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Issue #220

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #220
  • THIS WEEK:

    REVIEWS WILL TEAR UP APART AGAIN: all the latest comics and graphic novels fit to review

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS: Everything you ever wanted to know about everything else but were too paranoid and disenfranchised to ask

  • A word before we begin. Virtually every time I do reviews – it’s my goal to get back to weekly review sections rather than end up with special review columns like this one – someone drops me an irate note asking why I don’t review mainstream comics, like INFINITE CRISIS or the BLACK WIDOW mini-series. Same answer: I generally don’t go out of my way to find things to review. I review what’s sent to me. If your favorite companies like Marvel or DC want to send me books to review – my mailing address is toward the bottom of the column – I’ll cheerfully do it, with the same guarantee I give everyone: they’ll get an honest reaction. Until they do, though, it’s unlikely I’ll be reviewing many of their books.

    (I did read the first two issues of the current BLACK WIDOW mini-series, by the way, since I’ve always liked the character and pitched a BW mini to utterly disinterested ears at Marvel myself about a decade ago, and, interestingly, it was in the salient plot points almost identical to what was eventually published as the first BLACK WIDOW mini, though there’s no chance it was lifted since personnel changes up there between my pitch and that mini were pretty much total and I doubt anyone was left who would even have remembered it. Just one of those weird coincidences – great minds think alike and all that. Similarly, a few years I co-pitched DC a Batman-related series called STREETS OF GOTHAM that never went anywhere, and look what’s popping up in the wake of INFINITE CRISIS. I doubt there’s any connection there either, besides it being a small world. Anyway, the recent BLACK WIDOW series shows signs of mini-series syndrome – good setup in the first issue and seemingly a lot of water treading in the second – but I like Richard Morgan’s characterization of her and Bill Sienkiewicz’s “Ralph Steadman sodomizes Neal Adams on Leroy Neiman’s kitchen table” style is always appealing.)

    Likewise, as mentioned last week, no one needs permission to send anything. In the immortal words of The Rock, just bring it. Again, the mailing address is below.

    On with the show:

    From Bantam Dell Books:

    PRIVATE WARS by Greg Rucka, 414 p prose hardcover novel ($24)

    Rucka’s been so omnipresent in comics the past few years it’s easy to forget he first made his rep writing novels. This is his second novel starring Tara Chace, made notorious in his much-acclaimed comics series QUEEN AND COUNTRY. I never much liked Q&C; I always thought it dry and its heroine just morose and joyless. The good news is PRIVATE WARS, set against internal struggles in Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, is miles better than its comic book counterpart, intricately plotted, and you can almost feel Rucka’s joy and relief at being able to play with words in exactly the volume and way he wants. I’ve no idea how much he actually knows about Britain’s spy service MI-6 and how much he’s making up, but it at least feels authentic, and he for once puts as much work into his villains as his heroes. All in all, good light reading.

    From Boom! Studios:

    GIANT MONSTER #1 & 2 by Steve Niles & Nat Jones, 48 pg color comics ($6.99@)

    Talk about high concepts. A bleak astronaut is infected by an alien parasite and returns to earth as a… giant monster. Which wreaks all sorts of havoc. Steve Niles is one of my favorite current pulp writers, and if I have any complaint about his work, it’s that, in retrospect, it’s usually thin plotwise. GIANT MONSTER is no exception, but the funny thing is it has just enough humor, twists and interesting characterization to make me forget that while I’m reading it. Niles also has the weird talent of digging up pretty good art talent that no one’s ever heard of, and Nat Jones is also no exception. I liked the take enough that I didn’t even mind the giant Nazi robot… but it’d be nice if publishers collectively called a moratorium on Nazis, giant robots, giant monsters, dinosaurs, ninjas, zombies, pirates and any kind of monkeys or apes for awhile. Like a long, long time. A very few people, like Niles and Jones, manage to do something even remotely interesting with those things, but the rest just screams “no imagination.”

    ZOMBIE TALES: DEATH VALLEY #1 by Andrew Cosby, Johanna Stokes & Rhoald Marcellus, 48 pg color comic ($6.99)

    Speaking of zombies, Boom!’s ZOMBIE TALES have been a bright spot on that otherwise bleak landscape. So it’s a shame to see that streak end. Not that DEATH VALLEY is bad – the dialogue’s decent and the art’s passable, though not up to Boom!’s usual standards – but the story is just… way too familiar. A bit of SHAUN OF THE DEAD here, a bit DAWN OF THE DEAD there, as San Fernando Valley teens party in an old bomb shelter coincidental to a wicked solar flare, and emerge to find themselves apparently the last living people on earth, surrounded by a city full of Kentucky Fried zombies. If it’s going somewhere unpredictable, it hasn’t shown any signs of it yet.

    From Viper Comics:

    KARMA INCORPORATED #2&3 by David Hopkins & Tom Kurzanski, 32 pg color comics ($2.95@)

    The first issue of KARMA INC., featuring a team of crabby, generally self-loathing employees who manufacture petty revenge for a price, didn’t do much for me, and the final two parts don’t change that much. A disgruntled former client-turned-target fails at taking down the group, then turns on his cheating wife until Karma Inc.’s owner and founder finds redemption and renewal by ending the resulting hostage crisis. Along the way, we get overly precious insights into her own tormented past as a victim of sorority pranks. Tepid stuff, with eh art. Skip it.

    THE MIDDLEMAN #3-4 by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Les McClaine, 32 pg b&w comics ($2.95@)

    They almost had me. The Middleman’s a semi-militaristic secret agent superhero, apparently a ’40s style straight arrow but with occasionally surprising quirks, who takes on an amateur assistant when she uncovers his existence. McClaine’s underground comics style action art is pretty nice overall. Some of the tongue-in-cheek approach is pretty funny. But they lost me at chimpanzee mob bosses. I mean, you see stuff like that and you just think, “Man, couldn’t they have come up with something original?” I know people who are raving about this book, but, for me, that’s all the difference in the world between a great concept and derivative drivel. So far THE MIDDLEMAN falls into the latter category.

    DEAD@17 PROTECTORATE #1 by Alex Hamby & Benjamin Hall, 32 pg color comic ($2.95)

    Then there’s intentionally derivative. This is a prequel of sorts to Josh Howard’s surprise hit DEAD@17, with very nice art by Benjamin Hall. Unfortunately, it’s got the stink of the superfluous about it, a pretty empty tale of demons and zombies without Howard’s verve. Pretty but dull, and add angels (particularly foul-mouthed, nasty or renegade angels) to the list of gimmicks that should be banned for the foreseeable future.

    DEAD@17 ROUGHCUT VOL 3 by various, 64 pg b&w comic ($4.95)

    Also milking the dead cow. Is there really any point to DEAD@17 without Josh Howard? At least Howard’s present here, drawing a story (though the best art of the anthology is again by Benjamin Hall in a throwaway story of a cop investigating heroine Nara’s murder that started the series) but most of the book is setup for no less than four continuations, including whole sections from PROTECTORATE #1. The bad news is none of it seems inspired in the least. The really bad news is there just wasn’t that much to DEAD@17 in the first place, and Howard bled through most of the potential himself. It’s over; let it go.

    From Alternative Comics:

    HUMOR CAN BE FUNNY by Sam Henderson, 128 pg b&w trade paperback ($11.95)

    The title’s supposed to be ironic, but I doubt cartoonist Henderson realizes how ironic. Maybe humor can be funny, but you wouldn’t know it by this generally leaden book.

    LUNCH HOUR COMIX #1 by Robert Ullman, 64 pg b&w comic ($4.95)

    Ullman’s autobiographical vignettes are collected in an odd little format, and for the most part both work. There’s not a lot here that’s laugh out loud, but it’s most of its very clever and wry, with clean, expressive art, and working in the compressed “daily strip” format gives Ullman’s strips unusually tightness and focus for indy comics. Nice.

    From Division Shadow:

    DIVISION SHADOW #1 (of 6) by Patrick Meaney, Nicolas Colacitti, Carlos Devizia, Marcelo Carmona & Shawn Decker, 24 pg b&w minicomic ($1.50)

    An ambitious if muddled little book, set in a fascistic near-future America facing a Muslim empire sprawling across half of Asia. The story is told in vignettes, and that’s partly the problem: Meaney never fixes on any one character long enough to establish motivation or even, really, character. Theoretically it’ll all make sense when the six issues are complete, but at the moment it’s just a jumble. Different artists handle different threads, which helps some, but none are very good. The book’s interesting enough to make you want to know where Meaney’s going with it, but not well done enough to make you sure of where you’ve been.

    From AdHouse Books:

    THE SECRET VOICE by Zack Soto, 64 pg b&w comic ($4.95)

    The title serial – there are several stories in the book – may be the single emptiest thing I’ve read in years: no plot, no characters, no theme, no dialogue, no insights, no logic, nothing but movement and occasional bursts of gibberish. It reads like someone threw the all the action scenes from first ten episodes of Thor into a trash compactor. The art’s fairly uneven too. The other stories, older pieces ranging from the allegorical to a tale of schoolboy vengeance, aren’t much better, though they do have characters and dialogue. Eh.

    From Top Shelf:

    HAPPY #2 by Josh Simmons, 32 pg b&w comic ($3.50)

    Remember when Marvel used to market SGT FURY as “the war comic for people who hate war comics?” This may be the alt comics for people who hate alt comics. Initially a bit off-putting – Simmons is a passable but not particularly good cartoonist – it turns out to be pretty witty and savage, with a brutal explanation of/”homage” to autobiographical comics. There’s another relatively forgettable strip in the book, and mostly scatological fillers, but the lengthy first piece is one great laugh, worth the price of admission.

    From FDW Books:

    STYX TAXI: AS ABOVE SO BELOW by Steven Goldman & Rami Efal, 32 pg b&w comic (No price given)

    Goldman’s got a great anthology gimmick – taxi-driving psychopomps giving the recently dead two hours to tie up the loose ends of their lives before they’re ferried off to the next life – but he frustratingly does nothing with it. In one story, an old woman wants to go to the beach to read to her departed loved ones. So she does. That’s it. In the next, a gay man has a last meal. That’s it. Goldman’s got a nice ear for dialogue, and I understand part of the gimmick is to hear characters talk, but it’d be better if they were talking about something. Fortunately artist Efal is getting really interesting, working much more strongly with wash inks that merge well with a vastly improved line. Half the book is Goldman’s prose, a novel in progress, and it’s pretty good, with genuine stories, so I know he’s capable of them. Maybe he can apply that to his STYX TAXI stories next time.

    From Jim Campbell:

    KRACHMACHER #1 by Jim Campbell, 48 pg color trade paperback ($6.50)

    Teenage angst, as a handful of teens head out for a beach party while one of them recalls nasty things she learned from her father about the ocean. This is all setup, and it drags a bit until the last quarter, when the story finally starts to move. It’s funny, though: most weeks I’m surrounded by comics with good story ideas trashed by crappy art, but this week’s got a lot of very good art in service of blank stories. Campbell’s art is very open and appealing, and gives his characters the personality the story and dialogue doesn’t. A couple short backups are cute but pointless fluff – one of them even bleeds an idea that was old when Stan Lee started endlessly repeating in 50 years ago! One tip for everyone, though: print publisher contact information in your books. It’s an awfully big leap of faith to expect press releases to stay with the product, certainly in this office.

    From Checker Books:

    THE EARLY WORKS OF DR. SEUSS Vol 1 by Theodore Seuss Geisel, 172 pg b&w trade paperback ($22.95)

    I never knew it before, but it turns out Dr. Seuss had quite a lengthy career – as ad man, humorist, leftish political cartoonist – before he became America’s favorite purveyor of children’s fantasy. This collects work from old humor magazines, US Army material, Standard Oil ad campaigns, editorial cartoons and other sources, but anyone expecting a nascent THE CAT IN THE HAT are likely to be a bit disappointed. Geisel’s full blown style never really emerges here, in either art or wordplay, and it’s more a historical document (especially witnessing Geisel’s style evolve from what looks to be a fascination with Rube Goldberg and MUTT AND JEFF) than good writing or art. Not that it’s bad, but it only hints at the anarchic genius to come. But if you’re a Dr. Seuss completist, don’t miss it.

    From Villard Books:

    FIRST & FIFTEENTH: Pop Art Short Stories by Steve Powers, 184 pg color trade paperback ($17.95)

    I am showing my age this week. This set me back to thinking about when Stan Lee renamed Marvel Comics “Marvel Pop Art Production,” and here, forty years later, we have someone claiming not that comics are pop art but that pop art is comics. (Trust me, there’s no way to make the declensions on that sentence work.) Bold coloring, I’ll give it that. Powers runs through a number of vignettes with full page illustrations and monstrous lettering, all overblown for effect. I’m not sure how to judge this – there’s only one piece that really works as a story, called “Waylon Saul,” but damned if it’s not a striking book anyway, and Powers even manages to come up with what may be the last word on superhero comics. I can’t figure out if FIRST & FIFTEENTH is good, but in opening yet another creative path in the medium it’s brilliant.

    From Fantagraphics:

    MAD NIGHT by Richard Sala, 232 pg b&w trade paperback ($16.95)

    More off Sala’s offbeat adventure-horror comics, collecting his EVIL EYE maxi-series, as a missing camera, mysterious campus murders, girl pirates (yeah, I know, pirates, but Sala makes them work) and various conspirators bring girl detective Judy Drood (a bitter, foul-mouthed, grown-up version of Nancy Drew) and her hapless, reluctant sidekick Kaspar Keene, out of retirement to solve the crime. Sala’s got a great, unique style, plots like a demon, his twisted sense of humor is off the charts, and MAD NIGHT rockets along at a crazed pace. It’s great. Let’s beat him up.

    BEG THE QUESTION by Bob Fingerman, 234 pg b&w graphic novel ($16.95)

    I’ll say one thing for Bob Fingerman: he knows New Yorkers. Reading BEG THE QUESTION is like living in New York. He’s got the rhythms, speech patterns, dialogue, locales and crazed relationships down, and the book’s a smart character-driven picaresqueramble the city’s psyche following artist hero Rob’s romance with disgruntled hair stylist heroine Sylvia from moving in together through marriage. The main storyline’s actually the weakest part of the book, as it follows a straight line throughout without much variation or surprise. But it’s really just a spine to hang the rest of the book – tales of the peculiar denizens, lifestyles, and quirks of New York City – on. Worth a look.

    GRENUORD #1 by Francesca Ghermandi, 32 pg b&w comic ($5.95)

    A strange little book about a hunchback overwhelmed by urban paranoia, who flees his old life for a new city (Grenuord) but finds himself falling back into old patterns. The art’s pleasantly quirky but the story’s too slender to hold onto. It’s nice to look at but otherwise unnoteworthy so far.

    RAISIN PIE #4 by Rick Altergott & Ariel Bordeaux, 32 pg b&w comic ($3.50)

    A decent collection of stories running a gamut of genres: the burning of a library sets a fire marshal after the arsonist; a teenage girl watches her true love walk away while she dates a boy she doesn’t like; a girl’s missing boyfriend sets her on a collision course with murderous Satanists. Most of the stories are continued (the fire marshal story takes a hilarious turn), and the last is best, mainly due to some great mock-Wally Wood art c. his SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES days. It’s more fun to look at than to read, but it’s okay, not because the writing’s bad but because the stories all truncate before they really grab hold.

    THE FREEBOOTERS by Barry Windsor-Smith, 272 pg color hardcover ($29.95)

    Man, does this sword and sorcery series have a pedigree. Smith, of course, made his first mark as first illustrator of Marvel’s breakthrough CONAN series, the original sword and sorcery hero, and Smith quickly evolved an ornate, almost jeweled art style to accommodate it. That style’s in full bloom in FREEBOOTERS, as if he’s returning to his roots. The book’s pudgy chief hero, Axus, a wining, wenching braggart and brute who can back it up when he has to but prefers not to if possible, is the spitting image of Armstrong, from Smith’s Valiant series, ARCHER AND ARMSTRONG, and aficionados claim it’s the prehistoric version of that immortal warrior. The series first appeared in Smith’s abortive Dark Horse series STORYTELLER, an ambitious large format work cancelled before completion. Which brings us to Fantagraphics, which allowed Smith to finish the work. Not that “finish” is exactly the right word for it. The stories meander and sidetrack; Smith would always rather follow a character or a joke than a storyline. Axus isn’t even involved with what passes for the finale of the story, and some pages are printed from blue pencil, left incomplete. But if it isn’t exactly the triumph of storytelling the title of its original home suggested, it’s an awesome triumph of art. In that regard, Barry’s one of the great storytellers of comics, a tour de force so overwhelming you don’t really mind that the segments often just sort of peter out, because with his art the journey is the destination. Highly recommended, if just to see what adventure comics art is supposed to look like. Get it.

  • Notes From Under The Floorboards:

    As usual, my available time has run out (in fact, I’m way overtime) with another dozen or so books to go, so we’ll get to those next week.

    Due to time, no Comics Cover Challenge this week, but I want to thank the millions and millions who correctly saw that all the covers in last week’s challenge were drawn or painted by the great Frank Frazetta (with Al Williamson joining in on the last one). Congratulations to Shawn Richter, who spotted it immediately. As he said, sometimes staying up until 3AM working has its advantages. Shawn wants to push his new book, A TRIP TO RUNDBERG, an original “redneck zombie” graphic novel available this month in comics shops and via its publisher Frequency Press. Check it out, and tell ’em Permanent Damage sent you. Taking the place of the Comics Covers Challenge this week are another Alex Toth crime story and a Frank Frazetta public service announcement that I love.

    I also want to thank those Permanent Damage readers who’ve dropped in to visit Alternate Reality Comics, my favorite local comics shop, when they come to Las Vegas. For those who want to see what a great comics shop looks like, it’s at 4800 Maryland Parkway, a couple miles off the Strip and a couple blocks north of Tropicana. Don’t hesitate to tell owner Ralph Mathieu you read about the shop in Permanent Damage; I don’t get anything out of it, but both of us love to hear it.

    I have quite a bit of material on the stands now myself. From IDW, the collection of my CSI mini-series, SECRET IDENTITY. From Moonstone, a short prose story in the KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER CHRONICLES anthology. Old stories of mine appear in Marvel’s new ESSENTIAL MOON KNIGHT and ESSENTIAL OMEGA collections, though the thought of work that old being reprinted – I was so new at it when they were done, and the Omega/Defenders story in particular was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool – makes me squirm a bit. No escaping the past, I guess. I think that’s everything that has come out recently. Am I forgetting something?

    And don’t forget my two books are available in pdf e-book form at The Paper Movies Store: TOTALLY OBVIOUS, collecting my Master Of The Obvious essays on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life; and IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS, a running commentary on American life and politics in the first half of the Terror Decade. 250+ pages each, $5.95@ or both for $10.95. What are you waiting for?

    Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

    Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

    I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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