by Matthew Peckham
What you're looking at is a compilation of one week's worth of comics, selected variably, listed alphabetically, and sorted
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Don't look for frequent reviews of the more popular stuff here, e.g. Spider-Man or Batman, X-Men or JLA -- they get plenty of attention at the mainstream sites you can link to through our handy comics index. Instead, we'll be dipping into a combination of the low-print mainstream and independent, alternative, web-comic, and small press stuff.
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J.M. DeMatteis is perhaps best known for his acclaimed 90s Moonshadow, originally a serial publication, since collected into Compleat Moonshadow and blurbed by luminaries like Ray Bradbury as "beautiful, original, haunting" and Michael Moorcock as "told at a level of literary and visual sophistication which introduced new standards and aspirations to the genre." In his newest series Abadazad, DeMatteis has struck less loftily (but no less curiously) at the heart of Western nostalgia, namely that wonderfully disturbing bizarre happy land of children's literature and pop myth.
Abadazad tells the tale of a young girl, Kate, whose younger brother Matt disappears at an amusement park and is eventually presumed dead. As young children, Kate and Matt read a series of books by an author named Franklin O. Barrie about an imaginary land where the beautiful and oddball collide. Fast forward. At the end of the first issue, the girl -- now several years older -- meets the elderly hero of Barrie's tale in our world, learns her brother may have been abducted by a creature called The Lanky Man, then recites an incantation that whisks her away to Abadazad, the cliffhanger ending hinging on that reliable trick of the transformative, exchanging reality for "otherworld." The sense of whimsical adventure however doubles back on itself as more sordid details emerge this issue, with DeMatteis apparently endeavoring to deconstruct as he entertains, turning notions of safe and adorable on their head with Carrollian aplomb.
The second issue is constructed around Kate narrating from a diary the sequence of events that followed her arrival in Abadazad. Meeting a younger version of Martha, DeMatteis uses Kate to visit a revisionary theme that resonates in the politicized identities of historically "altered" characters (or even the pseudonymous duality of writers like James Tiptree, Jr.), before nudging the tale forward toward Abadazad's analog for The Emerald City, called Inconceivable, and another cliffhanger ending that recalls Baum's strangely terrifying Hammer-Heads from the later sections of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. There are in fact all kinds of delightfully inventive creatures posed against lushly penciled and colored vistas: shellophers are a sort of combination tortoise and hare, sour-flowers are wicked-smelling carnivorous plants, and long distance travel is accomplished via a creature called a "living staircase," which, once boarded, can extend itself for miles toward its destination.
The cover and interior artwork (graciously absent advertisement pages, thank you CrossGen) is handled by the eminently talented Mike Ploog, a seasoned Hollywood designer and storyboard artist whose work here glows with trace hints of animation visionary Don Bluth, but with a distinctly textured style that lets the pencils bleed around the inks, enhancing Nick Bell's dazzling painted color work with the same sort of uninked pencil effect artist Cary Nord recently achieved (with critical success) in Kurt Busiek and Dark Horse's re-launch of Robert E. Howard's Conan. Ploog is also a fan of all things round, dropping the first issue's somewhat more angular look for an organic explosion of curvature and characters full of elastic attitude, with expressive lips and pug noses, spiky hair and round-eyed wonderment.
Abadazad also pays obvious homage to Oz's Frank L. Baum and Neverland's James Barrie (Get it? Franklin O. Barrie?), and one of the books Kate and Matt read, Little Martha in Abadazad, is a nod to comic legend Windsor McCay's seminal comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.
Though lacking the intense philosophical depth of Moonshadow, DeMatteis's Abadazad is rolling along in this second issue with all the creative gusto of a gathering tour de force. If you're looking for the kind of Cockayne-Robson-MacLeod-Peake-Mièville "New Weird" that's been ruffling the usual feathers of late, you won't find so much as a hint of it here, but you will find the sort of "Old Weird" that is still somehow satisfying, somehow still relevant with -- not in spite of -- all its tender grotesqueries.
Never mind what Gresh and Weinberg (The Science of Superheroes) might have to say about a visually challenged superhero whose hearing is so overdeveloped that he can literally "hear" every contour of reality -- what Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev have been doing with Matt Murdock for the last three dozen issues of Daredevil has been stunning, exciting stuff considering this is one of the tights books.
Part three of the "The King of Hell's Kitchen" reveals that yes, it wasn't just a cliffhanger tease, Matt and his lover Milla have indeed tied the knot. Things are in fact quite turned upside down at the moment, since Matt's spent the last year (time-condensed and told through flashbacks in the last few issues) as the new self-proclaimed "kingpin" of Hell's Kitchen, nearly died at the hands of an upstart criminal syndicate calling itself Yakuza, and disappeared from the stage completely as this somber story arc rolls along. Bendis and Maleev have been systematically deconstructing the Daredevil myth for several years now, stripping the Murdock character of his secret identity and fitting the story with a gritty "urban noir" look, clearly drawing its cinematic styling from intensely character-driven movies like Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Singer's The Usual Suspects, and of course, The Sopranos.
Panels are washed in crisscross filaments of black that make the scenes look like age-stained shots from a celluloid reel, camera angles close on zoomed glimpses of photorealistic sketches of inscrutable faces, and rarely has light sourcing been detailed so carefully, so cinematically, to heighten the sense that one is experiencing a frame by frame environment, not mere boilerplate plot. Bendis's gifts include a sense for dialogue to match or raise Tarantino's, and with Maleev's capable visual realizations, a knack for pacing that slams home the emotional impact of something as simple as conversation held over a desk, or the exchange between reporter Ben Urich and Matt Murdock near the end that's a textbook study in how to say infinitely more with less. (There is, by the way, a bit of reverse and reverse-again colonization occurring here, since anyone who's studied sequential art and film together understands that camera angles in film evolved from comic panel work (think about what a storyboard is, what it's there for), and now comics are growing in new directions by integrating the innovations of a century of film.)
It's hard to say how much longer Bendis and Maleev can keep this noir crime drama going without stringing the concept out, since the tights books, like your average ordinary soap opera, must inevitably repeat themselves. One almost wishes Marvel would give Bendis rein to run out the clock on this character once and for all instead of just rebooting the concept with another writer and dragging Murdock (once again) over the familiar emotional peaks and troughs.
In any case, Bendis's run is certainly of a caliber this point to qualify as the best this book has ever been, nostalgia aside. Pick it up in the trades if you're looking for the back-story (you can have most of Bendis and Maleev's run for under sixty bucks, and Marvel seems to be printing the book heavily enough that back issues are still readily available of the last year's run).
The pacing of Mike Carey's Lucifer is a model for how to tell an apocalyptic mythical tale about gods and monsters with none of the gothic hyperbole, and all of the humanity intact, or at least as much as one writer can cram into a twenty-two-page monthly. Toying with the tradition of serial parts, Carey is currently trading issues with a parallel two-parter, and while this issue wraps the "Stitchglass Slide" arc that began in issue #46, the "Wire, Briar, Limber Lock" sequence which began in issue #47 doesn't conclude until issue #49 before the big Silver City fireworks in the double-sized issue #50.
"Stitchglass Slide" is the fascinating tale of a creature named Thole (from Old English thol, "pin"; also a "thole pin" which was a wooden peg set in pairs in the gunwales of a boat to serve as an oarlock) known as a stitchglass spinner, a sort of "psychic weaver" inhabiting an alternate cosmos created out of pure void by Lucifer earlier in the series. A spinner's function is to weave stitchglass from the emotions or feelings of others; joy and love form stitchglass, while pain and misery create "slop." The male spinners must also build a nest, weave stitchglass eggshells, and prepare them for investment with "child essence" by a female spinner. Through one of a million portals between Lucifer's and Yahweh's creations, the spinner empties his slop, unaware that he is corrupting the psyche of a human child on the other side, where time flows at relative speeds. Fleeing his frustrated family, a new age psychic healer, and his own wildly fluctuating emotions, the child, Martin, stumbles into Lucifer's creation through the portal in his attic and befriends Thole. The spinner builds a tubular slide out of stitchglass for Martin. When Martin scoots down the slide, it cleanses him of the "slop's" emotional detritus, until a female that is literally three or four times the size of Thole arrives to mate, after which the stuff hits the fan as the female spinner's appetite flips out of control. All of this occurs against the backdrop of a mandatory evacuation (mandated by Lucifer) of all immortal beings, including the spinners, from Lucifer's creation for as yet unspecified reasons.
Frankly, this is a lot of detail to balance on the head of two twenty-two-page pins, but Carey knows precisely what he's after in each panel, and the result is an economy of ideas that leaves you entertained as well as stirred. Carey's Lucifer is a latticework of perspectives, a marriage of macro and micro, shuttling our moral identifications about the stage, as if to say don't get too comfortable with this or that character or idea, there's always another side worth seeing. There's also has a wickedly acerbic sense of the comic that pops in from time to time through the book's supporting cast, and while it's not as overt here as with the Gaudium and Spira characters (fallen seraphim reluctantly aiding in the forced evacuation) in the parallel two-parter, the sexual gender role turnabout that, among other things, pits a hulking, growling female against a skinny submissive male is simply hilarious. Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly on pencils and inks respectively bring their reliable visual dexterity to a story that blends realistic and fictional landscapes, hulking creatures and mythic environs, and Daniel Vozzo's color works is a perfect blend of subdued radiating colors that gives Gross's artwork a more mature look that brighter colors might have undermined.
One of the best books on stands in or out of the idiom, Carey's Lucifer continues to please a smaller but devoted audience, and this story is another golden milestone on the way to the big finish in a few more years. (The best place to hop on is through the five inexpensive trades, available almost anywhere graphic novels are sold.) If sequential art books went bestseller on artful writing and innovation alone, Lucifer would easily, deservedly rank in the top ten.
The Norwegian cartoonist known simply as Jason (at least it's a name and not a symbol!), has pulled together 271 panels that in a single graphic novelette, using almost no text, and no words balloons whatsoever, manages to weave a hilarious, heartbreaking, and at times unnerving, psychologically intricate narrative of memory and loss.
Using lanky expressionless characters with animal features like webbed feet and beaks, whiskers and snouts, to represent complex conscious creatures engaged in everyday human activities and locales, Jason establishes an urgent rapport with the reader, but one which is conversely distant, a layer of "safe" disassociation added to the visually simplified abstract ink-line buffer zone of the comics medium itself. The effect is hypnotic and haunting, and impossible to put down.
The story is a simple one, told through two time streams that intertwine masterfully: poor artistic boy meets wealthy girl, falls in love, proposes, girl's father disapproves, stages a sinister tabloid photo sessions to sabotage the relationship, years later boy pickpockets lover of old flame, spies photo of girl in wallet, pursues girl (who's now a drug addict and domestic abuse victim), the two abscond together, but are pursued by the girl's lover and his thugs, leading to a tragic denouement.
Without words, the proper "cinematography" of panel camera angles, proximal placement, and derivative pacing, is absolutely essential to propel a reader forward at a constant gait given the minimalist style, and Tell Me Something succeeds in spades, operating in much the same way as the early silent film masters like George Méliès (A Trip to the Moon) and Edwin Porter (The Great Train Robbery), because like those seminal cinematic works, Jason's tale achieves its symphony of emotional responses by deliberately muting the static content or words, word balloons, and thus frees himself from their constituent prescriptive limitations. Tell Me Something accesses the pre-linguistic cortex of the assimilation center in our brains, gently nudging, then openly smacking it around as the narrative sails inauspiciously through scenes of great comedy that turn to scenes of great despair, and back around the wheel again.
Our existential sense of detachment is spurred by the use of sparsely detailed pure black inks over cream-colored backgrounds. When characters are injured or die, their eyes become twin x's. Surprise and exasperation are shown with radiating lines, squiggles, or question marks around heads. These otherwise inconspicuous externalizations coupled with the author's near-perfect sense of timing raise what might have otherwise been a simple experimental tale off the two-dimensional page and into the third and fourth dimensional spheres of human experience. This is tragedy told with all the masterfulness of Shakespearean drama, but with none of the endlessly emulated Shakespearian ballyhoo.
Fantagraphics is simultaneously the most obscure, most important publisher of sequential art on the planet today. Thank goodness they're still in business and giving artists and writers like Jason a place to exist. Expect to see Tell Me Something in the awards lists this year or next; it cannot come more highly recommended.
The Moth certainly looks like a promising experience, with its hot pink cover and enigmatic, yellow-goggled, chalky hero springing forebodingly from the foreground. As it turns out though, it's merely a great looking book by two visual artists in search of a writer.
Broken into two stories, "Not of Flesh and Blood" and "The Moth," Gary Martin and Steve Rude's joint hero (but not superhero) book concerns one Jack Mahoney, who was born a twin, but ended up receiving "an extra measure of strength," making him the robust one, and leaving his brother, Tad, physically underdeveloped. After bouncing around the orphanage circuit, the two are eventually picked up by a traveling circus, leading presumably (it's only implied here) to Jack's donning the costume of The Moth and eventually evolving his circus act into full-fledged vigilantism.
"Not of Flesh and Blood" pits Jack -- still coming to terms with the whole hero business -- against a supernatural African being called the Lionman. A group of poachers manages to capture the creature and bring it stateside, but empowered by a magic dance started by a group of Africans, it breaks loose and begins murdering indiscriminately. Jack eventually becomes embroiled and enlists the aid of a local biker gang to track the beast to its lair.
The problems with Martin and Rude's narrative lie almost exclusively with the dialogue, which tries to be action-packed and witty, and just fails. Making rough and tumbly bikers say things like "I've got your back, bro!" or "What a dumb punk!" lacks even the pleasant nostalgia of a Golden Age tossback, and there's an extended flashback sequence that's simply painful to read, as the narrative trips into an explanation of Mahoney's childhood like someone hauling out an obligatory slide presentation. Phrases like "I convinced them you were of good character" or "In your youth, I tried to channel your rage" don't help. Other problems include lettering that's consistently, unacceptably grainy, and a stilted sense of humor that falls flat most of the time (there's a fart joke that just erupts out of nowhere), and this from a story that's clearly trying to be more serious than comedic. And then there's the question of how -- considering that Mahoney's circus act (it's never clearly identified what his act actually is with the circus) involves wearing the Moth costume -- he manages to carry out a vigilante's lifestyle without someone connecting the dots.
But okay, enough harping, this is clearly meant to be mindless fun, and Rude and Martin's art is going to be your main draw outside of the well-paced non-dialogic sequences. There's also "The Moth," a short eight-pager that originally appeared in Dark Horse Presents #138, the result of a promotional inking contest running in Wizard magazine, with the winner getting to ink eight pages of Steve Rudes' pencils. It's better paced, has some nice action shots, and the dialogue isn't half as corny.
We'll see what happens when the four-issue mini-series debuts in April, but if you're looking for a really cool alternative hero book, you'll probably be disappointed. If on the other hand you're just after a little mindless fun, don't mind bad dialogue, and might enjoy the retro-Kirby look, this is probably more entertaining than sitting through the Daredevil movie.
This is Darwyn Cooke's third sixty-four page foray into his extremely ambitious gonzo pre-Silver Age project that retells the formation of the original members of the Justice League of America, or JLA, in the heady, naïve years following the end of World War II. With an emphasis on the somewhat less popular heroes to be, like Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), J'onn J'onzz (Martian Manhunter), and even a few cameos from some that were never really members of the JLA at all, like Ted "Wildcat" Grant (first appearance in Sensation Comics #1, 1942), Rex Tyler, aka Hourman (first appearance in Adventure Comics #48, 1940), and Challengers of the Unknown (first appearance in Showcase #6, 1957), the book captures perfectly the "sense of wonder" that accompanied the big fifties and sixties cultural resurgence of "manifest destiny," culminating in Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon in 1969.
In the third issue, things are moving right along toward the fateful test plane crash responsible for Hal's becoming Green Lantern, and this is perhaps the thread most central to the tale, owed in part to the fact that Hal's origin story reverberates best with the fifties, an era where being a test pilot had movie star power. There are a few cameos by the Golden Age vets like Superman and Wonder Woman, but the focus is clearly on what DC was up to in the later fifties, when publishers were looking to reinvigorate the comic medium by launching a new breed of heroes.
Things that work well here include the origin tale of the Challengers of the Unknown, a nightmare flashback sequence with ghoulish green color work and pop futurism that captures perfectly the feel of the "science gone wrong" mystique that so repeatedly flavored the pulp rags like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories during this period. J'onn J'onzz discovers that his secrets have been compromised, a black man victimized by white supremacists takes revenge, wielding dual sledgehammers (a possible 90s Steel analog done early?), Wonder Woman attempts to lecture the American government on the futility of war and is shut down, and Hal Jordan hires on with Ferris Aircraft, edging ever closer to his transformative moment.
Cooke's characters are Kirby-esque, but with squatter, rounding faces that are generally likeable, though occasionally too cartoonish and young. Batman in particular looks a bit too much like his modern Batman Beyond counterpart (or his original forties incarnation) and is perhaps a bit to presciently dark, otherwise Cooke's thick inks and widescreen panel-work (three horizontally stacked panels to a page) make the book feel like a portable paper drive-in theater, with shots that lift off the page and heighten the sense of having been transported back fifty years to a different era.
No, it's not merely nostalgia, but it's also not (yet, anyway) fair to compare this series to a relentlessly bleak film like Unforgiven as the author did somewhat loosely in a December 2003 Newsarama interview. What The New Frontier is, is action packed period entertainment streaked with social awareness and an eye for the human side of these heroes' origin tales, but there's simply no denying the positivism that bursts from the square-jawed-rolled-up-shirt-sleeves men, or the Marilyn Monroe movie star elegance of the women. Whether you call it nostalgia or period entertainment hardly matters, when a book is this well crafted.
Peter Kuper knows his Kafka. In 1995 he published Give It Up!, a collection of nine Kafka tales and vignettes, and now he's applied his unique scratchboard vision to one of Kafka's most well-known and existentially tumultuous short tales. Kafka's The Metamorphosis, a novella originally published in 1915, is the story of Gregor Samsa, a young traveling salesman who lives with and must financially support his parents and younger sister. He wakes one morning to find that somehow during the night he's been transformed into a hideous insect. After investigating his physical limitations, Gregor must contend with his changing appetites and interests, his inability to speak to his family, and his preference for hiding under furniture and eating rotting food scraps. In the end, a confrontation between Gregor and his father, in which the father throws apples to chase Gregor away, results in an injury that cripples Gregor and hastens his death, after which his remains are thrown out with the garbage.
In the intro, Kuper explains that while his narrative was obviously inspired by Kafka, the visuals owe a debt to comic legend Windsor McCay, whose "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend" -- a comic strip that appeared in 1904 in New York's Evening Telegram with its "trailblazing excursions into the absurd darkness of slumberland" -- made considerable impressions on Kuper's visual style, culminating in a scratchy woodcut look that gives the black and white pages a surreal bleakness that perfectly realizes Kafka's dystopian theme.
Kuper's Gregor is a traveling salesman obligated to a miserable impersonal working existence for his parents, who owe a financial debt to their son's boss. Alluding to the communication problems plaguing a family besot with that typically capitalistic desire to move beyond subsistence to respectable to affluent, Gregor bring his business habits home with him, bolting the door to his bedroom each night; the connection to his family, excepting his sister, is purely financial and emotionally void. After Gregor's transformation, which as in Kafka's prose has already occurred as the story opens, he becomes the literal embodiment of what he had symbolically represented, a cog in the machine, a slave to the system, and like the characters in Dickens' Hard Times or Sinclair's The Jungle or yes, the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix, he has awakened to the truth of where he exists and what he is. As a bug he can only eat waste byproducts, which slots nicely into one of the most poignant themes of Eliot's The Waste Land and the capitalistic cycle of consumption, process, and elimination. Subsequently, in the end, there is the pregnant sense that somehow rebirth may yet occur through the hope invested in Gregor's sister, represented visually by Kuper as the embodiment of fertility and the feminine and potential, just as in Kafka's text, "at the end of their ride their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body."
Kuper's vision is wildly expressionist, his bureaucrats portrayed with rolling cheekbones, curling noses, and lightning bolt eyebrows, and Gregor himself is visualized with large empty eyes, spiky insectile hairs, and fishhook hands. Kuper cleverly integrates objects with motion lines that bridge panels sequentially and temporally, and the resulting effect keeps the reader just as visually unsettled as when reading Kafka's prose.
One of a handful of visual translations of literary prose narratives that succeeds in its own right, Kuper's tale is essential reading for students of Kafka, literature, or sequential art.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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