blasted down and the rest of the crew killed. He awakes in the hands of an insane, unbelievably wealthy industrialist obsessed with alien life - think the Christopher Eccleston "Dalek" episode of Doctor Who with superpowers. What follows is incredibly high-concept craziness, not least of which is the appearance of a "living corporation" that also escaped from the wreckage and quickly begins subsuming our planet's economy.

Overall, it's a very good story, and beautifully illustrated by J.G. Jones, but everybody in the book has a heart as black as coal, and even if Morrison afforded us the chance to sympathize with anyone, you wouldn't want to.

The paperback edition of Marvel Boy is out of print; the link above points to a new hardcover collection. And speaking of collected edition disappointments...

Well, here's an aggravation. There are twelve issues of Morrison and Frank Quitely's stunning take on Superman, which appeared under DC's "All-Star" imprint, hence "All-Star Superman." The first six are available in hardback and paperback, with a hardcover set of the second six due in February. Clearly, these could all fit under one set of covers, but evidently selling ten million or so copies of the 12-issue Watchmen hasn't persuaded DC that such a sales strategy would work here. This is why I don't own Darwyn Cooke's said-to-be-amazing New Frontier, because the only way to get the darn thing in one edition is to pay $75 for a special, oversized version.

If you can be persuaded to buy these two low-cost books, or track down the individual issues, you will certainly be pleased with what you find. This is the only Superman story you need ever read. It's a beautiful tale of jealousy and spite leading to optimism and promise, as Lex Luthor finally succeeds in finding a way to kill his hated rival and the Man of Steel must complete twelve impossible tasks before he goes.

Morrison doesn't try, mercifully, to fit this tale into the existing soap opera continuity of the DC universe. It exists on its own, taking characters here and there from previous comics or cartoons and presenting a perfect, "definitive" version of them. Here, Superman is the much-loved protector of humanity, while also working as the planet's most forward-thinking scientist, caring for strange alien species in his Fortress of Solitude and showing humility while learning friendship with the staff of the Daily Planet.

I can't tell you how wonderful this story is. I've said before that Morrison foreshadows better than anybody else in the business, and he might even outdo himself here, with little clues and hints sprinkled throughout the narrative that all come together in an unbelievable, awesome climax. But it's the little human moments - the ones that Marvel Boy misses with its focus on the big picture - which turn this great story into one of the decade's classics. Clark Kent removing his glasses in front of Luthor, appealing to him to finally do the right thing, Lois reflecting on the senses she no longer possesses as her twenty-four hour superpowers pass, the "imperfect" Bizarro named Zibarro and his pathetic, teenage-emotional poetry, the arrival of law and order in the Phantom Zone...

And then there's issue ten, and it's a bit busy, with Morrison's storytelling at its most non-linear, but there's no question this is the best single issue of Superman ever written. Taken as its own, every home should own it. Taken as part of the overall story, it is downright fantastic, and I think everybody reading this should check it out.

(Related: Zack Smith recently concluded a mammoth, wonderful, ten-part interview with Morrison over at Newsarama. The first part is here, although readers might find it a little difficult navigating to the other pages of the interview. It's worth the effort, though!)

(Originally posted November 11, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

New 2000 AD Books

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 Button Man: The Confession of Harry Exton, Nikolai Dante: Sword of the Tsar and Stickleback: England's Glory (all Rebellion, 2008).

Rebellion's been continuing a program of about two reprint collections a month. I buy almost all of them, and these are some of the latest ones. The second Button Man book reprints the second lengthy story of this sporadically-published tale by John Wagner and Arthur Ranson. It first appeared over four months in 1994, and the third wouldn't appear until 2001. In it, the mercenary Harry Exton, whom we thought dead at the end of his first adventure, wakes up in upstate New York, having been rescued and conscripted by a wealthy benefactor to serve as his new hired gun. Genuinely thrilling and full of sharp, unexpected plot twists, I still think the first two Button Man stories will make one hell of a great movie one day.

The seventh Nikolai Dante book features several shorter adventures, 26 episodes in all, published sporadically over an eighteen month run from 2005-06. It wraps up the long run which had Dante, the most wanted man on Earth, hiding out with his mother, the most notorious pirate queen of the Pacific, but there, as always, working both sides of a con. The downside to this book is that almost all of it features John Burns on art chores. Burns is a superb artist, but I simply don't enjoy his work on Dante. The character's co-creator Simon Fraser returns for the final storyline, which sees Dante pulled out of what looks certain to be the worst scrape he's ever been in and dumped in one that's even worse - a new job in the tsar's employ - and sets up a pile of new subplots and problems that are driving the strip in its current run in 2000 AD. It's very good, but Dante is at his best when he's dealing with ugly politics in the Russian court, and there's not quite as much of that in this book as I'd prefer.

I think most American readers have not yet heard of Stickleback, and, good Lord, are you ever missing out. The brainchild of Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, this misshapen, vulgar gentleman with the hunchback, hideously deformed and visible spine and long nose is the Pope of Crime in Victorian London, a place beset by Lovecraftian nightmares, secret societies, ancient evils, Chinese dragons and undead cowboys. He's appeared so far in two series, starting in 2007. These are compiled here along with supplemental material from D'Israeli's sketchbook, and if there was any justice in the world, I could take myself an apple to work in a Stickleback lunchbox. To be fair, I was pleased but not blown away by the first series when it initially ran; the creators made the unusual decision to frame Stickleback and his world through the eyes of his antagonist, Detective Inspector Valentine Bey, and several episodes passed with only the briefest glimpse of the villain. But it gels perfectly in the end, and the second series is just thunderously weird and wonderful, with a new, left-field jawdropper every five pages or so, as Stickleback and his crew match wits with Wild Bill Hickock and his travelling freakshow. Absolutely essential stuff - now when the heck do we get a third series, Tharg?

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

Monday, November 3, 2008

Muhyo and Who

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 Muhyo & Roji's Bureau of Supernatural Investigation volume one (Viz, 2007) and Doctor Who: Oblivion (Panini, 2006).

I was mentioning last week about how I bought lots of stuff from the AWA dealers' room. This was one; I spotted the cover and figured, correctly, that my eleven year-old son would enjoy it. Muhyo & Roji's BSI, which concluded a seven-year run in Shonen Jump earlier this year, is simply perfect for his reading bracket, but it really failed to gel with me. Detailing the reasons why the drama failed for me would be like kicking a Goosebumps book for not providing a really good resolution to its teenage wolfman story, or a Harry Potter book for any one of its tedious moments. This isn't intended for grown-ups.

The stories by Yoshiyuki Nishi reach their high points with the revelation of the horrific beast-of-the-week, a critter which will then be instantly and effortlessly dispatched by Muhyo. The art isn't at all appealing, although Nishi has a fine sense of pacing the horrific buildup to each episode's new monster. I won't be continuing with the series, although my son has expressed an interest in picking them up himself. Recommended for middle schoolers.

Continuing to work my way through the complete comic adventures of the Eighth Doctor, I was very pleased to reread this third volume, which starts with one of the best bait-and-switches that Doctor Who has ever pulled, when a new character who seems to be the obvious new companion pulls the twist that you should have seen coming, but then there's a follow-up to that which is still, after all this time, chuckle-inducing in its audaciousness.

"Oblivion" is a really good set of excellently-told stories, ably mixing plot threads from both the earlier comics and the original TV series and presenting a Doctor that we never got to know as well as we should have. And I tell you, if there's a finer Doctor Who moment than when the ghost of Frida Kahlo's father menaces the Doctor's companion, while he's in a graveyard with Diego Rivera on the Day of the Dead fighting aliens, I can't think of it. Highly recommended.

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