Wednesday, August 27, 2008

King-Size Spider-Man Summer Special #1

King-Size Spider-Man Summer Special #1
Various authors/artists
Marvel 2008

Garrett Martin: I want more comics like this. Or at least like the first of the three stories in this weird anthology. No slight to Keith Giffen or Chris Giarrusso (one of my favorite comic-making dudes and a creator of fine kids comics, respectively), but Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's lead story in King Size Spider-Man Summer Special is exactly the sort of all-ages-appropriate comic the big superhero companies should be putting more focus on. I'm not saying they need to scrap their entire mainstream line and only put out Marvel Adventures books (and shit, the direct market has already proven that sweet and innocent comics don't sell well to all seriously growed up hardcore audience), but the Marvel U would be a nicer and more fun world if this story's tone wasn't such an outlier.

But damn, I got carried away, and didn't provide any specifics. Tobin (who writes) and Coover (who draws and also writes) are a married couple, legally wed, whose names you should probably recognize from (both solo and cooperative) books like Banana Sunday, Small Favors, and issues of various Marvel Adventures comics. Coover's probably best known to Marvel fans as the artist of those generally amazing back-up strips in Jeff Parker's X-Men First Class. Her style's something like Harvey Comics by way of mid-century New Yorker, and is undeniably cute without ever being mawkish or cutesy. Her stuff is really quite ridiculously awesome, for real, and a perfect fit for the story she and her husband done cooked up for this book, a story documenting a team-up between model friends Mary Jane Watson, Millie the Model, Patsy "Hellcat" Walker, and a dean's list of the top Marvel superheroines (no Wasp though - she gets no respect). It's got the same reverent yet lightly ironic tone found in the X-Men First Class back-ups, where you can tell Coover is having fun playing around with the goofiness of '60's Marvel, and it completely makes this guy happy in pretty much every possible way (for I am nothing if not a fan of reverently semi-ironic takes on '60's Marvel goofiness).

Ah shit, I'm rambling. Little help?

Hillary Brown: See, I mostly know Colleen Coover from coveting but not yet buying Small Favors, which, it should be pointed out, is a book of dirty dirty lady pictures that also happen to be extremely cute. And look at her! She seems so very mild mannered. I figured there probably wouldn't be anything filthy going on in this book, despite the potentially double-entendred title, and there's not, really, although all those gal superheroes are a little bit flirty with each other. There's some potential, in other words, especially when they're all showering (!), although it's also quite right not to have it fulfilled.

The most amusing thing, to me, about their story is that Spider-man appears for all of a page before being shunted off to the side so the girls can goof off and gossip and shampoo their hair. And I love the art. It's so perky and flatly colored, and it makes me tremendously happy. Basically, yay, Colleen Coover. I hope she does more work like this. I hope she does more work in general. It's girly without being stupid and it's also girly without being too much "yay! Girls are better than boys! Woo, girl power!" It's like it's not concerned at all with showing how smart it is, which is refreshing.

GM: Wait, don't girls just shower in front of each other all the time? In-between those grueling all-night pillow-fights?

It's weird, I don't even think about issues of gender or anything when I read comics like this or Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. I just see comics that look cool and make me chuckle and remind me why I'm reading these things in the first place. Obviously you can't fail to see this story's inherent girliness, but it isn't something I thought twice about while reading. I wonder if the lack of interest your average superhero comic reader has in books like this is due to that girliness or the sweet-natured whimsy and playfulness. Or maybe the two unite in a perfect storm of "awesome shit Comic Book Guys refuse to read". Marvel Adventures books aren't "girly", but are fun and don't sell very well. But I don't buy those books that often, either, so I'm a part of the problem. Fuck!

What did you think of the other two stories?

HB: Hmm, well, I really wasn't nuts about the middle one, the Giffen-written, Burchett/Quintana-drawn Falcon-Spider-man team-up. It's possible that it's because I'm not familiar with the Falcon, or because it's between two much better and more cartoony stories, but I think it's really due to the mish-mash that is the writing and the excessive posiness of the art. That is, the story hops around from here to there, and while Spidey gets some zingy lines, what exactly is going on is a little hard to figure out. Also, while I do enjoy dudes punching other dudes, I get bored with it after a while, and after both the Falcon and Spidey are in costume, there seem to be rather a lot of panels dedicated to improbable contortions and also, even when they're just talking, to posing in interesting ways. I know this is what you get to do with Spider-man, but once you notice it, it makes the whole story unintentionally silly.

The Chris Giarusso "Mini-Marvels" story, however, is intentionally silly and, therefore, very entertaining, at least to me. I think I know just enough about the history of the characters to find it amusing when they're shrunk into goofy, cartoony kids and then made to squabble over a paper route. And we haven't even discussed Toibin and Coover's two-page MODOK story!

GM: Oh geez, how did I forget MODOK? Or Tobin/Coover's awesome one-panel Spidey origin that somehow beats the first page of All-Star Superman as the greatest origin recap ever? Granted I read this thing a few weeks ago, and didn't have time to flip through it again last night, but still, no excuse for overlooking such amazement.

Giffen's story isn't bad, and more enjoyable than a majority of Marvel's current output. It's also pretty unexceptional, and its greatest strength is maybe anti-artistic. Well, if you believe that nostalgia is an enemy to art (what the hell am I talking about?) It's a straight-up nostalgia-thon, written for folks who want to relive early '70's Marvel. Oddly enough I've been reading Essential Captain America Volume 4 the last few weeks, which should be called Essential Captain America and The Falcon, since that was the actual name of the comic during the time period collected, and so I'm a bit gorged on the Falcon. And yeah, like Luke Cage's book, it's a bit long on the bad blaxpoitation urban slang, but the Falcon, as written by Steve Engelhart, is a pretty underrated character, so it's good to see a story focus on him. It's got a few good lines (Giffen's a funny guy, y'know), acceptable art, is well-paced, etc., but there's nothing all that great about it. Perfectly acceptable comic-bookery, but I've already forgotten almost everything about it.

And I don't want you to think I was dismissing the Mini-Marvels story, either, by pumping up the lead story so much. Giarrusso's recurring shorts are reliably good, and this story, the longest I've seen by him, is no exception. Yeah, it's cute and silly, and thus slightly similar to Tobin/Coover's tale, but it's intentionally less smart and long on knee-slappers and all around more single-faceted. Great for kids, though, and I have been considering buying the recent digest collection Marvel's put out. Did you know Mini-Marvels is kind of a regular thing?

HB: Yeah, I guess I've at least heard of Mini-Marvels before, and this sort of makes me want to read more of them. Still: Tobin/Coover with the gold, solidly; Giarrusso with the silver; and Giffen with the bronze, even though his story is the only one that really includes Spider-man. What does that say?

GM: That Marvel will slap Spider-Man's name on anything, just to make a buck?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Criminal Vol. 3: The Dead and The Dying

Criminal Vol. 3: The Dead and The Dying
by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Val Staples
Marvel Comics 2008

Hillary Brown: Wow is this ever better than that X-Men relocation special. In other words, I'm starting to see what the big hoo-ha about Brubaker is, and what it boils down to is that he's an excellent writer. It's easy to do a weak job with pulp material, to fill it with spraying blood and cursing and asses, which is kind of what my experience reading 100 Bullets has been like so far. Not that I hate that book. I'm still willing to give it a chance for one or two more volumes. But I don't care about any of the characters or even remember who they are. I'm not sure what the magic is that Brubaker has to create that kind of connection with the reader, but he definitely has it, and it's on full display in this most recent collection of Criminal. I've only read one issue in isolation, and it was almost as compelling, but the way he weaves three stories together here, telling basically one big story from three different perspectives but without doing a straight-up revisiting of the same scene from different angles, well, it can't help but remind me of Pulp Fiction or, perhaps, the sources on which that film drew and all of Tarantino's films draw. Grindhouse film can be overpraised, but the really good stuff has a deep grasp of human motivations and desires, which is what drives this book. My only real problem with it lies in Sean Phillips's art. It's the first time I've encountered good panel composition (really good) and good coloring, but not liked the line work. And it's not that the latter is terrible; there's just something about it that bugs me, like a reaching for a gritty kind of look or something.

Garrett Martin: Yes, Brubaker is an excellent writer, and for further proof go track down Gotham Central, Sleeper, Captain America, Daredevil, and Catwoman. He's not flashy like Fraction or full of brilliantly insane comic book ideas like Morrison, but nobody writing for the big two can match Brubaker for plotting and detail. Criminal's his best work, an obvious labor of love for both creators that perfectly hits exactly what it sets out to do. And I think the lack of blood and swearing is a deliberate part of the book's influences and intentions; the old noir films Criminal pays tribute to couldn't pour out buckets of blood and cuss words, and even though pulp fiction could be more lurid than cinema, the written word reinforces that not seeing a sordid scene sometimes drives the image home more forcefully. So yeah, I think that explains the restraint, to a degree.

This trade includes the first three issues of Criminal's second volume, and it's probably the book's high point thus far. The first volume was made up of two five-issue storylines that had a few minor crossovers but were mostly self-contained. It wasn't really until these three issues that the expansiveness of Brubaker's vision came into view. Brubaker's not just mapped out the backstories of seemingly background characters like the bartender Gnarley, but apparently has planned out the history of crime in this city for at least a few generations. The spotlight may shift from one ostensible lead character to another, but the real focus of Criminal remains the modern city, and the atmosphere of crime that permeates both it and the families of the men who operate in that world. The first-person narration and tight focus on singular individuals grounds each separate storyline in clear-cut noir / pulp turf, but the wide-view provided by the on-going periodical format gives both Brubaker and the reader an opportunity to explore and experience more than just your stereotypical tough guy crime fiction schtick. He hits the genre notes perfectly, but it doesn't feel cliched, and that's a sign of a great writer.

And wow, I'm surprised you have problems with Phillips' artwork. It fits the tone perfectly, linework included. Like Michael Lark on Gotham Central, Phillips' art is cinematic in a good way, and a great fit for Brubaker's stories. Occasionally his character designs can look a bit recycled or similar (Teeg Lawless really does look exactly line Sleeper's Genocide Jones), but that's not a big deal. I don't think he's trying too hard for a gritty feel; it doesn't look forced, and his art is the same here as it is in his other comics. And the grittiness fits the material, anyway.

HB: I think it's that I really do prefer a clean line in my comics art, and while I agree that Phillips's work does fit with the tone, the scratchiness of the lines, which look like they've been done with charcoal, just kind of isn't my thing. Faces also tend to blur together a little more with this kind of thick, sketchy line, and you lose some detail and some character. You could say the same thing about the tendency of a lot of 1970s pulp filmmakers to shoot scenes without enough light. So, again, it may well be fitting.

One thing that Brubaker seems particularly good at is making the reader see that big picture without overwhelming him/her. It's not clear from the beginning of the book--if you don't know anything about it to begin with--that the three stories it contains are related at all, and it's something you notice slowly at first and then in a rush, and it's just really beautifully done. Even if you go to great trouble creating and populating an entire comics world, it's all for naught if you just dump your reader into it and expect him/her to understand everything that's going on. Brubaker may rely a little much on narration, but that's not something I necessarily have a problem with, especially when he manages to keep the characters' voices fairly distinct. So do all the other issues take place in the same city?

GM: These three issues were specifically promoted as stand-alone issues, in order to be more accessible for new readers, so I think I was especially slow to notice they were all related, and maybe thus even more impressed. And yes, the entire series thus far has took place in the same city, which I'm pretty certain has never been named. The three story arcs thus far all cross-over tangentially, with one's lead character or his relatives being referenced or popping up in the background of the other. The stories remain self-contained, though, and these little bits of business just add value to the regular and observant reader. We're not discussing Criminal #4, but I know you've read it, and just as an example, the Franz Kafka PI comic strip has appeared several times throughout the series, and the strip's creator, who's the lead in the story arc that starts with #4, appeared briefly in the very first storyline. I don't know if they mentioned he was the guy who made the comic, though. It's satisfying when these tiny details align and you have that moment of realization, but they alone don't make Criminal a great comic. Or shit, a great story, regardless of medium. They do speak to the breadth and depth of Brubaker's planning, though, and how seriously he takes this writing biz. He's not just tossing out warmed-up, generic fluff; he's got a vision and knows exactly where he's going.

And yeah, Phillips' scratchiness does sacrifice a bit of detail, which might be why his muscle-bound dudes with short blond hair look identical. Still, I think his art is pretty damn great, and Criminal wouldn't be the same book without it.

So is this only the second thing you've read by Brubaker? This and Uncanny X-Men #500?

HB: Yep. He's one of the big names that I haven't really tackled yet, although not for lack of interest. The closest I've come is reading some of Bendis's Daredevil before Brubaker took over. If anything, it's probably because he's written a lot of books with long histories, meaning that it's harder for the novice to dive into his work. Maybe this grasp of multiple existing storylines (which I'm assuming he has; who knows? Maybe he sucks at it) that's led him to write things like Captain America (his best-known work?) and Batman is a strength that's just as visible in his more independent work? Or maybe I'm extrapolating from too little evidence. My guess is that Criminal is actually the perfect way in to Brubaker, unless Sleeper is even better. Is it? I hear they're making a movie out of that one.

GM: I haven't read all of Sleeper, but I feel comfortable calling Criminal a better comic. Sleeper is not a conventional book, but does trade on superhero conventions, and thus isn't quite as accessible and focused as Criminal. Another one of Brubaker's hallmarks is recasting superhero books into subgenres that fit his strengths as a writer; Captain America as an espionage thriller, Immortal Iron Fist as a pulp adventure serial, a Batman book that's actually a street-level plainclothes detective story, etc. Similarly, Sleeper was an undercover cop mystery book with a superhero gimmick, and although it's a great book, you still get the feel that the superhero element was only included because of the market Wildstorm targets. Brubaker doesn't have to compromise with Criminal, or jump through any stylistic hoops to recalibrate the material.

HB: Yeah, as I was reading it, I found myself thinking more about movies and books than about comics. It's not exactly Raymond Chandler--Brubaker's voice isn't as loopy as that--despite the frequent blackouts in the middle story (one of my favorite devices in the book), but it's Dashiell Hammett-ish. That is, while Brubaker's stuff isn't un-comic book-like at all (it uses plenty of smart visual elements), it's definitely more literary than almost anything else I can think of that's published by the big houses.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Top Shelf Kids Komix Kavalcade

Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World, by James Kochalka

Korgi, Book 2: The Cosmic Collector, by Christian Slade

Yam, by Corey Barba

All Top Shelf, 2008

Garrett Martin:

So we got this stack of kids comics from Top Shelf, a thoroughly respectable publisher located in my hometown of Marietta, Georgia. They've got a diverse catalogue, publishing both the improbably cute kids comic Owly and Alan Moore's high-class metafictional art-porn Lost Girls, among many other fine books. Owly's kind of blown up of late, it seems, and so Top Shelf, hoping to ride the edge of that lightning bolt, has prepared a passel of similar kid-focused books, including Yam, Korgi, and Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World. The books aren't too similar artistically or tonally, but they're all well-illustrated and well-intentioned, and at least two of them should appeal to audiences of all ages.

Oddly enough, Korgi, which I'd think is for slightly older children than the other two, was the least enjoyable for the totally grown-up adult guy I theoretically am. An odd fantasy/sci-fi tale about fairy-gnomes and their sorcerous pet Welsh corgies, Korgi is a bit too precious, with too thin of a plot. There're also a couple moments of surprising violence in the action scenes that don't quite fit the tone of child-like fairy-magic wonder. That violence, plus the less overtly whimsical art style, make me assume Korgi is for older kids, like late elementary school, but the plot is thin and characterization non-existent and so there's not much of substance to grab hold of. Not too much of a problem for younger kids' books, but when all these elements are combined it becomes hard to tell who the book is for. My six-year-old niece would probably be scared off by the evil alien, especially when he shoots the fairy's wing off, but then I'd think a ten-year-old wouldn't be stimulated enough. What do you think?

Hillary Brown: I thought it might be a little confusing for kids, no matter what age, if they decide to dive into volume 2 the way we did, rather than starting with volume 1, and that, mostly, it's an excuse to draw cute doggies. I'm fairly mystified by the whole idea behind the thing (Why are they magic? Why corgis? What does their magic consist of?), but, you know, I assume Christian Slade has some corgis that he loves, which led his to writing/drawing a book about them. The art is, as you mention, a bit precious--the kind of thing you'd find in a crystal store--but if you're shooting for the 10-to-12-year-old girl market, which is my guess as far as the marketing strategy, it's pretty much right on. To continue in the vein we've both mined as far as our respective dorky childhoods, I was super into faeries (yes, spelled like that) at about that age, and I regularly visited a store that sold not only crystals, but figurines, windchimes, geodes, incense, and the like. In other words, this book might have been right up my alley. Still, I'd agree that I liked it the least of the three they sent us, partially because, um, doesn't it have a secret message about people who collect things being selfish jerks who don't care about hurting others? That's me, the comic book reader, and I'm not sure I appreciate being lectured.

My favorite of the three, despite its almost nonexistent plot and frequent lack of sense, was James Kochalka's Johnny Boo. I'm curious what you thought of that one and if you think I'm crazy.

GM: Johnny Boo was great. It's the most obviously youth-oriented of the three, so the near-lack of a story didn't bug me too much. Kochalka's art is adorable, and this was no exception. Despite having words, it reminded me a lot of Owly, particularly the relationship between Johnny Boo and Squiggle; they interact just like Owly and Wormy. Between the hardcover binding, the uncluttered art, the clear-cut moral, and the easy-to-follow story, this feels the most like a children's book, and I could totally see this doing well at places like Target and Wal-Mart if Top Shelf could somehow get in those markets. I probably wouldn't buy subsequent Johnny Boo books for myself (ten dollars is a lot for a seven minute read), but would definitely give 'em to my nieces and nephews. I wouldn't call it my favorite of the three (that'd be Yam), but it is really good, and I'm interested in hearing why it is your favorite.

HB: I think I'm just a big fan of Kochalka's weirdness. The non-sequiturs he puts in the mouths of the characters remind me tons of real kids, who are almost always saying shit that is practically from outer space. And the pacing, which is jumpy and odd, kind of cracks me up too. I don't know if you read his ongoing series of Monster Attack comics done with his son Eli, but they're one of my favorite things on the internet. American Elf itself is quite concerned with his family life, and he seems to pay attention to kids and how they think and perceive the world. So I think all that plays into it, plus, as you point out, it's really cute. It's all cuddly and huggy and yay for ice cream, but without being too sweet, due to that undercutting weirdness as well as all the yelling. And I love the art, the coloring, and the printing. I'm a sucker for an aqueous varnish on a book cover. I agree with you that I'd totally buy it for kids, but I don't know if I'd buy it myself. Seven minutes might even be a generous estimate as far as reading time goes.

Yam, on the other hand, while equally weird, just kind of doesn't click for me, at least not regularly, so tell me why it's your favorite.

GM: I give Yam the edge over Johnny Boo partially because it's a longer read, but also because I think it's more engaging to a truly all ages audience. I can appreciate Johnny Boo, but I don't think I can love it as much as, say, my five-year-old nephew could. Yam, although designed for and thus totally appropriate for kids, has greater artistic depth than either of the other two books. And I mean visually, when I say "artistic". Corey Barba's characters are just as cute as Kolchaka's, but the panels are more detailed without being weighed down by those details. As adorable as Johnny Boo, Squiggle, and the Ice Cream Monster are, they're still slightly outclassed by Marzipan Gato and Yam's anthropomorphic television. Yam also is more sophisticated in terms of both story and storytelling, which doesn't necessarily make it better than Boo, but does make more enjoyable for a thirty-something dude like me. And the weirdness in Yam is even more inexplicable than Johnny Boo's, operating on some semblance of dream (and/or video game) logic. Yam could pretty easily be marketed as a comic for teenagers or adults without changing a thing.

HB: Or stoners! That's the thing. I'm stuck in this place where I don't know, often, if I should be getting it or if it's just weird and nonsensical. Not that the latter isn't fine. Yam tends to remind me of a lot of Japanese pop culture in that way. I guess I'd just like to have a little icon at the top of each strip that indicates: yes, this one makes sense if you think about it; or no, it's just an idea pursued to a conclusion, but it's not logical, and, in fact, if you try to think it through you'll just get annoyed. Of course, art doesn't do that, pretty much ever, so it's not a fair complaint at all. I agree that the storytelling is far more sophisticated and takes much more of your brain to understand, and its wordlessness is impressive--not as impressive as Owly, which is also cuter than both Yam and Johnny Boo, but that's some tough competition.

GM: Yam's frequent inscrutability is intentional, I'm sure. And I don't always need logic from my kids' lit, or always from my comics, as long as they look amazing and are illogical in novel or unique ways. Yam meets both requirements. Plus Yam starts a band with a family of flowers, which is kind of incredibly awesome.

HB: It is kind of awesome, and I don't always need logic either. Maybe it's that it's printed in black-and-white, while Johnny Boo has all these candy colors that make my eyes happy. I'm not opposed to black and white, but some of the panels seem squished up to me. Is it printed on less nice paper? That could be unconsciously biasing me too.

GM: Yeah, the presentation of Johnny Boo is of a higher quality. Kochalka's a bigger name, he deserves it. And the Yam strips in color look better than the black and white ones. Plus the reproduction of some of those Yam strips look blown-up, like the strips were drawn to a smaller scale than they appear in the book. The lines kind of break up a bit when that happens, things look spotty and washed out. There's a note in the beginning of Yam that one or two of the strips were originally published Aragones marginalia-style in NickToons magazine, so maybe that explains the ones that look worse. But yes, Johnny Boo is a more aesthetically pleasing book, but Yam has more thoroughly satisfying content.

HB: Says you! I think it depends on your maturity level. If you prefer yelling about ice cream to a more pure surrealism, you should probably pick up Johnny Boo instead, but both books are amusing and smart.

this ain't our only home

I've got a short review of the first trade paperback collection of The Umbrella Academy in this week's Weekly Dig. It's a pretty good comic, there, it is.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Season 2 #1

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, season 2, issue #1
by Terry Moore/Craig Rousseau
Marvel 2008

Hillary Brown: I was definitely a little nervous about anyone taking over this book, even someone with a great reputation like Terry Moore (whom I've read nothing else by, but is also taking over Runaways, so I guess I'm going to get familiar with him), but, at the same time, I was just so happy it was coming back at all that I would have been willing to accept some slightly sub-par work. Better something than nothing, right? Well, it's a step up from that. It's hard for me to say what a single issue reads like, as I went through the trades as fast as possible, wanting more every time I finished. Moore's pacing is a little slower than that, but it's one issue and it's a relaunch of sorts, an explanation of what's happened to everyone since the last issue. Is this necessary? Well, maybe, even though this is only supposed to be a five-issue miniseries. You could argue that taking up that time with exposition is wasted space, but I didn't find any of it clumsy or un-enjoyable. The difference in art is noticeable, too, but equally not bad. Do I just want more Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane that much? Is it sucky and slow and boring and I'm just turning a blind eye to its flaws?

Garrett Martin: No, it's not sucky or slow, or whatever. It's actually pretty good. Which is a relief, as I was more than nervous about this book proceeding without Sean McKeever. His Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was such a surprise, so sweet and clever and unlike anything else on the superhero stands, that continuing it with another writer seemed so unnecessary. Maybe even unfair. I'm not going to compare SM Loves MJ to Howard the Duck, but I figured non-McKeever issues of this book would fare like the post-Gerber issues of Howard, and be immediately dismissed and/or quickly forgotten. Moore's first issue isn't quite as slick as McKeever, as you mention, belaboring the character intros a bit, and dipping a bit too far into high school fiction cliche, what with the comically named, "why I never" vice-principal. But his humor isn't feeble, he nails MJ's voice, and he realizes that these characters aren't quite the stereotypes they could easily turn out to be. Honestly, that's more than I expected. And it's hard to fault the pacing; yeah, it's weird to blow one-fifth of the story on reintrodutions, but it's been so long since the (fairly low-selling) first season ended that reintrodutions are pretty much a necessity. Craig Rousseau's art is a step down from the heavily manga-influenced Takeshi Miyazawa, the book's original artist, but is more vibrant and fluid than David Hahn's inert work near the end of McKeever's run. It's not exciting, or especially notable, but perfectly acceptable. Miyazawa was just as important to the first series as McKeever, though, so it's unfortunate they still haven't found somebody who's work is as whimsical and distinctive as his.

Speaking of digests and single issues, do you see yourself following this on a monthly basis, or waiting on the eventual collection?

HB: Yeah, I mean, I love Miyazawa, and I merely like Rousseau. I think it's all the swirls and patterns that end up in Miyazawa's work, so it's not as manga as it could be but almost (maybe) a little art nouveau. Still, Rousseau's work is more than competent and often interesting. It might take me a minute to recognize some characters (Liz Allen), but I got everyone straight eventually, and it's certainly not distracting.

I still think I'll probably wait for digest, but I guess it depends on whether the book continues beyond those five issues. This and House of Mystery would be about as close as I've come to wanting to buy something on a weekly basis, and, if anything, it's not even so much based on wanting to follow the story from week to week as it is on just wanting to show my support. To keep the book publishing, perhaps.

So, have you read any other Terry Moore? He's clearly excellent at writing contemporary teenagers (compare the awkward shoehorning of twittering into that Fraction/Brubaker X-Men #500 to the seamless incorporation of texting here), but why? Is he a young 'un trapped in an old 'un's body? My guess is that the book will continue to be less zippy than McKeever's work, but McKeever's clearly so good that tons of male comic book nerds ended up reading, enthusiastically, a book about a teenage girl with a crush on Spider-Man.

GM: Never read anything by Terry Moore before. And frankly, Strangers In Paradise, his big creator-owned book, doesn't sound too good, what with the lipstick lesbian secret agent ex-prossies and what-not. But it ran forever and a lot of folks like it so maybe it's better than the plot description. He's got a rep as a dude who can write women, and he backs that up with this here first issue of SMLMJ. And yeah, he also seems capable of writing believable teenagers, so maybe his upcoming Runaways series will be okay, too.

It's weird about McKeever; Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was fantastic, and Gravity was pretty great, but nothing else I've read by him has impressed me. I can't single him out for Countdown's misery, but even the two or three issues of Teen Titans that I've read were a let-down. I don't know if he has much of a fanbase, as a creator; he was kind of a name on the rise when DC signed him to an exclusive, and none of the books he's written over there have sold particularly well. But it's not like there were "tons" of people buying SMLMJ, either; I think it was usually selling under 10K copies through the direct market. It's a shame he's at DC, not because I dislike that company or its characters, but because for whatever reason he seems far better at writing Spider-Man (or Spidey-type characters like Gravity) than anything else. I've got no idea why he's not the regular writer on Blue Beetle. Anyway, I should probably check Teen Titans out again, to see if he's gotten any better at it. I hope it's not a situation where Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was such a perfect combination of creator and book that each will always feel slightly underwhelming without the other.

HB: Yeah, but maybe only underwhelming according to the pizza rule: even if it's underwhelming, it's still pizza.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken

It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken
by Seth
Fantagraphics 1996

Garrett Martin: Okay, It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken seems like a deeply personal and open work, the sort of navel-gazing autobio stuff that dim-witted superhero fans use to stereotype any comic featuring realistically proportioned humans. It's a fairly unflinching look at the unhappiness of a guy named Seth, who is more or less the same Seth as the author, and who hates contemporary culture and screws up every relationship and just generally feels out of place in society. Old cartoons are about the only thing he's really passionate about, and the plot revolves around his search for a forgotten old artist from Canada who had a few comics published back in the mid-20th century. Honestly, if I just read that description without ever looking at the book, I'd probably assume it was a miserable piece of wankery, and be pretty damn reluctant to read it. But thankfully Seth is a fantastic artist, indeed, a fantastic cartoonist, overall, and through his art, design, story-telling, and (just as importantly) self-awareness avoids the (potentially fatal) self-indulgence that could've easily sunk this comic. And it doesn't even matter one way or the other than a big component of the story, the artist he obsesses over, is entirely fictional. At least it doesn't to me. How about you?

Hillary Brown: Well, I guess I didn't really think about how true the story was. That is, I assumed it was all true, and that the main character, named Seth, is actually Seth and that the cartoonist was real and so on and so forth. Sheesh. That's a dumb move for a student of literature to make. Maybe I'm just out of practice and my skeptic hat doesn't fit anymore. Anyway, I suppose it's irrelevant whether it's true or not--the point is the story. I think I might hate the main character version of Seth if I met him, but I didn't really mind reading about him, despite complete disagreement on the value of modernity. I mean, I love disposable pop music and Ikea and Segways and recent innovations like zippers. I think it's close-minded to the point of idiocy to be so in love with the past that you don't live in the present. And yet, he comes off as fairly sympathetic, probably because of that self-awareness you mention. I also couldn't help but think of a number of conversations Jared and I have had recently about memories and nostalgia, which, even to an unsentimental jackass like myself, are important. Seth's musings on why and how we hold onto the past and shape it in our minds are darn good.

The other factors that I think helped me enjoy the book are: 1. The art. I love two-color printing, and, while the tiny, tiny hands he draws are occasionally distracting, the general simplicity of the look is very peaceful to read. There's something about the quiet pacing and the snow that reminds me a little of Skyscrapers of the Midwest. 2. The idea of doing loads of research on an obscure artist. I love doing that. In fact, I get to do it for work sometimes, and it's great. I am a big research nerd and also kind of an obsessive. 3. Printing quality, a factor that is sadly slightly marred by the glaring typo (write-o?) on the front flap. Sigh. Still, that happens with hand lettering, and I guess I shouldn't complain too much about it, as I love hand lettering. 4. The family dynamic is really interesting and good, although not explored enough. I like his brother as a character quite a lot.

GM: I assumed it was all true, too, until I did a wikipedia search on Kalo. What is it about comics that makes us want to take them at face value? Even now I still imagine that most of the character details in It's A Good Life are true, that Seth and his family and Chester Brown are, in real life, more or less like how they're portrayed in the book. But even when a creator doesn't blatantly model the protagonist on his or herself, like with Too Cool To Be Forgotten, I tend to lose track of the fact that the book isn't necessarily autobiographical. Are we just conditioned to expect non-genre comics to be autobiographical because they so often are, or because, unlike movies, tv, and superhero comics, they're usually by a single person, with, y'know, a single artistic vision, and everything? Shit man, I don't know.

I'm far too often paralyzed by nostalgia, but the character Seth (and I assume the man hisself as well) take it a bit too far. Of course he realizes this, and in It's A Good Life laments how it hampers social interaction. That's one of the lessons Seth learns from Kalo's lifestory, right? That you can't just live in the past?

And oh, if you dig two-tone printing, you should check out Fantagraphics' Ignatz line. Totally lousy with the stuff. Lousy with greatness, too.

HB: I don't know if it's anything about comics other than the fact that cartoonists tend to name their characters after themselves. They're thinly disguised even when they're disguised. And they're often written in the first person as far as the narration goes, which doesn't really help the problem.

So, does he learn that lesson? I mean, it's sort of presented in the book, very subtly, through the fact that Kalo didn't just hold on to cartooning but, you know, got into real estate and got married and so on, but, if anything, you could argue that the ephemerality of his life, the extent to which all its details have pretty much drifted away, is even more of a reason to try to preserve the past. That is, doesn't that kind of nostalgia result, to some extent, from a feeling of fragility about the self, a worry that you'll be forgotten once you're gone? It's almost as though you preserve the past of others in the hope that someone will feel your past worth preserving too. I'm also not really sure the issue's resolved. Not that it needs to be tied up in a neat little package, but I found the ending slightly unsatisfying.

(Also, damn. That's Chester Brown? I didn't even think about it.)

GM: Nostalgia is definitely self-serving, and although the character Seth doesn't necessarily learn any lessons or come to a conclusion on the matter, I think that one of the book's points is that this obsession with the past is often fruitless. Seth doesn't really get any answers as to why Kalo quit cartooning, and if it was a decision Kalo was glad to make or had to. And Kalo's post-cartooning suburban life doesn't seem like something Seth would ever want to experience, so in the end his obsessive quest earned him nothing. Even if the character doesn't have that moment of realization, I feel like the book still says, "hey, this Kalo thing wasn't the best use of time or resources", right? I mean, it's not depressing like Paul Karasik finding out what Fletcher Hanks was really like at the end of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, but it's also not the ending character Seth was probably hoping for.

Maybe my own personal feelings on nostalgia are shading this too greatly, though. Like I said, I'm kind of paralyzed by it. My wife can't handle it. I spend most of my time thinking about shit that happened long ago. I got mad this morning because some kid reviewing a Love Boat dvd in the Weekly Dig apparently didn't know who Jim Backus or Adrienne Barbeau were. If I devoted even half the time I spend thinking about old shit to doing something productive my productivity would jump like 1000%. I hate nostalgia, even though I love it. And although I agree that we preserve the past of others in hopes that our past will be preserved, I think for Seth, and myself, and far too many people, nostalgia is still mostly about recalling the past because you're unhappy or uncomfortable with the present. Both are self-serving, but only one is self-pitying, and that's why nostalgia is so damn depressing.

HB: Yeah, but what is the best use of time/resources? I mean, you can't spend all your time thinking about that either, and at least Seth's quest for Kalo let him spend another night with his family, which they might appreciate. Plus, you know, human connection and all that. Maybe I don't necessarily think it's wasted because I do plenty of fruitless research myself, or maybe I'm just more the Chester Brown type: interested in the past and obscurity and all that, but less invested in it. A certain amount of nostalgia, too, is just respect for a well-produced object, which, as mentioned, is just what this book is. It's not letterpress, but the choice of paper, the quality of binding, etc. all add up to what we might call a productive nostalgia that results in the creation of a beautiful thing.

GM: Ah, I'm probably just full of shit on this one.

Anyway, true about this thing being beautiful. The real-life Seth has clearly used his nostalgia to make some pretty incredible comics. We can probably assume the Seth in IAGLIYDW will, too, but since that's not in the book I haven't considered it.

I'm probably being an idiot about this "character-Seth" / "real-life Seth" stuff, too, but I do feel the need to distinguish between the two.

And yes, nostalgia can be a great influence, but the danger is dwelling on the past without using it as inspiration for anything useful in the present. Which is kinda what I do, and I think kinda what Seth worries about in the book.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tom Strong: Book One

Tom Strong: Book One
by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse
America's Best Comics / Wildstorm / DC, 2001 (originally published 1999-2000)

Hillary Brown: Let me start off by saying that, while I'm intrigued by the project of Tom Strong (and the America's Best Comics line in general), I'm not sure how much I can tell from seven issues, or maybe that's not a particularly great sign with regard to the particular comic. After all, Top Ten didn't mystify me. It made me want to read more, immediately. Tom Strong just feels like either I need to know more about its background (although it's not unclear what it's drawing on, at least in a general sense) on, at least in a general sense) or I need to forgive its flaws as resulting from the genre. That is, if you're going to do a sort of retro jungle-man/scientist superhero thing that comes straight out of old book while correcting their problems (e.g., racism, random violence on the part of the good), you might end up with a lot of really brief, weird story arcs. And that all leads to a kind of disjointed feel. The origin story is really well done, but some of the other ones feel like they're missing set-up, like we've been dropped into the middle of a story that predates us. And, if I remember my early Spider-Man etc. well at all, there is almost always set-up. Maybe Moore just wants it to seem like the story existed before he got to it, and I suppose that's valid, but it doesn't quite work. That said, I'm definitely going through a phase where I'm very big on Mr. Moore. All four volumes of Top Ten were marvelous stuff, and it's possible that Tom Strong, with its relatively innocent storytelling style and comparative lack of jokes, just suffers in comparison.

Garrett Martin: I think you hit it when you said that "Moore just wants it to seem like the story existed before he got to it". Almost nobody reading comics today got in on any of the classic characters on the ground floor. Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, whoever, had years and years of backstory, but that didn't prevent countless kids from randomly jumping on over the years. When you're young you just accept that shit has already happened, and that it was probably awesome, and that it will be referenced and discussed but also explained enough within the current narrative to make sense. That explanation makes those older comics stilted and dull to newer readers, but it doesn't lead to the current problems with readers often failing to understand what's happening in any given 22-pager. Anyway, Tom Strong is another Moore pastiche, another revisitation of classic genre archetypes barely updated for a modern audience, and I think that sense of years and years of past adventures is a part of the tribute to the medium's past.

Tom Strong's not as singularly focused as other Moore pastiches, like the obvious early Marvel homage 1963. Moore cast a wide net with this one, combining elements from pulp novels, early science-fiction, adventure serials, and both Golden Age and Silver Age comics into one giant mess of no-signifyin' fun. I don't know if Moore is trying to really say anything about any of the afore-mentioned genres, angling more for pure enjoyment, for both reader and creator alike. Tom Strong is swift, breezy fun, to cleanse the palate between the meatier Top Ten and Promethea, which were both published concurrently with Strong. I maybe wouldn't hold it to the same artistic or intellectual standards as those two, or most of Moore's most famous work, but I enjoyed reading Tom Strong as much as anything Moore's ever done. That's also probably because Chris Sprouse's artwork is so damn pretty to look at.

HB: See, I think it's a little odd to describe Top Ten as "meatier," unless you mean that jokes are the meat. It's not that Top Ten doesn't have any weight to it, but... okay, maybe "meatier" is just right. I keep having this feeling that Tom Strong does have some meat. I'm just missing it. Maybe it's just Moore doing his own thing for himself, without thinking about audience too much, and sometimes that leads to great results and sometimes it doesn't.

I do very much like the way multiple artists are incorporated into each book, with the use of flashback, which also means you're getting two stories for the price of one. And I mostly like all the artists included, but none of them strikes the real chords of love in my heart. It's all above average, but perhaps the time when it was done (late 1990s, early 2000s) dates it a little? There's just something off to me, in writing, in look, in storyline, etc., although I do want to praise its continual gentleness, which I think is part of its mission. If Moore's setting out with any kind of project, it's a principled one, based on the need for superheroes to use brains as well as brawn, to rediscover a form of justice that results in as few people getting hurt as possible.

GM: Honestly, I haven't read Top Ten, but just from the concept I'd think it'd be a bit more complex than Tom Strong. And I think Moore's got the audience in mind, and that gentleness is there for the readers' benefit. Moore's retro pastiches are, in part, a counter to the pervasive bleakness of modern-day comics, a bleakness he might (justifiably or not) feel some responsibility for. Tom Strong is a relatively kid-friendly alternative to contemporary superhero comics and their fixation with rape and graphic violence. Yeah, you can recognize and respect the craft with which Moore combines archetypes and elements from various forms of junk culture (no disrespect!) to create something that's both fresh and classic, but at its heart Tom Strong is about escapism and doesn't feel the pressure to act all grown-up. It doesn't confuse vulgarity with maturity. It's fun!

Also, I forget; does Tom Strong use computer coloring and lettering? If so, that might explain the datedness. '90's computer coloring is really glaring nowadays, like when you rewatch Jurassic Park and realize how chintzy that once-impressive CGI t-rex now looks. I don't think Sprouse's pencils are dated at all, so I'm assuming it's got to be the coloring.

HB: Yes, I'm assuming it's computer coloring, which is totally jarring with the emphasis otherwise on retro style. I get that Moore didn't just want to do collage of the past, but, um, some of those fashions are not attractive.

Anyway, I guess we're both kind of saying "Yay, Tom Strong--just slightly less yay than some other things," right? I'm all for escapism and immaturity. I'm just not positive this book is the best example of it. That said, it certainly has plenty going for it. I just wish Strong himself were a slightly more compelling
character. He should be with his combination of intellect and brawn, his long history, and his deep desire to do right while thinking issues through, but he comes off a little bland, which may be the real flaw of the book.

GM: I wonder if that blandness is intentional, though. The Phantom, Superman, Captain Marvel - characters like that often are bland, right? They're too busy being perfect to be all that interesting. The color falls to the sidekicks and villains. They're like Pete Van Wieren, solid, dependable, charismatic in their own way, but not as fascinating as their friends.

Anyway, yes, Tom Strong isn't the greatest comic, but I did greatly enjoy it. It's sort of what the standard default comic book is like in my head.