by Matthew Peckham
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. Bear in mind that it is a mere fraction of what's happening in this market today. For a complete list of
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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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Need To Know:
Neil Gaiman's 1602 is a like-it-or-don't affair, something so expertly told, so meticulously drawn, so lavishly painted that reading it is like basking in the prismatic glow of a flawless gem. That, or like thrashing helplessly under the prolific artistry of a genius who may have finally pushed his indefatigable and well nigh bottomless bag of tales one flawless gem-encrusted idea too far.
Issue #8 concludes the epic tale set mostly in early seventeenth-century England, which has been clocking in at variable issue lengths ranging from twenty to thirty-plus pages per issue. Onboard the Virginia Maid, Rojhaz, Virginia, and Clea (carrying the head of Stephen Strange, analogue for Dr. Strange) are sailing to the New World colony of Roanoke. Rojhaz, we discover, is actually Steve Rogers, originally born in 1920, better known as the super-soldier Captain America. It turns out that in some dystopian future version of the Marvel universe, Rogers was killed, and for arbitrary reasons (at least nothing disclosed here, disappointingly) is time-zapped back to the year 1602, where his existence in violation of time's continuum disrupts the fabric of reality, threatening to destroy this and potentially all other worlds. In the meantime, Sir Nicholas Fury (analogue for Nick Fury) arrives at Roanoke with the Fantasticks (analogue for the Fantastic Four), Thor, Norse God of Thunder (doubly ironic considering the contemporary character Thor is already an analogue of the god of Scandinavian myth), Javier (analogue for Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men), and various characters who are analogues of the X-Men team itself. Two more ships follow, including one bearing the agents of King James: Banner, analogue for Bruce Banner, i.e. the Hulk, and Peter Parquagh (analogue for Peter Parker, i.e. Spider-Man) intending to assassinate Fury. The final ship bears the Grand Inquisitor (analogue for Magneto) and his Brotherhood Of "Those Who Will Inherit the Earth" (analogue for Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants).
Sound a little tediously complex? If you're not familiar with the Marvel universe, it probably is. Very. If on the other hand you are, it's more like attending a vibrant masquerade, where the highlights, laughs, and gasps are going to be had as the masks are teased off, one by one, and on that account, Gaiman doesn't disappoint. Unfortunately it's set against a rather prosaic narrative, namely ye olde "violation of cosmic order equals apocalypse now" theme. Additionally, the resultant logic for the sudden appearance of the "archetypal" heroes hundreds of years early in fact seems borrowed from Jim Krueger's Earth X, the notion that when catastrophe comes calling, the universe spits out superheroes to protect itself like intergalactic "antibodies." (In Earth X, a dystopian tale of the Marvel universe's future, the superheroes discover they are in fact "antibodies" designed to protect embryonic celestial entities).
Most of the curtain was pulled back already in the last issue, and the remaining enigmas are covered in the first few pages of this one. Thus the majority of issue #8 is rapid-fire resolution to tensions building since the first issue, followed by the inevitable ride to a fireworks finale in which Steve Rogers is unceremoniously returned to the future, things go (nearly) back to normal in three or so panels, and we have our coda, conveniently ensuring this "alternate" universe will continue for future tales (and beaucoup de bucks, considering 1602's blockbuster 100,000+ per month sales of this title). The stage is also set to fulfill Gaiman's promise in interviews that the series will have ripple effects into mainstream Marvel continuity (how is pretty much answered in the way Rogers transits home).
Here's my problem with 1602. Neil Gaiman is one of our (and by our, I mean internationally and interstitially, beyond the bounds of comics, genre fiction, or mainstream) truly brilliant storytellers, not just because his stuff can wrestle comfortably with the Harlan Ellisons and Gene Wolfes of the world, but because he moves so fluidly between narrative idioms while simultaneously threading in miles of allusive detail sourced from seemingly several lifetime's worth of research. Think "ultimate ideas guy" and "true original" and you're not far off the mark. So when this bag of wonders arrived, I was expecting more than "superheroes in breeches and corsets," more than merely a soap-opera plot trussed up with clever character cameos and contemporary analogue revelations, smart dialogue, and the occasional snippet of poetic insight into some element of the human condition or other. I was expecting something completely different from Sandman, or American Gods, or Coraline, but at the same time something worthy of those tales.
To be fair, perhaps Gaiman was limited by the creative parameters imposed by Marvel. Perhaps the only point was to put "intelligent" popcorn in the hands of Marvel fans. If, instead of eight issues, this had blossomed into the sort of twelve or thirteen issue tale (plus side issues) that comprised Krueger's Earth X, Gaiman could have slipped into the cracks of the narrative, where the really interesting stuff is usually waiting to be harvested, and pulled out a much richer, textured, character-drive story. Instead all we get is popcorn, though admittedly of the sort fried in emperor's oil and sprinkled with king's salt.
Andy Kubert's artwork, which bears more than trace resemblances to Cary Nord's recent work on Dark Horse's Eisner-nominated Conan series, is eight-times stunning, and Richard Isanove's digital colors manage to make the deliberately roughshod lines crackle. There is also a "texture" effect laid over each panel, perhaps Isanove's work though it's difficult to say for certain, that gives the pages a very effective archaic "scratchboard" look. Scott McKowen was just nominated for an Eisner-award for the covers to the series, and well-deservedly. These are surreal heavily line-textured prints that look a bit like Van Gogh, had his swirling oils been instead arranged in single ink lines layered in millimeter increments.
All told, you could do far worse than 1602 for comics reading fare, it's just that this could have been so much more had Neil perhaps taken (or been given) a broader canvas to paint against, one that didn't require so much to happen in such a relatively short span, or rely so heavily on mainstream superhero cameos in lieu of Gaiman's trademark innovative storytelling. As it stands, 1602 is a fun tale for Marvel superhero aficionados that, despite a sub-standard plot, provides spectacularly good-looking entertainment, and should make a handsome graphic novel when Marvel releases a collected edition in the near future.
Remember Rubik's cube? Six-sided? Nine squares per side comprising six colors? Those crazy kids who could solve them in, what, two or three minutes flat? How about one that's also a comic book? Welcome back to Conrad Country, a geography of ideas operating somewhat askew to our plane of reality, and responsible for turning out art that's as cool just to play with or show around as it is to read.
Attempted Not Known #10 follows last issue's cigarette carton comic (reviewed last issue) and comes attached to a small rectangular piece of cardboard with Conrad's color artwork depicting the issue's two characters, Julius "Jay" Brubaker and Lily Coniff: "Are they flirting? Are they angry? Are they crazy? You decide!" Pull off the plastic and out pops a Rubik's cube, except not quite like the version you're probably picturing from decades past.
On each of the cube's six sides are eight miniature square black and white panels corresponding to what would be the color swatches on an original Rubik's cube. On each of these swatches is a panel containing a scene: Jay sneezing, Lily saying "kiss me," a school bus driver yelling "watch out!" as Jay and Lily's car nearly hits it, a hand pointing to the McDonald's arches and its owner exclaiming "aha!" and many more, ranging from the mundane to the bizarre. All told there are forty-eight of these mini-panels depicting various activities and declarations which you can mix and match to create eight-panel sequences per side that you read in a circle (no beginning or end) around an informational center panel. All told, that's well over two thousand possible narrative sequences. But wait, there's more -- a color code "hidden" in the character dialogue (colors they speak about directly/indirectly) that you must decode to "solve" the cube and take it back to its beginning configuration.
Too cool, or what?
And more than merely cool, this is really an experiment in "meta-sequential art," something that beckons as much for its wildly different format as its content. The panels themselves contain moments of existential starkness and hilarity, points where violence or love may be hiding just outside the panel (in this case, the thin plastic grooves created by the cube's geometric segments). The best way to describe the narrative structure is its ever changing expression of possibility, a way of making the reader strikingly aware of interpretation in high flux, as panels and gutters change places like some fantastic storytelling transformer, whose special power is its ability to crack open the reader's sense of self-consciousness.
Conrad's artistic style, once again told in black inks on white, is minimalist but consistent and pleasing to the eye. The only criticism worth noting is an occasional bit of faint speckling in panels that appears to be an artifact of the duplication process. Otherwise, this issue comes as highly recommended as the last. Pick it up, take it to a party, amuse yourself, amaze your friends, and as Jay says, "damn the bees... full speed ahead!"
I don't know what makes some people so uncomfortable talking about, writing in genre fiction, or reviewing Christian stories. Maybe it's because, as Mark Millar points out, Christians are "one fucking demographic in the world people normally feel they can take a shot at." Mark Millar's Chosen may be an attempt to bridge this divide. Millar is one of these superstar fan-favorite comic writers responsible for The Authority, Ultimate X-Men, The Ultimates, and most recently, Ultimate Fantastic Four who also just so happens to be Christian (Millar is, in fact, a practicing Catholic).
Considering that Millar is a guy who's not afraid to jump over the edge and drag the edge along with him (review, The Unfunnies #2), my first reaction to Chosen was to assume that it was going to haul Christianity around the mat and maybe hammer on a couple pile-drivers for good measure. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Millar was calling this his version of the next book to come after the New Testament (or Return of the Jedi, as he puts it in the comic, comparing Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back to the Old and New Testaments respectively).
Chosen is about Jodie Christianson, a preteen who discovers he's the second coming of Jesus. After a semi-truck falls on him in the first issue, and he walks away unscathed, Jodie begins to suspect, along with others, that he is in fact the modern incarnation of Jesus Christ, come again to settle the events foretold in the biblical Book of Revelations. Mutually persecuted and worshipped by members of his community, this second issue (of three) depicts Jodie testing the limits of his powers, sort of like a kid who has just discovered he has the ability to fly. The book asks the question, what might you do if you suddenly found out you were God's only son, come again to bring about the resurrection of the dead and the entrance for all into eternal life?
The answer is neither as interesting or as dull as you might hope or expect. Jodie frankly doesn't do very much at all here, adopting a restrained quasi-stoic position which sees him hand out medical miracles, stare longingly (but not very lustily) at his early teenage neighbor through her window as she changes at night, take a beating from the son of the man who crashed his semi on top of Jodie last issue, cure the man -- near death -- in the hospital, and pull some emotionally troubling details about a local priest-turned-unbeliever's background into the open. The issue ends with the line: "And if those fabled pearly gates were really out there…could Satan and his antichrist be far behind?"
How Millar's going to pull this into a complete tale in just one more issue remains to be seen, but I'm concerned after seeing a handful of contemporary "Jodie-grown-up" pages (the story of Jodie's youth is actually narrated by his present self, grown to adulthood, about to leave on a plane for Israel after attending to his disciples) that the last issue may turn out to be a fast-paced apocalyptic wrap-up that will be jarring after the first two issues' "Stand By Me meets The Seventh Sign" theme and pacing. Let's hope not, as the slower character-focused pace of the first two issues almost demands an anti-climactic ending to work consistently at this point.
The thing that really stands out about Chosen is Peter Gross's artwork paired to the best coloring by Jeanne McGee that I've seen with Peter's art (Books of Magic, Lucifer) ever. Peter's humans are frail exclamation points, thin legs that expand upward to form wider bodies and ever-so-slender arms and hands. He also manages to elicit complex emotions from his characters facial expressions and poises with a minimalist's eye, drawing to the strengths of the medium and focusing our attention on the thing he most wants to communicate, be it the way someone hunches menacingly, or the lamb-like gaze cast by one of the children questioning Jodie about his new powers in the schoolyard.
Books about Jesus that aren't busy deconstructing him are usually found in Christian book stores, written by evangelicals, and probably as worth of your time as watching Jimmy Swaggart and tithing. While it's not as thought-provoking as I'd hoped, it's also better in many ways than I'd dreaded. Whether you consider yourself religious, it's definitely worth a look, though the first issue has reportedly long since sold out. There's enough fill-in here, though, that starting with the second issue won't leave you completely lost, if you don't want to hold out for the collected edition.
The Eisner-winning Fables series is a saga about a society of mythical creatures, premised on the whole history of fables and fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen to the Brothers Grimm and beyond, set against the backdrop of contemporary society. Some eons ago, a creature known simply as "the adversary" began subsuming worlds, eventually extending his dictatorial grasp to the fairy tale realm of such characters as Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf. The immortal fables fled their realm for ours, set up house, and have been existing using glamour spells and charms to blend with "mundies" (humans) for centuries, ever fearful that the adversary's next invasion is just around the corner.
In "March of the Wooden Soldiers," the adversary's henchmen break through into our world and attempt to infiltrate the fables community using wooden soldiers that look like Men in Black or Matrix agents, and a creature masquerading as the previously thought captured Little Red Riding Hood. In part five, we learn that the fable farm (the place where all the non-anthropomorphic fables hide out) has gone wild, that one of the northern gates between the realm of the adversary and our world has been breached, and that the adversary intends to send collectors through to strip the fables of their magical items until such time as the fables agree to return from exile and submit to the adversary's rule.
There's not much else to part five, save for a few of Willingham's comic moments which capitalize on our cultural fascination with fairy tales. Willingham is another one of these idiosyncratic writers who displays refinement in his writing to the point that you find something funny, but not quite as funny as you might have liked; dramatic, but never quite as dramatic as you're expecting it to be. Taken in pieces, the effect is underwhelming, but experienced across the whole twenty-plus issues of the series so far, Willingham's dry comic story is strangely addictive, often nasty, and occasionally heartwarming.
In the previous four issues there was an occasional bit of overt political pandering. Willingham's political views are notably right of center, and he lets us know it on issues of abortion (very bad, anti-duty and responsibility), the wealthy (tearing them down is all lies and deceptiveness via Prince Charming running for mayor), and patriotism (equals warring on behalf of your country via Bigby Wolf defending his participation in both world wars). In a story that otherwise succeeds in ducking propaganda, these occasional flare-ups are jarring as they leave little room for interpretive ambiguity. In other words, the moral sledgehammer's vividly apparent, when it shouldn't be.
Buckingham and Leialoha's art looks great, cartoonish in all the right ways. Fables is strongly character driven, thus backgrounds and scenery are under-drawn in favor of large close-up shots on faces and bodies, and Buckingham has mastered the art of conveying countless forms of human pathos in the characters' expressions. Probably the best characters to enter the series so far are the three wooden soldier brothers, drawn here with stiff lower lips and Agent Smith shades that sync their drawn personas perfectly with Willingham's humorous dialogue: "Everyone stay inside until we've departed... unless you wish to receive truly promiscuous amounts of gunfire."
With Datlow and Windling's prolific series of prose collections turning fairy tales into postmodern meditations, I'm frankly surprised no one in the comic medium thought of something like this sooner. That we have Willingham to do it right out of the gate is both fortunate and exhilarating. Fables is another series that consistently delivers, and welcomes new readers with each new story arc (no need to read back if you don't want to, as each tale is nearly self-contained). Bear in mind that falling in love with Fables will probably require more than just a four or five issue investment, but the payoff when it comes is worth the effort.
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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