Sunday, March 20, 2011

Quick Reviews 2

It's time for some more Quick Reviews. Here's a round-up of some stuff I've read recently.

Sean Phillips illustrated one of the  best Two-Face profiles ever

Batman: Jekyll & Hyde by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee and Sean Phillips – I feel like Jenkins has written some absolutely stupendous stuff, a bunch of average comics, and some genuinely bad ones. Jekyll & Hyde is close to being in the upper tier of his work, but I think it has one deep flaw that hurts quite a bit. I just hate it when the bad guy has the good guy in his clutches, chained up and drugged, and promises to kill him, but fails. That’s some James Bond, kinda lazy, kinda implausible stuff most of the time. Unfortunately, Jenkins has Two-Face do that with Batman in this book. Other than that, this could have been a defining Two-Face story. I’m still hard pressed to think of one off the top of my head. It’s very psychological and the action that does take place feels all the more significant because of it. Jae Lee draws the first three issues and Sean Phillips draws the last three. Both of them are top tier artists and this is just a gorgeous looking book all around. Their shadowy work really brings Jenkins’ psychological thriller to life.

Eric Powell (The Goon) illustrated the covers for the individual issues

Arkham Asylum: Living Hell by Dan Slott and Ryan Sook – I think this and his little-known Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries (with Ty Templeton) are Dan Slott’s finest works. Living Hell, a six-issue miniseries about Arkham Asylum’s inmates, benefits from some dark comedy and some clever and twisted origin stories for some of Batman’s minor rogues. Ryan Sook’s art is perfect for the tone of the story as he expertly varies his style from dark and menacing to wry black humor.

Sadly, this iBooks edition is likely out of print

Honour Among Punks by Guy Davis with Gary Reed – I mentioned in my last trade paperback round-up that Guy Davis is one of my favorite creators. Honour Among Punks: The Complete Baker Street Graphic Novel, is one of his earliest works. It’s a Sherlock Holmes pastiche set in an alternate universe London where punk is a dominant subculture. I like Davis’ writing but it’s his art that truly shines and sells the stories he writes himself. Not every artist is a good writer, but I think Davis does a great job creating a grimy punk version of Sherlock Holmes’s world, and the characters, from Sharon (the Holmes analogue) to Sue (the everyman, point of view, Watson-analogue) feel well-developed and grow from their trials. I liked seeing Davis’ art evolve over the course of the series. The first couple issues are rather cartoony but his art eventually begins to resemble more and more of the type of linework we’d witness in Sandman Mystery Theatre. He’s a fantastic designer, with characters who wear legit clothes and fashions, and architecture that makes his world look like a place worth visiting. Definitely recommended.

I greatly enjoy Ben Templesmith's style

Criminal Macabre: A Cal McDonald Mystery (Volume 1) by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith – After reading 30 Days of Night, I decided to give this another try. (I had it lying around in my collection after picking it up for 3 bucks at a used bookstore a year or two ago.) I actually read this once before, probably at least 5 or 6 years ago. I remember enjoying it back then. After rereading it, I still liked it, but not as much as I remembered. Still, it’s a far more entertaining comic than 30 Days of Night. Cal McDonald is sort of a cross between John Constantine and Hellboy, only with far less gravitas. He’s a stereotypical hard-boiled, hard-drinking private eye who specializes in dealing with monsters and other accursed creatures of the night. In this story, he’s embroiled in a plot by a monster alliance who want to infect the world. Templesmith’s art is fantastic, of course, but Niles’ writing seems to work better in this story than 30 Days of Night because this seems like it’s intentionally comedic and light-hearted. The story still doesn’t feel like anything particularly deep, but as pure entertainment, it did its job.

Last Train to Deadsville: A Cal McDonald Mystery (Volume 2) by Steve Niles and Kelley Jones – I liked the second book in the series more than the first, though Templesmith is replaced by Jones here. Jones draws some creepy monsters, especially ones with skull-ish faces and external spines. Sometimes his work is undermined a bit by Michelle Madsen’s rather garish color choices, which surprises me because their work together on Conan: The Book of Thoth was remarkably strong. Volume 2 was shorter than the first one, and maybe because of that it feels faster-paced. I still feel like there isn’t very much character development, but for a rip-roaring action adventure with a few choice one-liners, this is a fun read. On a sidenote, I still don’t think I can consider these Cal McDonald comics “horror.”  Just because a comic has monsters in it doesn’t automatically make it a horror story. That’s just lazy marketing on someone’s part.

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Jonny Double by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso – I finished reading all of 100 Bullets the other week and it put me in an Azz/Risso mood. I dug out my Jonny Double TPB for another read. It’s even better my second time reading it. Though this is one of Risso’s earliest American comics, he was already an accomplished artist before he began this work. As such, the art looks about as good as you would expect. Similar to what Peter Milligan did with Human Target, Azzarello takes an old, obscure DC character and Vertigo-izes him. Jonny Double is an old-school, hard-boiled but down on his luck private eye (in San Francisco!) who ends up teaming up with some young slackers on a heist. Of course, they get embroiled in something beyond them when they realize the money they stole belongs to someone they didn’t expect. This is a riveting noir with a satisfying payoff. Definitely recommended.

The cover to the TPB
Issue 3's cover
Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo – Azz and Bermejo have gone on to a few other notable collaborations (Lex Luthor: Man of Steel and Joker) but I think this was their first. With WildStorm’s tragic demise, I don’t know how widely available this book is, but it’s well worth tracking down and owning. I also think this could be the best intercompany crossover to ever see the light of day. Bermejo’s compelling layouts are complemented by his realistic, darkly detailed style. I also love the premise of the crossover: the two title characters never meet each other, because Deathblow died ten years before this story begins. You have to appreciate Azzarello’s ballsy approach to a superhero crossover. Instead, Batman has to solve a crime related to Deathblow’s only failed mission. It’s all very well done in a grimy, noirish tone. It’s a heavy-hitting tale, but it’s subtly heavy, if that makes sense. Definitely recommended.

This belongs in your collection

Batman: Broken City by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso – I wasn’t kidding when I said that finishing 100 Bullets put me in an Azz/Risso mood! For my money, I’d put Broken City right up there with the finest Batman stories of all time. I get that Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are untouchable totems, the very pinnacle of Batman stories; but Broken City at least deserves to belong in the same tier as those two. I feel like most great Batman stories tend to inhabit one of two milieus: crime or balls-out superhero fantasy. Year One is emblematic of the former, while DKR and Grant Morrison’s ongoing Batman magnum opus certainly embody the latter. Broken City is definitely in the vein of Year One. Batman stalks the shadows, intimidates thugs for information, does some actual detective work, and solves a crime while trying to remain coolly detached, only he’s Batman and he can’t help but care too much. Fascinating. It’s a story that epitomizes everything important about the Batman. Top it off with some great appearances by some undervalued members of his rogues gallery (Killer Croc, the Penguin, and the Arnold Wesker Ventriloquist & Scarface) plus a chilling and well-used Joker appearance. Azz and Risso even do their part to introduce a duo of new rogues into Batman’s world, Fat Man and Little Boy. And if that’s not enough, the story even has something great and new to say about Batman and his origin. A fresh take on a classic? Oh, yeah, baby. I can’t spoil it if you haven’t read it. This gets my highest possible recommendation.

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