Thursday, March 31, 2005

Review: Children Of The Grave #1-2

Tonight, I’m looking at the first two issues of Children Of The Grave, a four-issue miniseries written by Tom Waltz and drawn by Casey Maloney, and published by Shooting Star Comics. Issue #2 just came out this Wednesday.

The book is about a team of three American black-ops soldiers (leader LT and his brothers-in-arms Shiv and Li’l Pete) who find themselves in the Middle East hot on the trail of an insane military officer who’s gone rogue from his native country with a small battalion of loyal fighters and slaughtered a field-full of his enemies’ children. Our heroes come across the mass grave of said children to find every individual grave mysteriously emptied, and are then given orders to take down the violent madman and his entire cadre of scumbag gunmuscle.

The first issue sets up the story, and plods along a bit as Waltz tries to introduce all his characters and set up his basic plot elements. As a first issue, it’s a little sloppy. Too often, lately, I’m finding that miniseries spend their whole first issue setting up their pitch and (I can only imagine) expecting enough of the creators’ style or the pitch's charm to rub off on the reader to bring them back for the next issue. I think this is a mistake; if your premise is that an insane middle-eastern military leader has slaughtered a graveyard-full of children who rise from the grave for vengeance (and that’s a good chunk of this series’ premise), those zombie children should appear well before the last page of your opening issue. Instead of getting straight to it, most of this book’s opening issue sets up its characters and their histories. Personally, I don’t like when stories have to “set aside” time to establish their characters; I like discovering who those people are as the story occurs, in the thick of everything, so that I get layers of the onion peeled back as the plot progresses. To me, that creates a heightened level of excitement in the story by tying it to my connection with the people who inhabit it. I get more involved. This issue feeds me the whole onion up front, before anything else happens, and while a lot of the information we’re given is important later on, it's overwritten and kills a little bit of the tension, and I’m definitely glad that I got to read the first two issues in one sitting.

Because I thought the second issue of this was fantastic. Maloney’s linework is detailed and gritty, especially during an impressive firefight that opens the issue. The scene is just violent enough to balance the light-hearted excitement and action of the best military genre work with the disgusting and haunting elements of horror. At the same time, the writing itself balances military and horror themes in strong harmony; both the Waltz and Maloney are balancing the two genres very well, drawing on the strengths of each one to reinforce the other. Where a lot of genre-mixing work feels gimmicky and overly clever, this combination feels like a natural fit for the story being told.

In the middle of the firefight the titular Children of the Grave appear before LT and issue a strange demand; we learn something important about LT by his response, and at the same time the plot moves forward and a really interesting mystery is introduced, and LT’s relationship to the two supporting characters changes in a way that is both obvious and subtly handled. This is exactly the kind of crafty story structuring that I thought was missing in the first issue, and I’m glad to see this creative team has improved so much in just one issue – it’s not just an improvement over what I’d already read, but genuinely impressive and exciting in and of itself.

I’m surprised to say that at this point I have no idea where the series is going. Waltz has introduced a mystery that has me completely stumped, but without making the story or characters unreachable. The book can go in any number of directions at this point, and I’m excited to see how it’s going to play out. Whether you tried the first issue and it didn’t do it for you, or you’ve missed the series entirely so far, I recommend picking up the second issue (which has a summary of the first, to catch new readers up to the story) and taking a look. It’s good fun.

Here are the Diamond order numbers:
Issue #1: NOV042877
Issue #2: JAN052919 (available now)
Issue #3: MAR053100 (available in May)

Monday, March 28, 2005

Advance review - Scar Tissue #1

Scar Tissue #1 has a cover date of July 2005, so I’m fairly sure what I hold in my hands is an advance copy. It’s being released by Ronin Studios, with J. Andrew Clark writing, and David Wachter doing all of the art except the colors, which Brent Wachter handles.

I’m not sure how to discuss the book without getting into some spoilers, so be warned.

Scar Tissue is a book about a regular Joe (named Ben) who ends up in a hospital after being turned into an “innocent bystander” during an epic fight between a Superman fill-in named The Compatriot and his arch-nemesis, a green-skinned evil dude named Grundoom. Ben receives a heart transplant under mysterious circumstances, and heals at an unprecedented speed, ultimately discovering he’s developed super-powers and, finally, that he’s been given the slain Grundoom’s heart.

I hate to say it, but I didn’t really like this book much. I thought the concept was trite and the execution, while perfectly competent, was mediocre.

From a technical standpoint, my only gripe is with the coloring. The palette Wachter uses is attractive and appropriate enough, but the pencils regularly include a row of teeth on characters’ expressions, and about a third of the time it seems like the teeth are the same color as the lips. It’s amateurish and distracting, and it would never happen on color flatter Josh Richardson’s watch.

I thought the characters were cliché. Ben resists the Great Responsibility that obviously comes with the Great Power he’s been given, wanting only to live a normal life. Now, there’s nothing unreasonable about that, and I can certainly sympathize with the character, but that’s all we get; there’s nothing more specific, no hook, nothing really unique about him. Ben’s uncle – yes, his uncle, who’s taken care of Ben since Ben’s parents died and done his very best – hides the truth behind Ben’s mysterious benefactor, worried that the truth will be too upsetting, and basically mothers the hell out of him; again, understandable and realistic, but uninteresting to me.

I did kind of enjoy Ben’s brother Carl, who got a few good “boy-he’s-dumb” gags, including one about congenital heart disease, and has an interesting scene at the end of the book, in which he prepares breakfast for his ailing brother. Maybe I’m not quite putting my finger on it, but there’s something interesting about a family of three men, and the act of making breakfast for someone else somehow conjures a male/female relationship in my mind – the fact that it’s two men lends a neat spin on their relationship. Whatever it was, that closing scene held my interest most of any parts in the book, and if Ben’s family relationships are explored more in subsequent issues, it might develop into a book I enjoy more than I did this first issue. I don’t get the feeling that the book is headed in that direction, though.

No, this seems like a pretty dedicated super-hero book, and I think that may be where it loses me. I can still enjoy super-hero comics, and they don’t even have to be weird – as much as I like twists on the genre like Sleeper or She-Hulk, I still really enjoy straight-ahead costume comics like Astonishing X-Men, Ultimate Spider-Man and Invincible. But one thing those books need to do is provide interesting action, and I wasn’t really excited by what I saw here; in a contstruction yard, a big steel girder falls on Ben, bending around him and thudding to the ground when he stands up – it’s pretty cool, and the visuals are exciting, but I knew exactly what would happen from the moment the scene opened, four pages earlier. Its predictability neutralizes its impact.

Again, though, I’m not the right audience for this book. This is aimed at a younger reader than me, a reader who wants a little more cartoony moralism and creepy, alien-looking bad guys in green robes, who get excited by wondering just what peril Ben will survive on the construction yard – they know something’s gonna happen, and the fun of it is finding out what and when. This book would have fit on my reading list a lot better when it also included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and McFarlane’s work on Spidey. If you’re looking for something along those lines, this will be worth your time at least to pick up and take a look. It's just not the kind of thing that interests me much anymore.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

A moment for all things High Falutin'

I’ll bet you never guessed, but I want to be a writer. On occasion, I’m given to spouting off about writing and art in general, and this is just such an occasion. If you’re put off by people talking about Art as if it were something important, you might not enjoy this post, and I completely understand – indulgent wankery, all of it. I promise to write more about comics tomorrow.

There are many writers of acclaim – I’ll refrain from naming one because I’ll certainly name the wrong one – who insist on, struggle for, and often seem to achieve a creative process and product that has entirely to do with its authors’ imaginations, and nothing to do with its audience. I often see interviews with writers in which the question is posed whether and how the writer responds to or incorporates feedback from their audience into their ongoing work, and to find the writer reply with something to the effect of a middle finger, an insistence that the audience should not be a part of the creative process at all, that creative work should come solely from its author. In many cases, this results in work that is solely for its author, and often further results in a reputation for pretentiousness and deceptively meaningless efforts.

On the other hand, the bulk of what we usually consider brilliant or important art also tends to come from artists with this attitude.

I’m probably not going to manage to be that kind of writer, because I feel there are some basic compromises that such an exclusive and sweeping philosophy needs to make in order to be sound. I’m always suspicious of dogmatic thinking, and this is no exception.

I think the moment where the whole “My art is, and only should be, about me and from me and for me” approach becomes fallacious is when the product is “finished,” and somehow passed on from the creator to someone else – an audience member, a critic, a publisher or distributor, anyone, anyone to whom the work is given. At this point, we are engaged in communication, which requires some elements of individual compromise not accounted for by the Me school.

One of these requirements is the fact that each party must use a language that the other can understand. The words you use to speak to people didn’t originate in you; you didn’t invent or create them. Originally, and very naturally, you thought in terms of sensory input, in images and sounds and feelings. Verbal language was taught to you as a way of abstracting these sensations so they could be understood by someone who could not or did not share them. The very act of turning the images and sounds in our imagination into written words (or drawings, or songs, or movies) is a compromise of the work’s autonomy. It is a logical admission that what you are doing has a basic function of transmitting an idea or feeling from one individual to another. That connection is hard enough to simply establish - people come from all variety of backgrounds and carry a host of unnamable prejudices and predispositions to the table simply by virtue of having lived a different life than yours - why make it more difficult for them to understand you? Why not do your part to help bridge that gap, and speak in a shared language?

To me, the act of imagining is always an interpretation of something I’ve absorbed; it’s really more an act of transformation than creation. Input comes to me in the form of experience, I make of it what I can, and output leaves in the form of writing or conversation. I don’t feel like I’m really making anything up. What I am doing is trying to make someone else understand how I feel or think. I’m excited about something, and I want that excitement to be shared – positive, negative, or more complex, it’s the excitement that makes me want to write; I want a connection. If I didn’t want or need one, I wouldn’t bother with writing anything out; I’d just sit there and think about it. What drives me to write (or sing/draw/whatever) is the potential to share my excitement with someone else, and it seems foolish to ignore the last half of the equation.

Of course, it's not that simple. If all I did was pander to my audience, the value of my input would be zero. There's a balance to be struck. But that's another can of worms.

Like I said, more about comics tomorrow. Thanks for sticking that out with me.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Reviews for comics from the week of 03/24/05

The Expatriate #1: Mixed feelings about this. I’ve been ridiculously excited about the series ever since I first saw the preview art pages by newcomer Jason Latour, and his work here is everything I hoped it would be after seeing those pages. The fact that flatter Josh Richardson is my homie set aside, the colors themselves (which, Josh will tell you, are ultimately totally in Latour’s control) are spectacular, so powerful at times that they threaten to overcome the other elements of the book, but beautiful enough that I don’t mind at all. Latour has a great flair for kinetics, as well, and the action scenes that pepper the opening issue are all convincing and exciting – I’m put in mind of Sean Phillips’ work on Sleeper and Cliff Chiang’s on Human Target. The pencils and inks do a great job establishing the characters, which is necessary to the book because writer B. Clay Moore doesn’t give us a lot to respond to. The two Evil CIA Agents are clever characters, and their repartee is fun to watch. But the lead characters – Jack Dexter and Maria Lobo – are both pretty vacuous at this point; their dialogue isn’t particularly revealing, and they pretty much just go through the motions of explaining themselves to each other – “I’m on the run and I can’t tell you why!” “Well, I guess that’s okay because I’m married to a thug I don’t love and just want to escape this town!” I’ve seen that before, many times, and it was done best in Tom Waits’ classic song, “Burma Shave.” I’m going to stick with the series for a bit because I have confidence that these characters will be developed a little more, and because the art is a really rare find, but I hope Moore takes his protagonists to a less conventional place than he has thus far – he’s promising that he will, and I’m inclined to trust him.

The Incredible Hulk #79: I missed this last week, so I picked it up on Wednesday. I honestly don’t have much to say about it. Lee Weeks kicks ass drawing The Hulk kick the shit out of Fin Fang Foom, of course, and otherwise this didn’t make much of an impression. There’s a guest appearance teaser that closes out the issue, and the appearance made me roll my eyes because this character seems to appear in every Marvel comic, but on the other hand there is a genuine relationship between said character and The Hulk and there’s no reason Peter David won’t be able to make the appearance worthwhile.

Pigtale #2: The “cute as a button” characterization from the first issue takes a bit more of a back seat this time around, giving way to more visual experiments, and my feeling is that the book is better for it. When a series is written and drawn by the same person, almost every time you’ll find that the creator is better at one than the other, and Ovi Nedelcu’s “right hand” is clearly artwork. Several sequences here manage both to drop my jaw and make me take a second, closer look, especially the pages that take our villain down into his secret lair – there’s one page in particular that follows a small make-shift elevator down into the black oblivion and the panel design, while simple and elegant, is among the most amazing I’ve ever seen. The characters still aren’t really knocking my socks off and the plot is fairly cookie cutter (“Let’s revolt, fellow animals, and kill all the humans!”), but I’ll stick around for the eye candy at least a while longer.

Spellbinders #1: This was my Pleasant Surprise of the Week. I’m a huge Mike Carey fan, and his Lucifer series (despite occasional ups and downs) is the best epic fantasy series in publication, but a lot of his Marvel work has disappointed me. I just don’t think he’s got a comfortable grip on the superhero genre. It’s clear from this issue, though, that Marvel have given him the football and let him run with it in his own style, and the change in the quality is immediately apparent. We’re introduced to the world of the series through a brief, chilling opening scene that balances quirky humor, grotesque and fascinating horror and fantasy elements, and more down-to-earth personal relationships, and that scene seems to set the tone for the rest of the book – the series looks to balance all three of those elements with great skill. The characterization is efficient and effective, although we meet a few too many characters right off the bat and it’s a little hard to keep track of them all. The main characters are given plenty of time, though, and it’s a cast of unique, interesting people, with no obvious clichés or one-note wonders. The plot and pacing are a real change of pace, both for Marvel and for Carey, with the status quo being quickly established and then abruptly, surprisingly turned all on its ear in the final pages, with a cliffhanger that spits on all the expectations I had brought to the book. The artwork isn’t spectacular or shocking, but it’s perfectly competent at telling the story clearly and establishing unique looks for the characters without, again, making clichés out of them. The final package has a lot more in common with Carey’s charming My Faith In Frankie miniseries than with his boring Ultimate Elektra, and while I’d had some doubts about the premise, I’m completely reassured that this will be a lot of fun to keep reading. If not for Sleeper, actually, this would have been my favorite book of the week.

Spiderman/Human Torch #3: I’m a little bit tired of Spiderman stories about how Peter Parker dealt (or continues to deal) with the death of Gwen Stacey, but this is a fair balance of emotionally wrought material and goofball humor. The villain of this issue has some hysterical “super-ape” lackeys, and when, during an escape in the stolen Spidermobile, he shouts at one of them, “Don’t lick that wrapper! That was on the floor!” I cracked clean up. Slott remains one of the best writers in the business for combining serious super-hero drama with goofball humor and wry self-awareness that isn’t smug or ironic.

Hellblazer #206: This was a great little one-shot that takes a break from Constantine proper and focuses on the effects that recent events have had on his friend, Chas. I’ll say this much: poor fucking Chas. Having been possessed by a demon of some kind that, upon exiting, left a bit of demon feces in his body/soul/mind, he spends a great deal of this issue just Doing Awful Things. Great character moments here, especially at the end when he realizes what’s happened and tries to face the consequences, completely unequipped for the fallout from behavior he would never have exhibited on his own. The interaction between John Constantine’s hellspawn daughter and Chas is also a nice scene, with the element of danger waxing and waning in the same unpredictable storminess as a normal conversation between a fourteen year-old girl and her uncle figure – the content of the conversation is largely the same as what such a mundane discussion would be like, as a grown man speaks to a young girl about questions of identity and individuality. The dialogue is fairly interesting in its own right, especially as the girl is given some revealing voice-over narrative earlier in the issue, but the element of mortal danger that accompanies the scene makes a nice extra layer. It’s just the sort of thing Carey really excels with, and it’s nice to have an issue of this series that stands on its own – I wish there were more of them. Guest artist Giuseppe Camuncoli (The Intimates) handles most of the material well, though his take on “Crazy Chas” is a little too cartoonish and not really imaginative enough for my taste – it detracts from the believability of the situation just when that believability would be most helpful to the story; I can’t imagine Chas’ wife not noticing, “Gee, he looks completely out of his mind and his eyes are glowing red. Maybe I oughta give that bastard Constantine friend of his a call and see if something’s up.” Still, I found Carey’s firing on both cylinders this week.

Conan #14: Hard to keep reviewing this because “more of the same great stuff” can only be stretched out so far. The series keeps balancing the standard “sword and sorcery” material with bits and pieces of more subtle characterization, such as Conan’s decision in this issue to sacrifice his female counterpart rather than himself. It’s a moment in which you don’t completely admire his bravery and morality, and it adds a nice shade of gray to what is otherwise a completely black and white character. The showdown at the end (which closes this arc) was powerful and believable, and Conan’s boastful celebration in the closing pages was charming and funny, in spite of some increasingly sloppy pencil work from the otherwise impressive Cary Nord (whose character designs for the Bone Woman are spectacular and beautifully creepy). Kevin Sutton did a great review of this issue over on ComiX-Fan in which he points out that the near-invincible Conan will have a hard time, going forward, in creating tension, because we’ll always know that he can face down anything. “If it bleeds, I can kill it,” he says, and that might simplify the dangers Conan will face throughout the series. However, as Sutton also points out, Busiek cleverly side-stepped this in the first arc through Conan’s failure to protect the more vulnerable supporting cast he’d built, and I’m confident Busiek has it in him to keep things just a little complex. So, yeah: More of the same great stuff.

Sleeper Season II #10: All of a sudden, I realize the structure of the second season completely mirrors the first, and it makes me want to go back and re-read every issue of the last several months. The first half of the series set all the pieces in play, slowly establishing the mood and the new status quo for the characters. The next three issues start throwing monkey wrenches in the machinery, raising questions about the everything that’s been established thus far, and the last three issues – if this one is any indication – bring everything crashing down in a spectacular, inevitable disaster. This is probably my favorite issue of the second season so far, and it’s by far the most grotesque; the scene that closes the issue, between Holden, Miss Misery and Peter Grimm, is absolutely disgusting, but also holds a strange kind of perverted excitement so that it’s hard not to stare. Phillips does a great job illustrating what Grimm’s mind-whammy is like, and the narration builds on that image without repeating anything. We also see Grifter coming into play as an important piece on the chess board, and it’s a lot of fun to see how his tale in the Point Blank prequel series is playing into the conclusion. My favorite book of the week, for sure.

The New West #1: There’s a lot about this that I like, and I lot that I don’t. There are some solid, if cliché, characters here, particularly the lead, who is described by the artist as “a tough guy in the vein of Jake Gittes from Chinatown,” with a little Bruce Willis and a little Robert Mitchum. The relationships are well established, too, although the Mayor’s daughter sex kitten is a little cookie-cutter, and her attraction to the Dashing But Forbidden Lead is a little too obvious – by and large, though, the motivations are believable and the tough guy voice-over narration is enough to fill in a little color. The main thing that doesn’t work for me is that Palmiotti has a really amateurish style of dialogue that relies way too much on exposition, and a lot of it doesn’t make sense – in the opening scene the Sexy Daughter asks the Dashing Lead to recount a story she’s obviously heard over and over again for no discernable reason, and when she interrupts his story to say, “I know where Polytechnic is; I was going there for visual arts,” I can’t imagine they haven’t already had that discussion. There’s no reason for her to be saying that, and it comes across as really lazy storytelling. Once we get past the expository opening, however, the plot develops quickly and believably, and the world Palmiotti has imagined, in which some kind of techie terrorism has killed electricity (just in L.A.? Across the country? Throughout the world?) is not terribly clear but nonetheless establishes a great mood and a wonderful setting for the action piece that follows, which is funny and slick and makes the book worth reading. The cliffhanger ending is compelling and I want to read the second (and final) part of the story; I just hope the craft of it will match up more closely to the second half of what we get here than the first half.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

World Conquest Poetry Winners Announced!

Congratulations to the winners of the 1000 Steps to World Domination contest and many thanks to everyone who entered!

The Grand Poo-Bah Winner, who gets a free copy of both Go Forth And Conquer and 1000 Steps to World Domination, as well as getting his poem illustrated by Rob Osborne and walking home with the original art, is:

Matt Silady, author of "
How I Will Rule You All"

The Runners-Up, who all win free copies of Go Forth And Conquer, are:

Skippy for "Deez Nutz"
Mark W. Hale for "If I had a giant robot gorilla suit I'd stomp all over town..."
Kevin J. Church for "3 Haikus for World Conquest"
Shawn Demumbrum for "Absolute Tyrant Haiku"
David Campbell for "My World Conquest Haiku"

Looks like haiku are popular these days. I blame television.

Thanks again to the Great Rob Osborne for his magnanimous leadership and to everyone with the gumption to enter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Jumping Off The Page, part one

I was thinking a little bit about what I said at the end of my Sin City review, and about the “Blood in the Gutters” chapter of Scott McCloud’s superlative Understanding Comics, and I got a little excited and thought I’d share. This is the first in what I plan to be a series of short essays called Jumping Off The Page.

I’ve been thinking and studying for a while about what makes comics special. Too often I think they’re treated as fake movies, or dumbed-down books. The medium itself is something powerful and unique, and I like to think of myself as a student of the form. Pretentious? Obviously. But it comes from a genuine passion for comics, so I ain’t apologizing.

McCloud discusses in his book the concept of closure, or the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole.” He gets into the mechanics of how the gutter between panels is an invitation and a tool for the audience to participate in creating the story; the way panels are laid out on a page, and the action or shift that is implied between them is something that involves the reader and stimulates the imagination. Ultimately, McCloud concludes that “no other artform gives so much to its audience while asking so much from them as well.”

Well, I was thinking about what I said about Frank Miller’s Sin City – that he had captured a way of imagining things that I’d left behind in my childhood, a way of imagining based on what was unknown and inconceivable, as opposed to the adult method of imagination based on experience and comparison – and wondering if maybe that wasn’t something unique to comics.

Because as much as I loved the Sin City movie, and as much as I thought Rodriguez captured that same surreal fantasy on film, something in the translation was lost. I’ve been asking myself why, and I have some ideas.

When you watch a film, your vision and your hearing are both being engaged, and the filmmaker is completely in control of what you see and hear. The volume, the rhythm, the brightness, the darkness, everything that the audience is able to see or hear is accounted for and controlled by the artist. In a way, this disengages the audience’s imagination. Everything the audience perceives is the result of the creators’ imagination, so there’s little impetus or opportunity to participate in creating the story. While there are stylistic exceptions, directors who tease their audience with what they can’t see or hear, the movie is still prompting the audience about when it’s appropriate to engage their minds and get those wheels turning – the movie itself is still squarely in the driver’s seat.

Going in the other direction, the far end of the spectrum is prose. Prose is entirely iconic, as McCloud points out, and it’s completely up to the reader to determine what the sensual aspects of the material are like. This even applies when the writing is especially evocative or vivid. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite books that always burns an image in my mind – the author is recounting an event of his childhood in which he accidentally fell into a big tub of boiling-hot water:

I reached over and touched my right hand with my left, and the whole thing came off like a wet glove. I mean, the skin on the top of the wrist and the back of my hand, along with the fingernails, all just turned loose and slid down to the ground. I could see my fingernails lying in the little puddle my flesh had made on the ground in front of me.
Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, page 122

Pretty damn graphic, right? But every single person who reads it is imagining something completely different. The color and texture of the skin, the dirt on the ground, the light and the air and everything that is a part of that scene is invented completely by the reader, and is certainly not the same thing as what actually happened, or even how the writer remembers it. Everybody processes the information in their own minds and creates the scene for themselves, which means there are infinite ways the scene could appear.

Comics, on the third hand, treads ground that it shares only (and barely) with music. Comics only gives you a piece of the puzzle – it engages your vision and controls what you see. Music controls only what you hear. But it doesn’t give you the whole puzzle. You know what the shape is, you know what a part of it looks like, but it’s up to you to fill in the rest. What this gives comics is a power to not only share the exact vision of the creator(s), but to involve the audience in the creation of the story at the same time. This power is unmatched by any other medium.

Comics even trumps music in this regard because of the process of closure. Reading a comic, you may see exactly what the artist intended for you to see, but you still don't see everything in the world of that comic. You're still filling in gaps where the comic is unable to show physical movement, helping to build what the scene looks and moves like, even though you know exactly how every element in that comic appears. Even music can't do this - you only hear what the band plays. You don't imagine notes where they don't get played. The musician is still holding on to that control.

There are exceptions, of course, and there are even art forms that engage senses other than sight and hearing – theater, for example, can play with smell and feeling by controlling the environment in which the audience finds itself (though it rarely does) – but it’s almost completely uncharted territory and comics is right in front leading the way.

I really like my art to create a dialogue – a line of connection between the artist and me. That’s why comics are a perfect fit. Comics have a superlative ability to suggest.

How does that suggestion work? I’m not completely sure. But I’m not done thinking about it. In my next installment of Jumping Off The Page, I’ll look a little closer at the mechanics of how that element of comics works.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Reviews for comics from the week of 03/16/05

I’m a little behind with these, but there was some great stuff and a couple let-downs so I figure better late than never.

Jack Hunter: G.I. Spy “Eyes Only Preview”: Hey, I love trying new books out, so when I see stuff like this I always pick it up. This looks like your typical James Bond material, which isn’t really my bag, but it is pretty damn well done. The opening sequence in a dangerous frozen wasteland establishes the Russian scientist/solider villain as properly ruthless and brilliant, and the remainder of the issue is an introduction to the Bond stand-in with just enough of a tweak to make this worthwhile for fans of the genre. Jack Hunter has a more self-deprecating sense of humor than Bond, and it comes across a little more American and rowdy. The mistakes he makes in the ballroom action scene are funny, and if this genre had any appeal for me at all I’d probably check this out when it launches.

Invincible #21: Felt like I read this in about three minutes. There are some fun sequences, particularly when the Evil Batman character pulls Mark into his “Cloak from Cloak & Dagger” dimension of darkness and Mark just won’t let go of his hand – the guy is a pussy, plain and simple, and the ball-busting Mark gives him is pretty funny. But I felt kinda ripped off when I got to the last page. “That’s it?” What’s here is good stuff, as usual, but I didn’t feel like I got enough it this time around.

Captain America #4: I really liked the first issue of this, and felt a little let down by the second and third. This picks up a bit, but I think the pacing isn’t up to Brubaker’s golden standard from Sleeper’s first twelve issues. The fight scene with Crossbones was a lot of fun, and the mystery behind what’s happening to Cap’s mind is intriguing, but the tension feels a little artificial to me. I know I’m gonna find out what this is all about by the end of the arc – and if I don’t, I’ll at least get a big piece of the puzzle and some fun new questions – and I don’t feel like there’s a good reason why it’s taking this long to get there. I’m giving this book until the end of the first arc, and if nothing happens to change my mind, I’ll be switching to trade collections. The Brube’s often quite good at pulling rabbits out of his sleeve, so that big surprise may happen, but I’ve gotten really sensitive to the treatment of the serial format and the decompression trend. Density is my buzz-word of the day, and I know Brubaker’s got it in him, but this ain’t it.

Plastic Man #15: Better than the last few issues, but the humor’s wearing off a little. Too many pages spent on the same silly DC in-jokes (World Changing Events, decompression, and so on), not enough visual gags packed into each page. When I started picking this up around issue 7, every page had three or four or five different cartooning ideas that made me smile and thrilled me with the wealth of imagination it offered, but now it’s down to one gag per page at best. Still, this is funnier than the last few issues, which haven't been funny at all, so I’m glad to see some improvement.

Lucifer #60: Building towards a climax here, and it’s always fun when Mazikeen kicks ass, even if it’s only for two pages. I think she’s my favorite example of the “kick-ass chick you wouldn’t want to fuck with in a million years” trope, which can often be condescending and stupid. Carey’s done a great job of avoiding that with this character, largely by complicating her with a healthy dose of conflicting loyalties and hidden agendas; when it all wraps up in the coming year, I’ll be writing about this series as a whole, and I’ll have quite a bit to say about ol’ Mazi. Anyway, we don’t see that much of her here, but what we get I love, as always. Mostly we just come closer to rounding a corner with the Jill Presto subplot (Christ, finally), and learn a little more about Lilith’s plans. The revelation at the end of this issue is a good one, and I’m looking forward to the shit hitting the fan, but for me this series suffers a bit when Lucifer himself doesn’t appear, and this is one of those arcs.

Human Target #20: Going out with a bang and not a whimper. This is a great arc, with the reliably brilliant artwork from Cliff Chiang blowing me away every time I turn the page. Milligan finally does what I’ve been waiting for – he kicks his lead character’s ass, very badly. Christopher Chance is a character that has been in need of a situation he couldn’t handle, because it was getting predictable. When he gets his ass handed to him early in this issue, it gives way to a sequence of scenes showing him licking his wounds, trying to figure out how to proceed, and it reveals a really interesting side of the character that we haven’t seen before. And on top of that, Milligan is an absolute master of the serial format – he’s off about as often as he’s on, but he’s almost always “on” when he’s writing this series, and every issue is perfectly crafted; everything moves at a fast clip, keeping my heart beating and my eyes darting about the page, but he doesn’t go too far with it either, and keeps it at a level where I feel confident as a reader that I’m understanding everything I should (Grant Morrison, for example, has trouble with that, or I have trouble with him). Mother of God, I’m going to miss this series.

Noble Causes #8: I picked up the first collection of this series a while back, having enjoyed Faerber’s Seattle-based gumshoe book, Dodge’s Bullets. With a little nudging from Faerber himself, who’s been fishing around a lot of my message-board haunts lately and letting people know about the jump-on points with issues 7 and 8, I decided to try it out. I’m glad I did. The pacing here is moving at a note-perfect clip, with a lot of elements that remind me of what I enjoyed about Uncanny X-Men when I was a kid. In one scene, for example, two female characters (one a pregnant super-heroine, the other a regular-Jane wife of a super-hero) are taking a walk in the park when something unexpected happens to one of them – but as a result, we learn something about both of them. It’s a great way to stretch the value of your storytelling dollar without cheapening either surprise, and it’s the kind of thing I seem to remember Claremont having been good at. Plus, there’s a great fight sequence between two main characters, complete with boulder-throwing and great big blasts of energy, and that sequence concludes with the introduction of a new danger that really makes an impact on the reader – I can’t wait to see how Our Heroes are going to deal with it. If Invincible is doing for me what Ultimate Spider-Man used to, then Noble Causes looks like it might be applying for the X-Men’s job. As for the issue as a jumping-on point: yeah, it works. Will the new reader catch all the references? Definitely not. I didn’t. But I picked up enough to enjoy what I saw, and there’s a catch-up page on the inside front cover with bios for all the main characters and a plot summary I didn't read because I wanted to see how the storytelling itself would catch me up. I wish it wasn’t $3.50, but this book is definitely worth a look if you’re looking for classic super-team fights and drama combined with some fresh new ideas and characters, and it's passed my patented Serial Format Density Test with flying colors.

Shaolin Cowboy #2: Jesus, nobody’s gonna be able to pin this series down. The first issue was a challenge, for sure – ten pages spent on a single panel with no action, followed by ten pages of “violence porn” kung fu action, and a wisecracking donkey talking shit with his balls hanging out. Nothing like a story or a plot or even any characters emerged, which threw a lot of readers for a loop – it would usually turn me clean off and send me running for the hills, but I’ve got a soft-spot for Geof Darrow's madness from his work with Frank Miller, and I knew something special was going on. This issue completely flips the script on the first one, and took me about four times as long to read. King Crab, the Shaolin Cowboy’s greatest nemesis, eats up most of the issue by recounting his his misfortune at the hands of the Cowboy and his quest for vengeance, lighting up a cigarette as he tells the story. As with the first issue, this is absolutely, jaw-droppingly ridiculous, and remarkably stupid, and wonderful. Watching a little 12”-wide crab practicing ju jitsu alongside a class of Chinese monks is pretty fucking surreal. But that pales in comparison to the spectacular action stunt that ends the fight scene between Cowboy and Crab. I don’t want to spoil it, but it is all at once completely unbelievable and retarded and riveting and exciting and funny. I laughed out loud reading that sequence, thrilled with the sheer ballsiness of Darrow’s work. There are also a few spots where the Cowboy himself has some dialogue, and it goes a long way towards giving him some palpable character. Is this series going to work for everyone? I have a feeling not. But it works like gangbusters for me. My favorite read of the week.

Friday, March 18, 2005

LAST DAY for the 1000 Steps To World Domination contest!

Tonight's the deadline! It costs you absolutely nothing to enter, and it'll be fun, and you can win some great comics AND original art from the amazing Rob Osborne.

All you gotta do is write a poem about the virtues of World Conquest, and e-mail it directly to Rob at You have until midnight tonight.


Thursday, March 17, 2005

Advance Movie Review: SIN CITY

So, I got to see one of the advance screenings of the Sin City movie last night, thanks to a free pass from the good Mr. James Sime at The Isotope Comic Book Lounge.

Man, I just enjoyed the hell out of that movie.

Let me get a few things out of the way - here’s what you’re gonna read everywhere: This is a ridiculously accurate translation of the comics to the screen, with the panels from the comics actually matching the visual shots of the film. It’s gritty and it’s stylized and it’s absolutely gorgeous, and any fan of the comics should be pleased with what they see.

I’m gonna get into minor spoilers here, but they’ll only spoil elements that already existed in the comics, so if you’ve read the original Sin City, as well as That Yellow Bastard and The Big Fat Kill, you won’t get any surprises ruined. And if you haven’t read those books, get on top of that right now – these are some of the best American comics ever made!

First of all, the actors in the three lead roles all do remarkable, note-perfect work. Mickey Rourke is great as Marv, and while his prosthetic chin looked kinda funny to me in the trailers, in the movie it works wonderfully. He really conjures the frantic, imbalanced anger and fear of the character, the way he moves, the way he talks, in a way I wasn’t expecting live-action acting to be able to capture. Bruce Willis holds it together nicely as Hartigan, and while I don’t quite buy him as a 68-year-old, he’s pretty comfortable with the Slightly Rundown, Good-Hearted Cop Willing To Bend The Law To Do The Right Thing. It’s pretty much exactly what you would expect from Willis playing this role – if you were expecting something new, you’ll be disappointed, but if you just want to see John McClane as an old man, you’ll be a pig in shit. I haven’t seen Clive Owen in anything else except The Bourne Supremacy, but he makes a mighty impression as Dwight.

The supporting roles are a big part of the fun of the comics, and several of them are great here, too. Remember the guy in The Big Fat Kill who got the arrow-message shot through his chest, and he stood there asking for help? He’s hysterical. Rosario Dawson does an incredible job as Gail, bringing that character to life with all the verve and sexiness and furious decisiveness the character needs. Miho is a character trope that often bores me (woo hoo, look at the tiny little Asian martial artist with the ninja stars), but Miller gave her some really fun presence in the comics and that’s brought to the screen with gutsy, silent perfection by Devon Aoki. Michael Clarke Duncan scares the shit out of me as the giant Manute, especially when he tells Gail about the coming bloodbath of Old Town and concludes, “Nothing can stop this.” And Schlubb and Klump perform their “delusions of eloquence” just as well as I’d hoped.

One of my favorites is Elijah Wood as Kevin, because now he’s supposed to be creepy. He always kinda gives me the willies anyway, and it’s nice to know that this time around, it’s intentional.

Not everybody is comfortable with the stylized material, though. Michael Madsen, coming off what I thought was his career-best performance in Kill Bill Volume 2, gives his career worst with an awkward, phoned-in performance as Hartigan’s partner. His scene opens the main story of the movie, which is unfortunate because it was so awful that even when it was over, I was on edge for the next twenty minutes, worried that it would get that bad again. Brittany Murphy gets way more screen time than she deserves, and while she’s at least trying where Madsen clearly didn’t give a shit, you can see her struggling to make it work pretty much every time she opens her mouth.

Speaking of which, there are a few sloppy elements here that really surprised me. The dubbing is off in a few places, especially when Murphy speaks. It’s jarring and it pulled me out of the movie, and I can’t imagine how that got past a professional director like Robert Rodriguez. In spite of the movie’s full willingness to be brutal (the demise of That Yellow Bastard is especially graphic, a testament to Rodriguez’ commitment to Miller’s work), there are a few places where the stage combat is obvious and awkward – for example, when Wendy is pistol-whipping Marv in the chair, it looks like she’s not actually hitting him. It looks like she’s stage acting, and it’s something that could have been easily fixed, giving a kind of a rushed feel to parts of the movie.

That scene brings to mind the scripting. For the most part, the sheer ballsy stylization of the film makes it work. In a few places, it’s made clear that Miller’s writing was really meant to be read on the page and not spoken, and in a few more places lines have been omitted or rewritten – badly. Cardinal Roark’s speech to Marv about cannibalism is shortened and redone, and when Roark says what was Marv’s line in the comic – “I joined in” – it’s just stupid. In Wendy's pistol-whipping scene, Miller had given Marv a great line about how she should be hitting him with the butt of the gun and not the barrel, and that’s inexplicably cut from the same scene in the film.

By and large, though, it works, and it’s why people are comparing this movie to Pulp Fiction. That comparison is a mistake. The only thing this movie shares with Pulp Fiction is a stylized unfriendliness to reality, and the guts to follow through. Pulp Fiction had an intentional hipness to it, a sense of humor that spoke to pot-smokers, coke-heads and beatniks, and everyone who ever secretly envied those people, and it made its audience feel like they were part of an interesting nu-retro scene, an homage to the culture of the American past with a sly wink to the present. Sin City offers no such invitation to its audience. There’s no broad social commentary or cultural mish-mash. Rather than taking a familiar world and giving it a self-conscious tweak, which is what Tarantino does, Sin City builds its own world from the ground up, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film.

Frank Miller’s vision of Sin City had its origins in Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammett, sure, but he took only the barest elements from those inspirations and ran in a totally new direction. Sin City the comic was (and in the film it remains) an experiment in bleeding stories down to their barest elements, their most necessary ingredients, and then using style and flair to rebuild the content. The result was at once pulpier and grittier than anything I’d ever seen and yet seemed obvious when it was done; why hadn’t I read that before? Why hadn’t I seen that before? It was too familiar not to have been calling back to some memory of a movie I’d seen as a kid. Then it hit me: this was a memory. This was how I remembered movies I’d seen as a kid. But where children use inexperience, the things they don’t know and haven’t seen, as the fuel of their imagination, adults do the opposite; they make comparisons to what they’ve already seen and heard and experienced to shape the things they imagine. Frank Miller recreated that immeasurable make-believe of my childhood, and served it to me as an adult. Robert Rodriguez seems to understand that. There was never a comic or a novel or a magazine like Sin City, and there’s never been a movie like it either.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Don't forget - 3 more days for 1000 Steps!

Remember, the 1000 Steps to World Domination Giveaway - for free comics and original art from AiT/PlanetLar artist and Fearless Leader Rob Osborne - still has three days left! You have until midnight on Friday to submit your entries, so don't miss out. Rob's art is really gorgeous, and it won't cost you a penny to win it!

You can scroll down or click here for the original post to get the details.

Gotham Central Free Comics Giveaway, Part Duex!

We have a winner in the first part of the Gotham Central giveaway! Behold, Good Mister Sean Witzke (no relation) has jumped on board the book and will soon receive a little bonus for his efforts. Look how happy he looks!

Enjoy those books, Mr. Witzke! I'm glad to know you'll be enjoying Gotham Central with the rest of us lucky readers.

Here's the thing. I'm having a lot of fun pimping out this great book and trying to get you people reading. I really want people to start checking out this book. So I don't want to stop just because one guy won already.

And I just remembered that the first five issues of Gotham Central were released in a nice, cheap $10 trade that would really fill in the space to the left of my "Half A Life" trade nicely.

You know what THAT means. That means five more extra issues of Gotham Central sitting around my apartment, looking for a good home. Everyone else who posts a picture (or a link to a picture, which I guess is more realistic) of themselves holding #28 and #29 by the end of the week (let's call it 12:00 Sunday) will be thrown into a hat and the one will be chosen randomly to have the FIRST five issues sent to them for free!

Sound good? Go buy some great comics!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Gotham Central review & Free Comics Giveaway #2!

Like a lot of people, I’ve been wondering lately if the death toll does not knell for Gotham Central. First of all, ever since the conclusion of Brubaker’s wonderful “Unresolved” arc last year, I’ve felt like the series was in a slump; it started being kind of a flat read for me. I was still pretty bummed out, though, when I found out Michael Lark had signed a Marvel-exclusive contract and was leaving the book, because I couldn’t see anyone quite filling his shoes. Lark’s inker, Stefano Gaudiano, had done some fill-in issues that only kinda worked for me. “Sean Phillips?” I wondered. “Cliff Chiang?” Then word came out it would be Kano, whose work I’d seen in the H-E-R-O trade I picked up a couple years ago, and I made that face you make when you’re not exactly let down by something, but you’re sure not thrilled about it either. To make matters worse, Ed Brubaker signed a Marvel-exclusive contract, too. Now, while Greg Rucka penned my all-time favorite Gotham Central story arc with “Half A Life”, I’ve generally enjoyed the Brubaker parts more than the Rucka parts, so when I found out that The Brube was leaving the title I thought to myself, “Well, I guess that’s pretty much the end of Gotham Central.”

I could not possibly have been more wrong. And now I’m skipping my morning cigarette to blast away at the computer for a few minutes because I’m totally fucking psyched about this book again and I gotta tell you about it.

The two most recent issues of Gotham Central - #28 and #29, which came out last month and last week, respectively – mark the fist step of the new ongoing team of Rucka, Kano, continuing inker Stefano Gaudiano, and continuing colorist Lee Loughridge, and the series hasn’t been this good in a while. I think maybe this mix-up is just the kick in the ass that Gotham Central needed.

The story opens on a couple of kids getting into trouble in a sketchy neighborhood, winding up trapped in some kind of abandoned science lab with an unknown chemical spill hurting one of them badly, and trapping the other. We meet a cop named Andrew Kelly – a hint gets dropped later that we’ve met him before, in the No Man’s Land saga, but I never read that stuff. Suffice to say, though, Rucka tells me a lot about Kelly in a really short period of time, without infodumping or getting sentimental. With some deft, plain dialogue, Rucka really imparts that this guy is a good, working-man cop, doing his best and breaking his partner’s balls once in a while, and now here he is trying to save these kids. I really like this guy.

Then Rucka really fucks him up. What a hook! Classic, effective storytelling, done in an absolutely horrific fire sequence that shows off not only the upgrade in paper stock that Gotham Central got a few issues back, but the remarkable work of colorist Lee Loughridge, whose name I hadn’t bothered to learn until now. I always enjoyed the coloring on this book, but the colors in issue #28 really raised my eyebrows. This sequence is totally horrifying. I’ll be looking for anything else with the name Loughridge on it now, I can tell you that.

The story then moves to Renee Montoya, who apparently knows Officer Kelly, and we get some great sequences as she tries to work her way around the scene of the crime – which just happens to be in her old neighborhood, where her estranged father runs his store. Now, it gets said a lot, to the extent that sometimes I start thinking it’s just hype, but it’s the truth: Greg Rucka writes some of the best female characters in all of comics, with Renee Montoya at the top of my personal list. She was the central character of that “Half A Life” arc I loved so much, and she’s taking a big role in this arc, too, and that’s nothing but good news for me. Rucka takes her through a number of powerful scenes – including encounters with her father, her boss, her lover, and of course, Batman, in one of my favorite Batman scenes in recent memory.

A Flash-related villain turns out to be involved, and I was a little bit concerned that the incorporation of The Flash’s world into the world of Gotham Central would either confuse me or turn me off, because I’ve never read any Flash books, but neither is the case. Rucka has kept everything accessible here, and in the closing pages of issue #29, he introduces some Keystone City characters with the same subtle flair he used to introduce Officer Kelly. I “get” and enjoy those characters right away. This kind of efficient, effective characterization reminds me of my favorite issues of Peter Milligan’s excellent Human Target series, which spent a lot of its run on three-issue, self-contained arcs that had to introduce and develop their own characters in just a few pages, and Rucka succeeds here just as well as Milligan did when Human Target was at its best.

So the writing has reassured and excited me – what about the art? Can Kano and Gaudiano pick up the slack?

They sure as hell can. This arc features a little role-reversal, with Gaudiano on pencils and Keno on inks, but the team seems to have developed an instant chemistry. The work here does exactly what it should – it keeps the tone that Lark left behind, but it also forges its own style. The scenes depicting what has happened to poor Officer Kelly are especially powerful and well-rendered; the hospital scene in issue #29 really placed me in the moment, wondering how the hospital staff were gonna handle this situation, and the visuals really played a huge part in making that scene read so well. The balance between Lark's style and the "new voice," if you will, is exactly what I was hoping for, and if we can look forward to more work like this when the artists switch roles, I’ll be just as happy as a pig in shit.

This isn’t a time to drop Gotham Central. This is a time to start reading it.

And with that in mind, I’m gonna take this opportunity to announce The Second Zealot’s Lore Comics Giveaway! You know that “Half A Life” arc that I mentioned like eight times in this review? Well, it’s coming out in trade soon, and I’m gonna be picking it up. Like I said, it’s my favorite arc of the book so far, and this has been one hell of a book, so why wouldn’t I want it on my bookshelf?

That means that I’ll have some singles to spare. The full story arc, issues 6 through 10, and I’m offering them now to anyone who starts reading the book. Here’s what you have to do: go to your local comics shop. Find the issues I just reviewed – that’s #28 and #29 – and pick ‘em up. Take a picture of yourself holding the issues, and either post the picture or post a link to the picture in the comments thread at the bottom of this post. First person to post a pic, I’ll get your mailing info and ship the books out to you, totally free of charge. I’ll even cover the shipping.

“But how can I read issues 28 and 29 if I haven’t read any of the series yet? Won’t I be missing out on a lot of story?” You won’t be missing out on much context, trust me – the current story stands really well on its own. But as coincidence would have it, what little context really would be helpful to understand the background of this story is contained in – you guessed it – the “Half A Life” arc. So, you’ll be getting seven comics for the price of two, including my All Time Favorite Gotham Central story, and I’ll be happy ‘cause I’m still here spreading the word for books that make me happy.

Oh, and you’ll probably end up hooked on Gotham Central. But trust me, you’ll be glad.

(P.S. - The 1000 Steps to World Domination contest - to win free Rob Osborne comics and original art - is still going strong. Scroll down for details - you can still enter and win up until midnight this Friday, so check it out!)

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Armor X #1 review

If you're here looking for the Rob Osborne 1000 Steps to World Domination contest, just scroll down. It's right below this review.

Armor X #1 came out this week, one of the many recent and upcoming Image launches that have been keeping me excited about what the publisher has in store for 2005. The solicitation copy struck a chord of interest for me: essentially, this series (a four-issue mini, if I'm not mistaken) promises to look at the "With great power" trope we've seen a thousand times over, but with a much darker edge. What if Peter Parker wasn't such a spunky, resiliant young lad? What if a super-hero-style power suddenly fell in the hands of a more damaged kid, someone much more potentially dangerous? Would the spirit of heroism shine through and triumph, or would we see the origin story of a super-villain?

These seem to be the questions that writer Kieth Champagne is asking, and I think they're compelling questions. As much as I love Spider-Man, it's always seemed a little too easy for him to continue to try to do the right thing. He screws up a lot, sure, especially in Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man, but there's always a heart of gold in there, just bumbling around and trying to do the best he can. I'm glad to see a series that questions this God-given do-goodery and offers a more edgy slant on the origin.

The main character here is Carson, a high school senior with no friends, and even with my expectations that he would be shown as a 'darker' sort of protagonist, his characterization surprised me by really pushing the envelope. This is a fucked up kid. Early in the book we see him being picked on by your usual pack of team-jacket-wearing jock bullies, who actually call him "Columbine" and issue the usual threats, and my first instinct as a reader is to assume he's being wrongfully persecuted.


He's saved from this first encounter by an intervention from the Alpha Jock, a character named Rico who takes the Harry Osborn role and calls off the wolves, because deep down he really likes Carson. And while I'm inclined to roll my eyes at the introduction of such a stock character and action, I have to say the art in this sequence suspended my disbelief pretty effectively. One panel in particular, showing the expression on Rico's face as he stares down his jock subordinates, was whimsical and interesting, and combined with some pretty solid dialogue from Rico, it redeemed the scene. Next, of course, since Carson hasn't been able to really explain himself yet, I'm expecting to see the scene where the two of them take a moment to connect and understand each other.

This is where my expectations started getting shoved to the side. Carson spits in Rico's face, running off and telling Rico, "You're all on the list!" We then follow Carson through a series of scenes that really illustrate that the creators are not demanding that we sympathize with Carson. He's shown - very effectively, I thought, with fair restraint concerning cliches - to really be an asshole. We're given clear clues about why he's such a dick, but we're not asked to take those explanations as excuses. It's an approach I always appreciate, and it's especially important in a story like this. That Champagne approaches the character in this fashion impresses me, and provides some reassurance that he'll be able to jump what I consider this series' greatest hurdle.

And that is that when I think about it, and read this book on paper, I realize that I don't want the answers to the questions this series will raise. I don't want it to be a super-hero story where the integrity of the human spirit finally rises above adversity. I don't want it to be a super-villain origin story. What I do want is a little more ambiguity, a little more nuance, something that will leave me still thinking when it's over. Does this series run the risk of becoming one of those simplistic fables with the moral explained at the end? Yes, it does. That was my main concern from the beginning. We aren't given a conclusive answer in the opening issue whether or not Armor X will succumb to that style of storytelling, but the characterization of the main character thus far is reassuring.

The pacing is strong here, and appropriate for a first issue. We're introduced to all the main players - including Carson's love interest, a blind girl who surprised the hell out of me with a seriously racy bit of dialogue in her opening scene with Carson - and the premise is completely filled out, with a couple questions and mysteries introduced and an appropriate (if slightly predictable) cliffhanger closing everything out. It's a well-proportioned episode of the story, and that's something I've been particularly sensitive to in recent months, as my monthly pull-list has grown a bit and I've started to pay closer and closer attention to the way creators take advantage of the serial format, looking for titles to drop in favor of waiting for the collected editions. I'm happy to say that this issue, at least, packs just the right amount of story and development.

A moment here about the artwork: it's competent. Nothing here totally blows me away, but as I said earlier, there are moments where facial expressions really hold a scene together, and some credit has to be given for an artist who can do that. Andy Smith doesn't really express a very unique style here, to the extent that the costume design immediately brings to mind the old X-O Manowar costume from back in the good old Valiant days (and funny enough, X-O artist Bart Sears does a pin-up on the back cover). But Smith's work does service the story well, with clear storytelling and sequencing.

Armor X #1 doesn't completely assuage my concerns about the potential weaknesses behind its premise, but it also exceeds my expectations regarding its strengths. I'll be checking out the rest of the series.

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog. Hopefully this will make it easier for all of you to join in discussions!

Friday, March 11, 2005

1000 Steps Contest UPDATE!!!

Okay, a few folks have asked about the deadline. We're setting it at midnight, Friday, March 18th. That's one week from today.

But that's not the only reason for the update: Rob has graciously sweetened the pot.

The winning poem will not just get 1000 Steps to World Domination, but Rob Osborne, the dominator of the world himself, will illustrate the winning poem and send his original artwork to the winner!

Jesus, I wish I could enter this myself, now. If only I hadn't already proven how crappy my poetry is...

1000 Steps to World Domination... and A Free Giveaway!

When I first read Rob Osborne’s remarkable 1000 Steps to World Domination, I wrote a review for Millarworld that began with the words, “I feel great.”

Just moments ago, I finished a re-read of the book, and I gotta say: it worked again.

1000 Steps is the AiT/Planet Lar edition of a mini-comic that won the 2003 Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. When I picked it up at the release party, I knew it would be good – Comic Pimp James Sime had been extolling its many virtues from the moment he’d read it, to the point that I asked him to stop because I was worried he’d build it up too much – but I was completely unprepared for what an exciting and mature book it turned out to be.

Do I mean mature as in “complex relationships between conflicted, soulful characters”? Do I mean mature as in “violence and nudity galore”? Lord no. I mean this looks like the work of somebody who’s been cartooning for a long time and has really honed his craft. This is professional comics, make no mistake. "Mini-comic" does not translate automatically to "amateurish crap," as I once thought, in my younger, more foolish days. If anything, it may often translate, and 1000 Steos is certainly an example, to an endeavor of real dedication and passion. One thing is made crystal-fucking-clear in these pages: Rob Osborne loves comics.

So, what do I mean by exciting? Explosions everywhere and a relentless, bullet-paced plot? Hell no. This isn’t a full story in the traditional sense, though the character development is deceptively subtle. This is a manifesto. This is a call to arms. This is what everyone should read who can’t figure out if they’re really passionate about comics, or if it’s just a hobby to them.

As far as the actual, literal content goes: 1000 Steps is a series of mostly self-contained pages that build on each other and deliver an overarching message, along the lines of the week-long stories Bill Watterson used to do (like when Calvin lost Hobbes and finally discovered him at Susie’s tea party, for example). There are a number of running stories that intersperse with each other: there’s Rob Osborne himself, discussing his plan to overthrow the earth with comics (using dialogue from real conversations with his wife, Sarah) and locked in a life-and-death struggle with a monkey literally on his back; there’s an alien invader, stuck with anal-probe duty when all he wants to do is overthrow the earth; God shows up and gives Rob advice now and then, including a recommendation that he takes naps after large meals; and there’s a clever spin on the old tortoise and the hare story, with a pissed-off, determined tortoise talking shit to the rabbit. There’s also an extended sequence called “The War Of Art,” which declares that “Conquest is the primary aim of comics,” while an Asian influence takes over the artwork, putting me in mind of some of Scott Morse’s sequences in his best book, Soulwind. Osborne’s actual style is quite different (and much more accessible), but the eclectic influences are there in both men’s art.

Really, while Osborne is beating the drum here for his plan to take over the world through comics, I think this stuff could be inspiring and funny to anyone. The fundamental lesson isn’t a particularly new one (“Bust your ass to succeed at all times and you will be an exceptional person,” basically) but the delivery is clever and compelling, with a unique sense of humor that’ll charm your pants off and an account of the challenges Osborne’s fought along the way that takes itself just seriously enough.

Wonderful stuff. I feel great, again, and I owe it to Rob Osborne.

And now we come to the fulfillment of my promise: the first Zealot’s Lore giveaway! Ever the benevolent world-dominator, Mr. Osborne is teaming with me to give away five copies of his mini-comic “Go Forth & Conquer!" completely free!

Well, there’s one small catch. If you’re clever, though, you can turn that catch into an opportunity.

You have to write a poem. Not a long one, if you don’t want! Write a haiku! The only restriction is that it must be a poem touting the virtues of World Conquest. Type it up, e-mail it to Rob at, and include your mailing address. Rob’s five favorite poems will get a free copy of the “Go Forth And Conquer!” mini-comic, and the best one will get a free copy of 1000 Steps to World Domination! See, you won’t even have to spend any money to see if my review was malarkey. You can find out without spending a dime!

I’ll get the ball rolling, just in case you’re feeling shy:

To conquer the world
Is my favorite thing;
Much better than packages
Wrapped up with string.

…see? My poem totally sucked ass! There’s no need to be shy!

Now get cracking and win your free comics!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

An invitation to All Readers, and some Indy Love

So yesterday I ran down the list of the books I regularly pick up from the Big Two, trying to show everyone that I'm no comic-snob, and I loved brightly colored costumed heroics as much as the next guy. Maybe you noticed how few DC superhero books I picked up - I've just never had much interest in any of 'em besides Batman. Am I making a mistake? Ignoring a perfectly good title for no good reason? Drop me a line and let me know.

That goes for any book, any time - I am always, always on the look out for some great new comics to read. And I'll give you my word right now - if you can give me a pitch for why I should be reading your favorite book, I will check it out. I will buy at least one issue. If I dig it, I'll write about it here on The Zealot's Lore. That's a solid gold promise. Try me.

And try to really explain the book's appeal; think about why you love it, and tell me. I don't want you to write me a book, but "You should buy Superman 'cause it rules" is not quite enough. Give me one concrete reason, and I'm sold. You'll not only have pimped out at least one copy of your favorite title, but I might just give it some free publicity as a result. What've you got to lose?

This does NOT apply to trades, of course.

Okay, so moving on:

One post down, you'll see my picks from Marvel and DC. Here's a list of some (maybe not all) of the books I regularly check out from other publishers:

AiT / PlanetLar - Now, this one's a bit tricky since Larry has been trailblazing in the holy name of the OGN, the original graphic novel. Thirteen bucks, usually, for about a hundred pages of new, self-contained story. And while I gotta give some serious love for that (Christ, does anybody else have the balls to do this? And the fortitude to make it work?), it makes it tough to give a list of AiT books I regularly check out. No ongoing series. So, I get pretty much everything. It's all been enjoyable stuff, although I sure hope there's a sequel to Bad Mojo in the works, 'cause the ending (and my conversation with the writer, Bill Harms) made it pretty clear that the story's not over yet! I bought all of Demo last year, and coming soon is Larry's new ongoing book with rising-star artist Jon Proctor, The Black Diamond (scroll down the link for an interview w/Proctor).

Image - Man, I don't know what they're putting in the water over in Berkeley, but it's really given this co-op publisher a shot in the arm in 2005. Every single month lately I'm finding something new from Image in the Diamond Previews catalogue that gets me at least curious. They've already been publishing several of my favorite titles - The Walking Dead and Small Gods are both currently top-of-the-pile books for me, and I also love Invincible - but a who barrage of great (or at least interesting) new titles is coming down the pike. Mora #1 was a fantastic start to a series that looks really promising, and I was intrigued enough by Pig Tale #1 to stick around and see where it's going, but there's also The Expatriate (a new B. Clay Moore espionage book with absolutely stunning artwork by newcomer Jason Latour), The Atheist by the inimitable Phil Hester (writer of The Coffin and Deep Sleeper, the latter being one of last year's very best miniseries) and John McCrea, and X-Armor, which comes out today and looks like it might deliver a deliciously edgy take on the old schmoe-becomes-a-hero formula. The list goes on, but I'll pimp those out as they come closer into view.

Dark Horse has gotten my attention in the last year, publishing two of my favorite books to read in the serial format, Conan and The Goon. Kurt Busiek's rock-solid scripting and the unstoppable art team of Cary Nord on pencils and industry legend Dave Stewart have made Conan a real surprise for me, since I went into the book with basically no interest in the character. And Eric Powell's instant-classic, The Goon, is a brilliant combination of pulpy noir, irreverent and sick humor, and geniune pathos, displayed with one of the most amazing artistic styles on the market today. Powell somehow combines a truckload of influences (most noticeably Jack Kirby) with his own unique voice to create some of my favorite art in any book today. What's even better is that both of these books are definitely students of the serial, episodic format. There's no trade-inflating here, folks: every issue is jam-packed with story and character development and really makes me feel like I've plunked down my three dollars for something meaty. There are a couple of Conan spin-offs coming down the pipeline, and Powell is scripting a new four-issue mini called Billy The Kid's Old Timey Oddities that looks pretty promising. Keep your eyes peeled.

My lunch hour is about up, and I'm not finished! Maybe I'll have to give the rest of my indie favorites a shout-out a little further down the line. But before I go, I have one last book I have to talk about. That's Geof Darrow's unparalleled Shaolin Cowboy, published by Burlyman Entertainment. This is 100% balls-to-the-wall fearless comic bookery. This book is truly beautiful. It's completely ridiculous. It's a marvel to look at. It's spectacularly violent. It spends 10 pages on a single, motionless panel. Shaolin Cowboy is unrelenting, uncomprising, and unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it. Is it for everyone? Probably not. Some people might be turned off, and understandably so, by the complete absence of traditional plotting or character work. But there's something different going on here. We're only one issue in, so I don't know what it is, but Darrow is a rare talent in this medium and my trust in him is complete.

Stay tuned for The First Zealot's Lore Giveaway in my next post. It's gonna be fun, and it might just put you in touch with a great new book you've never seen before. Y'all come back now, hear?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A "cheers" to Larry Young, followed by Sean Reaching Out

Holy cow. I don't know how he found it, but Mighty Larry Young has seen this humble endeavor and throws a shout-out my way on the AiT / Planet Lar site. You might know good Mr. Young from his publishing company, a great San Francisco institution responsible for the release of such titles as Hench (a personal favorite), the justly acclaimed Brian Wood / Becky Cloonan collaboration on Demo, and the recently released Couriers 03: The Ballad of Johnny Funwrecker (for which I did an advance review on Millarworld which is now, sadly, disappeared) and Proof of Concept, the latter being a particularly magnanimous effort to create a name for several starting-out artists. It's all fine work, to be sure, and I send a cheerful tip o' the hat to Mr. Young.

And now, Sean Reaches Out:

I don't know about y'all, but I tend to categorize web-based, comics-related efforts really quickly: (1) This guy is way too into mainstream super-hero comics, (2) this guy is way too contemptuous of mainstream super-hero comics, or (3) this guy has something to say that I must listen to.

I bet you can guess which part I want to play.

So, in the interest of letting you know right here, up front, whether I'm going to speak to your tastes or not, I thought it might be wise to do a quick review of my current reading list. Personally, I pride myself on being an excellent audience, and if I can find some passion and dedication mixed in with some talent and creativity, I don't give a shit where a book comes from as long as I know where I can get more. So, hopefully, you'll see something here that you can identify with, and you'll come on back to The Zealot's Lore and see the new stuff that's keeping me excited about comics. Here we go.

Marvel: From the fine folks at Marvel, I regularly pick up (though most of these are on my trade-list these days):

  • Astonishing X-Men - Fine characterization of classic characters, and some fun, crazy plotting. What more could I ask of an X-Men book?
  • Captain America - Because I'll follow Brubaker nearly anywhere.
  • Daredevil - Bendis' best characterization of a man, I think.
  • Fantastic Four - Waid's Unthinkable/Authoritative Action/Hereafter trilogy being my favorite superhero story in memory.
  • The Incredible Hulk - Now that PAD's back, natch.
  • Iron Man - Because Ellis is at his best writing science fiction.
  • Powers - Loved this series ever since an especially memorable death scene in Vol. 4.
  • The Pulse - If only because Alias was Bendis' best characterization of a woman.
  • Punisher MAX - Because when Ennis really lets loose, it's the best wild ride in comics.
  • Runaways - Because Vaughan is a masterful plotter and does (I think) his most charming work on this title.
  • She-Hulk - Because Dan Slott should be writing every Marvel super-hero book; the guy's got the industry-best lock on super-heroic goofiness matched with geniune drama.
  • Spellbinders - 'Cause I'll follow Lucifer's Mike Carey to literally any book.
  • Spiderman/Human Torch - Dan Slott, of course.
  • Supreme Power - Don't miss The Authority anymore, do I?
  • All the Ultimate titles - I wait for the trade on all a'these, since they're pretty much written that way, but they're almost always refreshing fun.
  • Wolverine - 'Cause who doesn't want to see Wolvierine vs. A Shark vs. The FF vs. The X-Men vs. Everyone Else?

DC: (oh, Christ, look out, this post is about to get LONG):

  • Adam Strange - Fine intergalactic action from master action writer Andy Diggle and gorgeous art from Pascal Ferry and colorist Dave McCaig.
  • Authority: Revolution - Brubaker, like I said.
  • Catwoman: When In Rome - Because I've enjoyed all of Jeph Loeb's Batman stories and because Tim Sale is one of the five best artists in the industry.
  • Detective Comics - Because I'll follow David "Stray Bullets" Lapham to hell and back. This may not be his very best work, but this is the best writer in comics today.
  • Fables - Probably the most fertile concept of any title in publication, and Willingham has shown improvement with every single arc.
  • Gotham Central - It's baffling this series doesn't sell like hotcakes, because there's something in it for every single reader I can think of.
  • Hard Time - Please come back soon, last bastion of good prison drama.
  • Hellblazer - Again, Mike Carey. Not sure what I think of this run overall, but I know Carey's got some real chops when it comes to the uber-arc, so I trust it's going somewhere.
  • Human Target - R.I.P., oh you wonderful book. Sleazy and sleek, this was the best creepy action book on the market.
  • Losers - Again, Diggle writes really stellar action, and Jock is a perfect artistic match.
  • Lucifer - The best epic book on the market, period. And because somehow Mike Carey has made philosophical debate into a tense, high-stakes contest for the fate of the universe. I thought philosophy was boring wankery, but Carey's proven me wrong.
  • Planetary - Christ, is there any reason NOT to be reading this? Ellis' career best, in my opinion, and unbelievably gorgeous artwork from John Cassaday and Laura Martin.
  • Plastic Man - Because Kyle Baker might just be the best working cartoonist. This book (when it's at its best) is jam-fucking-packed with visual humor. On a bit of a down-turn lately, but I'm sure it's gonna pick up.
  • Sleeper Season II - See, this title is the reason that I'll follow Brubaker anywhere. Superlative super-noir that deserves (and will, I promise, receive) an entire post of its own.
  • Solo - 'Cause who doesn't want to see the industry's best artists turned loose on whatever material they want?

Good lord, this post is way the hell too long already. I'll be back tomorrow to talk about the books I love from all the other publishers (and boy, that list has been growing, thanks to the slew of wonderful material coming from Ait/Planet Lar, Image, Dark Horse, El Capitan, and more).

And after that? I've got some serious comic-pimping up my sleeve, so keep reading and see if you can nab some free comics. You have my word, they'll be good comics, too, not just newspaper clippings of Family Circus.

Unless that's what y'all want. Why don't ya leave me a comment or two and let me know? I live to serve.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Elk's Run #1 - Advance comic review

This is from a thread I originally posted on Millarworld, which is currently dead. It's a great book and deserves to have some positive word on the net, so I figured I'd re-post it here:

Here I am holding a copy of Elk’s Run #1, a preview copy I snagged care of my friendly neighborhood Isotope. It’s from a publisher called Hoarse And Buggy, who’ve recently launched (I think) with the Western Tales of Terror anthology series, which I’ve been enjoying. Elk’s Run #1 the first part of an eight-issue story that promises to approach every issue from the perspective of a different major character.

The story – which, judging from some of the preview material available, is only just getting started here – focuses on an insular little community in Elk’s Ridge, Virginia, which is the site of a coal mining disaster some years hence. We’re given hints that the town has since transformed itself into some kind of commune, with a shared workload and an apparently closed border. Some local teenagers are feeling a bit restless and meet up at the only road out of town (which happens to run through a tunnel) late one night. Are they planning an escape? It doesn’t seem so. The implication as I read it was a bit more mischievous and innocent (y’know, teenager shit). Before they can get to it, though, tragedy strikes. The response of the adults in charge closes the issue with a decisive action that is disturbing in its savagery and gruesomeness, but also strangely attractive, smacking of a zeal for justice and a rock-solid, consistent moral code.

That ambiguity makes the promise of the solicits – the perspective shift from issue to issue that I mentioned earlier – especially intriguing. Writer Joshua Fialkov has taken some issues that often lend themselves to strident, polarized opinionating and lent them not just complexity but subtlety; we aren’t so much given 2+ sides of the argument as we are given a story, a collection of events and characters, that doesn’t take sides one way or the other – it just relates what’s happening and who it’s happening to. It’s an approach I appreciate in any storytelling form, but when it addresses issues like patriotism, abuse of power, and American militias, I have to give some serious credit.

Credit is also due for the strong balancing act here between character and plot. We’re not told a lot about any of the characters yet, but they’re suggested with a sort of quiet brevity that I found refreshing; there’s a family dinner table scene near the beginning of the issue with what could easily be a cliché teenager-is-mad-at-overbearing-mean-father exchange, and Fialkov deftly avoids that quagmire with simple, unsentimental dialogue. Nobody gives a speech; a few sentences are shared, just enough to give the reader an idea where the characters are coming from, and then the scene ends. It’s very measured, careful character work, not unlike some of the best issues of Demo (my favorite was #8, “Mixtape”, and that’s the one I’m thinking of here), but with an eerie edge that makes me think of The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," and the more frightening parts of the Stand By Me movie. Meanwhile, the plotting moves at a lightning pace that still carries that element of calm and understatement. A number of compelling mysteries are raised, and the foreshadowing of the calamity yet to come is chilling and effective without being overblown. It strikes me that the style of the story, the way it’s being told, is a good reflection of the substance of the story itself – a sort of subterranean bubbling, a tension not quite breaching the surface but keeping everyone’s blood high and hot while they wait. It’s not just a clever example of craft, but a way to help the reader to empathize with the characters by sharing their sensations.

A lot of credit for the mood I’m talking about must go to the artwork, which is especially impressive when the script calls for it; the balance of quiet scenes that don’t draw attention to themselves against the disastrous E-ticket moments is balanced just as well by the art as it is by the script, which suggests to me a really clear, shared vision on the part of the collaborators. The accident that strikes the teenagers at night is an especially well-done bit of sequential storytelling, with a perspective device that builds a LOT of tension and fear VERY fast. The closing sequence I talked about earlier – the parents’ retribution – is also effective, but less explicit. Artist Noel Tuazon has a sketchy, simplistic style for the most part, and his paneling alternates between more unusual, creative layouts and relatively conventional grids, reminding me a bit of Javier Pulido’s work on Human Target.

Finally, I have to talk about the coloring. I’ve never read a comic with colors by Scott A. Keating (no relation, I must assume, to Joe Keatinge, color flatter emeritus) but I hope I read many more. The colors are rich and full, and do a wonderful job setting whatever mood is called for. Especially noticeable is the distinction between times of day; while a lot of this issue takes place at night, there are scenes at sunset and a dreary morning, and the linework is complemented perfectly by the tones Mr. Keating sets to the page.

On top of all that, the production values here are really good. The cover is a nice card stock, and the paper is a thick, semi-gloss stock that shows off the colors especially well. All this for $3.00 is a solid deal, especially from a new, independent publisher. Oh, and we also get a funny, weird little werewolf back-up story, completely unrelated to the main story, with art by Nate Bellegarde, who does the Invincipals backups in Robert Kirkman’s Invincible.

This one gets a high recommendation from me; the quality of the content and the format is impressive, especially for a creative team and publisher that, to be honest, I’d never heard of before (unless they’re also the folks publishing Western Tales of Terror, which is pretty damn new itself). By all indications, though, they’re coming out of the gate with a great first series, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it.

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