Monday, December 31, 2007

Manga Monday: Reptilia

Kazuo Umezu

IDW Publishing ventures into manga territory with this horror title from Kazuo Umezu (The Drifting Classroom), reprinted in English over forty years after its initial run in Japan. Sporting a dazzling cover by Ashley Wood, I think that Reptilia was a pretty appropriate choice for IDW, as they were put on the map by 30 Days of Night and have been kind of the go-to company for horror books. With the Doomed anthology and translations of the popular European vampire series Dampyr under their belt, it was only a matter of time before they dipped into the well of Japanese horror, and this one is from "The Father of Horror Manga" himself, Kazuo Umezu.

Reptilia collects three stories that follow a half-human, half-snake woman who terrorizes little girls in various quests for revenge or food. It's really creepy seeing the snake woman creeping over the ground, particularly in the final story actually entitled "Reptilia" that takes up the bulk of this collection, a story that focuses on more than just a single snake creature. As a woman with an eye patch slithers along a dark swampland, reaching with scaly clawed hands toward a frightened little girl, it's easy to imagine how Umezu earned his reputation. The stories here are silly and over-the-top, but in the end they're just not as fun as The Drifting Classroom or other recent horror manga like Gyo. What is amazing is that this book, as I mentioned earlier, is over forty years old, but while it's entertaining and illustrated beautifully, there are much better horror titles out there to spend a dark and stormy night with.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Five Worst Comics of 2007

2007 was another great year in comics. That being said, there were some pretty terrible books to rear their heads this year. Now, I haven't subjected myself to a lot of stuff that's potentially worse than those listed below, but these are the worst comics that I read this year...

1. Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time
Tohko Mizuno

The first volume hasn't even hit stands yet, but this watered-down Fushugi Yugi: The Mysterious Play wannabe title has set roots in Shojo Beat, destroying our souls one chapter at a time. An excerpt of my review of chapter one: "It's impossible to follow what's going on: things happen too quickly and the panel arrangements don't give you any sense of what's happening or where the characters are. The only saving grace is that the dialogue fills in a lot of the gaps, so you're not completely lost. But it's not really fun to read the comic when I have to constantly read about what the action is supposed to be conveying. It would be something else if the plot was somewhat original, but since I feel like I've already read this story, there's nothing here to hold my interest whatsoever."

2. X-Men: Messiah Complex #1
Ed Brubaker & Marc Silvestri

The X-Men crossover event of the year began weak and...kind of kept staggering from there. There was a time when I was an X-Men fanatic. While I still follow a few X-books, the fact that there are three X-titles to make this list is probably an indicator of poor quality across the board, wouldn't you say? This kick-off to the big crossover had terrible dialogue (with most of the issue consisting of said dialogue unfortunately) and was dreadfully boring with poor action. Quote from my review: "I think I got my hopes up a bit for the event, with Brubaker at the helm, hopes that were slightly diminished by the Marc Silvestri interior art (I'm not a fan), and were completely dashed by the end of this one-shot."

3. New X-Men: Quest For Magik
Craig Kyle, Chris Yost & Skottie Young

A review that begins "Oh, boy, do I have problems with this book" isn't a good sign. And it just keeps going: "As the story unfolds, we're treated to the students suddenly being teleported into a hell dimension with Belasco demanding their cooperation. Oh, but we don't get to see that part. We see some students outside see the school disappear. Once we actually get to hell, everything's pretty much over and the kids are mentioning events that took place when they were teleported that were cooler than anything we actually see in the comic. It's just lazy writing that works around that sort of thing. One student recalls "I was asleep, and then I heard screaming. The cuckoos. Those...those things were putting them inside those helmets...they haven't moved since." I know I would have liked to see that, but instead we're treated to Belasco yelling at the students."

4. Mystic Arcana: Magik
Louise Simonson & Steve Scott

From the review: "Writer Louise Simonson constructs a story bogged down with a mythology nobody cares about, spouting out names of demons and goddesses that have nothing to do with the story at hand, but are meant to sound impressive and "magicky," but ultimately bog down an already boring plot."

5. Strongarm #1
Steve Horton & David Ahn

"The characters are bland, the situations and look are generic, and the action isn't exactly engrossing by any means. It's just kind of there, trying to catch the attention of an audience that's already seen too many stories exactly like this one." Full review here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Picks of the Week: 12/28

Sifting out the books shipping to comic shops with the most potential... Remember, books come out on Friday this week and next week!

Dave's Pick:

Queen & Country Definitive Edition (Volume 1) - The definitive collection of Greg Rucka's acclaimed Queen & Country secret agent series comes out this week, collecting the first three volumes of the original collections (or twelve issues). I'll probably have a renewed interest in the series with Rucka's other Oni Press work, Whiteout, being released on the silver screen soon.

Patrick's Pick:

The Acme Novelty Library Vol. 18 - I would say that the latest installment of Chris Ware’s now annual series of self-published comic books/graphic novels is worthy of “Pick of the Week” status, wouldn’t you? Dave read and enjoyed it. I’ve not yet had the pleasure.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Acme Novelty Library #18

Chris Ware

The latest installment of Chris Ware's The Acme Novelty Library is always something to look forward to. The previous two installments collected strips from Rusty Brown, which were pretty fantastic. This one I wasn't so sure about before I read it, as it collects part of Ware's Building Stories strips, which I've heard aren't as good as other works from the creator, and the small tastes of the strip that were published in the back of the previous The Acme Novelty Library collections didn't exactly grab me (parts of the strip were also recently serialized in The New Yorker). However, Ware has wowed me once again with his latest collection. There was a lot to love in The Acme Novelty Library 18, and I think it's absolutely on par with his other works. I may even have a little more fondness for this than the Rusty Brown strips. This particular volume, bound in a beautiful, simple hardcover, follows a woman's lonely life as she struggles with depression, loss and her handicap, as she is missing part of one of her legs. As always, Ware demonstrates his prowess at design throughout the book, and his uncanny ability to convey emotion to the reader, making me feel quite depressed alongside his character by the book's end. I really liked the protagonist of the story, watching her movements through small moments, more vulnerable times, and her reactions to the bigger pitfalls of life, such as the loss of a loved one. Throughout her time as a nanny, a florist, and as an art student, I was spellbound. I really enjoyed spending time with her and I'm only disappointed that it will be at least a year before I get to see more of her (or perhaps more, depending on which strip Ware decides to collect in The Acme Novelty Library 19). But at least until then, readers have this great work to enjoy and revisit as necessary.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Notes For a War Story

Gipi

Notes For a War Story recounts the lives of three young men in a war zone who do what they must to survive, avoiding snipers and stealing car parts to exchange for food. The three boys (Giuliano, Christian and Little Killer) soon encounter a man named Felix who has them do odd jobs, collecting debts and selling drugs, to help them earn more money than they could ask for. Unfortunately, this new way of life causes tension between them and before long, they find themselves in over their heads.

I really enjoyed Note For a War Story. It’s a bleak tale offered through a cold world, but it’s quite compelling with interesting characters, with a great dynamic among them, and a story that sweeps readers up in the goings-on just as the trio of boys are swept along in events that they understand little about. The grim story, complimented by the great black and white art, ends on just the right note and is a tight tale when all is said and done, with no overexplaining or sidetracking from the plot. Gipi’s books (the Italian artist also released Garage Band through the same publisher) are a great addition to First Second’s growing library of books, and are some of the best examples of what they have to offer consumers: thought-provoking, beautiful titles by artists at the top of their game.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Town Boy

Lat

In Lat’s Town Boy, we see Mat, from Kampung Boy, as he grows into adolescence and moves to town with his father. The bustling Malaysian town is a far cry from the small village he grew up in, and before long, Mat makes some friends and is discovering girls. While most of this book centers around Mat’s education, it’s still a lot of fun, and is as charming as fans of Kampung Boy will remember. I felt that there was a bit more to Kampung Boy, a lot about the villagers and Mat’s life in general that gave readers more of a feel of who Mat was, a feeling that seems somewhat absent here, or at least scaled back. It is also a brisk read in comparison to the first book, though Kampung Boy was a pretty short work itself. Perhaps what I miss about Kampung Boy is how Mat used to always get in trouble and cause an uproar. Here, with age, he’s much more subdued, less wild, more concerned with image. Though he gets into some mischief and has other interesting adventures and moments, I prefer the wild antics of his youth. It is interesting to see him grapple with art and music and romance, and it’s still great to visit this character and his world, especially through Lat’s drawings which I think have improved significantly with this sequel. And while I look forward to seeing where Mat ends up and what kind of a person he grows into, I will miss the wild tike who was less conscious of himself, and much funnier, in the Kampung setting.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Abadazad (Book 3):

The Puppet, the Professor and the Prophet
J.M. DeMatteis & Mike Ploog

I was a huge fan of the Abadazad books when the floppies were being released by Crossgen years ago. The transition to children’s books, with less of a focus on the comic aspect of the series, really changed the title, and in the end, it didn’t work as well, and after two volumes, the new editions from Hyperion/Disney have been canceled, a third book published overseas didn’t even make it to the states. Anyone with any interest left in the series at this point can still purchase the book from Amazon UK, but don’t expect to see this material on the shelves state-side, at least not in this form. This particular book, The Puppet, The Professor and The Prophet, follows Kate as she navigates through Abadazad, picking up new traveling acquaintances on her quest to free her kidnapped brother from The Lanky Man, including Professor Headstrong (a big smart head who loves to hear himself talk), Mary Annette (a living marionette) and Mr. Gloom (an off-his-rocker gloom-and-doom type). I really wasn’t too into this book when I began reading it, but as it proceeded, I began to enjoy traveling though the strange landscape of Abadazad once more, especially with the addition of the cold, sarcastic Mary Annette. But in the end, I just don’t like the prose much, which I’m sure turned off many of the original followers of this series. Kate’s too whiny and the sporadic illustrations just don’t bring the story to life like the comic did. It lost most of its magic in the transition to this silly hybrid (exactly why does all of the prose have a book page border?) and in the end, most of the readers were left unimpressed. It’s unfortunate that Abadazad has been canceled, but leaving it behind in its current format may actually be a blessing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Picks of the Week: 12/18

The most promising new releases, shipping to comic stores this Wednesday the 19th, are...

Dave's Pick:

Robotika: For A Few Rubles More #1 - Kind of a light week. Quite a bit of manga is coming out (the latest volumes of Golgo 13 and The Drifting Classroom, etc), but I'm most excited about the sequel to last year's Robotika, the first issue of which I already reviewed here. Also coming out from Archaia Studios Press is the first issue of The Long Count.

Patrick's Pick:

Angel: After the Fall #2 - I really enjoyed the first issue.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Manga Monday: The Guin Saga Manga:

The Seven Magi (Volume 1)
Kazuaki Yanagisawa & Kaoru Kurimoto

Vertical has been releasing some fantastic manga from Osama Tezuka and Keiko Takemiya, so I had to check out this new manga release from the publisher. The Guin Saga is a very successful series of fantasy prose novels, totaling over a hundred books in Japan. This manga is the first of three volumes adapted from one of the many side stories from that universe. The story features a leopard-headed king whose kingdom has suddenly been struck with plague. Throwing himself head-first into danger, King Guin meets some new companions as he braves the dark magic of the ominous Talidd’s Alley: a pimp who searches for a cure to the plague to save his star girl, and a sorceress’ na├»ve dancing girl. Together, the three confront magic and beast alike in their quest to rid the kingdom of the horrible disease. Beautiful art and fun ideas aside, this book left me a little cold. It may be that I’m simply not much of a straight-forward fantasy reader, but the whimsical magic and the characters that are utterly uninteresting beyond the surface elements, make it a little hard to get into the events of the story. I never really feel any sense of danger for the characters, nor would I care what happened to any one of them, let alone the kingdom at large (a kingdom of people who bathe in their children’s blood to stave off the plague seems like one I wouldn’t be very keen on saving). Once you look past the pretty drawings, this is just an extremely bland manga that offers little that can’t be found in books superior to this one.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Elk's Run

Joshua Hale Fialkov & Noel Tuazon

A collection of Elk's Run, the acclaimed comic that was originally serialized by Speakeasy before the publisher went belly-up, came out earlier this year and I'm just now finally getting around to reading and reviewing it. I've actually been looking forward to reading it for awhile. I remember when the floppies were coming out, I sought them out, but never saw a copy. Then they released an issue that collected the initial three issues under one cover - still, a no show at the local stores. But the collections are the way to go nowadays with those hard-to-find books anyway, and I had no problem locating a copy of the paperback. In fact, we got roughly a dozen copies at the bookstore where I work when it first came out, probably because it was getting a bit of media attention and good write-ups from Entertainment Weekly and the like. But anyways, I read it and it was really a treat.

The story follows the inhabitants of the small town of Elk's Ridge, West Virginia, where some Vietnam vets have created a haven untouched by the evils of the outside world. Surrounded by mountains and with a single delivery bringing in supplies monthly, the people who live in Elk's Ridge have no access to television, magazines, radio - anything that could corrupt their precious little community and particularly, the children they are raising to be valued members of the township, who are now teenagers and whose male to female ratio is anything but balanced. When a citizen's wife runs out on him and he runs over a kid in his drunken stupor, the town turns on him, brutally executing him for the evil he's brought upon the town. Following a few other events, the town goes in full lock-down mode, and a handful of teenagers, fed up with their lives, try to escape the men hunting them with shotguns who they've known all their lives. Things slowly implode after years of dissent from within the community, leading up to a very satisfying conclusion. It's interesting to see how the men who'd been in the war, particularly the natural leader of the town, brought the horror and violence of the war with them when they created this sanctuary. Stifling people's freedoms, ruling with fear - these are a few of the themes found in Elk's Run. It's a rich, multi-layered work that I don't think has been examined enough. I can't say that I was a fan of the artwork when I flipped through the book initially, but it grew on me as the story went along, and ultimately the whole package was very satisfying.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Misericordia #1 (of 11)

Rebekah Cynthia Brem

A new eleven-issue mini-series about a dystopian future, Misericordia, debuted this week from Archaia Studios Press, courtesy of Rebekah Cynthia Brem. It's a unique comic, to say the least. It begins with a woman who awakens from her quarters in a city underground, and after waiting for job detail, she gets the dirty job of surface duty, an undesirable position where she must brave the humanoid inhabitants of the surface world and exchange drugs for a disk of information. After being chased by some of the natives, our protagonist is run through town and ends up taking shelter in an abandoned appliance store, where she falls asleep and is rudely awakened by a humanoid lumbering over her.

Sometimes it's a little hard to decipher what's going on in this comic - Brem gives her readers enough credit to let them figure things out without overexplaining, keeping things quite sparse, particularly words. There are no thought balloons, bubbles to explain things, and there is hardly any dialogue. But everything's there that's needed to get the gist of what's happening, and it's all going on through some of the most interesting, beautiful art I've seen. This doesn't seem like a typical mainstream book. It reads different, the art is textured, intentionally amateurish at times, and is vibrantly colored. The sequence when the protagonist steps out onto the surface and disappears into the horizon, then stares at the city in the distance, is very bright and yellow, and just plain gorgeous. I love the designs of Brem's characters and the interesting backgrounds, and little things like the folds in the golden shawl the woman wears. This is another one of those books where it's fun to just sit and stare at the illustrations. Misericordia is certainly a book to watch as it unfolds, and while I'm not completely sold on the story yet (it has yet to offer up the love story aspect of the science fiction book, although what is laid out so far is at least interesting), it promises to be one of the best looking books out there.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight #9

Brian K. Vaughan, Georges Jeanty, Andy Owens, Dave Stewart

Alright, I’m going to keep this relatively short and sweet, primarily because I don’t have too much more to say about this story arc, having already reviewed the previous three chapters. This final chapter of Vaughan’s run on the book was a solid if slightly disappointing conclusion to the Faith-centered “No Future For You” story arc. Solid because, as in the previous three issues, Vaughan’s grasp of the characters (both those who originally appeared on the T.V. series, and those new ones making their first appearance in the comic book) is very strong, the dialogue is sharp and witty, and the story remains compelling to the final page.

The slight disappointment comes from the fact that Buffy appears only briefly in this issue, making her more prominent appearance last issue feel as though it was shoehorned in so as to make this story-arc appear as a significant chapter in the larger season eight project, rather than its own, standalone miniseries, which is how it came across a lot of the time. Twilight (apparently the name of a person and not an organization…or maybe it refers to both?) makes his first full appearance at the end of this issue, but he is no one we know from the series, nor is the design of the character particularly interesting, making for a somewhat lackluster coda.

Despite these minor reservations, Vaughan’s four-issue arc was a very good one, and this is a pretty entertaining final chapter. The place where Faith ends up at the end is unexpected but makes perfect sense, and could yield some interesting developments in the coming issues. I’m going to miss Vaughan’s writing on this series, and hope that the writers who follow him will pick up on some of the elements he’s introduced.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In Stores 12/12

Here we are again picking out the most promising releases of the week, in stores today!

Patrick's Pick:

The ACME Novelty Datebook: Vol. 2, 1995-2002 - I remember thinking when the first volume of this series of Chris Ware’s selected sketchbook collections came out that it was the most beautifully designed book I had ever seen, what with it’s retro red felt spine with gilt lettering and ribbon to mark one’s place. Now, while still beautiful, it doesn’t stand out so much, as many of the comics publishers have embraced such ornate, deluxe packaging. There are a lot of ribbons adorning our bookshelves these days. Anyway, it’s the insides of this book that you’ll want to pay the most attention to. The first volume was one of Ware’s finest books of any type, even though it was “merely” a collection of partly finished comics, journals, and drawings from the artist’s sketchbook rather than a graphic novel. If you’ve not seen one of these Datebooks, you owe it to yourself to at least give this or the previous volume a flip through, even if you’re not a big fan of Ware’s comics generally. If volume 2 is half as good as it’s predecessor, we’ve got a serious contender for book of the year dropping this Wednesday.

Dave's Pick:

Archaia Studios Press debuts - Debut issues of a few new mini-series from Archaia Studios Press come out today. The Engineer from Brian Churilla and Jeremy Shepherd looks like about the most mainstream/superhero book they've ever done, while Rebekah Brem's Misericordia, and Hybrid Bastards! by Tom Pinchuk and Kate Glasheen look like some of the strangest.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Complete Terry and the Pirates (Volume 1): 1934-1936

Milton Caniff

Terry and the Pirates is a fantastic comic strip and really, a must-have for any serious comic collector. This complete version of Milton Caniff’s classic action/adventure strip, from IDW, is a huge book full of Caniff’s lush drawings, including many colored Sunday strips. The strip follows young Terry and his pal, the handsome lady’s man Pat Ryan, as they face pirates, kidnappers and conspirators alike through their many adventures among exotic locales. This collection begins with the colored Sunday pages, as the plots of the strips were kept separate between the Sundays and the dailies at first, the reasoning being that some newspaper subscribers only received the Sunday paper. Black and white dailies follow the Sundays in the middle of this book, making up the bulk of the volume. The volume ends with the converged strip when the story ran all the way through the week. Howard Chaykin does an excellent introduction that gives a lot of perspective to the classic strip, preparing readers for the coming awesomeness that is Terry and the Pirates. Dames and good-natured old men drift in and out of the stories, and a Chinese cook named Connie joins the pair in their misfortunes at the very beginning, often serving as interpreter and as comic relief. One of the funnest characters of the strip is the recurring villain, the treacherous femme fatale The Dragon Lady, who always seems to survive any ill fate, and who has an interesting love-hate relationship with Pat Ryan. While the book begins amid really beautiful illustrations, it does seem to get better as the book goes along, which is saying something since at the get-go, I was in awe of Caniff’s beautiful detailed environments. I often caught myself stopping to merely stare at the pages after I’d read through the panels. And some offensive racial stereotypes aside, I’d say that the melodrama and action were a good balance amid characters that were about as developed as you would want them to be in a strip such as this. It was inevitable that Pat would find a new woman in a new locale, and that he’d have his shirt off for some reason or another, and Connie would get another crazy idea that would earn a good laugh from his friends - but it’s all a lot of fun. Even the scene where Terry is taking a bath and toweling off in front of Pat Ryan as his friend reclines in a nearby chair, was amusing in a Batman-Robin sort of way which, as I think of it, kind of sums up their whole relationship pretty well: Terry is very much the sidekick of Pat Ryan, who gets the ladies and is deemed the threat by the villains of the tales. Pat is the bad rugged guy who smokes a pipe and can’t be tied down by a woman, who must have adventure to feel alive. It’s great. You can kind of see why the women in the stories find him so magnetic. But Terry isn't anything to sneeze at either. He can hold his own and often gets Pat Ryan out of a jam with his quick wit and limited resources. Something else I really enjoyed about this strip is how the story flowed as it proceeded. In the action strip Dick Tracy (also being collected in complete editions by IDW), I notice a lot of repeating and backpedaling to catch readers up and recap what’s happened. In Terry and the Pirates, it seems like it could have been made for this format all along, it flows that seamlessly from one day’s strip to the next. Toward the end of the book, when the Sundays and dailies merge, it seems to fall more into the recap trap (probably still trying to find that balance between Sunday-only subscribers versus readers who get the daily papers), but overall, it was still pretty fluid, as least compared to Dick Tracy. In the end, this is a book that deserves a spot in everybody’s personal library. It boasts beautiful art, compelling stories, great characters and all of the elements necessary for a lasting impression.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Not Comics?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between comics and literature, and especially about the relationship between comics and children’s literature, and many of the ideas I’ve been wrestling with seem to me to be present in the following quote from Philip Pullman, taken from this very good interview:

“One of the texts I sometimes quote -- it's not a text, it's just a pronouncement -- was made by Pope Gregory the Great in about 592, I think. This was in connection with the question of whether it was okay to paint pictures on the wall of churches, given the commandment that forbids us to make representations of things. What he said was, "What words are to the reader, pictures are to those who cannot read." Which, on the face of it, seems to make sense. It seems sound, good policy. If you can read, you have the words; if you can't read, you have the pictures.
.
But what it does actually is make two assumptions that I think have bedeviled our understanding of pictures for a long time since then. One is that words and pictures are equivalent, whereas they are not. When you see an actor in a role on a screen, for example, that actor's face is forever afterwards associated with that character. It is very hard to disentangle the two. When we read about that character in a book, we can supply what the person looks like, and we supply all sorts of other things that are not there, because they don't have to be there. Words and pictures are not the same.
.
Another interesting difference between them is that words work in time, and pictures work in space. Pictures are very good at showing you where things are, what things look like, how far away things are -- that sort of thing. But a single picture on its own cannot show us the order of things happening. Stories are all about the order of things happening. This happened, and then that happened because of what happened earlier on. To do that, you need words, which are extremely good at depicting this because of the way verbs have tenses, and the way sentences have grammatical sequence of clauses and so on, all of which help us to understand the order of things. So words and pictures aren't equivalent. That's the first kind of mistake that Pope Gregory made about them.
.
The second consequence of what he said is that it set up a sort of hierarchy of esteem in which educated people have the words, but people who are not educated -- children, illiterate people, slaves -- have to make to do with pictures. This has curious consequences in the way, for example, that now children's books are expected to be illustrated and adult books are not expected to be illustrated, that, when children reach a certain age, we say, "Come on, stop reading comics now; read proper books." And the fact that we just don't think visual literacy is important enough to teach in school.”

Manga Monday: MW

MW
Osama Tezuka

Like all of Osama Tezuka's works that I've been fortunate enough to have read, I loved MW. All 500+ pages are collected under a beautiful hardcover courtesy of Vertical, who has already provided readers with other great Tezuka packages like Apollo's Song and Ode To Kirihito. This particular story follows two lone survivors from an island near Okinawa, where a poisonous gas leak from a military facility led to an elaborate cover-up by the government after everyone on the island died. The two survivors haven't forgotten and fifteen years later, take steps toward exposing the event. Garai is a priest who was once in a gang, and is now under the thrall of the dangerous man who also survived the MW gas leak as a young boy, Michio Yuki. Michio is a charming up-and-comer who gets what he wants no matter what, often deceiving those around him, playing a part and using people for his nefarious purposes. When he was exposed to MW, he lost his ability to sympathize with others, and aside from an odd attachment to his childhood molester, he indulges in murder, robbery and frame jobs, all the while playing with the people who cross his path and satisfying his bestial sexual appetite. Tezuka gives readers a good hard look at evil in this man without a conscience, a great contrast with the priest who is our protagonist and who we experience most of the story through. While MW is more twisted than what I've read from the writer in the past (which is saying something), I loved every minute of it. Despite a pretty detestable character he created in Michio, I found myself hoping for him to get away with things over and over again, particularly in the face of an evil that was a little more insurmountable: the government. This is an interesting book, certainly suspenseful all the way through, and illustrated beautifully, as one would expect from a Tezuka work. There were a few predictable plot twists in there, but for the most part, I was kept on my toes and intrigued from the first page to the last. A

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Perry Bible Fellowship

The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories
Nicholas Gurewitch

The Dark Horse collection of strips from Nicholas Gurewitch's The Perry Bible Fellowship comic strip/webcomic is a pretty little hardcover with one of the best covers ever. It contains some incredibly funny, outrageous strips featuring cute animals, smiley faces and slimy space creatures. There are plenty of twists on properties like M&Ms and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, spoofs on other comic strips such as Family Circus, and funny extensions of things like alien abductions and The Garden of Eden. It kind of reminds me of The Far Side, but more sick and twisted. It's really fun stuff wrapped in a beautiful package, with art that varies in style from strip to strip. It's kind of hard to explain the appeal of the book - I feel like I'm not really doing it justice here. You kind of have to experience it for yourself. And I recommend you do so, at The Perry Bible Fellowship website, where you can read many of the strips. The hardcover collection from Dark Horse collects many of these as well as some "lost" strips. Get it and laugh. A

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Scott Pilgrim (Volume 4):

Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
Bryan Lee O'Malley

Those who've read the previous three volumes of Scott Pilgrim know what to expect from the book: a pretty hilarious title featuring a cast of hipsters boasting influences from manga to video games to music. No one who's followed along will be disappointed with the latest edition to the universe, though it does throw a few curves at its readers, resulting in some changes to the series. For one thing: Scott Pilgrim does get it together. Sort of. He makes some good decisions that move him out of the realm of moocher/slacker, and more toward a responsible adult. I said more toward, because he still has a long way to go, and we want this book to be fun, right? And there's still the remainder of those seven evil exes of Ramona's that Scott has to battle to more permanently win her affection. And now there are mysterious figures stalking him as he and his friends travel from Sneaky Dee's to his apartment with his gay roommate Wallace, and, well...back to Sneaky Dee's. The first half of this particular book was a little slow-going. Maybe I felt like it was spinning its wheels a bit, not really doing anything very different, just offering more of the same. Which would have been fine. But the latter half of the book gets really good: Things drift more into video game territory, there's a lot of ass-kicking, and there are some nice moments for various members of the cast. Reading this book is like hanging out with your good friends. It's always a pleasure to visit these characters and follow their adventures and witty banter. And I can't wait for more. A

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Moving Forward While Looking Back: The First 19 Months of John Byrne’s Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four #232-250
John Byrne

Recently, I’ve been rereading John Byrne’s long and lauded run on the first volume of Fantastic Four. I’ve read through these issues several times in the past, and indeed this run of comic books holds special significance for me in that my first encounter with them marked the first time I became distinctly aware of the creator of the comic books, rather than just the characters. After reading these comics, John Byrne was the first artist whose work I sought out based on his talents, rather than my interest in the characters he was working on. In short, I went in a Fantastic Four fan, and came out a John Byrne fan.

As many times as I’ve read a lot of this material, I’ve not read the run in its entirety from the first to the final issue, and indeed there are a couple of issues I acquired only recently I’ve not read at all. I thought, then, that my thoughts on this rereading might make for an interesting blog post, or even series of posts. Certainly, my fondness for John Byrne, both as an artist and as a man, has fallen considerably since I first dubbed him my “favorite artist” years ago, and the comics under consideration here are hardly flawless, but for the most part I’m delighted by how much I’m enjoying reading through these old comics, generally finding that they hold up quite well as a series of solidly crafted superhero comics that, so far at least, improve in quality as the series progresses.

Byrne’s first issue of Fantastic Four is titled “Back to Basics!” That title, and the issue itself, provide a perfect example of Byrne’s basic approach to the series. I’m afraid I’ve read very little of the vast stretch of issues that is the post-Lee/Kirby, pre-Byrne Fantastic Four, but it’s clear Byrne feels the book had wandered pretty far off the mark, as his approach is aggressively conservative, concerned, at least in these initial issues, not so much with forging a new path as with bringing the characters and concept, well….back to basics. In this first issue, Diablo, a B-list villain from the F.F.’s rogues gallery, creates four creatures, each of whom embodies one of the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire) and sends them to attack the Fantastic Four. It has often been observed that the powers of the Fantastic Four mirror these four elemental properties (the Thing is earth, the Invisible Girl is air, Mr. Fantastic is water, and the Human Torch is fire), and Diablo’s plan is to have each of the elemental creatures attack a member of the team whose power is not analogous to the creature’s own. So, the earth creature attacks the Invisible Girl rather than the Thing, the Human Torch battles the air creature instead of the fire elemental, and so forth. Eventually, Mr. Fantastic deduces the nature of Diablo’s scheme, as well as coming up with a way to defeat the creatures: They are destroyed when the state of the matter of which they are constructed changes, and so some clever methods are devised to do just that, and the issue wraps up with a cameo appearance by Dr. Strange, who assists the F.F. in tracking down and capturing Diablo.

In many ways, this first issue serves as a kind of template for much of what will follow. For one thing, it is entirely self-contained, a single short story with a beginning, middle, and end. While there are a few two- and three- part tales in the group of issues I’m looking at here, for the most part the stories are, like this one, self-contained. The structure of this issue also provides Byrne a nice showcase for his take on the various members of the team. While he will leave his mark most noticeably on the Invisible Girl (she uses her power in a new, now familiar, way for the first time in this issue), my favorite character under Byrne’s stewardship is Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic. In character and in physical appearance, Reed is the prototypical absent-minded professor. Many of these stories involve a kind of mystery that Reed must solve in order to save the day, with the other members of the team functioning as extensions of Reed’s plan, indeed as extensions of his vision of the team and it’s mission. I love the way Byrne draws him, too. He is quite thin, fit but certainly not brawny as he was depicted even in the later Kirby issues, with a slightly large forehead, evoking both his intelligence and age relative to his teammates. Johnny is the hunky, faux-bad-boy who would probably be a nerd were he not so physically attractive, and the Thing is the Thing.

A couple of unfortunate clunkers follow this promising first issue. First is a solo Human Torch story in which he does some uncharacteristic detective work to try and solve a years-old crime at the request of an old acquaintance. Like the first issue, it’s a well-executed short story, but not particularly interesting or thrilling, and a bit of a disappointment in that it focuses only on one member of the foursome, which seems somewhat inappropriate so early in Byrne’s run. Following this is “The Man with the Power!,” a one-off about an ordinary Joe who, unbeknownst to him, has the power to alter reality itself. Far from the most original concept in genre fiction, and nothing particularly interesting or innovative is done with it here. Byrne seems to be keeping the Fantastic Four themselves at something of a distance in these two issues, utilizing them more as devices in the tightly-constructed plots he has devised rather than developing the story outward from the characters, and this works to the book’s detriment. Subsequent issues will see a subtle, welcome shift towards richer characterization and more time spent with our main cast.

After a battle in space with Ego, the Living Planet, the F.F. return to Earth for what is possibly the most acclaimed single issue in this run of comics, #236’s extra-sized epic, “Terror in a Tiny Town.” In this story, the Fantastic Four’s memories have been altered, and their minds have been placed inside tiny robot duplicates of themselves, who inhabit a miniaturized town called “Liddleville,” completely unaware that they were ever the Fantastic Four. Their life in Liddleville is an idealized one, with Reed Richards working as a professor at a local college, Sue as his adoring housewife, and, most significantly, a very human Ben Grimm married to Alicia Masters, who is not, as she usually is, blind. Dr. Doom and the Puppet Master are the ones behind the scheme, and both of them are able to enter tiny robot duplicates in the town as well, the Puppet Master as himself, Alicia’s stepfather Philip Masters, and Doom as “Professor Vaughan,” a colleague of Reed’s at the college who continually berates Dr. Richards for his stupidity and ineptitude, just for the fun of it. Doom’s a bit of an ass, you see. Eventually, Reed figures the whole thing out, the F.F. are returned to their original bodies, and Doom and the Puppet Master are trapped inside Liddleville. While I don’t know that this story is quite as good as its reputation suggests, I did quite enjoy revisiting it. Byrne makes the smart choice of beginning the story after the F.F. have already been placed in the trap, so the reader has no idea what is actually going on, until slowly the truth of the predicament is revealed. It’s a nice idea for a “special” issue, too (#236 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Fantastic Four), as the Fantastic Four must now choose to play the roles fate forced them into years ago, rather than remain in the gilded cage they’ve found themselves in. The tragedy of the Thing is of course played for optimal melodrama here. With all it has going for it, there are some distractingly goofy elements that keep it from being a great Fantastic Four story, particularly some of the logistics of Doom’s and the Puppet Master’s plan. The Fantastic Four are able to regain their powers by subjecting their tiny robot selves to a “lesalle-devaney particle accelerator” which has been constructed in miniature in the laboratory in which Reed works. Why did Doom go to what must have been extraordinary lengths to construct a device he must have known was capable of giving the Fantastic Four their powers back? Well, because “the knowledge that so delicious a mechanism as the accelerator is available, but denied to him will drive Richards into ever greater depths of despair and confusion,” of course. I told you Doom was an ass. Oh, and he couldn’t have just built a fake device because “Doom couldn’t risk my recognizing a fake, even in my befuddled state!” Right.

Byrne’s next significant contribution to the series comes a couple of issues later, with the revelation of the secret of Frankie Raye. Frankie is Johnny Storm’s sort-of girlfriend when Byrne begins his run on the series, a cute redhead who, despite her attraction to the Torch, seems repulsed by his flaming power. Byrne had been dropping subtle hints as to Frankie’s dark secret throughout the initial issues of his run, and it all comes to a head in #238, when it is revealed that Frankie is actually the daughter of the scientist who created the original Human Torch. It seems she was accidentally exposed to some of her father’s chemicals years ago, and developed flaming powers of her own. In a fit of what can only be described as extreme overreaction, her father hypnotized Frankie so that she would forget the incident, and indeed her entire past, and live her life without knowledge of her own superpowers. The scheme works until she meets Johnny, at which point the mental blocks placed in her mind begin to break down via exposure to this new Human Torch, until Frankie finally “flames on” herself, becoming, in effect, a second, female Human Torch. I like Frankie, particularly her design. When using her powers, Frankie’s skin appears bright red, but without those little lines that are drawn over the Human Torch. Her hair appears as billowing yellow and orange fire, and her costume is essentially a one-piece yellow bathing suit which melts to flame around the edges. A great, dynamic looking design, but one that was destined not to be around very long.

You see, Frankie didn’t get to enjoy her status as a second Human Torch and almost-fifth member of the F.F. for very long. During her brief career as a superhero, Frankie seemed unnaturally addicted to her power, with an insatiable lust for adventure and a seeming willingness to break the F.F.’s “no killing our enemies” rule. Yes, bad things were brewing for poor, troubled Frankie, and it would all culminate in my personal favorite story-arc of Byrne’s run, his own “Galactus Trilogy” in issues #242-244. Galactus has once again returned to earth, in pursuit of his rebellious herald, Terrax. Over the course of these issues, Terrax is depowered by Galactus after a failed attempt to recruit the Fantastic Four into offing the big guy in order to free Terrax from his bondage. When all is said and done, Galactus needs a new herald, and our own Frankie Raye shockingly volunteers to take up the position once held by the Silver Surfer. After a quick “power-up” from Galactus resulting in a new, sleeker look, Frankie flies off into the cosmos, leaving her life on earth, and a very heartbroken Human Torch, behind forever. It’s a pretty neat little three-parter, featuring, at one point, the Fantastic Four fighting alongside Dr. Strange and several of the Avengers to battle the devourer of worlds.

Following this is a weird Invisible Girl solo issue where Sue’s and Reed’s young son Franklin turns himself into an adult, a two-part story featuring the return of Dr. Doom and his restoration as Latveria’s monarch, an issue featuring the Inhumans, and finally a two-part story culminating in the extra-sized 250th issue, wherein the Fantastic Four get their asses kicked by the Superman-like Gladiator before recovering to help him defeat a quartet of Skrulls disguised as the Uncanny X-Men.

So, we’re off to a good start for quite an entertaining run of comic books. As I said, I’ve really been enjoying revisiting these issues, and have found much to appreciate. Although it’s not fashionable these days to say so, I really enjoy John Byrne’s artwork. I’ve discussed his designs of Mr. Fantastic and Frankie Raye, but all of the characters look terrific. His Thing is perfect, in both physical appearance and characterization. The dopey melodrama the character finds himself caught up in works most of the time because Ben Grimm is, at heart, a dopey, melodramatic guy. I like him.

While I certainly recommend these issues to anyone who enjoys good superhero comic books, it must also be said that they fall far short of the brilliance that was Jack Kirby’s take on these extraordinary characters he co-created with Stan Lee. Certainly, Lee’s dialogue was incredibly goofy and melodramatic, but it did have a certain flow and cadence that worked well in collaboration with Kirby’s powerful artwork. Byrne’s dialogue, by contrast, can be quite awkward, particularly when he is conveying clumsy, complex exposition through his characters, which he does often, despite the fact that he also employs copious, at times overwritten, narrative captions. While it is probably unfair to compare any artist who works on these characters (or any superhero comic book) to Jack Kirby, I’m mostly disappointed that Byrne is, at times, too reverent towards the source material. While his “back to basics” approach was probably refreshing for a lot of fans who had been subjected for years to a Fantastic Four that had become just another superhero comic book, I think it would have been nice if Byrne had brought more to the table creatively, in regards to the creation of new heroes and villains, and the exploration of new worlds and universes. Such an approach is a big part of what made Kirby’s take on the characters so great, and would have been more in keeping with the spirit of Kirby than simply utilizing the elements that had already been introduced in the series. At times, Byrne comes across here not so much as an artist with a bold new vision for the future of these characters, as he does a museum curator who is eager to show off the work of a master whose collection he has been lucky enough to have been granted association with.

Still, if memory serves, future issues in this run will see Byrne building on the foundation he’s established here, even going so far as to replace one of the original team with another character. Also, while flaws should not be overlooked, the strength of these comics should not be understated: Byrne proves himself in these issues to be a man firmly in command of his craft, with an impressive ability to construct satisfying short adventure stories that satisfy as individual, 20-page units, but also add up to an engaging serial narrative. His character designs are first-rate, and his grasp of the characters and their personalities is very strong. Were these comics being released today, they would be amongst the best currently being offered by the superhero publishers, and if that comes across as damnation by faint praise, it was not intended as such. While these comic books may not quite deserve a place next to Kirby’s run in the canon of great superhero comics, they certainly deserve to be read and enjoyed on their own merits, and I hope that this essay has gone some small way in encouraging you to do so.

Note: The comic books discussed in this essay have been collected into two trade paperback collections. Buy them here and here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Picks of the Week: 12/5

Picking the most promising books of the week...

Dave's Pick:

Warren Ellis' Blackgas - Warren Ellis doing zombies - what's not to like here? This collection comes out in both trade paperback and a limited 750-copy run of a special hardcover edition. Collected are both the original Blackgas mini-series, and its sequel. Six issues. A bloody good time.

Patrick's Pick:

Popeye (Volume 2): Well Blow Me Down HC - It's Popeye.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Manga Monday 54: Parasyte

Parasyte (Volume 1)
Hitoshi Iwaaki

A fan-favorite series, Del Ray is releasing new editions of Parasyte for audiences that may not have caught it nearly a decade ago when it was first translated into English and published by Tokyopop in 1998. It's a fun science fiction series about an alien invasion. Where these aliens come from hasn't been explored by the end of the first volume. All we know is that one night a bunch of pods silently descend from the sky, releasing snake-like creatures on Earth, who seek out human hosts to bond with to survive. Typically, the creatures "eat" the host's brain and thus, control the entire body, able to shape the head any way they please, often whipping sword-like appendages out at humans to kill them before eating them. One quick-witted boy, Shin, has become an anomaly however. When he caught the creature attempting to crawl up his nose, he was able to thwart it and fend it off for awhile until the creature burrowed itself into Shin's skin and crawled up his arm. Shin quickly created a tourniquet to cut the creature off, killing it without leaving a scar. It turns out that while the alien failed to take over the body and eat Shin's brain, it did manage to take over his arm, where it resides, feeding off of Shin like a true parasite, but also protecting the both of them from the alien creatures able to sense them, who wish to destroy them. Like the aliens, Shin's arm, with a personality its own (dubbed Migi meaning "Right"), can change its shape and becomes a dagger or whatever it needs to survive, and studies books on its own to better understand its host species.
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Yes, it's all very silly and over-the-top, but it's good gory fun, and the suspense and action throughout is pretty thrilling. I'm just beginning volume two, and already there's been what I would call a really chilling panel. The characters are flat as cardboard and there's really not much meat to it, but it's nicely illustrated and it's a great straight-forward story. C+

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Previews: February '08 Comics

Patrick and I take a look at Previews catalogue and highlight the most exciting books shipping to comic shops in February.

Marvel:

Patrick: Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure - February sees the launch of Mark Millar’s and Bryan Hitch’s run on Fantastic Four, but I’m more interested in this project, presenting the final, 103rd issue of Stan Lee’s and Jack Kirby’s landmark run on the series, never before printed in it’s entirety. Stan Lee scripts and Joe Sinnott inks over Jack Kirby’s pencils, which are also presented uninked with analysis by John Morrow. A reprint of Stan Lee’s and John Buscema’s Fantastic Four #108, which incorporated some of the material in a flashback sequence, is also included. Sounds like a nice package.

Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1 - This 64 page special issue is the conclusion of Joss Whedon’s and John Cassaday’s great run on Astonishing X-Men, which will be relaunched as Astonishing X-Men: Second Stage by Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi. Whedon’s final issue of Runaways is also out in February, apparently marking the end of his association with Marvel for the foreseeable future.

Dave: Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: The First Death HC - I read a few Laurell K. Hamilton books, including Guilty Pleasures, which was the first Anita Blake graphic novel adaptation from Marvel. The First Death is the first original story to get the graphic novel treatment, digging into events that occur before the hunter's first adventure in novels. What's kind of lame about this is that The First Death is only a two issue series, and the rest of this hardcover is filled with the Guilty Pleasures Handbook.

ClanDestine #1 (of 5) - A new mini-series from Alan Davis, in which he returns to a title he created for Marvel UK. When Alan Davis returned to Excalibur with issue 42, he took on writing chores and demonstrated an enthusiasm for creating characters like Cerise and Kylun, the same sort of enthusiasm he brought to ClanDestine when he left that book, where he carried over many English-mythology themes. I loved Excalibur, so I'm pretty anxious to check out this title, and luckily, the same month Marvel is releasing the original series in the ClanDestine Classic Premiere HC!

X-Force #1 - Another relaunch of X-Force. This team is a wetworks team of mutants featuring Wolfsbane, X-23, Warpath and, of course, what would an x-book be without Wolverine.

The Order (Volume 1): The Next Right Thing TP - I've been meaning to check this book out for awhile. It just seems like a fun colorful superhero book featuring, I believe, the California-based superhero group formed in wake of Civil War.

Dark Horse:

Patrick: Hellboy Library Edition Volume 1: Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil - This is a nice looking book. The first two of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy story-arcs are collected in this deluxe hardcover, plus supplementary material. I really like what I’ve read of Hellboy, including the material collected here.

Dave: Chickenhare (Volume 2): Fire In the Hole - The second collection of Chickenhare, an all-ages book featuring a cast of rare animals. The first collection was a lot of fun.

DC Comics:

Dave: Tiny Titans #1 - This just looks cute as hell.

Cartoon Books:

Patrick: Rasl #1 - Like his masterpiece, Bone, this new series from Jeff Smith will doubtless read best once it’s finished and collected, but there’s no way I’m going to wait that long to read it. Bone is without question one of my all time favorite comics, so I’m all kinds of excited about this new work, about an art thief who has the ability to travel between dimensions.

Digital Manga Publishing:

Dave: Speed Racer: Mach Go Go Go (Volumes 1- 2) - A 2-volume hardcover slipcase featuring the original work from Tatsuo Yoshida, restored just in time for the film and the book's 40th anniversary.

Fantagraphics:

Patrick: The Education of Hopey Glass - I absolutely adored Jaime Hernandez’s last graphic novel, Ghost of Hoppers, to the point I cringed during a recent rereading of my review of it, so breathless was I in it’s praise. Despite my inability to properly articulate what makes Jaime’s books so damned impressive, trust me that you’re not going to want to miss this latest collection of material from the second volume of Love and Rockets.

IDW Publishing:

Patrick: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume 1 - The golden age of classic comic strip reprints continues with this very welcome collection of the first three years of Harold Gray’s masterpiece.

Star Trek: Alien Spotlight: Romulans - John Byrne draws Star Trek. I’ve been rereading Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four and rewatching the original Star Trek series on DVD, so I…um…..oh god. I’m a nerd, aren’t I?

Picturebox:

Patrick: Goddess of War #1 - This new series of oversized comic books from Lauren (Girl Stories) Weinstein sounds very interesting. Based on a persona created for her band, Flaming Fire, this first issue sees the titular Goddess, a former valkyrie and daughter of Thor, abandon her post for earth to be with her lover, the Apache Chief, inviting the wrath of the king of the Gods.

Viz:

Patrick: Honey and Clover (Volume 1) - The first collection of the manga that replaced Ai Yazawa’s Nana in Shojo Beat. I’m afraid I haven’t got around to reading any of it yet, but I’ve heard good things, and it certainly looks nice.

Dave: Naruto (Volume 28) - Two years pass from the last volume to usher in a new era of Naruto!

Misc...

Patrick: Kirby: King of the Comics - I know this has been somewhat delayed, so I’m not sure if I’ve already pointed it out in one of these posts, but it probably bears repeating that if you only buy one book about comics this year, this copiously illustrated biography/art book by Mark Evanier should probably be the one.

Art Spiegelman: Conversations - I think there has maybe been a series of these cartoonist “conversations” books? I can’t really vouch for the editor or publisher, but this seems like one that would be pretty hard to screw up, just because Spiegelman’s such an engaging figure to listen to talk about his own work and comics in general.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Volume 2: Rodrick Rules - Along with the color volumes of Jeff Smith’s Bone, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the comic I am most frequently asked about by kids looking for it at the bookstore I work at. This thing seems to have come out of nowhere, but it’s gotten a great response, so it’s nice to see a second volume on the way.