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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Big-Screen Synergy

We comic readers always take notice when our four-color heroes make the leap from the pages of the medium we love to the big screen. DC and Marvel have had a lot of success in recent years, with comics flicks seeming to top the wish lists of movie producers. Obviously, one of the reasons the more iconic heroes connect so well with moviegoers is that they remember them fondly from their youth. From comics at camp to cartoons on Saturday morning, millions know these characters and are willing to plunk down cold, hard cash to reconnect with those imaginary friends from their youth. Given the power of that nostalgia, the new movie incarnations of those fondly remembered characters end up being simplified, adapted and sometimes reverted to forms they’d shed decades before. As a result, comics publishers often scramble to bring back old ideas and circumstances so the masses can find something they recognize in the comics of today.

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The Best Man Is Actually the Worst

Hellboy Animated: The Black Wedding original graphic novel
“The Black Wedding”
Writer: Jim Pascoe
Artist: Rick Lacy
Colors: Dan Jackson
Letters: Blambot
Cover artist: Jeff Matsuda
Editors: Scott Allie & Matt Dryer

I’m looking forward to the upcoming DVD release of Hellboy Animated: Sword and Storms movie, and I thought the live-action flick was great big-screen fun as well. I assume that the new DVD release will be full of the same lighter, more energetic kind of fare one finds in this graphic novel, but I hope the plotting and overall flow of the storytelling are more refined. The storytelling in this main story is choppy and occasionally confusing, and I realize it’s because writer Jim Pascoe is trying to provide a number of different though connected threats for the various members of Hellboy’s team. The more cartoony designs for the characters are an interesting change of pace, but the linework seems rough around the edges, and the confusing tone I mentioned before is exacerbated by poor scene transitions. The colors are unusually bright given the gothic, supernatural elements in the story, but surprisingly, they work.

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Quick Critiques – Jan. 29, 2007

Civil War: The Return #1 (Marvel Comics)
by Paul Jenkins, Tom Raney & Scott Hanna

After reading this one-shot, I was left with one nagging question: what was the point? The latter story, featuring the Sentry and his struggle to decide which side of the superhuman civil war to support, seems completely redundant when one considers another writer explored the question in New Avengers and that we’ve seen the Sentry side-by-side with Mr. Fantastic and Iron Man in the core Civil War title itself. That means we’re left with an extended and rather unimaginative fight scene with the Absorbing Man, resolving with the stereotypical revelation that the Sentry has too much power for the villain to leech from him. The main story, though, is the one that’s going to have comics fans talking… at least longtime readers familiar with the dead hero returns in these pages. I suspect many will scream that this story mars a rather poignant story of an atypical but rather human death in the Marvel Universe, but what strikes me about it is how unnecessary it is. The connection to Civil War is tenuous at best, and there’s little reason for the hero to act as he does. I do like the concept of a man living his life knowing exactly when and how he’s going to die and how that might mess with one’s noggin, but Paul Jenkins really doesn’t have the space to explore that idea all that much. Tom Raney’s art is quite strong. He brings out an appropriately pained look on the resurrected hero’s face. The colors are bright and crisp throughout the issue, reinforcing the cosmic energy that’s at play. 5/10

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Comfortably Numb

Numb
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Joshua Kemble
Letters: Joshua Patterson
Publisher: Kemble/Alternative Comics
Price: $3.95 US

Any writer who’s sat staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank screen, unable to come up with a spark of an idea or a beginning to fan a spark into a creative flame will recognize himself or herself in this short comic’s lead character. On the surface, this story seems to be about the challenges of writing and creativity and how life provides both obstacles and incentives for that work. But really, this is about the challenges of self, of how one can one’s own worst enemy, and not just when it comes to writing. I found it surprisingly easy to connect with this self-pitying protagonist, and Kemble’s artwork matches the reflective, self-indulgent mood of the script quite well. Numb is actually the result of another Xeric grant and another example of how those doling out those grants have a sharp eye for up-and-coming, indy talent. Kemble’s work has a solid promotional effort behind, with a bit of buzz already generated online. As such, this is hardly a new discovery, but I still felt the excitement of being exposed to a new creative voice in the medium.

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Let’s Talk About Sex

nEuROTIC graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: John Cuneo
Editor: Kim Thompson
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Price: $19.95 US

Note: This review of adult material and should not be viewed by underage readers.

Fantagraphics Books is one of those publishers in the industry that’s difficult to nail down. It was once propped up by a profitable porno-comic line, but it now also produces a number of important works, notably archival ones such as the new Peanuts and Dennis the Menace hardcover collections of decades-old, classic comic strips. This book — named and oddly capitalized to capture the surreal and sexual tone of the cartooning within — lies somewhere in between. This book — not a graphic novel, really — is a sketch collection of unpublished artwork by noted U.S. cartoonist John Cuneo, whose recognizable style has appeared in a wide variety of publications, from the cerebral New Yorker to the more accessible Entertainment Weekly. It’s an interesting look inside the mind of a creator with a twisted bent. Cuneo’s work will seem familiar, and this book allows him to cut loose and transgress the taboo. To say nEuROTIC is pornographic is completely off the mark, though. This book does not titillate. It’s occasionally depraved, sometimes challenging and often funny. This is a coffee-table book for those who delight in shocking people, who see offending material as a means to enlighten rather than frighten.

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Designer Thugs

Marvel Adventures The Avengers #9
“A Not-So-Beautiful Mind”
Writer: Jeff Parker
Pencils: Juan Santacruz
Inks: Raul Fernandez
Colors: Impacto Studios
Letters: Dave Sharpe
Cover artist: Cameron Stewart
Editor: Mark Paniccia
Publisher: Marvel Comics/Marvel Adventures imprint
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN

I haven’t paid much attention to Marvel’s younger-readers line since the first couple of issues of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man and Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four. I dismissed the line as rehashing old stories I’d already read and striving for a simpler tone to appeal to the little tykes. A couple of months back, though, Cameron Stewart’s cover art for this particular comic book started making the rounds, and I, like many others, was immediately tickled and intrigued. I asked the manager at my local comic shop to add this issue to my pull list, and I’m pleased I did. Writer Jeff (Agents of Atlas) Parker brings the goofy storytelling of DC’s Silver Age to this unusual lineup of heroes and oddball villain to achieve a delightfully entertaining story that will appeal not only to young, new comics reads but longtime fans of the medium and super-hero genre as well. Despite the oversized craniums of the characters, this isn’t the most cerebral of super-hero stories, but it’s funny, energetic and clever in its own campy way.

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Quick Critiques – Jan. 21, 2007

Fantastic Four #542 (Marvel Comics)
by Dwayne McDuffie, Mike McKone, Andy Lanning & Cam Smith

Writer Dwayne McDuffie takes over the regular duties as FF scribe from J. Michael Straczynski with this issue, and the good news is that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the storytelling at all. In fact, the transition is fairly seamless. McDuffie’s take on the Civil War plot points is as smart and sharp as Straczynski’s, perhaps even moreso. He makes Reed’s decisions in the divisive crossover event make sense to a certain degree. Once again, his emotional side has been engulfed by the scientist in him. I love how McDuffie writes Reed and the Mad Thinker as respecting one another’s intellect. These are lifelong enemies, but their dedication to science and knowledge trumps their disdain for what the other represents in terms of social position. Johnny’s dialogue in the opening scene is plausible and clever, and I like that McDuffie manages to maintain the character’s grounded tone while not resorting to depicting him as a dullard. McKone’s art is as crisp as ever, and the softer tone he brings to the characters’ faces emphasizes their humanity above the sci-fi trappings and impossible super-powers. The Thing’s adventures in Paris aren’t really holding my attention anymore. It was a cute diversion for an issue, but the Odd Couple riff between the rocky hero and the City of Lights isn’t something that works long term. 8/10

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