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.

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