December 31, 2010

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2010: A Look At My Reading

So at the beginning of the year, I took stock of my reading habits and made some notations. I found myself to be an omnivorous reader, and liked that I enjoyed comics of all kinds. I noted that it means missing out on good books because I don't specialize, but I was okay with that. I still am, after a year's additional reading. As I mentioned at the start of 2010, I have no desire to give up reading Jeff Parker, Jeff Brown, or some guy named Jeff who has a cool $2 mini-comic at his table, to say nothing of the many great manga writers, none of whom have names that start with Jeff. Sure, I'll never be considered an expert in any one type of comic, but that's okay. I'm in this for the love of reading, not to get placed in a reviewers roundtable.

I also made five specific plans for reading in 2010, and I thought it might be interesting to look at them now and see how I did. We'll wrap up with some general notes on this year in reading comics.

My first "resolution" was to find and read more webcomics. I think I did this fairly well, though I did not do as many webcomic reviews as I wanted to this past year. I did notice that as time went on, I became pickier about what webcomics I read regularly. Certain comics that became stale, did not update often, or felt very plodding in pace ended up getting cut from my RSS feed. I still don't think I read as many webcomics as I should, but those I do read are very awesome. Look for more reviews in 2011. Score this a full 100.

Catching up on my mini-comics did not go quite as well. I read a lot before SPX this year (I could not make SPACE due to a scheduling conflict, and it looks like I won't make it again anytime soon, having moved roughly 8 hours away), but I had way too many unread minis hanging around. I would like to be in a better reading situation by the time convention season hits for me in late summer. I did read several gems, however, and am ready to get more from my favorite creators of the paper pamphlet. Score this a 75.

I think my third intention, to stop reading comics just because they had Batman or Spider-Man in them, was the one I followed the best. I purged a large portion of my single issue comics featuring these two favorites, because they comics they appeared in were just awful. I'm not against reading superhero comics, but I want them to be *good* superhero comics. It's getting a lot easier to do, now that I've gotten in the habit. Definitely a 100.

My fourth resolution, to read more new comics as they came out, did not go so well. I did make the effort to buy some comics as they came out, but then I put them on a shelf and didn't read them. D'oh! I went most of the year reading only a handful of 2010 comics, completely shooting this plan in the butt. Only a last minute concerted effort to start reading the 2010 titles I had at home and to only get 2010 titles from the library made it look like I accomplished this goal. Looks like it's one to try again for 2011. Give myself credit for the late push, but it's only a 60.

Number five is the one that still haunts me. I know logically that no one is going to look down on me if I stop reading something. But I'm so ingrained to the idea that I have to keep reading to the end that I still plod on, especially since comics are so "short." I actually did bail on some comics this year, which is more than I can say for previous years, so this one is an 80.

Overall, that's a B- grade, which isn't quite as good as I'd hoped, but the fact that I at least hit on all five points is something I can be proud of, and build on for next year.

The biggest change not reflected here is that I gave up on trying to review everything I read. I read over 300 comics (and another 50+ book books) in 2010. That was fueled by a period of unemployment, but even still, I read a lot. There's just no way to review everything. I'm much happier since I went to reviewing as the mood strikes me, and I find that I still review a lot of what I read. I think the quality of my reviews has improved a lot since taking this step, and I'm a lot less stressed about the reviewing process. I kinda wish I'd stopped trying to review everything a few years ago.

I also had some cool things happen personally, as I was given some comics to read for review purposes for the first time this year (thanks to all of you who asked!). I don't keep a review blog to get review copies, but it's always nice to see your opinion valued highly enough that someone wants you to read their book(s). I'm always open to the idea, as I like to talk about and promote good comics. That's why this blog exists in the first place--to give my thoughts on what I'm reading and hopefully get others to read books I think are pretty good (and to stay away from the odd dud that I feel is worth warning about). Feel free to contact me if you're interested in having me read something. I'm always up for it!

Despite a new schedule and a few months where I had no time to read comics, I still managed to read a lot of books here in 2010. A look at my 2010 reading list reveals that, true to my belief, I am a comic-reading omnivore. Manga topped the list, but only by a bit, coming in at roughly 33% of my reading last year. Indie comics were second at 28%, with Mini-Comics/Zines at 24% and Superhero themed books at 15%. I did not try to keep things even--it just worked out that way. I'm very comfortable with those percentages, and would be happy to have a similar breakdown in 2011. There just aren't enough good superhero comics these days to keep that percentage higher than about 15%, which is a shame. I realize that my categories are inexact (Goon is an indie comic, but Jonah Hex falls under superhero in my mind), but it confirms that my personal tastes run to all genres roughly evenly.

As a final note, I think reading so many comics over the past few years (over 500 in the past two years, and probably somewhere in the neighborhood of almost 1000 since 2006) has definitely caused me to start being more critical about what I read. Comics I might have liked in 2008 no longer pass muster in 2010 in all categories. I opted not to continue several manga series this year that probably would have been continued reads before, such as Biomega. When you start to realize that you can only read so many comics, you really only get two options: Read comics only of a certain type or try to only read good comics.

Personally, I'm opting for the latter. We'll see how 2011 plays out for that plan, as we spend the first few days of the new year looking forward and back.

See you in 2011--HAPPY NEW YEAR!

December 30, 2010

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Cavemen in Space

Written by Joey Weiser
Illustrated by Joey Weiser
Adhouse

In the far future, even time travel is possible. This leads to a dramatic experiment by Professor Albert Casimir, who brings actual cavemen into outer space! Watch as tribe leader Washington must keep an eye on his people in an age where tribes are long since disbanded. Can they adapt to life with nothing to hunt, where technology can handle most everything? A new threat may soon show that life may not be as different as we think between the stone age and the space age!

I absolutely adore the cover to this comic, as the idea that a caveman would still keep a pelt on his back, even in the vacuum of space amuses me to no end. Weiser's illustrations remain as good as ever, with each character having a distinctive look and feel that reflects their personality. They're certainly basic, but that doesn't mean they are poorly drawn. There's a general sense of innocence and wonder in Weiser's comics, and his figures reflect that. If they had extensive lines or heavy inking, the feel of the comic would be completely different, and lose a lot of the magic. Plus, it's vastly amusing to see one cave woman turn herself into a 1950s femme fatal via Weiser's lens. The result is both horrifying and endearing at the same time.

As with a lot of Wieser's stories, this comic is one of discovery. Our cave people are taken from the only world they know and try to find their way in space. The cave wall artist cannot recapture the magic of his art, because it's no longer needed in this modern world. The materials are all fake. A little girl relies on her magical doll (more on that later) to get by. Another, changed irrevocably by experimentation, cannot find a way to mesh his new intellect with existing emotions. Washington tries to be the leader they knew him to be, but his knowledge is all in brute strength and primal protection, all but useless in an age of mechanical arms and laser beams. All of these characters must take a hard look at themselves, and find out what they must do to adapt.

When danger strikes, it's time to put the discoveries on the table. Some may be able to use their new place to find themselves, but it's clear that others will never be able to adapt. The journey is almost complete, leading to an ending that is sad in some ways but makes perfect sense. With discovery completed, our characters must move on, just as the reader does by closing the book.

In that way, this is a strong story. Weiser shows that we are all changed by our experiences, even if those experiences are fanciful. Regardless of the time period or how we arrive there, humans must always explore their feelings and needs. I liked how Weiser showed that, even within a science fiction context.

The trouble I had with this one, though is that everything seemed to work out just a bit too neatly. The little cave girl's doll was the worst example of this, changing as needed to save the day over and over again. Once is okay, but several times is a crutch to keep the plot moving. Similarly, Weiser's science works whenever he needs it to, without a lot of explanation. It might be asking a bit too much, but I'd have liked to have seen a few more failures to keep things realistic. I understand that the book is designed to have an all-ages feel, but I think a bit too much was sacrificed to keep the plot moving easily for anyone reading it.

Cavemen in Space is a sweet book with a good lesson for readers. There are a few holes in the story, which means I don't think this is as good as, say, Weiser's Mermin series or The Ride Home. However, it's a good story as long as you don't stop to think too long about how things are operating on the ship, and Weiser's illustrations keep getting better. I look forward to seeing where Weiser's sense of wonder and imagination take us next.

December 29, 2010

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Kobato Volume 1

Written by CLAMP
Illustrated by CLAMP
Yen Press

Kobato is a young girl almost without a clue. She has nearly no idea how to handle being a part of the world and often makes anything she tries to fix even worse. This is a major problem for her, because Kobato must become a fixer of broken hearts in order to have her wish fulfilled. Can she make it, or will the constant harassment of her mentor/antagonist Ioryogi-san (a foul mouthed talking stuffed dog) be too much for her? Find out in the adventures of...Kobato.

This is my first time reading something pretty new from CLAMP, as I tend to stick to their older material. Kobato is just as visually beautiful as any other CLAMP series, with each character drawn down to the last detail. You can practically count the strands of hair on each head, for example. If I were a bee, I might even try to pollinate the flowers on the page because they look so real to me. I've always enjoyed reading CLAMP manga for this reason--each and every panel looks like it could be hung up on the wall with a tasteful frame and people drinking wine while they comment on the details.

The trouble is that as good as CLAMP is at drawing a story, they are also equally weak at writing the story, as though the plot and script are secondary to how many pretty poses they can draw. Kobato is no exception. We're dumped into the middle of the story, and never given a good explanation, even in flashback, of just why Kobato needs to do this quest or how she found out about it. I'd say I'm sure this will be explained later, but there's probably a good chance it's not. This volume had plenty of room to do a little grounding, but we just don't get it here. Kobato and Ioryogi are just tossed out as a funny odd couple, and we're asked to either like them or not.

I might have been okay with that, but Kobato is just too much like every other female I've read in a CLAMP story it seems--clueless, cute, and completely at a loss without a strong figure to help her along. I liked it better when it was called Chobits, guys. Kobato just feels like yet another pretty face in the CLAMP stable, without any new features to make me want to follow her adventures.

What's worse is that this time, our naive girl is paired with a male figure that's aggressive to the point of obnoxiousness. Ioryogi's shouts, rants, and abuse just aren't funny to me. They seem to have no sense of caring behind them at all. It's like being at a mall and seeing a parent take out their frustrations on an unhappy child. You want to do something but know you can't. That's not fun to watch in real life, and it's certainly not something I want to be reading about for over 150 pages.

There are apparently a lot of in-jokes in Kobato, which translator William Flanagan helpfully provides in extensive end notes. I think that may be part of the problem, too. Like a few of Peter David's too indulgent moments, this comic sometimes seems more concerned with in-jokes than telling a good story. Flanagan does a great job with the story he's given, and it's a shame I didn't like the story better because this was one of the better mangas I've read in terms of how the story flowed in dialog--even if I didn't care for what the characters were saying. The jokes are all there and made perfect sense to me. It's not his fault that more often than not, I just didn't think they were all that funny.

Perhaps my taste has changed over time and I'm just not as into CLAMP as I used to be. I still admired the artwork, but cute for cuteness sake didn't register for me. It might work better for you. If I see another volume cheaply, I might give this a second chance, but I don't see a need to get another book at full price. Those who are huge fans of CLAMP may feel differently, but I need more than great illustrations to drive my reading needs these days.

December 28, 2010

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Underground

Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Steve Lieber
Image

In a small Kentucky town of Stillwater, a magnificent cave is waiting to be explored--for science or for profit. As the town is torn asunder by the controversy, Wes and her co-worker/lover Seth are about to end up learning more about the dangers of caves than they anticipated. It seems not everyone is willing to wait for the government to decide the fate of the cave, and before you know it, the stakes keep getting higher. As the danger rises, Seth and Wes must travel further...underground.

The fight between preserving natural resources and allowing for economic development in a poor economy is an explosive issue, and works perfectly as the setup for the drama in Underground. Without being preachy or ham-fisted, Parker and Lieber expose this issue, coming down on the side of preservation, of course, but never doing in a way that's insulting or demeaning to the real-life folks who could benefit from a tourist attraction that, were it real, I'd probably go visit. Sure the villains of the comic are associated with development, but it's what they do not what they want to do that taints them with evil. Part of why this comic is so good is that everyone in it is human, even the ones firing the guns and explosives.

The main reason this comic echoes like the bats on the cover, however, is Lieber's artwork. While I love Jeff Parker, the serious nature of the action in this comic, combined with the need for secrecy, takes away one of his best features, namely snappy dialog. When Parker gets to be freewheeling, it's every bit as good as we'd expect from him. The page-long joke about what to say after a one-night stand is one of Parker's best pages, aided and abetted by Lieber's changing facial expressions. He also gets a few good side jokes in here and there, but for the most part, Parker is the straight man, allowing Lieber's visuals to drive the story and giving us just enough dialog to know what the characters are thinking or doing. His scripting here is solid, but it doesn't quite have the usual magic.

That's perfectly okay because adding too much patter would only distract the reader away from the creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere that dominates the story. I actually think it's a credit to Parker's skill as a writer that he recognizes this and doesn't try to overreach or force his usual stamp on the proceedings. Once we step underground as the heroes try to escape within the deadly, dark labyrinth of the cave, it's Lieber's show.

And oh, my, what a show it is! Lieber did amazing things with white space in the two Whiteout books, and he's at it again here in Underground. Though there is color in this comic, it's monochromatic within the cave itself, which was a very good choice. I think the ideal choice would have been no color at all, and I mean that with no disrespect to colorist Ron Chan, who does a fine job, especially by not overdoing things, either. (Like Parker, he's stepping aside to let Lieber do the job.) I just think that there's a lot to be said for letting the art itself do all the work here, because the art is perfect for the story.

There are so many excellent art decisions by Lieber that I almost don't know where to begin. He keeps people in the shadows, he only allows for the lighting provided by the characters, so if they can't see, neither can we. There might be a bit of cheating now and again in the name of clarity, but overall, this is a comic that captures exactly how I think it might feel to be trapped in a life and death struggle within a cave. The panels are kept close together, as are all of the character, for much of the action. Only when we are outside or when the cave itself allows for it, are we allowed to have visual breathing room. When unexpected things happen (sorry to be vague but I want to avoid spoiling this excellent book), we are shown that sense of surprise by having the action jumping out at the reader. This is especially true in the case of that most frequent of cave dwellers, bats, who of course have an important cameo within the proceedings.

In fact, Lieber does such a good job that at one point, where the Wes and Sean are in a desperate situation, I actually started gasping for air myself. For just the briefest moment, I was right in the story. I mean I literally felt like I was there. I was in the cave, in a life and death situation, wondering if I'd breathed my last. It only lasted for a moment and was gone, but in that moment, I could not have been more in the comic if Lieber had sketched me there.

Not a big deal, you say? Understand something. This never happens to me. Lieber managed something that I'm not even sure I've experienced before. That's how good the art in this book is. If you don't leave your reading of Underground feeling as though you've explored the cave right along with the characters, then I don't know what's wrong with you. (Personally, I'm still wiping off the bat guano.)

Underground reminds me a bit of the end of Tom Sawyer, where Tom and Becky are trying to evade Injun Joe. There's a sense of terror that both share, because not only are the characters (who happen to be male and female and reluctant romantic partners) trying to evade a killer, they also must face the prospects of an unforgiving aspect of nature that doesn't really care if it kills anyone who enters. Like the Antarctic in Whiteout, the cave is very much a character here.

The difference between Whiteout and Underground, however, is that unlike the first, which features deceptions and calculation, Underground's escalating danger is driven by unintended consequences. The devil is in the details that can't be predicted. Change one thing here or there, and none of the story of Underground's cave section happens. Yet--and this is the brilliant part of Parker's plotting--at no time does the action feel forced or contrived. Each little step that leads to a dangerous chase to the death feels like the most logical thing the characters could do. This continues right through the ending, in which some compromises are made and each party on the warring sides gets a bit of what they wanted. Parker gives us a satisfying conclusion that shows nothing is as simple as it seems--and with a story grounded so strongly in real world issues, that's exactly what Underground needed.

When I got my copy of Underground, I knew I would like it. I didn't know just how much I would like it. This comic shows just how the medium can be adapted to any story the creators wish to tell, and would be a prime exhibit in my defense of comics as more than just superheroes. I liked this one from beginning to end, and I can't think of anyone who wouldn't. Underground captures the feel of being in a cave, and anyone who's ever gone underground themselves, even in a tour group, will recognize that feel instantly. Undergound gets my highest possible recommendation. Find this one and read it. It's even available for free from the authors, if you want to sample it first. I guarantee you'll like it enough to donate. I liked it so much, I'm even thinking of giving them more money!

December 27, 2010

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All My Darling Daughters

Written by Fumi Yoshinaga
Illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga
Viz

Fumi Yoshinaga, one of the best creators at writing stories that reflect everyday life, is at it again with All My Darling Daughters. Five short stories revolve around Yukiko, a woman in her thirties, and her friends and family. As her mother decides to take life by the horns, Yukiko tries to do the same thing, with mixed results. Watch as her story interacts with others just trying to do their best in a world that often doesn't work out the way you expected.

In this collection of short stories, Fumi Yoshinaga does what she's best at--small slices of life that are funny, tragic, and touching all at the same time. They're stories that could be about you or the people that you know. The dialog you hear in her stories is the same dialog you overhear at a restaurant or as you're passing someone by on the street while they talk just a bit too loud on their cell phone. Yoshinaga crafts stories of the ordinary, and that's what makes her work so good.

The thing that separates Yoshinaga from others doing similar material, I think, is that while her stories often have negative moments at no time do they become maudlin. Yukiko's marriage does not end up as she'd hoped, but that doesn't mean she gives up. Instead, she reaches out, and we're left with the idea that Yukiko won't always be in a one-sided relationship. Another character decides she can't love one person more than anyone else, so instead of quietly fading away (as she might in other hands), she changes her life so she can love all people. Yukiko's mom is a cancer survivor whose first husband is dead. Instead of moping around, she moves on, gets a new, younger husband, and starts living life again. None of these options are from some fanciful world where everything works out perfectly. They're ideas that we can grasp for ourselves, if we only try.

(As an aside, how cool is it that we have a positive model here of an older woman marrying a younger man, and having it be shown as actual love? Sure, there's skepticism, but that, too, is as natural as anything else we see in All My Darling Daughters.)

This does not mean that everything in All My Darling Daughters is positive or resolves perfectly. The many struggles women of all ages must go through to find their identity and feel comfortable with it echo in these stories, even if one of the women is used as something of comic relief. Long-standing family grudges exist here, just as they do in real life, and we get to see some of the uglier comments, too, not just the life-affirming ones. There's a great sense of balance here, even with the knowledge that we can all be better people if we only try.

Long-time fans of Yoshinaga (and I consider myself one, as I was reading her as far back as 2006) will find plenty of her touches across the pages. We have the same expressive faces that often tell us as much as the dialog, brought up close to the reader's eyes. Yoshinaga uses a lot of head shots and closeups, because this book is about the interaction between the characters. You don't read her comics to get exquisite backgrounds, so if you're looking for detailed art, this is the wrong place to go. On the other hand, if you want to see the subtle changes we make as we speak, Yoshinaga will give those to you in spades, as even her exaggerated poses retain some sense of realism.

After reading two volumes of Ooku that were badly translated and mangled Yoshinaga's ear for conversation beyond readability (at least for me), it was so nice to read a book that captured her patter in a way that flows for English-speaking audiences. John Werry should be asked by Viz to go back and fix Ooku, but I doubt that's likely to happen. Yoshinaga's stories are driven by her words, and anything that gets between the reader and the dialog ruins the book. All My Darling Daughters gives us spoken lines that do not stop and start, unless that's what they're supposed to do. It always feels like Yukiko and her friends and family are speaking to each other, not through Babelfish.

I'm glad to see the Yoshinaga I came to know and love back in this collection. Ooku may be getting the press, but this is the kind of work that makes Yoshinaga sing. Just as with Antique Bakery or Solfege, we are drawn into this world because it could easily be our life she's describing. This is a must read for any fan of Yoshinaga. Those who are looking for an introduction to her work should definitely check this book out. It's Yoshinaga at her ordinary life best, and shows why she's definitely one of the best manga creators active today.
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Red A Haida Manga

Written by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Illustrated by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
D&M Publishers

An old legend of the Pacific Northwest is retold in brilliant colors by a pioneer of a new style of comics. Red is a young man who loses his sister in a raid. As he ages, Red rises to the head of his tribe. When the tribal leader sees his sister after so many years, he'll do anything to get her back. But will his actions lead to the downfall of everyone involved?

It's a classic story of the futility of revenge, as true here in a tribal society as it is in a modern criminal procedural. Regardless of the cause or players, revenge is often a bitter dish. Red pushes further and further, ignoring warning signs until it is far too late. Like any other tragedy, we as the reader can see it coming long before the characters do, and the pleasure is in finding out how the terrible scene is played before the reader.

That's the big problem here, however, because the way the scene is laid about before the reader doesn't work very well for me at all. I'm appreciative that Yahgulanaas is using the artistic styles of an indigenous culture, but they definitely were not designed to be read page by page, as the author even admits in the afterward (where he encourages the owner of the book to cut it up and make a mural from the remains). It was often hard to tell what was going on because the panel borders were broad black slashes that cut across the page in ways that led to awkward drawings. The figures frequently looked like they were made out of silly putty, flowing to fit what little room they were given. It just didn't work for me at all.

I'm also failing to see how this can be called "manga" because I cannot see any traces of the usual manga styles. It's possible Yahgulanaas is referencing some indie manga that isn't in the states in translation, but that's like saying an author is influenced by comic books (the single issue kind) and really meaning they draw in the style of Daniel Clowes. Manga is a term that has meaning to those who see it, and if you are going to use it for western publishing purposes, you need to know that. I'm willing to be flexible, but I kinda feel like the term "manga" was added to the title because just referring to it as a comic with influences in Haida culture would sell less books. I may be overly cynical here, but I feel like adding manga to the title gives this book a set of expectations on which it cannot possibly deliver.

I admire Yahgulanaas for trying to bring his cultural heritage to the masses in the form of a book. The problem is that this story, as illustrated, just isn't put together for the presentation we get here. I loved the vibrant colors, and if I saw this hanging on a wall where it belongs, I bet I'd spend all afternoon in a gallery reading it to see just how Red's drama plays out. This is a graphic novel, however, and you either need to go for a limited audience by printing it in an odder shape to better accommodate the nature of the drawings or adjust your illustrations to fit the requirements of the space you're breaking each page into.

Red does neither of this, and as a result, I was impressed and disappointed by the visuals all at the same time. I wish Yahgulanaas all the best in getting his artistic ideas out there, but I do not think a book form (or at least a small book like this) is the way to do it. Haida manga might be better served in an oversized hardcover instead. I'd love to see Haida artwork again, but not like this.

December 25, 2010

December 24, 2010

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Happy Holidays!

Panel Patter will take a few days off to rest, recharge and spend some time in the kitchen. This is a time to enjoy being with family and friends, regardless of your religious choices.

May you have some great memories these next few days. I'll start things up again on Monday, with a few more reviews before we look at the year in review and my reading plans for 2011.

Have a very Happy Holiday!!

-Rob

December 23, 2010

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Werewolves of Montpellier

Written by Jason
Illustrated by Jason
Fantagraphics

Sven is bored. How to solve the boredom? Steal stuff late at night dressed as a werewolf, of course. There's only one problem--the real werewolves are none too happy about it. As Sven tries to negotiate the complicated nature of his friendships, the creatures of the night are about to end his prowling once and for all. Can Sven keep one step ahead of the law, the wolves, and his relationships? Find out in Werewolves of Montpellier.

I have to admit, I'm still not quite used to Jason's characters talking to each other, even though I know that's not unusual for him these days. I'm pretty close to having read all of Jason's comics, and each one is so solid and reliable, I'd be perfectly fine with building a house on them--except then it might be hard to read the comics themselves.

As with his past few books, Jason mixes the mundane with the spectacular, finding just the right point to have the two interact. No matter how absurd the idea, we're treated to the same evenhanded portrayal of the characters. The titular werewolves operate as calmly and casually as anyone else in the book, as long as that person is a criminal. Their calculated reaction, even when things go bad, makes them seem less like monsters and more like mobsters. Jason might be able to have a character go ape and destroy everything in their path, but it's just not his style. Better to deal with problems as they arise and keep moving.

A large part of the humor in Jason's books comes from this approach to life, and it's especially evident here as we get to a conclusion that reminded me of the end of a British comedy sketch. I don't want to give away the climax, but let's just say you won't see it coming. Then again, if you are a fan of Jason's, maybe you will, at that. It's not an ending that would satisfy me in most cases, but given the absurdist nature of the entire plot, the story finishes up probably the only way that it can.

Part of the genius of Jason's comics is his weaving of regular problems within the larger narrative. We get a lot of that here, with Sven being close to a lesbian couple who eventually can't handle the (unintended) pressure he brings to the relationship just by being around constantly. Sven himself is a figure adrift, rich enough in money to wander through life but being purposeless beyond trying to get the occasional thrill at night. These little touches drive much of the narrative, with the werewolves almost being a side note for much of the book. That the two ideas mesh so well here is a credit to Jason's talent as a creator.

Though his characters rarely move, Jason's ability to drive a story just by looking at the art continues here, even though he's once again using words. His choice of perspective is particularly clever in a few sections of the book, and the placement of bodies in a room often tells more than the protagonists do. A tense moment between Sven and one of the women in the couple, where the panels circle them without written commentary shows all we need to know, without them saying a word. I continue to be impressed with Jason's unique and distinctive style, and if anything, he's only gotten better over time.

This is not Jason's best book, which is by far and away I Killed Adolph Hitler. However, it's nice to know that one of my favorite creators is still at the top of his game. Werewolves is less a horror story and more a character study, but that's okay by me. Fans of Jason definitely should pick this book up right away, and anyone new to his work will find themselves cursed with a need to read more of his catalog after finishing this one. That's one fate I can definitely live with!
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The Wild Kingdom

Written by Kevin Huizenga
Illustrated by Kevin Huizenga
Drawn and Quarterly

Glenn Ganges weaves in (but mostly out) of this collection of odds and ends from older zine projects of Kevin Huizenga, the master of understated but extremely detailed comics. Watch as Glenn wanders through his life where the Wild Kingdom is made up of squirrels and pigeons and other mundane creatures we take for granted. Plus, Huizenga adds some other short pieces of commentary, from commercials to mock documentary pieces on items both true and familiar. It's a collection that's anything but wild, but has a kingdom of rich images from Huizenga's pen.

I have to be honest, I was a bit disappointed to learn this book was mostly a reprint. The more I read, the more I realized this was largely the same mini I'd read almost a year ago, making me glad I'd gotten this from the library instead of buying a hardcover version of a zine I'm pretty sure I own somewhere. I thought it was good enough at the time, but it wasn't earth-shattering it. Reading the same stories in a cleaner, larger format didn't change my opinion that much.

About 18 months ago, I thought there were some clever touches, such as the idea that a wild kingdom for a city dweller such as Glenn would be cats and common birds and what have you. That's still true, but I admit that now I'm a little less inclined to read along with a story that doesn't go much of anywhere. My taste for that type of book, whether in graphic or prose form, is waning. If you need your comic to really have a strong beginning, middle, and end, I don't think you're going to much care for Huizenga's work, particularly here.

My favorite in Or Else 4 was the commercial parody, and that's still true here. The addition (I believe) of color definitely adds a bit, though not enough to make a huge difference. I love how the panels change, almost like changing channels, and the commentary on modern commerce is nice and subtle, especially when compared to another book I read recently.

I don't remember the trading cards from the earlier work, but those were clever, too. Looking not unlike things you'd take from the back of a toy or cereal box, each has a connection to the stories within. Might have been neat to include a few for actually clipping.

The rest of the book shows Huizenga's strong sense of whimsy and ability to get as much as possible on the printed page. The details are striking, but I don't think they drive the work enough to make it something I feel others have to read.

Overall, however, the book wanders a bit in a way that I can indulge in the zine/mini-comic format but works far less well for me as a hardcover edition from a major independent publisher. I liked these stories less than I did the first time, and even in the first reading I felt this was something that "wasn't for everyone." I agree with that assessment.

As a zine, Huizenga's rambling, almost plotless work was fine. I don't think it works nearly as well in the larger book format. I can't say I'd recommend this book, even though I like Huizenga's work in general. If you like Huizenga, you'll find this to be a good book for you. If you've never seen his work before, despite this being his newest book, it's definitely NOT the place to start. The Ganges books published by Fantagraphics is probably a better place to see if you like his style. Leave the Wild Kingdom for later, and even then, be aware it's not his strongest book. A little domestication for a larger book format may have been in order.

December 22, 2010

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Cold Space

Written by Samuel L. Jackson and Eric Calderon
Illustrated by Jeremy Rock
Boom! Studios

A rather familiar-looking rough and tumble character romps through outer space and a dusty, American West-style planet in this fast moving comic by frequent comic book movie actor Samuel L. Jackson. Follow the adventures of Mulberry, a man on the run who will try to turn almost any situation to his advantage. Can he manage to stay one step ahead of the law while trying to play both sides in a simmering duel against each other? Find out in Cold Space!

There are a lot of comics these days with a famous name attached to them. Usually, it's an adaptation of a prose writer, such as Stephen King or James Patterson. In other cases, a comedian or other famous person will lend their name to an idea that they don't have much to do with afterward. I expected this book to fall into the latter category, but I don't think so.

Within a few pages, it's clear that Jackson's style is contained within the comic. He mentions in the introduction how much he loves comics, and his reason for writing one is just that--he loves comics. I highly doubt he wrote every part of the comic, but I do think his involvement was pretty high, particularly in Mulberry's dialog. For good or for ill, depending on your perspective, this comic does not have the polished feel of an experienced writer. There are tangents, some clunky moments, and lines that just don't flow as well as you'd expect from Calderon, the co-creator.

I may be totally wrong, but for me, part of the fun in reading Cold Space was that lack of polish. There's a feeling here that a long-time comics fan has gotten his dream gig realized, and I just don't see that as being easily faked. Jackson is definitely not going to get mistaken for Kurt Busiek anytime soon, but I love that he wrote the comic he wanted, just like how he put his own stamp on the train wreck that was Snakes on a Plane.

The rough edges of the comic mean that this is one of those books that people are either going to love or hate. If you only want to read comics with a tight, logical plot, this is not the book for you. Jackson and Calderon have opted to add as many ideas as they can, using their favorites from the comics they've read over the years. That means we start off with Mulberry evading space cops, getting blown into a western. The western features despicable men, hot chicks, and people who have strange fetishes, all trying to make the big score to get them a leg up on the competition (or in some cases, just out of dodge).

Mulberry weaves his way in and out like a well-trained dancer, but once we hit the final page, there's definitely a sense of "Hold on a minute. What about...?" going on. That might bother me ordinarily, but I was having so much fun just watching this clash of ideas, genres, and tropes that I didn't care if the story didn't exactly make sense. It was just a lot of fun, as I laughed from one outrageous idea or line of dialog to the next. Cold Space is by no means a great comic, but if you relax and ride the wave, it's certainly a fun one. This is not a comic trying to win an Eisner. It's like a movie that knows it's not the best in the world--if everyone involved is having fun (including the reader/viewer) then that's all the matters.

Cold Space should find a place with those who are big fans of Samuel L. Jackson and those who like seeing ideas thrown together to try something new. Mulberry is not a very likable guy, but he's fun to follow from adventure to adventure. With a little more experience under his belt, I think Jackson could do a pretty good job writing more comics, including additional tales involving Mulberry, who rides gleefully off into the sunset knowing he's an arrogant jerk.

I like really solid, tight comics that work from beginning to end. Those are always my favorites. Cold Space is not that comic. It did, however, make me laugh, and I think it's honesty (if not always its quality) shines through in the pages. That makes it a book that Jackson fans and those who like breezy, quip-filled reads should definitely check out.
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Cat Paradise Volume 1

Written by Yuji Iwahara
Illustrated by Yuji Iwahara
Yen Press

Yumi is going to a school I'd love to be at--one that allows the students to keep one cat each living with them at the dorms. The trouble is, this school comes with a catch--it's the portal to a demonic world where evil spirits with animal natures are ready to lay waste to all of humanity! When Yumi finds herself about to be devoured, she's offered the chance to save the world. Will Yumi and her cat be enough to stop the evil forces at work, even with the help of others at the school? Find out in the rather ironically named...Cat Paradise.

I have to admit, this one didn't grab me as much as I'd hoped it would. I love cats and will generally pick up any comic that involves my feline friends. I'm inclined to like stories that involve cats, perhaps a bit more than they deserve. This time, however, I wasn't able to get myself on board. The overall feel of the manga was like it was trying too hard, stretching to hit several notes at once but never striking any of them solidly. I'll try to explain here in the rest of the review what I mean.

First we have the setup of the school. This is where so many manga begin, but here's there's nothing new for the reader. Yumi is late to class and has issues with a mean assistant principal who of course will feature later as part of the evil villain's plans. There's an elite group in the school who come from the standard playbook as well, and do nothing to make themselves unique as the story plays out. I blame part of this on there being too many--6--to give any the room they need to show their worth.

From this weak premise, we move on to the idea of talking animals, one of who apparently secretly wishes to be human. There are 6 of these animals as well, though Iwahara wisely keeps the action centered on one of them plus Yumi's cat, Kansuke. There's quite a bit of confusion at the beginning of who can understand the cats and I don't think that's ever clearly resolved. The cats seem to act rather like humans as well, which means that the specialness of their power of speech is limited.

Third is the action itself. Like other shonen manga I've read and felt like I don't need to keep reading, Cat Paradise's action scenes are cluttered with extra lines and unclear fights that pushed me away from the book rather than towards it. There just wasn't enough clarity for my liking, as though Iwahara had to cram as much battle as possible into each chapter. Sometimes less is more.

Finally, I thought the dialog was clunky. It's not badly translated--every speech makes sense--it just feels badly written. Nothing about the banter between any of the players in the drama--whether they're cats, humans or demons--is original to me. I could easily get this material in any shonen story. Because I could not get a read for any of the characters, their stale lines really registered with me, and not in a positive way.

Overall, I can't say that Cat Paradise is a manga I'd recommend. My library has it, so I'll try volume two to see if things get better (this would not be the first time a comic series took more than one volume to warm up enough for me to like it). Right now, however, this is one I'd say steer clear of--there are better cat stories and better shonen manga out there. Life's too short to read books that play by the numbers like this one did.

December 21, 2010

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The Adventures of Unemployed Man

Written by Erich Origen and Gan Golan
Illustrated by Various Artists, including Ramona Fradon and Rick Veitch
Hachette

There's economic despair in the air, but the Just Us League will keep things running with business as usual and their spokesman, Ultimatum. He'll dole out words of wisdom to those who need it, if only they'll listen.

But when happens when Ultimatum finds himself on the wrong end of the firing line? Soon stripped of everything by various villains of credit, Ultimatum must turn to those heroes who never gave up on the common man. Filled with a new name (the Unemployed Man) and a new purpose, our hero will go up against the power structure. Can the might of the many defeat the Invisible Hand before the nefarious scheme of the Just Us League ruins life for everyone outside of the top 1% of Americans?

This is the premise of The Adventures of Unemployed Man, a story withe satirical subtlety of a sledgehammer. This is a premise by two people who are extremely angry with the way the world works, and they use admittedly well-imagined comic book creations to explain exactly what they don't like about the economic status in this country. There's no way you can miss the arguments being shown in this book, from their distaste with corporate operations to what they feel is an ineffectual Obama administration to the idea that a small group of people are getting very wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

The argument is as plain as a wall painted white, without any nuance or attempt at balance. The corporate overlords are all evil. The common man takes no share of the blame. Everything should be available to all, without any worry about who pays for it. Repair the social safety net is a great idea, but like the duct tape used in the story to do it, any attempt to do it without giving hard looks at how to pay for it are going to fail in the end. There's just no layer of depth to this book, and while I realize it's a satire, if you are going to tread into the dangerous waters of economic peril, then you need to be ready to give a complete picture. This book is about as fair reading something by Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore. As a person who feels it is far more complicated than either the right or left wings will tell you, I could laugh at the jokes and yet also feel rather unsatisfied at the same time.

What I was not unsatisfied with was the art. Ramon Fradon and Rick Veitch knock this one out of the park. Asked to do one part comic book homage and one part caricature of real life political figures, both artists do an amazing job of fitting the two together. While there are other artists working on this book in short bursts, Fradon and Veitch carry the load and kept me reading even when I got annoyed with the script. Fradon's Hulk-like White Rage and Veitch's Obama-as-Kirby-creation are the highlights here, but all of their other figures are good meshes between their political point and the superhero (or villain) we're meant to recall. With all due respect, Fradon is getting on a bit in years, but she still tuns in good work. As a master of style pastiches, Veitch is right in his wheelhouse here, and it shows. I give a nod to whoever asked these two to work on this book, because they were excellent choices.

I was also impressed that, thanks to outlines by Golan, I did not feel thrown from the story as the pencilers and inkers changed hands. There's a consistency here that I wish was shared by other modern comics that have several artists working on them. (DC in particular could use this as a model for how to incorporate many hands into a whole that feels whole.)

Despite my general dislike of the overall theme and the way in which the book almost literally hammers you in the face with its anti-corporate message (I can easily see this book coming alive ala a Looney Tunes short and hitting me with a big stick and tiny little animated hands), there were some things I liked about the options chosen by Origen and Golan. White Rage, bombarded by Fox News Rays, was clever. I laughed out loud when I got to a joke about Obama's staff having "Clintonite", but then the effect was ruined by needless additional comments. Super Lotto's section was so true it hurt to read, especially if you've ever lived in neighborhoods with a high level of people just barely making it from day today.

The trouble is that in every single instance, the writers push the point too far. We don't need page after page of the same idea. This would have worked much better if about half of the lines were removed or if there was more of a balance between the two sides. Without going too far into the political side of things, Origen and Golan don't ever stop to think about how the common man plays into this power struggle rather willingly, which is an important part of the picture.

Overall, Adventures of Unemployed Man is stunning visually and probably worth the read just to see how well the Fradon-Veitch team does with a script that's sadly too hard on its subject to really be enjoyable. By page 50, you'll be ready to say "enough!" which is not what most people are looking for in a parody. I know this book got a lot of positive reviews in the mainstream press, but I found it lacking the subtlety I require in a satire. If you can't be at least partially taken seriously, you're doing it wrong. Clever as this one may be in a lot of areas, the sum is just not as good as its parts. I'd leave this one at the level of library read only.
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Incredible Hercules: Dark Reign

Written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by Rodney Buchemi, Dietrich Smith, Ryan Stegman, Greg Adams, Cory Hamscher, and Terry Pallot
Marvel

Some days, I think about focusing my reading and trying to concentrate on only one or two types of comics. Then I read something so good within a genre of comic that I'm generally moving away from, and I remember why I'm a comic omnivore in the first place. Why limit yourself when there's so much out there to love?

All this brings me to Incredible Hercules, by two men who find a way to mix the Marvel Universe with mythology in a way only a select few (Lee, Kirby, and Simonson) have before them. This collection, set amid the Dark Reign period of Marvel comics (but not really requiring any knowledge of it), shows exactly how to blend two legendary pantheons and even have it make logical sense.

Logical if you're accepting on face value that there are a) gods and b) superheroes, of course, but let's not get too technical, shall we?

As with the other story arcs I've read so far, Pak and Van Lente ground Herc's current story into tales of his past. This time, we're introduced to the Prince of Power's mortal family, as his strained relations between gods and men come into play as the arc goes on. Hercules is a man turned god, after all, and therefore has a foot in both worlds. As we see when Hercules must try to rescue Zeus from Hades, earth and Olympus aren't the only two words he's involved in.

While romping through gleeful battles amongst the other gods and even Osborn's Dark Avengers (who are played perfectly here, I might add), Hercules must once again use his brain rather than just his brawn to try and find a way out of a terrible situation. He's neither as strong as some of other players on the stage or as smart, but he represents the imperfections of man quite well, time and time again. Human emotions drive all of Hercules' actions, from not wanting to leave a battle to using whatever is at hand (even if it's the Scorpion-Venom in a hilarious cameo) to wishing to save a fallen friend. As he says in this volume, this is a man-god who's spent his life trying to atone for all that he's done wrong over the years. It's that kind of serious tone that offsets the silliness and makes Incredible Hercules more than just a one-trick pony, however much fun that one trick is.

I'd read this series (and this book) just for the fun of sound effects such as "Brakkaface" when Ares involuntarily kisses the pavement or "dubbapow" as Hercules hits two opponents at once. Little touches such as Bullseye wanting to both date and kill his Gorgon opponent because she reminds him of Elektra or using dead Marvel villains like Orka as part of jury of Zeus' peers also add to the cool moments. These are clever touches that require both extensive knowledge of Marvel history and appropriate casting to pull off, and Pak and Van Lente manage both quite well. Best of all, while these little touches might make me annoy my wife with "Oh man, that's perfect!" exclamations, none of them are blocks to enjoying the story. You can be a fan of this comic run without knowing every bit of older Marvel history. If you *are* a MMMS member, you can read these updated takes on Herc and others without feeling like they've taken a torch to all that came before it. I wish more writers were able to do this. If they did, I'd certainly read more capes comics.

The thing that makes this issue special, however, is Pak and VanLente's ability to use concepts from Greek mythology to explain Marvel's revolving door death policy. There's a great scene with characters both familiar and obscure that will just blow long-time Marvel fans away and also give them a bit of nod-and-wink moments as Hercules stands in shock. It's almost as great as Cho dissing on the difficulty of winning at Black Jack.

By the end of this trade, there are issues aplenty for Hercules and his companion Cho. What they've seen and done here will change them, possibly forever. When you've been to the land of the dead, complete with a cameo used so well you know the implied meaning without even needing it stated, you've seen a part of things that no amount of brains or jocularity can change. I'm not sure what's next for Hercules and Cho, but I know they're more sober for the experience, and so is the reader.

This might be the best book yet of one of my favorite ongoing series. Even if you're not a fan of capes comics in general, there's a lot to like about Incredible Hercules. It's definitely something that I think any reader can try, and should. This series is more than just what it appears on the surface, and it gets the highest possible recommendation from me.

December 20, 2010

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Yotsuba&! Volume 5

Written by Kiyohiko Azuma
Illustrated by Kiyohiko Azuma
Yen Press

Yotsuba's adventures in life continue, as she learns about cardboard robots that take coins to move, finds a worthy opponent in another of her father's friends, makes bold statements in a video store, and has some fun at the beach. It's the world through the eyes of a child with imagination and wonder to spare as we move through the fifth volume of Yotsuba&!

As any long-time reader of this review blog knows, I'm absolutely in love with this series and its ability to show what it's like to be a child looking at the world without being patronizing or sarcastic. Azuma captures what it's like to not have to worry about what you say or do, because those around you are still there to protect you. We all lose that protection over time (some sooner than others) and it's well that we do. But all kids should be able to explore and learn in such a supportive way. I think we'd be better off for it.

One of the neat things about Yotsuba&! is that the series happens in real time. Every chapter is roughly a day or so in the life of the characters, so we are not missing any development. Anyone new to the series really is new to the series. Any growth that Yotsuba experiences, such as how to be a better helper or to find out there are people out there she doesn't like, is seen on-screen. It's extremely unusual for comics to work like that, and it certainly wouldn't do in every situation. With Yotsuba&!, however, this structure is perfect.

Yotsuba the character is always at her best when she says something completely out of context, such as when she's repeating her father's exclamations or stating what should be obvious but has subtext only an adult can understand. There's a couple of good ones in this section of the series, especially at the video store. (Wow, does reading about a video store feel antiquated now or is that just me?) Azuma works these lines in perfectly, with great comic timing and visuals that display just how surprised or embarrassed those around Yotsuba are by the situation.

My favorite this time, though, is when Yotsuba opts to help out her neighbors, the extremely patient family that ends up dealing with Yotsuba almost as much as her father. She starts by climbing on "mom's" back, steals blankets, falls down the stairs (and loves it), and manages to make cleaning the bathroom a fun--if messy--experience. Each scene in that chapter is a winner, right down to the argument over grapes.

If there's a child in you anywhere, you will love Yotsuba&!. It's simply an amazing manga that looks at being a child from the eyes of a child. No matter how you are feeling when you start reading the book, I can guarantee you'll feel better after you finish reading it. This is definitely one of my favorite manga series.

December 19, 2010

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Jonah Hex No Way Back

Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Illustrated by Tony DeZuniga and John Stanisci
DC

The life of Jonah Hex is a cold and lonely one, but it has its rewards in the end. While the scarred gun for hire is enjoying those rewards, he's given a very powerful jolt--someone he's tried hard to forget is back in his life, whether he likes it or not.

As Hex gets tangled back into his past and a family tree he didn't even know he had, an old adversary is ready to strike, with quite a few innocent bystanders in the middle. Can Hex beat back his feelings long enough to beat the odds, one more time? He's got to keep moving, because in a hard world like like his, there truly is...no way back.

I'd read the first Jonah Hex trade collection and the ongoing series by Gray and Palmiotti was one of the last single issue comics I was picked up, so I was pleased to find the graphic novel they'd released around the time of the movie. Here they are joined by DeZuniga, a veteran of Hex's original adventures, who gives this book the gritty feel that it needs (I was not pleased by some of the slick art in the first trade) to go along with the dark and almost hopeless nature of the plot. You can't have a smooth set of pencils on a book that features everything from dogs to horses getting shot. It completely ruins the effect.

It's always interesting to me to see the difference between serial comics and a graphic novel, even if I only read trade collections. This story keeps moving in a way that it could not have if broken down into issue form. There are no obvious stops in the action, as Palmiotti and Gray take advantage of the format to keep the story moving from beginning to end. They're free to add an opening that sets up the tale without feeling like wasted space, because we're dealing with a story that's well over 100 pages. Had this been in 22 pages at a time, the first "issue" would either feel cheated because of the opening or the starting point of the story might have needlessly been extended to take an entire "floppy". I'm glad to see our pair of writers use the format to its full ability, rather than write as they would for the ongoing series, with unnecessary pauses or breaks.

I read a fair amount of comics from this team, and I have to say this is one of their best plotting efforts. If you were unfamiliar with Hex, it's easy to pick up on the type of person he is--ruthless to those who don't know him, but with a layer underneath that shows a depth of caring that sets him apart from the awful world in which he lives. He looks just as bad as those he faces when we first meet him, but the care he takes dealing with the dead and protecting those who did nothing wrong peek out amid the grime. Hex has taken a long look at this western world in which he lives, and he doesn't like it one bit. He's got to be as rough as those around him to survive, but that doesn't mean he can't condemn it with his own words and sentence those who he feels deserve it with his guns, his knife, or even his tongue.

This is very much in evidence here, as Hex walks about in a setting where even a preacher has his faults. You can tell this is a modern western, the kind that uses Unforgiven as its model rather than, say, your typical John Wayne film. Hex may be of this world, but he's also got the sense to see what is right and wrong from the eyes of a modern audience. This may or may not be realistic, but that is the Palmitti-Gray take on Hex. Their Hex never claims to be better than the scum he kills or comments on, but you can see in his actions that despite his outside demeanor, Hex will always try to do the right thing. He just might take a bloody path getting there.

As a general rule, I like that approach. We're too knowledgeable these days to believe that the West was ever so clean as Hollywood or old western comics made it. We know the time of cowboys was short, we know that many settlers were awful people, and we know that the treatment of Native Americans was brutal and mostly one-sided. When writing a modern western, you just can't go back. I like that Palmiotti and Gray show the seedy underside of America during the years after the Civil War, where even the good people are flawed.

What I did not care for here, however, is that the level of violence against women is way too high, and that the female characters never factor as anything other than scenery (as prostitutes or loose women), plot device (a woman in Hex's past), or victims (to be harmed and then murdered). I've read enough of Palmiotti and Gray's other words to expect better of them. Powergirl in particular comes to mind as an example of writing a strong female character, as does Hex's opposite number Tallulah Black. I know that the west was rough, and that horrible things do happen to people in dark stories, but in this novel, they just seemed to be there for effect, not as an integral part of the story. I'm not against having horrible things in your comic. What I am against, however, is using them just to up the violence ante. I will give the creative team credit for keeping everything off-screen, but at the same time, I question why a story that's this long couldn't find a few pages to give a female character something to do that didn't involve being used or abused.

The main story itself is an interesting choice for Hex. He's not a man to reflect on the past, but this story forces him back whether he wants to or not, time and time again. The idea that Hex has never had it good makes sense, but I'm not sure he needed the trope of an abusive father. The creation of a distant family with a relative who is almost his polar opposite was a good touch, I think, especially since when you scratch that surface, they appear to even be different at their heart. In the end, Hex is a man trying to leave his past behind, but I don't think he's ever going to have much success. When you lead the kind of life our scarred protagonist does, the past will always be nipping at your heels, slipping in as you catch fitful sleep. The title "No Way Back" is apt, because nothing Hex does now can change the life he leads. To go back means to die, something I think he understands well, and is a theme in all of the Hex comics I've read by Gray and Palmiotti.

Because of the way women are treated in this story, I have a hard time recommending this one-shot Hex adventure. Looking past that problem, this is a very good story crafted by two writers working with a man who knows how to match his art to the plot. I just wish some changes had been made to the details in order to give it some balance in relation to the female characters. I'd love to see more novel-length Hex stories, because I think he fits this format better than in shorter arcs with artificial breaks.

Hex is a character you want to follow, even if he'd try to keep you at arm's length. Anyone who likes the ongoing series should definitely check this out, but I don't think it's a good place for beginners. I am hopeful that the next Hex story I read by Palmiotti and Gray shows a stronger side to the women involved, so that I can recommend it without hesitation. Hex is a great character in their hands. Now he just needs to be part of a plot that has a role for both genders.

December 18, 2010

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Fingerprints

The Week of Top Shelf Comics marches on!

Written by Will Dinski
Illustrated by Will Dinski
Top Shelf

In a world of fakes, Dr. Fingers is King. His work as a plastic surgeon is regarded as divine by all who view the famous. He's even made sure his wife is free from blemish. But when a usurper within his own practice arrives promising a new look for all who want it, can Dr. Fingers handle the competition? This is a story of jealousy, betrayal, and the fragile nature of fame and identity, all within a book that's strikingly short but also quite effective in its biting social commentary.

I admit that I was a bit superficial when I first saw this book. I didn't think there was a lot to it, given the simple drawings and characters that seemed rather flat and lacking personality. The problem is that it's those very things that make Dinski's book work. They don't do much when you are first approaching the text, but by the time you reach the end, it's clear that the book could have been written no other way. This is one of those situations where you can't get a feel from the book just by reading a portion of it. It requires the entire text and pictures to be digested to see why it's a book you want to read.

The story itself reminds me of one that Daniel Clowes might write. The action starts off slowly with a premise that builds to the climax, where all who want to emulate the hottest stars will get their chance--for a horrible price. We certainly don't like the people we are reading about. The underbelly of human nature is exposed as the story unfolds. I ended the book with a mix of pity and disgust at the actions of those who would rather live life as someone else, rather than who they actually are. That's the commentary Dinski brings to the table, and I thought it was handled quite well.

Dinski uses a lot of little touches that make this book work. There's a vapid party where people are getting botox injections the way others might hand out party drugs. Drinkers made vapid comments on the way people look, and the truth only comes out after anyone has had a few too many. The idea that Fingers' work could be manipulated--almost perverted, as if the act of crafting fake beauty was not horrific enough--is obvious and yet a surprise all at the same time. Even the title, Fingerprints, is a wry pun. Fingerprints are of course unique, but what Dr. Finger does takes away the individuality of his clients. Characters are created that we can recognize in real life, without even looking like a particular star. This is a world that's all too familiar, and despite its fantastic trappings, could easily play out right here, right now.

Yet at no time do we get a sense that Dinski is moralizing. Instead, he's showing us a side of our worship of fame, success, and beauty that will, in the end, drive us all to desperate things. All Dinski will do is shake his head, as he shows that while we think things can change, in the end we're still a bunch of horrible people thinking horrible things. He merely chronicles the action, as passive as any objective narrator, knowing he's smarter than everyone else in the room.

I feel like Fingerprints may not get the exposure it deserves because it's not an eye-catching book, and that's a shame. I almost missed the appeal of this book myself. I think it's rather ironic that a book that critiques superficial impressions might just be overlooked because of those same impressions. Don't make that mistake--grab a copy of Fingerprints and see for yourself Dinski's talents as a writer. You'll be glad you did.

Top Shelf was kind enough to provide me with a copy of this book to review. Thanks! If you are interested in having your work reviewed, please contact me at trebro @ gmail.com.
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The Horror! The Horror!

Comics Written and Illustrated by various creators, including Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, William Gaines, Dick Giordano, Don Heck, Basil Worthington, and Wally Wood
Collection Selected with Commentary by Jim Trombetta
Abrams

Imagine a world without rules in a medium that's not yet been regulated or standardized. Anything goes and often does. People's careers are made and broken, and each twist and turn might cause yet another scandal and calls for regulation.

No, it's not the internet circa 1996, it's horror comics in the pre-code era. Filled with violence, gore, melting faces, lecherous skeletons and ghouls, offensive racial portrayals, and more sudden turns out of nowhere than a Twilight Zone episode. Horror comics were something unlike what had ever come before, and despite the return of blood to comics over the years (especially today), we'll never see this mix of copying and creativity again.

Older comics are seeing a huge rebirth lately, and I couldn't be happier. I wish the archival collections were a bit cheaper on my pocketbook, but I am absolutely in love with these 1950s stories from when I first started reading them in semi-bootlegged editions that my local library had. When I saw this on the shelf at my new library, I simply had to give it a try.

Trombetta's entry into the world of old horror comics is quite different from what I'm used to. He has no ties to comics, which is both good and bad. Trombetta is more interested in the visuals of the time rather than the stories, so we mostly get covers and clips rather than entire comics. Seeing so many old horror covers together is cool, don't get me wrong, but when he's discussing the plots of certain stories, I longed to actually READ them. That's the comics fan in me coming out, and I'm sure any lover of the four-color world is going to feel similarly if they pick up this book.

On the other hand, if I were an art fan or a person who grew up in the 1950s, this collection would be perfect. Trombetta crafts a book that follows a logical flow and gives plenty of visual evidence for his explanations of what horror comics did and their primary tropes, such as the ones I mentioned above. One of the things I liked best is that there is often just enough talking to set up the covers or short stories without bogging the reader down in details that they, quite frankly, probably don't want. After all, this is book picked to the coffee table crowd. The more words there are, the harder it will be to sip your wine and eat your crackers.

I say none of that with offense. For what this book is designed to be--an introduction to a time long gone that has glaring colors, striking drawings by underrated (or worse, lost entirely) artists, and a realization that no matter what time we live in, there are going to be people that hate anything that exposes American society for what it really is. Trombetta treats his subject with respect at all times (no Biff! Pow! cliches here, almost to the point of pretending superhero comics don't exist), which is rare and refreshing when a non-comics professional is involved.

There's only one thing I did not like and that was Trombetta's decision to over-analyze in the pop psychology mold. Characters are always doing sexual things or worrying about their inner fears and using that to write/draw comics. There's implied psychic trauma all over 1950s comics according to Trombetta, and sometimes that gets to be a bit much. His linking of everything to the Korean War just seems forced to me. I tend to think of these comics as tied more to exposing the repressive nature and fake wholesomeness of post-war America. I guess that just goes to show how good these comics really were--you can interpret them in any number of ways.

The Horror! The Horror! is not going to satisfy hardcore comics fans because of its extremely small number of reprints. For a casual comics reader, however, it could be a gateway to the weird and wacky world of comics before Stan, Jack, Julius, and Carmine started thinking heroically in a whole new way. I enjoyed seeing covers I might never get to see again and to get a feel for how an "outsider" views these books. This is not an essential purchase for comics fans, but it certainly makes for a nice visual treat over a few evenings in bed.

December 15, 2010

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Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy

The Week of Top Shelf Reviews marches on!

Written by James Kochalka
Illustrated by James Kochalka
Top Shelf

Johnny Boo's friend Squiggle takes center stage in this story of finding playmates and learning that not everyone likes to play fair. After Johnny Boo says he's too busy to hang out with Squiggles, the small little ghost tries to find someone else to spend some time with him. The results aren't quite as good as he'd hoped, and soon only Johnny Boo can save the day. But will he arrive in time, and is he ready to face...the mean little boy?

I'm coming to this series in the middle, so I didn't quite know the history of the characters, but I'm happy to report that, as with any good childrens' book, it's easy to pick up on the world of Johnny Boo and enjoy the cute story that follows. Kochalka quickly gives us an understanding of the relationships of the characters without bogging anything down. If you know and like Johnny Boo already, that's great. If you're seeing him for the first time, that's fine, too.

As with the other Kochalka kids book I read read earlier this year, Dragon Puncher, Kochalka seems to have a perfect sense of how to write a book that's completely appropriate for children (as long as you're okay with a little bit of potty humor) but also gives the adults things to smile about. I know I laughed out loud at something that only required Kochalka to change the color of a character's pants, and there are a few other moments that should give parents a grin or two along with their kids.

Unlike Dragon Puncher, however, this series is 100% drawn by Kochalka, with his trademark flowing style, disregard for proportion, and unrelenting cheerfulness. Heck, even the mean little boy spends most of the book with a smile on his face. It's as though Kochalka, who has such a positive outlook on life, is unable to draw someone looking seriously unhappy.

There are brief moments where the smiles fade, such as when Squiggles realizes he has few friends or when the mean little boy shows just how cruel he can be. However, those moments are short and fleeting, and the book's subtle message is that a positive outlook can overcome obstacles placed in your path, which is something I think is good for kids to read and hear. Being a ghost may save the day (even if the ghost is under the weather), but it's because that ghost is so positive that he and his friends end up on top. I think children need to see that. Maybe it will help them when the negativity of growing older sets in.

Filled with bright colors, endearing characters that I'd be happy to read about again (and I say this with no kids in my house), and just enough jokes, Johnny Boo and the Mean Little Boy is a great series for kids that I'd recommend to any parent without hesitation. It's great to see a book for kids that shows a positive philosophy naturally, without any effort or distraction. I love Kochalka's adult work and am quickly becoming a fan of his stuff for children as well. Pick up a copy of this book for yourself, and you'll easily see why.
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Jormungand Vol 2

Written by Keitaro Takahashi
Illustrated by Keitaro Takahashi
Viz

The story of Jonah's unlikely alliance with a complex arms dealer continues as we learn more about Koko's ability to manipulate anyone to get what she wants. The life of an arms dealer is a dangerous one and with two expert hit men on the scene in the Middle East, Jonah must keep her safe, even as what he learns might make him want to do otherwise. Can the team stop an assassination of Koko against such determined opposition that works in harmony? And even if they do, what happens when Koko comes face to face with yet another terrible force--her own brother?

The mindless fun and explosions continues in this second volume of Jormungand, with a duo of killers who think that there's music in the spheres of death. We even get a funny bit of fan service denied (which amused the hell out of me) as a character is known for forgetting what ever mother tells you to wear daily. The catch? We never get to see anything and the reason for it is completely stupid and almost random. Absolutely brilliant. Touches like that are a bit reason why I find this manga so much fun despite the high body count and general disregard for human life. Tweaking tropes on the nose are always good for getting and holding my attention.

Takahashi does more than that, however. In between the battling, we're starting to see a darker depth to the seemingly carefree Koko. Despite being in danger for a good chunk of the manga, she's got control over everyone else in a way that makes the reader like her a lot less and swing us back to Jonah's original position of hatred for arms dealers. Via Jonah, we see some private moments that make it clear that Koko is indeed as cruel and calculating as her occupation suggestions. She and her crew may be villains you want to see in action (and even root for from time to time, depending on the situation), but at the end of the day, this volume of Jormungand makes it clear that they are in fact evil people praying on the cruelty of humanity.

I think the biggest hammer driving this point home is when Takahashi slips just a bit into preaching mode. Via Koko, we get a blow by blow of how much humanity values violence, especially compared to the desire to help your fellow man. It's a short enough passage to forgive the digression into lecture, and I thought he did a pretty good job of trying to make it seem natural. It certainly helped show Koko's true colors, but I admit it threw me out of the story just a bit. I hope these moments are few and far between going forward.

Though I enjoyed the added depth this time, Jormungand's primary draw is the action, and Takahashi delivers in spades. We only have one foe this time, but that's okay because they make an awesome pair that felt like a credible opponent for Koko's well-trained crew. I was able to follow the action pretty well (always important to me in a manga with battle scenes), with only a few moments where I felt unsure of what had occurred. The chess match of escalation between the two sides worked very well, reminding me a bit of old Looney Tunes sketches where two sides would get increasingly powerful weapons. Koko's team doesn't even win every skirmish, either, which was another nice touch. I kinda predicted the ending to the conflict, but that's okay. It still made a lot of sense within context and build logically from what came before it. All in all, it was better than a lot of Hollywood movies.

Jormungand Volume 2 ends on a cliffhanger that suggests we're going to learn more about why Jonah is with Koko's group in the first place. He's starting to find his own way within this world, and it will be interesting to see what Koko does as Jonah continues to rebel, given that she runs a tight ship. I'm sure that will form some of the underlying plot of future volumes, which I definitely plan to read. As I said before, Jormungand isn't for everyone, but if you like a dose of senseless violence with intelligent plotting and a bit of depth, give this manga a try. I'm pretty sure you'll like it a lot. I know I do. This is a likely candidate for my 2010 favorites list.

December 14, 2010

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Coffee and Donuts

The week of Top Shelf reviews continues!

Written by Max Estes
Illustrated by Max Estes
Top Shelf

Life's not easy for a cat on the street, living from dumpster to dumpster and hoping for a break. When that break turns out to be robbery, things don't go so well, and our not-so-heroic cat ends up on the run, chased by both the police and the underworld. All looks bleak, except for those two staples of the culinary world, coffee and donuts, which just might save the day for our striped tale stray.

The titular food and drink are the unlikely key to everything in this short story from Max Estes. I have to admit, I wasn't really impressed with the other Estes book I read, Hello, Again, but I thought this book was a lot better. The story is still a bit short on cohesion, especially in terms of the climax, but I felt like the main character had more of a reason to be caught in the fix he finds himself in and that made a big difference.

The story in Coffee and Donuts is not unlike a lot of the plots of older black and white comedies. The stray cats could easily be Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers, had the plot held more humor. There are certainly some things to laugh at in Coffee and Donuts, particularly the end lines and the absolute ridiculousness of the robbery itself. However, the book does get caught up a bit because of the line between the serious and the absurd, as though Estes wasn't quite sure which way he wanted to go. I think the book could have been a bit stronger had it been played for straight laughs or as a tragedy. The results we get are certainly enjoyable enough, but it's more in that "heartwarming story" vein than I'm generally comfortable with.

Coffee and Donuts is a cute story that involves vagabond cats that belong to an earlier age. Though I kinda wish it did at times, Estes doesn't try to make anything more out of the book. It was a fun, quick read that will entertain you if you decide to pick it up. Sometimes that's all you need out of a comic, and it's wrong to ask for more. If you want a read that will give you a smile and involves humanized cats, this is definitely a good choice. Just like a donut, this book is a perfect snack--depending on the flavor you need to satisfy your reading apatite.

December 13, 2010

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Emma Volume 8

Written by Kaoru Mori
Illustrated by Keoru Mori
CMX

I have to admit I was nervous about continuing to read Emma after the ending in Volume 7. Things had wrapped up so well, if a bit too storybook for my usual taste. I knew that the remaining volumes were set in what's now called the Emmaverse, but as with Neil Gaiman returning to the Endless long after Sandman was over (to mixed results, in my opinion), I was worried that I'd have a similar feeling Emma: Better to leave things as they were than to try and continue on and extend the story.

One volume in to the extended stories, the jury is still out, but I'm leaning against these extra tales. They're absolutely gorgeous recreations of Victorian-era London and surrounding areas, but they feel a bit too much like filler and seem to lack the Henry James spirit that followed Emma along for seven volumes. They're just a bit too random (and usually too short) to have the feel of a turn of the century novel.

Context is also an issue here. Mori's strength is not in creating characters who are visually distinctive, so I admit I often had a hard time here trying to piece together just who we were following. Eleanor was the lone exception here, as she gets the length needed to tell a story that seems to fit with the main series without feeling like a deleted scene from the main text. I'd felt sorry for her in the main manga, and it's good to see her finding a way to recover. That's a luxury James never gave his ruined characters, though I sometimes wish he had. She's damaged goods to be sure, within the society that hides her, but Eleanor is going to try and move on. Mori's plotting works well here, and I wouldn't mind seeing one or two more vignettes with Eleanor before the mini-stories wrap up.

Less strong is the prequel that opens the book, which gives depth to Emma's visit to the Crystal Palace but also raises more questions than it answers in terms of continuity. If her original benefactor started so poor, how did she ever afford all she had by the end? The historical setting is amazingly rendered, but it feels like that was the whole point of the story, which is a big mistake and doesn't add anything to the universe.

The final few chapters don't really stand out, except to show additional contextual research by Mori about the lives of ordinary Victorians. They're okay, but because of the rendering of the characters themselves, I had a hard time trying to piece them into Emma's world. Since this is set in Emma's universe, my inability to mesh them into what came before really hurt any enjoyment I got out of the plots, such as they were. It felt like I could have read them as belonging anywhere, not necessarily linked to the events of Emma, and that was disappointing to me.

Overall, Emma Volume 8 was not as good as I'd hoped it would be. The effect was rather like the filler stories by starting writers/artists in an old superhero annual. They tried hard, but weren't ready to be part of the main body of comic book work. If you never read them, you wouldn't miss much, other than to maybe see what a certain artist's style looked like in their first published work. In the case of Mori, these are ideas that she had that weren't important enough to be included in the main cannon, and often I can see why. Especially given the fact that Emma is now out of print, I'd only recommend this volume for those who are absolutely in love with the series. Even then, it might be a bit of a let down, as it was for me. Hopefully, Volume 9 will be a bit closer to what I've come to expect from Mori in terms of storytelling.

December 12, 2010

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120 Days of Simon

A Week of Top Shelf Reviews begins here!

Written by Simon Gardenfors
Illustrated by Simon Gardenfors
Top Shelf

Top Shelf carries the work of two of the best autobiographical cartoonists working today, James Kochalka and Jeffrey Brown. Now they've added a new artist to their roster, Simon Gardenfors, a Swedish singer and creator who also uses his own life as fodder for the comics he creates. Watch as he spend 120 days in the homes of friends and strangers for fun and profit. Be a witness to...the 120 Days of Simon.

Initially, this book made me think of both Brown and Kochalka, as the Gardenfors seemed to be in the same mold: A man approaching his 30s with no clear direction, trying to support himself on his artistic talents, with quite a few issues about how he lives his life. As if to make the comparison complete, he's even unable to figure out what to do about a potential relationship that's forming in his life, at possibly the worst time. After all, he's about to go off for 120 days. I even started to feel sorry for him, just a little bit.

This lasted for about two dozen pages or so, at which point I realized that Gardenfors, unlike Kochalka and Brown, is not a very likable guy. He's controlled by his baser instincts, if this comic is any indication. He sleeps around, often in an unsafe manner and with women who are way younger than he is. He does drugs, and not just the soft ones. I was actually shocked by how frank Gardenfors was about this. I guess this must be a difference between Sweden and America. He drinks himself to excess on a regular basis and lies constantly, often to those who are trying to be good to him.

In short, Simon Gardenfors is not a very nice man.

But man, is his story fascinating to read! Despite being horrified by the things that Gardenfors says and does in this comic (especially when he promises not to include things but does anyway), I simply could not put the book down. I had to see just how far he would go. Could he be any sleazier than lying about putting one of his many conquests in the book? Yes, by putting the moves on the daughter of one of his hosts. Simon Gardenfors is exactly the kind of person you never want to be associated with but seeing him go lower and lower with every turn of the page was absolutely fascinating. I think I can better understand now why people follow celebrity gossip. It's not worshiping at the shine of popularity--it's seeing just how awful people can be.

Peter Bagge refers to this book on the back cover blurb as being "alternately charming, funny, and aggravating" and I think that's a pretty accurate description, though I'm not so sure about the charming part. Gardenfors certainly knows how to tell a story, picking the best parts of his visits to share with the reader. At no time is this book ever boring, whether it's showing his many flaws as a human being or what happens when you live life on the edge. Worries about money, death threats, pregnancy, and even his own drawing hand are all a part of this book, though I admit that I was hoping that he'd have some real consequences and that doesn't play out.

We see Gardenfors charm a plethora of women and use that charm for his own selfish ends, trying like mad to keep it from catching up to him. He lies to a television program with the help of a friend, leading to one of the best sequences in the book because it shows that you can do crazy things without actually hurting anyone. Perhaps most interesting of all is that there were people out there willing to let a perfect stranger into their homes for a few days at a time. It all makes extremely compelling reading, even if you want to slap Gardenfors in the face (or worse).

Artistically, Gardenfors's figures are small, Mickey Mouse-like creations that still manage to do very human things in believable ways. He relies primarily on head shots, as a lot of autobiographical creators do, along with quite a bit of dialog. Backgrounds are sparse and only used as absolutely needed. Where Gardenfors excels, I think, is in his ability to differentiate characters. Despite rendering everything in a very cartoonish manner, it was easy to tell who each character was. Given that Gardenfors is all over the map (literally) and talking to dozens of different people, I was impressed by his ability to craft headshots that looked unique almost every time.

120 Days of Simon is not going to appeal to every taste. Those who can't overlook his many, many flaws are going to be angry after reading this book and probably shouldn't pick it up. Those who appreciate the honesty of autobiographical comics will definitely have a lot to like about 120 Days of Simon, even if they hate the title character. Like Robert Crumb, he's willing to show that the life of an alternative cartoonist is sometimes not something you hope for your children. As with Brown and Kochalka, he's not afraid to show himself in less than a stellar light. The difference is that Gardenfors seems like he takes pride in being a horrible person (especially to women), and that places this book below those other creators, who, at least on the printed page, are willing to show shame.

On the other hand, nothing seems to scare or shame Simon Gardenfors, since life had a way of fixing all of his problems by the end. At the end of this book, I don't think he's learned his lesson, though the reader has definitely learned lessons about him. I'd happily read more of Gardenfors' life, but I certainly wouldn't want him to be a part of mine. Fans of autobiographical comics should definitely being this book into their life, and see what they think for themselves.

Top Shelf was kind enough to provide a copy of this book to me for review purposes. Thanks, guys! If you'd like me to do a review for you, please feel free to contact me (trebro @ gmail.com).