Archive for the ‘ Comics ’ Category

Image Comics Capsule Reviews: Happy! and Multiple Warheads

It’s time for another quick catch-up on recently completed miniseries from Image Comics. I plan to cover two today, two more in a few days, and catch up on the ongoing Morning Glories soon afterwards.


cover to Happy! #1

Happy!

Happy!

After years on an exclusive contract, the hyper-inventive Grant Morrison seemed to become a little set in his ways. For this reason, Happy!, his first non-DC work in a long time, carried a lot of expectations with it. The results are inconclusive. It’s a fun, competently-told story, but there’s no hint of deeper meaning or a long-suppressed muse bursting free.

Happy! is an especially twisted take on Morrison’s obsession with reality and fantasy crossing over. It opens with tough-talking gangsters preparing for a hit, straight out a Garth Ennis comic. It even features excellent art from Darick Robertson, who excels at this sort of gritty but amusing hyper-violence. By the end of the first issue, though, it’s taken a surprising twist. The crime story is never left behind – this is a Christmas comic reminiscent of Bad Santa in the uncomfortable way it plays with redemption – but it would be more accurate to compare it to Bad Santa Meets The Smurfs.

The first issue is the best. Morrison turns out to be good at darkly humorous crime scenes, and those early scenes with no reader expectations are thrilling. Once it settles on its protagonist and main conflict, it becomes a little more by-the-numbers. This is the sort of story where a character finds a way to look at other people’s hands in Poker, but the only way the writer knows to show him winning is to give him high hands every time. On the other hand, in a flashback to the anti-hero’s backstory, Morrison shows that clichés can be effective.

Happy! is a fun, fast read, if you’re looking for something grotesque and slightly surreal. There’s no real hook to keep you interested afterwards, though. Despite the craft it was made with, it will fade as quickly as you can read it.

Grade: B-


cover to Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity #1

Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity

Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity

Brandon Graham’s Multiple Warheads has a convoluted history: Starting out as a indie porn about an organ smuggler who steals a werewolf dick for her boyfriend, it led to an Oni Press series that never went past the introductory issue, and is now a series-of-series from Image. Despite all that, it’s not really necessary to understand any of the title’s past. This is like Graham’s classic King City, a cute story jam-packed with ideas in a science fictional setting that allows for anything Graham wants to happen. Tossed-off ideas and puns fill in all the margins, with an attitude somewhat like Groucho Marx as a sci-fi-loving graffiti artist.

In many ways, Graham’s work is a celebration of indie comics in their purest form. An uncommercial labor of love that costs less than most superhero comics but takes three times as long to read, these can be pure joy. But at this point, I’m starting to wish for some actual plot and consistency to tie it all together. In these four issues, the main couple (Sexica and Nikoli) go on a road trip past a bunch of fatal threats that never feel dangerous, and another organ smuggler named Nura (who has no connection to the others as far as I know) heads out on a mission. I wasn’t always sure what was going on other than that, but these ended right when the story seemed to start up. There may be dangerous secrets at the hotel Sexica and Nikoli are staying at, and there are some interesting side characters serving them there. But after building that up, the final issue was entirely about Nura getting in a fight that ended inconclusively. It was misleading to call this a mini-series.

Multiple Warheads is fun, but aimless. I’m really glad that Graham has started to try out other storytelling styles, such as the slightly more focused Prophet. Still, as long as he keeps comics like these as an occasional side project, I’m likely to keep up with them.

Grade: B-

 

Rotworld and its Build-Up (Comic Review)

cover to Swamp Thing #7

Swamp Thing

When I last looked at DC’s current Swamp Thing and Animal Man series, I found them to be fascinating character reboots, with a shared battle against “The Rot” making them even more compelling. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. didn’t impress me as much, but it had potential. It since joined these other two titles for the “Rotworld” event, under the theory that the unliving Frankenstein is one of the few creatures immune to the death and decay wielded by the enemy.

All series continued, if not improved upon, the high level of talent shown in the first few months, but “Rotworld” itself was disappointing. After a lot of fun character-building and horrific moments, the heroes suddenly found themselves in a future where The Rot had already won. It quickly fell into the pattern of alternate universe stories that are all too common in superhero comics: In a world that doesn’t have to last, lots of major characters can be killed off, minor ones can rise to prominence, villains can switch sides, and so on. These stories are fun the first few times you see them, but it doesn’t take long before they feel repetitive, and there’s never any question that everything will be undone by the end. The theme of plant- and animal-themed powers fighting against death did allow for more cool ideas than these events usually have, but on the other hand, the powers of The Rot meant that it was mainly just pictures of grotesque, corrupted heroes killing each other. After a year of exciting build-up, “Rotworld” went on for a couple months too long to stay interesting.

cover to Animal Man #17

Animal Man

It’s a shame, because Animal Man had been getting much better up to that point. The main problem with the first several issues was Travel Foreman’s art, which kept pulling me out of the story. The excellent Steve Pugh stepped in, though, and he improved it immensely: Deeper colors, less drastic differences in shading, and slightly more dynamic framing managed to make the art great without ever feeling like a break in continuity from Foreman’s style. Jeff Lemire’s writing stayed consistent throughout, but it sure seemed a lot better once the art wasn’t distracting me. Before Rotworld began, I’d reached a point where I was enjoying Animal Man a lot more than Swamp Thing every month.

Swamp Thing stayed good, too, but was less surprising than Animal Man once the new status quo was explained. As I noted in my second look at Batman, Scott Snyder’s writing skills lie in making formulaic stories interesting, rather than cutting new ground. So the middle act, about darkness rising, felt a little more like a straightforward than Animal Man’s family drama, though it never stopped being enjoyable. And my only real complaint is that Yanick Paquette remained unable to keep up with a monthly schedule.

However, Swamp Thing ended strongly. Issue #18 had been planned as the conclusion to Snyder and Paquette’s run, and while I’m sad to see them go, they did tell a good story. It’s rare to see in comics, but the conclusion felt like the logical outcome of everything that had happened so far. This is especially good to see after an alternate-world event, since usually those just result in one or two arbitrary changes, usually tragedies to make the event feel “serious”. Animal Man fell into that trap, but Swamp Thing came out feeling like a classic. Issue #18 is beautiful, satisfying, and makes me feel invested in the new status quo even though I had previously been unsure about following the new creators.

cover to Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #11

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. was an unexpected addition to the event. The early issues didn’t have anything to do with the battle against The Rot, but Jeff Lemire was writing both this and Animal Man. However, this crossed over with his big storyline after he handed writing duties over to Matt Kindt! Kindt was a great choice for this, though. I had been disappointed by Lemire’s story, and thought that it was trying too hard to be a weird Hellboy-type title without any actual spark. Just as Pugh was able to make Animal Man reach its potential with subtle changes, though, Kindt worked magic here. In his hand, the weird world felt like more of a backdrop, and the focus shifted to Frankenstein’s own longing for peace and purpose. The series never sold well, and it ended with issue #16. Over the course of a few months, I went from getting bored with this title to being sad to see it end.

I seem to have written mainly negative comic reviews so far this year, so I’m happy to say that all of these inter-related titles are worth reading. (And, with only a couple exceptions, they managed to keep themselves understandable even if you only weren’t reading them all.) The half-year spent in “Rotworld” definitely drags them down, and I can’t recommend them as highly as I would have at their peak. But Swamp Thing created a new classic story for the character. Animal Man fared much more poorly in the crossover, but it’s difficult to compare a still-ongoing series to a complete one. It did show that the team of Lemire and Pugh can do great things, and I’m actually more excited about its potential than I was in the early days. Finally, Frankenstein may have been cancelled, but it turned itself into something to mourn just in time.

Swamp Thing (based on issues #7-18, 0, and an Annual): B+

Animal Man (based on issues #7-18, 0, and an Annual): B-

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (based on issues #6-16 and 0): B-

 

Are We Entering a Post-Webcomics Era?

I’m becoming a little wary of writing about how the webcomics industry is changing, because every time I look back on those articles six months later, they seem so obvious that I’m a little embarrassed to have written them. But I want to respond to a blog post from Monday written by John Allison (of the excellent Bad Machinery).

Titled “Post webcomics“, Allison explains his worry that we’re leaving the era in which webcomics like his could succeed. His take is that online comics of the past decade used a dedicated website to create an identity and maintain loyal readers. Now that most people experience the internet through social media services instead of individual websites, that relationship between artist and audience is lost. Instead, sites like Tumblr let many more people distribute comics, but everything goes into a single messy feed that doesn’t promote loyalty. Allison’s concern is that it’s becoming easier to get people to click a Thumbs Up button, but harder to find anyone who will stick around to give you money.

I want artists to get paid for their work, and I sympathize with Allison’s concerns. However, I don’t think it’s really getting harder to succeed. It’s not like the webcomics industry has ever been a safe, static one, and I’m sure Allison (who has moved confidently between three major comics now) understands this. Yes, the trend towards social media sites is a challenge, but the movement towards social media itself is an opportunity. By definition, social media gives you the chance to create the fanbase and identity that Allison wants his website to provide. The recent explosion of webcomics Kickstarter projects is evidence that fanbases are still willing to support creators. In fact, Kickstarter is a brand new way for webcomics creators to make money. We also seem to be getting closer to iPhone apps that provide a small, regular revenue stream for creators. And as sites like ShiftyLook show, webcomics have become so popular that companies are willing to fund them for their own marketing purposes.

That last point is my key takeaway. Not because I think that corporate sponsorship is the wave of the future, but because webcomics have become that popular. I remember in the heyday of John Allison’s alleged “webcomics era”, when Joey Manley posted his predictions for the year 2007. Chief among them, that popular comics would become ever more entrenched and that no new ones would challenge their popularity. That seemed self-evident at the time… but 2007 turned out to be the year of XKCD. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of Homestuck, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Axe Cop, and many others. (Not to mention juggernauts like Dresden Codak, which existed before then but hadn’t yet become popular.) Name your ten favorite webcomics, and I’ll bet you that Manley’s prediction predated half of them. The webcomics world is a much more diverse, vibrant place now than it was at the end of 2006, and a lot more money seems to be changing hands as well.

If I were going to summarize the difference between making webcomics now and making them in the last decade, it wouldn’t be in terms of websites vs. Tumblr streams. Instead, I think the difference is that webcomics readers used to be a small, dedicated scene, and now they’re basically the world. In 2006, your webcomic could only be successful if virtually everyone in the community was aware of you. Today, there is no “community”, because “people who browse the web for entertainment” describes pretty much the whole developed world. You could be virtually unknown in the wider world and still have thousands of true fans willing to support you. That requires a different way of approaching things, but it’s not necessarily bad.

Yes, Allison is right that 99% of the audience is just going to glance at comics as they stream by. But if the audience itself has increased one thousand-fold, then the 1% who are active represent a huge increase overall. It’s always been true that most webcomics will fail to find an audience, and that most people at comic conventions won’t appreciate Bad Machinery. Allison has seen that before, and I think his current worries come just from seeing a different angle on it. It seems to me that the webcomics industry is healthier now than it’s ever been.

First (and Last) Look at Marvel NOW!

The “Marvel NOW!” initiative has been running for a few months now, with soft relaunches intended to satisfy both old and new readers. I’ve been reading several of new series, and after my recent cynicism about Marvel’s direction, I went into this honestly unsure of what to expect. There are a lot of good signs here, but it turns out that the negatives far outweigh anything else. This is the time when I should write about my “first looks” at the new titles, but there’s only one that I feel compelled to discuss:


cover to Avengers Arena #1

Avengers Arena

Avengers Arena

(Based on issues #1-4.)

It’s fairly common for DC and Marvel to jump on popular trends, and sometimes they find a way to make it work. But their continuity just isn’t set up to support a Hunger Games-like story about teens forced to kill each other. Superhero comics are unrealistic in many ways, but they work because of an established set of assumptions. For example, the heroes always have an alternative to killing, and a single accident is much more likely to injure or surprise someone than to actually kill them. Avengers Arena feels awkward from the start, as it tries to establish all its “because I said so” rules: The heroes have no way to escape, and no one can find them. Magic won’t work. The villain is satisfied just to mess around with these kids, even though his ability to create this status quo and hide the victims from the rest of the world’s heroes actually makes him incredibly powerful. And the camaraderie that should always make the heroes learn to work together disappears as soon as the villain tells them it should.

I’m not opposed to tragic hero deaths in principle, as long as they serve the story. I was one of the (apparently few) people who appreciated the recent ending to Amazing Spider-Man, because I felt that its events had been properly set up and was true to the characters. In fact, Runaways and Avengers Academy (which both contribute characters to this new title) were two of my favorite modern Marvel series. Both of those were known for stories in which characters changed or died frequently, but those changes were tied to the excellent character work. Avengers Arena author Dennis Hopeless writes these characters awkwardly, and so their out-of-character actions just feel like an insult to the fans. In fact, the first issue makes a point of picking up where Avengers Academy ended just to undo one of its happy moments. It’s manipulative, and it cheapens the work of the skilled creators who paved the way for this cash-in.

The art is better than the writing, but art isn’t the issue here. This is a cynical title focused on the shock value of good characters being hunted and killed by other “good” characters, and it’s too focused on that goal to let things like unfinished character arcs or established personalities get in its way. This is a serious problem, especially because its ramifications go beyond this single series. The point of ongoing superhero comics is that they are ongoing: The connection to the big picture makes each issue better, and I justify the price of individual issues by saying that I get more than just the pages of the current story. Obviously there will be unpleasant surprises from time to time, but the overall feeling needs to be that the stories are building on each other. Avengers Arena is an outright betrayal of some excellent past comics, and is obviously designed to take advantage of readers for having liked those. This can’t just be written off as Dennis Hopeless’ fault, because a heavily marketed slaughter-fest like this must have had heavy involvement from the editorial staff.

It’s possible that there are plans to explain or undo this further along. However, the four issues I’ve read have been clearly intended to accept at face value, and I can’t keep buying them. I can only conclude that the people steering Marvel have no respect for the value of their unfolding stories or the characters that drive them. There’s no reason for me to continue putting time and money into stories that are being guided by people willing to break the fundamental contract between publisher and reader. I’ve decided to stop buying Marvel superhero comics.

That’s how bad Avengers Arena is: It’s not just a bad idea and poorly-written, but it’s enough to kill all my interest in Marvel, period. I hope to someday see changes in their editorial direction that will let me trust the company again. In the meantime, though, I won’t regret ignoring them.

Grade: F


I could talk further about the other new series I tried, because on their own I had a generally positive opinion of them. But if I’m not willing to buy any Marvel titles because I no longer have faith that these ones will turn out well, there doesn’t seem to be any point in recommending them.

For now, I am continuing to follow only one Marvel series: Daredevil. I’ve never cared about this character or his supporting cast before, so I don’t have to be worried about what happens to them in the future. I’m just buying them because of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s excellent craft, and I don’t have to worry about building any sort of attachment that Marvel could take advantage of. It’s sad that I can only read one of their comics after making a calculated decision about my own lack of buy-in to it.

Jeff Smith – RASL (Comic Review)

cover to RASL #1

RASL

Jeff Smith is mostly known for his all-ages comic Bone, but he just devoted over four years to RASL, a science fiction adventure aimed at adults. It’s best feature is the great black-and-white art you would expect from him: Distinctive characters and strong, fluid line-work make for clear, visually-pleasing pages. For this story, he drew slightly grittier and more detailed pictures, which gets in the way of the fluid action that made Bone scan like a moving animation. It’s still a pleasure to see Smith’s artwork, of course. Despite that, this story never became that interesting.

The main character, who goes by the alias “RASL”, is introduced as a hedonistic art thief with a device that lets him travel between parallel universes. But a “lizard-faced man” is also jumping between worlds to hunt him, a wide-eyed mute girl appears and disappears mysteriously, and it turns out that RASL is actually an on-the-run scientist. After the first third of the series, that art-thief anti-hero is forgotten, and in his place is a man racing to stop short-sighted scientists from experiments that threaten the world. (The perfect example of this change in atmosphere is the effect that “drifting” between worlds has on RASL. At the start, it’s established that each drift takes such a toll on his mind and body that he needs to lose himself in a drunken, womanizing haze to recover. By the end, he and the villains are jumping between worlds every few minutes, and staying alert enough to trade punches immediately afterwards.)

RASL pageDespite a lot of strange mysteries on the periphery, the core story could be a by-the-numbers action movie, probably starring someone midway between Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis. The main qualification to be a “scientist” is the ability to handle yourself in a fight, and RASL’s big breakthrough had more to do with discovering Nikolai Tesla’s lost notes than with research or experiments. It’s all perfectly fun popcorn fare enhanced by occasional philosophical puzzles, but it would need a couple more explosions and car chases to qualify as a summer blockbuster.

In some ways, it’s like Smith bit off more than he could chew: All the extra bits made this confusing to follow while it was being serialized (with long delays between the two to four issues per year), but if you read it at one time, it’s difficult to reconcile the set-up of the early issues with the plot that takes over. Interesting, but never actually satisfying, this is a half-successful experiment from one of the great cartoonists of our time. It’s good to know that Smith isn’t going to be pigeonholed by the runaway success of Bone, but I hope he finds a better mix of elements for his next story.

Grade: C+

 

Comic Capsule Reviews: Recent Indie Miniseries

It’s been a while since I looked at small press comic miniseries, but I only have three completed ones to talk about. Between the economic downturn and the sudden rise of Image as the go-to place for indie talent, the tiny publishers are slowly getting squeezed out. There are still comics worth paying attention to, though.

(Note that, in the American comics industry, “small press” generally refers to anything that isn’t from one of the five “big” companies that occupy the front of the Previews catalog. This is actually a fairly strict definition, as some people will actually use terms like “indie” and “small press” for anything that doesn’t feature a DC or Marvel hero on the cover.)

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Belated Comics First Looks

It’s difficult to time my First Look comic reviews right. Ideally, I’ll discuss them after the first few issues, but by the time I can group several related ones into an article, they may be older. I now have several comics that are overdue for a First Look. The only thing tying these together is that they are non-superhero (and non-DC/Marvel) comics that are bucking the trend of indies coming out as miniseries. Also, they’re all close to a year old. Better late than never, right?

(The other difficulty with my First Looks is predicting which comics will last so long that I shouldn’t wait for the end. For example, my early review of Snarked! ended up being two-thirds of the way through the series. Rather than writing a new review, I just added final thoughts to that article. I’ve made guesses here, such as thinking that Dark Horse’s latest Conan title can wait until the end for a review. Time will tell.)

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