Monday, December 27, 2010

Byrne Victims and Other Dorks of Note: Funnybooksinreviewarego!!

So the funnybook reviews have also fallen prey to my December work and holiday schedule, to the point that the nerd wranglers here on the Dork 40 are starting to give me crap about it. Which means that it must be time once again for some Quickies. But first, a slightly more in-depth look at a book I almost didn't buy...

Next Men #1
by John Byrne

I tried this book in spite of the fact that I've liked exactly nothing John Byrne's written in the last decade. But I remember the series fondly from its 90s heyday, and thought (after debating for a week) that I'd give it a try. Much to my surprise, it's actually pretty good. This first issue is mostly recap, but in this case that might be a good thing. I haven't read Next Men in 15 years, and so the refresher was most welcome.

Getting the series' entire story laid out all at once like this reveals some serious creative missteps along the way, but it also reminds me of something far more important: John Byrne's penchant for applying serious science fiction concepts to his super hero fiction. This was what I liked most about the man's work in the 80s: it often felt like a true updating of the Lee/Kirby/Ditko creative aesthetic, applying a touch of logic and a slightly more adult sensibility to things while still delivering on the high imagination of the originals. It was work that refreshed some already-great characters and polished them up for a new generation of readers. You could see it in his contributions to X-Men, his back-to-basics approach to Fantastic Four, and even his often-forgotten work on Namor. The same aesthetic powers his revamp of Superman, though that is in some ways his weakest work of the period, feeling almost hamstrung by a slightly more kid-friendly approach to the writing.

That wasn't the case at all with Next Men, however. This book was the ultimate expression of Byrne's adult comics writing, a super hero series with its feet firmly grounded in science fiction. One part DNAgents, one part X-Men, two parts Larry Niven. It was weird and complicated, and horny as all hell. And now, having been reminded of all that, I'm also reminded of the tone of the interviews I read with Byrne in the days following the series' declining sales and ultimate cancellation. He was expressing disappointment and bitterness, of course (Byrne being Byrne), but I remember thinking at the time that he really sounded like a man defeated. And the work-for-hire comics he returned to afterward seemed to bear that out. The work was half-hearted and half-assed, a shadow of what he'd once been capable of. Even his artwork suffered. And the intelligent spark that updated the Silver Age and powered things like Next Men was gone.

Will this new, third volume of Next Men bring it back? Well, it's hard to say. Byrne uses a nice bait-and-switch frame story to get us into the recap, and ends with another interesting twist. But only time will tell if he's able to hold it together. This recap was good enough that I'm willing to give him at least one more issue to impress me. But the minute I catch a whiff of the suck that's turned me off the man's work for ten years now? Well, that four dollar price tag is going to seem awfully steep awfully quick.

Grade: B

Thor #618
by Matt Fraction and Pascual Ferry

The freshest take this character has seen since Walt Simonson's 1980s heyday rolls on. Odin's having a grand old Viking time in Limbo, experiencing death and glory without end, "better than Valhalla could ever hope to be." So it's too bad for him that Thor (ever-noble, ever-headstrong, ever a bad son) decides that Asgard needs him in its hour of greatest need. Fraction's take on these characters continues to delight, as does Ferry's imaginative take on the visuals of the Nine Worlds. If I have any complaint with his work here, it might only be that his renditions of the core Asgardian cast is too on-model. Our Heroes look almost drab in comparison to the giants, goblins, and dwarves Ferry's drawing around them. Of course, on the other hand, I'd hate to see anyone tamper with the look of Hogun the Grim, so maybe that's okay...

Grade: A-

Thor the Mighty Avenger #7 (of 8)
by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee

Things progress rather quickly between Thor and Jane Foster this issue, and I guess they kind of have to: the book's being cancelled with the next issue. Le sigh. I guess the comic shop ghetto just wasn't ready for a Thor romance comic, not even one with art this stylish or super-heroics this much fun. It's to Langridge's credit, however, that Jane and Thor's rush to the sack doesn't feel rushed. It seems a very natural progression from last issue's first kiss, and is handled in just as classy (and all-ages) a manner.

Oh, and also, Thor fights some robots.

Grade: B+

Hellblazer: City of Demons #5 (of 5)
by Si Spencer and Sean Murphy

The best Hellblazer story of recent memory draws to a close with a twist I didn't see coming, and one that does a lot to explain the ease with which Constantine figured out the evil doctors' plot. Also, Nurse Marie turns out to be a little bit freakier than she seemed, and Sean Murphy proves to be quite the delineator of nekkid ladies. Hah-CHA!

Grade: B+

Highland Laddie #5 (of 6)
by Garth Ennis and John McCrea

More scintillating character drama with Annie and Hughie, as we get right down to the core of Hughie's feelings on the matter: he probably still loves Annie, but he can't get the image of her from the surveillance tape out of his head, and doesn't think he'll ever be able to. Ouch.

More and more, I'm wishing this plotline with the V-laced drug smuggling wasn't here. Of course, I think it's going to resolve the other half of the Hughie/Annie equation: Annie still doesn't know that Hughie's got powers, too.

Grade: A

Strange Tales II #3 (of 3)
by Various

This second Strange Tales series has turned out much like the first: many of the stories have been rather lackluster, but the good stuff makes up for it. That's the case again this issue, which is mostly filled with mildly funny gag strips that suffer from feeling pointless or poorly-paced. But it was worth wading through all that to get James "Orc Stain" Stokoe's gorgeous Silver Surfer piece, and the series' posthumous closing tale: Harvey Pekar Meets the Thing. 'Nuff said.

Grade: B

Fables #100
by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Many Others

This landmark issue features a 63-page lead story (in which Frau Totenkinder duels with Mr. Dark) and an array of special back-up features. The story doesn't go at all where I expected, and that's a very good thing. I'm glad this book can still surprise me after so long.

Grade: A-

Batman Inc. #2
by Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette, and Michel Lacombe

A fun second issue that's obviously building up to bigger things. One thing bugged me about it: the Japan story is wrapped up this issue, and Lord Death Man deserved more screen time. But, much like Morrison's Batman and Robin work, questions remain unanswered here that will almost certainly play out down the line. Like, who's responsible for giving Death Man the resurrection power he faked in Batman's first encounter with him? And... I'm sure there are other questions I don't even know enough to ask yet. But that's okay. I'm fully prepared to be dazzled six months down the line.

Grade: A

Superior #3
by Mark Millar and Leinil Yu

Simon goes off on a streak of heroic activity this issue, starting by rescuing a crashing space station and continuing on through any number of the kind of disasters we know from decades of Superman stories. It's to Millar's credit that he makes them fun and exciting anyway. Along the way, he catches the attention of a lady reporter. Because Millar also knows no shame. And we find out something unsettling about the space monkey who gave Simon the Superior powers to begin with. Because Millar's still good at twisting the fictional knife.

This book is loads of fun, but I do have one complaint: Leinil Yu needs to stop using porn as artistic reference. There's not a single woman in this comic who's not in an awkward pose designed to display as much tits and ass as possible. I've got nothing against drawings of beautiful women (see my above comments vis-a-vis Sean Murphy's drawings of nekkid ladies in Hellblazer), but this is obvious and more than a little sleazy, and detracts from an otherwise-fine funnybook experience.

Grade: B+

27 #1
by Charles Soule and Renzo Podesta

This Image buzz book is about a superstar rock guitarist with carpel tunnel who seeks treatment from a weird-ass old science shaman, and winds up with a plate in his chest that sparks bursts of creativity. It's a pretty good read, but maybe not something I'm willing to pay four bucks a pop for to see where it goes.

Grade: B


  1. I know what you mean about the four-dollar price tag... especially when it comes to 6-issue story arcs.

    Do you think the general comics price-increase was a necessary thing, or is doing more harm than good?

  2. Hrm. Both? Four dollars is what some books with a smaller audience kind of have to cost to be profitable. But I think widespread four dollar comics are harmful to the market overall. It's a cash grab. They're charging what the market will bear, and it's helped the bottom line. Sales have dropped, but they're making more money on fewer copies.

    But that seems like an insane business strategy to me; having fewer readers can't be a good thing in the long term. Especially not in an industry with as small a market as comics already have.

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