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 This book — not a graphic novel, really — is a sketch collection of unpublished artwork by noted U.S. cartoonist John Cuneo, whose recognizable style has appeared in a wide variety of publications, from the cerebral New Yorker to the more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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Gold Standard

52 Week Thirty-Seven
“Secret Identities”
Writers: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka & Mark Waid
Breakdowns: Keith Giffen
Pencils: Pat Olliffe
Inks: Drew Geraci
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Letters: Travis Lanham
Cover Artist: J.G. Jones
Editor: Michael Siglain
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.50 US/$3.50 CAN

DC’s weekly series, exploring the DC Universe and some of its second-tier characters, has been an interesting and unique entity in super-hero comics. Usually entertaining and sometimes frustrating, the 52 experiment is finally starting to yield results, and it’s this issue is where the payoff begins. This action-packed issue not only surprised me with its big revelation, but it impresses with how the writers demonstrate that they’ve used the readers’ expectations of super-hero genre conventions and tricks to pull the wool over our eyes. Furthermore, this particular issue is illustrated by the one recurring art team whose style has stood out as unique and well suited to the tone of the project. If this book has one major flaw, it’s the cover, which sadly spoils the big surprise to which the series has been building for months.

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Immaculate Perceptions

American Virgin #10
“Wet, Part 1 of 5”
Writer: Steven T. Seagle
Artists: Becky Cloonan & Christine Norrie
Colors: Brian Miller
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover artist: Joshua Middleton
Editor: Shelly Bond
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo imprint
Price $2.99 US/$4 CAN

I know it’s only been three months since I wrote a full review of an issue of American Virgin, but the strength of this script and how it made me think about faith, religion and prophets wouldn’t allow me to let this issue just pass by without commentary. This title is a shining achievement for the creators and for DC’s Vertigo imprint, and the good news for those who haven’t sampled the series yet is that this 10th issue reads well all on its own. I was actually surprised to find this was the first chapter in a new five-part story arc rather than a standalone issue designed to expose the protagonist’s childhood. Seagle’s script is accessible and telling when it comes to the main character, but more importantly, he examines what it really means to connect with God and to represent Him. This story is full of sin, profanity and anger, yet somehow, it’s surprisingly Biblical in its depiction of one man’s relationship with God.

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EC as One, Two, Three

The EC Archives: Shock SuspenStories Volume 1 hardcover
Writers: Bill Gaines & Al Feldstein
Artists: Jack Kamen, Jack Davis, Joe Orlando, Graham Ingels & Wally Wood
Colors: Marie Severin, Anna Bolhis, Cory Dunnihoo, Joshua G. Jones, Tracy L. Morris, Leona D. Cahoj & Liz A. Rost
Cover artist: Wally Wood
Publisher: Gemstone Publishing
Price: $49.95 US

There have been a number of online comics news reports lately spotlighting Gemstone Publishing’s decision to scale back its offerings, specifically its line of Disney comics (featuring both new and reprint material). However, I certainly doubt that translates into a doom-and-gloom forecast for the publisher, especially when it’s now offering material such as The EC Archives. As other publishers have found in recent years, there’s a clear demand for high-end reprints of classic stories and art from the industry’s past, and one would be hard-pressed to find material that suited the term “classic” more than the crime and horror stories of EC Comics of the 1950s. As a testament to the importance of this material, this inaugural hardcover volume of Shock SuspenStories — featuring the first six issues of the original series — comes from filmmaker and Hollywood mover and shaker Steven Spielberg. The stories found within this attractive, oversized collection can be predictable and clumsy, but they’re nevertheless entertaining, and not just on a campy level. Perhaps what’s most interesting about the storytelling is how it paints a picture of Western society from half a century ago.

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Phone Home? Nah, E.T.’ll Blackberry Instead

Ed’s Terrestrials original graphic novel
Writer: Scott Christian Sava
Artist: Diego Jourdan
Publisher: Blue Dream Studios
Price: $19.99 US

A quick look at the spine of my review copy of this book and a subsequent Google-ing of the title reveals that this was originally supposed to be (or originally was) an Alias Entreprises release, but creator Scott Christian Sava has given it new life by publishing under his Blue Dream Studios banner. I’ve enjoyed Sava’s work in the past. Some may remember him from his outing with Marvel Comics — the Spider-Man: Quality of Life limited series — but I prefer to think of him as the writer/artist/creator of The Lab, a goofy, cartoon-inspired workplace comedy. This project is a children’s book, first and foremost, but it’s crafted as a comic, not the usual illustrated text that tends to characterize children’s literature. Ed’s Terrestrials is a light romp, with a familiar premise and artwork that suits the tone of the story but falls short with an oversimplified sense of design.

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Quick Critiques – Jan. 7, 2007

All Star Superman #6 (DC Comics/All Star imprint)
by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant

Of all the comics in my reading pile this week, this was the one to which I looked forward the most. Morrison offers up yet another imagination-fueled story with some poignant emotion, but this stood out as a somewhat flawed issue as compared to previous episodes of the series. There’s a slight disconnect in the plot when it comes to the revelation of a temporal monster. It feels as though there’s a panel or page missing. I don’t believe there actually is a missing piece. Rather, I suspect Morrison is playing around with perception and time given the sci-fi/super-hero concepts that come into play. What’s most striking about the script is how well Morrison distinguishes between a young Clark Kent on the cusp of adulthood and the grown, confident figure we’ve seen in previous issues. It was also a treat to see the return of not only Superman 1,000,000 but the Unknown Superman hinted at last year in this very title. Quitely also does an excellent job of conveying Clark’s youth and naivete and the fragility of his elderly parents. I also love the various alternate Superman designs that turn up in this issue (though at least one was previously established in DC continuity, so it can’t be attributed to Quitely). Jamie Grant’s computer colors really pop and drive home the purer, Silver Age qualities of the storytelling. 8/10

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All in the Family

Dynamo 5 #1
Writer: Jay Faerber
Artist/Cover artist: Mahmud Asrar
Colors: Ron Riley
Letters: Charles Pritchett
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.50 US/$4.05 CAN

Jay Faerber offers up some new twists on traditional super-hero storytelling with his latest project, Dynamo 5. It boasts all the fun of old-school comics with a slightly dysfunctional, modern quality. The writer wisely brings a darker edge into play by the end of the issue, and that harsh, concluding scene adds some real suspense to the mix. Artist Mahmud Asrar’s work on this accessible, inaugural issue elicits easy and favorable comparisons to the styles of such established industry talents as Mike (Fantastic Four) McKone and Carlos (Superman) Pacheco. The script is thoroughly accessible, which is vital for this book given that there are so many characters dressed alike and driven by the same motivations. Dynamo 5 is full of playful action, entertaining banter and slightly sordid details that will not disappoint.

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Tribal Counsel

Scalped #1
“Indian Country, Part One of Three”
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: R.M. Guera
Colors: Lee Loughridge
Letters: Phil Balsman
Cover artist: Jock
Editor: Will Dennis
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo imprint
Price: $2.99 US/$4 CAN

Comics scribe Jason Aaron offers up a new ongoing title that works well as a crime drama. There’s an intensity to the plotting and characters that puts one in mind of another Vertigo title, 100 Bullets. Aaron takes us into a violent world where brutality trumps reason and corruption reigns supreme. The artwork captures the setting and violent circumstances quite well. Sounds like another solid winner from Vertigo, right? Well, culture hasn’t factored into the equation yet. Aaron isn’t just bringing a crime story to life; he also invites his readership into an isolated and oppressed culture that, for the most part, remains ignored and abused even in the 21st century. The depiction of the politics of a reservation and its residents didn’t sit all that well with me. Some might dismiss it as liberal white guilt, but I hope we’ll find more balance in the characters and cultural elements in future issues.

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Tony Stark Sees It as Sectarian Violence

Civil War #6
Writer: Mark Millar
Pencils: Steve McNiven
Inks: Dexter Vines
Colors: Morry Hollowell
Letters: Chris Eliopoulos
Cover artists: McNiven & Vines (regular) and Michael Turner (variant)
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN

Marvel’s flagship event title of 2006 reaches its penultimate issue in the first week of 2007. The past couple of issues have sparked some controversy and angry reactions among some readers, but they haven’t appeared to have negatively impacted the sales of this limited series. As such, I expect the outraged and entertained alike will be on board for this sixth episode as well, and the good news is that the plotting in this issue shouldn’t elicit extreme reactions. On the other hand, the overall pacing of this issue likely won’t get much reaction of any kind. Still, there are a couple of smaller moments that stand out as strong, and Steve McNiven’s artwork will not disappoint. Ultimately, the theme of personal freedoms versus demands for security falls to the wayside as the series approaches its finale, making room for a big, colorful super-hero rumble. It’s a big genre crossover story, after all, so I suppose such a stereotypical conclusion is to be expected.

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Dark Towering Inferno

All hail Stephen King, Marvel Comics proclaims, urging readers and retailers to get excited about the upcoming release of its comic-book adaptation of King’s Dark Tower novels. The problem is that recently, many are crying foul, feeling as though Marvel promised a King-written comic book featuring new content, not adapted material. It turns out comics writer Peter David is penning the scripts, with art by Jae Lee. Thanks to the magic of Google, it’s easy to determine if those bait-and-switch allegations have any real basis. I dug up the original news release (issued in the fall of 2005), as well as various websites’ coverage of the initial announcement.

Other versions of the initial news release online note that the first issue of this landmark project was originally slated for release in April 2006. With Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born #1 slated for release Feb. 7, that puts the project almost a full year behind schedule. That’s another black eye for the project from a publisher with an unfortunate reputation for lateness when it comes to high-profile projects.

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Quick Critiques – Jan. 1, 2007

Detective Comics #827 (DC Comics)
by Paul Dini, Don Kramer & Wayne Faucher

Given the breath of fresh air he and Bruce Timm breathed into the world of the Batman on TV in the mid 1990s, writer Paul Dini is a natural choice to fashion and introduce a new version of the Ventriloquist. I have to admit, his script is executed quite well, offering a surprising twist rather than the stereotypical resurrection we’re set up to expect. Dini’s script paints Gotham’s underworld as something more akin to the dark corners of Dick Tracy’s world; it’s not just the super-villains, but every thug has a gimmick now. This issue doesn’t represent penciller Don Kramer’s best work. The figures are stiff throughout the episode. Anatomy seems off, and movement isn’t at all convincing. However, his depiction of Scarface is striking. A gun-toting puppet could be a laughable visual, but he manages to depict it as an intimidating presence. Though I was surprised, the plot is otherwise by the numbers, and I really don’t see what the point is beyond establishing the Ventriloquist as a viable member of the Batman’s rogues gallery once again. Furthermore, the new villain’s motives are unclear; the intent seems only to eliminate a threat that was unaware of the new criminal mastermind’s existence in the first place. 6/10

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Dawn (in Vietnam) of the Dead

’68 one-shot
Writer: Mark Kidwell
Artist/Cover artist: Nat Jones
Colors: Jay Fotos
Letters: Jason Hanley
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99 US/$4.60 CAN

They say timing is everything, and that holds true when it comes to the business and craft of comics as well. Take, for example, the timing of ’68, a zombie-horror story set in the middle of the Vietnam War. A few years ago, this would have struck me as an innovative, clever and entertaining combination of the horror and war genres, worthy of the imagination of such writers as Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis.  But this isn’t a few years ago. Kidwell and Jones have released this story in the midst of a major zombie fad in pop culture; no doubt, this one-shot owes its existence to that fad. In that context, ’68 lacks a certain impact. I realize that when discussing a medium so dominated by the super-hero genre it might seem silly to complain about a small glut of zombie comics, but nevertheless, this felt like a minor float in a long parade boasting an undead theme. All the same, the writing and art are solidly executed. Though predictable, the story is somewhat diverting and definitely accomplishes what it sets out to do.

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Wow, No Lump of Coal

It was a great Christmas this year. Though I missed not getting home to see my parents and brothers, I had a lovely time with my girlfriend’s family, and the holiday held a number of wonderful surprises. I have a variety of wonderful new toys to play with, such as a great new, larger, flat monitor for my computer (thanks, honey!) and satellite radio for the car. When it comes to comics gifts, I’m not easy to shop for from my loved ones’ perspective, as they’re not into comics, and just about every peripheral, comics-related item that I really want, I tend to get for myself anyway. My girlfriend did well with picking up the DVD box set of the various Superman movies. But my parents — who at one time really wanted me to cast off comics as a relic of my childhood — really surprised me this year with an unusual, inexpensive little gift: a grab bag of old DC and Marvel comics from the 1970s and ’80s.

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