Thursday, 27 September 2007

50th post - Capsule reviews for the last two weeks

Apologies for the extended delay here in posting, but life sometimes gets in the way... tomorrow, I'll start a series of posts about Morrison's Batman (and post-IC Batman generally), but for now here's a quick look over the last couple of weeks' comics.

Before that, though, just to quickly weigh in on a topic I've seen mentioned a couple of times recently, I can't wait for the day Diamond's monopoly ends. Part of the reason my comics purchases are so weighted towards superheroes (although not as much as you might think - I'm more likely to buy indie stuff in trades and superhero stuff as floppies) is the fact that I can actually buy those comics. The comics shop I go to is helpful and will generally try to order stuff I want, but even stuff they try to get shelf copies of just doesn't arrive sometimes. For example, I've been looking forward to the latest Apocalypse Nerd for months, but it didn't arrive in the shop. This month's Comics Journal didn't turn up either. I'm missing one issue (5, I think) of the D&Q serialised version of Ed The Happy Clown, I still don't have issue 10 of Following Cerebus...

I'm absolutely convinced that plenty of people out there would buy a wider variety of material if they could actually find it in the shops, but if people don't see it on the shelves they won't buy it, and if the stock doesn't arrive in the shop they can't put it on the shelves. Diamond are obviously uninterested in the vast majority of the titles they stock, because their business is built around selling Batman and the X-Men to the exclusion of everything else. While I accept that those things will always sell better than Action Philosophers, we are in a relatively brief sliver of time between the internet becoming popular and Peak Oil hitting hard, where those of us lucky enough to live in the West have become accustomed to whatever we want being instantly available. In the age of the Long Tail it is annoying to see the only distributor used by most comic shops stuck in a bestseller mentality.

(As an aside - reminder to myself. Go back to the shop tomorrow and get Astro City, which was missed out of the pull list for some reason.)

Anyway, on with the reviews.

I'll deal with Batman 669 (by Grant Morrison, J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart, DC) tomorrow. For now, I'll just say wow...

Flash 232 (by Mark Waid and Daniel Acuna, DC) continues last review post's theme of decent Mark Waid comics with slightly-disturbing, unintentional subtexts. In most ways, this is a classic Flash storyline - tentacled monsters defeated by Science. However, the giant tentacled monsters have huge vaginas dentata for faces (the first page is a splash page of one of them being punched on the clitoris) and are killing people by sapping their precious bodily fluids... still a decent comic, but weird...

Speak of The Devil 2 (by Gilbert Hernandez, Dark Horse) is very odd. I didn't read issue 1 (see earlier rant for why) but this is very unlike Hernandez' usual work. It appears to be playing with some of the cliches of the teen slasher genre, with the mild titillation (but without the violence) and bad dialogue that goes along with that. It's surprisingly accessible for the second issue of a miniseries, but not really up to the standard of his usual work... unless this is deliberate. I sort of get a Grindhouse feel from this, if you see what I mean. I'll probably pick up the trade...

JLA/Hitman 1 (by Garth Ennis & John McCrea, DC) was originally intended as a storyline for JLA Classified (and was obviously meant to be four issues rather than two double-sized ones. The break between issues comes with "that would be fine" on the page after the staples). It's a little disappointing, because it's more a JLA story than a Hitman one, so we only get a couple of pages of the gang at Noonan's, which is what I was looking forward to from this, but any Hitman is better than none, and with luck this will bring DC to reissue (and finish) the trades. It's still better than most JLA stories of recent years, though Ennis' Wally West is nastier than I'd like (not totally out of character, just being crueller to Kyle than he was portrayed as during this era).
While Ennis doesn't like superheroes, he gets Superman in a way few other writers do - Hitman 34, which this refers back to, was the best single Superman story of the 1990s, and while this doesn't reach those heights, his characterisation of him is spot-on. I'm probably alone in this, but I'd love to see Ennis as regular writer on one of the Super-titles - I think he'd be a breath of fresh air for them, and I also think the constraint of writing Superman might stop Ennis falling into his increasingly noticeable writing tics.
Also, Natt The Hat's new girlfriend is wonderful.

Countdown To Adventure #2 (DC) is another comic of two halves. The first story, featuring the space heroes from 52 is fun enough. Eddy Barrows' art sometimes strays into early-Image territory, and is wildly inconsistent, but the story by Adam Beechen, while clich├ęd (*sob* ! Adam Strange has been replaced by a new, more violent hero so the people on Rann don't love him any more!) is entertaining enough. However, the less said about the backup Forerunner story the better. Apparently Nazis are not very nice people. Sadly, as terrible a pile of tedious, unnecessary toss as this 'story' is, more happened in this backup feature than in the whole ten issues I read of the title it spins out of...

Shadowpact 17 (by Matt Sturges, Doug Braithwaite and Mike Atiyer) is the debut of a new creative team, and I'm not very impressed as yet. Matt Sturges is a protege of Bill Willingham, the previous writer, and he seems to be taking a more serious tone which I'm not sure suits the series. Combined with Braithwaite and Atiyer's art (which is essentially identical to Braithwaite's work on Justice, stiff and undynamic, looking like traced fumetti rather than freehand drawing) , the total effect is like reading one of those early-90s 'fully painted' comics from around the time the Vertigo line first formed, when people were trying to be Neil Gaiman within the DCU. Not a bad comic as such, and I'm going to at least read the rest of this storyline, but I miss the lighter touch the comic used to have. It is nice, though, to see Detective Chimp drawn as an actual chimpanzee.

The Order 2 (by Matt Fraction & Barry Kitson, Marvel) is the kind of comic about which it's hard to find much to say. It's a good superhero team book of the kind that used to be the bread and butter of the industry, you can read it in about five minutes, Kitson's layouts are very impressive, and there's not much else to say here. If you like decent superhero team books, you'll like it.

Countdown To Mystery 1 (DC) is the better of the two spin-off anthology titles. The Doctor Fate story by Steve Gerber with Justiniano and Wong is excellent. It actually feels more like Shadowpact than this month's issue of that title does, featuring as it does that team in minor roles (flashing back to Day Of Vengeance) and being drawn by the art team who co-created them. The art is surprisingly good - most of it is in Justiniano's normal style, which is fine as far as it goes, but in some of the flashback sequences the colouring is fainter, and there's an almost ligne claire look to the inking. Those pages show a definite J.H. Williams III influence (specifically his work with Mick Gray - it almost looks like Gray inking at points) and are among the comparatively few pages of recent superhero comics to be actually pleasing aesthetically.
The story itself is mostly setup, but it's Gerber so it's well done and makes me want to read the next issue. And is that Ne-Bu-Loh on the last page?!

The backup story, by Mathew Sturges and Stephen Segovia, featuring the Spectre, Eclipso, Darkseid and Plastic Man, is actually pretty much exactly my kind of thing, but it unfortunately sets off one of my pet peeves. The first few pages are set in Manchester, which happens to be the city in which I live, and it doesn't look like that. Real-world cities have their own character and it's easy enough to do some quick photo-reference. Either set this stuff in a made-up city or use Google images. The Mancunian character (who I think is Sturges wanting his own Dane-from-the-Invisibles/John Constantine character, but more violent) also doesn't look like he's from Manchester either, but the look of people in a city is more indefinable and mutable than the architecture, so that can be given a pass.

What can't, though, is the dialect. This is something I've brought up several times, in relation to, for example, Mirror Master and Captain Boomerang, and it grates on me, but especially so when it's meant to represent my home city. I do not know of one single American comic writer who can accurately capture the way non-American English speakers talk. It's really best not to try. If British, Australian, Irish or whatever characters are written in the same voice as the Americans, it works well enough. But a failed attempt at dialect just makes me think of Jack Lemmon imitating Tony Curtis imitating Cary Grant - "Nobody talks like that!"

Sturges at least avoids one elementary mistake - he's noticed that people who substitute the word 'me' for 'my' do not do so all the time, and sometimes still use 'my'. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to know what the rules are for such substitutions (which are hard to explain, but have to do with the rhythm of the sentence, the amount of stress placed on the word itself, the amount of stress placed on the sentence as a whole, and other things) and gets them consistently wrong.

Seriously - and this rule goes for writers of all types, in any genre, but only in comics have I come across people repeatedly breaking this rule - if you haven't lived somewhere for at least five years, don't try writing in that place's accent, just write standard English.

Other than that, though, the story seems to set up something that might be very interesting.

The Spirit 10 (by Darwyn Cooke & J. Bone, DC) is magnificent. It's galling that Cooke is about to leave just as he's hitting his stride on this book. He's finally stopped doing stories that feel like he's paying tribute to Eisner, and started doing playful things with the medium, silly inventive stuff that lives up to the expectations everyone had for the title. This one, though, might be almost impenetrable for some non-US readers, being as it is a rather heavy-handed satire of US cable TV news/opinion, featuring obvious versions of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Rosie O'Donnell, Stephen Colbert and others.

Four Horsemen 2 (by Keith Giffen and Pat Oliffe) is a very good piece of superhero entertainment. It has zombies building Apokolips on Earth, Batman being a sarcastic bastard, Morrisonesque technobabble and the return of Snapper Carr. You can't really ask more from a superhero comic than that.

Justice League of America 13 (by Dwayne McDuffie & Joe Benitez, DC) on the other hand, is frustrating. McDuffie's script is fine - he's one of the better superhero writers in the business, and he knows the characters well - but the art is some of the most ugly I've seen in years. The storytelling is confused, the women all have porn-pouts and impossible anatomy, John Stewart and Black Lightning have the same face, there are next to no backgrounds, characters change physiques, characters change relative sizes (on Grodd's first appearance he's about 9 or 10 feet tall, but by the time he's dangling Black Canary from his hand he's maybe 20 or 25), characters change their position relative to each other seemingly at random from panel to panel, the female characters who don't wear high heels spend the entire comic standing on tip-toe anyway... it's just ugly. I'm far more verbally/aurally oriented than visually, so as long as I can tell what's going on bad art is far less of a problem than bad writing, but this is really terrible.

As for Blue Beetle 19 (by John Rogers, Keith Giffen and David Baldeon), it's yet another fun, funny issue which manages to be a satisfying story on its own while advancing ongoing subplots and tying in elements of what's going on in the wider DCU, while remaining entirely accessible to a reader who's only reading this. It's the most consistently enjoyable superhero title DC is putting out not written by Grant Morrison, and yet nobody is buying it. This is also the best of the three comics with Detective Chimp in them I've reviewed this week.
This is only an average issue of this title - maybe even a below-average one - but this is one comic that I always know I will enjoy going in, and I've not been wrong yet.


Jog said...

Yeah, Speak of the Devil feels very Grindhouse to me too, although (in case you didn't know) it's part of a series that's 'adapting' one of Hernandez's Love and Rockets characters' movies to comics.

It suffers in comparison with the only other entry in the series so far, the Fantagraphics graphic novel Chance in Hell, which is one of my favorite comics of the year so far, really pounding a lot of anxiety and terror into some of Hernandex's harshest pages ever. I just spoke with someone about the book... he felt that it was Hernandez's extended nightmare about raising his young daughter, which makes sense, even accounting for all the merciless scene transitions. Speak of the Devil is way more cheese-for-cheese's-sake right now, but I do like the lurid potential he's built in...

John Seavey said...

Personally, I buy 'Blue Beetle' in trades, which is something you have to keep in mind when talking about sales of the book. You can't see those numbers and factor them into the book's health, but DC definitely is--just look at 'Manhunter', which was doing poor numbers as a monthly, but good enough in trades to keep the series going.

I think a lot of people, like me, have decided to only buy a book once, and DC's aware of that.