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.




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.