Archive for April, 2006

Savage Dragon #125 (2006)

April 30, 2006

It completely snuck up on me, but I think I have a new favorite comic. I’ve gone a while without one. I suppose by default my favorite lately has been Steve Gerber’s amazing Hard Time, but while that comic inspires me to think and re-examine it every issue, that’s not the sort of comic to make me smile every month when I see it at the comic shop.

But Savage Dragon is that sort of comic.

There’s something absolutely wonderful about the way that Erik Larsen’s art and storytelling have evolved. This comic started as a typical Image comic – full of mindless action and adventure. Somewhere around its third year, the comic evolved into a manic cleverness, full of energy and cleverness but still falling short of greatness. I started reading the comic regularly around the beginning of the "Savage World" arc, when the Dragon’s comic briefly took on the feel of a mid-’70s Marvel comic gone mad. There were standard old school page layouts and Kirbyesque action and thought balloons, and it was tremendous fun, but somewhere along the way, the comic lost a bit of its freshness for me and I stopped buying it.

Recently, though, I’ve been picking up the series regularly, starting roughly with Larsen’s return to the comic about six months ago. And it seems like Savage Dragon is in yet another new phase. Larsen took a sabbatical from the comic for a few months while assuming the role of publisher at Image; since his return, this has been an absolutely wonderful series.

One thing that’s added charm to the comic is that Larsen’s art has gotten looser. Anyone familiar with his old style will be surprised that a style like Erik Larsen’s could get even looser, but Larsen’s art has become even looser than it was, even more sketchy and light. It might sound like a complaint on the surface that Larsen’s art has become sketchier, but exactly the opposite is true here. The looseness of Larsen’s art adds an odd feel to the stories. On one hand, it makes the stories in the comic seem less serious, which has the odd effect of making a threat like Mister Bug’s in this issue seem even less worrisome than it might have been. So when Mister Bug proves to be extremely dangerous, it’s shocking both to the Dragon and to readers.

It seems like time constraints have loosened Larsen’s writing as well. He’s always been a master at the unexpected, but in this issue, his story "The Fly", basically 24 pages of an unchanging, static scene, is surprising and funny and interesting all the way through. The random craziness of Larsen’s world is carried beautifully through Larsen’s loose writing.

I can’t tell you this is the greatest comic ever. There are rewards for catching up with the series, as I did recently, and it’s fun knowing the back stories of Mister Glum, Angel and Jennifer. The comic has a loose feeling, which has the potential for edging close to laziness. But thus far the comic hasn’t gotten lazy. Quite the contrary: the busier Erik Larsen gets, the better this comic gets.

I have a new favorite comic. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Savage Dragon.

Uncle $crooge Adventures #33 (1995, reprinting a story from 1952)

April 29, 2006
Yeah, it’s a double-shot today, since I ddin’t post yesterday and since a lot of you only want to read about comics.
 
This issue reprints "Only A Poor Old Man," the classic first Carl Barks Uncle $crooge story from 1952. Now I’ve never been a Barks fan, never really read his comics at all, really. Instead, I always viewed his legacy with a kind of detached interest. I’ve known that people adore the man’s work in the same way that I know people enjoy the work of certain painters or sculptors, as someone really great at something I don’t really enjoy.
 
But my friends have insisted for years that Barks is one of the greatest cartoonists of all tim, and that I was really missing out by not reading his work. So finally at last month’s Emerald City Comicon, I asked John Shaner, a Seattle convention fixture, to pick the cream of the crop from their 7/$10 selection of Disney comics. And John picked this issue, which reprints that famous classic story.
 
Well, I’m not a huge fan yet, but this is great comics. In every way, this is a crisp, nicely plotted, extremely enertaining story. It zips along with a charming plot that implies future and past adventures. It has time for each of the characters to have their scenes, and shows why each character is wonderful. It has some priceless character bits with Scrooge swimming through his money pit. And it’s charming as can be.
 
In other words, it’s the perfect first issue. "Only a Poor Old Man" introduces characters and themes that Barks would explore for many years, and does so in such a graceful and charming way that it works on two levels: for kids, the comic is breezy fun. For an adult who’s obsessed with comics, the comic has a brightness and charm impossible to resist.
 
I definitely want to read more by "the good duck artist."

Doctor Who (2006): “Tooth and Claw”

April 29, 2006
Oh yeah, this is the good stuff. This was a wonderful episode of the new Doctor Who, in which the Doctor and Rose travel to 1878 Scotland and meet Queen Victoria, get involved in stopping a werewolf (or an alien, of course) on the Moors, and generally galavant around and have a great time.
 
It’s clear that it’s all about the characters having a great time. This Doctor and companion aren’t dour or act like they’re on a great mission. Instead, the pair are out to have fun and enjoy themselves. So the Doctor turns on the CD player and listens to Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and the pair decide spontaneously to travel back to 1978. But the Doctor overshoots and they go to 1878, and the Doctor and Rose just shrug their shoulders and enjoy spending time there. No angst, no worry about things, the pair just goes along, having a great time, defeating evil aliens but never really seeming too much in danger because, after all, he’s the Doctor and he’s done this sort of thing before.
 
This episode is just so damn fun. There are shaolin priests and space alien werewolves and wonderful old music and a very wonderful Queen Victoria. David Tennant is settling in as the Doctor, and he and Rose have even more chemistry than they did last season. It’s got energy and verve and enthusiasm, and, you know, I just had a grand old time of it watching this episode. This may not be the most thoughtful post  ever do on this blog, but you know, I just had fun watching this.
 
Next week’s episode is "Old School", featuring the return of Sarah Jane Smith and K9. Can the Brigadier be far behind?

Daredevil #68 (1970)

April 27, 2006
Way back in the old days, my old haunting grounds Amazing Heroes used to run what we called "silly covers." The idea was exactly what you might think it was: goofy and silly fake covers of super-heroes. My favorite cover was of "Baredevil, the man without clothes". As Baredevil, ahem, freely swung through Manhattan (with a discretely placed leg), only his face covered with a mask, a man and woman observed our hero. And both think the same thing, "Gasp! Matt Murdock is really… Baredevil" Okay, I was like 13 at the time, and the mere mention of nudity was exciting for me. And the gag is kind of amusing.
 
Anyway, I thought of that silly cover because I recently picked up this comic. Wacky cover, there, huh? We have a boxer lying in a locker room floor, apparently knocked out. We have the man without fear (who is also the man without nipples, apparently) standing in trunks, boots and a mask – clearly the stupidest hero outfit ever – and what does the bearded bad guy notice? The gloves and the mask? As if this sort of thing happens every day. Now I do realize that the chunky blonde guy looks extremely happy to get so close to this virile and scantly-dressed man, but what kind of reaction is that, anyway?
 
Inside? Oh yeah, some typically gorgeous artwork by Gene Colan and Syd Shores, a great team of the time. I go crazy for Colan, who did not draw the cover – Gene the Dean has class – and the comic has some typically stunning art. How is Colan not thought of in the same breath as Kirby, Ditko or Adams?

Buja’s Diary (2005)

April 26, 2006
Take a virtual tour of Korea through the pages of Buja’s Diary, the first translated non-genre "manhwa", or Korean manga, to arrive in the English-speaking world. From the pen of Seyeong O, one of Korea’s leading cartoonists, comes this collection of thirteen stories that brings readers to different places in times in Korea. O’s incisive viewpoint and intelligent style helps to create an especially memorable book.
 
Seyeong O is a terrific short story writer, with a great eye for important details, and for the intelligent use of symbolism as the way to drive stories. Take the title story, for instance. "Buja" is a Korean word meaning "rich", but the Buja of "Buja’s Picture Diary", is a poor girl from a poor family who doesn’t fit in well at school. Where all her classmates can buy nice clothes for the school celebration, Buja’s mother just scrapes by, at the edges of the society. O draws a complex and interesting view of this family’s life, with fully rendered pages of wordless text placed next to a child’s diary. Readers get a great feel for what life is like for these characters, and presents a thoughtful look at his home country. Or see "The Secret of the Old Leather Pouch," where the leather pouch of the story symbolizes several different things: generational conflict, the split of North and South Korea, the conflict between an individual father and son.
 
This book is filled with gems like that. "Horse" is a short story about small town life after the end of the Japanese occupation: "Why is the horse in that shape? It looks shabby and has no spirit, just like me. So that’s it. The horse must be me. We’re both freed from the Japs, but with neither happiness nor hope…" "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! Bang" tells the story of a young man who just can’t get over his experiences at war. "The Little Alley Watcher" tells the story of the last family on a lonely and deserted island.
 
Not all the stories are dark, though. "Observe" tells the story of a very vain man who loves to smack his chewing gum, and how his vanity only goes so far. "Escape" tells the story of a bored office worker who escapes his job through an apocalyptic fantasy. "The Snake Catcher Brothers’ Dream" tells a universal story about greed.
 
Seyeong O’s art is wonderful. His style is rich and evocative, and changes to suit each story. He’s a wonderful observer of people and human nature – his people are subtle and unique and full of life.
 
My only complaint about the book is that there are a few elements of it that are a bit obscure to readers not versed in Korean society. But those are few and far between. Overall, "Buja’s Diary" is a fascinating travelogue to an interesting country that, in the end, isn’t very different from the USA.

Panic #7 (1955)

April 25, 2006
The ad on the inside front cover of this EC Comic cheerfully reads "It’s true I bought the last MAD on the news-stand, but they still have a copy of Panic which is practially the same as MAD!" And that’s pretty much true, as far as I can tell: the mid-’50s comic book size MAD was a revelation, a spectacularly silly parody of the comics and TV shows of the time. It may not have boasted the unique comic genius of Harvey Kurtzman , but Panic featued many of the same artists – Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Jack Davis and the incomparable Will Elder.
 
Elder was the real genius of the artists for this type of work, obsessively filling each panel in his stories with wacky humor and off-center bits. Elder illustrates "Mel Padooka," a parody of the old "Joe Palooka" comic strip, and does do in an incredibly manic style. We get Marily Monroe jokes, jokes about other comic strips, silly comments about ghost artists (Palooka artist Ham Fisher was famous for his use of ghosts), and a slew of other targets. Elder’s humor comics always basically followed the lines of satire of the comics they were lampooning, but the real humor, and manic thrill, of his work was in the absurd detail and intense wackiness of Elder’s panels. There’s literally been nobody like him in comics history.
 
There really is a stright line between comics like this and silly humor like Monty Python and Leslie Nielson movies. It’s nothing but pure wacky, fun, silly humor. And it’s great for that.

House of Mystery #196 (1971)

April 24, 2006
I was thrilled when DC released their recent 500-page collection of House of Mystery because many issues of that comic had been on my wantlist for a long time, and I had pretty much tought they would never be reprinted. After all, superheroes rule the roost these days, even in reprints, and it’s rare to see non-hero material reprinted. I hope that DC can continue with their horror reprints because it’s damn exciting to see some of this great material back in print.
 
That collection runs to HoM 194, so I recently picked up issue 196. Like many issues from the prime run of this series, this issue features a bunch of fine artists: Gray Morrow, Gil Kane, Nick Cardy and the sublime Alex Toth. Okay, so the stories aren’t nearly up to the level of quality of the art. At least they’re not complete losses. Even the story writen by Gerry Conway in this issue isn’t all that bad. Conway was a horrible comic writer, but was well known for his science fiction novels he wrote in the early ’70s.  His story here, "A Girl and Her Dog," might have been one of his first comic scripts. And really it’s not terrible, depicting the story of a young girl orphaned by World War II who finds a horrible curse below her orphanage. The story takes some really pointless twists and turns, but the wonderful Morrow art saves it.
 
These stories were kind of limited by the constraints of the comics code. At that time, zombies, mummies and vampires were all forbidden in comics. So companies had to make due with threats like the benign alien in Toth’s story and the leprechans of Kane’s story. I don’t think that constraint made the stories better, but it did force some the creators to use some inventiveness, rather than have to fall back to the same old evil critters.
 
Of course, within a few years, the code relaxed and Marvel could have a comic featuring the Son of Satan as a lead character. And comics never looked back.

Fear Agent #3 (2006)

April 22, 2006
It’s another all-action issue, as Heath the Fear Agent and Mara escape the Elder ship, only to see their sabotaged ship blow up. The pair crash-lands on "some post-apocalyptic, lifeless ice-turd," where they immediately find themselves under attack from some very nasty robots.

Yeah, it’s all-out action, but what glorious action. The story speeds along at an insane clip. It’s all action and reaction, no time to sit back and take things in. Instead, the reader, like the characters, has no choice but to accept what’s going on. And, since writer Remender and artist Moore are so convincing in their setting, it all makes total sense in context. There’s a feeling that there’s a greater story going on here, part of a fully-formed cosmos where Fear Agents are the badass heroes of the galaxy, and many civilizations have risen and fallen.

Tony Moore’s art is spectacular, all exciting angles and intense action. The intense attention to detail heightens the drama, especially on the post-apocalyptic planet, where the detail in the setting makes things tremendously exciting.

The comic is full of humor, too: Heath’s swig of booze before launch, Mara punching out Heath as she wakes up after the crash, Heath’s disgusting space-ship.

Fear Agent is one thrill after another. It’s a shame this comic comes out so slowly; every thrill-packed issue leaves the reader wanting another.

Tales of Colossus (2006)

April 21, 2006
Well, this is an unexpected gem. In the middle ages, Orlant is a great knight on the losing side of a major battle. Imprisoned and facing death, Orlant fights back. For his trouble, Orlant is exiled to a middle-eastern kingdom where his soul is trapped forever inside a great metal colossus. Orlant breaks away and, inevitably, seeks his revenge on those who have imprisoned him. The depraved Grimon, who has amazing powers of his own, leads the forces of evil. And, of course, the story all leads to a tremendous climactic battle.

Mark Andrews does a masterful job of creating this story, giving its unique tale an amazing sense of atmosphere. Like a great animated film, Andrews creates setting though use of complex and lush backgrounds and great character designs. The character of Colossus boasts a wonderfully striking design. The creature looks like something that could have been created in that era, as if a great blacksmith had worked on the armor. Sir Grimon, on the other hand, has an utterly depraved and untrustworthy look from the moment he first appears. Readers can tell as soon as Grimon appears on the page that he is utterly without morality, both from Grimon’s words and actions. He’s a truly evil man, and Andrews creates Grimon character well.

Comparing this graphic novel to an animated film is especially appropriate when discussing Mark Andrews. Andrews worked at Pixar studios, working as a script supervisor on The Incredibles before moving on to Samurai Jack and Clone Wars. If there’s one thing that each of those three works share, it’s a deep and abiding feel for the history of their characters. In all three, there’s a sense that the characters have a full history that happened before we meet them, and that’s definitely the case here. Between the beginning of this graphic novel, rich in historical depth, and the ending of this graphic novel, a rich description of the main character’s life, Orlant really feels like a man who might have walked the Earth several hundred years ago.

The only real weakness of this terrific novel is that I was thirsty to see what Andrews could do with this story if it were in color. The black-and-white rendering is lush and wonderful, but if it were in color, this could have been another Rocketo.

But that’s a minor quibble. Tales of Colossus is a thoroughly satisfying epic from the pen of a tremendously talented creator.

Waterwise GN (2005)

April 19, 2006
Last summer, I was in a comics shop run by my pal Carr. Carr and I have been friends for a long time, and if anyone knows my taste in comics, he does. I asked Carr to recommend something different for me to read, something with a story or theme that’s a bit off the beaten path. He recommended I check out Waterwise. "Give it a try," he said, "it will put you in an interesting mood." I looked through the book. It was a bit slim for its $14.95 cover price, but the art was pleasantly unique and after all Carr recommended it to me. What the heck, right?
 
After reading Waterwise, I felt I was in Carr’s debt. Waterwise is a lyrical and moody graphic novel of hope and joy and passion for life. It tells the story of Jim, an unemployed artist who finds himself hitchhiking around, pretty much directionless in his life after some earlier frustrations. Returning to his family’s cabin to reflect on things, Jim runs into his old neighbor Emily out of dumb luck. Emily used to live near the cabin and is Jim’s age. At one time Jim had a deep crush on Emily, who has since grown to experience troubles of her own. Divorced and with a young daughter, Emily has also returned to the cabin to find some peace in her life. What follows their meeting is the stuff of this wonderful book.
 
Joel Orff tells a wonderfully impressionistic tale of these two people who find a short moment of pure idyllic joy in the midst of their challenging lives. In their small adventures, both characters begin to find the peace they crave, embracing the pleasant joys of the past to resurrect real pleasures in their lives. Orff’s art is as impressionistic as his story. The book seems to be suffused with black. Not a mysterious noir black or a foreboding black, but a black that’s somehow warm and comforting, peaceful and calming. The art takes its time to reveal its mysteries, but it does so because sometimes life is best experienced slowly, languidly. Sometimes it’s better to let things come to you instead of going after things. The art is the perfect companion for Orff’s languid and calm story.
 
The art starts out feeling awkward, but it’s striking how much subtlety it begins to take on. Jim’s unrequited love for Emily becomes clear as a reader studies Jim’s face, and the ending is mysteriously subtle, a Mona Lisa smile of sorts.
 
Rereading the book closely, there’s even an extra level of subtle story revealed, I think. I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone, but if you do read it, pay attention to the lines that parallel the beginning and end of the book. Is there a subtle twist that’s implied there?
 
This is a wonderfully unique and personal graphic novel from the pen and brush of Joel Orff. Thanks again, Carr.