BACK TO THE TRADES
The Short Box Chronicles wrapped up last week, but I imagine I’ll do a second volume before too long. It’s too handy a format to retire.
I did save a couple of reviews from the Chronicles for this week, though, but I won’t be numbering them. I’ve expanded them enough from their original appearances that they deserve entries all their own.
This week, then, is a mix of new and old; originals and reprints; soft- and hardcover. We begin with Alan Moore and work towards Adam Warren.
TOP TEN: THE FORTY-NINERS
This is the latest major release from America’s Best Comics. It’s the newest entry from Alan Moore’s superpowered police force, complete with Gene Ha returning on art duties. DC released it as a single hardcover edition, although it obviously was meant to be a four-issue mini-series, once upon a time.
I’m glad I got to sit down with it in one sitting, instead of reading it from month to month. It’s a dense little read, and Moore shows us how you’re supposed to build a world, both literally and figuratively. We get a story set at the advent of the Neopolis police department. In a world filled with superpowered people, who should police it? As you might imagine from reading the first TOP TEN series, that question is as complex as the powers of the inhabitants of the city. Racial politics are neatly masked, but the parallels are clear. Old friends are reintroduced in this series, but from much earlier in the timeline. The most notable is the star of this novel, Steve Traynor. He’s not the police captain here. He’s a fresh face in a confusing and most often maddening post-war world. He has a lot to learn about himself and about his new hometown. That gives Moore plenty of room to throw in his usual creative gems, free association word play, and occasional sight gags.
The story is evenly paced, with only one groan-inducing plot concoction in the third issue that was so obvious that it was a distraction. Stories of friendship, romance, religion, discrimination, world domination, and political conquest all intermingle until they collide in the barn-burning end. The book builds upon itself, placing a number of pieces in the right spots just in time for the climax. It’s Moore’s wit and ear for dialogue that keeps the book from being merely an exercise in plot mechanics, though. While I’m not sure this is the best OGN of the year, it is very good and worth the price.
Gene Ha’s art shines in this book, like never before. It’s jaw-dropping on a number of levels. He includes all the little background cameos that we’ve come to expect from a TOP TEN book. He draws large backgrounds filled with architectural detail. There are a few panels in this book that would make fine lithographs, just based on the background details alone. The last issue uses some cinematic angles, on top of all that, to make you feel like you’re in the thick of the action.
The art is painted by Art Lyon, who uses a perfectly muted sepia tone color palette to give the book a vaguely post-WWII feel. There’s a little Normal Rockwell splashed in there, with just a touch of Alex Ross. The end result looks more like illustrative art or fine art than it does “comic book art.”
Don’t wait for the trade paperback — grab this one now. It’s $25, but well worth it, even without a discount.
SUPERMAN/BATMAN: ABSOLUTE POWER
This is the third volume in Jeph Loeb’s frantic race through the DC Universe. This time around, we see Superman and Batman as authoritarian rulers of an alternate earth, created when meddling characters who wish to alter the course of the future change the timeline. What if Ma and Pa Kent don’t find Kal-El’s ship? What if Martha and Thomas Wayne aren’t gunned down that night? These are questions that pop up regularly in comic fiction, but Loeb puts the two together to create something new and interesting.
This is the kind of book that will appeal mostly to a certain kind of fan. It’s the knowledgeable fan, who’s most likely to pick up on the cameos of relatively obscure Silver Age DC characters. In this storyline, the two titular characters get stuck in a bit of a time warp, and come across alternate universe takes on such favorites as Jonah Hex and the Haunted Tank and Kamandi. In this way, it’s a great popcorn title. Sit back, enjoy the parade of stars, and don’t think too hard about cause and effect.
Loeb pulls off a neat twist, though, in that the book doesn’t become an Elseworlds special. He finds a way to set the story in current continuity, for however long that will last you in today’s DCU. I appreciate the fact that he went the extra mile to wrap the story up and place it back in present day. It wasn’t the easy way to go, but it adds more resonance and importance to the story.
Carlos Pacheco is the artist, and does a great job with an overwhelming number of characters to draw. His art style reminds me a bit of Mike McKone’s, but with the bonus of the thicker and smoother lines of Alan Davis. It gives the characters a little more weight on the page. There’s a stronger presence there, and also a bit more liveliness. Now that I think of it, though, Pacheco is probably used to these large casts of characters. His big breakout hit was the AVENGERS FOREVER mini-series. Any artist who can keep up with Kurt Busiek on one of his obsessive-compulsive continuity trips gets my respect and admiration.
As a special bonus, the story is colored by Laura Martin. Her lighter color palette helps keep what could have been an overwhelmingly dark story from becoming monotonous. The colors highlight the characters and keep Pacheco’s smooth art line — inked by Jesus Merino — looking natural. The colors don’t clash with the art. I think that’s very important in a comics landscape in which the colorists are more and more often fellow artists on the story. Their colors need to match the pencil art as much as the inks do.
The hardcover collection of this story is out now. It’s $20 with a foil enhanced front cover to match the previous two volumes.
TECHNOBABBLE, MARVEL STYLE
LIVEWIRES was a six-issue mini-series that Marvel released this year with an accompanying thud of sales. Really, the sales figures were painfully low. I don’t know why this is. It features the writing (and layouts) of Adam Warren and the art of Rick Mays. It’s set in the Marvel Universe. It’s full color and a ton of fun. Is it possible that the fans of these two creators are the most likely to wait for trades? Surely, Warren’s manga credits mean that much of his regular readership has a spot on their bookshelf reserved for his work, and not necessarily in their long boxes. Did Marvel fail to hype the book enough? (I don’t think so.) Did the internet reviewing and blogosphere cabal overlook it? (I don’t think so.)
Either way, the damage is done. Sales on the mini were low, and the only hope for its return is in the digest-sized trade paperback coming out next month. I’m making it my job today to explain to you why I think buying the book would be a very good idea. LIVEWIRES is a fresh shot of energy injected into a superhero universe mostly (but not entirely) concerned with universe-altering events at the moment. LIVEWIRES plays out in its own corner of the Marvel Universe, aware of its location but not slavishly dedicated to it.
Warren’s story has a very hip sounding description that helps to gloss over the fact that, in the end, it’s almost a navel-gazing experiment set in the MU. Don’t think of it that way. Think of it as an occasionally light-hearted romp through the MU with a slick exterior hiding a heart of gold. Here’s how the book describes itself on the opening page:
“[The characters of LIVEWIRES are] the superhuman products of a top-secret, quasi-governmental R&D program, Project LIVEWIRE, that boasts a unique agenda: namely, to seek out, sabotage, and destroy OTHER top-secret, quasi-governmental R&D programs. And in the ultratech underbelly of a Marvel Universe infested with mad suprageniuses, homebrewed WMDs, and bootlegged alien technologies, they have a great deal for work cut out for them.”
A description like that is madly genius enough to get me to read it. If that doesn’t work for you, let me explain why else you should give it a chance.
First, this isn’t a dark and dirty look at the Marvel Universe, rewriting chunks of continuity for the sake of something kewl. It uses existing bits and pieces — like A.I.M., the Sentinels, SHIELD — to form a raison d’etre for a group of characters that you wouldn’t expect to see at Marvel. While serious things do happen over the course of the series, it never loses its sense of humor.
Second, the characters are mostly robots, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have distinct personalities, skills, and motivations.
Third, it’s an easy book to get into. The first three issues are single part stories. While the character moments build up, the overall plot does not. There’s a bit of mythology to it that will come in handy in the last issue, but don’t obsess over it. You can enjoy each issue on its own merits, and not worry about forgetting some vital piece of information for later on. The final three issues form one extended story that brings all of the madness to a head. Warren is ambitious here, reaching for an endgame in the story when other writers would be more interesting in playing it safe to keep everything the same for a follow-up series. There are a number of directions a second mini-series could go into at the close of this one. I would really like to see which one Warren picks, which is why this collection must sell so well next month. Do it for me. Please?
Fourth, Rick Mays art is amazing, as always. He’s the perfect choice for the book. It’s all so super-smooth and glossy, perfectly matching the tone of the book. Coloring from Guru EFX is an essential part of the book, and they use a manga-inspired palette to keep the look uncluttered.
Fifth, Adam Warren’s script is lively. At times, you might feel overwhelmed by it. There’s a lot of text on all of the pages of this series. It won’t read in the speedy way that you might have grown accustomed to in comics lately. Everything is spelled out, but Warren keeps that from getting too heavy. It’s a smart book, believe it or not, that doesn’t think its readership will get lost with some futuristic slang explanations for the technology at the heart of the key plot points.
The only real problem I had with the series was the lettering from Junemoon Studios. The first issue had a very bad start, with a bad font, some poor spacing considerations, and misused characters. Thankfully, someone else caught that, and it all got fixed for the second issue on, although the fonts do change once or twice more. I’m probably the only one who’ll notice it, though. Since the reprint will be on smaller size paper, I doubt anyone else will have the chance to notice.
I should also warn you that there are some moments of graphic violence in this book. It’s all done with robots, so don’t worry about blood splatters and rampant dismemberment, but it’s still rough enough to keep small children away. This goes double for the big finale in the last couple of issues. Even the moments of non-violence might set the weaker-stomached readers on edge. It’s established right at the top of the first issue that these robots — and “robot” is considered a dirty word for them, but I’m simplifying here — can eat the flesh of other dead robots to assimilate their “nanotech smartware.” That’s the least of the potentially disgusting imagery you might find in the book.
All in all, LIVEWIRES is a lively trip through the Marvel Universe, filled with lighter moments, surprising levels of characterization, and a slick script and appearance. It’s far better than its initial sales might indicate. Hopefully, this can rise above the level of “cult classic” with the collection in October. If you can still scavenge up the original issues in a back issue bin or comics convention near you, give it a shot. It might be a little easier on your eyes to read all this text at the full page size.
Adam Warren passed along two pieces of pencil art that I can show you with this review. The first is a convention sketch of the popular character, Gothic Lolita. The second is the pencil sketch that would be worked into the cover of the final issue of the series.
For more design art by Warren and a preview of the book from its original announcement, check out this Newsarama story.
THE BOOK CLUB
The Pipeline Book Club continues on strong, garnering reviews and commentary from the Pipeline Message Board regulars (and yours truly) every other Thursday. We’re working our way through BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL now, with a new book in the spotlight every other week. Volume 7 of the series is up for discussion this week, but if you’d like to catch up or contribute something new, here’s where to find all the threads:
Volume 1: “Blood of a Thousand”
Volume 2: “Cry of the Worm”
Volume 3: “Dreamsong”
Volume 4: “On Silent Wings”
Volume 5: “On Silent Wings II”
Volume 6: “Dark Shadows”
Volume 7: “Heart of Darkness”
Volume 7 might be my favorite volume in the series so far. It’s building up on the first six books, with plenty of action, chaos, and tension. I’m glad I have the book club to remind me of what’s gone on so far, as well as to keep me reading the book every couple of weeks.
Pipeline returns next week. Beyond that, I cannot say. I’m not being purposefully vague here. I honestly just don’t know. Don’t worry about me, though. It’ll happen. It always does. Every week. Like clockwork. Even I’m amazed by that.
Check the Pipeline message board for updates on the Pipeline Comic Book Podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes now, too! You can still hear last week’s podcast through the MP3 file. This week’s is over here (as of Tuesday night).
Don’t forget about the VandS DVD podcast, while you’re at it.
More than 600 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically.
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