Sunday, June 07, 2009

Some reviews of a bunch of recent comics, mostly from Boom

Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead #3 (Radical Comics) I’m afraid I don’t have anything to say about this third issue of the four-part series that I haven’t already said, so I’ll just note that the plot for this one involves Alice Hotwire finding a nest of illegally weaponized ghosts and fighting them. One of these is a monster made entirely out of shuriken, and that’s just as cool as it sounds.

Irredeemable #2 and #3 (Boom Studios) I didn’t much care for the first issue of this new ongoing series by Mark Waid, admittedly in large because of Grant Morrison’s depressingly petty afterward, which reframed the comic story I had just got done reading as a response to Waid (and Morrison’s) fans and critics, for type-casting him (them) and sniping at him (them).

Given that the comic was little more than a What If…Superman Became Evil? story, with the first hints of why the world’s greatest hero would turn into its’ greatest villain being when his super-hearing picks up on people nitpicking him, the story became rather gross. Was Morrison saying that he and Mark Waid are like Superman, and wouldn’t it be cool if they just killed the hell out of everyone who didn’t love them enough? Superheroes are all about wish fulfillment, of course, even wishes the wisher knows are wrong and taboo and don’t actually wish for, but wouldn’t mind experiencing vicariously through fiction. But usually the target audience is quite a bit larger than superhero comics writers.

As much as I disliked that first issue, I have a lot of faith in Mark Waid’s abilities, and I assumed the series would get better. But if it will get better at some point, it hasn’t as of the third issue.

In the second issue, the Not The Justice League continues to try and figure out why Not Superman went crazy and turned evil, which entails one of the heroes tracking down Not Lois Lane, and the readers learning through flashback a bit about their relationship. As with Lois Lane, Not Lois Lane was one point in a romantic triangle involving the world’s greatest superhero and her bespectacled co-worker at her media institution.

Not Clark Kent pulls her into a closet at work one day, takes off his glasses and unbuttons his shirt and reveals that he’s actually also Not Superman. She reacts more realistically than Lois did: Being pretty damn pissed that the guy though so little of her that he pretended to be two different people and lied to her for years. She immediately shares the information with the rest of their media institution.

In the third issue, the Not Justice League continue to unravel the mystery of Not Superman’s sudden bout of evil-ness, and follow a villain who isn’t The Prankster and a group of other villains who the secret underground cave base of a character who isn’t Batman, but Not Superman is there to make sure that the weapon Not Batman has developed to stop him doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. (Although there’s a twist, it’s not as simple as the off-brand Batman having an off-brand kryptonite to use on the off-brand Superman).

You’ve probably detected a pattern by now, and that’s the book’s real problem. It is entirely, completely dependent on a reader’s familiarity with other comic books, and, because we know so little of the characters at this point, any drama that comes from their conflicts with one another is buoyed by that knowledge. Three issues in, it still reads like a rejected Superman Elseworld’s pitch, with the names changed and the characters redesigned.

I should note again that at least Waid and artist Peter Krause have developed some new characters. Superma—er, The Plutonian’s peers in the Jus—um, The Paradigm are, if not completely unique characters, aren’t simple one-for-one analogues with DC heroes. That is, Waid and Krause have actually created some new superheroes to fill out The Plutonian’s team; it’s not simply The Fast, Red Lamp, Falcon Man, Blue Arrow and so on.

The comic it most reminds me of at this point is Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ Wanted, which did use a one-for-one analogue approach, filling the book with clearly recognizable Superman and Batman villains that were just slightly tweaked. And while I’d hardly hold Wanted up as a paragon of comics storytelling, Millar and Jones did do a decent job of defining their protagonist’s character before introducing us to all the analogues and the couple of high concepts Millar had come up with for the series.

Here, the high concept isn’t terribly high, and the none of the characters have been too terribly defined beyond their names, costumes and actions. We’re meeting them and learning a bit about them through flashback, but the situations and settings we’re flashing back too seem just as analogous to those form other DC super-comics as the altered-present does.

Three issues in, the comic book still reads like an idea for a comic book, rather than a series.

Now, it’s quite possible that Waid is taking a long view with the project, and that at some point it will all come together in a way that transforms these first few issues. If that’s the case, here’s hoping he does so by the end of the first trade’s worth of stories. I’m not sure you can—or at least should—write a comic that way, particularly if it’s being released serially like this, as it’s asking an awful lot of your readers to read five and a half poor issues to get to the part that will make sense of them.

But then, I’m just speculating, based on the fact that Waid’s past work proves he’s a better, smarter writer than this particular work evidences.

I should note that Krause has been doing a fairly great job with the art, particularly when it comes to “acting” through the characters. I admire the character design not reflecting too obviously on DC and Marvel characters (the way Jones’ did in Wanted) but, at the same time, I haven’t really been impressed with these particular designs.

But Krause sure knows his way around a page, and can pull off some impressive scenes. I particularly liked the bit in #3 where the villains and a hero suddenly realize that The Plutonian is already in the same place as them, and The Plutonian silently walks about, doing his business, completely ignoring all the characters, as they’re that far beneath his contempt.

Krause and Waid really did a pretty stellar job of communicating just what a scary motherfucker Evil Superman would be, and it was easy to see why everyone would be so freaked out about him.

That scene was another example of how good Waid and Krause are, and that they’re capable of more, and thus perhaps deserve the benefit of the doubt.

But then, I’m reading review copies. If I was handing over $4 for each of these installments, I probably wouldn’t have even made it to #2; certainly not to #3.

Muppet Robin Hood #1 (Boom Kids) I would not envy the task of writer Tim Beedle and artist Armand Villavert Jr., the first creative team to tackle a Muppet comic book since Roger Langridge set the bar so incredibly high. Given how universally adored Langridge’s Muppet Show comic was, how could Beedle and Villavert help but disappoint?

And disappoint they do, but not too terribly badly. I wouldn’t say this is on par with the Muppet Show comic, but the creators have a pretty decent excuse: The Muppet movies, even the best ones, were never really on par with The Muppet Show TV show, particularly not the sort of movies which this comic aims to replicate, wherein the Muppets fill out the cast in a classic, public domain story (Think Muppet Christmas Carol or Muppet Treasure Island).

The story here is, of course, that of Robin Hood, with Kermit playing the title role (Isn’t his nephew already named Robin? Yes, and that’s addressed within). He’s just returned to Loxley Swamp to find that it’s been transformed into a miniature golf course, and he runs afoul of the sheriff of Nottingham (Sam the Eagle) and his lackey, played by Gonzo.

After besting the pair, he and his nephew journey to Sherwood Forest, where they join up with the Merry Men (Sweetums as Little John, plus Rolf, Scooter, Rizzo, The Swedish Chef, that fish guy and a few others).

Villavert does an excellent Kermit, and a pretty good job on the rest of the Muppet characters, although his Sam The Eagle leaves a bit to be desired, looking a little too fat and round. The bigger problem I had was with the horses; are they supposed to be real horses or Muppet horses? They’re scaled to the characters as if they were Muppet horses, but they mostly look like real horses (I’m just nitpicking now, I know, but I think it’s important to a certain degree; if this were a movie, than puppet Kermit flailing around on the back of a real horse would be a lot funnier than puppet Kermit on a puppet horse, you know? One of the things I admired most about Langridge’s comic was that the Muppets retain their essential puppet-hood, even though they need not do so).

There are a couple of covers on this one since, you know, it is impossible to publish comic books without variants in today’s market. There’s a “Retailer variant cover” by a David Alvarez, which I didn’t see, and two others, one by Mouse Guard’s David Petersen featuring Kermit vs. Sweetums (that’s it above), and the other by a Shelli Paroline, which I like quite a bit more:

The Muppet Show #3 (Boom Kids) I think this may be the strongest of Roger Langridge's Muppet Show comics to date; if I'm less effusive in my praise for this one than I was for the first, it owes more to the fact that at this point I'm expecting a certain level of quality, whereas the quality of the first issue was such a surprise (Before reading it, I wasn't sure if a TV puppet show premised as a Vaudeville stage show could be adapted into a comic book successfully).

This issue is a Gonzo-centric one. In between the show's various skits—Bear on Patrol, Pigs In Space, a ballet sketch, a climactic Extravagonzo, etc.—Scooter is attempting to determine what species Gonzo is exactly on behalf of an insurance adjuster, and he's not having a whole lot of luck. (I seem to remember learning at some point--maybe on Muppet Babies--that Gonzo's particular species was a "weirdo," and I believe one of the movies was about his being an alien). The final determinations, the species Scooter ultimately gives the insurance guy and what Gonzo self-identifies as, are actually rather touching.

Two things regarding the Muppet characters occurred to me that I never much thought about before.

First is just how weird Gonzo is; Langridge's more idiosyncratic take on teh character and the way he presents him really underlines this, particularly near the end where his weirdness is used to directly menace the insurance agent. And the second is that Gonzo fucks chickens, doesn't he? I didn't think about that as a kid for the obvious reasons, although I was always kinda weirded out by the Kermit/Miss Piggy inter-species relationship (Frogs and pigs aren't even, like, compatible in the way a frog and lizard or a pig and goat might have seemed to young Caleb). Gonzo is more anthropomorphic than that chicken though, who can't even speak English. Regardless of appearance or daredevil stunts, chicken-fucking is about as weird as you can get.

And, secondly, what species is Scooter supposed to be? I always assumed he was a human, but he lacks a nose, which most (if not all) of the human Muppets have, and is head is shaped somewhat similarly to Kermit’s, and Kermit is, of course, a frog.

Unthinkable #1 (Boom) As premises go, this new series has a pretty rock solid one, and it’s executed fairly well, although it’s pacing makes it difficult to get a handle on where it might be going in future issues (This issue spans eleven years, two years passing between the turn of two pages, and then almost the entire Bush administration passing in the space of four panels).

That’s one of the reasons I’m not sure I have my mind made up about it enough to really weigh in on its quality; the other being the politics of it. Unthinkable wrestles with some pretty big subjects—which takes a courage that’s to be applauded—although I haven’t seen enough to know the positions it’s taking on some of these big issues. I think this is a comic I’m going to probably have to ignore in single issues, and then come back to in trade, when I can sink my teeth (well, my eyes) into a large potion of it, and give it some thought.

And hey, there’s another thing to applaud about this comic–it encourages one to think about it!

So it’s 1999, and Alan Ripley is a successful airport novelist of the Tom Clancy-ish variety, who also produces movies based on his books. His brother is an ex-Navy Seal, and consults with him; he’s also founded a Blackwater-like private security/mercenary firm.

Then it’s September 11, 2001, and the brother is killed in the attack on the Pentagon. A government official recruits Ripley and a bunch of other specialists into something called the Think Tank; they’re assigned with thinking of crazy terrorist attack ideas so the U.S. can plan to prevent them and, in a sense, be ready for anything. There, they’re each given little G.I. Joe-like codenames (Ripley is Hollywood, a conspiracy theorist is Peak Oil, a microbiologist Outbreak, and so on).

Flash forward nine years, and some of the very attacks the Think Tank conceived of start coming true!

Like I said, it’s hard to see where writer Mark Sable might be going with this. The Think Tank itself seemed to be a good enough premise to base a story around, but then when the attacks start coming true in the present, the narrative threatens that it may end up being the sort of big, dumb action narrative that Ripley would write a book or produce a movie about. It’s too early to tell, really.

Artist Julian Totino Tedesco does a nice job of providing a realistic, grounded-looking world full of real-looking people, and he acts through them all quite well. The artwork’s not showy or stylized, but it is well constructed and easy to read, the kind of art that best serves a concept-driven story like this.


Mory said...

Scooter is of course a gopher.

Ryan Roe said...

Scooter's not a gopher, he's a "gofer," meaning it's his job to "go fer coffee" and such for Kermit. And his uncle is J.P. Grosse, the owner of the theater, who is definitely a human.

And yeah, Gonzo's chicken thing is weird. Have you seen the episode where Big Bird makes a guest appearance and Gonzo lusts after him? Yikes.

Dean said...

The Sweetish Chef

Dude, he's a Swedish Chef. That's why no-one can understand him.

Caleb said...

Thanks Dean. That was just a typo. Maybe I was thinking of his breakfast cereal—which I remember being like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, only with more sugar—as I was typing his name or something. I fixed it.