Reviews, FCBD edition

5-4-13

GODZILLA: THE HALF-CENTURY WAR #3 (IDW, 2012) – A+. James Stokoe’s spectacular artwork in this issue initially reminded me of Geof Darrow, but as I read on, I realized it was more similar to European comics. This is no accident; in a 2007 CBR interview, Stokoe listed Moebius and Bilal as major influences. And his work has a level of polish and detail that you rarely if ever see in American comics, with their tighter deadlines. Franco-Belgian cartoonists typically produce far fewer pages per year than American cartoonists, but in exchange, much more time and effort goes into each page, and the results are gorgeous works of art. Stokoe’s work is at the same level. His artwork has an epic scope and an insane level of detail. The coloring gives his work a three-dimensional quality, but the expressivity of the lettering prevents it from being too close to photorealism. His composition on the level of individual panels is also amazing; the best example of that is the two-page spread with six monsters fighting each other at once. And on top of that, he has an impressive visual imagination – the eight kaiju all look distinctive, and they’re all terrifying in different ways. His art style is clearly too labor-intensive for a monthly comic, but I think the American comics industry may have reached a point where an artist like Stokoe can support himself without having to do a monthly comic. I look forward to reading the rest of this series, and I also want to read everything else he’s done.

ADVENTURES IN THE DC UNIVERSE #19 (DC, 1998) – B-. This Wonder Woman-Catwoman team-up is a thoroughly average comic, but at least it does an excellent job of introducing the characters for the benefit of new readers, and it tells a complete and satisfying story in 22 pages. Neither of those is as easy to do as it sounds. The villain is a giant cat god, but unfortunately the comic potential of that premise is mostly wasted. Imagine if Wonder Woman had rolled her lasso up into a ball in order to trick the villain into playing with it.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #3 (Marvel, 2012) – B. I think it took this series a little while to get off the ground, no pun intended. There are some funny moments here but it mostly falls flat, and the notion of an all-female commando unit during WWII is kind of hard to swallow. Also, I don’t like Dexter Soy’s art style at all. And this story seemed like it was over way too soon.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC #18 (IDW, 2014) – A+. Like most of Katie and Andy’s MLP stories, this is an extremely well-crafted piece of work which also expands on the source material in fascinating and innovative ways. This is why I’m using the MLP comics as my primary case study in a paper that I plan to write about transmedia storytelling in children’s comics. The mirror universe concept is obviously not new, but it seems particularly appropriate for this franchise, where most of the characters represent pure qualities (laughter, generosity, etc.), and are therefore easy to convert into their polar opposites. So for example, in the mirror universe, Flim and Flam are the elements of honesty, Trixie is the element of humility, etc. A couple other cool things about this story: Both here and in the Celestia issue of the micro-series, Katie and Andy have added a lot of depth to Celestia’s character. In the cartoon (at least the first three seasons), she often seems like an omnipotent, invincible god, but this story depicts her as flawed and vulnerable. And I love the implication that Pinkie Pie has the ability to pull things out of hammerspace.

CHEW #41 (Image, 2014) – A+. This is certainly the happiest issue of Chew in a long time, possibly ever. Given that Layman and Guillory seem to delight in making Tony Chu suffer, it’s nice of them to let him enjoy a brief moment of wedded bliss with Amelia. There’s a ton of other awesome stuff in this issue, including the two-page splash of Poyo fighting Unisaurus Rex, and Agent Breadman – I can’t tell whether he’s an actual gingerbread man or whether he’s just drawn that way.

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2014 (ROCKET RACCOON) (Marvel, 2014) – A-. Marvel obviously knows that Rocket Raccoon is an incredibly appealing character and they’re marketing the hell out of him. In the July solicitations, it says “let’s be real, [Rocket Raccoon] is the only Guardian of the Galaxy you actually care about”, and I think they almost want you to agree with that. Rocket is the latest in a long line of characters who Marvel has successfully turned from bit players into superstars – previous examples include Deadpool, Loki and Captain Marvel. (DC, on the other hand, has a much greater repertoire of characters, but seems unable to market any of them successfully except Batman.) This particular story is not nearly as well-crafted as the Abnett and Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy stories that revived the character, but the fact that it’s a Rocket Raccoon story makes up for its slight clumsiness. Princess Lynx is a cool new character. The backup story, with Spider-Man, Nova, and White Tiger, is a silly piece of filler; the only thing I liked about it is the name “Subservians.”

LUMBERJANES #1 (Boom!, 2014) – A+. This is exactly the sort of thing that I’m predisposed to like, so it’s no surprise that I love it. This series reminds me of MLP and Rat Queens in that it features a diverse ensemble cast of female protagonists who often take on traditionally male roles. In such a short comic, we don’t have much of a chance to get to know the protagonists, but Brooke Allen’s storytelling is so strong that she’s able to effectively develop their characters through visual means, allowing us to distinguish between them even before they’ve had a lot of dialogue. The premise of this comic is also kind of fascinating; I don’t know what’s up with the three-eyed foxes, or why the camp used to be called “Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s” and is now a camp for “Hardcore Lady Types,” but I’m excited to find out. Oh, and I love the Lumberjanes pledge and I even like the oath “what the junk”. As a final point, it wasn’t until after I finished this comic that I realized it had no male characters at all. I think Lumberjanes #1 might be the only one of the nearly 14,000 comic books in my collection that has no men in it. And I didn’t even notice at first, because the lack of male characters is not emphasized at all – it just so happens that this comic takes place at a summer camp for girls, so the lack of males is entirely natural. I think this is kind of cool.

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2014: ALL AGES (Dark Horse, 2014) – A-. Gene Luen Yang and Faith Erin Hicks are two of the best creators of YA comics in North America, and Avatar is one of my biggest current fandoms. So the first story in this issue is kind of a dream come true, even if it’s just ten pages. Faith’s artwork is tastefully understated, but she captures the characters of Sokka and Suki perfectly. Gene’s story is interesting because it can be read on two entirely different levels. The seashell store, with its sexist employees, is an obvious parody of a comic book store, and when Seashell-san calls Giya a “fake collector,” we’re supposed to read that as “fake geek girl.” But this scene also makes perfect sense in the context of the story; a younger reader who is not familiar with recent debates over sexism in comics culture can still understand this story at face value.
Unfortunately the two other stories in this issue were much worse. The Itty Bitty Hellboy story is just silly, and the Juice Squeezers story made little sense to me since I hadn’t heard of this series before. I don’t understand why the characters have silly names like Morko and Stampo, or where the giant insects came from. If the purpose of an FCBD comic is to provide a gentle introduction to an existing comic book series, then this story failed to do that.

WALT DISNEY’S UNCLE SCROOGE AND DONALD DUCK: “A MATTER OF SOME GRAVITY” (Fantagraphics, 2014) – A+. The title story in this comic was nominated for an Eisner in 1998, but it was only ever printed in English once before – in Uncle Scrooge #310, which had a tiny print run – and so I’m grateful that Fantagraphics has brought it back into print. Because this is a Don Rosa story I’ve never read before, it deserves an A+ on general principle. But even by Don Rosa’s standards, this story is quite innovative. The premise of the story is that Magica de Spell curses Donald and Scrooge by shifting their personal gravity by 90 degrees. On pages 3 through 11, the page layout mimics the change in Donald and Scrooge’s gravity. On each of these pages, the panels on the bottom tier are tilted 90 degrees to the right, so that the left edge of each panel is the ground, and the bottom edge is the direction in which Donald and Scrooge are falling. This is much harder to describe than to show, but it’s a perfect technique for illustrating the change in gravity. It also suggests that the comics panel is a sort of microcosm of the world. Comics panels are typically oriented with the sky at the top and the ground at the bottom, so that gravity flows in the same direction in a comics panel as it does in the real world. But in this story, the direction of gravity changes, and the orientation of the panels changes to match. Something similar happens later in the story, when Magica casts another spell that causes gravity to be reversed by 180 degrees, and as a result, some of the panels are upside down. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that throughout the story, all the text reads from right to left, regardless of the gravity.
This issue also includes “The Sign of the Triple Distelfink,” another Rosa story I hadn’t read. This story displays Rosa’s annoying tendency to explain things that didn’t really need an explanation (Gladstone’s superhuman luck, in this case), but at least it’s funny, and it’s fun to see the origin of Donald and Gladstone’s rivalry.

USAGI YOJIMBO #133 (Dark Horse, 2010) – A. I missed this when it came out, but picked it up today because Oxford Comics was having a half-off sale on back issues. This issue is part two of ”Taiko,” so I felt it was appropriate to listen to taiko music while reading it – as a complete tangent, the other day I walked past a studio where a taiko club was practicing, and that music is really cool and fun to watch, but extremely loud. I’d like to see an actual taiko performance live someday. Anyway. This issue is a sad but satisfying conclusion to a story whose first half I read four years ago. The conclusion is kind of predictable, as is sometimes the case with Stan’s stories, but Stan executes it beautifully. The climactic sequence of the story has an impressive rhythm to it, with the constant intercutting between drumming, rain, and fighting. I’m curious about the claim that taiko drumming is supposed to draw the attention of the thunder god Raijin – after a cursory Google search I couldn’t find any sources that explicitly support this. Maybe the source for this is given in the endnotes to #132.

THE SANDWALK ADVENTURES #4 (Active Images, 2002) – A-. I love Jay Hosler’s graphic novel about bees, Clan Apis, but this is the only other work of his I’ve read. Both this issue and Clan Apis are prototypical examples of educational comics, because they explain complicated concepts, but in a humorous and lively way, almost concealing the fact that the purpose of the comic is to teach the reader something. This comic is told from the viewpoint of two follicle mites living on Charles Darwin’s head, which is as bizarre as it sounds, but it effectively gets across the nature of artificial selection and the fact that evolution happens on the level of populations rather than individuals. It’s too bad that Jay Hosler doesn’t seem to have published anything since 2008 – I guess he’s too busy with his day job as a biology professor. I think there’s a bigger market for his work now than there was when he started doing it. His artwork is heavily influenced by Jeff Smith, especially the backgrounds, but he shows some individual style in the way he draws people and insects.

FRENCH ICE #1 (Renegade, 1987) – B+/A-. This comic is a collection of several of Jean-Marc Lelong’s Carmen Cru stories from Fluide Glacial. The running joke in these stories is that Carmen Cru is a hideous old curmudgeon who uses her age as an excuse to impose her will on everyone she meets. For example, in one of the stories a workman digs a trench in front of her house, and she forces him to carry her across the trench and back a total of 22 times (another character hears this story and mistakenly thinks they had sex 22 times). The humor in these stories mostly seems to revolve around Carmen Cru and her demented strength of personality. The other main appeal of these comics is Lelong’s artwork; his black-and-white draftsmanship is obsessively detailed, almost to the point where it detracts from the storytelling, and I think it was designed to be viewed at album size rather than comic book size. This comic is somewhat difficult to understand both because the translation is kind of clumsy, and because this sort of humor is unfamiliar to American audiences. As far as I can tell, Lelong is one of a group of cartoonists whose main influence was Gotlib and whose work appeared in the magazine Gotlib founded, Fluide Glacial. Other cartoonists in this group include Edika, Goossens and Binet. Most of these names are completely unknown to American readers because their work has never been translated, and neither has the work of Gotlib himself – I think he may be the most important cartoonist whose work is completely unavailable in English. Anyway, without knowledge of that artistic tradition, it’s hard to see where Lelong is coming from.

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