Saturday, January 5, 2008

2007: The Year in Comics (3)

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Matt Fraction, Gabriel Bá, Fábio Moon, et al. Casanova. Adopting the format invented by Warren Ellis for Fell, the creators deliver 16 pages of comics for $ 1.99 with each issue of their heart-warmingly insane over-the-top flower-power wall-of-sound collage Jim-Steranko-meets-Phil-Spector by way of Daniel-Craig-as-Austin-Powers sci-fi spy comic. Plus, in this case, there are eight additional pages crammed with insightful commentary on the story and the occasional sketch. And, in any event, Casanova doesn't just take me four times as long to read as Fell, but I'll actually have to read it four times to get a grasp on what the hell is going on - and I mean that in a good way, really. So, all told, Casanova probably has the best value-for-money ratio in comics - particularly since it's also a delightful, very clever and exceptionally inventive book that really makes you want to invest all the time it takes to properly consume and digest it. (Image Comics, periodical)

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Matt Fraction, Barry Kitson, et al. The Order. Over at Marvel, Fraction turns out work that's a little more conventional, understandably, but no less entertaining. With The Order, the creators basically use the proven old team book formula made popular by Claremont and Wolfman, dust it off for the 21st century and add a few neat twists. In practice, this means soap-opera-style character interaction and conflicts, which, thanks to a rock-solid and diverse cast of entirely new characters, never gets old. Along the way, the theme of celebrity culture is explored, and you get the obligatory superhero action. So, basically, it's X-Statix done straight, which, I guess, is still fairly unconventional for a mainstream superhero team book. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, et al. Phonogram. The best short-cut description of Phonogram I can come up with is still Hellblazer meets High Fidelity. Imagine someone - let's call them a Phonomancer - capable of consciously wielding the undeniably enormous magical power of pop music to his own ends. Let's call that someone David Kohl, a jaded Brit in his late twenties whose latest mission involves finding out what's wrong with the Goddess of Britpop. Phonogram, in its essence, is a story about nostalgia and about growing up, as embodied by Kohl's personal journey from all-out-asshole to an almost-likable human being. This clearly isn't a book for everyone, but if the concept sounds halfway appealing to you, you're probably going to like it. (Image Comics, periodical)

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Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Keith Giffen, et al. 52. Well, that's certainly symptomatic of the larger problem with DC's current line: In the extensive creators' (and editors') commentary given at the end of each chapter of the four paperback collections of 52, plot points from upcoming chapters are freely given away - at one point it's even explicitly presumed that whoever picks up the collections is likely to have already read the weekly comic. Suffice it to say, that's amazing in this day and age, but of course it's not the creators' fault. Taken on its own terms, 52 holds up surprisingly well as the all-inclusive superhero epic it was meant to be, even if you sabotage the pseudo-real-time gimmick by picking it up months after the conclusion, and even if, like me, you're not overly familiar with the characters and their world. Each major character here gets a perfectly solid arc that concludes in a satisfying way before the book is over, and the hundreds of supporting characters and the dozens of minor plot threads showing up along the way generally add depth to the narrative, instead of overpowering the reader. There are a few clunky plot twists, storytelling gaffes and instances of unfortunate pacing, as well as a few pages of rushed artwork here and there, but you can actually count those on one hand - and for every one of them there are numerous powerful moments in the series, and even a couple of brilliant ones. Most importantly, though, the creators pull it off to make me care about the characters and their quests and problems right from the first issue, which should be the baseline expectation for every periodical comic, but sadly isn't. I confess I bought this mainly because of Morrison and Rucka's involvement and expected it to be much less than the sum of its parts, but I was very pleasantly surprised. This is pretty good stuff, if you're looking for sturdy, well-made meat-and-potatoes superhero comics. (DC Comics, paperback)

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Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, et al. The Ultimates 2. No, really. The Ultimates mainly lived from its novelty factor and from Millar's penchant for cheap shock effects. In Ultimates 2, though, you'll find something almost unheard of in his body of work: credible, genuine characters. Of course, the cheap shocks and the big explosions and the pandering are still there as well. But it's the quiet moments and the character interaction which induce this one with some much-needed heart and soul. Indeed - and I certainly hope Mr. Millar won't take offense at this - I'd almost go so far as to call it subtle in places. In short, the book shows a lot more range than the average Millar comic. It may be the most well-rounded thing I've read by him. (Marvel Comics, paperback)

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Frank Miller, Jim Lee, et al. All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder. No, really. I probably wouldn't go as far as this, but I'm still enjoying Miller's latest interpretation of the character tremendously. How easy would it have been for him to play it safe and do a straightforward prequel to The Dark Knight Returns, particularly with Jim Lee doing the artwork? Instead, just like he did with The Dark Knight Strikes Again, he completely switches gears and hands in something so emphatically not what people expected that you really have to admire the man's cojones. This book is the comics equivalent of Miller going on stage and ripping apart an issue of Wizard, and they got Jim Lee to illustrate it for eight issues and running? Get out of here. Instead of wheeling out the cunning, confident Batman that everybody knows and loves, Miller gives us one who pretends to be a badass to try and impress a youngster, coming across as a pathetic out-of-touch dork - and frequently also a bit of a mean prick. And worse, the comic seems to be entirely on his side, wallowing in inconsequential pin-up shots and gratuitous violence. The last couple of issues were so magnificently ridiculous that I had to laugh out loud a few times. I'm not sure the book is good, mind you, but it's most definitely alive, cuckoo as a bag of sparrows and not the least bit apologetic about it. Which makes it more entertaining than 99 percent of the rest of comics periodicals on sale in North America at this hour. (DC Comics, periodical)

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Grant Morrison, Gene Ha, et al. The Authority. Well, there was only one issue of the supposed four-part arc in 2007, and it now seems dubious whether the remaining two will ever see the light of day. What there is of the book is quite intriguing, though. As usual when he deals with an existing concept, Morrison picks a central theme and takes it literally, with dramatic results. In this case, now, it's the "superheroes in the real world" notion. What does that mean in a Grant Morrison comic? Well, how about this: The Carrier is stranded in the "real world," the Authority's powers are failing because the native laws of physics can't support them, and on a first field expedition, they visit a comics store and steal a copy of the Authority: Relentless paperback. Now they have to decide whether they overthrow the rotten place and straighten it out or go home - provided they can find the energy resources to accomplish the trip. This superfictional approach ties in neatly with Morrison's pet themes, of course, and it also offers a much-needed new take on the worn-out Authority concept. In a way, I guess you could say that the book's premature abortion works as a part of the story: The Authority, stranded forever in the real world, stripped of its power and defeated by DC Comics office politics, their lives are now never evolving beyond The Authority #2, which they read over and over. What a lovely thought. Who needs comics? (DC Comics/WildStorm, periodical)

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Grant Morrison, Andy Kubert, J. H. Williams III, et al. Batman. I think it's fair to say that Batman hasn't been among Morrison's best work to date. It's still yielded a couple of fun storylines, however, notably a closed-room whodunit masterfully illustrated by the inimitable J. H. Williams III. On the other hand, the prose issue was rather unimpressive, and if the two chapters of the "Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul" crossover aren't the dullest and most uninspired Grant Morrison comics I've ever read, they're pretty close. Overall, Morrison's interpretation of the Batman character seems to be more optimistic than we've grown used to and almost upbeat at times. While I don't think that works quite as well as it ought to, at least it seems to result in reasonably entertaining stories, as long as some silly big-event story doesn't put a spoke in its wheel. I can live with that, but I'll probably skip the next crossover. (DC Comics, periodical)

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Okay, one more post, I think, and I'll be finished with 2007.

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