Aug 29, 2005

comics reviewed

A while back I noted I was going to take another stab at reading some comic books even though my experience in the past has been less than rewarding. Well I've done this. I did quite a bit of research, took some recommendations, and opened up the wallet. Here's what I've found out.

While the medium seems to hold a lot of promise comics largely suck. In a nutshell there are two problems - they aren't written well and they don't seem to be written with any great vision in mind. Even though there's been quite a few articles in the media about how graphic novels aren't just for kids, it's a lie. They are for kids. I would love this stuff if I was 14 years old. But in terms of anything substantial in these stories. It's rare. I'll touch more on this below with some reviews.

It seems like most monthly comics are eventually compiled and sold as a trade paper book (TPB). This is a much more efficient way to read comics. It's monetarily more efficient but the thought of visiting my local comic store a few times a month is just not a possibility.

I guess I should have known this but many writers and artists who create these comics jump from franchise to franchise. Batman for example is not put out by a single writer and artist. It's a strange part of the comic book industry. It's like reading a Harry Potter book one year that's written by someone else.

The two main comic publishers - Marvel and DC - are largely stagnant and incestuous commercial operations that rely on marketing and 'brand-named' writers and artists to move their monthlies. Think "Hollywood" and you'll know what I'm talking about. Well known franchises like Batman and Superman and X-men are packaged and repackaged to get the most out of their names. Stupid marketing gimmicks like cross-character tie-ins and big summer events are used and take precedence over storytelling. As a result most of the exciting work is done elsewhere, where the franchises have yet to be built.

For all the potential for creativity in this medium, writers and artists are largely a homogeneous bunch. The artwork looks very similar. The storylines are regurgitations of the same old themes. "Gritty" is a de rigeur adjective that you need to employ in today's comics. If I'm this cynical you can imagine what some of the older fans are like. And yet they have themselves to blame because they keep picking up this crap when you read their blogs.

Alright let's go the reviews.

Ocean (6 parts)
Publisher - DC
Author - Warren Ellis

Ellis is one of the better known creators in comics. I'll give him credit for trying out new stories and not relying on a franchise but that's all I'll give him. Take Ocean. Beautiful pictures. Really gorgeous covers on all 6 episodes. Great bold artwork all the way through the story. The story? Pathetic. Absolutely god awful. Let me quote Mr. Ellis - "It's a big splashy SF thing about a UN weapons inspector, frozen weapons floating under the ice [...] and the true history of the human species in the solar system. It was fun to write." Sounds like a pitch from a 6th grader. He makes it sound as pathetic as it is. The true history of the human species in the solar system huh? In 6 small comics? You just know that is going to be good.

Serenity (3 parts)
Publisher - Darkhorse
Author - Joss Whedon

I bought this to get the backstory to the movie which is based on the TV show Firefly that I've written about. As for TV shows I've seen this is the best written show ever (I am not an authority however). And since it's written by someone who is known as a good writer it is not surprising that it is in fact good. Here's the problem - After the next episode the series is over. Or presumably it is over. I'll watch out to see if they make a series out of it which has happened before. But I'm not holding my breath.

Dead West
Publisher - Gigantic
Author - Rick Spears

Like the balding man with the comb-over, one wonders how such a thing as this exists in the real world. Holy shit is this bad. You wonder how crap like this ever makes it to print. Aren't there some talented starving comic artists who deserve a shot over this? Who greenlighted this turd? This is a true graphic novel. No monthly releases. It's actually an interesting premise. Cowboy setting. An Indian tribe is slaughtered by settlers. The Indian exacts revenge by killing himself and creating zombies which terrorize the settler town. After a few pages of decent setup it's just poorly drawn and poorly written bloodshed. The killing of zombies is relentless. There's only time to pause for a few stupid one-liners from the Clint Eastwood inspired protagonist of the story. After all that they have the nerve to end the story as a morality tale when the Indian's father tells his son (who started all this) that this whole revenge gig is not keeping with the Indian way, capeche?. Stupid.

The Goon
Publisher - Darkhorse
Author - Eric Powell

This guy has won some Eisner awards. I get the sense that this is the big award given in the comics industry. Getting this Rough Stuff compilation was interesting. It's a compilation of Mr. Powell's first drawings and he talks a little about how the character and concept came about. In general I suspect his story is similar to others. But it doesn't increase my concept of graphic novels being high art. Basically he wanted to create comics and that was it. That's it! There wasn't a spark of a theme or moral story or a plotline that he wanted to follow. Basically he has an affinity for zombies, 3 Stooges humor, 50s aesthetic styling, and violence. Imagine if an author said something like that. Would you read the book? I'll probably buy another one since he's won some Eisner awards and I'm curious to see if he radically changed the premise of The Goon to win that award. If not, God help us. It would be near impossible to think that the sophistication of this story doesn't get stronger.

Hellboy Volume 1 TPB
Publisher - Darkhorse
Author - Mike Mignola
I'll admit it. I liked the movie. I have a soft spot for Ron Perlman. I think he's a great underrated actor. But this comic was a little weak. And understanding where The Goon comes from I suspect we've got a similar situation here. I'm willing to give this another try just like The Goon. But Volume 1 is poorly written and ends so abruptly that I thought I had skipped over some pages. The movie in the course of 2 hours was better written and I fully accept it's a bit of a cheesy B-movie. Like The Goon it couldn't get much worse.

Flight Volume 2
Publisher - Image
Author - V/A
This is more along the line of what I expect from graphic novels but then this clearly is not the standard fare for those reading the more popular men in tights monthlies. It's quite good. But that's not because of great story telling which I'm ultimately looking for. It kind of reminds me of a comic version of those animation festivals. They are cute, funny, and visually interesting. But at the end of the day it's hard to recall any of them. This book is like that. It's cotton candy stuff. While that seems like a jab, I actually like going to animation festivals. It's light but fun. And it opened me up to a lot of different styles of drawing and concepts in graphic works. The type you are not going to get with the men in tights stuff. Overall I thought it was a good buy and it's something that my kids would read. I have heard Volume One is the better purchase. I may add that to my purchase list at some point. Would I buy Volume Three though? No.

Justice (1 of 12)
Publisher - DC
Author - Alex Ross
I'm not sure why I picked this up other than the cover is smoking. Justice as in the Justice League of America. "JLA" to those in the know (not me, took me a while to figure out what JLA was). I had no idea who was in the Justice League before this. Apparently it's most of the big guys - Superman, Aquaman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash etc. However the line up apparently changes over time. This one certainly looks interesting. The artwork is oil painting-like. Solid stuff. And the premise starts out well too. Atomic bombs hit the major cities of the earth. None of the JLA members can do much about it. And then they all wake up from the same dream. Cut to Aquaman. The author/artist actually manages to make him seem like a superhero. To me aquaman has always come off as a bit of a pantywaist. Here he seems tough. He is captured by Lex Luthor and someone called Black Manta who apparently is a long time bad guy. There are the usual vague references to something major happening. A little pat perhaps but the artwork and writing seem strong. I give it until episode 6 before it starts degenerating.

All Star Batman & Robin (1 of ?)
Publisher - DC
Author - Frank Miller
Well I guess I had to buy this one right? I do like Batman. I like the fact that he doesn't have superpowers, is a smart resourceful guy, and needs to see a psychiatrist. Robin? The guy needs a makeover which I'm sure Frank Miller will do. I suspect that Frank is the cause of all this 'grittiness' in comics. Everything I've seen from him is 'gritty' (when saying that you should snarl a little). This is the first episode. How is it? It blows. I thought some of the Sin City stuff was okay but that was mainly because the artwork was gorgeous. I don't like the artwork here. It's good but it's not what I like. Robin seems to be the focal point here. Retelling how he became Robin. Turns out his circus parents were assassinated. That's right Robin is a carnie (and smells like cabbage). Batman comes off as a child molesting stalker. That's gritty for you.

Prelude to Infinite Crisis
Publisher - DC
Infinite Crisis huh? That's a buttload of crisis. Not sure how the superheros will get out of this one. "Yo Superman there's an infinite amount of crisis over here. Can you grab the back? It's hard to lift with just one person. Watch out for the corner." Infinite Crisis is the DC answer to House of M which I'll review below. Actually I think that might be the other way around - Infinite Crisis might have been announced first. Both of these are marketing gimmicks. "Summer events" that include a number of tie-ins from the regular monthlies these two publishers put out. Crisis about sums up this superhero business. It's kind of like a James Bond movie. There's always someone wanting to overtake the world and they seem to have found a weakness in the superhero's powers to get it done. You would think there would be some interesting concepts to try out with a bunch of 'gods'. I mean hell the Greeks have a boatload of books about gods and from what I've read they are pretty good.

Publisher - Wildstorm
Author - Warren Ellis
Our friend Mr. Ellis again. Got this one on a recommendation from a friend who got a recommendation from his friends. Wildstorm is really a cover name for DC Comics. It's their label for more alternative comics which I presume means they are 'grittier'. It's pretty much more of the same though. Nothing too gritty about this. 3 semi-superhero type players are part of a group that describe themselves as "archaeologists of the impossible." I wonder if they've met the guys from Infinite Crisis? They basically travel the world and find monsters and artifacts which are unpossible! There's some thinly veiled thread that connects these stories but mostly they seem like separate travails of the group. I'll probably peek through the other two volumes to see if anything interesting becomes of it.

Y: The Last Man Volume 1
Publisher - Vertigo
Author - Brian Vaughn
Okay this is more like it. There was some forethought that went into this series. The title gives away the plot line. Every man on earth is dead due to some mysterious virus. Think of the politics and social dynamics that would occur. This series goes into those topics and does them well. I will most likely get all of these (and there are quite a few). The artwork is pretty good but nothing special. It seems that most of the effort goes into the story and the accompanying graphics are relatively standard. Thumbs up. Woohoo!

House of M (1-5 of 8)
Publisher - Marvel
Author - Brian Bendis
I haven't got a clue what the M stands for? Marvel? House of M is Marvel's 'event' of the summer. It's actually not bad. It's got a combination of X-men and Avengers so I'm completely up shit creek with regard to the motivations and backgrounds on these people. Without this backstory you, as a novice, are missing a lot of what is going on. At any rate the artwork is first rate and what I did get of the story I liked a lot. But then what? Where do I go after this is over? Avengers? X-men? I'm sure they're hoping both. I'm sure they also hoping I'll buy the other 30 or so comics that have a link in to this story. Well don't hope too much.

Publisher - Speakeasy
Author - Frank Espinosa
This is the only comic I read that really captured my attention. The artwork is unusual. Almost like a wood carving. The storyline is also unique. In places it reminds me of Dune. The story seems like it's telling a tale from mythology. And it's clear from the first release that they are going to take their time telling this story. I have high hopes for this one. And I will definitely pick up the series and anything else this guy puts out. He is, and perhaps this isn't surprising, not from the comic field at all. He's an animator for Warner Brothers. Maybe that's what's needed in this medium.

No comments: