Monday, March 14, 2011

A Few Words on Children and Patriots: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!

So we’ve been droning on and on in long-form writing here on the Dork Forty lately. And while that’s been satisfying and fun, we do kinda miss the quick-and-dirty of the old short-form reviews. The longer stuff has lead to fewer updates, too, which wasn’t the intent when we started on them. Eventually, I’m sure we’ll find a balance between the two, but for now… We’ve got a whole big pile of funnybooks sitting here on the verge of going completely stale, and we‘re gonna spend the week plowing through them, starting tonight. So once again it looks like… FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!

Captain America: No Escape
by Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, and Mitch Breitweiser

I stopped buying Captain America in the monthly floppies when the price went to four bucks. I was enjoying the book, but not enough to pay that much, and the Nomad back-up strip they added to off-set the cover price actually made me think less of the monthly package rather than more. But the trade paperback editions come out to roughly the three dollars a chapter I was happily paying before, so I became a trade-waiter. Sometime in the last couple of months, though, I lost my damn mind and bought the latest storyline in the more expensive hardcover. The price for which, when you do the math out, comes to about… four dollars a chapter. D’oh!

Putting my economic oversights aside, though, I still wasn’t entirely pleased with this book. On the surface, it’s got all the stuff I’ve loved from the Brubaker Cap run: crazy-ass old villains, the schemes of an evil mastermind, pulp-adventure set-pieces, and a sprawling ensemble cast. But that surface is as far as it goes; the story feels rushed and a bit perfunctory, and kind of left me wishing I’d left my money in my pocket.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. The story itself involves Baron Zemo finding out that Bucky Barnes is the new Captain America, and getting pissed off that Bucky’s past crimes are forgiven, while he’s continually having to live his own sins down. So he sets out to tear Bucky’s life down around his ears through a series of physical and emotional challenges carried out by minions like the Fixer, a new iteration of the Beetle, and (by far my favorite) Iron Hand Hauptmann. [SPOILER] After putting the Falcon in the hospital, and drugging Bucky with some sort of nano-tech hallucinogens, Zemo makes his big play: revealing Our Hero’s secret identity, and his past as the Winter Soldier, to the press. [/SPOILER]

All of which plays to Brubaker’s primary Bucky-themes of sin, guilt, and redemption, but… It just doesn’t work for me. Ultimately, No Escape suffers from the same problem that plagued the previous storyline, Two Americas: it’s a six-issue story told in five. All the facts of the story are there, but its emotional impact is stunted. In the end, it just becomes a tedious cycle of Bucky hitting stuff, losing his temper, and hitting some other stuff. Given another issue or two to breathe, and to spend a little more time getting into Zemo’s head, it might have been fine. And it may very well please fans of more traditional funnybook storytelling, who’ve been bitching about “decompression” for ten freaking years now. But I stopped reading comics written in that style twenty years ago, and I don’t want to read them now.

The artistic side of the book, for once, doesn’t help matters. Butch Guice delivers his usual strong visuals for part of the book, and even does some nice stylistic homage, channeling Gene Colan on some of the Black Widow panels, and Jack Kirby with Cap and Steve Rogers. Unfortunately, the Kirby homages often lack weight, and wind up looking more like Sal Buscema. Considering that Guice’s lines normally pull about 10 Gs, I’m going to blame that one on the inkers, of which he had a virtual army.

I’m also going to blame them for the uneven artwork in general. The super hero fight scenes are often rendered in a sort of smooth bog-standard super hero style that sits in sharp contrast to the pulpy realism of the other pages. Bucky himself is almost unrecognizable from page to page, depending on who inked it. It’s an example of the monthly deadline doom having a negative impact on the quality of the book as a whole, I’m guessing; it’s difficult if not impossible to maintain an artistic vision with that many hands in the mix.

So overall, No Escape is a mess. Not a horrible book by any stretch of the imagination, but also not something I really want to spend my money on. I’ll think long and hard before I buy the next Captain America trade. And I won’t even look twice at the hardcover.

Grade: C+

Takio, vol. 1
by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming

If I wasn’t such a huge Powers fan, I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up. It’s a kid’s comic, which Bendis created with his daughter, about two sisters who get super powers. It’s got “cute” written all over it, and oh dear god I hate “cute.” But it’s also got some snazzy visuals from Mike Oeming, and I don’t hate Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spider-Man, so… I gave it a shot. And it was fun. The book delivers on a nice set-up for a series of all-ages OGNs, Bendis and Oeming steer it clear of cute, and I could see the whole thing being turned into a pretty decent show on Cartoon Network. I probably won’t buy any further volumes, mind you, because again… all-ages really isn’t my bag. But if you like that sort of thing, you could do a whole lot worse.

Grade: B

Joe the Barbarian # 8 (of 8)
by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy

Once upon a time, Grant Morrison had trouble landing his endings. He’d build so much into his stories along the way that not all of it dovetailed down quite the way it should have at the finish. This is a problem he outgrew as a writer around the time he finished the Invisibles, which (incredibly, impossibly) paid off on its innumerable plot-worms in a satisfying manner. And it’s not a problem he’s had since, really. He’s learned to not only incorporate his themes better, he’s also learned to simplify. Mind you, he still packs more ideas into each issue than you typically find in any four or five average monthly funnybooks, but for Morrison, that’s still pretty simple.

And nowhere has this bald-faced simplicity been more on display than in Joe the Barbarian. For those familiar with Morrison’s pet themes and personal cosmology, in fact, Joe is an entirely straightforward piece of fiction. Morrison believes that hallucinations are just as valid as any other experience, and that such visions, while they may only be real to you, can guide you along in your way through the more concrete reality we all share.

That belief is at the heart of Joe, and it’s put forth quite literally: Joe is a kid going into diabetic shock, and his quest to get downstairs and drink a Coke is interpreted by his mind as a slightly more glorious quest to save his childhood fantasy play land from the degradations of Lord Death. The fantasy is filled with symbols from his real life. His pet rat becomes his friend and protector, a couple of kids from school fill the roles of his questing companions, the noble-but-defeated Queen is his over-protective mother, and his long-dead soldier father is represented by the Iron Knight, a fallen warrior whose empty shell now serves Lord Death. It’s the Wizard of Oz writ weird.

The question of the fantasy world’s reality never really becomes a serious question. The two worlds interact, certainly; Lord Death, for instance, is very keen on getting out into the “real world.” But since he’s really just a manifestation of Joe’s own doubt and self-defeat, I suspect that all it would accomplish would be Joe dying on the stairs. Which, you know, in a story that’s all about one kid’s personal mythology, is about the highest stakes there can be.

At any rate. Joe’s fantasy world definitely has an impact on his real one in this final issue. Which brings me to the inevitable [SPOILER] The on-going looming threat in the series has been that Joe and his mom might lose their house. But Joe, guided by one last manifestation of his fantasy world, solves that problem and becomes the hero of his own story, in reality as well as fantasy. The Queen’s upside-down family portrait reminds Joe of the upside-down picture his own mother’s left hanging in the hall, a private family joke that she left in place in her husband’s memory. And behind it, the deed he left them just before he died, lost because she could never quite let go of him. [/SPOILER]

While I don’t think it’s Morrison’s best work, Joe the Barbarian is a touching little story in the end, a tale of deep personal sadness transformed into victory. It’s a parable on mourning, and the need to move past it, and it signals the end, I think, of Morrison’s own period of mourning. In recent years, he’s been working through his feelings about his father’s death in his fiction, starting with All-Star Superman and continuing on through to this. But now it feels like he’s finally done with it, and moving on. As always, I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

One final word: it's only just occurred to me that this series has received perhaps the least-justified "Suggested for Mature Readers" label in the history of funnybooks. To my way of thinking, this book is the very essense of "all ages" entertainment. There's nothing in it you wouldn't find in, say, the later volumes of Harry Potter (except perhaps a subversive desire to let the readers figure things out for themselves). DC's unlabeled super hero comics, in fact, contain loads more sex and violence than this book. So why the label? I think somebody in editorial kinda dropped the ball on this one...

Grade: A

3 comments:

  1. i think they give Joe the mature readers label because it is a vertigo book , remember even the little endless story book had a Mature readers label on it.

    I re-read all 8 issues last night and WOW, it reminded me of a great childrens book, Like Harry Potter, and i can not wait for the movie,(if it gets made) this might be my favorite book of the year

    I liked it way better then you (and you gave it an A) I would put this as one of my favorite Morrison books (up thier with the doom patrol)
    I loved it , reading it all at once gave me a NEVER ENDING STORY feel.

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  2. I had forgotten the Little Endless Storybook! So I retract my "least-deserved Mature Readers label ever" remark. Thanks for keeping me honest, "Stringoflettersandnumbersthatidentifyyounotatll."

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