Friday, December 29, 2006

Don't They Know It's The End of the World?

So yeah, I feel bad about recommending the first issue of Howard Chaykin's Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage so highly. Because as good as the first issue was, the second issue... wasn't. It's almost as if, halfway through the project, he realized he was doing a freakin' Guy Gardner book and then decided to get the whole thing done in one mad No-Doze fueled weekend. Because all the good exposition and set-up in the first issue really didn't have nnaything to do with what actually happened. And as for what actually happened? I'm not really sure. There was a lot of yelling, and some really horrible Liefeld-esque anatomy, and plot points out of left field. Just bad.

There was one line that got a real, honest-to-God laugh out of me, however. I won't give the joke away if you haven't read it yet, but "Hey - thanks for your support" was almost worth the price of admission in and of itself.

If you know me at all, you know there are a few things for which I am unabashed sucker. One of these things is Quasar (who should be getting resurrected any minute now). Another of these things is, sadly, Secret Wars. Yeah, I know, it doesn't exactly speak highly of me.

But yes, Beyond! kicked all kinds of ass. Not only was it sort-of a sequel to the first Secret Wars, but it also had some of my favorite b- and c-list characters featured prominently. Hank Pym and the luscious Wasp? Check. Deathlok II, Michael Collins? Check. The Space Phantom? Check. Xemnu the Titan That's a Ten-Four, good buddy.

Dwayne MacDuffie gets props not only for taking some cool characters and using them well, but for using some frankly lame characters in such a way as to make them, well, maybe not interesting, but at least sensible in the context of the book. I mean, the Hood and Al Kraven? Not exactly any Marvel Zombie's favorite characters, and yet MacDuffie used them in such a way as it made perfect sense for them to be there, and furthered the characters in such a way as any future writer could easily pick them up for their own purposes. You know, like how writers used to apply the shared universe concept, before it became a bunch of semi-autonomous feifdoms where each writer had their own pet characters whom they use to the exclusion of all others...

Anyway, I did have a couple nitpicks, but they were small. First, the original Battleworld took place in a barren galaxy, so all the stars and moons in the sky were slightly distracting, if this was indeed supposed to be the OG Battleworld. Second, I have a hard time believing that the person pretending to be the Beyonder (I won't give that away) wouldn't have seen through the deception at the end of the book... but I'll accept that since it was the end of the series there needed to be an ending. Otherwise, MacDuffie did a great job of following through on the logic of his premise. Although, I have to ask, what happened to Dragon Man, Xemnu and Northstar? How did they get off the planet? Inquiring minds want to know!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Pizzeria Kamikaze
by Etgar Keret & Asaf Hanuka

The question of just how my reviews are perceived by the people who read this blog is something which I'll admit takes up a bit more of my thinking time than it probably should. I end up writing a lot of positive reviews, and I'd be lying if I said that didn't occasionally worry me, in a weird way. For some odd reason we've got this critical system where a negative review is granted far more weight than a positive one, and a critic's gravitas is often measured, either directly or indirectly, by the articulate negativity which they can bring to bear on their subjects.

It's all bullshit, of course. But that doesn't mean that the prejudices aren't still there in the back of a person's mind. I worry about whether or not all these positive reviews have the effect of lowering my esteem in the critical community (as if there is such a thing as "esteem" in such a community - hah!); whether or not a genuine enthusiasm for the subject can be seen by some as a sign of an undiscerning intelligence, a weakly developed aesthetic sense, or just plain old bad taste. There are, of course, much more important things to be worrying about, but you could probably make a good argument for the idea that if I had better things to worry about I wouldn't be blogging in the first place.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way (is there any other kind?) to Pizzeria Kamikaze, recently published by Alternative Comics. It is pure coincidence that Pizzeria Kamikaze was next in my to-read pile after The Placebo Man, despite the fact that the latter was by Tomer Hanuka and the former is the product of his brother, Asaf. Reading both books within the span of just a couple days, I was left with an undeniably disquieting feeling of awe, that two such incredibly talented cartoonists could have come from the same lineage. It's not without precedent, obviously: I'm not going to put the Hanuka brothers up there with Los Bros Hernandez anytime soon. But in all seriousness, if they continue to apply themselves to the medium with the same conscientiousness they have the potential to be among the very best creators of their generation.

Pizzeria Kamikaze is, if anything, even more impressive than The Placebo Man. Part of the charm of Tomer's volume was seeing the artist come into his talent, emerging from early experiments and misfires into a fully-formed cohesive creative vision. But there's nothing tentative about Pizzeria Kamikaze. It probably helps in this respect that Kamikaze is actually an adaptation, in this case of Etgar Keret's novel Kneller's Happy Campers. I've never read any of Keret's work before, but the promotional material describes him as "the Amos Oz of his generation" - high praise, I suppose (although we can hope that if Keret's work is any good he will find a larger audience outside Israel than Oz has ever managed).

The result is, in any event, one of the most gratifying literary adaptations I've ever seen in the comics medium. The story begins with a suicide, that is, Mordecai's suicide - after which he finds himself working at a pizzeria somewhere in purgatory. Or rather, a purgatory populated exclusively with the ghosts of fellow suicides. It's very much like earth, only maybe a little more drab in places, and people often have conspicuous exit wounds or massive scarring on their wrists. (Mordecai took pills, so he arrives in the afterlife in pristine condition.) After a while shoveling pizzas out of the oven, he runs into an acquaintance who informs him that his girlfriend from earth killed herself not long after Mordecai did, inspiring him to set off across the countryside to find her.

More than anything else, Pizzeria Kamikaze reminded me of Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life*. Although the two works are dissimilar in tone -- with Pizzeria Kamikaze coming off slightly ominous and spooky next to the arch satire of Brooks' film -- both share essentially the same droll premise. The afterlife is very much like life, only maybe a bit more banal. In place of pearly gates and heavenly choirs, there are bureaucrats and supermarkets. The overwhelming sensation is chagrin, like the very concept of death is nothing but a Pet Shop Boys concept album.

Mordecai's quest, such as it is, is a nonstarter from the beginning, and on some level the reader acknowledges this long before the characters. The very notion of a quest seems on some level to be at odds with the aggressively unspectacular nature of the gray afterlife in which these people have found themselves. They're in perpetual stasis. The question is not whether they will find a solution to their dilemma; the question is whether they will move past the notion of dilemmas and solutions. This is illustrated most succinctly in a scene where Mordecai and a companion - both Israeli nationals - find themselves in an Arab bar populated by "retired" suicide bombers. The Israelis don't so much as elicit a shrug from the Arab patrons: obviously, they didn't get their 70 virgins. Like most everyone else in this strange afterlife, they're possessed of nothing so much as a keenly developed sense of sang-froid.

Hanuka's style owes a lot to the stolid, understated draftsmanship of mainstream artists like Sean Phillips. There isn't a lot of narrative flash on display here: like the story itself, the events unfold with a casual precision, anecdote following anecdote in an assured progression. It's an easy rhythm that pulls the reader through the book at a brisk clip. The book is printed in two-tone, with black and silver ink. The result is not dissimilar to Ben Katchor's use of a limited color palette to evoke curdled nostalgia: the silvery graytones lend an air of pallid enervation.

More than anything, I came away from Pizzeria Kamikaze thoroughly impressed, fully seduced by the emotional delicacy of Keret's vision and the subtlety with which Hanuka's deceptively simple illustration brought this vision to life. I haven't really been paying attention to all the year-end lists which seem to be popping up like mushrooms - I have a strong aversion to them** - but if I were to compose my own (biased, personal) list, Pizzeria Kamikaze would be pretty high***. It's a fairly modest story, but it succeeds so completely in selling its distinctive reality that the effect is nothing short of intoxicating.

* Brooks' last great film. I forced myself to sit through Searching for Comedy in the Muslim World recently - now that was a physically painful experience.

**In case you were wondering, yes, I did participate in Popmatters year-end critics' poll. No, I wasn't very happy with the final list, but that's the nature of such lists to begin with. It's a necessary evil, I suppose - everyone gets a kick out of those lists, except the people who actually have to make them. They usually just piss me off.

***Not as high as Brian Chippendale's Ninja, however. Still haven't read Fun Home but it's sitting on my coffee table as I write this.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Joy to the World

Why do I get the feeling that not too many people are going to be interested in reading heavy content for the next few days? Just a hunch, I heard tell of some sort of holiday this Monday; no one ever tells me these things, I think I missed a memo. All I know is that I already got my presents for this year - or rather, I got a couple semi-nice things for myself and a package from my parents as well. And my grandmother sent me some really expensive Swiss cheese; the kind of gift you probably don't respect very much until you actually realize that the expensive Swiss cheese is really fucking good.

Anyway, in honor of the birth of our Lord and Savior, here's a recent article of mine on atheism. If you thought I was a curmudgeon on the subject of comics, just wait until you hear me on religion. Also, not really apropos of the season, here's my list of the ten best electronic music releases of 2006. Good stuff, a splendid time was had by all.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Marxist Interpretation of Richie Rich

The holidays are seen by many in the bourgeois moneyed classes as an occasion for charitable giving -- a weak sop to their vestigial conscience that actually masks a despicable reinforcing of class distinction. The act of charitable giving on the part of the wealthy is a fundamental affront to the dignity of the poor and working classes, a demeaning exercise in the flaunting of conspicuous largess as a way of adding feeble moral support to a decaying system of class-based material imbalance and inefficient resource management.

The butler's act of seemingly spontaneous charity is doubly shaming -- certainly if anyone can sympathize with the plight of the homeless, it's the man whose job forces him to demean himself at the alter of criminally ostentatious wealth. One day Richie Rich's small, pudgy body will be found in the gutter, having been garroted and violated by a rising tide of righteous indignation. His mewling pink baby flesh, unconditioned to any kind of physical labor above the level of pushing a button to summon a servant, will be dragged through the streets as symbol of man's triumphant freedom from economic oppression.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bah! Humbug!

There is no worse feeling in the world than trying to rewrite something you already wrote. It's like walking uphill with cinderblocks strapped to your feet -- one of those things that you don't want to do, and will resist for as long as possible. That review I mentioned yesterday? It's still gone, and I am procrastinating rewriting it. Since no one ever posts a comment to the reviews, I'm sure that means you're all just too stunned by the greatness of my intellectual heft to say anything. I get many, many more responses whenever I throw out some off-the-cuff references to bad superhero comics than for the reviews which I painstakingly assemble for seemingly no-one's benefit but my own. Perhaps I should just stick to posting old ALF covers? That's a good old standby.

This is a fun cover that highlights one of the most prominent devices in the ALF comic world (as well as the two short-lived ALF animated series), i.e. spoofing pop culture by creating a "Melmac" surrogate (Melmac was ALF's home planet). Just on the cover here you've got the Melmacian X-Men (the X-Melmen, complete with a Michigan Wolverine) a Melmacian Marx Brothers, and a Melmacian viking (I really don't remember) -- in addition to ALF's alter-egos as the super-heroic Fantastic Fur and sports mascot the Crazy Critter. That's quite a lot of permutations for one character, and it's conceivable that had the series ran longer they could have kept it up. It would have been nice to see a Melmacian spoof of Titanic.

And incidentally, what do you think the audience for ALF really was, if they could successfully spoof the Marx Brothers? How many kids do you know who sit around watching Duck Soup, or even know who Groucho is enough to get the joke in the first place? I think this is another instance of comic creators' cultural literacy coming out in odd, and arguably inappropriate places. There's a certain type of comics writer (mostly active in the 70s and 80s, but there were still a few into the 90s) who liked to pepper their mainstream superhero work with references to totally obscure (or just antiquated) pop culture references that could only go totally over the heads of the presumed target audience -- and that's even if you assumed the target audience was older than kids and preteens. I can't think of any instances off the top of my head, but it was pretty common for a while, and I always imagined that kind of stuff must have confused kids more than anything else.

I used to hate Kid Rock. There was something about his proudly ignorant, self-satisfied white-trash persona that rubbed me all kinds of the wrong way. His music was disgusting. He was not above championing his own tastes in the press, and invariably they were lousy. And he never, ever seemed to wear a shirt, at least back in the day, and he most certainly did not have the kind of physique that could in any way carry off shirtlessness.

But I see now that my hatred for the Kid was nothing, merely a little schoolgirl crush, compared to my deep and abiding loathing for Nickelback. Just the sound of Chad Kroeger's voice is enough to send me into spasms of fury. At the same time, the music itself is so despicably smooth, so unconditionally populist in appeal, that it can't help but worm its way into your brain, much like a hideous brain gremlin.

When I tune in to watch Doctor Who on Sci Fi every week, they invariably run a ton of promos for Battlestar: Galactica. And for some reason they decided that the music they needed to use to promote that show was Nickelback, in particular this one twenty-or-so second loop of whatever their latest "hit" is. This same loop that has been bouncing in and out of my head for months, like some sort of early-onset senile dementia in the form of a recurring aural motif. You ask why I will never, ever watch Battlestar: Galactica? Because that show has significantly lowered the quality of my life, without me having ever seen one episode. Hell, I have never to my knowledge actually heard a Nickelback song all the way through, and yet I have a handful of their "hits" hardwired into my mind. That is just despicable, any way you slice it. I'd rather remember all the steps to the Macarena* than ever, ever think about Nickelback again . . .

I imagine the guys from Nickelback living in some fetid swamp in Angola or Myanmar, covered in insects and swimming in boiling vats of blood and feces. They arise from their millennial slumber to stalk the world of Men, sneaking up behind innocent women and strangling them with piano wire, sucking the souls from their dying breaths in order to survive another night of grim half-life.

And yes, I know what you're thinking -- I'm going too soft on them. I'm just kind like that.

I have never liked the work of Frank Miller. There are a hundred little reasons why, none of which I have ever gotten around to articulating, but it all adds up to a pretty strong dislike that borders on the visceral. Be it the historical fudging in 300**, the rampant crypto-fascism of Dark Knight Returns, or the borderline incomprehensibility of just about everything he's done since the turn of the century, I find new ways to hate the man's work with every turn of the screw.

But the absolute worst aspect of Miller's work is the unremitting sexism. I'd argue that it's even worse than Dave Sim: with Sim, you at least know exactly what you're getting every time you plunk the change on the counter -- Sim is many things but he is rarely ambiguous. But somehow Miller manages to wrap some pretty toxic notions of womanhood and femininity into his work while still retaining a huge contingent of female fans, some of whom even think works like Sin City are empowering.

We've talked a lot on this blog about sexism, mysogony, and the perceptions thereof -- if I, as a man, perceive something as being sexist, while someone else, a woman, does not, is the object in question actually sexist? Do I have the right to be more "sensitive" to these issues than an actual woman? What about when my own damn mother tries to tell me that I should watch Sin City, even though I'm pretty certain I'd find the film as loathsome and derivative as I found the books?

Well, someone has finally articulated exactly how I feel on the matter. I have no clue who Richard Pilbeam is, but Heidi linked to this blog post yesterday. It's worth reading, but one passage in particular screams to be highlighted:
Imagine a movie that's as blatantly, hatefully racist as Sin City is blatantly, hatefully sexist. Where everybody black is either a slave or a minstrel, and their only purpose is to be victims, die horribly, and have racial slurs hurled at them. Where all the heroes, all the protagonists, all the people who carry any weight in the narrative, are white. Where - and here's the kicker - this worldview is never, ever challenged. The blacks like being slaves, for this is the way nature intended it, and the "good" whites are protective of the blacks because, despite a few of them being ninjas, they only defend their own turf, and anybody outside of that is utterly helpless.

Would this be acceptable, even if it was ostensibly "a parody"? Remember, there was a time when these attitudes were common, so it's retro! If it criticised any of the stereotypes, then it wouldn't be faithful to its sources! It's using 21st century ideas and technology to go where Song of the South always intended!

That, right there, is exactly what I've been thinking for quite some time. And before you automatically reply with "well, it's not the same thing!" -- just think a minute. Exactly how is it different? Are we not supposed to treat women with as much respect as we treat black people? Is it supposed to be "empowering" that some of the women in Sin City can "kick ass", even if they are still limited to the status of objects in the context of this all-male fantasy land? Are we supposed to admire the refurbished genre cliches simply because they are being used in a supposedly self-aware manner? I don't think they're being used in a particularly self-aware manner.

Sin City reminds me of a scene out of Dan Clowes' Pussey!***. Dan Pussey has taken his latest magnum opus to, I believe, the Art Spiegelman stand-in, who gushes rapturously about the subtle, arch postmodernism of Pussey's repurposing of genre cliches, or some such shit. To which Pussey replies, succinctly: "It's supposed to be Star Trek meets Batman". Miller may once have had a distinctive visual style, but that doesn't mean he was ever a conceptual genius. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar: the alternative is that Miller is the single greatest deadpan performance artist since Andy Kaufman. And honestly, based solely on his work, I just don't think he's as smart as all that.

*Yes, at some point I did indeed know all the steps to the Macarena.

** I hate historical fudging. It's one thing to speculate on what isn't known, or to weave speculation or fantasy in with "real" history (as long as a reasonably intelligent audience can decipher which is which, as with Oliver Stone), but to willingly change the facts because they don't fit in with your story? That means, plain and simple, that part of your story is bad.

***Still one of his best books, dammit.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


OK, I spent a good hour and change on a review to post this morning, which my laptop and memory stick conspired to eat. And they say Macs never freeze.

Anyway, here's the cover of the newest Nas album:

When did Nas start shopping at Hot Topic? Seriously, dude's gone goth on us. He needs to do the gothic dance.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Placebo Man
by Tomer Hanuka

The cover of The Placebo Man is striking, enough so that I had been tempted to buy the book long before I knew anything about its contents. The hot pink logo jumps off the racks like a strident declaration of purpose, almost defying the wary consumer to ignore the volume which it advertises. The juxtaposition between the Barbie-pink logo and the ascetically drab cityscape and shoreline that compose the rest of the image is actually a fairly accurate symbolic representation of Hanuka's style: the banal and prosaic cut up with just enough spice to make it unfamiliar, the normal as seen from a strange angle or unassuming vantage.

The stories presented here were originally published in Bipolar over the course of six years between 2000 and 2005. The progression of time is a palpable force in Hanuka's work: not merely the chopped and spliced approach to multiple time frames on the comics page, but more importantly the actual growth and refinement of Hanuka's skill over the course of these six years. It would be something of a criminal understatement to say that Hanuka's work improves over the course of The Placebo Man. The Hanuka who begins with book, with ambitious but clumsy exercises such as "Time Strips" and "I Love You", is barely recognizable in the assured, masterly work that concludes the volume. A story like "Morocco" achieves a casual, confident rhythm that sways the reader into emotional complicity, swooping across the finish line of the final page with an animal grace.

Hanuka's work, while distinctly his own, fits closely into an established tradition of modern comics short stories, specifically those concerned with the non-linear progression of events. The way in which the passage of time can be manipulated with such ease is one of the medium's singular strengths. A cartoonist can switch between multiple, parallel or conflicting time frames with deceptive ease, utilizing both visual and verbal clues to facilitate the kind of formally ambitious narrative that would be difficult to (coherently) execute in either prose or film. It's an ambitious approach. Early in the volume, Hanuka's reach clearly exceeds his grasp, as the narrative connections and inferences in "Time Strips" are simply too disparate and chaotic to work in the space of ten short pages; the result is a jumble. You can see a slight progression in "Elephant Graveyard", which carries a stronger central idea (the life of Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller) -- it's the central idea that enables the reader to follow Hanuka's flights of narrative dissonance across multiple iterations.

I don't know if I would necessarily call "Squeeze" a failure, even if I admittedly had a hard time following Hanuka's train of thought on this one. I believe, after a few rereadings, that a sense of foggy dislocation was something of the point. However, it is still hard not to conclude that the story's stew of rich (some would say overbearing) symbolism and emotionally potent imagery didn't at some point get the better of Hanuka. All such qualms fade with "Telekinetic", a simpler story for what it actually portrays but measurably more potent for its sharper focus. There is the subliminal sensation of things coming together, of the artist's intentions successfully and electrically matching his ambitions for perhaps the first time. The story carries an idea, and the many disparate, dispersed narrative threads all carry portions of that idea which finally come together at the story's end. Earlier in the volume, it seemed as if Hanuka's ideas were being unnecessarily obfuscated by superfluous stylistic ballast, but the later stories present a far more disciplined -- and thereby successful -- storyteller.

"Aquaflesh" is well-told but ultimately trifling, a reconception of Aquaman as an existential love story. It's "Morocco" that lingers with the reader long after the last page is turned, as memorable for the powerfully subtle cartooning skill on display as for the story itself. It is also worth noting that "Morocco" also marks a significant departure from the rest of the book in terms of the broader issues with which is relates: whereas the earlier stories almost exclusively deal with intimate issues of identity, memory and love, "Morocco" steps outside to broach race and national identity. While still ostensibly concerned with matters of persistently intimate dimensions, the presence of ethnic and national distinction between characters and settings creates a far more telling and evocative context than the almost hermetically deracinated earlier stories. A pair of the earlier stories, "I Love You" and "Junior", even go so far as to give us completely exaggerated cartoon figures as protagonists -- a fair notion given the stories themselves, but unsuited for the increasingly complex and affecting content of Hanuka's later work.

The Placebo Man in general, but "Telekinetic" and especially "Morocco" announce Hanuka as not merely a striking draftsman (something which most people probably already realized from his design work) but a storyteller of surpassing skill. The ability to confront politics in its stubbornly human dimensions is one of the defining challenges of art; by framing politics in the context of our most intimate expressions, Hanuka has taken a step closer to something far more profound than what is readily on display here. If the upward trend in Hanuka's work that we see in this volume continues throughout his career, we may just now be seeing the advent of a singularly potent cartooning talent.

Friday, December 15, 2006

My Cancer Week

Cancer isn't something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I'm still young enough to be out of the statistical range for most cancer. I had a friend back in high school who got testicular cancer, so I've always been a little paranoid about that (they call it "young man's disease"), but thankfully no tumor on my junk.

Last Monday I went in for my yearly physical. Pretty boring stuff. Except... there was this one thing to ask the doctor about. This one little... well, lump, for lack of a better term. On my left breast under my nipple. Not usually something you'd spend much time worried about, at least not me. But, for some reason I mentioned it to the doctor.

What I expected to hear was: "Oh, that's nothing, just some fatty tissue, maybe a cist."

What I actually heard was: "We're going to schedule you for an emergency ultrasound."

Less than 1% of all cases of breast cancer occur in men. But less than 1%, while still a statistical improbability, is not an impossibility. I don't have a history of breast cancer in my family. I'm not old enough to be "at risk". And yet. My physical was on a Monday and my ultrasound was scheduled for that Wednesday. That's a lot of time in which the mind can wander.

The ultrasound itself was something of an anticlimax. I was taken into a small, dark room, very cozy, and the (female) technician told me to take my shirt off and put my left arm above my head. I said something about her not usually seeing men in here, and she agreed, saying that it was a nice change of pace. She put some warm gel on my chest and rubbed the wand on the bump0 - all told, it took about three minutes. She gave me a towel to wipe the goo off and told me my primary care doctor would get back to me with the results.

The doctor called on Thursday evening, long past when I would have expected her to call. I was asleep (I keep odd hours). I don't really remember much of the conversation, save for the part where she said "it's not cancer" -- at which point my brain shut off, relieved, and I went back to sleep. I'm still not sure what it is, but it's not cancer.

So yeah, that was not a particularly fun week. But at least I don't have cancer. Merry fucking Christmas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Big Questions 9
by Anders Nilsen

The comics of Anders Nilsen do not appear to exist in the same plane of reference as most other comics. Often, the setting is desolate blankness, emptiness stretching off to the horizon line. The frequent lack of panel borders contributes to the sense of vertigo. More than any other creator, Nilsen uses blank space on the page to create anxiety and tension. The quietude and sparseness is so pervasive a mood that the reader is almost overwhelmed.

Big Questions 9 is, as the title may suggest, the ninth in Nilsen's ongoing series of pamphlets, released as an adjunct to recent long-form work such as Dogs & Water, Don't Go Where I Can't Follow and Monologues for the Coming Plague, as well as regular contributions to Fantagraphics' ongoing Mome anthology. Nilsen's recent spate of productivity, all the while maintaining a dangerously high standard of quality, places him firmly within the upper echelon of current cartoonists. His style, while firmly established, is still elastic enough to provide for multiple ongoing experiments, of the type provided by multiple ongoing venues. Paging through Big Questions 9, an uneducated reader would be hard-pressed to say that this was the same man who produces those devilishly abstract strips in Mome. That's a good thing.

The multiple features within Big Questions are continued from previous issues, but you'd be hard-pressed to call them serials of the conventional kind. Sitting down to read the issue with little or no memory of the events of the last issue, the book seems as effective in isolation as it would be otherwise. Just as the characters in Nilsen's stories wander through unadorned, numbing expanses of time and space, so too is the reader thrust into the liminal zones between confusion and comprehension. It's the feeling of having walked into a film after the first reel, long after the initial exposition -- there's nothing left but a long sequence of actions occurring seemingly at random, shorn of all necessary context. Perhaps the context is hidden or missing, perhaps it never existed. What is left for the reader is the pleasure of the present tense.

Considering how sparse the storytelling is, it's remarkable that Nilsen manages to communicate emotional states with as much urgency and focus as he does. Perhaps the lack of context creates a hyper-awareness on the part of the reader, a heightened alertness to the nuance and detail of simple interaction that would not occur in the context of a more elaborate story. The prominent characters in Big Questions 9 are mostly animals -- birds and a snake, in addition to two humans. One of these humans is mentally retarded, placing him below the level of the story's animals in terms of his ability to communicate effectively, either to his fellow characters or to the reader.

Nilsen's birds are surprisingly expressive creatures, considering the fact that they are only minimally anthropomorphized. Or rather, although the birds talk and communicate on-panel, they don't have expressive faces or bulging eyes or elastic body language -- The most we get as far as that goes is a single dot for a bird's eye, with a single line above it to illustrate emotion. Nilsen does a lot with not very much, managing to use the birds' own repertoire -- flapping wings, flight -- to communicate very human emotions. He breaks these rules slightly in the book's final feature, "Algernon", featuring the culmination of the title character's journey to Hell -- but still, for all that his birds remain stridently bird-like.

I was surprised at just how much emotion Nilsen could get out of a few silly birds. Although the story itself is familiar to anyone versed in Greek mythology, "Algernon" still surprises with the unadorned potency of its climax. Perhaps it's because I didn't see the allusion until it was too late. Perhaps it was the seeming incongruity of birds. But the emotion was real, regardless of the source and regardless of the form. Away from his technical virtuosity and formal ingenuity, Nilsen is still capable of using authentic emotion to tell a rich and elegant story. No matter how abstruse his methods may at times seem, it is that reservoir of honest expression that will provide Nilsen with the tools to create work of even greater lasting value and impact.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Surrogates
by Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele

I don't think I was the only person who was surprised when Top Shelf first announced The Surrogates. Over the last decade or so the company has made its reputation with creator-driven, primarily non-genre projects of a similar bent to those of Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly (albeit with a slightly more earthy focus than either of those estimable companies). Even if you allow for occasional departures, The Surrogates is, on the face of it, still much more in line with what you'd expect from a "new mainstream" company like Oni or AiT / Planet Lar.

After reading the book, I still don't know how The Surrogates fits in with the wider spectrum of Top Shelf releases -- save to say that, like much of the company's output, the book is very good. Good science-fiction is exceedingly rare in comics, for a few reasons. Much of what presents itself as sci-fi is either superhero stores in drag, fantasy stories with sci-fi pretensions, or straight action-adventure with sci-fi trappings. Anyone looking for decent examples of contemporary hard sci-fi or speculative fiction in the medium is pretty much on their own, with a few notable exceptions. The Surrogates doesn't quite escape these problems: there is, as you might expect from a quick glance at the cover, a kind of costumed adventure around whom the book revolves. But Steeplejack is less a character than a presence: he kicks the plot into gear, manipulating events from a distance while remaining an figure of enigma. Much like V in V For Vendetta, the character is less a character than a motivation, an idea personified and converted into a catalyst through action. Unlike V, he doesn't speechify, leaving the characters around him to assume his motivations after the fact. It's an interesting choice, one that invites the reader to make his own decisions about the chracters' morality and motivations.

If anything, I'd say The Surrogates is far too short. The one thing the book does unmistakably well is to create the context of a real and believable sci-fi world in which the characters interact and situations occur. World-building is one of the most important aspects of sci-fi, and once you get past the initial high concept (robot "surrogates" controlled by remote allow people to live, work and play while remaining within the comfortable confines of their homes) Venditti and Weldele's world is a plausible one. If anything, it's too plausible: the necessary focus of a scant five-issue miniseries is just nowhere near enough to give anything but the briefest sketch of the most fascinating aspects of this "Brave New World".

The ostensible plot -- kicked into motion when Steeplejack begins killing surrogate robots and burgling expensive prototype computer chips -- is really only a sideshow on the way to explicating this larger world. The mystery of Steeplejack's identity isn't even really a mystery: the perpetrator isn't introduced until after the book is half over, at which point they're the only serious suspect. Perhaps with more space Venditti could have spent more time elaborating on the kind of elaborate Chinatown-esque layers of political and social complacency which are only barely hinted at here. In the end (and unsurprisingly), the only real "villain" is the corporation that manufactures the surrogates. While great pains are taken to show the unavoidable benefits of the surrogate presence in society, the inevitable downside of dehumanized interactions and anti-social reliance on proxies is unavoidable. Regardless of the occasionally cursory nature of the plot*, the story's true focus remains firmly on these human dimensions. It is to Venditti's credit that the reader actually wants to stick around, to see the plot play out at greater length and with added depth, such is the world he has created.

As I said, sci-fi is hard work, and it's pretty impressive to reflect on the fact that The Surrogates is actually Venditti's first graphic novel. Despite the flabby plot in the book's second half, this is really an assured debut. He nails the characters and the setting, and in sci-fi those are the two most difficult landings. It would be tempting to blame some of the book's abruptness on the format. As I said, this could easily have been a lot longer. But perhaps its better to err on the side of caution your first time out the gate?

I was initially leery of Weldele's work -- he's got one of those slightly abstract, elaborately designed styles that brings to mind Ashley Wood. But there are only a couple of places where the book suffers from a lack of clarity, and only inasmuch as there are a couple of fairly complex action setpieces that require a bit of work to digest properly. As is pretty much standard for an artist of this type, I am anxious to see where Weldele's style takes him in the future, once his influences become a bit less pronounced and a more individualized perspective becomes clear.

Despite some qualifications on the book's construction, I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Surrogates. There's been a lot of care put into the book's presentation and preparation, with ample bonus materials adding to a substantive reading experience. For a journeyman work this shows a great deal of promise for both Venditti & Weldele, and on its own merits it is still one of the better sci-fi books I've read in years.

*My question is, how does Steeplejack generate the gigantic EM pulse at the book's climax? Don't you need a dish or a tower or something with which to generate that kind of energy?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Positive Affirmations

Friday, December 08, 2006

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Science Is Fun

OK, pop quiz: who can tell me what is wrong with
this panel from Superman / Batman #30?

Answer: Superman / Batman sucks ass.

(Click to enlarge.)

Leave your answer in the comments.
First correct answer gets a kewpie doll!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage #1 (of 2)
by Howard Chaykin with Michelle Madsen

(I can't be the only person who saw this book in the store and accidentally read that credit as Michael Madsen, can I? My initial thought was, wow, this book couldn't be any more manly if it tried.)

Just in case anyone thinks I had it in for Chaykin after my Hawkgirl post the other day, I thought I'd take a moment to point out that I took a special trip to the store to get his new Guy Gardner book. There's a sentence I didn't ever see myself typing: I can't even remember the last time I bought a Green Lantern book, let alone a book with Guy Gardner in it. Probably one of those Giffen / DeMatteis "I Can't Believe It's Not The Justice League" books or something.

Anyway, the character couldn't be a better fit for the creator. Although he is perhaps best known for his creator-owned work, Chaykin is one of a surprisingly prestigious group of creators (Dave Gibbons is another) who retains a fondness for the Green Lantern franchise. Guy Gardner may be pretty much the definition of a B- or even C-list character, the kind of hero with a definite fanbase but no real commercial presence, an established brand that nonetheless presents a slew of opportunities for a distinctive creator like Chaykin, the kind of opportunities that simply would not be on the table for a larger character.

I was surprised by how closely Chaykin tied this book to DC continuity. Sure, there's no real specific timetable, but it is technically a tie-in to last year's Rann / Thanagar War. Also, Guy's Vuldarian origin is a major plot point: this is the kind of niggling continuity wrinkle that you would easily expect a brand-name creator like Chaykin to ignore, and yet he places it front and center as a motivation for the main villains. (Does guy still have those weird "Warrior" powers, or did he lose them when he got his ring back? And whatever happened to the yellow ring he was using for a few years?)

In any event, Collateral Damage allows Chaykin the opportunity to remold Guy in his own image, or, rather, the image of one his stock characters -- the not-so-lovable cad, the abrasive rake. Usually the idea of the "ladies man" is played for laughs in superhero comics (as we see in much of Guy's history), because most superhero books simply don't have the vocabulary to deal with this character type in a realistic-seeming manner. Chaykin presents Guy in a far less comedic context. Here, Guy is that dude we all know, the total asshole who acts like a lecherous creep and practically abuses every woman he meets and yet somehow gets laid a lot more than you or I -- basically, this is who we all sort of knew Guy was along along (if we cared to think about it), but never really saw because of the restrictions of the Comics Code. This slight reinvention of Guy fits Chaykin's customary brusque tone like a glove.

Although he's obviously got a fondness for the genre, I don't really know how well-suited Chaykin's style is for space opera. Chaykin's style is always notable for the attention payed to bold layouts, with prominent figures placed against semi-realistic backdrops. Chaykin's characters usually look bigger than those of just about any artist -- he has a way of placing the human figure front and center in just such a way as to make even the least interesting set-ups seem dynamic. Perhaps as such it is less suited for showing the context of vast expanses of interstellar space?

In any event, this book seems far more suited to Chaykin's style than most of his recent work-for-hire exercises. It probably has something to do with the fact that this is the first book out of his recent prolific patch that he's written as well as drawn, the first to my recollection* since Vertigo's Mighty Love OGN. The methodical precision with which Chaykin lays out every element of the story, building an accumulation of events in such a way that the plot builds itself almost imperceptibly, is simply a joy to behold, the kind of patient craftsmanship that you don't often see in the realms of mainstream comics. (He has, however, developed an odd tendency to draw his women with lantern jaws, hardly an attractive feature in a femme fatale.)

The only question I have is, who the heck would ever seek out Guy Gardner to negotiate a cease-fire? I have to believe there is a reason why they would pick the least peaceable super-hero in the universe (besides Lobo) to sit down for treaty talks. Chaykin's not stupid enough to put an element like this in there without examining the logical implications -- five'll get you ten there's a sharp twist somewhere in the second issue relating to just that. Guy is too much of a consummate egotist to see the incongruity, but to anyone else paying attention it can't help but seem like a weird plot point.

*Although I am reminded in the comments that he did indeed releases a Challengers of the Unknown mini last year, which I don't think I ever read.