Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Last Week Was Pretty Epic
The return of "Wednesday Roundup"-style posting. I stopped doing these every week because there just wasn't enough that I cared to write about, but when it's the kind of Wednesday we got on the 5th, you can expect I'll have something to say. Before we go off to the races, let me apologize for the lack of scans in this post -- I'm temporarily out of the right equipment, which means that "Into The Void" part 3 will have to wait until I get it all squared away. OK? Now:
Batman & Robin #12, by Grant Morrison and Andy Clarke. DC.
Easily the best issue of this comic since the Quitely arc. I remember an interview I read with Morrison a while back where he talked about how Batman & Robin was a lot more kewl and fun to write than his Batman run because there were fights in every issue. Well, I can't speak to how much fun the writer has with the comic, only its quality -- and it turns out that moving the action to a back burner in favor of the creepy plotting slow-burns makes for a much more interesting read. It's one thing to just write fighting comics when Frank Quitely is drawing your book and Batman jumping over a counter is a vastly engaging two pages. But even Cameron Stewart's battle scenes were getting old by his third issue on this book, and every story seemed to start better than it ended. Bursts of energy are great to kick things off, but sustained over a multi-part arc they lose their luster.
Anyway, Morrison de-emphasizes the action here in favor of the big reveals and bigger enigmas that made "Batman RIP" so great. Aside from All Star Superman (again, the Quitely-drawn stuff can get away with things other books can't), Morrison's best superhero books are the ones with Chris Claremont-style plot development as the main attraction, with fights used as a side dish to keep things nice and fluid. This is that kind of an issue, with a slam-bang beginning that gives way to some great character moments (Damian, at this point the main character of Morrison's mega-arc on Batman, has never been better), and a trio of killer cliffhangers that dish out real story information while still keeping plenty of secrets in the bag for next issue. This is the kind of superhero comic people want from Grant Morrison: an intelligently conceived soap opera with just enough blood and madness on each page to elevate the material above mere genre. Add strong art from Clarke and fill-in pages from Scott Hanna and Dustin Nguyen that show what a virtue tonal consistency is, and you've got serial action done right, a comic that, if not transcendent like the best Morrison, is all that could be expected.
RATING: 4 out of 5. Hot stuff.
Spider-Man Fever #2, by Brendan McCarthy and Steve Cook. Marvel.
It just gets better, as McCarthy dispenses with the ersatz Marvel realism used in last issue's setup and goes all out with this one. Spider-Man is used as little more than a vehicle for incredible page designs that read like a Pixar/Heinz Edelmann cross, incorporating found-art Ditko fragments at will and (as on page 4) using a big, bold panel-to-panel composition style that is really unlike anything else. Dr. Strange takes center stage this issue, and while his brain-blasting journey through the nether realms is certainly Ditko-inspired, it goes so far beyond the typical Silver Age psychedelia, so deep into a truly immersive experience, that to compare this comic to the Strange stuff by Ditko would do both artists a disservice. Ditko was about using the medium as it stood to express his own ideas and visions -- his magic vistas were boxed up in six-panel grids, his characters' awesome experiences struck hip, ironic contrasts with Stan Lee's dialogue, his great draftsmanship worked in service to bizarre distortions of familiar reality -- the subversive, druggy thrill in those comics was (is!) the sneaking gut-wrench feeling that somewhere an editor was asleep at the presses and something too weird to be printed got through.
But McCarthy is a medium-exploder. His visions of the beyond are boundless, spilling out of the panel borders that might attempt to contain them, single pictures often taking up whole pages, backgrounds teeming with meticulously designed unimaginables. These are images that destroy the normal experience of a comic page, using hi-saturation, Kool Aid colors, unconventional layouts, and plenty of utter nonsense to force the reader into reading the page as a whole block of art rather than simply going from one panel to the next. Steve Cook is the unsung hero here, layering in computer effects that simultaneously jar and mesh with the day-glo impressionism of McCarthy's colors, adding immensely to the comic's dislocated aura -- the feeling that you've lost contact with reality and have to swim through some warm alien ocean in order to return home.
There's little use in summarizing this issue's plot contents: Fever is actually quite similar in construction to the Lee/Ditko comics in that its story is merely a frame to hang a virtuosic routine on. What matters are the bits, stuff like the giant talking dogs that live in houses shaped like ice cream cones and recall Ben Jones' work more than any Marvel comic -- or the full-page visualization of a "pure, chaotic" energy field, like Edvard Munch using Lynn Varley's DK2 photoshop filters -- or how Dr. Strange uses some cut-up Beatles "Revolution 9" lyrics as a mystic incantation -- or, or, or. This isn't a read, it's an experience, something that you can't get anywhere else but on its pages. How many comics can you say that about? How many things can you say that about? First-rate all the way; a strange and gorgeous triumph.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5.
Orc Stain #3, by James Stokoe. Image.
If you aren't reading this, you should be. I suppose enough comics history has passed us by at this point that it isn't a bad thing to be derivative, and it can be a good thing as long as you watch what you're... deriving. Exhibit A: James Stokoe's action-and-gross-out-packed Orc Stain, a breathless fusion of Vaughn Bode, Moebius, Usagi Yojimbo (the early, more violent ones) and Barry Windsor Smith's Conan. This is an all-action issue, giving Stokoe a chance to display his sense of comic book rhythm -- panels move seamlessly into one another, all kinetic shifts in viewpoint and big-to-small transitions and ridiculous sound-effects lettering until it shudders to a halt with a monumentally detailed double-page spread. Stokoe's drawing style is the product of many sources, but his storytelling is completely his own, and this comic's rooftop chase sequence warps along at its own funkadelic pace, like the best of Paul Pope does. All the cool-mainstream-comics readers who like Pope and Jeff Smith and fawned over Mesmo Delivery last year should take note: it's from Stokoe's pen that the "things you've never seen or even imagined before" are coming these days.
Orc Stain is a book with an interesting (ish) story, and good writing -- Stokoe's orc-speak dialogue reminds me of Kerouac -- but this issue is just one giant drawing showcase, moving the plot along no further than the physical distance the characters travel. Sometimes that's okay, though... especially when the action has the off-the-cuff quality of a master's sketchbook drawings, deeply enmeshing the observer in a fully-realized fantasy world while retaining a great, anything-can-happen improvisatory feel. This is the stuff top notch comics are made of, and with every issue of Orc Stain it becomes obvious that Stokoe is a major new talent. This book is great as pure escapist comics delight; but it's also the foundation of untold greatness yet to come. I'm glad to be there for both.
RATING: 4 out of 5.
iZombie #1, by Chris Roberson, Mike Allred, and Laura Allred. DC/Vertigo.
Wasn't this solicited as "I, Zombie"? Oh, wait, it's still called that (in the indicia at least), but the cover just uses that inane Apple-ized prefix letter in its flava-of-the-moment lowercase logo. Oh boy. You know what the problem with Vertigo is? Somewhere between the last issue of The Filth and the first issue of The Unwritten, these folks forgot their roots. Vertigo may be administered by a mainstream publisher and owned in turn by a megacorporation, but all of the line's charm and uniqueness is due to its not being a mainstream company itself. Let's take a look back at the Greatest Hits of Vertigo. There's Swamp Thing, lyrical horror that was too smart for its market in an era of dumb teen slasher flicks; Sandman, a series for goths and lit nerds with a rotating roster of non-superhero (and mainly non-fantasy) artists; Invisibles, a Burroughsian middle finger to anyone looking for easy comprehension or straightforward morality in their comics (that is, everyone); Preacher, a celebration of blasphemy and perversion; and Transmet, a misanthropic meld of three things that have never exactly sold a lot of comics -- journalism, politics, and hard sci-fi.
So why is this company suddenly trying to appeal to the mainstream, releasing boring, execrable serials and illustrated checkout-counter novels passed off as cutting edge comix, dude? There once was a Vertigo comics that shepherded the most noncommercial comics through low sales, hell, that even sponsored group masturbation rituals to keep such books alive. A company that waited for the mainstream to come around to it instead of pandering. An imprint that rivaled Fantagraphics as the best producer of readable comics going. Now? Young Liars gets canceled, Fables gets multiple spin-off series, and the motivating aim seems to be creating illustrated pitches for movies like "The Losers". Vertigo is at its lowest ebb of all time: creatively bankrupt, full of terrible format and marketing ideas, and not exactly turning up the big bucks, either.
Shit, there was a comic I was going to talk about...
RATING: 2 out of 5. Mike Allred for a dollar is always worth it, but this series has no originality to it beyond the design of the ghost-girl's dress. If this were drawn by, say, the dude who does House Of Mystery, it would be utterly pointless. And also, unless I'm mistaken, this makes the fourth Vertigo franchise (and sixth ongoing series) with mythological beings who I guess are supposed to seem contemporary and cool walking among normal humans as its high concept. Jesus. I bet the sales drop-off between issues 1 and 2 will be a large number.
Glamourpuss #13, by Dave Sim. Aardvark-Vanaheim.
Easily the most vicious and unhinged issue of this series yet. Considering Glamourpuss is ostensibly Sim's satire of women's magazines, it was probably inevitable he'd get around to feminist mags like Bitch at some point, but still, wow. Maybe it's Sim's decision to format his glib, murderous attack on women's rights-focused journalism as six pages of magazine-style text, or maybe it's the inclusion of the cruelest parody ads yet (the term "gang bang" gets some use), but the first half of this issue is more like one of the tracts I used to get handed to me by acid heads or Jesus freaks when I lived in Berkeley than any kind of comic. Imagine a fanzine written by a syphilis-addled, misogynistic Jonathan Swift and you're getting there. This stuff isn't for broad audiences by any means, but Sim has a very sharp wit and if you can overlook the ridiculous amount of sexism in every sentence, it's pretty cool that such an obviously diseased mind is somehow able to publish a well-drawn book with great production values six times a year. In thirty years when Ditko's Mr. A is canon, this series will be what people talk about when the conversation turns to that kind of "crazy comics".
RATING: 4 out of 5. The comics history material is strong this issue, too, if a bit underwhelming after the vigor of the first half. Still, in that context it really emerges just how based on the speculation and conjecture of a rather cracked mind it all is: Sim pulls it off because he's such a consummate draftsman and researcher, but it's like a step away from if I published a comic about the blood feuds between Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko and their attempts to poison one another around the Marvel offices just cause I figured that might have happened at some point. Insane, impenetrable, incredibly rewarding.