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.