Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hey, Kids! Again with the Comics!

Yeesh, I didn’t realize how big this stack of books I had to wade through was. For those just tuning in, I’ve taken what I believe to be a nice snapshot of my weekly purchasing patterns and am discussing (to death) what I’m getting out of the whole deal. I think what I’ve learned the most is I really fucking need to cut down. The problem I’m having these days with that idea is that foregone conclusions are getting harder to come by. With my last big purge, I could just say, “Fuck it,” on a lot of titles that I had been buying merely out of habit (Action and Detective, for example). Whenever a mini-series starts to really blow (like Spider-Man: With Great Power...), they’re already over with. But there seem to be a lot of titles I buy that then sit in my to-read stack and stare at me like orphans. I wonder why the hell I even bought them, and then I read them and say, “Oh, that was actually pretty good,” like with the current Eternals series. So, you see, it’s not as easy as all that to just drop titles. It’s gotten to the point where I no longer complain when Diamond shorts my orders (although, in principle, it still really hacks me off)(Today, I seriously toyed with the idea of writing an angry Grampa Simpson letter to Diamond, but then I got paranoid that it would fuck up any future hopes of being a comic book writer and pussed out [as though my lack of ambition or talent isn’t already handily fucking up any future hopes at all]). I almost wish Marvel would go ahead and ruin another few titles like they did so well with Amazing Spider-Man. And now that I think about it, they probably will.

Problem solved.

The War That Time Forgot #3 of 12 (2008): Speaking of books I’m dropping. I dunno how you make dinosaurs and Nazis boring, but here you go. Like a lot of folk, I got into writer Bruce Jones’ stuff while he was writing The Incredible Hulk (actually, just after he left, but same difference). Then I found out he was the same Bruce Jones that used to write for those Warren rags and those rad old Pacific sci-fi titles that I’ve always liked. So, good. Then his first couple minis over at D.C. (like Man-Bat and especially Vigilante) were really good, but then, I dunno, he started to go kinda downhill. There was that so-so OMAC series, and then some other stuff I can’t think of right now, and now this stinkburger (The moral here: just stay at Marvel; they’re better [there, I said it. I’ll say it again if I have to]). With this issue, I realized that I couldn’t remember who any of the principals were from the last time, not because I’d crammed my head with so many other storylines and plot threads in the intervening month, but because I simply didn’t care. I suppose I’d cut a similar Marvel title some slack on the nostalgia factor, but I was never that into D.C. as a kid. I guess they should have thought twice on the media blitz that accompanied the first Burton Batman flick that effectively soured me on a great deal of their output at the time and kept them from sinking their hooks into my tender pre-adolescent buying power like Marvel did. Better luck next time, suckers.

High Rollers #1 of 4 (Boom! Studios): I often get pangs of hipster intellectual guilt from constantly stuffing the coffers of Big Two while I know so many talented creators and truly enjoyable books die alone, unmourned and unloved, because jerks like me are too busy with our Civil Wars and Final Crises to give a shit about indies. But I go through Previews each month with a pretty fine comb and come up with mostly bupkes in the smaller press section. If I want book after book filled to the brim with vampires or zombies or army guys or whatever the hell, I can get enough to choke a camel from Marvel and D.C. (not to mention Dark Horse and Image).

So when a book comes along that has at least a little something to offer over the mainstream, I get all excited like a dipshit college kid who goes to the Chomsky lecture but still Tivos Gossip Girl. And in this book’s case, it’s writer Gary Phillips. Although he’s apparently an accomplished crime novelist, Phillips first came to my attention with his Vertigo mini Angeltown with Shawn Martinbrough. I’ve yet to track down any of Phillips’ book books (maybe because what I remember of his story in L.A. Noir was pretty awful, or maybe it was okay, but “okay” wasn’t gonna cut it after slogging through some of the other crappy stories in that anthology), but he did me a favor and wrote another comic that is gonna be solicited directly to me, with none of the fuss and bother of actual book shopping. (Addendum: naturally, #4 of this series came in for me this week—11/6/08—meaning Diamond didn’t send me #2 or 3. Thanks, assholes. Way to support the indies.)

I’d actually started writing this ready to tear this book a new one, since I clearly remember being pretty disappointed at first read. But this time around, I really liked it. Hardboiled gangster shit, just like Angeltown, which also had predominantly African-American characters, which you really don’t see much of in comics. I think what might have left such a bad taste in my mouth before was the artwork. I’ve never been much of a fan of the digitization of comics. But while I’ve grown used to it for the most part, a lot of art still really suffers from it, in my opinion. If this book was done in four colors on newsprint, I think it’d come across as an avant garde-ish, Frank Miller-y sort of thing. But thanks to the latest technology, this art’s been rendered flat, lifeless, and just plain goofy-looking (although to play devil’s advocate, Phillips’ occasional gaffes in the dialogue don’t help matters, goofiness-wise [“HA. HA. HA,” laughs a character at one point. Really? I’ve never heard anybody laugh like that for reals. Perhaps I’m not hearing it the way he’s writing it, but if that’s the case, I think that since I’m bringing enough reading experience to the table, I’ll qualify that not as an M.P., but a Y.P.]). Or maybe it’s just plain shitty art, and I’m trying to make excuses for it because I feel like a tithead for criticizing a guy’s artwork when I can’t even draw stick figures. Either way, I woulda dropped this book if I hadn’t read it a second time. I’m glad I did, but I still think a book like this oughtta grab you the first time around. So take from that what you will.

House of Mystery #3 (Vertigo): I dunno about you, but I think I’m getting kinda sick of Vertigo. Call me nutty, but I’ve been noticing a bit of a pattern for the last couple years: The nearer it got to Y: the Last Man ending, the more irregular the books seemed to come out. As of this writing, 100 Bullets is about seven or eight issues away from ending, and I can’t remember when that book came out on time last. Paranoia on my part? Probably. But here’s this, too: As Y drew to a close, Vertigo began pushing hard on American Virgin, which is far from being the same book, but definitely touched on a lot of the same subjects as Y and fit that general tone, I think. Same with Loveless and Scalped as far as being heirs apparent to 100 Bullets. Two of Vertigo’s top-selling books are either gone or on the way out, and three of the books I’ve mentioned above have been cancelled (and woefully, might I add. I want it clear that these three titles of which I speak were/are all very solid contenders on their own, especially Scalped [still going, hopefully for a very long time], and it is hardly to Vertigo/D.C.’s credit to try and pull the ol’ switcheroo on us [unless, like I said, I’m just being paranoid][stop staring at me]).

So, if my theory is correct, Vertigo’s attempts over the past few years to bail out their line have failed, and so, they have re-grouped and gone back to what made them a powerhouse in the first place: more books with fairies. Swamp Thing, Sandman, Fables, all perfectly fine books, but also the kinds of titles that attract hairy female college students (god bless ‘em) who have more money to spend on another Bill Willingham book because they’re not clinging to adolescent male-power fantasies (hey, good for you. Let me know when the Indigo Girls are coming through town next; in the meantime, I’ll be over here re-reading my back issues of Alien Legion)(man, I am a dick).

Naturally, my take is a bit skewed here, and again naturally, I’m taking the low road by launching petty personal attacks on a demographic that is generally very polite and smells nice, all because Jessica Bowman wouldn’t go out with me in the tenth grade (that’s theory for you). House of Mystery is thus far a fine title, carrying on that Vertigo tradition of re-vamping an old D.C. book, for better and/or for worse. Gone are Cain and Abel (though they made a brief farewell appearance [I guess you could call it] in the first issue), which kinda sucks for me after I had fallen in love with them all over again after finally getting the entire Moore run on Swamp Thing a couple years ago. Now the House has taken on that hotel at World’s End thing (remember that Sandman arc? ‘Cause I only just) where all kindsa characters sit around and swap stories. There’s a Mafia-y gangster one in this issue, so I luck out, but the overall theme of stories and story tellers gets kinda lame to me after a while. I get that it’s all meta and post-modern and everything, but unless it’s really, really well done (i.e. 1963), it just gets wanky. Like when Hollywood (again with the movies!) makes a movie about the movie business and think they’re being all clever and satirical, when they just really come off as self-referential, self-satisfied, and some other adjective with “self” as the prefix. Not to say House of Mystery comes off like that at all, but there is that threat lurking. Bill Willingham (here sharing his writing duties with Matthew Sturges) is a fine writer, but even he couldn’t keep my interest piqued with Fables (try as we both did)(and the guy’s never been anything but super fucking nice when I’ve met him, and if you ever get a chance to see him speak at a panel or anything, take it, for not only is he smart and engaging, but he handles wiseacre questions from the audience with a deftness that is a true delight to behold).

So I’m thinking I’ll give this book a solid year, and if it’s not seriously kicking my ass by then, I’m throwing it back.

Joker’s Asylum: The Joker #1: I tend to dig these fifth-week books, have since before I knew what a fifth-week book was. The screwy numbering they usually have gives my OCD side a pain, but I’ve gotten better at ignoring shit like that. And like a lot of people, I really like the Joker as a character. But after re-reading The Killing Joke for the umpteenth time recently, I’ve realized that Alan Moore has ruined that guy for me in a lot of ways. The depth of character Moore gave him in that book is more than enough to make most other writers’ interpretations of him either really goofy (which isn’t always bad, mind) or really flat (which is always bad). Add to this problem the fact that it seems every writer in comicdom has an insatiable boner for the Clown Prince of Crime, and what you’ve got is probably the most over-used character ever created. This probably comes as news to only me, which has probably got a lot to do with how few D.C. books I read, even fewer as time marches on.

But like I said, fifth-week books can be fun, and Arvid Nelson wrote this issue. I read Rex Mundi back when it was on Image, but that was mostly because my friend Eric drew it. Not that it wasn’t a good book, but if a guy I didn’t know personally and therefore wanted to support hadn’t been on the book, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, and in fact, I commenced to not bother once Eric bailed. But I still kept Nelson in mind and picked up his next book, Zero Killer, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Frankly, the post-apocalyptic story has become, in this post-Cold War world, rather post-worth doing. But I still have a little Road Warrior-kinda fanboy in me, and Zero Killer also features a black hero, which, again, I like to see. Sadly, that book’s been put on the shelf interminably after only three issues, so tough shit for me on that score, I guess.

Which brings us to this book. And it’s not bad. But it’s not great. The Joker’s dialogue isn’t quite as cutting and ironic as I’d like it to be. But it’s serviceable. The plot is kinda, y’know, clichéd, I guess I wanna say. One of those “Who’s the real crazy one here?” stories. The Joker takes over a game show and terrorizes everyone in the studio, and in so doing, exposes the producers of the show for the immoral and uncaring ratings-hounds that they are. Any one here not know that already? So the actual execution of the story is fine, with a cute little Cryptkeeper-type framing device, but overall, it’s a pretty ho-hum book if you ask me.

The art also didn’t quite grab me at first, but Alex Sanchez does this neat little trick that’s gonna have me keeping an eye out for him in the future. There are a couple panels where the Joker laughs or shouts a line—“Now shut up, all of you!”—and aside from the normal lettering, Sanchez also includes it as part of the art, lettering it himself with big red words. It’s a nice, subtle touch, the kind of thing this book could have used more of.

Jonah Hex #33: Jonah fuckin’ Hex (to be uttered with the same reverence one would give “Lee fuckin’ Marvin” or “Rock and fuckin’ roll”) has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager, but I had no idea of the true potential of this character, or even this medium, until the writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray began this book near onto three years ago (which is kinda weird, because aside from their work on Friday the 13th, I haven’t been all that gung-ho on the grip of other stuff they’ve done). I never used to dig the Western genre much, with schlock like Louis L’amour and Gene Autry clogging most of its arteries. But once I discovered Sergio Leone and his Italian cohorts, I finally saw the Western as what it could really be: the last bastion of the honest-to-Christ tough guy story. My favorite stories of the recent past tend to be about men pitted against the elements as well as their fellow humans, and overcoming such obstacles by sheer (in a word) balls, losing none of their pride and remaining fiercely independent. This sort of theme is obviously not restricted to Westerns (e.g., the private eye/hardboiled genre, which is also quite beloved to me), but despite glaring exceptions like Preacher, the traditional Western tends to most freely allow the exploration of themes and characters like those described above. And no current book quite encompasses this breed of Western like Palmiotti and Gray’s Jonah Hex.

And this issue is a near-classic example of the template they have set down. There isn’t often a narrator in this book, but I don’t believe that this is the first time the story has been told entirely from a different perspective than that of the man himself. Regardless, most writers utilize this to not only better (or, at the very least, differently) characterize the protagonist by allowing the reader an outsider’s perspective, but to also more greatly show the protagonist’s effect on others in the story. The plot here revolves around a young boy whom Hex saves, but then essentially abandons to the elements. This of course seems cruel, until the issue’s end when we see that the boy has been taught to fish, so to speak, and will doubtless become the tough guy he needs to become in order to survive.

If you’re sensitive to overdoses of testosterone, this story and its ilk may not be your poison, but I sure as hell am gonna have another round. All that being said, this issue is lacking in one teensy thing. During the first year or maybe year and a half, Palmiotti and Gray did this neat thing where they used the second panel on a page for a simple chapter title, written in that old-timey script, like vaudeville placards. It’s a simple trick, but effective, giving the book not only an extra dash of setting, but a nice added sprinkling of tough-guy-ness with fucking genius titles like “This Town Needs a Bigger Cemetery.” Like I said, they were in every issue at first, and still crop up every now and again, but alas, not in this issue. It’s understandable because them things must be hard to come up with every month, plus this issue has kind of a different narrative and stuff. But I still miss ‘em.

The artists on this book operate on a revolving-door basis, which fits fairly nicely with the (mostly) self-contained issues, and Darwyn Cooke is up this time. I think it’s pretty neat that a pretty hot shit artist like Cooke does stuff like this, but while I think the guy is a hell of an artist, I also think his particular style is not quite as suited to this material as those of past Hex artists like Jordi Bernet and the great Tony DeZuniga (a framed autographed sketch of Jonah Hex by DeZuniga hangs proudly in my room, acquired on me and Window’s trip to WonderCon this year, a score eclipsing even the original pressing of the first Nuggets record I also obtained on that trip). But that’s not a complaint, nor even a criticism, really. I dunno what it is, exactly.

So, yeah. Jonah Hex: one of probably three monthly books that I simply could not do without right now. D.C. should quit publishing superhero books altogether (c’mon, 70 years of Superman? Do we need any more?), and focus more on their fringe stuff—Vertigo, Wildstorm, and books like this. Although Marvel’s doing better for themselves with the Icon and Max imprints, D.C. still holds sway with books like these, and so they should lean much further in that direction.

Marvel 1985 #2 (of 6): Mark Millar seems to be getting a little full of himself these days, but it’s a little difficult to argue with him since he keeps putting out such quality output in such high quantities. And this book in particular feels tailor made for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m sure, it does my heart loads of good to read comics written by guys from my generation. And this book is now the most obvious example of one taking the comics of my childhood and, for lack of a better word, updating them to suit my adult tastes as well as those of my side arrested in its development. And since I either have already covered that or will eventually, I’ll leave that point lie for now.

First, a very quick synopsis before I make the one observation that picks at me while reading this book. A young lad in Middle America circa 1985 discovers there’s some weird dimensional portal in his hometown through which the pantheon of Marvel characters begins to pass, alternately terrorizing and rescuing the denizens of the sleepy burg. A fine concept, well executed to boot, and certainly one that speaks to every thirty-something dork who’s been reading comics since the Reagan administration. The only thing holding this book back (and really, only a little bit) is the medium itself. This is very much a meta-superhero comic, in the vein of Watchmen and The Tick. But the whole crux of the premise is that it takes place in the real world. Even when the “real world” is depicted in comics, it’s still pretty difficult to completely and absolutely suspend disbelief in that regard, but even in such highbrow fare as Watchmen, that complete suspension is not so strictly required for the story to achieve its ends. See? If it really has to be the real world, then it really, really has to be the real world, and as great as Tommy Lee Edwards’ art is, it’s still too...well, comic book-y to really get that across. Tony Harris’ work in another meta-comic, Ex Machina, is far better served by his very realistic style, and I think something like that would have been just as useful here. Alex Maleev also leaps to mind with his nearly photographic style. But even then, I think this would still nag at me. It’s a weird paradox. The medium of comics itself is the simultaneous cause and solution to the (again, minor) problem posed by this brand of story-telling; after all, despite what I’ve said here, where else but in comics could this story have been done correctly? TV? Movies? No fucking way. The only place superheroes/villains don’t look goofy is in comics, and even if a TV or movie could achieve a non-goofy yet traditional look to these characters, the usual problem with a production that size would just be too many goddamn chefs.

Besides, I hate movies.

Christ, still not done. My original intent with this now seems to be altered yet again, and I now kinda consider this running commentary on the books of early July to be more like a liquid journal on a bunch of ideas about comics and all things related that I have, so it’s nice to kinda get these down on paper in some sort of readable form (although, I suppose the readability here could be argued). So, see you next time.

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