Saturday, August 15, 2009

Series collection catchup

Here are some shorter looks at various trade collections that I recently got around to reading:

The Boys, volume 4: We Gotta Go Now
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Darick Robertson and John Higgins

I'm not sure why I like this series so much when I tend to get annoyed by the regular attempts to make superhero comics all "realistic" and "edgy". Maybe it's that Garth Ennis doesn't hold anything back; his heroes are exactly what we would expect from celebrities who are not only rich and famous but also have massive power and no consequences for their actions. Ennis seems to enjoy coming up with as much sick and twisted shit as he can, but he still grounds it in humanity, and while the violence and sex can be over the top, when it comes time for real horror, he pushes it right in our face. The dirty secret behind the series' stand-in for the X-Men is pretty damn awful, and while the consequence is horrifying, it still feels deserved, both for the perpetrators and those who aided them by not saying anything. Damn.

I also am enjoying the relationship between Hughie and his girlfriend. That's another way that Ennis grounds this over-the-top story: by developing realistic characters and relationships among all the nastiness and carnage. He's as good at writing tender romance as he is at coming up with funny sex and violence, which is surprising, but also quite nice.

And despite complaints I've heard that this storyline went on too long, I thought it worked rather well. It looks like I made the right decision when I switched to trades on this series.

DMZ, volume 6: Blood in the Game
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Ricardo Burchielli

Reading this collection, I'm left wondering who equates Matty Roth with Brian Wood, since Matty comes off as a naive, easily-influenced doofus, even if he is well-meaning. He does seem to fight for what he thinks is right, but this story sees him get involved with a candidate in the election for a "provisional governor" of New York City, and while the guy seems charismatic, he doesn't appear to have much substance below the surface, riding mainly on the message of "giving a voice to the people". That's nice, but who knows what he's actually going to be able to accomplish, if anything. The series does seem to have taken a turn here, and maybe future stories will see Matty learning about the twisted politics and red tape that have to be dealt with in a tangled situation like this one, not to mention the fact that it's a dangerous war zone.

It's very interesting to see what Wood is doing here; as I've said from the beginning, the real power behind this series is that it takes the real-life violence of war and plops it down in our backyard, where American's don't have that distancing barrier of the TV screen to make it easy to think it doesn't matter because it's happening on the other side of the world. The obvious analogy is Iraq, but there are many more similar areas of conflict, and all of them are full of complex issues like we see here. The plot sees an election for a "provisional government", but what does that even mean? Is Manhattan going to become a new country, separate from the split nations of the U.S.A. and the Free States? Will this government have any power, or is it just listening to the "occupiers"? Does all the fighting and death that springs up around the election have any value at all, or are the people just pawns being fought over by powerful governments and corporations? Sure, this is all fiction, but these exact sorts of questions are very real in conflict zones all over the world, and Wood brings it home for readers and makes us realize how lucky we are that we don't have to face them. Yet.

Powers, volume 12: The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time
Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming
Art by Michael Avon Oeming

And so ends the current "volume" of the series. Not volume 12, like it says on the spine, but the volume that has been published by Marvel starting in 2004. Those issues constituted pretty much one long story, and it was pretty damn interesting, seeing major changes for the series' characters and some pretty dramatic events taking place. Even so, I'm not feeling this series like I once was; Bendis' dialogue, which once seemed refreshing, different, and funny, has become much more commonplace now that he has slathered his sub-Mamet-isms across the Marvel universe. It is still good to see him really cut loose though, pumping nasty sex and violence into his stories of superpowered crime and often making things quite disturbing. There's a sort of super-drug-addiction thing going on here that's really gross, and affecting since it's totally based in reality, with people willing to do anything for that next hit.

I dunno, I might be continuing to read this series out of momentum; it's certainly had its moments over the last decade, but it doesn't seem all that unique anymore. Oeming's art, which does do its job pretty well, can grate a little bit, with men mostly conforming to the broad-shouldered, square-jawed look, and women being short and wasp-waisted. I do appreciate the ever-changing nature of the characters though, and the sense of time moving forward and real change taking place. At the end of the volume (which is a natural endpoint and an understandable reason for the forthcoming relaunch and new #1 issue), Walker and Pilgrim are definitely in different places than they were at the beginning of the Icon series, and Pilgrim especially should make for a character to watch. She's stuck with some real guilt about what she has done, and all her relationships have been pretty much destroyed. I don't see her being written out of the series though, so maybe she'll become a PI or something. And Walker's burgeoning relationship with his new partner should be interesting as well, as long as Bendis can keep coming up with interesting cases. So will I keep reading? Yeah, probably. I hope I don't regret it.

Jack of Fables, volume 5: Turning Pages
Written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges
Art by Tony Akins and Russ Braun

It took me long enough to get around to reading this volume, but I'm glad I finally did. This really is a very entertaining series, one that takes the "fairy tales come alive" concept of its parent series and gives it a humorous spin, exploring the limits of the concept and even beginning to introduce some metafictional ideas. It's also slowly moving back toward the main Fables title, just in time to crash right into it for the "Great Fables Crossover", I assume.

Interestingly, the humor gets downplayed in the first of the two stories in this volume, which is a flashback story about Jack in the Old West, when he was a murderous outlaw named Jack Candle. He's always been kind of a lovable bastard, but here he pretty much drops the "lovable" part, and his mayhem spurs Fabletown to send Bigby Wolf to hunt him down and bring him in. It's a striking change for the series, as Jack is seen as kind of a nihilistic misanthrope while still remaining the basically cowardly doofus who mostly gets by on luck that we're used to seeing. When the showdown between him and Bigby finally occurs, he has a sort of breakdown that explains his murderous turn, confessing that after all the death he witnessed in the Civil War, he feels like human life is worthless. It's striking stuff, and a nice bit of characterization and unexpected use of real-world events.

And then it's back to the normal shenanigans, in a three-part story that gives details about the three Page sisters, explains a little bit about the Literals (who will be important in the crossover, getting their own tie-in miniseries), and sees Jack return to the Golden Boughs Retirement Home for what will presumably be a big battle in the next volume. There's some interesting stuff here, including a scary transformation for Humpty Dumpty, a bunch of imaginative "forgotten" Fables, narration directly to the reader by one Eliza Wall (she has three brothers), and some really tumultuous plot developments. It's enough to make me really interested in where things are going next.

I dunno, I really dig the main Fables book, but this one is fun as well, in a different sort of way. It's got kind of a tongue in cheeck attitude, and since it focuses mostly on one protagonist, it's a bit more focused. It's really a different style of storytelling, less epic and more adventurous, but still quite enjoyable all the same. I had been wondering if I wanted to continue to stick with it, but apparently that was just fading memory due to lack of exposure. No, I'm in for the long haul now.

Northlanders, book 2: The Cross and the Hammer
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Ryan Kelly

Wow, here's another book to really get behind. Brian Wood is really stretching and trying to tell different sorts of stories with this series, and if you ask me, he's succeeding wonderfully. This second collection of his series of Viking stories takes place in an occupied Ireland in 1014 AD, splitting between the viewpoint of a self-styled freedom fighter named Magnus, and his pursuer, an educated Norseman named Ragnar. It's a fascinating, intense, and violent story of the latter chasing the former as he carves a swathe of violence across the kingdom in a one-man crusade to rid his country of its occupiers. And while it's just a minor subplot, an actual fight for the freedom of the country is taking place in the background, as an army of Irishmen have risen up to confront the Norse king and drive him out of their land. This might seem distracting from the main confrontation, but as the story hurtles toward its end, we see that it works as a counterpoint toward Magnus, who seems like an unstoppable badass carrying out his principles but is eventually revealed to be a broken, delusional murderer. It's a great conclusion, one that brings new light on everything that occurred over the course of the story.

Ryan Kelly's art is pretty great too, surprisingly full of blood and gore coming from the artist of Local. He rises to the occasion here beautifully, really bringing Wood's script to life through gorgeous landscapes (which, due to the contribution of colorist Dave McCaig, really match the harsh, forbidding vistas of the other artists who have worked on the series) and clearly-read emotions from the characters.

The story ends up being an excellent examination of the mentality of the nationalistic zealot and what constant violence can do to the mind. Wood has outdone himself here, and aside from one apparent error (SPOILER: Ragnar specifically states that Magnus has a companion, but we later find that Magnus' daughter was imaginary. END SPOILER), the whole thing holds together wonderfully, setting up what seems to be a straightforward story and then yanking the rug out from under readers at the end. This series has quickly become one of the best books that Vertigo is publishing.

House of Mystery, volume 2: Love Stories for Dead People
Written by Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham, and Bethany & Peter Keele
Art by Luca Rossi, Tony Akins, David Petersen, Henry Flint, Berni Wrightson, and Kyle Baker

The best thing about this Vertigo series is probably the various short stories that appear in each issues, usually sold as stories told by patrons of the bar in the titular house. The first story arc saw several of these, and they provided a nice break from the confusing main storyline, often leading to some funny and/or horrific images by a string of excellent guest artists. Unfortunately, they seem to be downplayed in this second volume, with the focus returned to the regular cast and their strange encouters with the weirness of the house in which they are trapped. Sure, the shorts pop up in each issue, but with only one exception, they all focus on backstories of the cast; they're still entertaining (with the Tony Akins-illustrated story of Ann the pirate probably being the best, although Berni Wrightson's art on the story about the hapless maiden in all the monster movies is also pretty good), but they all seem to be in service of the increasingly tiresome main storyline, which is a disappointment. And that story is getting more annoying; weird shit happens, nothing gets explained, characters complain. I think I've had enough of that. It's just not clever or interesting enough, despite all the effort from Matthew Sturges writing and Luca Rossi's moody art.

I dunno; I guess it's just not doing it for me, which is a shame, since it started out well. I could also mention Kyle Baker's story about one character's magical childhood adventures, and David Petersen's fairy tale about a war between the cats and the birds; those were also decent. But I'm just not feeling it anymore; I think I'm done with this.

And there's a dent in my reading pile! Not enough of one though, so I better keep reading.