BACK TO THE OLD WEST (SORTA)
Doug TenNapel's latest graphic novel is IRON WEST, the story of a western card shark and con man who falls in love with the town prostitute, runs afoul of its sheriff, gets shot at by some robot cowboys, teams up with Big Foot, and fights giant monsters.
Sounds like Geek Nirvana, doesn't it?
The good news is that this mash-up of pop culture high concepts doesn't suffer for it. That's because TenNapel makes no bones about it from the start - this is a book with multiple influences. The opening scene would almost seem like a waste of time, but for the fact that it grounds the reader in the new reality he or she is about to visit for the next one hundred and some odd pages. It introduces us to the Old West, a bit of the fantastical nature of the plot, and even a shovel-wielding robot.
From there we visit the town of Twain Harte, temporary home of Preston Struck, our likeable protagonist. He's not necessarily a good guy. He's a drifter and a gambler and a cheat. Despite that, you almost can't help but like him. He makes the wrong decision multiple times over the course of the book, but you still feel for him. He's just that charming.
The main plot of the book deals with an army of gun-wielding robots who are set to take over the railroad, the town, and everything in their path. Struck fights for his survival with the help of a wise Indian man and Sasquatch, while his every natural inclination is to get out of Dodge. It's an interesting internal struggle which has some entertaining results.
TenNapel's script is laced with some nice wordplay and isn't afraid to toy with the genres it presents. There are some great comic moments in the book, and the grand finale set piece is a cascade of influences and dramatic beats. You might argue that it goes on a bit too long in an effort to squeeze everything in, but I enjoyed it for its ambition and the sheer insanity of it all.
TenNapel's art is as strong as ever. He draws believably strong leading men, beautiful leading ladies, and very animated robots. Characters have their own walking rhythms and mannerisms. They aren't stiff and easily swapped out for one another. Part of that is the quirks in TenNapel's art style, but the other part has to be his animation training. When people complain about Hollywood's invasion of comic books, I always hope they're not thinking of the animators who come to our medium to ply their wares. They're often the most visually interesting creators in the business. Just look at the success of FLIGHT for all the proof you need. TenNapel also uses some standard scene transitions that you'd see in television and the movies in the course of the book. You don't realize it at first, but they're there and well used.
You can also see him experimenting with his art style a little bit with each new graphic novel. This time around, he changes things up on some silhouettes, drawing them in scratchy lines rather than solid blacks. It pushes the forms into the background more, giving them an out of focus look, rather than a shaded look. I like it a lot, and you can see it starting from the very first scene of the book.
For those looking for religious controversy in the book -- as many inevitably do with an artist who isn't afraid to draw on religion in the course of a story -- you're going to be mostly disappointed. There is a brief scene in heaven that I'm sure you'll groan over, but that's just a double standard. There are enough books set in hell or in worlds in which the religious are evil. IRON WEST has a nice moment that'll put a smile on your face that happens to be set in heaven. Good for TenNapel for including it in there, and not just ignoring religion all together.
In the end, IRON WEST is a book that doesn't disappoint. It's a fun stylistic effort from an artist whose annual contribution to comics is always worth looking forward to. If you're looking for a different take on a western book, this is the book for you. If you enjoy lots of high concept comics, this one will put a half dozen of them into one book.
IRON WEST is available today from Image comics for $15.
LAST WEEK'S BOOKS
Over the weekend, I did a guest appearance on the iFanboy Pick of the Week podcast. It was a lot of fun, and I thank the guys -- Ron, Conor, and Josh -- for having me on to chat about some of the week's comics.
It also turned out to involve a fair amount of homework. I'm not used to reading the week's new comics all at once. That's something I had to do last week to be prepared for the podcast. I'm used to spending time reading six consecutive issues of a series as a trade paperback, but reading six different comics in one sitting is a different beast all together. You're constantly shifting your mindset with each new comic. As much as you might say that all superhero comics are the same, they're really not. Each has its own tone and its own style. The pacing varies wildly from book to book, as does the degree of seriousness that the creators bring to the title. Light-hearted versus Crossover Serious is enough to make your brain split in half.
So I did it last week, reading nine new comics in one evening. Eight of them were superhero comics, but they were everything from solo titles to team books, one shot stories to middles of ongoing arcs, new series to established series. We talked about most of them on the podcast, but that doesn't mean I said everything I had to say about those titles in our hour together last week. In many cases, we just scratched the surface. That's why I'm running through those books again for this week's column. Those who have complained that this column isn't timely enough in the past will have nothing to complain about this week.
UNCLE SCROOGE #357 was my personal Pick of the Week (TM and (C) 2006 iFanboy.com). Honestly, none of the superhero books jumped out at me as instant classics this week, although one came close that we'll talk about next. So when the chance came to talk about the ducks and a story that I liked so much, I jumped at it.
This issue contains a reprint of an early Don Rosa adventure tale, "Return to Xanadu." I know I'm getting older when the stories I read in their first printing 15 years ago are suddenly showing up in new printings of Gemstone issues today. This is one such title.
As I recall, it showed up early in Disney's run with the Duck titles, and it really jumped out at me. "His Majesty, McDuck" may still be my favorite of all Rosa's works, but this one jumped out even more on the crisp white paper that Disney was using. Susan Daigle-Leach's colors popped out, and every line of Rosa's work showed clearly on the page.
This story also had some dramatic half-page splashes in it. Xanadu, itself, gets a beauty as Rosa reveals the big twist of the story, which I won't give away here. (But if you were a fan of DuckTales, you've seen the story that this book is a sequel to.) Xanadu's "stately pleasure dome" was, at the time, an eye-opener for this Duck fan. Carl Barks had some beautiful splash pages and often drew semi-detailed Duckburgs, but Rosa's detailed work and large panel sizes really jumped out at me here, showing me there's more than one way to do a Duck story. Ironically, of course, Rosa worships Barks' work, sets his stories in the same time period as Barks worked, and hews very closely to established Barks continuity. But his art style is still different, and his stories are busier with gags, both running and background. Barks was a better animator, but Rosa might be a better draftsman, a fact some bemoan as showing in his "stiff" figure work. I don't know -- I like it just fine.
If you enjoyed last year's LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK trade paperback, this issue of UNCLE SCROOGE is one you should consider picking up. While not set in Scrooge's past, it does share many of the same traits as those tales. In the meantime, the follow-up volume to LIFE AND TIMES should be out any week now. . .
DAREDEVIL #88 is a great standalone story from Ed Brubaker. As the cover says, it's "The Secret Life of Foggy Nelson," and I'll say no more to keep the spoilers safe. It's actually something of a hindrance for me in this case, as the reasons this issue are so cool need to be spoiled. I talked about it in the podcast, though, so listen in there to get the gist of it.
What I can say, though, is that Ed Brubaker does a great job of getting inside Foggy Nelson's head with some very well-crafted caption boxes. He manages to make Foggy's life a noir of sorts, which is right in his wheelhouse. Most impressively, he posits Foggy as the every man of DAREDEVIL. Brubaker's Foggy is a regular schmoe like you or I, thrown into incredible situations by a blind best friend who enjoys dressing up in red tights and fighting ninjas. But Brubaker does more than use Foggy as a point of view character. He also makes him a bit of the hero, a man for whom friendship means more than anything at all, even when it means getting in over his head in an impossible situation. I liked that take, rather than the usual scared reactionary he usually appears as in the book.
The art is by David Aja, who will draw the on-going IRON FIST series later this year, or whenever CIVIL WAR permits. His high contrast art style reminds me a lot of Lee Bermejo's. Coincidentally enough, Bermejo steps in as a cover artist for this issue. Between this and CHECKMATE, I fear we may lose Bermejo as an interior artist, and see him only on covers. I hope he doesn't go the Adam Hughes route.
In any case, Aja is a fine addition to the title, even if just for this one issue. His storytelling style is not flashy, sticking to simple rectangular grids, like Michael Lark. The art is very much restrained, but it tells the story and gives us some very nice visuals along the way. It's very realistic, but also purposefully drab in its color scheme. For once, Frank D'Armata's dark color palette is a point in his favor. When he's laying down the colors on books like AVENGERS, I've been more critical of how muddy and dark everything looks. On this book, though, it's absolutely perfect.
While there are bits of story throughout this issue that tie in to the previous storyline, the book stands alone on its own as a spotlight on Foggy Nelson. You can jump right in here, if you'd like. It's well worth it.
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #99 lost me. I don't know if I ever had the chance to praise issue #98 in this column, but I should have. It was a brilliant issue, firing on all cylinders. We had Peter Parker as Spider-Man interacting with the Fantastic Four to hilarious effect. We had an air of mystery and suspense lingering over the whole "Clone Saga" storyline. We had both great character beats and chilling subplots.
Then, there's issue #99, where it all falls apart. This is probably an issue that shouldn't be read for its own merits, but rather as part of the whole. When this storyline hits trade paperback status, this one chapter might not seem like such a misfire. Again, I can't get into the details of why it misfires so badly without spoilers, but let's just say that too much stuff happens in this issue that's completely unbelievable. Who knows? It might be true. But you can't expect me to bite on it that these characters would do these things -- especially not in the middle of a storyline called "The Clone Saga," where everything can be undone a page later with a hale and hearty, "Oh, she was a clone!" Some of the ideas in this issue might have worked well on their own as part of other stories. In this storyline, it's all a bit too much.
I think this might be a case of Brian Bendis showing his David Mamet influences too strongly. If you've seen movies like HOUSE OF GAMES or THE SPANISH PRISONER or THE HEIST, you know how Mamet likes to pull the rug out from under you as often as possible. Nothing is as it seems. That works a lot better in a self-contained two-hour movie than a three month comic book storyline, where you inevitably end up with a chapter like this where you just don't trust anything and the whole exercise feels like a waste of time.
We'll have to see how issue #100 works out. Will Bendis be able to straighten this all out? Will it all be a gigantic hit of the "Reset Button?" Will the story make sense, when all the secrets are told? Should I go back to reread the first 98 issues again to see where Bendis dropped all the clues?
I don't think I have the time for that, but I do hope the story works itself out. I love this series too much for it to fall apart now.
HEROES FOR HIRE #1 ties into CIVIL WAR in a very general sense. I couldn't tell you if this takes place after issue #2 or issue #3 of the main event comic. Heck, it might even take place after issue #7, for all I know. The good news is that the scheduling difficulties of the main series didn't delay the launch of this one. For that, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are to be commended. They created a series here which didn't need to tie into one specific event of Mark Millar's series. Dumb luck, or advanced planning? You make the call.
The new Heroes for Hire is a government group paid to track down unregistered powered folks, though their own moral code stops them from going after friends. For now. This has to be leading up to a storyline where SHIELD asks the new Heroes to go after a legendary superhero, and that's when Misty Knight and Colleen Wing will be put to the test. Joining them for the ride are Shang Chi, a new Tarantula, the Black Cat, and -- HUMBUG! It's OK if you don't remember him from his one appearance in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN during the McFarlane era. But he had a really cool cape in that one issue. It's gone now.
The art is by SHI's Billy Tucci. If you liked the art on that book, you'll like it here, too. I'm as yet undecided. His distaste for drawing Reed Richards is obvious, as the stretchy superhero has a malleable face in his three-page appearance. And Tucci is a man who loves to draw the women, as each of them struts across the page and poses seductively for the reader, usually ending with hands on hips. It's far from being a cliched early-90s bad girl comic, but it wouldn't take much to get there.
Overall, though, the book has a nice sense of humor and a strong mission statement to start. There's a reason for this book to exist and I look forward to seeing what other minor villains they feature in the issues ahead.
Right now, this book makes me want to go back and read DAUGHTERS OF THE DRAGON. I think the trade for that one is coming up soon, thankfully.
BATMAN #656 is the second part of Grant Morrison's turn on the Bat family of titles. It's a cute book, whose main conceit of showing Batman in a Pop Art/Lichtenstein exhibit grows old fast. It might be cute in one or two panels, but the trick gets old fast. For the most part, though, it's just Batman fighting a bunch of Man-Bats, which can be entertaining. And then it all winds up tying back into a long-thought-lost story of Batman lore. We'll see how that plays out.
I enjoyed seeing Andy Kubert's pen and ink work again. Jesse Delperdang slings the inks while Dave Stewart does colors. The last couple of major projects that Kubert drew have been faux painted by Richard Isanove. It was always a nice look, but I'm happy to see a more traditional look from Kubert again. A little variety is good for the soul, right? If you remember his earlier work on Mark Waid's KA-ZAR or Fabian Nicieza's UNCANNY X-MAN, you'll recognize a lot here. The work is a little looser and more natural looking, but the poses and lines are still the same. I like it.
NEW AVENGERS #23: Double agent Spider-Woman gets caught between three sides in this issue, and is forced to pick one. It isn't pretty for her, but it's entertaining for us. Brian Bendis puts Jessica Drew's back to the wall with grace, and yanks her out of it in a very un-Marvel like way. Some day, one Marvel writer will find it inside of himself to make the pro-registration side look sympathetic. This is another lost opportunity.
Olivier Coipel handles the art, which looks a lot like Leinil Francis Yu's style in some spots.
THE ULTIMATES ANNUAL #2: Yes, you can read this without spoiling vast amounts of the main series. It's mostly a buddy story between the White Man Out Of Time Captain America and the Falcon. Charlie Huston crafts a slam bang action piece, while forcing in talk of race relations in the twentieth century. Yeah, yeah, we get it -- Steve Rogers is an old white dude who doesn't get it, even when he does. The Falcon is a bit sensitive. Oh, and black guys are still incapable of flagging down a ride in 21st century America.
There's some nice Mike Deodato and Ryan Sook art in there, though.
ASTONISHING X-MEN #16: Fairly thin issue, like most of the series. But there are plenty of great little moments in the book that make it worth reading. Joss Whedon crafts some nice one-liners while John Cassaday makes every page pretty.
In case you have as tough a time following this series as I do on its slow crawl to completion, just be warned: That's not The Hulk in the opening two page spread. It only looks like him at first. It's a coincidence the Hulk's in space at the moment, too.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #1 is written by Brad Meltzer. You can easily figure this out by seeing the multiple narrators the book has, identified only by small variations in lettering colors and backgrounds. Often, they're all talking on the same page. Then there's another dozen characters and guest stars throughout the book being considered for JLA membership. And there's some unnamed villain at the end in purple. If you're not well-versed in the DC Universe, you're going to be lost throughout much of this book. If you're a continuity freak, you're not going to be able to figure out exactly when this book takes place. For some of you, that'll make for an interesting scavenger hunt, Googling for characters and searching through back issues for references. For others, it'll be a major turn off. Your mileage, as the saying goes, will vary.
The good news is that this is the most interesting the Red Tornado has been since Peter David's YOUNG JUSTICE. Meltzer is putting Tornado into the forefront on this book, as he makes a decision that will change his future dramatically, and possibly for all the wrong reasons. When the bad things start to happen at the end of the book, you get a gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach and want everything to work out for the best. I think Meltzer's thriller novelist training comes in handy with that.
Ed Benes is the artist. There's nothing new from him here. You either like him or you don't at this point. I think he's a capable artist, but his characters usually come across a little stiff. Sandra Hope's inking does a good job with the crosshatching and noodling to keep the art looking more detailed and interesting than it probably is.
One last warning for the book: You won't get the final team lineup at the end of this issue. Sorry. You will get a decapitation, though.
FINAL NOTES AND LINKS
- I don't know how Hannibal Tabu does it, but I'm glad it's him writing up the weekly reviews at CBR and not me. This column was fairly exhausting.
- Speaking of guest appearances on podcasts, I don't know that I ever mentioned my brief appearance on Comic Geek Speak a couple of weeks ago. Due to a cold screwing up my speaking voice, I wasn't able to appear on the show, but they did play an excerpt from my podcast a couple of weeks back on their special Civil War: Delayed! presentation. (I gave the show that title, not them. Blame me.)
- Dirk Deppey is back doing Journalista!, a daily and exhaustive link blog for all your comic news needs. Good luck, Dirk!
- Dirk links to this takedown of Greg Land on Monday. It's sad, but true. I hear a lot of people claiming that Land uses porn for photoreference, but most of them keep showing the same SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers as their examples. I'm almost afraid to ask this, but: Does anyone actually have proof that Land uses porn for photoreference? And would they admit to it, if they did?
- OK, one more link stolen from Dirk: Todd McFarlane will be on MTV Cribs next month.
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More than 700 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.