Friday, March 9, 2007

A bipolar week of comics

Well, it's about time I got around to:

Reviews of new comics!

Fantastic Four
Written by Dwayne McDuffie, Stan Lee, and Paul Pope
Art by Mike McKone, Nick Dragotta and Mike Allred, and Paul Pope

Well, I got this one due to Paul Pope's backup story, and I lucked out, because the other backup story is written by Stan Lee, with art by Nick Dragotta and Mike Allred! Awesome! The main story is a fairly boring affair; I suppose I might be interested if I was planning on reading the book monthly, but it's a Civil War epilogue, like the cover says, with the team hanging out and being a family while watching a TV special about their career. There's nothing wrong with it, but it just doesn't interest me.

However, the backup stories are where the real action is. I probably read about Dragotta and Allred's involvement at some point, but I hadn't noticed that their story was written by Stan Lee, so that was a nice surprise. It's a pretty amusing affair, and it fits in quite well with the recent Stan Lee Meets... specials that Marvel put out to commemorate Lee's 65th year of working for them, or something like that (how old is he, anyway?). I ended up getting all those specials, and this story is exactly the same tone, with Stan showing up to convince the team to go fight the Mole Man, since Reed Richards is moping because nobody is congratulating them for their 45th anniversary (which is a weird number to celebrate anyway, if you ask me). I don't know if Stan has written anything worthwhile in the last 20 years or so, and this story, like much of his recent output, is pretty lightweight; he can't seem to stop talking about movies and merchandising. He ends up stopping the Mole Man by offering him a role in the next Marvel movie, and then he assures the FF that they'll get a huge celebration for their 50th anniversary. It's a fun little outing, with excellent art by Dragotta and Allred. They give a nice Kirby-esque feel, while throwing in a lot of details. There's a funny appearance by Joe Quesada and the rest of the Marvel Bullpen (any idea who any of the other guys are?):

I like the X-Statix poster on the wall. That series is gone, but not forgotten! And here's a great scene of Stan running between Mole Man's minions:

I love the body language. Hopefully all that exertion won't give him a heart attack (he's an old guy!). So, it's an enjoyable story, if light, with excellent art.

(By the way, I like Dragotta and Allred's recent team-ups, but I think that they look quite similar to Allred's solo work, so I looked for some solo Dragotta work, and here's what I found (click to enlarge, of course):

From X-Statix #20.

From Amazing Fantasy #15.

Not sure. Character design for Amazing Fantasy #15?

Interesting. His style seems fairly simple, so it looks like Allred is pretty much taking it over and making it his own. Maybe Dragotta is mostly doing layouts, with Allred finishing them in his own style.)

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. Paul Pope's story is an old-school Spider-Man/Human Torch dust-up. J. Jonah Jameson is sick of getting the same old Spider-Man photos from Peter Parker, so he assigns him to take some pics of Johnny Storm in a hot-rod race. Of course, when Johnny spots Spidey setting up his camera, this happens:

And they end up fighting. By the way, this takes place in the past, before all the Civil War nonsense, with the Spidey identity reveal and the hey hey!, so it's like a classic Spidey/Torch fight, only illustrated in Pope's crazy, kinetic style:

It's pretty awesome, even though it's only ten pages long. So, the books pretty sweet, although I would have preferred if they had done some sort of separate anniversary special with just the backup stories, because then I wouldn't have had to pay for the regular boring part.

Nat Turner volume 2 (of 2)
By Kyle Baker

Wow, this was incredible, even after the wait after issue #2 of the miniseries came out. For those who don't know, this comic was originally scheduled as a four-issue miniseries. The first two issues were released, then Baker decided to release the series as two graphic novels, with the first volume containing the first two issues of the series. So now volume 2 comes out, containing what would have been the final two issues of the miniseries. It's been quite a while to wait, but it was worth it.

This is the brutal true story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a revolt against slave owners in 1831. At least, he went to trial in 1831, so it probably wasn't any earlier than 1830. The first two issues were about Turner's mother being captured as a slave in Africa and brought to the U.S., and about Turner's childhood and life as a slave. He was very intelligent, having taught himself to read. Volume 2 sees the revolt begin, as we see Turner gather a few other slaves and go to murder their owners in their sleep. Then they make their way across the country, killing white families in each house and setting the slaves free to join their growing "army". Eventually they are defeated, and Turner is caught and hanged (sorry about the spoiler, but it's a 180-year-old story, and the ending is spoiled on the cover anyway).

The story is harrowing, told only in pictures and excerpts from The Confessions of Nat Turner, a book that was published containing an interview conducted with Turner while he was in prison awaiting execution. Baker shows us all the gory details, as Turner and his army slaughter the unsuspecting families, including the women and children. At one point, Turner and his men are leaving a house where they had killed a family, and the men remember that there was a baby in a cradle that they had forgotten about. We can see from Turner's expression that he is hesitant about killing a baby (great cartooning by Baker), but he remembers having his own child taken away from him, so he lets them return to the house to finish the job. Later, a large slave encounters the boy of the family that owned him (he was shown smiling at the boy on the first couple pages of the book). Here's his reaction:

Wow. It's the kind of violence that shocks and sickens you, but you can understand what drove them to it. Well, actually, I can't even begin to fathom what slavery is like, but some of the brutality and inhuman treatment that is shown toward slaves in this series at least gives a hint of the whole picture. This is a great, literary work, and it should be taught in schools. It shows us a horrifying part of our national history, and it's not something that should ever be forgotten.

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil #2 (of 4)
By Jeff Smith

Well, here's something to lighten the mood after the downer of the previous book. I don't know if I mentioned the first issue of this, other than to say I was excited about it. In any case, it was great, but the story gets even better here. It's nearly nonstop action, as Billy goes to the circus just in time to witness some talking crocodiles run rampant and attempt to eat the children in the audience. Billy changes into Captain Marvel so he can tear them a new one:

I love the croc at the bottom, rubbing his nose and crying after being socked in the kisser. In fact, I'm going to call it my current favorite comics panel. Billy is joined in his fight by a tiger, who we later find out is Talky Tawny, the old bum who helped him out last issue. There's other stuff going on, as Dr. Sivana has been named Attorney General and is establishing a Big Brother-style system to catch "evildoers". I sure didn't expect political commentary in this book, but it's just there for flavor. We've also got a huge Miyazaki-style monster standing in Central Park, and it calls itself Mr. Mind and says its monsters will come and destroy the human race. Uh oh.

Cap searches out his (Billy's) sister Mary (who was at the circus), and finds her in the care of Talky Tawny. He changes back to Billy to get acquainted with her, and it's all very cute. Smith is great at characterizing kids, and he nails their expressions:

He's also good at getting expressions out of animals, as we can see with Talky. Nice!

Eventually, another monster shows up in Central Park, so Billy has to change back to Captain Marvel to go check it out, but when he does, some lightning sparks off him and hits Mary, changing her to Mary Marvel! She retains her childlike form, but has the speed and flight of Cap. She's hilariously kid-like as she zips all over the place testing out her powers, and she races Cap to Central Park to confront the monsters. The book ends there, leaving us hanging. I can't wait until the next issue to see what happens next.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born #2 (of 7)
Written by Robin Furth and Peter David
Art by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove

Well, looks like I'm hooked, at least for the remainder of this miniseries. I know next-to-nothing about Stephen King's Dark Tower series, and I mostly picked the first issue of this series up because I like Jae Lee's art, but it's pretty cool, and unless it takes a huge downturn in future issues, I'll be sticking around.

I thought the narration in the series was a bit cutesy at first, but I'm getting used to it. It's written as if the story is being told around a campfire or something, with the narrator using a lot of slang and referring to the readers senses, saying things like, "Try to ignore, if ya can, the disgusting rending and tearing and slurping noises of his dinner. Notice instead the six spheres surrounding him." It's a bit odd, but not terribly annoying once you get used to it. Or maybe it was just toned down somewhat from the previous issue.

This issue sees the titular Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, leaving his hometown of Gilead and venturing into the wilderness. He's sure to come across interesting characters, some of whom we see here, including a band of deputies working for the evil antagonist of the story. Or one of them, at least; two or three "big bads" have been introduced so far. We also see a virginal young girl visiting a witch to be examined before she can be offered to her town's mayor as a concubine. There's some genuinely graphic sexual descriptions here, with the witch checking "lower" and saying, "Caulked tight, ye are. Good as ever was. But Thorin'll see to that, so he will." Yikes. And in another scene, the narrator describes the witch's reaction to a magical object: "...a foul-smelling old woman with sagging teats and a barren desert in the place where her ancient bowlegs come, believe it or don't, such is her excitement over the sack the Eldred Jonas hands her that she feels a strange heat and unaccustomed moisture in that barren creek." Wow. Not what you usually read in the captions of Marvel comics. There is a "parental advisory" notice on the back of the comic, but I still found it a bit shocking. Maybe that was the point.

The story is still mostly setup for what's to come, and it's pretty interesting, but the real draw for me is the gorgeous art. I love Jae Lee's moody, shadow-filled drawings, and Richard Isanove's coloring really brings a beautiful depth and texture to them. I dig the way Lee depicts details like the baroque folds in clothing or bedsheets, or the gnarls of tree branches. And some of the more horrific elements are damn creepy. I won't ruin it here, but there's a character introduced who is disgustingly nasty. I like it; I don't get creeped out by comics too often.

The comic is $3.99, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. In addition to the main story, there's a text piece describing the origin of the "world" of the series, a map of the territory relevant to the issue, some examples of Lee's uncolored pencils, an essay by Stephen King about the comic, and a preview of the next issue. Not a bad deal.

I have a couple more I wanted to talk about, but this has gotten really long, so I'll get to them another time (hopefully tomorrow). Plus, I've got an event of sorts that I'm hoping to start this weekend, so stay tuned for that!