Friday, May 28, 2010

Even the Internet Seems Quiet Today

Everyone's ready for Memorial Day and the three-day weekend.

If you're in the mood for some star-spangled comics, what with the holiday and all, go read some Captain America, preferably the Brubaker issues where they flash back to WWII. Bru manages to show Cap and Bucky as heroic while still portraying the horrors of war in a way that's a bit more realistic than the standard super-hero fare.

Or you could read some of Garth Ennis war comics. But I have to say I'm in more of a Cap mood today.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Formed a (Fictional) Band, Part 1 - The Comics

I was thinking about Scott Pilgrim the other day (I think about Scott Pilgrim a lot, often at awkward and inappropriate moments) - specifically, I was thinking about how awesome the name of Scott Pilgrim's band is -- Sex Bob-Omb. Not only is the name of the band awesome, referencing the classic Super Mario 2 character, but the portrayal of the band as a noisy group of indie kids thrashing their instruments just for the joy of it is awesome too.

Then I realized that the other band most prominently featured in Scott Pilgrim - the Clash at Demonhead - is a great fictional band in their own right. Aside from featuring Scott's evil ex-girlfriend, Envy Adams, as the lead singer, they are a perfect portrait of an indie band that has just enough success to be pretentious jerks but not enough to be truly famous or to really have "made it" in any meaningful sense. Just looking at them, you can imagine what they would sound like - probably kinda cool and edgy, but nearly as cool and edgy as they think.

This thought then led me to a thought about fictional bands in general, and how there seem to be a lot of them in movies and television, and to some extent even music (I'll explain in a later post the criteria to be a fictional band within music itself, because that area does get quite tricky), but not all that many I can think of within comics. While Phonogram is a music-centric work, it focuses on fictional characters' interactions with real music, not a fictional set of musicians. Nor do many of the other comics dealing with music really posit an entirely new band - they usually just reference, or even feature, an existing real-world band - KISS comics, anyone?

There are a few notable examples, however. The most notable one in the super-hero genre has to be Dazzler. While not technically a band, she was a musician, and even had her own series for a while. When she became a bit character in the X-Men universe, she also interacted, along with the other X-Men, with Lila Cheney, a character who fronted her own intergalactic band that toured the stars. While these examples are notable, they aren't notable for the quality of comics, as I've always found anything featuring Dazzler to be pretty abysmal.

Moving on, there's also Mike Allred's Red Rocket 7, an alien clone who becomes a rock star and provides a gateway for Allred's exploration of the history of pop and rock music. This limited series is well-regarded by many (though I've met some Allred fans who believe it is his worst comics work), but I must confess I've never checked it out and don't have too much of an opinion on it. It looks pretty cool though, and I like the concept behind it.

Finally, I'll move on to my favorite - Danny Duoshade from David Lapham's sadly cancelled Vertigo series, Young Liars. Young Liars was just about as rock and roll as a comic book can get, capturing the possibility and energy of rock and punk music perfectly. It also didn't shy away from the dark aspects of the culture, and featured its share of paranoia and drug binges. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was that it was hard to tell from issue to issue what was really real and what was a lie. Was the main character Danny just a loser, or was he really the ultra-famous rocker Danny Duoshade. Which aspect of the character was real and which was a facade? Danny and his fictional band, coupled with the entire format and story of Young Liars, is probably the most successful portrayal of music on the comics page I've ever come across (each issue even listed tracks for recommended listening by Lapham).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Public Domain Is Wonderful

Especially when you have a Kindle or some other electronic means of reading which allows you to get these works for free.

I recently read both The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, and Venus In Furs, by Ritter von Leopold Sacher-Masoch (quite a mouthful of a name, right?). Both were highly enjoyable and worth checking out. Venus In Furs doesn’t approach the level of Dorian Gray on a purely literary basis, but it is wickedly fun to read. I mean, this is the work that literally gave the term “masochism” its name, and inspired the excellent Velvet Underground tune by the same name, so its got to be at least worth a skim, right? Also, whips are employed liberally. Its just that type of book.

Dorian Gray, though, is well worth your time. Quite possibly my favorite book at the moment. I always knew the basic story, but had no idea that it was so well-written by Wilde. Aside from a couple of tedious passages that go on interminably about things that are decidedly non-essential to the plot, this book is full of wondrously wicked wit and is eminently quotable. I probably could, and actually might, do a quote of the day for at least a full month from this book and still have many more quotable lines to spare. Some aspects of the book are, understandably, quite dated, but there are many parts of it that read as if they could have been written today.

The Faustian bargain that provides the basic thrust of the book is portrayed meticulously by Wilde. For those who don't know, the story of the book is that of Dorian Gray, whose wish that he might stay young forever while his portrait ages instead is granted. The consequences of this arrangement are dire for Dorian, for while he shows no outward detriment from the hedonistic life he leads following the bargain, the terrible toll of his choices can be readily examined by Dorian in the form of the painting. Wilde shows both the upside to a carefree, hedonistic existence and the inner turmoil provided by Dorian's duplicity convincingly. While the surface message of the book may be that Dorian's lifestyle catches up to him in the end, we can't help but identify and root for both Dorian and his incorrigible corruptor, Lord Henry, who has all the best lines in the novel and seems to be quite happy despite his failed marriage and seeming lack of moral standing. I was left wondering if perhaps the true message of the novel was that it is dangerous to hide our true selves from the world, and that we should instead let others see us as we truly are, whether that be good or bad.

In short, it provided much more entertainment and food for thought than I had dared to expect.

Friday, May 21, 2010

I Have Seen the Future

And it is


* Surgeon general's warning: Lazertits is decidedly not safe for work. Children and small animals should not be exposed to Lazertits. If you experience an erection lasting longer than four hours after viewing Lazertits, please consult your therapist.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Back From Mini-Break (With Some Quick Music)

So I've been gone for a while after mostly keeping up with my "post every weekday" pledge, due to a combination of being busy, being lazy, and being slightly ill.

I hope to do some more in-depth stuff later, but for now I'll just post a link to this performance from Janelle Monae that blew me away. It's really just phenomenal, with a winning homage to James Brown thrown in for good measure. I have very little grounding in this type of music, as it usually is not my thing, but I think I will check out her new album ArchAndroid. It has a sci-fi concept, is getting great reviews, and is being compared favorably to Andre 3000's half of Outkast's Speakerboxx/Love Below album, which I loved.

Monday, May 10, 2010

(Not So) Simple Simon

I guess I’ve been promising reviews of the two remaining Top Shelf “Swedish Invasion” books for a while now – or at least since my C2E2 update, and wow, I really can’t believe that was almost a month ago already – so now its time to deliver. My review of The Troll King is here, but today I’m going to focus on 120 Days of Simon, by Simon Gardenfors, and Hey Princess, by Mats Jonsson.

As I’ve previously mentioned, both books are firmly ensconced in the autobiographical comics genre, but each book takes a very different approach to what that means. 120 Days of Simon is more tightly focused and bounded by a central conceit, as it only deals with a particular slice of the author’s life. Specifically, the book recounts something of a social experiment conducted by Gardenfors, in which he travels across Sweden over the span of 120 days, and never stays overnight in the same place for more than two nights. Sometimes he stays with friends, and sometimes he stays with volunteers who’ve agreed to host him after he made his experiment known on the internet. The fact that so many people allow him to stay with them makes more sense once us non-Swedish readers figure out that Simon is actually a rather well-known (or at least I gather this is the case from the book) rapper in his native country.

This premise both helps and hurts the book in certain respects. On the plus side, it keeps the book from taking on the rambling, aimless tone that sometime plague autobiographical works. The high concept nature of what Simon is doing gives us more to focus on than the random life an unfamiliar Swede. On the other hand, the premise almost reads a bit too much like a bad VH1 celebreality show – watch as Simon travels around the Swedish countryside having unprotected sex, taking drugs, and generally behaving badly!

But what rescues it from that for me is that the story is charmingly rendered, with simple cartoon figures interacting with each other over two panels per page for the duration, and the fact that, unlike many readers – from what I can tell from the few other reviews I’ve read – I actually found Simon quite likeable throughout the course of the book. Maybe I’m a sucker for the story of a guy on a quest, even if that quest is just to have fun and get laid a lot, but I found the journey Simon went on to be pretty compelling.

Partly because the book does have a defined end-point, there is a bit of drama in Simon’s story. He falls in love with a girl just before he’s about to go on his adventure, and while they agree not to be exclusive while he is gone, he still worries about losing her (I won’t give away whether he actually does get the girl in the end here). He also has some close calls with the angry family of a girl he meets on his travels, faces some financial peril, and engages in some serious introspection after sharing some peyote with one of his hosts. In the end, the book is just plot-driven enough to avoid the kind of navel-gazing many hate about autobiographical comics, but still focuses on the characters above all else. I would strongly recommend the book, with the caveat that your opinion may vary if you end up viewing Simon as a total jerk and not as an ultimately sympathetic character, as I did.

I’ll be back tomorrow (or so) with thoughts on Hey Princess!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Marvel: Geniuses or Idiots?

I think the answer is a bit of both.

Its a genius move to have a comic like Invincible Iron Man #25 on the shelves when Iron Man 2 launches. While firmly set in current Marvel continuity (actually, its firmly set in future Marvel continuity since it plainly occurs after the yet-to-be-completed Siege crossover), this book captures the spirit and tone of the Iron Man film franchise perfectly. I can't imagine anyone who is at all open to reading comics and who likes the Iron Man films disliking this book. Fraction's story, and most of all his portrayal of Tony Stark, is pitch perfect, and there are some genuine wow moments throughout this double-sized issue.

Now where does the idiocy come in, you might ask?

Well, Marvel are idiots for not finding a way to put a copy of this book into the hands of almost everyone who buys a ticket for Iron Man 2. They should be giving the thing away for free in theaters. And if they don't want to do that, they should be selling it digitally, and perhaps offering it at a reduced price (or maybe even, again, for free), to anyone who buys a ticket. They should NOT be leaving it up to the general movie-goer to have enough interest in Iron Man to seek out a comic shop, then hope that the proprietor of said shop has the good sense to put Invincible Iron Man #25 in their hands and say, "You liked the movie, you'll love this!" They aren't even leading the horse to water, much less trying to get him to drink.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

So right, but yet so very, very wrong

I must own this. Glenn Danzig. Henry Rollins. Satanic Hall & Oates. Oh, did I mention its a romance comic? Will Glenn Danzig eventually try to kick someone's ass over this? Can whatever is contained inside this comic possibly live up to the brilliance of its premise?

Stay tuned, true believers. My order will be submitted today.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Filthy? Yeah. Rich? Not So Much.

So for my local graphic novel group, which meets every month, we tried a new experiment this month. Rather than all 20+ of us reading one GN and discussing, we split into four groups, allowing us to have a more manageable discussion. Each group got a different book to discuss, all related to the general them of "Crime". The assigned books were Torso, Road to Perdition, the first volume of Criminal, and Filthy Rich, the inaugural book from the new "Vertigo Crime" imprint. I ended up with Filthy Rich.

Coming into the discussion, I was prepared to be the lone contrarian who really disliked the book. But it turned out that most of the group agreed with me, with even the strongest defender of Azzarello and Santos' noir offering giving the book only a "C" grade. This really surprised me, because even though I didn't care for the book, I seemed to recall that it got pretty good reviews upon release. Also, although I haven't read much of Azzarello's work, including 100 Bullets, his signature series, I know he is a generally well-regarded writer, and that Filthy Rich fits right into the hard-boiled crime category for which he is known.

Actually, I think Azzarello's reputation might have hurt my reading of the book, because I expected a lot more from him than what I got. I had multiple problems with this book, which focuses on a down-and-out former football player, Rich Junkin, who lost his chance to make the big time after blowing out his leg just as he was about to turn pro. He's now working as a (really bad) used-car salesman, and gets involved in a shady world of high society and criminality after agreeing to act as a bodyguard of sorts for his boss's daughter.

If this sounds like a by-the-numbers, formulaic crime story, that's because it is, and nowhere does it really deviate from that formula. There were other issues as well, including some relatively weak art by Victor Santos. I don't think I had seen any of Santos other work before this, but here his work came off as the poor man's Eduardo Risso, or possibly the homeless man's Frank Miller. His rendering of the characters made it hard to tell who was who at times, and at other times his story-telling choices required a second look at the page to figure out what was going on.

I guess my main problem, though, was the lack of a strong lead -- or at least the lack of any strong, discernible motivation for the lead. Rich just kind of fumbles through the paces of the story, and we never really see any kind of plan or goal for him, beyond perhaps having sex with every woman in the story with a pulse -- all of whom seem to be inexplicably drawn to this washed-out loser. If Rich was a stronger character, or perhaps if the boss's daughter, who was probably the most interesting character in the story, had been cast as the lead instead, the familiar tropes of sex, drugs, murder, and double-crosses might have had more resonance and actually served the story, rather than simply leaving Filthy Rich to read like a connect-the-dots crime book.

All of which leads me to a broader point. I think I may have some idea why Filthy Rich got better reviews than, in my opinion, it deserved. A lot of people, especially people who write reviews on blogs or on comics websites, are very excited to see comics branch out of the superhero ghetto and include more diverse genres and subjects. Heck, I generally agree with them. But just because I love the idea of a Vertigo sub-imprint devoted to the crime genre, that doesn't mean I'm going to be any more forgiving to a sub-standard, by-the-numbers crime story than I would to a by-the-numbers, sub-standard superhero story. The problem comes in, in my view, when non-superhero books are given more latitude because they are trying to do something different (even if that something different would be considered formulaic or trite in another medium, such as film or prose novels).

So yeah, I would love to see more crime stories, but make 'em good crime stories, please. I'll discuss one of those good stories published by the Vertigo Crime imprint, Area 10, in this space soon.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Troll King: A Review

The Troll King, by Kolbeinn Karlsson, is one of Top Shelf's recently released "Swedish Invasion" books that I picked up at C2E2. Before getting into the substance of the book, I do want to mention/disclose that both Karlsson and Mats Jonsson, whose book Hey Princess I will be reviewing on this site soon, were two of the nicest, friendliest artists I met at the show. Its kind of amusing that Karlsson's back jacket picture makes him look kind of scary and intense, but in person, he is a big, soft-spoken teddy bear.

But enough about that -- none of it would matter if the books were no good. And while I enjoyed all three of the books, they each offered something a little different to recommend them to the audience. While both 120 Days of Simon and Hey Princess are grounded firmly in the real world, The Troll King offers a sumptuous flight of fantasy into a slightly off-kilter forest world, swimming in strangely compelling oddness. I don't know if it was the geographic connection or something more, but as I read The Troll King I could almost hear Swedish band The Knife's Silent Shout album playing in the background, beckoning me further into the deep woods and introducing me to the strange characters to be found there.

The scenes portrayed in The Troll King take place mostly in a surreal dreamworld far away from society, featuring all manner of creatures -- the hair-covered male couple whose story makes up the bulk of the book, their strangely conceived children, the carrot-man who strangely transforms into a massive tree and later reproduces, the dwarf floating down the river, the green men who also make the forest their home, and other, stranger delights. And if the dreamlike quality of the work does not end with the depictions of the forest and its creatures, but extend to the progression of events, which follows the type of pleasant yet somehow foreboding logic of the deepest and most affecting of dreams.

Yet despite the surreal nature of the book, rendered beautifully by Karlsson, there is a real emotional response conjured by the stories found within. Particularly compelling are the hairy men, self-described as "ewoks," who hide their appearance to go out into the world and buy groceries at IGA. Their affection for each other is genuinely touching, as is their struggles with raising their two children, including the painful process of dealing with adolescent rebellion and their offspring's eventual rejection of their forest home.

Karlsson accomplishes most of these effects without any words at all, letting the art speak for itself and tell the story in a way that allows the reader to import his or her own significance to the symbolic images laid out on the page. While I've only read The Troll King for the first time today, it seems likely to be a book that will reward multiple re-readings, opening up new interpretations and connections between the psychedelically-tinged images contained within.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coming Attractions

I don't have time for a full-on post today, but I did want to jot down a few books I plan on reviewing very soon here, time permitting. I'm making this list as much for myself (to remind myself what I want to write about and put pressure on myself to actually do it) as for any hypothetical reader - and I sometimes feel that all my readers are hypothetical - who may be interested.

So here we go...

Things I'll be reviewing -

1. The 120 Days of Simon by Simon Gardenfors
2. Hey Princess by Mats Jonsson
3. Filthy Rich by Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos (I read this for a monthly graphic novel discussion group I go to, and this was actually the first reading "assignment" we've had that I really didn't care for - at all).
4. Area 10 by Christos Gage and Chris Samnee

Other pieces I want to do -

1. Why Destroyer is an amazing artist, and could possibly be the Alan Moore of indie music.
2. Well, maybe I'll just leave it at that for the moment.....

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


So DC/Vertigo allows Milligan to do a Hellblazer two-parter which explicitly identifies England's Conservative Party as literal undead, soulless monsters, and Marvel apologizes for using a sign that was actually used at a Tea Party rally in a scene involving angry, anti-government protesters.

I've only one thing to say to that, Marvel:


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bow to the Master

I'm usually more of a writer guy than an artist guy, but sometimes you just have to sit back and give credit to a true master of comic book artistry. In this case, I'm talking about Bill Sienkiewicz. Bill's work has been blowing my mind since I was a kid - it always captivated me when I ran across it, even before I was old enough to even pay attention to who the creators on a book were, because it was so utterly different than the other comic book art out there. I remember poring over his DD graphic novel with Frank Miller, Love and War, again and again, trying to figure out how he did that.

Today I finally got around to reading last week's Spirit #1, the relaunch by DC under its new First Wave imprint. The main story was good, with great art by Moritat, but the Sienkiewicz black and white back-up just blew me away, and was undoubtedly worth the price of admission even without the lead story. His art looks even better in black and white than in color - its atmospheric, moody, and more expressive and evocative than almost anything out there today. Here's a sample - take a look, and bow to the master:

Monday, April 26, 2010

More Streaming Goodness

New Pornographers' new album, Together, streaming at NPR. What's up with all the high-brow publications like NPR and NYT advance streaming the hottest new indie rock/pop music?

Oh well, I'm not complaining.

I'm just listening to the first track now, so maybe I'll have some more reaction later, but so far, so good.

EDIT: OK, I'm finished, and I was impressed. Much better than the comparatively weak Challengers. I always love the three or so Bejar (more on my Bejar love another day) songs on any New Pornos record, and this one was no exception, but I thought the non-Bejar tracks this time were much stronger than usual. After one listen, I would say this is a return to form for the superstar group that just kept going.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The National's New Album

I liked Boxer, I liked Alligator, but the new one, High Violet, has really bowled me over.

Its streaming at the New York Times website right now.

They took the quiet intensity of Boxer and took it up a notch. Well-crafted music, thoughtful and thought-provoking lyrics, and not a weak song out of the bunch. There's a lot going on in the music and the arrangements, but it never gets too busy to obscure the strength of the melodies. In short, the National leaves enough room to let the songs breathe and grow on you with each listen.

Favorite line at the moment: "I was afraid I'd eat your brains."

Brooding, engaging music plus zombies?!? This really is an early contender for album of the year.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

C2E2 Quick Thoughts

I had a great time at C2E2 this weekend, despite only attending on Saturday and Sunday. I've seen mostly positive, though somewhat mixed, reactions online, but from a fan perspective, it was a very enjoyable show. There was plenty of room at McCormick Place (really, too much room, which is something I think they'll try to fix next year), making for an easy to navigate and un-crowded experience.

Some of the highlights of my time there include:

- Getting my Complete Action Philosophers book signed by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, both of whom were incredibly cool guys. I also got a quick Modok sketch from Ryan and chatted with him and his lovely family for a few minutes.

- A quick chat with Jim Mahfood, one of my all-time favorite artists, about the wonder of Hunter S. Thompson and all things Gonzo (he had on a Gonzo symbol shirt, I had a Gonzo tattoo to show off).

- New Dr. Who on the big screen with an appreciative audience who laughed, clapped, and cheered in all the right places.

- The look on my daughter's face when she was handed a free Iron Man action figure and got a picture with Spider-man at the Marvel booth. Great job by Marvel on their kids' day stuff.

- Getting my copy of Area 10 signed by Christos Gage and Chris Samnee, with a quickie sketch by Samnee. Both of those guys were really down-to-earth and great to talk to. A review of Area 10 should be forthcoming here in the next couple of weeks.

- A "Local" sketch by Ryan Kelly - beautiful work, Ryan.

- Some surprise purchases and signing, including buying a copy of "You Have Killed Me," from Jamie S. Rich and all three of the "Swedish Invasion" comics from Top Shelf. I was able to get 2 of the 3 signed and chat for a few minutes with the artists, Mats Johnson and Kolbein Karlsson. It was very interesting to get these guys take on Chicago and C2E2 - I hope they had a great time in our city. I also had my credit card for the purchase run by Matt Kindt, which was a very weird experience - ("Love your work, 3 Story was awesome, now process this transaction....")

- Drooling over Doug Mahnke original art for Final Crisis #7.

There was plenty more going on, but those were the things that really stood out for me. I did somehow miss a couple of creators that I wanted to see, such as Cameron Stewart, and Bill Willingham (despite seeing him in or around the DC booth about 7 times during the two days I was there), but for the most part I got to check out everything I was there for. As for the rest, the answer is easy for a seasoned Cubs fan - "Wait 'Til Next Year"!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

We need more stuff like this

Looks like an indie version of Wednesday Comics, full of oversized newsprint awesomeness!

I'm back... again

So for a large variety of reasons, I haven't done this for a while. The long and short of it is I get busy at work, then when I get less busy I get lazy, then when I get less lazy I think of other things to do, then I pretty much forget that this blog exists and it all becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that stops me from doing something I really want to do. Either that, or it was all an evil plan concocted by Darkseid.

But now, for the one or two readers (read, people who accidentally clicked on this site while searching for something else) I may have left, I'm back with a renewed commitment to updating this site regularly. I know, I know, you've all heard this before, but this time it COUNTS!

To that end, though, I'll be making a few changes in the goals and format of this space. These changes are designed to allow me to keep doing this without abandoning it (for the third time), while also hopefully gaining some new readers and building a more stable presence.

The first major change is that I'm going to expand the coverage of this site to all pop culture, not just comics. The primary focus will still be comics, followed closely by music, with occasional posts on books without pictures, films, and television. In short, if I read it, listen to it, or watch it, its fair game. This expanded focus will allow me to say what I want to say on a wider variety of topics, and give me something to write about at times when I really don't have anything comics-related worth saying.

The second change is that I'm going to abandon all pretense of reviewing, writing about, or in any way covering newly released comics each week. Its just impossible for me to do that in a timely manner. By the time I make my way to the comics shop, pick up that week's books, read them all, and write something cogent about them, they're all pretty much old news anyway. And one tough week where I don't make it to the store until Saturday and don't have time to read everything until the next Wednesday pretty much blows the whole thing out of the water. Plus, I'd rather be writing about the stuff that I am really into at the moment rather than trying to figure out what the hell I want to say about this month's totally unremarkable issue of Batman, for example.

Finally, I am going to try to post something every weekday, and sometimes on weekends. Even if I'm swamped, even if that something is just a link to something interesting I found, or some song lyrics that have been running through my head, or a quick paragraph about a book, writer, artist, or band you should be paying more attention to. I'll try to make it more substantial than that, most of the time, but it may not always happen.

So here's a start. If you like comics, even just a little, tiny, insignificant bit... hell, even if you don't like comics but don't hate them, either... you should be paying attention to Paul Pope. His work is amazing, and like nothing else out there available today. Read this interview to learn more and see some samples of his work.

Oh yeah, and if anyone out there knows where to score a copy of Pope's art book, Pulphope, without breaking the bank, drop me a line.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Odds and Sods: What's On My Mind

A collection of (at least tenuously) comics-related thoughts on my mind today:

- Gene Ha, in addition to being a very talented artist, is a genuinely nice and patient guy. I met up with him and a whole group of other comics fans last night to discuss Top 10, and he answered all our questions on the project, and even brought along some original art and mind-bogglingly dense and detailed scripts for a couple of issues. (Seriously, the script for page one of issue one was five single-spaced type-written pages long). If you happen to read this, thanks for showing up, Gene.

- Quote of the week, possibly the month, maybe the year. From Gillen's short essay at the back of Phonogram # 5: "[T]he second you create a person who perfectly embodies a philosophy, they cease to be human - they become a cipher. . . . [W]hen dealing with human beings, turning someone into an embodiment of a philosophy. . . well, you might as well be Ayn fucking Rand. It's propping up straw men and bashing the living shit out of them." Just one of the many reasons why people who love Ayn Rand's books are annoying - they think they are intellectual conservatives, but really they just have extremely poor taste.

- I'm currently reading Chuck Klosterman's essay collection, Eating the Dinosaur. The first essay makes a point that, while you might expect famous people to be more guarded or intentionally uninteresting in interviews, the opposite is often true, because the interview session provides one of the only interactions a truly famous person gets to have that approximates the type of every-day personal interactions normal people have all the time. Other interactions tend to place the famous person on an unequal playing field. I'd never thought of this, but it makes some sense - its impossible for Brad Pitt or Bono to really have a normal conversation with a random person at a bar or something. Which is why I think the best kind of famous to be would be something like comic book famous. You'd be recognized, admired (or possibly reviled) by a certain small sub-culture, but you'd still retain a level of anonymity and normalcy with respect to the world at large. I mean, the paparazzi isn't exactly following around even the most "famous" of comic writers or artists.

- You know you are a comic book nerd when the mere mention of the Pixies automatically makes you think of Transmetropolitan. In fact, I first found out about the Pixies through Transmetropolitan, as I hadn't really gotten into the independent or alternative or whatever the heck it was called back then music scene at the time the Pixies were popular. So when Transmet would name its issues/arcs after Pixies songs, I decided to check out the source material (on Napster! Ah, the late '90s) and soon discovered it was awesome.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Big Stack o' Comics: Unabashed Theft and Books from 11/11/09

Good writers borrow. Great ones steal. That's my justification for unabashedly stealing from fellow Chicagoan Brandon Thomas' "Stackology" series over at the Fiction House. For a while here, I've been looking for a good way to convey my weekly comics take in a manageable way. Writing a small blurb about each and every book was unmanageable, and the truth is, I don't always have anything remotely worth saying about even a very good random issue of a comic I'm reading.

When I stumbled upon Stackology, though, I knew Brandon was onto something. He organizes his comics exactly the way I do, and have been doing since I can remember - from worst to best. He throws a few more rules in there that I don't subscribe to, such as staying away from back-to-back's by certain creators, but overall its a similar thing. So from now on, I'll be posting a full list of books I took home, in reading order, and picking a "winner of the week" from that crop. I may also make some other comments, like soliciting opinions on books I'm thinking about dropping, as I've noticed my pull list has grown a bit large lately.

So without further ado, here is the Stack from last week, with the champion of the week in bold:*

Batman/Doc Savage Special # 1
JSA vs. Kobra # 6
The Amazing Spiderman # 611
Red Herring # 4
Dark X-Men # 1
BPRD 1947 # 5
The Unwritten # 7
PunisherMAX # 1
The Authority: The Lost Year Reader # 1
Batman & Robin # 6
Phonogram: The Singles Club # 5

Amazingly, in a week where I bought two books by Grant Morrison (the God Of All Comics, hallowed be his name), neither of them took home the grand prize. The Authority book was technically a reprint, so though I had never read it and it was new to me, I took it out of the running for best of the week. Had it been new material, it probably would have won. Batman & Robin was sabotaged by some really hard-to-look-at art by Phillip Tan, whose work isn't great to begin with, and really did not fit the tone of the book established by Frank Quitely in the first three issues. I was tempted to pick it anyway based solely on the sheer meta-textual deliciousness of Jason Todd conducting a dial-in phone poll to determine the fate of Batman, but after slogging through a poorly rendered fight scene where I could hardly tell what the hell was happening, I couldn't in conscious crown it the winner.

That thought was only reinforced by the brilliance that is Phonogram: The Single Clubs # 5. Each of the seven issues shows the same night out from a different character's perspective, making each issue a self-contained reading experience in and of itself, but one that gains new resonance when taken in context with the others. Issue # 5 focuses on "Laura Heaven," a phonomancer (music magician, basically) obsessed with the British indie group The Long Blondes. Its a real testament to writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie that my complete lack of familiarity with that band did not detract from my enjoyment one bit. Instead, I was able to relate to Laura's obsession with the band and her use of their music, lyrics and image as things she can both recognize as aspects of herself and aspire to. While her constant quoting of lyrics is something that the other characters, and the reader, may find annoying, its a pretty accurate portrayal of someone using pop culture to craft an identity when she finds her sense of self in flux. The back-up material in this issue is also great, including a quick essay about the main strip by McKelvie, a critical piece about the Long Blonde's music, and a short strip about ska, of all things. At $3.50, all these quality features give you bang for your buck that is rivaled only by Brubaker's Criminal and Incognito packages.

* I'm only including the Top 12 this time around, as I didn't decide to do this until the rest of my stack from last week had already been dismantled and is now out of order. Plus, I plan to do a separate post on the Blackest Night "ring" books sometime in the near future anyway....

Fabled Prose: Peter & Max

I have to admit, I was skeptical when I first heard about Peter & Max, the new novel set in the Fables universe and written by long-time Fables scribe and creator, Bill Willingham. I've never really been a fan of re-purposing content from a more visual medium, be it comics or television or film, into prose. It seems far too easy an excuse for lazy writing, allowing the author to rely on our pre-formed visual perceptions of the universe and characters in the book. While there have been some good books written in series based on Star Trek, Star Wars, etc., there have also been plenty of books that wouldn't stand up under their own weight if the built-in audience for those properties weren't already along for the ride and eager to snap up anything within a particular brand (of course, the same could be said for most mainstream super-hero comics by the Big Two, but that's a digression best left for further discussion elsewhere).

Willingham avoids the tendency to coast on the built-in audience for Fables, though, by producing a book that is engaging and engrossing in its own right, with no prior knowledge of the Fables comics required. Maybe Willingham is aided by the fact that the Fables comics series is itself a re-purposing of characters with prose origins (or at least origins in oral storytelling traditions that have long been recorded and transmitted in prose form).* Or maybe Willingham is just a good storyteller whose gifts at weaving this kind of tale transcends the medium in which he normally works. **

The book focuses on two storied characters, Peter Piper and Max Piper (better known as the "Pied Piper of Hamelin"), and splits its time a bit unevenly -- both in quality and page-count -- between the present day and the storied past. In the present day tale, Peter receives news that his brother Max has returned to the mundane world, leaves his crippled wife Bo Peep to fend for herself and sets out to find him. Along the way, we see Peter interact with a number of Fables mainstays like Rose Red, Bigby Wolf, Frau Totenkinder, and the Beast, before tracking Max down to our world's version of Hamelin, Germany. I found the present-day story to be a bit tedious, for the most part, but that was partly because the history of Peter, Max, and Bo Peep was so well-told that I couldn't wait to get back to it. The present-day parts of the story are by no means bad, and contain an intriguing comment on modernity and its tendency to reduce the past to a sanitized amusement park that could have been fleshed out a bit more, but they just don't stack up to the back-story.

Moving on to the meat of the tale, the history of the Piper and Peep families and what happens when their land is invaded by a conquering empire is nothing less than brilliant. Willingham's story of sibling rivalry between Max and younger brother Peter, which is only deepened when Peter's father passes down the magical flute Frost to Peter rather than Max, is intercut with a sweeping story of true love between Peter and the youngest of the Peep family, Bo, their separation and reunion, and their eventual conflict with Max. The tale of the Pipers and Peeps stands on par with the old tales and lore evoked, and specifically referenced, by Willingham, which is high praise indeed.

If the back-story consisted only of references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes, Peter & Max might still be an entertaining read. We learn what the deal was with Peter Piper and the pickled peppers, how Bo Peep lost her sheep, the true tale of the meeting between Peter and the Wolf, and the reason why Peter put his wife in a pumpkin shell. We also see how Max became the "pied piper," and how he came to lead away both rats and children from Hamelin in his single-minded quest to find and destroy his brother Peter. Like all good fables, this one also has a moral, one involving the dangers of envy and covetousness, and the arrogance and evil of those who believe they are owed something by the world simply by reason of their mere existence.

As I read through Peter & Max, though, I was struck more at Willingham's ability to create fully form characters we grow to care about, whether we love or hate them, and not merely to put a clever spin on some musty old stories. And while I felt the book was good throughout, it became great at the end, with a final confrontation between Peter & Max that was satisfying in every way -- it flowed logically from what came before while still bearing a real element of surprise, and it provided a real level of emotional closure and climax that a great number of books of this kind lack.

In short, Peter & Max is highly recommended for both fans of Fables and non-fans alike. In fact, if you are looking for a gift for someone who may not be into comics at all, but enjoys books like Wicked or other modern twists on traditional stories, Peter & Max would make an excellent addition to their library.

* For purposes of this review, I'll assume that most everyone reading this is generally familiar with the premise of Fables - characters from various fairy tales, nursery rhymes and other folklore have been driven from their original worlds and have found refuge in a tightly knit community situated in our mundane world.

** Cue comparisons to Neil Gaiman, which I have always resisted when it comes to Willingham, but which are not entirely undeserved. For what its worth, I think Gaiman is a better writer than Willingham, but Willingham is proving himself to be more adept at telling an engaging story than Gaiman.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Slim Pickins

Just finished my monthly trip through the wonderful world of Previews (for any non-comics folks out there who might read this, Previews is the monthly catalog that details what's being released in the comics world a couple of months out) and ended up with a VERY short pre-order list this time out. I don't know if there just isn't that much good new product hitting stores or if I am somehow getting a teensy bit more discerning/jaded, but the only things I ordered this time out were the Hitman Vol. 2, Planetary Vol. 4 and No Hero trade collections, the Joe the Barbarian mini-series, and Marvel's Siege event miniseries.

Am I missing anything mind-numbingly awesome in my Previews perusal?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Smells Like... Comics!!!

Its been a couple of really busy months, with real life and work taking over in a major way, so I have sadly neglected to write on this blog for quite some time. That changes today, with a pledge to do more regular updates. I want to try to post something, even if its not much, at least three times per week. Rather than trying to do a big aggregate post reflecting on the comics I've read that week or month, I think it makes more sense to focus on one issue or collection at a time. So more posts, but shorter, at least until I find the time or the inclination to put down some of the longer, more involved essays I have percolating in my head.

So without further ado, some thoughts on a couple of comics I've really enjoyed recently. Spoilers Ahoy.

Both comics on the list are part of "the List," a series of one-shots released recently by Marvel focusing on current uber-villain Norman Osborn's efforts to deal with a few thorns in his side. The first book I'll talk about is the Punisher one-shot by regular Punisher writer Rick Remender and artist John Romita, Jr. I've been really enjoying Remender's take on the Punisher from day one - he's integrated the gritty, hard-boiled Punisher mastered by Ennis into the regular Marvel Universe in a more seamless and enjoyable way than I, and I'm sure many others, thought would ever be possible. The book has been slipping a little in my estimation recently, though, as I just haven't felt that Tan Eng Huat was a good fit for the book.

Romita, Jr.'s art in the "List" one-shot is gorgeous, as usual -- I mean, really, is there a better Punisher artist than Romita, Jr.? Ennis die-hards might make a case for Dillon, but Romita, Jr. does the definitive Frank Castle, in my book. Its particular fitting in this case, because Remender really ups the ante' here and writes a story that could very go down in history as one of the definitive Punisher issues in history - the death of Frank Castle at the hands of faux-Wolverine, and the son of the real Wolverine, Daken, who, at the behest of Osborn, literally slices him into little pieces. Of course we know from the "Franken-castle" promos, as well as the back-up preview of the upcoming arc in the regular Punisher title (featuring some great work by Tony Moore), that he'll somehow be put back together again and reanimated (because this is comics, after all, and that sort of insane, over-the-top thing is what happens when you die in comics), but Remender and Romita, Jr. still manage to imbue Frank's "final" moments with a level of brutality and emotional impact far beyond what I expected.

The second book on the list is Dark Reign: The List: Wolverine, written by Jason Aaron with art by Esaad Ribic. Jason Aaron is a writer whose acclaim just seems to grow and grow with each month, and based on this book, its not hard to see why. Aaron has a reputation for extremely hard-edged, down and dirty crime stories based on his Vertigo book Scalped. I'm not as familiar with his other Marvel work, but this book really shows that is a big mistake to pigeon-hole him into that category. Aaron writes a relatively light, extremely enjoyable romp through some of the concepts introduced by Grant Morrison in his brief tenure at Marvel, including Kree brat Noh-varr, mutant thief Fantomex, the Weapon Plus program and their fringe-science experimental playground known as The World. Aaron's deft handling of these concepts is particularly impressive given that Marvel has notoriously either shied away from exploring concepts and characters introduced by Morrison, or horribly botched said exploration when undertaken.

Aaron, however, fits these characters in seamlessly with Norman Osborn's attempt to capture The World for himself, and Wolverine's attempt to shut him down. The whole thing is complicated by a mutated religion that affects and controls the part of the human brain that processes faith -- a concept to which Fantomex and Noh-varr are luckily immune. Anyone who knows me knows that a rip-roaring sci-fi yarn that also gets its shots in at organized religion is right in my wheel-house, but that's not the only reason I enjoyed this book. Aaron's plot is filled with Morrisonisms and other wild ideas that stay true to the characters and concepts involved, but are tightly plotted in a way that is extremely satisfying, especially given the fact that this book could have easily bogged down under the weight of the characters and occurrences therein. Ribic's art carries just the right mix of cartoony posturing and realism for the story, making the book very easy to follow visually. I'd love to see Aaron do more with both Fantomex and Noh-varr in the future, but for now I guess I'll just have to settle for his work on Scalped and Wolverine: Weapon X ongoing.

OK, that's it for comics for now. I'll leave you with my top five Nirvana songs (I've been sifting through their back catalogue recently in anticipation of picking up the Live at Reading release and Bleach reissue).

5. "In Bloom" - Smells Like Teen Spirit was the big, over-played and over-hyped hit, but this band didn't really hit home for me until I saw the video for In Bloom, with Kurt Cohbain and company in their dresses on the mock Sullivan show set. People forget that Nirvana were pro-gay rights before being pro-gay rights was fashionable.

4. "Sliver" - pure lo-fi adrenaline from before the hype.

3. "Scentless Apprentice" - Something about that opening drum lick and the total, unapologetic misanthropy of the lyrics makes this my favorite cut from In Utero, the best studio album the band ever did.

2. "Lithium" - I love you, I'm not gonna crack. Sure, Kurt, whatever you say.

1. "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" - This track unplugs both the guitars and the usual ironic veneer of Nirvana to reveal the true heart of both Cohbain and the band as a whole. The delivery of the last lines still gives me chills over a decade later.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Big Stack o' Comics: The Penultimate Chapter

So I am finally through with my stack of new books. It felt weird to read pretty much an entire month's worth of stuff in a condensed period, with no prose reading in-between. I will be doing one more post after this, as I have quite a lot of books to cover, as my reading ability outstripped my writing time for the past few days. So without further ado, lets get going with:

Uncanny X-Men # 514, Dark Avengers # 8 and Invincible Iron Man # 16, otherwise as the Might Marvel Matt Fraction Man of Action Triple Feature (cue pulpy b-movie title cards and music) -- No other writer has risen so highly in my estimation in the past few months than Mr. Fraction. Most of this owes to my discovery of Casanova, but part of it is the fact that he is simply rocking these two titles right now. His X-Men is by far the best take on the book since Grant Morrison's, and is arguably the best traditional, juggle five plotlines in the air and resolve them on a revolving basis, pseudo-soap-opera take on the book since Claremont's heyday. While many have grumbled that the Utopia storyline is moving too slowly for their tastes, I find it pitch-perfect. As for Iron Man, Tony Stark slowly losing his marbles never struck me as a great idea, but it is being played exceptionally well by Mr. Fraction, featuring some poignant moments that are actually making me like Tony Stark again (which, I'm guessing, might have been the aim, or at least one of the aims, of this story-line). And Mr. Fraction, did you actually sneak a lyrical reference to The Mountain Goats into this issue?

Wednesday Comics # 5-8: This weekly series is a fun throw-back, a feast for the eyes, and it will be over far too soon. There are some truly great strips included in this thing, including Gibbons and Sook's Kamandi, Paul Pope's Adam Strange, and Gaiman and Allred's Metamorpho, with only a couple of real clunkers (Wonder Woman and Teen Titans, I'm looking at you). I haven't seen the sales numbers on this yet, but I hope its doing well enough that DC tries this again, perhaps taking it in an even more daring and experimental direction next time.

Blackest Night # 2: In the grand tradition of a good summer movie, this series invites you to turn off your mind, stop worrying so much, and enjoy zombie superheros. On that level, its a resounding success. If you are looking for depth, though, stay away.

Unwritten # 4: Actually, if you are looking for depth, you might want to check in here. Quickly becoming my favorite Vertigo book (especially now that Young Liars is ending), this nice little piece of graphic fiction exploring the nature and power of fiction, and perhaps of genre as well, is smart as hell. This issue is also a bloody good time, emphasis on the bloody, and if you ever wondered what a Harry Potter slasher flick would look like, well, pick this up and wonder no more.

Captain America: Reborn # 2: Even though released and hyped as its own event, this book is really just a straight continuation of Brubaker's years-long run on Captain America. Which means its a whole lot better than any Captain America book has any right to be. The highlight here is Cap's experience traveling through time and reliving his own life. Cap's experience having to go through World War II again, when he points out that most of the men next to him will soon be killed, is pretty harrowing. Brubaker is at his best on this title when he plays up the war and spy elements - indeed, Captain America is arguably one of the least superheroic of the current superhero comics, which is decidedly a good thing. The present-day action here doesn't live up to the Steve Rogers scenes, but it promises to get better as the series progresses.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Big Stack o' Comics VI and Random Thoughts

Some random thoughts before I continue to work my way through my back-log of issues (a back-log which will grow again tomorrow). Life is tough, so I like to focus on the stuff that makes me happy, so here's some random positivity for the comics world:

- I am very happy to hear that Kieron Gillen is going to be writing Thor. Bold choice by Marvel. I have been really enjoying his excellent indie, Phonogram, and it is nice to see him get such a high-profile gig.

- Is there anything more fun in superhero comics than a well-executed fight scene? Scientifically speaking, no.

- I have not read a lot of Marvel from the '70s, but man, everytime I do get into some of that it usually some fun, crazy stuff. Looking through old comics reminds me why, even though I continue to read more and more DC, when push comes to shove, I have to say "Make Mine Marvel!"

- Writing this blog leads to me wanting to write more, both on this blog and creatively. And I count that as a very good thing.

Now, back to the stack:

JSA v. Kobra # 3: Kramer's art continues to be excellent. Trautman's story stumbles just a bit here, as this is the first time this series has felt like a run-of-the-mill superhero comic. But its a well-executed and visually exciting run-of-the-mill superhero comic.

Red Herring # 1: Three words. Bond. Phillip Bond. The story is mostly set-up, but it ain't bad either.

Daredevil # 500: One thing modern Marvel has been doing oh-so-right lately is their anniversary issues. This one is no exception, as everything in this over-sized package is worth your time. Brubaker & Lark's lead story makes me wish I had been reading Brubaker's run from the start. Andy Diggle and Billy Tan's preview of things to come was intriguing. The Frank Miller reprint was mind-blowing - somehow I always forget exactly how good Miller's Daredevil was until it sneaks up on me and wallops me in the head. But the real gem here is a new story by Ann Nocenti and David Aja. Please, please Marvel, do whatever it takes to get Ms. Nocenti back doing more regular work. Or at least have the decency to collect her previous run on DD in a nice Omnibus or set of trades.

Wolverine - Weapon X # 4: Jason Aaron writes bad-ass like no-one else, and Wolverine is the ultimate mainstream Marvel bad-ass. Seriously, though, Aaron really knows what makes Wolvie tick, and writes the best solo Wolverine I've seen in a LONG time. Ron Garney's straight-from-pencils art is pretty good too. And the two-page fight scene between Wolverine and one of the new Weapon X soldiers is just this side of spectacular.

Punisher # 8: No offense to Tan Eng Huat, but I really miss Jerome Opena on this title. He was just a much better fit for the gritty world of Frank Castle. Rick Remender's story here is good, but not up to his best work on the title. It was fun to see Frank face off against a simulated old-school Avengers lineup, though.

Hellblazer # 258: John Constantine really is a right bastard. I am very impressed with Milligan's work on this title so far. Hellblazer is one of those series that gets overlooked and taken for granted, but Milligan deserves a lot of credit for placing it back in the upper echelon of Vertigo titles I look forward to each month.