Thursday, November 29, 2012

Comic shop comics: November 28

FF #1 (Marvel Entertainment) I confess to being quite relieved as I read this comic and found that it was every bit as good as I had hoped it would be, particularly since I found writer Matt Fraction's first issue of its sister book, Fantastic Four, to be such a thunderous letdown (as I talked about at great length here).

Here, Fraction brings his A-game. As in his Fantastic Four #1, it's a very formulaic script, with character's being introduced one at a time, but those introductions are more thorough, involve more characters and come out in conversations. Additionally, there are a lot more panels in it, so it reads more like Fraction's Hawkeye then his Fantastic FOur (that is, it won't be over two minutes after reading).

(There is still, unfortunately, a dumb-ass "AR" thingee in at least one panel, but it's thankfully a bit smaller than the dumb-ass "AR" thingee in the panels in Fantastic Four #1; replacing asterisks and editor's notes with something you need a machine and software to access is maybe the dumbest fucking thing I can think of and, honestly, almost reason enough to trade-wait this stuff).

Now, the reason I picked this up at all was that it features the artwork of Mike Allred, one of those few artists on the I'll Buy Anything They Draw list. He and color artist/wife Laura Allred do not disappoint; in fact, this may be the best I've seen Allred's art look before. That, or it's been a while since I've seen it at great length (No, that can't be it; he just did a wonderful Daredevil fill-in not long ago).

Look at this:
Holy shit yo, did you know it's humanly possible to draw what a city looks like from the air? You don't have to just Google Image an aerial photocraft and import it into your digital file...? Look at how sweet that looks!

He does the same with backgrounds and the float-y, semi-transparent sci-fi computer screens; usually that stuff looks like special effects in a Marvel comic, but the Allreds actually, like, make it look like something that belongs in the same reality as the characters looking at them.
Check out Allred's Thing:
Is that the best Thing you've ever seen, this side of Jack Kirby? Are you lying? You're lying. That Thing is perfect.

The costuming and character designs are all great; the character's are all distinct from one another, perhaps most notably in the varying body-types of the female characters; the "acting" is amazing.

This here is pretty much perfect, and exactly what I'd expect a Marvel comic book to look like or, at least, what I wish I could expect a Marvel comic book to look like. It makes me a little more disappointed in Fantastic Four than I was while reading it, and I kind of wish Marvel would have chosen someone whose style more closely resembles Allred's for FF's sister title (Nick Dragotta? Rick Burchett? Jay Stephens? J. Bone? Mike Norton?) and coloring more akin to Laura Allred's, so the books would at least look like part of the same universe, let alone companion books (and I like Mark Bagley's art; it's just very, very, very different than what we see here).

Story-wise, this is first issue 101. The Fantastic Four pick out a substitute Fantastic Four, should something go wrong with the journey they're preparing to take, and each of them pick replacements, with the exception of Johnny; we meet his recruit, but don't learn the details of how she comes to be wearing what looks like a Thing suit.

Mr. Fantastic chooses Ant-Man II, or "the dead one," who is apparently alive again (and his daughter Stature is dead...?), Invisible Woman chooses Medusa of the Inhumans and The Thing chooses (the original, green) She-Hulk.

The issue is divided into one-page, six-panel interviews with the children of the Future Foundation, followed by the recruiting sequences, until a climax that puts everyone in the same room.

Joe Kubert Presents #2 (DC Comics) The Kubert contribution in this second issue of the six-part showcase series is the first half of The Redeemer, a long gestating Kubert comic that was featured on the cover of Amazing Heroes #34, a magazine that was published in the year of our lord 1983!

Unfortunately there's no text telling us what's up with the feature, like when these particular Redeemer pages were written or draw. The art doesn't look 20 years old, at any rate, although the writing and designs are extremely dated looking, even old-fashioned. That could just be the fact that, in his 80s, Kubert's writing might have been a bit old-fashioned.

The story is about a devil-like figure with a castle in the Himalayas who looks a bit like an evil Shazam and is known as The Infernal One; he recruits some followers to help him defeat the title character, a hero who does good deeds in each life time, which he only vaguely remembers from reincarnation to reincarnation. Then it flashes forward to the year 2557, which looks like the future as it might have been envisioned in the 1960s, a time when space-robbers wore Beagle Boy hats, drop the g's at the end of their words and worry about being hanged if caught.

Kubert's narration is mostly completely unnecessary, given how clear his artwork and storytelling are.

That's followed by a neat prose feature in which Kubert discusses artist Sam Glanzman's life and work a bit, the pages full of Glanzman's original sketches from the ship he served on in the 1940s, which serves as a sort of introduction to Glanzman's U.S.S. Stevens story.

And, finally, there's another installment of Brian Buniak's take on Angel and The Ape, which continues the storyline from the previous issues.

Overall, it's a very strange package that feels all the stranger now that the guy whose name is on the cover is no longer with us, but, as strange as it is, there's no arguing with it's quality—there isn't a poorly drawn panel in its 48 pages.

Superman Family Adventures #7 (DC) Supergirl and Superboy attempt to introduce pals Starfire and Beast Boy to the Kryptonian ritual of the post-tooth loss Tooth Fairy Party, but their celebration is rudely interrupted by the menacing, mechanized toys of the Toyman. Apparently trying to get in on the surprisingly sizable pony audience, those toys include plenty of ponies.

This issue, like the previous six, was super-funny and super-cute.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Sometimes I love you so much, comics"

That's the thought that occurred to me when I hit this four-panel sequence from volume three of Shuzo Oshimi's Flowers of Evil last week. Saeki, the long-haired female character on the right, and Takao, the male character, are entering their classroom together at the beginning of the school day; the night before, Takao had horribly vandalized it and used wrote a startling confession on the chalkboard which would, when discovered, irrevocably change his relationship with Saeki and the way his entire school would think of him forever.

It's a pretty dramatic moment for him, obviously.

The way this page is laid out just...excited me, for a lack of a better word. Flowers is printed right-to-left, remember, so the first two panels are the tall, vertical one featuring Saeki and profil and the one of a flushed, wide-eyed and terrified Takao.

The way the dialogue bubble is placed in those panels, Oshimi shows the reader two different people from two completely different angles at the exact same time; that's what Saeki looks like while she's saying "What is this..." and that's what Takao looks like while Saeki, standing next to him, says "What is this..."

It's basic stuff, of course, using the grid of the panels to show the same moment from different perspectives; Comics 101, really. But it's so elegantly handled and, I don't know, maybe I just read too many comics, but when I hit that transition, with the dialogue co-existing in two moments like that? It just really struck me how well comics can do the things that only comics can really do.

Maybe I just read so many bad ones, that when I encounter one that works, it's able to impress me that much more strongly...?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: Penguin: Pain and Prejudice

In 2008, DC published a series of one-shots featuring various Batman villains by different creative teams, under the umbrella title of Joker's Asylum. Jason Aaron wrote the Penguin installment, a twisted little 22-page story that explores the character's weird relationship with women and zeroes in on the more recent portrayal of the character as someone who looks legit in public, but is evil underneath: Gallantly freeing a woman from slavery and wooing her with his wealth and attention, we see him turn those same resources the complete and utter destruction of someone he only imagines slighted him.

It was a pretty effective demonstration of why someone like The Penguin, a "legitimate businessman" style criminal rather than the serial killers that the rest of Batman's rogues gallery has evolved into, can still be seriously scary, and it certainly helped that Aaron had the strong cartooning skills of Jason Pearson illustrating the story.

Crime novelist-turned-comics writer Gregg Hurwitz took that one passage of Aaron's story and repurposed it for the 110-page "Pain and Prejudice," a new, "New 52" origin story for the Penguin published as a five-issue miniseries—presumably because DC couldn't decide which of the five monthly Batman books to stick it in.

Hurwitz draws Aaron's scene out, and while the latter writer had a neat little one-page reveal in which the Penguin's girlfriend learns of it—in keeping with the EC horror comic vibe of the Joker's Asylum series, it is presented as a twist—Hurwitz devotes several scenes of his story to the Penguin similarly taking people's lives apart behind the scenes. It's apparently a "thing" of his, like his obsessions with birds and umbrellas, and while its sort of tiresome to see a writer so thoroughly quoting another, it grows even more tiresome the more times Hurwitz re-quotes it. (In case you missed Aaron and Pearson's shorter, sweeter, better-drawn version, it's actually included in the trade paperback collecting Pain and Prejudice, as if it were a back-up story).

Which isn't to say that Hurwitz doesn't add his own touches to The Penguin's story. He does, and some of them are pretty dramatic, even, I'd argue, out of left-field.

In this version, the Penguin was still a funny-looking, terribly bullied child who loved birds, and he grows up to be a Gotham City crime boss who runs a club called The Iceberg Lounge. This new Penguin was part of a large family of healthy, normal-looking brothers, and, one-by-one, he murders each of them (and his father) while still a child, sparing only his mother, whom he continues to care for as adult, when she has grown so old and frail that she seems to be in a semi-vegetative state.

Oh, and he's also an ingenious robotics expert now because, um, why not...?

Extremely brutal, he not only goes to great lengths to completely destroy his enemies—usually by killing their friends and family—he also hires thieves to steal jewelry in showy, ultra-violent ways that don't seem all that efficient (a celebrity's earrings are stolen by ripping her ears off as she walks past paparazzi and fans with her bodyguards; a society maven's necklace is stolen by beheading her with a machete as she steps out of a limousine, etc).

As in Aaron's story, The Penguin is trying to woo a decent woman with whom he cares for more deeply than any of the other beautiful women he uses his money and power to surround himself with, and he's doing so by hiding his true self—in a particularly melodramatic twist, this woman is blind, and he won't let her touch him, so she can't judge him by his physical qualities.

He's also built a bunch of penguin-shaped guided missiles that emit some kind of bird-controlling sounds that cause birds to flock and attack children. Batman doesn't appear until the last page of the first issue/chapter, and Hurwitz and artist Szymon Kudraski try to keep him off the page as much as possible, generally showing only parts of him in each panel, although as the story progresses, naturally Batman appears more and more, as good has to ultimately triumph over evil, which means Batman has to stop Penguin from having all of the children of Gotham City pecked to death by flocks of wild birds.
In a weird running gag, The Joker apparently has a room in The Penguin's house, and The Penguin will periodically walk in on him doing something strange and unexplained (wearing a bra, stockings and apron while feather dusting the corpse of a goat or throwing knives a young Danny DeVito, for example). The Joker never speaks, and The Penguin never speaks to hm, usually just turning and walking away with little more than a "Really?". Hurwitz never explains what that's all about—at the climax, Batman assaults Penguin's mansion, but we don't see The Joker at all—but it's the one welcome bit of weirdness for weirdness' sake in this otherwise grim and rather rote story.

Kudranski's artwork is of the photo manipulation variety, with everything so heavily photo-referenced and with so many bits of the images dropped-in that few pages of the comic look drawn instead of assembled. Paired with the dark, murky coloring, it is not a nice-looking comic by any stretch of the imagination, but, beyond that, it's barely legible.

Here, for example, The Penguin slips on what I believe is supposed to be his own boutonniere, which fell off when he jumped in surprise at Batman jumping through his skylight:
His slips, falls backwards and...lands on his knees...?

Here is the end of his first encounter with Batman:
The goal was apparently to show as little of Batman as possible, although I don't know why the last two panels were framed with the Penguin essentially standing in front of "the camera," nor can I imagine how Batman got so small or The Penguin got so bit between panels that the latter completely obscures the former. It's hard to tell at first, but those are Batman's hands on the grappling hook gun there; that's not in fact The Penguins left arm, although the positioning and coloring make it difficult to discern (also, what's up with the timing? That thug in the hat is inches away from Batman, and his grapple just left the nozzle of his gun).

This is the worst part. I literally have no idea what happened. To set it up, Cassandra is on The Penguin's bed, thinking he's playing a videogame while he's controlling his The Birds bombs (Hey look, those pigeons lifted a car in the third panel. And then Batman...does...something...?
As near as I can tell, Batman dropped himself like a bomb out of his Batplane, landed on The Penguin's gate and then exploded...?

Is that right...? It's awful, awful artwork, a sort of anti-comics that makes any of the weakness of the writing, plotting or conception seem trivial.

Who cares how goofy The Penguin building a robot penguin to provide home health care for his mother is, or how depressing it is that a clever, trifle of a story from five years ago was expanded into a dark, turgid melodrama when the guy putting the penguins on the page can't even be bothered to move them slightly between panels...?
What really boggles my mind though is that these are paid professionals who make this stuff, in the year 2012, and that there's an editor—maybe more than one!—who read these comics before they were published and shipped, nodded to him or her or themselves and thought, "Yes sir, this isn't at all a piece of shit! I approve. Now let's send this to the printers..."

And that person or those people? Paid professionals too.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Some picture books of note:

Bronto Eats Meat (Dial Books; 2003): Writer Peter Maloney and artist Felicia Zekauskas construct a joke so ponderously complicated and over-the-heads of the suggested reading level for their book that it can only be admired.

When Bronto, the young brontosaurus the title refers to, complains of a terrible stomach ache to his parents, he is put in "a special dinosaur ambulance" (a flatbed truck with a red siren on its hood) and rushed to the hospital, where he is examined by a doctor "so pale, you could see right through his skin":
"He must be a Paleontologist," whispered his mother.
A paleontologist is, of course, a person who studies dinosaur bones, but an "ontologist" is a philosopher who studies existence and reality.

Is that what they were going for here? The doctor is a pale ontologist...? (I woulda had Bronto's dad shoot back, "Don't be silly, honey; he's obviously a pale oncologist." Ha ha ha ha ha ha!)

I don't know; it leads to a not particularly funny segue—"since you can see through my skin, I'd like to look through yours," the doctor says before taking an X-Ray of Bronto—so perhaps not.

What the doctor finds is a little boy in Bronto's stomach; dinosaurs and modern humans live side by side in this story and, apparently, when Bronto was eating a tree, he accidentally swallowed the boy climbing it and that much "meat" upsets his herbivore belly.

After running through their options, they choose the least dangerous and disgusting one, and the boy ends up with quite a story to tell...although no one believes him, since dinosaurs are supposed to be extinct, dinosaurs ambulances and hospitals notwithstanding.

Maloney and Zekauskas have a pretty grabby title, including an obviously, curiosity-stoking contradiction and, paired with the cover, it was more than enough to inspire me to give the book a look.

It's not a great book, although it does contain images and scenes I imagine a lot of children will find amusing—the one of Bronto sitting on a toilet springs immediately to mind—and is probably a good one to read with a kid.

The most striking image, for me, was that of a carnivore atop a heap of femurs and skeletons, holding a severed arm in one hand and chewing on a human being, it's contorted limbs sticking out of the sides of its jaws.
They're cute, child-like drawings of skeletons and bones, of course, but holy crap, there's a dinosaur straight up eating kids! And not in the easily reversible way that Bronto at that dude!

What I found most alarming, however, is that Bronto is specifically identified as a "Brontosaurus" rather than an "Apataosaurus,", but we've already got human beings and dinosaurs living side by side, and the latter with their own medical system, so perhaps that's not such a big deal in context.

Don't Squish The Sasquatch (Dinsey/Hyperion; 2012):

I know that descriptions of Bigfoots and other big, hairy humanoids range in size, shape, color, toe-number and any of many other details, but the Sasquatch in writer Kent Redeker and artist Bob Staake's book bears no resemblance to any 'squatch I've ever heard of...and not simply because he wears a suit and rides the bus.

He's also green, and has serrated forearms, not unlike the claws of a praying mantis, although that could just be the cut of his suit. He does have long, somewhat ape-like arms, huge feet and a long stride, and a compact, neckless head that seems to sit directly between his shoulders.

It's the word "sasquatch" that the book is most interested in, however, and the way it sounds when juxtaposed against "squished" and another "s" word that comes at the climax. Senor Sasquatch wants to ride Mr. Bloblue's bus, but he doesn't like being squished on a crowded bus. Unfortunately for him, Blobule picks up a series of commuter monsters who are composite creatures with at least one large animal in the mix (Mr. Octo-Rhino, Miss Goat-Whale, and so on). (The cryptozoologically inclined might like to know one of these commuters is named Miss Loch-NEss-Monster-Space Alien, and she looks more-or-less like a sea serpent, albeit one with a flying saucer around her neck and a pair of antennae on her head).

Staake's expected flat, simple art rendered in jaunty, occasionally irregular shapes and brilliant colors power the book forward, and make even the repetitive nature of the story a joy for grown-up eyes to glide through; in addition to the crazy character designs, he fills the backgrounds with wonderful drawings of random buildings (the bus passes barns, haunted houses, department stores and so on) and, in at least one image, bus ads). The end pages featuring icon-like images of Staake's green Squatch wearing variously Crayola-colored suits as a sort of wall-paper or wrapping-paper pattern is beautiful too. Like, I actually woulnd't mind wall-papering a room with that exact pattern.

I imagine this is one kids would like being read, shouting along to—if I've learned anything from Mo Willems, it's that kids like shouting instructions regarding buses—but me, I came for Staake's art, which is always worth a look.

Dragons Love Tacos (Dial Books; 2012): Well, I'm certainly not going to argue with that. Pretty much everyone loves tacos, right?

Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri's fun, funny books about dragons and their love of tacos opens with a kid who is a little more skeptical on the subject than I, however. Judging from his bedroom, full of dragon toys and books and what not, he is apparently something of a dragon expert, but, based on the look on his face (and his dog's face), he doesn't quite buy it:
He is quickly convinced by the narrator, however, whose story is broken into a pattern that repeats itself, but more like a song than an advertising jingle. The book has a definite structure: Declaration of a dragon fact, explanation of that fact, question about it, list of possible answers, question thrown out to a dragon.

Among these facts are that, as much as dragons love tacos, they don't like spicy tacos, as it sets off their flame breath, and, naturally, can ruin a good taco party, like the one the kid on the first page throws in order to make friends with some dragons.

Salmieri is a great taco artist and a great dragon artist. While his tacos are uniform in appearance, his dragons are not, and they vary widely and wildly, from your more-or-less standard fantasy dragon seen on the cover (red, horns, bat wings, tail) to some much more idiosyncratic dragons with unusual head shapes and other features.

His lines are super-thin, and his characters have spindly-limbs and tiny eyes, but, despite the relatively alien appearances of most of the characters in the book (there's one boy, one dog and a bunch of dragons), he communicates emotion quite effectively with the few lines he uses.

East Dragon, West Dragon (Atheneum Books; 2012): Most of you will recognize the work of artist Scott Campbell, often referred to simply as Scott C., who illustrates Robyn Eversole's funny little story about the culture clash between Asian dragons and European dragons, or, more precisely, the story traditions around each type of dragon. Campbell is responsible for comics like Hickee Comics, the weird "Igloo Head and Tree Head" series form the Flight anthologies and the "Great Showdowns" online images that have since been collected into a book.

After a few pages introducing us to the two types of dragons and their differences—a prime one being that East Dragon and his family were pals with the Emperor, whereas West Dragon had to deal with the knights of a king—Eversole sets in motion the plot which brings the two dragons together.

Seeking to rid himself of the king's knights—which, according to Campbell's delightful illustrations, are something between infesting mice and unruly neighbor kids, all poking him with their tiny lances, jumping on his bed and breaking vases—by giving them a big map that takes them on a very, very long adventure that terminates in the East.
After befriending the Emperor in a big, two-page illustrations crowded with funny little details of medieval knights struggling with chopsticks and seafood at a dinner table set on the floor, they meet the dragons, and attack. It takes East Dragon an West dragon to sort everything out, and they naturally learn they are not so different after all, and a huge dragon and people party commences, complete with karaoke, videogames, soccer, rock and roll, stories and badminton.

The story is charming, and has a nice little lesson in it, but Campbell's artwork offers plenty of pleasures to the most casual readers as well. The majority of the images are big, long ones, with each two-page spread of pages being filled with an illustration. Campbell's artwork is obviously quite abstracted, and light on certain types of details—dot eyes, little line mouths, if there are mouths, no noses, etc.—but each picture is packed with rich details and little, suggestive mini-stories to find and digest, thanks to how thoroughly he fills the big spaces with small drawings of the giant dragons, and tiny drawings of the much smaller humans.

The dragon party, for example, features some 70 characters engaged in nine different group activities. If you check out only one of the books in this post, it should probably be this one. Well, this one, or maybe the next one...

By the way, wile I've recently learned that dragons love tacos, it turns out they also love pizza:

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (Balzer and Bray; 2012): Maybe the best part of Mo Willems' Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs are the end pages, which feature various titles for Goldilocks stories, each with a red X through it: Goldilocks and the Three Wisemen, Goldilocks and the Three Musketeers, Goldilocks and the Three Mastodons, Goldilocks and the Three Wall Street Types, Goldilocks and the Three-Mile Island and on and on.
But then, just about every part of this book is the best part.

Once upon a time, Willems re-tells us (as this is a story "re-told" by Willems), there were three dinosaurs who "for no particular reason...made up their beds, poisitoned their chairs just so, and cooked thre bowls of delicious chocolate pudding at varying temperatures."

Why chocolate pudding instead of porridge? Well, who would you rather eat, someone full of porridge or someone full of chocolate?

"OH BOY!" said Papa Dinosaur in his loud, booming voice. "IT IS FINALLY TIME TO LEAVE AND GO TO THE...uhhh...SOMEPLACE ELSE!"

The dinosaurs, having apparently read, or at least heard, the story of Goldilocks and the three bears before, have set a trap, hoping she'll come to their house, so they can eat her.

Eventually, Goldilocsk, a little girl who "never listened t warning about the dangers of barging into strange, enormous houses," sees the dinosaurs' strange, enormous house and barges right in, acting out the familiar elements of the story as best she can, given the circumstances (Dinosaurs, remember, are a lot bigger than bears).

Everything works out for the best...or for the worst, depending on whether we're talking about the Goldilocks or the Three Dinosaurs, and a Willems offers a very valuable moral...and a very valuable moral for dinosaurs.

Having called attention to Maloney and Zekauskas' use of the word "brontosaurus" earlier, I feel compelled to note that one of these three dinosaurs is not your typical Theropod, but looks like a weird composite, with the head of a Styracosaurus, a Stegosaurus-like spiked tail, sharp carnivore teeth and a bipedal gait. It's possible it's meant to be a Dracorex, but some of the details don't quite match up.

Of course, the third dinosaur is referred to as "some other Dinosaur who happened to be visiting from Norway," and while I do watch dinosaur documentaries in my free time a lot, I don't think I've ever seen one specific to the dinosaurs of Norway, nor do I feel like googling Norwegian dinosaurs at the moment, as I still have a half-dozen more picture books to discuss.

Let's Go for a Drive! (Hyperion; 2012): New entries in Mo Willems' "Elephant & Piggie" series are always worth noting. This one isn't the funniest, nor is the most profound, and the joke the climactic joke it spends the majority of its length building up to is a pretty obvious one (um, for a 35-year-old), and not a terribly funny one. (The gag that follows is pretty clever though, and was subtly set-up while the primary gag was being set up).

That said, Willems is a great artist with amazing cartooning chops, and these particular characters continue to offer him the venue through which he does his most dynamic and expressive character work.

My First Ghost (Hyperion; 2012): I'm a fan of Stephanie Buscema's artwork, and I particularly enjoy the painted-looking texture of it—I rarely see an images of hers that doesn't look like I should be able to rub my fingertips over it and feel the grit of paint or the tiny little ant head-sized bumps of high-quality paper, but I've yet to find a picture book featuring her illustrations that I liked as a whole, rather than just as a vehicle for her art.

This one, written by Maggie Miler and Michael Leviton, comes closest.

The premise is teased on the cover, and thoroughly delineated on the first page:
(I borrowed it from my library, and I wonder if it is as effective when borrowed from a library as it would be if the book were purchased for you; after all, if there was a ghost to claim on the next page, wouldn't whoever had the book first have already released the ghost? Or, coming with a library book as it does, would that ghost return to it's spot beneath the first page when whatever child had the book checked out prepares to return it to the library...?)

"CONGRATULATIONS! Your house is now officially haunted!" the text on the next page reads, above a two-page image of a friendly-looking ghost flowing out of an open book in the hands of a surprised and delighted little boy. The ghost is of the eyes, mouth and sheet variety, although it has a purple ball-cap and red and orange-striped arms and hands on the sides of it's white, comma-shaped body.

Different children appear throughout the story, as do different ghosts; there's a boy ghost, which we see first, and a girl ghost, who accompanies little girls. The girl ghost has a bow instead of a ball-cap. Both genders wear what look like red Converse All-Stars (or a generic knock off) on their invisible feet; the boy ghost wears high-tops, the girl ghost wears, um, the other kind.

Because ghosts are invisible, silent and intangible, there's no way for a reader to prove that a ghost didn't come with the book, and the narrators do offer a few types of ghostly interaction:

If you shiver even though it's not cold, it means you bumped into your ghost...When you get the hiccups, it means your ghost is tickling you. When you yawan, it means your ghost is hugging you.

The text offers a few facts about ghosts, their virtues and their drawbacks, and suggestions on how to care for and play with your ghost, while Buscema's artwork draws various children going about their days with their variously ghostly friends.

Sad Santa (Sterling; 2012): In Tad Carpenter's gorgeous Christmas book, Santa Claus suffers from a combination of seasonal affective disorder and post-holiday blues: After another successful Christmas, Santa Claus feels sad: "There were no toys to make, no cookies to eat, and no presents to wrap..."

Presumably feeling a bit empty and deflated after the biggest day of the year, Santa feels down, and while his wife, his elves and his reindeer all try to reason with him and cheer him up, nothing they say or do, no matter how true or how well-intentioned, seems to be able to shake him out of his funk. He just doesn't enjoy the things he used to enjoy as much as he used to enjoy them. It's a pretty good picture of what depression feels like, honestly, but Depressed Santa probably isn't that great a title.

And Carptenter's illustrations of a despondent Santa, his circle of friends and family all casting concerned looks his way, is heartbreaking enough as it is (The spread on page seven and eight, for example, shows Santa wearing the same expression he has on the cover, holding his head in his hands as he sits at a table littered with boxed-up Christmas decorations. A gingerbread man on his plate and a little snowman in a snowglobe look up at him with similarly worried looking face, and, off in the corner, unseen by Santa, an elf and a cat similarly sadly regard the once jolly old elf.

Santa gets his groove back eventually, without benefit of medication or therapy, and I won't spoil it, should you want to check the book out. What sold me on it was how powerfully Carpenter captured the two words of the title in the image he put on the cover. The art inside is fantastic.

Carpenter has a very cute design style, and his characters and art are all quite flat, with little depth or dimensionality. They look something like cookies, homemade Christmas card character or grade school craft projects, only with a professional polish. The art work is done atop a very grainy paper that looks like a particularly pulpy brown paper bag or, perhaps, cardboard, and there's an extremeley limited color pallette of white, dark brown, red and turquoise employed quite creatively to render the various familiar characters in striking and unusual ways (choosing red for Santa and the elves skin color, for example, which marks them as different from regular human beings, three of whom are seen on the first page with white, light brown and dark brown skin, without assigning these magical, shared-by-everyone characters a particular race or ethnicity).

It's really fine work, and now is perhaps the second-most perfect time to read it. The most perfect time would, of course, be somewhere between December 26 and January 6 or so.

Socksquatch (Henry Holt;2010): The big, shaggy, horned monster known only as Socksquatch lumbers through the night, searching, searching, searching for a sock to cover his left foot, which has grown cold without a sock (His right foot, which has a sock, remains toasty).

He talks to some various monsters with prosaic names like Wayne and Martin, asking if he can borrow a sock, in broken, monster English:
"What need?"

"Got Sock?"

"No sock. Just toes."
And so on.

There's not a whole lot to Frank W. Dormer's short, simple, sweet story of a Socksquatch looking for a sock, but what is there is golden.

Trick Or Treat (Houghton Mifflin; 2012): Leo Landry draws the cutest goddam ghost in Oliver, a little ghost who is planning a Halloween party for all of his spooky friends: Witches, skeletons, spiders, black cats and other ghosts, mostly. On Halloween day, when he's flying around passing out invitations, he drops one that falls into the hands of two little boys.

After greeting "Skully and Jake! The Spooky Bones band!" and the bats the two skeleton brought with them, Oliver hears another knock on the door and who should arrive but...
...a little cow and a little jack-o'-lantern...?

I love that image; how happy the kids look, how uncomfortable the pumpkins look and, especially, Oliver's blank, stunned expression. (I also love that one of the kids dressed up as a cow for some reason, instead of a more traditional generic Halloween costume).

Well, Oliver and his friends let the cow and jack-o'-lantern come in and dance and go for broom rides and a good time is had by all. So good, in fact, that he is invited to one of the kids' birthday parties!

Again, this is a very simple story, and there's not a whole lot to it, but the artwork and designs are just darling, and the expressions Landry draws on many of the characters cracked me up repeatedly.

Who's Afraid of Godzilla? (Random House; 1998): The cover says this book children's book is written by someone with the high-suspicious name of Di Kaiju, and illustrated by someone with the much less suspicious name of Bob Eggleton. It is a children's story book about Godzilla's difficulty making friends with the other Toho kaiju, drawn in a very realistic style with a dark palate that looks like a Saturday afternoon movie in the early 1980s.

There's a weird, but fun, disconnect between the nature of the story and they style in which it's illustrated, between the presumed audience and the stars.

"Monster Island was the home of all the Earth's giant monsters, and every day the monsters played on the island's sunny beach," the book begins, before describing the playful activities of Gigan, Megalon, Anguirus, Varan, Manda and Rodan (Only about half of whom I could match the name to the image of; say, IDW should put out a Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe style comic featuring all the Godzilla monsters).

"But not all the monsters played together," we are told, "One monster sat alone..."
A turn of the page reveals poor Godzilla, looking sad and despondent atop a mountain, brooding over the fact that the other monsters shunned him. You see:
Godzilla was the biggest, strongest, and toughest of all the monsters. Because he was so powerful, the others were afraid of him.
Yes, I had the same problem in school.
Godzilla finally decides to leave Monster Island to make some new friends somewhere else, but every time he surfaces from the ocean and roars and screams "Will you be my friend?" people shriek in terror. Humans, elephants, sea creatures—everyone's scared of the Big G, and when he tries making friends in a city, he gets missiles shot at him, leading to this rare instance of Godzilla face-palm:
When he gives up and returns to Monster Island, he finds that those a-holes Megalon and Gigan, who, in G-zilla's absence were the de facto toughest monsters, had begun to bully the others. They throw Anguirus in a volcano, but Godzilla comes back just in time to scare the bullies away—without even breathing his radioactive breath on them, punching, kicking, clawing or biting them—and uses his long, strong tail to pull Anguirus to safety.
Then the monsters realize Godzilla may be big and powerful, but he's a stand-up guy, and all these goofy looking bastards crowd around the King of the Monsters.

That's where the story ends, so I don't know what happened next. I assume they all fight, kill and eat one another at some point.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Say, wait a minute...

In a dollar store today I noticed this package of The Amazing Spider-Man "lollipop rings" include three examples of that particular type of foodstuff; two of them are red, but one of them is blue.

But The Amazing Spider-Man wears a red mask, not a blue one! Why, the only person I can think of who wears a blue-colored Spider-Man mask like that would be Web-Man, the twin of Spider-Man's that Dr. Doom created in 1977's Spidey Super Stories #25, whom Doom affectionately refers to as "Webby"...!
(For more on Web-Man, please see ComicsAlliance's resident clone expert Chris Sims' classic Invincible Super-Blog posts on Spidey Super Stories #25 here, here and here.)

So does that mean Web-Man was in that Amazing Spider-Man movie that came out this past summer, which I still haven't seen, even though there's a DVD of it sitting right here on this end table, where it's sat all week? Man, I would have ponied up the cast to see it on the big screen if I knew The Lizard was going to be joined by Webby in opposing Spider-Man!

(Let me now take this opportunity to once again request that Marvel release Essential Spidey Super Stories ASAP: "Marvel, please collect and release a few volumes of Essential Spidey Super Stories.")

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Review: Ragemoor

"This is a Jan Strnad and Richard Corben comic about a living, killing castle," is perhaps a sufficient amount of information for many comic readers regarding Ragemoor, a Dark Horse-published miniseries that is now available as a handsome hardcover (Without character-counting to be sure, I think I would have therefore been able to sufficiently review it in a single Twitter tweet!).

As individuals and as a team, the creators have built-up large bodies of great work that the mention of their names is all a lot of readers will need to know about the style and quality of the book, and "living, killing castle" gives the reader the core, compelling premise.

All that really remains to be discussed then, is perhaps where the book might fall on a scale of past Strnad and Corben collaborations and solo projects, and the specifics of that premise. For the sake of a meatier post, then, I'll keep least for a few more paragraphs, but suffice it to say this is a very good horror comic by two guys who are very good at making horror comics.

Corben's highly-textured art is presented in a very stark black and gray, with particularly luminescent whites appearing to render light sources and planes where the light has, um, alighted. The full-cover colors, some of which contain quite a bit less black than that of the collection's cover, are quite jarring when they appear between issue/chapters.

The story is a bit of a pastiche, beginning in a decrepit castle which lends the comic its title on a very dark, very stormy night. Liberal inspiration is taken from H.P. Lovecraft: In the ultimate extraterrestrial origin of supernatural threats, the presence of tentacled horrors worshipped by primitive cultures as gods and in the exposition delivered through a fevered, mad dream. Oh, and there's also the word "chitinous," which is one of a handful of words I don't think I've ever read or heard outside of a Lovecraft story...or a story deliberately referencing Lovecraft's oeuvre. (The specific usage is "Damn your chitinous hide," which has been stuck in my head like a snatch of a pop song over the course of the last 24 hours).

Inspiration is taken also from Edgar Allen Poe, whose word Corben has spent a great deal of time and energy adapting in other projects, particularly in the second chapter, during which the protagonist relates previous events in the form of an Annabell Lee-like poem.
The cast is quite small, and, as in many horror narratives, it dwindles dramatically as Ragemoor progresses: There's Herbert, the young master of the castle; his quite mad father, who climbs and crawls about its hall naked; his loyal servant Bodrick, who shares in the castle's dangerous secrets; his visiting uncle, who doesn't believe any of the poppycock; a young female companion traveling with his uncle, who captures Herbert's attention; and Tristano, a local poacher who grows too familiar with Ragemoor.

There's great risk in talking too much or too specifically about the story, as I think it offers greater delights the less you know about it. The most enjoyable parts for me were when it would take a quite unexpected turn for the weird, which it does several times; each was quite unexpected, and each ratchets up the insanity of the narrative to another degree. And remember, it begins with the story of a living castle, so Robert E. Howard-style plot points, magical realist acknowledgment of the bizarre living side-by-side by the more real and a Hammer Films-like low-camp delivery of lines like "I have baboons to feed" or anything said by or about Tristano.

While so many of the sources of the, um, pastichement are from outside of comics, it's Corben's particular designs and their application in the comics medium that are the strongest selling point (as pleasing as the weirdness is, it's the way the weirdness is rendered that makes it so delightful—see panels three, four and five on page 38 for a good example).

Corben's baboons, which live in the lower sections of Ragemoor for some reason, are drawn as if he based them on written descriptions of the first Englishman to encounter them, rather than from the easily-available image reference of, say, Google Image—they look like furry human beings with tails, wearing the elongated skulls of some kind of carnivore, perhaps a "real" baboon, over their true heads, so their white, pinpoint eyes stare out from the black cavities.

Comics are a pretty good place to render a living castle, as it turns out. While the castle in movement is shown in multiple instances, usually when quaking to rearrange itself, or when a gargoyle comes to life and rips a victim's chest out in a big, gory arc or when a stone hand sinks into the earth in a three-panel sequence, the movement is sometimes quite subtle—there's a page featuring a panel of five stone pillars standing erect, and, further down, a panel where they've closed.

Because the time that elapses between panels is up to the reader's imagination to fill-in, the effect of stone moving so slowly that a person can't be sure they are imagining it or not is possible in comics—although, I should not, Ragemoor is paced so that no such mysteries are dwelt upon. No sooner is the castle's particular nature revealed, beginning on page two, and a skeptic announces his disbelief than we see the castle itself in action.

As active as Castle Ragemoor may be, as in-control of it's own destiny as it may be, it is still a setting, and perhaps more enjoyable as a setting than as a character—after all, it's as a setting that it provides Strnad and Corben a place to put all of these delightfully weird moments.


Okay, one minor spoiler. There's a couple drawings of dinosaurs in the book:
I post this image just to show how Corben draws those Lovecraftian tentacley space god-monsters. They are literally all tentacle, with no head or body of any kind attached...that, or the creature the limbs are attached to are always off-panel; in the above image, for example, it may be underground, and is simply extending its tentacles to deal with the dinosaur. Either way—creatures so alien to our conception that they consist entirely of appendages, or so alien that the artist chooses never to show them to us, but, like Lovecraft, leave it up to our imagination to "design"—it's a good way of dealing with such creatures.

Seen today at Walmart*

Kids today. They love the superheroes.

They see them in the movies, and the cartoon shows and the video games. I don't know, maybe they even see them occasionally in the comic books. When they can scrape together enough birthday money and allowance to buy a stack of $3-$4 pamphlets, convince an adult to drive them to the nearest comic book store (which might be quite a ways away, depending on where they live), and succeed in finding some with too few beheadings, dismemberments and rape references for their parents to notice and blanch at.

And, obviously, they see the superheroes in the toy aisles of the various big-box retail outlets their parents shop at, like the Walmart.

How much do they love the superheroes? They just kind of love them in general. They don't have to be the name-brand ones from DC Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment; they just like superheroes, regardless of name or trademark. Which is why Walmart sells not only toys featuring licensed characters from the latest Spider-Man movie and cartoon, and from that Avengers movie everyone liked, or wares featuring Batman and the Justice Leaguers for every age group, they also sell these generic play sets, pictured above.

Six bucks (the cost of 1.5 issues of, say, the brand-new Iron Man or Indestructible Hulk comics) will get you a silver black domino-like mask and matching black and silver cape, or a set of red "power bands" and matching belt.

Or hey, how about this red, white silver and blue star-spangled "Power Shield"...?
It's obviously not Marvel Entertainment's Captain America's shield, nor is it anything like Marvel Entertainment's Captain America's shield, so obviously there's no reason for anyone to sue anyone.

Why, I believe that's the same shield that Agent America or perhaps The Fighting American, used to carry...

*I wasn't shopping there, I swear! I was just accompanying two beloved family members who shop there on the regular. I'm a dues-paying member of a union, and was at my previous day-job too! I ain't no scab! Alright, yes, I did eat some cookies that one of those family members bought. Does that make me a bad person? Oh God, I am a bad person, aren't I?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Comic shop comics: November 21

Daredevil #20 (Marvel Entertainment) While I'm not a big fan of decadence, depravity and shock-tactic scenes in my superhero comics in general, credit where credit is due: Mark Waid writes, and artist Chris Samnee executes, a doozy of one in this issue, and it's creative enough in conception and staging that not only was I truly shocked, I was surprised and impressed to (It's a hell of a use of a splash-page, and the two preceding pages worth of panels leading up to it are perfect; I went back and reread the sequence just to check for imperfections, but came up empty).

Not sure I understood the first few panels of the next page, but then, the super-science is murky enough that I couldn't tell you how it worked anyway.

There's one more issue to go in this story arc, and I'm rather eager to see it, as there's a reveal in this issue that makes it clear that what I thought was happening—because the villain told me it was happening—isn't actually happening, so I want to see what's really happening.

Anyway: This really great book remains really great.

Hawkeye #4 (Marvel) Three. That is the answer to the question "How many consecutive issues can artist David Aja, a huge part of the reason this book is worth reading, draw before needing a fill in?"

The fill-in artist is Javier Pulido, and you could hardly ask for a better one, although it's worth noting that Pulido's presence has altered the look and feel of the book fairly dramatically, as he provides much bigger panels and less elaborate layouts calling for fewer panels. The leads look awfully off-model, but that is largely the fault of Marvel not having models any more, and thus the Hawkeyes won't look like themselves whenever someone other than Aja draws them (and to nitpick, there's an action scene in which a couple of people try to pick Clint Barton's pocket while he's inside the backseat of a cab that doesn't really work; I had to slow down and reread it and think about it for a long while, and I still couldn't get it to visually make sense in my head).

This is also the first story that isn't a strict done-in-one, although it does have something of a beginning, middle and an end of it's's just that the ending is itself a cliffhanger.

This is also also the first story that seems to take into account events from another Marvel book, which I assume is Secret Avengers, but it could very well be that writer Matt Fraction is inventing something that seems like it took place in another book, simply because we didn't see it take place in this book and that, in fact, it wasn't something that took place in a published comic book.

I don't know; I don't really get it. The maguffin is a VHS tape (hey, didn't I read a similar story in the also-edited-by-Stephen-Wacker Daredevil a few months back? Involving a flashback and Stilt-Man?) of Hawkeye "committing the assassination of the world's most wanted criminal terrorist," and, I don't know, "assassination" and "criminal terrorist" don't really go together. I mean, the President of the United States of America kills criminal terrorists and/or anyone nearby them pretty much constantly with robot death planes, and no one seems to consider that "assassination," nor does anyone in the U.S. seem particular embarrassed about it. So I'm not sure why an Avenger doing it with a bow and arrow is such a big deal. Maybe they'll get to that next issue...

Oh. Also: Wolverine. That dudes an Avenger, and he stabs dudes to death with greater frequency then I update my blog.

It Girl! and The Atomics #4 (Image Comics) A bold choice on Mike Allred's part to use an image of It Girl tweaking her own nipple on the cover of this issue.

Well, what began as a semi-charming impression of Silver Age/Bronze Age super-comics has grown to be more and more tedious with each passing issue. In this one, we get writer Jamie S. Rich calling back to plot points from a previous series (like, more than a decade previous...?) from a different publisher featuring these characters, answering questions no body asked and finding connections to the past instead of forging a future like a 1970s Roy Thomas.

The only thing about the book that's not nostalgic...? The story arc is taking forever; this is the fourth chapter of a story that should take about two issues, tops, to tell, and there's a fifth on the way, and there aren't even really any sub-plots to justify the amount of time it's taking to tell (It Girl's sister has an evil duplicate, created when she was brought back to life during the Oni Comics series).

This is definitely my last issue of the series, although if what was said in earlier issues regarding guest artists like Chynna Clugston doing one-shots between story-arcs, I suppose I'll be back every once in a while for those.

Smurf Soup (Papercutz) I bought this at the comic shop this week too, even though it's been out for a while. There are three stories within, two of which deal with soup. The other one features the second instance I've seen in the series of the Smurfs taking Gargamel down in straight hand-to-hand combat. It's not quite as scary as the first one, in which they used their bare hands, but it's still pretty scary, as this time they are armed with such makeshift weaponry as Smurf-sized pitchforks, rolling pins and hammers (Gargamel fed 'em a potion that transformed them variously, if you're wondering why so many of 'em look so weird).

Also, I'm not sure which song I find more annoying: The cartoon Smurfs' high-pitched "La la la la la la", or the comics Smurfs' lyrically redundant "It's the Smurf smurf smurf who goes smurf smurf smurf"....

Wonder Woman #14 (DC Comics) In the latest issue of one of NPR's choices for best "Under the Radar" books of the year (Yeah, it's just too bad The New 52 didn't attract more attention, isn't it...?), regular artist Cliff Chiang is MIA, and even the usual fill-in artist Tony Akins is reduced to just doing lay-outs, which Dan Green and Rick Burchett finish.

Wonder Woman is a rather rare book in that even the fill-in art tends to be exceptional; here, the fill-in artists for the fill-in artist provide higher-quality work than the regular artists for the vast majority of DC books. (Honestly, I wouldn't mind Burchett finishing Akin every month, even though I do like Chiang's art quite a bit. In a perfect world, Burchett would be illustrating a well-written DC superhero book on an ongoing basis but, alas, ours is not a perfect world).

Perhaps the most noteworthy event of this issue, aside from the change in artists, is that we get the first good look at the New 52 versions of two Jack Kirby creations, Orion (who appeared briefly in silhouette for a few panels a few issues ago) who, I am happy to report, is not the mysterious giant who ate the dude's brain last issue (that dude, by the way, has, like, no penis; no wonder he's so irritable).
The Orion re-design, which I assume comes courtesy of Chiang, is a nice one, and several hundred times better than many of the New 52 costume reboots, but it also looks a lot like a case of change for change's sake; it's not superior to Kirby's, but more of a lateral change, the big innovation seemingly being a flip-up visor that gives his mask a more knight-like quality, and changing his suit from spandex to something that looks like padded armor (His flying harness thingee doesn't appear; I'm eager to see that). He's also handsome, which is a pretty big change from Kirby's conception, but perhaps he's using an off-panel Mother Box to make him look handsome.

Highfather appears on-panel, but in silhouette, with only his hair, beard, eyes and teeth showing. The space they move in is empty, and features only a few "props;" a door, a map of earth, some floating screens with rows of blue, vertical lines blipping like hospital heart monitors on them. It's a very subdued look for the usually bombastic world of the New Gods, but it is, after all, just a peek.