Sunday, January 31, 2010

Manga Mania Month prelude: King of RPGs: I want to be the king of ChoroQ, the caRPG

Elsewhere: I reviewed Ultimate Comics Enemy #1 at Comics Bulletin, and it's a pretty negative one, so hopefully that's enjoyable.

Links: This Jim Rugg ninja picture is pretty great.

But there's little that can compare to these Jack Kirby drawings of God.  That is some incredible awesomeness right there.

So here's the plan for the immediate future: I've got a bunch of unread manga piled up, so I'm calling February "Manga Mania Month", and I'm going to try to read and write about as much of it as I can.  We'll see how that goes, or if it ends up lasting longer than one month.  To kick things off, here's a book that's not really manga, but is kind of close:

King of RPGs, volume 1
Written by Jason Thompson
Art by Victor Hao

King of RPGs 1

Jason Thompson certainly knows his manga, having read and reviewed thousands of volumes of it for his book Manga: The Complete Guide.  So if there's anybody that can replicate the manga experience in a Western-originated comic, this is the one.  And while it does seem to take a little longer introducing things than a lot of its Japanese forebears, once the story starts rolling, it becomes clear that Thompson loves the shonen style of storytelling and is having a great time grafting it onto another of his favorite subjects, role-playing games.  It works quite well, with Thompson's characters falling into the established genre types: the pure-of-heart kid who wants to be the best at something, the driven jerk who puts victory over everything else, the selfless best friend, the average achiever who is astonished by the protagonist's acuity at their chosen endeavor, the villain who competes for the wrong reasons, and probably plenty more to come in future volumes.

If there's any weak point here, it's probably Victor Hao's art, but that's really only in comparison to its Japanese influences.  He doesn't quite nail the clean, easy to follow stylings of most Japanese artists (although he gets better at it as the volume goes on), and characters' expressions can be kind of odd, with mouths usually represented by open shapes, but he makes up for any perceived deficiencies by packing in tons of detail and transitioning smoothly between the real-world and what is happening in the games being played.  It's easy to read, and his art complements the humor of Thompson's script quite well.

Thompson's subject matter is surprisingly broad here; he gives mentions to just about any sort of role-playing game, whether computerized (online or offline), collectible card games, board games, Dungeons and Dragons-style tabletop games, dice games, live-action role playing, and others.  He does seem to favor the classic tabletop games though, with a good portion of this first volume dedicated to our hero's initial experience with them.  First comes the establishing conflict though: Shesh Maccabee has an addictive personality, having nearly killed himself with a week-long session of "World of Warfare", so now that he's heading off to college, his best friend Mike is dedicated to keeping him away from temptation.  Mike has his own quirks though, being a total weeaboo, obsessed with anime, cosplay, Japanese console RPGs, fan-fiction, and so on.  The two of them end up checking out the school's RPG club, where they meet Theodore Dudek, another obsessive personality who wants to be the world's greatest game master.  They all get caught up in a session of Mages and Monsters that ends up seeing Shesh releasing a hidden facet of his personality that becomes his character fully, forgetting about anything outside of the game.  This, of course, makes him the greatest game player of all time, and Theodore becomes obsessed with playing games with Shesh, which leads to increasingly hilarious conflicts, and plenty of chances for Thompson to throw in references, in-jokes, and just plain goofiness.

It ends up being tons of fun, with manga-style tropes jumping to the fore, like a character thinking "Could this be true role-playing?" when Shesh gets so deep into his character that he refuses to acknowledge information that his character wouldn't be aware of, Theodore wearing a golden twenty-sided die around his neck because his mentor gave it to him when he was a child, or characters making dramatic, speed-line-encircled proclamations as they perform an important move.  And while things might seem based in a setting fairly similar to the real world early on, as the story goes on, it becomes clear that this is not the case.  Rather, things here are over the top and crazy, with roommates that are sub-literate vampire wannabes, and campus cops that are so fanatically against the very concept of role-playing games that they'll toss a kid's collection of "Gothemon" cards into an incinerator or arrest gamers for disturbing the peace.  Shesh's multiple personality disorder has him carjack a vehicle and crash it into a Renaissance Faire where the attendees want to give him leeches.  Theo is so dedicated to creating an authentic experience that he brings fog machines, smell synthesizers, and live animals to the gaming table.  It's all a bunch of crazy fun, and about as good of a shonen manga experience as you're likely to get originating on this side of the Pacific.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

2009: A damn good comics year, I don't care what anyone says

Not that I need to rekindle any debates, but I happened to think there were some excellent comics released last year, and now that I've read what I arbitrarily considered the minimum qualifiers, here is my equally arbitrary ranking of:

The Best Comics of 2009!

20. Stuffed!

Glenn Eichler wrote a pretty nice little story here, examining race and family history, with nicely-drawn characters and a compelling conflict.  And Nick Bertozzi continued to show what a good artist he is by rendering it impeccably.  A nice book all around, making for a good entry in whatever passes for the current comics mainstream.

19. Grandville

Who would have expected Bryan Talbot to follow up his groundbreaking Alice in Sunderland with this crazy action/espionage/furry graphic novel?  And who would have expected it to be so enjoyable?  Well, anybody familiar with Talbot would, of course, and they (we) definitely weren't disappointed.

18. The Umbrella Academy: Dallas

Gerard Way turned out not to be a fluke with this second volume of his and Gabriel Ba's series, which incorporated JFK's assassination, confusing time-travel, murderous psychopaths (both good and evil), a ghost/mummy winning the Vietnam War, and the destruction of the Earth into its ongoing saga of a dysfunctional family.  It's gorgeous, funny, and an un-put-down-able read.  Awesome.

17. Empowered (volume 5 review"The Wench With a Million Sighs" review)

Adam Warren's "sexy superhero comedy" is still going strong, and after five volumes, he not only shows no sign of fatigue (outside of a slowed-down release schedule), he's continued to increase the stakes and develop characters satisfyingly, working to a powerfully emotional moment in this year's volume that was both empowering (sorry) and tear-jerking.  Great work, as always.

16. Beasts of Burden (issue #2 review)

Ever since the first short story starring these characters in of Dark Horse's anthologies, the potential for great storytelling by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson has been apparent, and they paid off that expectation beautifully with this four-issue miniseries, examining complex character relationships that work because of their inhuman qualities, featuring some genuinely scary threats, and stoking hopes for more to come.  Let's hope this is only the first of a long series of stories, because when Dorkin's sharp writing meets Thompson's gorgeous artwork, readers are the big winners.

Emmanuel Guibert used his friend Didier Lefevre's photos connected with incredibly detailed artwork of his own to bring the latter's story of a humanitarian mission to war-torn 1980s Afghanistan to life, and while it's unfortunate that Lefevre's human foibles take over the story and move the focus away from the on-the-ground reporting, it's a compelling, fascinating, overwhelming experience, and one worth reading as a way to get as close to a war zone as most of us ever will.

14. Garth Ennis' Battlefields

Garth Ennis' latest foray into the field of war comics has been a winner, looking a World War II from a variety of perspectives, none of which are the ones we usually see in our entertainments.  From female Russian bomber pilots, to Pacific theater nurses, to regular guys in tanks roaming the European countryside, these stories are rich in character, shocking in violence, and true in emotion, capturing the wartime experience and making us realize what people actually went through, beyond just the soldiers on the battlefields.  If there's any justice, Ennis will be leading a renaissance of war comics, but even if he doesn't, that might be for the best, since nobody else is likely to craft them as well as he does.

13. 20th Century Boys (volume 1 reviewvolume 2 and 3 reviewvolume 4 review)

As of this writing, Naoki Urasawa might have received more acclaim for his other series, Monster and Pluto, but this one is reportedly his masterpiece, and the half-dozen volumes released in 2009 are only seeing it get started.  Even this early build-up has been compelling, with a complex plot jumping between different eras, a creepy and believably insane cult plotting to destroy the world, central characters that are enjoyable to spend time with, and a bunch of tense, perfectly-paced sequences that demonstrate Urasawa's mastery of suspense. There are more than fifteen volumes to go, and knowing Urasawa's track record, it's highly unlikely that they will disappoint.

12. 100 Bullets (volume 13 review)

Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's long-running crime series finally came to an end this year, and what a finish it was, with most of the cast meeting the expected glorious end and everything finally being tied together in a ridiculously complex knot of relationships, alliances, betrayals, and murders.  Gorgeous art, memorable dialogue, and a series of unforgettable moments made for one of the best comics experiences of the decade.  Even though it's this far down the list, it's tough to top comics like this.

11. George Sprott (1894-1975)

Seth's collected, reworked volume of the strip that he contributed to The New York Times is a beautiful package, an oversized, excellently-put-together look at the life of a guy who was kind of a loser, a fraudulent Arctic explorer, boring TV host and lecturer, and deadbeat dad, yet still seems like a beautiful facet of humanity.  Nice, clean artwork and touching character moments make for a wonderful read.  It's no wonder the "paper of record" wanted it in their pages.

10. You'll Never Know: A Good and Decent Man

With this first volume of a projected trilogy, Carol Tyler has begun to put together a beautiful memory of her father, relating his experiences as a soldier in World War II and mixing in her own memories of him when she was growing up and how her relationship with him affected her adult life.  It's an artful mix, matching a biographer's insight for detail with beautifully-flowing art and real emotions.  If the next two volumes are this good, Tyler's work will be a modern classic, one for others to study for years.

9. Monsters

If only all "educational" comics were this enjoyable.  Ken Dahl's story of what it's like to be infected with herpes is by turns informative, hilarious, and cringingly difficult to read.  He doesn't spare himself any humiliations, showing how the disease affects people emotionally as well as physically, and his cartooning is about as funny as it gets, while still retaining an essential humanity.  It's a great book for everyone who needs to know more about sexually-transmitted diseases and what happens to you when you get them.  Good times.

8. Low Moon

Jason departed from his usual format of album-sized releases for this book, which collected several stories in one compact hardcover that contains his usual deadpan genre mashups, giving readers Western showdowns involving chess, murderous cavemen, alien kidnappers, and sexual-favor-seeking hitmen.  It's funny, poignant, and, as always, full of insight about humanity, even though everyone is a strange animal creature.  There can never be enough Jason.

7.  The Act-I-Vate Primer

If this anthology was good for anything, it was enticing readers to follow its lead to and read more of what it promised with its samples of the excellence to be had there.  Luckily, it works on its own as well, presenting a variety of gorgeously-drawn stand-alone stories that require no prior knowledge and work as great examples of what can be done with webcomics.  Nearly every page is striking, colorful, and packed to the edges with striking, unique imagery and great ideas for comics storytelling.  The stories on Act-I-Vate are available for free, but spending extra for more of them on paper is definitely worth it.

6. Driven By Lemons

What Joshua Cotter is doing in this book is up to the reader's interpretation, but no matter how one perceives it, it's an amazing piece of artwork, with incredibly detailed scribbles giving way to spare, simple-seeming cartooning and a flowing narrative that seems to just barely elude full understanding.  It's like nothing else in comics, but I wouldn't want it to be.

5. Parker: The Hunter

Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Richard Stark's novel is one of the leading entries in the current wave of crime comics, and it's excellent stuff, a hard-hitting, non-stop narrative of one man's quest for revenge, put together in Cooke's gorgeous style with plenty of suits, dames, and badassery.  It's one stark, simple image after another of a single-minded criminal pursuing his goal and dragging the reader along with him, and it's about as good as comics get in this new mainstream of bookshelf graphic novels.  Cooke has more to come in the series, and if they're all as good as this one, he'll have an enduring classic of comics literature on his hands.

4. Far Arden

With this book, Kevin Cannon put together what seems at first to be a goofy adventure in a fictionalized Canadian Arctic, but as it plays out, it reveals a deep emotional resonance until it gets to a striking gut-punch of an ending that leaves readers deeply affected.  It's tons of fun, but there's more to it than funny sound effects and nicely-detailed ships and icebergs.  I can't wait to see what Cannon does next.

3.  Asterios Polyp

David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel was being hailed as one of the best ever before it even came out, and not much of that praise was retracted upon its actual release.  It's the type of literary story about an intellectual learning to appreciate life that you might see in a Woody Allen movie or something, and while that works well enough, where Mazzucchelli really shines is in all the formalistic tricks he comes up with, depicting characters as unique conglomerations of symbols, playing with repeating, symmetrical imagery, and mixing Greek mythology with modern architectural designs, all while crafting moments that hit with an emotional wallop.  There's tons to unpack and examine here, and multiple readings are all but required.  Luckily, readers will want to come back to the book again and again.

2.  Footnotes In Gaza

Joe Sacco delivered on his reputation as comics' premiere journalist in spades here, researching as many first-hand accounts as possible of forgotten atrocities from decades past in one of the worst places on Earth, and mixing those with observations from the region's current state, which hasn't improved in fifty years.  It's an important piece of comics, putting a human face on a nearly-indescribable, seemingly-eternal struggle that has affected millions and continues to hurt more every day.  It's not a pretty picture, but it's one that everybody should be aware of, and Sacco has done more than his part in bringing it to those of us who want to experience it.

1.  Pluto (volume 1 review, volume 2 and 3 review, volume 4 review, volume 5 reviewvolume 6 review)

It's arguable that some other comics were objectively better, but I can't think of one that I enjoyed reading more than Naoki Urasawa's remake of Osamu Tezuka's classic Astro Boy story.  It's a great bit of storytelling, filled with gorgeous, dynamic artwork; well-realized characters; intelligent science fiction; and an unparalleled examination of humanity.  Over the six volumes released in 2009, we've seen robots try to understand what it is to be human, humans act like robots, love and caring triumph over evil, selfish intentions, and amazing, imaginative technology demonstrated to awe-inspiring effect.  Urasawa is one of the greatest comics creators in the world, and he demonstrates that here on every page.  In my mind, it doesn't get any better than this.

Honorable mentions:

The Anchor (issue #1 review)
The Boys (volume 4 reviewvolume 5 review)
Britten and Brulightly
The Color of Earth
Criminal (The Sinners issue #1 review)
Detroit Metal City (volume 1 review)
GoGo Monster
Johnny Hiro
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910
Love And Rockets: Ti-Girls Adventures
Magic Trixie and the Dragon
Moyasimon (volume 1 review)
Northlanders (volume 2 reviewissue #17 review)
Scott Pilgrim Vs. the Universe
Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye
Slam Dunk (volume 2 reviewvolume 3 reviewvolume 4 and 5 review)
The Squirrel Machine
Unknown Soldier (volume 1 review)
Wednesday Comics (collaborative review of one issue)
What a Wonderful World!
Why I Killed Peter
The Winter Men

As yet unread, and possibly ineligible for consideration:

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man
Alec: The Years Have Pants
Ball Peen Hammer
A Drifting Life
The Eternal Smile
In the Flesh
The Complete Jack Survives
Jan's Atomic Heart
Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu
Miss Don't Touch Me
New Brighton Archeological Society
Pixu: The Mark of Evil
Swallowing the Earth
West Coast Blues
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
You Are There
You Have Killed Me

2009: a good year.  Now let's do better!  The future awaits!

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Squirrel Machine: It should be the girl machine, due to all the ladyparts

Elsewhere: I did what was probably an overly laudatory review of Avengers Vs. Atlas #1 over at Comics Bulletin, and nitpicked last week's Dollhouse at The Factual Opinion.

Link: I liked this look at all of Takehiko Inoue's covers to the collected volumes of Vagabond.  That's some nice art there.

And, if you're curious, I decided to forego the weekly preview thing, since I didn't feel like talking about whatever was on there.  I've been strapped for time lately, so we'll see if I keep it up or give it up entirely.  Sorry, any fans of my oft-tiresome blathering.  You'll have to settle for Jog, I guess.  Or Caleb.  Or somebody else, I'm sure.

The Squirrel Machine
By Hans Rickheit

Some comics (along with works in other mediums, of course) are near-impossible to describe, or even understand, really.  Or maybe that's just an easy way out: "I don't get it, so I'll just say it's too weird to understand!"  Hans Rickheit's The Squirrel Machine seems to lean in that direction, but as strange as it is, it's interesting and seemingly substantial enough to make examination worthwhile, even if a final summation will probably come up lacking.  The story, such as it is, involves two brothers who pursue weird experiments with technology and organic objects, mostly animal corpses, although to what end, or even what result, is mostly left up to readers to discern.  One could accuse it of being willfully obscure and an excuse to present an array of grotesquerie without much in the way of explanation, but there's more to it than that, and while a final answer is difficult to discern, it's a book that compels re-reading and attempts at interpretation.

One thing Rickheit does here to make the work so compelling is to present everything in a realistic style, full of minute, exhaustive detail:

His settings seem fully realized, packed with grittiness and dirt, decay and collapse. The people move through it believably, fitting into what seems like a normal Victorian-era town on first glance, until more and more strange imagery is floated before our eyes and we get creeped out at the entire thing.  The two brothers, Edmund and William, don't present very good reader-identification figures, mostly approaching their world inexpressively, committing weird acts without much of a show of emotion at all.  But that in itself is a bit of a damper for all the weirdness; if they go about their actions without any indication that it is extraordinary, then one almost thinks of it as normal, to some extent.  But their creations are so inhumanly inexplicable, with intricate machinery (clockwork gears, pipes, tubes, tanks, light bulbs, and so on) connecting to bloated carcasses, aquariums full of dead things, or cages enclosing skeletal fauna.  And their laboratories themselves become increasingly impossible, cavernous rooms and tunnels whose walls are bursting with arcane mechanisms that stretch below their house that seem to connect to exits all over the town:

There's also a semi-feral young woman who raises pigs, a town populace increasingly hostile to the boys' creations, a mother who disapproves of their actions but can't seem to bring herself to do anything about it, and another young woman who takes up with Edmund without much of a reason outside of animalistic attraction.  And that's not even getting into the odd visions that periodically appear, the young girl who haunts the caverns, the rampant vaginal imagery, and the strange creatures that present themselves:

One could come up with any number of explanations for the imagery here, from the encroachment of technology on the 20th century and the perversions of nature that followed, to the awakening of sexuality in the adolescent and the fascination with organic processes like reproduction, birth, and death that can dwell in the mind.  Or maybe it's all a trip into Rickheit's subconscious, a slaved-over jaunt through the nightmares that haunt his waking mind.  Whatever the case, it's a compelling, fascinating journey through an often creepy and always striking world, one that's regularly quite hilarious, as when Edmund, having a sexual tryst with a young woman who willfully accompanied him back to his mad scientist's lair, turns a spigot to release hundreds of snails upon their contorting, commingling bodies.  What can one make of that sort of thing?  You might be able to attempt an interpretation, one that will be just as valid as any, but it's just as legitimate to go along for the ride and see where Rickheit takes you.  It won't be where you expect, that's for sure.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Footnotes in Gaza: This might be beyond my capabilities

Footnotes in Gaza
By Joe Sacco

How does one even begin to approach the Israel/Palestine conflict, a notoriously complex situation that has been tangled with emotion and soaked in violence for more than 50 years?  With this book, Joe Sacco, who has established himself as the foremost journalist working in the comics form over the past two decades, takes the micro approach, choosing to examine two events that have nearly been forgotten by history, but were as traumatic to those who experienced them as any of the bursts of death and bloodshed that have struck the region.  During the Suez Crisis of 1956, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, and in the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah, Israeli soldiers carried out a massacre of hundreds of Palestinian men who were of fighting age, with the former city seeing a chaotic gunning down of men in the streets and the latter a more planned affair in which men were gathered into a schoolyard and made to wait for hours before suspected militants were separated out to be killed or imprisoned. Laying out the specifics of these events is a narrow enough focus, and trying to work out exactly what happened from the various conflicting accounts must have been a headache.  You wouldn't be able to tell from Sacco's approach, though; aside from some material that sets up the geography and historical background of the Gaza Strip, he focuses almost completely on the personal accounts of the Palestinians who survived the ordeal, although he does regularly jump back to the present to show his own experiences as he tracked down the information.  It makes for an excellent look at the subject, making sure that the lesser-known tragedies of history have not been forgotten, but also relating them to the present day.  It might not be a perfect, all-encompassing summation of decades upon decades of history, but it's enough to give readers a picture of the past and present (or near-past, since Sacco's research was done in 2003) of the area, and a sense of how vast and eventful that history has been, even when focused on such a tiny piece of land.

In fact, the 400 pages of material that Sacco has put together here are all but overwhelming in the way they pile moments of violence and agony on top of each other.  Trying to get a handle on everything included herein is a difficult task in itself; perhaps the best way to do so is to emulate Sacco, discovering and highlighting the smaller details of his work to see how effectively he is able to paint a picture of the land and the people living there, both in the past and the present.

To start with, the detail Sacco brings to his scenes is fascinating, specific in the way every bit of dirt and rubble is noticeable, but just cartoony enough to make the people relatable, like someone the reader might know personally.  He works from photo reference, but it's not obvious, and the people fit right into their environments as fully-dimensional figures, whether in the past:

Or the present:

Sacco never lets you forget that this is real, however, whether by placing quotation marks around the captioned descriptions of his subjects, or by depicting them as talking heads, speaking directly to the reader, with their name included to remind us of their reality.  He also places himself right in the panels along with them, showing us that he was there and adding another reminder that he's not just copying images off the TV. It's intimate, and it's a beautiful portrait of humanity persisting, even in the worst and most disheartening of conditions.

And when it comes time to depict the awful events, Sacco can give it the air of utter chaos, as when Israel made their initial attack:

Or an unflinching, placement of death and violence right in front of our eyes, without being gratuitous but still making sure we know exactly what happened:

As matter-of-fact and striking as those scenes may be, the depictions of people's emotional reactions linger in the memory even more.  Sacco hits us hard when he shows the terror the people felt:

The humiliation they were subjected to:

The anguish of watching loved ones die:

The unshakable memories:

The lingering emotional damage:

And the ever-persisting sadness of being powerless to even care for your loved ones' bodies after they have been slaughtered:

In fact, the present-day emotional reactions to the continuing situation are just as key as those from the past.  Seeing that the cycle of hatred and death is still going on is heartbreaking, whether it's in the grim sadness of funeral-goers for a killed child:

The frustration of a man who wants to protect his house from being demolished by Israeli bulldozers:

The anger of another man who sees his children being threatened:

Or the misery of an old woman whose home was destroyed and has nowhere to go:

As sad and ugly as everything depicted here is, that fact, that the Palestinian people are still suffering and in constant fear, is the real tragedy of the story.  Early on, Sacco transcribes a surprisingly empathetic speech by Moshe Dayan, who was one of Israel's military leaders in 1956, as he attempted to describe the hatred the Palestians held toward his people.  In a striking line, Dayan says, "For eight years now, they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home."  Now add another fifty years onto that, and we can see how the tragedy has compounded, with decades passing and generations being raised while the violence continues.  It's a terrible story, and the fact that we're seeing only a small, nearly forgotten sliver of it multiplies its awfulness into incomprehensibility.

Sacco has created an important work here, one which strikes directly to the heart and refuses to let the reader forget the continuing situation.  And there's so much more within than the basics covered here; Sacco's struggles with the emotional distance that accumulates as his research turns people's experiences into mere facts and figures and the relationships he builds with people as he travels around Gaza and gets caught up in their lives are two more interesting aspects of the work among many others that are there to be found.  It's a rich, complex book, full of insights, recollections, experiences, encounters, and reactions, and it's something that will definitely stand the test of time as a major work of comics literature.

This week, we all get excited about new Morrison

Elsewhere: I talked about last week's episode of Dollhouse over at The Factual Opinion.

One link:  This Darryl Cunningham strip amused me.

New comics this week (Wednesday, 1/20/10):

Avengers vs Atlas #1

Your Marvel book of interest for the week is by Jeff Parker, which is no surprise.  I'm kind of a whore for him, and this one sees his pet team go up against some version of the Avengers (the original lineup?) in an adventure having to do with the collapse of spacetime and that sort of craziness.  Sounds like fun, and it should look pretty damn nice, what with Gabriel Hardman on art.  Look for a full review tomorrow on Comics Bulletin.  Yep.

Cowboy Ninja Viking #3

I liked the first two issues of this oddball series about a crazy hitman with at least three different deadly personalities, so here's part three.  It looks like he's going up against a bunch of other similar "triplets", like the gladiator/pirate/deep sea diver he fought in #2.  Fun times; check it out.

Fables #92

I never have anything to say about new issues of this series, except that I can't wait to read them.  I should be getting to the most recent Jack of Fables collection soon, so then I'll be all ready for the next collection, "The Great Fables Crossover".  Bring it on, Willingham!

Garth Ennis Battlefields Happy Valley #2

Garth Ennis war comics, you can't beat them.  The first issue: good, the kind of matter-of-fact story about soldiers doing their jobs that Ennis does so well.  Of course, it's all going to go to hell at some point, probably mid-way through this issue.  Rock it, Ennis!

Glamourpuss #11

Dave Sim doesn't quit.  He's still at it with this bizarre comic, and this issue is about Stan Drake and possibly drawing cars, with a cover and backup feature by Russ Heath.  I may just read it someday.

Joe The Barbarian #1

Here's the exciting release of the week, the one the internet won't be able to shut up about for the next week or so.  It's the new Grant Morrison series from Vertigo, about a kid who either has an overactive imagination or actually gets transported to some sort of fantasy realm where he is joined by all his toys and action figures in a fight against evil.  Looks pretty cool, with some nice art by Sean Murphy.  I thought about waiting for the collection on this one, but I don't think I can avoid the discussion for that long, so I'll go ahead and buy it, dammit.  Don't let me down, Morrison!  Yeah, I doubt he will.

Kids Of Widney High One Shot

Apparently, the titular kids of this comic are a real-life band composed of special-ed students who attend the (also titular) high school, and they've gained a low level of fame by appearing on Howard Stern and in movies like The Ringer.  I'm not sure if this thing is supposed to be autobiographical, but it's written by the actual kids, with art by talents like Chuck BB, Robbi Rodriguez, Jim Mahfood, and others.  Those guys make it notable, but I'm sure it's also quite inspirational and shit, so it's got that going for it too.

Rasl #6

I believe this ends the second arc of Jeff Smith's dimension-hopping series, which has been quite enjoyable so far, if it is sometimes a bit hard to remember what is going on from issue to issue.  I think the format is switching to shorter, more frequent releases after this issue, so hopefully that won't be a problem any longer.  Whatever; I'll dig it either way, I'm sure.

Zombies That Ate The World #8

Here's the final issue of this reprint of the Euro-satire by Jerry Frissen and Guy Davis, which hopefully means a collection is coming soon.  I'm looking forward to finally reading the damn thing.  Took long enough.

Cleaners Vol 1 Absent Bodies TP

I haven't heard much of anything about this crime(/supernatural?) series from Dark Horse, about a team of crime-scene cleaners who also debunk occult superstitions and maybe also battle actual occult threats.  Or something like that.  It does sound interesting, but not enough to get much attention, at least in the circles I frequent.  Has anybody read it?  Anyone?  Hello?

Goon Vol. 0 Rough Stuff Revised Edition TPB

A new version of the first volume of Eric Powell's signature series, which he originally self-published in black and white.  There's some really funny stuff here, so be sure to give it a look if you haven't delved into the earliest parts of the series.  This edition adds color to the art and includes a bunch of sketches and concept designs; sounds like something to add to the bookshelf.

King Of RPGs Vol 1 GN

Maybe this should go in the manga section? Why do I separate out the manga anyway?  Um, yeah, this originates in the West, but it has a very strong Japanese influence, being Manga: The Complete Guide author Jason Thompson's version of a shonen series, following a college student who rolls lots of those multi-sided dice.  It looks quite enjoyable; I should get around to reading it soon.  Maybe.

Loverboy Irwin Hasen Story TPB

Here's an interesting book: a new graphic novel by classic cartoonist Irwin Hasen, about a short guy who likes tall women, which sounds like a Woody Allen sort of concept.  It might well be something to be aware of this year.  Yes, there's a hell of a nonsensical recommendation.  Oy.

Troublemakers HC

Ooh, here's a notable one, which may have already been available, but I haven't seen it.  It's the latest of Gilbert Hernandez's graphic novels which are movies that one of his Love and Rockets characters starred in. This one appears to be a sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll type story, and I bet it's awesome.  I can't wait to read it.  Here's the usual Fantagraphics slideshow/preview.

Veil TP

How about this one?  Has anybody read this series from IDW, about a private eye who can communicate with the dead?  I didn't hear anything about it, so it could be noteworthy, or it could be not.  Let me know, people who read anything and everything.

Young Liars TP Vol 03 Rock Life

I never did read any of this Vertigo series, so I'm one of those to blame for it getting cancelled, I guess.  I heard it was totally nuts, which might or might not be something I would like.  I have heard many people singing its praises though, so I figure I should at least give it a try, even if I'm not the biggest fan of David Lapham.  To the library!

All My Darling Daughters TP

Manga section!  This is the latest (translated) release by Fumi Yoshinaga, about a salarywoman and her romantic travails.  I've heard tons of praise for Yoshinaga, but I still have yet to read any of her manga.  I don't know if this will be my chance, but I'm eager to give her a try.

Black Butler Vol 1 GN

Yen Press has this goofy-sounding series about a super-competent Victorian-era butler who might not be human.  Kind of a wacky manga version of Jeeves and Wooster?  Or maybe more serious?  I dunno, it could be worth a look, right?

Moyasimon Vol 1 Tales Of Agriculture GN Corrected Edition

I think this volume has shown up in bookstores, but I guess this is its entry in the direct market.  I certainly enjoyed it, so if it sounds like something you would like, or if you're just curious about the bizarreness of a manga about a kid who can communicate with microbes, give it a look.  It's certainly pretty crazy.

Not Simple GN

Another interesting release from one of those more artsy manga creators, Nastume Ono, about a guy traveling across the world in search of his missing sister, told backwards as it is related by a reporter writing a book about the story.  Or something like that.  It's always good to see manga releases that are more in the "indie" genre rather than the usual shonen/shojo axis.  I'll have to try to get my hands on this one.

Pluto Urasawa x Tezuka Vol 7 TP

It's the second-to-last volume of Naoki Urasawa's Tezuka-interpretation tour de force, and I'm on the edge of my chair to see how it wraps up.  This is one of my favorite current comics, and as sad as I'll be to see it end, I can't wait to see how it does.

Real Vol 7 GN

I've gotten behind on this wheelchair basketball series from Takehiko Inoue, but I do want to catch up pretty badly; it's a damn good character piece, full of subtlety and emotion.  Seven volumes, so far; I've got some reading to do.


The second installment of Rumiko Takahashi's current series, which I think is a hoot, even if some don't find it all that great.  Maybe that was due to the first volume, which focused mostly on introducing the concept and doing fairly simple one-off stories.  Since then, it's gone more toward multi-chapter arcs and fun, goofy adventures, some of which must be included here.  So, yes, I give it my recommendation, if that means anything.

Tezukas Black Jack TP Vol 09

Vertical is still pumping out the Tezuka awesomeness, with the continuing adventures of the rogue surgeon coming at a steady clip.  I need to get caught up on these too...

Vagabond Vizbig ED GN Vol 06
Vagabond Vol 31 TP

And to close out the weekly roundup, it's another great Takehiko Inoue series, in two different formats.  The VIZBIG version collects three regular volumes at a time, so this one would include book 16-18.  And there's also the latest collection of the series, which I believe is getting close to wrapping up, so there's probably some great excitement and dramatics in there.  Inoue is pretty great; I've gotta catch up on this one too, someday.

So, yeah, that's the week.  Yup, comics.  Hey, maybe I can get some blogging done sometime too.  Yeah, we'll see how that goes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pamphleteering: Some new, some not so much

In lieu of actually furthering my quest to finish covering the 2009 books I want to get to, here are some other comics I've read recently (for values of "recently" that include the last few months):

Empowered: The Wench with a Million Sighs
By Adam Warren

I feel like I have to mention most everything that comes out related to Adam Warren's "sexy superhero comedy", but not out of some pointless obligation, but because it's so consistently good.  In this one-shot story, Warren manages to encapsulate just about everything that the series has going for it, including the strong characters, dynamic art, cool ideas, goofy comedy, interesting structure, and the richness of the world that he has built over the course of five volumes and counting.  Here, there's a story about the titular (sorry, I can never resist) heroine going up against a seemingly unstoppable villain named Irresistimovable, who has raided the graveyard of fallen superheroes and taken down everyone else.  In typical Warren fashion, she uses her smarts and experience to prevail, which, unlike most superhero comics, isn't a given; she's one of the few heroes who fails as much as she succeeds (if not more often).  And to add another layer, Warren jumps back and forth between the battle and a scene of Emp's pals (her boyfriend Thugboy, best friend Ninjette, and "pet" The Caged Demonwolf, who resides on her coffee table, trapped in an alien bondage device) as they discuss all the ways she expresses herself via quick exhalations.  It works perfectly as an introductory story for readers unfamiliar with the series, but it all fits together as a cohesive, quick, exciting jaunt into the crazy world of the comic.  One can only hope it brings new readers to the series; it's one of the best continuing comics series on the market (superhero or otherwise), and the more people who buy it and encourage Warren to keep making it, the better.

The Last Days of American Crime #1
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Greg Tocchini

It's always good to see new crime comics on the market, and judging by this first issue (which, with publisher Radical Comics' recent format change, is squarebound and 64 pages long, the first of three in the series), Rick Remender has an interesting take on the genre here.  It takes place in a near-future in which the United States is planning to broadcast some sort of mind-control signal which will remove the human capacity to commit unlawful acts, hence the title.  To draw controversy away from the move, they're also phasing out the use of paper currency, which provides the book's protagonist with the opportunity to commit one last heist.  It's a classic noir-style plot, with a bit of a sci-fi twist and a dash of social commentary.  But those latter bits are secondary; the real draw here is the sordid atmosphere that Remender builds, with a great deal of help from artist Greg Tocchini.  Everything in the book seems dirty, grimy, and blood-spattered, with a big focus on visceral human urges, whether toward violence or sex.  And the language is stylish as well; Remender has the characters deliver lines in a rapid-fire slang, leaving the reader to keep up as best as they can.  He focuses mainly on the first protagonist introduced, the grizzled tough guy who wants to make one last score and get out, but also diverts attention to other characters, including the new partner who isn't telling the whole truth about his motives or intentions and the sexy girl who is playing both of them for her own gain, and possibly other reasons.  At the end of the first third of the story, it seems to be impeccably structured, set up to let the dominoes fall, with plenty of random elements ready to knock them astray into interesting configurations.

Greg Tocchini's art is responsible for at least half the equation here; he's got a stylish line, filling pages with moody colors that aren't the drab, dim hues expected in a noir tale, but still convey the settings perfectly appropriately.  The garish reds, oranges, and yellows of the bar where Graham (the tough guy) and Shelby (the femme fatale) meet is a great example:

As is the nasty bathroom where they end up committing unseemly acts.  Check out the way the smoke circles around Graham's forehead; the pages are full of those sorts of details which might not be noticeable at first glance, subtle gestures and expressions, the insertion of "patriotic" symbols like the white star tattoos on Shelby's chest and shoulder or the flags that hang in the backgrounds.  He uses interesting effects, like mid-panel dissolves to flashbacks, or the framing of panels using negative space:

And when the action and violence occur, it's striking and memorable, not just another background element of this seedy milieu.  It's one nice-looking comic, and if the next two installments are as interesting and eye-grabbing as this one, this will be another series to consider as part of the wave of quality crime comics in recent years.  Be sure to grab your chance before time runs out.

The Talisman #1-3
Written by Robin Furth
Art by Tony Shasteen

People sure seem to love Stephen King, but if all you read of him is the comics adaptations of his work, you'll probably be hard-pressed to understand what the big deal is.  This series, which adapts a novel King co-wrote with Peter Straub in the early 1980s, follows a young boy named Jack who has the power to "flip" back and forth between the "real" world and a fantasy realm populated by equivalents of all the people he knows in his regular life.  In "the territories", he's a magical warrior on a quest for the eponymous object, whatever that is, which can save his mom, who is dying of lung cancer in the real world but is a sleeping-beauty princess in the world of magic.  There's a mean uncle who is an evil baron in fantasy-land, a magical negro type who provides the means to switch between worlds (drinking some sort of potion), and a bunch of other nonsense that probably makes more sense in the source material.  It all ends up being fairly boring and weird, moving too slowly (as of the third issue, he's barely even embarked on his cross-country quest, which hasn't even been sufficiently explained), and full of extraneous bits that King acolyte Robin Furth probably couldn't bear to excise from the tale.  Tony Shasteen's art is no great shakes either, with characters sporting bizarre, contorted expressions that make them look like inbred freaks rather than humans, whether they're fantasy-world denizens or supposedly regular folks.  He does come up with some decent backgrounds (when they're not marred by intrusive computer effects), but even those often look like models populated with stiff figures rather than real, living environments.  It's got the sheen of slaved-over professionalism, but it's an empty, glossy world, devoid of any soul.  King's work might be excellent, but like most adaptations, this series proves that it is best experienced in its original format.

Monday, January 11, 2010

This week, I've got nothin' (much)

Seriously, only a tiny bit of comics worth mentioning this week.  Which is good; I can keep trying to catch up on 2009.

New comics this week (Wednesday, 1/13/10):

Anchor #4

Phil Hester and Brian Churilla keep plugging (punching?) along with this supernatural action book, and I'm still digging it.  Check it out if you haven't already.

Daytripper #2

I was going to try to check out the first issue of this Fabio Moon/Gabriel Ba series, but my store sold out, so I didn't get it.  I do really want to read this, but I might just have to wait for the collection.  Oh, the agony of anticipation.

DMZ #49

Brian Wood, still doing his thing.  Wow, almost 50 issues already.  When's the next collection?

Ed Hannigan Covered One-Shot

Ed Hannigan was apparently the designer of many of Marvel's covers in the late 70s and early 80s, and now he's struggling with multiple sclerosis, so Marvel and the Hero Initiative are putting out this benefit comic that shows off a bunch of examples of his work and contains tributes to him by some of today's creators, with proceeds going to help him out.  Sounds like a good cause, and something that's definitely worth a look.

Invincible Iron Man #22

Matt Fraction continues doing his thing.  Tony still hasn't woken up; comas make for exciting comics, don't they?

Muppet Show ongoing #1

The first real issue of Roger Langridge's Muppet comic, the version that continues indefinitely rather than limiting itself to a miniseries format.  These have been pretty great, with really funny cartooning and a wonderful translation of the original show to comics.  I guess if you haven't been reading it, here's a chance to jump on.  So jump on already, everybody!

Nation X #2

Marvel's latest anthology miniseries thing that ties into whatever X-Men event is going on.  Usually, these aren't really worth mentioning, but this issue contains an eight-page Gambit story by Becky Cloonan, so it's at least notable.  Also, a Northstar story by Tim Fish, if that interests you.  Probably still not worth buying though.

Punishermax #3

Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon, still being violent.  The MAX version of the Kingpin is pretty mean.

Strange #3

Mark Waid and Emma Rios, continuing with whatever is going on with Dr. Strange.  I've liked the first couple issues.

Sword #3

Ditto for Kieron Gillen's outer space hijinx.  Enjoyable, but would be more so without the Dark Reign intrusions.  We'll see how long it lasts.

Weekly World News #1

IDW is putting out this odd comic that features various characters (Bat Boy! Space aliens!) from the now-cancelled weirdo newspaper that I always liked looking at as a kid when I was in supermarket checkout lines with my mom.  They've got a "comic" version and a "newspaper" version, which is black and white and printed on newsprint.  Maybe a fun and goofy thing to take a look at, who knows.

Agents of Atlas Turf Wars Prem HC

The second, and I think final, collection of the recently-cancelled series, which sees the team go up against the Hulk, meet Namor, and fight a rival organization in China.  Good stuff, with great writing by Jeff Parker and mostly-good art, especially whatever Gabriel Hardman drew.  I recommend it, if you missed it the first time around.

Calamity Jack

This is a sequel to the children's graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge, featuring her boyfriend, who seems to be a version of Jack of Fables, or at least the character from "Jack and the Beanstalk".  The Rapunzel book is supposed to be pretty good, so I bet this one is too.  Maybe I'll check them both out someday.

Complete Torpedo Vol 1 HC

Ooh, here's something I want to read.  This week's most interesting entry in the Golden Age of Reprints collects a Spanish crime/gangster series that was written by Enrique Sanchez Abuli and illustrated by Alex Toth and Jordi Bernet.  From what I've heard, it features some pretty rough stuff, lots of sex and violence and nihilism.  I can't wait to check it out.

Human Target Chance Meetings TP

In connection with the TV series of the same name (which, from the commercials I've seen, doesn't really seem much like the comic), Vertigo is putting out reprints of Peter Milligan's run on the series, which is pretty good.  From what I can tell, I think this includes the original four-issue miniseries illustrated by Edvin Biukovic, and the Final Cut one-shot drawn by Javier Pulido.  Good stuff, from what I remember, although I don't know if I've read all of it.  I guess this is my chance to catch up...

Little Adventures In Oz Book 1 TP

IDW also has this collection of some of Eric Shanower's adaptations of the various Oz books by L. Frank Baum.  Shanower is pretty good; maybe I should check some of these out at some point, along with the Marvel adaptation's he's doing with Skottie Young.  He's a veritable Oz factory.

Lola: A Ghost Story HC

Oni has this graphic novel by J. Torres and Elbert Orr, about a kid who can see ghosts and must confront his fears of them or something.  It looks kind of cute and cartoony; maybe it's a kiddie sort of thing, or maybe it's not.  I'd take a look either way.

No Hero TP

Avatar collects this miniseries by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp, about people becoming superheroes and sacrificing their humanity, basically turning into monsters.  At least, I think that's what it's about.  I do like most of Ellis' work for Avatar, including his last project with Ryp, Black Summer, so I'll probably end up getting it. Don't let me down, Ellis!

Runaways Escape To New York Prem HC

I think this is the second collection from the second volume of this series, and it's quite good, from what I remember.  Fun storytelling and character work from Brian K. Vaughan, and nice art by Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa.  Read it, if you haven't already, says I.

Nana Vol 20 TP

Aw, crap, I'm way behind on this.  One of these months, I'm going to have to do a manga catchup binge, and just power through all the volumes of various series I've got sitting in various piles around my house.  That should be fun.

Natsumes Book Of Friends Vol 1 TP

Not that I need to add more to my list of series to get behind on, but I've heard that this is a pretty good series, about a boy who can see various spirits and supernatural creatures, and goes on some sort of quest involving his grandmother, who had the same abilities.  I might have to check it out.

Sand Chronicles Vol 7 GN

And here's one more series that I like, hopefully containing previously unread (by me) material in this volume.  It's good stuff, full of girly drama that I enjoy for some reason, and I've missed out on reading it.  I'll get back into it, yes I will.

That's everything?  Probably!  More stuff coming this week, and maybe I'll get closer to my best of 2009 post.  Maybe!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pim & Francie: Great, now I'll never sleep again

Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days (Artifacts and Bone Fragments)
By Al Columbia

What the hell is going on here?  What is this book, anyway?  As presented, with nothing in the way of explanation (there's only a table of contents, or rather a list of "stories" without any page numbers, and the title page doesn't show up until 24 pages into the book), it's like the inexplicable artifact of a deranged mind, seeming to be the remnants of a destroyed sketchbook and half-finished art pages and animation cels, pieced together with tape, pencil marks and correction fluid often still visible.  Much of the content is just imagery, with the occasional series of pictures containing some sort of narrative, but mostly just presenting one disturbing scene after another.  And that's pretty much the entire book, just a non-stop barrage of weird, creepy, strange things happening to the titular pair of cartoony children.

If you delve into Al Columbia's career, you'll find that he's done stories featuring these characters in various places, so some of the content here could be from those stories, or it could all be previously unseen material.  Taken on its own though, it's not completely satisfying; the barrage of weirdness is interesting, but there's little in the way of connective tissue.  It does, however, do a great job of presenting a disturbing mood of dread and decay, seeing the cute little waifs stumble into one horrifying situation after another, often dying gruesomely only to show up again a few pages later to repeat the process.  Columbia has a flair for the grotesque, which, when mixed with such cute cartooniness reminiscent of old-school Disney, makes for an especially creepy juxtaposition.

One can only imagine the actual stories surrounding the glimpses we see here: a multi-limbed man wielding a bunch of knives chases the pair; a rotund, bald man named Cinnamon Jack whose tongue hangs lasciviously out of his mouth collects children's heads from a tree or butchers and cooks kids for dinner; Francie apparently births a horrible, bloody monster of a baby; the kids come across a killer who looks like a mixture of Disney's Goofy and Basil Wolverton's Lena Hyena; a forest of cheery anthropomorphic trees decays into a group of trunks bearing bloody eye sockets and screaming mouths; the pair's benevolent grandparents rise from the dead and join a horde of shambling zombies.  And much, much more, some of which seems to make sense and some of which is just incomprehensible, creepy imagery.  It's a cascade of horror, page after page of mostly-unfinished nastiness, enough to stick in the mind and cause nightmares for weeks.

As an art book or collection of fragments from Columbia's career, it certainly shows what a good designer and cartoonist he is, and how effectively he can create disturbing imagery.  Those knobby-kneed, big-footed cartoons mix with the creepiness and gore well, suggesting a horrible perversion of innocence. The facial expressions are effective as well, with Pim and Francie often looking like inbred dimwits or aloof, disinterested spoiled brats, and the various antagonists bearing evil grins and mutilated, disjointed visages that are recognizable as "human" but altered enough to look wrong.

However, being devoid of any context, the book becomes little more than an accumulation of work, rather than a complete object.  Columbia has the artistic chops to craft some incredibly effective horror, but it loses some of that effectiveness when stripped of narrative.  Hopefully, he'll follow this up with something with an actual plot (or put together another collection of his previously-published stories), and we can see what he's really capable of.