Showing posts with label dust off the panels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dust off the panels. Show all posts

Friday, April 5, 2013

Dust off the Panels: Three Strikes

Written by Nunzio DeFilippiz and Christina Weir
Illustrated by Brian Hurtt
Oni Press

A generally good young man who makes a few bad decisions finds himself facing decades of jail time at the hands of a political District Attorney.  Now he's on the run, facing a ex-cop bounty hunter who won't let the failures of his personal life drain into his professional one.  As their lives intertwine, things accelerate into a climax that leaves the reader questioning everything they're expected to think in this excellent crime comic from Oni.

This was in my "keep or kill" pile that I've been hitting pretty hard in an continuing effort to reduce the number of total books I have in my house.  My hit ratio had been pretty low this week, to be honest, so I admit I opened this one without a lot of excitement.

That changed within a few pages of reading.  I was immediately hooked into the story of these two men, both of whom who had made poor decisions.  One of them gets a raw deal because his run afoul of the law. In the case of the bounty hunter, the problems don't lead him to a physical jail--he's in an emotional prison.  Seeing how these pieces interlock really made the comic for me, especially as we race towards the inevitable conclusion when these two men come face to face for the final time.

The writing team of DeFilippis and Weir really do an amazing job of bringing all the parts of the story together and making the most of character archetypes.  None of the characters here are original (good kid gone bad, emotionally distant cop, protective mom, druggie loser, and so on) but they're placed together in such a way to tell an excellent story that reminded me of classical noir.  This is a world where no one is a winner, even those who come out on top.  Normally, I'd feel like I wanted more out of the characters, but I think they work here as pieces of a larger puzzle.  Giving any of them a distinct character would have upset the balance.  We shouldn't want to follow one or the other protagonists and root for them--instead, we should want to see how their tragic story inevitably ends.

Brian Hurtt was a good choice for a story like this.  His characters look extremely realistic, but they aren't photo-modeled.  There's an incredible amount of detail in the background work, allowing us to be immersed in this world.  Hurtt uses cross-hatching and other techniques to vary the surroundings and clothing of the characters.  I do wish he'd have shown a bit more action, but the script involves a lot of talking, so the chances were admittedly limited.  He makes up for it be really hammering home strong eye and facial expressions.

Three Strikes is typical of what made me pick up Oni comics on sight.  Back in the mid-2000s, Oni was one of the highest quality indie publishers.  Their taste and mine have verged apart, so I'm not as big on their material as I used to be, but this one is a hidden gem and worth grabbing if you can find it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dust off the Panels: Flipper Vol 02

Written by Rutu, B. Kolton, and Y. Pinkus
Illustrated by Rutu, B. Kolton, and Y. Pinkus
Top Shelf

A strange connection between sisters (one a diva, one a devotee) takes center stage at an ill-fated performance while three sisters learn to carry on (and carry secrets) at an old hotel with some unsavory clientele   Two stories come to life in the hands of innovative Israeli creators in this flipbook published in the US by Top Shelf.

This is one of those graphic novels I had kicking around in the "read it someday" pile.  I used to do this a lot, but now that I am in "conserve space and money" mode, I don't do this nearly as often.  While I will miss picking up entertaining books like this one, the overall ratio is just not very good.

When you do succeed, however, it's always a pleasure, and it's not surprising that this is a Top Shelf book, as they are one of the publishers I tend to blindly trust.  They're very good at picking material from other countries and giving you a strong representative sample.  (In the case of the Scandinavian books, I found them not to be something I wanted more of, but it was awesome to get the chance to try them.)

The Sisters d'Espard was the first story I read, and I was immediately drawn in to this tale of two sisters, one who is successful and uses all of her power to be beastly to those around her.  The other sister quietly does the diva's bidding, and is a medium to boot, offering a strange and ominous message to her sister (which is comically dismissed by her Israeli handlers).  In the end, there may be more to the warning than meets the eye, but we as the reader are left to guess.

Y. Pinkus really does a nice job with building the situation, making the diva unlikable and thus casting suspicion on all parties when there is an inevitable act of sabotage against the uptight singer.  Set in an operatic setting that adds another level to the tragedy, it's a strong short story.  Pinkus' art style is very basic, using simple, angular lines that almost throw the characters and their world together.  The shading is simple, used mostly to indicate a hint of color here and there and indicate differences in the parties.  It's just enough to get the job done, and that's fine by me.

Unlike the mystery involving the diva and her sister, the secrets become clear as the story Bygone plays out.  The setting is a fun idea, a hotel basically catering to fetishists, run by three sisters, two of whom probably shouldn't be interacting with such characters.  There's not a lot done with that concept, however, which is unfortunate.  Rutu instead focuses on the middle sister, who is chafing at her older sister's protectionism.  While the older sister is allowed to act inappropriately, our focal character is not, which becomes a problem as she falls for the charms of a young and sexy photographer.  The clashes get more heated as things go, leading up to a revelation that puts everything in context but has the potential to turn everyone's world upside down.

The story is extremely post-modern, with characters learning something about themselves and deciding ultimately the knowledge may not be as important as they thought originally.  I found the ending a bit rushed to make page count, with Rutu resetting things just a bit too easily for my taste.  I'm also a bit troubled by their artwork, which is just a step above sketches.  Given the exotic setting, I felt like a different artist might take more time to set us in place or use the hotel's indiscretions to inject more conflict into the narrative.  I still liked this one, but came away feeling the art worked against its plot.

Mixed between the two tales are B. Kolton's illustration of very creepy dolls.  They're illustrated in folk art style, with muted colors that make them feel like pictures from a museum catalog.  It's not really anything groundbreaking, but those who are more into non-narrative comics work should find them interesting.

Overall, Flipper Volume 2 is a good way to sample indie artists from a region we don't see much work in English from.  I'm glad I was able to stumble onto a copy.  If you'd like to see what Israel's version of, say, Lewis Trondheim might be, this is definitely worth stumbling across yourself.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Dust off the Panels: Groo The Hogs of Horder

Written by Mark Evanier
Illustrated by Sergio Aragones
Dark Horse

If it wasn't bad enough that Groo caused economic havoc just by entering a town and accidentally destroying it, now he's doing even more damage with a few careless words than he ever did with a sword!  It's a lesson in power, politics, and purses in another Groo mini-series.

While I love both Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones, separately or together, I have to admit I was disappointed in Hell on Earth, the last Groo trade I read.  While Groo has always had a political bent, the nuance and humor was lacking as Evanier hammered away at his readers, most of whom probably agreed with him on climate change anyway and didn't need quite that much brow-beating and less than subtle commentary.

While there is still quite a bit of thinly disguised politics in the Hogs of the Horder, some of which is a bit ham-handed, Evanier does a better job of mixing it in with Groo's antics.  I have no problem with political satire, but Groo is also about lampooning other things, like its Conan the Barbarian roots.  The idea of Groo is that he brings ruin to everything he touches, and that's the key to what makes this one better and is in fact really clever if you think about it.  Groo not only frays and destroys with his swords, this time he's just as damaging by suggesting, quite innocently, that the merchants of Horder buy the products of Khitan.

From this little moment, Groo creates a spiral of bad decisions, from hiring him in the first place to a series of thinly-veiled American corporate buisnessmen trying to use Groo's unintentional ruination of their businesses to borrow funds and rebuild.  While they do this, making decisions such as chariots with "more horses" or buying solely from China Khitan while laying off all the workers.  The ruler of Horder tries to fix things by going to war with a supplier of a key economic feature, horses but when that doesn't work either, only a Sage with advice (that's unusually poor, for him) can save the day:  Ask Khitan to loan Horder money.

In the end, Evanier shows that this cycle just won't work, even if it's the one we're trapped in.  The story ends by showing an alternative path, one that we've forgotten about.  How well it might work, I don't know, but it made for an interesting ending in a story that doesn't offer much hope for those of us living in one of those moments of transition.  That's probably Evanier's point, and it's a good one.  Just as Horder doesn't get itself into this mess in a day, neither did the real world, and dealing with the consequences will leave just as much unsolved as we see here when Groo leaves Horder a far lesser place than when he entered it.

Any Evanier-penned story has its running gags, and this one is no exception.  There's an ongoing issue with Groo and boats that gets increasingly funny with time, as well as some great moments when the merchants try to use Groo to their advantage and find it doesn't always work.  Groo's puzzled looks and words as he fails at job after job are also quite fun and part of why this one was a return to form in terms of scripting.

I've never had a question as to Sergio Aragones' artwork, which is top-notch regardless of the project.  He is without peer in the comedic art realm and shows no signs of losing a step in terms of his drawing ability.  Groo is manic in this comic, usually only standing still long enough to deliver a laugh line as he fails to understand what is going on around him.  His destruction scenes are drawn in intricate detail that puts any other working artist to shame and Aragones is at home doing both splash pages and smaller panels.  So many years of drawing figures has made him an expert at getting the right pose or facial feature to match his long-time collaborator's script.  Even the worst Groo story will be worth reading just to look at Aragones' art.

If you take your politics a bit blue and haven't checked a Groo series out in a while, this is the one to go for.  It's pointed in commentary, but there are plenty of barbs to go around and the farcical nature of Groo balances the less subtle parts.  I enjoyed this one, and long-time Groo fans will, too.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dust off the Panels: Morrison and Millar's Flash

Written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar
Illustrated by Various Artists

Wally West is the fastest man alive, and has to prove it over and over again in this series of stories from two creators who tend to attract very different kinds of readers.  Watch as the Flash must take on a haunted costume, compete in a deadly race, and finally, battle death itself!  Can Wally manage all that, when even his mentor, Barry Allen, could not?  He just might make it--with the help of his friends, the Jay Garrick Flash, Max Mercury, and more.  It's a race from start to finish in these issues of...The Flash!

Of all the major characters in the DC core books, the Flash is pretty close to my least favorite.  While I've liked the Flash stories I've read before, the character concept just doesn't do much for me.  It's like the writers have to keep explaining why we should want to read about Wally and the Flash family, not unlike the similar problem Aquaman has.  The constant comparisons to Batman's family and rogues gallery just gets on my nerves after awhile.  But give me an interesting storyline, and I'll read the book, and here, Morrison and Millar are perfect for the task.

Though vastly different writers, both Millar and Morrison are good with so-called "high concept" ideas.  We get them in spades here, especially the opening arc of the second trade, the Human Race.  In that story arc, Wally is pressed into service by two cosmic compulsive gamblers, who pit strangers from different worlds together for a race across space and time.  The winner must keep racing until they fall.  The loser--and his or her entire world--are destroyed.  The gamblers are large, Kirby-like creations, and Wally's opponent, a character he thought he dreamed up, is effectively a living radio wave.  The Flash's path to victory is especially Morrisonian in nature, and I won't spoil it here.

The other two major arcs are good and also have the weirdness of Morrison with the large scale of Millar.  In the opening story, a costume appears to select people to create a demented path of revenge that only the Flash (and his friends) can stop.  It takes the idea of "the clothing makes the man" to a whole new level.  In the final arc, which is not credited to Morrison but seems to share some of his quirks, the Flash is saved from dying at the hands of the super-speed grim reaper, the Black Flash only to find that death does not appreciate being cheated.  It's another high-concept idea that's handled well by Millar, who is not yet in his terrible, semi-racist writing patterns at this time.

One of the things running through all of the stories in these two books is that the Flash has a lot of friends, both in the speedster world and outside of it.  Nightwing and Green Lantern are weaved in and out a time or two, and Garrick, the original Flash, has several starring roles, including a one-shot issue that shows a lot about his character.  Wally does some of what he does because he can't let his friends down.  It's a great characterization for him, giving Wally a personality that is his own, not a clone of his predecessor or the other heroes of the day.  (On a related note, I found it rather amusing that the characters talk about entering an age where things are lighter in tone.  Oh, if only!)

Though I enjoyed the surprise weirdness and high concepts, these issues aren't perfect.  Some of the dialog is tin-eared, especially the excessive monologuing by Wally.  While current superhero comics might be too light on exposition, these issues were often too densely populated by caption boxes and overburdened with pseudo-science explanations that the reader doesn't need.  We also run into the problem of defensiveness in relation to the character and the fact that Wally's impending death is hinted at--then not carried out--way too often.  I get that one Flash died already.  That doesn't mean you make it a plot point every story.

The art is also extremely weak in the second trade.  Paul Ryan, the artist for the first volume, is not present for much of the second, and the mish-mash of artists in the final set of stories really grates on me.  Their art just isn't very good, and the styles clash terribly.  Ryan's contributions tell the story well, but I don't think he took full advantage of the visual potential of the Flash as well as he could have.  I'm probably just spoiled from the Manapul Flash that's in the current series.

Overall, I enjoyed these books a lot more than I expected to.  If you are scared off because of Millar, don't be.  These are pretty good stories that don't reflect some of his more modern, awful comics, though there are a few hints of what's to come.  Morrison's weirdness and pseudo-science are in full force, echoing some ideas we'll see more of in his Batman run.  This set of trades make a nice compliment to your Morrison collection, if you're of a mind to it.  I'd say this is a pair of books you can dust off the panels for.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dust off the Panels: My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill

Written by Jean Regnaud
Illustrated by Emile Bravo
Fanfare Ponent Mon

Jean is a five year old boy living in France.  He can't remember much about his mother, but that's okay, because she sends him postcards.  He lives with his brother and father and a companion who fills the role of mother for him.  This is the story of a year in his life, filled with fun, misunderstanding, and tragic reality.  Watch as Jean tells his story to you in pictures and words, as we learn all about him and his world.

What was it like to be five years old?  Hard to remember, right?  Regnaud and Bravo combine to tell this story of the innocence of a child and what happens when adults try to be kind by withholding the truth.  It's a touching story, well crafted and well illustrated that perfectly tells an arc of the character Jean's life, as he grows up over the course of a year and learns all too quickly that parents can lie.

What makes this book work so well is the fact that at ever turn, Regnaud shows just how often a child is faced with things they cannot understand and instead of trying to help them, we as adults pass the buck with clever lies or inventions.  It's all in the name of protecting them, but when the deceit is discovered, that child's world is changed forever.

I remember when I first figured out my parents could and did lie to me.  It changed my life.  Secretly, I stopped trusting everything they told me, and started questioning the world around me.  It's clear that little Jean's life is changed, too, once he comes to that same conclusion.  There's a lot of power and emotion charged up as the book progresses and if I have one minor complaint, it's that there's not a lot of space given to seeing that energy released.  Once we get to the big reveal, we only have a few pages left to deal with it.

The story itself, though, is excellent.  We never for a moment go outside the viewpoint of Jean.  We may sometimes be able to understand things better than he does, but we aren't showing things he can't see.  The flow of the book is perfect, going from adventure to adventure, weaving the main plot of the story in and out of Jean's adventures as naturally as Jean himself would perceive them.  Clever interludes are added that embellish a bit on Jean's ideas, but never take away from them.

Regnaud does a great job of making this story work, because it could easily devolve into childishness, nostalgia, or melodrama, but it never does.  I'm always wary of books with protagonists so young for those reasons, but here it was not a problem.  This is just a well crafted story of growing up far too early and dealing with circumstances that are tragic for a person of any age, let alone a kid barely out of potty training.

Part of what makes this book work so well is Bravo's art style.  The book's illustrations remind me of a children's book, like H.A. Ray or maybe Babar is a more relevant comparison, since the book is French in origin.  It fits the tone of the work perfectly, and there are plenty of little visual touches that enhance the text. I was particularly fond of the non-verbal word bubbles, where images would be crossed out or used in place of an actual word.  I don't know if that came from Regnaud or Bravo, but it's a great idea.

My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill is a great book that was very popular among my friends when it came out, and I see why.  If you happen along this one in your travels and you like coming of age stories, definitely grab it.  It's well worth dusting off the panels for.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dust off the Panels: 3 More Matt Wiegle Minis

Head to Head
Wiegle for Tarzan
The Ghosts
Written and Illustrated by Matt Wiegle

I thought I'd actually read all of my Matt Wiegle mini-comics, when I found this stash in one of our Ikea magazine holders that we use to keep all of our mini-comics and zines.  I am a big fan of Wiegle's storytelling, so I was actually quite pleased to find these.

Wiegle is one of those creators who makes good use of the format in which he works.  The stories play out well in quarter-page format, with each page being roughly a panel.  The story (or joke, depending on the comic) turns on the idea of the reader seeing it one image at a time.  I really like how these truly are mini-comics, not just stories cut down in order to offer them to the public in this format.  So what did I think of these three "lost comics?"  Find out below!

Head to Head is one of Wiegle's joke comics, featuring two characters who have a link in some way (angel and devil, whale and plankton, and so on) saying or doing something funny.  For example, the biblical pair are playing Scrabble, with the angel coming up with Jesuits and the demon playing Vibrator across it.  Others are paired due to their names, and one is just a funny picture set piece you might find in Reader's Digest.  The ideas are clever at times, but I don't think this is Wiegle's best work.

Wiegle for Tarzan is far more like it.  Matt Wiegle, in a comical self-portrait that shows he is by no means qualified for the job, is applying to be New York's State Tarzan, a job he maintains is held by a man who is resting on his laurels.  What follows is a well-drawn and extremely funny sequence where Wiegle explains the role of the State Tarzan and why he would make a better choice.  The whole this is done entirely deadpan, as though it made complete and logical sense, which is why it works so well.  This is one of my favorite Wiegle comics.

The Ghosts  is an Inuit tale, adapted by Wiegle into a modern setting.  It's the story of a man haunted by the mental ghost of his wife, so he decides to leave everything behind him.  Before he can do so, however, a more substantial ghost appears, and causes a most unusual jealousy.  As I noted above, Wiegle uses the pacing inherent in a story you can only see two panels at a time to weave the reader further and further into the madness of the main character, until he inevitably snaps.  The drawings also appear to alternate between black on white and white on black, which adds to the creepiness and gives the art a dimension it might otherwise have lacked.  In addition, Wiegle's scratchy lines really highlight that there is something unearthly about the whole proceedings.  It's great workmanship from a strong storyteller.

I am lucky enough to usually be able to get more Wiegle comics at SPX every year.  If you aren't so fortunate, you can pick up copies of these and other Wiegle titles by clicking here. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dust off the Panels: Accident Bear Goes Fishing and Rabbit Shadows

I really enjoy buying mini-comics, but sometimes I don't always remember to read them as soon as I get them and they end up in my to-read magazine folder.  Some of these will end up here in a Dust off the Panels post.  The following are two minis that I believe we got at SPX 2010, but don't quote me on it.

Accident Bear Goes Fishing.  Written and Illustrated by Jonathan Eaton. 

In this short, silent comic, a black bear with really bad luck ends up having a series of increasingly comic misfortunes.  What starts off by missing a juicy fish progresses from waterfalls to sharks to pulling a Wil E. Coyote.

It's a total joke comic that has all the hallmarks of a good comedy, with the timing and increased severity working in harmony with art that attempts to be as straightforward as possible.  This isn't a comic for the ages, but it was a lot of fun to read.  Eaton did a great job with this one, and I'd definitely read more from him.  You can get a copy for yourself here.

Rabbit Shadows.  Written and Illustrated by Jason Viola.  An ordinary working class rabbit discovers the ability to manipulate its shadow into amazing shapes.  He's the toast of high society--for a bit.  Taste is fleeting, though, and soon the bunny will see the dark side of fame.

This is another wordless comic, but it's very different from Eaton's.  Viola's protagonist is an everyman character who manages to find a way to make it big, doing something no one else can do.  Most of the comic is showing the arc of success that the rabbit has, along with visuals that either mildly skewer the world of art or provide a few comic moments.  There's no explanation of how or why the character can strip his shadow, because that's not the point.  We are to look at how success can change a person and how losing it all can make them appreciate the little things in life.

I thought Viola's linework was great here, with quite a bit of detailing in the backgrounds, which is often lacking in mini-comics.  The story follows a logical arc, and we're left understanding that this rabbit won't let the opinions of the art world ruin his life.  As with Eaton, I'd be happy to read more Viola again.

If you want to read Rabbit Shadows, you can get a copy here.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dust off the Panels: Steve Ditko's 160 Page Page Package

Written by Steve Ditko
Illustrated by Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko can be himself in this set of short stories where he's the writer, illustrator, letterer, and editor.  From tales of good cops against corrupt police to horror stories of the psychological to rants of a grumpy, ultra-libertarian recluse, it's all here for you in Steve Ditko's 160 Page Package.

Though I am a big fan of Steve Ditko, I've actually never read any of his non work for hire output before, mostly because it's a tad difficult to find.  I grabbed this some time ago, but had not gotten around to reading it until recently.

It's a very strange mix that I probably would not recommend to any but those who are hard-core Ditko fans.  While there are flashes of brilliance, such as when Ditko slowly drives a protagonist insane or when his heroic creations leap into the battle against evil, a lot of the stories reflect his banal philosophy that I am firmly in disagreement with.  Ditko is uncompromising and unwavering in his faith, and he shows anyone who disagrees with him in a bad light.  They come off as fools who are blocking the guardians of true morality from their righteous anger.

For example, social workers are always protecting evil kids who cannot be redeemed, all while spouting the worst of straw men lines.  Criminals can never reform.  There are people who are innovative, but those with (ironically) selfish motives drag them down.  The good of the many is always wrong.  And so on.  It grows very tiresome and overwhelms the good parts, at least for me.

Are there enough good parts to make this readable?

I would argue yes, but again, only for those who admire Ditko's technical skills, which he still has in abundance.  The odd camera angles, the way characters are always reacting to one another (even if sometimes stiffly), and the pacing of the story are all vintage Ditko.  And when he's working more in his classic horror-comic style, the results are actually fun to read.

The problem is that too much is just personal venting or bald expressions of philosophy.  Also, Ditko's presentation of women here is borderline appalling, both visually and in terms of their character.  This is one of those books you read once to examine its qualities, but don't really feel the need to return to.

I strongly admire Steve Ditko's work overall.  He is arguably where a lot of the comic book styles we see today come from, though often they are several generations removed.  I think he can still tell a good story when he tries, but without an editor to reign in his political inclinations, this is a tough read unless you are a member of the Tea Party (and if you are, I doubt you take much stock in me or what I have to say).  I'm glad to see Ditko still working well into his advanced age (one of the few to do so) and I'm glad he's doing what he wants.

But these comics are a shadow of what the man used to do, with their fears and prejudices exposed much like the villains Ditko so loathes.  The art is solid in most places but the stories just can't get over the biases of the man writing them.  It's a great curiosity to observe, and one that can be marveled at (no pun intended) once or twice.  After that, the flaws show all too well.

Those who are curious might want to find this, but I wouldn't look too hard.  It's a 160 page package, alright, but one that comes with a hefty dose of extreme politics.  As such, I can't recommend it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dust off the Panels: Superman Kryptonite

Written by Darwyn Cooke
Illustrated by Tim Sale
DC Comics

It's early in Superman's career, and he's just as liable to make a mistake with his powers as he is in his interactions with Lois Lane.  With Luthor sniping at his heels and a strange new economic power working its way into Metropolis with ties to the gangs in Las Vegas, can Superman survive when his very existence is threatened from an unknown source?  Find out in the pages of Superman Kryptonite!

This is exactly the type of book I love to find at the library.  Darwyn Cooke is one of my favorite creators, especially when he's working in the past, as he does here.  Tim Sale can draw the heck out of anything he touches, in a style that's unique in that it avoids worrying too much about anatomy without making his creations seem like they were drawn in haste by a person without skill.  Combined, I expect them to put together a great story that stacks up against anything else I've read involving the Big Blue Boyscout.

I was not one bit disappointed.

Cooke's story hits all the hallmarks of his work with DC, particularly New Frontier.  Instead of trying to capture the modern zeitgeist, a nearly impossible task per Cooke's own admission, he opts to find a way to integrate the story into Superman's past, with elements that might be modern and might just be the 1950s with a lot of cool toys.  Sale aids him in this regard, with character designs that could get away with being in today's world, but are just as at home in a black and white movie.  Focusing on what makes Clark an iconic character, Cooke shows him as being just as human as the rest of us, with fears and anxieties and imperfections.  At the same time, it's clear that this human-that-is-an-alien-too won't let his fears consume him.  That's what makes him a hero, not his powers.  Cooke gets that, and it shows in this story.

Cooke also does a nice job of capturing Lois's independence, Jimmy's undying energy, the jealousy of Luthor (regardless of the foe), and Perry's integrity.  About the only characters who feel off to me are Clark's parents, who seem to act how Cooke needs them to, rather than as the strong, self-sacrificing parents that I prefer.  It's a minor thing, but I don't like Pa's protectiveness or Ma's passive-aggressive nature here.

Story-wise, the big problem is the way in which Cook introduces the Kryptonite.  I know he was trying to do something that was more culturally sensitive and modern, but the scenes in which the Kryptonite edges towards Superman drag down the rest of the scenes and I found myself wanting to leap ahead to get to the good, character-based parts of the story.  Cooke's strengths lie in his dialog and characterization (and, when drawing, his art), not his plotting, and that shows a bit here.

If Cooke isn't going to do the artwork, Sale is a great fit for him.  The story flows perfectly in Sale's hands, as he works his blocky figures and shadows and stark lines into a story where you might think they wouldn't work.  On the contrary, despite the bright coloring we see here, Sale's work shines.  He does great faces for all of the main characters, uses his exaggerations to great effect, and almost effortlessly makes the whole thing feel so big.

Reading Superman Kryptonite, like reading the Batman story where Bats and the Riddler must fight King Tut, remind me that it's quite possible for DC to commission stories that require almost no prior knowledge, are violent without being gratuitously gory, and best yet--the heroes do their best to never kill, no matter what the risk to themselves.  What a crazy concept!  After finding so much of the New 52 to be failing my expectations, books like this just make me sigh and shake my head.  Superman Kryptonite would have a wide crossover audience, but I guess it's too old-fashioned to make it in the almighty direct market.  That's a pity, because I'd even pay full price to read stories like this monthly.

I'm glad that DC collected this, and I highly recommend it for fans of Cooke, Sale, and Superman.  Now if only we'd get more like this.  I guess I can just keep hoping for collections.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dust off the Panels Tales Designed to Thrizzle Volume 1

Written by Michael Kupperman
Illustrated by Michal Kupperman

Imagine what happens when you give a man with a talent for visual mimicry, withering sarcasm, and a generally insane sense of humor a 32-page comic format and no rules other than to be funny as hell in as many ways as possible before going on to the next issue.

If that sounds appealing to you, then you're in for a treat with the first volume of Tales Designed to Thrizzle, a collection of the first four of Michael Kupperman's irreverent issues of his ongoing comic.

If that doesn't sound appealing to you, then go read Chris Ware or something.  I'm not going to be of any help to you here.

I first met Kupperman's writing in the hysterical Mark Twain autobiography, one of my favorite books of the year.  The ability to make the outrageous understated by playing it straight is in full force here, from just about the first page onward.  As with Twain, I was laughing out loud within the first few pages and did not stop right through all 160 pages of the book.  (Well, 159.  The page that said, "Rob McMonigal, you are a complete dick!" was a bit off-putting.  And strange, given there was no guarantee I'd actually read it.  And that no one had brought this to my attention before.  But since that only impacts on me and some guy in Lancaster, it probably won't matter to you.)

While the Mark Twain was an awesome piece of cohesive joke-telling in the manner of a great satirist, Thrizzle is the scatter-shot patter of the Marx Brothers in comic form.  One page might feature a crying octopus in a fire hat, complaining about no fires in the ocean (but great merchandising) while the next mocks back of the magazine advertisements, including a brochure on "Dogs and Inventions.  When and when not to mix the two."  The latter joke is typical of Kupperman.  Dogs and Invention is funny.  Use of the peculiar cadence of "when and when not to..." is hysterical.  It shows Kupperman not only knows how to make a joke, but how to hone it until it's *really* funny.  That's the type of craft that elevates this book above its peers and makes it far funnier than most humor comics I've read, which seem to be ready to take the first joke home to bed, rather than waiting to read the rest of the personal ads.

There are so many great bits in here, both visual and verbal.  The Dick Tracy skewering, including "Have-You-Seen-This-Cat-Face" is a highlight.  Indian Spirit chewing gum will haunt your funny bone.  There's the silliness of Johnny Silhouette or the two-panel quick joke of "Prince Variant", which has almost nothing to do with its name.  Don't for get the nods to childhood memories, such as the Choose Your Own Adventure parody, that crop up here and there.  Some may love the dirty jokes, such as coloring book porn or nut bras. Kupperman even makes a toilet joke or two, but manages to do it in such a way that they're actually funny.  I've got nothing against poop jokes--if they can make me laugh.  Too often, they're the way to a quick gag that's not even remotely funny.  Not so here, and I'll chortle at them almost as much as I might when reading the adventures of Snake and Bacon.

Kupperman has a lot to be proud of here beyond just the sheer volume of jokes per page (with some having half a dozen different gags on them).  Not only do almost all of the attempts at humor work--no mean feat, in my opinion--but  they come in so many different forms.  Like the Twain book, Kupperman mixes prose and pictures, though here the mix is reversed, with visuals taking the lead.  (Twain makes an appearance in this book, by the way, as a cop with rough edges and a familiar partner.)  It's such a eclectic mix of genre mashups, silly puns, ridiculous ideas, and offbeat stories that I cannot even begin to imagine how it's all collected together in one place and by one man.

If men dressed as bears are stealing your homework or you can't find that mysterious fortune teller because you have a lousy sense of direction, Tales Designed to Thrizzle can help you.  Just be aware that this book is as rapid-fire a comic as I've ever read and is an almost overwhelming experience.  If you can hang on to enjoy the ride, and are a fan of the humor of webcomics like Wondermark or the prose stylings of John Hodgman, then you really need to find someone who already owns a copy of this book and kill them for it.

Or, you know, buy one for yourself.  Either way, I'm good.  And so is Tales Designed to Thrizzle.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dust off the Panels: Star Trek Omnibus Volume 1

To Boldly Be Licensed Multiple Times!
Written by Various Writers, including Mike W. Barr, Tom DeFalco, J.M. DeMatteis, Dennis O'Neil, and Marv Wolfman
Illustrated by Various Artists, including Dave Cockrum, Gil Kane, and Klaus Janson
IDW (originally Marvel)

Space may be the final frontier, but the comics frontier is endless!  Join the crew of the original series just after the first movie as Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Scotty, and the rest explore their universe with the help of whoever was around the Marvel Bullpen at the time!  Read the entire run of the original stories developed for Star Trek by Marvel Comics in this omnibus by current Star Trek publisher IDW.

I'm not a huge science fiction person, but I absolutely love Star Trek.  It is one of the few television series where I've actually read the licensed properties and the only one (so far) where I've wanted to keep reading them.  Original series Star Trek might just qualify as my favorite television show, given how many times I've re-watched the episodes.  Interestingly enough, however, this is my first time ever reading the comics.  Given that some of my favorite writers (including Peter David) have worked on the comics over the years, this really surprises me.  At any rate, it was high time to sample and this was just starting at me from the library shelf, asking to come home with me.  (Perhaps it did a Vulcan mind meld.)

So what did I think of Trek transformed into a comic?  Overall, I was happy with the results.  They are definitely true to the feel of the original series, sometimes even echoing plots we saw on the television show.  There's definitely a strong thematic link between the two, which I think is important when you are working on a licensed property.  The same conflicts between saving people and following the Prime Directive come up, difficult choices are a matter of course, and the bonds of trust developed between the core crew members shine through here in page after page.  Any one of these comics could easily be adapted to television and not lose anything in the translation.  The authors generally even get the closing scenes right, ending with a wry joke or a serious commentary on the events of the issue.  I'm happy to see that no attempt was made to Marvel-ize them, giving them additional hangups or problems beyond those already established.  We do get some continued stories, but interestingly enough, these issues could be read in just about any order without disrupting continuity.  That might be taking the television format a bit too far, actually.  It would have been nice to see some layering, but perhaps I'm just too used to serial comics.

The writing changes radically from person to person, but that was also true on the original television show.  Wolfman goes for horror, Barr writes a mystery (ala Batman), and DeMatteis is extremely philosophical.  Tom DeFalco's story is a bit stranger than I'm used to from him, involving more complex sci fi issues than I'd expect from the writer of "ho-ha" fun.  Martin Pasko writes the bulk of the series, and his are okay but show that he's not a Marvel regular.  His comics read very much like comics, if that makes any sense.  There's a lot of the 1970s DC tics of explaining everything in narrative boxes.  He does, however, have one of the best Shaggy Dog stories I've ever read in comics, with Scotty as the protagonist of the joke.  I also liked a lot of the conflict and grey morality that Pasko builds into his stories.  With a bit more editing, they could have been the highlight of the book.

Where the series breaks down quite a bit, though not enough to disrupt a fan's enjoyment, is in the multiple artists.  Klaus Janson wrecks the comics he's involved in, flattening the art and making some scenes almost indecipherable.  He was about the worst choice to work with Cockrum.  Gil Kane is usually an amazing artist, but his work here is not his best, aliens aside.  Just about every artist struggled with the likenesses, with Shatner often looking like an older Peter Parker.  Most of the artwork is muddied, which I think is partly due to the difficulty in reproducing comics people did not expect to be permanent.  Some scenes lose their impact because it's distracting to notice just how off-model the characters are.  Worst by far is the coloring, however, which has no consistency from issue to issue.  The uniforms seem to change at will, with no explanation, sometimes following the movie and sometimes the old show and sometimes changing in the same issue!  Honestly, the editing here on the art is quite poor, reflecting badly on Louise Simonson, Al Milgrom and Dennis O'Neil.  I'm sure there's a reason, as all three are normally better than this.

While I wouldn't recommend the first Star Trek omnibus to a casual fan of the series, I think it's an excellent pick up for those of us who are still willing to sit for hours and discuss the evolution of Spock's characterization or how inconsistent Kirk is with the Prime Directive.  These are good Star Trek stories, even if the art sometimes gets in the way.  Any Trek fan really should track this one down, as any quality additions to the series are well worth it.  The first Star Trek omnibus definitely qualifies.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dust off the Panels: All Flee!

Written by Gavin Burrows
Illustrated by Simon Gane
Top Shelf

Monsters have to go to school, too, taught by the masters of the destruction genre.  But has this new generation gone too far?  Follow the adventures of a disgruntled old city-smasher as he works in a world that's no longer his.  Can anything sooth the savage beast?  Also, beware the musical stylings and rampage of The Dorks!  Plus: Actual not-real ads!  It's all here in...All Flee!

This is a fun little book that knows when to end a joke before it becomes tiresome.  None of the stories last more than they should, and each one is filled with plenty of sight gags, verbal conflict, and just enough plot to stay interesting for the reader.  There are little touches everywhere, from mini-Godzillas with nose rings and oversized guns to the casual destruction of cities as the monsters move through their daily lives.  There are shout outs to movies and other cultural references.  In the Dorks story, we get a vision of the world where unhipness takes over, rather than the punk invasion of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

These set pieces are deftly drawn by Simon Gane, whose work reminds me favorably of Jim Mahfood.  There's an emphasis on the joke, rather than on technical drawing skills, and everything is angular in a way that's just about physically impossible.  Characters flow all over the page in almost anarchy, but they manage to get the point across in a way that works better than those with superior drawing skills.  Not a single inch of panel space is wasted, with action in every nook and cranny, making for some cool visual gags if you take the time to look.

All Flee! is a comedy with a bit of social satire, using big old monsters and social rejects to tweak the nose of the world we live in today.  If you like reading satire, you'll enjoy this mini a lot.  If you're a fan of Japanese horror monsters, so much the better.  All Flee! is a hidden gem in the Top Shelf catalog, and I'd love to see it as part of the digital line.  It definitely deserves a new set of eyes.  Keep your eyes peeled for it, and enjoy!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dust off the Panels: Marvel Zombies 2

Yeah, that's how many people
thought of Civil War.
Written by Robert Kirkman
Illustrated by Sean Phillips

The Marvel Zombies are back!  After ravaging Galactus, the remaining members of this alternative Marvel Universe have scoured the entire galaxy for new things to eat.  There's only one problem:  They're all out!  It's time to return to earth for a desperate scheme to find a way to feed the hunger.  But do they really need to keep eating brains?  Or will Spider-Man's conscience, aided by the help of some willing humans, change everything?  It's a return home and a battle royale in Marvel Zombies 2!

I debated about whether or not I was going to review this one, especially since we're after the Halloween season.  But it's Robert Kirkman, one of my favorite writers, and Sean Phillips, one of my favorite artists, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I was a huge fan of the first Marvel Zombies series, but I thought the Army of Darkness crossover was pretty lackluster.  As a result, I never bothered to read any of the others, even though Fred Van Lente is the primary writer.  This book didn't do a lot to change my mind.

While Kirkman tries his best to make this turn at the wheel interesting, the problem is this was a gimmick idea, and the further you try to make it go, the weaker that gimmick becomes.  It's silly and gruesome fun to watch the Marvel Heroes go completely immoral and murderous the first time.  The third time (for me) just doesn't pack any punch.  There's only so many times the idea of a zombie Hulk can provide dark comedy, for instance, and while there are a few good macabre lines in here, such as "I can't believe we ate the whole thing," it's far fewer and further between.

I know Kirkman tried hard to mix up the plot this time, but I actually think that made things worse.  Part of the fun of the first trade was Peter Parker being completely consumed by his hunger and showing a side to him we've never seen before.  Going back here to being a hero just didn't work for me.  I get the Parker hero all the time; if you're in a What-If world, why not give me one that kills for sport and food?

This is not to say the story was bad.  It has all the Kirkman trademarks that make him a solid writer.  There are twists and turns, things go from bad to worse to even worse still, and some of the decisions that are made or happen in the story are completely surprising, not unlike his work on Walking Dead.  I like that his characters are all flawed, acting in their perceived self-interest, and frequently make terrible, bloody choices.  It's great to see him using some more obscure characters here as well.

In terms of the artwork, this is top notch.  Philips may be best at working on noir series with Ed Brubaker, but his superheroes are amazing.  I especially love his Spider-Man, who looks like a cross between Mike Zeck's and John Byrne's versions of the character.  He manages to make the zombies emote, and despite all the horror and gore, never lets the whole thing devolve into a bloody mess.  There's taste in his horror, which is part of what made the original series so good.

Marvel Zombies 2 is good, but it's just not as amazing as the first run.   I think part of it is the natural problems a sequel faces and part of it is that I'm just zombied out at this point.  We've seen them over and over again in so many different places.  They have to be done well to really stand out for me now.  This just didn't have the pop of its predecessor.  If you like zombies and the Marvel characters, and wanted more after the first trade, give it a shot.  Otherwise, stick to the original.  This one's not bad, but it's okay if you let the dust settle back on its pages again.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dust off the Panels: Power Girl Volumes 1 and 2

 Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Illustrated by Amanda Conner
DC Comics

It's time to Dust off the Panels and take a look at a comic I've enjoyed both times I've read it, the 12 issue run of Power Girl by the writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, paired with one of the best female superhero artists, Amanda Conner.

Power Girl is finally moving out on her own, setting up her own business, her own identity, and her own life.  With her cat Stinky, super heroine friend Terra, and big plans, this woman out of time is ready to begin anew.

There's just one problem: An old foe has other plans.  Watch as the Ultra-Humanite tries to destroy everything Kara is working for, sometimes with the help of his associates, sometimes on his own.  If that's not enough, earth seems to be party planet central, as aliens of all kinds come here for galactic spring break hijinks, with deadly repercussions.  Can even a cousin to the Man of Steel handle everything thrown at her and still be able to keep a day job, to say nothing of maybe trying to have her own social life?  Find out in these two volumes of Power Girl!

If DC comics was looking for a model of how to handle a female character that shows her off as a powerful figure in her own right, while placing her in the larger DC Universe, they could do worse than use this set of collections as a model.  Palmiotti and Gray manage to make Kara interesting by treating her as a real person who happens to have super powers.  She wants the same thing any of us who are trying for a fresh start wants--a chance to make in the world, without getting dragged down by what's happened in the past.  That's not nearly as easy as Kara would like, and again, that parallels the real world.

The problem many books with female characters have is that that they to make the character too heroic, thereby overcompensating for other representations (see Whedon, Joss) or they turn them into objects of sexual attraction, with poses and postures taking center stage and leaving little to no room for actual characterization beyond using their looks and acting badass (this looks like it's the direction Catwoman is taking in the DCnU).  In some cases, the character is indistinguishable from a male hero, which is just as wrong as trying to make them as feminine as possible.

It's not an issue unique to comics, but because of the visual possibilities of the medium, the heirs of Wally Wood have taken anatomy to the extreme, which is why I think comics--and superhero comics in particular--are frequently the target of so much criticism.

The fact of the matter is, part of being heroic is going beyond the norm, both in abilities and looks, and there is nothing wrong with allowing characters to be sexy, as long as it's not done just to goose sales and give teenagers an acceptable thing to ogle that won't get them thrown out of the newsstand or get banned from their bedroom.

Palmiotti and Gray get this with Power Girl, and they're aided and abetted by Amanda Conner, who draws incredibly attractive female characters who still manage to look like they are just as powerful as their male counterparts.  There are plenty of sexual references in this book, from the funny to the creepy to the slightly dangerous.  Kara's gender is a prominent part of the book, but we see her generally in control of the situation.  No one can handle everything, but instead of rejecting her looks or denying them (or worst of all, letting them be dominated), Kara makes it a part of herself.  It's a refreshing take on the idea of an attractive superheroine.

That doesn't mean it's perfect.  There is a clunky section where Kara explains her point of view, for instance, and one might argue that sexual themes are far too prevalent in these issues.  The thing is, this is written like a screwball comedy with a generally lighthearted tone, so the sexual jokes fit right in.  For the most part, Kara is the one in control of the sexual humor, not the male antagonists.  The idea of sex and power are a theme in the work, and as a result, we see it over and over again.  With the help of quite a few great Conner sight gags, this theme works perfectly.  This is a comic that's part romantic farce, part identity struggle, and part obsessive villain who cannot handle his own identity.  The foes Kara faces all mirror some of her own insecurities, and the ways in which she deals with them say a lot about her character.

That's the way you write a good comic--make it about something, with a focal character who is likable and (within reason) able to be someone you know in real life.  Palmiotti and Gray get this, and the comic works accordingly.  They made me interested in a character I care little about, aided and abetted by an artist who is able to blend titillation within the normal bounds of a heroic setting.

By the end of this all-too-short run, Power Girl is a character who won't let anything stop her.  She's going to find a way to make it in the world, based on who she wants to be, not who others perceive her as.  It's going to be a tough road, but hey, she's a tough character!  This is just the kind of story I like to read, one that can be both low-brow and have an uplifting message.  It's the kind of comic I think DC would be wise to look at as they keep tweaking their new universe.  Comics can have sexy people in them, without being an object of ridicule and shame.  You just have to put the characters in the right hands.  These two Power Girl trades are well worth finding.  I'd dust off the panels and look for them, if I were you!