Chew on this!

25 07 2009

I just put down Chew #1 by John Layman and Rob Guillory and couldn’t get to my keyboard fast enough. This is a comic that needs to be reviewed, NOW!

Tragically, I never picked up Chew when it first came out on June 4, and needed to be tricked into it by Image Comics putting it out in a third printing on the back of Walking Dead #63, one of my regular monthly books. Truth be told, I somehow never found the premise that interesting: the main character is a cop who gets psychic impressions from the food he eats. Big deal. Sounds like just another twist on the quirky television cop show trend, a la Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Ghost Whisperer or some such other drivel. Well, if you felt this way as well, lemme tell ya, sister! You were dead wrong! And I knew it after only the second page. If this doesn’t hook you, nothing will.

It was the beets that really got me. Well, first it was the “something else entirely” line. It’s timing and the arresting image by Guillory hit me just right. And then the beets made me laugh out loud. So now I knew this book had something going for it- a cool and quirky take on a rather dry genre, with some appropriate leavening humor thrown in. But can it sustain? Well, the next page certainly indicated more of the same. So that was good. Then the book started getting into the plot, slowly revealing the absurd situation that the United States finds itself in, (I’m trying not to give it away here- the reveal is too good to be spoiled by the likes of me,) which adds yet another layer of excellent humor to the book as well as some fine political commentary. Can this book get better? You bet it can! The first issue’s plot ends with our protagonist being forced into an extreme situation- one which gives the premise one final twist and one which made me yell out loud in shock and excitement!

John Layman tells a really well-crafted and balanced story, squeezing quite a lot into just 22 pages. Chew bends the rules in a satisfying way, truly giving the reader something new and rather unlike anything else on the stands. I’ll be anxious to see if he can keep me guessing like this throughout the series. If so, he’s got me hooked. As with the Zombie craze of the past few years, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing quite a few imitators in the months to come. Rob Guillory’s art is the perfect complement to Layman. Guillory has a quirky, humorous style, which is not at all inappropriate for a book with as many good laughs as this one. But this isn’t a humor book- it just needs frequent lightening of the mood, or else it would get too bogged down in what becomes some pretty chilling stuff. I was enjoying his art throughout the first issue, finding him to be incredibly solid in his style and draftsmanship, (perhaps this comes from his background in children’s book illustration?) but I wasn’t getting a strong impression as to his storytelling talents. And then I turned to the book’s double-page spread and was blown away. To be honest, it certainly had a lot to do with Layman’s scripting of the moment, but Guillory did a fine job supporting it. I’d be remiss not to mention Guillory’s self-coloring, except I didn’t really get to see it- the reprint I read was in black and white only. From what I’ve seen however, the coloring is top notch, with really ubiquitous and defining pallette choices. I don’t know much about Guillory, (or Layman, for that matter,) but I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for more of their stuff.

(Oh, one other note about Guillory, and a bit of a side-rant. I noticed several moments in the book with repetitive imagery, the kinds of panels that you too frequently these days see simply photocopied or otherwise artificially duplicated. And yet Guillory never resorted to this sort of cheap cop out. (Aside from the obvious photoshopping of the double-page spread. Except here was an instant where the technology was actually appropriate to the effect.) It just drives me nuts when comic artists photocopy panels over and over again; Mark Bagley did it all the time in Ultimate Spider-Man! “Identical” panels are supposed to represent two separate moments in time, and therefore should be drawn separately as well.)

Chew #1 is available in a third printing, (black and white only,) on the back of Walking Dead #63. The first two color printings are extremely hard to find. Chew #2 is already into it’s second printing as well. I’ve no doubt Image will be collecting the first few issues of this book in a trade, but I strongly urge you to try to find them in the single issue format.

To that end, here’s some exciting news from Guillory’s blog:

“On August 5, the first 3 issues of CHEW will be in stores. This is a PERFECT opportunity for new readers to jump on, and for others to catch up. So again, on that date, we’ll be releasing:

CHEW #1 Third Printing
CHEW #2 Second Printing
CHEW #3 First Printing”

Bon Appetit!

Chew is published by Image Comics.

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Fluxx Roxx!

4 07 2009

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a game review- they’re harder to get around to since I have to find time to get extra people together to play with. Nevertheless, I finally got around to playing Fluxx and Zombie Fluxx, which I’ve had sitting around for way too many months now, convinced it didn’t look interesting. If you’ve been avoiding it for the same reason, I urge you to ignore your suspicions and play Fluxx as soon as possible! It’s quite a fun game, engaging for both non-gamers and hard-core gamers alike.

The basic principle of Fluxx, (as hinted by it’s name,) is that the rules are always changing, or in a state of flux. There are 4 basic types of cards: New Rules, Actions, Keepers, and Goals. The game starts with each player having a hand of 3, and only one basic rule: Draw 1 and Play 1, with new cards on the table replacing anything they contradict. So on my turn, I would draw one card and play one card, which could be a New Rule, Action, Keeper, or Goal. A New Rule might be “Play 2”. So now that the rules are Draw 1, Play 2, I would have to play 1 more card, so that I would have played 2 cards on my turn, satisfying the current rules of the game. An action card might instruct you to do something like taking a card from another player or taking another turn, things of that nature. Keepers are basically just object cards, like a Sandwich, Money, the Sun, Moon, etc, which you simply play in front of you. Having a specified pair of Keepers is the most common way of winning the game, as dictated on Goal cards, which may say something like you win if you have the Sun and Moon in front of you. But as the Goal of the game can literally change on every turn, or even several times within a turn, it can be quite hectic trying to win. With just these basic mechanics, the game could feasibly finish on the very first player’s turn, or last hours, though an average game might be between 20-40 minutes.

As you might imagine, the game can get quite out of control just trying to follow every rule on the table, and it’s quite fun and unpredictable. On the surface, it might seem to be a rather random and fruitless exercise, requiring no amount of real skill. That’s what I first thought as well, which is why it took me so long to finally get around to playing it. But in practice, the game is nevertheless quite engaging and fun for any number and type of gamers. And the best part, which you may have already figured out, is that this is a GREAT gateway game! The basic mechanic of playing a hand of cards which change the basic rules, playing permanent cards in front of you, special cards that have instant effects… sound familiar yet? Magic: the Gathering, anyone?? Maybe it’s just the geek in me, but I think this is a great aspect of Fluxx.

And since we’re talking geek here, I bet you’re really wondering about Zombie Fluxx by now. Well Zombie Fluxx doesn’t disappoint. The basic Fluxx mechanics remain the same, a couple small new rules and card types are added, and all wrapped up in a great, fun, lighthearted Zombie theme, satisfying to you zombie nerds while not being offensive to everyone else. The basic premise of Zombie Fluxx starts with adding a new permanent card type, called Creepers, which generally prevent you from winning, (unlike their counterpart Keepers, which generally help you win.) Most Creepers are Zombies, (though there is a hilarious non-Zombie Creeper card, which I won’t give away here,) and must be played in front of you whenever they’re drawn. (This does not count towards the number of cards you must play on a turn.) Most Goals require you to have no Zombies in front of you to win. Many Action cards help you dispose of Zombies, but the most direct method is by killing them with the new, more weapon-like Keeper cards, like the Shovel, Chainsaw, and Shotgun. Overall, it’s a fantastic expansion. Yes, it can be added to base Fluxx, or played by itself. In fact, in a remarkably generous move by the game publishers, you may even remove the Zombie-themed cards in order to play a regular game of Fluxx without needing to buy the base set.

Both games are published by a small game house called Looney Labs, whose motto is “Smart Games for Smart People.” They’re clearly a nice bunch of people, and they make you happy to support them by playing their games. There are other Fluxx expansions, including a Monty Python set, which look well worth checking out. And the Looney crew have a really complete wiki set up for all their games. Check ’em out!





ELEVEN QUICK COMIC REVIEWS, as of 6/28/09

28 06 2009

Just some quick soundbites this time as I try to ramp up towards a regular posting schedule.

What I’m loving this week:
-Narcopolis #2, by Jamie Delano, published by Avatar Press
Jamie Delano has been a thrilling rediscovery for me in recent months.

Narcopolis, by Jamie Delano

Narcopolis, by Jamie Delano

Narcopolis tells the story of a thought-police cadet, complete with compellingly real Newspeak dialogue. Not a mere aping of or sequel to Orwell, but certainly intentionally building on ideas from 1984, Delano’s comic brings a high, literary sensibility to the comic stands.

-Incognito #4, by Brubaker & Phillips, published by Marvel Comics
This fantastic comic just keeps getting better, with real twists and turns that I truly do NOT expect, and a story told from a truly unique perspective. Brubaker is fast cementing his place in my top five favorite comics writers.

-Olympus #2, by Nathan Edmonson & Christian Ward, published by Image Comics
A well written comic with a story similar to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and more of what seems to be the hot new trend in comic art: expressionism! Cool!

-Proof #20, by Grecian, Rossmo, & Casey, published by Image Comics
Speaking of expressionistic comic art, no one’s doing it better right now than Riley Rossmo on Proof. Truly mind-blowing stuff. The great story telling by Alex Grecian makes for a complete package.

See what I mean?

-The Unwritten #2, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross, published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint
Wow! ANOTHER literary comic! I’m not sure what I mean when I call a comic literary, (Alan Moore’s been doing it for years,) but I know one when I see it. Or read it, as it were. And this book is it! … leading me to believe we’re seeing a trend in comic writing these days as well, and that’s GREAT news! This book deals with the young man who’s the inspiration for a Harry Potter-esque series of books, but just may be a real life boy-wizard himself, all the while dwelling in the post-narrative world explored by Grant Morrison and Terry Pratchett among others.

What I’m reading this week:
-Ultimatum: Spider-Man Requiem #1, published by Marvel Comics
Meh. Mediocre book. As with many critics and fans, I’m pretty peeved at the pitiful ending of the Ultimate Universe comics. Ultimatum never made sense to me, and the main title book was a piece of crap. Ultimate Spider-Man always remains on my list, however, and managed to showcase possibly the best single issue of its entire run in this stupid crossover story. This requiem issue is supposed to help wrap things up, but really all it does is act as a placeholder while we wait to discover that Spider-Man’s not really dead after all! Eureka! And with really shoddily phoned-in art by Mark Bagley, who I had really been looking forward to seeing again since I never really warmed entirely to Immonen, the Requiem book was pretty lame, though requisite reading.

-The Walking Dead #62, published by Image Comics
As always, compelling, but plodding.

What I’m thinking of dropping:
-Savage Dragon #149, published by Image Comics
Hm. I check this book out every few years, and it always seems immediately interesting again, but then shortly loses that interest. I’ll take a look again in another few years. Here’s to Mr. Larsen for keeping at it though.

What I’m dropping:
-Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! #5, published by DC Comics
Mike Kunkel left the book, other than the cover, (or at least he isn’t doing all the issues now,) and his replacement team of Art Balthazar and Franco don’t even come close to capturing the magic he made so exciting and fun.

-The Muppet Show Comic Book #3
-Muppet Robin Hood #1, both published by Disney’s BOOM! KIDS
I reaaaaaaally wanted to like these Muppet comics. I’m a HUGE Muppet fan. But they just aren’t very good. Disney seemed to think it had a Muppet artist, so why bother looking for someone else when they wanted to launch a new book. But while Roger Langridge’s heart is in the right place, I just don’t think he’s a terribly skilled cartoonist, nor does he quite get the Muppets. Likewise with Beedle and Villavert on the Muppet Robin Hood book.  Making this all the more tragic are the ads in the backs of the books for apparently alternate covers by other artists who TOTALLY ROCK! I would LOVE to see some of these artists doing these Muppet books, but that does not seem to be the plan. Sigh…

Just imagine what it could be like…

The Muppet Show Comic #1  alternate cover by Dave Alvarez

The Muppet Show Comic #1 with the AWESOME alternate cover by Dave Alvarez





Animal Man Returns to Examine the Human Condition in Superhero Comics

9 06 2009

Animal Man is no stranger to bringing headier concepts to superhero comics, having well explored the intellectual realm under Grant Morrison’s writing in the late 80s. In fact, Morrison’s run on the character are some of my favorite comics ever written, showing I think even more directly than Watchmen that superhero comics can be about things other than superheroes. Despite Morrison’s success however, the character and the concepts he explored still remain on the fringe of the superhero genre. But now Animal Man returns under the pen of writer Gerry Conway, with the art of Chris Batista and Dave Meikis. The six issue mini series, The Last Days of Animal Man, takes place in a near future where Buddy Baker, aka Animal Man, is losing his powers and being forced to confront his own aging and mortality.

The Last Days of Animal Man, issue 1

The Last Days of Animal Man, issue 1 (cover by Brian Bolland)

I love superheroes as much as the next guy, but it’s always exciting when the genre gets into some meatier issues. Just because the subject matter involves muscly guys in tights doesn’t mean it can’t make you think. And while this comic has an ostensibly typical superhero plot, it clearly is being used as a medium to explore concepts and issues related to aging and death: real, human issues. Even Watchmen’s conceit of examining how superheroes would act in the real world doesn’t touch on such personal and human ideas as this comic.

As the average comic readership ages we find ourselves interested in more than just who would win in a fight. In fact, the things we care about in the real world don’t involve superheroes at all. But we still love the characters of our youth and the market remains glutted with them. They’re hard to avoid, so it’s really nice when they’re used to explore things we’re actually interested in. The last superhero comic I remember really achieving this was Kurt Busiek’s and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity from a few years back. I still re-read that one frequently, as it explores the challenges of facing the world, careers, relationships, marriage, children, aging, and passing the torch to a younger generation. Real, human issues are very compelling to me and I’m thrilled to see Gerry Conway exploring it in the superhero genre.

(For other, non-superhero explorations of the human condition, check out Manu Larcenet’s Ordinary Victories. A more beautiful comic about life and death you will never find.)

The Last Days of Animal Man is published by DC Comics.
Ordinary Victories is published by NBM/ComicsLit.

What I’m loving this week:
The Last Days of Animal Man #1(of 6), by Conway, Batista, & Meikis
Proof #19, by Grecian, Rossmo, & Casey
Rawbone #2, by Jamie Delano & Max Fiumara
Ultimate Spider-Man #133, by Bendis & Immonen

What I’m reading this week:
Irredeemable #1, by Mark Waid and Peter Krause
The Muppet Show #3, by Roger Langridge

What I’m thinking of dropping next week:
Wolverine: Old Man Logan #72, by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven

Graphic Novels I’m enjoying:
La Perdida, by Jessica Abel
Strangers in Paradise, vol. 6, by Terry Moore
Tiny Titans: Welcome to the Treehouse, by Art Baltazar & Franco





Who likes awesome comics? I do! I do!

19 04 2009

After seeing Watchmen this week I was pretty depressed regarding comics place in this world, but then I made a trip to my regular comic shop, (Midtown Comics on 40th & 7th in midtown Manhattan,) and I’m as giddy as a schoolgirl! Comics are a pretty diverse medium and as often as something new or original or interesting comes along, twice as frequently you see nothing but the same old stuff on the stands. But this week, as I’m picking up the next Old Man Logan story, an only mildly interesting Wolverine story set in a bleak future, and the increasingly bad Invincible, I notice a JAMIE DELANO(!) PIRATE(!!!) comic! And a Frank Frazetta WESTERN!!! Holy Crap! And there’s the obligatory Savage Dragon #145 with President Obama on the cover, which turns out to actually be good! And Terry Moore’s Echo just keeps getting better and better! Even Robert Kirkman makes me happy this month with another heart-stopping cliffhanger in The Walking Dead! Man, reading comics this week really rocked. Let me tell you why.

Earlier this year I began reading the collected John Constantine: Hellblazer comics from the late 80’s/early 90s by Jamie Delano. Being a fan of old-school and classic horror literature, (Lovecraft, Poe, Barker, Blackwood,) and it’s rather unique ability to use not-so-subtle metaphor to address our contemporary fears, I was quickly blown away by Delano’s ability in this genre within comics. I’ve also enjoyed Moore’s Swamp Thing, and some of Ennis’ work, but they seemed too quick to get it out of their system and move on to superheroes. Delano seemed ready to really dig into the meaty, messy gristle of modern horror themes in comics. But he hasn’t been a terribly present writer on the comics scene lately, so it was with great excitement that I discovered on the stands his new pirate comic: Rawbone, published by Avatar Press. It has a thrillingly moody wraparound cover of a pirate ship, sailing by a jungle-clad coast with clearly South American pyramid temples jutting up through the treetops. All too often, fringy work like this gets saddled with young, unskilled artists, but flipping through the pages revealed Max Fiumara to be quite a talent. I’ve not been overly wowed by his versatile work with Warren Ellis and on the dragon comic Four Eyes, but this moody stuff seems to be where he can shine, especially coupled with a good colorist. Anyway, when I got the comic home and read Delano’s story of a Cuban pirate witch and her white lesbian lover, full of male frustration and assault and vile rape, with at least three main story acts in just the first issue, and all told in a disgustingly rich flowery language, I knew I couldn’t wait for more. My only regret is discovering that this is merely a 4 issue limited series. It’s thrilling to read something so unique by such a skilled veteran talent. Delano has long understood the comics form and his horror roots are quite evident as he embarks on this incredibly dark pirate story. While it’s not yet apparent whether the tale will incorporate the supernatural, it hardly needs to in order to investigate man’s darker nature.

Next was Frank Frazetta’s Freedom, a western one-shot. I’m not actually sure what Frazetta had to do with this comic other than provide the inspirational cover image, (which is typically luscious,) but the interior art and story, by John Cboins and Mark Kidwell respectively, more than lives up to Frazetta’s reputation. Cboins has a very unique style, very expressionistic, a recent comic art movement I’m also enjoying in the work of Proof‘s Riley Rossmo.
Cboins colors this issue himself in all sepia tones, a trick that could have seemed gimmicky, given the setting, but thankfully is very well done here. The story involves a gunfighter and his dime-novelist bard, and is reasonably light hearted for a western, though prostitutes and death are certainly not absent. It’s so nice to see two negelected genres given such quality treatment in the same month, and even by two different publishers! It makes me yearn for more, but at the same time, I’d hate to see the market inundated by mediocre pirate and western comics, similar to the zombie craze of the last couple years.

Not so unique, but still very satisfying this month were some more mainstream books, starting with Erik Larsen’s long-running Savage Dragon, #145. This issue featured U.S. President Barack Obama on the cover, fist-bumping the title character, and colored in a style like Shepard Fairey’s famous red, white, and blue Obama Hope posters. It’s an obvious cashing in on the moment device, but Obama’s scene within the comic, while brief, actually is WITHIN the story and seems natural, puts our heroes, the Dragon and Obama, on equal footing, and just generally seems great. Quite unlike the pandering, badly drawn, and pointless and out-of-continuity, but much more hyped Spider-Man appearance, which I discussed here. In fact, this is Obama’s second appearance in Larsen’s book; he appeared last year when Dragon first endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency, a move far too political for corporate Marvel to ever consider making with their flagship character, as depressing as that is. I regret not having read Savage Dragon over the years. In fact, back at the founding of Image I didn’t care for Erik Larsen much at all. But over time I’ve picked up an occasional issue and every time I’m very impressed with what he’s done. In a large way I really feel he’s gone on to carry the torch for a lot of what Jack “the King” Kirby did before him. Larsen’s graphic style definitely shares many of Kirby’s traits, from the bold thick use of blacks, to the overly dramatic and energetic shapes exploding off the page. Not to mention Larsen’s style, once a rather slap-dashed mess not overly distinguishable from many of his contemporaries, has over years and years of honing his craft become inimitably his own, not easily reproducible and possessed of incredibly powerful storytelling traits- rather similar to the King’s, if you ask me. Maybe I’ve got to buckle down one of these days and really start reading Savage Dragon.

Finally, also continuing to be exciting this month are Terry Moore’s Echo #10, and Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead #59. If you’re not reading either of these comics, you should be. Echo is a nice chance to see Moore bringing us more of his very fine comics art and storytelling, but with a more sci-fi/superhero twist. The story is kind of The Fugitive crossed with The Incredible Hulk, but with strong women characters thrown in as only Terry Moore knows how. Every issue is a real cliffhanger even though the plotting seems a touch slow at times. Walking Dead, for those of you living under a rock for the last 5 years, is THE post-zombie apocalypse comic to read. Zombie comics are a dime a dozen these days, but none hold a candle to this incredibly well done and intense ongoing storyline of real humans surviving in a dark sad world where the dead walk. Kirkman’s main intent with the series is to focus on the realistic human melodrama that occurs between the characters, with the zombie-riddled world serving mainly as backdrop. It’s an utterly fascinating book, from issue to issue, and though Kirkman suffers from frequent slow pacing and sometimes a sense that nothing is really happening, it’s not nearly as bad as in Invincible, and I’m always chomping at the bit for the next issue of The Walking Dead- especially this month! Man, I can’t wait to see how the characters survive the “zombie stampede!”

All in all, this past month has been a good one for comics. With the economy in arrears as it is, I’m sure I’m not the only comic book reader taking a close look at his pull list and deciding to drop a few books here and there, as well as having a hard time deciding which, if any, new books to pick up. I hope this blog can give you some assistance in these choices.

Until next time,

Peace!

What I’m loving this week:
Echo #10, by Terry Moore
Frank Frazetta’s Freedom one shot
Rawbone #1 (of 4), by Jamie Delano
Savage Dragon #145
The Walking Dead #59
What I’m reading this week:
Invincible Iron Man #10&11
Wolverine #71 “Old Man Logan”
What I’m thinking of dropping next week:
Invincible #60
What I’m dropping this week:
Nothing… yet…

Echo is published by Abstract Studios.
Frank Frazetta’s Freedom, Savage Dragon, and The Walking Dead are published by Image Comics.
Rawbone is published by Avatar Press.




Why Watch The Watchmen?

26 03 2009

Honestly, I don’t care if you’re a dyed in the wool fanboy or if you wonder if they still make those Batman comics. Watchmen was a baaaaad film. And I don’t mean that in the early nineties skater way. There’s just no getting around it. The acting was mediocre and frequently poor, and the directing of the actors was even worse. To be sure, Zack Snyder frequently provided staggering images lifted directly from the comics page and brought dramatically to life. But his directing of every scene and shot in between those taken from the comics panels was clearly labored and inarticulate. And even within those comic panel shots, his pacing of the movie as a whole seemed to give no sense of understanding of the pacing of the comic itself. Even the art direction, while phenomenally detailed, rich, and consistent, was basically flawed from the outset- I never once felt the movie was set distinctly in the world of 1985, alternate reality notwithstanding. It felt more like a dated late nineties superhero movie, complete with rubber suits and black eye-makeup. (Seriously, I understand the concept behind the black eye makeup under the superhero masks- to appear more like the graphical representation in the comic of pure white eyes peering out from the mask- but it’s never worked for me. When Batman rushes to the Batcave to go don his costume and kick some ass, surely he doesn’t stop at a well lit mirror and apply black cake makeup around his eyes, along with a little powder. Oh, and then carefully paint on some spirit gum, wait 30 seconds for it to get tacky, then carefully hold the mask to his face for one minute while the glue dries. It’s a lame idea and I wish Hollywood would forego it.) Snyder was far too slavish to the graphic novel, treating it as a storyboard and overlooking the fact that film is not just images in (too frequently slow-)motion; it’s a different medium from comics entirely! He suffered very similar flaws in 300 as did Robert Rodriguez in Sin City. There’s no question that Hollywood can do comic book films right: Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, Brian Singer’s X-Men 2, and Richard Donner’s Superman are all fine proof of that. But they are the exception to the rule and even they still have some things to learn. We are surely going to be treated to more and more comic adaptations over the coming years and I believe that Hollywood is generally learning how to do them well. I just hope they stop asking Snyder to be a part of it.

And as a postscript, I should point out that the one bit of inspired creative artistry I noticed in the film was in Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorscharch. While not a stellar performance, surely dragged down by incompetent direction, it was clearly quite good and occasionally inspired. Haley’s vocalization of Rorscharch’s inscrutable “hurm” and his whimpering second to last line “Do it” were particularly standout moments. As much as possible, it appeared Haley brought his own take to the role and clearly worked hard to surmount the challenge of creating a character who’s face is covered for most of the film.

Next: Why worry about comic book films when there’s so many awesome comic books available! I can’t wait to share with you the FIVE comics I loved reading this month.






Kirkmaniac?

23 02 2009

So I’ve been reading both of Robert Kirkman’s high profile comic books, Invincible and The Walking Dead, since issue 1 each, and they’re both up to about issue 57 now. They’re really fantastic books and easily among my most anticipated new issues in recent years. However, contrary to the prevailing opinion in his letters pages, I’ve got some problems with them, and they’re generally getting worse, not better.

Robert Kirkman is a very fine comics writer who clearly seems to be quite the fanboy himself and he goes to great lengths to cultivate a close personal relationship with his readers, having a multi-page letters column in each of his books, and an active online persona at Kirkmania.com and on Image Comics online forum. Kirkman is a very vocal advocate of creator-owned comics, was picked up by Image Comics a while back, and eventually asked to be a full member of the independent comics publisher, the FIRST creator to be asked to join in this way since the company’s founding seventeen years ago. Kirkman’s writing reflects a fondness for the superhero comics sagas of the late 70’s and 80’s, a heyday for many youth-oriented books, such as X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Teen Titans, and there’s no doubt that much of what Kirkman strives for in his art is restoring that sense of wonder and connection and soap opera and reality to comic books. And in this, he generally succeeds.

Invincible, his mainstream superhero book, channels all the mainstream superhero successes of the past 50 years. The title character  is kind of a hybrid of Peter Parker and Superboy. The story of college student Mark Grayson, aka Invincible, starts with the youth developing Superman-like powers in his teen years. He soon learns that he got his powers from his father who is actually the Superman-like hero, Omniman. Mark adopts the codename Invincible and begins fighting crime and training to use his powers with his father, all the while doing his chores and schoolwork and trying to keep his identity secret from people, including his girlfriend, while not letting it disrupt his life. Mark, like Peter Parker, is a very relatable character and very enjoyable to read. His fantastic powers are the ultimate in adolescent power fantasy, and Kirkman does his predecessors one better by grounding things in a more “realistic” world. In the Kirkman-verse the government is very heavily involved in superheroics, if not outright controlling things from behind the scenes or even more overtly. Additionally, monstrously strong characters don’t always “pull their punches,” and gruesomely exploding heads and abdomens end many fights. These traits all combine to form a very enjoyable comic, at once nostalgic and fresh.

Kirkman also weaves in many drawn out plot threads, hooking readers for the long haul with very compelling stories. However, these long term plots tend to go overlong. In fact, the first major story arc which was revealed in Invincible is STILL unresolved. This involved a character who Mark trusted turning out to be hiding a dark secret which will have severe repercussions on Mark’s entire career as a superhero. At first, these arcs seem vital and progress at a reasonable pace- slower than many contemporary superhero comic storylines, clearly trying to emulate the model of long-term storylines from the 70’s and 80’s, which might drag on for 6-18 months, with occasional surprise returning villains and the like. However, those stories of yesteryear seemed less carefully planned out and only acheived their length as a byproduct of the immediate needs of the story from month to month. Whereas here, Kirkman seems to plan the length first and then fill in the details of the story. This results in many issues seeming drawn out, with not much happening other than a furtherance of the status quo. And this even seems a conscious choice on Kirkman’s part: he seems to believe that by depicting his characters making deliberative choices over many panels or pages, and revisiting ideas and scenes again and again, it helps to make his characters seem more realistic. And to be fair, Kirkman is onto something here, this is part of what makes his characters so unique. Instead of superheros immediately resorting to violence, Kirkman’s characters frequently will resolve their differences by having a reasoned discussion, and exploring how they really feel about a given situation. This, almost more than anything, could be said to be the patented Kirkman method, which is so unique and usually enjoyable. But while novel, and not without its place, I’d argue that it is an imperfect technique that Kirkman employs too frequently, to the detriment of his comics. It’s practically the polar opposite of the Stan Lee/Marvel method of seat-of-the-pants plotting, manically driving the stories forward with nearly stream-of-consciousness action sequences and introspection. There’s plusses and minuses to both techniques, I just worry that Kirkman deliberately eschews the less measured approach and believes a little too much in his own hype. His letters pages are riddled with fawning praise, which he seems to lap up. Occasionally he will print some alternative points of view, but he generally responds merely on the defensive, unwilling or perhaps unable to see the constructive comments within the criticism. The only real criticism I’ve seen him respond to is to the recent lateness of his books, which he has since worked hard to rectify. But frustratingly, he seems to lump all criticism of his books under the geas of their lateness. And his attitude seems to me to be that since he has addressed this one concrete problem, all other criticisms should be considered to be moot. To be sure, this bugs me.

Finally, Kirkman is trying to be an incredibly prolific comics writer, a bit of a modern day Stan Lee, churning out a vast universe of characters and books. However, as his output increases, his originality seems to decrease. A recent addition to his stable was The Astounding Wolfman, wherein a very human, relatable character suddenly gains phenomenal superpowers. He is helped through the beginning of his superhero career by a trusted confidante, who then turns out to be harboring a secret agenda, which will turn out to underlie the major plots of the story from here on out. I quit reading the book after just the first six issues because it was such an obvious rehash of the major plot in Invincible, (which Kirkman had already annoyingly repeated with yet another trusted character in the Invincible comic itself.) No recognition of this is apparent from Kirkman and as he spends more and more time maintaining overlong letters page communities, stepping into his role as a major voice at Image, and trying to challenge Stan Lee for the title of most characters created, his quality continues to slip.

The Walking Dead is a bit of a different story. This is THE modern zombie story to be following in any medium. It’s focus is on the human characters, and the horrors and trials they go through, trying to eke out an existence in a world post-zombie apocalypse. It’s at times truly horrifying, human, terrible, sometimes uplifting, other times depressing. Quite frequently the best comic on the stands. Yet, it is not without some of Kirkman’s typical problems. In particular, it’s pacing is usually abysmal. Recalling Kirkman’s technique of characters reasoning and talking their way through conflicts, in a book full of nothing but human drama and conflict, this makes for an incredibly slow-moving story. Right, we get it, the character is feeling conflicted or alone or terrified or whatever. We don’t always need two pages of silent, reflective panels to let us feel an intimate connection to the character’s inner turmoil. If anything, constantly utilizing techniques like this only serves to mute their impact. Kirkman recently, in issue 57, had one of his main characters undergo one of the most vile, dehumanizing events of the comic thus far, really calling to mind the stark ideas of what the unique nature of zombie horror asks about the human condition. This was a MASSIVE event in the comic, but too frequently Kirkman avoids opportunities like this, to explore what zombies can tell us about ourselves. The comic often is little more than a survival story, making the zombie-context pointless to the plot or to the psychological exploration which is the entire reason for the existence of the horror genre in the first place. Kirkman seems to me to get so fixated on an idea, such as that “this book just isn’t about the zombies,” it’s about the humans, that he misses the point of his own setting.

Robert Kirkman is clearly capable of rivetting storytelling, but in general, I feel he is still a young writer whose greatest fault is a lack of humility and recognition that there is still much he could learn. It’s frustrating, because when Invincible and Walking Dead are good, they’re great and I can’t wait till the next issue. But when they’re not, as they seem to be more and more, it becomes harder and harder to keep buying them every month.

Invincible, The Astounding Wolfman, and The Walking Dead are published by Image Comics.