Monday, June 30, 2008


by Hope Larson
Aladdin 2008

Garrett Martin: So what should be more embarrassing for a 30-year-old man to read on the train, a 500 page collection of Green Lantern comics written for kids in the early '60's, or a thoughtful, well-done work by an acclaimed creator that would probably be most meaningful to a 13-year-old girl? There's absolutely nothing embarrassing about the content or craft of Chiggers, but I still hesitated slightly before pulling it out on the train this morning. It doesn't help that my wife calls stuff like Chiggers and the Minx line "them little girl books". It's silly that it's more culturally acceptable for a grown man to be into juvenile crap made for boys than more mature work that just happens to be concerned about the other gender. At least I know my granddad would've thought I was a dumb-ass for reading either.

But so, Chiggers. Summer camp as a fictional setting has basically been one massive cliché since before I was even born. We know these kids will be learning some valuable life lessons, develop confidence around others, learn how to talk to the opposite gender without passing out, etc. It's a fairly played out environment. I never even went to summer camp (at least not the sweaty kind), but I feel like I did, what with all the Meatballs rip-offs I watched, and that TV movie with Michael J. Fox and Nancy McKeon, and the rest. So it's refreshing to read a book like Chiggers that has a fairly unique (to me) perspective on such a trite setting. I'm sure the young adult rack is full of summer camp stories from a girl's perspective, but, um, I've never read any, and every story I've ever experienced on the subject has been told pretty solidly from the viewpoint of a dude. Larson takes what could be an immediate stumbling block and diffuses any potential problems by looking at it from an angle I'd never seen before. And although this sounds less like a testament to her ability than to my own gender-biased media choices, it's still the mark of a successful artist to recast boring, dated concepts in interesting new lights, right?

Hillary Brown: It totally is, and she does an excellent job with it. I'm pretty sure that I have read some young adult novels set at girls' summer camps, being a girl and a voracious devourer of YA novels when I was one myself, but Larson's work, while simple, is so much better than most of the stuff in that genre that supposedly everyone identifies with. I didn't go to this kind of summer camp, with swimming and tents and cabins, but I was forced to go on yearly camping trips by my elementary school (it's character building to poop in the woods!) and I attended Talent Identification Program (TIP) camp, aka nerd camp, at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia, at age 14 and 15. We stayed in dorms instead of cabins, and there were no bunks or chiggers, but I'm sure it was somewhat similar. Anyway, personal narrative aside, most books addressed to YA girls, while often entertaining, don't really ring true throughout, while this does. Larson manages to evoke the fear and danger associated with forming and maintaining friendships in a way that transcends the ostensible subject matter. And also, of course, it's beautiful. Watching her paint a s'more on the cover of the book with a brush and ink at Heroescon was amazing, and the same kind of painstaking care without loss of fluidity is used on every page, down to the dialogue balloons.

GM: Yeah, the awkwardness of meeting new people, making new friends, and growing up and apart from others is depicted in a pretty truthful manner. I don't necessarily know how real girls deal with that stuff, but those are issues that every kid faces, and in Chiggers they're presented and resolved in a very believable and human fashion. There's no sensationalism here, just a modest, gentle, but affecting story about growing up, bolstered by Larson's elegant and expressive line-work.

I never really read YA fiction. All I read in middle school were comics and books on history and mythology. Above I guessed that Chiggers was aimed primarily at 13-year-olds; I don't know if that's accurate, though. Are books for 13-year-old girls more advanced than first kiss territory? Does the sweetness and innocence of Chiggers make it more for older elementary school kids? I really have no idea.

HB: I think part of the problem I always had with Judy Blume and the like was their excess of maturity. Books about 13-year-olds tend to be read by kids aged 9 to 12 (numbers I am pulling out of my ass entirely, but they sound accurate and they're based on experience, just as no actual 17-year-old actually reads Seventeen magazine), and I just tended to be a little weirded out by the obsessions with bras and menses and masturbation and so on. Maybe, again, this has to do more with my own weird upbringing, but I thought that Larson's focus on a) more universal themes, and b) more innocent themes was really nice. It made me want to buy this book for my 15-year-old half-sister, not least because she goes to camp in North Carolina. Except, of course, that she's now far too mature for it.

Another thing that I found strangely soothing about the book is Abby's relationship to nature, which she seems really comfortable with, but not in a hippy-dippy way. It's not something that's made explicit, but she's not nervous about camping in a tent or leaving the cabin to walk to the bathrooms in the middle of the night or swimming in a lake or any of that. It's completely alien to my experience. When I was on those forced camping trips, I was constantly scared of this or that rustling in the bushes or of getting eaten by a bear. I still kind of am. You'd think that would make the book less pleasant to read, but it doesn't. I think, if anything, it just adds to her capableness without resorting to cliched "girls rule, boys drool" nonsense.

GM: I hadn't even thought about her comfort with nature, outside of its relation to her elven fantasies. Now that I do I don't know if we're supposed to be impressed by Abby's relative lack of fear or it that's more to highlight the fear evinced by Shasta. None of the other girls seem scared, either. So maybe that's less Abby's strength than it is Shasta's weakness? It is one of the clearer cut exhibitions of the complementary nature of their friendship.

I never read any Blume past Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I still can't forgive Fudge for killing that turtle. If I wasn't mature enough for that, then I'm pretty sure there's no way in hell I could've handled books with training bras and shit.

HB: Not to mention theological stuff!

Also, this book totally makes D&D seem palatable, which is nice. Jared and I were talking about role-playing games and not getting the concept fairly recently. I still don't really think I get it (you can make stuff up, but also there are dice?), but this gave me the same kind of warm, fuzzy feeling about them that that one episode of Freaks and Geeks dealing with the same subject produced.

GM: Oh man, so Jared never played any AD&D? He's gotta be the only dude I know who's never played it at least once. I only played it a handful of times myself, but I used to pore over my brother's copy of the Monster Manual. The dice decide the outcome of certain events, but for the most part the players are free to do whatever they want, within whatever parameters are set by the Dungeon Master. You could buy pre-made scenarios at stores (I think they called 'em modules), but any DM worth his salt would make up their own dungeons and scenarios for the players to investigate.

Anyway. Let's mention theological stuff! Because maybe the train ride was harshing my concentration, but I didn't really pick up on that too much. In fact I'm somewhat at a loss for what the will o' the wisp symbolizes, at least in that climactic scene at the power cut.

HB: No, I think he, like me, picked up a book a couple of times wondering how it worked but was comparably mystified. I guess, like, why use the dice at all, right?

I actually was talking about Are You There God, It's Me Margaret with regard to YA girl philosophical musings, but now I guess I'm going to have to think more about that will o' the wisp. I did ponder it a little during the reading, and my stab at what it stands for is the thing that Shasta and Abby share, which is that they haven't yet completely grounded themselves in reality. I have no idea what's "real" and what's not of what they experience together, but it's not super important. It's more about the rush of play, which definitely is something I remember from hanging out with my best friend growing up. We spent a lot of time pretending to be faeries (yes, ha ha, I know! And we did spell it that way, too), running around in her back yard under the big clumps of wisteria, and there's something exhilarating about creating a narrative on the fly like that. "What does this mean?" "This means that." "Or maybe this!" "Yeah!" That sense of open-ended possibilities is something you lose when you become more interested in nose piercings, I think.

GM: Right, but the nose piercings bring new fantasies, ones that are easier to realize, like playing in shitty punk bands. To me Beth's dreams of being in Spite Storm are even more embarrassing and immature than Abby's fantasies, if only because Beth looks at something that can be done in a mature, common-sensical way (playing in bands and making music) and views it in this superficial and immature way. Abby's fantasy life might be more innocent and childish, but at least it's a fantasy that can't be replicated in real life in any practical fashion.

HB: And some people would come down on one side as being better, and others would come down on the other side. I certainly don't know exactly where I would. I'm very glad I'm not 13 and can pretend much better that I have all this stuff figured out. Except for D&D.

GM: I wonder if kids still think about faeries and dragons and stuff like that, or if it's all just about video games and celebrities.

HB: Dude, I could totally name you some kids who do, and not just ones who are younger than 5. If I knew them better, I would buy this book for them. As is, I'm at least going to tell other people to buy it for them.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Skyscrapers of the Midwest

Skyscrapers of the Midwest
by Josh Cotter
AdHouse Books, 2008

Hillary Brown: If someone told me a work of art was intensely, miserably sad (but also genius), I would generally run in the other direction. Life is sad enough, what with people being run over by cars in Athens and dying in cyclones in Burma and earthquakes in China and so on and so forth. You pretty much have to suppress awareness of that incredible, horrible sadness that's going on all around you all the time just to be able to function from minute to minute. And yet, Josh Cotter's Skyscrapers of the Midwest is exactly that intensely, miserably sad, and you should read it, even if you are like me and want to ignore the fact that the world tips in favor of suckiness almost all the time. I started out reading the individual issues (courtesy Mr. Ryan Lewis) before I bought the hardcover, and, unlike the book, they don't give you any clue of what's to come. You're just thrown in the middle of anthropomorphic cats and robots and rural settings, and it's not necessarily clear that there's an overarching narrative. You get to figure that out, and, as you figure it out, you become aware of its ordinariness and also its awfulness at the same time. I hate to play the Chris Ware card, but Cotter's got a lot in common with him, down to a brilliant use of visual symbolism without explanation, letting the reader figure out what something means or might mean. I think it's the best thing I've read in a long time

Garrett Martin: It made me think of Ware, too, both visually and because it also made me bawl my eyes out on an airplane (weird coincidence). I don't think Skyscrapers is as overwhelmingly depressing as Jimmy Corrigan, though. The younger brother keeps Skyscrapers from becoming too monolithic in its misery. There's also more hope in this book, if only because the protagonist is still a kid and many of his most pressing problems probably won't last too much longer. He at least has a good home life, unlike Corrigan. And yeah, maturity and adulthood bring a whole new set of problems with them, almost all of them more serious than what bums this kid out, but they also bring the strength and experience to deal with problems in a more forth-right and mature manner.

But anyway, yes, Skyscrapers of the Midwest is a fantastic book. Cotter debuts with an immediately distinctive voice, despite dealing with similar subject matter and using some of the same techniques as many other somewhat autobiographical comics. Most comics aren't structured so perfectly, though, or filled with such rich symbolism, symbolism that remains poignant while still being clear enough for total dumbasses like me to grasp. And though it is utterly suffused with sadness and grief, the book doesn't use them for cheap emotion or easy familiarity. Skyscrapers also features some of the most indelible comic images I've ever seen, from the robotic angel cats to the discarded backpack drowning the main character in guilt. It's a rare comic that perfectly combines image with story in a literary way, and Skyscrapers succeeds more than anything else I've read this year. It's a perfect example of what I was trying to say about comics in our Runaways post; Skyscrapers could exist in other media, but it would be fundamentally different and far less powerful. But I don't want to derail this back onto that track.

HB: You're right that it's not as overwhelmingly depressing as Ware. It's just that, in the bits where it is, it's just as forcefully so. But, yes, there's hope, which is good, and there is some big-time coziness, which contributes to the sadness to some extent but also compensates for it. Man, it makes me wish my grandma had been nice like that. Not that she didn't teach me valuable stuff, but not so much with the hugs and pies and kitties and all that.

One thing I was thinking about with regard to the book is this article by James Wood on theodicy, which I read a week or so ago. Basically, you can see Skyscrapers as an attempt to deal with the problem of theodicy, and the importance to the book of this struggle with faith may be one of the things that gives it such depth. I'm not sure what the final answer is that it suggests--whether there's a god or no--but it's a concern, a matter to which one must devote thought. You know, you can't really be a good person unless you spend some time thinking about whether or not you're a good person and what "good person" means and who defines that and so on.

I also think you're right about the visual power. There are both things that happen and things that are drawn that I'm going to have a very hard time digging out of my head, nor am I sure I want to, although some of them create a truly terrible feeling in the pit of the stomach. I will say that I think it loses a tiny bit of steam toward the end (or maybe 3/4 through), but that's more of an impression than an evidence-based conclusion, and it may just be that it's impossible to maintain the emotional fever pitch the book hits at its high points.

GM: I'm glad I didn't have a German grandma.

The struggle with faith is central to Skyscrapers, obviously, but I don't know if Cotter really provides a "final answer". If anything, the last scene, with the snow slowly covering the footprints 'til there's no sign the kids were even there, seems to say that, from a cosmic view, the individual doesn't really matter. That doesn't negate the significance of the preceeding 275 pages, or so, but it makes me think that, if Cotter does believe, his God's something of a watchmaker (and I wonder how the rise of cellphones will effect that analogy). You could also say the scenes where Kevin, the main character, imagines himself as his own giant robot god reflect a "we're all our own god now" view, which actually works alongside the watchmaker biz - if God isn't here for me, then I'll be here for myself, etc. (And yeah, that could come close to Anton Lavey's form of Satanism, but c'mon, that isn't the direction Cotter is headed) But again, like you mention, I don't think Cotter is trying to espouse any sort of approach to faith, but instead is interested in how one decides upon and grapples with that faith.

So are you surprised by this book? From some of your prior emails I felt like you were maybe hesitant to read Skyscrapers, either because it didn't look good to you or because you didn't want to shell out the twenty bucks. I've been looking forward to this collection for months, having read a number of ecstatic reviews of the individual issues, and even I'm taken aback by how beautiful and thought-provoking it is. Returning yet again to Ware, Skyscrapers has stuck in my mind more than any comic since Corrigan (and maybe a couple of Huizenga stories, like "Jeepers Jacob" and "Pulverize"). Also, I can definitely see how reading the single issues doesn't prepare you for how thematically unified the completed work is. I wonder if Cotter knew all along that some of those symbols and themes would recur or if it's something he worked out as he went along.

HB: Yes, I was massively surprised, although it's not as though I haven't enjoyed Cotter's previous stuff (in The Trouble Revolution and on the Kindercore site) or thought it was smart. I just didn't do any research at all, so I had no idea what I was in for. It's not as though I'd read a bunch of things saying "wow, it's great but it's a little on the sad side" and veered away. I was merely being lazy, which is a bad excuse. Don't be lazy, readers.

My guess is that Cotter knew, to some extent, what he was going for with his symbols from the beginning, but they only grew and deepened in meaning and import as he wrote and drew. That's what happens with good stuff. People think symbols are a simple system of equations, but that's not how they work, and it's not how allegory works. It's a flower, not a box.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody
by Mike Dawson
Bloomsbury USA, May 2008

Note: Freddie and Me is a better comic than my words below make it sound. I liked it a good bit, despite some problems with the structure, which Hillary and I dwell on in our conversation far more than any other issue. I don't even mention the art, which is really good; Dawson's linework is clean and bold, his visual story-telling is clear, and he's great at character-ization and depicting emotion. Freddie and Me is a good book, despite what my griping below might make you think. - GM

Garrett Martin: I usually cringe whenever music pops up in comics, even if it's music I like. Young Liars and the latest issue of Casanova are both kind of embarrassing, and even Scott Pilgrim barely gets away with it. So on one hand I wasn't expecting much from Mike Dawson's Freddie and Me, an autobiographical comic about his life-long love affair with Queen, and not just because I thought it was a late-'80's children's movie about an unlikely friendship between a young boy and a loving-yet-attitudinous anthropomorphic monkey/alien/robot. But I was a pretty big Queen fan myself as a kid, and still pretty much love 'em today, so this book piqued my interest, despite music-based comics generally depressing me in some weird, vague fashion. And although the music content in Freddie and Me is only as awkward and uncomfortable as Dawson intends for it to be, and thus handled pretty exemplarily, by the end the book devolves into something of a jumbled mess. But before we get to that, let me ask you: do you also often get annoyed at how music is portrayed in other media? Do you agree that it's difficult to dramatize the effect of music upon an audience or listener without coming off as either awkward, insincere, or out-of-touch? And if so, why do you think that is?

Hillary Brown: Wow, that's a big question up front, but, yes, the Nick Hornby effect comes into play a lot. It's not that it's so hard to write about music. It's just hard to do it well. But there are plenty of writers who can get across the power it has, like Alex Ross, who writes about contemporary classical music in ways that make me want to seek it out. I'm just not sure Dawson's one of them, which is a shame in some ways. Luckily, he picked one of the best bands ever, and I'm sure you know all these songs, just as I do, which means he doesn't have to work very hard to convey their wonderfulness. When you see the lyrics rolling across the page, you fill in the melody. It's also probably not fair to expect someone who's not a music writer but a visual creature, not necessarily used to translating one medium into another, to do just that. Or maybe I'm being too lenient.

I was really looking forward to this book, especially after reading the eight-or-so-page preview online, but it fell a little flat for me too. Dawson's said in several interviews (including this one) that he composed the book to mirror the structure of "Bohemian Rhapsody," but 1. that doesn't really come across, and 2. maybe there are better songs to pattern a book after. I love "Bohemian Rhapsody," but it works in spite of itself, or it works only to people who love songs that are kind of a mess (like me). It just sort of throws a bunch of wacko-ness in a pot and turns the heat up high. That doesn't work so well for something that's clearly supposed to be an autobiographical coming of age narrative, where you have to have a bit more structure. There are hints of more reflection at times in the book (as when Dawson talks about how memory works and considers it from different perspectives), but there are also long sections of one thing happening after another, which, while reflective of how reality works, aren't really want you want in a comic OR, at least, not without a super-smart, wonderful voice guiding you. I mean, James Joyce is allowed to do it because he was a genius and Leopold Bloom is an incredible, funny character, whereas Dawson's portrait of himself is more fraught with painful self-recognition than the humorous version of such.

GM: Well, Alex Ross is a critic, right? I'm not talking about music criticism; that's difficult in different ways, and usually isn't quite as embarrassing as the band Sam manages in Who's The Boss? (who might be the same band as in Young Liars #1, actually). Freddie and Me probably doesn't annoy me in the same way because it's about a real guy's reaction to a real band (and, like you say, a really great band), and because Dawson does recognize how awkward and embarrassing much of this is. I don't get that when Hornby has his stand-ins swoon over the latest rehash of sincere rootsiness, or whatever. It's also not a potential "look at my cool record collection" tangent like with Casanova. I'm just surprised that Dawson was able to avoid the problems I most expected involving this other artform, but then fail when it comes to a highly vital part of the artform in which he is working, like narrative structure.

I didn't know about the "Bohemian Rhapsody" structure, but I guess it explains those drawings from the video that operate as chapter breaks. I wonder if Dawson is entirely honest when he says that, or if he realized after the fact that it was a good talking point. I also wonder how successful he thinks he was at that, because he kinda wasn't very, although like you say it's a weird song to try and replicate, structurally. Freddie and Me eventually falls flat because what structure it does have completely collapses about two-thirds of the way through. Dawson goes into detail about events that happened when he was young, from elementary school up through high school, even though he explains (in a few reflective scenes that were really well done) how his memories from those days are fuzzy and indistinct. And then in the last third he just jumps randomly about his adult life, less interested in telling a story than in just catching us up with what he's been doing. The more he remembers his life the less interesting it is to read; it becomes less story-telling than a matter-of-fact list of events. The comic doesn't become bad at the end, just sloppy and increasingly more indulgent. There are a couple of powerful moments in this section, like his examination of memory and how different people can remember shared experiences differently (although not as well done as that Chris Ware cartoon from This American Life), and the scene when he enters his grandma's house after her funeral hit pretty close to home and made me choke up just a bit. But there's a consistent thread that winds through the first two acts that gets thoroughly knotted once Dawson reaches adulthood. Even Queen takes a backseat to mundane life occurrences, which, yeah, makes sense since most of us don't carry our childhood passions so close to our heart once we're grown, but still, that only adds to the book's whimpering end. It almost feels like he gave up on the narrative at the end, and just tried to rush to a conclusion.

HB: I also have some issues with the middle section, in which he moves from England to the United States, and starts being more interested in art. I totally get the device--the nauseating journals of adolescence--but that doesn't mean it works. It means we're cast adrift without a timeline for one thing. How long is he working on this 20-hour art project, for example? And can we see a little more of his developing passion for comics and art? How are his dreams of being cool because of his foreignness and English accent dashed? Why doesn't he get in a fight with his friend who loves Rush? Just because you love a band and aren't a music critic doesn't mean you can't, you know, think about why you like them as opposed to another band.

Basically, in that same interview Dawson talks about being nervous about having an editor and how he ended up being fine with the experience because she backed off on some of her criticisms and didn't make him do anything he didn't want to do. Well, maybe she should've been tougher! Editors help shape stories, and what this story needs is more shape.

That said, I really do like the art. It's not up there with my absolute favorites, but it's totally well done and funny and distinctive. It's better when he's drawing people we don't know (himself and his family and friends) than when he's drawing the members of Queen or George Michael, and it doesn't always convey new information that's not in the text, but it's certainly better than a decent bit of indie work.

GM: I don't think it's important to see how his dreams of coolness are foiled. It's kind of a given that most people aren't "cool" in middle school, especially if they openly love comics and unpopular bands like Queen. And yeah, before Wayne's World made them briefly big again, Queen were about as uncool as you could get in 1990-91. My entirely uncool friends made fun of me for actually buying their Innuendo album when it came out, instead of Extreme or Tesla or whatever (oh shit, who am I kidding, I had those records too). And yeah, he lists his favorite Queen songs a lot, but never explains why they're his favorite, or what they mean to him. That's kind of unsatisfying, especially as Dawson gets older and should theoretically be more rational and thoughtful about why he likes what he likes. At the same time, though, I don't think he needs to justify it too much. There are bands I've loved since childhood that I still accept and support uncritically, like U2; I don't particularly like their recent stuff, but they've earned a lifelong pass from me.

I'm both surprised and not surprised to hear that about his editor. You can tell they were lax just by reading the book, but it seems weird that a "real" book publisher wouldn't be more active on that front, especially with a creator who isn't really a big name.

HB: Dude, it's important to see that because he sets it up and then doesn't really do anything with it. That's kind of a small version of the things that annoy me about the whole book: unachieved potential. Still, that doesn't mean people shouldn't read it. I know my husband liked it more than I did, so maybe he can pipe up in the comments about why.

GM: See, I read that differently. Yeah, he sets it up, but I thought it was fairly clear that there was no way that was going to be happening. It's like Lennie and the rabbits in Of Mice and Men, but infinitely less tragic.

Anyway, I agree, Freddie and Me could've been so much better. I did like it more than you, too, I think, and so maybe it helps slightly to have been a nerdy guy into nerdy things.

HB: Oh, but that's so sad. I was just as nerdy, only I was isolated from pop culture at least up until middle school and even somewhat then. While you were listening to Queen, I was listening to my cassette box set of the lives of the great composers and dancing around my basement to the Oklahoma! cast recording, which is not exactly coolsville. On the other hand, perhaps there is a distinction to be made between having access to a wide range of pop culture and choosing the geeky stuff versus being raised with no television by semi-hippies who gave me a love for Dan Glazer and bad 1980s country music.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Trinity #1

Trinity #1
by Kurt Busiek, Mark Bagley, Art Thibert; Fabian Nicieza, Busiek, Scott McDaniel, and Andy Owens
DC Comics, 2008

Garrett Martin: Going to the comic book store is awesome. It's so awesome that I and several thousand other folks do it every Wednesday. It's even more awesome when the latest issue of a comic you've really been enjoying is going to be on the stands. That doesn't happen every week, though. Also the superhero audience is growing ever older, and our memories aren't what they used to be. I don't remember a damn thing about Last Defenders #4, and I just read that two nights ago; I'll probably forget the book even exists by the time #5 comes out. DC Comics, in one of its few recent good moves, tackled these issues head on back in 2006, when they started up the year-long weekly series 52. The weekly format guaranteed there'd be at least one new book every week, while also taking it easy on the deteriorating memories of the company's aging fanbase. 52 was good for the most part, and a big financial success, so DC immediaty went back to the weekly well with the recently ended Countdown. Countdown was pretty astoundingly awful, but still sold okay; we'll never speak of it again. So it's no surprise that DC would rush into a third weekly year-long comic called Trinity.

There are some big differences from those first two, though. Instead of a writing staff and rotating artists creating an 18-page lead story, Trinity will feature a weekly 12-page continuing lead from Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley, with back-ups from Busiek, Fabian Nicieza, and a number of artists. Trinity also focuses on lesser known characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, instead of 52's collection of hugely popular franchise tentpoles like Booster Gold and Adam Strange. It also promises to be some straight-forward superhero action, since Final Crisis will be shouldering all the world-shattering developments and what-not. In all, the prospects are rather inticing for fans of adequately told old-school superheroics. At least, they were, until the first issue landed with a thud two weeks ago.

Both halves of Trinity #1 fail. The lead story runs for a few boring, awkward pages before ending abruptly. I feared pacing would be an issue (12 pages is a weird length for a superhero story, shorter than most lead stories but longer than most back-ups or anthology tales), and it certainly is with this first issue. And the back-up is just flat-out awful, with mind-numbingly ponderous dialogue and unattractive art. Now, it's only the first issue, and #2 is slightly better, and it's nowhere near as bad as the first issue of DC's last weekly series, but still, this isn't a good start.

But wait, what did you think?

Hillary Brown: I couldn't figure out whether I thought it was awesome or unbelievably dumb that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman met at the Keystone pier for beignets, and I'm still torn, despite being tipped a little bit toward awesome by the experience of reading DC #845, which contains page after page of Batman typing in a chat room while he eats a sandwich. Yes, a sandwich.

Anyway, I think there's some potential in the first 12 pages, which remind me a little of the end of Kingdom Come as far as the things these three share and bond over, but the art isn't particularly special, just more competent than the back-up (new word for me), which is borderline incoherent and only not the worst thing I read this week due to coincidence. These two stories are connected? What is the point of splitting the book in two this way? It's jarring, and it allows for almost no story to develop. As-is, it reads like so: beignets, boots, cameo by the Flash, brief hint of menace in space, then shift to ridiculousness with Arthurian witch, contemporary technology, and a bunch of terribly rendered looks into the future that make very little sense. Bluck. I'd say the back-up almost destroyed any interest I have in reading this book.

GM: That opening was full of unintentional hilarity and amazement. Whenever they try to show Bruce Wayne acting like a normal guy I think of my dad on sales calls saying things like "hey, man!" and "how ya doing, buddy?" Yeah, okay, that scene is supposed to be kinda funny, but not necessarily in the way that it is. And although Bagley's art is perfectly acceptable, and always coherent, it's still rarely attractive or exciting, and so did nothing to make that lead less boring or goofy.

And yes, that back-up, geez. It's pretty clear these stiffs'll be the villains of the series, roughly corresponding to each member of the "trinity". They introduce some big tough alien bruiser in the second issue who I figured would fill out the Superman slot if they hadn't already hinted at Despero in #1. I don't have a problem with the backups structurally; it's actually a smart way to provide background on the main story without disrupting the latter's creative team. But the backup in #1 is embarrassingly awful in almost every aspect, full of awful dialogue from colorless characters, all rendered poorly by an artist who should know better. And like I say above, it'll be hard to fit a satisfying story into only twelve pages, so the backups might continue to drag down the lead story even if they become good.

Trinity #2 is slightly better, but only because the backup is merely boring and not horrible. The lead remains servicable but dull, but still ends abruptly. I'll give it another couple of weeks (even Countdown got four issues out of me), but it's not looking good for Trinity.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Runaways, vol. 1

Runaways, vol. 1
by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Adrian Alphona (mostly)
Marvel, 2006

Hillary Brown: So I was a little bit worried that re-reading Runaways, vol. 1, would be disappointing, as I've probably built it up a bit in my memory. It was a formative comics-reading experience for me, one of the first things that I just couldn't put down. All I wanted to do was read it and then the second volume and the third. It was sort of like the equivalent of watching Buffy on DVD (I would say 24, but I've never had that experience, and my guess is that revisitation points up that series' flaws), where I pretty much just wanted to plug the media I was experiencing into my head, like a rat pushing the pleasure button over and over again. The answer is that, yes, it suffers a little bit, especially as much of the plot is built on surprise--a particularly pleasurable element for me, no matter the medium--but it doesn't suffer a lot. The central premise of the book (yes, your parents are evil) is just so darn brilliant in its simplicity, and if there's one thing you can pick out that Vaughan is particularly good at, it's pacing. If you want a book that makes you read slowly and think about the history of comics, I'd have to say this isn't it, but it's marvelous narrative-driven stuff.

Garrett Martin: First off, although, yes, there's no surprise or suspense in rereading Runaways, you can still marvel at Vaughn's craft and how deftly he handled that last-act reveal. As a story, from conception to execution, few recent mainstream comics can compare to this book. Still, I don't if I'd call it a truly great comic. But so, I read Runaways in those little tiny Archie-style digests. The store was selling the first one half-off, I took a flyer, and had to head back the next day to pick up the rest of the first "season". I hadn't realized how ridiculously addictive good serialized comics in cheap digest form could be beforehand. It totally made me understand why manga is so huge. And your comparison to Buffy and 24 is apt, as, like most of Brian K. Vaughan's comics, Runaways feels more indebted to television than comic books. Structure, dialogue, character development: almost everything about Runaways (and Ex Machina, and what I've read of Y the Last Man, etc.) recalls tv shows more than Stan Lee or Julie Schwarz. Of course Buffy was influenced somewhat by comics, so it's probably silly and hard and pointless to suss out the inspiration trail; snake be eatin' some tail. But I'm sticking on this point because that's my biggest problem with BKV (the bigger of, like, two problems, so don't go thinking I dislike the guy). The cinematization (televisualization?) of superhero comics has lead to some great stories, but those stories tend to lack some of the imagination and impossibility inherent to the genre. And so often the stories are slow and kinda boring. Vaughn avoids this trap better than almost any other similar writer (perhaps because he started in comics before moving to tv and not vice versa), but even with Runaways, which is really damn good, he doesn't take enough advantage of the freedom and possibilities of the comic book form. Which, again, isn't to say Runaways is bad in any way, but to explain why I don't consider it or Vaughn to be in the highest echelon of mainstream genre comics or creators. Which is also to say that, although I really like Vaughn and his work, I think both are slightly overrated.

HB: Well.... Hmm. I think your quibble is a little weird, as that's something I was looking for specifically this go-round, due to hearing it from you before. I'd actually say that Runaways works kind of a lot within its medium, with plenty of references to history and genre. You may have to be more specific about how he's not doing what you want him to be doing. Is it that his characters comment on their situations as implausible from time to time? That may be modernity more than genre.

GM: You know, it is a weird quibble. I don't know if I can justify it on any intellectual or critical basis. But I'll try.

What I mean is, I can't call Runaways a truly great comic because it doesn't speak to me in any novel or interesting away about either the human condition or the artform it is a part of. Like Buffy (for a while), it's good in its characterization and great in its storytelling, but, y'know, Buffy wasn't The Prisoner or the first season of Twin Peaks or (I'm gonna get it on this one) even Lost, and, similarly, Runaways isn't All-Star Superman or Casanova. I just think the series has more modest aspirations, and even though it hits almost every one of them, that necessarily leads to more modest results, and thus makes me reluctant to call it truly great. It also doesn't help that the voices of the different Runaways occasionally sound the same, especially when they quip and crack wise. So basically Runaways is a really well-made piece of genre work that doesn't fully transcend its two genres of superhero comic and teen ensemble drama (or dramedy, whatever).

HB: Oof. You might be gonna get it on all of those analogies. Basically, if you make me pick between Buffy and a piece of (admittedly beautiful) hogwash like The Prisoner or even (I'm gonna get it for this one) Twin Peaks, not to mention Lost, which you obviously remember I'm not a fan of, I will take Joss Whedon's side one hundred percent of the time. Sure, if you want ponderous obscurity and things that could be meditations on the meaning of life but could just as well be not knowing what you're trying to talk about, you might want to pick those shows, but that is absolutely not what I want. Saint Augustine is allowed to think about man's place in the universe and the nature of God and so on, but few other people are because it degenerates into pot-head babbling, and what I love about Whedon's work (mostly) and Vaughan's is their sharpness. They've already edited themselves and removed most of the extraneous hoo-ha.

Whew. That said, you're right that Runaways has weaknesses. It's true that everyone is smart and wise-cracky, and in similar voices. And I think Alphona's art doesn't particularly take advantage of the form--much less than the writing, which has plenty of comics jokes (gamma rays, initial meeting superhero fight, woo-woo costumes for the ladies). The coloring is kind of yucky and modern. The crossover bit isn't great. I think Vaughan probably has greater things in him in some ways, but I hate to ghettoize genre work. Honestly, what's not genre-fied when you get down to it?

GM: I'm not trying to ghettoize anything; 99% of what I read is superhero junk, and I'm not nearly as embarrassed about that as I probably should be. And Runaways is better than almost any of that. Still, if I'm reading a comic and one of my two most constant thoughts is "wow, this would make a really good tv show", I'll have a hard time ranking that comic among the absolute best of the form. Despite whatever advances in CGI, there are still more possibilties with pen and ink than with real actors trying to interact with real or digital sets and effects. Most comics don't make use of that potential, of course, and I don't really hold it against them, but when a writer and/or artist do succeed in creating something that can't easily be translated to another artform, something that is distinctly and incontrovertibly suited for comics above anything else, while still telling a good story, then that work will definitely be elevated, in my view. Runaways doesn't do that, which isn't it's fault at all. It doesn't have to, and shouldn't, be anything other than what Vaughan and Alphonsa wanted it to be. But that's why I can't say that it's an absolutely great comic or a personal favorite. Runaways is really good, probably great, but once I was done reading it I was done thinking about it. Y'know? I'd definitely recommend this to anybody, especially people who do like tv shows like Buffy but have never gotten into comics. I could see it being a great gateway book, and that's awesome.

Perhaps I took a wrong turn here, deciding to immediately explain why I don't like Runaways as much as you and many of its supporters do, instead of actually discussing the comic's merits first. We've talked about this before, though, off-site, and so I wanted to jump straight into the debate. Also I've got a new boss buzzing around after months without one, and so shit's more urgent on my side. Had to get straight to the point, y'know.

HB: Still, the only thing I can think of that can't be translated to another artform/medium is jokes about panels, and even those have their parallels in the world of animation, which has plenty of jokes about cells and frames and so on (e.g., "Duck Amuck"). On the other hand, perhaps you really do mean "translated well," with such examples as that ridiculous looking Hulk serving to show just how bad CGI can still be. But that's not exclusive to comics either. I also can't translate my imagination perfectly into an embodied form, and I'm sure that comics don't perfectly translate what's in their creators' heads. So is the imagination a superior medium to comics?

Anyway, I think what we have here is just a fundamental aesthetic disagreement. I tend to like things that are neatly done, compact, tight, and yet surprising. You prefer stuff that's more expansive and imaginative. Neither of these is a particularly good summary of our differing aesthetic preferences, but it sort of points up the reason I may like Runaways better than you do. Note, also, that I don't think anything following it is up to the standards of this first volume, because they're more meandering, more crossover-oriented, and less well structured.

GM: I don't mean metafictional moments like "Duck Amuck" or some of Morrison's stuff. And cartoons kinda sit this argument out - they split the difference between comics and film anyway, and thus might be the greatest artform ever invented. But so, I suspect the Watchmen film will be a good example of what I'm talking about. Watchmen the comic combines text, images, and linear and non-linear storytelling in ways that can't really be done effectively in film or literature, while still being commercially accessible and successful. The movie won't be able to do that. A serialized tv adaptation would maybe be better suited, but still couldn't replicate the depth and breadth of the original.

HB: No, that's fair. I don't think that kind of thing precludes good adaptation, but it's certainly harder, especially the text aspect (although you can do it with voiceover to some extent, as we've discussed). I don't have faith that Watchmen the movie will do it successfully (it's also not my favorite comic), but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Amazing Spider-Man #559-561

Amazing Spider-Man #559-561
by Dan Slott and Marcos Martin
Marvel Comics, 2008

Garrett Martin: So in the '80's, in a completely acceptable and potentially interesting development, Marvel married Spider-Man off to his super-model girlfriend. They then almost immediately started trying to break them up. Marvel wouldn't just let them divorce, though, so they've resorted to clones and soap operatic fake-death plane crashes and, finally, a deal with the dadgum devil. It's even more retarded than your typical retarded comic-book bullshit. But, really, in the end, who cares, as Amazing Spider-Man hadn't been readable since a couple of years after they were married, anyway? And the devil-dealing put an end to the truly horrible J. Michael Straczynski run, and led directly to Dan Slott co-handling the reins, so overall the dumbassery should've resulted in a net gain.

The new "Spidey braintrust" is definitely a step-up from Straczynski, but until this latest three-issue arc the comic has remained mostly underwhelming. Slott's issues have been the best, by far, with the most consistently funny Spider-Man dialogue, but even these stories struggle from trying too hard to resemble the Spider-Man comics of the '70's. And with a hit-or-miss roster of "all-star" artists cycling out after every storyline, the book's quality has varied wildly since the relaunch.

Slott returns for this latest arc, comprising Amazing Spider-Man #559-561, and thankfully brings Marcos Martin with him. I'd never even heard of Martin before that Dr. Strange: The Oath mini he did with Brian K. Vaughn last year, but the dude pretty immediately became one of my favorite artists. His Dr. Strange was excellent, a fantastic homage to Ditko's distinctive style without being a slavish imitation. I expected the same from his Spider-Man, and yeah, it resembles Ditko here and there, but somehow his work is even more reminiscent of John Romita, especially on the characters more associated with Romita, like Harry Osborn and Mary Jane Watson.

But shit, I'm already rambling - what did you think? Have you read much Spider-Man before, outside of the original Lee/Ditko stuff?

Hillary Brown: I mostly enjoyed the heck out of it, despite being aware that I wasn't quite getting everything that was going on (e.g., who's this new fella in charge of the Bugle? why's Spidey living with Aunt May again?), so I went and looked up ASM on Wikipedia and found out about this attempt to rewrite the storyline. Did this deep-seated need for continuity originally lead to multiple books on the same character (a la Uncanny v Astonishing X-Men)? And is there a way around it? I can't say I mind the solution they came up with, or at least I don't mind the results, although I understand why people think it's idiotic that Marvel couldn't handle the transition back to singlehood for Spidey in a more mature way. But this three-episode arc is pretty zippy and fun, and while occasionally it's bothersome that people's ankles are the size of toothpicks while Mary Jane's tetas are about the size of her head, I really like the art too. It has a similar light touch to the writing, which I think is why they work together so well.

As far as Spider-Man goes, I've only read the Lee/Ditko stuff--maybe three volumes of the collected Amazing--and while, of course, I recognize the achievements and historic importance of those issues, and the art is mostly beautiful, they're not exactly fast-paced. Mary Jane hasn't even really showed up by about 30 issues in (something that was really confusing to me, as a novice, in the same way that Wolverine not being in the early X-Men issues was). So, what can I say? I'm a lover of the contemporary speed of life in many ways. I multi-task like an MFer. I want things to happen quickly. So in some ways, I find this a really pleasing updating of the book, having skipped forty years or so of development.

There are, unfortunately, a few things that seem a bit dated here, like Harry Osborne's unbelievable hair and the outrage over paparazzi and the inclusion of parkour. I know they think they're doing something really cutting edge by talking about celebrity privacy and manipulation of images and so on, but, again, the world moves fast these days, and the story comes off as a bit behind the curve. The wise-cracking, however, is great: breezy, funny, but not too witty. Overall, I could see myself getting tired of it if it ended up being villain of the week in slightly longer arcs (balancing lightness and character development is pretty difficult), but I was happier with this than with many of the superhero books we've talked about.

GM: I felt the same way about the parkour reference, and his friends' overzealous reaction to Peter being a paparazzi. This comic is incredibly dorky in a lot of ways, those being two of them. That doesn't bug me too much, though, 'cuz Spider-Man, and, shit, superhero comics in general, are supposed to be dorky. I mean, they're superhero comics, they kinda can't help being fundamentally uncool in a wider sense. In the best tradition of Stan Lee, this comic was written by an affable, middle-aged white guy who doesn't quite realize how out of touch with popular youth culture he actually is, but totally skirts past that by writing a breezy, funny, generally affable story. And although I did cringe a bit during the showdown with Screwball, everything about that character, and the way she was introduced and used as a brief diversion / bridge to the story's actual villain, recalls the Spider-Man comics of the '60's and '70's.

Back to the art, though. Never look for realistic anatomy in superhero comics. Sure, the dimensions of Martin's Mary Jane are as unrealistic as any woman drawn by Michael Turner, but Martin's stylized and idealized female is more charming and fundamentally sound than anything by Turner or other old Image-type artists. Martin's women might be physically impossible at times, but it's a stylized voluptuousness, like Darwyn Cooke or old Warner Brothers cartoons, and not the ridiculously oversized breasts on otherwise anorexically thin, broken-back skeletons that so often appear in comics. Beyond his character work, Martin is a pro at action and storytelling, with nary a confusing or awkward scene anywhere. He's mastered the fundamentals and developed his own unique, visually pleasing style, and there are very few active superhero artists you can say that about.

Jumping around a bit... it was sales, not contuinity, that led to multiple books for the same characters. They've pretty much added one new monthly on-going Spider-Man comic per decade, to the point where now, between the nigh-weekly Amazing Spider-Man and out-of-continuity books like Ultimate and Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, the character's name is emblazoned on like six books a month. And that's not even counting New Avengers and his various other guest appearances. It's this popularity that led, in part, to a continuity more screwed up than any other Marvel character (save perhaps the X-Men / Wolverine), and thus various DC-esque attempts to streamline the baggage and make the character more accessible to new / returning readers. That pretty much never works, of course. This Brand New Day reset has been fairly smooth, though, if, like any right-minded individual, you hadn't been reading the book in years, and don't worry too much about how it impacts some random guest appearance Spider-Man made in Wonder-Man back in 1992.

Oh, and yeah, the movies play fast and loose with various aspects of Spider-Man's and the X-Men's history, but mostly nailed the spirit of both. Still, I'm sure it's confusing for folks who transfer to the original from the films. The Peter / MJ relationship rewrite mostly worked great for the Spider-Man films, but it did prevent them from using one of the most dramatically significant moments from the comics, when Spider-Man maybe kinda accidentally breaks his girlfriend Gwen Stacey's neck while trying to save her from the Green Goblin. But, um, yeah.

HB: Oh, right. I didn't really mean to complain about Mary Jane having tremendous boobs. It's not unexpected. And I think that Martin's tiny ankles actually lead to some really graceful images. Spider-man's flexibility is emphasized rather than his muscles, and his brains over his brawn. Martin also kind of lets you breathe as a visual reader. There's action, but the fighting isn't done in confined spaces or in the dark, so there's little confusion about what's going on from panel to panel. And all the art museum stuff in #560 is especially great. It's like Martin just gets to play around with artists he loves, and the heavy inclusion of Liechtenstein (including on the cover of 560) is just gorgeous and funny all over.

GM: Yeah! It's a lot like an issue of Batman from a couple of years ago, early in Grant Morrison's tenure, where all the sound effects for a fight in a museum came from the pop art on the walls. I think Karate Media mentioned that in a comment here, once.

Anyway, this is the best of the Brand New Day storylines, thus far. Does this impact your interest in Amazing Spider-Man in general, or just in works by Slott or Martin or both?

HB: Surprisingly, at least to me, it does make me want to read Amazing Spider-Man, but your comments have made me less likely to. If Slott's going to stay involved, I'd definitely be more interested, and if they both were, you can about double that. I still don't know if I'd buy it on a regular basis. It doesn't seem to have storylines compelling enough for that. But I really need to be sold to buy every issue individually, and it's still not McKeever (actual young guy v. old guy writing for the young folks).

GM: It's a shame McKeever never got to write a normal mainstream Spider-Man comic before jumping to DC.

Theoretically the four guys who initially made up the "braintrust" were equal, but Slott's always been credited first, he wrote the first post-relaunch story, he's written more than any of the other three, and two of those other three guys have already left the book. They've announced a couple other writers who will be coming on, including Mark Waid (who's really good), but there's some confusion as to whether the new guys will be sticking around or just handling one storyline. And all this is basically me saying that there's no indication Slott's going anywhere, and I'd be shocked if they fired him. He seems pretty secure. And if you like his Spider-Man, you should go track down his Spider-Man / Human Torch mini-series, I'm With Stupid; it's out in a Runaways-style digest, and is still the best Spider-Man comic I've read since I was a kid. Yes, better than Spider-Man
Loves Mary Jane

Thursday, June 5, 2008

More stuff elsewhere

At my place. Garrett is absent at present but will return. We hope to cover Freddie and Me and the current Amazing Spider-Man three-issue arc.