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Trouble with Comics

My Comics July

I’ve been doing more of my own fiction-writing these days, as well as a lot of reviews of movies and other things at my other blog, so it really seems like a modest but achievable goal is to do maybe one or two comics posts here every month. Thus, since I’m going on vacation this weekend and not likely to write anything else for a week or so, my Comics July.

It’s just under a year for DC’s New 52, and despite trying at least the first issue of about 49 of them, the only ones I am still reading are Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., The Shade, Action Comics, Batman, and Batman Incorporated (this last one having only relaunched in the last month). What you can infer from these is that I still have some affection for Grant Morrison’s writing and will see his exit from superhero comics (Batman Inc. is fun, Action more miss-than-hit, and the upcoming Multiversity stuff sounds interesting). I also somewhat enjoy Scott Snyder’s writing, though I’m not that interested in tying in old business like Arcane to the somewhat fresher Red/Green/Rot stuff. I guess it’s fair to say that’s just an expansion of stuff Alan Moore came up with many years ago when he wrote the series, but at least it’s a little new and not something that has been explored much before. I am pretty tired of the whole Court of Owls stuff on Batman, but you know, I like Batman and it’s not a bad book, though not a good one.

Jeff Lemire has done all right on Animal Man and Frankenstein, though the art on the former, while distinctive and great at the weird, disturbing scenes, is also distancing for what seems to be a comic that wants to be about familial strength and those bonds being stronger and more important to the lead character than doing superhero stuff. Frankenstein started with some interesting ideas but seems to be treading water, or maybe it’s more accurate to say it has digressed into the Rot stuff when it should be working more on making its characters distinctive. I still don’t really get Frankenstein, much less the rest of his groovy ghoulies. Overall, even with just two writers on these three series, I think tying them all together with the same menace has made each book less special.

I still read a lot of Marvel, though not much has stood out. Daredevil has regained some of its footing with Chris Samnee on art, a good choice, and Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man, though unfortunately uneven artistically, has been consistently entertaining and presented a recognizable but more mature Spider-Man. Avengers vs. X-Men has improved of late, with nice Olivier Coipel art and a few chunks of issues that made sense, though a lot of the plotting is stupid and/or redundant. Why would godlike X-Men fear Scarlet Witch so much, and why is essentially dressing up some Avengers to look like her a good idea when the X-Men have telepaths who should be able to figure out who’s who?

I’m reading more Image books than I have in maybe ever, mostly creator-owned stuff. I can’t confess to loving any of it, but Saga has been imaginative and amusing if not immensely engaging yet, and I’ve also enjoyed the sort of arty take on superheroes and apocalyptic sci-fi in Glory, Prophet, while The Manhattan Projects feels so far like Jonathan Hickman going back to the well and getting S.H.I.E.L.D. right. I was into Hickman’s Secret at first, but the second issue was kind of insulting, with a cliched gangster scene and an obvious reveal stretched out to the end of the issue with four panel pages of not much going on.

I suppose, given how much his work has meant to me, that I should write more about the latest Alan Moore League of Extraordinary Gentleman book, Century: 2009, but it was just okay. Some lovely ideas, typically good Kevin O’Neill artwork and of course, it feels like good value because you read it slowly, trying to pick up on all the pop culture references. But while I appreciate that pretty much all of Moore’s work has some terrific layers to it (I’ve not doubt there’s a great story behind even garbage like Deathblow: Byblows), here, the meta-story about Moore’s disillusionment with the comics industry and the rest of popular culture is more interesting than the plot. Making fun of Harry Potter should have been more fun, right?

Having boycotted Darwyn Cooke’s latest Parker adaptation, The Score, and with no really memorable Hellboy or B.P.R.D. books this month, the only book to really excite me was IDW’s Artist Edition of David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. I’m not like ADD—I don’t read even my favorite comics over and over again, so it had been probably 20 years since I read this story. It still holds up very well, with an absolutely bulletproof first issue, although I think once it gets to the Nuke/Captain America issue, Daredevil is kind of a guest star in his own book. But while you can see some signs of writer Frank Miller’s eventual shock and awe style, he keeps things relatively restrained here, relying on Mazzucchelli to convey Captain America’s disgust and shame and the mental breakdown of Nuke. The main story of Daredevil/Matt Murdock’s ruination by the Kingpin and subsequent rebirth is not perfect, either. Matt’s flirtation with paranoia and despair is a little too brief, and how does he survive for so long on the streets? Was he homeless? And sure, seeing old girlfriend Karen Page now a junkie whore may have seemed like a progressive move for superhero comics then, but now feels a little cheap and mean. Of course it’s the woman who wrecks things for the hero. Since there was nothing to really be done with Karen once she came back to Matt, better to maybe have left her out entirely and make Matt’s downfall come from his own hubris. I don’t know, maybe I’m just blaming a lot of lesser grim and gritty comics on this early example, which doesn’t get nearly the blame as Miller’s Dark Knight Returns or Moore’s Watchmen and The Killing Joke. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the better superhero stories ever written, and Miller and Mazzucchelli work so well together they can pretty much pull off anything they try here. The presentation of this book is exquisite, with oversized, heavy-weight black and white pages and a few vellum overlays to show the reader some of the more complex effects Mazzucchelli used on covers and some interior pages. Seeing what amounts to faithful photographs of the original boards makes this not only the most exciting way to experience the story but also the most intimate. Without distracting from what is a real page-turner, one still takes away the immense effort, the will to do something memorable, on the part of the artist. I can’t really imagine reading this again in the small, color format.

—Christopher Allen

Prophet #21

Writer - Brandon Graham

Artist - Simon Roy

Publisher - Image Comics/Extreme. $3.99

I’m old enough to remember the two months that Rob Liefeld’s Prophet was relevant. Without doing any research (both laziness and in support of not supporting SOPA/PIPA), I think it was about issue #7 or 8, when the original creative team abandoned the book to a flash-in-the-pan artist, Stephen Platt, who had some major flaws but had an appealing style that was kind of a more compact Todd McFarlane. I went along with the crowd and got the book without having to pay much more than cover price, liked the art but not the story, and then waited for the next issue, which I think took over a month to arrive, and when it did, I don’t think Platt did all the work. And before too long, he was gone on to other things, and really has had very little comics work since. The series apparently made it to issue #20, but not many people really cared by that time (though in today’s numbers, it probably would be a big hit).

Say what you want about Liefeld, but he’s not an idiot, and he’s always been one to pay others to pump some life into his failing, failed or forgotten creations, be it Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Kurt Busiek, and so on. This time it’s Brandon (King City) Graham, writing, joined by Simon (Jan’s Atomic Heart) Roy on art. 

Is the book any good? Yes, and the good news is that one need not have any prior knowledge of time-lost super soldier John Prophet, and it probably helps if you don’t. Numbering aside, this is written like a first issue, and I give Liefeld and editor Eric Stephenson credit for letting Graham do what he wants here, which is to thrust Prophet into a weird world of multi-jawed monsters to kill and consume and other natives who want to kill, fuck, parley or perform surgery on him. It’s a dense issue, and Roy and colorist John Ballermann are up to the task of creating this strange, savage world. 

I’ve already seen folks calling the book brilliant, but I think we may want to pump the brakes a bit there. Graham does have a unique vision and bless him for wanting to cram a lot into the issue, but he does overload the reader a bit with all the alien names, and with an omniscient narration that actually feels kind of lazy to me. I’d prefer to find more of this out through dialogue between Prophet and the creatures he meets, as well as having Prophet make observations in his own voice, so we can get to know him better. 

Reading this issue, as well as seeing the news that Joe Casey and Nathan Fox are the new creative team on other Image series, Haunt, makes me a little bummed that talented creators like these are still being convinced to expend their energies trying to prop up or revived crappy comics somebody else owns, but hey, it’s their call to make. If someone’s going to do work-for-hire, as a consumer I still want them to put their best effort into it, and although this first issue has some flaws, it’s clear Graham and Roy are invested in the work and there’s some good potential here.

Christopher Allen