2010 In Comics: The Middle 48%
2010 (so far): The greatest year in the history of the comics medium? The nightmarish nadir from which it will never recover? The year when the whole industry, and our relationship with it, changed forever? Nope. But come with us nevertheless to yestermonth, for a look at some of the comic books, trade paperbacks, and funnypages/comic-strip collections of oh, say, the middlish part of the year.
Creators: Jeff Parker (writer); Giancarlo Caracuzzo (artist); Jim Charalampidis (colorist); Ed Dukeshire (letterer)
From a narrative point of view, part of the purpose of the first part of any serialized story is to set things up; to introduce the story’s characters, themes, and world. Of course, sometimes an introduction isn’t enough – especially in the contemporary Marvel universe, in which every single comic issue seems to tie into every single other comic issue, and if you haven’t read every page of material published for the last five years you’re basically shit outta luck. In Gorilla-Man, this is only compounded by the fact that this is just a three-issue spinoff of Atlas; clearly one is meant to at least know what is going on in that comic. And even further: Judging by this issue, the main dramatic thrust of this series is the ties of its villain to Gorilla-Man’s past. So hopefully you already care about that.
The tragedy is that this issue starts off so promisingly. For the first nine pages, Gorilla-Man fights Borgia Omega, the conglomerate host of the entire Borgia family, with mechanical tentacles and a giant spidery body and tiny yelling faces on either side of his head. And his black-catsuit-clad female agents! Gorilla-Man shoots guns with his feet while jumping a motorcycle! Whooee! And then we switch to some turbaned guy and his thugs who all have knives and pitchforks and guns. And that aforementioned connection to Gorilla-Man’s past. It’s a bait and switch, is what it is. Combine this with only so-so art – Gorilla-Man, who is decidedly a gorilla, looks like a fat, hunched guy in a crappy gorilla mask – and what you end up with is essentially a mediocrity. Which is a damned shame.
Creators: Paul Dini (writer); Stephane Roux (penciler); Karl Story (inker); John Kalisz (colorist); Pat Brosseau (letterer)
Now, here we have a more proper introduction. All the more impressive, since in the DC universe, this is a particularly challenging event. So much has gone before, and so chaotically, that even longtime DC fans find the canon nearly impossible to explain sometimes. In this, then, Zatanna #1 performs admirably. Zatanna Zatara, busty stage magician in fishnets and thigh-high boots, check; real magical powers,1 check; dead sorcerer father, check; Justice League membership, check.
This success aside, things are pretty by-the-numbers here. Turns out there’s this undead or undead-ish sorcerer who means to take over the San Francisco underworld. And Zatanna means to stop him. Okay, yeah. The villain’s thugs have pretty interesting powers and backgrounds, and there’s a bit that implies that Zatanna will eventually, Hellboy-like, turn on mundane humanity and unleash all hell, which will probably go nowhere but hey. Other than that, it’s strictly boilerplate.
As with Ultimate X, however, what we’re really here for is the art. Roux’s Zatanna is expressive, three-dimensional, and – because it is of course what we’re here for – very sexy.2 The demons are maybe a bit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but they’re varied and nice to look at. Eye candy may not be enough for some, but for those for whom it will suffice, there’s plenty to be found here.
Good Minnesotan #4
Creators: Joshana Anderson, Anna Bongiovanni, Nic Breutzman, Kevin Cannon, Will Dinski, Mayme Dunsker, Meghan Hogan, Raighne Hogan, Luke Holden, Martha Iserman, Toby Jones, Emily Kaplan, Renny Kissling, Ed Choy Moorman, Lupi, Maddie Quiripel, Eric Ruby, Justin Skarhus, Steroid Party, Buck Sutter, Sarah Tulius, Matt Wells
Publisher: 2D Cloud
It’s nice to see a bit of the zine aesthetic survive into the Internet age. Good Minnesotan #4 is a collection of four black & white mini-comics, all bundled together in a slightly ill-fitting cardboard box. If the slight old-school awkwardness of the presentation isn’t intentional, it may as well be. These are comics of the alternative stripe; slice-of-life stories, abstract art, and surreal humor, with a common fondness in this collection for the failed and the forgotten.
As for the actual quality of the material, well, the contributor list is the first clue. A litany this long is inevitably all over the map. Some of the art is wince-inducingly poor, bad beyond aesthetic justification. And one of the four comics is given over almost entirely to stories about poop. Which, as a subject, fares no better in alt-comics than in second grade playgrounds.
But when it’s good, it’s terrific. One standout is Kevin Cannon’s “A Brief History Of The Fram And The Men Who Loved Her,” a crisply-drawn, jauntily-written story pf 19th century trips to Earth’s poles that makes learning fun. And Buck Sutter produces a sequence of silent, incredibly eerie still photos that create a haunted house – a haunted world – story with no narrative. And there’s other good stuff besides; in aggregate, definitely worth the price of admission.
Ultimate X #2
Creators: Jeph Loeb (writer); Arthur Adams (penciler); Peter Steigerwald (colorist); Mark Roslan (digital inker); Richard Starkings, Albert Deschesne (letterers)
Nobody cares about Marvel’s “Ultimate universe” anymore, generally. It’s easy to see why; the Ultimate Marvel universe was conceived to dispense with regular Marvel’s impossibly cumbersome canon, and to have a grittier, hipper, more modern sensibility and blah blah blah. But now, somewhere in the neighborhood of ten years on, the Ultimate canon is about as bloated as Marvel Classic, and the writers for the old, baseline books have been ladling out the grittier, hipper, more modern stuff anyway. So, then, why is Ultimate X selling out instantly? And why is the fanboys’ main complaint that it comes out only every other month?
Both questions have the same answer, in a way: Arthur Adams. The man’s art is legendary, and justifiably so. It’s rich and expressive and a joy to look at; recently, he’s taken to pouring characterization into every random background character, and it is absolutely a treat. It also, quite justifiably, takes awhile.
As for the story, well, it gets the job done. Ultimate X #2 introduces Karen Grant, a beautiful woman and secretly a mutant. She’s on the run and such, dying her hair, concealing her massive telekinetic powers, and assuming a new identity with the aid of her similarly massive telepathy. Marvel fans will see where this is going, and luckily, it goes there quickly – the reader learns her identity in no uncertain terms by the end. It’s a decent little introduction. “Karen’s” sadness, isolation, and paranoia are well-drawn. But it’s really a case of come for the art, hang around for at least a little bit for the story.
Tales Designed To Thrizzle #6
Creator: Michael Kupperman
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
It is difficult to describe Michael Kupperman’s work to the uninitiated. Imagine if the chaos, cheapness, and general idiocy of C-list mid-20th-century comics, children’s stories, and adventure serials came about not due to laziness or incompetence, but rather on purpose, for yuks.3 In the hands of a lesser creator, this would be rather dreary non-sequitur stoner humor. But Kupperman’s thorough knowledge of the eras and genres he lampoons – one character in this comic is clearly based on Michael Rennie, for example – combined with his rapid-fire comic brilliance, creates a book that needs attention, at least by those who like their humor weird. And their art weird – Kupperman’s drawings look like awkwardly animated two-dimensional cutouts, which only makes things funnier.
Thrizzle #6 contains three stories, basically. In “Jungle Princess,” we meet Antoinella Champion, a fairy princess raised by animals who publishes her own fashion magazine. And fights rogue rhino traders. “All About Drainage” chronicles the usurpation of Broadway star Minerva Bell by a fresh, new toast of the legitimate theater – the concept of water drainage. And in “Twain & Einstein in So Boldly We Dare,” the identically-drawn historical thinkers take a space shuttle to chainsaw meteors, solve a haunting mystery, and adopt an adorable alien baby. In between all this are various fake ads and mini-comics, including an advertisement for “slightly cursed merchandise.” “THIS RAKE CRIES OUT FOR VENGEANCE – $2.99 – Just ignore it.”
Atomic Robo Volume 4 #3
Creators: Brian Clevinger (writer); Scott Wegener (artist); Ronda Pattison (colorist); Jeff Powell (lettering)
Publisher: Red 5 Comics
This is a comic book about Atomic Robo, a brilliant but very down-to-earth mechanical man invented by Nikola Tesla in the 1920s, who spends the next several decades traveling the world, investigating gonzo scientific mysteries and punching Nazis. In this particular issue, he faces off against Dr. Dinosaur, a ranting, insane, supposedly super-genius Jurassic Park-style velociraptor who dreams of a new era of saurian domination. Clevinger is a full-scale master of adventurous pacing and comic one-liners, and Wegener brings a fluidity and subtlety to these over-the-top procedures that is absolutely breathtaking – the panel in which Dr. Dinosaur realizes he’s being attacked is a goddamned masterpiece.
All of this is wonderful. Atomic Robo Volume Four, #3 is basically the most entertaining single issue of a comic book since The Amazing Screw-On Head. The only reason not to buy it – and it’s no reason at all – it that it’ll spoil you for the rest of Atomic Robo, being as it is the very best issue thereof. And the rest doesn’t deserve second billing. Nowhere else in modern comic books is the fact that fun, adventure, and intelligence belong together in comics so thoroughly proven, issue after issue.
Teen Titans: Child’s Play
Creators: Bryan Q. Miller, Sean McKeever, J. T. Krul, Felicia D. Henderson (writers); Joe Bennett, Yildiray Cinar (pencilers); Jack Jadson, Julio Ferreira, Ruy Jose (inkers); Rod Reis, Pete Pantazis (colorists); Sal Cipriano (letterer)
You’ve got to hand it to DC. Where Marvel ceaselessly attempts to produce what it thinks of as psychological realism and real-world political issues, DC continues to produce titles about groups of legal minors who live alone in their own skyscraper and spend their time going out and getting into fights, and all of this is perfectly okay. It’s a commendable dedication to simple comic book fun. Too bad it doesn’t work out better.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing right now about the Teen Titans comic – issues 71 through 78 being collected here – is that it seems to be the crucible for DC’s recent policy of drawing its “imprints” into its main continuity. Both the Vertigo version of Kid Eternity and Milestone’s Static are now official Teen Titans members. And both of them are also completely fucked away in these storylines. No character arcs or even definition, no showcasing of what makes them unique, nothing. Hell, Kid Eternity actually gets kidnapped in this book, and the other Teen Titans literally don’t even notice. And no attention is brought to this fact. The reader hardly notices as well.
To be fair, it’s not just the imprint kids who get the short end of the stick. This is a stick that miraculously appears to have nothing but short ends. Deathstroke the Terminator, who drew the short straw and had to be the archvillain for the Teen Titans, gets more attention than any of our heroes; the writers certainly hope you like Deathstroke (a Terminator), because by God you’re getting him. No interesting characters or drama, action scenes without stakes, art that is adequate at best – it makes one wonder how this sort of thing gets published in the first place. There’s so much talent out there, and so much of it aspiring, and a publisher with the resources of DC can’t do any better than this?
Jim Henson’s Legends of the Dark Crystal Volume 2: Trial By Fire
Creators: Barbara Randall Kesel (writer); Heidi Arnhold (artist); Jessica Feinberg (tones)
In another world, in another time, two Gelflings – good-hearted, vaguely elfin creatures – meet. One is a brown-haired boy, very attached to his flute; the other is a light-haired girl. Both have been orphaned by the evil regime of the vulture-like Skeksis. They travel, with their doglike companion animal, to an isolated village, where the Skeksis’ Garthim soldiers promptly attack, carrying many of the villagers to the castle of the Skeksis. The two Gelflings follow, meaning to brave the dangers of the castle. This of course is the plot to Jim Henson’s seminal 1982 fantasy film, The Dark Crystal. It is also the plot of Tokyopop’s two-part Legends of the Dark Crystal American manga. Which is frankly unconscionable.
This would, just perhaps, be forgivable, if the world of the film weren’t filled to bursting with background and implication, begging to be fleshed out, rather than simply repeated. It might have been okay if Barbara Randall Kesel’s ear for dialogue weren’t that of a crazy person; characters frequently seem to be talking about things that aren’t happening and haven’t, and even more frequently seem to be carrying on conversations that have nothing to do with their partner’s.4 It might have been all right if the whole thing weren’t resolved with a God damned deus ex machina.
It’s not all bad. The art is nice; a restrained sort of manga, in a world where the protagonists really do have huge eyes and tiny mouths. And when the comic does deign to give us something we haven’t seen before, it’s often both interesting and appropriate to the world we know. Yet this pair of books currently consists of 100% of the Dark Crystal expanded universe; this is the only published story outside of that of the film. And we deserve better.
It’s still better than the Star Wars novels, though.
- At an almost cloying level; she seems to have a spell for every goddamned thing. Why doesn’t she just cast a “solve mystery and fix everything” spell and be done with it? ↩
- Panels of full but discreet nudity: one. ↩
- It’s not that hard to describe after all, apparently. ↩
- Perhaps because of this, the dialogue for the mystic-types – Aughra and the actual mystics – is excellent. ↩
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