Wednesday, June 07, 2023

A Month of Wednesdays: May 2023


Nancy Wins at Friendship (Andrews McMeel Publishing) Olivia Jaimes' latest collection of her reinvented Nancy run includes strips from the Covid shut-in days, and, after all of the superhero comics seem to have ignored the fact that Covid was ever a thing, it was interesting to see an iconic comic character deal with the pandemic in any meaningful way. 

For Nancy, a little girl, this mainly meant dealing with going to school over the Internet for a series of strips, and how the always inventive Jaimes found ways to build gags around it (Sluggo, whose uncles were apparently on the road, moved in with Nancy and Aunt Fritzi for the duration of the shut-in). 

Fun, funny and relentlessly inventive, always finding creative ways to tell new versions of stock jokes or view the world in new ways, Nancy remains a high point of the modern American newspaper comic strip, and an absolute pleasure to encounter in a collection like this. 


Baby Bear's Bakery, Part 1 (Denpa) This darling manga from creator Kamentotsu is about a baby bear cub who knows how to bake delectable cakes and desserts...and almost nothing else. In the very first strip—each page consists of a single, standalone four- or five-panel strip—his most regular customer has to haggle him far upwards, as he's only charging 20 yen for two desserts. Later, when another gives him a credit card to pay for his order, Baby Bear thinks he gets to keep the cool-looking card. 

Eventually, that regular customer who appears in the first strip begins working for Baby Bear, and he teaches him about business and modern human life in general. Most of the humor of the series comes from Baby Bear's complete naivete, and his learning of something new: Santa Claus and Christmas celebration, New Year's celebrations, lunch delivery, how money works, the library, where milk comes from and so on. 

While Kamentotsu's human character is highly abstracted, even children's picture book-like in his simplicity, Baby Bear himself is rendered highly realistically...and cute. That cuteness and that ignorance are the twin engines that drive the delightful little comic.

At the end of the volume, there's a fairytale-like comic that tells just how it is that Baby Bear learned to make cakes, which is in a more comic-like format rather than the little few-panel towers that dominate the pages of the book. 

Batman/Superman: World's Finest Vol. 1: The Devil Nezha (DC Comics) Writer Mark Waid does that thing he (and, to a great extent, Grant Morrison) does so well here: Writing what is essentially a Silver Age comic book story, but shorn of its excess narration and thought balloons, with modern story-telling sensibilities and rocket-like pacing.

Set in "the not-too-distant past", back when Batman wore blue and had a yellow oval around his bat-symbol and Dick Grayson was still his partner Robin, the story finds the World's Finest team battling Poison Ivy and Metallo in Metropolis...although the villains are working for another, unseen foe. 

When Superman is given a deadly cocktail of  Red Kryptonite, Batman takes Robin's advice and calls in "a doctor who specializes in freakish transformations!", Dr. Niles Caulder and his Doom Patrol. Soon Supergirl is called in too, and the various heroes split up to track down elements of the mystery bad guy behind the other bad guys: An ancient, immortal Chinese warlord now known as the Devil Nezha (see the title of the volume).

The book focuses on big, crazy moments within a more-or-less typical day for the heroes, including casual time-travel, encounters with various other Justice Leaguer heroes and villains and the creation of a new, very temporary version of the Composite-Superman. There are also fun, character defining moments, like answering the question of how Superman would address the concept of hell, or Batman's penchant for detecting things and planning ahead.

It will be interesting to see if the book moves into the future/present at some point, and whether doing so will cramp Waid's storytelling style too much, given the concerns of continuity and more twenty-first century comics conventions (It's harder to imagine Supergirl and Robin traveling into the distant past to question important witnesses in a modern story than a Silver Age one, for example). For this volume, at least, it presented the sort of big, crazy elements that have always punctuated Superman/Batman team-up books, coupled with Waid's sharp, smart writing and familial-like familiarity with the characters and their traditional lore. 

The story is not just a lark, as much as it reads like a satisfying, done-in-one adventure. It leads directly into another Waid-written story, Batman Vs. Robin, which the very last page sets up "Years later," with Damian in his current Robin costume investigating something on Lazarus Island which we now see was the island-setting of the adventure we just got done reading.

Dan Mora is the artist, and he does a phenomenal job. One of the best superhero artists working right now, Mora gets the opportunity to draw not only Superman, Batman and their supporting casts, but also the Doom Patrol, much of the original Justice League, some classic villains, and to design some great new villains and heroes (and that Composite Superman, which really sings, despite the fact that the original design would have worked pretty well in this context).

I finished the book, which includes two cliffhangers (what happens with current Robin on Lazarus Island and what happened to original Robin Dick Grayson, who becomes lost in time), not wanting to wait to see what happens next. That is, I believe, the ideal way one should feel after putting down a piece of serial story-telling of any kind. Unfortunately, because I decided to read in trade instead of by issue, I've got longer than a month to wait for that more of this. 

Jurassic League (DC) There's a pretty solid, if somewhat silly, joke at the center of this project, apparently inspired by the fact that "Jurassic" and "Justice" both start with the letter J: What if the familiar Justice Leaguers were all dinosaurs? That idea, which seems to have belonged to co-writer Daniel Warren Johnson and writer/artist Juan Gedeon, could easily sustain a short story or a one-shot, but it was stretched into a six-issue miniseries, which, unfortunately, resulted in the same basic gag being repeated over and over, while the narrative was a pretty basic, generic Justice League story of Earth's heroes rallying together to fend off an invasion by Darkseid. Except, of course, they're all dinosaurs.

In the most obvious example that the series was a little too ong for its own crazy concept, artist Gedeon couldn't draw the whole thing, and fill-in artist Rafa Garres, who has a strong, but very different and ultimately rather incompatible, style is needed to draw the third issue. I obviously don't know the ins and outs of serial super-comics publishing, but it strikes me as silly to need a fill-in artist on a miniseries, which only leads to an aesthetic problem that could have easily been solved by a greater lead time offered to the primary artist, something that should have been easy enough to do with a series like this one (It's not like this is a big crossover  event serving as the lynchpin for the whole line; it's a lark of a book, and a completely standalone one). 

In a prehistoric past where human, dinosaur and humanoid dinosaur all live alongside one another, there are a group of extraordinary humanoid dinosaurs with familiar sounding origins: One with super-powers hails from a dying planet and was adopted and raised by humans, one is a warrior from a secluded island of legendary martial might, one dresses as a bat and fights to avenge his parents (Yes, that last one is a dinosaur that dresses like a bat, which I guess must exist at the time after all, if humans do). 

These are Supersaur, Wonderdon and Batsaur, and together with Aquanyx, Flashraptor and Green Torch they fight to save little, defenseless humans from the likes of Jokerard, Brontozarro, Blackmantasaurus and the Reverse-Slash. The bad dinosaurs are gathering them to give sustenance to their master, yet unhatched from a titanic egg. This is, obviously, Darkyloseid. They team up in twos and threes  until they finally all unite against the major threat, although rather than the result of teamwork, the bad guy is defeated by Supersaur's unique might alone. 

Gedeon's designs are all a lot of fun, as is the over-the-top action between the dinosaur-ized heroes and villains and the overall big, dumb idea of the premise, it's just not enough to power 120 pages without ever feeling tiresome or relying on tired genre cliches. I lied it well enough, I just can't help but wish it was better.

DC doesn't rate their graphic novels, but the individual issues were rated for readers 13-and-up. It's honestly a little weird that a comic book in which superheroes are dinosaurs is meant for older readers; I at first approached this as a comic book that might be a good one for kids (that is, something I might review for Good Comics For Kids), but the level of violence in the first issue/chapter was pretty surprising.

Much of the book has the appropriate professional wrestling level of violence in its battles (seriously, the dinosaur-men use wrestling moves on one another; see above), but the first encounter between Batsaur and Jokerzard is pretty brutal. So brutal it took me aback, and it certainly earns its older-teen rating, which, again, is kind of weird for a book mixing two of little kids' favorite things in the world, you know? One imagines there is a whole audience for this book that won't find it because it was, like so much Big Two output, made by grown-ups for other grown-ups. 


Danger and Other Unknown Risks (Penguin Workshop) This new collaboration from the reunited Unbeatable Squirrel Girl team of Ryan North and Erica Henderson, has the kind of story that it is difficult to talk too much about, given that there's a...turn in the narrative that impacts the entire story. It's not exactly a twist ending so much as a new way of looking at the story that will change it for readers. It seemed a hard book to review, then, as it was hard to talk too much about the plot without spoiling anything. Even saying that it's easy to spoil seems to spoil it to a certain degree. So rather than reviewing it at all I sought an interview with the creators. It turned out, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be a lot of fun. Check it out here, and make sure you read Danger and Other Unknown Risks, either before or after my spoiler-free conversation with the creators. 

Girl Taking Over: A Lois Lane Story (DC Comics) This new, original graphic novel starring a young, coming-of-age, pre-Superman/Clark Kent Lois Lane differs from other Lois Lane stories in one dramatic, if perhaps superficial way: This Lois is Japanese-American. I spoke with writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Arielle Jovellanos about the change in the character and their book in general in this interview at Good Comics For Kids

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