Yes, it's time to check out those wonderful big-time comics that don't fit into your 22-page format, man! They don't care about the rules the industry sets! They're all rebellious and groovy!
First on the agenda is ... Nixon's Pals, which is written by Joe Casey and drawn by Chris Burnham. Rus Wooton handles the lettering. Image published this sucker, and its cost to you ... no man can say! Okay, I can - it's $12.99!
As many of you know, I'm a fan of Joe Casey. I think he's one of the criminally underrated writers in comics over the past ten years or so. His creator-owned series are usually excellent (Wildcats 2.0 and early issues of Wildcats 3.0, Automatic Kafka, Gødland) or at least good and interesting (the rest of Wildcats 3.0, The Intimates). He also cranks out a few graphic novels every so often (Codeflesh, Full Moon Fever, Rock Bottom). Nixon's Pals is, in fact, the second graphic novel he's had published this year (Krash Bastards being the other; and no, I'm not planning on reviewing that because I just don't feel like it). Yet his series often die early deaths, and he's not referred to by the Internet glitterati in hushed tones like Mr. Ellis and Mr. Morrison are. Why not? Well, he's much broader than those two. You're never quite sure what you're going to get with a Casey book. Let's be honest - Ellis doesn't really surprise anyone anymore (even his best recent work, Crécy, was about his love of future science, despite being set in the 14th century - the English use new-fangled longbows to defeat the French), and Morrison's love of comics from the 1950s seems to be retarding his growth as a writer. Second, unlike the God of All Comics, he often spends his time working outside of the Big Two. I love Mr. Morrison as much as the next guy, but it's been a few years since he's really spread his wings, and longer since he's done anything that might even stink of "independent." That's fine with me, but although I think Morrison is a better writer than Casey (not by much, but better), Casey is often far more interesting that everyone's favorite Silver Age Aficianado.
Which brings us to Nixon's Pals. It's fairly brilliant High Concept - Nixon Cooper is a parole office in Los Angeles, whose clients are ex-super-villains. That's GOLD! Casey, more than many writers, is quite good at the High Concept (werewolves on the moon? GOLD!), and he's often able to pull it off. He certainly does so with his story of Cooper. He takes what is a fairly standard story - a seedy parole officer with lots of problems, surviving right on the edge - and makes it ... well, not great, but certainly an extremely entertaining comic book. There's probably nothing here that's going to blow you away, and Casey pulls in on the out-and-out wackiness that he's been exhibiting in Gødland, but there's still plenty here that works well. Nixon's life is pretty shitty, and then he finds out his wife is cheating on him. With a super-villain. Yeah, that's no fun. And then he finds out that there's a hit on the super-villain. And the assassin is one of his parolees, who just happens to be the best killer on the planet, but who really wants to get out of the business. Plus, another of his parolees has developed a machine designed to drive Nixon insane through his dreams. Yes, it sucks to be Nixon.
See, in the context of a superhero story and a parole officer story, nothing about this is too surprising. Nixon is never home, so his wife cheats on him. Super-villains are much more suave than heroes, so she sleeps with a bad guy. There's always an ex-con who wants to stay clean but keeps getting pulled back in against his better instincts (see Beast, Sexy, with a dynamite Ben Kingsley and a harried Ray Winstone). There's always a stripper with a heart of gold who wants to bone the good guy. The good guy is always beaten to within an inch of his life, but somehow manages to pull through. What redeems this is, naturally, Casey's writing skills (and Burnham's art, which I'll get to). He makes these characters real, and so when they get in situations that are somewhat stereotypical, they don't necessarily react in a stereotypical way. This is most evident in the relationship between Nixon and his wife Angela. Nixon vacillates between two emotional polar opposites, as he hates her because she betrayed him but he can't forget the love that brought them together in the first place. This makes their relationship deeper than we expect, and adds some weight to the story. Casey does this with the other characters too - Bricklayer, who is essentially Ben Grimm, is a bad guy, sure, but he's desperate for a cure to his condition, and in a few panels, we see how sad he really is about the way his life has gone. Maxfield Reactor, who is the Iron Man analog in the book, is another bad guy who shows that just because you put on a suit of armor, you're not necessarily going to be a hero. Casey tweaks each character in just the right way, and that's what makes this more than just a pastiche or a clichéed example of a tired genre.
Burnham's art helps. His characters are beaten by life, not the shining figures of superhero fiction. Even villains in superhero books tend to be pretty in a cruel way, and when they're ugly, they're ugly in a cartoonish way. Burnham simply makes everyone a person, even the outlandish ones like Alchema, the stripper with nipples for eyes and faces on her breasts. Nixon gets pummeled throughout this book, and while I doubt he'd still be living after the beatings he takes, Burnham still allows him to get more and more bruised and battered. Angela is tired and haggard, but there's still the beauty that attracted Nixon once and still attracts other men. Plus, Burnham is called upon to draw some very intricate machinery and some alien landscapes, and he's up to the task. Max's armor looks much more like armor than anything Tony Stark ever came up with, and Dr. Blivion's dream machine looks like something you would build in a garage somewhere, which is probably where it was built. It's a wonderful-looking book. I don't know if Burnham can keep up the level of detail on a monthly comic, but it would be nice to see him get some higher profile work.
As I noted, this isn't a great comic book. Despite Casey's best efforts, it's a tad too familiar. High Concepts are like that - the idea might be brilliant, but it's a bit more difficult to flesh out the story. But it's a very good graphic novel, and it's very entertaining. Casey always gives us something to think about with his stories, and Burnham brings his feverish visions to life beautifully.
What say we move on to The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch? This nugget is written by Neil Gaiman, drawn by Michael Zulli, and lettered by Todd Klein. It was published by Dark Horse and will separate $13.95 from your wallet.
I'm a bit disappointed this actually came out. You see, it was originally solicited in June 2006. Then it was re-solicited in June 2007. I was hoping it would become an annual event - every June, there it would be, in Dark Horse's section of Previews - until, 20 years from now, Gaiman would admit it was a big hoax and that the book never existed in any form. That would have been funny.
But no, it's here, finally, and it's not bad. It's not great, either, but it's not bad. The biggest problem with it is that it deals with fairly familiar Gaiman themes and doesn't really tell us anything new. Zulli's art is perhaps the biggest draw, because it's rougher and slightly scarier than Zulli's art usually is - much of the book takes place underground in a creepy circus, so Zulli needs to convey an oppressive atmosphere but one in which magic can easily explode into reality, and he does so nicely. The most important part of the book is the transformation of Miss Finch, and Zulli manages that very well also. The sadness and even world-weariness of the unnamed narrator (Gaiman himself?) is also a key part of the book, and Zulli never makes it overly gloomy, but we can feel his despair just by looking at him - first, because he has writer's block, and later, because we believe that he's jealous of Miss Finch just a bit, and he has to return to his life while she doesn't. Again, Zulli never makes him overly downcast, but the faraway look that he has in his eyes almost perpetually is enough to convince us.
The story is a bit too precious, however. Gaiman writes these kinds of stories quite often - there's a hidden magic show with undertones of violence; a glimpse of a different world; the choices the characters make about the magic circus and their place in it; the metaphor of the circus as the world and whether magic is gone from it. That's not to say this is badly done - Gaiman, after all, is a very good writer, so he is able to make the narrator and his friends, Jonathan and Jane, interesting relatively quickly, while Miss Finch, the most interesting character by far, slowly reveals herself through her dialogue. Miss Finch, a straitlaced priss, is something else by the end of the book, and unlike other writers, who would make the point about her being slightly out-of-step with the rest of the world, Gaiman allows us to understand that slowly, and it's more effective that way. Despite the nice character work, the instant we discover what really makes Miss Finch happy, we know how the story will end. It's unfortunate that it's a bit predictable, but there it is.
Ultimately, it's not as disappointing as it could be, and the reason I enjoyed reading it was because of how Gaiman does not make a big deal about what happens to Miss Finch. The resolution becomes a symbol of our own journey to enlightenment, and the narrator and his friends accept that, even though they debate at the start of the book whether to report the incident to the police or not. The narrator doesn't ask us to believe the story, and the point is not that we should believe it (it's fairly unbelievable, after all). What we should take from the story is that some people are not suited for this world, and when they find something that suits them, we should accept that. Beneath the standard Gaiman-esque themes, we find a plea for belief - the belief that people can find happiness, even in the strangest places. Miss Finch is far happier than the narrator at the end. So maybe she's not so crazy to do what she does. Who's to say?
This is a bit pricey for what you get, but it's an interesting little tale that looks great. Plus, Alice Cooper shows up. There's nothing wrong with a little Alice Cooper in your comic book!
Hey! let's move on. First Second, which often has very good comics, many of them translations of European books, has another one: Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa and translated by Edward Gauvin. It's $15.95 for 268 pages of comic book goodness!
Three Shadows is a strange book, in that it's atypical of "American" literature (it's not American, so that's okay). In these here United States, we tend to separate "children's" literature from "adult" literature. Some of the best "children's" literature is very good to read as an adult (Philip Pullman's trilogy comes to mind), but it's clearly delineated as kid lit, and deals with themes that are essentially kid-friendly. Yes, I'm generalizing, and my kids aren't old enough to read actual kid lit, so I don't have a lot of experience with it. Themes that are "adult" aren't usually introduced in kid lit, or if they are, they aren't dealt with in a mature way, because we all know kids can't handle that, right? It wasn't always that way - Bambi's mother did die, after all - but it seems like people believe kids can't handle deeper things and we need to protect them from everything. From the very little I know about European kid lit, this idea isn't necessarily the predominant one. Again, I can't say this with any certainty, but if anyone can back me up or refute this, I'd be happy to hear your take on it.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Three Shadows is a book that both children and adults can enjoy, even though it deals with probably the worst thing anyone can experience. It's the story of a couple and their son and what happens when the parents realize that three shadowy figures have arrived at their simple farm to claim their child. This becomes an adventure to save the life of a child, and Pedrosa takes us on a breathtaking but harrowing journey that shifts to a far more symbolic landscape as we move along, but never lets us forget what at its core. It's a beautiful book, but it's terrifying as well. It's simply an amazing reading experience.
What's astonishing about the book is how the characters react to the situation. We begin in an idyll, as Louis, his wife Lise, and their son Joachim work the farm and enjoy life. The shadows appear soon after the beginning of the book, and their lives quickly turn to terror. They have no idea what the shadows want, but it becomes clear that they want Joachim. Then the book gets even more interesting, as Lise consults an old woman in town who tells her that there's nothing she can do to stop them. She and Louis have a falling-out, as Louis decides to fight for his son and leaves with him, hoping to outrun the shadows. Lise, far more fatalistic, begs him to accept that the shadows are going to take Joachim no matter what, but he rejects her advice. Louis wants to return to his homeland, which is across a wide "river" (which takes three days to cross, so I don't think "river" is the correct word, but that's what it's called in the book), and the crossing becomes a nightmare voyage, as the shadows cannot be outrun. Finally, Louis makes a horrible decision that he thinks will save his son, and the book becomes a true fantasy. But can Louis really escape the shadows?
What is brilliant about this book is the way Pedrosa takes these characters and puts them through the wringer, but never lets them give in to despair. Lise is a complex mother who mourns her son but accepts that he has to leave. Louis is a huge, blustery man who loves both his wife and his son fiercely, and is willing to do anything to save Joachim. Pedrosa forces us to ask whether it's better to cherish the moments you have with someone when all hope is lost or whether you should fight with everything you have, even if it means sacrificing some of those moments. He doesn't give us easy answers, either, because while we admire Louis for his determination and scorn Lise for her surrender, we also admire Lise for her foresight and pity Louis for his foolishness. It's a conundrum that doesn't get resolved, and it's part of why the book is so powerful.
The majority of the book takes place on the ship crossing the river, and if the captain isn't named "Charon," he probably should be. The crossing is hellish, as Louis must deal with a slave trader, a drunken captain, and the ever-present danger of the shadows. It's fascinating to watch as Joachim slips from him even as the boy stays by his side. Louis can no longer focus specifically on his son, and this means that his fate is coming closer. His experience on the ship drives him even further to despair and forces him to make his momentous decision once they reach the other side.
Pedrosa's art is staggering. It reminds me somewhat of Frank Espínosa's work on Rocketo, but not as sloppy (and I use that adjective in a good way when describing Rocketo, believe me). Pedrosa wonderfully uses thin lines early on to evoke a rural paradise, and gradually switches to heavier lines as the shadows encroach on the family's life. When Louis makes his bargain at the end that he thinks will save Joachim, Pedrosa takes both the story and art into the surreal, as Louis bestrides a blighted landscape, ferociously destroying everything in his path. Louis is naturally big, and Pedrosa uses this both to show how good he is at protecting Joachim from earthly dangers and how his size will not protect his son from unearthly ones. It's a magnificent book to look at, because Pedrosa changes the mood both through the drawings and the story. He leads us through the tragedy of the book to get to the triumph at the end. Ultimately, this is a triumphant book. What makes it triumphant is something you'll have to discover for yourself.
Three Shadows is a haunting book about loss, love, and sacrifice. I wrote above that it's suitable for children, and it is. It's not an easy book to read, but it's the kind of book that families can discuss, because it deals with things that have an impact on lives and how we live them. It doesn't pull punches, but it's not too "mature" for kids, either. Pedrosa wants us to consider how we deal with grief and what it means to experience everything in life and still get through it, and the fact that he does this by writing a fantasy is what makes this so brilliant. It doesn't need to be "realistic" to be powerfully real. Check it out - it's a great comic.
Finally, we get to Breathe, a new collection of a mini-series published by Markosia. John Sheridan wrote it, Kit Wallis drew it and colored it, and Richard Emms lettered it. It costs 20 dollars, which is a bit much. It's a handsome book, but it doesn't have quite enough meat to justify the cost.
The story takes place in 1796 in rural China, which means Wallis gets to draw a lot of beautiful landscapes, and the book looks very nice (I'll get to the setting later). It has a haunting watercolor look to it, and Wallis does a very good job contrasting the early, idyllic scenes of Mi Ling (the heroine of the tale) gathering flowers with the later scenes of violence and death, as, perhaps stereotypically, the weather turns dark and portentous. It's a cliché, of course, but it's done somewhat subtly and Wallis stops short of giving us a huge storm - the storm breaks on the ground, but not in the sky. Wallis skimps on the details in a lot of the panels, focusing on head shots, but when he does expand his view, he gives us some nicely-rendered full-page spreads of a green paradise into which corruption slowly creeps. Twisted branches that earlier were evocative of the rebelliousness of nature turn far more sinister, and it's a nice effect. Wallis has a clean line that doesn't perfectly fit the subject matter, but it's a still a nice-looking comic.
Sheridan's story, however, lets us down. Mi Ling, who is a young teen (she gets her period for the first time in the book), is off in the fields picking flowers. Her friend Zhen runs out to tell her bad news, but before he can, she runs back to village and discovers that her mother and siblings have been brutally killed. Her father died years earlier, so Mi Ling is now an orphan. The suspects are three members of a gang that deals in opium, but of course it's never as simple as it seems. Mi Ling begins to peel back the layers of secrecy in the village and discovers several things that aren't pleasant. Many lives are ruined as these secrets come to light, and not everyone gets out alive. The question becomes: do the right people die?
There's not a lot that's original about the story, and although it's competently told, we're fairly certain early on who did the killings, even if we don't know exactly why. The reasons for the murders come to light, of course, and although it's not something we see coming, it's not terribly shocking, either. It's a fairly shallow exposé, in that we never really make emotional connections with the characters, and therefore, although the revelations are surprising and we understand Mi Ling's pain, we don't really share it. This becomes a fairly predictable story arc that ends, really, the only way it could. It's disappointing because of how Sheridan chooses to set up the story, which promises much more.
By that I mean the setting is not explored as much as it should be. Why is this set in late eighteenth-century China, exactly? It feels more modern than that in the language of the book, and it's not as if the story couldn't be told in any situation. There's nothing that makes the essential to be set in rural China in 1796, is my point. We never get a sense of the "Chinese-ness" of the characters beyond their appearance and some vague references to traditions. It's not a story that is unique to China. The rural setting is necessary, because of the sense of secrecy that permeates the book and the idea that a community could fall apart because of those secrets, but that's true in modern America, as well. The only thing that makes it archaic is the lack of government forces - mainly police - but that's not enough to set it in such a specific place and time. It makes no sense, and distracts from the story, because we're waiting for it to make sense.
I can't really recommend Breathe. It's a bit too much money, and it doesn't really come together into a good story. There are decent parts to it, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It's the kind of book that is a nice distraction for a short time, but not something you should track down right now.
I'm pretty sure there's a whole mess of big graphic novel goodness upcoming, so I better end this post now so it doesn't become overwhelming. The gem of this post is Three Shadows, which I highly recommend, but Nixon's Pals and The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch are entertaining as well. So go splurge on some graphic novels. The president demands you spend like a good consumer!