New Comics Day 3/17/2010: what I read, how I felt about it, and why you should (or shouldn't) care.
Slow week, so one of these is NOT a new release. Find it online.
Joe The Barbarian #3, by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy. DC/Vertigo.
A bit of an in-between issue; we got the setup in the last two, and there's a killer last-page cliffhanger that'll probably power the comic for at least the next two, but getting to it is less of a roller coaster ride than the previous issue was. The ebb and flow of this series' storytelling seems to have settled in, and it's a solid rhythm. Morrison ratchets up the tension of Joe's fantasy-world quest until it goes beyond suspended disbelief, and then he throws in a panel or two of real-world danger to keep you worried about the hero. It'll be interesting to see how far beyond the typical comic's threshold Morrison goes: he has a system set up where no matter how bombastic, how ridiculous the situations in his action-figure netherland are, he can keep the reader from dialing out with a single frame of his boy hero close to a very real death.
That said, this issue could have used a little more of the real world, as Joe's fantasy quest progresses at the expense of any development in his true life's narrative. The key to this kind of story is to make the reader care equally about both plot strands, and by slightly oversaturating the Playmobil pirates and keeping the scenes in Joe's house to a minimum, Morrison has got me a bit bored of the high adventure stuff. (Especially compared to last issue, which introduced about a million little ideas, this issue's travails down basically a single path feels less exciting.) Still, the fantasy stuff is solid -- we get a few big revelations, a bit more explanation as to what this story's actually about, and some nicely-done scenes between our ever-widening cast.
Sean Murphy remains the star of the show, blocking out some great submarine-battle action, keeping the dialogue snappy in the more expository scenes, and doing a thousand contractors' share of worldbuilding as we get further into this comic's dreamy rabbit hole. He varies his drawing style a little too, going a bit more inky and a bit less liney for the issue's torch-lit, subterranean setting. As a result, Dave Stewart gets room to shine, his psychedelic purples, oranges, and greens making the apocalypse look absolutely fabulous. This is a good-looking comic, and watching Stewart get a handle on working with Murphy is pure joy. Overall, a decent read that might not bring the noise or any new readers, but will certainly keep those already on board eager for more.
RATING: 3 out of 5.
Lose #1 (2009), by Michael DeForge. Koyama Press.
Notify the Searing Visions Department! Lose is a 24-page minicomic with excellent production values (color cover, great paper) and the general feeling of something special. DeForge's art is like a mix between Ivan Brunetti and Josh Simmons, walking that beloved fine line between cutesy and grotesque -- everything is slickly inked and crisply outlined, but the adorable abstractions that he uses for characters are sweaty, melted-looking has-beens that are as likely as not to be covered in rotting filth. His style looks like where cartoon characters go when they die.
How appropriate, then, that the main story in Lose is that of Nesbit Lemon -- a "guardian elf" who looks like something Gary Panter would cook up for Hanna Barbera -- and his descent into hell. After questioning the working conditions in God's employ, Lemon is cast down into "the lower planes", where the boss is a great and terrible black mountain named Abaddon, the damned (from Mr, Fantastic to the Yellow Kid to Jughead) frequent a bar shaped like Nancy's head, and the kindly gay-cartoon couple around the way are just waiting for an innocent to sacrifice to a carving of Charlie Brown's head.
This is deeply weird, at times disturbing stuff -- DeForge's art, full of spotted blacks and zip-a-tones, really makes you feel for the pitiful figure of Nesbit Lemon as he promenades through the workings of a disturbed mind, getting cut open and cutting others open himself. But through the woozy, black murk there's a definite story being told, perhaps even a cosmology being laid out. As Bullwinkle explains it to our man upon his arrival in hell: "Your smile... will begin to appear ridiculous and unnatural. Gradually it will appear as nothing more than a crude carving on a marionette's face... so unfamiliar you'll question whether it was ever actually you there at all. 'Could I ever really have felt that way?' (you'll ask)."
Like Josh Simmons, whose Batman desecration is a definite cousin to Lose, DeForge seems to be questioning why some of these characters had to become the property of grim-n-gritty comics writers, why others had to be revived again and again in stranger and stranger forms -- anyone remember Robert DeNiro as Boris Badenov in the Rocky & Bullwinkle live action movie? Unlike a host of inferior works, though, the question being asked in Lose doesn't seem to be "Why did my childhood comics have to change?" but "Why were the artists' original intents deviated from?" If childhood comes into it at all, it's metaphorically; DeForge knows they had to change because you're not a child anymore, because adulthood changes everything, including the comics lucky enough to make it that far.
Perhaps Lose's strongest bit is when we get a glimpse of DeForge himself in the Nancy-head bar; he has appeared in the comic before this, but not here, and paradoxically, he begins telling Nesbit about his real life. "I've started doing spots for this small-press music quarterly," he blabs, "... plus, I've started work on my graphic novel! Things are finally looking up for me!" It makes a weird kind of sense if you think about it: DeForge does live in this hell, bombarded with skewed, diluted versions of these classic characters every day. Extrapolate it a little further and there's a deadly serious point underneath all the weirdness and cartooning: we all live in this Kirby/Panter/Rory Hayes amalgamation, this strange bardo of pop culture. We all live in hell. Not the first thing you want to hear from your comics, but DeForge strews the path to the revelation with so many little gems that we follow happily along.
A similar ambience hangs over the course of the issue's "B" story, a Green Lantern story that reads like what the Bizarro Comics anthologies could have been if there hadn't been any editors around to stop the characters from swearing and imagining Wonder Woman naked. The upshot of it is that the poor fellow's lost his imagination and is unable to create willpower-constructs with his magic wishing ring anymore. Rather than throw in the towel, he goes to art school to try and get something back, and this brings him into frequently hilarious conflict with the rest of the Justice League. The material is played a lot more for laughs than Nesbit Lemon's is, but the points being made are similar in their black-humor denial of gloom. The key scene is an uproarious team meeting with a hyper-confrontational Batman and a Flash who's using team funds to pay for his braces. As a parody of the Brian Bendis internal-conflict-and-talking-heads approach, it's dead on. Is this what we want in our superhero comics? (I wouldn't mind it as much if DeForge were writing them, honestly; "Young Green Lantern" is a riot.)
Lose is a hell of a thing: a comic that manages to be entertaining and say things about life, the world we live in, and -- most importantly -- the comics we read. This is the work of a truly individual creator, locked deep into the art he's making, aware of his influences and willing to exploit them to the fullest even as he transcends them all. Brilliant. I can't wait for issue #2.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5.