by Matthew Peckham
Just a few quick words before we get started.
Firstly, thanks to Scott Tilson for very graciously allowing me access to a column he founded and smartly penned; I will do my best to carry on the mission, Scott.
Second, what you're looking at is a compilation of one week's worth of comics, selected variably, listed alphabetically, and sorted by week of release. (It's probably too much to read in one sitting, but at the same time a mere fraction of what's happening in this market today.)
Finally, 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 sites you can link to through our handy comics index. Instead, we'll be dipping into a combination of the low print run mainstream and independent, alternative, web-based or small press stuff. If there's a series or book you want to see or think ought to be reviewed here, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The BPRD or Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense was originally supposed to be a companion team to Mike Mignola's Hellboy, but the latter series blasted off, leaving the former team with just a mini-series and a few brief one-shots since they first appeared a decade ago. The BPRD is Mignola's vehicle for further "Cthulizing" his series, a world where soft-spoken scholars suddenly worship monstrous beings and engage in hideous acts of violence, where bizarre amphibian creatures rip from the husks of human flesh, where a creature grown in a jar in a Romanian basement studies Roman mythology and invokes the name of the goddess of sewage, and in dark ocean caverns an entity called Num-Yabisc calls to her children to come home. In this first issue of a new five-part mini-series, Mignola returns to helm the tale and take the story back to the ideas comprising the first Hellboy story arc, "Seed of Destruction." In that tale, the "world's greatest paranormal investigator," i.e. Hellboy, confronted nefarious supernatural forces and a freakish plague of frogs. In BPRD #1, a giant fungus escapes from its confinement and unleashes a similar plague of enormous green tongue-flicking monsters. Mignola uses the middle section to introduce newcomers to the individual team members' origin stories, before turning up the creepy-meter and plunging the team headlong into danger. Guy Davis does a fine job on the art, capturing the empty-eyed glares stylized by Mignola in his own artwork with aplomb, and Dave Stewart's color work is compatible with the excellence we've come to expect from Mignola's other Dark Horse books. Owing debts to Lovecraft and Dunsany, it's still primarily stylized horror, but told with an economy plot and "less is more" atmosphere that promises to be one more on its way to classic status in the Mignola library of apocalyptic paranormal fun.
The breakout title in DC's fledgling Focus imprint by the mind behind Howard the Duck and Thundarr the Barbarian takes us from the first issue's Columbine-esque crime and adolescent Ethan Harrow's fifty-to-life conviction, to a gothic state penitentiary and the tribulations of incarceration, but the second issue is mostly a slow-paced trotting out of visually and emotionally flat scenes designed to provide us with "the rules" of the prison, tease us with another unexplained superpower sequence, and establish who's who. You've got the muscular but sensitive counselor, the goateed wiseass, the whimpering new guy, and of course the archetypal rape-obsessed chain gang. Upsides include a few Brian Hurtt full-pagers that show off his skill with wide shots, and Gerber pulls a nice plot twist near the end that angles toward sentimental then switches to horrific. Haberlin's color scheme is the real letdown though, with full page washes of mono-color in different shades of overpowering blues, reds, and oranges. A more subtle form of this technique works well in books from Drawn and Quarterly and James Sturm's The Golem's Mighty Swing (or films like Seven and The Matrix), but despite an attempt to portray physical and emotional "states," its starkness draws too much attention to the computerization of the color process here. Perhaps not as fun or intriguing as it could be, it's still too early to judge Gerber's story, which could literally go anywhere from here; let's hope it does.
Frankie is a sexually frustrated typically self-centered teenage romantic, Jeriven is her lanky and benevolent yet jealous and smothering god, Dean is a kid who died at eight and went to the underworld before Jeriven resurrected him, and Kay is Frankie's oblivious best friend who narrates a considerable portion of the tale. Carey's blackly comic urban myth continues to shuttle between dozens of mini-chapters (and a Will Eisner reference, "Ronim Elcarim" to boot) exploring these four personas through their pilgrimages of faith and lust, friendship and betrayal. The third issue reveals more of Dean's sinister plot and brings Jeriven -- whose power and incarnation is contingent upon Frankie's worship -- down low, while Dean cinches his emotional grip on Frankie and Kay gets cozy with the debilitated Jeriven. Wit and burlesque abound, and the demons reading the 'Frankie' and 'Kay' scripts are especially guffaw-inducing, all in the service of a narrative that manages to portray sentimentality and love without stooping to clichés or maudlin soliloquies. Liew and Hempel's slender, scratchy art is a vision of perky kinetics, but works best in the "Frankie & Her Pals" flashbacks with their playful antics and flashes of Bill Watterson. After years of darker, heavily layered fantasy, Carey is really showing his stylistic limberness by giving us one of the most intelligent sequential art comedies in years.
Quite possibly the funniest comic on stands today, Eisner award winner Kyle Baker's first three issues of Plastic Man are already classics (Dave Maddox's SF Site review of Plastic Man #1). The fourth issue pulls Plas out of a near death experience in a body bag and the arms of the law, and into the intrigue surrounding his alter-ego Eel O'Brien's alleged murderous activities. The satire is first rate, including a bubblegum moment with a sewer alligator, an impromptu dangling graffiti artist, and Plas as a naked shrieking femme. Trifling nits include occasional fuzzy lines and subtle color bleed or gap issues which may be the fault of the printing technology, otherwise this is a great looking book, with bright focused color that explodes off the pages along with Baker's Looney Tunes antics. What's especially intriguing about Baker's work is that all of his characters are in fact as pliable as his protagonist, with bulging proboscises and wagging tongues, exaggerated emotional hysterics and hyperbolic poses. Looking like a slightly less demented (or slightly more, depending on the scene) John Kricfalusi cartoon, the entire book has a certain plasticity that leaks into the lettering, the paneling, and even the plot, and somehow, crazily, the end result is page-turning smart satirical fun. Not one to be pinned to one-dimensional goofing, Baker ends on a considerably darker note this time, hinting at the possibility of tantalizing stylistic detours to come. No doubt headed for a trade collection, it's not too late to jump onboard with the monthlies, and worth every dollar.
It's tough being a witch, never mind being the very last, literally, of the Thessalian witches, but Thessaly manages somehow. From the pages of Gaiman and McManus's Sandman, Thessaly is an unbelievably powerful female still roaming the world after thousands of years without apparent purpose. We learned last issue that Thessaly was attempting to settle back in Italy, until a series of monstrous attacks courtesy a ghost named Fetch (culled from all the entities Thess has ever personally killed), who's doing it oddly enough to give Thess a sense of purpose because he claims to be in love with her. The second issue has Thess and Fetch flipping over from Italy to America and taking out another monster -- this one an unexplainably cannibalistic effrit, then putting the supernatural muscle on Fetch (now trapped in a standing mirror) for information about his clients. Toward the end we get a brief explanation of what's really going on, and a confusing tongue-in-cheek declamation that something radical has happened in the "Thessa-verse" threatening to alter continuity once and for all. Willingham writes his usual light-hearted-laced-with-ugly-underneath tale sprinkled with myth and baked with dramatis personae. McManus is listed as co-creator of the Thessaly character, being the original artist to draw her in Gaiman's Sandman series, and his cartoonish pouty-lipped Thessaly (looks like a cross between Hanna-Barbera's Daphne and Velma) is the perfect mix of truculent and sweet. The real winner is Tara McPherson, whose sublime acrylic covers are some of the best to ever grace a Vertigo tale. Overall, it's not quite as intriguing as Willingham's Eisner award-winning work on Fables, but so far a plenty worthy successor to the his original four-part mini-series based on the same characters.
The Lao Tzu quotation from the Tao Te Ching in the first panel of Swamp Thing #1 ties this relaunch in with the closing events of Mike Carey's Hellblazer #193 and sets Diggle's tale on an unsubtly naturalistic path (note the interspersed "animals eating insects/each other" shots). In the last chapter of Carey's "Staring at the Wall" Hellblazer story arc, the Swamp Thing journeyed to the realm of the Beast to aid John Constantine, but in the course of events his soul was separated from its elemental casing. In Diggle's launchpad narrative, we learn that Constantine somehow stashed the soul of Alec Holland in Holland's corpse, still dubiously rotting in the Louisiana swamp from which the original creature sprang. Separated from its human conscience, the earth elemental force is now roaming unchecked, apparently intent on turning the balance in favor of The Green (the mystic realm that governs all things vegetable). At the crux of the conflict is Tefe Holland, daughter of the Swamp Thing and Abby Holland, a sort of hybrid plant/animal elemental and the subject of Brian K. Vaughan's twenty-issue run on the previous series. The leaps in logic here are a bit much, even for a title that plays fast and loose with reality, but Diggle's aim is clearly to entertain, not (yet, anyway) to plum the same philosophical depths Alan Moore brought to Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's shambling monster. Enrique Breccia's Swamp Thing shots are the best yet (the midway two-page spread and the book's closing shot are serious lookers), but his Tefe seems too punky, his Constantine too leeringly ugly. Colorist Martin Breccia assists by giving the natural environ and creature shots a gorgeous painted look. As usual, expectations remain high for a series that's been a DC hallmark since 1970; fortunately things are off to a vigorous, promising start.
Fresh from the much abbreviated four-part Coup D'Etat, this month's issue picks up where the mini left off with the Authority digging into the particulars of running a global dictatorial oligarchy. Instead of fleets of inter-dimensional alien invaders, ancient sectarian cults, or genetically engineered government super-assassins, this issue explores the much more personal intersection of idealism and practical reality (until the last few pages, that is). Once you take over the world, how do you run it? Is it possible to tell the truth to the masses and still maintain planetary peace? What happens to the line between individual and global rights? As they say, the road to Tartarus is paved with noble sentiments, which is predictably where the story seems to be taking us. Robbie Morrison is still standing in the shadow of Meissieurs Ellis and Millar, but this issue moves things back toward the epic plot driven devices that made the first series so much popcorn-crunching fun. The Authority is essentially a variation on the house Mark Waid notably expanded with the groundbreaking Kingdom Come, and it's nice to finally see Morrison launch the title in an interesting direction that takes up those same controversial themes. Turner and Regla work with muscular lines and practical cinematic shots, and David Baron's color work lights up the Bleed nicely toward the end. We can do without the experimental TV broadcast FX in the first few pages (they make the panels look washed out as opposed to "broadcast signal" grainy), otherwise The Authority is a great looking book with a competent writer, giving us its cynical "macro" vision of a world in the shadow of its godlike protectors.
Math and co-dependency, that's what Scott McCloud's first two issues of The Right Number wrestle around with a kind of elegant zeal. McCloud, a notorious proponent of the experimental, pushes the limits again with a clever innovative take on sequential overlapping, i.e. panel over panel in an "animated" Flash sequence. Each successive panel is located as a mini-panel in the current frame. Clicking on these "mini" panels zooms on the next, and so on, through fifty-plus panels per issue. The technique places the sense of motion somewhere between sequential juxtaposition (there are brief seconds where elements of both panels are discernible on the screen simultaneously) and full bore cinema that shuttles along at twenty-four frames per second. The second issue picks up the tale of the male protagonist's attempt to graft mathematical algorithms onto his quest for true love, which of course means that his second relationship fails leading him to a third, then a fourth, fifth, sixth, and so on as he careens from female to female using everything from phone numbers and physical symmetry to alphabetized names and body smells to formulate his "practical" theories. While the second issue lacks the "zing" of the first's tight plot twists, it carries the torch forward and prepares us for the big revelations to come, but one of the most compelling things about The Right Number is that it costs just twenty-five cents to view and/or download. That's right, just a quarter, or what some refer to as a "micropayment." All you have to do is sign up for a BitPass account (essentially another version of an online "wallet") and then it's pay as you go. The nice thing about BitPass is that it's short, simple, and doesn't hide information about how the service works like most other online pay sites. Once purchased, The Right Number can be viewed up to sixteen times for three-hundred days, or just downloaded permanently to your hard drive. McCloud's story and art are easily worth whatever you're paying for your print books, so go drop a couple quarters, sit back, and witness innovation at work.
Mark Millar's The Unfunnies is the sort of shock-schlock that is, at first, tempting to proportionately under-respond to, but then that would hardly do Millar's triumphs and failures justice, and there are elements of both in this bold and irritating look at the dark heart of humanity through the lens of its fantasy pop-culture iconography. The second issue updates the main pedophiliac bird story with another injection of sexual perversions and naughty words sure to whip right over most reader's heads as simply "gratuitous." And though they are partially so, they are not merely indefensible for a variety of reasons. Firstly, this is a serious story with a serious point, not just an excuse to make 70s 'toons cuss and vogue the Kama Sutra. Turn off your TVs and tune into your culture, Americans, because this is how a fair number of us, in fact, talk and act like today, despite a predictable mass-hypnotic Puritanesque attempt to scrub it out (out, damned spot!) and shove it down the memory hole. Take a look at the latest bestselling DVD list including adult catalog sales, or check out what folks are doing with internet "tools" like Kazaa for the iceberg's tip. (Who's buying all that porn? Why don't we ever much talk about it?) I'm not condemning or condoning, just defending the purpose of The Unfunnies, which is to engage predominant cultural currents (and their derivative perversions) that the culture has astoundingly managed to pretend don't exist. Millar has tapped a vein that badly needs bleeding, the same vein such artistic forerunners as David Lynch (Blue Velvet), and for that matter, Emily Dickinson ("Tell all the Truth but tell it slant") have been poking, cutting, and occasionally tearing into for centuries. Millar's vision of course "slants" toward the hyperbolic, which is where the jam-packed obscenity occasionally stumbles on its excesses (knowing when to pause is as important as knowing how to punch) but don't mistake the messenger for the messages, which are timely and telling. Anthony Williams's art is as close to funny-strip grit as you can get, blending the stripped down simplicity of the Sunday funnies with carefully inserted photos that play with identity and the Baudrillardian notion of simulacra and simulacrum. Whatever you think about Millar's points, including what is sure to be a controversial examination of the pro-choice/pro-life argument here, you have to admire his underlying goal, which is to kick up the pretty sun-dappled bedrock of culture-apparent and have a look at what's crawling around in the dark underneath of culture-reality.
After Joe Sacco (comic journalism) and Scott McCloud (comic theory) and all the how-to guides from the USDA's Smokey the Bear (comic safety) to Neil Gaiman's epilogue in Death: The High Cost of Living (comic sex advice), Michael Lovitz's Trademark Copyright Book is one of the first legal aid guides to make the jump to the sequential art form. Billed as "a comprehensive guide for comic book creators," Lovitz has distilled his Comic-Con lecture materials into a humorous albeit wordy twenty-four-page collection of "did you knows" like the obvious "copyrights endure for the life of the author plus seventy years" or the obscure "for joint authors, this is measured from the death of the last surviving author." The Fillbäch Brothers (Broken Heroes, Toon Warz: The Fandom Menace) bring a welcome sense of the ridiculous to lighten up the legalese. What's unfortunately missing here is McCloud's sense of pacing, which in something like Understanding Comics is deliberately uneven with sentence-panel bleed that's complimented by striking visuals to bring the points home and make them stick. Still, this should really be considered required reading for newcomers, small press or web comic publishers, or anyone in just about any genre who wants an easy-to-read copyright refresher.
No doubt Vaughan and Guerra got a lot of mileage out of last issue's cliffhanger, predictably foiled in the first few pages of this month's conclusion, but that was all just clever ruse designed to lure us back for an even more clever exposition and denouement. Yorick's torture at the hands of Agent 711 continues, leading up to a life changing decision that in turn leads to a delightfully well-executed plot turn, though Yorick's reaction at the end seems a bit too easy, or at least too immediately understanding. Leave it to Vaughan to throw in a reference to Ibsen's Hedda Gabler that works. Artist Guerra draws practical consistently proportioned figures, but her strengths lie in realizing the cinematic aspects of Vaughan's narrative (see Mike Carey's guest column at Pop Thought and Umberto Eco's essay "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage"), particularly a sequence at the end of this issue in which a cloaked cult shows up, draws handguns, and the sequencing seems to rip from the page like a film noir moment. Vaughan gets points for taking risks by writing a series that sticks with its protagonist without resorting to extended tangent arcs to break up the focus, which still seems fresh (though it may be slowing up a bit with all these pit stops) after twenty issues of the "last man on the planet" shtick. Considering this is a tale that has pleased, and had to continue pleasing both zero sum conspiracy fanatics and character-driven story votaries alike, Vaughan and Co. are still delivering the hard-boiled goods.
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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