Joe Kubert, like Will Eisner, is one of those living legends we're lucky to still have with us and working to this day. Besides producing a school that's trained countless numbers of comic artists and animators, he's given the world of comics two sons who are tops in their field, and a strong catalog of work worthy of any of comics' Halls of Fame. Most recently: YOSSEL is a story of what might have happened to a young artist in Holocaust-era Germany had his family stayed in the country. FAX FROM SARAJEVO speaks for itself, a haunting biographical tale of a man trying to escape the horrors of the war in Bosnia.
While it doesn't quite rank up there with the gravity of those other two books, SGT ROCK: BETWEEN HELL & A HARD PLACE is an earnest effort featuring some of Kubert's best loved characters drawn up in the way that only Kubert can. It's an entertaining morality play in 139 pages, featuring the kind of things that happen in war and where one's moral compass lies to handle them. The story is written by Brian Azzarello, but the book is owned by Joe Kubert, who does the complete art, including coloring and lettering. The result is an authentic looking book that takes great pains to tell the story in the best possible style.
Set in World War II, Azzarello's story finds Sgt. Rock's Easy Company in the dense forests of Germany, fighting against an increasingly difficult-to-spot German army. When some enemies are captured and later found dead, suspicion falls on the members of Easy Company, and Rock is on the hunt not just for more German officers, but for the suspected murderer within his own ranks. But is it murder in times of war? That's the great twist Azzarello puts on what could otherwise be a paint-by-numbers murder mystery.
Kubert's art is solid. His loose line and expressive faces keep characters easily identifiable, while his basic two- and three-tiered art layouts make reading the story very easy. He blends in just the right amount of backgrounds to portray a forest that's cold, dense, and foreboding without overwhelming the page or oversimplifying it. Those trees are always there, whether you see them on a given panel or not. When the action moves into a small town (that reminded me a lot of one or two levels from the videogame MEDAL OF HONOR: ALLIED ASSAULT), the action is freed up a lot, but Kubert keeps the story moving and the characters in line. This book is the perfect thing for that member of your family that can't get enough of The History Channel, but who thinks comics are all superheroes.
At $25, you'll have to decide if the book is interesting enough to you to justify the cost. It definitely was for me, but I wouldn't blame you if you wanted another six months or a year for the inevitable softcover edition. No matter how you read it, though, I think it's worth the time and money. If you've never seen Kubert's art, this is a great place to jump on board, too.
A BARBARIAN REBORN
CONAN #0 is the introduction to the next generation of CONAN stories, written by Kurt Busiek. There's not a whole heck of a lot to be gleaned from this preview about where the story is going. It's a fairly standard story that uses other characters to try to describe the main character. Still, it's worth it for the dialogue on the first page. Who knew that Busiek had it in him to put words in characters' mouths like, "For two copper coins I'd burn it all down to bare earth. Burn it all, piss on the ashes and be done with it." This is the same guy who wrote MARVELS and UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN?
The most impressive part of this preview issue is the artwork. This is the second debut of artist Cary Nord. He's no longer the same artist who drew DAREDEVIL's adventures under the pen of Joe Kelly. That artist is gone. This is the new fantasy artist, whose artwork is so impressive at the pencils stage that Dark Horse has colorist supreme Dave Stewart coloring it straight from lead lines. Think about the change in style that Andy Kubert has undergone from his days on X-MEN to his current style on ORIGIN and 1602. That's how much Nord's work has evolved, also. You can still see the original artist under there, but there are whole new angles and subtleties added to the mix.
The only thing that is lacking in some parts is the storytelling. Often, the comic becomes illustrated dialogue, which is a shame. Much of the issue is composed of montages, but the simple storytelling required in the opening pages is too lacking.
CONAN #0 is only a quarter. If your local shop still has any copies left, pick one up and take a flip through. The art alone is enough to sell the book. The new series begins in February.
BEING NEGATIVE ABOUT GOOD THINGS
Erik Larsen got into trouble not too long ago by pointing out some weaknesses he saw in George Perez's art. I even received some negative e-mails from my review of JLA./AVENGERS #1 when I pointed out some of Perez's off moments in the book. JLA/AVENGERS #3 came out last week with a cover that features one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of art in recent comics memory. It features something like 300 characters bursting out at the reader, leading any dedicated Marvel or DC Zombie to pick through the rosters of both teams past and present in an effort to name as many as possible.
The problem is that it lacks something as a cover. It's far too busy. There's nothing for the eye to focus on. The only reason this cover would stick out to a reader at the newsstand is if the amazing clump of colors startled the reader's poor defenseless eye. The center of balance for the original image is stuck on the spine of the book. This is a wraparound cover that is stronger than the sum of its parts. Sadly, only one part of the image can be on the front cover. If a smart comic book retailer were to shelve this issue with two copies side by side and the back cover to the left and the front cover on the right, it might work for the average shopper. As a single cover, it fails.
Still, it would make a dandy poster. I have a frame ready and waiting for it, too.
I love WILDCATS Version 3.0. I think it's one of the smartest superhero books out there right now. It brings us a new corporate perspective on the genre that we haven't really seen before. Joe Casey's writing has eclipsed perhaps even that of Alan Moore's, as the WildCats author. (Brandon Choi never stood a chance, and James Robinson didn't hang around long enough, although his run was the turning point.)
The latest issue, however, merely treads water at best. At worst, issue #16 is a redundant waste of time. There are maybe four pages of actual story development in the issue, and even those could have been compressed. For all that anyone complains that your average Bendis-penned ULTIMATE book feels padded, at least that's padded by characterization and wit. This issue is merely recap. I might have expected that in an issue that would lead off a trade paperback, but this one should come in the middle of one. Odd.
Likewise, it was a bit of an off month for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Issue #501 is a quaint little one-off story by J. Michael Straczynski, with the usual high level of art from John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna. Titled "Saturday in the Park with May," the story is narrated by Aunt May as she highlights the problems and pleasures of life as the aunt of Spider-Man. Like WILDCATS, the issue doesn't break much new ground. Unlike WILDCATS, it's a much more enjoyable story on its own, filled with wit and humorous one-liners. The problem is the framing device. We see Aunt May sitting on a park bench talking to something off-panel. I won't "spoil" the story here by giving away the ending, but it was pretty plain to me from the first panel who she was talking to. The fact that the last two pages of the issue are devoted to this "big reveal" is what causes a problem for me with this issue. It was barely a surprise as it was, and to waste a number of pages on it is disappointing. On the bright side, at least May had a reason for talking to herself this time around.
DOWN TO THE DUCKS
UNCLE SCROOGE #324 features stories by Don Rosa, William Van Horn, and Carl Barks. In addition, we get more of both the familiar and undiscovered (in North America, at least) European artists that Gemstone has excelled at introducing to the market in this new line. I'll highlight the Big Three here:
Don Rosa's story, "Gyro's First Invention," is Gyro's origin story, basically. It's filled with enough little details to put devoted Duck fans on an Easter egg hunt, but has an entertaining enough story in its own right to entertain everyone else. This is another great tale of Scrooge looking for a new way to store his money, and everything that goes wrong when Plan A fails.
Next is Carl Barks' classic "The Round Money Bin." It has everything in it you need, including the Beagle Boys and tons of cash. The most important thing here is that the printing quality is very high. Gemstone has had a problem with many of their Barks reprints lately. They look blurry, like a photocopy of the original story that's sat around for a couple of decades too long. Not here. Not anymore. They seem to have gotten their problems with that straightened out, because it didn't affect the story reprinted in last month's issue, either. That's great news. (Hopefully, it's not a matter of these being stories recently reprinted in the last Gladstone run.)
Van Horn's story, "Dime For Your Thoughts," is a simple 10 page gag story as Scrooge outwits Magica DeSpell yet again. It has its moments and is entertaining in its own right, but it doesn't rank anywhere near the top of his achievements.
Still, UNCLE SCROOGE ranks right up there on my list of favorite series being published right now. Gemstone is doing a great job in putting together the best of the best available material for the series. They're holding back nothing.
ONE QUICK CORRECTION CORRECTED
Remember last week when I said that a chat I had taken part in would appear in last week's Open Your Mouth column? Well, there were more technical difficulties. It might appear this week, or next week, or the week after, or never. Your guess is as good as mine. Hey, it's always a good column to read anyway. Keep an eye out. You never know what might happen.
I'll always be here, though. As much as J might try, he can't scare me away.
PIPELINE PREVIEWS returns this Friday after a month's absence, with a look at books being delivered to your comic shop in February 2004. Where does the time go?
Various and Sundry has been updated all week when my computer was up and running. I reformatted the sucker and reinstalled everything over the long weekend to correct some ongoing problems I had. There's lot of stuff on driving and the proper usage of blinkers, plus LORD OF THE RINGS errors, the weekly DVD new release list, and more.
Nearly 500 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.