Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009: The Year in Review

Hillary Brown: Now that I look back on our posts from the past year, we missed a heck of a lot of stuff, and we really should have posted more often than we did. But we both have demanding jobs! What do you want from us, anyway? It's not like there are that many of you out there. You'll take what we have to give and like it. Preemptive hostility dispensed with. I was trying to make a list of my favorite comics of the year, and it turns out that it's really, really short, which suggests to me either that I'm missing some stuff (likely) or that I read fewer comics this year (equally so). That said, there are five I consider tops, and I wouldn't mind doing a quick rundown, in reverse order. My #5 is House of Mystery: Room and Boredoom, although I'm not positive it came out in 2009. Let's pretend it did. I'm a bit behind on the series, but it's been compelling enough to make me keep checking in, especially the art. It's all dark and sexy and weird and violent without getting too Dragoncon or, uh, too Neil Gaiman, from my minor knowledge of his work. And my #4 is Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, which I really should pick up again to refresh my memory on but I know I enjoyed tremendously and got all geekily hyped about the movie and so on and so forth. It was a darn good entry in the series. Chuck out a couple yourself, yo.

Garrett Martin: Damn, lemme think. Five? That shouldn't feel like as many as it does. Also I still haven't read Asterios Polyp, which might invalidate this list before I even start. My comic reading took a serious hit this year, y'see. I think you liked the new Scott Pilgrim more than I did, but it still sticks out in my head enough a year later to deserve some kinda slot, so #5 it is. It got kind of dark by the end, right? He and his friends all fractious and what-not? #4 might as well go to Greg Rucka and JH Williams III's Batwoman run on Detective Comics, which is as amazingly designed as you'd expect from Williams, and features one of Rucka's better superhero stories. Without Williams though this wouldn't make the cut. Okay, what's next?

HB: Okay. Note to self: check out Batwoman. It sounds interesting. I haven't read Asterios Polyp either, and it seems to be this year's Bottomless Bellybutton on lists around the interwebs, so that's a point in favor of "we suck." My next two are George Sprott (#3) and Tales Designed to Thrizzle (#2), which could easily swap places with one another, despite their completely different tone. It's like the year's saddest, most depressing comic and the year's funniest, lightest one, but they're both great and they're both extremely well designed. I bitched some about Seth when we talked about Sprott, but I think it holds up, and it's stayed with me pretty strongly, to the extent that I have a vivid memory of the actual reading experience (hanging out in the waiting room of a Tires Plus store, getting new tires for the car). Michael Kupperman's probably going to make this list any year he has a book come out.

GM: I wasn't even considering Thrizzle. Dammit. You're off the list, Pilgrim! Bump Batwoman down to #5 and, well, shit, just to make it easy put Thrizzle at #4, all you obsessed stat-collecting spreadsheet-keeping Shazhmmmm fans. Speaking of funny and light, here's Incredible Hercules at #3, which okay objectively is not better than Kupperman, but when has free online comic criticim ever been objective? Herc is better than all other superhero comics that came out in 2009, and frankly is about the only thing that gets me into the shop these days. It's not just hilarious, but a smart integration of myth, archetypal heroic storytelling, and awesomely retarded superhero bullshit. All the epic godly grandeur, improbable science, and fantastic sound effects are grounded by one of the more believable relationships in comics, the friendship of Hercules and Amadeus Cho. The book's heavy when it needs to be without ever being heavy-handed. It's everything great about superhero comics without any of the pandering "mature" crap that makes superhero comics more embarrassing than ever. It's already a classic, and would be even moreso if the art was more consistent, like Darwyn Cooke's work in Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter (my #2, if you couldn't guess). It's hard to find fault with The Hunter; one of the best illustrators and storytellers in the biz working from a true classic of crime fiction. The monochrome coloring give Cooke's inherently mid-century style a noir-ish edge that works perfectly with the subject matter. Cooke makes a couple of potentially questionable changes to the story, but nothing that greatly damages the overall picture. It's an almost flawlessly executed piece of work, but it doesn't top my list because its appeal doesn't go beyond the craft on display. It doesn't have the emotional heft or impact of the last book on my list. Speaking of which - what's your number one? Red Hulk? Badass Avengers: Secret Crisis: The Dark Siege: Cry for Justice?

HB: Well, my guess is that yours is George Sprott. You should be able to guess mine!

GM: You are wise. Are you counting BodyWorld? Isn't that like some weird 2007/2010 release?

HB: Shut it! It still counts. Yeah. That's my number one with ease, and I wouldn't be surprised if anything else Dash Shaw puts out snags that spot year after year. I've only watched the first episode of his IFC web series "The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century," but he also has a great webcomic that goes along with it and an interesting five-pager on Vice's website. There's no question his work has flaws, but it also breathes with life and fire the way little else does. It's always fun as hell to read, and while a lot of its logic breaks down if you start trying to take it apart, you should really just go with it because it's interested in surprising, challenging, and entertaining you. Enthusiasm! I bet our readers could have guessed these picks too.

GM: Okay, these rules are busted. Nah, Sprott's from 2007 too, when it ran in the Times, or wherever, and it is indeed my favorite. Although at least the collection did come out in 2009. We covered it thoroughly elsewhere, and all that embarrassing weepy nonsense I oozed out still holds true. We are predictable and inflexible to the ravages of time, I guess.

HB: Eh, time is flexible. It's not like this list is going to stand forever on the Internet as a testament to our ignorance in 2009. Oh wait... damn it.

See y'all next year!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Like a Dog

Like a Dog
by Zak Sally
Fantagraphics 2009

Garrett Martin: I hope this isn't a good place to start with Zak Sally. I've heard great things about his comics for years, but Like a Dog is the first I've read. It collects various stories and pieces that first appeared elsewhere over the last decade, starting with Sally's self-published late '90's series Recidivist. He's a fine artist, but the stories he tells are rarely all that interesting. The Recidivist material is probably the worst in the book, overly wordy and self-conscious short stories that alternate between aimlessness and unsuccessful stabs at moral or psychological insight. There's a story where a character dreams about a greatly powerful movie about sin, hell, and the devil; it's drawn really well, with great hell-ish imagery and fluid transitions between both panels and perspectives, but even within the framework of a dream the importance of the movie feels completely unbelievable and overwrought. And then it ends on a facile, predictable point. Like a Dog isn't commonly that annoying, but it's also not much better. What do you think?

Hillary Brown: I think the eight pages or so of commentary in the back by Sally serve as an excellent judo move to deflect any criticism one might level at the book. Unfortunately. He knows this stuff is self-indulgent and that his artistic troubles aren't necessarily interesting to anyone else and so on and so forth, and he tells you so at length. Reading all that really made me sympathize with him and like him, and in some ways it's better to have it at the end of the book, so you're left with a warm feeling rather than a wad of annoyance in your stomach, but not everyone's going to make it to the end or through all the text that resides there. And besides, if I wanted to be harsh, I'd point out that just because you know the work's flaws and acknowledge them and acknowledge that you know acknowledging them doesn't solve them or make up for them, well... it's true. The stories are still frequently boring and overly zine-y (new word!), relying too much on art and not enough on narrative while also, often, having far too much text. And we still wonder a little bit why any of it was worth publishing, not to mention having an inkling that it has more to do with his musical career than with his skills as a comics dude. Ouch. Um, that said, the art is mostly nice, and if I didn't sort of look back on my early-to-mid-90s zine reading and artistic interests at the time (dark stuff!) as embarrassing and better forgotten, the book would fill me with a better sort of nostalgia. I totally respect Sally's willingness to put himself out there, and I think anyone who's ever had artistic ambitions can certainly identify with his story at the end, but how much did I like this book? Not a whole lot.

GM: I'm pissed I didn't think of that zine comparison. That's exactly what the worst work in here feels like. It apologizes for itself while assuming its mere existence merits attention. If Sally isn't 100% behind the material, why would anyone else be? That sounds harsh, especially considering all the half-formed crap the France has pumped out on our site, but then that's not wrapped up in a twenty-dollar hardcover. And it's not like there's nothing worth reading in here. There's a "I can't believe how naive I was" vibe to "The Man Who Killed Wally Wood" that anyone can relate to, bolstered by a few clever stylistic nods Wood's work with EC. The Dostoevsky short is a fine little biographical sketch with a message that obviously reflects Sally's punk-influenced outlook on life. And yeah, everything's well-drawn. But even Sally's better comics don't connect with me. It's like the more personal they get the less I'm able to relate. That doesn't happen with other creators, but it does here. Why is that?

HB: Maybe neither of us has all that much in common with Sally. Or maybe we've just decided not to romanticize our own days in depressing poverty. You're right to point out "The Man Who Killed Wally Wood" as probably the highlight of the book. It has a strong narrative, it's well drawn without being too showy, and it keeps things nice and brief. I also like the Dostoevsky thing, but man... it's kind of long. Some people might say Feodor himself is the same way, but it ain't so. And speaking of Dostoevsky, here's another thing I want to bring up, that Sally doesn't really get into very much even in all the revelation at the end: does this book feel, like, weirdly Christian to you? Not only is there the Dostoevsky story, which is nothing if not an intervention of God and the kind of thing that converts people as an individual experience, but the Hell film thing you mentioned earlier, and I think there are more, too. I'm sure there are good comics that are also Christian, but this feels like a subliminal message or something that at least should have been talked about, no?

GM: There's nothing weird or off-putting about the occasional moral undertone or two. I don't see either strip putting forth much of a religious message, either openly or subliminally. I don't have a problem with religious works, though, as long as the message isn't out of a Chick tract. I'm sure Sally grew up in an environment shaped somewhat by Judeo-Christian morality, as it's pretty damn hard to grow up in America without that background, so it's no surprise that that could appear in his work. But nothing about Like a Dog feels even remotely like a sermon. This really bothers you?

HB: Eh, it kept nagging at the back of my mind, especially during the hell thing, which is admittedly influenced by Chick's stuff. I mean, I could totally be being oversensitive here, but I really kept wondering where that story in particular was going. Was it going to tell me I was going to hell? It could have been. It turns that, no, it mostly wasn't, but there's just an undertone of religiosity here that skeeved me out a little, the more so as it's unacknowledged. We haven't really talked about Chester Brown on here, but it's a similar thing going on in a lot of his work--I just find him more interesting. I'll be especially curious to see if any of our readers pick up on this tone in Sally's stuff though, or if my brain is totally off. That said, will/should most of them buy it? Eh...

GM: If you're a Sally completist, yeah, pick it up. Otherwise tread lightly.

My problem with that story was less the possible religious connotations (although if I recall it ends with a bit of "we're already in Hell" claptrap, right?) than the notion that a dream or a movie or especially a dream about a movie could somehow feel so important and vivid and meaningful. Movies can be powerful, sure, but that movie? With a literal goat-footed, Euro-psychiatrist bearded cartoon devil smiling like Evil Otto? I can disbelieve strongly enough for that to make any sense. The grade-school Sartre ending is just the carpet that ties that room of head-shaking together.

I'm a little proud that we somehow avoided mentioning Low. Oh shit...

HB: Because we want his comics work to stand on its own! Which, um, it doesn't really. 

Monday, December 7, 2009

a solitary Shazhmm: Garrett reviews Batman / Doc Savage Special and Incognito TPB

This was written for the Boston Herald, but got lost in the holiday shuffle and swapped out for reviews of more recent comics. It's been slightly edited but it's still more formal than we usually get around here. Meanwhile HB and I will be back later this week with another review.

Batman / Doc Savage Special
by Brian Azzarello and Phil Noto
DC Comics

by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Marvel Comics

Just as comic books grew out of pulp fiction, superheroes wouldn’t exist without pulp heroes. Doc Savage was saving the world from fascists and mad scientists before Superman ever illegally crossed America’s broken borders. And unlike Batman, Savage didn’t dress like a fool to fight crime.

Doc Savage presaged both those iconic figures. Like Bruce Wayne he was impossibly talented despite not having any superpowers. Like Superman he was a paragon of virtue. Savage was successful in film, radio, and print before either of those cape-wearing guys were created. He was basically a superhero before that word existed.

Doc Savage’s popularity waned greatly after the 1940’s. DC hopes to change that with their upcoming miniseries First Wave. First Wave presents a universe in which pulp heroes like Doc Savage and the Avenger coexist alongside early comic crimefighters like Batman and the Spirit. It launches in March, but the recent Batman / Doc Savage Special introduces the concept. It doesn’t instill much hope.

For five dollars the Batman / Doc Savage Special gives you 56 pages but very little story. It starts with a murder, a misunderstanding, and Doc Savage’s arrival in Gotham to investigate the newly debuted Batman. By the end the mystery is solved off-page by the police while the heroes are busy talking out their disagreements. It’s a surprisingly muddled and inert work coming from Brian Azzarello, who showed an affinity for crime and pulp stories with 100 Bullets and his Batman serial for Wednesday Comics.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, creators of the comic noir Criminal, also know how to craft an excellent crime story. Their recent series Incognito isn’t as tense or powerful as Criminal, but it’s a better synthesis of the pulp and superhero traditions than the Batman / Doc Savage Special. Focusing on a former supervillain hiding out from a worldwide criminal organization in a witness protection plan, Incognito combines the superpowered action of comic books with the more realistic, hard-boiled edge of the pulps. Brubaker’s dialogue remains as taut as his plotting, and Phillips is still one of the best visual storytellers in the medium. The trade paperback lacks Jess Nevins’ excellent essays on pulp heroes that appeared in the individual issues, and the new introduction from Saturday Night Live castmember Bill Hader doesn't quite make up for that loss. That doesn't make the actual story any less worthwhile, though.