What I bought - 13 September 2006

Enough with the chit-chat!  Let's get to it!

Casanova #4 by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Bá.  $1.99, Image.

Why comics should be cheaper, a discussion.  (Yes, smarty-pants people out there, I am aware that it's never going to happen.  Indulge me.)

Casanova is the test case for why comics should be cheaper.  Not so long ago, all comics cost $1.99, so everything's relative, but these days, two dollars for a funny-book is truly excellent.  As I said, Casanova is the test case.  Pour quoi? you might ask.  Well, because I was not terribly impressed with the first two issues.  I mean, they were all wacky and shit, but I just wasn't as blown away as the rest of yonder comics blogaxy.  Had this book cost $2.99, I may have given up on it.  I have recently given up on several titles not because they were necessarily awful, but because they simply weren't worth the money for me to stick around and hope they got better.  Now, I certainly wouldn't wait forever for Casanova to get better, but because of its price, I could afford to wait a little longer, and I have been rewarded.  Last issue was quite good, and this issue was also pretty good.  They were far more coherent than the first two issues without losing that kind of disjointed feel that Fraction seems to be going for in this book.  I'm still not terribly sure what the hell is up with Zephyr and the snakes coming out of her (am I supposed to? has it been mentioned before?), but other than that, this had a lot going for it.  The idea of someone meditating to become God is interesting, and of course the fact that both agencies the Casanova works for would want our newly incarnated deity is also good.  Fraction mentions that he wanted Sabine Seychelle to be Jonny Quest as a grownup, which is, frankly, kind of a brilliant idea.  So it's slowly starting to grow on me as a title, and that's a fine thing.

But it might never have happened if it cost 3 dollars.  Stupid comic books and their stupid expensiveness.  But that's a rant for another day.

Ex Machina #23 by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, and Tom Feister.  $2.99, DC/Wildstorm.

Sigh.  Another issue of another one of my favorite books, and as usual, it's difficult to discuss it.  I mean, what's the point?  It's excellent.  You know I'm going to say that.  Harris' art, which last month was a bit weird and apparently experimental, is back to form in this issue, and it appears he is still experimenting, but perhaps it's simply more refined.  As for the story, it's more of the same, which is to say it contains interesting political discussions, it ties present events into Mitch's past as a superhero, it pushes the main plot forward, and it keeps the subplots (in this case, January's vendetta against Mitch) bubbling.  There are a few things worth mentioning: Mitch has a dream, which appears to be leading him to answers about his powers (wouldn't that be nice?) and the ending, which is slightly annoying.  Why, say you?  Well, I don't mind the scene, in which Mitch learns about the woman who set herself on fire and why she did it, and I don't mind the ending, in which something happens to Mitch that causes him to freak out a bit.  I imagine it will tie in with the dream and his alien-given powers, and that's cool.  It just seems like an awkward cliffhanger, because it's not really a cliffhanger, and it just sort of happens.  I can't really quantify it - it just seems like a weird place to end the issue, and it probably has something to do with the idiotic 22-page nature of comics.  Like a lot of comics I like, this isn't a book that fits well into the monthly format (and yet I keep buying it that way, I know).  It feels like Vaughan just needed a place to end, so he arbitrarily decided to end it there.

I don't know what I'm talking about.  Let's move on.  It's still a great book.  'Nuff said, to coin a phrase.

Fables #53 by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha with Andrew Pepoy, and Joshua Middleton.  $2.99, DC/Vertigo.

Speaking of excellent books about which I have little to say, we have the latest issue of Fables.  Actually, I do have something to say about this, namely, that it falls into the typical extended Fables storyline trap.  We had a very nice set up last issue, and now we kind of spin our wheels until we get to the final issue.  That sounds meaner than it should; this is a good issue, as we see, in very nice detail, Luni's plan to destroy the Mundy Earth beginning in 2009 (and Madonna is already making plans to escape that fate, thank the good Lord!).  Then we have Rodney and Pinocchio discussing their objections to the plan, which pleases Gepetto, because then they can refine it even further.  Finally, Bigby enlists Peter Cottontail to teach his children how to hunt - he wants Peter to act as a quarry for them, but promises they won't get him.  So the main plot moves forward, but we're still spinning our wheels.  This is a pattern throughout the book's long stories - a good first issue and usually a dramatic final issue, but Willingham often (not always, but often) pads the middle issues.  There could be a bit more of forward action in each issue, but we don't get that.  It's a bit frustrating and shows again why books like this read much better in the trade.

It's still a good issue, and Buckingham's art is gorgeous.  He has really done a nice job on this book.  I do wonder why Neil Gaiman is the personification of plague on the first three pages, though.  What's up with that?

The retailer from whom I buy my comics mentioned yesterday that DC finally got the first trade of Fables back in stock after three months.  It's one of their best-selling trade paperback series, but they couldn't keep the first one in stock.  And now the second one is out of stock.  Didn't they think with all the interest in the first one, the second one might be in demand?  Apparently one of the trades of Ultimates is out of stock, too.  Freakin' Ultimates?  This is not the time or place, but what the hell kind of business are those two companies running?

Phonogram #2 (of 6) by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.  $3.50, Image.

I wanted to read the second issue of Phonogram to get a feel for where the series was going, since the first issue was basically a set up.  As promised, Gillen dials back the musical references here a bit, although they're still sprinkled throughout, and the plot, such as it is, picks up a bit.  That's also a bit meaner than it should be, but it's not meant to be.  David noses around for the "girl" he's looking for (she's really an aspect of a god, but she looks like a girl), but he gets distracted when his friend Kid-With-Knife (???) tells him he saw the ghost of a girl David once knew - a girl who isn't, you know, dead.  David sees her too, talking about the guitarist of the Manic Street Preachers, and then he starts remembering how he slept with the girl - Beth - even though he never did.  It's all deliciously weird, and it's interesting that after two issues, we have a good handle on David.  Gillen has done a good job with little effort (well, I'm sure it was an effort, but it doesn't feel that way on the page) of making David both a dick but also someone who is willing to do things that might be construed as nice.  But we still can't trust him.  It's a fine line, and Gillen, for two issues at least, has achieved it.

There's a lot more, I'm sure, going on here, but I'm not going to worry about that until the series is done.  Phonogram will not make you change your religion or even, maybe, change your musical tastes (I've never been a fan of Manic Street Preachers, for instance), but it is an interesting tale about the way we view the world and what we do to try and bend it to our will.  Whether David succeeds or not is why this is a fascinating comic.

Sam Noir: Samurai Detective #1 (of 3) by Manny Trembley and Eric A. Anderson.  $2.99, Image.

You may accuse me of liking a misogynistic comic, as Jasmine, the girl Sam Noir "falls in love with" (in quotes because he never actually, you know, talks to her), is killed very early on, but I would retort with, "Well, it's a story about a noir detective - of course the girl gets killed."  I don't mind this as much as in other books because from the instant Jasmine shows up (first page, first panel), we know she's going to die.  It's there on the cover, after all!  She's a plot device, and a derivative one at that.  In fact, "derivative" is the word I would use to describe the first issue of Sam Noir: Samurai Detective.  Let's tick off the cliches!

Sam is a samurai and a private investigator.

Sam talks like Sam Spade, in exaggerated "tough guy" narration.

Jasmine is a mysterious woman whom Sam is hired to follow, which he does, quickly falling in love with her, until one night she shows up at his office, says her family needs him, calls him by name (even though they've never met!), and then is killed by three throwing stars in the back.

Sam kills the bad guys but finds out who hired them first.

Sam cuts a bloody swath through several samurai until he finally ends up at the head bad guy's palace, ready to fight some more.

Sam has a tragedy in his past - he failed to protect his master when the master's house burned down, with the master's daughter (another girl Sam fell in love with without ever talking to her) inside, and then he failed to commit suicide as any good samurai should.

Derivative, right?  Oh yes.  But you know what?  Trembley and Anderson make it work, and it should be okay for a three-issue mini-series.  The story is simple enough, but Anderson (he's credited second, but I assume he wrote it, since Trembley signed the cover) does a nice job of toeing the line when it comes to both hard-boiled detective fiction and samurai fiction.  The only problem I had with the story is that I'm not quite sure when and where this is supposed to take place.  It's modern, because the city looks modern, but everyone dresses like it's five hundred years ago.  Is it an alternate timeline?  Is it even Earth?  Little things like that bug me.

Trembley's art is stunning, even if Cronin wants it in color because of the black-on-black shading.  I think the uncolored look works well, because it's evoking the noir films of the 1940s, which, let's face it, were often colored in the same way - as in so dark it was occasionally hard to tell what was going on.  But that's not an issue here - even though the shading is very heavy, we can always tell who's dicing whom up with a sword and who's making hard-boiled threats against someone else.  It's very nice, and Trembley, like Anderson, does an excellent job of melding the two traditions from which this springs.

Like I said, for three issues, this should work fine.  So why not check it out?

Ultimate X-Men #74 by Robert Kirkman, Tom Raney, and Scott Hanna.  $2.99, Marvel.

Part one of my two-part rant about breaking stories up into "parts" focuses on Ultimate X-Men, and the weak wrap-up to the Magician storyline.  Yes, weak.  Nothing really happens, after all, that couldn't have been told in a much shorter time frame.  The nature of comics in 2006 being what it is, though, Kirkman had no choice but to do it this way.

First, this is Part Three.  It's not really, though, because Elliot was introduced before Part One, so it's really just a resolution of a longer story.  Second, Logan resolves the problem halfway through the book by stabbing Elliot, and the real resolution - that Elliot can make everyone see what they want to see, and make things happen that are good for him, and he has no control over it - feels tacked on, even though I imagine it's the only way out of the story without having Logan kill Elliot.  It's just a poor solution to a not-very-well-thought-out character, and it just feels like a waste of time.  Added to that is the fact that Elliot's revelation (to Kitty, whom he makes forget the whole thing, so it's just a chance for Kirkman to explain everything, and the story screeches to a halt, and it would have been cooler if Kirkman himself had just shown up for a page to explain Elliot's powers) isn't even the end of the book - Logan smells Sabretooth but doesn't seem him, Peter and Kurt have a tiff (another weird scene, as this issue obviously comes before the Annual even though the Annual already came out), and Xavier realizes that Lilandra is trying to seduce him.  This is all tacked on after the already tacked on resolution to the main story.

The frustrating thing about this is that Marvel and DC have decided that every story must be compartmentalized into sections, because we readers are too stupid to figure out what's going on unless it says on the cover, "Part Two" or "Part Six."  This model works for a lot of comics, because writers have begun tailoring their books to that format, and as much as I rail against it, that's the way it is and I'm just tilting at windmills.  However, both Vaughan before him and Kirkman now appear to be trying to write Ultimate X-Men in the "Claremont model" - no, not the cheesy dialogue and overused catchphrases, but really long-running storylines that don't easily get segmented into nice, 22-page blocks.  Claremont could afford to do this on X-Men back in the 1970s and 1980s because he was the sole writer and things weren't "written for the trade," but why must everything now be written for the trade?  If Kirkman wants to drop characters in a revisit them ten issues later, why not?  The Magician could have been an interesting character, but he was forced into a scenario where his story had to be resolved, so we get this weak story.  It's frustrating.  Think about some of the plots that Claremont allowed to simmer for years.  Yes, it got frustrating for readers, and he let some linger too long, but when he was able to let them boil and then resolve them naturally, it was very satisfying.  I just wish Marvel would allow both kinds of writing on their books, instead of obsessing over the trade paperbacks.  Because if you obsess over the trade paperbacks, you get weak stuff like this.  It's a shame.

Wasteland #3 by Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten.  $2.99, Oni Press.

Part two of my rant about breaking stories into "parts" concerns Wasteland, about which I'm still undecided.  This is far less egregious than Ultimate X-Men, because I imagine if we see a trade of this it will be six issues or so, but this is Part One of a new story, even though the first two issues really didn't constitute much of a separate story and this one continues pretty much right on the heels of issue #2.  Antony Johnston stops by here occasionally, so maybe he could explain the decision.  It doesn't matter all that much, it's just kind of weird.  If someone missed the first two issues and thinks, "Hey, this is Part One of a new story, so I can jump right in!" they will be disappointed, as you need to have the first two issues to understand this one.

Anyway, I mentioned I was undecided about this, because I enjoy it, but my reservations remain.  I have no problem reading something that is derivative (see Sam Noir above), and I've mentioned I enjoy post-Apocalyptic stuff, so this is nice to see.  On the "con" side, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and maybe that speaks to my stupidity more than the book, but Johnston introduces more characters in this issue, and offs only one of them, so now I have to remember more people!  Sheesh.  Like Casanova, I'm willing to give this book some time (yes, it's 3 dollars, but I'm much more patient with independent books than I am with mainstream books - I understand that we don't have shorthand with these kinds of books like we do with, say, Batman, so I am patient), and Johnston is adding intriguing things to the story as we go, so I will stay on board.  There's a lot to like about this book - the characters (at least the main ones) are interesting, there are a lot of mysteries swirling around, and who doesn't like a good mystery?, and Mitten's art is solid as usual.  Until Johnston makes a serious misstep, I will keep checking this out, and I like the direction in which it is heading, so it will probably continue to grow on me.


Scarlet Traces #3 (of 4) by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli.  $2.99, Dark Horse.

There's just no way I CAN'T like this, is there?  I mean, it just looks so awesome.  I'm looking forward to reading it.

So that's the week in comics, Burgas-style.  Strange week.  Pretty good stuff, but only one pure superhero book, and that an Ultimate-style one.  I know I try to look for stuff outside the mainstream, but usually something from the Big Two superhero world sucks me in!

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