Monday, November 29, 2010

Reviews of random recent releases

Damaged/Hollow Point (Radical Comics) I hope I got the title right. This is a $1 preview flip-book of two upcoming Radical comics.

Damaged has quite queer credits, with the book “created by” Michael Schwarz and John Schwarz, but written by David Lapham and illustrated by Dennis Calero. It’s a first-person narrated crime story, in which an older detective walks through blank, empty spaces, passing the occasional photo of a car or person, thinking about how The Punisher-like super-vigilante he’s been covering for for many years is apparently back and shooting up criminals by the boatload. In fact, his body count is so high, the other police folks think that the crime scenes are the result of shoot-outs between multiple gangs, not just one big scary dude with “a scar like a cop’s badge.”

There may be some promise to the premise, and certainly Lapham is well within his element, but the art is sparse, hurried, ugly and occasionally even unreadable.

Hollow Point is also “created by” someone who neither wrote nor drew any part of it. In this case, it’s Ron L. Brinkerhoff, who yes, does have an IMDb page, but written by David Hine and illustrated by Elia Bonetti. In this one, a world weary professional assassin goes off to South America to ice a priest but, on a whim, decides to buy him a drink and chat with him before doing the deed.

During the talk, it emerges that, while the priest expected to be killed at some point, he’s apparently not guilty of abusing children, as whoever hired our protagonist alleged.

While the protagonist is definitely a type familiar to anyone who’s been to very many movies rather than an individual, this half of the comic was handled much more competently and professionally. The art is a little too dark, slick and reliant on computers and image reference for my tastes, but it’s brilliant compared to what the other half of the book looks like.

At $1, this is well worth the cover price, but I’d be hesitant to follow either of these stories beyond the covers of this book. I’ve certainly no interest in Damaged, but Hollow Point might be worth a second look at some point.

Feeding Ground #1 (Archaia) Well this sure is an interesting comic book. The cover price is $3.95, and for that you get the same 29-page story twice—in English reading one way, and then, if you flip it over, in Spanish reading the other way. And there are no ads, so it’s certainly a good value.

How is the story? That I’m not so sure of. I read the English version, but I still found myself a bit lost. Writer Swifty Lang jumps right into things, with the details unfolding in a fairly literary or cinematic fashion, but I had trouble keeping track of some of the many characters and the plotlines. It’s something about a Mexican border town, a strange little girl, a man leading immigrants across the desert and into the U.S., an evil businessman of some sort, and an evil, scummy dude named Don Oso, who might or might not be the same person…?

Artist Michael Lapinski uses a muted palette, and limits it to the extent that each scene has only a few colors in it, which tends to have a dramatic effect on each. The characters look quite heavily photo-referenced, but drawn rather than, I don’t know, lightboxed or computer-ed up. Their relationship to the backgrounds, settings, one another and various objects is intentionally forced and awkward quite often, giving the book and uneasy, seasick quality.
I suspect the creators want to evoke anxious feelings in their readers during many of the scenes, but because of the murky plot, the peculiar—if occasionally appealing—strangeness of the book’s look was just one more obstacle for my eyes and brain.

It’s well worth picking up and looking at should you see a copy in your shop, for how incredibly different it is from so much of the other stuff on the shelves at the moment, but I’m hesitant to recommend it any more strongly than that.

Great value, though!

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #4 (Archaia) The fourth and final issue of the anthology series featuring artists Mouse Guard creator David Petersen doing short stories set in his world, is much like the first three.

The format remains unchanged. Petersen writes and draws framing sequences featuring various mouse characters engaged in a tale-telling contest at an inn, and a different creator writes and draws the various stories. Likewise, the quality remains unchanged—the fourth issue is every bit as good as the first, second and third were. The stories are succinct but complete, quirky but of piece with the mice-of-medieval times premise and often highly imaginative, finding new ways of looking at the world through mouse eyes. The art remains beautiful and, most impressively, highly varied from story to story—not two “Legends” look much of anything a like, which has been a great deal of the fun of this book.

This final issue contains three stories, at least two of which are Mouse Guard-ified takes on well-known stories.

Craig Rousseau sets a retelling of the fable about the mouse and the lion with a thorn in his paw in Africa, but of course the mice of Mouse Guard don’t really know what a lion or an Africa is. The storyteller describes the former as a beast “unlike anything you’ve ever seen—hair like straw, bigger than a bear, with teeth that can snap trees in two, and eyes like the sun. And the latter is “a land farther away than we can imagine, oceans away, hot and the color of honey.”

Karl Kerschl draws a short, mostly silent story (there are a handful of sound effects) about a guard mouse patrolling far to the north experiencing a disturbing, thrilling, practically cosmic event, of which there’s no real human equivalent—we’re just too big to see such an event from such a point of view.

And Mark Smylie riffs on the Biblical story of King David and Bathsheba, only his story ends quite differently for a few of the participants.

The end of the series comes rather suddenly, and I suppose it can be seen as somewhat anticlimactic, given how straightforward it is—the series ends when all of the tales are told, with no dramatic complications or conflict. But then, the ending, like the rest of the framing sequences, are simply that—frames. It’s the pictures and events between those frames that contain all the drama.

This is the third Mouse Guard miniseries, but because of the way it was created, it makes for a remarkably strong point of entry into Petersen’s world. Every issue of the series stands alone quite well, and I imagine the eventual collection will make for as new-reader friendly a comic collection as could be.

Speaking of which…

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard (Arhcaia) Archaia sure doesn’t waste a lot of time between publishing the singles and publishing the collections! (Although, to be fair, I think I didn’t have to cover both in the same post, and besides I think I’m coming to the fourth issue a little late and the collection a little early).

This is the 144-page, $20 hardcover collection of the Legends of the Guard series, which contains a who’s who of great comics talent telling short stories involving the mice of Mouse Guard. I think I reviewed all of the issues here at EDILW as they were released, but, if you need a refresher, that great comics talent includes Terry Moore, Guy Davis, Gene Ha, Jeremy Bastian, Ted Naifeh, Katie Cook, Jason Shawn Alexander, Alex Sheikman and several others, including, of course, David Petersen himself, who draws the covers (each of which depicts a legend of Petersen’s devising) and the framing sequences.

The collection features a bonus epilogue story by Joao M. P. Lemos, a beautiful little four-page dream sequence (in which Petersen draws the first and final panels), and some neat back matter, including maps of the inn and The Mouse Territories, a guide to the various inn patrons
and an “About The Authors” section which pairs head shots and a paragraph or so of bio with sketches.I’d highly recommend the trade, even if you’re not necessarily a huge fan of Mouse Guard—the number of great artists it introduces, and the opportunity to see a single, particular style, story and setting filtered through a dozen or so radically different artists for a pretty fascinating reading experience for a fan of comics in general.

Saving Life Vol. 1 (Tokyopop) Mario Kaneda (Girls Bravo) presents a comedy series about Haruhiko, high schooler and heir to the ultra-rich Ayanokouji clan’s fortune, is trying to strike out on his own, which means living in a tiny apartment, working almost every waking hour, and scrimping and saving to an extent that would embarrass even Scrooge McDuck.

He also tries to keep all this secret, which intrigues his school friend Yoriko, one of several beautiful girls he’s constantly crossing paths with. The others include an insanely violent and angry waitress who works with him, his childhood friend, a maid from his father’s home and, by volume’s end, two cute if scheming twins his family is indebted to.

Through various circumstances, usually in the form of an elaborate accident or series of events, the girls tend to end up flashing their panties are falling on top of or into the hands of Haruhiko.

So, it’s that kind of comic—each chapter full of gags about Haruhiko trying to live the life of a miser, constantly broken up with splash panels of girls in their underwear.

Not for everyone, obviously, but it’s quite well drawn, and most of the gags work just fine.

Soldier Zero #2 (Boom Studios) This is the second issue of the first of Stan Lee’s still emerging line of superhero comics for Boom, in which Lee serves as “Grand Poobah” and Paul Cornell, Javier Pina and Sergio Arino handle the script and art. I reviewed the first issue here, if you missed it, but in short I was rather pleasantly surprised by the book—it didn’t radically reinvent superhero comics or give us a new Spider-Man or Fantastic Four, no, but it was certainly a well-crafted, appealing, old-fashioned, all-ages superhero comic that managed to feel of the 21st century and of Stan Lee at the same time.

So, how’s the sophomore issue?

Not bad at all.

Last time we met wheelchair-bound army vet Stewart Trautmann, now an astronomy teacher, and watched him have a secret origin, in which an alien battle-suit of some sort bonded to him. In this issue, Cornell plumbs some of the psychological conflict—the suit will allow Stewart to walk again, thus offering something he’s already come to grips with not wanting; meanwhile, Stewart’s brother is on the opposite side of him from just about every issue an advanced alien war-suit bonding with him raises—and starts dealing with the specifics of the aliens and their conflicts.

The artwork remains crisp, clear and easy to read, without suffering any glaring deficiencies (Here’s a blurb for you then, Soldier Zero: “Much better drawn than Batman: The Return!”)

There’s a tossed-off mention of a group I only recognized because I read Boom/Stan Lee book The Traveler before this (see below), which leads me to believe the various Lee co-created books will start tie-ing together rather quickly; I suppose it will be interesting to see how quickly and how well the books end up tying together. Because the emergence of the DC and Marvel “universes” as shared-setting emerged so gradually and, for a few decades, anyway, organically, even accidentally, it’s always sort of fascinating to watch intentional superhero universes under construction.

For me, anyway.

The Traveler #1 (Boom) The second Stan Lee/Boom Studios superhero book out of the gate, The Traveler has a writing credit for Mark Waid and an art credit for Chad Hardin, while Stan Lee retains his “Grand Poobah” credit; as I mentioned in my review of the first issue of Soldier Zero, setting aside the who-wrote-what questions, credited writer Paul Cornell seemed to at the very least been heavily influenced and inspired by Stan Lee.

This comic seems a lot less Lee-esque, perhaps in part because of the nature of the hero and the fact that the book seems scripted in a more modern fashion. The title character in Solider Zero was a civilian type we got to know, including his common and less common conflicts, and whose origin we watched unfold before us. Bam! (Or Boom!, in this case) There’s everything you need to know in the first issue; add it to your pull-list or drop it.

Here our title character is more mysterious; he literally appears at the beginning of an action scene, and then disappears. Our point-of-view character asks him questions, and he talks around them, explaining bits here and there about his powers and enemies, but by issue’s end he remains an enigma—he’s the exotic other in the story, and beyond the fact that he’s the good other using some sort of limited time-control powers to battle bad others using their own grand powers, we know little else by issue’s end.

Some of those questions intrigued me—like, why he crushed that lady’s glasses, saying, “I’m really sorry. I wish I could explain this part to you.” Others questions were in the “I don’t care to know that at all” category than the “I can’t wait to find out more about this!” category.

And that’s what I mean by the script being done in “a more modern fashion.” Decompressed is the word we used to use, although it has such negative connotations I don’t even really like to use it any more; this first issue is paced a lot differently than the first issue of Soldier Zero, and while it’s not necessarily a worse way to pace a first issue, part of what I found appealing about Soldier Zero was how new-reader friendly it was . When you’re launching brand-new superheroes into the direct market in late 2010, and charging $4 per issue, it seems to me that your first issue has to either be incredibly accessible or just plain amazing because, you know, there’s eight Batman comics over here that cost less, and a dozen or so Avengers titles over here, costing the same or less.

Also, the cliffhanger ending features a woman being killed by a dude with entropy powers thrusting his hand through her torso and dissolving her chest cavity, while she coughs blood.

That’s more super-comics 2010 than Stan Lee-esque super-comics, isn’t it?

I’m a big fan of Chad Hardin’s artwork, and this issue sure gives him plenty of opportunity to strut his stuff. The costume design is nothing special—the villains look pretty uninspired, and the main character’s looks movie-ready, in a rather unappealing way—but the storytelling and rendering in general is quite fine.

Seeing more of Hardin's work, and where Waid is going with this particular story (and where Boom and Lee are going with what looks like an emerging shared "universe") would definitely be the reasons to check out The Traveler #2...even if this particular story doesn't seem to start as strong as its sister title.


Chad Hardin said...

I can't say much about the next couple of stories except for every question answered Mark and Stan create two more. The momentum just keeps building. This book is the most fun I've had in the three years of doing comics and I'm having a blast drawing it. Thanks for the kind words!
-Chad Hardin.

tomorrowboy 2.9 said...

I believe the collected Mouse Guard book actually came out before the final issue.

Gianluca said...

Hey Caleb.

Great reviews and definitely interested in the Traveller.

I do have to point out something. On the review of the Radical flip book, you make a point of the credits for both stories having a creator that neither wrote nor drew the book, yet glossed over that the Stan Lee/Boom! books are the same way. Stan is the creator but neither writes nor draws the books either.

It isn't that "queer" of a thing to see a story with a different writer and creator. Most, if not all, licensed comics are that way too.

Caleb said...

Hi Gianluca. Fair point. I did gloss over the Stan Lee "grand poobah" issue in the above reviews. I did so because I spent a few paragraphs on it when I reviewed the first one of Boom's "Stan Lee's" branded books:

In that previous piece, I mentioned the difficulty in approaching books with creators who aren't creators in the traditional wrote and/or drew the book sort of way, and some of the complications involved with books like that involving Lee specifically.