Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Alternative Heroes: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!

So I guess it’s time for Day Two of our quick run-through of very-nearly-stale funnybooks. Tonight, I’ll be looking at super hero comics that aren't owned by the Big Two. Don’t expect that kind of organization every day, though: I just got inspired and stuff…

The Boys #52
by Garth Ennis and John Mcrea

Any in-depth discussion of The Boys at this point in the run (well, any in-depth discussion I’m interested in having, anyway) has to focus deep on plot, and will therefore be riddled with SPOILERS. What follows will be as much an analysis as a review. It might not make a lick of sense if you’re not following the series, and if you are, but you’re not caught up to this most recent issue, you may want to avoid it because… well… as I said: SPOILERS! SPOILERY SPOILERS that SPOIL things! You have been warned…

Ennis continues to gather his various characters and plotlines together for the series’ final act, and it’s looking increasingly to me like it’s all going to come down to opposing extremists dragging everyone else along in their wake. On one side is Butcher, whose mad drive to avenge his family is sending the Boys on a potentially suicidal collision course with the Seven. On the other side, it’s the Homelander, whose growing god complex is leading to a revolution among the Supes. And god help humanity once that gets going, so maybe Billy Butcher‘s bastardry will turn out to be a very good thing after all.

Whatever happens, both Hughie and the mysterious Mr. Mallory (who’ve caught up to the main book now that Highland Laddie is over) are worried about what Butcher’s got coming. So’s Mother’s Milk for that matter, but (at least according to Mallory) he’s got too much invested in his own revenge against Vought to do too much to stop Butcher before it’s too late. Then there’s Annie, who knows that Hughie’s not who he says he is, but isn’t pressing the matter because… my god… I think she still loves him. But I don’t think she’ll be too enthused about the plans of either Butcher or the Homelander once she finds out about them. And she will find out about them, because she’s not stupid, and her patience with Hughie is not infinite.

I’m always wrong when I try to out-guess Ennis on this book, but with Mallory back in the game (however peripherally), Hughie and Annie both wanting to avoid bloodshed, and the Woman from Vought giving the Seven’s activities the kind of serious oversight that her boss hasn’t taken them seriously enough to do in years… I’m starting to wonder if we won’t see a third front form on this particular battlefield before it’s all said and done. It would be strange bedfellows, of course. Mallory working with Vought, for one thing. But if it did happen, I wonder where various people might fall. Would Queen Maeve come over, for instance? Could Mother’s Milk be persuaded after all? And what about the Frenchman? He wants to get out of the Life, but he’ll go wherever the Female goes. And I think her need to kill is too strong for her to leave Butcher behind. Unless someone else could offer her the opportunity…

Then, of course, there’s always Love Sausage to consider. Just to, you know, remind us that we’re talking about the kind of comic that… would have a character called “Love Sausage” in it. Which is to say that, whatever happens, it’s sure to be profane, and not at all pretty.

This, then, is what makes The Boys work so very well: plot carefully interlaced with character, and a generous helping of blood and jizz to spice things up. It’s not high art by any stretch, but it is very entertaining and well-constructed genre fiction that gives depth to its stereotypes, refuses to follow formulas, and seldom spoon-feeds the audience. Which is, as I’ve said before, exactly what I look for in my genre entertainments.

Grade: A

Incognito: Bad Influences #3 & 4
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

I wouldn’t say it’s hard to believe that Incognito is written by the same guy who wrote that Captain America trade I bashed so hard last time. I mean, both books deal pretty heavily in pulp fiction tropes, both apply those tropes to super heroes, and both have brooding brown-haired protagonists with a penchant for five o’clock shadow who are living down past misdeeds. They’re even both telling five-part stories! But, man. One of these two books is so much better than the other it’s not even funny.

Hint: the better book is NOT Captain America.

Granted, Incognito deals in a more complex moral universe than Cap ever could. Bucky’s evildoings were caused by bad guy brainwashing, after all. But Zack Overkill’s just a pure-t son of a bitch who’s learning to be a better man against his better judgment, and much to his own surprise. You can’t do that sort of thing with Captain America, really, so maybe it’s not fair of me to compare the books on that front. But the moral quagmire is always going to appeal to me more, and so I really can’t help myself.

That’s not the only thing that makes Incognito better, though. Brubaker’s writing here also seems looser and more confident. The story flows more naturally, and I never feel like anything’s being rushed. Maybe more importantly, the action never feels forced, either. In that last Cap book, it always felt like I was being pushed along from fight scene to fight scene, and the fights themselves were kind of gimmicky. They never seemed very inspired or meaningful. There was, now that I think of it, no real sense of jeopardy to any of it. In contrast, I feel like Zack Overkill is in deadly danger pretty much every moment he’s out on this mission. I cringe when he goes to sleep, for god’s sake, because I just know that something horrible’s going to happen. That engagement with the story is not something the most recent Cap story ever managed, and on that front alone Incognito kicks Cap’s ass.

Aiding and abetting that sense of engagement is Sean Phillips’ artwork. He‘s not the most dynamic action artist ever, but he nails the mood, and the verisimilitude. He’s genius at old-school super villain fashions, for instance. Domino masks, goggles, even freaking skull caps, all look like things somebody might actually wear under Phillips’ pen. He does less well with your bog-standard spandex, but some things aren’t going to look cool no matter who draws them. And with Phillips as the sole artist, there’s a unity of vision that was lacking in the most recent Cap. Incognito gives you no jarring mid-chapter style changes. That makes it a more complete package, and thus something that’s worth my three-fifty.

Grade: A

Powers #7
by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming

Coming out the same day, and from the same team, as Takio (which I discussed last time) is the new issue of perhaps my favorite on-going funnybook, Powers. The on-going investigation of the murder of a power who claimed to be a god gives Bendis the chance to reflect on the nature of faith, and it’s good stuff. He opens with an argument for atheism via the host of The Powers That Be, the trashy TV chat show about powers that’s been a running background element throughout the series. It’s one of those unrelated opening monologue things he’s used to such good effect in recent years, something akin to the stand-up comedians from the end of the second series.

From there, he moves on to a Powers standard: the interrogation of the suspects. Except this time, they’re a pantheon of gods. Or would-be gods. Or… something unsettlingly undefined. Are they powers with delusions of grandeur? Or something else entirely? Walker (who’s got some experience with such things) neither confirms nor denies, but they make for maybe the most fascinating interview subjects in the series‘ history. They’re the usual collection of hedonists, madmen, and egomaniacs Walker and Sunrise (ugh!) always deal with in some ways, but the question of their godhood makes all of them a little more interesting. My favorite is probably Hecate, drug-addled, sex-changed, and seeking answers in a Christian church. His dialogue reads a bit like Bendis doing Morrison, and I’m not sure if there will turn out to have been a lot of truth in it, or if it was just nonsense. Either way, I was entertained.

But maybe even better than the philosophically-turned story is Mike Oeming’s art for this issue. He goes all Eisnery this issue, using buildings to frame his page layouts and generally building his pages around cityscapes. Most impressive to me, though, are what amount to building caricatures that he uses to set several scenes. He uses forced perspective to present almost super-deformed shapes feel like tall buildings while actually being short and squat in relation to the world around them. It’s a hard effect to describe (obviously, I guess), but it’s a tiny bit stunning when you look closely at what he’s done. There’s also an establishing shot of the police department building with an interior window that seems to be set into the exterior wall, depending on which panel you’re looking at. It’s crazy stuff that I didn’t even notice on my first read-through, but holy crap does it ever add to the book’s overall feel.

So that’s another textbook in funnybook creation from the Powers team. Comics really don’t get a whole lot better than this, for my money. Unless they’re written by Grant Morrison, of course, but even then… He’s never had an artistic collaborator on a par with Oeming. Not consistently, anyway, and… Oh, hell. Much like Hecate, I don’t even know what I’m saying now. Time to call it a night.

Grade: A

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