New Comics Day 1/27/2010: what I got, how I felt about it, and why you should (or shouldn't) care.
Batman & Robin #7, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart. DC.
This issue was incredibly refreshing, a breath of cool, Altoid-scented air after the hot stench of that Philip Tan-drawn "Revenge of the Red Hood". Beside the relief of seeing a comic I buy in competent hands once more, there's a general feeling all over this issue's pages that Batman & Robin has made a decisive 180 and is taking quick, deliberate steps in the opposite direction of the yawning abyss that was its last storyarc. "Revenge of the Red Hood" was easily Grant Morrison's worst work since I've been reading him (New X-Men #114), and reading this coupled with Joe the Barbarian last week makes me feel I can anticipate his books with the unreserved optimism I carried for him through the last decade once again. Thank God.
But the big story here is Cameron Stewart, who's finally getting his long-deserved spot in the limelight of DC's flagship book, and it's a chance he seems to be relishing. He's pared back the minimalism of his work on Seaguy 2, which was almost Harvey Kurtzman-esque at points in the determination of its unbroken figure outlines and solid spotting of blacks, to incorporate a little of Frank Quitely's thin-lined lumpiness. It's more than welcome, as Stewart's Quitely's quotes extend further than just the way he draws lips and chins, resulting in some great moments.
Yes, I'm definitely going to come forth with the assertion that this is a Nirvana's "Nevermind" homage and a riposte to Quitely's "Purple Rain" callback on issue #6's cover. It's almost enough to make me forget Tan ever drew this book. Whereas last issue Tan's art wore an "I'm-on-deadline-I-don't-really-have-to-finish-this-panel-do-I?" laziness on its sleeve, in this issue there are very definite signs that Stewart is drawing at 110% effort, whether they be little swipes of Quitely's deconstructed approach to action
or perfect, character-defining backgrounds (you know, the parts of the panels that Tan forgot to draw).
Morrison's scripting seems reinvigorated, too. The minimalism of last week's Joe issue was welcome in that book, but it made me nervous that his B&R writing would remain of the sluggish, grunt-fest variety he showcased last issue. Happily not, as we get a Bond-ish action scene full of devil-may-care zip to kick things off, and a high quotient of Morrison's idea-choked A game for the rest of the issue. (If we don't see Dai Laffyn as a villain in this arc, I will be very disappointed indeed. A Welsh Joker? The mind boggles...) The spate of guest-stars this issue feels good as well, as we get some great dialogue that's hardly bothered by the lettering errors, and the promise of an utter melee next issue, as, of course, drawn by Stewart.
Morrison may be hitting many of the same notes as he hit in the first issue of his and Stewart's Manhattan Guardian collaboration, but, to stretch a metaphor, that was a good song and I won't mind hearing a variation-on-theme. All in all, a very satisfying issue that seems to have this book back on track. Good show, gents.
RATING: 8.5 out of 10 (the .5 is for this not tying into "Blackest Night" as I dreaded and feared it would).
Afrodisiac, by Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca. Adhouse.
Jesus. Would it be gauche of me to exclaim "Sweet Christmas"? This left-field stunner is a blaxploitation homage that manages to transcend pastiche and satire, achieving its full potential as the latter-day equivalent of what it's imitating.
In this case that's Marvel's Bronze Age klatch of "street level" hero books like Shang-Chi or Power Man & Iron Fist. Afrodisiac's titular bad mutha is more of a Shaft than a Luke Cage, but the blood of that era's comics-literate hack/savants like Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy runs hotly through his veins, as evidenced by his pimp-suited encounters with aliens, Death herself, and thinly disguised versions of Marvel's C-grade characters. This is no nostalgia-trip book, though, or at least not entirely. Afrodisiac is a bravely formalist, balls-out trip into the sleazyass imagination worlds the trash-encrusted New York vistas of those old Marvel books transported their readers to. Entering this book is like being handed a ticket into the brain of a hyperactive six-year-old as he flips through his tattered Hero For Hire collection. These are the comic book-versions of those '70s trash-culture comics, with all the sex and violence and drugginess and questionable racial philosophizing exaggerated to superheroic, benday-dotted proportions.
To accomplish the taffy-like stretching of genre tropes that is Afrodisiac's main trick, Rugg and Maruca to step outside the comics form for long stretches of the book. Instead of panels and word balloons on every page, we are treated to a host of incidental material -- letters pages, covers, t-shirt and animation designs, original art -- from the decade-or-so-long run of this completely hypothetical 1970s comic. Jog made comparison to Al Columbia's recent art-comics terrorfest Pim & Francie, and it does resemble that book in the scattershot, cut-up approach it takes, of which the actual comics are only a part. Both books are certainly more than mere story vehicles -- they are objets d'art. Afrodisiac showcases the full flower of its auteurs' talents -- drawing styles galore, design skills blending into page layouts, consciousness of comics history beyond a single corner of Marvel's superflyest decade.
But if I may, I'd like to offer my own comparison -- this book reminded me most of Brendan McCarthy's issue of Solo. One of the things that comic had which struck me as utterly unique was its fetishizing of other comics. Afrodisiac, too, is a comic about comics, striving not to create a self-contained little world for the reader to be sucked into, but rather to send you scrambling for your Master Of Kung-Fu back issues. This book's aim is to take all the little bits that were cool, sexy, weird about the Bronze Age's exploitation-style comics, and make a comic that contains nothing but them -- a comic where the main character and plotline is that very weirdness. A celebration.
It's a raging success. Rugg is certainly capable of skillfully approximating the look of Marvel in the '70s, as evidenced by Afrodisiac's faux-Steranko title pages, as well as the Brother Voodoo short he and Maruca did a few months back for Strange Tales -- basically an Afrodisiac story in all but name.
But in this book he doesn't go quite as far into copying that Gene Colan look, retaining a small something of the modern in his drawing. In many places, the closest comparison to be made is with Dan Clowes, another nostalgia freak who creates today's classics by tunneling deep into yesterday's filth.
The effect of the modern alt-comics influence is to turn the '70s tropes into amplifiers for Rugg's own expression, rather than blankets underneath which to hide his style. Indeed, newsprint and off-register colors have rarely looked so good -- what were once unfortunate side effects of comics' cheap printing process are here reclaimed on glossy paper as essential elements of the dizzying funk exuded by the newsstand thrillers of yesteryear.
The art-book style assemblage of Afrodisiac does more than just attest to all the different styles Rugg can draw in, though -- it does serious things to the book's structure. The amount of actual comics packaged in Afrodisiac is relatively slight -- eight short stories, only one of them approaching the length of the typical pamphlet. But the incidental material does more than compensate. The cover gallery takes us on a journey through the entire run of the comic, giving us Afrodisiac's secret history (including stints as a romance book, a glossy monster mag, and a Love & Rockets-ish alternative comic), while also coding the information of entire stories into striking single images. Some are classic comicky-type covers, where you get all you need to know up front...
... others, gag covers that approach the efficiency of one-panel newspaper spots...
... others still, testaments to the changing styles time brought the fictional series through.
And let's not forget the plethora of scissored-out story panels, which also boil down pages of plot to the single necessary images. Yes, Afrodisiac and Richard Nixon were on a tag wresting team together.
It turns the economy of actual comics material into an asset. In between the funky-fresh genre stories, you're treated to condensed versions of (just to pick a few) the '80s Afrodisiac manga, the crossover epic between our man and his kung-fu counterpart Dragon Fly, and the original art for an unused time-travel adventure's cover, complete with pasted-up indicia. It's world-building of a different kind, an exercise that makes you believe in the Afrodisiac comic's reality, rather than that of the character and tropes within it.
In the thick of such an intoxicating brew the stories, the comics themselves, could easily become forgettable, but virtually every short adventure rises out of the book's cauldron to be counted as a lively, engaging artifact. They all subscribe to the same basic formula, though that works quite well as Bronze Age verisimilitude; however, each one contains doses of strangeness or originality that keep them from all fading into one another. Whether it's the sudden adoption of a turn-the-book-on-its-side vertical orientation, the phasing in and out of retro color filters, the abrasion of Rugg and Maruca's brazen take on the 1970s' approach to race in fiction, or the increasingly ersatz nature of the villain encounters, every story keeps you slightly off-balance amidst the chocolatey groove of the book as a whole.
There are things being innovated within these panel borders, too, whether they're a great take on sound effects
or just a new way to draw cars speeding by.
Innovation mixed in with nostalgia not for the reality of yesterday, but for our strange memories of it. It's a recipe for comics that are not only fun and catchy as hell, but that show their readers a thing or two they haven't seen before. It's the recipe for Afrodisiac... bitch.
RATING: 9 out of 10 (10 would be a comic that's on like the Krazy Kat level, but damn if this didn't come close at points).