Thursday, June 30, 2005

Review: Jeffrey Brown's Any Easy Intimacy

I've got a new review up at Bookshelf Comics, for Jeffrey Brown's latest, Any Easy Intimacy (a.k.a. AEIOU). Here's a little piece of it:

Many of these scenes are touching, or interesting, or discreet. On an early date, Brown and Sophia stop outside a store and look into the window – Brown exclaims, “Look at all the cool spatulas!” and the two share a smiling moment after the girl laughs. It’s odd, and quiet, and affecting. One of the things that makes romance really believable is when two folks who normally feel a bit strange suddenly find themselves comfortable when in each other’s company – this scene convincingly conveys that experience in two pages, a fine example of combining efficiency with subtlety.

The full review is at the link. While you're there, you can check out our new interview with Tom Beland of True Story Swear To God fame and acclaim, and if you check out the "Party Of Five" feature you'll find a brief essay from Mr. James Sime, whose brilliant Isotope - The Comic Book Lounge reopened at incredible new digs last night.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Review: Zombie Tales #1

Zombie Tales #1 is released today by BOOM! Studios and Atomeka, an anthology volume collecting five short zombie-themed stories and the first chapter of a longer tale.

It features an impressive line-up of talent, including Mark Waid, Keith Giffen and Ron Lim (one of my favorites since his days on Silver Surfer), and a cover by the brilliant Dave (100 Bullets) Johnson.

But me, I’m pretty well zombie-d out these days, y’know? Seems like everywhere I turn somebody’s got their own damn zombie story.

What redeems this collection for me, then, is the humor. These stories are often grotesque and nihilistic, as living dead stories should always be, but there’s also an irreverent through line of comedy that freshens the book up and makes it worth reading.

“I, Zombie” by Andrew Cosby and Keith Giffen (he draws, too?) is about a zombie named Ted trying to find some food. The stilted “undead” narration plays a familiar card (“aren’t stupid people funny?”) but with a macabre twist and a couple pretty decent gags; there’s something surreal about watching a zombie smash his alarm clock in a surprised rage that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it made me smile. After a brief tour of the post-apocalypse, Ted ends up with the key to the apocalypse in his arms – it’s the only “To Be Continued” in the collection, but it’s a fun story and I’d be happy to see more of it. I was also surprised by how much I liked Giffen's artwork. I have a feeling his artistic chops are well known and I was just in the dark until now, but you can't blame a guy for learning, can ya?

“Severance” by Mike Nelson and Joe Abraham is a fun piece that really shows off what you can do with story density. We’re brought into the story halfway through an action scene, as things have gone wrong in the lab where a desperate scientist is researching a cure to the zombie disease so he can bring back his son. The tale jumps from plot point to plot point at a sprint, but because these are all familiar characters and scenarios it’s easy to follow – really, this kind of thing would blow me away if it took a longer format but maintained the density. It’s the sort of thing I hear Grant Morrison getting credit for all the time but this is much clearer, more direct storytelling. Again, there’s an undercurrent of smirking, cruel humor to the tale that doesn’t quite bubble to the surface but keeps things brisk and fun.

“Daddy Smells Different” by John Rogers and Andy Kuhn is basically a punchline tale, and a bit obvious at that, but I won’t spoil it for you. Not the best thing here, but it does what it intends to and Kuhn’s artwork is lovely.

“For Pete’s Sake” by Johanna Stokes and J.K. Woodward is about a lonely woman whose husband has become a zombie. She’s started a new sort of life for herself in the post-apocalypse and keeps her husband on a chain in their home. Again, it’s the underlying humor that makes this work – the dramatics of her loneliness didn’t really grab me, but the scene in which she prepares his dinner, for example, had some nice grossout laughs.

“If You’re So Smart” by Mark Waid and Carlos Magno is really clever – this and “Severance” are my favorite tales from the book. The idea of taking a test to see how well you’d survive in a world of zombies is funny and starts the reader trying to think of what sorts of questions should be on the test. The ones that Waid comes up with are all pretty funny, and the twist at the end is sick and clever. Magno also deserves credit for keeping things visually interesting, especially since the bulk of this short is just a girl sitting at a desk taking a test – I have to imagine that was a bit of a challenge, but this reads very smoothly without feeling flat. Great work.

“Dead Meat” by Keith Giffen and Ron Lim is the most conventional zombie tale of the bunch – my least favorite in terms of plot and script, especially since we come in after all the action has taken place – but this was made up for (at least for me) by the always-gorgeous Ron Lim artwork. I’ve always loved the way this guy draws monsters, so a zombie tale is a good fit for him. It’s not the flashiest script, doesn’t really let him show off the way Jim Starlin used to, but it’s still really nice to see his work again.

At 48 pages for $6.99, the book may seem a bit prohibitively expensive; the price-per-page isn’t any worse than if you’d bought two single issues of a 22-page comic, and you get a nice square-binding into the deal, but my feeling is that anthologies should offer a better price point than other books, being the gamble that they usually are. The stories here maintain a relatively high standard of quality, which helps, and some “big name” talent, which helps more - but I'm a bit of a price-watcher, so it still makes this more difficult to recommend than if it was $5. It's worth at least picking this up and flipping through - I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I expected to.

I’ve seen several reviews pop up over the last few days; if you’re interested, take a look at what Andrew Wickliffe had to say at The Stop Button, or check out the reviews from Adam Lawrence, Dan MacLeod and "The Consumer" Joe Rivera, all at the Isotope Virtual Lounge. Oh, and Randy Lander taken a look too, over on The Fourth Rail. Jesus, this book's getting a lot of press!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Cool indie comics in September

Take a look at this thread I started over on MillarWorld.

I wanted those publishers in the second half of the Previews magazine to get a little love. There's a lot of wonderful stuff that comes out of that bubbling cauldron of independent publishing, and it's always easy to miss a quality project in the roughage between Brian Pulido variant covers and Shonen Jump.

So I took a look at the Previews text file (September edition available here) and did some cherry picking. Turns out I've got plenty of company - a lot of people are calling out a lot of interesting books, and if you're looking for something new you could do a lot worse than stop by.

We even have Larry Young stopping by and ringing Pavlov's bell.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Marvel's new $1 flipbooks - a couple questions

This is from my response to a great thread started by James Sime over on the IsoLounge, about the new, cheap Marvel flip-books.

When I was getting into comics (around age 8-11), I didn't read any of the "old" stuff. I read what was new at the time; PAD's Incredible Hulk, McFarlane's and Larsen's Spidey stuff, Silvestri's Wolverine, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - these were my bread and butter.

If you'd handed me a Stan Lee comic, I don't know how I would have responded. Never happened, so I don't know. Could have been anything from "WOW, this is awesome!" to "Jeez, this is campy and stupid. I'm gonna go watch Tiny Toons."

Much as we may appreciate Jack Kirby's art style now, to a pre-teen, it's all about Rob Liefeld, y'know?

So I'm curious if anyone has actually witnessed or recorded how kids respond to comics that are 40+ years old.

Don't get me wrong - I think this is an awesome move on Marvel's part, and I want nothing more than for these kinds of efforts to succeed and grow - but I'm unsure of the chosen material. After all, if they try this, and it flops because the kids aren't excited by Reed Richards' imperative mission to beat the commies in the space race, that's money that Marvel's lost on a "Hey Kids! Comics!' initiative without seeing any return. Which, if I were running the place, would make me feel pretty shy about doing something similar again.

Follow-up question: Any idea why they chose the material they did? Would it have cost a lot more to use, say, Jim Lee's X-Men run?

To answer my own question: It seems likely that comics this cheap are to Marvel as newspapers are to their publishers. That is, the cover price is so low that every sale represents a loss to the publisher, because that price is actually lower than the cost of production. In newspapers, this is seen as a portal to increased revenue from ad sales - "Hey, Nike - we've got 500,000 people reading our newspaper. Wanna take out a $10,000 ad?" But in this case, if Marvel used a more contemporary, popular comic, a huge portion of the sales would likely be existing readers, picking up a little piece of their youth on the cheap. So Marvel would not only be taking a loss (from all those sales to fanboys) without reaching their intended audience (the kiddies), they'd also be cannibalizing their own sales of things like the Spider-man Visionaries: Todd McFarlane trade sales - because if you could get two of those issues for a buck, why shell out a Jackson for nine issues?

Tough situation. At least they're not responding with inaction. Nice to see a little chutzpah in the face of a challenge.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Follow-up Review: Hero Camp #2

A couple weeks ago I reviewed Hero Camp #1 and made some guesses about how issue #2 would work out for me. I enjoyed the clever, playful character designs from Robbi Rodriguez, and I liked the silly, almost vaudevillian humor from Greg Thompson’s script; my main gripe, on the other hand, was with Thompson’s hints that this would become a more serious story, a coming of age tale that I thought didn’t fit the tone and style of the book. Ultimately I decided it was worth the gamble to pick up Hero Camp #2.

It’s good news, today: Thompson must have gotten my letters and had Rodriguez bang out some new art mighty fast, because this second issue does exactly what I thought it should, and surprises me a little bit at the same time.

The first half of this issue is a really entertaining tour through the world of Hero Camp, presented as Our Hero, Eric, strolls around the campgrounds on a lazy Saturday, running into friends and seeing what they’re up to. I’ve already talked about how much I like Rodriguez’ entertaining character designs, but the spotlight shifts here as Thompson gets to show off his own clever sense of humor through several snapshot character moments. These scenes are breezy and whimsical, and when the plot (such as it is) kicks in halfway through, it feels like the more perilous elements of the story are meshing better with the book’s tone than last time around – this is probably because of three great new characters that are both well-written and wonderfully designed and rendered. They’re all basically the same character, but their presence on the page is charismatic and funny.

The back-up story was the strongest element in the first issue, but I think it veers off a little too much this time. I like the bits where the super-kids are talking about their childhood dreams, what they wanted to be before the super-hero path became clear. When the circle comes around to Eric, and he says he wants to be a writer – I’m sorry, no. I’ve read that scene, heard that monologue, and listened to that song a hundred times already. Hell, Neil Simon writes it in every single play. It’s a sweet scene, clearly intended to communicate Thompson’s passion for his craft and its possibilities, but it’s not nearly as imaginative a moment as I now know he’s capable of.

This is a hard series to pin down, and I’m surprised to find that out. Hearing the concept and reading the first issue made this seem like a fairly obvious book to me – Misunderstood Kid Finally Comes Out Of His Shell, right? – but at this point I don’t know where the series is going. This issue tells a self-contained story, which is pretty unusual in a four-issue mini with a built-in character arc in the premise. And where usually by this point in a miniseries the introduction of characters and ideas would have slowed down, if anything it feels like the new stuff is accelerating. It leaves me feeling optimistic about the rest of the series, hoping Thompson’s got the guts to just keep going whole hog and slamming out new stuff with abandon. This series doesn’t need a story, exactly; the story’s in the premise, and it’s been done – it should be the road, not the car. Right now I’m getting the idea that Thompson understands that, and I’m looking forward to finding out if I’m right.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Holy Crap

Batman Begins was awesome.

I mean, I knew the cast was great, and it had one of the best new directors from the last ten years, and it was picking up elements from the greatest Batman story ever (Year One, natch), but I had no idea that:

  • Bruce Wayne's father was an interesting, powerful character with the charisma to effectively haunt Bruce as an adult.
  • There's a middle ground between Dopey Slam-Whiz Batman and All Knowing Asshole Batman? He's a complex character? No way!
  • Ra's Al Ghul lived in such stunning scenery - man, talk about evocative settings.
  • Liam Neeson was so goddamn amazing as a screen presence (just kidding, I did know that).
  • The script would be so sharp - I mean, a few corny one-liners aside (It's not who you are inside, it's what you do that matters...), this was really killer dialogue. It really hit home when Liam Neeson explained who's fault the death of Bruce's parents was - what a scene.
  • Michael Caine is funny as hell.
  • The Batmobile didn't suck, and actually worked in the movie a lot better than I'd guessed from the promo stills.
  • "Christian Bale is one hot hunk of man." I put that in quotes so you'll believe me when I say that Molly said that, not me. But I can't disagree with her. Jesus, now that's an action movie physique.

Loved it. I don't think a comparison between this and Tim Burton's original works very well, because they try to do very different things - Burton's was a fantastical legend, and this was a dark character study. I loved both.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Running Wild

I know I've been very bad this week. Please forgive. I'm in the middle of moving (into a lovely flat with the missus, which we're thrilled about) and life is hectic.

As an apology, I offer the comics-reflecting-life-reflecting-comics moment of the year:

Presto change-o!

I'll be back with my thoughts on Hero Camp #2 soon as I can manage it. Did it follow through on the strengths I saw in issue #1? Did it succumb to the aspects I didn't like as much?

Stay tuned to find out.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Black Diamond

I picked up an advance copy of The Black Diamond: On Ramp at the Isotope last week (it's released everywhere else on this coming Wednesday), which features a full issue's worth of teaser story to Larry Young's upcoming six-issue miniseries with artist Join Proctor, as well as a six-page preview of the Smoke And Guns OGN that will destroy us all.

Having read a few of Larry Young's books in the last couple years, I've come to expect two things from him.

First, an idea that delicately balances crazy imagination (I would have never thought of that!) with a broadly appealing, everybody-loves-a-good-action-flick angle (How come I didn't think of that?). The Black Diamond is full of car chase scenes and explosions and big guns - well, of course it is. But guess what? It all happens on an eight-lane transcontinental highway built 150 feet in the air and designated specifically for the kind of lawless apeshit that decent Americans don't want on their drive to work.

The other thing I expect from Young is a little meta-commentary, a little something that rises above the story and speaks directly to the reader. We get that here, too, in an interesting discussion of stories themselves. How many stories are there? I seem to remember, a long time ago, that some jerk told me there were only forty-two stories or something like that, though I never found out what those forty-two were.

It's a good thing I saved my time, because Young boils it down quite a bit more: there's "Just trying to get home" and there's "Stranger comes to town," and everything else is a variation on the theme.

See, that was compelling enough, because it got me thinking about a lot of stories and whether they fit into either category, but then Young pulls it down to just one. It's a thoughtful point that left me thinking, but without weighing the story down; no, the point is made while one character is loading a shotgun, and a scant four pages later we're treated to some really excellent explodo.

Which brings me to the artwork. This is the first thing I've seen by Jon Proctor, and the first color book from AiT/Planet Lar, and if this is any indication I hope I'll see plenty more of both.

Proctor's pencils are interesting by themselves - his layouts are manic, explosive affairs, instantly developing the frantic world of the story - but the real shining star here is the coloring. The palettes he uses here are really stunning, and they're richly reproduced; ripe, fat shades. Each page is like a meal.

On top of this, the Smoke And Guns preview is unbelievably gorgeous, and writer Kirsten Baldock has included a one-page "journal entry" detailing a typical night as a cigarette girl; this is really cool, because in the comic we'll be seeing an exaggerated, mob-scene version of the cigarette girl lifestyle, and it's fun to read that with the context of what work is actually like for these fine ladies.

Jesus, there's more here, and there's plenty more to say about Smoke And Guns, but I'm starving to death and I've got to do some more work on my upcoming move into a new home with Molly.

You'll do fine finding a copy of this to read for yourself, anyway. Because AiT/Planet Lar is shipping a bunch of extra copies to every retailer who ordered it. For free. Seriously. I read it here. Now that's pimping out your comics.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Review: Age of Bronze, volume 2 - SACRIFICE

I've got a review of the absolutely amazing second volume of Eric Shanower's Trojan War epic, Age of Bronze, up at Bookshelf Comics today. Have a look and let me know what you thought; after reading this trade, I ended up picking up the most recent issue of AoB (#20) yesterday, as well, so I'll try and come back with some thoughts on it in the next few days.

Also got an advance copy of the Black Diamond / Smoke And Guns preview for the upcoming AiT/Planet Lar books (care of the Isotope), and it looks awesome. I'll come back with some thoughts when I've had the time to pour over it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Review: Hero Camp #1

Hero Camp was on my radar for a long time before the first issue came out a couple weeks ago, because writer Greg Thompson is a regular “face” over on MillarWorld and made sure to keep the book’s title on everybody’s minds. It’s a book I’ve been a bit anxious to read, honestly, because while Thompson’s online persona is charmingly unaffected and intelligent, the concept of the book doesn’t make it sound like my cup of tea.

See, while the last few years have really opened my eyes to how incredible comics can be, and I’ve been getting more and more excited about the medium, I’ve also been getting increasingly blasé when it comes to superhero books in particular. I don’t begrudge the genre its sales dominance in the industry, and I think it’s got a lot of great stories left to tell, but right now (with a few exceptions, like Invincible, Captain America and Supreme Power) I’m just not getting excited about superheroes. The idea of a summer camp for superpowered teenagers sound cute, but I wondered if it was just the kind of thing that was gonna leave me flat no matter how good it was.

So, does Hero Camp buck the trend?

There’s a lot here to like. Robbi Rodriguez’s character designs are really fun and distinctive for the most part, reminding me in some spots of Mike Allred’s work on X-Statix while showing us some of his own unique flavor with the issue’s villains and, surprisingly, with the inevitable standard big bruiser character (a la The Hulk), a kid named Block. I’d have guess this would be the hardest character to make distinct, since there’s such a long list of similar brutes. Perhaps it’s that challenge that pushed Rodriguez to bring his A-game to the character; whatever it was, he’s got a fun look, and when he first appeared in the issue I hoped he’d be getting some decent “face time” in the series.

I got my wish, because Block gets his own back-up story in the closing pages of the issue. It’s a hammy scene with a classic vaudeville joke that could easily slide down the line into cliché, but it plays well. Thompson’s dialogue is “comic booky” enough that I approach the story with different expectations, wanting something lighthearted and silly, and that’s exactly what I’m served.

There are also a number of fun tweaks of dialogue throughout the issue; the teenage boy superhero flying right behind a supergirl and exclaiming to his friend, “Dude! You can see straight up her skirt!” rings true and plays it with just enough restrained class to keep it cute.

Here’s the thing, though. There’s a limit to the effectiveness of cute and restrained, and it comes when we get to the serious character stuff. Our Hero, a boy named Eric, is the son of two famous superheroes and has shown no sign of powers, yet is believed to “secretly” be the most powerful kid in camp. While there are a number of obvious ways this could play out (he discovers his powers at the key moment, he finds a way to make a meaningful contribution without powers, etc.), this would still work if the character’s response to his situation was a little more personal, a little more specific to himself as a character. But as a result of the cute, iconic charm of the book’s style, he’s given nearly nothing to make him that specific a person; he’s got all the usual teenage boy trappings, like a loyal dog and a girl to crush on and so on, but that’s as far as it goes.

The idea here, I have to guess, is to appeal to a broader audience. Tom Petty once said he wrote lyrics by taking a personal story and removing detail after detail until anyone could see themselves in the song. There’s something to be said for that, and I think Thompson is employing a similar tactic here. But for me, he goes just a little too far with it. There’s some entertaining mystery behind the true nature of Eric’s powers, and the relationship between the lead villainess and one of Eric’s friends, but I’m not intrigued enough by either character to really have that hook in me that I need. It could also well be that the character arc Eric is facing is just not one that resonates with me; I learned long ago that my parents' confident expectations in me weren't important in defining myself, that just "being me" was enough for the three of us, and I can't help suspecting that Eric will learn this lesson in a friendly, affirming way that'll simultaneously comfort and tire me.

Those who are big fans of old school four-color super-hero books will find plenty to like here, but I’ll have to see the next issue to make a decision; if Block takes on a bigger role, or the villains do some more funny stuff, or the vaudeville angle gets a little thicker in the scripting – all of which show potential in this issue – I’ll be in. If it looks like this is shaping up to be a coming of age story, I’ll probably pass, because that kind of stuff just doesn’t often speak to me anymore.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Review: True Story, Swear To God volume 2

I've got a review for True Story, Swear To God volume 2: This One Goes To 11 up on Bookshelf Comics. Take a look, I thought this was a really great book and it was fun to write about why.

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