Archive for the ‘ Comics ’ Category

The Wormworld Saga: A Profitable Webcomic?

I just read the first chapter of the webcomic The Wormworld Saga. It’s too early to tell how good it is yet, but there is definite promise. The setup hits all the clichés of the “imaginative but damaged boy discovers a fantasy world”, but it has a great feel for the childish wonder that should drive such stories, as evidenced in the hidden room at his grandmother’s house. The painted colors are a little chunky and occasionally lifeless for my taste, but the art is undeniably skilled. And the real selling point is its infinite canvas, with each chapter being a single long, long page that the reader keeps scrolling down through. The first chapter doesn’t always take advantage of this, but it does create an absolutely stunning opening, as the downward scrolling leads from the sky to a kingdom below the ground, which morphs back into a real-world scene. And while that glimpse of the other kingdom is the only time this chapter leaves reality, I absolutely love this fanart which uses that same canvas to slowly reveal more and more of an impossible world.

But the content of the webcomic itself, whether it ends up being good or bad, isn’t what motivated me to write this. Instead, I’m fascinated by the way Daniel Lieske, the creator, is hoping to make money from his story.

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First Wave (Comic Review)

From Doc Savage to Superman, from The Shadow to Batman, superheroes grew fairly directly out of the pulp movement. Since DC Comics has since acquired the rights to many of these influential characters, it isn’t surprising that they would try to breathe new life into them. First Wave was an attempt to create a shared world of gritty, low-powered heroes based on reinterpretations of classic figures. Not a bad idea, but DC did an astoundingly bad job with it.

The plan was that First Wave would be a six-issue miniseries that set up a status quo, with two ongoing titles (Doc Savage and The Spirit) immediately spinning off from it. A solid plan, but it doesn’t mean anything if the comic itself isn’t very good. First Wave’s story follows a convoluted plot involving a world-spanning secret organization, a drug that turns victim’s blood into gold, and a machine that can manufacture tsunamis. Even after re-reading it for this review, I’m not quite sure how those pieces fit together. Nor am I sure how the different heroes all got involved: I count six to eight plot threads following different pulp heroes or groups (depending on whether Doc Savage and his associates are counted separately), and weaving those in and out of six comics is a tricky task. When a character suddenly appears in a new issue, it can be difficult to remember what they know and what their current motivations are.

Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Rags Morales are both associated with high-profile comics events, but they weren’t necessarily the right combination for this title. Morales’ crisp combination of realism and cartoonishness is the hallmark of modern-day superhero art (especially mixed with this book’s bright colors), and it contrasts with the darker, gritty pulp story that Azzarello is trying to tell.

The Bat-Man and his gun

The one bright spot of this relaunch is the clever ideas that were applied to the characters. The once heroic Blackhawks are now mercenaries who care mainly about money, and even after they turn against the bad guy, they have little regard for the lives of less capable heroes. Doc Savage, “the perfect man”, is set against a skeptical press and a public who can’t trust the motives of an alleged hero. And I’d love to read further adventures of this rookie “Bat-Man”, who carries guns and is as interested in the adrenaline rush as the justice. Unfortunately, a series based on him would probably turn out to be a disappointment, based on the spin-offs that we did see. The Spirit had possibly the most interesting reinvention of all, being paired with a corrupt police force who sneer and trade barbs with him. The new Spirit comic, though, quickly forgets this. Instead of just getting tips from Commissioner Dolan (a “bad cop but a good guy” who cares about his own wealth and safety first, but will help The Spirit do his job on the side), within a year the vigilante is publicly walking around the police station with his “best friend” the commissioner. It’s not a bad title on its own, but contradicts First Wave enough to ruin the effect that a shared world is supposed to have.

This isn’t a review of The Spirit, or the standalone Doc Savage title (an inoffensively bland action story), but it bears noting that the problems with First Wave extended to very poor editorial control across the intended line. There was also a one-issue “First Wave Special” last week that I was waiting for before doing this review. That issue actually wasn’t bad: A creative team with a grittier style, a story that addressed plot lines in the recent Spirit and Doc Savage titles, and a confrontation between some of the major players that emphasizes each one’s different personality. The First Wave Special actually made a good case for these characters as part of a new interconnected line. Unfortunately, I think the damage has already been done. First Wave itself was a hard-to-follow mess that introduced interesting characters, but failed to do anything worthwhile with them. More than a year after the experiment started (yes, the six-issue series was plagued by a lot of delays), it is obvious that the momentum it was trying to build is not going to happen.

Grade: D-

Joe the Barbarian (Comic Review)

"The Light's In Danger"Joe is a sullen teenager who would rather retreat into his own imaginary world than face reality. When he falls into a diabetic shock, he gets his wish: A fantasy land populated by his old toys hails him as a savior, and he embarks on a crazy journey only occasionally marred by the reality of him stumbling around a real-world house in search of life-saving sugar.

The idea of someone switching between reality and fantasy is certainly not new, but Joe the Barbarian handles it with aplomb. Author Grant Morrison is a master of crazy ideas, and elevates the fantasy setting beyond normal expectations. (Seriously, dwarf pirates whose submarines navigate a pipe system based on Joe’s plumbing? Skull-wearing inventor-monks, whose glimpses of real-world science are confused with magic? The world is just creative enough to imply that there is a solid history beyond the clichéd “toys living in a magic land”.) Artist Sean Murphy provides an understated realism that easily transitions between the dark, grimy real world and a fantasy world that is manic, cartoony, but still threatened by a growing shadow. Even the publisher plays a key role here: As Vertigo is an imprint of DC, Morrison and Murphy are free to pepper their “toyland” with recognizable action figures instead of generic, copyright-skirting approximations.

The transitions between the two worlds, often panel-to-panel, are masterfully done, and it’s impressive that the comic pulls this off without disrupting the pacing. This keeps the stakes high, constantly reminding the reader of the life-and-death battle that’s taking place in two levels at once. Echoing his real-world status, the characters he meets recognize him as a foretold savior named “The Dying Boy”. The conflict is clear: Joe is only able to save them as long as he is in danger of dying from a diabetic hallucination. Will he condemn them all if he gets to a life-saving drink of soda?

Despite this, the tension would be a lot stronger if the series was more convincing in its hints that these fantasy people might be real. Since everything we see is through Joe’s fevered eyes, any evidence of these creatures’ reality is easy to dismiss as part of his hallucination. The other land is fun and original, but the only conflict that kept me hanging on from month to month was just whether he would get some sugar in his system.

The ending is also surprisingly pat. Morrison unexpectedly makes his only recent creator-owned series more straightforward than the superhero work he has been doing. Warrior-rat Jack must face up to his feelings of inadequacy, the normal-sized pirate prince needs to gain acceptance among his dwarven subjects, and, in a subplot that feels entirely shoehorned in, Joe is in danger of losing his house to foreclosure.

That’s not to say that Joe the Barbarian is bad. Morrison and Murphy are both able to deliver solid results in genre exercises like this, and there are plenty of ideas and developed themes that prove that they aren’t just phoning this in. However, it rarely tries to be more than a straightforward fantasy story about a teenage boy facing his issues. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t going to appeal to anyone who wouldn’t normally want to read those stories.

Grade: B-

Knight and Squire (Comic Review)

Knight and Squire

Knight and Squire

Though Knight and Squire were introduced in the 1950’s, for the past decade or so this British Batman and Robin has been solely the domain of DC’s mad genius writer Grant Morrison. I have to admit I was a bit worried when Paul Cornell began his Knight and Squire miniseries, as other writers’ followups to Morrison work have generally been embarrassing. I needn’t have worried.

For one thing, Morrison has left these two heroes surprisingly untouched. While they’ve been woven into his large DC epics, most notably the prelude to Seven Soldiers and throughout his exploration of Batman, they appeared and left without actually getting wrapped up in those convoluted plots. That leaves them with little more defining them beyond being a cheery, slightly silly British superhero team. Further, Cornell himself is British, and he’s used this miniseries as an opportunity to explore just what DC’s America-centric superhero universe is like across the pond.

Knight and Squire charactersCornell attacks this opportunity with Morrison-esque creativity, coming up with over 100 new characters for this six-issue series. While that’s partly a marketing gimmick, quite a few of them have become familiar, fleshed-out characters by the end of the story. Even the ones who just appear for a panel are still granted clever names and costumes, and help the result feels more like a bustling world than a simple gimmick. Jimmy Broxton’s art mostly fits the mold of competent, modern superhero work, but he has a playful inventiveness that fits well with Cornell’s vision. Designing multiple new characters every month is no easy task, but Broxton makes it look natural.

The world-building goes well beyond a lot of funny new characters, though. Cornell explores what it would really mean to be a British superhero, somehow mixing the gaudy costumes with a stiff upper lip and quiet reserve. In this world, most British heroes started as a self-aware reaction to the American scene, making it more a club than a frantic life-or-death battle between exaggerated personalities. The first issue sets the scene in a special pub with “truce magic”, allowing the heroes and villains to mix without fear of a fight breaking out. (It’s a relatively recent tradition by British standards, explains Squire. “It’s only been here since the Sixteenth Century.”)

The British nature permeates this, from silly jokes to serious villains (such as a cult whose vision of restoring England’s classic past highlights a dark, racist undertone to modern culture). From my American point of view, it rings very true. But then, Americans are used to thinking the world revolves around them. I suspect that a true Englishman might be surprised at how much time these people spend comparing themselves to the US.

Cornell’s real gift is for dialogue. It comes to the fore here, establishing both this new setting and the people within it. The superhero battles are actually the weak point of this series, the high points being when the action is incidental to the character-building. Of note, see Issue 1, with the pub and its truce magic, and issue 4, in which Squire has an awkward first date and we learn more about the history of both leads than Morrison ever provided.

The first four issues are lighthearted done-in-one stories, so it’s a bit of a surprise when the final two see the heroes collide with the more brutal American hero culture. Some fans have decried this turn to the “grim and gritty” clichés of modern superhero comics. It makes sense, though. “Grim and gritty” isn’t automatically bad, it’s just become the standard for lazy, uninspired writers. The England-meets-America confrontation makes perfect sense given the set-up of the first few issues, and it never sinks to violence for violence’s sake. Without giving too much away, there are some truly disappointing “grim” events, but the heroes’ ultimate goodness, and British-ness, sees them through. What makes most modern “dark” comics disappointing is that the writers forget that superhero stories should be about the good guys persevering due to their morality, not just suffering for it. Cornell gets this balance exactly right.

While Knight and Squire does suffer when it moves away from the characters to focus on plot, fortunately that’s not the focus of the series. Amazingly, this Batman spin-off managed to slip past the DC editors with its own feel, rather than the lazy “Batman in England” that I would have expected. What we got instead was unique and inventive worldbuilding. I expect to see many of Cornell’s creations appearing in other peoples’ stories in the near future. Even more importantly, I hope to see him back with these characters before long, introducing us all to this familiar yet surprising culture.

Grade: B

Air (Comic Review)

Air

Air

G. Willow Wilson’s Air ran for 24 issues, a pretty standard length for a modern Vertigo title. However, it had more ambitious goals than the other comics it was published alongside: It focuses on airplanes while examining our post-9/11 world, with all the concerns of terrorism, security, national identity, and wars for oil brought to the forefront. I want to commend it for the issues it raises, but none of them are ever satisfactorily answered.

The main character, Blythe, is a flight attendant who’s afraid of heights. (Let that sink in for a minute.) When she finds herself in the middle of a fight to control new-found Aztec technology, she learns that she is a “hyperpract”, one of the rare people able to use the new devices. With it, she can access a reality where symbols matter more than physical objects. Most importantly, this gives her the power to move an airplane to another place without using fuel. Everyone, of course, wants control over this post-oil future.

Since hyperpract technology is still secret, the battle breaks down into two conspiratorial groups: On Blythe’s side is an alliance between a private airplane company, a group of carefree outlaws led by a still-living Amelia Earhart, and Interpol. (The ethical implications of this combination are rarely brought up.) The bad guys are a vigilante group named The Etisian Front, who are easily identified by the giant tattoo worn by each member of this secret society. Led by a Dick Cheney lookalike, they represent America’s desire to “make flight safe” at any cost. They are easy to hate, since they keep railing against Blythe’s love interest, Zayne, for looking like a terrorist.

Of course, they are somewhat right to mistrust Zayne. He admits to knowing people in Hezbollah in the first issue, and he constantly travels under suspicious aliases. Air’s strengths come from the way it doesn’t present a black-and-white world, and this is best represented in the thin line that separated Zayne’s choice to join Interpol from his other option of becoming a terrorist. (In one memorable sequence, Zayne’s brother ties religious extremists to the book’s theme of symbols defining the world, explaining that the symbols themselves are like a virus, getting into the heads of fundamentalists when their defenses are low.)

Symbolism as Technology

The comic’s weaknesses, though, are pretty strong. Just like the concept of a flight attendant who can’t handle heights, none of the people act in a remotely realistic manner. Blythe and her fellow flight attendants skip work to go off on strange adventures even before they’re introduced to the secret societies fighting over the future. The plan for starting the age of hyperpract flight is to keep sending Blythe off on missions, even though she almost kills herself (and loses the valuable Aztec device) each time. And Amelia Earhart’s secret society was founded two minutes after she met a drunken, boastful arms smuggler in a bar. She immediately decided that this dangerous man was a kindred spirit who shared her love of freedom, so she trusted him with her identity and her knowledge about hyperpract technology.

The characters’ behavior didn’t make any sense until I realized that this should be viewed as a romance novel rather than the action-adventure it appears to be on the surface. Blythe is a flighty, confused woman who can’t begin to reach her potential until she is centered by the love of a good man. Aside from a few moments of stubborn defiance, most of the plot is driven forward by the fact that she’ll passively do whatever anyone tells her: Going off on strange missions, handing over valuable objects to whichever stranger is currently claiming to be a good guy, and even sleeping with someone else simply because he tells her that Zayne is untrustworthy. Zayne seems suspicious, all right, but it was only their love at first sight that kept her from turning in an obvious con artist who kept flirting with her as he compromised airport security with a series of false identities. (Zayne, of course, did that and drew Blythe into his dangerous world because he felt the same way about her.)

Most of the series is a frustrating mix: hints of clever ideas and a meaningful worldview derailed by a ridiculous plot and characters. The last story arc goes off the rails, with a series of unbelievable adventures that are framed as Blythe’s “flight test”. It includes an unsophisticated time travel story that seems very pleased with its cleverness, and a book with secrets about the future that is never explained enough to feel like it fits into the rest of the story. Those final issues suggest that if the series hadn’t ended at that point, it still would have been out of ideas.

Take that, civilization!

I’ve made it to the end of a comic review without mentioning the art. That’s actually a credit to M. K. Perker, whose style fits this title so perfectly that it rarely registers consciously. His command over body language and expressions is excellent, and it makes the (many) conversations in this series feel as engaging as the action sequences. (In fact, he stumbles occasionally during the action. Perker’s people seem the most natural when they aren’t touching others.) I hope we see more of him in the future: To date, he has only worked on one title that wasn’t written by Wilson. And while I want to see more of Perker’s work, I’m not currently inclined to try more of Wilson’s. She has a lot of good ideas, but doesn’t seem very good at weaving them into a story.

Grade: C-

Thor: The Mighty Avenger (Comic Review)

Thor: The Mighty Avenger

Thor: The Mighty Avenger

In late 2010, to prepare for the upcoming Thor movie, Marvel released a barrage of new Thor-related comics. I’m not sure exactly how that was supposed to help with either publicity or sales: Marvel’s back catalog already had a confusing series of unrelated comics to sell if needed, so creating a bunch of new ones with different styles and from different continuities isn’t really changing anything.

But these days, the standard M.O. for superhero publishers seems to be to throw everything possible against the wall, and one or two good things will come out of the mess. That happened this time with Roger Langridge’s and Chris Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger. The second (and final) volume is released in paperback today.

The work that these two put out was unexpected. Langridge is best known for comedy work, with an unsympathetic edge. His writing here was surprisingly tender and human: Re-telling Thor’s “origin” story, this series starts just days after the god Thor is exiled to Earth. Langridge makes superhero tropes secondary so he can focus on the pain and anger of a proud man who has lost his home, and his growing relationship with Jane Foster as she helps him adjust to the human world.

Chris Samnee provides excellent art. I had not known of him beforehand, but between this title and the recently released Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale, I’ll be keeping my eye on him. His work is soft and understated, with simple lines calling out emotions, and incredibly natural body language. Every character looks distinct and natural. While that may sound out of place in an action-heavy genre, where artists usually focus on adventure at the expense of portraying the people, Samnee makes it work: When every pose conveys Thor’s quiet, confident strength, the powerful action flows naturally.

Other superheroes guest star in almost every issue, but this aspect still seems muted. The impression is that we are witnessing the quiet beginning of a superhero age, and the people of this small town would normally never see them. Thor’s sudden presence naturally brings some others in, but the feeling that this is a world populated by ordinary people remains strong.

"Simple and good. I like simple and good very much."

Words you rarely see in a Thor comic

This should have become a classic work, but it was canceled way too early by Marvel when they began culling the overstretched Thor line. Not only did this rob us of future comics like this, but it actually managed to lessen the existing ones: The first six issues were obviously intended to go together as an introductory story arc, with Thor gaining some acceptance of his new role. Issue 6 closes with a relationship beginning between him and Jane, and issue 7 opens up some time later, after he has gotten to know the other people of the town.

That’s a good structure, and it was natural for Langridge to assume that Marvel would want six-issue story arcs. But when the series was suddenly canceled at issue 8, we were left with a long introduction followed by a short, two-part follow up. To make matters worse, Marvel released the collected editions in two volumes, with four issues each. The stopping point between these two volumes feels entirely unnatural, and breaks the flow of the story.

This could have been a great series, and it’s not at all the fault of Langridge or Samnee that it didn’t reach that level. But the first couple issues were still finding their footing, the last couple felt like a slightly rushed coda, and Marvel’s collection policy means that the few middle issues are drained of some of their power. This is still a very good work, and unique among comics today, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. But judging it by what it became, instead of what it should have been, I simply can’t give it an A.

Grade: B+

(Editorial note: Since I have a Twitter feed to comment on all the comics I read, I don’t normally plan on reviewing them here. But I’ll look back on entire series, or notable stretches of them, when appropriate. I can only review the ones I read, of course, so they will often be positive reviews if I’ve stuck through to the end. But fortunately for you, there are some pretty terrible series that I’ve stuck with because it didn’t become obvious right away. So you’ll get to hear me complain sometimes as well.)

Webcomics Roundup: The Great Return

Achewood is backI didn’t start reading any new webcomics in February. For me, the biggest news was the promise of a return from two established comics that haven’t updated in a while: Achewood and Mugwhump the Great.

Achewood, of course, needs no introduction. For nearly a decade now, it’s been one of the best (if not the best) webcomics out there. The clean lines, strong characters, and the unpredictable plot directions make this a consistent treat. So why am I not that excited that it’s updating again?

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Webcomics Roundup: January

I’ve decided the best way for me to cover webcomics will be with a monthly article. In contrast to my normal posts, I won’t be assigning grades here. The new comics are generally too incomplete for a fair review, and of the established ones, I’ll only have read through their archives if I really liked them. Therefore, most of the ones I talk about will already be cherry-picked as an A or B comic. I’ll reserve letter grades for things like books and movies, which (1) I’m likely to complete even if I don’ t like them, and (2) usually cost money, so it’s more fair to point out the ones that I don’t like.

I was undecided at first about whether to categorize webcomics with print comics or to keep them separate. They’re obviously related mediums, if not the same, but in practice, they have very different audiences. I did eventually decide to categorize them together, though. (Use the “webcomics” tag to find just those posts.) This month’s subject matter is what made the decision for me: The three most notable new webcomics in January were all created by established names from the world of print comics. The boundary between the print and web worlds has definitely become more fluid.

Below, I’ll discuss Gingerbread Girl, Ratfist, and Bucko.

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