Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Prodigal Reviewer Returneth.

You know, I used to write a lot of comics reviews. Almost from the beginning of my blogging days, I did that. Actually, I even did it before I started blogging- in my pre-blog days, I spent a lot of time on the old DC Comics Message Boards, and there was this thread that asked people to post their reactions to comics they'd read the week previous, and I always used it as an opportunity to hold forth about what I had bought. So naturally, even though I didn't really intend to make it such, it was only a matter of time when I started posting them on my then-new blog, back in 2002.

And slowly, I began to get some attention for doing it. I started making the online acquaintance of others who did the same, and eventually my little blog became 75-80% comics content, sometimes more. And I was cool with that. I was actually part, for a little while, of a club...the Comics Blogosphere, as it was called. People linked to me, I linked to them...it was fun and interesting and I even began to get free comics, thanks to many kind publishers like Larry Young's AiT/PlanetLar, Oni, Top Shelf, the fine folks at Fantagraphics, even DC Comics thanks to Alex Segura. I even wrote for other websites eventually, like Alan David Doane's Comic Book Galaxy and Trouble With Comics, the short-lived Pop Culture Shock, and more recently, PopDose, thanks to the redoubtable Jeff Giles.

But, every year, sometimes every week, newer and better and more interesting voices came along and drowned out a lot of others, survival of the fittest in action. Group blogs became the order of the day, then eventually the bigger comics websites skimmed the cream off the top. The comics themselves changed. And I myself changed, I think. Got older, if not wiser, and while I have not stopped reading comics and other forms of sequential entertainment, I have found myself having less to actually say about them. Blogging became a real chore, since it seemed like I no longer had the desire and energy and spare time to devote to it, and I decided to put the by then venerable Bacardi Show on hiatus, as well as limiting my Popdose columns to once a month and even then that became something I put off as long as I could, as honored as I was (and still am) that I was contributing to that awesome site.

It came to a head in October of 2012. Confronted with dear Raina Telgemeier's then-new graphic novel Drama, my brain shut down. I couldn't think of a single damned thing to say about it. It was a very good story with a worthwhile point to make, rendered in Raina's likeable art style...yet I couldn't think of a single interesting way to express that. Of course, this assumes that could ever do that in the first place, not for me to say, so work with me here. I decided that I needed to take a break from foisting my opinions on people, especially since I could no longer adequately express them, it seemed. I apologized to Jeff and requested a hiatus there, too, which lasts to this day. I think I'm still welcome to come back, but who knows.

So now, here we are, June of 2014, and once more I'm entertaining notions of writing reviews of comics I've read. I still don't feel all that confident about it, and I certainly don't want to just do it for the sake of doing it...I've always wanted to be as entertaining as possible, and informative too; I've been reading the damned things since I was four years old, I've seen a lot of things come and go, and surely that counts for something. I want to do this, just to see if I can get over the block and still do it. So here goes...some of the stuff I've read in the last month or so, along with general reviews of titles I've been buying regularly. Wish me luck.
 

Big Trouble in Little China #1
W: Eric Powell (with John Carpenter co-credit) A: Brian Churilla, Michael Garland (Boom!)

The biggest surprise when it comes to this, the latest in a long line of licensed property comics from this and other publishers, is that it took so long to appear. And, as usual with this sort of thing (and bear in mind I have yet to sample the likes of Adventure Time comics, which I understand goes off in a lot of different directions), it tries to hit every. Single. Beat. that made the film, mostly ignored by the general population but solidly in the Cult Status Canon, so enjoyable- and that is part of the problem. Powell (of The Goon fame), picks up from where the film leaves off- a good idea, but hedges his bets by sticking slavishly to the Carpenter/Richter template, and gives the impression that this will never color outside the lines and thus will become a bore. This is hard to believe from such a blank slate character (Jack Burton. I hear you say, smiling, "Who?" but you know what I mean), so the net effect is that it certainly seems like the writer knows how to imitate Richter and may have some definite ideas about where he wants to go...but how far he's willing to go remains to be seen. Churilla illustrates with a cartoonish (somewhat appropriate, I guess, because the film was such a cartoon in its own way) style and does OK by the likenesses, so that's half the battle I suppose. Otherwise, he's competent but unremarkable. It might bear watching just to see where they go with this, but I can't recommend going out of your way to get it. Maybe by the inevitable trade it will show its true colors.  C+

Pretty Deadly #'s 1-6
W: Kelly Sue DeConnick; A: Emma Rios (Image)

Another weird western, full of allegory and symbolism and other heady stuff...but the execution was haphazard and sloppy and while I appreciate ambitious vanity projects- often they become transcendent- this was confusing from issue one and didn't get any clearer as it went on. I will always take a look at anything Rios illustrates- she's quite imaginative in her way- but I can't recommend this at all and that's a shame.  C-

The Sixth Gun
W: Cullen Bunn; A: Brian Hurtt (Oni Press)

Speaking of weird westerns, Bunn's long-running opus seems to be running headlong into some sort of resolution, if not conclusion, and it's been a fairly engrossing trip, thanks to strong characters and Hurtt's always clean and concise storytelling. It's not the first comic I read each month, but I do remain interested in where it's going so that's a positive, I'd say.  B+

Daredevil
W: Mark Waid; A: Chris Samnee (Marvel)

Waid stubbornly resists the current Modern Comics Conventional Wisdom that everything that involves superpowered characters has to be all distanced and ironic and glum and manages to give us that rarest of rare things: superhero adventures that manages to keep a realistic tone yet still manages to entertain, without having to resort to transgression and world threatening hyperpowered menaces and all the lowbrow, clich├ęd, knuckleheaded depressing schtick that modern comics apparently think they have to give us, whether it's by editorial mandate or sheer lack of imagination on the part of the authors. Even though things often get dire for Matthew Murdock, Waid never wallows in it or plays "top this" with himself and the reader like Bendis did (which made DD such a chore to sit through back in the early 00's) and that makes all the difference in the world- kids, this is superhero comics for adults. Waid never condescends or writes down or goes there to create titillation, and this longtime comics reader appreciates it. He has an equally adept collaborator in Samnee, who adheres to the Toth/Caniff/Wood/Robbins/Eisner etc. etc. school of cartoonish realism and excels as much in drawing faces and places as he does when giving us frenetic action scenes. They couldn't have found a better and more sympathetic artist for what Waid's trying to do. It doesn't get much better these days in genre comics than what Waid and Samnee are providing us, and I hope it lasts a long time. A+

Fables
W: Bill Willingham; A: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, others. (DC/Vertigo)

You know how some TV shows seem to peak early, but then (for various reasons) they carry on, adding and shedding characters right and left and continuing to stay on the air for a lot longer than they probably should, provoking "I can't believe that show's still on the air!" remarks when confronted with that knowledge? Yep, that's Fables, which pretty much said all it had to say when the Big Bad Geppetto storyline concluded a couple of years ago...but since it was one of, if not the best selling, Vertigo imprint titles, it couldn't just go away so it's been given the Gaiman treatment and now is shambling in all kinds of directions towards its final conclusion at issue #150. In for a penny, in for a pound (which is a remarkably Fables-ish way to put it, isn't it?) so I continue to buy- Willingham does still provide fairly clever spins on all these characters, and I'm vested enough in them to stay interested in where it's going. It's just taking an awfully roundabout way to get there. Buckingham still excels on art; he really has developed into a fine storyteller despite not having a really distinctive style to call his own. Leialoha remains his best inker, and even got the chance to do a storyline by himself which of course didn't look anything like his art in the 70s & 80s. Kinda late to get on this train if you haven't already, but hey, all the trade collections are still in print as far as I know so I recommend starting there and working forward. B-

Fatale
W: Ed Brubaker; A: Sean Phillips (Image)

Another long-running series- well, not as long as Fables, for example...but after Sleeper and Criminal, etc., it seems like we've been reading Brubaker and Phillips Comics and Stories for a hell of a long time now. Of course, it's all of very high quality- Phillips is, in my opinion, as good as it gets these days, and Brubaker retains his naturalistic way with storytelling. He must be doing something right, because I generally don't hold the Noir genre in the same esteem as many do...all the seductive, bad news dames and hard nosed mooks that get involved with them in the dark rainy streets of some generalized late 40s-early 50s city just don't really blow up my skirt all that much. Mix it with Lovecraftian tropes, however, and it's just novel enough to make me wonder where it will all end up, and at this stage in the game, I'm really just hoping for a coherent ending more than anything. We will soon see, because it's set to end as well in another month or so.

Moon Knight #'s 1-4
W: Warren Ellis; A: Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire (Marvel)
Trees #1
W: Ellis; A: Jason Howard   (Image)

Mr. Ellis, surely one of the most august personages on the World Wide Interweb, has been a writer whose work I've enjoyed for many years now, beginning with his wonderful Hellstorm for Marvel (I'm due to dig those out again one of these days soon) on through Transmetropolitan and Desolation Jones and NextWave and...well, I can't say I've read everything he's done; there are an awful lot of somewhat generic looking vaguely SF-flavored indie comics series, most of them drawn by (it seems) someone named Ryp (Supergod was an exception; it had a nice apocalyptic fatalism that was fascinating), but I will always at least take a look when I see his byline. For no other reason other than to keep the license in perpetuation (on Marvel's end) and because 1. he's being paid and 2. it amuses him to do so, Ellis has taken on the House that Stan, Jack, Steve, Gene, Don, Larry and Dick Built's perpetual b-list pale (in more ways that one) Batman simalcrum, and for once, we the readers are the beneficiary. Bringing a somewhat bemused yet straightfaced attitude, and stripping away the accumulated barnacles of all the myriad treatments of this muddled character in the last four decades, Ellis gives us a streamlined Knight- the multiple identities (the Shadow influence in this crazy-quilt character's portfolio) are still there, so is the large fortune built in his years as a mercenary, and Ellis uses all the Egyptian mythology stuff to great effect as well- especially in issue #3, the highlight of the run so far. In that story, MK uses his connection to those deities in order to investigate and confront a host of Punk ghosts, and it's as sparely written as a zen koan- yet he's able to suggest, rather than explicitly state, a multitude of things about his take on the character. Although you never lose the feeling that Ellis is just experimenting with format, you have to admire his craft...and when it comes to this sort of thing, sometimes that can transform something mediocre into something worth following. For his part, Declan Shalvey, always in my book the next best artist on Thunderbolts not all that long ago, has really stepped up his game when presenting all of these metaphysical shenanigans; his capeless depiction of the Knight in his white business suit is a winner and he excels in bringing out a lot of the subtleties in the script. This team's only here for 6 issues, kids, so tradewait...but you will want to pick it up. A

Trees, on the other hand, kinda scans like District 9 mashed up with the venerable 50's drive-in SF flick The Monolith Monsters. Huge cylindrical shafts spring up, devastating cities and killing people and throwing mankind into yet another dystopian future, and the focus (after one issue, it's hard to say beyond that) seems to be on a clutch of individual characters and their situations in the face of the crisis. It's nicely drawn with a lot of rendering by Jason Howard, whose style reminds me of Guy Davis crossed with Sonny Liew. It's too early to judge, but so far nothing about the premise or art really grabs me...however, I'm committed to buying at least the next two issues, so we will see. C+

Wonder Woman
W: Brian Azzarello; A: Cliff Chiang, and a whole bunch of others (DC)

If you had told me, 15 years ago, that I would only be buying one DC proper comics series on a regular basis, and it would be Wonder Woman, no less, I would have run away from you, fearing that you were a dangerous lunatic. However, here and now, that far fetched projection has become reality. Chiang's art reeled me in, of course, but as a childhood Greek mythology buff I came to enjoy and appreciate Azzarello's Machiavellian (I'm reminded a lot of Zelazny's Amber family, and that's bait I can never resist) and somewhat revisionist take on all the various gods and goddesses of legend, even working in a New God or two, for reasons unknown or as yet unrevealed. Of course, as this has gone on and is so often the case with modern comics creators, Chiang has found other (presumably more profitable) projects to occupy his time and efforts, and now is found mostly on covers, though he has done the occasional issue here and there. Kudos to the editorial staff for finding replacements which compliment his art style; it at least helps to have a visual continuity. None of them have Chiang's panache, of course, but that's the way it goes.  For his part, Azzarello has done a nice job of presenting us with straightforward, easy to follow scripts- none of the convoluted obfuscation that often made 100 Bullets and many of his subsequent projects a chore to parse sometimes. Wondy is often the second or third most interesting character in her own comic, though, and that's problematic; even more so, as with Fables, after the first big climactic battle with this title's Big Bad the First Born, everything else has seemed rather tacked on and anticlimactic, as the Big Bad came back almost immediately to plague Wondy and company after his so called defeat. So pacing and plot has been a little off too. Still, the character interaction is interesting and also as with Fables, I'm in for that proverbial penny so I'll stick with this title till Azzarello leaves, which will be soon. Sadly, the announced successors, already off on the wrong foot via some ill-considered pronouncements in an introductory interview, don't sound all that promising, so I guess that will be the end for my DC proper purchases for the time being. Anyway, this has been an interesting take on a character that no one really seems to be able to do well for a sustained period, the first really radical revisionist look since the O'Neil/Sekowsky days, and I can recommend it. I wish it had been a little more this or that, and I sure wish Chiang had been willing to stick around, but overall I think, pending the actual conclusion, it's been a success and I'm sure DC will sweep it under the rug ASAP in favor of a more DCU-compliant model. B+

Well! That will do for now. Thanks for reading. Perhaps I'll do more soon.