Saturday, September 04, 2010

Three from Radical Comics

Hotwire: Deep Cut #1: Steve Pugh’s near-future sci-fi ghost-police procedural comic gets a second three-issue miniseries, following Hotwire: Requiem For the Dead.

Despite being a sequel, this first issue is an extremely easy to jump onto jumping-on point, in part because of the familiarity of the basic skeleton of the plot—troubled cop seemingly checks out on the job and the real world in general, but gets pulled back into the life when a case so big it demands her attention comes up—and in part because of the rather immediate focus on the past and personal life of the protagonist.

That protagonist is, of course, the irritatingly intelligent, body modification-into, twenty-something, Metro Police Detective Exorcist Alice Hotwire, whose Warren Ellis-ishness is easily explained by the fact that she was co-created by Warren Ellis (Ellis still earns a cover credit and creator credit, but once again Steve Pugh provides both the writing and art).

After the events of the previous series, Alice is holed-up in her apartment playing videogames, drinking with the ghost/“blue light” of her ex-boyfriend and ignoring the phone messages left by her partner Mobey. When the overzealous SWAT-type accidentally cause a major highway accident while pursing a brand-new type of ghost—which looks to be some sort of blue light/robot hybrid—she reluctantly goes back in action.

If you read Requiem for the Dead and dug it, you’ll be happy to know that this is more of the same, with Pugh working in the same art style, although the plotting and script seem a little tighter and a lot faster-paced, perhaps on account of a lot of the world-building regarding Alice’s future world having been gotten out of the way in the last go-round.

If you haven’t, this offers an excellent checking out point, as it seems quite representative of the previous series without being completely dependent on it. I’ve read at least the first issue of every miniseries Radical has put out so far—they’re pretty great about getting review copies into the hands of critics—and Hotwire is probably the best book they’ve published so far. Both the writing and art are quite accomplished, and, in terms of the latter, Pugh is working in the general area of what seems to be the publisher’s default housee-style (realistic design, computer-y photorealism and/or painted-looking art…a general style I generally don’t care for), but Pugh’s is always brighter, easier to read and all-around better-looking than the bulk of it.

[Obligatory Caleb Complaining About Cost Section: This comic book contains 24 full-color, all-original story pages—plus two illustrated pages recapping the previous series—and only three pages of ads, all at the very end of the book. It costs $3.50. How is it that Radical can publish $3.50, ad-free, 24-page comics, but Marvel and, increasingly, DC can get away with charging customers 22-pages of ad-filled comics for $3.99? Shouldn’t a newer, smaller company be more likely to have to charge a higher price than the long-time industry leaders, instead of the other way around?]

Mata Hari #0: I’m not entirely sure if it’s a good idea to review this comic, which is more of sample of a graphic novel than an actual comic book (The above is the title according to the fine print; Diamond’s shipping list referred to it as Radical Premiere-Mata Hari). Priced at the how-can-I-not-buy-it? price of $1.00 for 15 pages of comics and six pages of prose, it’s less a prequel to a comic to follow than the beginning of a graphic novel. The 130-page original graphic novel Mata Hari is due out next January; Radical did something similar with a $1 Premiere issue associated with the Legends: The Enchanted graphic novel.

But what the hell. Radical sent me a review copy, and they sold it as a distinct, standalone unit, so review it I will.

Perhaps the last 115 pages are so great that they prove transformative of the first 15, but if these first 15 are indicative of what follows, Mata Hari is a pretty lousy comic.

The most interesting piece of this publication is, by far, the prose piece at the end. Entitled “Mata Hari: A Proposition,” writer Rich Wilkes discusses the real Mata Hari, to the extent at which it’s possible to discuss the real Mata Hari, given the decades of mystery and deliberate, official obfuscation related to the at least half legendary woman.

Wilkes’ proposition? That his subject may have been one of the most important figures of the twentieth century, if not the most important, given how a different ending to her story might have lead to a very different World War II.

It’s more interesting reading than the actual comic that precedes it—and certainly more straightforward. It opens in 1953, and is narrated in first person by a woman named Onya, who tells us about a little girl she met, who tells her a story about Mata Hari, which includes a story within a story taken from a journal.

So in just 15 pages we get two narrators and three points of view, revealing some hints and snippets about Mata Hari and some weird goings-on and…that’s it. Reading the comic, I didn’t really get any idea about what the story would be or where it go, and didn’t find a hook to make me curious about the graphic novel.

I did get a pretty good sense of what it was going to look like, and that I didn’t like at all. Roy Allan Martinez gets an “illustrated by” credit, while Draenka Kimpel gets a “painted by” credit. The lay-outs include a lot of weird angles, the character designs are unappealing and all of the pages are dark and murky looking.

There’s some smart logic to some of those layouts, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Take, for example, this panel: Mata Hari seducing a general type, while they're symbolically framed by an army of young men rushing into a meat-grinder is a nice, era-appropriate political cartoon sort of imagery, but the composition lacks symmetry, and the gore that comes out of the meat-grinder looks crudely rendered. I suppose making gore look gross makes a sort of sense—gore is gross, but given the context and image, why not make a nice drawing of it, you know? Ugly subjects can be conveyed beautiful in a way that doesn't necessarily endorse or celebrate them.

Another downside of that prose piece at the end is that it includes plenty of photos of Mata Hari, and their presence so close to Martinez and Kimpel’s version of the same woman (or at least a fictional version of that woman) only underscores the weakness of the art.

And here are some details of the title character's face in the comic, below some photos of her face from that prose section:

That piece at the end, the words and photos, suggest there’s a really great graphic novel about Mata Hari to be created. Based on this preview though, this isn’t going to be it.

Time Bomb #1: Know how I said that Pugh’s Hotwire is probably the best book Radical’s published so far? Well, this is probably Hotwire’s biggest competition.

It’s also a somewhat standard genre comic, a very sci-fi, action adventure-y sort of thing with sexy characters doing exciting things with exciting, cutting-edge technology. Also like Hotwire, it’s illustrated by an extremely talented and experienced comics artist, someone who has been drawing comics since computer-coloring came along and started to dominate the look of comic book art.

In this case, that someone is Paul Gulacy, and he’s working with the writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray.

I’m sort of lukewarm on that writing team, as they sometimes write comics I kinda like, but more often than not write ones that somehow disappoint me—I’ve rarely read anything from them that I found out-and-out terrible, but if I were a teacher handing out grades and they were in my class, I think they’d probably have a B average, sometimes earning B+’s or the occasional A-, sometimes pulling C’s or C+’s.

This one’s pretty good though, and that may have a little to do with the fact that they’re not wrestling with DC and Marvel continuity and characterization, as they usually are when I read something with their names on it.

So here’s the premise. In the very near future—like, two years from now—a world-ruling government-type agency with the extremely unimaginative name of “New World Order” (they even operate out of a skyscraper marked “NWO”!) are alarmed when some agents find a hidden Nazi city under Germany.

While exploring it further, those agents accidentally set off a rocket marked with Darkseid’s favorite letter of the Greek alphabet, which promptly explodes and unleashes a humanity-killing-off virus on the world. In a matter of days, any humans not living in fancy bunkers will be dead.

The only hope of stopping it is to have never launched it in the first place, something that might be possible, thanks to a super-secret time-travel device with fairly limited abilities. The plan is to send four highly-trained, heavily-armed, attractive-looking agents back in time with a massive contact list with this little mission impossible: Find the world leaders in the past, convince them that they are agents sent from the future, and then stop them from discovering that hidden Nazi city and/or launching that weapon.

The team doesn’t actually make it back in time until page 46 of 51, which means there’s an awful lot of stage-setting, some of which I spoiled (Although the cover contains a lot of that stuff anyway, right? Rocket, Nazi menace, sexy-super agents?). Much of that build-up is pretty interesting though. The NWO stuff may have elicited some eye-rolling, but the technobabble revolving around the time-travel stuff was a lot of fun—it was infinitely more realistic and specific in scope than a lot of what you get in sci-fi comics or movies. There was something rather Michael Crichton about it all, in that it was fantastic, but was at least plausible to someone like me, whose main experience with quantum physics is superhero comics.

After the team lands in the past, they find themselves a bit further back then expected, and immediately faced with a version of the killing Hitler dilemma, one in which there seems even less risk than usual, since for all intents and purposes their world could hardly get any worse if they altered the flow of 20th century history.

I know Gulacy is something of an acquired taste among many super-comics readers, but I’ve always dug his stuff, and it seems particularly smooth, clean and polished here (Charles Yoakum inked what Gulacy himself didn’t, and Rain Beredo handled colors…its aggressive coloring, but not so aggressive as to mess with the Gulacy’s line or the staging of the panels).

It’s a really great looking book, and among the most comic book-y looking comic books that Radical’s published.

And at 51-pages (and a “prestige format” style spine) for just $5, it’s a damn good value too. Like Hotwire: Deep Cut, Time Bomb is a three-issue miniseries, and the second issue is due in shops September 15.


tomorrowboy 2.7 said...

What the fuck is going on in that page with Mata Hari dancing?
There's a girl to the left who appears to have a coconut for a head, then one to the right with a hand for a head (I think this is supposed to show motion or something, but it doesn't seem to work).

Caleb said...

To be fair, I did trim that panel when scanning extends a little further to the right, across the fold and staples. If you could see it, it's apparent that the lady doesn't have a hand for a head, but another coconut head.

Actually, I think those are back-up dancers, and both of them are dark-skinned ladies with their heads mostly shaved (and big, single braids extending from the back of their heads), looking away from the "camera."