Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mysterius the Unfathomable #1

Mysterius the Unfathomable #1
by Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler
Wildstorm Comics 2009

Hillary Brown: There is something so refreshing to me about a new book, a book I can read without having to worry about years of context and history and controversy, and my bet is that a lot of comics newbies feel similarly. I'm pretty sure Mysterius the Unfathomable, a miniseries being written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Tom Fowler for Wildstorm, is one of these, although I haven't exactly done extensive research on the matter. I only have to flex my regular, context-free reading muscles to get what's going on. So it may be that sense of weight being lifted that made me enjoy the book so much. Maybe I'm rating it too highly. But it fills me with hope and cheeriness, despite its (minor) flaws so far. It does strike me that Fowler's art may lend a tone that's too comedic to the book, but it's pretty well compensated for by a darkness in the writing and in what's depicted. Plus: this is a pretty effective intro issue, with a little bit of origin story for the sidekick but plenty of plot and establishment of mystery to keep the reader interested. I've got no experience with either Parker or Fowler. Do you? And, if so, what kind of project is this for them?

Garrett Martin: Jeff Parker's one of my favorites. He writes comics that read like comics, and not like some hamfisted Mamet rip. He's kinda like Dan Slott in that his Marvel stuff is relatively classic in tone, like old '70's or '80's superhero comics slightly updated for a modern audience. Parker's even funnier than Slott, though, and very comforting for a guy like me, who came of age when Jim Shooter was in charge and who still loves Mark Gruenwald. Parker's written a lot for Marvel's all-ages line, including a fantastic run on Marvel Adventures: Avengers. He's also been writing the great X-Men First Class for the last few years, which semi-regularly sports some amazing backup strips drawn by Colleen Coover. You would totally love those, of course. His highest-profile in-continuity Marvel stuff is a great miniseries called Agents of Atlas that's relaunching as a monthly in February. He's also currently co-writing, with Paul Tobin, a miniseries called Age of Sentry that's basically "What If Stan Lee Wrote Silver Age Superman", but with some encroaching metafictional stuff that hopefully won't undermine the whole enterprise. Parker's also from North Carolina, and has an obvious Southern accent, and I think that makes me like him more.

Damn, that was long-winded.

So yes, I'm familiar with Parker, and I generally love his stuff. That's why I thought we should talk about Mysterius, the first non-superhero comic I've ever read by him. Despite the genre switch, this reads like pretty typical Parker, generally light, genuinely funny, and thoroughly amiable. That still shines through despite the creepy, otherworldly business the book dips into near the end. It's very likable, y'know? I've been interested in magic since I was a kid, though, even took lessons for a while at the Y, so maybe I'm a little too predisposed to enjoy this comic.

I don't know anything about Tom Fowler. I was going to say that his art looks kind of like an even more cartoony Mort Drucker, and I just now noticed on his wikipedia entry that, sure enough, he's been a Mad contributor. I think the art works fine with the story thus far. Mysterius isn't as finely focused on humor as a lot of Parker's comics, but it's still aiming for laughs, and Fowler's exaggerated characters help out with that. They also give the book a design sense as unique as the subject matter.

HB: Yeah. It definitely doesn't look like anything else out there, except for Mad, which I grew up on. It's an odd book to look at, with its pot-bellied, sway-backed, big-nosed people, but it's got charm in its commitment to distinctiveness. It's like a pleasurable kind of ugly to look at. I suppose you could see it as slightly distracting, in the way that Mad's pages frequently overflow with visuals, but there's not much action otherwise, so why not lend a little excitement to pages that would otherwise be dry exposition?

Another thing that's particularly nice about the book is its inclusiveness. Despite the fact that most comics readers are still white dudes, this one has a main character who's an African American woman, and yet it doesn't ever feel like tokenism or some kind of multicultural lesson. She just is, and she's a great addition.

Also: Where do you think this book is going? I feel happy about not having much of an idea in that area.

GM: I also liked how no big deal was made over that character's race. I didn't even realize she was supposed to be black until that was specifically stated. Of course I am a thoroughly enlightened and colorblind resident of a post-racial America. Also though the coloring looked slightly off (which makes me think: there's an on-going low-grade controversy over black characters frequently being colored white, especially Vixen and Mr. Miracle in some recent DC titles; that could make a good discussion point, if our goal with Shazhmmm was to bore the life out of everybody with pointless and uninformed conjecture.)

And no, I have no idea where Parker and Fowler are headed with this. I can barely even remember how this first issue ends. I need to quit reading comics on the train, and especially when I've been drinking. Honestly it'd be better to review a series like this after it's completed, but as I've said I really dig Parker's work and wanted to get out the good word about this book as soon as possible.

Oh yeah, have you seen Parker's blog post about why they went with Wildstorm for this series?

HB: I have indeed seen it, which must mean it's some kind of a big deal. On the other hand, I don't really pay tons of attention to who puts out what book, so I'm not sure that I knew Wildstorm has pretty much been exclusively superhero. I mean, really, is this some kind of controversy?

I don't think it's your drinking or public transportation use that's quite at fault here. The issue leaves a marvelous impression but not an indelible one. I read it carefully, in bed and stone-cold sober, and I can hardly tell you the plot details. So that must mean that it's not, despite appearances, a plot-/suspense-based comic. That stuff is there because it has to be, but as Parker's expressed all over the place, it's really more of a character piece, a chance for him to explore something new. Or am I being too generous? I don't think I am. I'd definitely keep picking it up, even if more for the ride than the destination.

GM: I don't think you're being too charitable at all. Parker's greatest strengths as a writer are his sense of humor and his character work. This isn't a knock against him, but I've read most of the stuff he's written the last few years and the only plot I remember clearly is that issue of Marvel Adventures Avengers where they all become MODOKs. Parker's comics feel leisurely and conversational even when the plot is comically convoluted. I almost want to compare him to Richard Linklater, or something. Take a look at Agents of Atlas; it's full of twists and hyperactive plot machinations, but it's highly regarded because of how enjoyably Parker took these forgotten characters from fifty years ago and made them interesting and charismatic. It's not the story he built around them but the way he wrote them and redefined them for today. So it's no surprise that Mysterius is a character piece, and a pretty damn enjoyable one at that.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hellblazer #250

Hellblazer #250
by Various Artists
Vertigo 2008

Garrett Martin: It's kinda mind-boggling how long Hellblazer's been around. It's older than every current DC series except the four major Batman and Superman books. That's completely nuts. It's outlived all the other pre-Vertigo Mature Readers books, including the book it basically spun out of, Swamp Thing. It also inspired a really horrible movie. I've probably got twenty issues or so in a box in my parent's attic, back from when I would read anything DC slapped a Mature Readers label on, but this is the first issue I've picked up since '93 or '94. It's pretty much exactly what I remembered it being, a wry British asshole drinking, smoking, and fucking around with archfiends, and shit. Is that consistency or stagnation?

Hillary Brown: I guess I didn't really think about what a big number 250 is, not being such a regular consumer of these things except in bound form, but when I consider it seriously, yeah, that's a ton of comics, and this is the first one I've ever read. I do like the idea of a Christmas anthology issue, probably because I'm kind of a sucker for seasonal themes, to the point where I've seen basically every Halloween episode of Home Improvement multiple times. I don't know if it's so much a heart-warming feeling associated with tradition as a curiosity to see what people will do with familiar tropes, but it's firmly there, and anthologies strike me as a good way to jump into a book, at least in theory. If you don't like something, just wait a few pages and it'll be over. From the opposing view, it may not be the best method for getting a real taste of a book's general feel, and indeed, I'm not sure how it generally reads. Kind of funny but a little Guy Ritchie? Perhaps we should discuss the stories individually before we really address whether the whole thing is worth your dime?

We've got Dave Gibbons/Sean Phillips on the first one, which seems to be more straightforward and probably rather like the usual tone: cranky, tipsy, pissed about having to save the day but committed to doing it anyway, and obviously with a strong grasp on the supernatural. Then: Jamie Delano/David Lloyd on a poker-playing heartwarmer; Brian Azzarello/Rafael Grampa on a truly weird poem about the Cubs and the exorcism of the curse that lies upon them (WTF?); Pete Milligan/Eddie Campbell on a story of political intrigue and the occult; and China Mieville/Giuseppe Camuncoli on a foreign tale about multinational evil corporations and religious vengeance. Does that about sum it up, plotwise? Unfortunately, because I think I kind of like the dude, Azzarello's writing is the weak link here to me. It's a creative idea, but the story is a total mess, and the poetry doggerel. I'd really prefer people not attempt the latter unless they have a rudimentary grasp of meter, and if you try to pay attention to the rhythms of the thing, you're sure to get twisted up and lost. The art is interesting but never serves to clarify, and, basically, if you're not already familiar with the curse of the billygoat, the whole thing'll whoosh right over your head. Points granted only for ambition, and they're more than compensated for by the negatives of the execution.

GM: Totally agree about the Cubs thing. Azzarello's poem is awful, and even though I'm a huge baseball fan the entire concept is just stupid. It'd be a waste of a few pages if Grampa's art wasn't so tremendous. I've never even heard of the guy, but I loved his super intricate scratches, the little clusters of lines that make up these ridiculous looking people and their squalid bar. His Constantine is pretty much unrecognizable, and probably Grampa's least interesting design, but overall I think his art is fantastic. This book is pretty beautiful overall (obviously, with both Phillips and Campbell on board), but Grampa kinda steals that show.

You're right about the Gibbons and Phillips story; it both looks and reads the most like my vague memories of 17-year-old Hellblazers. It's very Vertigo-y in tone, appearance, and execution, and perfectly suits what is basically Vertigo's flagship on-going title.

Quickly ploughing through the rest: Lloyd's washed out pencils felt surprisingly alien coming right after Phillips, an artist whose work I've seen much of over the last few years. Kinda looks like the cover of that first King Crimson record. Delano's story was a little too pat and inert for me, and his prose was just awkward at times. Maybe it was the British slang, I don't know. I'm glad he didn't go with the expected bummer of an ending, but there's still not much of note here.

I've liked Eddie Campbell's art since randomly buying an issue of Bacchus in 1993, but I've never really read much of his stuff. Never touched From Hell or any of the Alec stuff. They're both on the overly long list of comics I hope to one day read, but not quite near the top. Still, I dig his flat, scratchy characters, who look like they're from an "alternative" Steve Canyon, or something. I also love the hell out of Milligan, despite some recent missteps; this short was the primary reason I wanted to review this comic. This story's slight, true, but it's the only one that deals with Christmas on a personal or familial level. Even though I'm sick of Christmas fiction that focuses on dysfunction, I appreciate that this short has more of a personal touch than the others. Milligan's the regular series writer as of #251, which came out this week, and was pretty good; it looks like I'll be reading Hellblazer regularly again.

That final story is some rank cornballery salvaged somewhat by Camuncoli's art. He's the new regulart artist as of #251, and although he's not the best in this issue, he does have that classic Vertigo vibe that'll work well on Hellblazer. Y'know, that slightly European look that's simultaneously more realistic yet also more abstract than typical American superhero stuff. #251, from Milligan and Camuncoli, could've been published twenty years ago, it's so firmly, classically Hellblazerish.

So yeah, like most anthologies, this is pretty hit-or-miss.

HB: But maybe a little more on the hit side than some others we've looked at. I think you're right that the art is generally of a higher caliber than most anthologies, even if it's a little dark and scratchy for my taste, and I pretty much agree with your assessment of the stories, too. The only place I'd differ is on the Milligan one, which had a lot of potential but I'm not sure lived up to it all that well. It's rare that I complain anything is too short, but I felt like this story could really have used a few more pages, which is a good sign for the future of the book, if he's going to be writing it and having those pages regularly, but a problem with the story itself. It ends up a bit choppy and with a climax that's telegraphed as huge but doesn't earn any real impact, as it hasn't really been led up to very well. Is it a twist? Or is it just an "oh, fuck. I've used up my page count. Here's an ending!!" thing?

Um, are priests supposed to condone vengeance, even if it's sort of committed by angels?

GM: That's one of the many problems with that last story, the first being the assumption that all corporations are bad whereas all impoverished slum-dwelling orphans are good.

And true, Milligan's story wraps up a bit too suddenly. He's maybe phoning it in a bit, but really no more so than most of the other writers here. Half-assed or hurried Milligan can still be pretty good, though, even if his recent superhero stuff has been less than mediocre. More space would've helped, no doubt. Have we done a Milligan comic here yet? Ever read anything by him? Shade the Changing Man was my favorite comic for a while when I was in high school.

HB: No, we haven't done any Milligan, I don't think, and I'm pretty sure this is the first thing I've read by him, despite his impressive resume. I definitely don't mean to denigrate his story much, either. It's among the better things in the book, and its Brittiness is welcome. I see, after poking around a little bit online to get who wrote/drew what straight, that a lot of people had hoped Warren Ellis would contribute a story, and I do think he'd be very well suited to doing so--or is that a cliche?

GM: I'm surprised they didn't run with the reunion idea, getting Ellis, Ennis, Paul Jenkins and whoever else to return along with Delano, the book's original writer. It's actually kind of unbelievable that Milligan had never written a Constantine story before, considering how long both have been kicking around DC.

HB: Is it generally his style? I mean, I can see Ellis and Ennis easily, but I don't know much about Milligan.

GM: Milligan's comics are usually character-driven and psychologically rich, but also pretty damn weird, so he shouldn't have any problems with a book like Hellblazer. You should track down #251, if you're interested.

HB: My interest is definitely piqued enough. So, Hellblazer #250: thumbs mildly up?

GM: More up than down, sure.

Friday, January 16, 2009

worth reading

We're reading stuff, comics stuff even, and will have a post or two (or less) for you next week. In the meantime go check out Wednesdays Child, Paul DeBenedetto's very fine comics blog. His piece on Bill Willingham's controversial Big Hollywood column makes some of the same points I would if Hillary and I ever finally discussed that (which we've considered). Good stuff.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Amazing Spider-man Family #3

Amazing Spider-man Family #3
by a bunch of people, including J.M Dematteis, Tom DeFalco, Stuart Moore, Abby Denson, and Val Semeiks
Marvel 2008

Garrett Martin: Seems like Marvel's always publishing one of these all-purpose Spidey compendium books, full of random Spider-man shorts with no clear ties to any continuity. Every few years they'll cancel one and then immediately launch another. It's a fine concept, in theory, letting various creators dabble with such an undeniably great character whose own main titles usually aren't worth reading. Somehow though they seem to rarely ever be any good. We picked this issue because of the short from Abby Denson and Colleen Coover (who, y'know, we kinda like), with hopes that old pros like DeMatteis and DeFalco could still dig deep and pull out a worthwhile Spidey tale when they had to. Maybe they can, but they definitely didn't do so here. So do the eight pages of Coover make up for the other 92 or so?

Hillary Brown: Um, no. Unfortunately. The thing is, it might be okay if the other contributors had risen to the level of mediocrity, but I'm pretty sure they failed even by that extremely low standard. This book is a steaming pile of bad, bad art, with a brief respite due to Coover. The writing isn't terrible, but my god. The art hurts my eyes. It made me wince, numerous times, while reading. Am I overstating things? I don't think I am. I try not to be hyperbolic about suckiness, mostly because it's not necessary, but I can't help feeling a little pissed off about Marvel putting this thing out.

Check out page 5 in the preview on Marvel's site, for example, from a serviceable story by J.M. DeMatteis called "The Punch." The art wavers between acceptable but not great and pages like this, mostly from the "villain's" story. I mean, check out his mom in the upper left. She looks like the Cryptkeeper. And while she's supposed to be an unattractive character, with her outside mirroring her morally problematic interior, I really think this is over the top. I even googled "Val Semeiks sucks" with no luck. Basically what I'm saying is that I might actively avoid any book drawn by that guy.

The story about Peter and MJ encountering the Rhino at the hospital, where they've taken their baby and he's taken his mom [?], and they have a conversation about healthcare and agree to disagree temporarily is fine but far too uneventful, especially for a book like this. And the reprint, which covers the breakdown of Harry Osborn, paints all comics from the early 1990s in a bad light, with a creepily overboobed MJ, staggering hair, awful costume design, and so on and so forth. Holy god. The only reason to buy this issue is for the Coover/Denson piece, which is cute but hardly a) their best work or b) really worth the money. It seems like it would fit a lot better in a more kid-oriented (or younger-kid-oriented?) book, like the Franklin Richards stuff. Okay. I'm going to stop venting for a little bit because it makes me feel too particular and like I've spent the morning listening to talk radio or something. Convince me to like more of it.

GM: I can't! I will say that Val Semeiks has done good stuff in the past, and his work on The Demon with Alan Grant back in the early '90's was pretty great. His demons always looked better than his people, though, so maybe he should avoid scripts with humans in 'em. His stuff here is pretty damn ugly, and DeMatteis's story a little too pat. The young thug feels like a generic background punk from a later Death Wish, whichever one Alex Winter was in, and his relationship with his mom is histrionic in a way that probably wouldn't pass editorial muster in a contemporary book.

Similarly, I've liked what I've seen by Todd Nauck in the past. His art is generally fun and slightly cartoonish and sort of reminds me of Mike Wieringo a bit. It's well-suited to the sort of acrobatic action you expect from a Spider-Man story, so it makes perfect sense to get him to draw a story whose only action is Peter Parker and the Rhino walking to a vending machine. It doesn't play to his strengths at all. DeFalco's story is expectedly cheesy, but I have a soft spot not just for him but also for the Rhino and stories in which Spider-Man shows concern for his enemies. Still, it's no more than mediocre, and maybe only exists as a bone tossed to those who've lost faith in love since the dissolution of the Spider-marriage.

And then, yes, finally, we get to The Amazing Spider-Ma'am, Denson and Coover's cute short story about Aunt May using Peter's work tools to foil some crooks. If only real-life home invaders were Home Alone-level bunglers. I agree this is more straight-forwardly directed at kids than some of Coover's other all-ages Marvel work. Unlike her Marvel work with Paul Tobin or Jeff Parker, it isn't quirky or humorous enough to work equally well for kids and adults. It's still adorable, though, and if they put out an entire book of just Denson/Coover Spider-Ma'am stories I'd probably pay full-price for it.

HB: God, I totally would. Reading/looking at Coover's stuff is like eating a delicious orange push-up popsicle. It's cute and refreshing and easy and just, like, completely fun and great. Will somebody just give her a book of her own already? At very least, you'd like Semeiks et al. could take up a collection so she'd stop making them all look bad in these compilations. I don't know how she draws people who are so cartoony yet so believable in their poses. They're flexible and slouchy in all the right ways, and the coloring is nice and flat and simple. So for me to say this book isn't worth buying just for her contribution really says a lot about how displeasurable the rest of it is.

But talk to me about the last story, the reprint. Is it as bad as I think it is? You had mentioned to me about having an original copy stashed somewhere. And is this why Grant Morrison and Alan Moore were greeted as such complete saviors? I'm assuming yes.

GM: About Morrison and Moore: yeah, pretty much. There were some prominent mainstream superhero writers of the '80's whose work still holds up well, of course, but even then most of it is clearly dated stylistically, far more so than DC's pre-Vertigo stuff.

But I don't think the reprint (Spectacular Spider-Man #200, the death of Harry Osborn, by DeMatteis and Sal Buscema) is that awful. Sure, it's kind of embarrassing, in a number of ways, but it's not nearly as guilty of any of the charges you hold against it as a typical Image comic from the same time period. And I can't hold the horrible fashion too much against Sal Buscema, 'cuz the guy was like sixty at the time.

Okay, actually, yeah, it's pretty bad, full of what made comics suck in the '90's. But the story itself is a fitting endgame for Harry Osborn, and a fine escape route from the almost incomprehensible mess his character had become. Plus it was a genuinely affecting death when I was 15, and one that surprisingly held up for another 15 years. Still, it's probably best not to revisit most comics from that era.

HB: I can see your points about the function of the story, and there are aspects that have been incorporated into, for example, the most recent Spider-man movie, but there's a lot of stuff in it that really pushes some gross buttons, like the way the Green Goblin picks up MJ off the street. It's all very... rapey. And while I think there are writers/artists who could incorporate the kind of violence against women that's implied in a creative and thoughtful way, it's hard for me to see the sexual menace against MJ in this book as all that intentional. Plus, her relationship with Peter isn't that much healthier, full of overheated fights and then making up for no reason and making out to follow that up. I've looked back at Sal Buscema's earlier work, and it all looks pretty good, so why this ickiness, with the monster boobs going in all directions. It's like he had a stroke in the mimetic part of his brain.

GM: He was trying hard to draw like what was popular at the time. Trust me, comic book breasts got far more monstrous in the '90's.

Anyway, yes, kind of a bad comic, overall, despite some tasty refreshment from Coover. You really need to check out her X-Men First Class stuff with Jeff Parker - it's all great.

HB: We better watch it or this could just turn into a Colleen Coover fan site. Maybe it already is. At any rate, we'd be remiss not to link her blog, which has been frequently updated lately and contains this great depiction of her first experience at Fantagraphics, an experience that I feel like I have almost every time I've gone in search of one of her comics. Colleen! We love you!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

go read this thing

Okay, maybe we're not the biggest proponents of webcomics, but we're not totally ignorant of them. Our friends Chris and Gardner have just started up a fun webcomic called Registered Weapon, and we thoroughly recommend it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Groo: Hell on Earth

Groo: Hell on Earth
written by Mark Evanier/drawn by Sergio Aragones
Dark Horse 2009

Garrett Martin: It's been so long since I've read a Groo comic (easily twenty years) that I have no idea how Hell on Earth compares. It definitely has a lot of what I expected: deceptively detailed cartooning, goofy running gags, a blatant moral, and the world's ugliest cartoon dog. Aragones's art is kind of amazing in that it's so immediately familiar and the action so clearly defined that you can unwittingly glide through it very quickly, despite being thoroughly packed with tiny details and background sight gags that take genuine concentration to fully discover. The humor's mostly groan-worthy, but intentionally, and it's all very amiable. I don't remember old Groo being quite this moralistic, though. Have you read Groo before? Do you recall if it was usually this forthright in its message?

Hillary Brown: I haven't ever read any of Aragones's Groo stuff, so I can't weigh in on that, unfortunately, although it does seem that this particular topic (global warming) attracted more attention and controversy than any previous Groo story. Maybe it was just well timed, what with An Inconvenient Truth and Katrina and so on kind of waking people up and simultaneously bringing the real crazies out of the woodwork. I have pretty much always been an Aragones fan, though, as far back as I can remember, not only obsessively poring over his tiny marginalia in MAD, but also keeping an eye out for compilations of his work. He's definitely one of the treasures of comics and is rightfully recognized as such, despite his silliness. I definitely had to strike a balance with this book between trying to see every detail in every panel and wanting to keep going with the story, and it's by far the longest narrative work I've read that he's had a part in, so I was impressed to see that it holds up over pages and pages. Not that he's the writer, but still. As far as whether it's too moralistic, that's a hard question, especially when one agrees with the moral being preached (I certainly do), and I think it's very well put, in terms rather like Pascal's wager: that is, what does it hurt? What, really, do we have to lose relative to what we have to gain from not polluting everything around us? It was definitely a surprise that the book contained anything of the sort, as it certainly looks like pure comedy from the cover (and, obviously, it does contain a running explosive cow fart joke), but I'm not sure that it bothered me. It reminded me, if anything, of Larry Gonick's educational work, which manages both to be funny and to communicate something of importance at the same time.

GM: The environmental message didn't bother me at all; I was just surprised at how thoroughly the book focused on it. And yeah, I too agree with the moral. I was gonna say that I don't remember Groo being political like this, but then I remembered how ridiculous it is that this has become such a politically charged issue. It's sad, but some of the angry letters Evanier refers to in his afterword resemble comments I heard from family members over Christmas. It's ironic that the Sage's big lightbulb about solving the issue involved taking the message to children, since I doubt too many kids these days would ever be in a position where they could read this comic.

HB: Well, yes, and while the children are our future, I'm not sure the argument that they're who you should be arguing to holds up logically. I mean, the best time to start planning for your retirement (i.e., future) is basically right after birth, but you don't see too many six-year-olds starting Roth IRAs with their lemonade stand money, right? I agree that it's depressing the way science has become politicized, but I don't know if we'll be moving away from that state of affairs any time soon. So what else is there to say about this book? I liked it a lot, but I didn't, like, love it, and that might be because it's a little juvenile and a little simplistic, but I also assume it's kind of for kids.

GM: I agree about the logic, or lack thereof, of the Sage's plan. If conditions are already as dire as presented in Hell on Earth, do they really have time for those kids to grow up before the problems need to be seriously addressed? But I can forgive Aragones and Evanier for ignoring the internal logic of their own comic. After all, it's Groo, where logic has never been a priority. And yes, it's always been fairly simplistic and juvenile. Like I said, my memories are foggy, but I'd occasionally buy issues of Groo for years when I was younger. I was excited to read Hell on Earth, and definitely enjoyed it, but it's not quite as funny or charming as I expected. The art, as we've mentioned, is amazing, and there are some great gags in here, but it's a lot like picking up a current issue of Archie or Mad; I love it for the nostalgia, and for the consistency of vision, but I don't love it on its own terms. I would recommend it to fans of Groo, and if my nieces or nephews were 11 or 12 instead of 6 and younger I'd give my copy to one of them, but I don't think a typical adult who doesn't have a preexisting love for Aragones or Groo would think much of it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

a brief review elsewhere

I wrote 150 words on the third volume of Fantagraphics' Popeye collection for the Weekly Dig, and here they are.

We'll have a true post up soon, I think.

UPDATE: Damn. My editor added that line about Altman's film. That thing is a hell of a lot better than its reputation, and surprisingly faithful to Segar.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Best of 08: Garrett

I left off archival works and compilations, so no Herbie Archives or Great Outdoor Fight. If I included those I'd have to include all of DC's Jack Kirby Omnibi, or Popeye Vol. 3, or the latest Peanuts books, and then my top ten of 2008 list would contain nothing originally published in 2008. I fudge that a bit with the top two, since both appeared elsewhere before being collected, but I feel both were underpublicized enough before collection and both stand strong enough as unified wholes to justify ignoring that self-imposed rule. Or something. Anyway!

1. Skyscrapers of the Midwest, by Josh Cotter

Probably not a surprise. We both raved over this one back in July, and everything we said then still stands. Beautiful, moving, ambitious yet relatively restrained, etc. You should probably read this book, if you like things that are great.

2. Ganges #2, by Kevin Huizenga

My first experience with both Huizenga and the Ignatz line. I love the size and two-tone printing, which pretty much perfectly complement Huizenga's early 20th century newspaper strip style. Ganges is thoughtful and reflective without becoming boring or pretentious. "Pulverize", about a group of coworkers addictively playing a multiplayer first-person-shooter during the dwindling days of the first internet boom, elegantly examines the delicate interplay between professional and personal relationships, and how tenuous the latter can be. I've seen this book, and "Pulverize" specifically, on a number of best-of lists, and for good reason.

3. Little Nothings, by Lewis Trondheim

We talked about this, too. It's still awesome.

4. All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Not just a perfect distillation of seven decades of Superman, more than just a tender and heartfelt appreciation of the most important superhero ever, All-Star Superman is the rare book that strikes to the very heart of why most of us started reading comics in the first place without devolving into schmaltz or shameless nostalgia. The hope and optimism of All-Star Superman is the perfect antidote to the cynicism and self-satisfied "edginess" that's all too common in modern genre comics.

5. Criminal, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Brubaker and Phillips have the talent to take genre elements that are completely clich├ęd and easily mishandled and somehow turn them into art as good as their influences. The three oversized issues that make up the third trade, The Dead and the Dying, feature their best and most heartbreaking storytelling, and the four-issue arc that ended the year had a great noir twist ending. And the great essays and reviews in the back make this one comic you should definitely buy every month.

6. Casanova, by Matt Fraction and Fabio Moon

The second "album" of Fraction's mind-bending spy-fi farce ended on an emotional high without crapping out on its typical culture-mad sprightliness. Moon's beautiful art is just as fluid and detailed as his twin brother Gabriel Ba's, without really resembling it much at all. And Fraction's back-matter essays are also pretty great, even if he pulls the curtain back a little too far on his creative process. It feels like a Warren Ellis comic written by somebody who isn't a miserable grouse.

7. Tales Designed to Thrizzle, by Michael Kupperman

I always assume Kupperman can't keep it up, that each new issue of Thrizzle will be the one where I can finally see the effort behind Kupperman's hilarious absurdity and thus lose interest. #4 is just as amazing as the first three issues, though.

8. Final Crisis, by Grant Morrison, JG Jones, and Carlos Pacheco

The most elliptical major crossover ever might confound readers who think The Death of Captain Marvel is great literature, but I'm fascinated, both by how consistently Morrison lets major events unfold off-page, and by how slowly and steadily the apocalyptic dread escalates as Darkseid crushes all hope and individuality. I've heard good things about Simonson's Orion series, but Final Crisis is the best use of the Fourth World mythology since Kirby.

9. Incredible Hercules, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, and various artists

The hilarious and action-packed Incredible Hercules is the best straight-forward superhero comic of 2008. Second- or third-tier books like Hercules benefit from low expectations, sure, but also from the freedom creators have to make a genuine impact upon the character and establish new status quos. You can't get too crazy with the Batman, but with decades-old, yet relatively untapped, properties like Hercules, an enterprising writer (or two) can stretch out and tell some unexpectedly great stories. We saw it last year with Iron Fist and Nova, and maybe right now with Ghost Rider. But so, unifying modern-day Herc with his mythological past expanded the emotional range of a previously one-and-a-half-note dude, and the oddly poignant relationship between him and his teenage sidekick Amadeus Cho is one of the most believable depictions of male camaraderie you'll find from either Marvel or DC.

10. Umbrella Academy, by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba

Whoa, another one we talked about. Imagine that. Like Hercules, Umbrella Academy is just an awesomely fun superhero comic, but with fantastic artwork from Gabriel Ba and a broken family / frustrated potential angle that always makes me think of both The Royal Tenenbaums and Asia's "Heat of the Moment." Good stuff.

Best of 08: Hillary

1. Skyscrapers of the Midwest, by Josh Cotter
I think it holds up like crazy. Months after reading this, I still can't get it out of my head, which probably means it's really, really good.

2. Little Nothings 1: The Curse of the Umbrella, by Lewis Trondheim
It seems so unfair to demote this to second place because Josh Cotter is more dramatic and Trondheim is more fun-loving, and it's not the kind of thing I often do. Basically, you could consider this list as having two #1s. Trondheim translates amazingly well. Volume 2 should be out soon. Hooray!

3. Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight, by Chris Onstad
Yes, previously published, but nicely packaged and collected, and I suppose it's somewhat accessible if you don't read the strip. It's not flawless, but it is unlike anything else around.

4. The Umbrella Academy, vol. 1, Apocalypse Suite, by Gerard Way
Because I have to get something superheroey in somewhere here, right? I can't think of any really great collections or GNs of superhero work that came out this year. I mean, I liked Aztek: The Ultimate Man, but I didn't love it, so this is about the closest thing. A nice surprise and a welcome new voice.

5. Criminal, vol. 3, The Dead and the Dying, by Ed Brubaker
I'd actually almost forgotten about this, and that would have been a shame, as it's got a beautifully crafted narrative and showed me why Brubaker is important (really compelling plots and characters despite [or because of?] a straightforward approach).

6. Speak of the Devil, by Gilbert Hernandez
Perhaps too high on my list right now, due to its freshness in my mind, but I think it's kind of an amazing little book, with a short, contained story that still manages to have a lot of impact.

7. Chiggers, by Hope Larson
Larson continues to grow, and her work is deceptively simple. If you look at it closely, she has a better grasp of female-to-female relationships than anyone I can think of except maybe the Hernandezes, and she's young yet. It's a quiet book but a beautifully crafted one.

8. The Education of Hopey Glass, by Jaime Hernandez
I know. Two Hernandezes on one list. But I can't resist this stuff.

9. Herbie Archives, vol. 1
It's pretty good only to include one vintage repackaging of comics here, but this was my favorite of any of them, mostly due to its sheer originality and weirdness. It gets a bit repetitive, but it's still great stuff.

10. Stinky, by Eleanor Davis
Last but not least, a contribution by a local (to me) and a very talented lady. It's a kid's book, yes, but it's the kind that has a lot of care put into every page, and while the story isn't the most original thing ever, the way it's done is really wonderful.