Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Uncanny X-Men #500

Uncanny X-Men #500
by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, Greg Land, Jay Leisten, and Rachel Dodson
Marvel Comics 2008

Garrett Martin: So hey, right at the start, let me ask: what's your experience with the X-Men? Have you read any of the comics? Which ones? Because the issues that turned the comic into the phenomenon it became aren't the earliest ones, the Lee / Kirby books from the early '60's. It's the work Chris Claremont (and Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, etc.) did in the late '70's / early '80's that revitalized this second-rate Marvel property. That's like if Marvel relaunched the Micronauts today, and it somehow became the best-selling comic for, like, the next thirty years. With cartoons, movies, a Bug: Origins spin-off, etc. That's what happened when Uncanny X-Men was brought back in 1976. For a while the sales were completely justified. Those early Claremont issues have aged somewhat, and not as charmingly as Silver Age DC or Marvel, but they're still a lot of fun to read. Claremont knew how to balance character development with ridiculous superhero action, squeezing a good amount of both into almost every issue. Eventually, though, the book became a parody of itself, as stories and subplots dragged out indefinitely. It settled down into endless soap opera territory, but even soapier and more histrionic than your typical superhero non-sense. Claremont's deterioration as a writer, combined with Marvel spoiling the group's uniqueness by cranking out endless spin-offs, tie-ins, and rip-offs, turned the X-Men into a miserable, unreadable morass. It's been mostly awful for nearly twenty years now, with only a brief return to greatness due to Grant Morrison. Even Ed Brubaker, who's done great work on books like Sleeper, Gotham Central, Captain America, Criminal, Immortal Iron Fist, etc., has stumbled with Uncanny X-Men. Still, Marvel got my attention when they announced Brubaker and his Iron Fist co-writer Matt Fraction (writer of many great comics, some of which we've discussed here in the past) were going to partner up again on Uncanny X-Men, starting with issue number 500. I had no idea what to expect. What would win out, the reliably interesting writing of Brubaker and Fraction, or the headache-inducing black hole that the X-Men have been since I was in elementary school? Honestly, even after reading #500, I still don't know what to expect. Do you?

Hillary Brown: Okay, I tried to do this earlier and was thwarted by the evils of technology. Anyway, the only X-Men stuff I've read is the early material, the Stan Lee books that are collected in hardback, and even then not tons of it. So I'm missing years of material. Oh, and I read some of the Joss Whedon stuff because I am compelled to, as a Buffy nerd. I know Claremont is this big deal, but I have no direct experience with his writing, and little knowledge of what happened since the 1960s in the book. I've seen the movies, but that's not a big help, I gather. So that's the background.

That established, this is the second Fraction book I've now found subpar. The gay/X-Men parallel is clunky, the art is an excellent example of sucky photoreferencing (the characters just stand around, not looking at each other), and the book as a whole reads like a weird Chamber of Commerce pamphlet for San Francisco. I mean, what is the point? Is Fraction continuing with this? Did they need a whole book devoted to their new headquarters that cost a kabillion dollars? Is any of this supposed to make any of them more sympathetic? Ugh. It's just dumb and not witty and very little actually happens. Do I need to know my history to like it?

GM: I don't think you need a PhD in X-men Studies to follow #500, but it's impossible for the last 40 or so years to not color the issue in some way. And although it hasn't made the comic that much better, they are at least attempting something slightly new with the set-up, putting them in a new town where they're well-liked and work with the government, instead of being hounded by everybody. They're introducing a new status quo, one that should set their run apart from most that preceeded it, but nothing they show in #500 is all that particularly interesting. The idea of mutant culture might predate Morrison, but that played a big role in his awesome run, and the stuff with the artist harken back to that. And those two little prologues were the best things about the book. But misdirection or not, it's not a good sign that they immediately head to Magneto for a villain. In fact this issue reflects the general apathy I felt from Brubaker's first twelve issues. It's a random string of underdeveloped plot points, connected by bland scenes full of exposition. I did think the dialogue was maybe a half-step better than it was without Fraction, but still nowhere near the standards he's set for himself elsewhere.

The core X-Men titles (and Uncanny in particular) are completely bullet-proof, sales-wise, and that's led some folks to theorize that creators get lazy with this assignment. Brubaker and Fraction were fantastic together on Immortal Iron Fist, but despite being over 30 years old that character's pretty much a blank slate compared to the X-Men. So, y'know, more freedom for creativity and a personal voice, or whatever. Uncanny X-Men #500 has a bit more flair than the last stretch of issues I read (the first eight or so issues of Mike Carey's current run on X-Men, and Brubaker's first twelve issues on Uncanny), but it's still one hell of a dull comic.

And of course the art doesn't help. Terry Dodson and Greg Land each tackle random pages, and the styles do not match. Dodson's a fine artist, if a bit too cheesecakey, and should be drawing the entire book. Land really is awful, though, as overly photoreferenced as Hillary and his legions of on-line detractors point out, with odd poses and creepy facial expressions that rarely fit the moment. Just awful stuff, especially when juxtaposed with Dodson's perfectly acceptable work.

HB: And the environmental stuff? It's just so shoehorned in. I'm not opposed to any comic book character living in the contemporary world, but complaining about throwing a Prius at someone rather than a different, less hip car? Oy vey. Also, twittering.

Is there a way for these guys to write for modernity without it coming off as though they've just woken up from a thousand year sleep? I'm a little curious where they're going, and I guess they've now got some new buildings to draw, but it's certainly not enough to keep me interested.

GM: Yeah, me neither. Surprising that these two specific writers have created something so lackluster.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Lost Ones

The Lost Ones
by Steve Niles, Dr. Revolt, Modern Breath, Kime Buzelli, Gary Panter, and the marketing department of Microsoft.
Microsoft, 2008.
Available for free download here.

Hillary Brown: Okay, so the idea of a comic book produced by Microsoft to promote its version of the iPod is pretty off-putting, I admit, but it didn't have to be terrible, and it's free (unless you want one of the few limited-edition silkscreen-cover copies) and at least those facts together should keep expectations low. Still... It's fairly disappointing. I haven't read anything else by Steve Niles or even seen the movie of 30 Days of Night--although I want to, being a fan of movies where vampires jump out at people--so I can't say whether he's normally good or bad and whether this was a tossed off job just for money or what, but the problem is that the narrative's a mess. I don't mind the idea of having four different artists work on a book, especially four interesting artists. I'm a big fan of Kime Buzzelli's artwork, to the extent that I actually own a piece of it, so I was at least excited about her participation, but it turns out that comics are hard to do, and just because you like them doesn't mean you can do them. Fine art and narrative art don't intersect nearly as well in book form as they do on the walls of a gallery, and of the four artists (Dr. Revolt, Morning Breath, Buzzelli, and Gary Panter), all of whom have cred of some sort or other, only Panter seems to know what he's doing. I suppose the problems with this are exactly the problems people have with Alex Ross's art: it's just pretty pictures, and some of them aren't even all that pretty. So, I assume you hated it?

Garrett Martin: Yeah, this is awful. Honestly, I don't even know why we're talking about it (oh right - it's the only thing both of us have read this week). The cartoons in the circulars for Building #19 are better written and have more artistic integrity than this ridiculous waste of time*. I'd assume Microsoft paid some intern to script over Niles' three-lines-in-a-text-message plot, but I've read his "real" work and it's honestly not that much better. I feel sorry for the artists. Panter's the only one with any story-telling ability, and thus the only one whose section even begins to approach readability. It's a shame the others were saddled with any sort of narrative, 'cuz they all do varyingly good work when they don't have to worry about splitting the page into four panels of the least interestingly designed characters ever standing around delivering exposition. Microsoft should've just put out an art book instead, but I guess some exec read how "graphic novels" weren't just for kids in the Times that morning and decided that was just the thing to further the increasingly more desperate hipster-marketing of the Zune. Also Buzelli, Panter, and the rest would've been fools to give up the good stuff.

HB: I do think it's kind of nice that Microsoft's managed to give these people some money, and it's not as though the Zune appears anywhere in the book (thankfully), but if it's a marketing push it should perhaps be a more aggressive one. In other words, would it give you any interest in buying their product? Or even warm fuzzy feelings toward the company? It's a pretty bizarre move, and while I'm not opposed to the worlds of fine art, graffiti, music, and comics all coming together, in practice it's more like a party you invited all your friends to, thinking it would be awesome, and instead it turns out to be horribly awkward because none of them know how to talk to each other and you're not circulating and helping them to do just that. Basically, if it were free at a shop near me, I'd probably still pick up a printed copy because I'm a big fan of Panter and Buzzelli, but it would just be for the art, and don't expect truly great things even from that.

GM: Aggressively marketing The Lost Ones would run counter to its purposes. This is pretty clearly an attempt to hit a certain demographic that, for brevity (and for better or worse), we can label "hipsters". I mean, look at the artists they got for this thing; they've all got hipster cachet, to some extent. (Well, I've never heard of Morning Breath, but ooh, they're a graphic design duo! From Brooklyn! And they're opening a Thai BBQ Tandoori pizza parlor, or something. With Ethiopian chicken wings.) Microsoft set up a signing tour with Dr. Revolt and Gary Panter, and the Boston stop was in a shoe store that actively discourages those not in-the-know from shopping there by masquerading as a convenience store. Since day one the Zune has been heavily and primarily marketed to, y'know, "tastemakers", or whatever. So obviously The Lost Ones is trying to be something "underground" and arty, but that's kind of inherently impossible when you're either an ad for the fucking Zune or something written by Steve Niles. And of course this just happens to be both.

*: like these:

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Too Cool To Be Forgotten

Too Cool To Be Forgotten
By Alex Robinson
Top Shelf, 2008

Garrett Martin: I've come close to buying Box Office Poison multiple times in the two or three years since getting back into comics, but Too Cool To Be Forgotten is the first thing I've ever actually read by Alex Robinson. It reminds me of Mike Dawson's Freddie and Me in a few ways, and not just because they're friends in real life and appear in each other's books. Both fellas are talented, distinctive cartoonists, no doubt (although Robinson seems more playful with layout and design), but with their latest books they both stumble a bit when it comes to story. The problems that plague Too Cool are more prominent, I think, but don't necessarily ruin the book. And since the biggest problem is, um, the central conceit that drives the entire narrative, it's kind of impressive that Robinson's book is as good (or maybe not-bad) as it is.

I wouldn't think the world would have much use for more "middle-aged-man in a teenager's body" stories after that banner year of 1988, but here we have Too Cool To Be Forgotten, which doesn't do anything new or original with the concept. Not only is it trite, it's also an unnecessary device for this story. How is this really any different from any story about teenagers written by a guy pushing forty? Instead of the awkward fantasy elements Robinson could've covered that territory with some judicious narration. Maybe Robinson wanted to distance himself personally from the story, so people wouldn't assume it was autobiographical (which is kinda easy to do with comics, I'm finding out). Still, it's an arbitrary set-up that makes it perhaps too easy to dismiss the entire book. Did this bug you as much as it did me?

Hillary Brown: Actually, no. The thing is, while the ending is unfortunately abrupt, and there are a few other problems with the book, I actually kind of like the concept, and I'd argue that Robinson does do something sort of different with it. For one thing, he doesn't act as though the experience is entirely new, which is a good way to come at it and resembles the experience of the characters in Shaun of the Dead, in that he recognizes what's happening and processes it through his understanding of media versions of same. Characters who live in a media-suffused world are characters with whom I identify. I mean, if you were transported back to high school or encountered a bunch of zombies, wouldn't you figure out what to do at least partly from movies and TV and comics?

I also think our main character is pleasantly reflective throughout the story, often drifting through scenes analyzing them as much as or more so than participating in them, but he doesn't do so in a snotty way. He realizes that teenagers are pretty stupid, but he doesn't judge them negatively for it. He thinks high school girls are hot, but he misses his wife. He understands the benefits of being that age--freedom to screw up, for one thing--but he's happy with his current stability. It's just all sort of kindly done and colored with contentment at who he is.

I'd also argue that it's a superior book to Freddie and Me, largely for two reasons: 1. Page composition (you point this out; there are a couple of especially noticeable examples of it, in which panels that seemingly picture disparate items add up, when viewed from afar, into a larger picture, a la Mad fold-in, but it's nice throughout, with some simple but clever devices used to convey actions and thoughts, such as depicting two characters leaving a party, one running after the other, in silhouette to show the way in which the brain can focus on what it's following), and 2. The balance of detail with narrative. Dawson tips toward detail, with too many specifics in his pop culture references without explanation, while Robinson focuses more on keeping things moving, to the extent of having the main character constantly narrate and ponder his own story. That said, it's a bit short and the reasons the plot moves as it does aren't illuminated, which is a little frustrating. Also, if you're going to include an editor's note at the end about the fact that "dad" appearing instead of "did" is not a mistake, you should maybe have caught the other two misspellings in the book, but that's being a bit harsh. I'm not sure I've read a hand-lettered comic yet that didn't have at least one. Also, I do want to make note of the cover design, which is one of my favorites to come out recently, marrying the two elements of the plot (possibly three, now that I think about) in excellent fashion without being at all distracting. Yay for good design!

GM: Acknowledging the triteness of the situation doesn't quite justify or excuse it, though. At least not for me. It's not like the concept is universal or long-standing; other than a Donald Barthelme story and, like, Freaky Friday, I don't know of anything that used this set-up before that spate of movies in the late '80's. It's goofy high-concept schtick (I'm surprised there wasn't a '60's sit-com with the same idea, created by a producer with the initials "SS"*), and although I'm sure somebody could create a truly successful and satisfying piece of work around it, Robinson apparently isn't up to the task. And like I said, it's just unnecessary, considering what Too Cool winds up being about.

Your point about detail vs. narrative comes down to Freddie and Me being a memoir and this book being fiction. I know I tend to ramble on with too much detail when talking about my boring life. I don't think Too Cool is much better when it comes to storytelling, though, because the narration occasionally overwhelms the page. Too much telling in addition to showing. It's a graphic medium for a reason. But still, like you said, Robinson does a good job of moving the plot along, and doesn't linger unnecessarily on any particular scene or character. It's a tight book, and although the climax does come somewhat out of nowhere, Robinson turns another too-familiar dramatic situation (one easily prone to schmaltz) into a reasonably affecting and emotionally resonant conclusion. But I can be a sentimental sap, so maybe you'd disagree.

And yeah, the layouts are the best thing about this book. Robinson's art isn't fantastic (but I read this immediately after reading It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken for the first time, which would make most comics seem visually underwhelming, I think), but those pages you refer to are some of the best designed I've seen this year. He also does fine work with character design and facial expressions, but his layouts are what really impressed me.

*: seriously, Sherwood Schwartz, Sol Saks, Sidney Sheldon: what's up with that?

HB: You're definitely right that it's narrative-heavy, but when it comes down to it, if I had to choose between words and pictures, I'd still pick words, and I think his narration is pretty thoughtful and good. It's self-reflective, and I like that. Basically, in the reading, I felt that it might be a little bit what it would be like for me if I, god forbid, ended up back in my fifteen-year-old self. The mere idea of having to sit through algebra classes again chills my bones, but I'd also like to think that I'd be kinder to my parents. I didn't start being nice to them again until I was maybe seventeen, and, you know, that's jerky. I'm sure that you brush that stuff off when you're a parent because you've done it to your own parents when you were a teenager, as he seems to acknowledge, but still... So, maybe I like it because it made me feel guilty.

GM: Yeah, he has some good observations about maturity, family, friendship, etc., but nothing that couldn't have been addressed without this weird, off-putting fantasy element. And I'm not saying this book should be Owly, but there's a balance between words and pictures, and it's a little out of whack in Too Cool To Be Forgotten.

Another similarity with Freddie and Me: I enjoyed reading both books more than my reviews imply.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam #1

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam #1
by Mike Kunkel
DC Comics, 2008

Hillary Brown: Okay, so Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam is for kids, which is the most important thing to know up front. Otherwise, told to read it by someone like my friend Garrett here, you might page through with a puzzled look on your face for bit, especially with all the decoder ring stuff at the beginning. It's possible there were jokes hidden there, but three pages of code was more than even my patience could bear. That said, once you realize it's pitched in a Franklin Richards vein, it's actually pretty good. I didn't realize just how rusty I was on my Captain Marvel history, so I'm not sure I can say how well it fits into the previous incarnations of the characters, but it's fast-paced and it has a decent amount of Vice Versa- or Big-esque humor, what with the little boy in the body of a man, only plus superpowers in this case. I was pretty surprised how much I ended up enjoying it, considering that it's probably about geared to an eight-year-old. Heck, maybe younger. The thing is, I like the goony, cartoony art and the weird way Mike Kunkel will cram about three different versions of a character side by side in a single frame to suggest evolving reactions. This is a version of Captain Marvel as played by David Warburton, for sure, but, meh, I didn't think it was

Garrett Martin: Well, kids are the intended audience, but Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam is for everybody! Or at least everybody who enjoys fun, cutesy comics totally free of any disembowelments and/or rape threats. And this is exactly that. I love Kunkel's art, perfectly cartoony but without being as cloying as the (still awesome) stuff over in Tiny Titans, another recent Johnny DC book. His writing doesn't quite match the art's quality, but it's still good stuff, and funny without relying too much on obvious gags or one-liners. Kunkel nails the necessary tone of sweetness and innocence without any condescension or eye-winking. Not all of the big two's kids' comics do that. And don't worry about being rusty on your Captain Marvel; this book spins right out of Jeff Smith's series from last year, and neither are entirely faithful to the original comics. And there's nothing wrong with that, since both preserve the spirit of the originals. It is weird to have a first issue of a kids' comic that references previously published material and ends on a cliffhanger, but I'm not gonna complain if such a comic wants to be slightly more narratively complex than most.

HB: Yeah, I'd say it's a little more oriented toward kids than some other stuff that's more all-ages, like The Emperor's New Groove or Leave It to Beaver (no, I can't think of any examples in the field of comics), but it's not full of poo jokes or anything. Thank god. I think, yes, the jokes could use some polishing, and I don't know if it has the drama to hold my attention, but I was pretty happy with the experience.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Young Avengers Vol. 1: Sidekicks

Young Avengers Vol. 1: Sidekicks
by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung
Marvel, 2005-2006

Garrett Martin: I only bought the first Young Avengers trade 'cuz I was drunk and had a coupon. Going to the comic shop drunk is a bad, bad idea, but at least in ths case I came home with something good. And surprisingly so, since the concept is so cutesy and gimmicky and all-around off-putting. Throw in a writer with little comics work and a CV full of bad TV shows and it should be a straight shot to shitsville. I mean, characters named "Hulkling" and "Iron Lad"? A female teenage Hawkeye / Mockingbird mash-up? That sounds like a satire of Silver Age DC more than anything, and except for stuff from Ellis and Milligan this current Marvel era has a pretty dismal record with satire in general. Somehow, though, Allan Heinberg created a series that's fun and engaging and that pays more tribute to the classic Marvel and Avengers spirit than any of the Avengers books Bendis has written. Young Avengers nicely splits the difference between old-school Marvel yuks and modern-day decompressed ultra-heaviness. I'd also call it a solid entry point for new readers, I think, despite heavily referencing several 40-year-old concepts, but I've been wrong on that before. Did you, as a relative new-comer, feel like you were missing out on anything, or ever get confused?

Hillary Brown: No, I don't think it was particularly confusing, partially because I've read both Alias and The Pulse and some of the more recent Avengers stuff, so I actually have some background in what all had been happening in the Marvel Universe at the time. I'm not sure how it reads if you don't. My guess is that it's not really a problem, as Heinberg's pretty good with getting exposition to the reader in a quick, simple, unobtrusive way. That's a boring strength to talk about though. What I really like are his jokes. I was hoping, honestly, that Young Avengers would be even better than it is, considering Heinberg's experience writing for The OC and Gilmore Girls, but it's still a totally pleasant read, contemporary enough without being a constant barrage of pop culture references (not that I necessarily have a problem with that method when it's done well; e.g., The OC, Gilmore Girls). The characters are sort of snotty teenagers, but they're also kind of sweet. Hulkling is a polite young man, not a rage-fueled jackass. Iron Lad just doesn't want to grow up and lose his youthful ideals. Cassie/Stature misses her dad. Hawkeye/Kate Bishop just wants to help, despite having no superpowers other than richness. And there are social issues incorporated without much preachiness (gay characters, racially fueled rage), which is always a relief. I probably liked it about as much as The Order, and the art is similarly okay, while problematic on a panel or two due to computer coloring and effects. That said, if I've got one criticism of the book, it's that there might be a little much action. I appreciate Heinberg doing his origin story from an in medias res perspective rather than starting at the boring old beginning, but there's so much fighting and time travel and trying to figure out what's going on that it can detract from learning about the characters, which is really what you want to do in this case.

GM: I think there's an appropriate amount of action for a superhero comic. That's why Young Avengers feels more like a traditional Marvel comic than much of what the company has put out this decade. It maintains a quick pace and doesn't get bogged down with overly long passages of "realistic" dialogue, but still has time to establish the personalities of the core characters. Those characters don't always possess more than maybe two notes, tops, but it's still early in the YA game (theoretically), and the foundations of these characters are firm. If only Marvel would quit holding out for Heinberg and green-light a new series by a writer with a similar voice and sensibility. I can't think of any obvious choices, though, other than maybe Brian K. Vaughan, who I guess is pretty busy with that there TV show of his (y'know, the one my non-TV-watching intellectual friends always pointedly confuse with Survivor).

Speaking of that guy, how do you think YA ranks against Runaways? Marvel's treated the two books somewhat similarly, trying to break them up into "seasons" (of which Young Avengers has still only had one) and being careful with how other writers use the characters. They've loosened that control over Young Avengers over the last couple of years, but still haven't expressed any interest in a regular series written by anybody other than Heinberg. That guy will have a rough time getting a fair shake from many fans, though, after the Wonder Woman fiasco.

HB: I definitely prefer Runaways. For one thing, I think it has a better balance of talking and action. It's not that I don't like punching--I'm okay with it--I just like a good mix, and there are more bombshells even in the first few episodes of Runaways than there are here, and that's the only fair comparison to make, as I've read issues and issues of Runaways and only these very few of
YA. I like the idea of seasons in comics, but maybe that's just because I'm coming from a television background. Still, it gives one an idea of arc pacing. Sometimes, reading comics, unless there's a title for a series of three or four issues, I don't know how to figure out what might happen next. I do think that Heinberg does a nice job with Jessica Jones, as far as a character I sort of know already. She doesn't get a ton to do, but she's also not as self-hating/-destructive as she is in Bendis's world, nor is she rendered in muddy, horrible art.

Sean McKeever would do a nice job with this book, I think, except he's over with the enemy, right? And I haven't read any of his Teen Titans stuff, so I don't know how he does with superhero group dynamics, just how he does with regular teenage stuff. I agree that Vaughan would do well, too, but he seems busy with other projects. Or, heck, maybe Bryan Lee O'Malley should sell out and start writing this

GM: This thing you say gets me: "sometimes, reading comics, unless there's a title for a series of three or four issues, I don't know how to figure out what might happen next." Why is that a problem? Do you always have to know where a story is headed?

Runaways is a better comic than Young Avengers, no question. The level of craft in the writing isn't as high in Young Avengers, but I almost enjoyed it as much, probably because it does have a more traditional feel to it. It's not as classic as the explicitly retro Amazing Spider-Man stuff we reviewed, but, like I said, most Marvel comics don't combine traditional and modern storytelling techniques as effectively as this book. And I wonder if you'd like that classic Marvel style, as storylines would regularly bleed into one another without clearly defined endpoints. Specific storylines and subplots would almost always have definitive resolutions, but they would lead directly into the next storyline, or be entwined with any number of other subplots that could be at any point in their dramatic arcs. That still happens today (look at Secret Invasion, for chrissakes) but there is more of an effort to separate and define storylines concretely.

And yeah, McKeever could've done a great job with these characters. I always forget about that guy. That might be intentional, though, after being partially responsible for Countdown.

HB: It's a personal flaw! I do, actually, tend to get a little annoyed with the early Marvel stuff for exactly that reason. I have no confidence anything will add up, and that's because often it doesn't. I like the art, and I find a lot of the writing and pop cultural references hilarious, and I like seeing the books evolve into something more interesting, but I find them more historically significant than anything else. I think I prefer it when someone at least pretends they're taking me somewhere specific, and even then, as with Smallville sometimes I can figure out that they're not--they're just doing the same thing over and over. I'm pro-arc but it's not a requirement, and to some extent the genre is all about continuing on as long as possible, so I can get frustrated with that aspect. It's not that I'm opposed to routine. I eat dinner at about the same time every day, and I have my mornings down nearly to a science, but I like a little structure in my narrative. It's probably not fair to say that arc-based storytelling can't coexist with open-endedness, though.

GM: That's not just early Marvel, though, that's the entirety of Marvel from 1961 to, like, some point eight years ago, or something. That's how comics have been written for decades, and, despite complaints about "writing for the trade", it's still noticeable today.

Anyway! Have you read the second Young Avengers trade? Despite digging Sidekicks, I've never picked up the next one. Probably 'cuz I haven't gone to the store drunk again.

HB: Ha. I know. It's kind of a big complaint for someone who reads comics at all.

I haven't bought the next Young Avengers yet, and chances are good I will, even though I never go to the comics store drunk, being as it's not open very late.

GM: Late? Man, this was, like, three o'clock in the afternoon.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Fight about Alex Ross

Hillary Brown: So, in the interest of not always talking about specific books and sometimes addressing bigger comics issues, I think maybe we should talk about Frank Santoro's anti-Alex Ross screed, which attracted enough comments at the site of the original to close down the debate eventually and continues to provoke discussion around the interweb, as on The Comics Reporter. Also, I like Ross and you don't, although neither of us has a ton of experience with him. Frankly, I think I could make my argument with this picture alone.
But what really wigs me out (and I think Jared may jump in here to some extent, as he's the dude who really knows art stuff) is that so many people think Ross is excessively realistic. My impression, from reading through the comics, is that some people think this because they want their superheroes light and unwrinkled, and some other people obviously have something wrong with their eyes if they think a hand-painted panel looks anything like a photograph. The comparison in the comments on Santoro's post to Rockwell is apt. The poses are fairly realistic, and the bodies have weight in the appropriate places, but other than that it's oddly reminiscent of the crowd that ran from the screen when the film of a train rushing toward them was shown. Ross's stuff is obviously art and obviously shaped, and, sure, it takes longer to look at than a lot of contemporary superhero comics, but is that a bad thing? No one's dogging Chris Ware for the same thing.

Garrett Martin: Wait, what same thing? How are Chris Ware and Alex Ross anything alike?

Santoro isn't bashing Ross for being too "realistic". He's arguing that Ross is a poor cartoonist (ie, visual story-teller) due to an over-reliance on photo-referencing. I've never actually read a Ross comic, but I can totally see how that's possible, based just on his covers. There's hardly any sense of motion or action in any of the Ross paintings I've seen. That can work fine as the occasional cover, but it's a problem if that carries over to the comic itself. Comic art isn't just about how beautiful you can draw; it's about visual story-telling, and if Ross's art is as flat and undynamic as Santoro states, then I imagine his story-telling ability isn't that great. I've heard these complaints about Ross for years, before I even got back into comics, so I have to think there's something to it. And although I've love to see a Rockwell comic book, if only for the incongruity, I don't think the world would ever need more than one Rockwell comic, y'know?

HB: Well, they're not very much alike except that neither is incredibly dynamic (okay, fine, Ware is more so) and both create pages that take a lot of time to take in, slowing the pace of processing. It's also true that Santoro isn't arguing Ross is too realistic, but the commenters below sure are, en masse, and I know I probably shouldn't ever be responding to hyperactive fanboys commenting on a blog (except this one!), but, heck, I am. Okay, so where's the real merit of Santoro's argument? I'm not sure how using photo references has anything to do with being a poor visual storyteller. It doesn't mean you don't have to come up with the ideas. It just means you have something to look at while drawing to double-check your shadows. There's an argument farther down in the comments that makes a Jackson Pollock analogy--dudes who don't use photo references being the freewheeling type, I suppose--but that implies that carefulness and thoughtfulness about composition are a bad thing. And why is no one getting on Tony Harris's case? Maybe because he's bigger and scarier than Ross.

GM: I think photo-referencing can definitely be a problem with story-telling, if the artist fails to impart a sense of motion and action. Especially superhero action, if only because that generally relies on the physically impossible. Jack Kirby's kind of the standard for superhero artwork, I think, and his art is full of dynamic action and odd perspectives that simply are not possible in this real world of ours. Again, I've never read any Ross, but if he doesn't infuse his photo-referenced superhero drawings with the dynamism and fluidity expected from the genre then I can see why people would complain. And again, that is what Santoro is arguing; he even specifically absolves John Buscema and Barry Windsor Smith, noting that they didn't rely entirely upon photo-referencing. The Ross paintings I've seen are usually just a dude passively standing there, and generally are stiff, overly posed, and kinda lifeless. I totally agree with Santoro when it comes to displaying the photos used as reference, by the way; that's my biggest reservation with Tony Harris's artwork. I don't know which volume of Ex Machina it is, but there's a frame with two background characters sporting ridiculous reaction shots. The drawing was so over-the-top that it briefly took me out of the story. I found out in the back-matter that Harris uses extensive photo-reference, and that was one of the specific photographs he published as an example. This was a couple of years ago, before I had heard any of the arguments on either side about the issue, but I could tell right then that extreme photo-referencing might not be the best thing to happen to comics. That's regularly not a big problem with Harris, who draws action fine, and only seems too referenced when it comes to facial expressions. I assume nobody's called him out on that thread because he, like Buscema and Smith, generally incorporates his photo-referencing into a unique and fully-rounded style.

HB: ight, but lack of imagination doesn't necessarily come with photo referencing. It could, but it certainly doesn't have to. What Santoro should be arguing against is sucky artists, and while I don't think Alex Ross is one (I think he's kind of wonderful, but I prefer to read faster), he might, and he's welcome to his opinion. There are sucky and probably photo-referenced comics out there, like the Iron Man one Jon Favreau is writing, which is a horror to look at, drawing on weak computer coloring and creepily Photoshopped bodies, so why go after someone who, again, takes care and time with his art. And it's not as though his superheroes are just sitting around eating their Frosted Flakes. They do stuff. They fly and fight, and things happen. Sure, it might work a little better for covers, but you really need to flip through a book of Ross's and see if you think his storytelling sucks because I'm pretty sure it doesn't.

Good point on Harris. He's got just as much stuff that's really stylized. Also, um, he is big, and kind of piratical.

GM: He's probably going after Ross because of that guy who's drawing Favreau's Iron Man book, along with other similarly bad artists. Ross is the big name, the guy who popularized that style, and thus easy to blame for the less talented swarms that followed.

And speaking of computer coloring: can we agree that's at least as much of a problem as photo-referencing?

HB: But that guy's stuff doesn't look anything like Ross's! That's what bothers me about this whole thing: the idea that Ross's work is soulless and inorganic, when in fact it's kind of in love with the best non-cosmetically-altered humanity can be. In many ways, and I prepare myself here for some blowback, he's kind of like Jaime Hernandez. Sure, he doesn't show quite the variety of body types that Jaime does, but he likes strong, big bodies with some heft to them. He likes leg muscles and appropriate sagging. His people have hair and they get sore and their costumes tear. If all that's what comes from photo reference (and I don't think it does; I'm still arguing that photo reference is merely a tool for checking your work, for making sure it's what you wanted it to be to begin with), then hooray for photo reference. I'm not arguing here, mind you, that Ross is my favorite comics artist or that he has the strongest sequential work, but his weaknesses, to my thinking, don't result from the tools he uses.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Thor: Reign of Blood

Thor: Reign of Blood
by Matt Fraction, Khari Evans, Victor Olazaba, and Patrick Zircher
Marvel Comics, 2008.

Hillary Brown: Okay, so this is literally the first Thor comic book I've ever read, and I'm coming at this from the perspective of being both at least somewhat a Matt Fraction fan (I recognize that he's got some limitations) and confirmedly an appreciator of Norse mythology dating back to D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths. What I hope is that this is a lot suckier than Thor usually is. Right? It has to be. Fraction's out of his depth with trying for a more complex and authentic picture of Norse mythology, and either he doesn't know what he's doing on a really basic level, or he and the artist never communicated. I mean, Odin has one eye. That's just the way it is. Showing him with two is like forgetting that Spider-man can stick to walls. The moments when Fraction slips back into his contemporary idiom--as when humanity admits having eaten Thor's horses in apologetic, hemming and hawing fashion--are incongruous and yet they're also the best bits. That's not a good sign in my book. Also, and bear with me if this is a dumb question, but where the fuck is Thor for most of the book? I think Alan Moore does a much, much better job with this kind of material in Top Ten, where one of the cases the cops have to deal with is the murder of Baldur, which they don't realize happens pretty much continually. Ugh.

Garrett Martin: You'll have to take the eye issue up with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Marvel's Odin has almost always had two eyes. So you shouldn't be looking for perfect transliterations of the myths in Thor comics; that's never been what the book's about. The comics hint at the old stories and preserve a bit of that atmosphere, but the classic Thor from the '60's (which are about the only classic Thor comics, save Walter Simonson's run in the '80's) were focused more on refitting that grandeur into a fairly traditional superhero framework. But mostly they were about whatever awesome, crazy shit Jack Kirby felt like drawing that month. Fraction heads in the Edith Hamilton direction a bit in Reign of Blood and his previous Thor one-shot, but both are less about the actual mythology than about being kick-ass supernatural barbarian stories, pretty much. They should probably star Conan instead of Thor, but Marvel let that license go years ago. And I agree that the contemporary humor sticks out tonally, but the primary problem with Thor has always been retaining that air of otherworldly nobility while writing for a modern pop-culture audience. Fraction isn't the best at walking that tight-rope since Lee and Kirby, but he's far from the worst.

So do you think this a legitimately bad comic, or just the victim of your expectations?

HB: I think it might be a legitimately bad comic, much as I like Fraction. I mean, I don't have a problem with ridiculous, but the combination of vengeance and ass (carefully veiled and yet no classier for it) plus a really awful plot made me anxious to get through it. I frowned a lot, basically. When you get down to it, almost nothing happens, despite the fact that there are two stories contained in the book. It's cold and then there's a little bit of explanation and some vengeance and then the dead walk the earth and there's smiting and then more vengeance. And yet it feels like nothing but a talk fest interrupted by occasional poorly rendered fight scenes. Snooze. Maybe my expectations were too high, and I get where Fraction is trying to go (what happens when one of the most high-minded heroes gets pissed off and forsakes his duty?, i.e., Spider-Man 2 sort of), but it sounds like the raison d'etre for the original was great art, and this sure doesn't have it. It's not the worst art out there right now, and even the coloring is passable, but it can't help reminding me (gulp) a little bit of Tarot.

GM: The Frost Giantess T'n'A and Enchantress bits made me cringe a little, too, but they're a far cry from Tarot (why didn't we review that one again, by the way?). I agree the first story is bad, both boring and not entirely faithful to the established Marvel characterization of some of these characters. Fraction's faux-Shakespearian dialogue (a Thor staple) lacks the freewheeling verve of Stan Lee's, and this Loki is pretty dissimilar from the one that's been kicking around Marvel since '63 or so (also, since when has the Enchantress been Idunn? They don't mention that in this issue, but it's stated Fraction's previous Thor issue) The dialogue problems also plague the second tale somewhat, but Fraction more than makes up for it with the unadulterated awesomeness of the Blood Colossus. I pretty much enjoyed all aspects of the second story a good bit, even though it feels less like a Thor comic than, like I said, an old Conan the Barbarian with weird supernatural shit thrown in. The blood storm / skeleton army thing is a fine bit of comic book ridiculousness, and Patrick Zircher's black metal album cover artwork fits the story perfectly. And although it is weird to have that contemporary humor, like we mentioned, it does help to clue the reader in that Fraction et. al. realize exactly how ridiculous and over-the-top this stuff is. I don't know if I can recommend a four-dollar comic that's only half-good, but Fraction's take on Thor is certainly a hell of a lot more fun than what J. Michael Straczynski is doing over in the monthly title.

HB: And also, I think I really do like the contemporary humor here and there. It's kind of a shame that it doesn't show up until the very end, by which point I was already annoyed and bored. If there were a bit of that at the beginning, I might have been better prepared and in a more cheerful mood. You know? Put your camel punching up front. That said, I'm also not a massive Conan fan. It's a little too simplistic for me, although, yes, I understand that that's kind of the point.

I'm pretty sure we didn't review Tarot because it's the worst comic we've ever read. It is an embarrassment to the human species that it exists and, while saying that anything made you throw up a little in your mouth is grounds for being kicked off the internet at this point, it at least turned my stomach a little with its incredible awfulness.

GM: And that's exactly why we should have reviewed Tarot.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Delayed Replays

Delayed Replays
by Liz Prince
Top Shelf 2008

Hillary Brown: What can you even say about a book that is so tiny and simple? It's a collection of mostly three-panel strips with fart jokes and lots of snuggling and general behaving like a dork. To some people, that's a huge turn-off--tantamount to saying "it's a complete waste of time because, after all, I already live in reality, which has farting and snuggling and dorkiness, and so why do I need it even to be shaped or selected or drawn?"--but, um, not to me. I like short comic strips with jokes. And I don't mind being reminded of reality. I'm pretty okay with it. Yes, you could say this is easy to do, but I think it takes a good eye and ear to pick out something that'll fill three panels nicely, and, while I read the whole thing on the brief bus trip from downtown to my office, brevity is a virtue. It's not very different from her first collection, Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed, but it is a little less cute, so if you hate people in relationships or fuzzy kitties, you might like it a tad better.

Other notes: I am a fan of the way she doesn't erase the sketch marks in a lot of places. Have you read The Fart Party? These ladies have a lot of similar interests. I'm sure they know this. Julia Wertz has a bit more aggression to work out though. And, finally, does she break up with her boyfriend mid-book? And is it weird and invasive for me even to be thinking about that and being a little bit sad about it?

Garrett Martin: The beats of a successful humor strip are hard to hit, it's true, but Prince nails 'em more often than not. I like her art and its sketchy cuteness, but Delayed Replays floats solely on its humor, which is about the most subjective thing ever. Shit, this is probably the most subjective book we've ever discussed, I think. If you don't share Prince's sense of humor, or find her observations funny, then there's probably not enough to the art to grab your interest. Fortunately I thought it was really damn funny pretty damn often, and greatly enjoyed the twenty or so minutes it took to read the whole book.

Yeah, I was wondering about the disappearance of Kevin, the boyfriend guy, about halfway through the book. Turns out I was introduced to that guy Kevin at Still Flyin's show in Boston last fall. I didn't even know Prince lived in Somerville when you first recommended her. It's weird to be reading a comic and realize one of the characters is a friend you're in a band with.

Also, I've never read Julia Wertz before; I might have to track her stuff down. I'm still new to these autobiographical mini-comic things.

HB: You have a meeellion to read, then. There are tons of them. And some of them are good and others are less good. I think Prince's are good because she doesn't try to do too much. It's just like the way I enjoy Jeffrey Brown's strips more when they're a page long. And have lower standards for 22-minute sitcoms than for hour-long dramas with no commercials.

So does that mean Kevin's still around? He seems to be. I guess you really shouldn't be speculating on it too much, considering the possibility that you'll be running into her. She's nice, by the way.

Also, now I want fudgsicles.