Archive for July, 2012
I said when I reviewed the first American collection of Blacksad stories that the thing elevating Blacksad over any other anthropomorphized animal private-dick story was the absolutely stunning watercolor art by Juanjo Guarnido. That continues to be the case in this long, standalone story Blacksad: A Silent Hell, which brings Blacksad down to New Orleans. Appropriately, the second half of the volume is a long essay from Guarnido in which he explains in detail how he manipulated light, color, shading, and much more to create specific effects in each of several impressive panels. Highly recommended if you love comic book art and want to see how one of the best approaches his work.
The Incredible Adventures of Dog Mendonça and PizzaBoy is a similar case—another European comic where I like the art the best—but it’s the first comic I can think of where the most striking work is turned in not by the artist whose name goes on the cover, but by the colorist. I can’t think of another comic where I even noticed the colorist.
In Dog Mendonça and PizzaBoy, though, colorist Santiago Villa is working on a level I can’t even understand. Juan Cavia’s black-and-white drawings were very good to start with—you can see pre-colored examples in the back of the book—but Villa has turned them into something extraordinary. It’s like noir computer animation. I have no idea what process he’s using.
The stories author Felipe Melo tells through that art are fun, too. PizzaBoy loses his scooter to gargoyles and hires paranormal private dick Dog Mendonça to get it back, which leads to one insane adventure after another across and beneath Lisbon. Nazi zombies, that sort of thing. The jokes are funny even in translation, so kudos to translator Raylene Lowe too.
Shooters is one of the bleakest comics I’ve read in a very long time. The marketing blurbs and preface to the book make it out as an attempt to write something positive about the security contractors who worked in Iraq, and I have no doubt that’s the book co-author Eric Trautmann intended to write. In trying to show the reader how a decent military man might come to sign up with a mercenary crew, though, what he and Brandon Jerwa actually did was write a step by step account of a man watching his life completely fall apart.
Terry Glass’s absence during his tours of duty weakens his marriage and his PTSD when he comes home kills it, making him feel like a terrible husband and father. He tries to win posthumous honors for the soldiers who died beside him under friendly fire and fails. The majority of the book is him at home, slowly going to pieces. He signs up with a private security outfit because that makes him feel competent and useful, and gets a few weeks of doing good work in Iraq before everything falls apart on him again. He has a moment of epiphany then, but given all we have seen him go through it’s hard to believe his realization will bring him happiness or even much peace.
As I said, bleak as hell.
The best parts of Faith Erin Hicks’s Friends With Boys are the family character moments. Which on the one hand isn’t so surprising: Hicks was home-schooled alongside her three brothers until high school, and her book’s protagonist is a girl just starting high school after being home-schooled her whole life alongside her three brothers. She knows these people well.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s hardest to write convincing characters based on the people you know the best.
Somewhat weaker are the plots that she adds to the character mix. The kids’ mother has just left the family, which is an emotionally resonant conflict, but it doesn’t really connect to much action apart from a ghost story plot that feels like it floated in from a different book. Similarly there’s good motivating stuff about cliquishness and power dynamics in high school, but it’s largely wasted on a secondary character.
Overall pretty good, but not as great as it might have been.
Something is beginning to worry sci-fi writers. One episode of last year’s Brit miniseries Black Mirror imagined a perfect memory technology implant that records everything you see and hear for later playback. And Peter Bagge’s miniseries Reset, which just wrapped up, imagines a virtual reality simulation of a subject’s life, reconstructed through interviews and publicly available information. Our fetish for recording and sharing every detail of our lives pushed to extremes.
But what Black Mirror got right (and Reset doesn’t) is the insidiousness of putting the individual in nominal control of all this archiving and sharing. Bagge’s hero is a down-on-his-luck minor celebrity who signs up for a virtual reality test controlled and administered by others.
This is the second recent Bagge book to make science fiction from the internet age. (The other was Other Lives.) I get why he’s fascinated by these technological changes. I’m just not sure he really gets the details of how people interact with them emotionally. As a result, both of these attempts to deal with the big picture—in this case, of the potential for government surveillance of your entire life—feel a little off.
Also, because it’s Peter Bagge the main character is an aggressive, insecure douchebag. That’s always a hurdle with Bagge. Either you can stand his characters or you can’t. I like them, but I can certainly see why one wouldn’t.
If I were a smarter critic I’d probably have something meaningful to say about the way zombies seem to be elbowing vampires aside in popular culture. Maybe everyone is just jumping on the success of The Walking Dead, but I don’t think so. I think there’s something about the zombie apocalypse that speaks to a post-foreclosure-crisis America full of zombie neighborhoods and zombie luxury highrises.
No time to get into it now, though. I’ve got a backlog to clear!
One of my favorite new ones in the zombie genre is the new limited series Fatima: The Blood Spinners from 20-year comic book master veteran Gilbert Hernandez. Not that Hernandez is doing anything all that groundbreaking here. One issue in, it’s a pretty simple story: an addictive drug turns users into zombies, and a classically buxom Gilbert Hernandez heroine aims to take down the crime lords who sell it. Yet Hernandez executes it with his typical skill and style. (EDIT: Issue 2 just came out and it’s doing weird things with pacing and story, so not really so conventional after all.)
Now, the last violent thing of his I wrote about, Speak of the Devil, went in a direction I didn’t much care for, so we’ll have to see whether this one works out.
If Fatima shows us a master confidently ripping through a genre convention he can handle easily, I think Dead Winter vol. 1 is much more a case of a journeyman using a genre to stretch his art and show us what he can do. This is a self-published book collecting an internet comic, and it shows off author/artist Dave Shabet’s strengths well. He brings in some nice little twists to the genre and memorable characters: a sassy kitten, a waitress who’s charmingly oblivious through the first stages of the zombie plague, and her evil, germophobic boss whom she fights off with the business end of her dirty mop. Much better than those, though, is his terrific, distinctive drawing style, which you can see evolving as the book progresses. There’s a lot of pencil shading, I think, all black and white except for the heroine’s bright red kerchief and the hero’s red sunglasses.
But I also hope Shabet continues to evolve to address a few things. I would like to see fewer panels per page to give his art room to breathe, for one thing. Shabet’s art is so shaded and active that nine or so panels, even on an oversized page, is dark and hard to read. This is generally not the case in the internet version, where he can set the panels against a black background to make them appear brighter—yet the transfer to print those black borders and dark panels seem over-packed.
I’d also like him to pay more attention to the basics of storytelling in an ongoing series: internal conflict and character motivation. Mere survival is obviously a strong enough motivation for a human being, but watching characters fight for survival page after page gets repetitive.
If I were writing a comic, though, I’d hire Shabet to draw it tomorrow.
All of Dead Winter can be read online.
All the points for originality in the zombie category, though, have to go to the limited series The New Deadwardians, now exactly halfway through its eight-issue run.
We’re in London in 1910. A zombie plague has carried off a good portion of the population; the zombies gather outside the city gates. To fight the zombies, the upper classes have turned themselves into vampires, but in a very repressed, English way. They even file down their canines to maintain a normal appearance. The lower classes that remain human live in their own, separate neighborhood. Chief Inspector George Suttle, an upper-crust vampire, has an impossible murder mystery to solve: a vampire is found dead, not killed by any of the three known methods (beheading, staking, or burning).
Writer Dan Abnett has written on dozens and dozens of titles, and shows his experience especially in his adeptness with exposition. He has a very full, complicated world to explain, and fits in all that information elegantly, almost always with action so it doesn’t bog things down.
I like it all a lot. Pick up the trade paperback when it arrives.
In some cases the difference between a zombie comic and a superhero comic simply comes down to how many people are affected. If every Tom, Dick, and Harry turns undead it’s not special, being normal is special. But if you’re the only one who can’t die, you’re a superhero.
That’s what happens to Alex King, the hero of Last Mortal. He’s an addict and small-time crook who gets involved in a deal gone wrong that kills his best friend. Overcome with guilt he tries to kill himself—and discovers that he can’t. So he does the only other thing he can and uses his immortality to take revenge on the crooked DA who set him up.
The best part of the collected hardcover, and a big part of the reason I’m reviewing it, is the bonus material at the back that shows the development of this concept from its earliest version, when writers John Mahoney and Filip Sablik were in middle school together. For middle schoolers, they were pretty damn good. They even include Keats in that early draft, which I assume must have come from their joint English class. Totally charming.
Meanwhile, Dan the Unharmable shows how a pretty much identical superhero concept can function totally differently with a change in tone. Last Mortal aims for gritty, noir realism. Dan the Unharmable aims for the ridiculous.
Dan is a private eye who just happens to be invulnerable. That leaves him wanting for nothing, so he takes cases for absurdly little money and prefers to loaf around and smoke weed most of the time. He’s forced into action, though, when a young woman shows up claiming to be his daughter and begging for help.
After Young Liars, David Lapham has been on a real tear of weirdness. There was the hard-to-decipher Sparta USA, and then he wrote for several of the gross, ultraviolent Crossed miniseries, which I think bled into his violent, nihilistic Caligula and the werewolf horror story he’s writing now, Ferals. Of them all, this is the one with a sense of humor, always a nice addition to weird and violent.
I have an absolutely monstrous stack of comics and graphic hoo-hahs I’ve been neglecting, so I’m going to start trying to power through them a few at a time. More backlog mini-reviews to follow.
Journalism is a book for Joe Sacco completists and fans. While I heartily recommend becoming both of those things, it isn’t the first book of his I would buy if you’ve never read him before. It collects most of the short pieces he’s done on assignment for various magazines over the past 15 years or so.
The best of these are the ones that deal with the problems of poor, powerless groups we rarely hear about: Chechen refugees, African migrants stranded on Malta, and the dalits of rural India. Not coincidentally, these are also the longest three pieces in the book—Sacco is really at his best when he can pile up humanizing details and make the reader understand life from his subjects’ perspective. All three are further evidence that Sacoo is by far the most important creator of comics today.
Preview at the link above.
Matt Kindt likes his high concepts. His breakout book 3 Story was about a man who never stopped growing; his follow-up Revolver was about a man who switches between realities each time he goes to sleep. His new series Mind Mgmt is structured more as a mystery than those other two: rather than taking his high concept and playing out its implications, he has a journalist main character trying to figure out the (probably high-concept) cause of bizarre events. A whole airplane of passengers and crew gets amnesia simultaneously; all the inhabitants of a Mexican town begin making pottery with motifs from Zanzibar. She is chased by shadowy, murderous agents as she tries to learn more.
Two issues have come out and I still have no idea where all this is heading. Kindt keeps hinting at a grand conspiracy manipulating history and perhaps reality itself. So far I’m liking it quite a bit, and we’ll see if the payoff can live up to the hints.
Speaking of hints and payoffs … J.M. DeMatteis’s Brooklyn Dreams is like the textbook version of what John Gardner calls a yarn. It has an overtly conversational voice that keeps refusing to tell us things, promising revelations to come down the line. Meanwhile the story it is telling is about growing up as a teenager in Brooklyn, having a fairly shitty home life, slacking off in school, doing a few too many drugs. All perfectly fine subjects for a story, but all through it the narrator keeps telling us that the real shit is yet to come—and that shit, when it finally arrives, is so underwhelming it underwhelms all the good work that came before it.
Note to authors: don’t overpromise. If DeMatteis had foreshadowed less, I might have been more interested in his final epiphany.
Another mystery: in Sean Ford’s Only Skin, people keep disappearing from a small town. Mostly they vanish into the forest. A young woman returns to town with her 10-year-old brother to look for their father, one of the missing.
Ford takes his time with the story and the book’s big pages give plenty of space to his simple black-and-white drawings. The combined effect is a kind of languid, semi-ironic terror that I found very effective.
To give one example: he draws ghosts like the ones from Pac-Man, a hanging sheet with two holes for eyes. But he takes those ridiculous icons absolutely seriously as ghosts, capable of real menace.
I will also say that I did not see the villain coming, nor come close to guessing how the end would unfold. It’s a real pleasure to be surprised like that. The book sneaks up on you quietly. Highly recommended.