Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Quick Comics Reviews 6

El Diablo by Brian Azzarello and Danijel Zezelj – Originally published during the early run of 100 Bullets, El Diablo taps into a similar twisted bleakness. Like Johnny Double before it, El Diablo is based on an old DC Comics character. Here, Azzarello gets the chance to give El Diablo a bit of a spitshine by injecting a healthy dose of noir attitude into this western. In this story, El Diablo is more of an unknowable force of nature than a character. The protagonist is a guy named Sheriff Moses Stone, a former bounty hunter with a shady past, who is out to track down one mean hombre of an outlaw. Somehow, El Diablo is tied up into Stone’s dark past.

This is a great read. It’s more complicated than you’d expect from what was originally a four-issue miniseries, but this is Brian Azzarello here. El Diablo certainly warrants multiple readings. It’s a rather dense noir western tale about death and tragedy, so how can you not love that? Zezelj’s art really works. He uses a lot of thick lines and alternates between packing a lot of detail into panels and designing cleaner panels. Sometimes things get murky, but I think this just adds to the denseness of the comic as a whole. Sometimes people don’t like it when art is confusing, and I can certainly agree with that. Still, I do think there’s a difference between lousy storytelling and intentional chaos. Just look at some of Chris Bachalo’s stuff and you can see that he likes the intentional chaos. Zezelj’s art isn’t as wild as Bachalo’s, but I do think it forces you to kind of slow down the pace a bit, which is a pretty cool trick of the trade.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli – This book deserves all the acclaim it’s garnered. It is an amazing piece of comics art. The title character is a fifty-year old architect/professor who, due to forces of nature, is forced out of his home and ends up soul-searching and reflecting on his past as he moves to a new town. A good chunk of the story is told through flashbacks as we learn more about Asterios and who he is and how he came to be. Thematically it’s rich. It touches upon Greek tragedy and philosophy, dualism, art, arrogance and pride, life and death, regret and optimism, and so much more. It’s really one of those comics you can read many times and continue to glean something new with each successive reading. I love how layered it is, yet it’s not one of those pretentious comics where the creator’s just out to prove how amazing and intellectual he is. Asterios Polyp has genuine emotion at its core, and the protagonist undergoes a legitimate journey of progress. I love the ending, too. It’s hugely satisfying.

Most people probably know of Mazzucchelli due to his art on two of the most influential superhero comics of all time: Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, both of which were written by Frank Miller. Those two books are rightful classics, but I also want to point out his indie work in the years since. His adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass is one of those comics that someone could claim is one of the ten greatest North American comics ever and I wouldn’t bother trying to debate that. Mazzuchelli’s artwork in Asterios Polyp doesn’t really look anything like his work on Daredevil or Batman, but his level of craft is immaculate, and some of his ideas and his execution here could be considered groundbreaking. This is one of those comics that I think people will study years from now. You can learn so much about the form from it.

Asterios Polyp definitely deserves my highest possible recommendation.

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Gauntlet v. 2 – Rhino and Mysterio by Dan Slott, Fred Van Lente, Joe Kelly, Max Fiumara, Marcos Martin, Javier Pulido, and Michael Lark – I haven’t been consistently reading Amazing Spider-Man since it One More Day ended and Marvel revamped the series with its thrice-monthly release schedule. I’ve read a handful of trade paperback collections, though not in any particular sort of reading order. I appreciate what Marvel’s been trying to do with this title and if I were still inclined to buy single issues every week, I could see how Amazing could be an addictive experience. Reading these trades, however, makes me feel rather critical because the actual quality of these comics varies wildly from issue to issue, which is never good when reading a single collected edition.

It’s sort of like a football team that doesn’t have a featured running back who gets the bulk of the carries throughout the course of a game. Sometimes a team doesn’t really have one legit starter, so the team just rotates three guys in and out throughout, hoping they stay fresh and that the constant changes keep the opponent’s defense off-balance.

Comic books don’t really work that way. Or if there has been a series that’s pulled that off, I can’t think of it right now.

This Spider-Man-by-committee succeeds in giving readers a steady, consistent dose of Amazing, but I can’t say everyone in their creative stable lives up to the top billing that The Amazing Spider-Man rightfully deserves.

In The Gauntlet volume 2: Rhino and Mysterio, we get some excellent stories written by Joe Kelly featuring the Rhino. We also get some really mediocre comics about Mysterio (with some stuff about Silvermane, the Maggia, and Mr. Negative) written by Dan Slott. Fred Van Lente chips in with a couple of origin stories, each of which feature the aforementioned supervillains.  Max Fiumara’s art in Joe Kelly’s stories is serviceable, but compared to the truly wonderful art of Marcos Martin (and Javier Pulido) in the Mysterio arc, it isn’t as appealing. Michael Lark draws on of Slott’s issues, too. If only the artists had been switched around.

All in all, I wasn’t impressed by this collection. The Joe Kelly issues are ace, though; I really like what he’s done with the Rhino’s character. He gives the Rhino a memorable voice and the heart of the character even feels consistent with Peter Milligan’s indelible “Flowers for Rhino” story back in Tangled Web some years ago.

Slott’s issues are middling. They seem to focus more on the larger, overall plot of the series (which is meaningless to me, as I haven’t read everything to keep up, and this didn’t make me interested enough to start caring). There are some things I don’t like about Slott’s writing. I’m tired of how many times he has Spider-Man tell us that his Spider-Sense is tingling, and I’m just not down with the incessant, melodramatic chatter that goes on during action sequences, or when characters narrate their actions.

He also portrays Spider-Man as a bit of a jerk, as someone who uses his friends to do stuff for him, and who feels okay with playing the field when it comes to women. I get that most people probably wouldn’t think twice about that, but there’s a part of me that just feels like Spidey should be one of the last bastions of the wholesome superhero. It’s disappointing, and while Kelly’s issues are enjoyable, the package as a whole is forgettable.

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Gauntlet v. 3 – Vulture and Morbius by Fred Van Lente, Greg Weisman, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer, Joe Kelly, and various artists – The third installment of The Gauntlet isn’t a whole lot better than the second. Morbius only shows up for half an issue, which is misleading based on the title. Paul Azaceta does some nice art for a two-parter written by Waid and Peyer featuring the new Vulture. It’s decently-executed, but again, lacks a satisfying resolution. I suppose that’s something more noticeable when reading the trades, as opposed to weekly installments of a serialization. I also thought it was a little overly melodramatic the way J. Jonah Jameson goes out of his way (holding a press conference, no less) in order to humiliate Peter Parker on a professional level, especially when Peter’s intentions were good. I know Jameson is supposed to be a jerk, but I felt that this was some unnecessarily melodramatic overreaction on his part. It’s rather artificial, as though the writers are just trying to pile dogcrap on Spidey just to show us that he’s got it that bad in life.

Tom Peyer does write a fun little Jameson short story about a wannabe villain kidnapping him. It’s a pretty silly story, but fun and true-to-character. Greg Weisman (the Gargoyles guy, I believe) contributes a realistic issue about Flash Thompson dealing with losing his legs from the war in the Middle East. It’s surprisingly heartfelt, and probably one of the more interesting subplots going on in the series. Joe Kelly and Max Fiumara also do a one-off issue with the Rhino that serves as a tragic epilogue to their story from the previous volume. That’s the sort of sad-sack Spider-Man story that really works, (especially compared to how things are handled in the Vulture story) because it all flows so naturally from the characters and situations they face.

Ultimately, the Spider-Man-by-committee approach makes for some rough trades. Not every story is an Adrian Peterson. If I could find all of the Joe Kelly issues in a quarter bin somewhere, I’d pick them up. Otherwise, I can live without owning these books.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham – Level Up is a well-done coming of age tale about an Asian-American young man whose addiction to videogames makes it tough for him to live up to the expectations his parents have for him to become a doctor. These are some themes that Yang excels in communicating, as evidenced by his award-winning American Born Chinese comic from a few years back. Don’t think that Level Up is a rehash, though, because this comic has its own soul. It’s realism mixed with a bit of magical realism, as the main character communes with four silly little angels who poke and prod him on his way through life and med school. Pham’s watercolor-style art is attractive and his facial expressions and body language are superb. There’s humor, drama, sincere emotion, and actual character growth throughout Level Up. The ending is brilliant.

Two-Step by Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner – Warren Ellis did a string of three-issue miniseries in the early 2000s, and they all had some really sharp high concepts. Two-Step’s high concept: “A weird romance with guns in three issues. He’s a Zen Gangster. She’s a wirehead camgirl. They don’t fight crime.” That right there tells you all you need to know. Taking place in a madcap, insanely multicultural and sci-fi London, Two-Step is full of rowdy action set pieces and Ellis’ blisteringly pithy witty dialogue. Heartily recommended to anyone who has a pulse.

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