Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Quick Comics Reviews 5

Incorruptible volume 1 by Mark Waid and Jean Diaz – I’d heard plenty of good things about this series and Irredeemable. I’ve only read the first issue of Irredeemable, and even though Incorruptible is sort of the sister title to that series, the first volume is a good introduction to the story. Irredeemable is about the Plutonian, a Superman-like being who turns out to be a psychopath, turning on Earth, and just unleashes the full force of his wrath upon the planet. Incorruptible is sort of about the opposite: A supervillain decides to become a superhero so somebody can stand up to the Plutonian. It’s an unusual perspective for a superhero comic, and Mark Waid is a reliably talented superhero writer. He does a good job building the world and setting up the backstory and characters.

It actually feels like Incorruptible isn’t a spin-off series because it stands on its own so well. The artwork, however, is rather bland and inconsistent. One of the characters is supposed to be a sixteen-year old girl named Jailbait, but she doesn’t look like a kid, and sometimes the artist gives her freckles, and sometimes he doesn’t. The character designs aren’t very inspiring, either. Despite all this, Diaz still tells Waid’s story clearly. This is an expensive trade paperback, though. For four issues, this trade costs seventeen bucks. I get that Boom! is a smaller publisher, but I just can’t justify paying retail for this book. I’m interested in seeing where Waid takes this story, but right now it doesn’t feel like an essential must-read.

Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) by Jason Shiga – This piece of semi-autobiographical fiction is about an Asian-American post-college grad named Jimmy who lives in Oakland. His best friend is a Jewish girl named Sara, but she hates Oakland and moves to New York City to have a life. Jimmy ends going through a bit of a funk before he decides to take a cross-country bus to meet up with Sara and confess his love for her. It’s an earnest comic that never degenerates into any pretentiousness or self-indulgence.

The honesty of Jimmy and Sara’s friendship feels real and the story excels at evoking feelings of nostalgia and logic simultaneously. Shiga effectively conveys the sense of hope that Jimmy feels for Sara, but it’s tempered by a realistic understanding of how to handle disappointments in life, so the story never feels wishy-washy, but grounded. The seemingly simplistic artwork belies rather masterful storytelling craft. Throughout the comic, Shiga uses negative space and layouts that really serve to control the pace of the story. Using negative space can often be difficult to execute properly (a lot of times, this comic book storytelling tool can be used for no real discernible purpose) but Shiga does it well. The duotoned colors impart emotion and mood into the scenes, and his characters’ eyes are particularly expressive. This is a fantastic piece of work, and a great read for anyone interested in straightforward good stories. I highly recommend Empire State.

Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis – Imagine a story about a young, unsure Clark Kent, fresh out of junior college, newly moved to Metropolis, trying to decide what to do with his life. He’s grown up with solid American values but hasn’t decided to become Superman yet. Then an alien armada invades Earth, looking for him, and he ends up putting on the costume and beating them to save the day. Well, you don’t have to imagine that story because JMS and Shane Davis have given it to us.

What’s the point of this? Is there really any purpose for yet another Superman origin story? This comic doesn’t do anything to make me appreciate Superman more. It doesn’t have anything noteworthy to say about Superman or the Superman mythos that we haven’t already read before. Even all that isn’t unforgivable, but this book doesn’t even have an interesting plot. I also don’t like how some of the characters sometimes talk out loud to themselves when no one else is around. Why not use thought balloons or narrative captions instead? Shane Davis’ art is horrible, too. From his uninspired designs (the primary villain looks like The Crow with metal death wings) to his overreliance on thin lines and cross hatching, Davis gives Earth One a really mediocre style. He doesn’t do a good job handling facial expressions or body language, and seems more suited to drawing middling fight scenes. The panel-to-panel storytelling is marginal at worst, merely adequate at best. His work here reminds me of a homeless man’s Jim Lee.

I also feel obligated to point out how badly Davis failed in illustrating a scene where Clark tries out for Metropolis’ pro football team. Not only does he fail in drawing the proportions of the players on the field, he seems to lack a complete understanding of football as a sport. The players are wearing seemingly random numbers (numbers should be assigned based on position) and Davis draws them haphazardly all over the field with no sense of how football is played. It’s the fudging of details like this that really show the lack of serious attention the creators put into making this book. Skip this and read Mark Waid’s and Leinil Yu’s Superman: Birthright instead, if you feel you must read a modern Superman origin story.

Amulet Book Three: The Cloud Searchers by Kazu Kibuishi – The third volume of the series continues the nice level of quality of the previous books. Heroine Emily and her unlikely band of rebels and misfits go on a journey in search of a fabled lost city that floats in the clouds. She gains some new unruly allies and a dangerous new foe. Kibuishi keeps the story flowing along, striking a nice balance between humor, action, and quiet moments. The artwork, as usual, is breathtaking and I think one of the nicest things I can say about Amulet in general is how well it’s able to kindle that sense of adventure in anyone’s imagination.

Gen 13: I Love New York by John Arcudi and Gary Frank – In this run of stories from the mid-nineties, Arcudi and Frank take the established premise of Gen 13 (a team of superpowered teens on the run from shadowy government agents) at the time and make it readable. I think anyone reasonable can look back on just about any of those early nineties Image books and see how shallow those efforts are. Gen 13, when it was first created, didn’t have a whole lot going for it other than the fact that J. Scott Campbell (whose art I particularly disdain) would draw all these unbelievably big-breasted teenage chicks in varying states of undress. I guess they knew their audience back then.

By the time Arcudi and Frank came aboard, I suppose Image (or WildStorm, at least) started to realize how badly the stories sucked and wanted to improve. Thus, we had Warren Ellis (who also did a couple of giant-sized issues of Gen 13) on Stormwatch and Alan Moore on WildC.A.T.s. Gen 13 never reached the heights of Stormwatch or WildC.A.T.s, but this was definitely a step in the right direction until Adam Warren took over the book. I Love New York takes the kids out of their usual digs in San Diego and brings them to the Big Apple where they continue to elude the people on their trail. It isn’t anything revelatory but it’s a competent superhero comic with nice art, which is all you can ask for sometimes. I don’t think it’s anything you need to go out of your way to look for, but reading it doesn’t feel like a complete waste of time, either.

Avengers Academy volume 1: Permanent Record by Christos Gage and Mike McKone – I’ve enjoyed just about every Christos Gage comic I’ve encountered. Avengers Academy is a fairly straightforward teen superhero comic. It actually reminds me a bit of The Intimates, only far less subversive and more conventional. Avengers Academy is about a team of six teens who are being trained by Hank Pym and a handful of other C-list Marvel heroes to be future Avengers. There’s a nice little twist at the end of the first issue (which is, unfortunately, spoiled on the trade’s back cover synopsis) that adds an interesting element to the teens’ adventures and what being in the academy means. I like McKone’s artwork. His clean style is always appealing when paired up with a good story. Maybe Avengers Academy doesn’t look as good as his art on Teen Titans, but this is still some of his better stuff. All in all, this book is a nice tour through one corner of the Avengers’ section of the Marvel universe. It’s a cool superteen team book with just enough thematic depth and character development to keep me turning the pages. The only misstep was when a guest artist drew one of the issues; it was noticeably mediocre compared to McKone’s issues.

NYX: Wannabe by Joe Quesada, Josh Middleton, and Robert Teranishi – NYX takes place in the New York City of the Marvel Universe and follows a small group of superpowered teens who basically have nowhere to go. It’s a bit darker and more cynical than Gen 13, though. Whereas Gen 13’s characters are generally likeable, and even the uncouth and buffoonish Grunge has a certain charm, I don’t particularly care for any of the characters in NYX. On one hand, I don’t think there’s any intrinsic problem with a story having unlikeable characters. Sometimes, it is to the benefit of the story. However, in NYX, I really don’t see the point of why Quesada chose to portray his characters as insufferable jerks who basically deserve all the cruelty they have to endure. (Or maybe it’s just me, and my own personal biases which taint my view of them.)

NYX is a frustrating book because I think it had so much potential to be something better than it is. If Charles Xavier and Magneto are different sides of the same coin, then the mutant outcasts in NYX are the dirty dollar bills floating in the gutter. These teens are involved in gangs, drugs, prostitution, and all that stuff. It’s interesting that the artwork is so bright and lively because the contents of the story are rather depressing. Quesada’s dialogue can come off as awkward and forced (especially when he writes street lingo), the plot doesn’t really have a satisfying resolution, and, like I said, I didn’t like the characters. Still, NYX might be worth a library read because it’s got an interesting premise and it’s obvious that Quesada was trying to say something with his work. I just don’t think it comes across too clearly, if at all.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Quick Reviews 4

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (Deluxe Edition) by Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil – For a late ‘70s comic, this is quite readable. The plot and premise are a bit silly, but what do you really expect from the title of the comic? Considering it’s a product of its time, this comic isn’t anything as cringe-worthy as, say, Judd Winick teaming up the Outsiders with John Walsh from America’s Most Wanted. The dialogue is dated and rather melodramatic, but there’s enough sincerity in the story to somehow make it work. It’s a pleasant and uplifting story about two American icons, and any serious analysis of the plot is just kind of unnecessary. Neal Adams’ art is, of course, masterful, and his portrayals of inner city life and extradimensional aliens are each convincing in their own ways. The production values on this hardcover make it a worthy purchase for any old-time fan, and the remastered coloring is mostly well-done. (There are a few spots where the computer effects look out of place.) Your tolerance for absurd plots will likely dictate your enjoyment of this work.

X-Men: Manifest Destiny by Jason Aaron, Stephen Segovia, James Asmus, and various others -  This was a mixed bag. The four-part Wolverine: Manifest Destiny story written by Aaron is great fun and features some clever writing. It’s another story about Logan’s past come back to haunt him, only this time the story takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and Aaron makes what could be a trite exercise in repetition a fresh little chunk of throwback kung-fu action. Segovia’s art looks like a poor man’s Leinil Francis Yu, but I think he’s got plenty of potential to grow and improve. (Yu’s early comics art wasn’t very good, either.) Mike Carey has a character-centric follow-up to some of his earlier X-Men stories, and Asmus writes a couple of fun Nightcrawler stories and a Boom-Boom story (illustrated by Chris Burnham!). Frank Tieri and Ben Oliver turn in a story about Avalanche hiding out in San Francisco that probably won’t mean anything except to the most diehard of Avalanche fans (if they’re actually out there somewhere). All in all this hardcover isn’t worth the price. The Wolverine story would be worth owning on its own, and Carey’s story would be better collected in one of his own X-Men Legacy books. The rest of it just feels like slapdash comics that I could have appreciated more had I found them in a quarter bin.

Superman: The Black Ring by Paul Cornell and Pete Woods – Collecting the first six issues of Cornell’s run on Action Comics, this is a Lex Luthor story where Superman himself isn’t involved. Cornell certainly does an excellent job writing a callously egocentric and cruel Luthor who is also, somehow, an empathetic protagonist. Luthor’s on a quest for ultimate power here, and in Vandal Savage, he has an antagonist who can match up well with him. The story where Luthor meets Neil Gaiman’s Death is tastefully done and develops both characters very well. Pete Woods has got to be one of the finest artists working in DC’s stables, and his work here is among his very best. It’s just a shame the ugly David Finch covers are so misleading.  I really like Woods’ rendition of Mr. Mind –he’s menacing and kinda gross, but also kinda adorable in his own bizarre way. I’d like to read the second half of this story.

Batman: The Widening Gyre by Kevin Smith and Walter Flanagan – Kevin Smith seems to get a lot of hate from comics fans because of his lateness, and I have no idea if these issues were released on a timely basis. (And I don’t care, because I’m all about reading the TRADE, BABY.) He also seems to get a lot of hate for other reasons, as well, like his characterizations of certain established characters. Well, I’ve got no problem with his interpretation of Batman. Here, his Batman is a bit more personable, and less of the unlovable jerk he’s often been portrayed as for the past seven or eight years. Smith’s Batman talks more, jokes around, smiles, falls in love, makes mistakes, and even acts friendly. It still feels like Batman to me. Flanagan’s art has steadily improved from his work on the three-part Cacophony miniseries, as well. As a tour through Batman’s world, from the corners of his JLA adventures to the grimy alleyways of Gotham City, The Widening Gyre is mainly propelled by the notion of Batman finding true love (in Silver St. Cloud, a classic character) and deciding that maybe he doesn’t have to be Batman forever. Of course, as readers, we’re expecting something to go horribly awry, and Smith certainly doesn’t disappoint. The last couple pages of this book are inevitable and really make me want to read the next six issues of this saga. This is a worthy addition to the Batman canon. It’s entirely different from what Grant Morrison’s been building over the past several years, but this is entertaining in its own right.

Wolverine Weapon X volume 2: Insane in the Brain by Jason Aaron, Yanick Paquette, and C.P. Smith – Aaron is rapidly becoming the definitive Wolverine solo writer. (Granted, he doesn’t have much competition, does he?) Still, this is some very good superhero comics. The story starts with Logan being a confused inmate at an insane asylum, and Aaron slowly rolls back the curtain to reveal how he got there. There’s a lot of wicked humor in the story and some absurdity that doesn’t feel out of place at all. We’re just waiting for Logan to rediscover who he is so he can make his tormentor pay. Aaron also follows up on some of the plot threads from his Get Mystique storyarc, as well as the first volume of Wolverine Weapon X. He does a good job balancing balls-out action with quieter, character-driven moments. It all makes for some quality superhero action and drama with some legitimate character development. Yanick Paquette’s expressive artwork is the icing on the cake, and C.P. Smith’s design-oriented art in the epilogue is a wonderful complement to Aaron’s work.

Dark X-Men by Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk – I’ve enjoyed Paul Cornell’s work, but Dark X-Men just felt a bit aimless to me. While there are some good bits in this story, like some clever dialogue and character moments from Mystique, it all ultimately felt like Marvel simply wanted to commission a five-issue story to resurrect and reintroduce Nate Grey, X-Man, to the Marvel Universe. And as a spinoff to the Utopia: Dark Avengers/X-Men crossover, this book really has no relevance to anything beyond it surface. I didn't feel that there’s any real meat to this story other than people in costumes beating up and outmaneuvering other people in costumes. That may all be fine for many readers, and this wasn’t poorly crafted or anything, but it’s ultimately something I’m probably not going to care to read again.

X-Men: S.W.O.R.D.: No Time to Breathe by Kieron Gillen and Steven Sanders – Now here’s something that looks like a throwaway X-Book designed just to cash in on a couple of Joss Whedon’s creations from Astonishing X-Men (with a few John Cassaday covers to boot). But this is actually one gem of a comic. Steven Sanders’ cartoony art is unusual for an X-Book, and he illustrates humor and action with equal aplomb. Gillen’s writing is sharp and witty, and he does a superb job of crafting lighthearted humor with interstellar action to go along with a few zany science fiction ideas here and there (not to mention some friendly shoutouts to the alien characters of the Marvel Universe). Through it all, this character-driven yarn flies at lightspeed. This is comic is very well-executed and worth checking out.

Amulet Book Two: The Stonekeeper’s Curse by Kazu Kibuishi – I’m a few volumes behind on Amulet, but I finally got around to reading the second book. Amulet’s the ideal all-ages comic because its cast of characters appeal to kids, but the story is rich enough that an adult can appreciate it. Amulet’s basically about two kids (and their mom) who get fall into a fantasy world and get involved with talking animals and robots, and they all get caught up in a quest against these dark elven guys. It’s entertaining stuff, and probably one of the nicest fantasy comics I can think of right now. Best of all is Kibuishi’s magnificent artwork; Amulet really does look like an animated film set on paper, but his figure work is emotive and lively. The backgrounds and colors are very impressive, and it’s just a treat to see such an imaginative world brought to life on such a grand scale.

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics by Various Writers and Artists - An anthology of crime comics published by Dark Horse, this is a pretty decent collection. Like many anthologies, the individual stories themselves can be hit-or-miss. Fortunately, this is a Dark Horse anthology, which means the ratio of hits to misses is pretty favorable. Everything’s in black and white, and that serves the subject matter just fine. Lots of creators contributed to this anthology, but I think in general, the big names were the most successful. My favorite stories are David Lapham’s Stray Bullets story, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal story, and the Brian Azzarello story that ends the collection (which features art by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba). The stories are mostly dark and twisted, as you’d expect, although a few of them have cheap twist endings that I don’t think really work, and there were a couple stories I just didn’t care for. As a package, though, this is a nice book to own for the right price.

Necrosha X by Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, Clayton Crain, Mike Carey, Zeb Wells, and others – I like Clayton Crain’s art. That’s probably the nicest thing I can say about Kyle and Yost’s X-Crossover. Necrosha X (or is it supposed to be X-Necrosha? I never figured it out. I don’t think I care.) just felt like Marvel’s attempt to pull a Blackest Night-type of story, where a bunch of the X-Men’s greatest dead foes and allies come back to life, and everyone has to fight. Lame. The main story takes place in Kyle and Yost’s X-Force issues, and those aren’t good comics. I’ve never liked their comics and this doesn’t change my mind. Everything centers around the plot, and there’s just nothing more to it beyond a bunch of people fighting and trading banter while they fight. Zeb Well’s three-part New Mutants tie-in is just as bad. Taking place concurrently to the main story in X-Force, the New Mutants story was much too long for something so pointless. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone could sincerely enjoy these comics for what they are, as opposed to feeling compelled to read them just because they’re, y’know, X-MEN COMICS!!!. Mike Carey’s four issues are good stuff, though… He manages to take the constraints of the crossover but continue to build on the character development he’s been working on in X-Men Legacy. I wish his issues got their own trade, because this giant 35 buck book ain’t worth it. This trade is padded with a bunch of other issues that explain the backstory of some of the characters involved in the crossover, but none of them are any good and I don’t think they’re worth discussing. Avoid this comic, but read those Mike Carey issues.

Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan – This is the best comic I’ve read in a while. Elmer is about an alternate Earth where chickens have gained human intelligence and the ability to speak, and they basically end up considering themselves to be a race of humans. Alanguilan (yup, the same dude who is probably best known for being Leinil Francis Yu’s inker) does a masterful job building this alternate world, and he does it in a very economical way. On one level, Elmer is science fiction and alternate history story, as we see how society changes at the outset of the moment chickens gain their sentience. That alone is a gripping tale, and touches on all the themes you’d expect, like racism, bigotry, hatred, terrorism, and death. It’s chilling and there are a number of disturbingly unsettling moments as we see how humans react to the chickens. On another level, Elmer is also the story about a chicken named Jake who must deal with his father’s death. Jake reads his father’s journal and learns about the early days of chicken sentience, but also learns a lot about his father, mother, and his parents’ human friend Ben. With universal as well as personal themes, Elmer succeeds as a piece of fiction that makes you think about the broader world around you and appreciate the mundane relationships in your life. Look, I’m just gonna say it: This is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Elmer gets my highest possible recommendation.

Beasts of Burden by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson – This Dark Horse hardcover is a very attractive production. It’s also an exceptional comic book (and an Eisner Award winner!). Beasts of Burden is about a group of dogs (and one cat) who are paranormal investigators in an ostensibly peaceful suburb. They end up dealing with black magic, cannibal frogs, demons, zombie roadkill, animal spirits, killer rats, and all sorts of creepy stuff. As a horror comic, it’s better than most because the horror is based on making you care about these characters, and then putting them into perilous situations. As a talking animal comic, it’s better than most because Evan Dorkin writes with a great sense of humor, but also infuses genuine emotion into the characters. Even though the protagonists are all animals, and they can talk, they still think and act like animals. It’s a subtle thing, but this sort of writing probably takes a lot more thought than most people realize. Jill Thompson’s exquisite watercolors give Beasts of Burden a storybook style, and she seamlessly depicts a world that’s inviting even though there are things in this world that are intensely repulsive. And make no mistake, there are some pretty disgusting things that the animals encounter. She does a fantastic job illustrating animals who are expressive and adorable. With tight plotting, clever scripts, and characters with real personality, Beasts of Burden is something that’s worth owning. I give this comic my highest possible recommendation.