Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Collection catchup: Vertigo plus one

Links: Have I pointed out Kevin Church's new projects? He's got a weekly strip called The Loneliest Astronauts with Ming Doyle, and it looks pretty damn enjoyable. And there's also what appears to be more of a serialized crime story called She Died in Terrebone: A Sam Kimimura Mystery, with art by TJ Kirsch. They both look quite good; that Church fellow is going places.

This Paul Pope strip of a scene from Dune is pretty nice-looking.

Hey, let's make this a regular thing (which probably dooms it to obscurity): short(er) takes on collections of ongoing series, what those in the publishing world (and, inexplicably, the comics community) call trade paperbacks. Go!

Fables, volume 12: The Dark Ages
Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Mark Buckingham, Mike Allred, and David Hahn

There were a couple possible ways to go with Fables after ending the long-running war plot, with the more difficult one seeming to be seeing how things work out in Fabletown and the Homelands after defeating the Empire. What would happen in all the liberated worlds, and how would the new leadership (such as it is) cope? Bill Willingham hints that this might be what is going on in the first issue of this collection, but then he immediately upsets the new status quo in a pretty surprising way, knocking the victorious Fables back on their heels and leaving them scrambling to not only survive against a new threat, but trying to figure out what has happened and who has done it to them. It's pretty canny storytelling, jumping back into the pattern of downtrodden heroes fighting a powerful enemy, but in a much different way than they had been before, and with a lot of new wrinkles to the setup. Yes, the title continues to be as gripping as ever, and I couldn't be happier, even with the tragedy that befalls the beloved characters here.

And that's the other thing that Willingham does: focus on characters, rather than just hitting plot points. The big event here (aside from the main plot developments, that is) has to be the worsening condition of Boy Blue; watching him slowly deteriorate while fighting his war injury until he looks like little more than a desiccated corpse is tough, and the moments he has with friends and loved ones are pretty great, especially his eye-opening confrontation with Rose Red, who also looks to be growing into a major character who is full of fascinating flaws. But even the little stuff is neat to see here, like Fables who were born after the evacuation to the mundane world wanting to gain a birthright by taking over some of the newly-freed worlds, or the way the animal Fables bristle at the way they get brushed aside from being included in big decisions. And the new bad guy, the ominous Mr. Dark, is one hell of a creepy fellow; I'm very interested to spend more time with him.

On the art front, Mark Buckingham is as good as ever, filling pages with tons of gorgeous detail that combines a realistic setting with fantastical characters and still seems like something out of a storybook. His art definitely fits the title of the arc, as it gets increasingly dark over the course of the story, using some interesting toning patterns and lots of inky shadows. Mike Allred also turns in some nice guest art on that aforementioned filler issue, which sees Pinocchio giving Gepetto, the deposed Emperor, a tour of Fabletown while dodging the various angry protesters, shopkeepers who refuse him service, and people who march up to give him a piece of their minds. I'm especially struck by Allred's depiction of Pinocchio as an innocent-seeming, dot-eyed young boy, which stands in contrast to Buckingham's usual cynical-faced miniature adult.

Yes, it's another good volume, and I'm as excited as ever to get to the next one. Interestingly, there is a bit of metafictional exploration here, as characters wonder about the power that mundane storytelling has over them. It hints at the contents of the next arc, "The Great Fables Crossover", which sees Jack of Fables, which usually goes much further in that metafictional direction, and a miniseries about an even more metafictional type of Fable, The Literals, meet up with the main title. I have no idea where it's going, but I can't wait to find out.

Unknown Soldier, volume 1: Haunted House
Written by Joshua Dysart
Art by Alberto Ponticelli

This is one hell of an intense book, and not in a good way. That is, it's full of action and violence, but it's the type of thing that happens in the real world, and it's stomach-turning in its (only slightly exaggerated, I imagine) nastiness. Joshua Dysart famously made a research trip to Uganda to gather material for the story, and it shows, with lots of details that come straight from real life, and a sense of moral outrage at the awful way people can treat each other (both face-to-face and through willful ignorance and unseen advantage-taking). It's the kind of thing that's designed to make one angry at the inhumane acts being perpetrated on people, and mind-boggling to consider that it's only focusing on a small portion of the violence and horror that's going on in the world.

But all that detail is in service to an interesting story about a heroic African-American doctor who has pledged his life in service to the downtrodden refugees (or "internally displaced persons", to use a less headline-grabbing term that keeps them off the world's radar) of northern Uganda, along with his loving and equally-medically-talented wife. But the anger he feels at what he sees seems to be welling up inside of him, assisted by horrifically violent dreams, and one day he snaps after being caught in a standoff with a rebel soldier, with a strange, ominous internal voice urging him to commit his own acts of violence. He complies all too easily, sending him into what seems to be madness, and he ends up taking up a one-man war against the people who would casually rape and murder innocents, sporting the telltale bandaged face of the long-time war-comics character after he mutilates himself in despair at his actions.

There are hints at a story there about how he gained such deadly prowess with weapons and strategy, something about CIA brainwashing, but it's not really necessary; the real focus here is on the actions that spur him to take up arms, including the recruitment of children as soldiers, the rape and kidnapping of girls, and the casual murder of civilians just because they are in the way. There's some gut-wrenching stuff here, and its understandable to see the character want to painfully murder the perpetrators, but the actions he takes are just as horrible. And pointedly, they seem to make matters worse. He does his best to make things right, to stop those who are laying waste to the people and destroying lives left and right, but in doing so, he murders children himself, and only spurs them to retaliate in ever-more-awful fashion. Before his "conversion", he gives a speech about how violence only begets violence, and he just proves it later, turning into more and more of a monster and taking good people like his wife down with him. That seems to be the real message here, that peace needs to be achieved through something other than killing, and Dysart is doing his best to show why that is, and making sure we know it's not just artful speculation, but a very real issue that is killing more and more people each day.

Italian artist Alberto Ponticelli provides the art here, and it's often quite gorgeous, capturing the landscape really well and filling plenty of pages with the dirty details of medical camps and battlefields. The people, on the other hand, can sometimes be awkward, and maybe even a bit cartoony, but his exaggeration really brings out the lost innocence of the child soldiers, as their big heads, spindly limbs, and extreme difference in size from the adults really make them seem tiny and frail, especially when they are carrying huge guns that they seem barely able to lift. Some of the action is a bit hard to follow at times, but the gist is always clear; we understand who is being gutted and decapitated, or just shot, and even when it's a rah-rah action movie moment, there's a real feeling of disgust at what we see. Maybe a more "realistic" artist would have been more appropriate, but Ponticelli still does a good job of filling in all the nasty details, and he makes some of the more surreal touches and dream sequences really work. And who knows, maybe he'll get even better as the series goes on. That's something to hope for.

Ultimately, one wonders why Dysart chose to tell this story in this way. If you're going to do such extensive, dangerous research, why make an action story starring a version of a long-lived
war comics character? But maybe flying something like this under the radar as if it was just another bit of Vertigo violence is sort of the point. I suppose something like Joe Sacco's journalistic comics would have been more "acceptable", but maybe a release from a mainstream publisher will attract the attention of those who don't normally read about what's going on outside of their lives of Western comfort. Those of us who stick to what's comfortable occasionally need something to jolt us out of our complacence and realize the reality lurking beneath our entertainments, and maybe this will be enough to get us off our seats and actually do something, anything, to help make the world a better place. Sure, it might be kind of far-fetched, but it's a nice idea. Maybe Dysart can actually do something to help it happen.

Wasteland, volume 4: Dog Tribe and Wasteland #25
Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Christopher Mitten

By this point, you're probably either on board this post-apocalyptic series or not, but it's still a comic worth discussing, considering the thought and work that Antony Johnston has put into the world-building here. It's much more than just a dusty adventure story; Johnston has crafted several different cultural traditions (so far), and much of the interest comes in seeing them crash together in different ways. And it's fascinating to watch, whether you're trying to understand the nuances of the slang that the people use or the different relationships between people. There's a continuing plot featuring some well-drawn characters and a lot of action and intrigue, but seeing the world they move through continue to be defined is the big treat for me.

The fourth volume sees some continuing development on that front, as Michael and Abi, on their quest to find the fabled A-Ree-Yass-I, almost immediately stumble across and get captured by a couple of "dog tribes" of people who live in close association with packs of dogs that have become much more than just pets. The main characters kind of just sit in the background while an intense drama plays out around them, involving a conflict between the tribes that is now being resolved via a marriage between the chiefs' families. It's another example of the way Johnston defines these characters and cultures so well; we get involved in their conflict very quickly, although we don't necessarily understand what they're talking about or the way they relate to each other right away; flashbacks work to get us caught up in the tragic story.

It's very effective work, with the alien society really coming to life. Johnston does a lot of the work, but Christopher Mitten's art is what really sells it, from the vaguely African tribal fashions of the people to the way they interact with their dogs, and the deference that lower-ranking people show to the chiefs is palpable. It's gorgeous work as always, in Mitten's signature scratchy style that hides a surprising amount of detail.

And then in the twenty-fifth issue of the series, Johnston and Mitten give us one of the regular interstitial stories that doesn't directly affect the main narrative, this time being a flashback to an encounter between Michael and the nomadic trader Sultan Ameer, explaining some of the animosity that we've seen. It's a nice little story, mostly focusing on one of Ameer's wives as she tries to visit her family, who she hasn't seen since she was forced to leave them as a teenager. It's sad stuff, effectively told as always. And the big highlight is Mitten's art, which for this special occasion is in full, painted color, looking quite beautiful, with lots of deep blues and purples and searingly bright oranges. Hopefully this won't just be a one-time treat.

I don't know if the series is still gaining any readers, but hopefully if anybody hasn't kept up with it, they'll give it a second look, because as the series progresses, the creative team's talent for crafting a fascinating world for their tale to play out in becomes more and more apparent. I hope they'll be able to continue to wow readers for as long as they need to finish telling their tale.

DMZ, volume 7: War Powers
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Ricardo Burchielli, Kristian Donaldson, and Nikki Cook

It seems like the intensity never lets up in this series, but it's morphed into intensity of a different type in these later volumes, going from characters trying to survive in a war zone to protagonist Matty Roth trying to navigate the complex world of politics, barely able to understand the forces pulling him in different directions, with dire results not just for himself but for all of Manhattan if he makes the wrong decision. It's hard to watch, and while we can sympathize with his plight, he still seems to be letting others push him around and manipulate him too easily. He does finally take some steps to remedy that trend, but even that seems to be a selfish act, rather than the "right" one. But that shows him to be realistic, acting as a normal person would, which isn't always likable.

The title story of the volume is sort of the main event here, but the volume starts with a two-parter in which Matty travels to a U.S. Army base on Staten Island, where he finds a sort of bacchanal in which the base commander negotiated an unauthorized truce with the rebel army to facilitate some mutual partying. It resembles Rick Veitch's Army@Love, although toned down quite a bit, and with less of a satirical intent. But it's the kind of thing that one can see happening in a war zone, especially when the enemy shares your own culture and values. And when it all inevitably falls apart, it's as hard to watch as anything else in the series, considering that it all seems like it's taking place in the real world, in an alternate universe where these kids are next door rather than on the other side of the world.

And then the main event starts, as Parco Delgado takes power as the provisional governor of the DMZ, immediately making some controversial moves, declaring the region to be a sovereign nation and kicking out both combating armies and severing all military contracts, especially any involving the Blackwater-esque Trustwell Corporation. This leads to plenty of chaos, and Matty is kind of left in the lurch, with nobody telling him what's going on. It turns out that he's an important part of Parco's plans, since he has contacts to Wilson, the Chinese gangster who might have a source of funds for the administration. And after securing those funds, Matty finds that Parco's got a lot of plans that don't necessarily seem to line up with his idealistic campaign promises, and at least one action that seems reprehensible in its "ends justify the means" cynicalness. It's hard to watch, as Matty's dreams of peace seem to get further and further away, but as with everything else in the series, it seems all too real, the stuff of real-world backroom deals and compromises in morality to achieve political goals. And the thing is, Delgado is enough of a charismatic talker that you almost believe him when he explains his actions. And who knows, it might all work out for the best, but given the real-world-imitating nature of this series, that certainly seems unlikely.

The volume wraps up with a single-issue story that follows Matty's (ex-?)girlfriend Zee, who left him and went off on her own into the unpoliced, dangerous area of the city after getting disgusted with the compromises that he was making. But even she can't escape the tough decisions, as she ends up forced to choose between helping out a wounded mercenary or letting her die. She's dragged right back into the conflict, or at least its periphery, as is her nature. As much as she might protest, she's in this for the long haul, like everybody else.

Yes, the quality of this series keeps going at the same level, and it's admirable that Wood is continuing to develop the conflict in new directions, and not take any easy shortcuts. If you can handle the depressing levels of violence and the despair that comes from realizing that the real world is just like this (or worse), the series continues to be required reading. I'm confident that Wood can continue to keep it up, and I only hope I can do the same.