Well, here we go.Â After making such a fuss about raising our standards both as readers and writers here at CSBG, I couldn’t very well let my very next column just fart out like they usually do.Â If I’m going to do this right, it’s going to take a bit more time.Â I suppose it’s unlikely there’s anyone who was actually saying, “Hey, where’s the Joe Rice Media Review?” anyway.Â But, well, here it is, and I hope it’s closer to what it could be than what it has been.Â
My purpose here is to highlight books that maybe you, CBR Reader, didn’t realize were so great; and to discuss and discover what makes them so great.Â My purpose is also to celebrate with you the things we both already know are great.Â I may not examine every book in the same amount of detail.Â Even when I enjoy it, New Avengers doesn’t really spark the same amount of analysis as an Anders Nilson book.Â I might appreciate them both for different reasons, one easier to explain than the other.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to start fairly simply, with the aforementioned New Avengers.Â I’ve stopped and started on this monthly a few times now.Â There will be periods where it seems like a fun book where superheroes hang out, tell jokes, and get involved in big crazy action sequences.Â And then there are issues where little, if anything, happens.Â The striking cover by Leinil Yu was hard to miss.Â Excellent use of negative space, contrast, and color.Â There is the 12 year old still inside me that sees it and says “Jesus Christ it’s raining ninjas on that other ninja!Â AWESOME!”Â Yu is an excellent draftsman with a gritty style somewhere between Mignola, Miller, and Nowlan.Â And Brian Bendis plays loose with the plot here.Â We get the juxtaposition of Echo’s words to Matt Murdock with the visual tale of her defeat, all to set up her eventual rescue by the New New Avengers (or, as Spider-man puts it, “the cool Avengers”).Â And it is the interplay between these superheroes that makes this issue work for me (well, other than Yu’s work-nice layouts, too, by the way; they truly flow and enhance the action).Â Unlike some of Bendis’ other attempts, this issue really seems to be a group of different people talking to each other.Â I really enjoyed the banter; I know that might sound silly, but there’s something to the semi-naturalistic friendly conversation that provides an anchor for the far-out action and fun in and of itself.Â When I’m hanging out with my friends and they’re all having fun, I usually do too.Â And that’s when Bendis’ writing on this title works best:Â when the characters don’t come off as stodgy archetypes or plot devices, but friends and acquaintances enjoying an activity.Â It just so happens that their activities are slightly more prone to punching than my own.Â All in all, thoroughly enjoyable.
Peter Snejbjerg’s cartoonish flair helps make the latest issue of the Garth Ennis book Midnighter work.Â It’s a dark comedy involving the titular character being forced to kill Hitler by way of time travel.Â Midnighter encounters some tank-busting Nazi schoolchildren, an orgy, and the near-suicide Fuhrer himself.Â As much as I love Chris Sprouse’s clean linework, I’m not sure I could take all that as drawn by him.Â The distortions, exaggerations, and humorous touches of Snejbjerg sets off the grim and violent subject matter and explicit violence just enough to keep it palatable.Â The full-page splash of Hitler is actually interestingly effective:Â I’ve never seen him shown as so broken, so ready to die.Â It’s a refreshing change from the horrible icon he’s become, this pathetic, fat old man with slumped shoulders.Â It also answers the question, “How can you laugh at Hitler after all the horrors he committed?”Â You laugh because he deserves your ridicule and scorn.Â A more subtle point than I expected from what is essentially a humorous action book.
Ennis must be in some rather bad headspace right now (or, alternately, good enough headspace to be able to look at the bleak side), as The Punisher opens with the vigilante killing two parents who’ve been selling tapes of their own children copulating.Â At first it seems like a sort of dark catharsis, a “Yeah, they deserve it” dark fantasy of vengeance.Â It’s easy to write of the entire series as such; there are times where it doesn’t stray far from that.Â But there’s definitely something more going on here.Â After “punishing” the child pornographers, the Punisher describes the three children; he hopes the girl can recover, but says of the two older boys, ” . . .the damage was done.Â I had a sinking feeling-I’d be seeing them again in twenty years.”Â Simultaneously sad and chilling.Â Vengeance and violence seem to be an over-arching themes in this story.Â That sounds obvious, but this particular arc approaches these themes in different ways.Â We have the Punisher’s thread, as he continues a path from clean, efficient punishments of mobsters to torture and suffering of even more heinous individuals, and for all his stoicism, there are parts of him that resist his urges to hurt rather than kill.Â Concurrently, a group of “Punisher widows” discuss how they can finally extract vengeance on the man that killed their husbands.Â And, introduced in this issue is the story of a policeman who shot and killed a teenager on a Columbine-style killing spree.Â He rejects the canned therapy assigned by the force and actually has a very real, touching scene with his wife that shows him as the-for now-most balanced person in the story.Â Lan Medina’s art evokes a weighty, weighted reality of blood droplets, age lines, and scars.
The Other Side is a deceptively simple story.Â Cameron Stewart’s beautiful cartooning can seem sparse and clean on one page and horrifyingly detailed on the next.Â And the story . . .I had assumed the title referred to the “other side” was in reference to the two opposing sides of the Vietnam War being personified by Vo Dai and Billy.Â Perhaps I was dense or naÃ¯ve to think so, or even that I expected too little out of the book.Â But the reference ends up being about what happens after the war, once you’re out on “the other side.”Â It’s a chilling and sudden end, the normalcy of toys, mom’s cooking, and drive-ins made all the more horrifying by the gore and insanity that directly preceded it.Â The ambiguous, bare hinting of the conclusion works, as the point becomes, “What the fuck now?”
Love and Rockets, as an ongoing, is exceedingly difficult to really critique.Â Taken as whole works, Locas and Palomar are astonishing and with few peers.Â Taken in individual chapters, they’re still remarkable.Â In Jaime’s continuing saga, he’s still focusing on Ray and “Frog Mouth” Vivian, with Maggie’s influence strong but out-of-panel.Â In the end, it seems to be a small story about how that obnoxious, annoying semi-friend can, yes, be a real person of warmth and weakness somehow.Â Meanwhile his brother ‘Beto continues the sad, deluded life of Mark Herrera with a textbook “unreliable narrator” tale.Â I can honestly say I must have skipped a few “Julio’s Day” chapters, because I haven’t a clue as to what’s going on.Â And, hey, got one page of your book left?Â Screw a pin-up, how about a quick one-off on the nature of divinity?Â God bless you Hernandezes.Â (Nerd question . . .did Jaime want me to think of Two-Face when he made this cover or am I just incurable?)
The End, Anders Nilsen’sÂ book in Fantagraphics’ Ignatz collection, is raw, painful, and altogether beautiful.Â Still dealing with the tragic early death of his girlfriend, Nilsen’s comics are the most astonishing depictions of grief and loss I’ve ever encountered.Â Nilsen repeatedly deconstructs himself, breaking down each memory and each pain in search of meaning or relief or memory.Â This isn’t easy work, but it’s very worthwhile and beautiful in its own way.Â Nilsen’s line goes from economic and smooth to mottled and shaky as the situation warrants it.Â “Since you’ve been gone I can do whatever I want, all the time” is stunningly powerful with its simple depiction of pain, and the last half of the book is a long, complicated meditation.Â This is well worth your money, especially if you’ve dealt or are dealing with serious loss yourself.
And, of course, there’s Jeff Smith’s new Shazam!Â The Monster Society of Evil.Â I’ve already made it clear I loved it (as did 30 3rd graders I teach).Â It is at the same time a very traditional and a very new superhero book.Â It is all-ages in the true sense, as adults and children can enjoy it equally, sometimes for different reasons.Â Smith’s cartooning is a step away from postmodern Neal Adams via Jim Lee romanticism.Â He allows his figures an elasticity and malleability unseen in most mainstream books.Â Some traditionalists of the superhero genre might be bothered by perceived inconsistencies.Â Rather, these are the figures taking on the shape they need for the moment.Â Young Billy’s youth is cartooned in exaggeration because it works better that way.Â Backgrounds are alternately dark and grimy or heavenly and nearly abstract.Â Story and style merge in a wonderful marriage of content and form.Â The story itself is a re-telling of the classic origin, but with enough modern sensibilities and looks to enliven it.Â Captain Marvel’s love of hot dogs speaks of joy, Billy’s situations speak of great danger, and action and adventure can lurk around any corner.Â It’s a delightful book, full of live, vigor, and imagination.Â It gets my unqualified highest recommendation of the week, and, along with All Star Superman, is a hopeful sign for the next stage in superhero comics.
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