Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Best Comics of 2008

Comics, by the labor intensive nature of their creation, tend not to be the work of a calendar year. Creators spend months or years creating them, and months are often spent serializing them in one format or another and then they come out in a trade format, likely in an entirely different year than when the creators first put pencil to paper.

So perhaps the compilation of lists like this, in which critics like me judge books by the January 1 to December 31 calendar year isn’t exactly fair. It’s certainly arbitrary, but then, I can’t think of any other way to judge all comics of a certain time period against one another that isn’t just as arbitrary.

So the “best of” I’m talking about refers not so much to the creation of the comics, as the publication of the comics. That’s why I suppose reprints must count, but perhaps not get full points (as I mentioned earlier this month at Blog@; otherwise, everyone’s top tens would be full of things like Fanta’s reprints of Peanuts and Popeye and we might not ever get down to things made in the last year or two).

To continue to focus on criteria before launching into the list, I should also mention that this year I’m using the word “comics” instead of “graphic novels” in the title of the list, because the former is more inclusive.

And as always, I should note that as much as I would like to read each and every single comics work that is released every year, I can’t and didn’t. Money is a factor, even though I do get quite a few review copies and get quite a few books from my local libraries, but time is an even greater factor. There are only so many hours in a day, after all, and these posts about Millennium aren’t going to write themselves, you know?

So if you’re thinking, Hey, why isn’t Abandoned Cars on here? Or Disappearance Diary? The answers simple: I didn’t read ‘em, and a lot of other comics besides. I did do something of a last-minute sprint to track down and read a lot of the comics I saw popping up on other folks’ best-of lists, but I didn’t make it to the bottom of my to-read pile.

So while I titled this post The Best Comics of 2008, the reality is that this is actually The Best Comics Published During the Calendar Year 2008 That I Happened To Read Before Calendar Year 2008 Ended.

Oh, and since I’ve talked about the words “comics” and “2008” perhaps I should also mention what I mean by “Best” too. I mean it literally. These are what I consider the best comics. Not my favorite comics, not necessarily the ones I enjoyed reading the most, but the ones that I think are better than all the other ones.

Okay so first, in no particular order, the ten best comics of the year. No, scratch that, in alphabetical order, the ten best comics of the year.

Then, as I did last year, I’ll list the rest of the books that I had put on a master list of potential best-of candidates from throughout the year. Basically, every time I’d read a comic book that really impressed the hell out of me, I’d add it to a list I was keeping to aid in my later best-of list assemblage (I started doing this when I was working for an altweekly and had to do best of the year film lists; the first one I did I had to sit down and reread 52 issues of the weekly paper to remind my self what I’d actually seen in that calendar year).

This list probably doesn’t actually constitute the runners-up—I’m pretty sure Jamilti was in actuality a better comic than Wolverine First Class #2, yet the latter is listed below and the former is not—since there were so many different factors in play when I noted these titles, but I want to post ‘em anyway to call attention to some works that impressed the hell out of me at the time I closed their back covers.

Finally, below that you’ll find a couple of extremely specific lists of books that didn’t even make it that far into consideration, but stood out in their genre (in my mind).



1.) The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (First Second) by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best The nineteenth century ends and the twentieth century begins and Useless Etienne, successor of the more colorfully named acrobat who gives the book its title, and his pitiful circus troop are there for it all. This beautiful, full-color book is bursting with narrative curlicues branching off of the main story, and it also happens to be one of the funniest books I read this year.

2.) Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics) by Dash Shaw I was primed to hate this book. It’s intimidatingly long (700+ pages), I didn’t care for the previous Shaw book I had read and the premise—a family reunites at the home the adult children grew up in for a dramatic event—sounds like something from Wes Anderson’s notebook. And then I read it. Pressed to pick a single best book of the past year, I’d probably crown Bottomless Belly Button. Shaw follows every member of the extended Loony family through a few days at their house on the beach as they each come to terms with their relationships with one another, their individual pasts and their individual futures.

The story itself is epic in scope and exceedingly well told through observational details, but Shaw is hardly acting as a formalist here. He takes some big, ballsy risks with his storytelling, particularly on the design and craft level, and whether they all work out for the best or not, they certainly add to the excitement of the work.

3.) The Burma Chronicles (Drawn & Quarterly) by Guy DeLisle The Canadian-born French cartoonist, his Doctors Without Borders administrator wife and their baby son spend about a year in one of the most repressive and reticent countries in the world. By the time you get done reading, you’ll feel like you spent the year there with them.

4.) Get Your War On (Soft Skull Press) by David Rees See, here’s a book—a collection of comic strips—that was published this year, but collects material created over the course of seven years. Rees has an unfair advantage here in that respect, but it definitely belongs here. Here’s every outrage in The War on Terror documented and preserved for posterity. I honestly think GYWO offered the best commentary on our country’s collective nervous breakdown and am constantly in awe of Rees’ ability to take the most horrifying subjects and find away to make hilarious jokes about them, without minimizing the horror or even toning down the rage one should feel in the face of such horror.

5.) The Goddess of War (PictureBox, Inc.) by Lauren R. Weinstein Over four months later, I still don’t know what to do with this gigantic comic book—it’s currently in the envelope it was mailed in, behind a bookshelf—but the more I read it the more impressed I become with the cosmology Weinstein created and the story she tells in it.

6.) Gumby: The Collected Edition (Wildcard Ink) by Bob Burden and Rick Geary Here’s what I wrote back in March, immediately after having read this: “This trade collecting the first three issues of Bob Burden and Rick Geary’s new Gumby series, is easily one of the most insane comics I’ve ever read, and it’s somehow made all the more insane by the fact that its anchored by the vaguely familiar pop culture figure of Gumby…It’s really got to be read to be believed.” Grant Morrison’s got nothing on Bob Burden.

7.) The Last Musketeer (Fantagraphics) by Jason The Norweigian cartoonist sends Athos, the last of the famed Musketeers who’s still musketeering to the best of his ability, to Mars, where the character from the swashbuckling genre contends with a threat from old sci-fi serials (in addition to awkward humor and career ennui).

8.) Omega The Unknown (Marvel Comics) Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak and Farel Dalrymple This is such a strange project that I had been meaning to devote a long, thoughtful post about it, but have never been able to muster the energy, in large part because I’m still wrestling with some of the specific issues it raised. This is Lethem and company’s “cover song” version of the incredibly far ahead of its time 1970s series by the same name originally written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes.

Gerber had expressed his frustration with the book’s very existence, and also died this year, so reading it afterwards was a pretty odd experience.

While Lethem and company’s version begins as a more or less panel-for-panel recreation, by the second issue it begins to diverge quite wildly. What I found myself most impressed with was the fact that the new version manages to recreate the strange tone of the original, even while telling a very different story.

I’m still pretty ambivalent about whether this book should ever have been made, as going forward it can’t help but impact Gerber and Skrenes’ original, but I’ve no questions that about whether or not the new Omega is a great graphic novel, and probably the best superhero book of the year.

9.)Swallow Me Whole (Top Shelf) by Nate Powell Keep your eyes on this Powell character; he’s going places.

10.) Venice Chronicles (AdHouse Books) by Enrico Casarosa Here’s another book I’ve been meaning to give a full review to for quite some time now; I’ve just been waiting for a block of quality time with a scanner, as it’s somewhat difficult to praise without showing readers the art and format. I’ll try to do so briefly here: Casarosa’s book has a hand-made feel to it, like you’re reading his sketchbook rather than a printed and mass-produced work. He fills the pages with highly cartoony figures and hurried, hand-written lettering, flowing all over the pages in panel-less but easy-to-read lay-outs. The subject is a trip he took to Venice, but the book ends up being a damn sweet love story that seems to unfold in real-time in several stretches. I said it feels a little like reading Casarosa’s sketchbook, and it does at times, but, at other times, it feels like you’re inside Casarosa’s sketchook, and he's penciling and water color-ing the world around you.


Manga Sutra Vol. 1 (Tokyopop) by Katsu Aki The how-to sex book? Yes, the how-to sex book. I can’t link to my original review, as Las Vegas Weekly redesigned their website, but the work earns a spot here by virtue of doing something in a comic that I’ve never seen before, and taking advantage of the medium to tell a story (and communicate information) in a way that can only be done in comics. I haven’t read the later volumes, so it’s possible the series goes downhill, or the novelty doesn’t quite hold up, but I was quite impressed with this first volume.

Teen Titans Lost Annual #1 (DC Comics) by Bob Haney, Jay Stephens, Mike Allred and Laura Allred The comic that was so awesome, DC waited years to publish it.

Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story (Houghton Mifflin) by Frederik Peeters

Paul Goes Fishing (Drawn & Quarterly) by Michel Rabagliati

All-Star Superman #10-#12 (DC) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely This series didn’t stop being great this year, even when it started communicating grander and grander and riskier and riskier ideas, like the fact that Superman created our world and is, for all intents and purposes, its god.

Little Nothings: The Curse of the Umbrella (NBM) by Lewis Trondheim I was so bummed out when I reached the end of this book; it could honestly have gone on forever and I don’t think I would have ever got sick of it.

That Salty Air (Top Shelf) by Tim Sievert

Suburban Glamour (Image Comics) by Jamie McKelvie McKelvie’s art is probably why I had originally added this to the list, although I did really enjoy it. Holly Black and Ted Naifeh’s The Good Neighbors was a somewhat stronger effort at telling a very similar story.

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody (Bloomsbury USA) by Mike Dawson I didn't even like (or really know) Queen before I read this book.

Wolverine First Class #2 (Marvel) by Fred Van Lente and Andrea Di Vito You don’t have to believe me, but this was a really, really good comic. Even though it had Wolverine in it.

Roswell, Texas (Big Head Press) by L. Neil Smith, Rex F. May and Scott Bieser A who's who of historical figures in a seven-way race through an alternate history version of the American southwest, this is a blast to read.

Chiggers (Aladdin Mix) by Hope Larson In many ways, this is Larson's most accessible and commercial work, making it a great introduction to a great talent.

Cat-Eyed Boy Vols. 1 and 2(Viz) by Kazuo Umezu

Good-bye (Drawn & Quarterly) by Yoshihiro Tatsumi Like the previous Tatsumi collections D&Q have put out, this is a powerful, affecting and challenging work.

Pocket Full of Rain and Other Stories (Fantagraphics) by Jason Even before he started using anthropomorphic animals instead of humans for his characters, Jason was making great comics, as this anthology of his earlier work eloquently argues.

Bluesman (NBM/ComicsLit) by Rob Vollmar and Pablo G. Callejo

Too Cool To Be Forgotten (Top Shelf) by Alex Robinson

Yam (Top Shelf) by Corey Barba This is ridiculously cute and sweet, but there's some real grit amid all the sugar, as well as some good old-fashioned what the fuck storytelling and imagery.

All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder Vol. 1 (DC) by Frank Miller and Jim Lee In a perfect world, DC would have Frank Miller scripting their entire line of DCU books exactly like this.

Rapunzel’s Revenge (Bloomsbury) by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale and Nathan Hale I’m afraid this book ended up flying under the radar a bit, on account of co-writer Shannon Hale being kind of a big deal in the Young Adult novel world and artist Nathan Hale being better known as a children’s book illustrator than a comic book artist, and that’s a damn shame—this is a great all-ages adventure story.

Prince of Persia (First Second) by A.B. Sina, LeUyen Pham, Alex Puvilland and Jordan Mechner By far the best comic ever based on a video game that I’ve read.

MySpace Dark Horse Presents Volume 1 (Dark Horse) by Various

Mesmo Delivery (AdHouse Books) by Rafael Grampá

Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight (Dark Horse) by Chris Onstad I don’t think the Great Outdoor Fight is necessarily the best Achewood arc, nor necessarily the best introduction to Achewood, but the fact that it’s the only Achewood in book form earns it a spot here.

The Rabbi's Cat Vol. 2 (Pantheon) by Johann Sfar

Princess at Midnight (Image Comics) by Andi Watson Said I back in March: “There’s a humorous and occasionally touching moral about war in here, but Watson’s minimalist, perfectly designed art work makes the surface engaging all on its own.” December Caleb agrees with March Caleb.

Wizzywig Vol. 1: Phreak by Ed Piskor

Skyscrapers of the Midwest (AdHouse Books) This series makes me really sad, but it also perfectly captures the specific sort of sadness one experiences as a child.


Incredible Hercules (Marvel) by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente and various This is one of those comics that I look forward to reading every month and dread writing any kind of review every month, because it’s so incredibly good and so incredibly consistent that reviews amount to thinking of new ways to say, “Hey, how about that Incredible Hercules, huh?”. To repeat myself though, Pak and Van Lente have created a delicate balance between real world Greek mythology and Marvel Comics mythology, placing their superhero character astride the line between the two. It’s an extremely fun, old-school superhero comic told with modern, sophisticated storytelling techniques, but it’s also an interpersonal drama and a comedy.

Empowered Vols. 3 and 4 (Dark Horse) by Adam Warren On one level, it’s a near-nudity filled work of PG-13-approaching-R titillation sex comedy. On another level, it’s a superhero comic parody and genre deconstruction. On another level, it’s a pointed commentary on the role of female characters and sexuality in comics. On another level, it’s a character-driven dramedy. That’s a lot of levels, and it succeeds wildly on all of them. I don’t think there’s anyone working in super-comics who couldn’t learn something from Warren (and a lot of ‘em could learn a lot of things from Warren).

Umbrella Academy Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite (Dark Horse) by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba What if the X-Men were a little bit more like the Doom Patrol, only more of the modern day, and totally awesome? They’d be The Umbrella Academy of course.


School Rumble (Del Rey) by Jin Kobayashi


Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace Vol. 1 (DC) by Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert and others The stories in this 500-page collection are extremely repetitive, with Kanigher finding a formula he liked and then using it over and over, and yet I still enjoyed almost every single one of the slight variations on that formula.

Showcase Presents: The Brave and The Bold Vol. 3 (DC) by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo

Essential Man-Thing Vol. 1 (Marvel) by Steve Gerber, Mike Ploog and others

The Popeye and Wimpy Versus The Sea Hag Plunder Island storyline from Thimble Theatre 1933-1934 reprinted in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (Smithsonian Institution Press/Harry Abrams Inc) by E.C. Segar I found this massive hardcover being discarded in a library book sale, and am still working my way through it, but one of the first things I read was the Thimble Theatre portion, which featured the above story. Goddam is Wimpy freaking awesome. I think this storyline will appear in the next volume of Fantagraphics’ Popeye reprint program (Volume 4). You should totally get it when it comes out. UPDATE: In a strange coincidence, Tom Spurgeon has a link to most of that sequence up at his site this morning (January 1). Click on through it.

The Best Graphic Novels of 2007
Thirty-Three Notable Graphic Novels of 2006

Monday, December 29, 2008

I read every book Zenescope put out last week

In 2005, I bought a copy of Grimm Fairy Tales #1. The cover looked awfully goofy: There was a werewolf that looked like he spent most of his free time at the gym menacing a lingerie model wearing a ridiculously skimpy Little Red Riding Hood outfit, of the sort you would see online ads for before Halloween.

A flip-through revealed the cover and insides didn’t quite match up—the artists were different, and the story seemed a bit less silly than the cover—and bought it. Hell, I thought, I like fairy tales, and I like scantily clad women, so maybe this will be worth a read; if not, I can always review it, so it won’t be a total waste.

I didn’t care for it. In fact, I was kind of shocked out how bad it was, as eroticized fairy tales is something of a cottage industry within fiction writing and direct-to-video/DVD horror filmmaking. If I remember correctly, the story was two-tiered, with a modern story vaguely reflecting a slightly sexied-up, C-movie horror version of Little Red Riding Hood, both of which were told between its covers as an interlocking story (ambitious, I guess).

The art was pretty unremarkable, which seemed like the kiss of death. It was of the same inspired-by-what-was-popular-around-the-time-Image-was founded style that infected comics for far too long, and is now most often seen popping up in unlikely places like Batman, JLoA or various WildStorm titles. For the a comic like this to seem worthwhile to me, I would have expected the art to be top-notch, either providing extremely sexy visuals (and sexiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t really find anything at all sexy about an Ed Benes-like, third generation version of Jim Lee sexy) or an outrageous, ridiculous, hilarious sense of design, like some of the more sigh-inducing McFarlane toys based on fairy tales.

Looking at the cover gallery on, I recognize the next three or four, so I at lest flipped through those; I may have even bought #2, although I have no memories of the contents.

Flashforward five years later, to December 24, and Zenescope Entertainment has successfully built on the Grimm Fairy Tales formula of horror and PG-13 cheesecake featuring interchangeable Playboy model type women under a fairy tale inspiration veneer to have four new books on the racks that week. Zenescope has built up a line of books, many of them spinning off of Grimm Fairy Tales in one way or another.

I find this kind of remarkable. Not simply because I thought the issue (or possibly two) of Grimm Fairy Tales I read was so awful, but because the comics industry is such a hard one to succeed at, especially the direct market, where I see these books (I wonder if they have much of a bookstore or library presence; they certainly don’t seem like the kind of books that would be wildly popular outside the direct market, but I honestly have no clue).

What is the appeal, the attraction of the books? They’re not especially titillating; as far as I could see, there’s no nudity, or even any more near-nudity than you could find in your average DCU comic book these days, so it seems strange to think Zenescope has been able to sustain itself and grow its line based on the presence of scantily clad women on the covers. Particularly given how competitive the market is, and the fact that seeing naked ladies is so much easier for those interested in doing so than it used to be in the pre-Internet days—it’s not like teenage boys have to steal Playboys from one of their friends’ dad’s or hope they find a ripped up magazine in the woods somewhere.

Whatever it is readers see in the line, they see it in sufficient numbers to keep it going remarkably strong. Strong enough that I figured I should probably take another look and see what’s there exactly. So I read all four of the book’s Zenescope released last week.

Beyond Wonderland #4

Story by Raven Gregory, Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco; written by Raven Gregory, art by Dan Lester; color by four—count ‘em four—different colorists.

It took me about three pages to realize that maybe checking in on a publisher’s wares like this isn’t exactly the best way to go about it, as I’m obviously walking in on the middle of the movie here. I missed the first three issues of this series, which is some kind of riff on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books as gory horror movies, and according to the solicitation, this is actually a sequel to another miniseries I never read (Return To Wonderland).

It opens with a young, shaggy-haired boy named Johnny (Johnny Liddle, according to the solicit) in a basement, smashing his way through the looking glass into the book’s version of Looking Glass Land.

He immediately runs afoul of a garden of talking flowers, all of whom are more-or-less identical, Playmate-figured women rendered in what seems to be the sub-Benes house style, differentiated by their hair-styles and the skimpy, flower-themed outfits they wear. Oh, and they each talk in individualized dialogue bubbles, with colors and shapes reflecting the breed of flower they are. I generally find the give-everyone-their-own-font style of lettering in comics, but the flower shapes of the bubbles actually made this seem kinda of neat.

The flowers are introduced in a two-page spread, which you would usually reserve to reveal something really big and cool.

The flowers fondle and sweet talk Johnny, but he’s saved by a giant, toothy…hill. I think.

He soon finds his mom, who looks to be about the same age as him, wearing a ripped up Naughty Alice In Wonderland Halloween costume and chained up in a dungeon that he himself ends up chained up in.

His mom is being menaced by a creepy Mad Hatter-looking guy with a knife, who is her brother—Johnny’s uncle, then—and who proceeds to lick his sister’s face. This infuriates Johnny, who escapes, murders the Mad Hatter, and then goes to free his mother, who asks that he instead kill her.

This was my favorite part of the book, because Johnny took practically no convincing at all to murder his mother. It took only three panels for her to convince him to kill her.

Then Johnny skins his uncle, and he becomes the new Mad Hatter and proceeds to start stalking his own sister.

Grimm Fairy Tales #33

Written by Dan Wickline, pencils by Jordan Gunderson

First of all, note the numbering. This title made it to issue #33! That is pretty damn impressive right there. See, I didn’t like the first issue of this book one bit, but look! It made it to #33! Think about Virgin Comics for a minute. Remember them? Do you know how many of their books lasted 33 issues? I know, right!

Hell, Blue Beetle thirty-fourth issue comes out this week, and it’s been cancelled. And that was a DC book. He could team up with Batman and Superman at the drop of a hat, and he’s not going to make it to forty issues, whereas this title has hit #33 without giving any cancellation notice that I’ve heard of.

Well, I didn’t like this any more than I did #1. The design sense and the skill with which the art is rendered hasn’t changed much, and it has a somewhat sickly look…I believe of the sort that comes from coloring pencils with no ink (There are no hard, black lines or bold outlines…everything seems soft and fuzzy).

Apparently, GFT has burned up some of the more popular ones, as this is “Three Snake Leaves,” which a red-haired lady with a generic-looking book says is one of the more obscure fairy tales, one that was never made into a movie.

How’s the story go? There’s a scantily clad sick lady whose illness is cured by leaves brought to her by a snake. However, she starts acting increasingly snake-like, and her husband comes to a bad end.

This is paralleled by the main story, which is pretty silly.

There’s this guy whose wife is dying of terminal liver cancer, and who, in his spare time after work, is experimenting with various snakes in his basement lab to develop a cancer cure. He succeeds! But, like the wife in the story, his wife gets kinda snakey. The red-haired lady tried to warn him by letting him borrow her book, but he didn’t read the story.

The whole think culminates in a splash page shock image, but it didn’t seem worth the reading to get to. Maybe I was just jaded, having read the Kazuo Umezu stories IDW collected under the title Reptilia: If you really want to read stories about snake ladies that will scare the living shit out of you, you really oughta read Reptilia. (This is the face you will make the entire time you read it).

Grimm Fairy Tales Annual 2008

Written by Raven Gregory, Mike Kalvoada, Ralph Tedesco; art by Claudio Sepulveda, Axel Machain, Martin Montiel and Siva

And not only has it lasted 33 issues, there’s even an annual! Blue Beetle never had an annual! Manhunter never had an annual!

Like all of these books, this has multiple covers. Here, it's only two—the others all have three, including a holiday variant. I actually kind of like the Ale Garza one above. It's not a great composition or even a great image, but I like Garza's style in general; there's some personality to the art. I don't actually know what it has to do with the stories with in though. The Grim Reaper is in it—kinda—but no women dressed in...whatever they're wearing there.

In general, I’m a fan of annuals. I think they’re great, and wish every comic I read had an annual—a nice, big, fat, extra-helping of a comic I already enjoy. No one really seems to do annuals anymore; DC and Marvel both publish them, but they aren’t usually annuals (they don’t come out once a year), hardly any titles actually have them (just two to four a year or so, out of the whole line) and they’re just as often for characters that don’t even have books (Friday Marvel will release an Ultimate Hulk Annual, for example, even though there isn’t an Ultimate Hulk monthly, bimonthly or quarterly…why not just call it Ultimate Hulk #1 then? Sheesh).

So, if I liked Grimm Fairy Tales, I might like this But I don’t, and I didn’t.

This does function as I’d expect an annual to, though; it’s very much a feast of what you’d normally get in the monthly, by some of the same creators.

There’s a framing story involving two characters whose storyline must run through the ongoing—and which I might appreciate more if this wasn’t the third time I’ve read one of Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales books—that culminates in an old-school Tales From the Crypt-style twist. In between, stories are told, each a horror movie-like riff on a nursery rhyme: “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary,” “Humpty Dumpty” (he’s just a big, fat bald guy, not an actual egg) and “Hush Little Baby.”

1001 Arabian Nights: The Adventures of Sinbad #6

Written by Dan Wickline; art by Rod Pereia and Alexandre Benhossi

This one seemed to be the most traditional action adventure comic of this bunch. While the others riffed on public domain characters, this one stars one, and while they were attempts at horror, this belongs to a different genre all together.

Again, I’m in the middle of the movie here, but basically there’s this roguish sailor by the name of Sinbad having some adventures with his colorful crew, including some kinda monster-y looking man and a coupla scantily clad ladies (but not more scantily clad than, say, Wonder Woman).

This specific adventure involves members of his crew rescuing a captured queen, while Sinbad confronts someone called Kabtrit and his naked, mouth-, nose- nipple- and genital-less lava ladies.

Wickline’s dialogue is action movie ready, and the artwork is sometimes vaguely Howard Porter-like (and probably the best I’ve seen in any of these books). I didn’t see anything here that set a fire under me to dig up #1-#5, or eagerly away #7, but in a lot of ways this seemed to be the strongest book of the bunch, at least in terms of meeting it’s own aspirations.

While the sexiness and horror in the fairy tale books isn’t particularly sexy or scary (at least by my definitions of those words), this is a straightforward Sinbad-as-superhero adventure and it reads like one.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The dramatic emotional range of Squiggle


Pleased with himself:

Pleased by the suffering of others:




Very scared:



Skeptical...but resigned:

These and many other of Squiggle's emotions can be found in James Kochalka's Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hey film critics, what did you guys think of Frank Miller's Spirit?

“What is most striking about The Spirit is how little pleasure it affords, in spite of its efforts to by sly, sexy, heartfelt and clever all at once. Or perhaps the movie flounders because its multiple ambitions are fundamentally at odds, like the various femmes, fatale and otherwise, who do battle for the hero’s heart.

“The 108 overstuffed, interminable minutes of “The Spirit” yield exactly two memorable moments: when one of Mr. [Samuel] Jackson’s genetically engineered minions (all played by Louis Lombardi) appears as a tiny, hopping foot with a head grafted on to it, supplying an odd, creepy morsel of Surrealism; and when Eva Mendes, playing a character called Sand Saref, sits on a copy machine and presses the button. She produces what may be the only true-to-life image in the movie, as well as the most interesting.”

A.O. Scott, The New York Times

"The Spirit is mannered to the point of madness. There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material. The movie is all style—style without substance, style whirling in a senseless void.”

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

“As his comics work suggests, Miller is a peerless admirer of the female form, which is to say a shameless lecher concerned primarily with exposing as much luscious female flesh as possible. As a babe-delivery system, The Spirit is a rousing success. In every other sense, it’s a pronounced failure. The hard-boiled visual style of Sin City, with its comic book compositions, noirish black-and-white, and impressionistic splashes of color, now feels shopworn. Running gags limp and scenes drag on endlessly with little sense of rhythm, shape, or momentum. Miller’s screenplay oscillates sleepily between leaden camp, stumbling slapstick, and pulpy pseudo-poetry and [Gabriel] Macht leaves a fatal charisma void in the lead role. Not even the presence of Jackson in a Nazi uniform late in the film can give this regrettable boondoggle a pulse. In comics, it took Miller decades to devolve into embarrassing self-parody. In film, he’s made that leap over the course of a single disastrous film.”

Nathan Rabin, The Onion’s A.V. Club

“Like Ang Lee's misbegotten Hulk,The Spirit thinks the best way to bring comic-book characters to the screen is to mimic the look of those colorful panels. What Mr. Lee missed, and what eludes Mr. Miller with The Spirit, is making sure the source material's stories also make a clean transition.”

Christian Toto, The Washington Times

“With the fanboys anxiously eying Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation, Frank Miller's version of The Spirit sneaks into theaters almost unnoticed on Christmas Day—good thing, too. Miller, comics-writing icon turned director, has rendered comics-industry revolutionary Will Eisner's crime fighter Denny Colt a grim shade of dull—all talk, no action, save for a few slapstick mash-ups of old Warner Bros. cartoons and Miller's own Sin City, which has the effect of turning Eisner's Technicolor comic into a gray glob of hardboiled mush.”

Robert Wilonsky, The Village Voice

“Give Miller some credit. He didn't make the worst movie of all time. But that's about the best thing that can be said for The Spirit.”

Peter Hartlaub, The San Francisco Chronicle

“And yet The Spirit, which Miller wrote and directed, doesn't just play like a cheap Batman knockoff, it plays like a cheap Batman knockoff that knows it's a cheap Batman knockoff and wants to be sure everybody knows it knows. A goofy parody of hard-boiled detective fiction, larded with indigestible globs of expository voiceover and clunky catchphrases, the movie preemptively mocks itself at every turn, as if trying to beat the rest of us to the punch.

“The intention is clear, but the result is dreadful. Good comic books suggest action through abstraction, but The Spirit plays like an overproduced diorama. Watching it is like watching three dimensions trying to pass themselves off as two.”

Carina Chocano, The Washington Post

“Imagine the stark, monochromatic visuals of Miller’s Sin City as a backdrop for the campy humor of Adam West’s Batman series. Then imagine that the visuals hurt your eyes and the humor leaves you cold, and you get a sense of the The Spirit as a wearying waste.”

Curt Holman, Creative Loafing

“Still, there's an unavoidable feeling of been-there, done-that to just about everything that shows up onscreen. Macht's weary, fatalistic take on his heroic duties is right out of the Batman mold, while Jackson's Octopus seems little more than The Joker without all the face makeup.”

Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

“The story, embellished with Yiddish phrases and references to Greek mythology, could hardly matter less. Miller lavishes just as much attention on his own private fixations, which require Jackson and Johansson to dress in both samurai and SS gear.

“The Nazi stuff might make sense if the film were set in the 1940s, but the presence of computers and cell phones suggests otherwise. Miller is entitled to modernize Eisner's vision, of course, but his update is haphazard and soulless. Better to forever haunt a wartime Central City than to be trapped in The Spirit’s green-screen Nowheresville.”

Beth Accomando, NPR's All Things Considered

“It must really hurt to kill the thing you love.”

Ty Burr, The Boston Globe

Yeesh. I’m sorry I asked…

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Belated Weekly Haul: December 24

Well that didn't take as long as I thought it would. I'm back, my books are read and my reactions written up, so here's this week's Weekly Haul, later than usual, but less later than usual than originally anticipated...

Batman #683 (DC Comics) So here is the final issue of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman for the foreseeable (i.e. the solicitable) future, the second half of a double tie-in two-parter that bridges the end of “Batman R.I.P.” and Final Crisis. The timeline is finally made clear here too; Batman really does totally survive punching that helicopter with his dad/some actor/Satan in it, swims back to the Batcave, changes clothes and then is off on his way to appear in Final Crisis #1.

Okay, so he was missing in the recent issue of Denny O’Neil’s story that appeared in TEC, but he didn’t go missing after the helicopter crash that happened before that issue, but after an event that will happen in Final Crisis #6 that will come out at some point in the future. I think I got it now.

As for this issue, there aren’t really any surprises here, or even much of interest. The format was established last issue—flashes from Batman’s real history, scenes set in a fake history, with Alfred really The Lump in disguise pumping Batman’s psyche for info to build an army of Batmen for Darkseid. The ending was already spoiled in Final Crisis #5 (“What kind of man can turn even his life memories into a weapon?”).

Wait, I shouldn’t say there were no surprises. I’m continually surprised by how shitty the art is. This time it isn’t Tony Daniel’s fault, as fill-in pencil artist Lee Garbett is drawing the pages, but they’re still universally bad…worse, for some reason, than anything I’ve seen on Garbett’s website or even his work just last issue.

Here Morrison has Batman and The Lump fight it out and team-up, while we see scenes from the rest of Bat-history, from back when Denny O’Neil started writing all the way through “Batman R.I.P.” and it all just looks bland and uninspired. Some of it looks more like the breakdowns a writer might have done when figuring out how to write the script that were accidentally finished and colored. (Check out that image of Tim Drake from “A Lonely Place of Dying,” for example, or Drake and Batman from Identity Crisis or fat, spherical Bane. Hell, here’s a preview of the first five pages, covering the ‘70s).

My favorite part of this issue is Batman’s luxurious eyelashes on the cover.

Batman: Gotham After Midnight #8 (DC)

Stupid pun blurbed on the cover for no reason: “OH HOLY KNIGHT!”

Page one: The entire page is laid out around a splash of a skeletal grim reaper, with six panels of story being framed by the borders of his scythe. He speaks the information that would usually be in a narration box.

Pages two and three: A two-page splash of Batman in a graveyard, amidst a crowd of grim reapers who aren’t actually there.

Page five: If we say Batman is about six feet tall, then his cape is here at least eighteen-feet long and at least that wide as well.

Page six: In the bottom panel, Commissioner Gordon warns Batman not to get too cozy with Detective April Clarkson. In the last panel on the page, Gordon says she was dating Dunkirk and Bruce Wayne, and there’s a close-up of Batman gritting his teeth and baring his gums at Gordon for no reason in the foreground.

Page seven: In the first panel, Batman’s cape has shrunk to no longer than about nine-feet long at its longest point. The back of it barely covers his calves. In the fourth panel, Batman toddles awkwardly through a patch of gravestones like a giant baby wearing a tent, while he and Gordon talk about their love lives.

Page 13: Batman has Clarkson call Bruce Wayne to break her date with him so she can make out with him (Batman) under mistletoe.

Page 14: A full-page splash of Catwoman peeping on them. She’s so enraged that the sky is read, she crushes a live bird in her hand (KRTCH!) and she’s clutching a gargoyle so hard that the soles of her feet and her fingers have broken into it. The gargoyle includes sculptures of monstrous turtle heads either about to make out or about to share food by regurgitation, baby bird-style.

Page 17: The chapter illustration Jones does for each “chapter” of the individual comic is here a snowman, only instead of a third little ball of snow atop it as the head, there’s a gray, severed human head perched atop the middle, torso snowball, and the red blood seeping out of the neck hole looks like a festive red scarf on the snow.

Page 20: By the second panel, Batman’s cape is now about 40-to-to-45-feet-long, but no more than five-feet wide. The sound effect of Catwoman cracking her whip is WHHPP-CRACK!

Page 21: Batman is trapped against a brick wall in a net. He gets so angry that he turns red, Hulks-out, rips a whole section out of the wall he’s pinned to and shouts “RRRAAGH!”

Page 22: Batman’s cape is now about 40-feet-long again, and at least twelve-feet-wide.

I love this comic.

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam #3 (DC) I just counted, and this week I bought exactly as many superhero comics geared toward an all-ages audience as I did super-books set in the Big Two’s universes. I don’t know what to do with that information, exactly, other than to note it. This is the third issue of Mike Kunkel’s version of Captain Marvel, a spiritual sequel to Jeff Smith’s Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil. I kinda wish I would have trade-waited this series, since its schedule seems awfully erratic, but that’s hardly a terrible thing for DC or the industry—I don’t think the world at large much cares if and when the latest issue of BBatMoS comes out anyway.

This one got on my nerves a little, during the long stretch in which Billy goes to detention and I had to endure a bunch of detention-as-prison jokes, but if I were in grade school maybe that would have completely split my sides. The art is still a ton of fun, in the exact same ways I talked about the last two times I talked about the series, and I really enjoy Kunkel’s expressions, monstrous versions of the Deadly Sins and his panel-less sequences with implied borders between sequential images.

And there are something like eighty panels on every page of this thing, so one issue of Billy Batson reads like three issues of a normal comic, making it a pretty good value. There’s a five-page preview of the book here if you’re interested in what it looks like exactly, and what Kunkel’s version of Captain Marvel looks like sleeping on the couch while wearing his bathrobe over his costume.

Marvel Adventures Spider-Man Vol. 11: Animal Instinct (Marvel) The four stories in this $9 digest ($2.25 an issue!) all share writer Marc Sumerak and the common element of Spidey going up against animal-themed adversaries, but I suppose the latter’s not really all that special—dude has a villain based on every animal on earth save the spiny ant-eater, the African rock hyrax and the Shetland pony. The art varies from passable to pretty bad to pretty great, with different pencilers on each issue (Jonboy Meyers’ is the “pretty great”).

But I imagine it’s the story that’s the thing here, and these are all perfectly adequate all-ages done-in-one stories about a teenage Peter Parker running into various Marvel characters. It’s basically like a junior-varsity Ultimate Spider-Man.

So here’s what we got this volume:

—The Man-Bull ruining Peter Parker’s driver’s ed class

—The Puma teaming up with Spidey to stop The Black Cat from stealing a Native American artifact

—Spider-Man teaming up with Shamu to stop Orka-with-a-K from terrorizing Sea World, giving Sumerak license to break out a ton of marine puns. (Actually, they call the celebrity killer whale Kantu and the park Oceana Park, but you know what they really mean)

—The Serpent Society forcing Curt Connors to turn everyone in New York City into Lizards, unless Spidey and Connors can stop them.

Certainly not the best comics I read this week, nor even the best Marvel Adventures comics I read this week, but still $9 well-spent and probably even better-spent if the reader is on the other side of his 30th birthday than I am.

Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #6 (Marvel) This is an all-Ant-Man issue by Fred Van Lente, Matteo Lolli and Christian Vecchia, revealing the secret origin of Ant-Man, the man with two super powers…both of them useless!

Down on his luck inventor Hank Pym is trying to sell Van Dyne industries on his invention, a helmet that allows people to ask ants to leave their kitchens, when some ants come to him for help repelling invaders: The Psycho-Man and his invasion force from the Microverse! He hits Pym with a “de-big-i-fication” ray, and Pym finds himself a tiny little hostage, along with the rest of the anthill Psycho-Man has already captured.

His big evil plan? To activate his Emoticon Projectors hidden throughout the city. By simply typing this
—into his command box, he can make everyone feel sad. By that point in the book, around about the halfway point, Van Lente reaches a sort of critical mass of funny stuff, and the whole thing becomes downright giddy.

For all the humor packed into the book—and the climax includes a chorus of ants singing—Van Lente also seems to hit on a rather unique way of portraying Ant-Man. Rather than a man with ant powers, he’s kind of an ant with man powers, and the champion of ants.

Trinity #30 (DC) “In the longago. Aye, and in the long longago, and in the time before the long longago. In the before, when nothing was…” So starts this issue of DC’s second-worst (and second-best!) year-long weekly series, indicating that yes, this is going to be one of those issues, in which we’re given much, much more detail than we could possibly need or want about some small element of the epic tale Kurt Busiek is writing and poor Mark Bagley is drawing.

The opening story is set in that crazy world that Alfred and his small band of supporting characters have landed, a place where Richard Grayson is called “Rich-Ard of the Gray Sun.” We learn what world it is, as well as its inhabitants’ creation myth and the role that the Trinity seemed to have played in it.

The back half, illustrated by Mike Norton and Ande Parks, is much more interesting, and not just because it involves Gentleman Ghost cameos. The bad guys are trying to re-order the universe again, this time using the principles of the whole tarot deck, and are assigning various villains slots on the major arcana. Meanwhile, Carter Hall is preparing his own deck using heroes.

It’s still perfectly not-bad, even if this is one of those issues where waiting for the trade seems like it might have been a better strategy.

Ultimate Spider-Man #129 (Marvel) Here’s an issue of the series where everything is working as well as it’s ever worked. That old-school, original Marvel Universe feel of a city where all the superheroes and supervillains know each other, a city where you can’t even fly around monologue-ing about your personal problems without running into a super-fight and/or a team-up. Meanwhile, Brian Michael Bendis sets up a premise involving Johnny Storm falling for the female clone of his friend Spider-Man that you can see coming from a mile away (especially now that I spoiled it. Sorry, Spider-Fans!) but is nevertheless still amusing because, damn, that’s some zany shit right there.

Bendis also does that thing he does well, where teenagers look, act and talk like teenagers look, act and talk in real life (or at least on TV shows about teenagers I’ve seen), as the supporting cast joins Peter Parker to hang out downtown. Meanwhile, the police question Aunt May about her relationship to Spider-Man. Cliffhanger!

There’s a huge banner across of the cover reading “ULTIMATUM” that’s even bigger than the actual title of the comic book, so I suppose maybe this ties into Ultimatum, the second issue of which came out today. If so, I couldn’t see how from this end, unless this is merely maneuvering Spidey and Kitty and MJ and Gwen to be in downtown NYC whenever whatever is happening in Ultimatum happens.

Wolverine: First Class #10 (Marvel) In this issue, Wolverine gets bitten by a werewolf and is transformed into a werewolf, a werewolf with admantium claws, and is more or less press-ganged into a pack of the monsters. Meanwhile, Kitty Pryde finds Jack “Werewolf By Night” Russell lost in the woods.

So, to summarize: This is the issue where Wolverine turns into a werewolf. Van Lente and Francis Portela give us “The Pack” part one, with more Wolverine-as-werewolf action next issue.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

And by "right back" I mean Friday evening. Happy Christmas!

Kochalka's Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost in the World

James Kochalka’s Squirrelly Gray definitely had its charms, but over all it struck me as a somewhat awkward work, due in large part to the hybrid format: One page of rhyming narrative poem for every one page of comics, with the information being conveyed often overlapping.

I’m glad Kochalka didn’t repeat the format in his next kids book, Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost In the World (Top Shelf). Johnny Boo is a straight-up comic book told in comic book format start to finish, although it is a hardcover with a spine, so chances are you might find it shelved with the children’s picture books rather than graphic novels at your local library.

Like Squirrelly Gray, the book is quite clearly aimed a little kid audience, however it’s extremely easy to appreciate its charms if you’re a grown-up, cynical old crank (like me). That may be, in large part, because I already know and like Kochalka’s work so much, and I tried imagining what it would be like to encounter this book without ever having seen anything else of Kochalka’s.

I’m as positive as I can be that I’d still love it. Kochalka’s art is as cute as ever, his character designs are all highly inspired and there’s a sort of absurdity to the simplicity of the proceedings that I found a great deal of humor in. The story and dialogue isn’t quite sarcastic, and Kochalka’s not parodying himself, but some of his dialogue seems chosen specifically because of how ridiculous it sounds to adult ears.

So here’s the title page:

Johnny Boo and Squiggle have come out to meet the reader. As you can see, Johnny is a roughly humanoid ghost with an ectoplasmic pompadour, and Squiggle is more of a traditional, leg-less, floating ghost, albeit it one reduced to the simplicity of a rain drop shape.

I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that Squiggle is the “pet ghost” of another ghost.

Squiggle then flies through the next few pages—the publication info, the dedication, etc—before sailing into chapter one. It’s a nice day outside, and the two ghosts are playing in the sunlight. Not very ghost like, really.

Squiggle is flying above the ground, saying, “You can’t catch me, Johnny Boo! I’m too fast! I’ve got Squiggle Power!”

The earthbound Johnny gives chase on foot, noting that he’s “got BOO Power!”

The Squiggle starts breaking out some loop-de-loops (the sound effect for which is “SWISH DE SWOOSH”) and there’s some brief discussion over whether or not loop-de-loops constitute cheating.

Finall, Johnny breaks out the Boo Power, which is him shouting “BOO!”, which scares Squiggle and flips him to the ground.

Squiggle is pissed and won’t accept Johnny’s sorries, but does accept his offer of ice cream. And not just any ice cream, it’s Secret Ice Cream, which Johnny has buried.

The pair sneak off to find it, mindful of Ice Cream Monsters, which frighten Squiggle. And low and behold a giant, cycloptic pink and yellow ice cream monster appears!

But is he a good ice cream monster or a bad ice cream monster? Applications of both Boo Power and Squiggle Power will be necessary to find out, and help navigate the series of problems caused by the Ice Cream Monster.

I don’t want to spoil the specifics of these problems and their solutions, but rest assured it all works out in the end. Here’s the last page of the story, with a nice example of Kochalka’s kid-friendly but adult-funny dialogue:

That’s followed with a few more pages of Johnny and Squiggle wandering through the leftover pages, including the pair looking at a funny looking black and white “photo of the author when he was a baby.”

“Who’s that baby, Johnny Boo?” Squiggle asks, “He kind of looks like YOU!”

He is pale and has he same weird proto-pompadour.

Kochalka uses the same bright colors and bright colored lines (in his art as well as his bubbles and lettering) that he did in Superfuckers and Squirrelly Gray, and I’m fairly positive that this may be the single cutest thing Kochalka’s ever done. Now he’s an artist with a lot of cute things under his belt—hell, his artist’s manifesto is entitled The Cute Manifesto—but with Johnny and Squiggle, he’s reduced character design about as far as he can without sacrificing the character part of character design.

If you’d like to see more, Top Shelf has the first five pages of Best Little Ghost in the World preview-able. And if you like what you see, Kochalka and Top Shelf have two more Johnny Boos scheduled for next year, Johnny Boo: Twinkle Power and Johnny Boo: Happy Apples.

Monday, December 22, 2008


is just trying to make Superman jealous.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A few thoughts on best-of list assemblage, and how publishers can best position themselves to get on them

(Above: This is a subtle metaphor. The tiny little superhero represents the blogger, and the watch represents time and the gun does not represent a penis)

It’s 10:30 p.m., and I’m trying to stockpile enough posts that I can keep a daily-ish schedule both here and at Blog@Newsarama* over the holidays while taking a few days off. I’m planning and preparing for a short car trip out of town to visit my family for a few days. And I’m staring at a small stack of books I want to get read before I start assembling my final best-of list of the year, and I’m not sure I’m going to make it through all of them in the next few days.

I’m only on page 179 of Emanuel Guibert’s Alan’s War. Beneath that is Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button, which looks to be more endless than bottomless, based on its thickness ( tells me its 720 pages long). Then there’s Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, which I just got from the library, and Jason Lutes’ Berlin book two, which I’ve had been meaning to start off and on for months now.

I’d kinda like to give Lynda Barry’s What It Is one more chance, since I tried it and gave up after only a few pages, and I know my library has a copy of Art Spiegleman’s Breakdowns, although I haven’t managed to check it out. Ditto Tim Lane’s Abandoned Cars, which I’ve heard a lot of good things about.

If I do get through this little stack I’m staring at, I wonder if the way I read these books will affect the way I judge them. That is, I’ll be reading them under something of a deadline—a self-imposed one, sure, but still—and am at this point approaching them as something of a chore that I need to hurry up and get through.

Will that make me read them too fast and miss out on details? Will I bear a subconscious grudge against them, for sucking up my time during a week and a half where free time is in far shorter supply than the rest of the year, and judge them more harshly than I would were I reading and reviewing them in September or March?

I don’t know; maybe.

It got me thinking if there’s an ideal time for publisher’s to release books to increase their chances of making it on to best-of lists though. Based on my own experience and best-of naming method (which I’ll go into in excruciating detail in a December 31 post), it seems that releasing books earlier in the year is better, as it gives me more time to read them and process my thoughts on them in full reviews I can look back on in December.

But then, if you release books in January, February or spring, then they’re less likely to be in the minds of critics and list-makers in December. That’s definitely a factor in the way the film industry courts not only awards, but slots on best-of lists: November and December see a deluge of the good stuff, so these holiday season releases are thus foremost in critics’ and award-assigners’ minds.

So maybe late summer to early fall is best, as that gives everyone plenty of time to read the books, review them, and, perhaps most importantly, tell other people about them (I’ve noticed peer pressure is a great factor in assembling these lists, at least in as much that if a critic I respect gives something a glowing review, I’m more likely to seek it out, even if it’s from a creator I’m unfamiliar with or on a subject I wouldn’t normally be interested in).

Length is also important. If I don’t get through Bottomless Belly Button, it’s going to be because it’s a gigantic fucking book, whereas flipping through them, it looks like I can knock out Skim and Berlin in a sitting or three, depending how much time I have to spend on the sitting (and if I can resist the siren call of Showcase Presents: The Brave and The Bold—The Batman Team-Ups Vol. 3 long enough to read these completely Batman-free books).

So to any publishers in the reading audience wondering how they can best get books on to my best of the year lists—a coveted honor, I know—I guess I’d offer the following advice:

1.) Make sure the book is really, really, really good. That’s important.

2.) Don’t release it too early in the year, nor too late in the year.

3.) Make it shorter than 700-pages


4.) Give me a copy of your book. I strive to read as many comics as I can a year, but, being something of a hobo—I’m typing this in a boxcar that just so happens to have wireless, and that stack of graphic novels I mentioned up top are tied up in my bindle—I rely pretty heavily on my local libraries for access to graphic novels.

This concludes tonight’s post about nothing. Now I better see how if Batman and the Metal Men can survive a one-way journey toward oblivion and the doomsday express—No! Not until I see how G.I. Alan Cope makes out at the end of WWII! Be strong Caleb, be strong!

*Oh yeah, speaking of which, I have reviews of The Manga Guide to Statistics and The Complete Ro-Busters posted there this weekend, if that sounds like the sort of thing you might prefer to read about.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ten things I really liked about Essential Man-Thing Vol. 1

1.) The way Man-Thing fights alligators. I flirted with doing a whole post about this subject, complete with a bunch of scans, but maybe I’ll just mention it here. There’s certainly something exciting about seeing a monster fight alligators, but the way Man-Thing fights them just fascinates me. Being a brainless, personality-less creature unable to speak or do much of anything beyond shamble around, empathize with the emotions of others, fight things and burn whatever he touches that knows fear, fighting alligators is a wholly meaningless activity to Man-Thing. He’s so blasĂ© about it. He fights alligators the way I make my bed or wash dishes or brush my teeth: It’s just one routine part of his day.

2.) The copious amounts of well-drawn cheesecake. I know I make fun of DC and Marvel for their exploitative imagery of women fairly often, but that’s not because I think there’s anything wrong with drawings of sexy, scantily clad women, it’s because when DC and Marvel do it it’s a) often highly inappropriate (involving minors, sexual violence, brutality, or children’s characters), b) extremely poorly drawn , c) meaningless to the story and in some cases actively distracting from the story being told (see Benes’ JLoA run for a few hundred pretty good examples), d) really, really gross (sexualizing zombies and mortally wounded aliens, couching the scene in terrible violence, etc). or e) some combination of a-d. There’s plenty of cheesecake throughout this book, from Gray Morrow’s femme fatale Ellen’s flimsy negligee (which she wears in a shack…in a swamp) and the shredding her outfit goes through when she runs afoul of Swamp Thing, to the lurid covers of the issues of Monsters Unleashed included.

(I guess her top got caught on the steering wheel during the car accident...?)

But Morrow and the other artists can draw realistic looking women quite well, it’s not like Man-Thing was being published alongside Marvel’s Swamp Monster Babies at the time, and the stories are almost all melodramatic soap opera horror stories about a tragic swamp monster set in a Florida swamp—scantily clad women don’t seem all that out of place, or threaten the integrity of the stories, as the whole endeavor is already intended to be lurid and exploitative.

3) The protagonists for a large chunk of these stories are essentially Satanists. For about a dozen comics in this collection, from Fear #11 through Man-Thing #2 or so, the sympathetic humans consist of teenager Jennifer Kale, her little brother Andy, and her grandfather, who looks a little like Stan Lee and runs a cult. The young Kales steal his magic book and summon a demon, setting off a chain of events that endangers all reality, and yet they’re all pretty sympathetic; Steve Gerber never really writes any “Stay in school and say your prayers, kids!” moral. It’s just the story of some kids who visit head shops and draw pentagrams to summon demons in the swamp for fun, and the cloak-wearing adults who practice forbidden magic on the weekends. I bet parents in the '70s loved it when the kids brought copies of Man-Thing comics into the house.

4.) Ka-Zar shows up for some reason. Man, talk about whiplash. This volume goes from the first Man-Thing story, by Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas and Gray Morrow, to a two-parter from Astonishing Tales written by Thomas and Len Wein and drawn by John Buscema featuring Manny and Ka-Zar vs. AIM, and then snaps back to a Conway story illustrated by Morrow and Howard Chaykin. I haven’t read many old Ka-Zar stories, but here he’s written rather Namor-like, only he’s from a jungle instead of from underwater, and he rolls around with his “brother,” a saber-toothed tiger named Zabu.

5.) Steve Gerber will write whatever the hell Steve Gerber wants to write. For the most part, the narrative of this volume is essentially on on-going, episodic swamp opera, with Man-Thing coming to the aid of various counterculture types (hippies, devil-worshipers, bikers, Native Americans, environmentalists) from mad scientists, industrialists, worse devil-worshipers and bikers, and the ever-present threat of alligator consumption. But there’s no genre he won’t tackle, and make work in the context of the book. Man-Thing repeatedly finds himself transported to sword and sorcery worlds, is later cast into a weird psychodrama involving the ghost of a circus clown and otherworldly judges who decide what form of eternity human souls must spend, he fights a traditional superhero and a traditional supervillain in different stories, and, toward the end of the book, he’s shanghaied by ghost pirates.

6.) Rory Regan. I love that guy. For some reason (Gerber?), I keep finding him in all of my favorite Essential books.

7.) My favorite sentence of dialogue ever. There’s this one scene where a recurring wizard character from the sword and sorcery fantasy land shows up, and lays his hand on the stunned Jennifer Kale’s shoulder. She spins around and says, “Who--? YOU?!” and he responds, “Aye--I!” I love that line.

The wizard also refers to Man-Thing as "The Man-Object" all the time.

8.) Mike Ploog. Artist Mike Ploog provides the bulk of the art in this volume, followed closely by Val Mayerik. Both are great—in fact, I don’t think there’s any bum art in the whole thing, thanks to Buscema, Morrow, Rich Buckler, Pat Broderick and Alerdo Alcala—but Ploog’s exaggerated, slightly cartoon-y art is tops. And, as I’m sure has been repeatedly pointed out, his name is just so perfect for stories involving swamp monsters.

9.) Daredevil and Black Widow’s guest-appearance. The back of the book boasts, “Guest-starring the Fantastic Four! Ka-Zar! Daredevil!” While technically true, DD and Black Widow appear for exactly two panels, literally just swinging through—in one dimensional portal and out another.

10). The complete randomness of the themes and subject matter. It’s not just that Gerber would find a way to put Man-Thing in different genre settings if it struck his fancy (or if some Marvel editor was like, “Ghost pirates are big this summer! Do a ghost pirate story!”, I guess), but the individual stories would be about almost anything. One issue it’s the environment, then it’s mental illness, then it’s a Superman parody, then it’s an elderly couple’s marital problems, then it’s a critique of religious zealotry, then it’s back to the environment, and hey, how about a moral passion play centered on bus crash in the swamp? There’s a real sense of an issue-of-the-week nature that creeps into these stories, at least between the longer story arcs involving the Nexus of Reality, similar to the vibe I get from those old Denny O’Neil Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics. Of course, I love those. Judged by today’s standards, I suppose a lot of these stories might not hold up on their own—they certainly seem pathetically juvenile when compared to what Alan Moore would do with DC’s muck-murker within a decade—but I find these stories utterly charming and, like a lot of Gerber’s work for Marvel during the period, a bit ahead of their time in terms of aspiration, if not always execution.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My four favorite single panels from David Rees' Get Your War On

When I saw the new Get Your War On collection, the one shaped like an American flag, had the phrase "the definitive account of the war on terror, 2001-2008" on the cover, I assumed that was just some of author David Rees' humorous hyperbole. Rees is, after all, quite enamored of hyperbole, as his rather uncomfortable blog demonstrates on a pretty much daily basis.

But then I sat down and read it. Or re-read it actually, since I had read almost every one of these strips as they originally appeared online, and I realized that even if there is some sarcasm in the boastful "definitive account" subtitle, I'm certainly hard-pressed to think of a better account of the last seven years of the "War on Terror." (Or should that be "war" on "terror"...?)

As I reread these, I was reliving every horrible, hilarious, infuriating, unbelievable event of the Bush administration prosecution of the War (uppercase-W) and the wars (lowercase-w's) that it quickly devolved into. Reading these, I remembered where I was the first time I read them and where I was and what I was thinking when I read the news or watched the speech or interview that they were reacting to. It's seven-years of bad news, seven years of my life and your life and the nation's life, in 250 pages.

It's amazing to reread them at this point in history too, after the majority of the country finally—finally!—came around to seeing things Rees' way, and to look back at what he was writing back in 2001 and see how little has actually changed on some very important fronts. It was still fall of 2001 when his clip art cubicle-jockeys were howling about the fact that the United States couldn't seem to find Bin Laden, or catch whoever was mailing the anthrax, counting down the days until Bush went into Iraq for no reason and wondering after Vice President Dick Cheney's fear of light.

And you know what? Rees was right like, 95% of the time (One thing he got wrong was when one of his characters, shocked that eight weeks of bombing Afghanistan had yet to kill bin Laden, said that U.S. bombing raids must be like the elixir of eternal life, and that Saddam Hussein would therefore live to be 400-years-old). He was certainly more right more often than, say, The New York Times or NBC News or Newsweek or Time or Bob Woodward, and therefore deserves the right to put "definitive account" on his book more than just about anyone else who consistently commented on the war.

That said, something is lost by reading the book in this format, rather than the individual strips as they came out. Like after Bush's state of the union speech, in which he suddenly brought up doping in baseball as a major issue, the next day GYWO featured Black Guy and Standing Up White Guy with their shirts torn off revealing body builder bodies, and flexing their free hand while they talked on the phone. Without the context of having just heard the same speech, it's not all that funny, and it's a particular strip that may not age all that well say, for future generations. (Ditto the ones where Black Guy suddenly starts wearing a space helmet for a half-dozen strips or so, after Bush brought up prioritizing a mission to Mars for...some reason). I guess I'll reread this in 25 years and let you guys know how it holds up.

I was going to write an actual serious, considered review of the book in this post—the kind where I start the title of the post with the word "review" and a colon—but I honestly don't see much of a point. By December of 2008, you've either been reading Rees or you haven't, and I don't think there's anything I could say here that's going to encourage anyone who hasn't to give it a chance now. I honestly, 100-percent sincerely now, believe this strip is one of the most important and relevant documents of the last seven years of American history, and I don't have much else to add to that, beyond pointing to certain strips and saying, "Ha ha, remember this one? That one was funny."

So instead of a review-review, I offer my four favorite individual panels from strips:

Not that the panels above are any funnier out of context than they are in, or that the strips they're part of themselves aren't funny. I just really, really like these panels, and I think they stand up all by themselves without even needing to be embedded in a strip.

The smoking gun panel isn't even the punchline panel in the October 2003 strip it's from (That one's "You mean die of boredom, waiting for a goddam real smoking gun?"), it's simply the middle of a three-panel strip. And there's the argument for the Iraq War, as sold by the administration and re-sold by the entire mainstream media in one simple sentence.

The third one down, "Holy shit— that guy was the PRESIDENT???" is probably the greatest single encapsulation of President Bush's overall performance I've ever seen. It's from a February 2004 strip, one that came right after Bush gave an interview to the late, great Tim Russert (who softball-ed the hell out of him). Again, that's not even the's simply the second of a four-panel conversation. (The very next panel? "You got it. Remember Abraham Lincoln? This guy has the same job.")

Likewise, the two panels featuring Standing Up White Guy also refer to Bush; the definition of "elitist" offered in the second panel is one that's stuck with me ever since I read that strip. I've never understood how exactly "elitist" came to be an insult in politics. We saw it in this just-ended presidential campaign, where Obama being perceived as an elitist was supposed to be a bad thing; call me crazy, but I kind of thing the most powerful man in the United States government, one of—if not the—most powerful men in the world should be something of an elite.

Finally, and perhaps a little more timely, here's the final panel of a three-panel strip from way back in April of 2006, which I offer only as an example of Rees' predictive prowess:

The strip was responding to McCain giving a speech at Jerry Falwell's college, despite having called Falwell and his ilk "agents of intolerance" in 2000. This was one of the first big zigs in McCain's two-year march to losing the White House, during which he constantly strove to de-maverickify himself and return to his pre-2000 conservative roots. The previous panel was the black guy saying "Someone should ask Mcain if he agrees with Falwell that 9/11 was caused by teh ACLU and lesbians. Because if he does, he'll have to support bombing Lilith Fair."

Anyway, here we are two and a half years later, and what's become of McCain since then? Why he's turned into a complete fucking joke. David Rees wins again!