Monthly Archives: February 2007

That Yang Thang

American Born Chinese original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Gene Luen Yang
Colors: Lark Pien
Publisher: First Second
Price: $16.95 US/$22.95 CAN

American Born Chinese was released a few months ago, to much acclaim. It’s garnered praise and awards in a way that’s rare (though fortunately not unheard of) for an original graphic novel. I’m running a bit behind schedule when it comes to giving this landmark book a read, and apparently, I’ve been depriving myself of a fascinating, fanciful and frank story for months. Creator Gene Luen Yang’s story is made up of three different plotlines that converge surprisingly well and seamlessly. Yang’s storytelling focuses on matters of racism and culture shock, but it also deals heavily in matters of self-esteem. That makes for characters and circumstances to which the reader can easily relate. Yang’s artwork is charming with its clean simplicity, but the slightly muted colors bring a grounded quality to the visuals as well. This slice-of-life/fantasy story actually reminds me a great deal of another great graphic novel released last year: Mom’s Cancer. The subject matter and storytelling approaches are radically different, but the personal and down-to-earth tones of the two books, as well as the lighter look for character design, make them seem like companion volumes in an odd way.

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Quick Critiques – Feb. 22, 2007

Civil War #7 (Marvel Comics)
by Mark Millar, Steve McNiven & Dexter Vines

I’ll give Millar credit for ending this series in a wholly unexpected way. This ending would suggest that it’s been Iron Man and the government that’s been in the right all along. I don’t agree, but I appreciate that Millar brings the story full circle to the ethical debate rather than a huge super-hero fight scene. Marvel gets points for the unexpected ending, though things here wrap up a little too neatly. The sudden appearances of cavalries for both sides at key moments in the conflict are a bit hard to swallow, and the villains’ dominance in battle dissipates so quickly that it lacks credibility as well. McNiven’s art boasts the same kind of detail and expressiveness that’s made it so attractive in the past, but I found the generic costumes for the new, registered heroes to be far too reminiscent of what we’ve seen in The Ultimates and Squadron Supreme. This final issue sets up an ambitious new status quo for Marvel’s America as something of a totalitarian regime, with Big Brothers galore, all colorfully clad, watching over everyone. It seems as though Millar and company have failed to actually tell the whole story. We’re missing an ending, which is something that happened at the end of House of M as well. Ultimately, this final issue felt surprisingly anti-climactic, with the final act serving as promotional material for new titles to spin off out of this crossover event. 6/10

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Brave New Whirl

The Brave and the Bold v.3 #1
“The Lords of Luck, Chapter One: Roulette”
Writer: Mark Waid
Pencils/Cover artist: George Perez
Inks: Bob Wiacek
Colors: Tom Smith
Letters: Rob Leigh
Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN

I’m a major fan of Mark Waid’s writing and George Perez’s art in the super-hero genre, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating the launch of this title. But what’s really had me eager to delve into the new series is my fondness and nostalgia for team-up titles. As a kid, I found I was drawn to team titles such as Justice League of America and The New Teen Titans, but also to DC Comics Presents, Marvel Team-Up and, of course, The Brave and the Bold‘s first incarnation. As a younger reader, I relished the chance to get to know new, colorful characters and villains, and I actually loved that I got not just one but two flashy super-hero logos on the cover. Though most of those old-school stories of the 1970s and ’80s were single-issue, self-contained tales and this series promises longer story arcs, Waid has certainly taken a traditional tack with this new series. Unfortunately, a couple of cooler plot elements are cast off, turning out to be minor in nature, and Perez’s art, though full of energy and imagination, is a bit difficult to follow in the more chaotic moments of the story. Even so, those who feel super-hero storytelling has grown too dark and grim over the past decade or so will enjoy the lighter tone that’s restored here.

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Dead Mailmen Do Tell Tales

Mail Vol. 1 original graphic novel
Writer/Artist: Housui Yamazaki
Translation: Douglas Varenas
Letters: IHL
Editor: Carl Gustav Horn
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics/Dark Horse Manga
Price: $10.95 US

Though I initially found it difficult to glean what this book was titled, reading it turned out to be a great diversion on a slow afternoon. Mail Vol. 1 proved to be one of those rare manga publications that actually appealed to me. If there’s one thing that Japanese creators seem to do well, it’s horror storytelling. Mail is really an anthology of horror stories, with the common thread of the same medium/ghostbuster turning up in each disparate, creepy tale. There are flaws in some of the choices that writer/artist Housui Yamazaki makes at times, but overall, he manages to offer up some fun but chilling stories of the supernatural without resorting to gratuitous, gory imagery to do it. Another reason these eerie ghost stories are so entertaining is that the creator never takes things too seriously. There’s an irreverence to the storytelling that helps to offset a couple of the more derivative or convenient elements. The biggest problems with the book have little to do with the craft of comics, actually, but rather with design and marketing.

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Quick Critiques – Feb. 18, 2007

Astonishing X-Men #20 (Marvel Comics)
by Joss Whedon & John Cassaday

I’ve been enjoying this series, despite its sporadic publishing schedule, pretty much since the start (well, since #2). and there’s a lot to like about it. Cassaday’s art is always breathtaking, and even though his detailed style tends to lean toward a more dramatic, stoic atmosphere, he still manages to capture the whimsical elements writer Joss Whedon tosses in. Whedon’s dialogue really makes these characters come alive, and he’s brought some intense action and innovative plotting to the mix. And despite those strengths, I just didn’t enjoy this issue. After reading it, I sat back and wondered how the plot shifted so suddenly and dramatically from a super-villain assault on the X-Mansion to a space opera. Whedon seems to refuse to allow any particular plotline to resolve before throwing the characters waist deep into their next catastrophe. It’s dizzying. The frenetic pace of the multiple plots almost seems desperate in tone. On top of that, this notion of the X-Men’s strongman as a prophesized destroyer of worlds strikes me as an awfully hard pill to swallow. Furthermore, Agent Brand fails to come across any kind of character, but rather the voice box for every all-too-convenient plot device that allows the impossible action to leap forward from scene to scene. Whedon strings together small, clever ideas about the application of the X-Men’s powers here, but the plot serving to link to those scenes just doesn’t work. 6/10

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Comics Prose from a Comics Pro

Batman #663
“The Clown at Midnight”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: John Van Fleet
Letters: Todd Klein
Cover artist: Andy Kubert
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN

This issue of the Dark Knight’s adventures is not a comic book. I know… it looks like a comic and feels like a comic, but it ain’t a comic. Writer Grant Morrison offers up a prose short story, accompanied by illustrations by John Van Fleet, which appear to be digital paintings. It makes for a much denser read, and it forces Morrison to flex a different set of writing muscles. The manager at my local comic shop told me he wished DC had released this as a separate, special one-shot. After reading the story, it’s clear why it wasn’t, though. Morrison specifically follows up a plot point from his first issue on this series from a few months ago — the near-fatal shooting of the Joker. The script here manages to make the Joker’s latest resurrection a real event, and the writer reconciles the various, divergent versions of the antagonist we’ve see over the course of six decades. Unfortunately, the novel take on the character is marred by stiff, confusing artwork and unnecessarily verbose descriptions of peripheral details.

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By Crom, I Want a Corvette

Conan and the Midnight God #1
Writer: Joshua Dysart
Artist: Will Conrad
Colors: Juan Ferreyra
Letters: Comicraft
Cover artist: Jason Shawn Alexander
Editors: Scott Allie & Matt Dryer
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $2.99 US

From Marvel’s Conan comics to the Ah-nuld movies to The Savage Sword of Conan magazines, I’ve never been one for the barbarian genre. I’ve said this time and time again, so it should come as no surprise that I approached this sword-and-sorcery comic with some trepidation. To my surprise, I found what might be the beginnings of the best Conan story I’ve ever read. Writer Joshua Dysart presents us with a vision of Conan as a conflicted soul, torn in several different directions at once. It’s perhaps the most grounded vision of the warrior king I’ve seen, and I’m surprised to find I’m interested in where Dysart plans to go with the rest of this story. The artwork captures the title hero’s moods perfectly, reinforcing the down-to-earth elements in the story. The plot is fairly simple, but it boasts a political element that drew me into the book a little more as well.

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A (Less Than) Stellar Performance

Kid Kosmos: Kidnapped original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jim Starlin
Letters: Bill Tortolini
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Price: $19.95 US

Jim Starlin certainly left his mark on super-hero comics in the 1970s and ’80s, and it’s showing up prominently in recent event comics from Marvel Comics, such as Thanos’s role in Annihilation and the resurrection of Captain Marvel in Civil War: The Return, a Silver Age character that Starlin took and made his own. In many ways, Starlin is the acknowledged king of cosmic super-hero storytelling. Just look at the free rein DC seems to have given him with the current Mystery in Space limited series. Starlin was also one of many pioneers in the 1980s when it came to creator-owned comics. His Dreadstar comics are still considered classics, and it’s encouraging to see that he’s still crafting astral adventures for new, cosmic crusaders, even three decades after he started. Apparently, he’s still doing what he loves. This book is a spinoff from Starlin’s Cosmic Guard comics, also publisher by Dynamite Entertainment, but as the title suggests, it stars a younger protagonist. In many ways, this is a typical story about a greenhorn teen hero who’s in over his head, dressed up with some of the trappings of DC’s Green Lantern Corps. It’s colorful and full of energy and imagination, but it’s also burdened by an unwieldy and redundant supporting cast as well as a lack of the kind of history and continuity that might allow this story to work within the confines of a shared super-hero universe.

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The Long Arm of the Raw

Strongarm #1
Writer: Steve Horton
Artist/Cover artist: David Ahn
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.50 CAN

There’s no denying that Japanese pop culture has taken Western society by storm. It only seems fair. Japan has had and continues to have its own fascination with our own pop culture. But nowhere in North America is the influence of Japanese culture more evidence than in comics. Manga hasn’t always appealed to me in the past; books I appreciated tend to be the exception rather than a rule. But there’s no denying the power manga has. I think I appreciate that influence when it’s more subtle, but that’s not the case with this original American comic that strives for a genuine Japanese feeling. The good news is that writer Steve Horton’s script cuts to the chase, getting to the core plot while offering an accessible tone. Artist David Ahn’s style is more than just inspired by manga but manages to achieve what I’d say is a convincing facsimile of Japanese comic art. My general disinterest in manga and Amerimanga actually didn’t come into play all that much when I read this inaugural issue. Instead, I found that the derivative nature of the building blocks of the story alienated me more. Horton’s rather basic story seems too familiar, and if a new title by an untested creative team is going to stand out, it needs to be different, to be unique, but Strongarm‘s debut issue doesn’t really stand out. The storytelling is capable and clear, but so far, it’s not compelling.

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Quick Critiques – Feb. 10, 2007

Action Comics Annual #10 (DC Comics)
by Geoff Johns, Richard Donner & various artists

There’s been some debate as to whether or not DC is actually trying to develop a more traditional tone in its super-hero line. Darker, edgier stories are popping up in some titles, but the publisher’s better known icons seem to be headed in a lighter direction. Action Comics Annual #10 certainly serves as evidence of that trend. Johns and Donner deliver a package that’s clearly Silver Age in its inspiration (as if the cover wasn’t enough of a clue). The stories and features have that old-school charm and simplicity to them, but the dialogue and pacing bring a more modern tone, a greater credibility to this super-hero storytelling. The fact that this annual is an anthology also provides the opportunity for the reader to enjoy a number of different visual styles without the concern of the art changes interrupting and interfering with the flow of the story. Arthur Adams’s four pages are spectacular, and Joe Kubert’s contribution was a surprise and a delight (even if the writing didn’t provide much in the way of an actual plot). Though the approach will tickle the fancy of longtime comics readers and those who appreciate where the medium has been in the past, this volume is also an excellent introduction to the world of Superman for new, young readers. It’s a shame this comic wasn’t available when Superman Returns hit the big screen last summer, as it would serve as the perfect comic-book companion for kids who might be hungry for a major re-introduction to the Man of Steel. 7/10

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Take This Job and Mutate It

Maintenance #s 1 & 2
“It’s a Dirty Job…” & “… Yesterday Once More”
Writer: Jim Massey
Artist/Cover artist: Robbi Rodriguez
Graytones: Jared M. Jones
Letters: Douglas Sherwood
Editors: James Lucas Jones & Randal C. Jarrell
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $3.50 US per issue

Some may think this oddball comedy about maintenance men working at a super-secret headquarters of a number of mad scientists to be an odd fit for Oni Press, a publisher that has carved out a strong niche market with slice-of-life comics and other non-genre books. But then, those people must have forgotten one of the publisher’s most popular books in its earlier days: Judd Winick’s Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius. Maintenance boasts a similar sense of humor, and at times, the same manic pace. It doesn’t quite capture the same down-to-earth, vulnerable side, though, that enables the reader to see this as anything more than a series of jokes rather than an actual story with living breathing characters. That being said, the jokes are solid, and the scripts are entertaining. The artwork by Robbi Rodriguez matches the goofy, over-the-top tone of the gags and premise, though I’m surprised he doesn’t really let loose design-wise when it comes to the various evil geniuses that pop up all over the place.

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Lightning in a Bottle

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil #1
“Chapter 1: YROOB SZH Z HVXIVG!”
Writer/Artist/Letters/Cover artist: Jeff Smith
Colorist: Steve Hamaker
Editor: Mike Carlin
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $5.99 US/$7.25 CAN

When it announced when Bone creator Jeff Smith would write and illustrate a new Captain Marvel story, anyone familiar with his work and fans of traditional super-hero storytelling were elated. The news was celebrated, and we all sat back to wait. We waited, but we all knew what to expect, didn’t we? We knew Smith was going to retell the Captain Marvel origin. We knew he was going to bring a lighter, more innocent quality back to the Marvel Family. Like so many others, I anticipated the project, but I knew it would hold no surprises. It knew it would be fun but that it would be familiar as well. I just knew.

Turns out I didn’t know a damn thing.

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The Big Cebulski (Apologies to the Coen Bros.)

Wonderlost #1
Writer: C.B. Cebulski
Artists: Paul Azaceta, Martin Montiel and Juan Castro, Alina Urusov, Khoi Pham, Jonathan Luna & Ethan Young
Letters: Randy Gentile & Jonathan Luna
Cover artist: Leinil Francis Yu
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $5.99 US/$6.95 CAN

C.B. Cebulski is best known in the comic-book industry for his time as a Marvel editor whose familiarity with Japanese culture and language enabled him to recruit talent and develop manga titles for the top U.S. comics publisher. Now, he’s a freelance writer, but he still seems to be primarily associated with Marvel; he even has a super-hero title, The Loners, on the horizon. Hopefully, there will be some buzz about this autobiographical title, though. The strength of this personal and universal storytelling should get people who enjoy good comics to view Cebulski in a new light. The theme for this anthology is billed as Cebulski’s awkward dalliances with romance and sex, but what it’s really about is the cluelessness of youth. I didn’t have nearly as much luck with the ladies in my youth as Cebulski seems to have had, but it’s easy to see myself in the carefree and clumsy lifestyle that’s an integral part of each of the short stories making up this first squarebound volume. Furthermore, I enjoyed seeing such a diverse array of artistic styles, and more importantly, Cebulski, as he has in the past, introduces his readers to some new talent of which they have not have heard before.

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Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better…

Probably the biggest commercial success — in terms of risk, ambition and presentations — in the world of comics in 2006 had to be the Top Shelf Productions release of its hardcover, slipcase-edition of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. But in terms of satisfying retailers and the super-hero genre fanbase of the direct-market industry, Marvel’s Civil War probably reigned supreme, racking up strong sales and boosting sales of the publisher’s other ongoing titles significantly with crossover issues. However, Civil War has been plagued with problems over the past few months. At first, what bothered people, and especially retailers, were the repeatedly delays in its publishing schedule, which impacted some of the publisher’s strongest selling ongoing series. By the midway point of the event, though, complaints about those delays were eclipsed by another concern: inconsistent storytelling. Events in the Civil War limited series conflicted with information presented in key tie-in stories, and many feel that two of the most prominent players in the drama — Reed Richards and Iron Man — aren’t behaving in a manner that’s consistent with their personalities and history.

But there’s good news. There is a super-hero civil war that avoided many of the same pitfalls. There’s a story, released in the same timeframe as Civil War, that didn’t require crossovers, that didn’t require massive change and didn’t alter classic characters in implausible ways. In other words, DC did it better; you just didn’t realize it.

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Quick Critiques – Feb. 4, 2007

Billy Acres and the Gold Miners’ Treasure OGN (I.B.O. Ltd.)
by Lee Blum

Writer/artist Lee Blum has wisely found a way to make his independent storytelling effort stand out from the crowd. This Western adventure/comedy for younger readers is billed as “the first interactive graphic novel.” The concept, though perhaps new to comics, will be familiar to those of us who remember the “choose your own adventure” children’s books of yesteryear. Blum has simply adapted the idea for comics. One might expect the approach would translate well to the visual medium of comics storytelling, but I actually found the process of flipping back and forth through this oversized softcover book to be somewhat irksome. Blum has wisely used varying border colors to distinguish between two different segments that begin on the same page, but the panel layouts are awkward and inaccessible. The writing is so dumbed down so as to be tedious for the adult reader; this is clearly children’s fare alone, not an all-ages read. The artwork boasts a rather basic, crude tone as well. There’s no sense of depth of field; everything looks pretty flat. The figures move awkwardly, and the action unfolds in a similar fashion. The colors are appropriately bright, given the target audience for the book and the more playful tone of the storytelling. Billy Acres is an interesting experiment, but I think Blum (or others) may want to refine the process significantly before declaring such an experiment a success. 3/10
For more information about this graphic novel or for purchase, check out the book’s website.

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