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Pipeline continues this week with the second part of The Short Box Chronicles. For a full explanation of what these reviews are all about, check out last week’s column.

One word of warning this week, though: In order to get to a couple of the more timely reviews, I’ll be skipping out of order a couple of times. The ones I skip over will show up in the next installment.

21 – 23. NOTHING BETTER #1-3. This is the new series from STYLISH VITTLE’s Tyler Page that’s set to debut this fall through Diamond. You can see the first issue’s solicitation in the new PREVIEWS catalog, under publisher “Dementian Comics.”

Here’s the stock description of the series:

nothing better is the story of odd-couple college roommates Katt and Jane. Katt is an atheist who’s attending a Lutheran college because they have a good art program, while Jane, the pseudo-Christian, is beginning to question her beliefs for the first time. This is a story about life in college: friends, parties, late night talks, love, sex, pizza, tests, bad cafeteria food and trying to figure out who you are. It’s the best time of your life. . . or is it?

From the description alone, you can see that Page is using many of the same inspirations from STYLISH VITTLES for this story, but it feels completely different. NOTHING BETTER is more focused and more linear. VITTLES had a grand scope at times, and events just sort of followed each other along. At the end, you happened to have a satisfying story. With NOTHING BETTER, Page is working in a more classically structured mold. Each issue has a main storyline, and scenes are constructed to be pithy and dramatic, but with a helpful dose of humor. This is a story that’s possibly more accessible to new readers than even VITTLES. It requires much less patience, for starters, since everything happens in shorter segments. The scope of the series isn’t immediately vast. And the art is consistent throughout.

The only thing that worried me about the first two issues were how horribly lop-sided they were. Every time Katt opened her mouth to question religion, she was right. The “pseudo-Christian” (whatever that means) Jane was the one Page spent all his writing time picking apart. Given some of the topics covered in STYLISH VITTLES, it’s not surprising to see the author feature a character whose mission is to poke holes in the religious. (One might question her sanity for going to a religious school, but that’s the plot point you need to buy so that you can enjoy the rest of the series.) While I’m sure this will appeal to many, there are still people reading comics who are religious. They’ll be slightly relieved to see Katt get a couple of questions thrown her way in the third issue that she can’t easily answer.

I should also note, to be fair, that Page is generally respectful of religion in the book. This isn’t a name-calling screed against any deity. Katt is using logic and asking questions that aren’t exactly new to religion. Jane’s inability to answer them all in a convincing way is more an example of her growing up in this lifestyle without ever needing to answer those questions. College is, after all, a learning experience.

There are some stereotypes and some broad clichés in the book, but it looks like the most interesting and multidimensional character is the series’ lead, Jane. If you’re going to focus your character development on one character, then it’s a very good idea to pick the protagonist.

Along with the new focus comes some new art stylings. Page is more settled on a single style throughout this book. If you read the third volume of VITTLES, you’ll recognize a lot of it. It’s trying much less to be photorealistic. This is more cartoony stuff, with a healthy dose of some manga inspiration thrown in. While this isn’t trying to throw speed lines in for their own sake, I think the subject matter and the pace of the book might appeal to the more manga-friendly reader who doesn’t necessarily look outside the small digest sized books from TokyoPop and that ilk.

Check out, also, the cover designs for the book. I love the way they share elements, but all look completely different. The first issue’s orange color, in particular, should help separate it from the other comics on store shelves in November.

NOTHING BETTER is a $2.95 on-going series, designed to come out on a regular schedule. With three issues in the can already, I think Page is well on the way.

24. YOUNGBLOOD MAXIMUM COLLECTION VOLUME 1: Joe Casey remixes YOUNGBLOOD #1. Yes, it makes slightly more sense, but you can’t help but feel like Casey is also riffing on Liefeld’s art here and there. Some of the more incongruous facial expressions in the book are now explained away in dialogue. It’s the kind of thing that should be transparent: a good scripter will alter his script in small ways to help it fit the art as much as possible. That’s not always possible, but here Casey has had more than a decade to tweak the dialogue and come up with something good.

I remember much of this first issue. It came out at a time when I was a drooling fanboy for the work of most all of the Image founders. I can remember calling up the comic shop on a nearly weekly basis to ask if “Rob Liefeld’s YOUNGBLOOD” had come in yet. When it finally did — in April 1992, as I recall — I managed to convince one of the parents of a need to take a ride. In retrospect, I should not have liked the first issue as much as I did, but I did reread it an awful lot. Back then, the comic finances were fairly tight — I was a teenager — so I got the most mileage out of every single comic.

This is all just to explain why Casey’s script felt so awkward to me, at first. It wasn’t explaining the story that I had cemented in my mind from the original book. I had to fight through that to accept Casey’s new work.

Once that mission was accomplished, things flowed much better than they did the first time around. Casey integrates the two halves of the story nicely, along with some additional pages. The original story took place in Iraq (or a suitably similar substitute), so it was very easy to update it to Iraq of today. And there’s more character established now in this one issue than there was in all four issues of the original series. Especially hilarious was Chapel’s dialogue with his, er, “bedmate” in the issue.

The lettering is a bit stiff, but the new colors are nice. If you look carefully, you can see where some old word balloons have been deleted. In some cases, you don’t need to look all that clearly, as recreating missing art transparently is nearly impossible.

The final solicitation for the book is in the latest PREVIEWS. It’s $25 for softcover, $35 for hardcover. The book is treasury sized with a square binding. It’s a handsome presentation, if nothing else.

I bet there are other comics from the early 90s that could use this treatment. It would be interesting to see what today’s writers could do with the more artist-driven series of yesterday. What could be added into the package? What could explain some of the art’s eccentricities? What writer would be brave enough to “remix” reviled comics?

25 – 30: NEW AVENGERS #1 – 6: (Collected in THE NEW AVENGERS: BREAKOUT hardcover.) This one was a lot better than I was expected. After hearing all the negative snark spewed about it for much of the past year, I wasn’t expecting much. Heck, I was expecting a complete train wreck. Yes, David Finch’s art is limited in many aspects, but Frank D’Armata’s colors picked them up amazingly well. The coloring saved the art. And Bendis’ story is what it is. The plot verges on the nonsensical once or twice — Spidey breaks his arm one day, and runs around slinging on webs with it the next day without complaint — but it all works really well as a superhero popcorn movie. It also sets up a firm foundation for an on-going series. There’s a point to The New Avengers, beyond just some high minded idea. Bendis sets this team up with a clear mission that will sustain a longer series.

Bendis often takes heat for being a “talking heads” writer. While there are pages of that in this storyline — check out the info dump just a few pages from the end — this series best shows Bendis’ ability to script an edge-of-the-seat thriller, with the same style of witty banter and actual character interplay that you see in his other scripts. I think the word “interplay” is a key here. These aren’t characters just barking orders to one another or making speeches at each other. There is actual give and take.

Bendis also defines the Marvel Universe Spider-Man beautifully. I’ve heard Bendis asked plenty of times about the difference between writing for the Ultimate Universe’s Spider-Man versus the Marvel Universe version of the character. He explains that the Ultimate character is a nervous teenager. The Marvel Universe character is a seasoned pro, more apt to quip as he fights to take the edge off. Nowhere is that seen better than in NEW AVENGERS. Other characters go so far as to point out that Spider-Man is probably the most experienced of them all. He’s been Spider-Man since the very beginning of modern superheroics. He’s fought just about everyone in The Raft — the jail in which the titular “breakout” occurs. He knows what he’s doing, even when his running mouth would indicate otherwise.

The Marvel Premiere Edition hardcover presentation doesn’t add much to the series. There are a few covers included at the end, but the stories are otherwise reprinted faithfully. The most bothersome change is the need for filler blank pages here and there to accommodate double page spreads. Someday, someone will develop a formula — and stick to it — so that writers and artists will know in advance where they can and cannot do double page spreads. What works on a monthly basis doesn’t necessarily work in a collection. So long as that doesn’t bother you, this book is only a couple of bucks over the standard cover prices for the individual issues. Not a bad deal for $20.

31. FERRO CITY #1: Very nice looking piece of robot noir. Jason Armstrong does the most amazing work with gray tones that I’ve ever seen in comics. Seriously. It’s worth reading this book just for that. The only thing he has to be careful with is that he doesn’t overload the reader with too much stuff in the course of building this world. It’s one in which the robots are campaigning for their own civil rights. On top of that, there’s a murder mystery that might impact that fight. Armstrong can’t help but pile on a bunch of characters and subplots on top of that, which might serve to confuse more casual readers. There’s even a short back-up story that Armstrong swears will crossover with a future issue.

FERRO CITY is a book to keep an eye out for in the months ahead. If the story can stay clear and clean, word of mouth and its visual look will be able to hook in plenty of readers.

32. TRUE STORY, SWEAR TO GOD #14: A very serious issue, as political protests on the island collide with Tom’s increasing feeling of being a fish out of water. Will he turn his back on the island and the love of his life for the comfort of California? Will Lily’s love and calming influence keep him where he belongs? Tom promises the next issue will be slightly lighter in tone. Thank goodness.

33. HOUSE OF M #5: Bendis’ deus ex machina snaps her fingers and starts pulling characters back to the correct world. I imagine the most important one is Peter Parker, whose plight will look more heart-wrenching — I guess — if you read the concurrent mini-series from Mark Waid and Salvador Larocca. I’m still caught up in a make believe world that will eventually reset itself. I know that’s not entirely what’s going to happen, but the overall effect is still the same to me.

The more interesting thing to look for here is how Bendis pulls it all together. His dialogue style is unique, but he’s toned back the jokes and snappy banter to help convey the heavier tone of the story here. Olivier Coipel’s art holds up, although it’s not necessary a style I’m as big a fan of as so many others are. I’m sorry, but all his characters’ heads just look lumpy and square. Ironically enough, I enjoy that style in Juan Bobillo’s work for SHE-HULK, but not here.

34 – 36. SEA OF RED #1 – 3: Not at all what I was expecting. Having comics starring movie people is about as big a cheat these days as comics starring comics people — we don’t need another autobiographical comic set in a comics shop. We don’t need another Marvel supporting character working in a comics shop. SEA OF RED starts off strongly with a vampire pirate, and then shifts ahead to movie folk. By the end of the third issue, I’m starting to develop an interest in a couple of them, but they’re all such broad characters that it’s tough to identify with any of them.

The first issue is also needlessly confusing. Bill Jemas might just be more right than wrong when he said stories should start at the beginning and not flash back. That might have cleared up a couple of things for me on the first read of the first issue.

The star of the book is the art, laid out by Keiron Dwyer and drawn by Sam Salgood. Amazing mono-color stuff. Lots of red shades. Very gritty, natural. Not a slick comic book look.

37 – 38: GLA #3 – 4: Great series, and I can’t wait now for the Christmas follow-up. Paul Pelletier’s art is very cool and well suited to this type of lighter (?) book. Dan Slott keeps up his winning streak, even throwing in Scott Lobdell’s favorite, Captain Ultra, for good measure. Wow. I had almost forgotten about him. . . Captain Ultra was Lobdell’s Go To Guy back in his early days on MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS. I highly recommend Dave’s Long Box for more thoughts on that series, plus a healthy dose of comments to fill you with nostalgia.

39. GRAVITY #3: This one gets the highest possible marks for the way it ends. FINALLY! I don’t want to give anything away, but I’m very happy that Sean McKeever chose to give the issue that particular ending. It’s one of those things we’ve always wanted to see a character in that situation do, but now we’ve finally seen it happen. Mike Norton’s art is also very clean throughout.

40. NIGHTWING #111: Fill in art from Cliff Chiang is pretty good. This issue felt very Dixon-ish to me. Poor Dick is caught in the middle of another ugly situation, though.

41. ULTIMATES ANNUAL #1: Cool issue. It felt weird to see Steve Dillon drawing it, though. It almost felt like a parody of the regular art. We go from Bryan Hitch’s overwrought photorealistic art, to Dillon’s much simpler and stiffer art, filled with people of perfect posture standing around and talking to each other. (I loved the opening double page splash, though.) Millar’s story was pretty cool, with a few good superhero laughs. Loved the ending.

42. ACTION COMICS #828. Yes, I am a month late to read this one. That’s a minor infraction in my short box, though. It took me that long to get past the cover. Jeebus, that’s ugly. The interior art is beautiful, though. This is the best Byrne art I’ve seen in years, and inker Nelson DeCastro gets a big portion of the credit for that. I love his style.

49. GROUNDED #1: An unexpected pleasure, this one is the story of a little boy who wants badly to be a superhero, but lacks the powers. Some attempts at creating them fail, his schoolmates make an outcast of him, and then more bad stuff happens. It’s dark at times, but utterly charming. It’s well drawn, has a great sense of dark humor, and the story is more than just a crutch to prop up some jokes. The second issue is out already. I need to get to that next.

53. THE SUPER-SCARY MONSTER SHOW FEATURING LITTLE GLOOMY #1: I took a chance with this book, almost entirely at random on the stands of my local comic shop. I do that every once in a while when I have as incredibly slow a week as I did that week. I’m glad I gave this Slave Labor — sorry, Amaze, Ink — book a shot. It’s very cute and very funny.

I love the way it looks. It’s not a slick professional job, filled with solid inks, clean backgrounds, and fancy lettering and shading. There’s a nice cartoon design to the work. The hand lettering and the absence of computer effects throughout the book gives it a great old school feel. The stories are short and humorous. I’d have to recommend this one, particularly for the first story where an alien attempts to invade the planet. Little Gloomy sets him right.

Next week: We take a break from the Chronicles to open up Pipeline Previews.

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.

Various and Sundry continues its link dumps, and all political discussions are at VandS Politics.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

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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