TWO BOOKS YOU HAVE TO READ
No, I'm being serious here. The books are light-hearted, but they're two of the most entertaining single-issue comics I've read all year.
The first is last week's release, DREAM POLICE #1. It's from Marvel's Icon line, written by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn by Mike Deodato. As the title says, this is the story of two cops who patrol the landscape of dreams. It's an imaginative and quirky story set in a world where order must be maintained for the sake of the integrity of dreams and nightmares.
You might think it's a bit of a hokey idea on its own, but Straczynski goes a couple of steps further with his delivery of it. The whole thing is presented as a police drama in the style of DRAGNET. You get the clipped dialogue, terse narration, and the rest of that whole noir feel. Deodato's art contributes mightily to this, shooting for a photorealistic look even when there are dinosaurs walking down the street flinging cars around.
Straczynski is having fun with this book. He gets to let loose with the sense of humor that usually is absorbed as the B plot or as a slight distraction from the dramatic stuff. It's nice to see him stretch these muscles for their own sake here.
It should be noted that this is a short fantasy story. It's not a superhero story. It's not a single three act structure. The thrust of the story is not its earth shattering plot. It's the core ideas and imaginative concepts that inhabit the world Straczynski creates here. I'm sure we'll see some reviews from folks who hated the book because it doesn't match up with their sense of humor, or perhaps because "nothing happens." If it's the latter, then they're missing the point of the book. This isn't about that. This is a much quieter story in a way, that's more of a "day in the life" type than an "average Joe saves the world" device.
Thank heavens for that. Not every story has to be in the three-act structure and result in major changes. This one shoots for a series of entertaining incidents.
DREAM POLICE #1 is an entertaining and creative diversion. It might wear out its welcome as a regular monthly series, but I wouldn't be averse to more one-offs like this one. It's a little longer than the usual monthly comic, so it will run you $3.99.
MARVEL ADVENTURES SPIDER-MAN #4 is the best light-hearted Spider-Man story I've read in a long time. It might even top that category, if I could think of some other candidates right now. I'm afraid the whole "Sins Past" storyline seems to have erased many of them from my memory.
Jeff Parker writes a straight-up comedy here, with the Human Torch guest starring alongside a couple of bizarre monsters who are rampaging through the streets of Manhattan. Parker plays up the standard superhero cliches for maximum laughs, and pulls off some great schtick along the way. His timing for all of it is perfect.
Credit also goes to Comic Book Idol's own Patrick Scherberger for the spiffy art job. He had to draw plenty of cityscapes and superheroes and monsters, but came out on top. His wide-eyed characters sell the story, which is a perfect match to his art. For $2.99, it's the best Spider-Man story of the year so far.
I first read and reviewed Hiroaki Samura's BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL more than four years ago. As Dark Horse releases its 14th collection of the venerable manga, it's time to take a second look at the series and play some catch up. Some of the regulars on the Pipeline message board saw to it to start a book club of sorts to focus on BOTI. The hope is to catch up on the series, one trade at a time. Over the course of the next seven months, we should catch up to Dark Horse's release schedule.
Reading the first volume for the first time since that initial review, though, I can see how much I've learned. Back then, the extent of my manga and anime knowledge was the first handful of volumes of LONE WOLF AND CUB, plus some old NINJA HIGH SCHOOL comics and whatever childhood animated series I was once attached to -- VOLTRON, THE TRANSFORMERS, etc.
Today, though, I'm a different consumer/critic. I've absorbed COWBOY BEBOP and sampled other anime movies and series, like NOIR, METROPOLIS, and AKIRA. The manga corner of my collection has ballooned to include BATTLE ROYALE, LUPIN III, HIKARU NO GO, PLANETES, and a smattering of others. In short, I know a lot more about the genres and storytelling techniques of Japanese artists and storytellers. It helps to focus BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL a lot more for me. The odd amalgamation of techniques, genres, and attitudes present in the book feels more natural to me today. It's not just an odd combination of things, but a quirky and attractive stylistic choice.
The lead character, Manji, is not your average samurai type. He's impossible to kill, which leads to weird personality traits. There's a certain recklessness to him, but also a street wise smartass. Samura balances that out by introducing a female foil, of sorts. Rin is the daughter of a sword school master who was killed before her eyes. She wants revenge and wants to hire Manji to help her. He's suckered into it only because she reminds him of his lost sister. It's a great twist, in that it injects a soft spot into Manji's heart while blocking the usual clichéd romantic angle that others might want to introduce between the two characters right away.
Together, they will travel Japan, looking to kill those responsible for her parents' death, and looking for bad guys that Manji can kill so that he, too, can die some day. He, you see, has a bit of a deal with the devil. He needs to atone for killing 100 police by killing 1000 generic bad guys. Again, it's a nice contrivance of the plot that sets these two up and in motion so quickly.
All of this weirdness -- right down to the worms that are part of Manji to heal him -- isn't so weird to me anymore. You can't help but be desensitized to it when you ingest any amount of Japanese culture. This is all rather tame, actually. LUPIN III, for example, goes further with the sex and misogyny of its lead character. That's a trait most writers would shy away from today in order to make their lead character more heroic and likable. Manji shouldn't be this likable. He overreacted to a situation, got himself in an even worse situation, and doesn't accept the solution with the best of graces. Samura, however, gives us enough to like about Manji to carry us through.
The episodic nature of the storytelling doesn't bother me, either. I'm used to that from LONE WOLF AND CUB. A new chapter starts a new story, complete with a new setting and cast to run through. Hopefully, a lesson will be learned along the way and that will propel us into the next story. "Blood of a Thousand" collects the first six issues of the story. I know that future books include much longer stories -- even multi-volume stories. Samura doesn't get locked into a template with this book, which is good.
The star of the book remains Samura's art. It was a shinier star when I originally read the book and wasn't used to all the manga traits. Samura's insanely detailed pencil pages are great arguments against inkers. There's a subtlety to the shadows and a gritty texture to the pages that no inker can properly replicate. While it does leads to some faint lines on some pages, it's overall a very satisfying technique. (Reproducing straight from pencils is a nightmare in the production process.) I just wish there was some kind of rhyme or reason to it. It seems that he does it randomly, whenever the mood strikes him. This led to confusion for me the first time I read this book, and that didn't get any better on the second go around. The first chapter in this book has flashbacks that don't end obviously. I got confused trying to figure out where in the timeline I was on a couple of occasions.
There are also some lettering oddities, where I wasn't sure which balloon to read first. I have a feeling that has to do with the artwork being flipped somehow. If I were reading some of these panels in the opposite direction, those balloons make perfect sense. It doesn't happen often, but it happens enough to pop me out of the story for moment.
Manga fan or not, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is a book that gets off to a strong start with a strong hook. If you can adjust your mind to its genre-bending and storytelling choices, you're in for a fun ride. 14 volumes are now available through Dark Horse. This first one is only $14.95.
ODD NUMBERS is the latest art book from the ever-growing empire of Michel Gagne. It's also the smallest. The thing only measures six inches by eight inches in landscaped format. Its thirty-two pages feature an increasing number of items on the increasingly grotesque creatures that Gagne is so well known for. Forget insanely twisted rabbits for once, and look at bent bees, wacky warthogs, armor-plated armadillos, and -- no. That doesn't do it justice. These aren't just obscure animals with a twist. These are new creatures created whole cloth from Gagne's imagination, using bits and pieces of zoo animals, perhaps, as inspiration. That's it.
Each page is a new creature, and each creature has a certain feature repeated for as many times as the page number of the book. It starts with a one horned creature and a two-tailed creature before moving onto a 13 tentacled slimy looking thing to a green 30 whiskered lizard-looking thing.
This is strictly an art book. No attempt has been made to hammer this into a narrative. It's nine dollars for the hardcover edition. There is no softcover edition on the schedule just yet. It's a beautiful production, with heavy glossy color pages and a sturdy square bound and hardcover wrapper.
There's also a healthy preview of ODD NUMBERS on Gagne's web site.
For those who want a trip down a strange road, this is the place to go.
Tangent: I watched the STAR WARS: CLONE WARS animated series (second season) on Cartoon Network last month and spotted a monster that had to have come from Gagne's imagination. It looked just like his style, but animated. Gagne is credited with special effects work, but I'd be shocked if he didn't put that creature together, too. Check out his web site for examples in the gallery of what his work entails on the animated series. I never thought I'd be impressed by pictures of explosions, low lying clouds, and the dust that gets kicked up by departing spaceships. I am now.
If you're a fan of Judd Winnick's JUNIPER LEE series, you should know that Gagne did some designs for the show that were ultimately rejected. Those are the coolest looking cows I've ever seen.
ODDS AND ENDS
- Have I mentioned yet that we're only a couple of weeks away from San Diego Comic Con? I'd love to do a con program review if those listings are uploaded to the site in time. Stay tuned.
- Memo to Mike Kunkel: I want a Starhopper Squirrel comic book. NOW. I can wait till San Diego, but no longer! Please?
- Intrepid Pipeline reader Joe Torcivia wrote in to correct a glitch in last week's PREVIEWS column. I referenced the solicited issue of UNCLE SCROOGE as being Carl Barks' last story, and then took a shot at the declining standard of Barks' art at that point. I much prefer the 40s and 50s art stylings to what Barks settled into during the 60s, which was much blockier and awkward looking to me.
However, Joe is quick to point out that this is a story Barks only wrote. Tony Strobl did the original art job on the story in the late 1970s. Daan Jippes has been redrawing some of those stories, so there is a chance his name might be attached as artist, too. Stay tuned.
- Speaking of Ducks, please take a moment to read Gemstone's memorial for Bruce Hamilton.
- Steve Pheley offers the most outstanding advice ever on what to wear to a comic book convention. Of particular interest to me are the club shirts he mentions at the ends. He's right -- they show up in mass numbers at comicons. I don't get 'em. I think they're about the ugliest of all the choices he offers up here. I'm lucky I don't get seizures at the sight of them.
- Slave Labor Graphics is having a 20% off sale on everything in their web store, but the deals are only good through the end of June.
I've reviewed some of the books on sale here before. Let's do a quick rundown, in case you're inclined to partake:
- Egg Story
- Halo and Sprocket (issue two)
- My Monkey's Name Is Jennifer (First two issues, Top Ten Book of 2002, issue six)
- Sleeping Dragons (firsttwo issues)
- Slow News Day (first issue)
- Sparks (First run of issues)
(Hat tip: Johanna Draper-Carlson)
Check the Pipeline message board for updates on the Pipeline Comic Book Podcast.
You can still hear last week's podcast through the MP3 file.
Various and Sundry continues its link dumps.
All political discussions have been pushed off to one neat side at VandS Politics.
More than 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 also still available at the Original Pipeline page.