Not much up this week in the world of comics or anywhere else, so it’s time to get back to the reviews in a big way. Even The Beat, which covers a lot more than I do, struggles to find anything worth talking about this week. Hopefully something in our little neck of the woods worth talking about will pop up within the next week. Or if there’s some aspect of comics you’d like to read a crazed diatribe about, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.
The new TV season continues to limp into place, with the season debut of MI-5 (A&E, Fridays 11P) and the series debut of Aaron Sorkin’s new dramady, STUDIO 60 (NBC, Mondays 10P). The former is Britain’s answer to 24, where liberal English domestic security teams protect the motherland against all manner of terrorism and official malfeasance. More often than not it’s an inadvertent comedy, as in Friday’s show, where a largely new cast is sloppily introduced and the terrorist villains of the week aren’t simply anti-Capitalist or anti-West but anti- humanity, as the show struggles mightily to get us to take the laughable caricatures seriously, while the show’s previously pragmatic hero anguishes over fallen comrades in one of those bouts of humanizing series can’t resist inflicting on tough-as-nails protagonists. But I watch with fascination regardless. STUDIO 60 features FRIENDS-alum Matthew Perry and Sorkin veteran Bradley Whitford taking over a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE-esque late night sketch show. At least Sorkin has left David Mamet – Sorkin’s script maintains his overlapping dialogue legacy but abandons Mamet’s rapid fire repetition gimmick, formerly a Sorkin staple – for Paddy Chayevsky, whose legendary NETWORK he not only blatantly swipes (at least for the first ten minutes) but, like bad comics scripts do, openly rubs our noses in the source material by having his own characters note the similarity by name. In a way, that’s a hopeful sign; it suggests there may be something truly audacious in forthcoming episodes, even if the rest of the first episode – filled with jokes so telegraphed that even Whitford’s character points out what we’re all thinking at one point, the one obvious joke that Perry’s character studiously avoids (which apparently gives Sorkin the pleasure of both making and not making a lame joke in the same breath) – and the characters – Amanda Peet’s new network head character is so omniscient she’s immediately irritating, and you can smell the romantic tensions dropping into place like they were bologna on a hot plate. It’s funny; NBC at this point needs a breakout show, and this is a show about a breakout show, but aside from repeating sound bites about the Christian Right being horny for boycotts and the Iraq war having its own theme song, the show, so far, mostly just plays it safe.
Tonight: the crime thriller SMITH. I keep my fingers crossed.
Congratulations to second time winner Scott Eaton, who figured out last week’s theme was “kings.” (The ringers last week were my own DAMNED, whose villain is a mobster named King Silver, and BRAVE AND THE BOLD, starring the Viking Prince.) Always the progressive conservationist, Scott wants to point your attention to Birds For Bulbs, where someone named Rosemary will draw you a nice picture of a bird if you switch to fluorescent bulbs for your lighting needs. (I did a few years ago, and haven’t had to change my lightbulbs yet.)
Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week’s Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn’t been an issue so far.) Normally I run a clue somewhere in the column, but, as someone once said, those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that nobody gets my obscure clues. So no clue for you this week? (Wait… or is the lesson that I should run less obscure clues? Oh, well.)
(And, for those who haven’t figured it out yet, whenever I say there’s not a clue, there’s a clue, because there’s always a clue.
Nothing much out of the ordinary going on in politics this last week. Unfortunately. Because “ordinary” has an awfully bad taint to it these days. First there’s the Pope leading off a speech by segueing from a call for rational dialogue in dealing with those of other faiths into an anecdote about a Byzantine emperor deciding the only thing Islam brings to the table as far as religion is concerned is violence. Which is pretty funny, considering Byzantine emperors enforced Christianity at the point of a sword – basically, accept the faith or have your head cut off – and dialogue with Muslims wasn’t exactly a staple of their agenda. Except for maybe that particular emperor, who hired Muslim mercenaries to recapture the throne for him after his brother had booted him off it, but it’s a pretty good bet discussions of religion weren’t on his menu. Anyway, the anecdote was so pointless, so removed from any other element of the speech, that it’s got to be a clever public relations angle. I can just imagine Benedict complaining that no one loves him as much as they loved PJ2, and someone says, “Well… y’know… people only really started digging him after he almost got assassinated… so if you… I dunno… if you can just get some Muslim to take a potshot at you… what can we do to rile them up?” It’s a win-win situation for him; he issues a tepid apology that Muslims don’t feel is enough, then he turns around and says, “I apologized. What do they want, blood?” and voila! Instant hero to the anti-Muslim crowd.
Then there’s the Hand Puppet, claiming to the UN with one hand that the USA does not torture or endorse torture, and prodding Congress to pass laws giving him the right to authorize torture with the other. Most of the time I can grasp political rationales, even when I don’t approve of them, but one of the things I just don’t get is how it’s always the presidents who make the biggest show of being the most moral who want to put in play the most immoral behavior. Never mind that torture is a ridiculously unreliable tool for extracting truth, though it’s great for extracting whatever the torturer wants to hear so if all you’re interested in is a string of propaganda, hey, nothing better; what’s the weirdest thing about this is that Americans pride themselves on being the good guys, it’s absolutely essential to our national identity. So how do you hold onto that and at the same time openly endorse (which is what the Hand Puppet wants Congress, and, by extension, the American people to do) behavior that is universally acknowledged, give or take a dictator or three, to be the most heinous, offensive and vile ever concocted by humanity? And how does any politician on the one hand claim to stand on the highest principles (unless it’s meant he’s grinding those principles beneath his boot) and on the other undertake the most cynically pragmatic of activities? Unfortunately, it’s looking like we’re going to find out, particularly if the rumored new October surprise, a late October declaration of war on Iran just in time to boost public support for “our boys” but dodge a pre-election explosion of anti-American violence in Iraq, comes off as supposedly planned.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
From Famous Fighters:
FAMOUS FIGHTERS #1 by Matt Smith & Tom Pappalardo ($5)
This may be the best comic I’ve ever seen that I never want to see another issue of. With pretty sharp artwork, Smith and Pappalardo rip through a several pop hero clichés – Conan, the Man With No Name, Chinese historical kung fu dramas – and a few original creations, like a kid whose head blocks out the sun, with the unfortunate name of Eclipso, and a ridiculously simple but effective bit about a death metal band hooking up with zombies. It’s very funny (if a bit conceptual) and often surrealistic, but it shares a potential problem with most satirical comics: once you get the joke, you get the joke. Not that it’s a problem with a single issue, though the initially amusing “Barbarian Lord” starts feeling a bit tired by its final appearance, but while this is worth picking up (if for no other reason that to see how good a self-published comic can and should look) a #2 isn’t really called for.
From TwoMorrows Publishing:
BACK ISSUE #17 & ROUGH STUFF #1 ed. Michael Eury ($6.95)
While I don’t know what the reasoning behind the shift was, it occurs to me that while COMIC BOOK ARTIST was a much-storied magazine during its run at TwoMorrows, and arguably among the two or three most regularly impressive magazines about comics, since its move to Top Shelf, I’ve barely heard a peep about it. TwoMorrows hasn’t really picked up that slack yet, but BACK ISSUE and its new companion mag, ROUGH STUFF, come close, focusing more on comics art than comics artist. BACK ISSUE #17 focuses on comics heroines like Supergirl, Tigra and Wonder Girl, mainly a rationale for a lot of good girl art. The odd thing is how much of it isn’t particularly attractive; the only really striking art in the whole issue is a very nice Batwoman revamp by John Byrne, though a sedate Steve Rude Black Canary isn’t bad. It’s a bit odd; if you’re going to run good girl art it might as well be good good girl art. Still, decent histories and criticism in the articles. ROUGH STUFF pretty much abandons articles altogether, focusing on unpublished or preliminary art from well-known comics artists like Bruce Timm and Kevin Nowlan, with notes, but what articles exist are good, especially a dissertation on penciling and inking by Bob McLeod. Since there’s a considerable difference between pencil art and inked art that too few people understand, ROUGH STUFF serves an educational function in addition to serving up some very good comics art.
ALTER EGO #61 ed. Roy Thomas ($6.95)
ALTER EGO specializes in the eccentric and esoteric, and this issue covers, in probably the most depth anywhere, the comics company time forgot: American Comics Group, probably best known for HERBIE THE FAT FURY, and for being one of only a handful to survive the ’50s intact. Pretty fascinating stuff, really; author Michael Vance must dig out every story a company history is capable of. Worthwhile reading for comics history fans, but ALTER EGO almost always is. Excellent job for what it is.
THE BEST OF DRAW! Vol. 2 ed. Mike Manley ($17.95)
A large trade paperback of helpful instructional articles from Manley’s magazine, from working professional artists, for such disciplines as storyboards, comics art and digital coloring, with an apparently strong editorial angle appealingly focused on nuts and bolts. Overall the approach and attitude swings overly mainstream, but I can’t imagine there’s a newcomer interested in drawing comics or animation out there that wouldn’t find this indispensable.
THE ALTER EGO COLLECTION Vol 1 ed. Roy Thomas ($21.95)
Mainly a celebration of Golden Age and Silver Age superheroes and comics culture, which is par for Roy Thomas. This gathers the first two issues of the most recent ALTER EGO run replete with all the great anecdotes, interviews, articles and art, and apparently some new work but I can’t figure out what it is. If you share Roy’s obsessions (it helps to love Stan Lee and the original Captain Marvel), this is pretty good reading, though the price seems a little high for what was originally about $14 worth of material.
MODERN MASTERS VOL. 8: WALT SIMONSON by Eric Nolen-Weathington & Roger Ash ($14.95)
Even before I knew him, I thought Walt was one of the great breakthrough artists in comics. It’s not just that his style was striking, unique and original when he appeared on the scene c. 1975 – in the heart of the “hyperrealistic” Neal Adams era of comics art his work was idiosyncratically expressionistic, staying just barely within the necessary boundaries of “realism” for comics in those days – but that so many of the storytelling tools he regularly employed rapidly became lifted by so many other artists and so quickly incorporated in the language of the medium that his position as an innovator rapidly became obscured. Essentially a long interview (as are most books in the Modern Masters series) with Walt, as well as a portable museum demonstrating the breadth and power of his art, this volume does a really terrific job of explaining why Walt Simonson is great. It’s a really excellent job, for a really excellent comics artist. Get it.
HOW TO CREATE COMICS by Danny Fingeroth & Mike Manley ($13.95)
Kind of unfortunate the cover so resembles those cheesy “How To Create Comics/Manga/Good Girl Art/etc.” books at bookstores all over. This collects the WRITE NOW!/DRAW! crossover stunt of a year or so ago, but stands apart from most of the “creating comics” books on the market by taking the reader step-by-step through the process, including discussions of things like why some types of character poses are better than others, guided by people who’ve actually worked as professional editors, writers and artists. While the comic they produce – it runs here as well, in “published” form as well as in stages – isn’t great shakes, and the “directions” swing toward the Marvel/DC milieu Danny and Mike come out of, here the journey is the destination, and a clearer map will be hard to come by. Again, indispensable if you’re interested in producing your own comics.
CHILDREN OF THE GRAVE by Tom Waltz & Casey Malloney ($14.99)
I reviewed this during its mini-series run; I don’t still have those issues to refer to, but it seems to have been considerably touched up, particularly the art, though you can still note the transition from a fairly simplistic and unsure first chapter to a much more ambitious and confident final chapter. Like many mini-series, it reads better in collection, but Waltz may have cleaned up some of the earlier character/storytelling problems as well. It’s a military/horror story about a ghost-haunted American assault team in some mythical Middle Eastern country (I think; at times it seemed they were somewhere like Kosovo) being pushed by the dead to end the reign of an equally haunted dictator. In the end, I don’t know if Waltz & Malloney have anything particularly new to say about war, militarism and vengeance, but they keep the story interesting and the reader off-balance. Oddly, the book wraps up with a much more obvious unrelated story that shows off too well weaknesses of the creators that the rest of the book successfully obscured.
THE NOMAD CHURCH #1-2 by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey ($3.50@w/s&h)
Goodbrey’s once-radical surrealism has been getting increasingly linear lately, for some reason, and he doesn’t spit out quite the density of crazy ideas per page than he used to, but his storytelling skills are as good as ever. This mini-comic’s storyline is essentially his take on Dr. Who, transmogrified into a wandering preacher whose empty chapel (plus a machine composed of ideas) travels with him. As these are only the first chapters of what’s looking to be a sizable graphic novel, it’s hard to make a blanket assessment, but Goodbrey’s work remains fascinating in its sheer audacity and, despite the slight slackening off, he still packs in more weirdness per page (particularly in #2) than anyone this side of Grant Morrison. Check them out.
From David Baillie:
MINDY POOL, TONGUE OF THE DEAD Pt 1 & JUST WHO IS… DAVID BAILLIE? by David Baillie (prices unknown)
Another British mini-comics whiz, Baillie has one foot in alt comics and another in the action-adventure mainstream – and alt comics win! The minimalist MINDY POOL is the best excursion into existential depression I’ve read in recent memory, and JUST WHO IS… DAVID BAILLIE? paradoxically redeems the amazingly boring alt autobiographical subgenre by reducing it to well-drawn resume. (For all the simplicity of his drawings, Baillie has a real facility with body language.) The heroic fantasy adventure TONGUE OF THE DEAD is lackluster by comparison (though there’s a very funny Red Sonja riff that almost saves it). It’s not bad, just… normal.
From A Wave Blue World:
ADRENALINE by Tyler Chin-Tanner, James Boyle & Fabio Redivo ($2.99)
A fairly well-done comic that unfortunately provides few surprises aside from the premise. So far it’s righteous poor-people helping doctor vs. way too familiar overprivileged rich scion believes casual lawbreaking is his birthright and ends up needing the doctor’s help for his plot to convince his deceased Rupert Murdoch-stand-in dad’s trustees to put him in charge of Dad’s company: an AMAZING RACE-style reality TV show. It’s competent across the board, just below the level of stories that used to run in the backs of midrange DC books, but it gets just enough wrong to be irritating, as when the heroine’s shown knocked backwards out of a helicopter at a distance and angle that makes rescue impossible, yet she pulls herself back in two panels later. That’s the sort of thing it pays to draw without cheating. The good coloring masks a lot of drawing and storytelling flaws, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still there. Kudos for most inventive comics company name of the month, at any rate.
DONE TO DEATH #1 by Andrew Foley & Fiona Staples ($3.50)
Hmmm. A vampire hunter takes fangs as a souvenir. A vampire kills a film director and meets an old flame, with unpleasant results. And that’s it. I assume there’s an eventual collision between the two, but so far it’s just vignettes. Foley’s writing is pretty good as far as it goes, it just doesn’t go far enough to give his story momentum to bump interest into the next issue, despite some decent characterization and mildly inventive violence. (Seems to me I saw one of the bits in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, though.) But Staples’ art is really interesting, sort of Ghastly Graham Ingles by way of Ben Templesmith, and well suited to the material. She’s the real draw here.
From Moonface Press:
HERO KILLERS by Andy Winter & Declan Shalvey ($3.99)
A mildly amusing tale of villains who kill superheroes for pay. This would stand out more if both DC and Marvel hadn’t been doing variations to death lately, though there are a few really funny bits, like when a moth-themed villainess Ant-Man-like calls moths to help her in a fight, and they arrive just long enough to fly into the overhead lights. In parts the dialogue is way overwritten – shorter is pithier if you’re going for clever banter – but overall pretty good. The story’s greatest flaw is its rather abrupt ending, which would easily have stood fleshing out – the way it’s handled, it’s overly convenient – but overall this is a better than average indie superhero book. Again the big draw is the art; Shalvey’s work reminds me very much of early Steve Rude, which makes me wonder how good he’ll be with three or four years of work under his belt. Worth checking out.
From Reunion Comics:
APODOCA’S FIRE NEVER FORGETS By Brian Apodaca, Arturo Morales & Meredith Scheff ($2)
A slightly too-cute little non-story that wallows in its devotion to slightly tweaked clichés. Characters glibly talk about being chased by “AODs” (agents of destruction), the villains behave ludicrously stupidly, and pointless banter and not much else ensues. The art’s nothing special but it’s not horrible either, though the inking is far better than the pencils. Eh. Comics writers, especially those just starting out to make a name for themselves, really should think in terms of audience-building and generating something unique and original enough that people have to come to them if they want more of it, and actually saying something and maybe even concocting complete stories couldn’t hurt either; self-flagellation is so 1990s.
From Image Comics:
PHONOGRAM #1 by Gillen McKelvie & Jamie McKelvie ($3.50)
Excellent pop culture-infected cross between HELLBLAZER and an Oni book, as a womanizing English bastard (or maybe Gillen has just been reading too many English comics) runs afoul of the Great Earth Goddess at a women’s rockfest, setting him up for some sort of moral awakening. Or destruction. Hard to tell yet. But good dialogue (though maybe a little too influenced by Warren Ellis/Alan Moore/Grant Morrison/etc.) coupled with clean art and direct storytelling carries it, and Gillen at least knows how to set up the story enough to make the prospect of a second issue intriguing. I was starting to think that was a lost art.
ELEPHANTMEN #2 by Richard Starkings, Henry Flint & Moritat ($2.99)
This is a lovely looking book, starring my friend Rich Starkings’ futuristic detective hero, the humanoid hippopotamus (AKA an elephantman, as humanoid animals of the era are called, apparently derisively) Hip Flask. The good news is that it’s self-contained, so jumping on is possible; the bad is that it’s two vignettes and no story. Half the book is a battle, with no setup, between Hip Flask and a crocodile elephantman punctuation by biblical quotations (not sure whether Starkings is trying to make a point about religion or not, though the introductory material suggests it, but the point is elusive), while the other half is the crocodile being interviewed by a crude Howard Stern stand-in on a radio show, which really makes me wonder what the fight was about, since the crocodile isn’t presented as a villain, though he’s certainly unpleasant. (Then again, so is pseudo-Stern.) And, everybody, please never use to line “Tastes like chicken” ever, ever again. ELEPHANTMEN is great to look at, but, if this issue’s any indicator, a little think in the content department.
From Lobrau Productions:
TOUPYDOOPS #3 by Kevin McShane ($3.50)
More adventures of a dog/actor striving for a Hollywood career in a world where comics are produced like we produce movies and actors play the characters in them. How bad can a comic that starts with a rant about WIZARD-led fanboys be? (Then again, how much influence does WIZARD even have anymore?) In this issue, the hero takes an assistant job at DC Comics, and while it’s too bad it’s McShane’s fantasy version of DC, I’m sure a lot of assistant editors and editorial assistants will recognize the lifestyle. Pretty entertaining stuff, not to mention one of the more humane comics out there these days, with more art that reminds me of Steve Rude’s early work, and that’s a plus. Track it down.
From Chris Arrant:
FOUR STORIES by Chris Arrant, Eric Adams, Matt Bayne, Joanna Estep & Jessica Hickman (no price given)
Another mini-comic, with more vignettes. A man escorting his daughter to an audition interferes with a robbery, a man abandoned by his girlfriend (or did she just vanish?) wallows in his loneliness, a bickering couple gets lost in very strange snow, and a kid wanders through the vagaries of his little life. These are largely exercises for Arrant in dialogue and storytelling, not stories, but they’re blessed by good art across the board, and the snow story could easily have run in CREEPY in its heyday. I wouldn’t mind seeing more work from any of these artists, and I’d like to see Arrant tackle something more… complete.
From Boom! Studios:
TALENT #3 by Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegowski & Paul Azaceta ($3.99)
A strange moment for this mini-series, obviously tailored for film exploitation: after a good second issue it has gone into water-treading mode, filled with variations on what we already know about instead of pushing into new territory, which only slows it down. Not one of the book’s several mysteries are illuminated in any way, and the villains, particularly the killer who keeps making snotty “pithy” comments about everyone he kills, are getting really irritating. Mainly this issue demonstrates the hero’s shtick – he has absorbed the abilities and memories, and, to some extent, the personalities of everyone killed in the plane crash he escaped, while the forces of despair (there’s really no other way to describe them) try to track him down before he can re-inspire people to believe in miracles. I understand the need to punctuate the gimmick but it needs to be better integrated into the overall storyline. Azaceta’s art is excellent.
HERO SQUARED #3 by Keith Giffen, JM deMatteis & Joe Abraham ($)
Wow, there’s actually a vague suggestion of story movement in this issue. See, Milo Stone is an iconoclastic slacker who has hooked up with his parallel world superhero alter ego, Captain Valor, a refugee from an Earth destroyed by his old girlfriend turned cosmic supervillain, Lord Caliginous, who has her own counterpart on Milo’s world, Milo’s long-suffering mousey girlfriend Steph. Milo and Steph recently broke up when Milo slept with Caliginous, who’s getting romantically interested in him while Steph this issue shows nascent romantic interest in Captain Valor. And it seems to me that presents a fairly easy solution to most of the tensions in the series, if these characters would just shut the hell up and listen to each other once in awhile. Yes, it’s probably the chattiest comic in the market, but that’s part of the Giffen/deMatteis charm, after all; if you don’t figure on that, you might as well figure Beethoven symphonies won’t have string arrangements. The plot moves forward a little, too, as Milo attracts the attention of the law. As usual, a read leaves you punch-drunk with jokes, and, as usual, Joe Abraham’s art is great, especially the facial expressions; the series couldn’t be pulled off without them. Good.
X ISLE by Andrew Cosby, Michael Nelson & Greg Scott ($)
Between DAMN NATION and X ISLE, I’m starting to think Andrew Cosby fishes around for catchy pun names then figures out stories to wrap around them. This story of a collection of scientists and rogues trapped on a monster-ridden island where nature has gone completely awry still plays a bit too much like LOST, especially since mystery is piled on mystery without any solutions in sight, but this issue carries it a little away from that and more toward JURASSIC PARK meets LORD OF THE FLIES. Cosby and Nelson keep it entertaining enough, with the comic’s apparent heroine now missing, but the circumstances of her disappearance and the way the story has been set up the only logical possibility is that she’s dead, and it’s going to play like a cheat when she inevitably turns up alive. Greg Scott’s art is very eyecatching and increasingly polished, but it gets distracting when character’s faces suddenly look like those of well-known actors.
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IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
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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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