Sunday, November 30, 2008

Review: Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan

This appears to be a collection of licensed Batman and Robin comics that famed manga-ka Chip Kidd and his studiomates Geoff Spear and Saul Ferris created in the mid-sixties to meet their fellow Japanese fans' demand for the Dynamic Duo at the height of Bat-Mania.

Er, wait. Actually it turns out that Kidd’s an American author, designer and comics fan, and these other two guys are…I have no idea, actually. All three have bios on the back cover flap, though. Let’s see, it looks like Spear is a photographer, who apparently took some of the pictures that are in this book. And Ferris is a Batman fan and collector, who must have done…something. Huh.

Now, you’ll recall there was some pretty heated exchanges from a lot of smart, thoughtful people on the Internet recently about this book. (Here’s Leigh Walton’s final post on the subject, which sums up everything pretty nicely, if you’d like to reacquaint yourself with the cover credit controversy). While mouthing off about subjects I know very little about is something of a hobby of mine, I managed to avoid the temptation to do so regarding this, as I had yet to actually see a copy of the book, and was eagerly awaiting doing so.

Now that I have, I have to admit, there’s really no way to make sense out of why the book is presented the way it is or why the credits are assigned the way they are. Not without having to theorize about its origins, and the hows and whys of its assemblage, which is, frankly, a great disservice to the work within.

All in all, this is a thunderously disappointing book, in large part because Kidd and company seemed to really be on to something here, and ended up poorly presenting it in a confused and ill-conceived collection, ultimately suggesting rather than delivering a great book.

Whatever Kidd, Spear and Ferris’ various contributions, they aren’t all that apparent, and seem to pale next to those of Jiro Kuwata, the manga-ka who produced the work that actually fills the book. Kuwata doesn’t get a cover credit, nor is his biography on the back flap with the three “authors.” It’s not like Kidd is trying to hide the fact that Kuwata created the comics, or is trying to take credit for them. Once you read the book, it’s quite clear that it’s Kuwata doing the work, but it does make the credits seem all the weirder, and here’s where we get into theorizing.

Is “Chip Kidd” a bigger sales draw then “Jiro Kuwata,” thus explaining the former getting top billing? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely Kidd is as big a draw as either “Batman” or “manga;” there can’t be more people thinking, “Sweet! A new Chip Kidd joint!” then thinking “Batman? Sixties Batman? From Japan? I’ve gotta check this out!” (And are Spear and Ferris draws? I can’t imagine that they are; they don’t even sound Japanese, which may make the book appear to be more of a book about manga than a collection of manga).

However it came about, and however much work Kidd did in the book, much of it would be behind the scenes sort of stuff. Book designers and cover artists get little credits on the title page (if that), while the author’s get their names on the covers; here, the situation is reversed. Did Kidd track Kuwata down and scan the images? Maybe, I guess. But who gives a shit?

It’s a weird sort of auteurism…the sort I’ve never encountered in publishing, in books or comics. (I mean, old Marvel books in, say, the late ‘90s, at least said “Stan Lee Presents,” rather than putting “Lee” on the cover credits above the actual creators, you know?)

What Kidd does provide is about 500 words of production notes and an introduction that’s probably somewhere between 500 and 800 words. His emailed response to Chris Mautner and Christopher Butcher defending himself for not having Kuwata’s name on the cover was also about 500 words.

Kidd also provides 11 questions for an interview with Kuwata, which takes up a whole one page of the book’s 384, and it’s a Q-and-A interview of the school newspaper sort, which takes about a half-hour to write—What comics did you enjoy reading as a child? What made you want to become a cartoonist? Who influenced you? Who would win in a fight: 8-Man or Batman?

Then there are the pictures of Batman merchandise from Japan. Presumably this is where Kidd and the other cover boys come in. There’s a lot of these pictures, and it’s certainly a kick seeing them—I’ve always been fascinated with the way different cultures misread eachother’s pop-culture (or at least highlight different elements of it) and the off-kilter familiar but not knock-off versions of popular things (Batman with blue tights and a red cape and cowl, for example, just mesmerizes me). But Jesus, there aren’t that many of them, and they are all provided devoid of context.

(Above: Some cool off-model Batmen...check out the Mickey Mouse ears on the bat-symbol to the far right. I'm not sure what these are from...such images fill the inside covers)

Counting them up, because I am obsessive compulsive and have lots of free time, it looks like there are only about 60 pages of these photos, which would account for a little over one-sixth of the book, or about 17-percent of the contents. There’s no information about the items pictured, even identifying what they are, where they’re from, who made them or what year they were created in.

Frankly, I’m not quite sure where the book gets off calling itself “The Secret History of Batman in Japan,” as there is no actual history of Batman in Japan, beyond “Hey, did you know there was a Batman manga in the ‘60s? Here are some examples of it. Oh, and some toys and ads for toys too.” I would be quite interested in a book that actually detailed Batman’s history in Japan (or any country really); even if it weren’t a wonderfully written, observant cultural study of an American urban icon being transplanted into Japan, but a simple chronicle of Batman comics were available in Japan like this, the show started airing this year, it was popular because of that reason and so on.

Well, this ain’t that kind of book.

So what is it? Well, it’s essentially a collection of Kuwata’s Batman comics, translated into English by Anne Ishii and Kidd. I was somewhat surprised to see that it was even published to read right-to-left, and thus I assume the art wasn’t at all “flipped;” meaning it was printed the way a modern publisher sensitive to the preferences of modern manga fans would publish a manga collection. A book that wasn’t a manga collection, well, there’d be no reason to repint it right-to-left like that, beyond maybe simple novelty.

The thing is, it’s a pretty terrible way to collect the manga. Only a few of the stories are complete, meaning there are a few that just sort of trail off. In the introduction, Kidd mentions that they actually have a lot more pages, and, if this sells well enough, they might put out a Bat-Manga 2, which begs the question of why they wasted all those pages on photos of toys.

It’s particularly unsatisfying given how publishers major and minor are focusing on complete versions of comics these days…not just old manga but cartoons of all kinds. This seems like a throwback to a pre-Golden Age of reprint collections. Just, “Hey, here’s a bunch of comics,” instead of a thoughtful collection along the lines of any of Fantagraphics or even Checker’s strip collections or, perhaps more saliently, Drawn and Quarterly’s Yoshihiro Tatumi books or Vertical’s Tezuka books.

The book presents three exciting possibilities—a collection of Batman manga, a “secret history of Batman in Japan,” and a photo collection of old Japanese Batman toys and material—and offers none of them, except in perhaps the most half-assed way imaginable. And that’s why the book is so disappointing; its existence means we probably won’t get any other, better attempts to actually provide the works this book seems to promise.

(Batman and Robin vs. Clayface, who's disguised as a Batman-like sculpture. Remember, read right to left)

As for the manga itself, it’s a lot of fun, and well worth tracking the book down for (At least from a library; at $30, Bat-Manga probably isn’t worth it, given the random nature of the presentation).

Kuwata’s Batman looks like the one you’d see in Showcase Presents Batman, World’s Finest and Justice League of America, with the articulated eyebrows and everything. He looks vaguely Dick Sprang-y, but with a slimmer, more doll-like physique, and ears that jut somewhat awkwardly away from his cowl, giving it a somewhat homemade feel.

There’s no sign of Alfred, and Bruce and Dick seem to live alone in a mansion, always dressed up and waiting to hear of some crime in the news—or get word of one from no-glasses-wearing Inspector Gordon—at which point that get into costume and then into the Batmobile from the TV show.

They face only one villain familiar to us from our homegrown Batman comics, Clayface, who finds a pool of magic water (and maybe steals some formula from a scientist in another story) that allows him to change shape.

The other villains are all pretty exciting though, especially for a jaded Batman reader like me who gets tired of writers cycling through the same 15 or so Batman villains in endless succession.

There’s Lord Death Man, who wears a skeleton suit and a skull mask that can’t be removed, and who is able to die and come back to life whenever he wishes (Thanks to a fakir trick). There’s Go-Go the Magician, who has a weather-controlling magic wand gadget, who looks and fights a lot like Flash villain the Weather Wizard. There’s Faceless, a criminal with, um, a deformed face. And then there’s my favorite, Karmak, who is a gorilla who has absorbed the intelligence of a scientist, which isn’t really tha unique, but also disguises himself in a full body suit, mask, cape and gloves, which is unique (He appears as a huge-shouldered, no-necked bilious cape shape with a dome atop it, two perfectly spherical, emotionless eye-holes his only facial feature).

Batman and Robin battle these and other menaces using their fists, ropes and the occasional batarang, plus a weird “boomerang dart” that looks like a toy shuriken. The heroes are mostly personality-free, only really showing a hint of characterization in one fun exchange where Dick Grayson mouths off to a lady at a diamond auction, and there adventures are quite straightforward. It’s the same sort of storytelling you’d find in the Showcase collections, although they are often much less wordy and much more visually dynamic.

Kuwata gets off some great scenes of Batman in action, and some really remarkable visuals here and there, like when Go-Go first appears flying alongside the racing Batmobile, or some of Clayface’s transformations (there’s a neat one towards the beginning where Clayface emerges from a pool of, um, himself as a man-sized praying mantis that’s great).

(Batman versus Clayface, now in the form of a praying mantis)

There’s really much less insanity than I expected in the book; your average American Batman comic from the ‘50s or ‘60s was actually a lot weirder than this, despite Kuwata’s comics coming from the land of weird comics. Except maybe for that scene where Batman falls in the Clayface pool and TURNS HIMSELF INTO A GIANT BATRANG to attack Clayface, of course, or the final story in the collection, which deals with evolution and mutation and has such murky ethics involved all around that I’d need a whole post to discuss it.

It’s really just as much a what the fuck?! kind of collection as I was expecting, given that it was the Japanese version of the sixties Batman, but, it was Kidd’s bizarre, confused presentation that ended up providing all the what the fuck?!-edness, instead of the comics themselves.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Review: Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!

This is Scott Morse’s new graphic novel, the wonderfully named Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! (Red Window/AdHouse Books):

As you can see, it’s pretty large. My handy straightedge tells me it’s about a foot high, and nine inches wide, making it a foot-and-a-half wide when you open it up to read it. It’s a hardcover, which when coupled with the 48-page page length and Morse’s illustration style, makes it look and feel more like a children’s picture book than a comic book. The copy at AdHouse’s site refers to it as part of “a series of band desinee-style graphic works;” I’m afraid I don’t know what a “desinee” is, but perhaps that describes it better to those that do then what I wrote did.

It will run you $14.95, which is honestly a pretty scary price tag for such a quick read, particularly when that read isn’t all that great a one.

Perhaps perceived money-to-reading experience value isn’t necessarily the province of the critic, since, for the purposes of this particular post, I’m more interested in the content than the way it’s packaged and sold. I mention this only because the price point seems generated in large part by the particular format—big, hardcover, children’s book-like—and it’s a format that, while nice-looking, doesn’t necessarily do much to compliment the contents (The closest I can come up with for why Morse chose this presentation, beyond the obvious that it shows off his work better and looks gorgous, is that a children’s book like format reflects one of the two stories, which is about being a father to a young child).

Now, while I as a consumer might have had a hard time convincing myself to spend $15 on this while in my local comics shop one Wednesday (I received a review copy, so my example is purely theoretical here), I can certainly appreciate the look of the thing.

It is, as I said, gorgeous. The covers are all oranges, blues and blacks and whites, and I simply love the logo, with its built-in black stripes. I could stare at that thing for hours. (Well, minutes…my eyes start to hurt after staring at anything for too long).

On the cover, we see two bipedal tigers—a big one and a little one—reminiscent of Morse’s Southpaw tiger character. It’s a great image, and man, everything about the look of the book is great. I love the spine, the title page, the repeating tiger-heads on the inside covers…and, well, I assume you can already assume for yourself that the interior art is just as great.

Morse possesses a rare ability to fuse an extremely cartoony sense of design—his characters are cute, funny, sometimes silly, and able to express a single huge emotion per expression—with a fine-art sense of craft, and that fusion can often lead to a jarring tone designed to affect a reader in surprisingly emotional ways (Barfeoot Serpent being the best example of this I can think of at the moment).

For the most part, Morse eschews proper, traditionally defined panels throughout the book, although this is still sequential art/comics—the images sometimes fill a whole page, so that the page itself becomes the panel, and sometimes the bleed into one another, side by side, with the text leading a reader through it (This further suggests the story book vibe).

That text is devoted to telling two more or less individual stories that follow a sort of personal manifesto/mission statement that Morse makes (On the title page, he himself refers to this volume as “A collection of scattered thoughts and moments that somehow equal a whole”).

It’s a very personal work, dealing very personally with the way Morse sees himself as a person, a father, an artist and a storyteller, and the way he wants to communicate with and raise his son. That’s actually him and his son on the cover, although they are not actually tigers in real life.

Part of the opening section deals with how Morse arrived at that sort of avatar. “Now I know people that can draw. They can nail the character of a person in just a few lines. I can’t do that, at least not when trying to draw myself. Or people I know pretty well.”

Over the course of four pages or so, we see Morse’s drawing of himself as himself, before a few clouds of sketch book attempts to draw himself, as well as his wife and son as human beings.

“The Chinese call it a paper tiger, when a person puts on a false front of courage,” he writes. “My paper tiger’s different. Not false courage, but a sort of permission to reclaim a more innocent spirit.”

The tiger, as an animal, also sees the world in a particular way, in a way not unlike the way children see the world, and it’s a viewpoint Morse envies and tries to reclaim.

So anyway: The Morse family is a bunch of tigers. Which works out well, since Morse draws and paints such wonderful-looking bipedal tigers.

From there, the book is divided into roughly two sections, both dealing with autobiographical anecdotes that opens Morse up to self-exploration and philosophy or, less generously, navel-gazing and pseudo-intellectualism.

In the first, Scott Morse gets called for jury duty, and goes downtown to the courthouse for the process of jury selection, which involves a lot of waiting around, walking around, and sketching people. It’s not as boring as it might sound, given Morse’s art and the fact that he is, after all, a cute little tiger.

In the second, Morse takes his young son out for the day, and they go swimming and to the park. This story is exceptionally charming, because now we’ve got two little tiger-people, one of whom speaks in a funny little kid dialogue, like, “My’a go swim today” and “My’a made a big ol’ spwashes” and “My’a go to a park now.” And, at one point, Morse’s art gradually morphs in style when he feels an urge to protect his son; his tiger becoming more inky and Eastern-looking, as well as bigger and scarier.

Neither story on its own is particularly revelatory or even all that terribly entertaining, but taken together with Morse’s manifesto-like opening, and read in the context of Morse’s delicate, fussed over, style-conscious art style and his career as an extremely prolific cartoonist, it becomes an interesting look into the artist’s own outlook. It’s a portrait of the artist as a daddy tiger.

RELATED: I’d highly recommend checking out Morse’s website and blog. You’ll find a lot of fantastic stuff there, including his versions of characters like Usagi Yojimbo, Batgirl, Barack Obama, Wonder Woman (versus a tiger), Superman and Batman and Kirk andSpock and more, in addition to tons of drawings of his own characters and various animals.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Laughs about butt-sex, and Batman: The Brave and The Bold (Not in relation to one another, though)

Two of the most dependable sources of comics-related humor on the Internet have been lightening up my Black Friday, and, oddly enough, they're both talking about sodomy.

First, Dan DiDio played 20 questions with Newsarama's Matt Brady, and when Brady asked why there wasn't a mature readers label on Batman: Cacophony, since it included scenes of The Joker discussing the color of his pubic hair and bending over so Onomatopoeia could have anal sex with him (while alluding to the fact that The Mad Hatter has always wanted to have anal sex with him as well), DiDio challenged his critics who thought that maybe that's a little more mature than is necessary for a comic featuring this guy:

And I will challenge everybody on that – one of the things I think Kevin [Smith] does so deftly is that he walks the finest of lines. The implications of certain scenes and certain dialogue, if you read into them further, could be deemed mature, but I think he stops the story right at the right spot, so we don't have to consider labeling in that fashion. I think that's what makes him a great writer.

See what I mean? DiDio is hilarious. This is, by the way, the first time anyone has ever praised Kevin Smith for the subtlety of his writing. So, if I understand what DiDio is saying, Cacophony doesn't need to be labeled mature because talking about prison sex, clown fetishes and ass-fucking for money is fine so long as no one actually says the "F-word" and Onomatopoeia doesn't actually take up the Joker on his offer to let him fuck his ass.

Basically, it's like Jaws or Alien, only instead of not-showing us a shark or an alien, Smith was not showing us anal-sex. Smith is the Spielberg of man-on-man supervillain sodomy.

Secondly, Abhay Khosla finishes up his occasional series of essays on Blue Beetle, taking into account its recent cancellation and one-time Blue Beetle writer John Rogers' reply, Sean Witzke's suggestion that those sad about the news shove it up their asses, and his own suggestion of what people should maybe shove up their own asses.

Khosla's commentary is as amusing as always and, in this case, devastatingly withering. While I actually did like a big chunk of the book, I can't really say he's wrong about the book either (But then, I'm not a 12-year-old nephew without a doctorate in DC Continuity; I'm a 31-year-old uncle with one).

You know what is perfect for 12-year-old nephews and 31-year-old uncles alike though? Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I lack cable and thus am eagerly awaiting an eventual DVD collection, but I did manage to catch the second episode and, holy shit guys, it was pretty much perfect. Batman teamed up with Plastic Man and Fire to fight the Gentleman Ghost for, like, three minutes, and then Batman and Plastic Man went to Dinosaur Island, where Gorilla Grodd and his gorilla minions were riding dinosaurs and working on a gun that turned Batman into a gorilla. Also, there's a flashback featuring Kite-Man.

Watching the title sequence on YouTube and pausing it over and over during the bit where they flash Flinstones vitamin looking images of various guest stars, I got even more excited about this awesome damn show.

I mean, we all knew Blue Beetle III, beard-free Green Arrow, beard-rocking Aquaman, Fire, and Plastic Man were going to be on the show. But did you see who else flashed on the screen? Etrigan, The Demon! Dr. Fate! Green Lantern Guy Gardner! Bronze Tiger! Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth! Jonah Hex! And B'wana Beast (or possibly Freedom Beast). Still, one of the Beasts!

Alright, that's all I got in terms of "content" for tonight. Reviews and some actual original content will resume tomorrow, and you can look forward to a (mildly) exciting (to me) announcement on Monday morning. Huzzah!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: Mesmo Delivery

Now this, this is a comic book.

Mesmo Delivery (AdHouse Books) is the first solo comics work from Rafael Grampá, probably best known in comics circles for being one-fifth of the artists responsible for 2008 Eisner-winning anthology 5 (The other four? Gabriel Bá, Becky Cloonan, Fabio Moon, Vasilis Lolos. That’s some good company to be in). It’s also a perfect example of the sort of a comic book story that could only be told this way in this particular medium, an often nigh ineffable quality I personally consider to be one of the most important in a great comic.

Sure, the plot, the dialogue and some of the staging could have occurred in a filmed media I suppose, but not with the impact it does here; nor could prose words have captured the sudden shock a reader gets when, say, seeing page 37.

Grampá has worked in animation and advertising, and it certainly shows in his art.

It’s extremely well-drawn, with big, ugly, cartoon character low-lives rendered with tiny little lines on their skin, giving the men the appearance of the texture of a hairbrush, and the women a disconcertingly reptilian look.

The world he draws is full of little observant details, giving the inside of a truck cab, a dingy office, a truck stop bar and a parking lot senses of place, anchoring them to reality, but not cluttering them up or making them seem mundane.

Lettering—which is credited to a Rafa Coutinho, although much of it seems to have been drawn into the art—is used as a design element and a directional eye-guide, rather than simply communicating narrative information, and much of it is leant to logos for products you can’t really buy.

I’m not really doing it any justice. If you click through the link above, you’ll find an online preview of the first few pages of the book, which will give you some sense of Grampá’s artwork, although the previewed pages are among the more static; it gets unbelievably action-packed later on.

So, the story. It has more than a few surprises, and it’s hard to discuss that story without revealing and ruining a couple of them. I alluded to page 37, where you’ll see someone familiar looking who doesn’t at first seem to have anything to do with the rest of the book; there are also a few unexpected reversals, where conflicts are won (even if only temporarily) by the people you least expect to win them.

It’s also hard to discuss that story because several elements are left purposely quite vague, particularly the nature of Mesmo Delivery (Mesmo means “even” in Portuguese, as far as the Internet can tell me), the unseen boss character who runs it and what exactly is up with the man who’s shown standing atop the trailer on the cover, breathing the stylized cloud of smoke and gripping two wicked-looking daggers.

It opens with a visual overture of sorts, with a crow or raven gripping a human tooth in its beak, and we see the “Mesmo Delivery” logo on the side of a truck. Rufo, a big, burly ex-boxer is driving the truck, and a smaller, older looking man, who assures Rufo he would have been a better Elvis than Elvis, is riding shotgun.

A stop at a gas station/roadside bar puts Rufo in conflict with some locals, who make fun of his choice in drink (milk) and then bet he can’t knock down one of them, a fighter with an…odd right hand.

One of them eventually looks in trailer of the truck, something that Rufo had to sign a contracting stating he himself would never do, and then, well, all hell breaks loose. And it is a rather nasty, extremely gory sort of hell, but good God is it beautifully illustrated. The amount and nature of the violence may turn some potential readers off—for example, we see a screaming man’s head severed and go flying off from the point of view of inside his screaming mouth—but regardless of your taste for blood, it’s a beautifully orchestrated scene.

I’ve read it three times now, and while the last two readings were quite different from the first, I’m still not entirely sure what’s what regarding the titular trucking line. I assume that’s part of the Grampá’s plan; the mystery surrounding the proceedings make them all the more intriguing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Weekly Haul: November 26th

Batman #681 (DC Comics) Behind this extremely generic, could-have-been-used-for-any-Batman-comic-ever cover by Alex Ross you’ll find the over-sized conclusion to Grant Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.,” the culmination of his two-year, seven-arc run on the title, tying in every thread he had previously introduced.

It’s an ambitious, admirable and imaginative story, taking as its starting point the premise that every previous iteration of the Batman “counts,” especially goofier Silver Age concepts like Bat-Mite, Batman volunteering government mental experiments, battles against space aliens, and the Club of Heroes.

Morrison has thus far made that work quite well; if Frank Miller’s popular version of the character worked by stripping away the details, character tics and inherent silliness of Batman comics, Morrison’s works by finding ways to make everything Miller discarded work, while keeping the melodramatic cartoon noir tone of the Dark Knight.

As this story wraps, it’s clear that Morrison not only knows what he’s doing, but has known what he’s been doing all along, and there are some really satisfying moments where the various disparate pieces click together in perhaps unexpected ways.

Does he actually kill Batman? Probably not, bud did you really expect him to? Batman is buried alive in a shallow grave at one point, and rises from it, and Bruce Wayne disappears in an explosion at the end. “Disappeared in an explosion” never means dead in comic books, just that the other characters think the blown-up character is dead…until they return alive.

But the open-ended epilogue, in which one of Morrison’s new villains declares ,“Even Batman and Robin are dead!” (echoing the cheesy declaration that “Batman and Robin will never die!” at the opening of the story), only to see a Bat-signal shining upon him. Clearly there’s still a Batman, if not necessarily The Batman.

If Morrison’s always known what he’s doing, it’s less clear that his collaborators editing and trying to sell the book for him have.

During his two-year, 23-issue run, Morrison’s burned through five pencillers, of such wide-ranging styles and levels of talent as Andy Kubert, John Van Fleet, J.H. Williams III, Ryan Benjamin and Tony Daniel. It’s Daniel that’s done the lion’s share of the penciling, particularly as the run turned into “R.I.P.” I’ve complained early and often about how Daniel isn’t a very good artist, and probably shouldn’t be drawing a DC comic book, let alone the company’s current flagship character’s flagship book written by their greatest talent, although it’s well worth noting that his art looks better here than it has in all of the past issues.

There are no real terrible mistakes in the mis en scene, even if it’s painfully awkward at times, and his storytelling is readable in this over-sized issue, save perhaps for the Robin/mime fight and a scene near the end where Jezebel Jett carries on a conversation with someone who’s never revealed. Or maybe two someones? There’s a panel with a balloon coming from off-panel, then another where a woman who’s either a personal assistant or a stewardess, seen from the waist to the knees, is talking to here.

And then there are all the tie-ins, which, by the stories end, proved to have not actually tied-in at all. A peer has argued that the Nightwing, Robin, Detective and Batman and the Outsiders story arcs labeled “Batman R.I.P.” and appearing on the checklist were all thematic tie-ins, dealing with Batman’s extended family contemplating what it means to follow in Batman’s footsteps and/or responding to the breaking down of the various elements of the Batman, but I’m not quite convinced (I haven’t read them all, either; I read the first issue of each, only following Nightwing to the end).

As far as plotting and events go, none of them matched up at all, which is pretty frustrating, since Robin, Nightwing, Alfred, Damian and Talia al Ghul, Commissioner Gordon and the Club of Heroes are all running around the edges of this storyline, all playing parts but, as is typical of Morrison’s superhero writing style, spending more time talking about some awesome thing they just did off-panel or are about to do off-panel instead of actually doing it.

Why did Robin have a story arc about Jason Todd and youth gangs and the Penguin and Spoiler, instead of one about him fighting the Club of Villains, saving the city from rioting, reading the Black Casebook and rallying the Club of Heroes? Why did Nightwing have an over-long Two-Face story instead of detailing what happened to him off-panel during “R.I.P.,” including his battle with the Club of Villains, his incarceration in Arkham and his near lobotomy?

As to the future of Batman, while this story ends on a hopeful note, it’s pretty unclear what happens next—who Batman will be, and who will be telling his story. Next week kicks off a two-issue aftermath story by Morrison, followed by a two-issue aftermath story by Denny O’Neil, then a fill-in story about Catwoman by Paul Dini, then another two-issue aftermath story by Neil Gaiman. Meanwhile, Nightwing, Robin and Birds of Prey have all been cancelled, suggesting big changes for the Bat-family of books.

All in all, it seems like an awful long time to wait just to find out if Bruce Wayne will continue being Batman, or if one of his sidekicks or enemies will temporarily be Batman for a while.

Batman: Gotham After Midnight #7 (DC) So here’s a Batman comic that is the exact opposite of the Morrison-written franchise flagship. While Batman features a wild, zany plot that probably sounds somewhere between stupid and insane if you’re not willing and able to roll with things like Bat-Mite, The Club of Heroes and a Batman who’s prepared for absolutely everything up to and including his death and afterlife illustrated in straightforward, run-of-the-mill, maybe even a little worse than usual art, Batman: GAM features a straightforward, run-of-the-mill, maybe even a little worse than usual plot and scripting, with wild, zany art that probably looks somewhere between stupid and insane if you’re not willing and able to roll with the fact that Batman has a special Bat-scuba suit, that his computers are all made of out stained glass and the bottom of the Gotham River looks like a coral reef exhibit at a nice aquarium.

Incredible Hercules #123 (Marvel Comics) In the third part of “Love & War,” an arc in which Hercules, Amadeus Cho and their World War Hulk ally Namora find themselves in the middle of a conflict between the Amazons and Atlanteans, the exact nature of the Amazons’ plot (and their backers) comes to light, and it seems like this story about Amazons attacking is going to be a lot more like DC’s Amazons Attack than it seemed at first (in terms of plot, if not quality; this is head, shoulders, torso, waist and knees and maybe even shins above Amazons Attack).

JSA Kingdom Come Special: The Kingdom (DC) Or, according to the cover, Justice Society of America Kingdom Come Special The Kingdom One-Shot. I like this title because not only is it incredibly, ridiculously long, but it’s also redundant—does it really need the word “Kingdom” in there twice? Also, DC already had a Kingdom Come sequel called The Kingdom, and while it wasn’t very good, at least it gave us a Mark Waid/Frank Quitely Plastic Man story. This? It’s just like the last six or seven issues of JSoA (and the last two JSA Kingdom Come Specials). Gog and half the JSA continue to walk around, while the other half of the JSA piss and moan about not trusting Gog.

In a turn of events that likely wouldn’t have surprised anyone even if we hadn’t had the better part of the last year to think about it, the giant space god who came to earth and started granting wishes and curing war and famine turns out to be…not quite as benevolent as he might seem! Duhn-duh-DuhNNN!

On the plus side, this over-priced issues is actually over-sized, so we get additional pages of comics instead of a bunch of pages of Alex Ross talking about his process again. Fernando Pasarin pencils and a whole society of inkers finish his art, while Geoff Johns and maybe Alex Ross (the latter gets a story credit again) show how some of the JSA’s wishes aren’t turning out to be all that great for them, and Damage start proselytizing for Gog like he’s just joined a crazy cult or something.

It’s all quite dumb, but a fun dumb, if you’ve got the patience for what must surely be the longest story arc in the history of super-comics at this point.

Mesmo Delivery (AdHouse Books) This was probably the very best comic book released in shops this week—and insanely beautifully illustrated pulp horror story about a bad-ass truck driver who meets an even badder-ass brawler, who then meets the baddest-assed thing on two legs, who is delivering something that makes the biggest villain of all rub his scary, giant hands in delight. I’ll have a full review of this later in the week, as it deserves a little more attention than my usual, curt “Batman sux, Hercules is the gr8test!” Wednesday evening gibberish.

Superman #682 (DC) Bizarro mourns for Pa Kent and, unfortunately, it’s absolutely nothing like this. In less surprising events, the cold, distant aliens from a science-fascist world who have suddenly found themselves on primitive planet Earth with god-like super-powers have started acting like they know better than everyone and causing problems. Who could have seen this coming?!

Now, why is the George W. Bush, who lost the 2000 election to Lex Luthor, president in the DC Universe in 2008…?

Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! (AdHouse) Another beautiful and challenging release from AdHouse that I’ll review in full this weekend. As an object of design-lust or book porn, it’s great, and everyone knows what an awesome illustrator Scott Morse is by now, right? As for the non-visual content, well, I’d like to re-read it at least one more time and give it some more thought before mouthing off about it.

Trinity #26 (DC) Wow, was this particular issue boring. One of writer Kurt Busiek’s weaknesses when it comes to these kinds of super-comics is the amount of time and space he devotes to delineating the characters and motivations of his villains and assorted minor characters. It’s a noble virtue, to take things like Qwardian politics or Krona’s machinations seriously, but its dangerous to slow down too much around such story points, as it allows readers to realize that, waitaminute, can’t the Qwardian’s just want to destroy the universe because they’re from an evil dimension? Or because they don’t have eyelids and are jealous of Earthlings’ ability to blink? Sadly, this issues is nothing but th eblah blah. Tarot and Charity O’Dare (from James Robinson’s Starman!) blab about the “Worldsoul” and shamanic women throughout history for half a comic book, while Enigma and Morgaine le Fay blab about their plot and the big purple alien’s origin gets told for the second time. I don’t even think there were any superheroes in this issue, which doesn’t make for much of a superhero comic, really.

Ultimate Spider-Man #128 (Marvel) It’s Ultimate Venom versus Ultimate Carnage for…ah, who really gives a shit?

Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 (Dark Horse Comics) For a full review of the first issue of the second miniseries by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, I invite you to refer back to my Monday night post, if you missed it.

All I really have to add today is that this is a 32-page, ad-free comic that is selling for only $2.99. So DC and Marvel, you can go right to hell with your $3.99 23-page Kingdom Come specials and your $3.99 22-page miniseries with the cardstock covers.

And also, I wanted to share this scene, which is emblematic of one of the things I found so appealing about Umbrella Academy, but I didn’t want to post before the issue actually came out, as it is kinda sorta spoiler-y (although it is included in the preview on Dark Horse’s site).

So, as we’ve discussed, the children of the Umbrella Academy do battle with the suddenly animated, eye beam-shooting, fire-breathing Lincoln Memorial. While various plans are in play—including Mr. Pogo’s sack of dynamite—The Rumor finishes the Memorial off with the words, “Mr. President-- I heard a rumor you were assassinated--"

Which, given her reality-warping powers, leads of course to this:
A John Wilkes Booth Memorial appearing and assassinating the Lincoln Memorial!

And this is by far my favorite panel in a comic full of great panels:
I love the background Ba’s drawn, in which the giant stone John Wilkes Booth flees the scene of the crime, the police giving chase as if to arrest him for his monstrous crime, even if he did just save the day. It’s like this absurd sequence of events has just run off to continue in another comic we’ll never read, James Swanson’s Manhunt, only with a giant stone Booth.

Wolverine: First Class #9 (Marvel) On the eve of another showdown with Sabretooth, Wolverine seeks out Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu for guidance on fighting without giving letting his berserker rage overcome him. But all Wolvie gets from his guest-star are riddles, apples and ass-kickings…or does he?! Another nice done-in-one, this one lighter on the laughs, featuring art by regular writer Fred Van Lente’s Supervillain Team-Up collaborator Francis Portela. While this is hardly the best issue in the series—it’s really hard to beat the sleepover issue or the ninja theme restaurant issue—it’s probably the best-looking one.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Special Thanksgiving-related review: Downs #1

Thanksgiving isn’t that easy a holiday to comics-blog about. (Is that a verb? ‘Cause I’m using it like a verb). Unlike Christmas and Halloween, for which there are thousands upon thousands of comics that celebrate the commercialization of the celebration of the birth of Christ co-opting pagan winter tree-worship and the commercialization of pagan fall devil worship (respectively), there are relatively few comics that celebrate Thanksgiving.

So I was quite pleased to open a manila envelope from Columbus writer Tony Goins to find a slick new self-published book entitled Downs and find that the middle story in the mini-anthology was heavy on turkey content:

“It’s a Free-Range Celestial Tie-Dyed Freak-Out, Turkey” is a ten-page story by Goins and artist Brent Bowman.

It opens with our pupil-less heroine Susan Downs, ancient Chinese agriculture deity Sovereign Millet, and a loosely organized band of hippies (one of whom is a ghost hippie), about to storm a poultry barn defended by gun-wielding rednecks. Why?

“First, I have to tell you about this turkey I had the other day…” Susan says, and we flash back to her in her kitchen, about to engage in her annual eating of meat, which leads to a kind of psychic freak-out brought on by the treatment of factory-farmed poultry. She can feel the birds' pain, and the horrible environment in which it was raised.

Oh, Susan has some sort of psychic-y powers…or super-ninja powers. Possibly of the Daredevil variety…? That’s referred to in the opening story of the collection, a five-page tale illustrated by Steven Russell Black (who also provided the cover image above) entitled “Dual Cultivation.” Basically, she can’t see with her eyes, but she can see with her mind.

Susan tracks the bird she tasted back to the West Virginia commune that was supposed to have sent her a free-range bird. Scant panels into her investigation, she’s brained from behind with a shovel, and wakes up tied up amid the poor penned-up, mistreated birds.
That’s when Sovereign Millet shows up.
He unties Susan, introduces her to the ghost of Rainbow, one of the hippies who ran the free-range turkey farm, which some rival turkey-farmers violently took over, murdering him and kidnapping his fellow hippies in the process.

Which brings us back to the edge of the face-off the story started with. A violent splash-panel later—in which Susan and Millet bust out kung fu, and the hippies outnumber the guys with NRA hats—the bad guys’ leader Skykes makes a run for it. Susan follows, only to have him push a stack of turkey cages at her, threatening to bury her alive in caged turkeys.

Instead, she’s miraculously saved by turkeys.
You just don’t see many panels like the one above that often.

And as for the man she was pursuing, well, he was found dead…
…a stalk of millet growing through his forehead.

The bad guys punished and the free-range turkey farm saved from the wicked factory-farming McCain/Palin voters, Susan and friends proceed to one of the twelve traditional happy endings:
Everyone gets together for a drum circle.

There’s one more story in the book, a nine-page one drawn by a “Matias T!” and called “The Girl Who Wasn’t There.” This one isn’t as clever or as fun as the turkey farm one, and is a more straightforward supernatural P.I. kind of tale, albeit one with a Tales From The Crypt sort of twist ending. It involves a health nut, a rock star and a necklace containing a vial of blood.

Taking all three stories together, it’s an awful lot for a single issue, and I suppose each of the stories could have benefited from more space to develop and breathe; while the first story works fine as a brief character introduction/prologue, the latter two seem a little abbreviated, with plot dominating the proceedings at the expense of character. Like, I’m still not sure what’s up with Susan and her eyes and mind powers and her time at an Eastern temple learning sex magic and kung fu, and maybe I’m not supposed to be—the cover does say “issue one,” after all—but I think I would have rather spent some more time with Susan and got a feel of who she is, where she’s at and what she’s all about, rather than getting so many stories in so small a space.

On the other hand, Goins pursuing this particular strategy does give us a good sense of the kind of scope of conflicts his heroine deals with, and the range of possibilities for future adventures: She knows Chinese deities on a first name basis, can feel the lives of turkeys through their meat, can see people’s souls and knows a bit about different kinds of magic.

The art is all quite solid, particularly for a self-published effort like this. Black’s cover image above speaks for itself; click through his name and you can see a lot more of his work. He’s great at single painted images, and while the short story he works on here doesn’t give a great sense of it, he’s skilled at sequentials as well.

I probably enjoyed Bowman’s work the best, although he did get the most space and the most to work with. “Matias T!” isn’t bad, and shows some aptitude for character design, but many of the panels seemed to contain dubious spatial relations between the subjects, and he (or she?) seemed less comfortable with backgrounds and settings, and the way these things related to the characters.

Anyway, that’s 24 pages of comics for $3, making this a much better comics-to-dollars value than, say, Secret Invasion or any of Marvel’s current miniseries. And since I failed to provide Goins with anything very blurb-worthy in this post, I’d just like to close by saying “Tony Goins is a thousand times the comics writer than Brad Meltzer is.” (But then, who isn’t?)

If Downs sounds like something you’d like to read for yourself, you can click to for ordering information, webcomics and suchlike. Goins also contributes to the Panel group blog, which you can read here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1

As a member of a rock band, Gerard Way is probably more acutely aware of the concept of “the difficult second album” than most comic book writers, and the danger of him hitting a sophomore slump with his second Dark Horse miniseries seemed all the more likely based on how damn good the first Umbrella Academy turned out.

Yes, he was working with a great editor (Scott Allie) at a great publisher (Dark Horse), and he was paired with an incredible collaborator (artist Gabriel Ba), so the creative success of Umbrella Academy probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But in the post-Kevin Smith comics industry, in which not being a comics writer is often seen as a virtue in and of itself when it comes to the writing of comics, tourist writers are all too common, and back issue bins are littered with their unfortunate efforts. A pretty good comic by a non-comics writer is rare. A pretty great comic by a non-comics writer? Hell, we’re talking unicorn-rare there.

So yeah, I was kind of expecting him to fail ever since Umbrella Academy #1 was announced, yet a kick-ass first issue gave way to a kick-ass second issue and on and on until the series wrapped, and the thing reads even better in trade; Way crafted a single story as much as he wrote six comics scripts.

The sequel series, The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, presents Way with a whole new opportunity to fail—now he has the added pressure of living up to high expectations, rather than surpassing low ones.

But there’s just no percentage in betting on the guy to fail, because while it’s obviously still early in, Dallas #1 is every bit as fun, funny, fast-paced and furiously imaginative as Apocalypse Suite #1 was.

It opens in the White House, with Sir Reginald Hargreaves, the manipulative, mustachioed weirdo who played Charles Xavier to the Academy kids, cutting a deal with the president in exchange for his team’s monument-bashing services.

“Are we really fighting another monument?!” the boy that will grow up to be Kraken asks incredulously, and the answer is yes. Previously the kids battled a berserk Eiffel Tower, and it’s pilot, Zombie Robot Gustave Eiffel.

Here, it’s this:
Yes, that’s the Lincoln Memorial, in the act of going berserk, red Kirby dot-emanating Darkseid eyes and all.

Oh, and he/it also breathes fire:

Flash-forward to “today,” which is after yesterday, which was when Apocalypse Suite went down. The Academy has been reassembled deep below the ruins of their former home, with the various characters now more or less a team again, although each still very much on their own paths.

Spaceboy is filling his gorilla gut with cookies and milk while watching reality television, Séance is adjusting to his newfound celebrity, The Rumor is still pretty pissed at The White Violin for taking away her voice while trying to destroy the world (even if the latter can’t remember hurting the former), The Kraken is breaking bones in the pursuit of justice and Number Five is killing the hell out of an army of dudes sent to stop him from screwing up the timeline too much or something, in a bravura, eight-page battle scene that is a nice reminder of just how much Ba brings to this particular table.

One of the greatest virtues of the original series was the way its creators suggested so many more stories than the one they actually told. We saw the birth of the children, we saw them as child superheroes, and we saw what happened after the death of Hargreaves, but obviously a lot happened in between those events, enough to imply dozens of great stories that have yet to be told and, hell, may never be told, but the knowledge that they’re there—wherever exactly there is (Way’s imagination? The reader’s? On crumpled up wads of paper full of notes from Allie in Way’s wastebasket?)—makes the story-world of Umbrella Academy seem a big, exciting place that I imagine quite a few readers will continue to be eager to explore.

I know I’m more eager to see more of that world; even more anxious than I was to see if Way would succeed or fail as a comics write.

Again, it’s obviously quite early in the new series—the first issue of Apocalypse Suite gave very little indication of where the story was eventually going—but the groundwork laid out is quite fertile.

Whether you appreciate it more for Ba’s kinetic art and chunky character design work, or the What If…The X-Men Were Actually as Awesome As You Thought They Were When You Were Ten-years-old? premise, or the simple weirdness of scenes in which a chimpanzee wearing a powdered wig and a jetpack and carrying a sack full of dynamite is only the third strangest element, Dallas is Apocalypse Suite all over again. Purchase accordingly.

P.S.: Since I managed to get through a whole review without sounding as negative as usual, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to point out that this issue will also ship with a variant cover by Jim Lee, and that the Lee cover totally fucking sucks. I like Lee's recent DC work a lot, and I think he's grown by leaps and bounds as an artist over the last decade or so, but he's not really much of a cover artist (see also his Trinity covers). His Umbrella Academians are particularly lifeless looking, with the children looking like teenagers, their grown-up versions looking like rejects from the old Image Comics (and it's not easy making a guy who has the body of a gorilla and a metal diaper on look like he came from Youngblood or WildCATS 1.0. They just look so...normal. Also, nice job making the implied meaning of the subtitle blindingly obvious. Sorry to pack all the negativity into a post-script like this, but I hate to see Lee cranking out sub-par cover efforts when he should be drawing shirtless Alfred working the heavy bag, Vicki Vale prancing around in her panties and Batman and Robin painted yellow to talk shit on Hal Jordan or something.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Swallow Me Whole

Nate Powell sure can draw. At the risk of diminishing the writing portion of his new graphic novel Swallow Me Whole (Top Shelf), or the storytelling skill involved in placing the images on the page and gently drawing the reader's eye across them, it's Powell's ability to draw that really sticks out in my mind after having read his book.

He has a definite style, the sort you'd probably be able to pick out of a line-up with a bunch of other artists art (Craig Thompson's about the only artist whose style I might mix up with Powell's in such a theoretical line-up), and yet his style is very much in service of the story, so that you're not thinking about the way Powell draws teeth or eyes as much as you're thinking about the character and what they're up to.

The settings, the backgrounds, the furniture, the vehicles,the clothing...all seem right or true, if not exactly always representational. That is, the high school looks like a high school, the hospital room looks like a hospital room, the tennis shoes look like tennis shoes, but they don't look like labored-over life drawings (if that makes sense).

So as a work of pure craft, Swallow Me Whole is a great book. Powell's style is fairly distinct and has personality, but it's not flashy or overpowering. The drawings are great, and, individually, are worth a look, just to see how he moves his pen around the page and builds the settings and characters of his story, line by line.

I suppose this sounds like I'm winding up for a "but" here, but I'm really not—in addition to drawing really well, Powell also makes pretty damn good comics.

The story opens in a hospital room in a small town setting that could be pretty much anywhere, I suppose (it looked like the Ohio I grew up in; Powell was born in Arkansas and makes his home in Indiana). Two children are brought to visit their grandmother, or "Memaw," who seems to be on her deathbed. Flash-forward to a few years, and the two children—Perry and Ruth—are adolescents, each struggling with mental illnesses.

Perry imagines a little wizard pencil topper talking to him and assigning him "missions" of things to draw, which he is compelled to obey, no matter where he is or what he's doing. She worries about stepping on insects to the point that walking outside can be difficult, has some OCD tendencies, and has visual and audio hallucinations involving insects.

Memaw, who hasn't actually died yet, now lives with them, sleeping on their couch. She too has mental issues—not simply related to her age, but she's always had them.

The story follows the kids, particularly Ruth, as they face standard coming-of-age issues, severely complicated by their mental problems, and their inability to truly understand them, or to be understood because of them.

Mental illness is a pretty difficult subject to tackle in any fictional medium, as there's an incredible danger of romanticizing it, or exploitatively milking it for the drama that seems inherent in it. It's a danger that creators succumb to far too often, which may be a symptom of too many writers, artists, directors and actors learning finding being more influenced by other writers, artists, directors and actors then by reality (and that could very well be a symptom of the stigma mental illness has had for so long; its realities have been kept in the shadows to such a degree that the current generation is the first to really grow up in a world where mental illness is something openly discussed everywhere).

Powell's treatment of the subject rings true, particularly the confusion. The kids and their parents are know things are wrong, but not always what is wrong or why, or how to deal with it. He conveys that confusion to the reader, allowing us to share in it. There are relatively few signals of what is meant to be real and what isn't meant to be real; what is Powell chronicling an event as it appears to a character, and what is an artist-ly trick.

For example, at one point, Memaw discusses her life as a young woman, and we see a young version of her in a sort of halo, where she was just sitting, her extremities still those of an old lady, but her face and torso that of a young woman. Is this simply the way Powell decided to draw this scene? Or is this the way Ruth sees her grandmother at that moment? Is it Ruth's imagination or is that the information as her brain in processing it? Or did her grandmother just literally transfigure?

I'm not sure resolving such questions are all that important, as the ambiguity seems part and parcel to the story and its subject matter (not to mention its haunted, elegiac tone), although readers could certainly have those sorts of Donnie Darko-esque "Is it all in the character's head?" sort of discussions, if so inclined. This ambiguity ramps up throughout the book until the climax and denouement, where Ruth's hallucinations seem to have become literally real, but given her earlier discussions of giving into rather than fighting them, Powell doesn't really make a stand on what's real and what isn't, what's symbolism and what's

The result is a pretty challenging story that is as effective as it is affecting. Not to mention really well drawn.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Don't let the door hit your carapace on the way out: Way too many words on Blue Beetle and the singles I read and don't read

I’ve been thinking about the current DC/Marvel direct market sales model a lot lately, due to the fact that the companies both seem to be flirting with drastic price increases on their single issues—Marvel has started charging an extra dollar for not only their mature readers Max books, but also their “Marvel Knights” continuity-light books and new miniseries, while DC recently charged an extra dollar for a 23-page one-shot—and the recent failure of a particularly resilient ongoing of DC’s.

You’ve probably already heard that DC Comics' Blue Beetle has been cancelled, right?

This is actually a surprise to me, at least it is this week.

When they first announced a brand-new Blue Beetle comic starring a brand new Blue Beetle in 2006 or so, I just kind of assumed it would be cancelled within a year, 18 months tops. That's just logic: Take a mildly unpopular character unable to sustain his own title, kill him off and give his name, costume and powers to a brand-new version of the character, and you've done the neat trick of finding a way to make an unpopular character even less popular by alienating the 15 to 45 fans they actually still had (See the quick cancellations of Aquaman: Sword of Atlantisstarring Aquaman II and Firestorm starring Firestorm II for good examples of this phenomenon).

Hell, I had no interest in the title after reading the character's first few appearances, and I'll read pretty much anything. It wasn't until the steady drumbeat of online praise got so overwhelming that I eventually tried out an issue and found out that, hey, after a rocky start, this title actually kind of kicks ass (The John Rogers solo-written issues, from the Blue Beetle/Lonar team-up through #25, were all pretty great super-comics).

At that point, I still wouldn't have been surprised at all if DC pulled the plug. The book didn't seem to be selling all that well, and Rogers—i.e. the reason the book was any good—was leaving. But DC planned to soldier on with it. Surely it must be selling somewhere, right?

That somewhere, I guessed, was libraries. Whether it was the fact that the new Blue Beetle was Hispanic or a teen or that he was a superhero in a book that wasn't total shit, teen librarians seemed to dig Blue Beetle. The first two volumes were on a YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association ) best of the year list, and it was one of the few DC superhero books on the shelves in the teen section of one of the libraries I go to (not Columbus Metropolitan Library, which seems to get almost everything in trade—everything except Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters, those bastards—but a smaller, suburban library).

So that must be where Blue Beetle is finding its market, I thought. Maybe it's doing respectably enough in trades that it offsets the relatively low sales of the singles (This is supposedly the case with the low-selling but still-not-cancelled Jonah Hex and pretty much every Vertigo book). Once I realized that, I didn't expect the book to be cancelled any more.

And then they cancelled it.

And the timing of the decision was, in keeping with most decisions at DC Comics these days, completely hilarious. It was the same week that the cartoon watching kids of the world were introduced to this version of Blue Beetle via a new Batman cartoon, Batman: The Brave and the Bold and, even if they aren't going to be storming their local comics shops one Wednesday a month for a new Blue Beetle adventure, I'm sure more plugged-in teen librarians are going to be ordering more Blue Beetle trades, and kids are going to be a lot more likely to have their eyes caught by trades on the shelves of their local libraries and big box bookstores their parents take them to.

Would a higher Q rating for Blue Beetle III have helped move more single issues and trades? Maybe. Enough to make it a bestseller all of a sudden? God, no. But it sure wouldn’t have hurt. (I don’t think the cancellation is necessarily a dumb move by DC, or a missed opportunity, it’s just kind of ironic coming when it did).

Now I suppose I should apologize to the Blue Beetle fans, as the cancellation is actually kinda sorta my fault. Or at least partially. I dropped the book after #26. That was June’s gimmicky (almost) all-Spanish issue, written by Jai Nitz. I liked it quite a bit, but DC was slow too slow to replace Rogers, following his final issue with that fill-in by Nitz and then two more fill-in issues by Will “Wrote Amazons Attack” Pfeifer before finally getting around to the actual next “regular” writer Matt Sturges, whose plans for the series included…Dr. Polaris II.

The couple month lag wass a real momentum killer, and it gave readers (like me!) a chance to get used to not reading Blue Beetle during a natural jumping-off point. By the time the new writer started writing, I had not only gotten into the habit of not reading Blue Beetle, but I had gotten a sense of where the title would be going in the near future, and it didn’t seem to be anywhere particularly creative (Dr. Polaris was a Magneto knock-off killed in a Geoff Johns companywide crossover series just to demonstrate how totally serious the story was, so Sturges was planning on using a legacy version of a knock-off whose knocking-off was demonstrative of everything tired about DC Comics).

While not giving readers months to consider dropping titles between runs seems kind of logical, DC seems to do this pretty often—I’ve also dropped Booster Gold and Brave and the Bold when the titles went into four-to-six-month stalling mode.

Well, with another low-selling DC super-title biting the dust, and the fear of a $3.99 industry average haunting me, I thought I’d take a closer look at what I’m still reading in single issues, and whether I’d keep reading ‘em at four bucks a pop or not.

I doubt this is of all that much value to anyone as, like, a case study or anything, as I’m only a single reader and maybe not that representative of the average DC and Marvel super-comic consumer. But I am a example, someone who goes to the shop every Wednesday to buy a handful of superhero comics to read that evening. And I find myself getting increasingly selective of what I buy, due to general destitution (the first sentence of the “About Me” paragraph in the upper right hand corner should explain why I’m not exactly rolling in disposable income), and what I read in single issues versus the usually cheaper trade format (even when prices of the trades are the same as that of the price of the individual books they collect added up, Amazon discounts will shave some cost off, and the well-stocked local libraries make reading a lot of trades free).

So here’s my system of storing comics. The regular, ongoing series I read each have their own little stacks on these bookshelves, in some cases grouped by character or franchise (Green Lantern Coprs, miniseries and specials are in the Green Lantern stack, for example).
(Above: My piles of series I'm currently reading; not pictured, a coupla more piles)

Miniseries or new series I’m just trying out are all in a big miscellaneous stack. When I drop a title, or when it’s canceled, they go into longboxes or huge pile of books that need to be put in longboxes some day).
(Above: I decided a better use of my time would be to photograph the stacks of comics I need to organize and post that picture on the Internet, rather than organize them. There an equal number of comics in a cardboard box shoved underneath that desk by the way, supporting the album leaning up against it)

This week I poked around these stacks, and wrote some thoughts on the books I’m still reading in singles…

So these are the comics I still read in single issues…

Action Comics I like Superman as a character in general, and am quite enamored of his whole corner of the DCU—the supporting cast, the villains, the settings—but I'm a fair-weather fan. I follow the creators and/or the direction of Superman comics, so I'll read them for an arc or a run, drop them, pick 'em up again, and so on.

I think the Superman franchise was one of the few that came out of the "One Year Later" jump in good shape, and probably the only one that maintained its quality since then (The hiring-of-Adam Kubert-mistake and the subsequent Chris Kent continuity fuck-up aside). I've been reading Action monthly since OYL, save for the last few chapters of the Richard Donner/Geoff Johns/Kubert arc.

Superman As with Action, I've been reading this monthly since OYL, and it's been the better of the two Superman books, in my opinion. I kind of hope James Robinson's rumored (by Rich Johnston) fall-out with DC was simply baseless gossip, as I'm interested in where Robinson's taking the title. He gets Superman's voice kind of weird sometimes, but he's obviously been laying a lot of groundwork for a big, long-term story plan and, more importantly, he uses Krypto the Superdog a lot.

Batman I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate Tony Daniel's artwork. It's just awful stuff, and every page of it I see surprises me anew that this is the guy drawing Batman. I can stand in my comics shop, scan the shelves of DC books, and pick out just about any of them that features vastly superior art better suited for DC's flagship book featuring its flagship hero (The guy doing JLoA and the guy doing Teen Titans are probably the only two that I think might not be an improvement over Daniel). Still, Grant Morrison scripting, and telling probably the most interesting Batman story I've read since, I don't know, "Lonely Place of Dying," maybe...?

Like Superman books, the Batman franchise is one I'm generally interested in, but only read when I like the creative team. The Moench/Jones/Beatty run was the last time I read Batman regularly month-in and month-out for any length of time. I've been reading Batman since the OYL direction-shift though, only for Morrison's script at this point (I skipped a few non-Morrison fill-ins).

Daniel's art is so bad though, I'm really on the fence about continuing. I may end up dropping this after the Denny O'Neil and Neil Gaiman stunt arcs, depending on the post-"Batman R.I.P." direction and who will be responsible for it. (Any of the likely candidates to take over being Batman if Bruce Wayne "dies" sound pretty boring to me, but even if no curveballs are thrown—like The Knight or Chief Man-of-Bats becoming the New Batman—if Morrison and someone who can draw a comic are involved, I might stick around).

Green Lantern I really despise Hal Jordan. I used to dislike him because he was just an exceptionally boring empty set of tights, but after Geoff Johns started writing him, I came to dislike him because he seems like such a dick. Cocky, mean and dumb, Johns has made him into a toned-down version of the Giffen/DeMatteis Guy Gardner, only John plays the asshole with a ring characterization straight rather than for laughs.

I think that's a good thing by the way—Johns has given Hal Jordan a personality, even if he's not the sort of person I would want to be around in real life, or even think is particularly heroic sometimes. That, coupled with the fact that Johns is more of a comics script builder than an comics storyteller, would seem like reason enough to have dropped this book long ago, and yet I'm still reading.

It's not always good, but it's never that bad, and Johns seems to have been afforded his pick of DC artists (or at least, he never gets stuck with a bum one), and the fact that he's writing most of the rest of the DCU means that GL always seems particularly plugged into the shared setting. It's one of the DCU-iest DC titles, if that makes any sense.

Justice Society of America I've been reading this for longer than Geoff Johns has been writing it now, when it was first launched by James Robinson as a JLA-like book. The current storyline—all 20 chapters and counting of it—is pretty damn tedious, and I'm not quite convinced that the sequel to Kingdom Come needs to exist nor needs to involve the Justice Society, but this seems like the only competent DC team title at the moment. A writer who gets the characters and seems to be telling his own stories rather than working off a memo from company execs? Check. An artist/s who can draw well, stay on-model, serves the story and know the difference between drawing a comic and drawing three pin-ups per page? Check. A coherent, seemingly long-term plan or direction, rather than a string of event stories alluding to other event stories? Check. I can't say that about JLoA, The Titans, Teen Titans or Batman and The Outsiders. All of which makes JSoA seem like a masterpiece, even if it's just pretty okay most of the time.

The Secret Six Writer Gail Simone sometimes tries a little too hard when it comes to infusing her stories with humor, but there's a lot of humor that's inherent to this group of characters that come across organically, and the Nicola Scott/Doug Hazelwood art team just really know their stuff. I suppose there will come a point where this book might really get on my nerves, as Simone's super-long run on Birds of Prey did in its last year or so, but three issues I'm still liking this and looking forward to the next issue.

Trinity I'm not sure what the right word for this 52-part limited series's going to have a lot more issues than a lot of cancelled series ever get, but it's so big that even the word "maxi-series" doesn't seem quite big enough. Visually, this is probably the strongest of DC's three weekly series. As for the story, it has the same grand scale as 52 and does a lot of the connection-drawing and idea-generating that 52 did so well, although those ideas usually aren't as grand as those in 52. It's almost always a good read though, and I'm going to be sad to see it end, in large part because it's a nice place to read about characters you like whose own books are so bad you can't stand them anymore (For me personally, the JLA, Wonder Woman and Flash, although Trinity also gives plenty of panel-time to book-less second-stringers like John Stewart, Hawkman and Firestorm II). While this won't be around too much longer, a DC weekly of this caliber quality would be exactly the sort of book I'd keep reading in single issues in the event of all $2.99 books becoming $3.99 books (In fact, it might be the only kind of book I'd keep reading then).

Tiny Titans I had no intention of reading more than an issue of this just out of curiosity, but it is really cute and really funny, and my curiosity's been replaced with affection. If it were printed on slicker paper and DC started charging more for it (right now it's only $2.25), I might drop it, but other than that I can't see stopping reading it any time soon.

The Incredible Hercules I'm running out of ways to say how much I dig this book; suffice it to say it's my favorite ongoing monthly super-comic. An issue has yet to pass that I didn't love, I usually laugh out loud—or at least giggle—at least once an issue, and it's solidly entertaining from the recap page through the cliffhanger ending. And as fun as it is, it's not mind-less fun—there's actually stories being told in here, character development and everything. It would probably be possible for me to trade-wait this book, but man, it would be hard.

Avengers: The Initiative The only Marvel Universe Avengers title I'm still reading, having dropped Brian Michael Bendis' New and Mighty books when they stopped having anything at all to do with the Avengers, and became Secret Invasion: Front Line and Brian Michael Bendis' Secret Invasion Outtake-O-Rama. The plots have generally tied in to whatever big things going on in the Marvel Universe at the time—it launched out of Civil War, got involved with World War Hulk, is currently detailing the Secret Invasion hero vs. Skrull war that SI sort of suggests is going on—but writers Dan Slott and Christos Gage manage to tell their own stories using their own sprawling cast of characters using those events as backdrops. So rather than interruptions, the tie-ins seem essential to the plot. This could change when Slott leaves the book, but at the moment The Initiative really feels like the "spine of the Marvel Universe," the only book you really need to read to know what's going on universe-wide.

More importantly, though, it's one of the few super-comics that seems to be adding something to its fictional universe, rather than subtracting things: Slott, Gage and company not only dust off minor Marvels by the handful to use, they are continually inventing new characters to inject into company's expansive character catalogue. There's something terribly exciting about this. It's not just the drama of knowing that Cloud-9 or Trauma could get killed or turn out to be Skrulls or traitors or get married or join religious cults or go to jail for cocaine possession or whatever because the company isn't as heavily invested in them as they are in Iron Man, Spider-Man and Captain America, but the vitality inherent in a stream of new character creation. It gives the sense that the Marvel Universe is still expanding rather than contracting as opposed to the DC Universe, where "new" characters too often means Blue Beetle II or The Question dying so Blue Beelte III and Question II can take over.

Ultimate Spider-Man Sometimes it's hard to believe that the guy who writes all those shitty Avengers comics and crossovers is the same guy who writes this engaging teen melodrama/superhero coming-of-age story, that rare corporate owned superhero comic that does and continues to do everything right in terms of being new reader friendly/potentially appealing to people who don't already read new superhero comics every Wednesday, as they have for the last 10-20 years.

Brian Michael Bendis' bad habit of decompression is sometimes still in full effect with the book (moreso in the first 50 issues than the last 75 or so), but when Mark Bagley was cranking these things out every three weeks, it didn't seem to matter so much. On a few occasions I've been tempted to drop the singles—during weaker arcs like the Deadpool/X-Men crossover and a couple of the Goblin stories, and when Bagley passed the torch to Stuart Immonen—in part because of the book's consistency. After a certain point, it became clear that this would continue to be pretty consistent in terms of quality, and that it would always be collected (a few years ago, that every series would eventually be collected wasn't a certainty, and I think there was a stronger motivation to buy riskier, more random titles like, say, Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters or The Omega Men miniseries, because it seemed reasonable that if the monthlies tanked, they wouldn't be trade-collected).

I can never quite bring myself to drop this though, as much as I'd prefer to have a shelf full of it in trade instead of the unwieldly stacks of singles I've amassed of it at this point.

Wolverine First Class God, I hate the X-Men. I've tried and tried to read X-Men comics from all eras and by all kinds of different creators, but it almost always seems like I'm trying to read a book in a different language or something. And yet this is a whole lot of fun, thanks mostly to writer Fred Van Lente following Jeff Parker's X-Men: First Class example of telling short, all-ages stories more concerned with entertaining the reader than winning a theoretical argument over whether comics are serious or mature enough for adults. The wait between trade collections of this title wouldn't necessarily drive me crazy, so this is one I could pretty painlessly stop reading singles of some day, but the done-in-one formula—which all but two stories in the short run have adhered to—makes the single-issue reading experience preferable to a trade.

Marvel Adventures Avengers This title is Marvel's best-kept secret. The line-up is essentially the A-List of Marvel's superheroes—the Avengers as Marvel's JLA—and more often-than-not writer Jeff Parker managed to turn it into a comedy book somewhere along the way. Parker left for a while (and I dropped it for a while), but he's come and gone since, sometimes with Paul Tobin in tow. The last issue was Tobin solo, but Tobin's style is quite close to Parker's.

This would be relatively easy to drop and read in trade—I read the rest of the Marvel Adventures line in trade, as the digests often end up being cheaper than the singles (and are easier to store).

Captain Britain and MI13 I'm on the fence with this title; I've passed it by on a few occasions now, although I go back and get the back issues on slow weeks. I recently dropped Nightwing, Invincible Iron Man, Green Lantern Corps, Runaways and Guardians of the Galaxy; if I need to make any more cuts to my monthly purchases, this one will probably be it. It seems like it will just fine in trade, and while the first two story arcs have been entertaining enough, there’s no real urgency about them.

These are the limited series I’m currently reading in singles: Age of The Sentry, The Twelve, Avengers/Invaders (I hope Ross and company’s next Marvel project is a Twelve/Invaders crossover), Secret Invasion (I really should have known better after House of M; I thought Bendis had changed), Batman: Gotham After Midnight (I’ll read anything by Kelley Jones), Ambush Bug: Year None, Vixen: Return of the Lion, Final Crisis (The most disappointing Grant Morrison comic since his Authority and WildC.A.T.s relaunches!), Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds (I’ll read anything by Perez)

And these are the comics with weird schedules I get in singles whenever they come out: All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!, Special Forces (Kyle Baker), Rasl, Comic Book Comics, Johnny Hiro, Superior Showcase, Doc Frankenstein and Shaolin Cowboy (Whatever happened to these Burly Man series, by the way…?)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Surprisingly hot illustrations from Andrew Lang's Yellow Fairy Book

The witch-maiden from "The Dragon of the North," having chained up the protagonist prince in a cave, where he'll spend the majority of the rest of his life. He deserved it though, so don't feel bad for him—in this story the prince is actually more of the bad guy then the witch. This is a plate by H.J. Ford.

The Snow-daughter from "The Snow-Daughter and the Fire-Son," shown here walking around on a snowy winter night "with very few clothes on," as she was happier the colder she was (Hence the name). Another plate by Ford.

The title character from "Thumbelina," being crowned Queen of the Flowers and rechristened "May Blossom" on her wedding day. There's no credit listed for this woodcut, but I assume it is also by Ford.

Thumbelina from earlier in the story, riding upon a lilypad pulled by a butterfly. This is another woodcut, presumably by Ford, as the initials in the lower left corner look like they could be H.J.F.

That's an awfully sheer dress Thumbelina is wearing, isn't it?

Why, just look at the way that fish is leering at her.