Monday, March 31, 2008

Superheroes Battle Super-Gorillas #1

Superheroes Battle Super-Gorillas #1, Winter 1976, DC Comics
by Wayne Boring, John Broome, Carmine Infantino, Sid Greene, and other anonymous contributors

Blogger's note: Entry for Saturday, March 29, 2008.

When you see a comic book called Superheroes Battle Super-Gorillas, you buy it. It's a rule.

Superheroes Battles Super-Gorillas #1 reprints three classic stories starring DC's most popular characters fighting -- you guessed it, super-gorillas. These Silver Age yarns are campy and perfectly outrageous, though in each instance, the circumstances are undeniably dire, if you're to believe the cover's suspenseful proclamation, anyway: "Superman, the Flash, Batman and Robin in life-or-death action against the mightiest beasts of all!" Sure, they're the world's finest heroes, but have you ever fought a super-gorilla? Me, either, but I reckon they're formidable foes! Let's see . . .

In "The Super-Gorilla From Krypton," Jimmy Olsen discovers a super-gorilla while on assignment in South Africa. When Superman arrives to help, the beast mimics the Man of Steel's powers and even manages to commandeer and wear the hero's cape! When Superman finds a shuttle similar to the ship that rocketed him to Earth, he concludes that Kryptonian scientists must have experimented with monkeys and space travel like humans do, and that, since the big ape is from Krypton, it must be vulnerable to Kryptonite, too. Fortunately, a huge chunk of the green stuff is handy, and it exposes the gorilla as a de-evolved scientist that was coincidentally sent to space seconds before the ill-fated planet exploded! In the end, the poor monkey man shelters Superman from the Kryptonite and dies from exposure. This story really had everything fans should expect from these campy classics -- a foreign environment (seems Supes and Batman spent more time in the jungle than in their respective cities during the Silver Age!), a super-animal, angry natives, and a twist ending. Still, I don't think "King Krypton," as Jimmy called the gorilla, be be making an appearance in Smallville anytime soon.

"Grodd Puts the Squeeze on Flash" is a much more formulaic tale of the hero versus villain variety. When the inhabitants of Central City speed up around him, the Flash can only keep up with his super-speed, until his nemesis Gorilla Grodd telepathically contacts him and takes credit for the crime. The psychic Simeon promises not to do it again if Flash releases him from prison, and the Scarlet Speedster chooses the lesser of two evils and unleashes Grodd upon the world. Fortunately, Flash's scientist buddy Dr. Torrence discovers that Grodd was not responsible for the phenomenon and was merely taking advantage of it -- turns out the whole thing was caused by intense solar radiation! Flash battles Grodd, who, as the title of this tale suggests, gets our quick-footed hero in a bear, er, gorilla grip, until the Flash slips out of his uniform and punches the villain out! Don't worry, Barry had this civilian clothes on. It wasn't that kind of wild monkey dance.

Finally, in "The Gorilla Boss of Gotham City," death row inmate Mob Boss Dyke arranges to have his brain transplanted into a huge gorilla after his short stint in the gas chamber, and, though the mob's mad scientist agrees, the Doc has doubts when Dyke explains that he then would like to swap brains with the Batman! Batman and Robin take a little too long than I thought was necessary to realize that there's something strange about the big gorilla robbing banks in Gotham, and Batman manages to elude Dyke's plan and slay the monstrous mob monkey. He used the old "dress up the doctor with the spare Batman suit he keeps in his utility belt and make everyone think that the bad guy's plan succeeded until the time to strike presents itself" trick. I think Morrison is planning on reviving it for his latest run.

Hey, you can't take these stories that seriously, which is why they're a blast to read and review. The Hostess ad about the Joker eluding a police barricade with fruit pies makes more sense in modern continuity! Comics need more super-gorillas, man. They might help alleviate the weight of all of those monkeys on our backs.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Savage Dragon #135

Savage Dragon #135, March 2008, Image Comics
by Erik Larsen
letterer: John Workman

Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, March 28, 2008.

You have to hand it to Erik Larsen. Not only is he the only Image Comics founder still working on the creator-owned series he began fifteen years ago, but he does so even after achieving the title of Image Comics, Inc. Publisher! While his peers all abandoned their titles and returned to mainstream company-owned properties, Larsen managed to accomplish both, juggling the artistic reigns of his native Savage Dragon while at various times handling Marvel's Wolverine and The Defenders and DC's Aquaman. Now, he supervises an entire company's worth of titles, writes articles for Comic Book Resources, frequently touches base with fans on his message board, tours the Con circuit . . . and did I mention toil away at his own comic, Savage Dragon? Yes. I'm a fan.

Then again, you might've already known that, if you read my review of Savage Dragon #0 during A Comic A Day: Year One.

While "Fin-addicts" may not appreciate Savage Dragon's inconsistent schedule over the past few years, the result of Larsen's extensive workload, I actually revel in the series' infrequent release. The irregularity has actually encouraged me to purchase Dragon regularly again. Larsen has adapted his storytelling style to suit a more episodic pace, and though he maintains multi-issues arcs and subplots, they aren't nearly as complicated or micromanaged as they used to be. For instance, anybody can pick up Savage Dragon #135 and within pages know exactly what's going on. Dragon's wife is missing, and since she's recently lost her superpowers, Dragon believes that she's gone to see the Power Broker, a Seattle-based meta-maker. The action ensues when Dragon teams up with local heroes Prism and the Centurions to combat a horde of the Broker's minions.

Yet this issue is much more than the latest installment in Larsen's fifteen-year opus. Savage Dragon #135 reprints Graphic Fantasy #1, the first, self-published appearances of Prism and the Dragon from 1982. Larsen reprints his work on Prism "warts and all," a bold move considering that the comic book industry's contributors have become as popular as its most iconic characters. What I'm saying is, I don't think many artists would be so willing or eager to reprint their earliest, most amateurish work. This is why Erik Larsen is different. Sure, he describes the inclusion as "self-indulgent," but Graphic Fantasy reflects more than just the humble beginnings of his career. Graphic Fantasy reflects the raw enthusiasm of young artists trying to make a contribution, and offers a hope that even fanzines can become more than just arduous late night investments at Kinko's. Think about it -- Savage Dragon, a founding Image title, began in a fanzine published out of a comic shop in Bellingham, Washington! That's one graphic fantasy that came true!

This issue's lead Dragon story is also above average because of Larsen's artistic prowess. Some might say his art has been sloppy of late, as he's attempted to meet his deadlines, and others may say he's simply experimenting with different art styles. Either way, this issue seemed more solid and linear than previous installments, perhaps because of his reverence in reintroducing Prism to the world. Hey, I appreciated the clarity. A prism is an accurate description for it, narrowing a broadband to something narrow and piercing.

One hundred and thirty-five issues later, Erik Larsen does it again. His flagship character may have experienced a few different incarnations over the years, but he has remained Larsen's most prized possession, and like a parent that shows off his child's awkward early grade school photos, he isn't afraid to boast about these earliest appearances. Hey, I'll be the first to say, they aren't perfect . . . but that's what makes them so.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Optic Nerve #1

Optic Nerve #1, April 1995, Drawn & Quarterly Publications
by Adrian Tomine

Optic Nerve is the saddest comic book I’ve ever been happy to read. Its five short stories range from melancholy to macabre to tragic, but despite their varied subjects, they all have one thing in common: they end way too soon for their own good. I’d call them “slice of life” tales, but I think a sliver would be more accurate, since, just when Tomine gives you a taste of his storytelling strength, he pulls the wool back over your eyes. It’s bad enough that his peculiar vignettes inspire instant sympathy for their characters, but they also leave you wondering what’s happened to them. Have you ever seen an old friend across the room at a party, and he leaves unannounced before you get a chance to catch up with him? Optic Nerve is the comic book equivalent.

This inaugural issue’s five stories range from a single page to eleven pages in length, but Tomine has mastered the synthesis of narrative, page layout, and illustrative choreography to make even the briefest of tales impactful. Consider the single-paged “Drop,” in which a son explains his father’s accidental death in Japan. The poor fellow had car trouble, and the pitch blackness of night, stepped off of an overpass. The last panel, which traces the poor man’s hand with just a touch of white light, is as poignant as it is tragic, describing the cruelty of death with an ironic touch of grace. A mere four panels later, and I’m sad to see the guy go.

The issue’s lead story, “Sleepwalk,” is meatier yet just as succinct in its characterization. When Mark’s ex-girlfriend invites him to dinner for his twenty-fourth birthday, the two share a night reminiscent of the heights in the relationship. At the end of the night, Mark leans in for a kiss, but Carrie rejects him and explains that she wanted to rekindle their friendship. On the emotional drive home, Mark nearly falls asleep and crashes into a truck, whose strangely understanding driver decides to leave the scene and avoid confronting the authorities. At the end of this story, Mark is left alone, next to his totaled car, waiting for a pick-up truck in the dark. Any fan of John Cusack could relate to and appreciate this story, and it plays as the most successful contemporary romantic yarn I’ve ever read. If those old romance comics continued today, this is what they would be, or should be, like.

“Echo Ave.” boasts a more macabre undertone, when a couple spies their new neighbor participating in some lurid sexual acts, including licking his partner’s feet. When the woman of the house goes to get some refreshments for the “show,” the man yelps in surprise and frantically dissuades her from looking out the window again. What did he see? Was it violent or overwhelming graphic? We never find out. I wonder if even Tomine knows, or rather if his point was for the audience to explore their innermost derelictions. What would make you turn away? What sight wouldn’t you wish upon a loved one?

In “Long Distance,” an out-of-town boyfriend pushes his girlfriend to talk dirty to him over the phone. She continually refuses until he sends her a script to read, and she finally gives in, perhaps to their relationship’s detriment. “I’m saying the words,” she describes, “but my mind is somewhere else, far away.” Simple, elegant, and sad -- yet, a feeling we can all relate to, perhaps not circumstantially, but sympathetically. “Lunch Break” evokes a similar feeling, as an elderly lady makes herself a sandwich and eats it in a beat-up classic car, wherein she remembers having lunch with her lover when they were younger. Five pages, a lifetime’s worth of romance. When I read this last issue, I literally thought, “Well, Tomine did it again.”

I assume that this issue of Optic Nerve set the tone for the entire series, and if this first effort is any indication, Tomine produces consistently introspective, elegantly executed visual prose every time. His brushstroke represents the independent genre at its best, with expressive characterization, detail-oriented backdrops, and an overarching simplicity that makes you think anyone can make comics as much as it shames you into putting away from drawing pens for good. We all have these feelings, but who among us can put them down on paper so effectively, so seemingly effortlessly? Who can remove these emotions and embody them into vignettes with just enough objectivity to solidify these feelings as entities in and of themselves. Yes, these stories strike a nerve, alright. I encourage you to see for yourself.

WWWednesday: BodyWorld

WWWednesday: BodyWorld
by Dash Shaw

Dash Shaw's BodyWorld is a psychedelic explosion of cyber sequential storytelling the likes of which I've never seen. Many of the webcomics I've read for my WWWednesday installments have been highly entertaining, but until I read BodyWorld, I hadn't realized how one dimensional they were. Some of them are daily or weekly strips like you'd see in the Sunday newspaper, and some of them are episodic installments of an ongoing story arc, the equivalent of pages' worth of material in a comic book. Bodyworld is closest to the latter category, but its three-panels-a-row format is bottomless in its potential, not confined by dimension so much as the plot's natural pacing. Further, Shaw's balance of crisp, organic line work and vibrant, high contrast neon colors exhibit the best that the high definitions of the Internet can allow. Needless to say, it's as addictive as the Internet itself.

Fortunately, addiction is a highly potent theme throughout BodyWorld, if you'll pardon the pun. In BodyWorld, a suicidal, drug-addicted botanist, Professor Panther, visits a high school campus to investigate the discovery of a new plant species, where he crosses paths with Pearl Peach, your typical small town girl with big city dreams, and her boyfriend Billy Borg, the homecoming king and resident Dieball star. Yes, I said "Dieball." Perhaps even more so than his ability to establish a dynamic cast of characters, Shaw has established a complex community and culture around them, going so far as to provide a color-coded map of Boney Borough, and to diagram the town's key recreational export, the aforementioned Dieball. In the three and half chapters of BodyWorld that have been posted, Professor Panther has attempted to kill himself a few times or has otherwise been in some sort of physical danger, all with hilarious if gruesome results, and Pearl and Billy have experienced the plights and sexual anxieties that comes with adolescence. I'm curious to see how these characters' smoldering inadequacies collide to realize the world that Shaw's been building. I'm thinking that I'll be checking out his website every Tuesday for my next BodyWorld fix.

By eliciting this dependence from his readers, has Shaw inadvertently sucked us into his world? Perhaps BodyWorld is only as psychedelic as its reader perceives it . . .

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Screamland #1

Screamland #1, March 2008, Image Comics
writer: Harold Sipe
artist: Hector Casanova

Blogger’s note: Entry for Tuesday, March 25, 2008.

I was just talking to a friend of mine about visiting Universal Studios later this spring before I read Screamland #1 which happens to star some of those classic Universal monsters -- you know, Frankenstein, the wolf man, the mummy. Sure, I’m as excited as the next geek for the new Simpsons ride opening at Universal this year, but the likes of those old creature features are what put that park, heck, that whole name brand, on the map. Rides and attractions will come and go, but nothing can touch the foundation of those monsters’ timelessness. They evoke a primal fear and fascination that’s as universal as the name of their native theme park.

Specifically, Frankenstein himself has risen to significant notoriety in comics lately. He’s one of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers at DC Comics, and he’s a tragic, super-smart secret agent in the hands of the Warchowski Brothers over at their Burlyman Entertainment. I have an issue of the simply titled Frank in the wings for review later this year, probably around Halloween time, with no doubt that other comic book appearances will pop up between now and December. Like Bigfoot, Frankenstein’s monster is one of those characters in the public domain to which I don’t mind dedicating a few days’ worth of analysis. Obviously, something about him has gripped writers to utilize and decompress him over and over again.

I see Frankenstein (who, as we all know, is actually Frankenstein’s monster, but suffering from paternal identity issues is really the least of his problems, so pardon the misnomer) as the epitome of two of mankind’s inherent insecurities, hence his timeless appeal: he represents our fear of death, and our fear of rejection. Ironically, this gruesomely stitched outcast should be mankind’s hero -- living proof that death might not be the end of us, if we’re willing to swap body parts and subject our mish-mashed corpses to a few bolts of lightning. Yet that frightening vision of our potentially undead future is abhorrent enough to reject even the hope of everlasting life; in other words, we’d rather live finitely in a body that assures social acceptance than embrace a longer existence as an ugly monster. If only we realized that everyone would look as repulsive if society as a whole embraced Dr. Frankenstein’s option . . . or, at least, if you don’t light as many torches, that our ugliness would be harder to see.

So, what does Screamland do for Frankenstein that hasn’t been done before? In this incarnation, Frank and his fellow monsters are has-been actors, perhaps presuming that their heyday was in the ‘50s when Universal’s creature features were more groundbreaking than the blood-‘n-gore fests that pass as horror films today. Indeed, against today’s computerized special effects, what hope does a natural, not to mention elderly monster have for getting work? Fortunately, Frank has a good agent, and while he considers rejecting the offer of starring as the hunted monster yet again, he accepts the all-or-none project for the sake of his peers’ careers. The underlying tone that these monsters are in dire need of a new image is a reflection of this issue itself, and its quirky interpretation of Frankenstein monster as a has-been from a washed up Hollywood of yesterday.

Of course, a more realistic project for such a pseudo-celebrity would be their own VH1 reality show -- something along the lines of Monster of Love, or The Real World: Transylvania, but I digress . . .

I enjoyed this issue’s opening sequences, establishing Frankenstein as an embittered old actor, but I found a few of its devices too gimmicky to be considered as legitimate pivots of character development, specifically, when Frankenstein and the Wolf Man are working on a porno flick, and when the director dresses Frankie up in a dress after the women hastily quit. The gag plays about two pages too long. Further, the climatic scene in Frankenstein’s agent’s office consumes the latter half of this issue and essentially suffers from talking heads syndrome. Dracula (dubbed “the Count” here) makes a sudden, dramatic appearance, but overall I actually got bored with the monotony of the office setting. Matt Fraction praised Screamland as “brilliantly hilarious and hilariously brutal,” according to the quote on this issue’s cover. I’ll agree with that last part, but not in the way he intended, I’m sure.

Artistically, Hector Casanova (cool name) makes strides that dance just this side of Ben Templesmith. His watercolor Los Angeles reminded me of Phil Noto’s apocalyptic interpretation in Black Bull’s The New West, and I liked the parallel between these blended, washed out colors and the drunken, washed-uppedness of this issue’s lead character. The next issue blurb implies that the following installment of this story will focus more on the Mummy, and if that’s the case, I wonder if the art style will adapt accordingly. If the story retains the slow pace of its characters’ careers, the art may be my only incentive to continue with Screamland. Otherwise, like the Mummy, I’ll call it a wrap.

Still, you can’t go wrong with Frankenstein’s monster, if you remember those classic themes I discussed earlier. Writer Harold Sipe maintains a stroke of conceptual genius by reinterpreting the universal fear of death as a former celebrity’s desperate attempts to keep his career alive. Also, what more terrible form of rejection is there than actually once tasting fame and then forever being denied it afterward? At least when the villagers chased Frankenstein’s monster out of town with pitchforks, they didn’t invite him to dinner first. Perhaps the lesson here is that Frankenstein and his peers aren’t the real monsters, after all. Yes, the Universal Studios back lot is undoubtedly full of slimy, scary agents, too.

Atomic Robo #1

Atomic Robo #1, October 2007, Red 5 Comics
writer: Brian Clevinger
artist: Scott Wegener
colorist: Ronda Pattison
letterer: Jeff Powell

Blogger’s note: Entry for Monday, March 24, 2008.

For a fan of pulp science fiction, Michael Avon Oeming’s cover for Atomic Robo #1 is hard to resist. I mean, if robots existed and fought during World War II, surely they’d look like this: as wide-eyed as a naval ensign, as cocky as the sergeants that approved his design. When I read the inside front cover’s description of this character, I became excited with this series potential. Robo, created by Nikola Tesla, lives an eclectic, influential life, from “his youth spent with some of the greatest scientific minds of the century; to his days fighting in the Second World War; to his sometimes-secret participation in the space program; to his role in the civil rights movement . . .” Robo sounds like the Forrest Gump of robotic pulp comics. I was ready for the journey.

I was disappointed by the destination. In this first issue, Atomic Robo fights Nazis in 1938 and confronts their leader, Helsingard, who has subjected himself to an operation that he bequeathed him superpowers. The evil genius is defeated, but in the end, we’re led to believe that his brain was saved . . . or that a fellow evil Nazi genius has had his brain removed and transplanted into a robot body to exact revenge. Talk about staying ahead of the game.

Don’t get me wrong: I found Atomic Robo #1 very entertaining. Scott Wegener’s art is crisp and reminded me of a Stuart Immonen meets White Picket Fences’ Micah Farritor. This inaugural adventure is action-packed and briskly paced, with its fair share of campy melodrama, which, in my opinion, is the only way tell an adequate Nazi story and sensitively avoid the atrocities they really caused. Make them the bumbling henchmen of history, I say, with talking brains and absurd super-science! Since this issue is so recent (I remember picking it up from the new release stand and debating its purchase just a few months ago), I will look for the second issue, but only to see if the series debunks my criticisms. Which are, you ask?

Well, Atomic Robo is Hellboy. Yes, Atomic Robo is Hellboy in a robot’s body, man. Considering this synopsis: an inhuman, wise-cracking secret agent rights the quirky, unspoken wrongs of history, including supernatural Nazism. I’ve read enough Hellboy to know that this summation applies. What I want to see in future issues of Atomic Robo is his handling of more civil or domestic issues, as that synopsis I quoted implies. Did Robo play a part during the race riots of the ‘60s? Was he at Woodstock? Was he an agent during the Cold War or Desert Storm? World War II makes for a fun backdrop now that its gravity is far enough behind us to permit its place as light-hearted fare, but does Robo retain his campiness in the face of more contemporary conflict? While Hellboy is off fighting monsters, is Atomic Robo really dwelling among men?

Perhaps you’re a fan, and you already know.

Me, I’m jumping onboard a few months too late, and I’m thinking, am I demanding too much from a comic book like this? As I said, this issue’s cover captures the imagery of a simpler era of storytelling, when good guys were good, and bad guys were putting their brains into otherwise mindless killing machines. Even with the sociopolitical depth this issue’s conceptual synopsis describes, Atomic Robo is surely making a difference, fighting Nazis and whatnot -- but I’ve seen it done before. Making a difference is great, but being different is better.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bugs Bunny #136

Bugs Bunny #136, July 1971, Western Publishing Company

Blogger’s note: Entry for Sunday, March 23, 2008.

What better way to conclude my Easter-oriented rabbit-centric comic book series than with an issue starring the world’s most famous rascally rabbit, Bugs Bunny? Every geek has a soft spot for Bugs Bunny. After all, we discovered our inherent disrespect for authority and developed our wily sense of humor toward mundane social norms and sexuality at Bugs’ knee. Every time Bugs stuck his finger in Elmer Fudd’s shotgun barrel, he was effectively “sticking it to the man,” and every time he wore a dress to distract his enemy, he made blue humor appropriate and hilarious for a younger audience. Think about it -- Bugs cross-dressed for comedy before Robin Williams or the Kids in the Hall practically made it the norm of the ‘90s. Needless to say, Bugs Bunny broke ground even when he wasn’t digging tunnels to Albuquerque.

Unfortunately, Bugs’ comic book incarnation isn’t as dynamic as his animated incarnation, at least based on my impression of Gold Key’s Bugs Bunny #136. This issue contains an original lead story and two reprinted back-up tales, all of which boast cartoony art reminiscent of their respective eras, but each of which also lack the unavoidable energy of their silver screen counterparts. The first tale is a perfect slice of life from the ‘70s, as Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and Cicero the pig (I don’t remember him, either) form a rock band and attempt to impress a visiting promoter. The promoter almost dismisses them, but when Bugs drops a flower pot on his foot, his yelps of pain become the group’s hot, definitive sound. Unfortunately, Bugs cannot recreate the sound without someone stomping his foot, until he innovatively sees a hypnotist that trains that rascally rabbit to howl at the sight of carrots. Although the band scores a gig, Elmer laments the loss of his carrot garden . . . and ironically proves that fame does not buy happiness!

I have one significant issue with this introductory story: Porky doesn’t stutter. The writer missed a great opportunity to satirize the music of the day by making Porky alter lyrics to accommodate with lingual handicap. Elmer’s impediment is there, hilariously implemented when he tried to defend his musical endeavor, “We’re going to be the gweatest gwoup since The Insufferwubles!” This oversight is more distracting than one would think; it’s the equivalent of denying Superman flight or Mr. T his Mohawk. Without Porky’s stutter, his famous catchphrase is moot, yet I dare say it would be more appropriate for his career than ever: “Th-Th-Th-That’s all, folks!”

However, the yelling-in-pain-as-meaningful-pop-music-of-the-‘70s undertone of this whole yarn is rife commentary enough, reminiscent of the Hollywood-oriented spoofs of the Looney Tunes’ past. I’m sure there’s an American Idol joke in here somewhere, too, but I’ll avoid it. Not that I wouldn’t mind seeing someone stomp on some of those contestants’ feet . . .

I guess I didn’t really avoid it, then. Ain’t I a stinker?

The two back-up tales are a bit more timeless and reflect the classic Warner Brothers’ conflicts from those old animated shorts. In “The Un-Circus Clown,” Bugs exploits Elmer Fudd’s love of the circus and tries to sign the hunter up as a clown so his carrot garden could go unprotected while he was on the road. Of course, the story takes an unexpected, slapsticky turn when a crooked wrestling ring mistakes Elmer for the real thing and hires him to cheer up their champ “Gloomy” Gooch. Before you know it, Bugs, Elmer, and Sylvester are accused of stealing the boxing manager’s diamond tiepin and are on the run from both Gooch’s gang and the circus clan. The inevitable pie fight solves everything, as the tiepin is recovered, the circus’ name is cleared, and Gooch finally finds the whole thing hilarious. I’m glad somebody did.

In the other reprinted back-up, Sylvester is stranded on a desert island, and Tweety Bird happens to wash ashore just in time to satiate the cat’s appetite. Tweety convinces Sylvester that he’s too skinny to make for even a good mouthful and that a coconut would help fatten him up. At the top of the coconut tree, Sylvester encounters a territorial monkey, and between the two critters, the poor, hungry cat accepts his defeat. Now we know what Lost really needs: an angry, coconut throwing monkey.

Yes, despite the lackluster tomfoolery of this issue, the worst of Bugs Bunny is still better than many other comic book cartoon adaptations, so I’m grateful to conclude these rabid rabbit-themed reviews with a legend. The best part about Bugs and his fellow Looney Tunes is their timeless ability to combine wit and pratfallish humor with social subtexts and basic human emotions -- and in his peak performances, you don’t even remember that Bugs really is a bunny. That these classic cartoon icons are anthropomorphic is secondary to the fact that they’re established as incredible performers and comedians, right up there with human icons like the Three Stooges or Lucille Ball. The irony is that many old televisions needed “rabbit ears” to broadcast these gems.

Connect that to Easter however you like.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Varmints #1

Varmints #1, 1987, Blue Comet Press
by C.A. Stormon, Glenn Wong, Jim Miller, Manuel Villalovos, Hiner

Blogger's note: Entry for Saturday, March 22, 2008.

I've been a huge fan of the Rocketeer since Disney brought Cliff Secord to the big screen in 1991. I have a small but honorable Rocketeer memorabilia collection, and since last year's Comic Con I have managed to acquire the multi-part, multi-publisher original comic book adventure that started it all, part of which I reviewed last February. So, you can imagine my shock and melancholy when I learned that Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens died earlier this month. His contributions to the comic book industry were surprisingly minimal in quantity considering the impact made by his work's quality, and while he will undoubtedly become best known for the Rocketeer, I have had the privilege of purchasing and enjoying his work in Pacific Comics' Alien Worlds and on the cover of Sheena: Queen of the Desert 3-D Special (which is waiting in the wings for a review later this year). The guy loved comics almost as much as he loved the ladies, and though his life was brief, it was a celebrated by a combination of these two passions that fans like me will adore for a long, long time.

One of the more peculiar aspects of Stevens' work with the Rocketeer are the parodies that resulted from his innovative jetpack-wearing hero. Around the time I posted that review last February, I found an interesting, limited list of "Goofeteer" collectibles on-line, including this pin featuring Goofy as the Rocketeer. I also read of a "Rabbiteer" somewhere, and recently I found him for myself in an issue of Varmints #1, published by Blue Comet Press. Now, I'm developing the bad habit of looking up many of these more obscure comics before I post my review about them, undoubtedly often skewing my impression, but sometimes, like this time, I just can't help it. Sometimes I really want to know if I'm not the only person that has read the obscure comic in question. When it came to uncovering proof of the Rabbiteer's existence, I was hard pressed to find anything except for an eBay auction for this very issue, which, at the starting bid of a dollar, is seventy-five more cents that I paid.

Ah, yet this week, all roads lead to Usagi Yojimbo, and I found this pin-up by Stan Sakai when I sought this rabbit's likeness in an almost futile image search:


As you can see, the Rabbiteer shares the Rocketeer's basic costume design, though he seems a bit more eager to dive ear-first into battle. In Varmints #1, he, alongside Nails the mobster-like beaver and Ninja Duck (also pictured above) fight the dastardly Doctor Death (not related to the classic Batman villain of the same name, I presume) for the prize of a highly coveted ruby. The trio manage to defeat the Doctor's samurai robot, but in the end "Lucky" the Rabbiteer proves the irony of his name when a passing bird snags the jewels in its talons. It's really a whole lot of adventure for one weak visual gag, yet Glenn Wong's artwork actually grows on you considering the cartoony nature of his subject matter. Now, I need to get my hands on that Varmints special for which Sakai drew that back cover pin-up. If Yojimbo's involved, you can rest assured that issue is hide and hare above the rest.

Ugh. Sorry 'bout that one, too.

Varmints also features a pulp detective story starring a hippopotamus. Though this back-up tale ended too briefly for my tastes, the concept is interesting enough: basically, think Spawn, but with a hippo. Literally. When a police officer is killed in a zoo before his time, his spirit is sent back to Earth but accidentally lands in an adjacent hippopotamus. That's pretty much it, thus far. This story features a psychedelic afterlife sequence, but I'm curious to see if this hippo makes more of a splash in other issues. I mean, Spawn-meets-Hip Flask? How cool is that?

Also, interestingly, this odd issue's context about conquering death is quite appropriate for Easter, all things considered. Jesus was actually somewhat anthropomorphic at least in metaphor, as He was dubbed "the lamb of God" that was effectively led to the slaughter, if you believe in that sort of thing. When you strip all of the spiritual supplications away from the story of Jesus, one is left simply with a mythology about legacy, about preserving one's place in existence. Jesus sought to make a dynamic impact, and he gave His life to enable others' beliefs. In a much, much lesser way, Dave Stevens contributed to the world of comics and his work remains a testament to his talent. In both cases, whether or not you're a fan, some time should be set aside to tip the proverbial hat.

Hmm, I wonder, now . . . Does that make the Rabbiteer a false prophet . . .?

Critters #14

Critters #14, July 1987, Fantagraphics Books
by Stan Sakai, Freddy Milton, Dwight R. Decker, Steven A. Gallacci, & Monika Livingstone

Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, March 21, 2008.

Critters is anthropomorphic anthology series, which is the best use of alliteration I've had the pleasure to write in a long time! More notably, Critters chronicles some of the earliest adventures of Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, the flagship subject of my Easter-oriented reviews of comics starring rabbits. This issue's ten page adventure isn't as spiritually profound as Thursday's experience, but it is equally entertaining and just as suspenseful considering its length. Yojimbo is recruited by an old acquaintance ("friend" wouldn't be an adequate term, as the two share a begrudging-at-best respect for each other) to retrieve a stolen religious statue, a simple enough job as the samurai rhino explains that he intends to provide the distraction so Yojimbo can easily make the grab. Of course, when the dastardly rhino blows our hero's cover, the distraction ends up being Yojimbo himself, but in the end, this hare wins their race of wits when he walks away with half of the statue's reward and sticks his old "buddy" with the bar tab.

Like Thursday's issue, Sakai's simple, expressive art tells the tale almost as effectively as his consice, character-rich dialogue, and these two first impressions have convinced me to pursue more of Yojimbo's adventures in the future. To think, I've had two Usagi Yojimbo action figures (the first edition and space gear variant from the '90s Playmates TMNT line) for nearly eighteen years now, yet I've waited this long to see what the old fellow's really like. Shame on me.

The second story in Critters #14 could relate to the concept of catching up with old acquaintances. In Freddy Milton's Gnuff, a family of dragons has won the rights to build their home on a coveted piece of land, and in this flashback of their earliest days building their cabin, Gnellie, the lady of the house, recounts her attempt to reconnect with fellow travellers the O'Gators. Though Gulliver protests her departure in light of their construction work, Gnellie treks to the O'Gators' plot, only to find their cabin half finished, too. Their rival Harry Hancock (an appropriate name for a rooster!) startles her and tries to have his way with her, but fortunately Gnellie slips through his grasp and makes it home safely. Gulliver's gruff ways eventually get the better of Gnellie and she plays the field to feel better about herself, playing with the hearts of suitors until they made fools of themselves. Her story ends prematurely, undoubtedly to be continued for another issue, which, if it weren't for the fact that she was remembering this tale from an obviously much better point in the future, would make for a rather depressing ending.

I'm torn on Gnuff, though its charm may simply be lost in translation. When I noticed a small "translated by Dwight R. Decker" credit in the corner of this story's first page, I felt compelled to look Gnuff up and learn that Milton is actually a Danish cartoonish, and I presume his strips are simply reprinted for an American audience here in Critters. Still, some of the subtexts are potentially controversial; first of all, Harry Hancock's assault on Gnellie is borderline molestation, which is disturbing enough, but when it's a rooster coming on to a dragon? Further, Gnellie basically explains that she willingly became the town whore to compensate for Gulliver's lack of affection . . . oh, and if I didn't mention it earlier, this tale is a flashback as she tells it to her son. Gnellie's story ends when she remembers to check on the pies she put in oven, to which her son replies, "Okay, that's just as important!" Uhm, what's Danish for, "Hey, after you put the pies on the sill to cool, could you finish the one about when you slept with every guy in town?"

Birthright II was the most peculiar tale of them all, as a team of personified foxes in combat with an anarchistic rebellion while at the same time on the hunt for their lost, possibly captured or dead, prince. Leading the charge is the prince's fiancee, and in this chapter she oversees the construction of a new starship. I couldn't really get into this brief eight pager, as it focused less on the action of these characters' conflict and more on the logistics of their multi-pronged strategy. Steve Gallacci and Monika Livingstone's art was quite impressive, what with its varied brushstroke and watercolor-like graytones, but I can only assume that this installment was a bridge between more explosive plot points. I know foxes are sly, but they have to make their move sometime.

As I was researching the backgrounds of these respective strips, I learned that Critters was Fantagraphics' longest running anthropomorphic (or "furry," as it was called) anthologies, running fifty years for five issues. Goes to show, when it comes to animals like this, there are obviously plenty of tales to be wagged.

Yeah, I know. Sorry 'bout that.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Usagi Yojimbo #76

Usagi Yojimbo #76, June 2004, Dark Horse Comics
by Stan Sakai

Living the devout lifestyle of a geek is not without its spiritual experiences.

Devout readers of my blogs know by now that my recent acquisition of a DirecTV DVR has enabled me to become a faithful fan of Star Trek: Voyager, which airs at least twice daily on the Spike network. I’m several episodes into season four now, and I just hope that they continue to air the series chronologically and comprehensively until its end. The episode I watched yesterday, “The Omega Directive,” ended with former Borg Seven of Nine having her first spiritual epiphany, which I registered as an interesting (and potentially not entirely coincidental) story to see on the Wednesday before Easter.

Enter Usagi Yojimbo #76, my first comic book experience with Stan Sakai’s famous long-eared samurai. Like Panda Khan, my only significant experience with Usagi Yojimbo is his action figure incarnation from the ‘90’s Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line. I actually have both the original figure and his space gear-wearing version, which even as a kid struck me as peculiar. Still, I didn’t learn until much later that Usagi (whose first name is actually Miyamoto) starred in his own comic book as a land-dwelling samurai -- nowhere near space.* Indeed, the first wave of TMNT mania truly made some significant strides in introducing independent comic characters to the mainstream, particularly of the anthropomorphic variety.

(Side note: Special thanks to the Rabbit Valley Comic Shop ad on the back of this issue for using that word, “anthropomorphic.” I’ve reviewed dozens of comics starring personified animals now, and that word has been on the top of my brain for just as long!)

So, I thought, what better time to review an issue of Usagi Yojimbo than the week of Easter, when I can place a special emphasis on anthropomorphic comics specially starring rabbits? I certainly didn’t expect the experience to achieve spiritual significance, especially since this issue was a random buy from a twenty-five cent back issue bin. The cover was simple and iconic enough for me to assume that the story inside was self-inclusive enough for a novice like me to understand. With twenty years of continuity behind Usagi, I think such a concern is legitimate. Fortunately, judging this book by its cover paid off, in more ways than one.

In this issue, Yojimbo encounters a dying doctor whose last wish is for the samurai to deliver a mysterious package to his daughter Ayane. Ayane explains that her father was a doctor assigned to an eclectic port city, where he discovered “a cure . . . for all the people.” Unfortunately, the authorities have dubbed this package illegal contraband and are right on their tail (pardon the pun), until Ayane creates a fatal diversion so Yojimbo can get the package to the next link in her subversive group’s underground chain. He is successful, and when he hands off the package to the kindly fish merchant, he comments, “That -- whatever it is -- has caused enough pain.” The merchant replies, “It is not pain that this brings, Samurai . . . but, rather, salvation.” He unwraps the package, and there it is -- a crucifix. I really didn’t see that one coming.

So you can understand my sense of wonder regarding this issue, as my intent was to read it in pseudo celebration of Easter. Now, if only Sakai could explain the whole painted eggs part . . .

Seriously, I really enjoyed reading this issue. Although Yojimbo doesn’t actually battle anyone, the suspense he and Ayane experience during their flight from the authorities infuses this issue with an exciting sense of adventure and intrigue. Sakai’s use of dialogue is simple and insightful; character development isn’t an aside to the story but a natural result of its context, though after twenty years with Miyamoto, I’m sure he’s pretty familiar with the ol’ hare by now. Interestingly, his line work isn’t perfect and in some cases betrays hints of hurriedness or shortsightedness, yet in its imperfections this issue’s art tells its tale rather comprehensively. I frequently had to remember that these pages are even void of any gray tones, as Sakai uses crosshatching and stippling so effectively, the backgrounds are rich with depth and texture. He has mastered his craft, yet with a story like this, also reveals his potential to surprise and continually entertain.

But what does it all mean? A former Borg, a rabbit samurai . . . are they conspiring to tell me something? Or is this convergence of spiritual themes simply a cosmic coincidence? For now, I’ll embrace this mystery and see if it unfolds in my other pop culture indulgences this week. Of course, I’ll be sure to fill this space with all of the details.

Is it possible? Can man surely not live on comics alone?

* I looked it up. Stan Sakai actually created “Space Usagi,” as well. Here I thought Bucky O’Hare was the only star trekking rabbit out there . . .

WWWednesday: The World of Mr. Toast

WWWednesday: The World of Mr. Toast
by Dan Goodsell

I keep everything. Specifically, I have an ever-expanding collection of cards, stickers, and miscellaneous promotional items from the many comic book conventions I've attended over the past eight years. If you were a small press or independent exhibitor at Comic Con in 2001 (like I was) and I liked the look or layout of that postcard you printed and distributed to promote your comic or website, I still have it. I'm pretty obsessive about it, actually, and since my girlfriend and I recently moved and I now have a place for all of this junk, I've actually begun to file these things, as if they were comics themselves. Hey, they're still little pieces of art, okay? Heck, even more so than the comic they promote, these little cards and stickers are attempting to make a connection with their audience. "There's a comic book over here you'll really like, if you just give it a chance!" they plead. They're proverbial middle men. They deserve some attention, too.

The folks that spend hundreds of dollars on those throwaway freebies would agree. I've been in their shoes.

One such item that I've saved for a few years now is poster for Mr. Toast. I don't remember when or where I picked it up, if I paid for it or not, but as I was recently decorating this comic book storage room/personal museum of collectibles and mementos/man-cave of mine (I'm still thinking of a good name for it, and I'm leaning toward my "ready room," yes, from Star Trek), I decided I liked the simple, chuckle-worthy image enough to display. Here it is, right below my Scrapyard Detectives poster, a Bipolar cover proof, and a Buenaventura one-sheet:


I confess, I've been afraid to look up Mr. Toast on-line. What if I didn't like what I found? What if this poster was just an anomalous piece of promotional art, honestly, like many of those other pieces I've acquired over the years? Well, I bit the bullet today and Googled my crusted friend. I'm glad I did. The World of Mr. Toast is a beautiful, brilliant body of work that includes one-panel comics and "gags," the cutest flash animations you'll ever see, and an eclectic collection of pop culture Americana. In fact, the option between Dan Goodsell's Mr. Toast work and Tick Tock Toys gallery is a perfect combination of inspiration-meets-result, as his on-line archive of old toys, food containers, campy comics, and peculiar vacation destinations is an homage to/museum of a bygone era, with the innocence and good humor of Mr. Toast its obvious, natural by-product. Consider this gag panel:


In one simple frame, Goodsell captures and combines four of my favorite childhood pastimes: forts, toilet paper, eggs, and toast. My friends and I built forts all the time! When we got a little older, we toilet-papered each others' houses! As an adult, I still love breakfast the most! See what I mean?

The secret to Goodsell's eye-catching art is absurdly simple: draw two eyes and a mouth onto everything. His cast of characters is a virtual delight, and while he infuses each with an irrefutable sense of personality, the familiarity of each personified item (some of them coupled with props, like "Sr. Cork") evokes a charming instant reaction from the back of the mind, as well. I don't have to read a strip or gag starring Prof. Encyclopedia to remember those old dusty volumes my family had when I was a kid, those scientific journals that are probably so wrong by now that they'd make better science fiction than anything else. It's a precious memory, actually -- and yes, undoubtedly like Goodsell, I still have those encyclopedias. They're in the ready room, right around the corner from Mr. Toast, coincidentally.

Needless to say, I'm happy Mr. Toast made his way to the wall. He is a modern acquisition that celebrates the keepsakes of the past, the trinkets I've maniacally kept and preserved over the years. The world needs more Mr. Toast. Without him, we'd feel our age much sooner, I imagine. We'd all become that much more . . . crusty.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Wildgirl #1

Wildgirl #1, January 2005, WildStorm Productions
writers: Leah Moore & John Reppion
artists: Shawn McManus with J.H. Williams III
colorists: Jeremy Cox & Carrie Strachan
letterer: Phil Balsman
assistant editor: Kristy Quinn
editor: Alex Sinclair

I judged this book by its cover. With a title like Wildgirl, I thought that this issue would be the perfect bridge between my look at comics starring prominent women and my upcoming second series of reviews about animal comics, specifically titles starring or featuring bunnies, since Easter is right around the corner. Oh, I wasn’t wrong about that. Wildgirl stars a young woman in her formative years with a peculiar connection to nature. That was essentially what I expected. How this story is told is a different matter entirely.

In short, Wildgirl is one of the strangest comic books I’ve read in awhile, and that’s saying a lot, I think. What I can’t put my finger on is why. The answer must lie in this issue’s imbalance. The story itself is a convergence settings, as our young protagonist Rosa flees her inner city apartment to sleep outside a department store for nearly three months, until a stranger guides her to a secluded house in the woods. The story also battles with its convergence of themes, as the seemingly natural struggles of an adolescent become a supernatural fight for survival when the stranger goes nuts and tries to capture her. In this issue’s eerie climax, the stranger’s dogs become his inanimate coat, then back to ravenous beasts that pursue Rosa back to the outskirts of the city, where another, friendlier dog “says” to her, “We need to talk.” Indeed!

I think the very production of this issue, namely the writers’ dialogue and pacing along with the artists’ styles, also threw me for a loop. On the first page, Rosa madly and inexplicably asks her mom, “Can I be wild girl?” While the reader quickly learns that Rosa suffers from delusions tied to the animal kingdom and Greek mythology, that opening sequence is as potentially important as it is forgettable. Did Rosa ask for this ethereal connection? Further, this issue’s dialogue is so sparse, I could actually do without it. McManus’ art is perfectly linear and abundantly expressive; I wonder how the story’s subtexts might have benefitted from a more open-ended possibility for interpretation. Finally, McManus’ art is so capable, this issue might have flourished with a colorless format. McManus’ line work seems restrained, and with a style that would benefit any indie comic, I’d like to see him implement a wider brushstroke. The J.H. Williams III vignette depicting Rosa’s dream was brilliantly executed, as well, and would’ve been much more poignant as the only splash of color in the whole piece.

Interestingly, criticism usually demands more of an issue. In this case, I’m demanding less. No words, no color? I never thought I’d see the day . . .

Also, this issue made me wish for one more less thing: ads. When the stranger appears “wearing” his dogs, the image is presented as a suspenseful left-handed splash page with an ad on the right, which is typical of a cliffhanger ending. I almost closed the book for good, until the next page just happened to open and reveal more story. I’ve never really thought about it before, but are these ad pages placed randomly, or is an editor assigned the task of strategically dispersing them throughout the issue? Surely, Wildgirl wasn’t meant to be that wild . . .

That’s it. If I could parallel this issue’s presentation with its content, I dare say that both are an unbridled expression of the creative teams’ intentions. Utilizing different art styles, volleying between long, silent sequences and more dialogue-intensive scenes -- Wildgirl #1 refuses to be tamed by anyone’s expectations or conventions. Such is the fine line between woman and animal, I suppose.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Sensational She-Hulk #1

The Sensational She-Hulk #1, May 1989, Marvel Comics
writer/penciller: John Byrne
inker: Bob Wiacek
colorist: Glynis Oliver
letterer: John Workman
editor: Bobbie Chase
EIC: Tom DeFalco

Women’s History Month + St. Patrick’s Day + Random Comic Book Reviews = The Sensational She-Hulk! ‘Nuff said, right?

You know She-Hulk doesn’t have to worry about wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, not that anyone would try to pinch her if she wasn’t. Ironically, in this first issue of her second series, her emerald complexion is obscured by a flesh tone when the Ringmaster and his travelling Circus of Crime brainwash her, disguise her, and commandeer her strength to rob their unsuspecting audiences of their loose change. Their plan? When the Ringmaster stupefies the crowd, She-Hulk picks up the bleachers and shakes loose their valuables like a bully flipping over the local nerd for his lunch money.

“Nearly thirty-seven hundred bucks in cash plus some jewelry . . . pocket watches . . .,” a clown proudly reports to the Ringmaster.

Thirty-seven hundred bucks? You need the She-Hulk for that? Hey, I’ve been to the circus, okay? Between admission, carnival games, the outrageously priced snack bar, and maybe a dollar petting zoo, a regular circus gets away with more highway robbery!

Since this is a first issue, and John Byrne is at the reigns, an origin sequence is inevitable, for which I’m actually grateful since I know little of She-Hulk beside the fact that she’s Bruce Banner’s cousin. Of course, Byrne manages to mention this twice, which was three less times than I expected, what with his reputation for, uhm, thorough storytelling. I also vaguely remembered reading somewhere that She-Hulk frequently broke the fourth wall and talked to the reader, a phenomenon I dismissed as a psychologically-angled subplot until I actually experienced it here. When She-Hulk realizes that her abduction by the Circus of Crime was actually one part in a mysterious master mind’s grander scheme, she muses, “I know how these things work! It’ll be at least my third issue before I find out who it is! Although you readers will probably find out on the next page . . .” This gimmick takes the concept of the classic Marvel caption that addresses its audience (or “True Believers,” as we were frequently called) to a wholly different level. Those captions were third person, uninvolved narrative elements -- proverbial Shakespearean muses that established mood or plot. In this case, as much as the idea is meant to pull the reader into the story, sharing that private joke with She-Hulk, it took me out of the tale, as I wondered if John Byrne really sought to experiment with his narrative, or just had an inordinate amount of space to fill. I don’t know if She-Hulk enjoys being watched, but I felt a little violated, and . . .

Sigh. I was reading this issue on the toilet, okay? The last thing I need is a hot superhero barging in on me in my own Fortress of Solitude, okay?

I might be the only comic book fanboy that actually straddles the fence about John Byrne. You either love him or you hate him, plain and simple. (My friend Aaron at Geek in the City boasts the latter category, but admittedly I haven’t thoroughly examined his undoubtedly well thought out opinion in favor of separating the art from the artist. I’m afraid that if I examined the lives or perspectives of my favorite -- or even casually appreciated -- comic book contributors I’d end up burning half of my collection in protest! ) I find Byrne’s superhero storytelling techniques a little dated and formulaic, and his artwork so consistent it’s almost redundant, but his issues aren’t not entertaining. They retain a certain camp-factor that most writers and artists abandoned a long time ago; yes, Byrne suffers from “reliable dog syndrome,” as introduced to pop culture (or at least my mentality) by this season of American Idol. Still, She-Hulk herself confesses on page three of this very issue that she’s capable of bench-pressing seventy-five tons, and Byrne exhibits this strength by having her lift a couple of elephants, then punching out a runaway circus cart. What’s really so “sensational” about that?

So, despite my seemingly foolproof equation at the beginning of this review, The Sensational She-Hulk #1 does little for the cause of St. Patrick’s Day or Women’s History Month. For half of this issue, She-Hulk isn’t even green! Further, and more importantly, any viability she might have had as a remarkable female figure in comicdom is vanquished by her inability to exhibit any real strength, both physically and mentally against the Ringmaster’s attack. Emotionally, heck, she can barely endure one adventure without mentioning her more famous cousin, and, in the end, that whole talking-to-the-audience thing just makes her look a little nuts. You’d think women would be green with envy toward a powerhouse like She-Hulk, but if this issue was their only impression of the character, they’d just walk away jaded.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Girls #10

Girls #10, February 2006, Image Comics
by Joshua and Jonathan Luna

This St. Patrick’s Day, men across the country, perhaps even around the world, will take to the streets in search of forbidden treasure. No, I’m not talking about a leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow . . . I’m talking about the affections of a woman. Sure, chugging green beer has become a holiday tradition (though the practice really offers no real insight into Irish culture), but some three or four beers into the evening, St. Patrick’s Day becomes just another night at the bar, and therefore just another attempt to score a woman’s phone number, or more. Is this why St. Patrick’s Day lands within Women’s History Month? To remind us that, even on a day where heavy drinking is encouraged and celebrated, women are more than potential treasures to be scored and spent?

The torrid universal relationship between men and women has become a perpetual subplot in all of comicdom, and no one comic book has gone to such great lengths to draw the line in the sand as much as the Luna Brothers’ Girls. I mentioned yesterday that I’d read Girls #1 before, in the Image First compilation, and I really enjoyed the Lunas’ use of candor and raw (albeit drunken -- sigh, those libations will be the death of us men) emotion to establish conflict and the cast of characters in their rural setting of Pennystown. Nine issues later, the plights of these diverse personalities have taken a distinctly different turn; whereas before these townsfolk merely sought to pass away their idle lives in Midwestern bliss, they now strive simply to survive . . . against an odd army of freshly hatched, naked, flesh-eating women. Yes, you read that right.

In this issue, a majority of Pennystown’s (which isn’t really a lot) have congregated and sheltered themselves in a secluded mansion. Unfortunately, the youngest children have recklessly wandered outside into the surrounding forest, and a brave group decides to search of them. The kids are found but only when a gang of the naked women emerge from the wood, and the survivors rush back to the mansion with those flesh-hungry chicks practically nipping at their heels. In the house, the power goes out, and the folks inside scramble to gather a flashlight and some weapons as they hear their friends hastily return. The Luna Brothers’ ability to infuse this climactic scene with a palpable sense of suspense is brilliant and impressive, as the second to last page is simply a series of black panels and frightened dialogue, proving that a horror comic can really accomplish a lot with a little.

Of course, this issue’s fright factor is laced with relationship-ridden subplots, but trying to summarize them here wouldn’t do them justice. It’s enough that these core characters are pursued by freshly hatched, naked, flesh-eating women, right?

Needless to say, although I don’t know the ultimate outcome of this series, I can safely assume that the Lunas managed to spin the zombie genre on its ear with Girls. Rather than terrorize their simple townsfolk with decrepit undead, they unleashed a band of beautiful women, and while these ladies are obviously much easier to look at, they aren’t any less ruthless in their methods or madness. Women often claim that men are shallow in their attraction to pure physicality, but what if this physicality could be harnessed as a weapon? What if those moments of paralysis at the sight of beautiful and surprisingly naked woman were all those women needed to feast and survive? Wouldn’t our superficiality become a valuable asset? Of course, I know plenty of chicks that really do use their looks to score a free meal, just not one of flesh, so maybe the Lunas weren’t too far off with this potentially allegorical tale of gender-based horror and romance.

Indeed, from the recent ethereal dissolution of Spider-man’s marriage in One More Day to the likes of introspective independent artists like Jeffery Brown, such romantic inclinations are often the most grounding elements throughout any genre of comicdom. While the average fanboy cannot train his mind and body to the pinnacle of human perfection like Batman, they can at least relate to his inability to commit to any one woman . . . or maybe envy it. Similarly, older readers can appreciate the complexities more stable relationships like the Storms’ or Wally and Linda Wests’ offer. From fawning over Lana in Smallville to the classic love triangle from Superman tales of old, readers could revel that even the Man of Steel gets butterflies in his stomach around the special little lady. Hey, maybe you’ve never been pursued by freshly hatched, naked, flesh-eating women, but you’ve broken up with a girlfriend before, right? You’ve thought you were flirting with a girl only to learn that her intentions were strictly platonic? In this context, what does a series like Girls teach us?

Men, beware. They can be more than they appear to be. You’re better off looking for that leprechaun. That little guy’s almost more believable than the concept of the perfect woman . . . at least when you’re looking through the bottom of a bottle.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ultra #7

Ultra #7, February 2005, Image Comics
by Joshua & Jonathan Luna

For as many comic books liter our apartment on any given day, nearly as many tabloids and magazines are scattered about, as well. My girlfriend loves ‘em. She buys those rags weekly as faithfully as I visit the comic book store. So, when I threw Ultra #7 onto a pile of her just-reads earlier today, I almost couldn’t tell it apart. The cover of the Luna Brothers’ Ultra #7 mimics the cover of a People Magazine, and while I’ve seen comics try to satirize other print media before, this is the best example of subtle effectiveness. Further, since Ultra’s title character is caught in the crosshairs of a sex scandal in and around this issue, the motif fits perfectly. It isn’t just a sales gimmick . . . like most pictures on the covers of those real magazines.

What do I mean? Well, I have a fanboy goal to collect every comic book appearance of Cloak and Dagger. Now, is there a teenybopper somewhere with similar ambitions to collect every tabloid appearance of Britney, or Lindsay? I mean, does Britney deserve the cover of these weekly magazines for shortchanging a gas station attendant, or something? At this point, it’s like giving Aunt May the cover for baking Peter a pie. It always happens, yet it only really appeals to a fraction of that title’s core readership. It’s a sales gimmick -- an attempt to remain relevant. But I digress.

I picked up Ultra #7 several weeks ago with the intention of including in this week’s Women’s History Month series, because my brief experience with the Luna Brothers’ work has led me to conclude that they are extremely capable of capturing the female condition in any supernatural context. For instance, their most recent series, The Sword, is a fine balance of science fiction and twenty-something strife; the reader experiences the lead character’s frustration and disbelief right along with her. The single issue of Girls I’d read before (the second issue will come tomorrow) was a memorable look at relationships through a similar lens of dark fantasy. So, when I picked up Ultra #7, its cover not withstanding, I had some high hopes about its story.

Boy, were those high hopes ever met.

Ultra #7 is the perfect issue for a new reader like me, as it effectively concludes an obvious integral storyline and focuses more on its eclectic cast’s relationships. After recovering from an arsonist’s attack, which cost the lives of many innocents, Ultra’s public image continues to suffer thanks to the release of a compromising picture. At first, this controversy affects her arrival to the 77th Annual Superhero Awards -- a brilliant enough concept in itself -- until a fan reminds the condemning crowd of Ultra’s selflessness. Though Ultra doesn’t win the Best Superheroine award, her associate Cowgirl does, and during an after party, the two share a tender moment that implies a romantic overtone to their relationship. To the Lunas’ credit, the sequence isn’t overtly homosexual as it is tragically romantic -- their relationship isn’t necessarily forbidden because of social taboo, but because of its potential interference in their respective heroic careers. If only everyone with power felt such noble restraint when it came to their romantic urges.

No, Ultra has nothing to do with former Governor Spitzer. I’m just saying.

What I don’t know how to articulate is an adequate description of Jonathan Luna’s artwork. His characters appear almost photographic in appearance, with such a natural grace and expressionism that one almost forgets he’s actually reading a comic book. Every panel is practically cinematic in scope, with character blocking and background effects working together to establish and reflect the mood of the characters’ dialogue. The line work is crisp, the colors are effective and dynamic. ‘Nuff said.

Of all of the issues I’ve read so far this week, Ultra strikes me as the best example of depicting strong women in comics. At least in this chapter, these superheroines aren’t facing archnemeses, but rather their own roles in society. In the face of controversy, scandal, and conflicting romantic emotions, these women still emerge as powerful, competent protagonists -- not victims to desperation, but determined to resolve their respective plights only so that they can continue to contribute to the betterment of said society. If only the young starlets that graced the covers of real tabloids adopted the same mentality . . . How much better would the world be, if only in the quality of our entertainment?

Beware the Creeper #2

Beware the Creeper #2, July 2003, Vertigo/DC Comics
writer: Jason Hall
artist: Cliff Chiang
colorist: Dave Stewart
letterer: John Workman
assistant editor: Zachary Rau
editor: Will Dennis

Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, March 14, 2008.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll read anything Cliff Chiang draws. I became a fan during his run on Vertigo’s The Human Target, which was already then and still is today at the top of my favorite series. In The Human Target, Chiang (and fellow rotating artist Javier Pulido) were challenged to balance protagonist Christopher Chance’s internal struggles of identity with his external adventures of sociopolitical intrigue and espionage. Needless to say, both artists rose to the challenge, but while Pulido’s art was a bit more minimalist, Chiang’s work was very substantial and down to earth. I’ve managed to acquire some of his contributions to the Batman books since then, and his brushstroke consistently captures the grace of the superhuman form with the solidity of their respective environments. Chance’s Los Angeles, Batman’s Gotham -- in under Chiang’s pen, they’re viable characters as much as the real characters are.

So, you can imagine how I’d feel about the cover on Beware the Creeper #2. On it, a new, feminine Creeper stands tall over the Paris skyline. I don’t know much about the Creeper, nor have I ever been to Paris, but both are now inviting thanks to this absolute visual interpretation.
If only the story were as easy to behold. This issue is the second of a five issue miniseries, and I must have missed the fluid introduction of its significant players, because this chapter proceeds full throttle. The opening act is entertaining enough, as the Creeper creeps into a museum and steals the Arbogast family jewels, only to toss them in the river. What follows is a multi-scene diatribe about the Arbogasts’ terrible reign over Paris, a veritable anarchist discourse about class warfare and everyman vigilantism. The Creeper is perceived as one part terrorist, one part performance artist, praised by the likes of Andre Breton and Tsuguharu Foujita. (Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein also make cameo appearances, all in good measure.) If writer Jason Hall’s intent was to establish the Creeper’s legacy as a kooky monkey wrench in historical, global affairs, I consider his mission accomplished.

The real mystery seems to be in who the Creeper actually is; since I don’t know if her secret identity was established in the first issue, I’m torn here between one of two sisters (of course each boasting an opposing side of the political argument, thus each boasting their own legitimate motives for vigilantism) and a little girl with a fascination for the creepy heroine. The little girl has the same reddish hair as this new Creeper, so I’m wondering if the artists intended this as a red herring (pardon the pun) or a genuine clue. Either way, through this re-establishment of the Creeper’s character, she has inadvertently become a thrilling and capable heroine. Her body is totally garbed, and her figure isn’t cookie-cut by comics’ usually outrageous proportions. What I’m saying is, she isn’t overtly sexual, and the allure isn’t about who she is, but what she’s about -- a message I wish more stories about heroines emphasized.

So, yes, I would dare say you should beware the Creeper. The fact that I can’t tell which of the prominent female figures she really is in this issue implies that every woman has a little Creeper inside of them. Further, if all of them were as eye-catching as this version by Cliff Chiang, you’d never see the danger coming. I guess that’s what creeping is all about.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Arana: The Heart of the Spider #1

Arana: The Heart of the Spider #1, March 2005, Marvel Comics
writer: Fiona Avery
penciller: Roger Cruz
inker: Victor Olazaba
letterer: VC’s Rus Wootan
colorist: Udon
editor: Jennifer Lee
EIC: Joe Quesada
creative consultant: J. Michael Straczynski

Blogger’s note: Entry for Thursday, March 13, 2008.

“Who would have believed that the next hunter of the Spider Society would be a little girl from Brooklyn?”

Honestly? It isn’t too great a stretch of the imagination.

I remember when Arana was introduced in the pages of Amazing Fantasy volume 2, number 1. Oh, I didn’t buy it, and I still haven’t read it, but I thought that her creation was a bold move on Marvel’s part, an arguably vain attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. You might remember the last time a spider-powered superhero was introduced in a comic book called Amazing Fantasy. Marvel certainly does. The results have reverberated into every aspect of pop culture imaginable, from multimedia entertainment to a crisis of infinite franchising. When Kirby drew that iconic cover of Amazing Fantasy, did he suspect that his webbed hero would grace underroos for year and years to come?

Did the creators of Arana hope for the same success?

Based on this first issue of her self-titled series, writer Fiona Avery certainly utilized the same formula. No, Arana isn’t trying out for the Fantastic Four or battling masks super-villains like the Chameleon. Instead, she’s the primary warrior for a spider-themed cult of do-gooders who, in this issue, are on the trail of a corrupt judge. A majority of this issue is consumed with the pursuit and capture of their quarry, a task easier said than done considering the “Wasp” soldiers he’s paid off to protect him. Political and supernatural suspicions and implications abound in the midst of Arana’s good old-fashioned slugfest with these enemy agents, and when she emerges victorious, she sheds the superhero gear, has dinner with her dad, and goes to sleep. All in a day’s work, I suppose.

So, on the surface, the correlations to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-man seem to be in name only. Right . . .?

Well, since Avery tickles the hard-luck hero concept, I’m guessing that her intentions imply that the spider mantle comes with much more than just a goggle-eyed mask. In the opening act, as Arana prowls upon some potential informants, she blows her element of surprise with a sneeze. Then, throughout the issue, she reminds us that she’s got the flu. While this element adds a touch of realism to her adventure, it throws the enigmatic tone of her Spider Society roots into disharmony; further, in this twenty-two page story, eighteen pages are dedicated to the pursuit of the corrupt judge. The final four pages are purely domestic, as Arana spends quality time with her father while her mentor, who I’ll get to in a minute, muses about the direness of their mission. Supporting characters are mentioned by name but never introduced (I assume they appeared in Arana’s Amazing Fantasy run), and the whole secret identity shtick is so rushed it barely registers as relevant. See, I can tell that Avery wanted us to feel for this adolescent girl and her single father, just as we felt for Peter and his single aunt, but since Arana’s worlds weren’t interwoven, the connection is never really made.

Remember, I’m looking Arana #1 as a first issue, not a continuation of a previous title starring the same character. Consider the second episode of the Kids’ WB! Spectacular Spider-man cartoon series; sure, we never saw Aunt May, but Peter’s 10 p.m. reminders to check in offer a funny (enough) tether to his secret identity. That’s all I’m asking for from this issue, too.

Another quick gripe: Arana’s Spider Society mentor is named Miguel. Now, I’ve read some issues of Spider-man 2099 (yes, I’m the only one), and I vividly remembered that his civilian name was Miguel. Considering her mentor’s role in a group called the Spider Society, I thought that these characters might be one in the same. I would’ve appreciated the foundation in something familiar, the link between successors to the spider-throne. Alas, a quick Wikipedia search revealed that these characters are remarkably different. Sigh. Do we really need two Miguels in the spider-verse? Didn’t an editor realize how potentially confusing that might be, or am the only one (er, again)? Incidentally, this Miguel is responsible for this review’s introductory quote. Indeed, who knew?

Don’t get me wrong; Arana: The Heart of the Spider wasn’t a terrible issue. It was a nice infiltration story regarding the judge’s corruptions and subsequent capture, but overall the story’s multiple subtexts were just too disjointed for me. I still sense a smoldering homage to Marvel’s original swinging superhero, especially considering that both characters can be summarized by the following pitch: “Adolescent receives spider-like powers and must balance private life with undeniable responsibility to do good.” Unfortunately, only one character’s synopsis can continue to include: “Becomes comic book and pop culture icon with multiple multimedia and franchised incarnations.” I’ll give you a guess which one.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

WWWednesday: Freakangels

WWWednesday: Freakangels
writer: Warren Ellis
artist: Paul Duffield

I thought that my WWWednesday review of the new Avatar-hosted webcomic Freakangels would offer an interlude in my weeklong look at women in comics, but writer Warren Ellis never fails to impress or amaze with his ability to pen an eclectic cast. In fact, I dare say that he prefers to write the female protagonist; Spider Jerusalem’s “filthy assistants” in Transmetropolitan, the prolific Jenny Sparks, and his upcoming Anna Mercury series (presumably) are all excellent examples of strong, assertive, but most importantly realistic women. (Even his goofy Nextwave team for Marvel had a 3:2 female to male ratio, and one of those males was Aaron Stack, the Machine Man, so he might not even count!) As expected, then, Freakangels is no different, as the first four six-page installments star “KK” in an attempt to recruit her fellow freaks against a mutual nemesis.

Of course, I can’t imagine that Ellis’ hardcore fanbase (myself among them) buy his comics exclusively for the diverse characterization. No, Ellis’ misfits are usually just bit players compared to the lofty concepts he’s willing to throw at the industry, almost daring comics not to let some of them stick. Consider Black Summer: a superhero assassinates the President for causes he believes right and just. While subsequent issues have explored his teammates’ respective predicaments and presented some conspiratorial subplots, the series’ action-packed momentum has all been a result of that simple idea. That’s what I really like about Ellis’ work. Despite his lofty diversions into the science fiction and fantasy realms, he really keeps it simple. Consider his 60 issue opus, Transmetropolitan: Gonzo reporter uses any means necessary to expose the evils of the nation’s political system, particularly the President of the United States, at great cost to his health and career. Does it get any simpler than that?

Heck, I could probably even trim that summation down a little bit more: Crazy reporter versus the corrupt government, plus futuristic genetic manipulation and lots and lots of pills. Am I right, people?

No, I’m not digressing. I have a point! I think Ellis has realized the strength of “the pitch” as “the promotion.” The first page of Freakangels is pure conceptual thesis: “Twenty-three years ago, twelve strange children were born in England at exactly the same moment. Six years later, the world ended. This is the story of what happened next.” Ads for Anna Mercury are just as cut and dry, but I’ll save that one for another review.

Paul Duffield’s art is top notch, too. His character designs are futuristic but down to earth, and his depiction of the dilapidated city is chilling yet appealingly gothic. He excels at both the expressive headshot and the wide angel establishing splash, and Ellis obviously plays to these strengths. Interestingly, these four six-pagers would equivocate to a single twenty-four page comic (I can do math!), yet while little actually happens other than establishing character dynamic, the interactive aspect of the medium creates a brisk, acceptable pace to the piece. Since the series is updated weekly with no definitive “to be continued”-based month-long wait, the reader gets a real sense that this thing could go on forever. If Avatar has its way, I bet it will.

I mean, this thing is totally and utterly free, and the pages aren’t clogged with ads for cell phones or insurance companies. Heck, not even a Suicide Girls ad, and I don’t even really mind those. Between his $1.99-an-ish Fell series at Image and this, Warren Ellis is becoming the most affordable writer in comics. No wonder his cast of characters is so diverse. At this point in his career, practically anybody can access his work . . . you’d have to keep the door open for everybody.

Shadow Hunter #0

Shadow Hunter #0, December 2007, Virgin Comics
writers: Jenna Jameson & Christina Z
artist: Mukesh Singh
letterer: Nilesh S. Mahadik
project manager: S.P. Karthikeyan
assistant editor: Sara Amanat
editor: Mariah Huehner

Blogger’s note: Entry for Tuesday, March 11, 2008.

I picked up this free preview issue of Shadow Hunter a few months ago and intentionally saved it for Women’s History Month, since a comic book starring Jenna Jameson should have something to say about female archetypes in the medium, intentionally or not. Well, according to Jameson’s introduction, the theme of female empowerment was actually one of the contributing inspirations for this series . . . that, and the adult film star’s love of horror films. “[W]hen other folks go back to their hotel rooms at night and watch me, I go back and watch horror films,” she explains.

I don’t blame her. The horror films are cheaper.

Of course, the potential to lob this series with juvenile potshots about sex and promiscuity is off the charts, considering its creator’s illustrious career. In fact, Virgin bigwigs Gotham Chopra and Sharad Devarajan exhaust a significant portion of their introductory essay claiming some of the best one-liners -- regarding her work ethic, that Jenna’s “really flexible” is one of my favorites -- but then instantly discrediting them by exploring Jameson’s intelligence and artistic integrity. I’m willing to bet that someone picking up a comic book created by and/or starring Jenna Jameson doesn’t need the disclaimer. Long time comics readers have seen all kinds of celebrities contribute to the medium, from directors to actors to athletes. Our tolerance for this unique brand of personal franchising is high, and our appreciation of beautiful women is just a little bit higher. Shadow Hunter just mashes ‘em together.

Besides, pornography is a primarily visual medium that buries some semblance of a story beneath imagery primarily targeting a male audience, though, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a woman that likes it just as much. In this case, pornography is just like comics.

So, what does Shadow Hunter contribute to the vast tapestry that is Women in Literature? No much, I’m afraid. Though this zero issue offers only six pages of story, Jameson’s and Chopra’s essays offer enough insight into the story’s context to expose it as little more than a Witchblade rip-off. The interview with writer Christina Z, Witchblade co-creator, at the end of this issue reveals as much: troubled girl wields mysterious magical sword against the demons she’s seen all her life. The connection to a more obscure character in Greek mythology is interesting, and Mukesh Singh’s artwork is absolutely amazing, but I don’t see either of these factors contributing to the success of this series. This zero issue is a great supplemental piece with a great cover gallery and conceptual art section, but at the end of the day, I think Jameson’s name alone will keep Shadow Hunter afloat.

I also think that she really doesn’t have a problem with that. Something tells me she likes to be on top.

(C’mon . . . I couldn’t resist.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Warrior Nun Areala #1

Warrior Nun Areala #1, July 1999, Antarctic Press
writer: Brian Farrens
artist: Ben Dunn
colorist: Nathan Lumm

Blogger’s note: Entry for Monday, March 10, 2008.

I don’t remember the last time I saw a nun, excluding when Showtime aired Sister Act 2 a few months ago. No, I’d imagine that the life of a nun is a rather ironic one; in order to effectively serve her fellow man, a nun must be immersed in society, potentially interacting with some of the most corrupted or disturbed specimens of humanity. At the same time, she must resist most earthly ties and temptations, including a woman’s natural need to procreate and mother a child. The challenge seems almost impossible to fathom, let alone actually experience. Is prayer enough to take a nun’s mind off of the dichotomy of her spiritual service?

If not, how about some good old fashioned sword-welding combat with international terrorists? Yeah, that usually takes my mind off of the little things.

Warrior Nun Areala is one of an order that has accepted the call of “the angel of war,” defending the church and consequently the world against supernatural threats and terrorism. In this first issue (which is actually the beginning of her third volume), Areala and her fellow warrior nun Sarah infiltrate the stronghold of a Liberian despot and discover the enormity of his reign’s violence, along with a gauntlet that belongs to the armor of God -- ah, the source of the tyrant’s hold on his people. When Areala expresses melancholy about the number of lives that were lost in their quest to recover the gauntlet, her superiors decide that she needs more training, and as Areala is whisked away, the reader is led to believe that a conspiracy is brewing behind the scenes.

A conspiracy in the Catholic church? No way!

Although this issue marks the third series for Areala, Warrior Nun, it effectively introduces the reader to her plight sans lengthy (and unnecessary) origin-oriented flashbacks. Heck, even the three splash pages that take the time to explain the source and scope of our heroine’s power are superfluous and intrusive to this story’s otherwise action-packed opening act; I would’ve preferred them more as an interlude between the adventurous terrorist fight sequence and the more character-oriented scenes that follow. Further, I think writer Brian Farrens could’ve done more with the pages at his disposal, but this issue sets up the rest of the series like any dutiful first issue should. Had I purchased it right off the new release rack, I would’ve instantly wanted more. Mission accomplished.

Ben Dunn’s art is puzzling to me at best. His style boasts heavy manga influence, but not enough to satisfy me that this is meant to be a full-fledged manga series. His inking is almost inconsistent; his more detail-oriented panels would benefit from a varied brushstroke or different pen widths, yet he seems to use the same utensil throughout the book, both muddying the smaller images and minimizing the larger ones. Still, when the proportions of his ink line and his characters’ blocking align, his competence is obvious and really quite impressive. Nathan Lumm’s palate is really rich considering this issue’s subject matter, as well; a story that takes us from the gore of the Middle East to the starkness of the church really shouldn’t be this vibrant, and I say that as a compliment.

March is Women’s History Month, and as such, I am dedicating this week to a brief look at various portrayals of women in comics. (Incidentally, from this series, we march into another stint of comics starring animals -- specifically, in honor of Easter, rabbits. For a whole week? You better believe it!) If I was a comic book novice (which I pretend to be for many of these reviews, to objectify my opinion of the industry as a whole), and Warrior Nun Areala was my first impression of how women are depicted in this graphic medium, I’d say: with much conflict. On one hand, Areala has embraced her responsibility and spirituality and is obviously willing to defend it, yet her compassion for humanity conflicts with her calling’s preferred methods, instantly infusing her character with sympathetic internal strife. Further, she’s a nun, yet she’s pretty, uhm, shapely, and under that habit she’s really wearing leather, metal, and thigh-high boots. She may have the fortitude to fight temptation, but what of the men around her?

Think about the female comic book characters you like. One part nun, one part warrior . . . from the likes of superheroes like Wonder Woman to the indie annals of Strangers in Paradise, doesn’t that describe them all? We’ll see.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome minicomic

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome insert mini-comic, 2000, Ninja Tune Records
by Kid Koala

Blogger's note: Entry for Sunday, March 9, 2008.

When's the last time you bought a CD? I don't mean bought a CD's worth of music off of iTunes, either. I mean, when was the last time you purchased a CD by an artist or band you'd never heard before, just to see if you'd dig it? C'mon, I know "the kids" used to do it all the time, before MySpace and iTunes made rock stars out of any garage band with a dial-up connection, when "sampling" a song meant listening to a track or two through those big puffy headphones in the record store. I'm very set in my ways and musical tastes, but I try to go out on a lyrical limb once or twice a year, if only to test the bounds of my patience and consumerism. When my girlfriend and I were in uptown Whittier, California this weekend, and I found Kid Koala's debut CD for $1.99, I decided to take such a gamble. I really couldn't remember the last time I'd purchased a CD . . . let alone a CD with an enclosed mini-comic!

Indeed, Kid Koala is one part DJ, one part comic book artist, whose scratchy style in both fields creates a multimedia experience that inspires connoisseurs of one to become an instant fan of the other. In the Carpel Tunnel Syndrome mini-comic, the corporation behind the Disco Flakes cereal kidnap a little DJ (we'll call him Kid Koala for now, assuming this stream-of-consciousness tale is allegorical to the author's life or experiences), miniaturize him, and sell him as the prize in one of their cereal boxes. Koala breaks free, and before he can enjoy the record his guardian had given him and that he'd hit under a birds nest, a bully confronts him and breaks it. A hooded stranger points him toward the Ninja Training Academy, where he masters the art of spinning records and gets his revenge. The hooded stranger again comes to his aid and unmasks herself -- it's Koala's old guardian! Apparently, Koala's victory is purely Pyrrhic, though, for while he wins the adoration of the crowd, his lady love rejects his mixed tape.

Kid Koala's style reminds me of a combination between frequent Con Small Press attendee Bumperboy and the works of Jim Mahfood, whose comics have often boasted their influence from hip hop culture. The Carpal Tunnel Syndrome comic exudes raw creativity; artistically, it starts much stronger than it ends, but that last page of romantic rejection actually packed more of a punch than I expected. Koala uses the black and white contrast to his advantage, though this little comic is printed on brown (recycled?) paper. Much like his music, this story is void of narrative, relying heavily on the art, consequently making this booklet a quick and effortless read. From what I've read on Koala's website, he has continued the tradition of incorporating these two art forms, completing a 350-page volume for his next recording, and based on this fleeting first impression, I'm genuinely interested in seeing more. In short, Kid Koala made every creative effort he could to share his love of music with his audience, and the assault on my senses was successful.

So, did I like the album? I'm generally not a fan of music devoid of lyrics, since I like to shamelessly sing along with almost anything I hear, but the Carpel Tunnel Syndrome record makes for complex ambient music. It flirts with sociopolitical commentary but remains an impressively simple soundtrack for the novice fan of such mixology. Of course, for a geek like me, comics speak louder than music -- but I'm grateful the two are so easily intertwined.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Zorro #1

Zorro #1, 2008, Dynamite Entertainment
writer/art director: Matt Wagner
artist: Francesco Francavilla
colorist: Adriano Lucas
letterer: Simon Bowland

Blogger's note: Entry for Saturday, March 8, 2008.

When I saw Neil Gaiman discuss Beowolf at last year's San Diego Comic Con, I remember his describing the film's sheer improbability. Though I don't recall his comments word for word, I vividly remember his pride and good humor when he explained that producers often joked, "Oh, yeah, my next film is Beowolf," as if the mere thought was enough to evoke mockery and disbelief. Indeed, while the task of translating the oldest known work of fiction was undoubtedly daunting, it surely (and obviously) wasn't impossible thanks to today's technological innovations in grandiose movie making. The project really just needed someone to utter that claim despite the doubt that followed, and Neil Gaiman was the man.

I'd imagine that comics also boast their own similar Beowolves, too. Just consider Zorro. Zorro actually predates the Golden Age of comics and can be co-credited (alongside the likes of Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the Shadow) with establishing the masked crimefighter motif. His story has been interpreted by every form of media conceivable, from the printed page, to radio, to film, to various video games. (Zorro has even starred in a few niche stage productions, just like Superman and Spider-man.) In comics, Dell, Gold Key, Topps, and Marvel have all tried and unfortunately failed to present a timeless incarnation of old California's most beloved hero. Unlike the Supermen that have sprung from the page to master these multi-media facets, perhaps Zorro's legend is simply too big for the confinements of narrative sequential art.

Ah, thankfully, Dynamite Entertainment is willing to challenge that assertion and boldly reintroduce Zorro to a contemporary comic book audience! Interestingly, the key to this series' success isn't Zorro's iconic status, though his name alone will undoubtedly push a great deal of paper; rather, Dynamite's decision to earmark their loftier projects with big name "art directors" has proven itself an effective and successful marketing effort. For instance, Alex Ross is the art director for Dynamite's reincarnation of the Golden Age's forgotten, public domain stars of Project Superpowers, just as John Cassaday is the art director for The Lone Ranger (one of my favorite series of 2007). These artists are undeniable fan favorites, and consequently they ground these franchises' pasts with a fresh, continuity-free foundation in the present. Therefore, by giving Matt Wagner a sense of renewed ownership in Zorro's future, we fans of Wagner's share in that ownership and can move forward with him freely.

Further, if you're a Zorro novice like me, your only real exposure to the nearly 100-year-old character is the Antonio Banderas 1998 film The Mask of Zorro, which, while adventurous, is presumably a shallow representation of the hero at best. Fortunately, like Dynamite's Lone Ranger, Zorro #1 begins at, well, the beginning, telling the story of Diego de la Vega from two unique flashback perspectives: one from his faithful friend Bernardo's perspective when they were children, and the other much later from a corrupted, defeated soldier's view. In Bernardo's yarn, Diego learns the nature honor and dignity from his wealthy father, formerly of the king's guard, and he learns the essence of justice and spirituality from his mother, a Native American. The soldier's story allows the reader his only true glimpse at Zorro this entire issue, as the hero swiftly and ruthlessly thwarts the officials from intimidating an "uppity" sheep farmer. The two tales weave into an excellent first chapter, as a reader like me sees where Zorro's passion for justice begins, and how it reaches practical fruition. Of course, this revelation isn't over, which is half of the joy in watching it begin in the first place.

If Francesco Francavilla is really under the direction of Matt Wagner, both artists are in rare form in this issue, as neither buckle under the pressure previous incarnations of Zorro might've presented. Rather, they rise to the challenge, capturing an old west that boasts a seedy political underbelly and a rich spiritual vastness that both set the stage for the America we know well today. I knew I recognized Francavilla's art from somewhere, and a quick visit to his website reminded me of his work on Image's recent horror miniseries Sorrow, and while that title addresses dark spirituality through charcoal-like graytones, Francavilla's art thrives under Adriano Lucas' colors. The sequences featuring Diego and Bernardo are especially memorable, as the colors breathe a youthful exuberance that must've been prevalent in those open desert days. Essentially, all of this issue's visual elements come together and both contribute to the previous legends of Zorro and instantly make their own mark on the hero's longstanding tradition.

I only hope this incarnation lasts a little longer than Zorro's previous comic book adventures. While his brand is the last letter in the alphabet, Zorro was ironically one of the first to don a mask and fight crime. He deserves mainstream attention, and Dynamite is obviously willing and able to give it to him. Wagner and company have slashed their swords, and it's safe to say they've already left their mark!