Sunday, April 27, 2008

Maggie the Mechanic
by Jaime Hernandez

The earlier stories in this collection don't feel very focused, but they are still fun, and by the end of this book the world and characters are in sharp relief. Even secondary characters get fleshed out with backgrounds, complex motivations, etc.

Maggie and Hopey are two young women living in Southern California. In many ways their world reflects the real world of the early/mid eighties, when these stories were created. Mexican-American and punk/hardcore elements are most evident. There are also many invented and fantastic elements, too. There are countries like Zymbodia, there are dinosaurs, rocketships, etc. These elements never take the focus off the characters.

Maggie is a mechanic. Having grown bored with fixing cars and such, she's landed a job fixing rockets and robots. She's the assistant to famed "prosolar mechanic" Rand Race, for whom she quickly falls. (These stories originally appeared in the periodical "Love & Rockets", which Jaime shared with his brothers, and here we've got both love and rockets.) This job takes her to exotic foreign lands and introduces her to many strange and entertaining individuals.

Hopey plays bass in a punk band. Physically she's the "pixie" type, tiny and pretty, but she's the biggest hellraiser of her circle, and the most emotionally jaded/guarded. She'll tell off people several times her size or throw a bottle at a cop, but she keeps most non-violent feelings close to her chest.

Other characters include Hopey's bandmates, their older and disturbed friend Izzy, Daffy the flighty Japanese girl, Izzy's brother and Maggie's crush Speedy, bombshell Penny Century, horned billionaire H.R. Costigan, and many many more. In fact, one of the back pages has a cast of characters with 63 portraits.

The stories range from short, comedic slice-of-life vignettes to adventure yarns to intimate character portraits. Jaime Hernandez does all of these well, and you reading them you understand why this series has remained popular and influential for decades.

Jaime's art style is clean and smooth, though he sometimes uses a lot of fine lines and crosshatching, esp. to convey grittiness. I can see the influence of Ditko and Mobius, which are both good things IMO. He draws a wide variety of people. Most of his women are attractive, but they're different. He also draws places and things very well. You have no problem recognizing Maggie & Hopey's neighborhood as a sunny, urban, aging locale. The level of detail is just right.
Serenity: Those Left Behind
By Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad, Laura Martin

This story takes place between the TV series and the movie. It feels much like an episode of the show, maybe a two-parter. The dialog and story beats fit. Will Conrad and Laura Martin make the characters look like the actors.

The art is strong. It conveys the same world, the same "look" as the show. Martin's colors are an equal part of the equation with Conrad's pencils/inks. The lighting effects add to the dramatic quality, and some of the space scenes would be hard to follow without the colors to distinguish and shape the objects on the page.

I liked the story, but it wasn't quite like the show. Some film properties translate well to books. (I've enjoyed several Star Wars novels.) I'm not sure that Firefly is one of them. I didn't like the movie b/c i felt it departed too much from the show, thematically and stylistically. This comic matches the show better, but the intangibles added by the cast are missing. A new Firefly comics series has begun recently. I'll try it and see if this trend continues.

The detail and "realism" of the art detracts from the storytelling, IMO. The characters look mostly like the people from the show, the sets look like the sets, etc., but there isn't much sense of movement. I don't know why not b/c i'm not sure what makes static images in panels convey motion in the first place. It happens in lots of comics, but it doesn't happen here, or it doesn't happen often enough that it stood out to me. Or maybe it's just that no drawing of Inara can ever be as gorgeous as the "real" Inara
Short Reviews for the Week of April 25th, 2008 A.D.

Number of the Beast #2 - It starts with two superheroes having sex in a cheap motel room. Turns out Honeybee has a real stinger, and it freaks Aeronaut out. How very naughty. I am shocked and/or impressed at this comic's flaunting of convention. It would have been funnier if it had turned him on. Basically, the heroes get more of a clue re: they're living in a VR program. Great art and character designs from Chris Sprouse. A "dramatis personae" page or "handbook"-type backup would be appreciated.

Fables #72 - Cinderella can kick all kinds of ass. I love how Willingham makes his characters very capable, without turning them into Mary Sues. Now that they've told us the war has started, the next issue better be about the war, or this book will officially be an annoying tease.

Birds of Prey #117 - I'm just a mark for these characters. I can't explain why. Even for Misfit. All Zinda has to do is show up and i'm like "Zinda is awesome." The bad guys in this issue look goofy (pinstripes? spiky mohawk? lizardman with suspenders?) but they still come off as legit. That's no mean feat. What happened with Superman? This was a fun comic.

The Spirit #16 - It's definitely a different comic now. I'm not sure if i dig it. It's still done-in-ones, which is good, but they're kinda generic. They could happen to just about any superhero; they don't feel particularly Spirit-y. The art is great.

Dynamo 5 #12 - This one picks up directly from #11 and it's all action, baby. It's a freightload of fistacuffs. There's a villain with a skull head here. That is always cool. On the last page we have an unexpected and nicely bizarre twist. I really like this comic.

Shadowpact #24 - Generally i think the "legacy" thing is played out, but sometimes it works, like this issue and JSA. But i could be prejudiced b/c these other Shadowpacts look really cool. There's a 19th century pugilist, complete with twirly mustache, and some dudes who look like they 'ported over from Marvel 2099. Phil Winslade is awesome. The Sun King is a great idea for a villain. He's come off consistently creepy throughout the series. He could work in a D&D campaign. Blue Devil's "brother" looks totally sickass without his scarf-deal. Another good issue.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Week of April 9th Short Reviews

Wonder Woman #19

Pretty durn good. I'm not familiar with this Bernard Chang, but he's really good. I like how he gets more crosshatchy on the Green Lantern in this issue; tells me this guy is more ragged than your average big-eyed blue alien. Not sure about Wonder Woman's decision at the end re: the Khund princess; a lot of potential bad there. And if i read this right, it's now kinda WW's job to pacify the Khunds?

Green Lantern Corps #23

I said this one was on the bubble for me, and this issue keeps it on my list at least another month. Mongul's monologues are boring, but his machinations are interesting. The assembling of the "team" took a bit too long. Did the Guy Gardner gag need a whole page? I love Stel. There is something about a partially disassembled, sentient, 1950s-looking robot that appeals directly to the little fanboy in me. Nice MST3K reference, too. I like all the characters on this mission. These are the folks i want to see in this book, and the types of adventures. (Kyle Raynor i could take or leave.) Gleason's art is great as always. I like his alien people & tech designs.

Justice Society of America #14

This was superhero slugfest goodness. It was deftly done. It's a simple, classic way to structure a superbrawl: hey reader, here's all these characters you like, here's a bit of interaction to remind you why you like them so much. wait, what's that? oh shit, some big dude's beating them up! they have to rally against this big guy, and several of the good guys get their individual bad-ass moments. Good stuff. My only real criticism is that they spent four pages explaining that Gog ain't the same guy blowing hearts out of folks in Countdown & Pissing on Jack Kirby's Legacy, i mean, Death of the New Gods. saying "that's the only way to kill a god" was a neat and effective way of explaining the coincidence.

This was a DC-heavy week for me; three DCs, one DC imprint, and an Image.
Week of April 9th Short Reviews

Number of the Beast #1
Usually i'm not one for comics by WildStorm, or comics with Biblical allusions in their titles (especially allusions from Revelations), but all the previews of Chris Sprouse's character designs on newsarama hooked me. Sprouse is awesome.

The story begins at some sort of high-tech gov'mint facility, where a couple of schlubs are wheeling in a vat filled with red stuff. On their sleeves is modified American flag, with a "666" design where the stars ought to be. So right off the bat we know this series will feature Irony and at least oblique Political Commentary. (Personally, i think the altered flag should be an image of a donkey and an elephant, surrounded by bags of money and making out while pissing on the Constitution.)

It turns out this red stuff is actually the remains of a superhero, and the poor bastard is still alive. He's somehow connected to a sort of alternate reality, wherein sits a city, wherein dwell several superheroes.

Presumably all the characters in this artificial world are in virtual representations of people held in the high-tech gov'mint facility from page one. Everyone seems to believe that they are living in the real world, although some cracks are starting to show. The bad guys recur a bit too often, the normal citizens don't elicit real empathy, etc. Still, the only guy who seems truly to suspect that something is fundamentally wrong is a feller called Eidolon (that's Greek for ghost or phantom, with more specific meaning in Theosophy).

This world is called "The City" (if there's another name for it, i missed it). Yup, just like the Tick's hangout. And like the Tick's City, it also has a diner where superheroes hang out. It's a mythical 1950s/early 1960s type of setting. You know, the 1950s that's the subject of parodies and paeans in art, but never existed in reality. It's actually treated kind of neutrally here, it's just a sort of generically idyllic Americana place to keep these heroes virtually busy.

We don't know why these people are being put through this exercise. But since the guys who run the place use "666" as part of their logo, we know it's nefarious.

Our heroes here are the Paladins, a large team of (mostly) veteran superfolk. They all have a retro look and feel (which of course will be contrasted with the modern world before series end). We've got Engine Joe, who's either a cyborg or a guy in armor (he sleeps in his armor); the Trush and Falconette, classic winged adventurers; rocket guy Aeronaut, metal-skinned Black Anvil, etc. They fight such threats as the Saucerlings From Saturn's Moons (who are awesome, btw).

In one sense this is similar to Project Superpowers, where we have a lot of characters who fit various superhero types, and the thrust of the series is what's happening in and to their world more than the heroes themselves. It's the kind of thing you do if you want to write another Kingdom Come or Marvels, but you can't get access to the big marquee characters.

I'm not marked out for this, but it was fun, and i dig these characters. The designs of course are great, as is the art in general. The story is well structured (no mean feat in the 22-page format) and proceeds quickly while still giving us constructive character moments. According to the blurb on the last page, the next issue is only two weeks away, which is a big plus. I'm definitely intrigued enough to pick up the next issue. I wonder if there is a future for any of these characters beyond this series?

I don't normally do negative reviews, but i had high hopes for this one. My problems with this one are philosophical, really. The skill and craft of the people involved are not in question. They're good.

Aqua Leung
volume one
by Mark Smith and Paul Maybury
published by Image Comics

For this one i've got mixed feelings. It's an imaginative world. I read it straight through without setting it down once, so it drew me in. There are definitely some cool moments. I like the one arrow in the middle of a white page to signify the start of one huge battle. The art--brushwork and colors--are quite good.

What i didn't like was the sense of destiny. I really don't like destiny. It's very unheroic. Aqua, the titular character here, doesn't make any decisions. He's essentially kidnapped and taken to Atlantis, then trained against his will to fulfill a prophecy he knows nothing about. At some point he gives in and goes along with it. He never chooses anything for himself. What's his motivation? Why should i root for this guy?

The narrative is told to us by the Millennium Turtle. But first he needs to introduce himself, and tell us that he knows everything that ever has happened and everything that ever will happen, and nothing can change what will happen. So the dramatic tension is cut out from under us before the story even gets started. Everything is going to work out the way it's supposed to, b/c it has to happen that way. Again, that is entirely unheroic. What's heroic about being a cog in some cosmic machine? If that's how this universe works, then tell me about who/whatever wrote Fate, because they're the only real person in the story.

Apparently Aqua is going to get a series of mentors to help him prepare for each of his successive conquests. So he won't even be learning his own lessons, he'll have them handed to him. Now he's even less heroic.

And we aren't even told why it's a good thing that Aqua will conquer and "unite" all the kingdoms of the sea (that's the prophecy). Are they all ruled by bad guys, but he's gonna be a good guy? We might assume this, but he's told that his growing power will corrupt him (and since we know we're in a deterministic universe here, there's no reason not to believe it). So he'll be a corrupt ruler of all he surveys. Why should i root for that?

One last peeve. Aqua, though scion of Atlantis, is sent, Moses-style, to live in another land (ours), and raised by a kindly couple named Leung. They get killed early on and forgotten about. Later, Aqua kneels at the tomb of his Atlantean father, and says how much he misses him and wishes he had been able to know him. You see, that's his "real" dad, not the guy who raised him. That's malarkey. The one who raises you is your real parent. The other one is just a genetic contributor. Oh wait, this is all about destiny, so i guess that includes genetic destiny. So love and caring aren't important, it's all in the legacy. Gotcha. (We don't see his genetic mom's tomb, so i guess the moms don't matter when you're a predestined conqueror.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Another Great Comic by Sfar

by Joann Sfar
published by :01 First Second

These characters--all itinerant musicians--live in a world that is openly hostile to them, yet also offers opportunities and a vagabond type of freedom. It's set in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth (?) century. Our lead characters are four Jews and one Gypsy. Both of those peoples were numerous and well established in the region, but definitely oppressed minorities.

There's something about the tragic religiosity of some Jewish traditions that really appeals to me. It doesn't avoid or whitewash the ugliness of life, nor does it wallow in it and thereby miss the beauty. It is deeply confident because it allows for so much doubt. There's something comforting about the idea that, when your faith is tested, you can say "this makes no sense, and pisses me off, but i still believe." It's more honest than pretending that we always understand everything and don't worry that things won't work out.

Sfar says in the essay at the end of the book that he purposefully made all of the characters un-religious. One of the two main protagonists, Yaacov, claims he's actually rejected God, though i wonder how sincere he is in that. Sfar does this to explore what it is to be Jewish apart from the religious practices. (Read the essay to get his take on this.) But i think it can apply in part to any faith: what is the essence of living life in light of deeply held beliefs? How much is dogma and how much is experience? Anyway, it seems like there's something "deep" here, or maybe i'm just taken in by the mystery of it. I am a sucker for paradoxes.

Sfar's drawing style is looser here than in anything else i've read by him. There are some elements that would be indecipherable without context. Those are rare, though. The watercolors add loads of mood, and give great impressions of light. It's not my favorite of his styles, but i enjoyed it.

Have i mentioned that Joann Sfar is the best comics discovery i've made in years? It's like when i found Paul Pope's THB at that store in Springdale: a whole new world of something different and inventive that clicks with me. That's the fangasm for me.

I guess i'll read The Rabbi's Cat next, and after that more Dungeon, which Sfar does with Lewis Trondheim.