Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Season 2 #2

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Season 2 #2
by Terry Moore and Craig Rousseau
Marvel Comics 2008

Hillary Brown: Oh boy, Terry Moore... Well, the first issue of season 2 of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was uneven, and it had a new tone, but the memories of Sean McKeever's wonderfulness with the story let hope bloom a little, in spite of itself. Well, the bloom is off the damn rose with issue #2. It's not as though the story has ever been interested in Spider-Man or action, but things did happen, whereas the summary of issue #2 is: Mary Jane wakes up late; she goes to acting class; she chats with some people in the hall and with Liz Allen at cheerleading practice, but all kind of aimlessly; Harry Osborn's been saying something about her, but we don't find out what it is; she goes to her new job at the hair salon and screws up but doesn't get fired; then she walks home with Spider- Man. Honestly, it's hard to find a regular-length comic like this that could put you to sleep any faster. The dialogue sags. The art is boring. Nothing frigging happens. And Spider-Man is pretty much the only dude who makes an appearance. I'm not opposed to female-centric comics. Colleen Coover did a great job in the Spider-Man Annual. But I am opposed to Moore turning SMLMJ into Strangers in Paradise minus the sex.

Garrett Martin: You're not quite negative enough; this thing is hellaciously bad. Absolutely nothing happens. And I don't mean "nobody got chest-punched, ergo nothing happened"; I mean despite the perfunctory appearance of various recognizable characters and a distinct sequence of events, absolutely nothing of note occurs at any point. What impact does any of this have on any of these characters? Basically Mary-Jane stumbles about all confused and emotionally disoriented barely reacting to events of no consequence. This wouldn't be so frustrating if the dialogue wasn't some of the worst stuff I've seen in any comic of late. Yes, worse than anything in DCU Decisions! What the hell. Nothing is more annoying than when a writer presents a supposedly humorous situation that would never conceivably be found funny by any person anywhere at any point in the history of the world, and then call-back and reference it repeatedly. That's exactly what Moore does with the pathetic non-joke that is the limo rumor. What the hell, again. This comic is a totally inert, stillborn embarrassment.

HB: Yeah, I guess I was trying to be generous and not live in an entirely plot-driven world, but, um, as you point out, there's not even any emotional development here. It makes me nervous as heck for the future of Runaways, which I may avoid entirely even after catching up on the Joss Whedon-penned issues. Also: why does every lady have a lesbian haircut? Discuss.

GM: I'm just shocked at how far worse this issue is than Moore's first. I didn't think that was great, but it was more in keeping with McKeever's great book than I expected. #2 is about the worst case scenario, though. The only thing that isn't distressing about this issue is Craig Rousseau's art. It's solid stuff, better than David Hahn, the guy that finished up the last series, but it still won't make anybody forget Takeshi Miyazawa. Miyazawa's manga style definitely fits the series better than Rousseau's more Western cartoonish-ness.

But man, I've got no plans on picking up Moore's Runaways. Well, maybe to talk about it here, but I don't want it to feel like we're piling on the dude.

HB: Yeah, I guess I can say that the cover is good, but it's the only thing that's even cute in the whole issue. I mean, if nothing's going to happen, you could at least have some cute girls, whereas Moore and Rousseau can't even put poor Mary Jane in a decent outfit. This book is worse than Spider-Man 3.

GM: Were MJ and her friends generally well-dressed in the earlier series? If so, I wonder how much of that credit goes to Miyazawa and Hahn, and how much goes to the former colorist, Christina Strain. Do you think a woman's perspective is necessary or especially helpful when it comes to successful women's fashion in comics? I never even think about that, since women's fashion in superhero comics basically consists of whatever unrealistically tight and revealing piece of nothing the artist barely draws over his light-boxed SI Swimsuit Edition tracings.

HB: Well, they had more interesting and colorful things on than the boring jacket MJ wears throughout this issue. Think Betty and Veronica. Actually, just think Veronica. What she's wearing now is probably more realistic, but it's a little old and a little blah. I'm not sure that it's a female perspective that's important so much as a more youthful one, and that may not even be fair. I don't know how old Craig Rousseau is, but Miyazawa's only 29.

GM: See, when I think of Veronica, I think of the most stereotypical '80's (or '50's, depending on if I'm thinking of a regular issue or one of them grocery store digests) clothes possible. But maybe that's 'cuz I read roughly a billion Archie stories a day when I was 9, and hardly any since.

Should we work on a post about fashion in comics?

HB: I guess I just mean bright colors and occasionally interesting cuts--a youthful look, basically. It's not the MJ doesn't wear jeans, but she layers and she accessorizes.

Unfortunately, other than superhero costumes, there's not a whole lot of fashion in comics, but I have been looking for excuse to read Beauty Pop...

GM: I don't know, then we'd probably also have to read Glamourpuss, and I don't know if I'm up for that.

HB: Wait! I might be!

other stuff in other places

If you're so inclined, you can take a look at two comics-related pieces I have in this week's Weekly Dig. The first is a joint Q&A with Bernie Wrightson and Peter Laird, the two guests of honor at this Sunday's Boston Comic Con. The other is a review of The Great Outdoor Fight, a hardcover collection of Achewood strips published by Dark Horse.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Crogan's Vengeance

Crogan's Vengeance
by Chris Schweitzer
Oni Press, 2008

Hillary Brown: I'm not familiar at all with Chris Schweizer's work, except for his series on "Smokers of the Marvel Universe," but when I went to Heroescon his new book, Crogan's Vengeance, was getting some serious hype. Like the rest of Oni Press's stuff, it's fairly small format and black and white, but rather than the trials and travails of skinny indie rockers (<-- unfair stereotype), it's a swashbuckling tale of derring-do and piratical adventure, with more planned in the series. Yes, Schweizer has ambition, with plans to tell other stories from the Crogan line and build some sort of a multi-generational epic, full of man's man stories and epic sweep. The question is: Does it work? Big goals can fail big. I'd say, on the whole, that Schweizer doesn't fail big, but he might fail a little. It's hard to combine a story as straightforward and narrative-based as this with artwork that is often goofy. It's not that I don't like either aspect on its own, but they're a little strange combined, or perhaps it's that they're rather Disney's Peter Pan, which is the formative experience most of us have with pirates (unless our family is, like, really into Veggie Tales). The goonieness of the drawings detracts from the menace, and it's really hard to tell if that's the goal or not. Mostly, what it does is seemingly drop the target age range down, which may be exactly what Schweizer is going for. Perhaps he's inspired just as much by Landmark Books, a series of adventure/historical tales aimed at the pre- and adolescent boy market in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. My dad grew up on these, which meant there was a big stash of them at my grandparents' house, and when I stayed there in the summers for two weeks, I'd attempt to get through all of them. The best ones, of course, were the ones about pirates: The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans, The Barbary Pirates, Famous Pirates of the New World, and more, I believe. Crogan's Vengeance reminds me of these more than anything else, meaning it's a little bit educational and not entirely satisfying, but, you know, pirates! Is it just that I'm a girl and it's pushing boy buttons?

Garrett Martin: I don't know; if so, then perhaps my buttons aren't quite gender-appropriate. Now, there's a lot that's good about Crogan's Vengeance, but I too had a problem with the weird disconnect between art and subject matter. I like Schweizer's classic cartoonish art, but like you point out it doesn't quite gel with the serious, straight-forward story he's telling. It's not dour or self-important, but there's not a lot of humor in Crogan's Vengeance, which you would expect from a book whose lead looks kinda like a human Goofy. That odd combination of art and subject matter does make me think that preadolescent boys might be the target audience. It also reminds me of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha, but far tamer, without the sexuality and graphic violence perpetrated on adorable Disney-looking animals. Schweizer also could've been a bit clearer with the pacing; doesn't it feel like everything takes place over two, maybe three days? Pivotal events transition directly into one another, with no attention paid to passage of time. Does Crogan really go from unknown sailor to captain of his own licensed privateer ship in one weekend? It's just slightly confusing.

Those are my only problems, really. I really like his art, divorced from this story, which is a story that I also really like. It's pretty bare-bones, sure, but Schweizer seems to have done his homework with the history and speech patterns and everything, and doesn't offer up any glaring anachronisms. Those often kinda piss me off, y'know. I had no idea about Schweizer's grand plans until you mentioned them; that actually sounds really intriguing, and I can't wait to read more, provided he treats future subject matter with the relative degree of respect on display in Crogan's Vengeance.

HB: Yeah, a whole series of awesome graphic adventure novels for boys sounds like a brilliant idea, not least because it might stop them from reading terrible superhero comics at an impressionable age. You're right, too, about the pacing. That's usually something that's nice and clear in comics, due to the possibility of sticking it in a box at the top of a panel (e.g., "some days later") rather than working into exposition in limited text, but I honestly have no idea how long the voyage, takeover, and revenge take. Or, heck, why Crogan's on the ship. I suppose it's one of those formative experiences, rather like Prince Harry's joining the UK military, that toffs are required to go through to prove their noblesse oblige-ness. Perhaps we should talk a bit about the title and the relatively sophisticated philosophy of justice and mercy that Schweizer sets up?

GM: Whoa, hold on, what this world needs is more boys reading terrible superhero comics at an impressionable age! Well, not "terrible" (I'm not talking like X-Force, or anything), but the only people who should be reading mediocre and/or bog-standard superhero comics are boys. Yes, that should be supplemented with higher quality fare like Crogan's Vengeance or Rocketo, but you shouldn't discount the importance 22 pages of hackneyed Batman crap can have upon a young man's mind. Of course the uninspired superhero junk of today is mostly inappropriate for kids, so maybe it's all a moot point, anyway.

The book's pretty idealistic, isn't it? Crogan tries hard to remain honorable throughout, and at the end is awarded in a way that lets him keep the fundamentally dishonorable profession forced upon him but in a fully legal and respectable way. His vengeance is doing the right thing and living well as a result, unlike the more hardened and villainous pirates he reluctantly consorted with. I appreciate the optimism, and feel bad that I assume it's just another sign of the book targetting a younger audience.

HB: Yeah, it's idealistic, and I think that's nice, but it doesn't read as falsely so. That is, it's not quite the same situation when Superman steps in to protect the rights of someone who's a jerk but being harmed as when this little bitty guy from the elite does so. So it's sort of inspiring. But I think the title is more in reference to the ship by that name, which becomes his, than to the actions of Crogan. His "vengeance" isn't really vengeance. It's just the right thing to do in the situation. So I don't think we can say the book is in favor of vengeance. That, in itself, is kind of nice.

GM: It's definitely a pun, though, right? The obvious reference is to the ship, but also the character's indirect / unintentional revenge upon the bad people and situations that had plagued him, by, y'know, living well.

HB: I do think it has a dual meaning, or, rather, it seems like it'll have a dual meaning, but in the end, not so much.

GM: Yeah, maybe I'm too hung up on platitudes and George Herbert quotes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sub-Mariner Depths #1

Sub-Mariner Depths #1
by Peter Milligan and Esad Ribic
Marvel Comics 2008

Garrett Martin: You're probably wondering why we're writing about a month-old issue of some random Sub-Mariner mini-series, a #1 that's already been followed by a #2, and, I assume any day now, a #3. It's true that a little bit of business and a whole lot of laziness has brought us here, but it's also true that I'm making a point to review this issue because of its surprising and fundamental goodness. Sub-Mariner Depths #1 is a far better comic than I expected. And it pains me to say that, 'cuz I used to expect a lot from Peter Milligan. I assume this book was only commissioned because of Milligan's good reputation, a rep that's been severely tarnished of late by a long run of sub-par superhero works. Yeah, The Programme was utterly unembarrassing, but otherwise Milligan hasn't put out a good comic since some point during the second year of X-Statix. Infinity Inc and Kid Amazo were (to varying degrees) wayward messes with a few nice ideas sprinkled here and there, and his recent-ish Batman and X-Men work has been mind-achingly uninspired. Even in the world of mainstream superhero comics, rarely has work for hire so obviously been work. So, yes, I had no expectations for this book whatsoever, and almost didn't buy it, which would've made it the first Milligan series I didn't try since I first read Shade the Changing Man back in 1992. It was a light week, though, so I dropped those four bucks, and was pleasantly surprised by what I read. It's not quite a return to form for Milligan, but, like The Programme, it shows that he's at least still capable of writing interesting and distinctive comics. Also like The Programme (and other, far better Milligan works like Shade and Enigma), it probably helps that Sub-Mariner Depths is only nominally about a superhero. But before we jump into the book itself, I want to hear some preliminary thoughts from Hillary. What did you think? And had you read anything by Milligan before?

Hillary Brown: Well, I guess compared to the last waterlogged comic we read and wrote about Sub-Mariner Depths is an improvement, but I wouldn't say I was nuts about it. I haven't read anything by Milligan, despite the fact that he seems to have written for about a hundred different books, so I don't know anything about his style. For one thing, maybe I'm just being pissy about fonts, but I think the handwriting stuff is hard to read, in a way that leads to irritation. And the art is a little... watery. I know I like Alex Ross and all that, and I'm not opposed to watercolor work in comics in the slightest, but doesn't this stuff look kind of washed out to you? And excessively photo-referenced? Okay. None of that is Milligan's fault, and the writing is pretty good, not to mention that it's an interesting take on the character. The Sub-Mariner's always been kind of a jerk, and the idea of treating him as even more vengeful and also kind of legendy is good; otherwise, he's just a cranky fucker in a bathing suit. I like where the story is going, in other words, and once they're underwater, the paleness of the surface scenes is replaced by an inky prettiness that's nice and creepy. I'm genuinely curious, as well, to see what happens, although I don't know if I prefer stories about skepticism that's proved to be correct or stories about skepticism that's challenged and found wanting. Theoretically, I like the first, but in practice the second often ends up as a better story.

GM: It's basically impossible to do the former in a modern superhero book. That's one reason nobody could think of a way to use Dr. Thirteen for decades; how do you have an extreme skeptic not look like an idiot in a shared universe full of magical aliens and dudes who can run backwards through time? I don't even know if it was a consideration, but by setting this story in the solidly pre-superheroic '30's Milligan eliminated that as a concern.

As you know I often have a problem with painted and obviously photo-referenced art in superhero comics. Esad Ribic's work here doesn't bug me, though, if only because the story doesn't really call for much action. I don't like when the art is flat and static when it should be dynamic and action-packed, but, again, that's not a concern with this first issue. Ribic's stiff, formal style also complements the time period, although it would fit even better if this took place in the 1890's. So in this context, I think Ribic's art is fine.

What makes this a good book, though, is Milligan's choice to focus not on Sub-Mariner as a character but as this frightening, mostly off-panel force that the sailors are afraid to even acknowledge, and that the professional skeptic takes as seriously as the Loch Ness Monster and compassionate conservatism. It's impressive how Milligan takes a 70-year-old character that's basically a one-note caricature, wraps it up in a narrative device that's not entirely novel (hey, let's look at this superhero as a supernatural deity and/or force-of-nature, and see how he impacts the lives of them normal folk!), and winds up with one of the better debut issues of late. Chalk it up to a sound concept and a sufficiently creepy and isolated atmosphere. I can't point to any single aspect of Depths that's great, but it's a good start to what could be a memorable series.

HB: If only they'd had submarines in the 1890s. Actually, wait! They did. I suppose the exact time at which it's set could be an artistic decision, but the story really would kind of fit better with that first great surge toward technology and the rule of science in the late nineteenth century.

Another thing that's probably been done before but is nonetheless clever is the idea of submariners and the Sub-Mariner. Different pronunciation, obvs, but it really points up his alien nature, in that he's free not to be encased in a metal cigar. That choice and the emphasis in general on human characters gives the book a kind of depth or at least hints at a more multi-layered story that might address dehumanization and the upcoming World War.

GM: Right, bad pun aside, this comic does have a bit more depth than what you come to expect from a superhero book, even in the age of weak political allegory like Civil War. Milligan's primary strength has always been characterization, and I like how he subtly alludes to Namor's typical self-righeous indignation solely through the impressions of sailors who've never even encountered him. This is the most assured work Milligan's done in years, since before he turned almost exclusively to mainstream superheros and felt the need to project every character's motives and desires on the side of a warehouse.

I do hope the series retains that sense of history and otherworldliness you point out. I need to pick up the second issue already and find out. Any interest in reading further?

HB: I do and I think I will. It's very "Jules Verne if I already knew the truth behind the mystery presented."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Abe Sapien: The Drowning

Abe Sapien: The Drowning
by Mike Mignola and Jason Shawn Alexander
Dark Horse Comics 2008

Hillary Brown: I'm still not quite sure what the huge deal is about Mike Mignola as a writer, but I haven't read all that much (just B.P.R.D. 1946). I have, of course, seen the movies, which have good bits and bad bits. I like the central premise of them quite a bit--any time there's paranormal research going on, I'm pretty much there--but, you know, it's hardly all that innovative. Abe Sapien features that character, who is less smashy than Hellboy and smarter, getting his own book, and this one is backdated to early in his career with the B.P.R.D., quite an advantage to have. Mignola gets to draw on at least 60 years of history, and he's not likely to turn down the opportunity to fill in all those gaps eventually. It's a bit like Buffy and Angel as TV series--when you have vampires who are 200 years old, and you're having trouble filling an episode, throw in a flashback. Not that this book features a lot to identify it as taking place in the 1980s. Just the date at the top of a panel or two. I guess the central questions are: Can Sapien carry a book on his own? And is this particular story worth telling? I'm going to let you weigh in before I answer them.

Garrett Martin: I think I gotta say "no" to both your questions. Okay, it's not a hard and fast no in regard to whether the character can carry a solo story or not; any character can do that, if the writing is good enough. Still, as written in this comic (the only thing I've ever read in the Hellboy line), Sapien is far too passive and reactive to make for an exciting lead. Obviously that's part of the point, but that awareness doesn't make the story any more entertaining. I mean, it really wasn't all that good, right? The nature of the villain and his weird homunculi is fairly interesting, but overall this is one plodding, uneventful comic. It could easily be a two-parter. The art's the best thing about it.

As I said, I'm utterly unfamiliar with Hellboy, outside of the first movie. I don't know if Mignola is held in especially high regard as a writer; his art is fantastic, though, and the supernatural conspiracy aspect to Hellboy, the novelty of which has been exhausted by the likes of Dan Brown, had to be fresh and fascinating back when it debuted.

HB: See, I'm not sure I'd say an outright no, but it's definitely not a resounding yes. I really like the character, even his passivity. He's sort of like a young Wesley Wyndham-Price: highly intelligent but not yet wise to the ways of the world and, thus, apt to get others hurt. He's soft and unformed and still learning how to make difficult decisions. I think all that is interesting stuff to examine, plus the story obviously is geared to his particular undersea abilities, BUT how well done is it really? I did end up liking the art a good bit (by Jason Shawn Alexander), even though it's both dark and blocky, two problems I had with the art in B.P.R.D. and that I believe are characteristic of the artists Mignola works with in general. Maybe it's that all the water kind of softens things. I did feel absolutely soaked by the end of the reading experience, as though I'd been dunked in the ocean over and over, then forced to wander through sewers in a cold, foggy environment. On the other hand, that's not exactly pleasant. There's definitely something compelling and creepy about the story, but I'm not sure it's told well enough. The art obscures more than it communicates, there's tons of mysterious voice-over delivered by at-first-unknown sources, the timeline is a little messed up, and everything's just kind of murky and unclear. I'm sure that's the point, to go along with Sapien's learning that situations are often more complicated than they seem and that, while being a paranormal G-man seems awesome, it in fact means you end up getting your friends killed and making the wrong choices, but there are times you want to shake Mignola and Alexander by the shoulders and yell "What the heck is happening?" Is this laziness on the part of the reader, or is it bad storytelling? I do love me some supernatural conspiracies though.

GM: I wouldn't call it laziness, at least not on Alexander's part. Maybe Mignola is overstretched, what with the incessant stream of Hellboy spin-offs and miniseries, and then all the non-comics stuff that he must be at least a consultant on. It could also just be bad storytelling. It's not pervasive throughout the book, but there are moments that aren't especially easy to understand. And it's not the story that's obtuse, but the way it's constructed; the art and words occasionally fail to mesh together in a coherent way. Y'know, like you mentioned above.

I like how you talk about feeling soaked by the end. I too felt weighed down by the sluggish pacing and bleak tone. It's a total slog. I gotta assume that isn't standard with most Hellboy comics, unless the thrillpower of the first movie came more from del Toro than Mignola.

HB: I think there's definitely a good chance it did, and from what I understand Del Toro pretty much wrote the second one himself, so maybe Mignola just isn't all that great. Perhaps some of our absent commenters (understandable, given our own laxness lately, for which we apologize) can fill us in on why we should read more of his stuff.

GM: I'll reserve judgement on both Mignola and Hellboy until I read more of both. I have to assume this series is something of an anomaly, 'cuz far too many respectable folks have praised Hellboy over the years.

Man, this book's boringness has infected my comments, I'm afraid.