Tuesday, January 15, 2008

2007: The Year in Comics (4)

The final chapter - for this year, anyway.

* * *

Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et al. All Star Superman. This one's on everyone's best-of lists for 2007, and it's entirely deserved. With each new issue, Morrison and Quitely present a supercondensed, mind-expanding mini-epic bursting at the seams with that often-cited "wide-eyed sense of wonder" the superman genre was created to capture. Of course, getting to pick and choose the brightest elements from 70 years worth of Superman comics helps. But the best ideas are worthless without creators capable of giving them a good spin and making them bounce off each other in new and delightful ways. And that's precisely what Morrison and Quitely are doing here - they're creating diamonds from coal, basically. (DC Comics, periodical)

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Jeff Parker, Leonard Kirk, et al. Agents of Atlas. Every year, without fail, Marvel and DC put out a handful of books that are highly acclaimed on the internet and bought by absolutely no one. In 2007, one of them happened to be Agents of Atlas, which reintroduces a selection of pulp comics archetypes from the 1950s: You get the secret agent, the spaceman, the robot, the underwater princess and, for good measure, the talking gorilla. Within the space of a six-issue miniseries, the creators manage to turn each of these archetypes into a well-rounded and credible character, telling a quirky mystery adventure in the process. Agents of Atlas is a clever, surefooted and thoroughly engaging superheroes-with-a-twist book with a lot of great character moments. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Dirk Schwieger. Moresukine. Back in 2006, German cartoonist Dirk Schwieger launched a weekly webcomic chronicling his experiences during a stay in Tokyo. The premise: Schwieger asked readers to submit assignments (e.g., "spend a night in a Japanese pod hotel," or "visit a traditional swordsmith"), which he then carried out to the best of his abilities and reported on in comics form. It's a very effective set-up for a non-fiction webcomic, and the result are a bunch of entertaining and frequently insightful strips. A translated print edition of Moresukine was released in Germany last year, promptly winning Schwieger the Sondermann Award for "Best Newcomer 2007" at the Frankfurt Book Fair. On the web, you can still read the original English-language version. If you understand German, though, I recommend getting the physical book. It's a very neat volume styled as a Moleskine diary, and it comes with an extra section featuring international web cartoonists such as James Kochalka, Ryan North and Monsieur Le Chien, who have contributed strips chronicling "assignments" of their own. (Reprodukt, paperback)

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J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, et al. Thor. After seven years of writing comics for Marvel, Straczynski finally got his hands on one that agrees with his sensibilities in 2007. Straczynski's Thor is suitably majestic without coming across as nostalgic or campy. While the author's tendency towards explaining the world from the pulpit still shows through here and there, it's not nearly as glaring as in other works. There's not much going on in the book in terms of plot, mind you, and everything's just a tad too mysterious for its own good on that level. Still, Straczynski finds a tone which works for the book, and which makes the pacing seem appropriately dignified for a story about a bunch of Norse gods, rather than gratuitously decompressed. Olivier Coipel, meanwhile, deserves credit for pulling off two things that I don't think anyone's managed before. One, he gives Thor a distinctive face that really does look like it could belong to a Viking god of thunder; and two, he's come up with a much-needed update of the character's costume that's not only workable, but looks rather sturdy, to boot. All told, this is one of the more appealing takes on the character that I've come across. I'm not entirely sure whether it's going anywhere, but I like it. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, et al. Y: The Last Man. The post-apocalyptic five-year saga of the last human male on Earth and his monkey entered the home stretch in 2007. A confession: I don't really remember much of what happened in the book last year, and it's not the first time it happens to me with Y. What I do recall, though, is that I enjoyed reading each and every issue of it tremendously, so I guess I can look forward to rereading the entire series once it concludes with issue #60 at the end of January. I'm not sure it's going to hold up as a complete narrative, to be honest, but it's been a fresh, smartly written and marvelously entertaining work of serial fiction throughout its run. I'm going to miss it. (DC Comics/Vertigo, periodical)

* * *

Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, et al. Ex Machina. Vaughan's other epic, about the world's first and only superhero, now serving as the mayor of New York City, also kept humming along nicely but unspectacularly in 2007. I expect Ex Machina to be a more rewarding second read than Y: The Last Man, thanks to the numerous flashbacks and the frequent odd hints which are dropped and never picked up again. (Remember that Nirvana song nobody had ever heard of before? Or the protagonist's aversion to fortune-tellers?) Of course, it could also be a sign that Vaughan is making it up as he goes along, but I doubt that - I'm more inclined to believe he's been subtly laying out pieces of the puzzle. Overall, the book is still a bit of a disappointment, however. Instead of really engaging the political and procedural issues you'd expect to come up in the series, it frequently avoids them and does generic mystery, crime or espionage routines. In terms of the character interaction and surprising plot twists, there's still a lot to enjoy here, though. (DC Comics/WildStorm, periodical)

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Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, et al. The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite. This book, starring seven super-powered stepsiblings, is, broadly speaking, a darker version of postmodern retro works like Tom Strong and The Incredibles. It also happens to be written by the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, of course, and, saints preserve us, it's great. It's easy to understand why Way's style is frequently compared to Grant Morrison's. There's an abundance of off-beat ideas here, as well as a fascination with wacky Silver-Age tropes. More significantly, Way, like Morrison in books such as Animal Man, The Filth or We3, has a knack for telling stories which are conceptually progressive but at the same time heartfelt and inherently character-driven. Artist Gabriel Bá, whose style is both slick and cartoony but also has a noirish dimension to it, is a perfect fit for the material. Six months ago, I'd have been somewhat surprised to learn that the writing on The Umbrella Academy was competent. Now, I'm astonished to admit that it's actually quite good. (Dark Horse Comics, periodical)

* * *

Joss Whedon, John Cassaday, et al. Astonishing X-Men. I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I haven't been able to muster the least bit of enthusiasm for the plot. It's generic science fiction stuff which doesn't have the slightest connection to the X-Men's core themes, essentially, and it's hard to imagine that Whedon wasted a lot of time thinking about it. And, of course, the book's glacial pacing and badly off-the-rails release history have made it a chore to keep up with; plainly, I don't buy for a second that anybody - the creators and editors included - could honestly believe this is working as a serial. On the plus side, the creators manage to put in just enough neat visuals and powerful character moments to gloss over the book's considerable shortcomings. The skin and bones are there, and the heart and soul are there. Astonishing X-Men is shiny, and you want to like it. What it lacks, however, is substance. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, et al. DMZ. Matty Roth, the protagonist of DMZ, is a young reporter in the biggest urban warzone imaginable. Set in a not-too-distant future where New York City has become the frontline in a new US-American civil war, DMZ transplants the routine horror from places like Beirut, Baghdad and Mogadishu into the very heart of western civilization: air raids, snipers and suicide bombings dominate the streets of Manhattan, its people being ground up, both literally and figuratively, between corrupt governments, corporations viewing the individual as an expendable resource and media which have long since abandoned the concept of reporting the facts. It's hard to overlook the irony in the set-up - the story certainly isn't coy about it - but Wood avoids the easy pitfalls. Instead of engaging in heavy-handed political soapboxing, DMZ wants to explore the evolution of humanity and human culture in an utterly hostile environment. The book keeps its nose down in the dirt, with Matty, who has to weigh the worth of his convictions and his journalistic integrity against his compassion and just plain surviving the next day. (DC Comics/Vertigo, periodical)

* * *

Brian Wood, Ryan Kelly, et al. Local. Each issue of the twelve-part series Local presents a vignette focusing on a young woman named Megan or, in a couple of cases, someone who's somehow connected with her. With each issue, a year has passed; and, with each issue, Megan has moved on to another North American city - hence the title. I'm not sure the latter part is more than a gimmick, to be frank. If there is a deeper point to it, at least it's not occurred to me yet. But that doesn't really matter: Local is a fascinating little book. The snapshots resulting from its approach cover the entire spectrum of human relationships, varying wildly in style and tone. Not every one of those snapshots is a hit, but there are certainly more hits than misses, and they're forming a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. (Oni Press, periodical)

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Well, so much for 2007. It's been a good year for good comics, and fortunately, the trend seems to continue in 2008 - but that's another post.

Selector

New comics recommendation for January 16, 2008:


(Click on image for more information.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Selector

New comics recommendation for January 9, 2008:

(Click on image for more information.)

Call Me Ishmael...

...but I know a red herring when I see one.

Don't be fooled by the inscription: The picture above, as discovered at Comic Foundry, is not, in fact, the cover to Marvel Illustrated: Moby Dick #2. Rather, it belongs to the first issue of a forthcoming project by writer Garth Ennis and artist Carlos Ezquerra, released via the publisher's Max imprint and titled Moby Dick: Ahab's Crotch.

Friday, January 4, 2008

2007: The Year in Comics (3)

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

2007: The Year in Comics (2)

Welcome to the other side. I hope your introduction to 2008 was pleasant, and the subsequent hangover not too ugly.

Without further ado, a few more comics I enjoyed last year.

* * *

Joe Casey, Chris Weston, et al. Fantastic Four: First Family. The creators go back to the concept's beginnings and tell a story set immediately after the Fantastic Four's origin as told by Lee and Kirby back in 1961. Unlike Casey's Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes books, however, First Family is not a retro piece, but a modern, mature, free-standing narrative about family, responsibility and humanity. Chris Weston's artwork is breathtaking - his innovative interpretation of the four protagonists in particular. The book came out in 2006, but I didn't get to it until last summer. (Marvel Comics, paperback)

* * *

Paul Cornell, Trevor Hairsine, Manuel García, et al. Wisdom: Rudiments of Wisdom. The grumpy English black ops agent Peter Wisdom was introduced in Excalibur back in 1995. Not surprisingly, his creator Warren Ellis has remained the only writer who's made the character interesting. I'm not quite sure that's changed with Paul Cornell's Wisdom, to be frank. What I can say, though, is that his story very successfully mingles superhero and soap opera tropes with elements from British myth and popular culture and the kind of mad ideas you expect from Grant Morrison (meet, for instance, the Skrull Beatles). Cornell has delivered a smart, delightfully British superhero book in the tradition of Alan Moore, Alan Davis, Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison. (Marvel Comics/Max, paperback)

* * *

Warren Ellis, Raúlo Cáceres, et al. Crécy. This haunting chunk of historical fiction constitutes an inventory of the British forces participating in the Battle of Crécy, as given by an English archer doubling as a meta narrator, who addresses the reader directly. With methodical care, Ellis engages his audience by relating, step by deliberate step, all the minutiae of the British soldiers' origins and backgrounds, their weaponry and equipment and what's at stake for them. In other words, he's basically dumping his research on us in a shameless, slickly dramatized way that walks the thin line between successful world-building and boring info dump with amazing grace. Crécy is probably the boldest thing Ellis has done to date, stylistically. (Avatar Press, paperback)

* * *

Warren Ellis, Mike Deodato Jr., et al. Thunderbolts. I didn't expect much from this, to be honest, but it's turned out to be the best traditional (with a perverse twist or two) superhero team book I read in 2007. Combining a cast of guilt-driven anti-heroes, sadistic freaks and outright lunatics with intense psychological conflict and brutal urban superhero warfare, Ellis' interpretation of the Thunderbolts concept is the most thrilling and engaging the title has seen. By digging up various D-list characters and revamping them as credible, often idealistic opponents to the corrupt Thunderbolts, Ellis also acknowledges the significant role that Marvel Universe continuity has always been playing in the book. Mike Deodato, meanwhile, contributes the best artwork I've seen from him. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, et al. Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Another superhero team book from Ellis, I wouldn't quite call this one "traditional." Rather, it's sort of like the demented little brother of Ellis' Authority - where the latter's deadpan satire of the superhero genre was largely lost on the audience, Nextwave's is ludicrously laugh-out-loud funny, and incessantly so. It's a shame that the book didn't sell better, but then again, much of its humor was probably impenetrable to anyone but the hardcore Marvel readers (it has characters like Irving Forbush and makes fun of the conclusion of the most recent Machine Man title, for instance, which was read by approximately twelve people). And, in any event, I doubt Ellis and Immonen could have kept it up for much longer. Nextwave is one of the few comics that gave me some hearty chuckles lately. It was great fun while it lasted. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Warren Ellis, Ben Templesmith, et al. Fell. The people of Snowtown are a cowardly and superstitious lot. They don't give a toss about each other, and, consequently, the crimes there are the most horrible you can imagine. Quite why Detective Richard Fell has been transferred to Snowtown we don't know, but he must have done something terrible to deserve it. The protagonist's unrevealed background and the supporting cast represent ongoing threads in this mystery thriller, but mostly, the creators are concerned with telling supercondensed done-in-one detective stories in the 16-pages-for-two-bucks format that Warren Ellis invented for Fell. The result is a fantastic crime book which doesn't come out nearly often enough. (Image Comics, periodical)

* * *

Garth Ennis, Gary Erskine, et al. Dan Dare. I've lost interest in most of Ennis' work recently, because whatever I did try felt like he was treading water. A new series revamping the old British science fiction hero Dan Dare seemed different enough to ignite my curiosity, however. As it turns out - judging from the first issue, at any rate - it's a surprisingly good book: Rather than to go the obvious route and play the thrashy 1950s concept for laughs, Ennis went in the opposite direction, building a straight, convincing sci-fi war narrative around the square-jawed hero that reads like a British version of the new Battlestar Galactica series. Forget about the comic, though - the best part is the back cover: Appropriately, it's an advertisement by Virgin Galactic asking me to book my seat in one of their upcoming commercial space flights - presumably so I can personally visit and enjoy with Dan Dare a nice cup of tea on his private little asteroid. Glad to see that Virgin Comics is in lockstep with the rest of the Branson empire. (Virgin Comics, periodical)

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God willing, more tomorrow.