Thursday, January 8, 2009

2008: The Year in Comics (2)

As promised, welcome to the second installment of “The Best Pop Comics Frisch Remembers Reading in 2008.”

The first one, including a wordier explanation of the premise, can still be perused here.

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Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, Pat Olliffe, et al. Captain Britain and MI13. This comic is powered by broken hearts. Captain Britain’s heart is just plain vanilla broken. Pete Wisdom’s heart, meanwhile, is slowly being ground to powder, it’s so broken. Young Dr. Faiza Hussain’s heart seems on track to be broken. The Black Knight’s heart is, well, how shall I put this … made of stone, frankly. And Spitfire’s heart gets broken in a rather pointed fashion when Blade joins the team, if you catch my spike. And how about this: When Captain Britain is about to submit to the temptation of a Faustian villain, somebody with the cover of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason on their shirt appears. As you may be surmising, Mr. Cornell is not shy when it comes to subtext. Another thing he’s figured out famously well is how to assemble and handle a most diverse and intriguing cast of characters, however, which is the real selling point of this series. Unfortunately, this is the year’s prerequisite “fan-favorite title in immediate danger of cancellation,” so if you don’t go out right now and buy a copy of Captain Britain and the Heartbreak Brigade before Marvel pull the plug on it, I will personally come to your house and yell at you something fierce. All of you. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Garth Ennis, Gary Erskine, et al. Dan Dare. It’s easy to take Garth Ennis for granted. But while this slick and straightforward sci-fi war story certainly isn’t the greatest thing he’s done, it’s still impressive just in terms of how perfectly and gracefully Mr. Ennis hits all the required beats, and then some. Likewise, it’s well worth mentioning how appropriately cast Gary Erskine – certainly not one of comics’ flashier artists – is for this type of material, which lives as much from robust depictions of people’s facial expressions and body language as from the images of rivaling fleets of space ships locked in battle. Mr. Ennis and Mr. Erskine’s Dan Dare is a seven-part comic-book story about good British soldiers fighting an invading alien force on the ground and in deep space, as well realized as you can possibly imagine. While the original publisher is now defunct, a (pricey) hardcover collection of the series is about to be released in February by Dynamite Entertainment. (Virgin Comics, periodical)

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Matt Fraction, Barry Kitson, et al. The Order. This one was last year’s “fan-favorite title in immediate danger of cancellation,” and, well, it lasted ten issues. In the end, I would guess the premise of The Order, despite its strong start in the wake of Civil War, did not have an immediately distinctive enough ring to it to afford the book a bright future in the same universe where we also had Mighty Avengers, Thunderbolts and Avengers: The Initiative. In practice, The Order was much better and much more unique than any of those books, however. Matt Fraction and Barry Kitson invented from whole cloth one of the most fascinating ensemble casts of any superhero series. With as simple a device as starting each issue with a brief job interview scene for one of the characters, Mr. Fraction managed to endow them with an extraordinary degree of depth in an extraordinarily quick and efficient fashion. I miss The Order. It had a kind of attitude, innovation and storytelling approach to it that I could have gotten behind for some time to come. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca, et al. Invincible Iron Man. There’s a key moment in Invincible Iron Man #6 when, once the final confrontation with “super-terrorist” Ezekiel Stane is over, Tony Stark spells out what he’s all about: “I’m trying to save the world even when it doesn’t see it.” What Ed Brubaker has been doing for Captain America, Matt Fraction is now doing for Iron Man: He is giving the character, for the first time in decades – maybe for the first time ever - a solid patch of ground to stand on. In this book, all the recent versions of Tony Stark click together as effortlessly as if it had been planned all along, and I sincerely doubt that anyone but Mr. Fraction deserves credit for that. In the eight issues that came out in 2008, the creators have shown Tony Stark as someone who is in charge and brimming with confidence and as someone who’s on the defensive and trying to land a hit; as a slick womanizer and as a startlingly gentle and honest friend; as a cool, determined master planner and as a passionate defender of his beliefs; and, finally, as somebody who goes from being utterly defeated and humbled and wrestling with self-doubt to somebody who is defiantly inventive and able to bounce back from almost anything. In smoothly moving the character up and down the spectrum of human emotions, Mr. Fraction has demonstrated a sure-footedness and lightness of touch that places him very close to the top of North America’s pop comics creators. Invincible Iron Man is Matt Fraction’s sturdiest, most impressive Marvel work to date. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Matt Fraction, Fãbio Moon, et al. Casanova. In a recent interview, Matt Fraction has some of the best news relating to comics I’ve heard lately: “Yes; Casanova will be back in the new year.” The most recent issue came out half a year ago, at this stage, and I don’t have any of the comics handy, so it’s somewhat hopeless for me to try and say something about a densely packed book like Casanova that wouldn’t sound shallow and superficial. It’s a sophisticated, uniquely ambitious work, for what it’s worth – in terms of the plot, certainly, but in this case, plot is almost an afterthought. What separates it from the pack are its layered intellectual and emotional complexity, its thematic richness and its boldly inventive approach to storytelling. The book is not quite an unequivocal masterpiece yet, because it’s still a little rough and haphazard around the edges. But never mind that. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it one more time: Casanova is the best thing to happen to North American comics since Watchmen. I wish I could properly engage the work in some way right now, instead of giving you general positions. So, you know: Just go and get the hardcover collections. See for yourself. (Image Comics, periodical)

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Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak, Farel Dalrymple, Paul Hornschemeier and Gary Panter. Omega: The Unknown. A few years ago, I came across a copy of Omega the Unknown #1, the debut issue of the original series starring the character created by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes and Jim Mooney in 1976. Reading that comic evoked in me the mental image of a genius trapped in the body of a three-year-old – the child in the metaphor being, of course, the conventions of a Marvel superhero comic produced in the 1970s, which were perhaps appropriate to most of the company’s output in that decade, but hideously misapplied to Omega the Unknown. Back then, Mr. Gerber and his collaborators were denied even the opportunity to complete their work: The series was cancelled after ten issues, its plots hastily wrapped up by other creators in another series, to nobody’s satisfaction. As neither the 1976 version nor the one published in 2007 and 2008 are at my disposal right now, I can’t tell you as much as I’d like about how that original version connects with and is a part of the new one, but suffice it to say: It is, and it does. Mr. Lethem and his illustrious creative team have interwoven to an intricate web the threads on friendship and franchising, on intellectual and emotional intelligence, on coming of age and on choosing to never grow up, on our ways of relating to parents, idols and heroes that were present in Mr. Gerber and Ms. Skrenes’ original version, but never quite allowed to bloom. What remains to be said is that Mr. Gerber and Mr. Mooney both passed away, within two months of each other, in 2008. If the world were right, this critically acclaimed and commercially durable work based on their creation would have been theirs to realize. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Frank Miller, Jim Lee, et al. All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t meant to be satire, or subversive, or anything as deliberate as those terms would suggest. Rather, my impression is that All Star Batman is basically writer Frank Miller, in-between whatever else he happens to be working on, boarding a stage and playing a sloppy set consisting of whatever songs come to mind with whatever instruments he finds up there, and with no overdubs added once he’s done. The result certainly isn’t a good comic, in the sense that usually applies. But the work has an extremely energetic, unfiltered and visceral quality to it the kind of which I don’t think you’re going to find anywhere else in comics. A lot of the time, that gets you a comic that makes you want to cringe. But occasionally, it also gets you something as gloriously over-the-top as Batman and Robin painting themselves yellow and beating the snot out of the Green Lantern, or a poignant scene like the one with Jim Gordon at the end of All Star Batman #10: Gordon’s wife has just been hospitalized after almost drinking herself to death because he’s never home, his teenage daughter has just been arrested for playing “Batgirl,” and he’s working on a major case that doesn’t add up. And then his daughter, out of concern, calmly suggests that he call his mistress and talk to her. And he does. If the book was geared more consciously towards delivering moments like that one, instead of all the pointless violence and the pin-up shots, I might even have called it “good.” (DC Comics, periodical)

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Peter Milligan, Laurence Campbell, Lee Loughridge and Rus Wooton. Moon Knight: Silent Knight. Just because it’s Christmas, nobody’s going to cut you any slack. That’s the simple and unavoidable “truth” which is present all throughout this grim one-shot special, in every fiber of the story, from the very first page to the very last. The notable thing about that is not, one would hope, that it’s a particularly universal or insightful truth. Rather, it’s the skill and the single-minded efficiency with which Mr. Milligan sees it through. Similar to the Punisher special in part one, this is very much the way to do this type of thing, and it’s rewarding to see it done by creators so completely in command of their craft. (Marvel Comics, one-shot)

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And that’s it for today. Please rejoin me on Friday for the third and final part.

2 comments:

The Inkwell Bookstore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Inkwell Bookstore said...

Your thoughts on Batman & Robin are making me curious...sorta like that whole '2 Girls & a Cup' thing did.