REVIEWS ACROSS THE SPECTRUM
Welcome to the first of two columns this week dedicated to a diversity of reviews. Sure, there'll be a superhero or two in here, but for the most part I plan on catching up with some recent comics that are just outside the superhero envelope. This column's reviews include a humorous book co-starring a robot and an angel; the return of robots in disguise; John Byrne's return to creator-owned work; and a World War II adventure story. The only thing all of these books share in common is that they're first issues, and that's a link I didn't even notice until I started typing this sentence.
HALO AND SPROCKET #1 is a charming look at humanity from the points of view of an angel ("Halo") and a robot ("Sprocket"). Together, they observe the foibles of one young lady named Katie. The wry observations on humanity and comedic timing of the book make it a pleasure to read. Creator Kerry Callen has a simple cartoony style (highly reminiscent of SHADES OF BLUE's Cal Slayton) that gets out of the way of the dialogue and has a whimsical charm of its own. The book is in black and white, with gray shaded areas added in (presumably through the Wonder That Is Photoshop.)
The first issue includes three separate stories, and thankfully refrains from using any of them as an "origin" story. You don't need to know what brought these three characters together. They just are. Accept that and move on to enjoy the stories. There are 26 pages in all of story in the book, followed up by a lively selection of pin-ups, including one by Jim Mahfood.
The stories are silly. The opening story about the glass being half empty or full that quickly turns into an Abbot and Costello routine. The second story is a shorter sight gag. The third is as close to an action story as you'll probably get from this book, as Halo and Sprocket break into a museum in search for the greater truths about mankind. All are funny without reaching too hard for it. The humor stems from the greater truths of our insane world. What more could you ask for?
Slave Labor Graphics publishes the book at $2.95 a pop. I think it compares favorably to SPARKS, SHADES OF BLUE, and ELECTRIC GIRL. It's got the potential to be a large crossover hit. It's got a great combination of attractive art and witty stories.
The only downside to it is that it will leave you wanting more. The stories are breezy. The whole issue won't take you more than 10 minutes to read, unless you're purposefully reading slowly. If you like to estimate a comic's value based on how long it takes you to read it per page, then this one might not rank up there too highly. It will, however, deliver high quality per page, and isn't that all that really counts?
The second issue is due out in July. It looks like the series is on a quarterly schedule. Don't wait for a trade. Who knows if it'll even make it that long in this market? Enjoy what you can get now and give this title a shot if you're in the mood for a little humor.
The fear with the new TRANSFORMERS: GENERATION ONE comic book was that it would rest on the laurels of nostalgia. Let's face it -- Pat Lee and company at DreamWave could have put anything on paper with giant transforming robots and it would have sold. The demand for this stuff is just that great. The only problem with that, though, is that it would have been short-lived. DreamWave looks to have gone for the long-term approach with this first issue of a six-issue mini-series set during the time of the first generation of Transformers.
They accomplish this by their attention to detail in the art of Pat Lee and Rob Armstrong in depicting the Transformers, and by the plotting of Chris Sarracini. Sarracini does an excellent job in restoring might and grandeur to the Robots In Disguise by showing them from the vantage point of the humans that surround them. In the original cartoon series, you always followed the story from the Autobots' perspective. In this comic, you're getting a ground-level portrayal of what would happen should transformable, walking-and-talking robots actually co-exist with humanity. It would be something the human population wouldn't just ignore. In fact, they'd try to use it to their advantage. That's what you get with TRANSFORMERS #1.
What you don't get is a lot of robots. You don't get a single fight between two robots, for that matter. A couple or three make their appearance in the book, but it's handled in a strong way. It's the way the shark in JAWS established all its ferocity. You don't see it for the first half of the movie. You hear people talking about it and you see the carnage it leaves in its wake. You never, however, see the shark doing any of it. When the shark does appear, it does so in a fitful and terrifying start, only amplified by the cloak of mystery it was surrounded by.
In this first issue, you only have a couple of pages involving the Transformers, and only one page of them in action. You don't need anything more. You see them through the eyes of the human who are investigating them. There's a large sense of an uncomfortable lack of intelligence about the robots on the part of the humans. That comes across, almost palpably, to the reader.
The comic book is smart in that it follows right along with the aging and maturity of the fan base that provides its key demographic. Megatron is seen killing people here. While that might have been hinted at in the cartoons, it was strictly censored from being shown. In a comic book 15 years later, it's OK to show it. The people in the target audience for this book are 15 years older. They can handle this one.
The art follows the same style as other DreamWave books do, as well as UDON studios. It's that open art style with a strong reliance on coloring and technical detail. The detail is there on the robots and backgrounds. The coloring is almost there. The opening sequence is too dark to be followed with ease. The reader is forced to work a little more than he or she should need to. That's a problem with this book. The rest relies heavily on the glossy paper to pull off various textures and Photoshop effects. The look can be pulled off on the computer screens, but doesn't always work properly on paper. I think the glossy paper is part of the hindrance. Using slightly duller paper might help prevent the colors from being too shiny at times.
In the end, though, TRANSFORMERS: GENERATION ONE #1 is a strong start to a new series. DreamWave has done an excellent job in establishing the force of these robots. I hope now that it can move on successfully to the next phase of the story, and take advantage of Pat Lee's ability to draw intricate robot technology.
Ben Bova has a novel called BROTHERS, which is about a pair of siblings working on a fully immersive virtual reality machine for theme parks. Things, of course, go awry. You might have seen episodes of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, where the Holodeck goes awry in yet another cautionary tale of technology gone crazy. You could have read IMPULSE, a title about a kid from the future who grew up in a simulated virtual environment on accelerated time. John Byrne's new series, LAB RATS, follows many of the same themes. It begins this week from the folks at DC. It's not a bad first issue. It's just not something to spark the creative juices.
For starters, I like the way John Byrne draws futuristic architecture. I miss that when I don't buy the stuff he draws. Honestly. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to reuse bits of it. In this title, the virtual reality machine bears an uncanny resemblance to the one he used in NEXT MEN.
The military, of course, is running these machines in an attempt to test out new tools for war making, and they're using kids as the guinea pigs. All is not as it seems inside the simulator, however. One kid gets killed -- and references are made to an even more horrific early test of the simulator -- and the rest are trapped in a world not of their own making. Or is it?
I feel like I've seen it all before, though. Heck, Byrne did it himself in NEXT MEN, albeit somewhat in reverse. The characters here are fairly generic so far, and the differences are small. Even worse, a new kid shows up for school in the first issue, and I'm guessing he'll end up being the viewpoint for the reader so that you can have a ton of exposition in a weak attempt to explain everything to new readers that the characters already know. (This is as frustrating a plotting technique as the transitional element I'm going to discuss in the next review.)
The art isn't bad for modern day Byrne. I miss the much smoother brush line that he had in the early days of NEXT MEN, though. He doesn't rely so much on the slanted panels that he's come to use as a crutch, and there's even a nice sequence with one of the characters (who looks like Arsenio or The Fresh Prince c. 1990) falling into the jungle below. Very well laid out.
LAB RATS is neither a challenging new series nor an inventive radical thriller. It is, however, one of the more solid works of the past few years for Byrne, and something with potential. It just has to get past some of the horrible clichés and antiquated notions with which Byrne imbues the first issue
HIGH ROADS #1 is the latest entry from the Cliffhanger! imprint over at DC/WildStorm. Scott Lobdell writes it with art by Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Alanguilan. It's a light tale set post-World War II. Nicolas Highroad is an American soldier stationed in Europe with just a slight touch of naivete. In the first chapter, he's scaling the front of a massive frozen Nazi base in Antarctica. In the second, we flashback to see how he got there, courtesy of one of the most clichéd and painfully obvious segue lines of dialogue ever written. "How'd I get myself into this mess?!" I didn't need to turn the page; I knew we were headed back in time. It's almost as bad a storytelling contrivance as following the new character around to be the point of view for a reader in a first issue. (See LAB RATS.)
Lobdell's script is light and bouncy. It doesn't get bogged down in detail. The characters speak in an almost uniformly wiseacre manner. But there's enough here to like and enjoy that you'll want to follow along with it for the next five issues to get the whole story.
The star of the issue is the art, though. After taking some time away from a regular grind, Yu returns with some fantastic detail and storytelling. His style has vague hints of the work of Rob Haynes, Travis Charest, Scott Kollins, and While Portacio. The opening gambit set at the bottom of the world is sweeping and vast, while also easy to follow and just slightly tongue-in-cheek. Yu's art is detailed without looking busy. It is perfectly complemented by Avalon Studio's colors, which are subdued and threaten to steal the show. The muted colors give the book a certain classical feel that places it nicely into its time period.
It's tough to set a comic book in Antarctica, as the first half of this issue does. The overwhelming whiteness of an area besieged with snow and ice -- and capped off by a large white Nazi fortress -- is something that has rarely been captured. (Steve Lieber did it in WHITEOUT and set the gold standard. I can't think of anyone else to ever come close before Yu with Avalon.)
Just to top it all off, the lettering from Comicraft works well with the art. Check out the special effects work in the first chapter of the story to see how the "tic"s of the bomb and the "ptinkt"s of gunfire bouncing off aircraft help maintain the lighter mood of the story. It's about the placement, the size, and the font of the lettering.
HIGH ROADS #1 is an inventive piece of action/adventure along the same lines of the Indiana Jones movies. It's a book that fires on all cylinders and is worth a read. This is also a book that would deserve the kind of oversized hardcover format that Marvel is doing so much of these days.
That's it for the reviews this week, but I did have one last thought before I wrap this up. It's something that I just didn't have room for elsewhere this week, but I wanted to mention it. The printing mistake of the decade appeared in my weekly pull last week. I'm surprised that I haven't seen any mention of it anywhere else so far. Chaos' THE HAUNTED #4's artwork looks like it was scanned into the computer while underwater. If you want to see the potential danger of producing comics in the computer age, this is your first piece of evidence. It's horrible. The lettering is crisp and clear, while the art is fuzzy and low-res. Hopefully, this will be fixed in any future printing or trade. The art is still legible, but it does impair the enjoyment of the book.
Special thanks to Dewey's Comic City in Madison, NJ for the help in this week's column.
Join me again on Friday for reviews of IMAGE INTRODUCES CRYPTOPIA, SUPERMAN/SAVAGE DRAGON, POUNDED, and more.
More than 350 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.