Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Nominated for a Squiddy!

Well, I'll be damned. I've been nominated for something!

I appear under "Best Comics Reviewer" in the "First Pseudo-Nominee List" for the 2004 Squiddy Awards. Click here for the full list of nominations.

If you'd like to cast a vote, all you have to do is check out any of the newsgroups listed below or send an e-mail to votes2004@squiddies.org. Here are the groups where you can find a "ballot":

rec.arts.comics.dc.lsh
rec.arts.comics.dc.universe
rec.arts.comics.dc.vertigo
rec.arts.comics.elfquest
rec.arts.comics.info
rec.arts.comics.marketplace
rec.arts.comics.marvel.universe
rec.arts.comics.marvel.xbooks
rec.arts.comics.misc
rec.arts.comics.strips

There are also a host of fun nomination categories, and some great stuff has been nominated. Demo sweeps with about a million nominations, and I'm glad to see Western Tales of Terror get a nod for best comics anthology - it's been a fun book, with cool short stories from the a host of great talent including Phil Hester (if you haven't read The Coffin or Deep Sleeper, check those out ASAP), Ryan Ottley (who's been knocking me out on Invincible), Jay Faerber (who writes Noble Causes, a great super-family book for Image that I just started reading), and of course, Josh Fialkov of Elk's Run fame.

Go take a look. And while you're there - vote for me!


(Need to do a little digging and make sure I'm up to snuff? You could go back and check out my reviews of 1000 Steps to World Domination, the Sin City movie, the new Stray Bullets trade, David Hine's Strange Embrace, or this week's advance review of Fragile Prophet for starters.)

Monday, April 25, 2005

fragile PROPHET #1 - advance APE review

fragile PROPHET (which I’ll hereafter refer to as Fragile Prophet, ‘cause I’m not the fancy type) is an upcoming four-issue miniseries from Lost In The Dark Press. I picked up a preview copy of #1 at APE this year and it was my favorite “find” – oh, I picked up a lot of other stuff I loved, like a bunch of mini-comics from the good Mr. Jeremy Tinder and the big new trade collection of Arsenic Lullaby, stuff I knew going in that I would love, but this was my favorite book to discover.

Fragile Prophet is the story of a young autistic boy and his older, caretaker brother as they discover that the afflicted younger sibling has the power to see the future. The opening issue follows them quickly through a tumultuous time in their lives as they discover and begin to cope with this ability, and closes as the young one, Jake, sees a disturbing vision of his own future that throws a powerful twist on their relationship.

Most books of this kind – those with an outlandish, almost supernatural premise – will choose to focus on developing either the characters or the plot, and filling in the weaker element with a “classic” standby. If the plot is the point, then the characters will be standard tropes to get the audience familiar with the territory and to let the writer focus on being clever; if the characters are the point, a stock plot will prop up the narrative while the writer spends his or her time building character with dialogue and exploring relationships to endear the cast to the reader. This book chooses to explore some ambiguity and intrigue on both sides of the equation, and it’s a refreshing combination.

Esau – the older brother – is the voice-over narrator, bringing us up to speed through his recollection of “how it started.” The opening sequence, with Jake lost in a Target-esque department store, is funny and sweet, as we see a few brief moments of the brothers’ normal lives. Writer Jeff Davidson’s dialogue sets the tone for the rest of the book – the character’s speech is natural and believable, but with just enough rhythm and punch to ascribe some fast character traits and make the reader start asking questions. The revelation of Jake’s abilities is a great moment, with more humor and uncertainty, and a funny kind of innocence that reassures me this is not another heartless exercise of intellect – later scenes explore the idea that Esau may be abusing his role as Jake’s caretaker to cash in, and in many books this would be a foregone conclusion: of course Esau would be neglecting his brother for financial gain, and of course he would either pay the price or finally learn his lesson. This book seems to have a little more compassion and thoughtfulness for its characters and does not drive us to believe anything so obvious. It’s possible that Esau isn’t making the right decisions, certainly – his affection for his brother is plain and his wit is charming, but there’s a bit of a slacker vibe to him that signals early on that he might not be right about everything.

It’s also nice to find that the plot of the series seems to have more than just a couple threads in it; while this opening issue wastes no time in moving the main characters to the cliffhanger ending, a number of smaller plot threads and character relationships are introduced, and most of them are pretty promising. On their way to fame, the boys spend some time in a traveling carnival, entangling themselves in all the bizarre and shadowy dangers that go with such a scene – a strangely half-menacing, half-ridiculous enemy introduces himself and disappears, and I expect to see more of him as the series continues. Other interesting characters get some good lines in the second half of the issue, but I don’t want to spoil too much for those who won’t read it until the summer.

The artwork is in a very unique style, one that balances the personal warmth and creepy uncertainty that the script calls for – the writing and the artwork are very well matched here. Stephen R. Buell has a style that reminds me a bit of the old Aeon Flux cartoons on Liquid Television; the anatomy is slightly skewed, the faces stretched out, but there remains something very viscerally human and personal about the characters he draws. It’s just stylized enough to make the reader a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit unfamiliar, but without alienating us from the characters. It’s a subtle balance and while I can draw comparisons to existing work, I don’t think I’ve seen comic art quite like this before. Funny, charming, creepy, weird – everything about the book as a whole is represented in the artwork, which suggests an unusually unified effort on the part of the two creators.

I have one quibble, and it’s a technical one. The lettering in this book is confusing. Dialogue doesn’t bounce back and forth visually, as it should. The order in which I am supposed to read the word balloons is not clear, and that makes me stop and review all the different bits of dialogue and reassemble them for myself, taking me out of the story while I figure out how to read it. Hopefully this is something that can be fixed before the main run of the first issue sees print, but if not, I imagine it can be resolved in the second issue.

At any rate, while it’s irritating, it’s not nearly irritating enough to keep me from recommending this. The style of this comic is something new to me, and it’s subtle and nuanced; I don’t know whether to shudder or smile as I read these pages, and if I find myself doing both, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable contradiction. The emotional punch behind this unusual style is resonant and friendly, and I look forward to seeing where the creators will take the rest of this story.


EDIT: A nine-page preview, depicting the opening scene (in which we discover Jake's power), is available here:

Thursday, April 14, 2005

How To Sell Me Your Comics - discussion

Man, there's a smokin' discussion going on in response to the article below, and that discussion is here, as the Isotope Virtual Lounge. Alex de Campi is a genius. And Jason Rodriguez is a funny goddamn man. Check it out.

http://isotopecomics.invisionzone.com/index.php?showtopic=256

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

How To Sell Me Your Comics, part one: APE

I was thinking of writing another book review today – maybe the first three issues of Helios, which I just got from the publisher in the mail, or the first Astro City trade, which I got from Larry Young – and when I got around to thinking about reviewing Video #1 and Fragile Prophet #1, which I picked up from the Lost In The Dark Press table at APE, I realized I had something else on my mind. See, over the last several months I’ve started really trying to pay attention to the way this business works, and I realized I learned a lot from my exploration of APE this year. Some great successes and some pretty miserable failures.

I’ve also noticed a new column up on the Isotope forum by Joe Rivera, called
The Consumer. Joe lets us know in a stirring manifesto that the most important cog in the whole comics machine is himself – the consumer. The reader. We’re the last link in the chain, and without us, everything falls apart. Because none of it works unless we decide to grab our wallets, pull some hard-earned cash out of there, and slap it down on the counter to take those comics home and read ‘em.

I think Joe’s got himself a mighty fine point. So I’m writing today to paint a little picture about how folks can get me to do just that, and I’m gonna use APE as my canvas.

Tell Me Why Your Book Is Good
I read an
article by Larry Young a while back about how creators should pitch their books to publishers, and he told them, “Know what your book is about.” He explained how to be concise and how to get your concept across quickly and attractively. Frankly, if you’re trying to sell your book to anybody, you should take a look at that article, ‘cause it works the same on me as a reader. Most tables I walked up to at APE, I asked the same question: “What can you tell me about this?” – and I’d point at their book or their posters or whatever – and boy, did I get a range of answers. Some folks had it together. Bret Hodson, creator of Romance And Cigarettes, told me, “It’s like True Story Swear To God, but if it turned out really badly. With more swearing.” Out came my three dollars. Lots of people, on the other hand, didn’t have any idea what to say to me (and these are all real quotes):

  • “This one has robots.”
  • “It’s autobiographical. Oh, and this one is a humor anthology.”
  • “It’s not really about anything, really.”
And away I walk. There’s a harsh truth you’re gonna have to deal with: I've seen a lot of indie books that were amateurish and stupid. I say that as a huge indie supporter. Even if I’ve got my cash in my hand as I walk up to you, you’re gonna have to convince me, and that means being able to tell me why I’ll like your book.

Present Yourself
Look, you have to have some confidence and enthusiasm. There are shy, sensitive-looking people slouching at fifty other tables. I don’t want to share a cry with you. I want to have a conversation. If I come up and say hello, don’t look surprised! And try not to act desperate; that gets me nervous, and kinda creeped out. You want me relaxed. It’s okay if you’re a perfectionist and you don’t think your art is good enough. It’s okay if your book has a sad theme, or if it’s about something depressing or alienated. That doesn’t mean it’s smart to pitch it to me in the same way. Save that depression and alienation for your drawing board; when you’re actually talking to me, try to at least give the impression that you’re glad I’m there. You don’t have to tell me the funniest joke I ever heard right off the bat. You don’t have to launch into a prepared speech about your book. You don’t even have to impress me – that’s for your book to do. What you have to do is make me want to continue to stand in front of your table. It’s like Las Vegas. The longer I stay, the more likely I’m gonna leave my money with you. If you’re having trouble getting confident enough about your actual book – and I can understand self-doubt, believe me – then start simple. Smile or nod at me. Say hello. Take a deep breath, and go from there.

Have An Interesting Cover Design
Again, pretty obvious, right? Well, a lot of y’all fucked that up. I saw some great covers this year – one of the best was the cover to Lost In The Dark Press’ Video #1. Here’s that cover from their website (this is the best I could find – the real thing doesn’t have the text at the bottom):

There’s a lot of good stuff to say about this. The color is vivid and sharp. There’s a good balance of detail and “white space” (which in this case is actually colored black). It provides just enough content and context to get me interested, and no more. That’s ideal – get me interested, but don’t give anything away if you can avoid it. You get the best of both worlds; it’s physically appealing to the eye, because it gives me just enough to look at without overloading me, and it’s mentally appealing to… well, the brain, because it makes me want to find out more about what’s going on here. If you made this cover any more “busy,” you’d ruin it – there wouldn’t be any mystery, and it wouldn’t be as eye-catching because you’d kill the contrast and overload the image. A lot of folks had some really plain covers, boring or busy or uninspired, and I don’t want to drag them out because this isn’t a finger-pointing column, but let me say this much: Take advantage of your production specs. If you’re printing in black-and-white, work it; don’t just settle for it. If your book is physically smaller than the average, find a design that fits that size. I saw a lot of covers that were obviously meant to be in color on full-size glossy paper, and frankly, that just makes me want to wait until you get your act together and print it that way. To put it another way: play to your strengths, brother. For more on what makes covers work, you might take a look at what Warren Ellis or James Sime had to say.

Don’t Be Sloppy
Jesus, I saw some shoddy-ass looking books on the tables, and I didn’t want anything to do with them. That doesn’t mean you have to have high production values – though you do, as the feller says, get what you pay for – but at least make sure you proof-read this stuff before you send it out. As Jason Rodriguez pointed out in a
recent entry on his blog, the letterer is the public face of the writer. If the lettering has a screw-up, it makes the writer look stupid and incompetent. I can’t tell you how many books suffer from this, even in comics from bigger publishers. It drives me nuts and it should embarrass you. I don’t intend to be mean or overly harsh, but this is a tough-love issue that a lot of people need to listen to. When I’m reading your book and a character says something like, “Oh Johnny I lvoe you,” that pretty much tells me that you didn’t read this thing even once. That tells me that you don’t really give a shit about your book. And that tells me that I don’t need to give a shit about your book. This applies to a lot of aspects of your comics besides the lettering – but the basic lesson is, Don’t Be Sloppy. Pay attention to what you’re doing. If you’re not doing the very best job you can do, that’s okay with me – the guy at the table next to you is.

Sell Stuff I Can Afford
I know you want to use the bookstore market, and I know
Larry Young convinced you that releasing your book as an OGN was the smart move. Hey, I wouldn’t begin to argue – it’s working like gangbusters for his books, and I sure as hell can’t argue with his numbers. But take a closer look at his numbers. $13 for a 96-page book, which is what he's proposing, is okay. It’s a little more prohibitive than a $3 floppy, but it’s still within a reasonable range. But if all you’ve got is $20 trades stacked up, I’m walkin’. I’m not made of money, brother, and I’m not dropping a Jackson on anything I didn’t already plan on buying. That means you’re gonna have to work about a hundred times as hard, for less than ten times as much of my money. A $20 trade is fine, especially if it’s a good value for my dollar – throw in some sketches and bonus features, please – but at least offer me an “in” that won’t scare me so bad and drain my wallet so quick. A $2 preview piece, or a free ashcan, for example, will get you well on your way, if I like it. I left a lot of tables empty-handed, even when their stuff looked great, because they didn’t have anything in my budget.

Make Me Remember You
So let’s say you’ve got it all together and you’ve gotten me to pick up your book and flip through it, and I like it enough to buy it. Is that all you want? That one sale? Is that why you worked so hard? Or do you want me to remember to pick up the next thing I see with your name on it?—or tell my friends about how cool you are? Remember, you won’t always be there to sell something to me, so it’s to your benefit to make sure I remember your name. There are a lot of ways to do this, and one of the biggest ones is your personality. Our conversation is gonna make me remember you. By the time I got to Daniel Cooney’s table, for example, I was a little low on funds and not really looking to get anything over $3. He was selling trades of his
Valentine series, which were reasonably priced but at the moment a little beyond what I was able to spend. But he took some time and talked to me – told me not just what the series was about, but what he wanted to do with it, why he was getting excited about it. His enthusiasm shined through and it seemed almost like he was more interested in talking with me about the book than in selling it to me. It was sincere. I’m gonna remember that excitement, that look on his face. He wasn’t just reciting a speech; he was thinking, imagining, getting worked up. That’s one good way to make me remember you – love the hell out of your goddamn book.

But not everybody’s that confident, or that sociable – maybe you’re a shy one, and this is your first time out. Okay, I can sympathize. You don’t have to charm the hell out of me, don’t worry. There’s another way you can make me remember you, and it's something you already know how to do – comics. When I tell you I want to buy your book, ask me if I’d like you to sign it. If I say no, fine – but who the hell says no? If I say yes, you’re at a crossroads. You can just sign your name on the damn thing and hand it to me, and off we go our separate ways, you with my money and me with your comic and some meaningless scribble on it. Or, you can put some pepper on it. Draw a little sketch. Ask me how to spell my name and write me a little note. Your signature is, let’s face it, worthless. Jim Lee, you ain’t. The point of having you sign it is to make it personal, so take advantage of the opportunity. It doesn’t have to be your best work. I don’t expect it to be. But if you go just that small extra distance, I’m gonna notice. When I read your book, all huddled up on my couch, and I see that silly little doodle, I’m gonna think about you, try to remember your face. Whether it's funny, or clever, or thoughtful, or stupid, the result will be the same: I’m gonna smile. Who knows? Maybe I’ll show it to a friend. Now you’ve got me doing your marketing for you. I got a lot of books signed when I was at APE this year. A lot of them are just defaced comics. But a few of them are special. I’m gonna keep ‘em, and I’m gonna take ‘em out once in a while and look at the sketches and notes, and maybe I’ll remember their creators’ names next time I’m browsing the indie racks at my local comics shop. Props to Josh Cotter, Doug Paszkiewcz, Jeremy Tinder and and everyone else to made that extra little effort - it's appreciated.

By no means is this list comprehensive. These are just some thoughts I’ve been musing over since APE, and I thought they might be helpful to one or two burgeoning creators out there. If any of my fellow readers have any other suggestions, please, let us know! Leave a comment or post on a message board. There’s no way we can expect the service and products we want unless we’re vocal about it. As Joe Rivera says, we are the most powerful force in the comics industry. And you know what they say about great power.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

APE - my stash

Damn, but that was a packed show. I'll be headed out to the APE Aftermath party at the Isotope in a bit, but I wanted to drop in real quick and talk about what I picked up - I haven't had a chance to read any of this yet, but a lot of it looks really interesting.

Periphery #2 / Holmes #1, from O-P-P: Nice samurai art and a catchy cover grabbed my attention and then my three bucks.

Arsenic Lullaby: Year of the Fetus TPB, from AAA Milwaukee Publishing: I love this series. It's the only place I can get my fix of child molestation jokes and holocaust humor. Seriously fucked up, and writer/artist Doug was a really nice guy.

The J.W. Cotter 2005-Con Sketchbook Plus! from Josh Cotter (usually published by AdHouse Books: I love this guy's mini-comics. Skyscrapers of the Midwest is last year's winner of the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics, and I can't wait for more.

Who's Yo Daddy? from 5ive Finger Discount / Jamurai: A Star Wars parody about young Anakin Skywalker wanting to grow up and be a black drug dealer. Sounds like it might be stupid, I know, but this was really funny when I flipped through it.

walk like tall birds by someone named Briana: Uh, no contact info anywhere here, but I thought the idea of a puppet story - with the puppeteer at the top of the page, moving the two animal characters around - was pretty charming as a concept.

Feed America's Children preview from Wildcard Productions: A free advance ashcan of a charity book with art from P. Craig Russell, Rom L:im, Keiron Dwyer, Darick Robertson, C.P. Smith, Joe Jusko, Jimmy Palmiotti, Phil Winslade and more. None of those guys look like they're in the ashcan, but hell, it was free.

The Way Things Are by Karen Luk: Cheap little mini-comic with some attractive princess-and-dragons art; worth 50 cents to me to find out if it's any good.

Band of Thieves #1 by some kids who didn't put their names on this thing: It was pretty cheap and I was talking to one of the kids who worked on it. The cover design was pretty damn sharp so I picked it up, but there's no information here at all about getting more.

Romance And Coffee #1 from Angry Bret Comics: Had a good conversation with this guy about shitty comic book movies and figured I'd try it out. He pitched it as "True Story Swear To God with more swear words."

Pirate Cove ashcans from http://www.piratecovecomic.com: Free. Plus there's more free at the website. Why not?

Midnight Creep and Matequilla del Pato from Post Apocalyptic Funhouse: The former is a "blues comic" which sounded interesting to me considering how much I liked Bluesman a couple months ago, and the the latter is a jam comic between that guy and this dude who drew a "hideous portrait" of me. Both were nice enough to draw a little sketch in the comics for me, which was cool. More of you people who get tables should do this - it makes an impression, really.

My Day from ticknart: I thought this was kinda funny when I was flipping through it, so I figured I'd try it out.

Joanna Estep Samples from (here's a shocker) Joanna Estep: Some nice art here. Good high-contrast B&W stuff with no grays, which is a style that usually appeals to me (see Frank Miller, Becky Cloonan, Eduardo Risso for folks who really kick ass with it).

U.T.L. (a preview) by Dave Bergland: I'm pretty sure this was free. Not sure what it's about yet, but worth taking a look for free, now isn't it?

Video #1 and Fragile Prophet #1 from Lost in the Dark Press: Pretty sharp production values and cover designs get you about 2/3 of the way towards selling me your comic. These guys also took some time to describe their pitch and concept - I gotta say, I had a few tables where I walked up and said, "What can you tell me about this stuff?" and they had nothing to say. "Well, what's this about?" Um, it's not really about anything. Why the hell did you buy a table, dumbass? (That's not these guys, I should be clear: they had their pitch and everything all set for me.)

inSECURITY Comics, File #2 from, well, inSECURITY Comics: This was a large-format comics (a little bigger than 8.5" x 11") for just a buck and it came with a pretty sweet sketch on the cover. That's enough for my dollar.

Paper Theater TPB from Alternative Comics: I read this in floppy format years ago and thought it was pretty damn funny. The square-bound trade was pretty big and just five bucks, which was good enough for me.

Murder Can Be Fun #17 by John Marr: A zine about kids from the pre-60's era, when the world was fun, doing awful things. Sounds funny to me, and it looks pretty researched.

Ragtag #3 from Punchthroat Productions: A cheap anthology of work from a shitload of artists, including Brian Wood and Jim Mahfood and a bunch of people I never heard of. Combining company like that means some of these folks might be up-and-comers, right? So it's worth five bucks to find out about 'em now.

jobnik! #1 from Real Gone Girl Studios: Autobiography about a girl who joined the Israeli army in late 1999, I think, or 2000. She had a desk job. Those two things seemed like a weird combination and I thought this might be worth a look.

An Open Place #1 by Jeremy Waltman: Again, sharp cover design is half the battle. Jeremy also had a pretty quick tongue when I asked him about the premise, and the art looked pretty nice, so I snagged the first issue.

Bon Jour le Muffin promo issue by Mike Adam and John Hageman Jr.: Another free one that got put in my hand. Nice cover.

Short "Graphic" Stories by Peter Kinne: The card in front of this one said something like, "Killer SUVs, Going into Las Vegas Whore Houses, and Cleaning Up After Tornadoes", and the whole table was auto-bio stuff. How is that not worth a look? This might be a fun one.

Scuttle from Scuttle Comics: Another free one. This was big, too - surprised it was free.

and, returning from last year,

A whole buttload of different mini-comics (and a small painting!) by Jeremy Tinder, who I met at last year's APE and whose stuff I liked a lot then. I think his work is charming and sweet, and a lot of it's funny as hell. I got ten minis and an original painting and a sketch of Mario and Yoshi for $25. It was the biggest single purchase I made this year, but I'm confident it'll be worth it. This guy does good stuff. Looking forward to reading the new pile.

That's it! I think I dropped almost a hundred bucks. My book bag was overflowing with comics. Now I gotta go drop these off at home and head on out to the APE Aftermath party at the Isotope and see who won this year's Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. The last two winners, Josh Cotter and Rob Osborne, have done work I really loved, so I can't wait to see who won this year.

Cheers!


EDIT: Oh yeah, and I also got a poster of the cover to Flight Volume 2, and I got to meet Kazu Kibuishi, which was cool because I really loved Daisy Kutter. He was really nice and told me a little bit about his next project (!!) but that table was busier'n a mofo, so I didn't linger. The man had comics to sign.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Strange Embrace review

Courtesy of ever-generous Uncle Larry, I recently read David Hine's graphic novel, Strange Embrace, published in its collected edition in 2003 by Active Images. Before now, I'd only heard of David Hine as the writer of District X, a relatively new Marvel series that impressed me with its richness of ideas in the first three issues and then completely nose-dived into dreary cliché storytelling. So going in, I honestly didn't know what to expect; did Hine have the chops to put together a complete story, and take it beyond the "ripe idea" stage?

Well, yes, he did. Strange Embrace is a crafty, sly piece of psychological horror that I found surprisingly accessible; I was expecting this brainy English horror story, written and drawn by the same man (in black-and-white, no less), to be somewhat haughty and pretentious, but I was proven very wrong. The book tells its story in a very straightforward manner, broken into four long chapters that each focus on a different character, and the interaction between and among these characters' lives forms a remarkably linear, cohesive whole. The final effect of the book is chilling and thought-provoking, and strangely enough, while it ends with the total destruction of several lives (at least one of them innocent), there's a feeling of completion and satisfaction to it, as if a cycle has completed and a bizarre kind of justice has been done.

The first quarter of the story introduces Alex, a malicious psychic who will serve as the narrator for the remaining three story segments. His story really serves as a mood-setter more than anything else; the details of his life and what's happened to him ultimately have very little to do with the rest of the book, though he does introduced a couple motifs. A big one is bleeding walls. Throughout the story, walls are leaking, bleeding, exploding, and while it’s clearly got the potential to be one of those symbols that readers debate over and over until it’s a dead issue, I’m pretty sure it’s just intended to (A) be freaky, and (B) the obvious: people – all people – hide things, wall themselves off from others, build protective barriers, and a central theme of this book is that those barriers are essentially destructive, horrible things.

The rest of the story, and the bulk of the book, focuses on the tragedy of the family Corbeau. This family is populated by a number of well-intentioned but dangerously frail men and women, all of them hiding something, all of them meaning to protect themselves but ultimately sealing themselves off from the personal connections that would redeem them, would save them from the horror that takes over (and sometimes ends) their lives.

The point here – and it’s a bit of a spoiler for those who haven’t read this at least once – is both an emotional and a cerebral one, but there’s a slight of hand that takes place. Calling a story “psychological horror” usually implies that the tale will be more cunning and tricksy than your usual monster-in-the-shadows scare fest, that the Evil Creature’s secret plot is more intelligent than the usual “kill all the good people” plot. Still, the actual horror itself, the aberration that disturbs and frightens the audience, is usually some kind of unexplainable phenomenon, a terror from the shadows that strikes and then disappears back into the night, leaving terror and tragedy in its wake; we’re not supposed to understand exactly why it happened. In Strange Embrace, it’s much clearer what the horror is: it is psychology itself. The mysterious evils that strike the cast are revealed, piece by piece, to be the result of the intellectual and emotional frailties of the very same characters who suffer and fear. Alex and his limbo-dwelling collection of ghosts are a decoy. The effects of the horror element of the story – the fear and suffering of its characters – are the same as the cause. So there’s a satisfying, cyclical nature to the devastation that sweeps through every life in the story. It causes and resolves itself.

The result is that this book is well worth a second read, without seeming as if the first read was a waste of time (as was the case with, say, Fight Club). Nothing is revealed that cheapens what has come before; every revelation simply sheds more light on what has come before.

Hine’s art style is better than I thought it’d be. Most writer/artists who end up being just writers? I think they’ve made the right decision. I think Bendis’ art is terrible. Brubaker’s art suited the stories he used it to tell, but I’m glad he left it behind. Hine? Not so bad. He uses a very European inking style, very clean and bold, and a lot of his faces remind me of Jason Lutes’ style. He’s got more of an impressionistic method of characterization, though, using fairly natural, mundane face shapes for his more “normal” and benign characters and exaggerating the appearances of his more wounded and dangerous ones. He makes subtle use of visual motifs as well – it’s tasteful and reserved repetition, and while its meaning is not always clear, it helps lend some cohesion to the story, which shifts perspective a number of times. The visual consistency helps keep the story on track.


Strange Embrace engages some fairly cliché thematic material – the European obsession with the evil mystery of Dark Africa, religious fear of sexual intimacy, child abuse yielding crippled adults, and so on – but it resolves this issues in a satisfying way by leaping from foot to foot, demanding that the reader do the same, leading us on like a murder mystery. We’re sure it was the butler, until we’re sure it was the maid. When the end comes, and we realize it was the victims themselves, it’s a sobering close.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Stray Bullets volume 1: Innocence of Nihilism

I’ve been a fanatical Stray Bullets fan for years now, and today creator David Lapham is launching a new line of collections in honor of the series’ tenth anniversary. The new format collects each seven- or eight-issue “arc” into affordable softcovers; until now, you had to buy the series in trades that collected just 4 issues each or throw down $35 for the oversized hardcover collections. While I haven’t seen the new format yet, I do own all the hardcovers and so can provide a review of the stories collected therein. I’ll be back later with my thoughts on the actual production and any extras Lapham may have included.

For now, though, just the stories – the first seven issues of Stray Bullets give a really good idea of what the series will be like, introducing and developing several characters across seven self-contained crime stories that build a thematic arc and also cross into each other in spots, a lot like how the characters in Frank Miller’s Sin City series weave in and out of each others’ worlds.

While they’re both crime-genre books and both explore the “shared universe” style of storytelling, though, the two series couldn’t be more different. Lapham uses a very naturalistic, unaffected style in both his writing and his artwork (with one glaring exception, which I’ll explain later), using the latter to play with the ways facial expressions and body language can communicate in comics. Where Miller uses crime to explore exaggerated themes of heroism and fantasy and legends of dark worlds and broken empires and ultimate evil, Lapham uses crime to study real people and how violence affects them, how everyone grows their own strengths and vulnerabilities, developing in a world where the random intrusion of violent tragedy – the stray bullet, you see – is a trial almost everyone must face at least once. This raises complex character issues of control, anger, self-preservation and resilience, and each of these concepts is explored in a different way by every character.

There is no judgment made on any of the cast – there are no flawless heroes, no irredeemable villains – largely because the ideas of heroism and villainy are irrelevant to the main characters. Those themes don’t often apply in the real world, where we’re so often more concerned with what’s right in front of us – our jobs, the people we know, the events of our day. The characters in Stray Bullets aren’t really different from us; their world isn’t any more wildly uncontrollable than ours is. They just experience events of a more dramatic, electric scale than most of us usually do. What’s fascinating is to watch them respond to those events in a way that believably reflects what we, and those around us, might do in the same situation.

The centerpiece of the collection, for me, is the second story, which introduces Virginia Applejack, a 13-year-old girl growing up in Baltimore in 1977. This was given out for Free Comic Book Day three years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since. It opens with Virginia witnessing an incident of brutal violence, then takes us through the next several weeks of her life, portraying her response with compelling show-don’t-tell panache and even a little humor.

The closing sequence of the issue is devastating and shocking – I’m amazed this didn’t draw more controversy when it was first released – but Lapham uses this shock to wake us up, to disturb us and make us think. No immediate solution is given, no after-school special wrap-up where we learn the lesson of the day, and this lack of hand-holding may be read by some as shallow, or mean-spirited; some may think Lapham doesn’t care, and is only interested in selling the spectacle of violence. I couldn’t disagree more; to me, Lapham is showing the utmost respect for his audience, allowing us not only to draw our own conclusions based on what we’ve seen, but suggesting that maybe there are no conclusions to draw – that some patience is called for, that no trauma is ever “finished,” no story ever complete. As Virginia herself narrates in a story from the second arc, “A happy ending is knowing where to put these two words: THE END. If you keep going, all stories end tragically. They end in death – usually preceded by some horrible painful ailment – so if you want some smiles, you’d better THE END your way out while the gettin’s good!”

One thing that amazes me is Lapham’s convincing portrayal of the slippery slope his characters find themselves in, how believably he brings his characters to make ludicrous decisions that always leave the survivors and spectators wondering, “What the hell were they thinking?” Much like novelist Hubert Selby. Jr., Lapham wants us to treat that as an actual question and not as a rhetorical judgment; he wants us to understand the confusion and desperation that can take over our minds in dangerous or stressful situations, and he brings us to that point by following his characters through moments of normalcy, where we can connect to them by their humor or their manner of speech, into the sudden disruption that seems to close off their options and push them to make decisions immediately – those stray bullets going off again, and nobody thinks when they hear those suckers firing. We act. We duck, or run, or look around. Often we do the wrong thing, and just as often we don’t realize it. Are we always likeable? Absolutely not, and neither are Lapham’s characters.

And while the violence in this book can be intense and viscerally frightening – something I’ve rarely seen achieved in comics – that only drives home the seriousness of its impact. There are characters here who don’t understand violence, and it’s important to remember that they don’t necessarily represent the author; some of these characters shiver nervously in the corner when faced with danger, and some of them laugh and poke it with a stick. The consequences are not always what is morally expected – the bad guys don’t always die (though they often do) and the good guys aren’t always brave (or very “good”). This is realism.

With one huge exception. The sixth chapter, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” will throw many readers for a loop. The central character of this story is named Amy Racecar, and the style and content abruptly shift gears into an absurdist adventure story. The nature of Amy Racecar is not explicitly explained for a long time in the series, but there are hints even in her first appearance here; I don’t want to give anything away, because figuring it out on your own is really a lot of fun. I’ll just give you a hint – look for the character who skews the realism of the series most. There’s a connection between them.

I loved the stories collected in this volume, and I thought the series only got better from here. This book might not be for everyone – it’s hostile to any formal sense of morality, and some readers prefer to follow one story instead of jumping around with every issue – but for me it’s easily the best thing on the stands today. This gets the highest possible recommendation I can give. Please do yourself a solid and at least read through the first couple issues. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be hooked for life.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Uh-oh

Forgive the delayed and brief entry, if you will - I meant to review David Hine's Strange Embrace tonight, but I've just been to my first eye-doctor appointment ever (as evidenced by my inability to spell optamologist), and it turns out I'm near-sighted and need glasses. For fuck's sake. I guess I'm glad to find out, but bummed that it's so, if that makes sense.

Plus, my eyes are dialated as shit and it hurts to look at the screen. So, I'll be back tomorrow.

Cheers, y'all. Stay tuned for the new super-powered, four-eyed Sean Maher. Up, up and away!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Reviews for Comics from the week of 03/31/05

I was a tad underwhelmed this week, so forgive the lateness:

The Goon #11 – Man, it feels like it’s been a while. The last issue we got of this was before Christmas, and that issue was a Scrooge spoof, so this is our first “real” Goon story in about 5 months, so I’m hankering for a lot more of this. Eric Powell continues to deliver an interesting combination of absurd comedy (Frankie dines with Lord Falderal), black comedy (Frankie threatens to drown the crippled kid who pisses him off), imaginative visuals (The Flesh-Eating Eye Monster) and genuinely disturbing moments of true horror – in this issue, the sequences showing Dr. Alloy’s decomposition were truly unsettling, and his desperation really rang true. Powell’s done a great job creating a supporting cast that is as believable and sympathetic as it is bizarre and exaggerated, and Alloy’s suffering (and resulting transformation) is his strongest work in this regard since he closed The Buzzard’s story several issues back. I’m looking forward to how this continues next issue.

Countdown to Infinite Crisis #1 – Everybody’s reviewed the hell out of this already, so I’ll be brief: I picked this up because I thought that, as a promotionally-priced one-shot, it might be a good jumping on point to see what’s been going on in the DCU and give me an informed leg-up on the upcoming slew of miniseries related to the events of this book. I couldn’t possibly have been more turned off. I have no idea who almost all the characters in this book are and the story does a poor job of introducing most of them. The tangential storylines, both past events referenced and upcoming series teased, were baffling to me as a new reader. I won’t be checking out any related stuff in the DCU for a while.

Zombies and Broken Hearts #1 – This was a reasonably clever parody piece featuring a zombie running around town trying to get laid. It’s decent, but not brilliant. If that sounds like your kind of thing, take a look. Personally, I’d rather read The Goon again.

The Amazing Joy Buzzards #4 – Probably the least shoddy issue of this series yet, which is reassuring. There’s promise here, but I’ve felt it was kinda sloppy thus far and it’s been turning me off; like The Intimates before it, I want to like this but find myself pleading with it way too often. “Please don’t have stupid lettering mistakes everywhere, please!” I’m also a bit tired of independent comics fooling around with clichés in what reads to me as an attempt to be ironic or clever; the revamped Spider-man origin in this issue, for example, put me off more than it made me smile, although I did smile for a moment. That said, I think Smith and Hipp been consistently improving this series since its debut, and I know I’ve come to like The Intimates pretty well, so I’m holding out for another issue or two with this series as well. Enjoyed a lot of the art in this issue, as it did a good job mixing up its own rhythm with ambient, mood-setting sequences, big moment splash pages, and clever experiments – for example, there’s one panel that segues from a flashback story into the present-tense face of the character who’s telling said story, splitting his face up Harvey Dent-style, and I like that sort of thing when it’s successful, as this is. The writing does a good job balancing the over-stylized mod posturing with actual relationships between the main characters. I’m still not laughing as much as I have the feeling I’m meant to be, but as I said, at least the momentum here is in the direction of “better” and not “worse”. The book closes on a cliffhanger with the payoff to be delivered in a web-comic, which is at once clever and irritating. At first, I thought, “Neat. I’ll have to go check that out.” But then I thought: Since the webcomic will be reproduced in the upcoming trade, isn’t that kind of a sneer at the people who’ve been reading this in the serial format, who won’t have that part of the story in any printed form? Anyway, I’m still on the fence here, but I’ll be getting the next issue at least.

Fantastic Four #524 – Waid got a little too sappy in the closing issues of his run for my taste, and he wraps it up all saccharine and cuddly here. Sue gets a moment to discuss how she feels about being Invisible Woman that neatly addresses the haunted characterization Reed received in Waid’s first issue, which is a nice treat for those of us who’ve been reading since then, but it’s done in a manner that should be accessible to relatively new readers. An important question readers have been asking for several issues – if Reed cares so much about Ben, why doesn’t he use the technology at hand to free him from being The Thing? – is well answered also, and the reveal rings completely true. Where the after-school special moralizing completely jumps the tracks is when Ben explains why he must refuse Reed’s solution. It doesn’t really make any sense, and it’s clearly meant to be a moment that makes us admire Ben Grimm all over again, so its sloppiness is frustrating. I was really irritated with Mike Wieringo’s costume design for the revamped Dr. Doom a couple years ago, but in the time since then I have to admit he’s really proven himself the ideal FF artist, combining cartoonish linework and comedic timing with sympathetic facial expressions and convincingly big superheroics to bring us into the Imaginauts’ world with flair. I’m dropping the title as this team leaves, and while I don’t think they went out on a perfect note, they certainly wrapped up their run in a consistent, ultimately satisfying way.

Damn Nation #2 – I’ll be damned. This was not only my Pleasant Surprise of the Week, but also my favorite read. I was expecting this series to wear me out a bit, as I’ve been feeling a little overloaded with zombie/vampire/etc. comics and movies, but this three-issue mini has completely challenged my expectations. This issue is top-notch work in every regard. While I had a hard time really getting into J. Alexander’s art on his Queen & Country arc (I think his style gets confusing in black-and-white), in color I can’t get enough of it – it’s alternatingly frightening, moody, comforting, suspenseful, lush, and panicked, and it tackles all these approaches with amazing success. The characters are clear, the action surprisingly kinetic for painted work, and the coloring really helps it shine – it swings the palette from rich and deep to gray and stark, in perfect concert with what the given scene calls for. Andrew Cosby – this being my first reading of his work, that I know of – impresses me as well, with an amazing amount of story density and convincing, fun characterization; and as strong as his dialogue is, he includes plenty of space for Alexander to show off. One page in particular features only three panels – two are close-ups of characters’ eyes, and the third is a close-up of a character’s mouth with one word of dialogue. It’s remarkably restrained on the part of the writer, and it works to the scene’s benefit in every way, by building suspense and balancing clarity with ambiguity; I know what’s about to happen, but I don’t know exactly how or why, and it’s really brilliant comics making. Exciting stuff, and highly recommended.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Comic Monsters

Got an e-mail in my inbox telling me about a website called Comic Monsters, and they're doing a month-long giveaway with free comics, paperbacks and DVDs going out every week. Looks like there's not much in the way of attached strings, so y'all might wanna take a look.

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