Saturday, July 17, 2010

In which I make a dent in my To Be Reviewed pile

Arty Party When I was in about fifth or sixth grade, my grandmother had a subscription to the New Yorker and, because she knew I was interested in writing and was very encouraging of me, she always passed them on to me when she was finished, telling me there was a lot of great writing in them and I should get a lot out of reading them.

Well I liked the covers, I read all of the ads and the cartoons, and I tried to read the articles as well—I remember at least two instances in which I forced myself to read issues cover to cover—but I was either completely uninterested in the contents, or completely ill-equipped to digest them, or, most likely, some combination of the two, because the articles were almost always completely over my head.

Hell, the cartoons were mostly over my head. I knew they were supposed to be funny, that there was a joke either in the drawing or in the line of writing just below it or in the discrepancy between the two, but as often as not I couldn’t find the gag (I had similar difficulty appreciating the cartoons in Playboy magazines in grade school, on account of the cartoons all being about sex and my knowing nothing about sex beyond the fact that I wasn’t supposed to be looking at Playboys).

Reading Sara Drake and James Payne’s Arty Party was sort of like reading New Yorker cartoons when I was only at a Peanuts/Calvin and Hobbes reading level.

I could take in Drake’s images and appreciate how well drawn they were. Her style is loose but assured, with relatively few but lines, but they’re all strong and purposeful. She has a unique style that doesn’t immediately call to mind the work of any other cartoonist, and her poses and expressions are often amusing in and of themselves.But I hardly got any of these jokes. Some seemed funny to me because, devoid of the proper context to understand the gags as intended, the surreality is kind of amusing. Like, the fact that something like this—looks like a gag cartoon, but I don’t really get the gag, and the fact that I don't makes it funny to me anyway.

The book is a collection of 20 New Yorker-style, image-with-caption, one-panel cartoons, each of which is devoted to a gag about a particular modern (or is it post-modern?) artist. Sometimes the artists appear in the cartoon, sometimes their work is referenced or they are being alluded to or talked about. The table of contents lists each of the artists if it’s not apparent who is being discussed, although if you don’t know the work, then chances are knowing the artist whose work is being poked fun at isn’t going to help much.

It was a somewhat frustrating read for me in that I knew I should know many of these artists well enough to get the cartoons, as the names were familiar—Christo, Marina Abramovic, Robert Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, Luc Tuymans, etc—but it’s been a dozen years since my last college art history class, and the work of the Batman artists of 1998 has proven much more relevant to me in my adult, post-collegiate life than the names of many of the artists whose work I had to memorize for slide exams.

Arty Party is, essentially, a collection of in jokes, and while those on the inside make up a fairly big group, I’m unfortunately on the outside now. If you’re more steeped in the fine art world, then chances are you’ll get a lot more out of this than I did.

How limited is my knowledge of the fine art world these ?

These are among the ones I got: (That second one is Dale Chihuly, by the way).

Nevertheless, Drake’s art gets a thumbs-up and she and Payne both deserve high fives—gag panels making fun of fine artists are a great idea, even if I find myself too old and divorced from that world to “get” it.

Also included are a write-your-own-caption contest (below a picture of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene), and an “After Words” in which the pair responsible discuss the lack of humor in the “art world”…or, as they put it, “the ‘art world’ is totally humorous in its humorlessness. Laughs abound because art people insist on cultivating serious personas even though there is nothing intrinsically solemn about the function that the art world performs.”


And then Drake draws a picture of Duchamp’s “Fountain” sculpture playing chess.

To learn how to order a copy for yourself—it’s three bucks for an album-sized, 23-page book—check out this post on Drake’s blog, where you can actually read the whole thing online for free if you want. But you should probably buy one anyway, as Drake and Payne are artists, and thus probably need all the money they can get.

Driver for the Dead #1 (Radical Comics) This new three-part miniseries seems to fall squarely into the comic books-serving-as-auditions-for-movies-based-on-them category, to the point that writer John “The Guy Who Wrote Snakes on a Plane” Heffernan and artist Leonardo Manco feature an older, stately, black dude with white hair who looks an awful lot like Morgan Freeman.

His name? Moses Freeman.

Guys, you have to change the name a little more than that before you “cast” a real person in your comic book! (Also, maybe give him a mustache or an eye patch or something...?)

Morgan/Moses Freeman is a “healer” who seems to be the hoodoo equivalent of an exorcist, and he was called in to save a young boy cursed with black magic so badly he’s got a bunch of snakes and maybe some sort of dragon/demon thing living in him.

Morgan Freeman dies on page 20, which is kind of too bad, because the opening scene was rather strong, and it was long enough that I was getting used to the guy and liking him enough to feel bad when he left…particularly since the actual star (that’s him on the cover) seems a lot less interesting.

That pattern held for the entirety of the first issue, one of Radical’s giant, spine-having $5 format books with the story gathering more mostly Hollywood clich├ęs the longer it rolls along, snowball-style.

After the solid opening, we’re introduced to Alabaster Graves (Don’t laugh! That’s his name!), a New Orleans hearse driver who drives around in a souped-up, turbo-charged Hot Wheels version of a hearse named after the same fictional horse that the Green Hornet and Kato named their car after.

The appealing high concept here is that funeral homes are about more than embalming bodies, putting together calling hours and conducting funerals—they’re involved with all manner of different ways to keep the living from seeing the reality of death, like disposing of vampires and busting supernatural entities and so on.

Graves then is a little like Jason Statham’s Transporter character, but with a cargo of dead bodies and ghosts and ghouls chasing him.

After introductions, Graves gets the big job of transporting Morgan Freeman back into town, only there’s been a complication—Freeman’s great-granddaughter, an attractive young lady, insists on going along. Graves doesn’t like that, because he works alone and it will be dangerous for a lady and so on. She doesn’t trust this scruffy-looking Graves not to screw it up. They bicker bastardized screwball comedy style, and I will give Heffernan $1 if they don’t end up romantically entangled by the third and final issue.

Oh, and there’s a super-goofy demon named Fallow who shows up near the end, wearing a coat and hat taken from The Undertaker’s storage unit (The Undertaker the wrestler? Do you guys get pro wrestling references? This is the first one I made, I think), who appears to have some sort of stealing-supernatural-abilities-from-those-who-have-em schtick going on.

The basic premise is solid, and certainly has potential, and I suppose if Fallow is the last eye-rolling element introduced, then the series might end up meeting some of that potential. If, however, the comic continues to get less inspired the longer it goes on, then imagining Morgan Freeman intone “Back to the pit, you scaly bastards” at a bunch of snakes might end up being the highlight.

Manco’s artwork is photorealistic, a style I generally have little love for, but it’s surprisingly good. The artist seems to have found a way to make many of his panels resemble drawn versions of photographs without losing their expressiveness, so there’s implied motion from panel to panel, and implied emotion within the frozen expressions and body language (I'd show an example, but the "prestige format"-like format makes scanning whole pages super-hard).

As someone with something of a bias against this school of artwork, I was impressed with it, so I imagine those who don’t have negative preconceptions about such work will absolutely love it.

You may want to proceed with caution, but if you’re looking for something new, do proceed—like almost all of Radical’s first issues, it’s well worth a look, and it’s big and nice enough a package that even if you’re somewhat disappointed in it, you won’t feel as ripped off as you might have if you gambled four bucks on 22-pages of Avengers Monthly Number Seven or whatever.

Fearless Dawn #3 (Asylum Press) The third issue of a four-issue miniseries may seem like an odd place to stick an issue-long flashback, as that gives a huge chunk of the second and third acts over to an aside which, in this case, has little to nothing to do with the what’s come before.

But then, the “story” of Fearless Dawn is essentially this: Artist Steve Mannion sure can draw. That is, what plot and characterization has been in the series thus far has been there mainly to give Mannion an excuse to indulge himself in good girl art, hulking muscle guys and monsters, neat-o vehicles and loose, cartoony, just-this-side-of-caricature character design. And, because Mannion can draw so damn well, the dual purpose is, of course, to allow readers to indulge in the results of Mannion’s indulgence.

So if he wants to mostly ignore the Fearless Dawn and company vs. the Nazi super-drug scheme for twenty pages or so, he’ll get no complaints from me.

At the end of the last issue, Dawn and Number Seven were rescued by Betty, Dawn’s old friend and ally who looks just like Bettie Page. On their flight back to safety, the girls tell Number Seven a story about “The Case of The Monster Frog!”

An atomic bomb was tested by their home town...a frog got a nostril full of radioactive Kirby dots and monstered made short work of local police, proved too unstoppable for even “an all-sergeant group of Marines" it was up to the gals to take him out with a bit of frog trivia they learned on the first page of the story...

I guess I just spoiled the plot of the entire issue, but then, plot's not the point of Fearless Dawn.

This is the point of Fearless Dawn:

Spandex #2 The second issue of Martin Eden’s deceptively, subversively substantial super-comic about an all-gay British super-team has all the virtues of the first issue, with the added benefit of Eden’s stripped down, super-simplified artwork getting slightly sharper and more precise, and the inclusion of another wonderfully designed character being added to the mix.

Not Neon, the yellow-wearing ninja who is introduced as a replacement for the fallen Mr. Muscles, who died last issue, but Spandex’s antagonists in this issue:

Coloring, like lettering, is one of those elements that one rarely notices in a comic unless it’s done very poorly or, even more rarely, if it’s done exceptionally, and it’s an element that is generally missing entirely from self-published books like Eden’s (black and white is sooooo much cheaper, after all).

I have a hard time imagining Spandex without color though, and I’m having a hard time thinking of a superhero comic in which color has been more integral. Even Geoff Johns’ recent Green Lantern mega arcs with the emotional spectrum and color-coded Lantern corps focused on color more as a plot element in the story than as something integral to the story-telling through the art.

But Eden has given each of his hero’s a color of the rainbow (appropriate for gay heroes, yes, but, with this issue, it becomes clear there’s a literal reason for it in addition to the metaphorical reason), which transforms the simple costume designs into eye-popping, sluttier versions of Golden Age superhero gear.

He also uses colors to define scenes, so that Liberty dreams in shades of purple and lives in an apartment that is seemingly all purple. When characters are highlighted in a particular panel, the background will burst with their color. And when they are all together, or in a crowded street, well, look how bright and, uh, colorful (as in, like, full of colors) these pages are:In this issue, a mysterious ninja has robbed the Queen of England of her jewels and a corgi, and the team must follow the trail back to Japan, where they meet Neon, who has lured him there to help him fight the Pink Ninjas which are, of course, ninjas dressed in pink.

And they’re awesome.

But perhaps they’re too awesome...? Last issue, Eden had the team fight a 50-Foot Lesbian, and this issue opened with a Liberty dreaming of fighting a giant in tighty whities named Big Boy and a kaiju named Gayzilla before preceding to the pink ninjas.

Where do you go from there?Oh. Okay, that will probably do nicely.

To learn more about Spandex and how to order it, check out, and check out the “Japandex” design and art project while you’re there.

Walt Disney’s Comics #707-#708 (Boom Kids) There are two covers on issues #707, neither of which feature dinosaurs, but instead feature Mickey Mouse and some pals on a desert island (“Cover A”) and being lost on a stormy sea (“Cover B”). In fact, the entire issue passes without a single image of a dinosaur.

This is only unfortunate in that the story arc beginning in #707, “Mickey Mouse on Quandomai Island” by writer/pencil artist Casty and inker Michele Mazzon, is about Mickey and his castmates getting marooned on a seemingly deserted island actually populated by dinosaurs.

I can’t speak for the core Disney comics audience, for which I’m not really a part of, but dinosaurs are always a strong selling point for me, providing extra incentive to check something out (as they’ve been ever since I was a little kid). In fact, I only picked up #707 because one of #708’s two covers did have dinosaurs on it, and “Mickey Mouse and friends on an island with dinosaurs” is a much more appealing premise than “Mickey Mouse and friends on an island with no dinosaurs" to me.

I suppose it’s a matter of the way the comics are packaged stateside after translation, but the structure was a bit strange. Part one of “Quandomai Island” is 18 pages long, and ends rather suddenly, with the mildest of cliffhangers. (The rest of the issue is filled out by five-pages of a multi-part Minnie story by Francois Crteggiani and Roberto Ronchi). It’s the third page of the second issue of the arc, #708, in which there’s a big splash page revealing the fact that Oh my God there are dinosaurs on the island!.

The unusual stops and starts of the storylines—perhaps just strange by the standards of the other Western serial comic books I read in comic book-comic book format—accompanied the other past issues of the title I’ve sampled as well. They won’t matter in a trade, of course, and ultimately don’t impact the quality of the story, they’re just sort of awkward to experience.

As for the story, Mickey is treating his friends Minnie and Goofy and his dog Pluto (Aaagh! Goofy and Pluto sharing panel-space! Can’t reconcile…Mickey…befriending an anthropomorphic dog…while owning a non-anthropomorphic dog…!!) to a very expensive cruise, where Minnie meets and becomes smitten with a tall, womanizing braggart—Duke Hight of Konseet. When the ship goes down like the Titanic, Mickey’s crews, the Duke and his manservant, and Mickey antagonists Peg-Leg Pete and Trudy Van Tubb all end up on the titular island.

They eventually discover an abandoned research facility, a bunch of dinosaurs and a mysterious professor who stayed behind. The bad guys hatch a plot to profit off of the dinosaurs, but some other weirdness is going on regarding the nature of the research and the shifty professor as well. The plot therefore seems to be shaping up to be more of a “Mickey on the island from Lost” than “Mickey on the island from Jurassic Park.”

These are fine kids comics—simple and straightforward without talking down to young readers—and if you're buying comics for that age group, you could certainly do a lot worse than these. Older readers may get something out of them as well, they’re probably better off waiting for a collection.


Paul DeBenedetto said...

Is that Pink Ninja splash a New Avengers homage?

Caleb said...

Yep. At the bottom of the page it says "Me After Yu."