Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reviews of five recent-ish comic books

Darkwing Duck #1 (Boom) I’ll cop to being a fan of Darkwing Duck, the early ‘90’s superhero celebra-parody that was part of Disney’s “Disney Afternoon” suite of after-school cartoons. I think I was in sixth grade or so when Disney started pumping out half-hour comedy adventures based on various reinterpretations of various characters they had lying around unexploited. Darkwing was a particular favorite, as I was just getting into superhero comics at the time, and Batman: The Animated Series debuted around the same time, creating a strange superhero conversation on our television screen, in which Batman and Darkwing echoed one another in weird ways.

Given it’s superhero connections—the character was essentially a Batman-like vigilante battling a variety of villains who were little more than anthropomorphic analogue versions of various Flash, Spider-Man and Superman rogues—Darkwing Duck is, of course, better-suited than most other Disney properties to get a second life as a Direct Market-centric superhero comic (Certainly better than Talespin or Chip ‘N Dale’s Rescue Rangers!)

Despite what a significant portion of my life that was devoted to watching Darkwing Duck over the half-decade or so it was on the air when I really should have been playing outside, however, and the fact that a Disney superhero concept seems well suited to comics, I didn’t have too terribly high hopes for the comic book adaptation. I suspect that the TV show didn’t age that well (I have a second window open and have an episode playing on YouTube as I write this though, and while it’s better in my memories than it is on my computer, there’s some really great voice work on it. DW and Launchpad are both performed suepr-well), and I didn’t really care for the previous Disney superhero comics I’ve read form publisher Boom.

Well, writer Ian Brill and artist James Silvani won me over almost immediately. There’s a swell Dark Knight Returns cover gag on the title page—in which the bolt of lightning the Dark Knight leapt dramatically in front of on Frank Miller’s iconic cover blasts the tail off of the “Duck Knight”—and Brill elicited two “heh”s from me in the two very first panels of his script (A swell duck pun, followed by a coffee flavor/black-out joke).
I’m not sure which creator to heap the most credit on, which is a good sign—they both do such a swell job here that neither outshines the other, or leaves slack that the other must pick up. It’s a really well-made comic, and I was pretty surprised to find I could still hear so many of the characters’ voices in my head as I was reading their dialogue (I had a similar experience with Archaia’s Fraggle Rock; like that book Darkwing had me feeling nostalgia for something I didn’t even really miss until I read the comic based on it), and the issue read an awful lot like the first act of an episode of the cartoon—albeit an episode with higher production values, as Silvani, unrestrained by a shoestring animation budget, really goes nuts filling the panels with background players and action, making them a pleasure to linger on.

The book opens with a recounting of Darkwing’s last big case, which was apparently one year ago. Since then, he’s been forced into retirement by the crime-fighting robots of massive corporation Quackwerks (Sounds like Kraftwerk), which have completely eradicated all crime in the city of St. Canard. Of course, if you’ve seen Robocop, then you know what generally happens when a corporation builds crime-fighting robots, but until they go bonkers Darkwing’s civilian identity of Drake Mallard is a cubicle jockey for Quackwerks, working under the management of former supervillain Megavolt’s civilian identity.

As structured, Brill manages to quickly introduce the character, set-up a new, temporary “Where’s Darkwing been since his show ended?” status quo, and then cliffhangs us toward his reemergence.

Silvani’s designs are dead on and, if anything, sharper and more detailed than that of the show itself. He’s a quite accomplished actor of an artist, using Drake/Darkwing’s eyes to great effect. The character was and is something of a melodramatic, even asinine character, an off-brand Batman who was quite conscious of acting like a superhero, which always means a lot of squinting, grimacing and speechifying mixed with cartoonish eye-popping and jaw-dropping.

It’s only one issue, of course, but if Brill and Silvani can sustain this high level of quality, then it looks like Darkwing Duck might ultimately end up being just at home in this medium as in his native one. In fact, comics’ ability to freeze time around certain actions and Silvani’s skillfull cartooning may mean that Darkwing works better as a comic book character than he did as a cartoon one. UPDATE: Wait, wait, wait…I just thought of some good blurb-bait. Ready? Okay, the Darkwing Duck comic? It’s Ian Brill-iant! Ha ha ha ha! (Has someone made that joke before? I bet someone made that joke before...)

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #2 (Archaia) Perhaps unsurprisingly given it’s Mouse Guard version of Canterbury Tales structure, the second issue of this David Petersen-curated anthology book is actually just as fine a jumping-on point to his world of medieval mice as the first issue was.

In the Petersen written and drawn framing sequences, the various patrons at a mouse inn continue a tale-telling contest, with three more stories being told, each by a different creative team.

In this issue, those teams are Alex Kain and Sean Rubin, who tell the tale of Guardmouse taking on a bear, Terry Moore, who tells a short story about a couple of mice using a toad to help them escape an aerial attack by shrikes (which may be racist against toads, in the way that dwarves and elves are racist against one another), and Lowell Francis and Gene Ha, who tell a story about a heroic banker mouse who defeats a massive, marauding mink.

As with the previous issue, half the fun is seeing various artists interpret Petersen’s world, and all three of these hew rather close to Petersen’s basic designs, which makes the differences in rendering all the more stark.

I got the biggest kick out of Moore’s story, but probably only because that’s the artist whose work I was most familiar to seeing, and applied to things other than anthropomorphic mice. Sean Rubin’s art in the opening story, “Potential,” was perhaps the best here though, full of many tiny lines which seem to represent every hair and strand of fur on the mouse and bear in the story. It’s highly illustrative-looking, and in-keeping with the tone and spirit of Petersen’s aesthetic, although diverging from his technique.

I really love this comic, both as a fun reading experience and as something to go back and pore over to meditate on art.

I didn’t notice this in the first issue, but if you glanced at the cover there and read my description of the book’s contents, you’ll notice at no point did I mention a ghost mouse. What gives? The cover page has a little paragraph recounting a legend about a ghost. So apparently Petersen’s doing more than just framing sequences; he’s contributing legends to the world of Mouse Guard in this series as well. Neat.

Omega Comics Presents #2 (Pop Goes the Icon) This is the second issue of a quarterly anthology from boutique publisher Pop Goes the Icon, and as such one probably doesn’t need to read #1 in order to get the most out of #2; only the first feature, Omega seems to be a continuing features, and even that was easy enough to jump right into.

It is an anthology though, so standard anthology rules apply: Some stories are better than others, and chances are different readers will rank them all differently, so keep in mind this is just this reader’s assessment.

Omega, by PJ Perez, is a thriller about a terrorist roup taking over the Hoover Dam with high school students taken hostage. Their plan is to blow up the dam, but one of the kids has some sort of strange power that saves them. It’s just a chapter of a longer story, but it has a clear beginning, middle and end, and Perez is subtle enough with the storytelling that it creates a mood of intrigue. The character designs are strong and well-rendered, but as solid as any individual panel was, the art seemed a bit stiff to me…and the computer-lettering left a lot to be desired.

Next up was “Greedy,” a short sex and crime trifle with some obvious twists executed quite well. Russell Lissau and mpMann are responsible for this, and it boasts the strongest and most fluid art in the issue.

Next up is “Greyman: Highway Patrol,” which I didn’t much care for. It’s by Glenn Arseneau and Andy Gray, and is about a sort of liminal superhero being fighting to save the souls of some recently deceased young people from some motorcycle, Venom-esque tongue monster things or something. A lot of it seemed overly familiar to me, but the art was full of some crazy angles and interesting choices; I don’t know that I cared for the art overall that much, but I did like looking at each page in order to see what get drawn next and how.

Finally, there’s a short little gag story by Dino Caruso and J. Korim about door-to-door lawyers selling a pretty good service that has a nice punchline ending. The art is big and cartoony—maybe too big—but it’s all over so quickly that I didn’t have time to dwell on anything long enough to get turned off by it. (The lettering here wasn’t so hot either, actually…I guess I don’t much care for computer-lettering unless it’s so well done that it looks like old-school hand-lettering, maybe…?)

You can follow the link above to Pop’s home page, and see how to order a copy of the book for yourself there.

Pale Horse #1 (Boom) This is a more-or-less straightforward, post-Unforgiven Western comic, which is both it’s strength and its weakness. Cole is a black cowboy who lived with an Native American woman and they had a white baby. Three white men rape and kill his woman, so then he kills them, and becomes a bounty hunter, despite the fact that there’s a bounty out for him as well, raising his son while making his living killing dudes.

Andrew Cosby (who gets a story credit) and Michael Alan Nelson (who gets a “written by” one) don’t do anything wrong, but there’s nothing to Cole that necessarily makes him an interesting character. There’s a bit of mystery, I suppose—like where his baby boy came from—and Nelson does try to ramp it up a bit at the end by suggesting that someone back east wants Cole dead for some mysterious reason—but that’s it in terms for a hook. The character is a hard, cold, emotionless killer and torturer, made that way because his woman was once tortured and killed.

Is this going to turn into a Western Lone Wolf and Cub? Will Cosby and Nelson say something more interesting about race than pointing out the obvious fact that a lot of white folks in the Old West were monstrously racist?

Maybe, but they haven’t so far, and with a book costing $3.99 per issue, it’s hard to imagine decent execution of a straightforward genre book being enough to motivate many readers to spend another four books on a #2 issue. (Might be worth checking back in again with the trade though).

Pale Horse’s biggest selling point (at this point) is the art of Christian Dibari’s extremely expressive art. The backgrounds all look like watercolors—in fact, colorist Andres Lozano gives everything a painted look—and Dibari’s artwork suggests that of a mixture of Leinil Francis Yu and Kevin O’Neil here and there…maybe a slight accent of Tim Sale. It’s pretty great looking, but not so great that it transcends the script it’s illustrating.

Peony Trivet (Beehive Comics) This is an interesting comic. It’s a short, complete, 34-page black and white story about a man named Isaac Gander who is in the process of moving into a new place and attempting to forget a woman who broke his heart and it takes place over the course of about 24 hours.

Isaac and a man from a small moving company named Razel, a comedic if ethnically regressive stereotype character (although his country of origin is never given) unload all of the former’s possessions, and run into one another later that night under strange circumstances—Razel is shirtless and ranting and raving in a convenience store which Isaac has gone into to buy something to eat.

In the parking lot, Isaac meets a woman who appears to be the title character, a sort of magical fantasy girl in striped leggings and a big Flashdance sweatshirt who goes back to his place with her and has sex with him repeatedly. She later leaves under mysterious circumstances.

I’m not entirely sure if there’s another issue to follow or not; the cover of this issue at least implies that the woman has some other stuff going on than meeting and doing Isaac.

The script, by Ed Greene, is a little on the weird side, enough so that it’s difficult to tell if some of the weirder bits—like Peony cajoling Isaac into awkwardly attempting to play out a rape fantasy, some of Razel’s ranting here and there, or what Peony says upon first meeting Isaac—is supposed to be funny or not. I thought much of it was funny, but it was delivered straight enough that looking back, I’m not entirely sure if Greene has super-dry delivery, or if I misread the tone of some of the scenes.

The artwork, by Jeff Sims, is great-looking though. There’s a soft, playful loose-ness to the characters, props and settings that I have trouble thinking of any word other than “charming” to describe. There are very few sharp lines or edges in the work…even the panels are border-less, ending when the gray washes meet the white space that form the panels. Each panel looks a little like a New Yorker cartoon and a little like an illustration in an old childrens chapter book, and is just a ton of fun to look at.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with this comic all the time, but it was a pleasant enough read, made me smile a lot, kept me on my toes and was rather gorgeous.

But don’t take my word for it: You can download a pdf of it here and read it for yourself.


hdefined said...

"Given it’s superhero connections—the character was essentially a Batman-like vigilante"

Darkwing Duck is closer to the original Crimson Avenger.

Pj Perez said...

Thanks so much for the fair and kind review of Omega Comics Presents #2. Really appreciate it!