Reviews, post-FCBD edition

5-7-13

An eclectic and random assortment of stuff today. I’m posting reviews more frequently now because I’m trying to write them as soon as possible after reading the comics, while they’re still fresh in my memory.

TRUE SWAMP #1 (Alternative Comics, 2000) – B-. This is a weird and disturbing piece of work. It’s about the adventures of a talking frog, but beyond that I can’t say what exactly the point of it is. The disturbing part comes from one of the other major characters, who is a giant head with two legs and a tail; he reminds me of something out of Woodring. The panel structures in this comic are kind of weird; each page includes a lot of white space and there are a bunch of aspect-to-aspect transitions. I know that Jon Lewis is reasonably well respected in the alt-comics community, but this comic did not give me a strong desire to read more of his work.

NIGHT MUSIC #5 (Eclipse, 1985) – B+. This issue concludes PCR’s two-part adaptation of Debussy’s Pelleas et Mélisande, though it seems to be based more on the Maurice Maeterlinck play that inspired Debussy’s opera. This is an unusual instance in which the source material is more interesting than PCR’s take on it. Despite coming out of the Symbolist movement, the play does not contain a lot of magic or flashy special effects, just acting, and so the main sources of interest in PCR’s adaptation are his page layouts and the way he renders the characters’ movements and facial expressions. (I’d like to use a term like “graphic acting” to refer to the characters’ physical movements and their orientations within the panel; is there a standard critical term that refers to this?) PCR executes all this fairly well, and he succeeds in making me curious about the original play.

DR. CHAOS’ COMIC CORNUCOPIA #1 (forcewerks, 2004) – F. Unreadable.

BONGO COMICS FREE-FOR-ALL! (Bongo, 2006) – A-. All the short stories in this comic are hilarious, though I don’t think it works particularly well as an FCBD comic, because most of the stories are aimed at hardcore comics fans. For example, the last story is a parody of Power Man and Iron Fist starring Carl and Lenny. I think Bongo’s Simpsons comics are actually better than recent seasons of the TV show, not that that’s a difficult feat. Compared to the writers of the TV show, Bongo’s writers do a better job of imitating the tone of the good seasons of the Simpsons.

BANANA SUNDAY #3 (Oni, 2005) – A+. Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover are a fantastic creative team, and this is one of their earlier and more obscure works, from before they achieved major success with Bandette. Because this is issue 3, no effort is made to explain the premise of the series; it seems to be about a girl who has three pet talking monkeys for some reason. But maybe the fact that I don’t understand the plot makes it funnier. The dominant mood of this comic is happiness – I think Paul and Colleen genuinely like writing about happy people. And this is the case even though there is kind of a dark side to this story, because the protagonist is suffering from severe bullying. I hope to be able to find the other three issues of this series.

BULLET TO THE HEAD 2 (Dynamite, 2010) – B. This is a translation of a French comic with art by the New Zealander Colin Wilson, and it’s a perfect example of what Kim Thompson was talking about when he said that “more crap is what we need.” This is not a great comic – in fact, it’s a rather generic piece of crime fiction, a genre I do not enjoy – but it’s quite well crafted, with gorgeous artwork that reminds me a lot of Walt Simonson. In France, this is a purely commercial product with modest artistic intentions, but it’s able to reach a wide audience because of the exquisiteness of the art. Unfortunately this sort of commercial BD has never had much success in America. Its publishers (Casterman, in this case) seem to have little interest in entering the U.S. market in the way Japanese manga publishers have done. And so commercial BD tends to get translated by second-tier U.S. publishers like Dynamite or Archaia, who often don’t take very much care with it. We’ll see another example of that below.

NAUGHTY BITS #8 (Fantagraphics, 1993) – A+. “Hippie Bitch Gets an Abortion” may be Roberta Gregory’s masterpiece. It gruesomely depicts the unsanitary and frightening nature of abortion prior to Roe v. Wade, and Roberta even includes a brief segment where she speaks directly to the reader and describes how Midge’s abortion wasn’t even as bad as it could have been. Given the steady erosion of abortion rights in recent years, especially in red states, this comic is not just a glimpse into a more barbaric past but also a grim prediction of a possible future. Thankfully, because of Roberta’s hilarious art and the humorous tone of the writing, the comic is not as depressing as it could be. And the comic ends with a cathartic scene where a now-adult Midge beats up some abortion clinic protesters.

BLACK ORCHID #1 (DC, 1988) – A. This was one of Neil Gaiman’s earliest major works; I think the only one that predates it is Violent Cases. Compared to other work by the Gaiman/McKean team, it is a much more conventional and straightforward narrative. In the original Mayer/DeZuniga stories, Black Orchid was a deeply compelling character because of her air of mystery; she always appeared in disguise and vanished without a trace, and we never learned who she was beneath all the disguises, or where she came from. In this issue, Neil dissipates some of that aura of mystery by giving her a secret identity and an origin. He sort of compensates for this by exploring the character’s floral, vegetal aspects. After killing off the original Orchid, he creates a new version of the character who’s a human/plant hybrid. I suppose this territory was already covered in Swamp Thing, but Neil and Dave’s take on it is reasonably new. I don’t think this is one of Neil’s best works, but it’s certainly worth reading.

HEROBEAR AND THE KID #2 (Boom, 2013) – A-. My opinion of this comic changed completely when I realized it was a reprint of the original Herobear and the Kid miniseries; this is not stated anywhere in the comic itself. Initially, my problem with this comic was its pervasively nostalgic nature. It takes place in what seems like an idyllic ‘50s neighborhood, where there are no computers or cell phones to be seen, and bullying is treated as a standard feature of elementary school rather than a serious social problem. However, I think this sort of nostalgia was more acceptable in 2000 than in 2013. I’m also willing to give Herobear and the Kid a pass because it came out at a time when all-ages comics were almost dead. It won two consecutive Eisner Awards for Best Title for a Younger Audience, in 2002 and 2003, against no serious competition. Since then, there’s been an explosion of quality kids’ and YA comics, but in 2000, the kids’ comics genre was so impoverished that a comic like this one must have come as a serious breath of fresh air. And when I read it with that in mind, it becomes genuinely exciting – especially the last scene, which is a beautiful depiction of the pure joy of flight.

PREACHER #44 (DC, 1998) – A-. I like Preacher a lot less than Hellblazer because first, it too often sacrifices genuine emotion for shock value. Second, it’s an examination of a type of American frontier/cowboy myth that I believe is more harmful than admirable. One of the characters in this issue, a former Nazi spy, talks about “the myth of America: that simple, honest men, born of her great plains and woods and skies[,] have made a nation of her, and will prove worthy of her when the time is right.” I just can’t subscribe to this sort of national mythology because I hold it responsible for a lot of what’s currently wrong with our culture, such as rampant anti-intellectualism and lack of empathy for the less fortunate. This makes it difficult for me to connect with Preacher on an emotional level. It is certainly a well-crafted piece of work, though.

TYRANT #2 (Spider-Baby Grafix, 1994) – A. The biography of a dinosaur from birth to death seems like a boring subject, but Steve Bissette renders this story with such precision and attention to detail that it becomes fascinating, and he somehow manages to create a compelling narrative despite the lack of any sort of character development. For instance, the beginning of this issue depicts the massive changes that occur in the local environment when a tree falls – ants move out from under the tree, water rushes into the vacant space and brings frogs with it, and so on. It’s a fascinating examination of ecology, in the sense of the interdependence of everything and the ways in which small changes have large effects. The other material included in the issue is almost as fascinating; the letter column includes some hyper-detailed analyses of the accuracy of Steve’s version of the Cretaceous. I’m sorry that Steve was only able to publish four issues of this series.

ADVENTURE COMICS #402 (DC, 1971) – C+/B-. In the lead story, by Mike Sekowsky, a criminal tricks Supergirl into falling in love with him. It’s basically the same premise as New Teen Titans #16, except less credible because Sekowsky fails to make the reader understand what Supergirl sees in this creepy slimeball. However, he does a better job of making the reader sympathize with Supergirl, who is torn between her love (or lust) for this guy and her commitment to duty. The backup story, starring a girl named Tracey Thompson and her friend, starts out promisingly, passing the Bechdel test in the first panel. However, it goes downhill quickly when Tracey and her friend are attacked by some bikers and have to be saved by some dude. Tracey ends up not being the protagonist of her own story.

THE KILLER #5 (Archaia, 2006) – B+. This is another French comic that was a major success in its native country, but only achieved modest recognition in America, where it was published by a small independent outfit. Archaia’s founder, Mark Smylie, wrote a fascinating blog post specifically addressing the question of why BD has gotten such little traction in the American market (). As for the comic itself, it’s another example of what Kim Thompson calls “populist crap.” There is little to distinguish the story from that of any other crime comic, and I think that Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke are probably writing crime comics that are deeper and more complex, although I wouldn’t know because this genre doesn’t appeal to me. What makes this comic exciting, though, is Jacamon’s artwork, particularly his lush and vibrant coloring and his realistic but luscious female bodies. As I discussed below with regard to James Stokoe, this is the sort of artwork that’s only possible when you’re producing 56 pages a year rather than 22 pages a month. You can see how a product which has such a high level of craftsmanship, but appeals to a rather lowbrow level of taste, could be a major commercial hit. Unfortunately, American audiences have never developed a taste for this stuff and the big French publishers don’t seem to care much about the American market, and so translated comics like The Killer are difficult to find and have rather low production values compared to the original versions.

MIND MGMT #12 (Dark Horse, 2013) – B+. I’m not particularly interested in this comic as a comic, but I’m fascinated by its graphic design. Each page of Mind MGMT is formatted as a report from one of the operatives of the title organization. Each page is designed to look like an original art page, with notes in blue lettering around the edges (which are often relevant to the story) and a border indicating the live area. The back cover and the inside covers include additional story-relevant material which will not appear in the collected editions. I’m not going to explain now why this is significant, because it’s going to come up in my CSSC conference paper on Friday, but it fascinates me. I need to read more of this comic, even though I’m not highly captivated by the story.

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