Archive for the ‘comics’ Category

My latest review for Graphic Policy website —

Graphic Policy

I suppose it’s possible that I’m just showing my age here, but to me, the release of a new Gary Panter book still qualifies as a “drop everything” moment — especially when said book marks the concluding chapter of a long-running trilogy that’s followed a circuitous path from 1991 right up to the present day. So, yeah, when Fantagraphics Books dropped the long-awaited Songy Of Paradise this past Wednesday, it was indeed a very big deal.

Some quick background is no doubt in order for those not in the know : Panter began this story — or, rather, this series of interconnected stories — 26 years ago in the pages of his Jimbo series from Bongo Comics‘ one-off (as in, created just for him) Zongo sub-label, but nobody (probably including the cartoonist himself) knew it was part of a larger, sprawling epic at the time. Fast-forward to 2004 and…

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My latest review for Graphic Policy website —

Graphic Policy

Ten short (from where I’m sitting, anyway) years ago John Ridley was far from a household name in the entertainment industry, yet alone an Oscar winner. That was well before 12 Years A Slave and American Crime, though, and now it’s a different story. A different world. Or is it?

Certainly Ridley returning to the only-slightly-fictionalized world of The American Way a decade after he and artist Georges Jeanty first created it is both a pleasant surprise as well as something of a coup for DC Comics‘ perpetually-struggling Vertigo label, but 10 years (or thereabouts) have passed in the four-color world, as well, and the opening salvo in the new six-part The American Way : Those Above And Those Below shows that they haven’t necessarily been kind to protagonist Jason Fisher, a.k.a. The New American, or his surviving former Civil Defense Corps teammates. As 1972 dawns, Fisher is…

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Everyplace is going to hell in a handbasket these days — even Camelot.

Or so Cullen Bunn (who seems to have stepped into the role once occupied by the likes of Brian Michael Bendis and, later, Charles Soule as “the guy who’s writing every other comic on the stands”) and Mirko Colak would have us believe, at any rate — and why not? Every other legend has been deconstructed (if not outright obliterated) in contemporary fiction, four-color or otherwise, so why the hell should King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, and the rest be let off the hook?

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t see Guy Ritchie’s latest cinematic iteration of the Arthurian mythos (nor, apparently, did anyone else), but he’d have had to work pretty hard to equal the tear-down that Bunn, Colak, and colorist Maria Santaolalla perform on it in the twenty pages of Unholy Grail #1, their new series from Aftershock Comics. Purists will no doubt be alarmed, perhaps even outright mortified, by the alternative vision on offer here, but what the hell do we care what they think, anyway? For my part, whatever it’s worth, I absolutely loved it.

The story jumps around in time a little bit, which adds a pleasing bit of post-modernism into this ancient fable, alternating between the period after Camelot’s fall, when the knight Percivale returns (too late?) from his Grail quest, and the period before its rise, when Merlin, who often claimed to be the son of either a demon or Satan himself (comics fans may remember that no less than Jack Kirby himself hinted at this in the pages of The Demon and that Matt Wagner really picked up and ran with the idea about a decade later with his now-largely-forgotten revival of the character) meets up with an actual escaped denizen of Hell, and —- well, nah, that might be giving too much away. Suffice to say that the machinations and manipulations the wizard gets up to after this harrowing,  fateful encounter cast the entire story in a new, and decidedly grim, light that I defy anyone to find less than absolutely intriguing. Sometimes the stories we think we know best are actually hiding the biggest secrets of all right in plain sight, are they not?

I’m impressed at how immediately the creative team is firing on all cylinders with this series, which leads me to think that this is a project that’s enjoyed a long and healthy gestation period. Bunn’s lean, sparse scripting feel downright urgent at all times, Colak’s art is luscious, lavish, and borderline agonizingly detailed, and Santaolalla’s colors are just straight-up frigging beautiful. This is a book with a very “Euro” look to it — as one might expect, I suppose, given that both illustrator and colorist hail from the other side of the Atlantic — and it suits the material absolutely pitch-perfectly. I don’t mean to sell the writing short, because it really is quite good and further cement’s Bunn’s reputation as the premier “go-to guy” for horror comics these days, but seriously : even if the script sucked (which, one more time for good measure, it doesn’t), this would be $3.99 well-spent because the art is just that gorgeous. Wrap it all up with your choice of covers by either Colak himself or cover artist extraordinaire Francesco Francavilla and what you have here is some serious eye candy, pure and simple.

There’s nothing simple at all about what our intrepid creators are looking to do with this series, though. This is heady, ambitious stuff and jumping on with issue number one really does feel like getting in on the ground floor of something special. After reading Unholy Grail, I’m thoroughly convinced that all other takes on the Round Table are strictly for squares.

If thewe’s one fing I weawwy wuved about —-

Okay, that’s gonna get on your nerves and mine really quickly, isn’t it? Let’s start over.

I won’t kid you — when these DC/Looney Tunes crossovers were first announced, I was scratching my head a bit. Some of the team-ups (Marvin The Martian and Martian Manhunter, for instance) made more sense on paper than others (I’m looking at you, Bugs Bunny and The Legion Of Super-Heroes), but at five bucks a pop, they were going to have to offer something more than an intriguing novelty to get my money. The just-released Batman/Elmer Fudd Special #1 certainly meets that criteria by featuring an “A-List” creative team — Tom King on scripting chores, Lee Weeks on art — and a damn nice-looking cover, so what the hell, right? You only live once, and if you’re as broke as the average comic book collector, you gotta take your adventure where you can find it. I decided to give it a shot.

To call this a “pleasant surprise” would be an understatement. It’s no secret that I’ve been less than impressed by most of what King’s been serving up since taking over as scribe on the regular Batman series, but freed from the tight editorial strictures that no doubt sway his hand (and steer his plotlines) in those pages, he does something here that he by and large hasn’t been able to do there — he has fun. His iteration of Fudd is a less-than-fearsome assassin, the classic down-on-his luck noir anti-hero, and Weeks’ always-stylish art, combined with Lovern Kindzierski’s dripping-with-atmosphere colors, conveys the mood and tone of the far-less-absurd-than-you’d-think premise perfectly from page one onwards as our dual protagonists converge toward a surprisingly touching confrontation for the heart and, perhaps, hand of Silver St. Cloud. It’s simple, straight-forward, and admittedly derivative stuff (right down to the big “twist” that’s really nothing of the sort), but who can argue with even the most time-worn tropes when they’re executed this well? Certainly not me, especially in a book littered with this many gratuitous references to Fudd’s own WB animation “universe.”

Oh, yeah — Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Michigan J. Frog, Foghorn Leghorn, ACME, carrot juice, Marvin The Martian, The Tasmanian Devil, Sylvester, and probably one or two other characters/things that I missed are all present and accounted for here, and almost always in ways you’ve never seen them before and never will again. One would think a mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Chuck Jones either wouldn’t or shouldn’t work, but damn — it does. And rather beautifully, at that. Throw in a fun little backup strip told in “classic cartoon” style by King and artist Byron Vaughns and what you’ve got is a comic that hits all the right notes, at all the right times, for fans coming into this from either end of Warner Brothers’ sprawling entertainment empire — hell, maybe even for folks who aren’t all that crazy about either one but just enjoy a good (make that very good), old-fashioned slice of detective fiction peppered with a healthy dose of the absurd.

I’ve been far less enthusiastic about the “DC Rebirth” initiative than most, but I have to hand it to ’em — they’re hitting far more than they’re missing with their cartoon revamps/adaptations these days. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s recently-concluded revisionist take on Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones was the best thing to come out under the publisher’s auspices literally in years, and the Batman/Elmer Fudd special can stand proudly alongside it in terms of high-quality, pitch-perfect, obvious labors of love. I could go on and on about this book’s merits for who knows how long , but hey — why do that when it’s just as easy, and probably for more effective, to just say “that’s all, folks!” and call it a day? Buy this comic now — that’s all, folks!

 

One of the chief gripes that a lot of folks who’ve fallen away from comics over the years have is that the medium just takes itself way too fucking seriously these days — and I have to admit that, looking over much of the output that comes from the “Big Two” (as well as a number of independent publishers), these past (and hopefully future) readers do have something of a point. A quick glance through the pages of almost any randomly-chosen five or six “floppies” on the racks of your LCS are enough to make anyone think that “dark,somber, and brooding” is the order of the day in what were once thought of as “funnybooks.” Which isn’t to say that many of these (overly?) serious titles aren’t involving, interesting, smart, and maybe even fun, in their own way — but goddamnit, whatever happened to stupid fun?

Well, it may be in short supply, but I’m pleased to say it’s not entirely extinct altogether thanks to writers Jody Leheup and Sebastian Girner, artist Nil Vendrell, and colorist Mike Spicer, the “brains” behind the new overtly outrageous, over-the-top Image Comics mini-series Shirtless Bear Fighter!, who have wisely chosen to ask — and answer — the question “what would happen if Grizzly Addams ingested a dozen tabs of bad acid and picked a fight with Yogi Bear? And did it all when he was naked?”

The particulars, for those who must know them : a major city called —- uhhhmmm — Major City is under attack by ferocious, apparently-mind-controlled bears who kill people and wipe their asses against buildings. Nobody knows who or what is commanding the creatures, but never fear — the FBI has a plan. They’re going to head out into the wilderness and persuade a perpetually-naked mountain man who was actually raised by bears (before turning on them and becoming their mortal enemy) to come into town and deal with the problem. He’s got all the tools you need for the job : super-strength, a ferocious attitude, and more body hair than his opponents. It proves to be a tough sell, though — even a lifetime supply of flapjacks (don’t call ’em pancakes!) and maple syrup can’t persuade our reluctant hero at first, but a jog down memory lane combined with insults to his manhood end up providing the impetus that outright bribery can’t, and soon enough he’s taken to the skies in his fur-covered “Bear-Plane” and even put on some pants! Major City, here we come!

Some subplots make their presence known at the very end of this first issue — it seems the combined forces of a skeevy, gentrifying real estate developer and a pig-faced demon known as the Hillbilly Warlock are “guiding” the possessed bears — but this is definitely “shut your brain off and go with the flow” material all the way, as it damn well should be. Vendrell’s cartoony art, Spicer’s bright, vibrant, right-outta-Saturday-morning colors, and Andrew Robinson’s tone-setting cover (side note — there are also a couple of variants, but weirdly enough Image isn’t doing a “Pride Month” cover for this one even though they are for most of the rest of their line-up and you’d think it would be a natural here) seal the deal, not that there was ever too much danger you were going to take a premise this fantastically absurd with anything less than several thousand grains of salt, anyway. Characters are presented in the broadest, most one-dimensional strokes possible, every page presents a new situation that’s flatly (or, in the case of our digitally-obscured protagonist’s phallus, far from flatly) ridiculous on its face, and none of this is meant as a criticism. Quite the reverse, in fact.

I suppose the anti-animal cruelty crowd (which includes yours truly under normal circumstances) could find something to bitch about here if they really have nothing better to do with their time, but the violence unleashed against our four-legged friends in this book is a lot more Looney Tunes than it is Ruggero Deodato. You needn’t read any hidden subtexts into Shirtless Bear-Fighter! simply because, hey — there are none. Man vs. nature is a story as old as time, it’s true, but when you filter even the most hackneyed premise through the minds of creators this talented and this unglued, it definitely has a way of feeling fresh, new, and vibrant — as well as garishly, gleefully, and gloriously idiotic.

So what are you waiting for? Let’s get stupid!

 

One nice thing about reviewing a new book a couple of days after it comes out rather than a couple of days before is that it gives you a chance to read what others have to say about it before sitting your ass down in front of the keyboard yourself. You can determine what other critics got right in their assessments, and what they got wrong. See what you agree with and disagree with. All that good stuff.

Take, for example, the first issue of the new Image Comics four-parter Winnebago Graveyard, which comes our way courtesy of veteran horror comics author Steve Niles (who created a little something you may have heard of called 30 Days Of Night before going on to, among other things, co-founding Black Mask Studios), architect-turned-artist Alison Sampson, and master of moody hues Stephane Paitreau. By and large people seem pretty pleased with it, and are quick to point out that it’s a fairly heartfelt homage to 1970s “never get off the main road” horror films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and (most obviously) The Hills Have Eyes, with a little bit of I Drink Your Blood or Messiah Of Evil-esque “devil cult” influence thrown in for good measure. These critics are in no way wrong — but they’re not entirely right, either.

To be sure, Niles is in no way trying to hide the various and sundry tips of the hat liberally interspersed throughout his script, but I think there are more of them than people realize. In fact, Winnebago Graveyard is nothing if not a love letter to all of ’70s celluloid horror in general, given that events play out in a near-dreamlike manner that would make Dario Argento himself proud, but hew closely to the grindhouse ethos of, say, a David F. Friedman all the way through. There’s even a nice helping of Herschell Gordon Lewis-style low-rent blood n’ guts to be had in the opening pages. It all feels grimy, dirty, dark, and dangerous — just like it should.

In fairness, there may not be anything new under the sun — or, in this case, the full moon — on offer here, but damn is it done well : hooded figures in robes perform grisly human sacrifice. Cut to a “blended family” (mom, son, and newly-minted stepfather) in a rented RV headed west. They venture off the highway onto some desolate desert road to check out a travelling carnival. They even hit the freakshow. They then find their titular Winnebago has been absconded with while they were eating cotton candy and gawking at the bearded lady. They head off on foot and pass a dilapidated, probably-haunted house. A potential rescuer in a beaten-down old pickup truck passes them by. They eventually come across what appears to be a ghost town. They’re fucked.

I won’t bullshit you : this comic takes all of about five minutes to read (unless you spend the 10-15 minutes required to take in the very good backmatter essay, which I highly recommend that you do), but Sampson’s art is absolutely gorgeous and you can while away the better part of an hour taking in all the majestically creepy details (a cloud shaped like open alligator’s jaws? How awesome is that?) she packs into every deliriously rich panel. There’s a bit of a late-’80s/early-’90s indie vibe to her style that fans of Guy Davis or Vince Locke are sure to recognize (and dig), but it’s imbued with a more “high-art” sensibility that nevertheless isn’t ashamed of its shadowy, sketchy lineage. Slap on some deep, rich, damn-near textured colors from Paitreau, and you’ve got illustration that I could easily say that I love, but ya know what? Even that might not be praise enough.

So, yeah, these fine folks can just take my sixteen bucks now, ‘cuz there’s no way I’m not sticking this one out to the finish. There are a number of pretty damn good horror series out there right now, but if the next three issues of Winnebago Graveyard are as good as the first, we’re looking at one of the best comics of the year here, easily.

Review : “The Defenders” #1

Posted: June 18, 2017 in comics

My latest review for Graphic Policy website —

Graphic Policy

You know that feeling you get reading the final few issues of a book that’s been cancelled? That “these-creators-are-obviously-running-out-the-clock-but-I-guess-I-want-to-see-how-it-all-wraps-up” feeling? Welcome to all of Marvel Comics circa summer 2017 — even the brand-new series.

“Now hold on just a minute,” I hear you say, “this might be a first issue, but there’s nothing ‘brand-new’ about The Defenders. They’ve been kicking around in one form or another since the early ’70s. Whaddaya got to say to that, smart guy?”

Technically speaking that’s true, I suppose — we even get the old-school logo on this one — but who are we kidding? This latest iteration of the franchise bears precisely zero resemblance to Steve Gerber‘s “un-team,” and is in fact yet another example of Marvel’s Hollywood arm yanking its print division around, since we already know that the Defenders name was plunked from semi-obscurity to serve as the catch-all title…

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