Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Pearls Amongst Swine: Funnybooksinreviewarego!!

The last couple of weeks haven't been great ones at the funnybook store, I'm afraid. There've been a couple of real gems in the batch, but for the most part I've found myself awash in a sea of mediocrity. Lots of books that I like okay, but very few that I love. But since it's always nice to start on a happy note, let's hit one of the high spots first...

Batwoman #2
by JH Williams III and W Haden Blackman

This issue sets aside most of my doubts about Williams and Blackman's ability to write a compelling Batwoman comic. They're continuing the main plot of the missing children and the drowning ghost who's preying upon them while still keeping tabs on the larger picture with Abbott and his were-creature Crime Cult. But they're also doing some very nice character work, and that's what impresses me the most. Not only are they doing a nice job on the damage done to the relationship between Kate Kane and her father, but they also wrote one of the better "first date" scenes I've read in a while for Kate and Maggie Sawyer. It's comfortable, real, and charming, and the fact that it's a lesbian first date doesn't really matter at all. That's nice. I guess we really have come a long way from this:
 
Say it loud! Say it proud!
Art-wise, the book is of course just as stunning as always, with Williams continuing to innovate on layout and mix styles with aplomb. The high point this time out is this stunning two-page spread in which Maggie Sawyer shows off her detective chops by recreating a crime scene:
 
Ah, man. That's the stuff.
Click to embiggen the awesomeness.
All in all, an excellent second issue. Looking forward to more.

Grade: A

Animal Man #2
by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman

Two issues in, and Jeff Lemire's new horror reboot of Animal Man is picking up speed. He really is drawing on all the best stuff from the Vertigo series here, wedding the charming family drama of the Morrison era with the meaty body-shock horror of the stuff from Jamie Delano and Steve Pugh. Travel Foreman is channeling Pugh in particular on the art, with some genuinely disgusting biological anomalies popping up as we get deeper into things.

The book still feels like it's lacking something to me, though it's hard to put my finger on what, exactly. It may just be my reaction to Lemire's Midwestern stoicism at work. There's always a matter-of-fact coldness to his writing, and while that works for Sweet Tooth, I'm not feeling it as much here. I dunno. I may not be making any sense, even to myself, at this point. There's just something keeping me from loving this book, and I really kinda want to.

Grade: B


Swamp Thing #2
by Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette

Much like its "DC Dark" companion book Animal Man, I want to like Swamp Thing more than I do. While Snyder and Paquette have given us one hella-cool monster bad guy to look at, the book just feels kind of lifeless. The writing's not bad, don't get me wrong. It just lacks the sort of spark that would make me love it. It reminds me, honestly, of the first year or two of the 80s Swamp Thing relaunch, as written by Marty Pasko. I enjoyed that run just fine, but the book didn't become a particular favorite until Alan Moore showed up with his bizarrely purple horror poetry, and blew my young mind.

I dunno. Maybe there's just too much backstory here. Snyder's attempts to explain away Alec Holland not being Swamp Thing, but still having the memories of Swamp Thing, and his apparent destiny to actually become Swamp Thing now... all sound kind of stupid, frankly. Granted, I'm not sure that's really his fault. He's just been left holding a turd of a plot point established before he came into the picture, and is trying to make the best of it. Bottom line, though, this is not a clean start for this character, and I think they'd have been better off ditching the Alec Holland resurrection completely and just starting over again from scratch.

Artwise, on the other hand, this book's firing on all cylinders. Yanick Paquette's really cutting loose with inventive two-page spread layouts, incredible detail on all the plant life, and a real gift for horror imagery. It's very impressive work, and I wish I liked the story as much as I do his art.

Altogether, though, Swamp Thing is another good-not-great outing from the New DC.

Grade: B

Last of the Greats #1
Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art by Brent Peeples

An indie spandex book that on the surface looks like the sort of thing I pass on all the time. But Joshua Hale Fialkov's credit in the writing box made me take a second look. And it's not bad. It's the story of a family of alien super heroes who come to Earth and begin turning it into a paradise… until we kill them all, one by one. Now there's only one left, and we need him to save us from an alien invasion. Unfortunately, he's not real happy with us.

As I said, it's not bad. It reads a bit like warmed-over Warren Ellis, but even that's better than this sort of thing generally is. The artwork of Brent Peeples is competent, but a bit raw. He shows some talent for expressions, which is a very good thing, and he might be really good one day if he keeps improving. As it is now, though... He's only okay.

So while this comic hardly set my funnybook world on fire, there was a nice little twist at the end, and I may give the second issue a look, even if only digitally.

Grade: B-

Avengers 1959 #1 (of 5)
by Howard Chaykin

If you want comics that are stylish, sexy, heroically cynical, and horrifically violent, Howard Chaykin is your man. He's a one-stop-shop for all of the above, and has been for more than a quarter-century. Which, ultimately, is the problem with this book. As much fun as it was to read, I've seen Chaykin do it all before, and do it better. So while this book's a genuine blast, a fast-paced pulp take on Marvel in the 50s... It's old hat to me. Of course, if you've never had the Chaykin experience before, hop on and hold tight. He'll rattle your teeth.

Grade: B

Superior #5
by Mark Millar and Leinil Yu

And finally, we get to the real meat of this story. Thus far it's been a fairly (if appropriately) simplistic take on the Shazam story (a kid getting super powers from a mysterious higher being). But this issue reveals Millar's genius twist on that story. And it really is pretty ingenious: [SPOILER] Ormon, the space monkey that gave Simon his powers, is actually a demon. And after giving the kid a one-week free taste, he comes back with his price: to keep doing good as Superior, Simon must sell Ormon his soul. [/SPOILER]

Now, Millar certainly telegraphed something like this earlier in the run, and the shape of the rest of the story has already formed in my mind. But, still. As Millar promised at the outset, it's an obvious, yet kinda genius, variation on Shazam, and I'm stunned that nobody's really done it before now. While this book has definitely been Millar in Big Mindless Summer Tentpole Movie mode, and will no doubt to continue to be, I'll still be back next issue, on the strength of that cliffhanger ending alone.

Grade: B+

Sweet Tooth #26
by Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt

With the main storyline on pause while Gus recovers from his gunshot wounds, Lemire goes back in time to the early 20th century to finally tell the story behind the plague that's wiped out humankind. It's good to start getting some answers, but more importantly, it's refreshing to get a break from the regular cast and storyline. It's a fun, pulpy tale of seafaring adventure in the perilous northlands, as a ship sails for Alaska in search of a missing missionary, and finds something much worse out on the ice. The distance and relative formality of Lemire's storytelling lends itself well to this sort of period writing, and I hope it's something he does more of once Sweet Tooth is completed.

Grade: B+

The Shade #1
by James Robinson and Cully Hamner

A nice return to form for James Robinson. One of the best writers of mainstream super hero comics in the 90s, his stuff back then had kind of a cool indie vibe, and showed a talent for subtlety. Then he left to write for Hollywood for a few years, and his work since returning to comics has been decidedly hit or miss. Less indie cool and more big summer blockbuster. Maybe it's his return to focusing on one character rather than a cast of thousands, but The Shade brings a touch of Robinson's old vibe back. There's still a blockbuster-ish feel lurking about, mind you, and so far the book feels very much like disposable entertainment to me, but overall I was pleased, and may very well return for issue two.

Grade: B

Who is Jake Ellis? #4&5 (of 5)
by Nathan Edmondson and Tonci Zonjic

And speaking of comics with a cool indie vibe... I somehow missed the fourth issue of Who is Jake Ellis? when it came out, but snagged it when the fifth one hit the stands last week, and read them both back-to-back. And hot damn, what a great funnybook reading experience! While I can't say that the ending was full of surprises, the story was carried out so stylishly and entertainingly that it didn't really matter that I was able to guess the final issue's big surprise. Tonci Zonjic improved visibly with each issue of this book, and is a big part of its success. If Edmondson had an artist with Zonjic's storytelling chops on his Grifter series for DC, I might be reading it past the first issue.

Grade: A-

SHIELD #3
by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver

A mostly-silent issue showcasing Dustin Weaver's talent for drawing gigantic scenes of mass destruction. And, really, there's not much else to say here. This relentlessly philosophical pulp adventure series has delivered a BIG ALL-OUT ACTION ISSUE on the only scale it knows how to do anything: a grand one. Fun, and still I marvel at the fact that I'm reading a comic whose master arch-villain is Sir Isaac Newton.

Grade: B+

Legion of Monsters #1 (of 4)
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Art by Juan Doe

Big Pulpy Fun in the Mighty Marvel Manner! Following their debut in the recent "Frankencastle" arc in Punisher, the new Legion of Monsters team with their natural enemy, monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone (most memorably seen in Warren Ellis' much-lamented Nextwave) to combat a threat even more monstrous than Our Heroes! I picked this up because I'd heard good things about writer Dennis Hopeless, and have been enjoying Juan Doe's art on-line for a while now. And it's a fun comic. A fun comic with lotsa monsters in it. And that's not a bad thing at all.

Comparisons are inevitable to DC's new Frankenstein series, and I've gotta say... While that book has crazier (and therefore more compelling) ideas behind it, this one has a better sense of whacky fun, and I enjoyed reading it a lot more than I did Frankenstein. Also, I think this one's just a better comic in general. Hopeless delivers some snappy dialogue, and storytelling that's lean and facile, establishing the book's premise while never letting up on the action. And Juan Doe's artwork is dynamic and cartoony in a way you don't often seen in mainstream spandex comics. His action scenes are nice, but check out what he does with even a relatively quiet page:
 
click to embiggen
That's nice work. The kind of nice work that may very well bring me back for another issue of this book. Or rather, it's the kind of work that might bring me back if the book weren't four bucks a pop. Because well-illustrated whacky fun just ain't enough for me to pay that much...

Grade: B

The Unexpected
by Various

The most unexpected thing about this comic is the price: $7.99! Sure, it's an 80 pager. But, still. Damn. Looking back, I can't believe I bought it. But that may be hindsight talking. Because now I've read the thing, and know I didn't get eight bucks' worth of entertainment out of it...

This book is another example of Vertigo updating of an old DC horror comic title (gotta keep those copyrights active, after all). Usually, they've done these things as anthology mini-series, and I suppose eight bucks is less than I might have paid for this material if they'd split it up into three or four issues. Of course, that would only leave them with one interesting-looking story per issue, and I might not have spent money on that at all. So, hrm. Maybe I'm not being fair. There was very little here that I didn't think was at least mildly entertaining. Of course, there was also very little that I thought was remarkable, so... like I said... hrm. Hrm...

The Rafael Grampa cover is awesome, of course:
 
Boo-ya! Click to embiggen!
I was also very pleased to see some interior art from Emily Carroll. Then there's kind of a nice piece from Dave Gibbons, and a neat zombie story featuring some lovely Jill Thompson art. The rest, though, was just varying shades of okay. I wasn't even that enthused by the David Lapham artwork on one of the stories, and I usually really enjoy seeing him draw.

So... eh. This will one day be a cool find in a dollar box for somebody. But for eight bucks off the shelf fresh... not so much.

Grade: B-

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