Archive for the ‘ Comics ’ Category

Marvel Comics Capsule Reviews

Here are some reviews of new and notable Marvel comics from the past few months. (Well, “new and notable” in the sense that I bought them. This is likely not a representative sample of all the Marvel comics that have launched recently.)

By the way, look for reviews of the new DC series to start in January. I’ve been giving them some time to establish themselves, but that is nearly up.

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Michael Kupperman – Mark Twain’s Autobiography: 1910 – 2010 (Book Review)

Mark Twain's Autobiography: 1910 - 2010 cover

Michael Kupperman - Mark Twain's Autobiography: 1910 - 2010

Michael Kupperman is a comedian best known for the surrealist Tales Designed To Thrizzle comic book. (I also recommend his Twitter account.) With Mark Twain’s Autobiography: 1910 – 2010, he tries his hand at a (barely) full-length book. Based on the premise that Twain was actually immortal, this tells of the adventures that the man has had in the hundred years since his death was “exaggerated” again.

It turns out that Kupperman is naturally fit for the short-form humor of Twitter or comics that change every few pages. This book features 36 chapters in 150 pages – with half of those pages being illustrations. And the longer chapters even contain sudden shifts, such as the time that Twain investigates a ghost in Einstein’s lab, decides to go time-traveling, meets Cyrano and zombies, and then ends up in a movie studio.

Example of inside pages

Fortunately, the absurdist humor works, frequently providing laugh-out-loud moments. But make no mistake: absurdist humor is the reason to read this. The book is aimed at people who are automatically amused by “Hobo Mark Twain” and “Mark Twain in Space!”, not people looking for humor based on the real Mark Twain. The prose is laughably simplistic, with none of the intelligence or satire that Twain would have brought to an autobiography, and the book generally ignores what we know about the man’s personality. There are occasional references to his love of rafting or his books, but the fiercely opinionated and moral man is replaced with a foolish and self-centered lover of adventure.

Mark Twain’s Autobiography works best as a bathroom reader. It’s quick and amusing, only demanding a couple minutes of attention at a time. With its strange approach and truly funny stories, it stands above most of the humor books that market themselves that way. But in the tradition of bathroom readers, it will be forgotten ten minutes later.

Grade: B-

Indie Comic Capsule Reviews

I haven’t done a lot of reviews for comics not from DC or Marvel. It’s not that I don’t read any, but I’ll admit that my reading has become more superhero-heavy since the economy cut the legs out from under many small publishers. Meanwhile, DC and Marvel have doubled down on their bid for market share by adding more titles to their lines. But also, too many small press titles fizzle away on their own or are obviously bad enough for me to drop them before I have enough material for a review.

Here are reviews of five new or recently-completed series, and as mentioned below, the amount of time that some of these took is a good explanation for why I can’t do more regular indie comics reviews.

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Spider-Man: Spider-Island (Comic Review)

(This review covers Amazing Spider-Man #666-673, along with several other titles that tied into the storyline.)

Amazing Spider-Man #670 coverA few months ago, I praised Dan Slott’s current work on Amazing Spider-Man as one of the comic’s definitive runs. It has its ups and downs, of course, but the overall feel is perfect for the character, and the release schedule (twice per month) allows it to fit large, satisfying plots into a short timeframe.

Of course, all long-running comics have their ups and downs, and usually the big “events” are some of the most notable disappointments. The “Spider-Island” storyline that just ran through Amazing is arguably its biggest event in years – at least, it’s the only to feature so many related mini-series and tie-in comics – and surprisingly, it managed to maintain the quality of the series leading up to it. This may not have been one of the series’ highlights, but it was fun and felt true to both the ongoing series and the hyped “event”, and that’s a rare success.

The “Spider Island” of this story is Manhattan. A supervillain infects the borough with a virus that gives everyone the same powers as Spider-Man. At first, this is just about the chaos that results from people having “all of the power and none of the responsibility”, with a look at how it impacts Peter and his supporting characters. But as the virus continues to progress, the victims fall under the control of the villainous “Spider Queen” and the true threat becomes apparent.

As usual, Slott juggles several sub-plots, this time also tying in with several other spin-off titles and cross-overs. Since most of the Marvel community revolves around New York, this effects a lot of the heroes. At times, the story suffers a little for having to remain coherent and interesting whether or not the reader is getting the tie-ins, but is generally succeeds. Most importantly, all of the side titles feel like legitimate stories in their own right – There are no cliffhangers that say “Be sure to read comic ____ for the exciting conclusion!” as some events do. I read most, but not all, of these supporting comics, and they are a part of the overall grade I’m giving this storyline.

The art is by Humerto Ramos, who has become one of the major Spidey artists in recent years. I have mixed feelings about his work: He’s a skilled and dynamic artist. However, his people look incredibly cartoony, with inconsistent proportions and exaggerated body language. It isn’t necessarily less realistic than some of the trends that have dominated comic art at times, but it is different enough to seem out of place in a Marvel book. Even after seeing his work in Amazing Spider-Man for a few years now, it sometimes strikes me as distracting and off-model. I have to admit, though, that if I read through quickly and let his art flow by, those exaggerations create action scenes that feel natural and varied. Ramos’ style is definitely rooted in an understanding of the human form.

Spider-Man stories are a continuous soap opera, for the hero and the ordinary people around him. The ongoing stories continue to progress, with yet another plot-line that started over 100 issues ago (that of the characters Venom and “Anti-Venom”) coming to a close. This remains the only modern comic series that can manage that sort of long-form storytelling, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not bothered by occasional annoyances in the short run. In the long run, this is always excellent. (There were a couple of those annoyances in this storyline. The sight-seeing Madame Web is one of the most frustrating characters out there, just popping in from time to time to drop intentionally vague hints that don’t help anyone. Also, after recent issues that celebrated Spider-Man’s refusal to kill, the workaround at the end of this story felt cheap.) It is unfortunately that most of the changes that came up at the conclusion to this were actually returning things to a previous status quo, but even there, the changes came up organically and didn’t feel like the editorial fiat that normally dominates high-profile events.

Panel from Spider-Island

“Spider-Island” is far from perfect, and it’s definitely not the place a new reader should start. However, I can say that it is the only event comic I can think of in recent years that I actually enjoyed and would recommend to others. Most events seem focused on “Get from point A to B, introduce these arbitrary changes the corporate office asked for, and be sure to sell all the cross-over issues!” Storytelling isn’t a priority, so they mask it by repeating over and over how important everything is. This comic, on the other hand, still put the story and characters first. The “importance” all flowed naturally from that.

Grade: B-

Though they were factored into the above grade, here is a brief discussion of the other comics that were a part of this event:

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iZombie (Comic Review)

Cover to iZombie #2


(This is a review of issues 1-18 of the ongoing series.)

You can learn a lot about the Vertigo series iZombie from the title. Originally solicited as “I, Zombie”, a name referencing Asimov’s classic I, Robot as well as the Vertigo property I, Vampire, it was changed to iZombie at the last minute. This name is either a nonsensical attempt to sound like an Apple product, or intended to imply that this is a new brand of cool, slick, popular zombies. Either interpretation would fit the series.

The main draw of iZombie is artist Michael Allred. His art is fun and breezy, with a pop sensibility can turn grotesque monsters into trendy versions of themselves that deserve that Apple-style “i” prefix. However, in most people’s minds his art is directly associated with his crazy, surreal writing in the Madman comic. iZombie is written by Chris Roberson instead, and Allred’s art suffers without that creative spark in the story.

Gwen, the zombie lead, is a recently-deceased woman who retains her personality andInternal art from iZombie humanity, but will lose it if she doesn’t eat at least one brain a month. So she works in a cemetery that specializes in natural burials to gain access to the still-fresh brains of people she won’t need to kill. The catch is that eating a brain gives her the memories of that person, and she feels obligated to help them complete their unfinished business. The comic interweaves several plots involving the supernatural folk living in her area. Among others, Gwen hangs out with a ghost stuck in a 1960’s mindset and a wereterrier (like a werewolf, but unthreatening), and a sorority of vampires outside the town run a paintball business to attract their victims.

Yes, this series features a wereterrier and paintball. There is also a government task force called the “Dead Presidents”, whose name should be taken literally. Moreover, after Gwen meets cute with a monster hunter (who doesn’t notice that Gwen isn’t a normal human), he surprises her on their first date with a miniature golf outing. Not only does Gwen take this strange date location in stride, but she isn’t scared off when he gives a speech about the important role mini-golf played in his relationship with his mother. There are echoes of this a few issues later when Amon, the mummy character, announces that Skee Ball is the “passion” of his millenia-old life.

Mini-Golf!In short, this is a series in love with its own cleverness, where many of the interests that drive the characters are geeky pop culture elements. This could work, especially given the atmosphere created by Allred’s art, but it would be more effective if the ideas were more original than friendly werewolves. At the very least, the story needs to be less driven by random coincidences and characters who don’t act at all like believable people.

A good microcosm for the series as a whole is issue 6, which tells the backstory of wereterrier Spot. He’s a geek who loves comics and role-playing, but can’t talk to girls, and seems meant for the readers to identify with him. How did he meet up with Gwen’s group? Well, he kept staring awkwardly at them in a diner until she invited him to join them. Not only was that interaction completely unbelievable, but it doesn’t explain how these supernatural beings found each other. It’s difficult to accept that normal people don’t know about monsters when this group keeps bumping into strange creatures around every corner. In that same issue, Spot’s grandfather dies, and the narration goes out of the way to explain how Spot hadn’t talked to him in years and never thought to worry about the old man’s age or health. It’s not a problem, though: The grandfather’s soul becomes trapped in a chimpanzee’s body, and once again a supernatural creature accidentally joins the group without alerting normal people.

The most effective parts of the story are the mysteries that unfold very slowly, such as Gwen’s forgotten past, how it may relate to the mummy Amon, and whether a mad scientist is trying to raise a Lovecraftian horror. New pieces of information are doled out regularly, though they occasionally come up thanks to more coincidences (especially with people from Gwen’s past). In fact, the comic is usually juggling four or five plots at once. Roberson balances them very well, and in the right situation, it would be effective. Here, though, since half of the plots tend to be uninteresting, it just makes the story feel like it’s progressing too slowly.

iZombie has the right art and attitude to make it a lighthearted romp through monster cliches, but it falls short in the implementation. Without more original ideas and better plot devices, all those clever pop culture references just feel like cynical ploys from someone who doesn’t actually get them himself.

Grade: C-

Webcomics Roundup – On Broadcasting

A few weeks ago, Warren Ellis posted his thoughts on the current state of webcomics. In short, he drew a line between “webcomics”, which are freely available, and “digital comics”, which people must buy through a service like Comixology. He regrets, but understands, the fact that attention seems to have shifted away from webcomics in recent years, as people realize that selling them up front is still the best way to make money. The problem is that only webcomics have the ability to “broadcast” themselves. As soon as a webcomic is updated, it’s “surrounded by an expanding sphere of URLs and shortcodes, of RTs and Likes and +1s” that you can’t get from the other side of a pay-wall. The implication is that webcomics offer a free, no-pressure space for artists to develop masterpieces, but that the most skilled people are going to need to migrate over to the digital comics side in order to survive.

My thoughts about this are below the fold.

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Morning Glories (Comic Review)

(This is a review of issues 1-12 of the Image comic Morning Glories. These can also be found in the first two collected volumes of the series.)

Morning Glories issue #1 cover

Morning Glories

Students usually feel like they are fighting against their school, but what if that school really were trying to kill them? That is the central hook of Morning Glories, a comic about six students newly recruited to a prestigious, but sinister, private academy.

It’s a silly idea even on its face, because any school with the body count shown here would end quickly. It might make for a fun miniseries, but Morning Glories is intended to be a long-running series. Amazingly, author Nick Spencer seems poised to make it work by not only examining the “what if?” question, but also considering why a school would want to kill its students. Twelve issues in, we don’t have a lot of answers, but there are quite a few hints about a centuries-old movement (possibly religious, possibly looking for an answer to a legitimate threat) testing children to find ones with some sort of special power. With enough suspension of disbelief to assume that their secret society could cover up the deaths and maintain their school’s prestigious reputation, this actually makes a twisted sort of sense.

Artist Joe Eisma does a passable job portraying the often dialogue-heavy story, with distinct characters and expressive faces and postures (even if he does favor a few generic body types).His linework features the occasional jarring angle and could definitely use a strong inker to give it depth, but it’s better than many DC and Marvel artists. Best of all, he is one of the few Image artists who can keep anything close to a monthly schedule .

But the art is really just a delivery mechanism for the story that dominates this comic. It’s defined by the many mysteries and constant twists, with each new issue providing a good chunk of plot and new information. Though the story is not unfolding in any hurry, it certainly can’t be accused of decompression or padding. Reading it as a serialized work, it delivers something new every month.

The plot points offer a lot of variety, from tweaking everyday aspects of school life (teachers, cheerleading squads, and guidance counselors) to completely unexpected surprises (ghosts, underground prisoners, and a strange device that intrigues cutting-edge physicists). Spencer almost seems scared to go a single issue without defying expectations, and the tone of each issue varies widely, too, from horror to graphic violence to understated suspense.

The characters started as a typical Breakfast Club-style collection of cliches. Though they haven’t gotten much deeper (this comic’s strength is in unexpected twists, not character development), they have defied expectations. In these first twelve issues, every one has either turned out to have a shocking history or faced things within the school that played off their basic archetype in surprising ways. There are also varying allegiances among the school staff and at least one organization seeking to destroy them from the outside.

It’s a lot to take in, and if anything, the concern is that Morning Glories will turn out to be one of those stories that piles the mysteries on but doesn’t know how to resolve them. That was my initial impression of this, but fortunately I re-read the series so far in preparation for this review. Taking in every issue at once, a lot of the pieces fit together better than I had expected, and the total number of open mysteries was not as large as it had seemed. (Most importantly, and a little embarrassingly, I hadn’t noticed before that one person had played a role in at least three characters’ life stories. What I’d thought to be three unrelated pieces of information all tied together neatly.) It’s strange, because this had seemed to be the perfect series to read for the monthly surprises, but now I can see a strong argument for following it in larger collected chunks. Either way, though, the mysteries seem well fleshed out, and the few explanations to date have been satisfying, so it seems that Spencer does know what he’s doing. He says that he has this planned out until an ending around issue 100, and the build-up so far seems fair given that schedule.

It’s always hard to know whether to trust a title whose main draw is mysteries and plot twists. Many high-profile works that took that approach fizzled out disappointingly (look at X-Files or Lost), but a low-stakes creator-owned comic like this arguably has a better chance of holding true to a vision. Whatever the final result is, Morning Glories has at least turned out to be a worthwhile read so far. The memorable hooks and new questions keep this interesting month after month.

Grade: B

The DC Re-launch, Month One

September is coming to an end, which means that all 52 comics in DC’s relaunched line have now been released. They’ve sold incredibly well, proving my more cautious ideas wrong. Of course, now that they’re out, the thing that matters for the future is quality. How many readers will stick around for issues #2, #3, or #25?

I’ve read 20 of these, along with online news and commentary about pretty much all of them. My opinion can be split into two contrasting views:

  • DC had the opportunity to fix any problem that they could think of and re-focus their line in a way to stay relevant to 21st-century readers. Given that, it’s incredibly disappointing that they just shuffled their heroes around among their existing creators, with the truly awful ones keeping their jobs. Most of the titles feel like generic superhero stories, with no ambitious ideas. When they did take chances, they were as likely to just make them more violent or unbelievably sexy as they were to actually try something to make the comic better. There is no line-wide ideal driving this reboot, either. Justice League and Action both take place “five years ago”, when superheroes first appeared to an untrusting populace. But all the others take place today, and they make no attempt to reconcile that brief five-year timeframe with the extensive continuity that they’re keeping for the fans. (As one of many examples, how has Batman had four Robins in this time, even ignoring the fact that the most recent one was born after he began his hero career?) Looking beyond the hype, it appears that DC’s grand plan to invigorate itself is “more of the usual, but with a big ‘#1’ on each comic!”
  • On the other hand, coming up with 52 new titles did force DC to cast its net a bit wider than usual. Most of these may be the same characters and creators that have been presiding over the company’s slow decline, but there is now room for several new ones as well. And even if most people squandered their opportunities, some of them did jump at the chance to try something new. The result is that out of 52 books, there will probably be at least 10 good ones. A few of them could even be great. Maybe this sounds cynical, but I don’t expect every comic to be good, and this is an improvement over their line-up before. Even better, the high profile of the launch and the huge number of people buying the comics means that the good ones have a chance to pick up a following. Even if DC’s overall creative direction is as lackluster as ever, I’m a lot more excited about my specific choices than I was before.

It’s always been true that the quality of superhero comics depended on how you looked at it. Just like books, music, and everything else, there’s a lot of crap. Since the comics industry is so small and depends on interrelated titles, it’s a lot harder to ignore the bad stuff. But if you do, you’ll find some great stories. This new direction for DC seems to have emphasized both the good and bad extremes.

One thing that surprised me was how dark many of the good titles were. In recent years, there has been a pretty strong correlation between how violent and gory a comic was with how lazy and poorly-written it was. There are always exceptions, but among this month’s titles, it seemed that the best ones incorporated horror elements, while the ones that stuck to (relatively) clean superhero action felt like just more of the same. I don’t know if this dark turn is intentional or not, but I expect that it’s here to stay.

If you are thinking about trying out some of these comics, there are definite right and wrong choices. Fortunately, reviews of these are all over the internet. You should be able to find out which ones sound right for you. As usual, I’m going to wait until there are a few months’ worth of releases before I start doing official reviews. If you want some quick recommendations, though, here are the first issues that I would recommend:

Webcomics Roundup: Pushing the Boundaries

What makes something a webcomic? For the most part, the answer is obvious, but the actual significance of webcomics might not be as clear-cut as their literal definition. I first realized this years ago when a comment on the short story site Hitherby Dragons said that most people visited it as part of their daily webcomic rounds. I’ve fallen years behind on Hitherby’s stories (tragically – it used to be one of my favorite websites), but that thought has stuck with me.

Here are a few other sites that stretch the definition of webcomics.

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Justice League #1 (Comic Review)

Justice League #1 coverYesterday, I explained why I was disappointed with the Flashpoint event that ended the current DC Comics universe. Fortunately, though, the new universe kicked off on the same day with Justice League #1, and it makes me more optimistic. This is far from a perfect comic, but it’s fun.

It’s written by Geoff Johns, the same person who weighed down Flashpoint with an unfocused mess of fan-pleasing ideas. Here, he finds a more appropriate avenue for some of the guilty pleasures of superheroes: By starting over in a new timeline, he gets to introduce popular characters and have them spar as they learn to trust each other. The conceit of this reboot is that superheroes have been around for only five years, and the world was very suspicious of them when they first appeared. So this shows Batman and Green Lantern running from cops, and the heroes get to be edgy while also being perfectly good.

This issue focuses on Batman and Green Lantern’s first meeting, with Superman appearing at the end. (Relatively low-profile Cyborg also gets a few pages, but the other three founders of the Justice League are not in the story yet.) Johns’ glee at letting these heroes bicker with each other is palpable.

Of course, this is what he does best. The characters are witty and iconic, the plot is simple but smoothly paced, and it feels appropriate to the heroes. Unlike most of Johns’ writing, though, it actually doesn’t require any knowledge of previous comics. This is a very important sign for this DC initiative, of course, as it needs to be accessible. (Well-versed readers will recognize the name of the big villain that is hinted at, but that’s in no way necessary to enjoy it. It’s amazing how rarely comics get that balance right.)

Jim Lee’s presence as an artist really sells this as an event. Not just because of his art, but because he works in comics so rarely now. One of the superstars of the 90’s, his art contains everything that was wrong with 90’s comics but generally does it right. Yes, the characters are all hyper-muscled, grit their square jaws, and make every pose dramatic, but Lee can make the scenes dynamic without just reusing a few poses over and over. He isn’t known for subtlety or expressive figure drawing, but in a book like this, it’s good that even the dialog-driven scenes are fraught with tension. The one flaw that comes through here is that the pages tend to be a little too busy and packed with action. Most comic fans won’t even notice, but that may be an issue for any new readers who decide to try this out.

Really, that’s the problem in general. Johns and Lee do everything right for their established fanbase, giving them a new story in a familiar world. They make the right motions towards writing a story for the rest of the world, as well, but only get halfway there. It will make sense to anyone with a passing knowledge of the major heroes, but I don’t know if it will feel compelling enough to bring them back next month. It’s a partial story, ending on a cliffhanger, and it’s only a satisfying read in itself if you share Johns’ love of these characters and can find their interactions interesting.

It’s dangerous to read too much info a single issue of a comic, so I’ll just say this: Justice League #1 resolves many (though not all) of my cynical concerns about DC’s relaunch and shows that at least some of the creators are taking it seriously, but it doesn’t resolve my concerns about whether DC can actually bring in new readers to stop its slow decline. If you were a fan of superhero comics at pretty much any point in the past, this is probably going to be worth checking out for you. If not, then hopefully next week’s Action release will be a better place to start.

Grade: B-