Friday, March 26, 2010

The Wash: 03/26/10

o Picking on Mark Millar

Douglas Wolk is at it again, tearing that Nemesis book a new one in a lively dialogue with fellow Techland writer Evan Narcisse.

I think it's tremendous that comics criticism in the year 2010 has people who say things like, "knowing that you're perpetrating a cliché doesn't mean you've earned it."

And because he's a lot more prolific than I, here he is again, about Phonogram: The Singles Club, a book that you should own.


Not comics, but quite: That Awesome David Mamet Memo came up on every single one of my channels from all kinds of people who thought it was pretty awesome, because it is. He should probably rename himself David Memo, the Awesome Memo Man.

Honestly, Mr. Mamet elaborates a bit on the above in his message and it's about the most succinctly composed kick-ass style advice on any kind of writing that you're ever likely to get.

o "Marketing scheme. Yeah, right."

There's a comprehensive, circa 2006 interview with long-time comics writer Roger Stern at the Marvel Masterworks Resource Page, conducted by George Khoury, that I hadn't seen yet.

It has some nice bits.

For instance, Stern discusses some of Marvel's policies under Jim Shooter back in the 1980s, in conjunction with his brief run on Captain America along with John Byrne:

"In those days before royalties, Marvel had what was called a "continuity bonus." If you wrote or drew six consecutive issues, you got a bonus. And so on for the next six, and the next. A fill-in before [Captain America –ed.] issue #258 would set all of our bonuses back."

He also talks about his work on the "Death of Superman" storyline from the early 1990s:

"Marketing scheme. Yeah, right. We’d been trying to get DC’s marketing people to promote the Superman books for years. They’d promote the dickens out of Batman, but Superman? It was as though they didn’t know the character existed. Thank heavens for Martha Thomases. She’d just started working at DC around that time, and she didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to promote the company’s most famous character. She put the word out to the media and – BOOM!"

Sounds very similar to the account by the Man of Action guys, who were working on the Superman titles about ten years after Stern.

But who knows, maybe DC's finally changing its tune on that end.

o They Ain't Out

Eric Powell provides an update on his upcoming comics, including the rest of Chimichanga, with lots of pretty Eric Powell pictures.

o An Awful Lot of Money

I briefly review Indomitable Iron Man, by a bunch of people.

o Where Monsters Dwell

I'll be out of town for a few days, and after that it's the Easter holidays, so there probably won't be any posts until the week after next. (Yes, we've got Easter holidays.) Be hearty.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Indomitable Iron Man #1

Marvel, 48 pages, $ 3.99

Writers: Paul Cornell, Howard Chaykin, Duane Swierczynski, Alex Irvine
Artists: Will Rosado, Howard Chaykin, Manuel García, Stefano Gaudiano, Nelson DeCastro
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Cover artist: Lucio Parrillo

Indomitable Iron Man is one of those 1970s pastiche black-and-white anthology one-shots that Marvel's been publishing lately.

The book's biggest problem is that the stories in it are nothing remotely unconventional, which begins with the format: There's a 22-page lead, and there are two 11-page backup strips. The only thing that's unusual by today's standards—aside from the retro trade dress—is a 4-page illustrated prose story in the back.

As such, the pieces are inoffensive, generally well-made riffs on single ideas, of the kind you also find in fill-in stories or Annuals. In Paul Cornell and Will Rosado's rather bland lead story, a rogue deep-space terraforming unit returns and attacks Earth. Howard Chaykin writes and draws the most entertaining and effective strip, a densely told exploration of what a typical day looks like for Tony Stark; it comes with a poignant punch line that gets to the heart of what makes Iron Man a compelling character in the right hands.

Duane Swierczynski, Manuel García and Stefano Gaudiano focus on Stark's zeal as an inventor. While that's certainly an underused aspect of the character, I don't think Mr. Swierczynski gets what Stark is about; his behavior in the story seems more like something Reed Richards would do. The illustrated prose piece by Alex Irvine and Nelson DeCastro, finally, is neither terribly well-written nor terribly original, unfortunately.

In terms of quality, this is pretty much what you'd expect from this type of package.

Still, I'm wondering whether a book like this one shouldn't try to be a little more adventurous in its ambition than the average filler story—or, at the very least, should have the kind of cocky everything-goes attitude you'd get in the 1970s, on a good day. What's the point of doing '70s style pastiche comics when nothing about the stories says "1970s"? If you're setting out to produce a collection of throwaway strips, shouldn't they at least strive to be memorably trashy, rather than inoffensively bland?

With the possible exception of the Chaykin story, there's nothing memorable about this book, at any rate, and that makes $ 3.99 seem like an awful lot of money.

Grade: C-

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Wash: 03/19/10

o Too Much Attention

Buried in the report from the "Man of Action" panel in Seattle last weekend:

The group all met each other while working on different X-Men titles. Eventually, they all ended up working on Superman together and were given the directive to "not draw too much attention to the comic because of the movie that is coming out soon." So they spent eight months thinking of how to accomplish this. In that situation, each of them discovered how well and honestly they communicated in a creative arena.

"They" are Joe Kelly, Steven T. Seagle, Joe Casey and Duncan Rouleau, I should add.

o Tiger Tea

Douglas Wolk probably thinks I've got a crush on him, but I don't care: His "Emanata" column at Techland has quickly become the must-read for anyone with the faintest interest in storytelling.

This time: The Sentry vs. Krazy Kat vs. Mr. Tawky Tawny

o A Different Cultural Space

Not comics: Noah Berlatsky, the guy who can't tell an Eduardo Risso from a Dave Johnson, interviews Daphne Carr, editor of the Best Music Writing series, about criticism—and does a solid job, actually.

Also: David Bordwell on film criticism.

o Osborn Is the Bismarck

Tom Crippen's reviews continue to be consistently more entertaining than the pop comics they happen to be reviews of.

Here's another one.

o The Invincible Cave Man

This awesome variant cover by German artist Christian Nauck suddenly makes me want to see Tony Stark fight Bruce Wayne in the Stone Age.

o Multiple Levels

Missed it: David Brothers connects all kinds of dots in his essay on Grant Morrison's Joe the Barbarian.

o Blech

I review Cowboy Ninja Viking, a comic book by A. J. Lieberman and Riley Rossmo.

o Kill the Periodical

A new essay, in which I'm riffing on Brian Hibbs' latest column.

Kill the Periodical

In his latest "Tilting at Windmills" column, Brian Hibbs addresses a few points that seem well worth considering, but that I'm not sure anyone at Marvel or DC actually does much thinking about, given the general way they've tended to deal with these things for years now.


Considering that a major part of Marvel and DC's business still consists of getting people to want to read periodically published comic books, they're both doing an incredibly bad job of cultivating the serial aspect of the format.

Instead of gearing the material to the schedule and then using that schedule to disseminate it in a way that enhances the drama, like, say, TV shows do, the two publishers act like they've got no control whatsoever over what gets published in a given week.

Instead of fine-tuned episodes, we get the equivalent of randomly chopped-up 12-hour films, produced in such a way that even their editors have come to regard the precise time of their publication a matter of fate rather than of choice.

For years now, the two major publishers have been treating content and release frequency as concepts that are completely divorced and independent from each other.


A common definition says that "genre" stories tend to be plot-driven, while "literary" stories tend to be character-driven.

Now, personally, I regard character-driven stories a requirement for any kind of "good" fiction, so I'm inclined to agree with the sentiment of Hibbs' point about the merits of so-called "creative retreats," at least.

The problem with the current crop of Marvel and DC books is that, because of the committee-directed, top-down way these publishing lines have been run since 2004, there's not much room for genuine character beats to develop.

There are exceptions, but generally, if any book has to exist in the framework of an over-arching plot that was mapped out by Brian Michael Bendis or by Geoff Johns two years ago, then that's not very helpful in terms of creating stories that don't just attract people's attention, but also pay off for them in a substantial way—i.e., a way that's driven by the characters, and driven by each creator's ideally unique voice.

In a good story—any good story—the relationship between character and plot and everything else that enters into the story is not incidental, but complementary and deliberate.

Even Bendis himself doesn't seem able to pull it off, although he's the one who's been at the helm at Marvel for six years. Look at his treatment of the Sentry. Look at J. Michael Straczynski's treatment of the Fantastic Four, for that matter. Look at the way the X-Men line has been micromanaged after Morrison left—six years later, and there's still no direction in sight. And how could there be, with 20 people having to arrive at a consensus first?

Within the last few years, Ed Brubaker, Mike Carey and Matt Fraction, who each have written some pretty good comics elsewhere, have worked on the X-Men books, edited by Axel Alonso, one of the best editors in the business. And they've yet to produce anything that's even in the same ballpark as the rest of their work.

Why is that? What was different when Grant Morrison did it?

At Marvel and DC, storytelling has been bureaucratized over the last five years. There are "creative retreats" that need to be held, and that have grown so big that, by definition, they are now anything but creative—lowest-common-denominator-everything-has-to-go-past-Jeph-Loeb-first retreats, is what they have become.

There are editorial offices that need to be justified, scores of secondary and tertiary spin-off titles that need to be fed and are sucking the life out of their mother properties.


I wrote about this at length a few weeks back; the upshot is that everything can't "matter" to the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe all the time. By pretending it can, Marvel and DC don't just alienate their hardcore audiences, slowly but steadily, but also seal off their publishing lines from casual readers.

Stories of merit don't primarily matter to fictional universes. Stories of merit matter to people, because they're about people—about genuine human concerns, rather than artificial constructs.

In some of these respects, improvements seem on the way. It's a good sign, at least, that Straczynski is the new writer of Superman and Wonder Woman. I have no interest in either book, but this is the type of thing DC should be doing, even if the rest of their line, other than the Johns and Morrison books, still looks hopeless.

At Marvel, I'm more skeptical. As long as there are four monthly Avengers books and ten Spider-Man comics per month and 20 X-Men comics per month, and all of them are expected to serve one "cohesive" vision rather than to primarily be outlets for their creators to do new stuff with the characters in ways that makes all those books unique and very different and independent from each other, it doesn't seem like Marvel's learned from its mistakes of the last two years.

I'm not worried about the periodical, by the way.

Even if Marvel and DC went away tomorrow, which they won't, I'm confident there'd be more good comics—including periodical ones—around than I could possibly hope to read. I can see why traditional comics retailers like Hibbs are worried, though. I would be, if my main business partners were acting like the protagonist of Memento about pretty much every aspect of their product.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cowboy Ninja Viking #1-4

Image Comics, 23 or 24 pages each, $ 3.50 each

Writer: A. J. Lieberman
Artist: Riley Rossmo
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Cover designer: Dave Casey

Nominally, Cowboy Ninja Viking is about characters with multiple personalities. But as it turns out, one personality per character would have been a good start for this Bourne knock-off with a lot of window dressing.

On the surface, the series does strive for something different. The notion of highly trained assassins with three competing personalities is patently ridiculous, but if you roll with the silliness, get your hands dirty and do the work, there's still every chance you might end up with a good comic—see Chew, for instance.

In Cowboy Ninja Viking, writer A. J. Lieberman doesn't do the work.

There's not a single character in this book with something resembling a personality, let alone three of them. Most of the time, the characters remain mind-numbingly flat stereotypes. And in the few moments they don't, they say and do things that bear no resemblance to human behavior. There's a fine line between being delightfully over-the-top and completely destroying the reader's suspension of disbelief. Mr. Lieberman's script frequently ignores it.

The selling point of the book are the so-called "Triplets," of course—government-trained agents with codenames like Pirate Gladiator Oceanographer or Cowboy Ninja Viking.

But the multiple-personality shtick is no more than a one-note gimmick in the story, relegated to superficial elements like eccentric weaponry, funny speech balloons and headshots showing the characters in cowboy hats or helmets.

How sad is it that the creators manage to get 12 of those guys together in a remote cabin in Austria at one point, and it ends up being one of the most boring and inconsequential scenes in the comic? Four issues into the series, there's still no sense that any of the characters are motivated by anything in particular. As a result, everything anyone does seems capricious and random, with no context to calibrate what it means.

This lack of attention extends to the structure. Many scenes seem to exist not because they accomplish anything for the plot or the characters, but to rattle off a few mostly cheap gags.

While Riley Rossmo's style gives the story a distinctive and original look, the creators' storytelling is disorienting and amateurish, overall, with layouts that frequently lack clarity and often fail to establish any sense of place or scale.

Some of the panel-to-panel decisions are downright bizarre; you'd think the major villain's arrival in a big fighter plane would be one of those scenes that warrant an image that's bigger than a medium-size postage stamp in an action comic, but evidently not; to be honest, I missed the jet entirely the first time I started the scene, which left me wondering what the characters were reacting to.

Sometimes speech bubbles belonging to different characters melt together, and other times there are bubbles that aren't pointing anywhere. The art reproduction in issue #1 is blurry and grainy in parts. The text could have used another proofreading pass or two, and not just because of the spelling and punctuation errors; in one double-page spread towards the end of issue #4, there are two major contradictions in the dialogue.

Rather than the quirky romp I was hoping for, Cowboy Ninja Viking turns out to be a poorly and, worse, often carelessly told mess whose characters suffer from zero-personality disorder, times three.

To be frank, this is the sloppiest and most amateurish comic I've seen from Image in a long time.

Grade: D-

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Wash: 03/15/10

o Comic-Book Editor Perplexed at Uninterrupted Block of Good Writing

Marvel editor Tom Brevoort shares some insight into the production process of Jonathan Lethem's Omega: The Unknown:

"[...] Lethem is so in command of his narrative that, as the scripts came in, I felt there was very little for me to do. He wrote the series structured almost like a novel, which is a place he's very comfortable [sic]. Consequently, if you pulled on any one seemingly-innocuous block, the whole structure could come tumbling down."

o "Killed Off by an Exploding Plot Device"

Douglas Wolk examines some recent comics, their reception and the creators' response to the reception, and makes some astute observations.

"Readers may seek out shocks as a kind of entertainment, but those shocks are usually the clever kind; there's pleasure in getting a jolt from something you never imagined could jolt you. On the other hand, few things provide a cheaper, more obvious shock than showing kids being harmed, even fictional, only-ink-and-paper kids."

In Seattle this weekend, DC Comics editor Ian Sattler responded to criticism on one of the comics addressed by Wolk:

"I’m proud of the story and stand by it. I'm happy it upset people because it means that the story had some weight and emotion."

Now that Mr. Sattler has clarified that it was really the story's weight and emotion that caused all the negative responses, I'm confident the critics will be at ease and grateful for the insight.

o Not Work Safe

Not comics: I don't know anything about Glenn Beck, but his tongue looks like a penis, doesn't it?

o Graphic Books

These "Five for Friday" things wouldn't be half as much fun without the images Tom Spurgeon adds to them.

o All Men Play on Ten

I'm reviewing X-O Manowar, a superhero comic book of 1996.

Friday, March 12, 2010

X-O Manowar #1

Acclaim Comics, 1996, 22 pages, $ 2.50

Writers: Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn
Artists: Sean Chen, Tom Ryder
Colorist: Atomic Paintbrush
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

By the standards of its time, X-O Manowar seems like a reasonably well-made superhero comic. By the standards of 2010, it's mainly notable as an example for a very specific kind of superhero comic that only happened in the latter half of the 1990s. What's to follow, consequently, is more a carbon-dating exercise than a review.

X-O (and, in case you're wondering, I've got no idea what that stands for) is one of those hero-in-high-tech-armor books that clearly evoke Iron Man, but whose creators went to great lengths to not-really-obscure the fact by taking a bunch of aspects and changing them in ways that make it different from Iron Man. One of X-O Manowar's co-creators is veteran Iron Man writer/artist Bob Layton, incidentally.

The first X-O Manowar series was launched in 1991, amid a sudden deluge of superhero titles released by publishers like Image, Malibu or, in this case, Valiant Comics, which were all somewhat similar to the books that Marvel and DC were doing, but still somehow managed to sell upwards of half a million copies per issue. X-O Manowar volume 1 lasted about 60 issues, then Valiant was bought by videogame company Acclaim, which resulted in a revamp of the comics line.

It's not a bad crew that new editor-in-chief Fabian Nicieza got together—besides Mark Waid and Mr. Nicieza himself, Acclaim also had writers Kurt Busiek, Garth Ennis and Christopher J. Priest in its stable. You could have done a lot worse, in terms of promising creative personnel.

On the other hand, the North American direct-sales market had just collapsed in a major way, of course, so it's not surprising, with hindsight, that X-O Manowar lasted 22 issues. Mr. Nicieza threw in the towel and quit Acclaim in 1999, and Acclaim Comics never really recovered after that point. Right now, most of its assets seem to be in the hands of a company called Valiant Entertainment, with a funky rights situation on at least some of them. (Quantum & Woody, for instance, according to its co-creator Mr. Priest.)

For Mark Waid, this is a rather minor work. Mr. Waid, arguably at the height of his popularity in 1996, had made his name with his work on The Flash, Captain America and Kingdom Come, and I assume it's no coincidence that the cover copy on X-O Manowar #1 reads "Operation: Rebirth"—also the title of a collection of his first Captain America arc, released a few months earlier.

Broadly speaking, X-O fits right in with the renaissance of traditional superheroes that was going on from around 1994 through 1999 as a reaction to the "grim 'n' gritty" era introduced by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Brought about by books like Marvels, The Flash, Captain America, Kingdom Come and JLA, this wave of efforts culminated in 1998 with Marvel's "Heroes Return" relaunch of Avengers and Iron Man (both written by Mr. Busiek), Captain America (again, after a year-long interruption, written by Mr. Waid) and Fantastic Four.

Like those titles, X-O Manowar strives for a more traditional, less gloomy take on the genre. There aren't a lot of shadows here, the art is pretty and bright and colorful, and the heroes, unlike those in the early 1990s when every major character seemed to be eaten alive by angst and moral uncertainty, are HEROES who DO THE RIGHT THING, period.

More specifically, the concept is a mix between Iron Man (a guy in a high-tech armor) and Green Lantern (the high-tech armor is a mysterious, possibly alien artifact, in possession of the U.S. military; the guy is a hot-headed test-pilot archetype).

The book is unapologetically action-oriented. It gets right into it and doesn't dwell much on, say, character motivations or the agenda of the villains.

Half of the story takes place in a military bunker where people have expository conversations introducing the characters and the concept, and informing the reader that there are villains to be fought. The other half is the actual fighting, which takes place in the desert outside the bunker.

There's no information on the villains, other than that they come in gigantic, futuristic space ships with smaller fighter jets shooting laser beams, and have been picking off U.S. military bases. If all of this strongly reminds you of Stargate and Independence Day, I'm with you.

It's not terribly original or brainy territory so much as a mash-up of familiar superhero and sci-fi things that were popular at the time, and the ludicrous set-up and characters don't stand up to any sort of scrutiny if you stop to think about them.

Then again, the book is made in such a way that you're not inclined to think about them very often, if this is the type of thing you like. It's a smart way to construct all-action book, really. The justification for everything that's going on is kept to a bare minimum, and everything's hermetically sealed, logically, in order to keep you from questioning any of it while it's happening: us here, them there, go fight!

The storytelling is strong enough to pull it off, a lot of the time. I think this is the earliest work I've seen from artist Sean Chen to date. It's not very distinctive, but oddly enough, it seems more attractive and powerful, more flashy and in-your-face than much of his later work. Maybe what I'm seeing is the influence of inker/finishing artist Tom Ryder, a frequent Valiant artist who disappeared from comics in 1998 and briefly resurfaced at CrossGen in 2002 and 2003.

X-O Manowar also disappeared from the racks in 1998, but the look of the book didn't. It was snatched up by Marvel instead, and re-absorbed into the DNA of one of its major inspirations: When Kurt Busiek's Iron Man debuted the same year, the artist was Sean Chen, and the letterer was Comicraft's Dave Lanphear.

What goes around, and all that.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Wash: 03/10/10

o Omnibus Crash

Heidi MacDonald has a good round-up of that Amazon thing from the weekend. I can see why people ordered the merchandise—I'd have done the same if I were still in the U.S., probably. But to feel entitled to receive merchandise at price points that were clearly a glitch, and that were even so low as to be potentially harmful to whoever has to eat them? How annoying.

What really boggles the mind are the folks now bugging Amazon for between $ 5.00 and $ 30.00's worth of compensation, though—for what, exactly? Trying to rip them off and failing? Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but what a depressingly cheap price tag for people to put on their personal ethics.

Another side to this that I haven't seen brought up is that all these books, if the orders had been fulfilled, would have taken a lot of money away from the market down the road. Presumably not everyone who ordered copies ordered them for themselves, but to sell them and make a profit on them later on—which would effectively have put them in competition with the regular-priced ones.

For high-ticket books like these, a few hundred copies can make or break the production, so even assuming that Amazon would have had to eat the cost of the error, it was probably in the publishers' best interests not to go through with selling the books.

o Knock-Off Effect

The preliminary Diamond Comic Distributors chart and index information for February 2010 is in, and if I'm reading the figures right, it seems like Siege #2 sold around 110,000 units, versus the estimated 108,000 sales of issue #1 in January.

Which would mean that either the book did better than retailers expected, leading to the rare phenomenon of issue #2 outselling #1; or, as suspected last week, that Diamond knocked 20% off the sales of issue #1 because it came with a retailer incentive that involved returnability. In the latter case, which I think is more likely, sales of Siege #1 would be around 130K, rather than 108K.

o J. Michael Hustlebustle

Douglas Wolk asks the right questions about DC's recent announcement that J. Michael Straczynski is the new Superman and Wonder Woman writer starting in June:

(1) How will Straczynski's well-documented aversion to crossovers (see Fantastic Four and Thor) work out on a book like Superman, which has basically been part of a non-stop crossover for the last couple of years? Will DC accommodate Straczynski by keeping the series self-contained? Or will Straczynski try to play nice?

(2) Isn't this schedule illusory for a writer with Straczynski's recent track record? The two monthlies come on top of the monthly The Brave and the Bold and the upcoming Superman: Earth One line of book-length comics that Straczynski is also writing for DC. Over at Marvel, Straczynski's maxiseries The Twelve, on hiatus since 2008, is still missing its three final issues.

(3) Why have no artists been announced?

For that matter, to add another question, why does DC use Free Comic Book Day to promote what now turns out to be the swan song of the current direction, rather than Straczynski's run? Wouldn't it have made infinitely more sense to get Straczynski's stories into people's hands, instead of an "event" storyline that clears up the debris of a direction that's been a commercial failure?

On the surface, the move certainly seems like the sort of thing that DC should have done long ago. But looking deeper, it seems like an awfully sudden development that leaves a lot of question marks.

o Nothing to Do With Each Other

Christopher Nolan, who directed Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and is now confirmed as the director "mentor" or "shepherd" of the next Superman film, intends to keep Superman and Batman's worlds separate; in Nolan's view, the two characters are the only superheroes in their given worlds, in order to preserve the internal logic of their stories.

As much as I like the idea of sprawling superhero universes, I think that's the only sensible way to approach these stories if you want to reach a mainstream audience. It's the decision Marvel should have made with their Ultimate books, for that matter.

Sure, it's possible to have a "shared universe" where every story is still accessible to everyone, in theory—but looking back at both Marvel and DC's histories, the cases where that's really worked are a rare exception, overall.

Apart from all the smaller-scale issues a "shared universe" setting creates, the big one is that it inevitably makes whichever superhero is supposed to be the big star in a given series less unique.

Do we really need Peter Parker deal with "anti-mutant sentiment" in Ultimate Spider-Man? What has that ever added to the character, or said about him, that couldn't have been said in more accessible, more relevant terms?

o Nine-Picture Deal

I have no particular interest or investment in the way Marvel go about making their films, but signing the Captain America lead (who hasn't been named yet) to no less than nine movies seems remarkable.

For one thing, it reinforces the idea that Marvel are looking for an approach opposite Christopher Nolan's (see above). For another, it's an awful lot of faith to put in a single guy, given that Marvel's recent Hollywood oeuvre includes films like Daredevil, Hulk, Ghost Rider, Elektra and both Punisher films.

Don't get me wrong, I like some of these, including some of the performances. But what happens if Captain America ends up being a bomb at the box office, with a popular consensus putting much of the blame on casting? Am I missing something?

o In Stores Now

In this Newsarama piece on Eric Powell, interviewer Chris Arrant claims that "all three issues of Chimichanga" have been released.

As far as I can see, though, the most recent issue is still #1, from back in December. Right?

o Fill In Blank

I'm reviewing Human Target: Chance Meetings, by Peter Milligan, Edvin Biuković, Javier Pulido, et al.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Human Target: Chance Meetings

DC Comics/Vertigo, paperback, 188 pages, $ 14.99

Writer: Peter Milligan
Artists: Edvin Biuković, Javier Pulido
Colorists: Lee Loughridge, Dave Stewart
Letterers: Robert Solanović, Todd Klein
Cover artist: Tim Bradstreet

Reprints Human Target #1 through #4 (1999) and Human Target: Final Cut (2002).

A former teacher of mine suggests that good fiction provides "explanations for human behavior in highly specific situations." By this standard, Christopher Chance, the protagonist of Human Target, would make a splendid writer.

Chance is a gun for hire, a highly intelligent high-ticket bodyguard and private investigator whose shtick involves adopting his clients' identities and drawing any potential danger on himself. He's a master of disguise, obviously, but more importantly, he's a master of imitation, of completely making the life of his clients his own for the duration.

Chance is so good at his job, in fact, that he's frequently teetering on the brink of mentally becoming whoever he's impersonating, and it's not always something he's necessarily averse to. On the contrary, it's part of the thrill for Chance to escape his identity for a while and flirt with losing himself.

Obviously, that's a great recipe for character-driven stories with a healthy dose of genre thrills right there.

The makers of the new Human Target television series must have thought so, too, when they bought the license, but then they went and came up with a set-up that's not very much like that at all. Just in case the TV show takes off anyway, DC Comics put out this new collection of the miniseries and book-length one-shot that re-invent the character, a 1972 creation by writer Len Wein and artist Carmine Infantino, for the publisher's Vertigo imprint.

In both stories included here, the single most intriguing of Christopher Chance's abilities features prominently: Once he's slipped into a new identity and made himself comfortable, Chance is able to "intuit" aspects of his clients' life and behavior. Which is to say, he becomes so good at being them that he's able to improvise parts of their personality he didn't actually know about: sexual preferences, extramarital affairs, alcoholism—that type of thing.

On some semi-conscious level, in other words, Chance is able to anticipate and explain human behavior in highly specific situations, not unlike a good writer. In the miniseries, Irish scribe Peter Milligan and his collaborators wrap this kernel of literary ambition in an action-packed thriller full of double-crosses, triple-crosses and cases of mistaken identity.

Illustrated in a slick, kinetic and adequately busy style by late Croatian artist Edvin Biuković, the four-parter juggles a whole bunch of characters. Chance and his client, a vocal black minister in a violent neighborhood, each come with their own supporting cast, while Chance also has to deal with two other master impersonators: a former sidekick with an identity crisis and a female assassin called Emerald.

It's all a little too much, unfortunately. Chance himself and one or two other characters—the minister's wife stands out, in particular—are fairly well-fleshed-out; but ultimately, Mr. Milligan's reach exceeds his grasp. Characters like Emerald, the sidekick and his wife, the drug dealer and his girlfriend or Chance's confidant Bruno all dutifully contribute their share to the plot, but for a story about identity, there are too many stereotypes and blanks here.

At least part of that is due to the limitations of the serial format. Mr. Milligan raises intriguing questions about his cast, but the cliffhangers and action beats required by a four-part, 22-pages-per-month thriller rarely permit the creators to really delve into them. (C+)

The 90-page "Final Cut," originally released in 2002, reads like something rather more of one piece—because it is.

Although the beats and the action are still there, Mr. Milligan no longer has to chase an inevitable break every 22 pages, which vastly improves the pacing.

The way the story unfolds seems, for once, predominantly determined by the needs of the characters and not those of the format. After the breathless, confused, somewhat choppy rhythm of the miniseries, the much more deliberate storytelling that's on display here comes as a relief.

The departure is emphasized by Mr. Milligan's new collaborators. Javier Pulido's artwork and storytelling come out sturdier and more conventional than Edvin Biuković's. Mr. Pulido's work, which bears its Steve Ditko influence like a badge, is no less kinetic, his page compositions no less dynamic than those in the first story, but his layouts show more control and focus.

Unlike in Mr. Biuković's work, there are no overlapping panels, busy over-the-top-action pages or art that's bleeding off the page. Instead, everything's contained inside the panels, which in turn are clearly separated and contained by traditional white gutters.

Dave Stewart's colors paint an atmosphere that's not drowning in muddy murk all the time, something that Vertigo seems to be struggling with to this day. Even the lettering by Todd Klein suggests a roomier, less claustrophobic approach—because of the fonts, certainly, but mainly because Mr. Klein leaves a lot of white space in the balloons and caption boxes.

All of this combines into the tidy, mellow, mature tone of a story whose creators are all masters of their craft, pulling in the same direction. "Final Cut," while still very much a genre work, is more interested in character than in plot. There's room to breathe here, room for growth—room to fill in the blanks that put us on the same page with the hero as he tries to figure out who he is and who he wants to be. It's just a joy to read. (B+)

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Wash: 03/04/10

o Cat Man Do Two

The second and final part of the Christopher J. Priest interview podcast is now up at the Dollar Bin.

o Siege Take Two

Diamond's preliminary Top 10 market reports for February are out, and they suggest—unless I'm misreading the chart, which is always possible, given that it doesn't come with any concrete numbers yet—that there's little to no drop-off between Siege #1 (here's Paul O'Brien's take) and Siege #2.

If true, this would lend more credence to the theory that Diamond purposely underreported Siege #1 sales to account for the book's returnability under certain circumstances. When this happens, Diamond usually takes off 20%, which would mean that Siege #1 probably sold around 130,000 units in its first month, rather than the 108,000 initially reported.

It wouldn't change the fact that the book sold well below what other books of that type have sold recently, but it's worth pointing out.

o It's All There

Not comics: After recently watching the final season and episode of The Sopranos, I was wondering whether the final scene was a cop-out or a great way to end the show.

Then Sean T. Collins was kind enough to point me to this in-depth analysis of the scene, and now I'm pretty much convinced that it couldn't be farther from a cop-out.

Since I'm a few years late on this one (my strategy: read all the spoilers, then wait until I've completely forgotten about them), you've probably already this if you've got any interest in the anatomy and the meaning of the scene. If you haven't, be aware: big spoilers.

o Don't You Want Somebody to Love

Not comics, either: Via Heidi MacDonald comes this intriguing, well-observed bit of analysis of A Serious Man by Todd Alcott.

Juliet Lapidos' take at Slate is also well worth reading, although I completely disagree with her suppositions that (a) A Serious Man is out to "create confusion" and (b) is a bleak story with a bleak ending.

I'd say the opposite is true in both instances: When the final scene hits you, all the confusion you may have had about what's going on is shattered and gives way to a kind of instant clarity that's very rare in fiction. The characters are confused and miserable, certainly, but that's because they spend their time looking for divine clues instead of doing things with their lives—which, you know, are not infinite.

o The Sky Is Falling

The January 2010 edition of the "DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales" column is up at The Beat.

o The Larger Issue of Dental Troubles

I review Smile, a coming-off-teeth (ha ha) drama by Raina Telgemeier.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Scholastic/Graphix, paperback, 215 pages, $ 10.99

Writer/artist: Raina Telgemeier
Colorist: Stephanie Yue

The book collects the webcomic Smile (A Dental Drama), published in serial form from 2004 through 2009.

One of the pitfalls for autobiographical stories is to place too much emphasis on the "autobiographical" part and not enough on the "story" part. That's where Smile falls short for me, too—not in the sense that writer/artist Raina Telgemeier should have made stuff up to have a more exciting narrative, but in the sense that much of Smile reads like it's simply being recounted, rather than dramatized and reflected upon.

Which, I guess, is perfectly fine if that's what you want to do. I certainly wasn't bored with the comic—the smooth, inviting style makes the characters immediately likable, and the story is easy to follow. More than that, Ms. Telgemeier manages to create a real urgency that propels you through the book. You want to know What Happens Next, because it's so easy to identify with the characters it's happening to.

But that said, the book stays at the surface throughout. It doesn't really give you a sense who precisely Raina—the protagonist—is, other than the girl who stumbles and knocks out her two front teeth in sixth grade and has a perfect smile again in high school. We certainly learn, in great detail, how she gets from point A to point B, and some of the other things that happened to her along the way, but in terms of what it all means to her, or what it could mean to anyone else, Smile doesn't have many insights to impart.

And by the time you turn the final page, that's a disappointment, no matter how entertaining it may have been to get there. As it turns out, the story really is about little Raina's dental history, and not much of anything else. At times, there are attempts to go beyond that, but they seem half-hearted.

The story acknowledges that the affections of teenage kids can be fickle, for instance, but that's as far as it delves into the matter, and it doesn't tie it into the larger issue of the dental troubles, either.

There's an attempt to formulate a lesson on what friendship really means towards the end, which just draws attention to the overall haphazardness of the narrative—it's portrayed like a step towards emancipation for Raina, but because the story never supplies enough set-up or context to calibrate Raina's reaction, the development seems mostly jarring.

Likewise, the inclusion of the earthquake episode (the story is set in San Francisco) might have served as a nice way of putting Raina's dental issues in perspective, but other than a token realization that "losing a couple of teeth isn't the end of the world," the story doesn't get a lot of mileage out of that, either.

I'm sure a lot of kids and their parents will rightfully agree that Smile is an entertaining, well-made, easy-to-like book with easy-to-like characters and agreeable lessons, in so far as they result from the plot and the way the characters explicitly react to them. That said, though, it's somewhat disappointing that Ms. Telgemeier doesn't reach farther, and that the motivation for a lot of what's in the book seems to start and end with "and then this happened."

Grade: C+