Archive for August, 2005

Crozonia #1 (2005)

August 30, 2005
I want to be crazy about every independent comic I read, just out of general principles. I love the idea of creators taking it upon themselves to create something unique that’s near and dear to their hearts, often at great financial risk to themselves. That’s certainly the case with Jim Su, the creator and artist of this new color comic series. Su has been living in the undersea world of Crozonia since he imagined it during high school, over ten years ago. As Su says in his creator’s note, this "comic book has been loved, nurtured, and really, really slow cooked."

So I almost feel bad saying that the comic left me cold. There’s a different sort of bar I apply in my opinions of independent comics. We all know that most Marvel and DC comics, no matter how well written or drawn, are created mainly for a paycheck. That doesn’t mean that the creators don’t do fine, professional jobs on their comics; instead, it means that money is their prime motivation for working on that particular book. Chances are that Su will lose money on this lavish color presentation that represents his heart
and soul, so in my mind he deserves the benefit of the doubt, a little bit of extra goodwill going into the comic.

I just had trouble really getting involved with the story that Su presents. Maybe my problems lie with the sequence in the first four pages, an under-explained chase scene with some bizarre submarines and odd military characters. I’m all for comics that begin with the story in the middle of the action, but I found it confusing and off-putting to read such a bizarre and mysterious scene. Who are these people and why were they undertaking their adventure? Just a little exposition would have gone a long way.

Cut to a kind of alternate universe New York circa 1948. We known it’s New York because we see the Chrysler Building, but it’s not our New York because it’s clean, there’s a modern-looking complex on an island in a harbor in New York, and there’s a bridge behind the Chrysler Building that I’ve never seen before in photos. We meet Matt Stark, a young man working as a gofer but aspiring to a career in writing pulp novels. One night, walking home from a seedy bar, Matt finds a beautiful, young, green-haired girl in the water. Thinking she’s drowning – and forgetting he’s a bad swimmer – Matt dives in to help the girl. From there he finds himself in an amazing undersea kingdom where a great war is happening. Our girl is, of course, on the side of good, and we can imagine that in future chapters Matt will be at the center of the war effort.

This all could have been a fun, rollicking pulp adventure, but the story doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Su might be too close to the story to see the places where his comic has rough edges. The bridge behind the Chrysler Building is an obvious example. Another is a trident that’s referred to as the "Triton of Poseidon." Is the use of the wrong word intentional or is it a case where Su didn’t quite come up with the right word? And of course, why does Matt dive into the water in the first place if he can barely swim?

What overcomes all my complaints are two important factors. One is that Su is very creative. He produces inventive layouts that move the story ahead in interesting ways. The sequence that shows the girl using a mechanical mermaid’s tail is inventive and clever, and the world of Crozonia is intriguiing. Perhaps more important is the sincerity that Su brings to the table. Every page shows Su’s dedication and love for the world he created.

In the end, that’s the reason I recommend this comic. There may be better comics out on the stands, but few that show their creator’s passion as much as this one does.

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Classic Doctor Who: the Leisure Hive (1980)

August 28, 2005
This episode epitomizes everything that makes Doctor Who stand out from other science fiction TV shows. Where shows like Star Trek are fond of presenting cohesive global societies, where people and places are homogenoius across their planets, Doctor Who was great at presenting divisive societies and groups, full of logical tensions. There are tensions arising from money, from belief systems, from religion or mythology; really from anything that can divide people. The Doctor and his companions would find themselves in that society and do their best to make things better. Such is the case of "The Leisure Hive", a return to seriousness for a series that had drifted into humor in the previous several seasons. New Producer John Nathan-Turner brought the series into the 1980s by emphasizing special effects, less cheessy costumes, and, most importantly, good scripts. Unlike many episodes, "The Leisure Hive" is packed with story from beginning to end, and the story zips along.
 
Highly recommended.

Last Exit Before Toll (2004)

August 26, 2005
Plot:
One day Charles Pierce leaves home to go out of town for a work seminar. He’s vaguely dissatisfied with his life but doesn’t know why. On the way to the seminar, his car breaks down in a small town far from everywhere. It will take a week to get the part necessary to fix his car. Charles opts to stay in the town while repairs are made, and slowly finds the town affecting him in deep and meaningful ways.

Comments:
This is an extremely affecting and unusual graphic novel, told in a way that is immediate and accessible. Charles Pierce is an average guy in his 30s, doing his workaday job and feeling vaguely unhappy with the road his life has taken. He has a big house, nice car, and a successful life that somehow feels empty to him. One small change in his life creates a shift in his perspective and makes Charlie see life from a completely different viewpoint, one that shakes him deeply.

Pierce discovers an America that exists in the country’s imagination, a landscape away from urban America, a small town where, as one character puts it, “This ain’t like other places you travel. Ain’t really no place at all. See, this place ain’t got a name. All it’s got is a highway nobody uses and a buncha locals who can’t do nothin’ but stay. And it’s OK that way. I’m sayin’ nobody belongs. You stay more than a couple days and you’ll know what I mean. The whole point is to pass through, and that’s why people ask. You’ll become a ghost, like me. Like all of them.” It’s an amazingly romantic vision of an America where hard work pays off, where people are generous, the pot roast is delicious, and a jack and coke costs a dollar seventy-five. This is America that we want to believe still exists, a country of people who aren’t in a hurry all the time and can take time for friendship. An America that isn’t about glory, power or money but about just doing what’s right and making deep connections.

This is a true graphic novel. Pierce grows and changes through the course of the book, and those changes are reflected in the fascinating ending. Pierce is confronted by a man from his old life, what Pierce does when confronted is unique and intriguing. What does the last page really mean? There is much room for debate in it.

Christopher Mitten’s art is perfect for this very unique story. He’s got a great eye for faces and ordinary settings. His art really tells the story of the changes Pierce makes in his life, subtly conveying the path he has made. He’s perfect at conveying quiet moments.

Final Word:
Last Exit Before Toll is one of the best original graphic novels I’ve read in a long time. It has no gunplay, no super-heroes and no bloodshed. But there’s a magic to the story, a unique and special feel to the story that touches a reader deeply.

Unit Primes vol. 1 (2004)

August 23, 2005

This is a sweet and original graphic novel that’s well worth your time. After the unspeakably evil Unit Primes destroy his home planet, a young boy is adopted by three alien creatures who are trying to learn about the Unit Primes. The three aliens form a familial bond with the boy, a bond which is tempered in sadness by the ongoing threat they all face.

The approach of the creators to this graphic novel is quite unique. The universe faces a great threat, but the emphasis of the book isn’t the threat itself. Instead, the threat is always hovering in the background. The threat of the Unit Primes is a maguffin, a plot point that allows the creative team to focus on the relationship that they really care about. Palpham and Zumel care much more about the boy, L-Bee, and the aliens, Harko and the married couple Alo and Viralo. Alo and Viralo virtually adopt L-Bee as the son they never had after rescuing him, and it’s the warm and charming family relationship between these characters that gives this graphic novel its emotional depth.

It’s that depth that gives the team’s desperate plan for defeating the Unit Primes its poignance. The group of characters feel they have to try to save as many people as they can from the next planet that the evil being is about to attack. However, the attempt goes terribly wrong and has horrifying consequences for the group of friends. In the end, sad moments occur but growth has also happened. The characters grow and change in real ways through the course of this book.

The artwork in this book wonderfully conveys the emotion of the story. It’s got to be hard to depict alien creatures‘ emotions, but the team of Zumel and Dreier are up for the challenge. The art is better than what you might find in more mainstream books, and you can clearly see the commitment to the work in every panel. This is one of the treats of reading independent comics: because the creators are working just for themselves, they often pour a tremendous amount of heart and soul into each panel.

Heart and soul are words that define Unit Primes. Readers can see heart and soul both in the story and in the commitment that the creators give it. I hope we get to see more of this story in the future.

 

Order from Afterburn Comics.

Flaming Carrot Comics #34 (2005)

August 22, 2005
Ut! The Carrot is back with another masterpiece of surrealisitic silliness! America’s proudest vegetable-attired hero has finally returned in classic form with another wacky adventure that’s a treat on every page. I was disappointed with the last issue – just not enough silly randomness for me – but this issue is great.
 
Like a lot of characters that appeared in the first half of the late, lamented Cerebus, the Carrot is near and dear to my heart. His hilarious and unique antics were always a treat for me, and often really captured my imagination. The first version of the Mysterymen, featuring the Carrot’s pal Screwball, were real faves of mine, and the villainous Don Whiskerando (Iwho owned the dead dog that got up and flew around the room) inspired a family joke about my sone when he was still in diapers. So it’s great to see that ol’ Bob Burden is still producing Carrot stories after all these years. And it’s an even bigger treat to see that the comic is staying pretty damn odd and silly. Don’t be put off by the $3.50 cover price – this comic is a joy from cover to cover.

TV review: Paranoia Agent (2004)

August 21, 2005
One of the best tv shows that I’ve seen in a long time has just finished its run. No, I’m not talking about Six Feet Under, though that was an amazing and sometimes brilliant show (and it had a fantastic final episode). Instead I’m talking about the amazing cartoon import from Japan called Paranoia Agent. Paranoia Agent is an astonishing journey: an impressionistic, brooding series of character studies that present a view of modern Japanese life that we in America seldom if ever see. It’s a completely unique TV show. I’ve honestly never seen a show, cartoon or live action, that so effortlessly mixes the interior and exterior for characters, where surrealism and hyper-realism blend together to create a portrait of how people really live their lives, partially in the real world and partially in their own personal worlds.
 
The central concept of Paranoia Agent is that there’s a young boy on gold roller skates randomly attacking strangers. The boy rapidly gains the nickname "Li’l Slugger" and becomes a cause celebre throughout the country. If the show had stayed on that level, as a satire and indictment of the way that media sensationalizes violence, or a meditation on violence in modern society, the show would have been terrific. But those are only two aspects of the show. As the show goes on, it seems that Li’l Slugger is a transcendent, supernatural element that embodies the angst and stress that so many people feel in modern society. There’s an outstanding episode centering around an anime studio where that idea is explored in eerie depth.
 
And just as viewers are getting used to that idea, a whole additional level of depth is added to the series. Is Li’l Slugger a manifestation of the complex past of a young woman who has created a hot new cartoon character called Maromi? Are Maromi and Li’l Slugger a kind of yin and yang of characters – one amazingly cute, the othern amazingly violent – manifesting the inner lives of their creator?
 
One of the real joys of the show is that it doesn’t provide easy answers to the questions it brings up. Much like life, it provides a search forn answers, a few moments where things seem clear, but those momets of clarity seem to evaporate the closer one gets to them. I’m still struggling with the question of whether viewers are supposed to take the apocalyptic elements of the final episode are intended to be taken literally or figuratively.
 
I’ve never been a big fan of anime as a genre. I know that there are many great programs that have come from Japan, but few of them have really captured my imagination. But the story and feel of Paranoia Agent is so unique, so thoughtful and transcendent, that it overcomes any surface prejudices I had. Any show with this level of depth and passion is worth discovering and celebrating. I will really miss watching this show every week.
 
I know this show is out on DVD, so there’s a good chance your local Blockbuster has a copy of it.

The Pulse, volume 2: Secret War (2005)

August 17, 2005
I think Brian Bendis may have finally jumped the shark. At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to after reading this collection of issues 6 to 9 of The Pulse. The Pulse depicts the continuing adventures of Jessica Jones, late of the clever series Alias, who has given up her life as a private investigator and now works as a reporter for the Daily Bugle. Oh, and she’s pregnant. And she’s in love with Luke Cage, Power Man. And she doesn’t actually spend much time writing.

In fact, in this book, pregnant Jessica basically finds herself wandering through New York confused about what’s happening, having strange events happen around her that she doesn’t understand, meeting an incredibly out-of-character Wolverine, and having every random person she meets comment on her pregnancy. If you’re getting the idea that there’s not much plot in this story, you’re right. Instead we get page after page of characters talking with each other, arguing with each other, punching each other, but no real movement of plot. It’s so exaperating to read this kind of endless unfiltered Brian Michael Bendis for page after page. Hydra even shows up and kidnaps Jessica, offering her a basically unlimited amount of money to join their side. But really all that scene does is present another chance for people to talk in that endless Bendis-speak. Oh, and the Hydra guys know that Jessica is pregnant.

Apparently everybody in the damn Marvel universe knows that Jessica is pregnant, because it feels like nearly every page has a comment by one character or another on Jessica’a pregancy. "Okay, Bendis," I wanted to scream, "she’s pregnant. I get it. Now what in the hell does that have to do with the story?" Nothing, really: there’s no threat of Jessica miscarrying, no appearance that the pregnancy is affecting her health or her reactions to what happens around her. It’s just there and is commented on because it seems like it should be important.

Even the details of this story seem false. There’s an angry confrontation between Cage’s partner Iron Fist where he talks about how he barely knows Jessica. This is despite the fact that we see them earlier talking in the hospital and, of yeah, she’s pregnant with Cage’s baby and Cage is Iron Fist’s best pal. Jessica never ran into Danny in the "Heroes For Hire" office, or ever went to his house for a barbecue?

I could talk about more stupid scenes in this comic, like where Captain America punches Nick Fury for who knows what reason, or how Wolverine actually breaks down sobbing, or why ninjas knew that Jessica was going to visit Luke Cage at a clinic, or how the nurse at that clinic is wearing an outfit out of the 1950s. But I won’t. Really almost nothing rings true in this book.

The saving grace of this book is the art. Brent Anderson, best known for his work on Astro City, illustrates much of the book and does a fantastic job with the rotten source material. Anderson is a master of mood and emotion, and is very effective at depicting New York, both interiors and exteriors, effectively. Michael Lark also steps in to contribute some work, and adds a wonderfully graceful line to the story.

One more note on the art: the cover is a big tease. It shows Wolverine breaking through a newspaper, in full uniform ready to kick ass. No such scene happens in this book. Logan only appears in eight pages, never in his uniform, and mostly spends his time whining about his lot in life. It’s false advertising to depict an image that doesn’t even come close to happening inside the book, just an annoying tease for readers.

I don’t know if it’s fair to extrapolate from this book that Bendis has jumped the shark, but based on this book, I’d have to say yes. Volume two of The Pulse is just awful.

The Comics Journal #169 (1994)

August 14, 2005
I read this while watching my wonderful little five-year-old, Leah, play in the water at Silver Lake Park in Everett. She had a great time and made a little friend that she hung out with the whole time. I’m always jealous of the ease little kids have in making friends. "Do you want to play?" one says to the other and they’re suddenly inseperable.

This issue of TCJ came out during what many long-time readers think of as the dark age of comics, 1994. Comic sales peaked in 1991 or 1992, and by 1994 it was clear that the industry was in decline. The combination of intense speculation in the field, a distributor war, Marvel flooding the market, the wrestchedly-handled death of Superman (he got better), and variant covers all conspired to create a perfect storm in which the bottom dropped out of the comics market.

 We tend to forgot now that not everything was gloom and doom. This issue’s feature interview is with Neil Gaiman, and he was experiencing nothing but success. Gaiman’s run on Sandman was showing that there was a market for intelligent, thoughtful comics, and DC bent over backwards to make Gaiman happy working with them. They ensured Gaiman that they wouldn’t assign new creators to the book after he left, and gave him a percentage of all merchandise even though there was nothing compelling DC to do so. Gaiman helped blaze the trail for the companies to respect their creators more fully. Interviewer Gary Groth tries to pin Gaiman down about DC treating him badly, but Gaiman is very clear that, at least in his experience, DC was a good company to work with. Even in the midst of this seeming dark age for the industry, major precedents were set to help the creators rather than the publishers.

Perhaps more interesting to me is an article in the "Newswatch" section that describes the merger between Kitchen Sink Press and Tundra Comics. Tundra was a spectacularly ill-fated comic line created by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creator Kevin Eastman in the wake  of the Turtles’ runaway success. Since Eastman and his partner Peter Laird owned the Turtles lock, stock and barrel, they made money hand over fist from the characters. Eastman decided to spend his money creating a comic book line like none that came before. Tundra would be a line that treated creators right, that paid them nice advances without firm deadlines, so comics could be done when they were ready. Tundra would do away with editors, since the editors only interfered with the work of creators. Tundra was all about the work, not about the company. Eastman had deep pockets, so the line could handle some adversity.
 
And adversity was what it had. Tundra launched in an era when the giant-selling books like Youngblood and Spawn cast very long shadows, preventing a new line from getting any traction in the marketplace. Also, the lack of a coherent vision for the comics line worked against the line. Readers just didn’t know what Tundra was all about, and that kept the line from thriving. On the creator side, things were even worse. Creators would get their huge advances and then never deliver the finished work, or would deliver work so substandard as to be unreleasable. The line committed to running too many series, making production and solicitation a nightmare. Bad investments were made, anger rose, and the line flamed out in a storm of recrimination, frustration and bad debt.
 
Kitchen Sink, on the other hand, always seemed like an extremely well-run company. There was always a touch of class around Kitchen Sink Press. The company started in the ’60s publishing standard underground books, but by the ’80s Kitchen Sink was well known for their reprints of The Spirit and Steve Canyon, wonderful original series like Megaton Man, Kings in Disguise and the horror anthology Death Rattle. Kitchen Sink even had an agreement with DC to co-publish Batman comic strip reprints. Kitchen Sink seemed like a company that had a terrific business plan. It was a steady and dependable line in every way.
 
Like a kindly man touching a leper, as soon as Kitchen Sink touched Tundra, it started to fall apart. It didn’t take long for the line to collapse and then go under. Tundra had taken another victim. You have to wonder what Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink was thinking when he agreed to all this turmoil. Was he hoping to finally make real money selling comics, chasing the eveer-fading collectors’ market? Was he a dupe of Eastman’s overly ambitious plans? Or did he want to support a company that conformed to his old hippie ideals? For whatever reason, the two companies went belly up in ’94, leaving unpaid bills scattered to the winds. Tundra lost Eastman an astonishing $14 million. I doubt the entire comics market in 2005 is much larger than $14 million. Oh, and Eastman sold his share of the Turtles to his partner Laird. Of course, now that he’s not a part of it, the Turtles are back in the stores and on TV. Can Eastman have any more bad luck?

Peanutbutter and Jeremy – Free Comics Day Edition (2003)

August 13, 2005
I know this comic is much loved by critics and fans alike, but I just don’t get the acclaim. Peanutbutter and Jeremy is an awfully cute comic. It’s the tale of a cat and a crow who are pals and hang out together. The story in this comic is charming and childlike, but, unfortunately, there’s nothing really special about it. Peanutbutter and Jeremy hang out and, well, just don’t do very much. The story rambles around, without much of a point to anything. There’s no real story here;  instead this comic presents (excuse the phrase) a shaggy dog story.
 
James Kochalka is the writer/artist on this book. His art is really a big part of the key to this comic’s charm – his simple linework is expressive and cute, elegant in its simplicity. He’s not an innovative storyteller, but Kochalka’s work unique and expressive.
 
For a free comic it’s just fine, but there’s nothing here that really motivates me to pay for future PB&J adventures.

Ghost Rider #16 and Action Comics #456 (1975)

August 11, 2005
I was reading my latest eBay win, a copy of The Comic Reader #124 from 1975, when I came across the two gems attached below. Is there any doubt that Jaws-mania was sweeping America thirty years ago? I especially love the covers’ absurdity. As if it’s not silly enough that Ghost Rider is riding his motorcycle in the water while his head is flaming away, in the same month Superman, Earth’s mightiest mortal, looks like he’s also in peril from a shark. Yeah, Superman, who can stop a speeding bullet, is being attacked by what looks like a perfectly ordinary non-super-powered, shark. I guess after the shark breaks his teeth trying to bite Supes, he can gum our hero to death!
 
Nice covers, though. The Ghost Rider one is by the team of Bob Brown and Dave Cockrum. Brown was a solid comics pro and Cockrum is one of my favorite artists. The Action Comics cover is by Mike Grell, ironically the man who replaced Cockrum on the legendary Legion of Super-Heroes.
 
Oh, and I almost forgot, the cover of TCR 124 was by a guy much better known for his writing: Mark Evanier. I wonder why he decided to draw a cover. The art actuially isn’t too bad – cute depictions of the Warner Brothers cartoon bunch. Maybe he had a future in art, too…
 
But still – a shark biting Superman? Huh?