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.

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