Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Collection catchup: waiting for a few months can make for a good payoff

Ongoing series aren't always best when read in chunks rather than issue by issue, but that seems to be the case more often than not these days, so here are a few that I've gotten up to date on recently:

The Umbrella Academy, volume 2: Dallas
Written by Gerard Way
Art by Gabriel Ba


Wowee, there's definitely no sophomore slump here. The first volume of The Umbrella Academy was a pleasant surprise, a smart, fun take on superhero, sci-fi, and dysfunctional family tropes, something nobody was expecting from a writer known more for being an emo rock star than, well, a writer. But while that story was a good introduction, this follow-up might be even better, deepening the various relationships between the characters, explaining more of the complex backstory, and throwing one crazily awesome idea after another onto the page, never stopping to allow the reader to catch their breath. Plus, while the series is being presented in standalone storylines, it's become obvious that long-term plotting is in effect; scenes that weren't fully explained last volume lead to the plot here, while other bits are obviously setting up more stories in the future. It's put together beautifully, and it's tons of fun to read.

The plot here, indicated by the subtitle, manages to involve the assassination of JFK, along with the real reason for Number Five's reappearance in little-boy form; two psychotic, cute-mask-wearing, time-travelling assassins; a possible end to the Vietnam War that involves a giant mummy; the afterlife; and the world blowing up. It all happens at the series' signature frenetic pace, and Way seems to toss several ideas onto the page for every one he uses. At one point, three characters travel backward in time to stop JFK's killing, but the next time we see them, it turns out that they went back too far, and ended up spending three years fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, which in any other comic could have made for several issues of adventures. It's the kind of thing that could be filled in later, but will more likely be left up to the imagination of readers, which makes for a surprisingly satisfying read. Way trusts us to keep up, so he doesn't hold our hands and over-explain every little thing. For all its super-cool trappings and reveling in violence and gore, it's really a very mature bit of storytelling.

And it's incredibly fun to read as well, with funny, incisive dialogue, exciting action, and something incredible to look at on every page. Gabriel Ba outdoes himself here, filling the world with details like characters who happen to be monkeys, crazy futuristic technology, cool supernatural effects, Viet Cong vampires, and tons of grotesque killings. His depiction of life after death is especially striking, and the subtlety of emotion that he manages in his simple depictions of characters is pretty incredible. And the action! Just check out how well it works just in this one panel of a fight between Number Five and about a hundred guys from the future:


Just look at how well all the motion makes sense there, as we can follow the hopping child and see where he is shooting and how he is taking on all his attackers. It's gorgeous, and every panel of the book works this well, presenting clear action, dynamic motion, and images and colors that pop off the page. I love this comic, and I can't wait to see what Way and Ba have coming next.

Bonus: Check out Ba's homage to his collaborator Rafael Grampa's cover to their comic 5! Awesome!

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The Boys, volume 5: Herogasm
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by John McCrea and Keith Burns


Well, this comic is just plain dirty. It might be the closest thing to superhero porn you're going to find in "mainstream" comics, but while Garth Ennis does seem to be trying to provoke and offend, it's not really all that shocking if you've read most anything else he's written. He does seem to be having fun coming up with goofy sex acts and just general depravity though; this sort of thing is kind of right up his alley. The miniseries might have seemed like a sort of step away from the ongoing series for what passes for an "event" in the world of this series, but it actually ends up being pretty important, eventually dropping the sexy shenanigans and focusing on the concerns of the greater plot. This might be a case in which waiting for the collection wasn't the optimal reading experience, since, from what I understand, it functioned in effect as a way to make the series biweekly for six months, alternating with issues of the regular series that took place after the events seen here but with the two storylines playing off each other. A scene in which the superhero group Payback (a riff on the Avengers) are tasked with doing something about the Boys particularly seems like one that pays off later, but while trade-waiters like me won't get to see the results until the next volume, readers of the monthly issues saw that happen within a few weeks. It should still work though, just not at the optimum level. It's hard to figure out the best way to read these things these days, isn't it?

Anyway, the general air of superhero satire continues here, with the series still functioning as a savage, disgusted take on the whole idea of the genre. Ennis seems to be looking at this as what superheroes would be like if they really existed, an idea that's been done before over and over, but comes from a cynical modern viewpoint that sees nothing positive in the enterprise. We wouldn't have benevolent do-gooders, but celebrities and brands wholly owned by corporations and governments, doing the bidding of the rich and powerful and caring not one iota for the little people. It turns into a scary concept, and Ennis is really selling that here by showing how the superheroes are starting to feel that they don't have to been held back by the dictates of human morality and law. Which is where the real message of the series comes in: it's not just about the comics industry, but society itself, in which rich individuals and companies hold all the power, considering themselves above everyone else and free to do whatever they want, no matter whose lives are destroyed in the process.

This consideration of real-world power is emphasized by the continued looks at back-room politics of Halliburton-esque corporations who are making inroads into control of the United States government, and interestingly, Ennis includes the actual Halliburton in the comic. It seems like an odd choice, to plug a real-life entity like that into a fictional story, but it startles one back into reality, reminding us that the inhumane actions being depicted here are representative of things that are actually happening. The use of the events of September 11 functions in the same way, putting real-life blood on the hands of these fictional representations of those who wontonly murder innocents.

One could probably talk about other aspects of the story as well, like the art or character developments, but while those work well enough (although I thought it was funny that John McCrea seemed reluctant to show much male nudity, while fill-in artist Keith Burns draws dongs-a-plenty), that metaphorical aspect is what I think is most important, giving the series its real satirical bite. You can come for the jokes and the dirtiness, but hopefully you'll leave with a consideration of how your life is affected by this type of activity. And I don't mean the sullying of your precious superheroes, either.
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Chew, volume 1: Taster's Choice
Written by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory


This series has sort of been the comics success story of the year, at least in terms of mainstream, direct market, non-big-two comics, and reading it, it's easy to see why: it's entertaining, accessible, and really nice-looking, along with being pretty unique. And that accessibility might be its strongest point, considering how unique it is; it's about a cop (and later federal agent) who gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats, which leads him toward some cannibalistic tendencies in the name of pursuing justice. And that's only one of the odd ideas that writer John Layman tosses out here; there's also a backstory involving the FDA becoming the leading anti-crime organization in the United States following an outbreak of bird flu the leads to the outlawing of poultry, a love interest who has found great success as a food critic due to her ability to describe tastes so well that people actually experience them when reading her reviews, and also aliens, apparently. There's action and banter aplenty, mysteries to solve, secrets, reversals, betrayals, and conspiracies, but it's never complex or hard to follow. In fact, the five issues collected here are all stand-alone stories, easy to pick up and read without feeling lost. It's a surprisingly approachable book, and a hell of an entertaining one to boot.

Layman does a lot of the work here, establishing characters' personalities through dialogue and (aside from brief introductory captions in each issue along the lines of "Meet Tony Chu...Tony Chu is cibopathic", and so on) delivering exposition organically rather than forcing readers to hear somebody explain the whole bird flu situation for their benefit. But artist Rob Guillory really fleshes out that structure and creates the oddball world of the comic, from the dirty back alleys where gangsters smuggle bootleg chicken to the paperwork-littered offices and gross evidence rooms of the FDA. He's got a style that resembles a more clean-lined and brightly-colored Ben Templesmith, which means that the characters aren't especially attractive, but they've got personality to spare. He comes up with some good effects for Tony's psychic impressions and stages some great action scenes too, perfectly balancing seriousness and comedy. It's a great book all around, and at a bargain price, hopefully it will get plenty of people on board for the series, since Layman obviously has plans for a long, involved story. I know I certainly want to see where it goes next.
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That's it for the moment, but it looks like there will be more coming soon. Comics!