Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Comics Panel: August 1, 2008

Alex Robinson's particular brand of comics genius takes two forms, both of which show up in his terrific new stand-alone book Too Cool To Be Forgotten (Top Shelf). There's his talent for spare, believable characterization, which comes through in his characters' faces and voices rather than through clunky description. And there's the way he takes advantage of the medium, cleverly using visual repetition and variation in equal amounts to convey mental states. In Too Cool To Be Forgotten, middle-aged dad Robert Wicks enters a hypnosis session, trying to stop smoking for his family's sake. (Hence the book's cover, designed to resemble a battered pack of Kools.) Then he wakes up in his youthful, dorky body back at his old high school. A few brief moments of nostalgia later, he remembers why high school sucked so much—the unanswerably smug bullies, the confusion and cruelty and desperation, the combined nastiness of teachers and students. In one typically, brilliantly formed double-page sequence, Robert starts to realize that he may be stuck in the past, and as the idea sinks in, he remains all but motionless and unchanging in the center of a series of panels, a fixed expression on his face as the world whirls around him. It's about the best possible expression of what being a teenager feels like—wandering in a daze through events simultaneously too petty to care about, and too overwhelming to take in. Add in a sweetly compelling stories with a surprising number of twists for such a tight book, and Too Cool fully lives up to its name… A

Reuben Flagg is just your average Jewish kid who grew up on Mars dreaming of recreating the better America of his past in the middle of its bleak, 2031 present. Once, Flagg was the star of a popular police video series, but as Howard Chaykin's deeply influential series American Flagg! opens, he's been demoted to actual police work at a gigantic mall located on the outskirts of a gang-infested Chicago. His fellow cops, a parade of beautiful women, and a talking cat alternately help and hinder his quest to bring law, order, and a better sort of civilization to a world in which basketball is outlawed, but corruption runs wild. The long-delayed hardback collection American Flagg! Volume 1 (Image) assembles the early issues of Chaykin's series—before he ceded writing and art duties to others—with a few later issues and a new Chaykin-created story. Launched in 1983, American Flagg! brought a love of classic pulp to a sometimes frighteningly on-point vision of a media-saturated, corporate-ruled 21st-century dystopia. Chaykin's ideas still seem sharp, and his presentation is still startling: He fills his pages with repeated images and panel-breaking explosions of action and sound effects. (And nobody has better sound effects. Of course a gun dispensing a powerful sleeping gas goes "Mow!") If there's a problem with Chaykin's series, it's that it sometimes works better as a collection of pages than a story. There's an overarching vision at work, but the narrative sometimes gets tangled, and the full-steam-ahead pace doesn't leave much room to breathe. But at its best, breathlessness seems like part of Chaykin's plan… A-

The fifth volume of the stellar new-comics anthology Flight (Villard) moves a bit away from short-form storytelling and a sense of theme; this collection features some longer and more developed works, even more narrative and tonal diversity, and slightly less emphasis on lush paintings and eye-popping color. Some things haven't changed—Michel Gagné starts off the book with yet another chapter in his beautifully vivid ongoing silent tale about a little unicorn-fox-thing traveling among aliens, and Scott Campbell contributes another loopy, hilarious story from his land where everyone has (and is named for, and generally judged by) a random item on their head. (This time out, Igloohead and Treehead learn about the fun of costumes.) But some of the stories—Richard Pose's "Béisbol 2," Dave Roman's "The Chosen One," Joey Weiser's "Timecat," Svetlana Chmakova's "On The Importance Of Space Travel," and more—feature simple, cartoony art and more extended stories. They're still well-developed and enjoyable—Flight series editor Kazu Kibuishi (who contributes a typically beautiful, brlef piece about a courier hand-delivering messages in a gray, washed-out future world) hasn't lowered his standards or lost his direction by any means. But Flight Volume Five feels more like it's for kids than previous volumes, which felt like they were for kids and parents simultaneously. It also moves away from breathtaking, poster-pretty work. And in the process, it becomes a little more like Flight's growing wave of increasingly ambitious imitators… A-


Plagued by delays that found its five issues dispensed over the course of a year and a half, the Superman storyline "Last Son," written by Geoff Johns and Richard Donner and drawn by Adam Kubert, has now been collected into the hardback Superman: Last Son (DC). Closely connected in look and feel to Donner's one and a half Superman movies, it finds Superman and Lois caring for a boy who falls from the sky speaking Kryptonese. The story is simultaneously touching and awkward—in part for reasons that can't be talked about without spoilage—but the art, which includes a 3D segment, smoothes over some of the rough patches, and Johns and Donner wisely never lose sight of the emotional toll their story's events take on the Man Of Steel… B

During his star-making stint at Marvel in the late '70s and early '80s, John Byrne introduced new levels of detail and dynamism to superhero art, while as a writer, he enriched the mythology and deepened the characters of Marvel standbys like the Fantastic Four. Then he signed on to revamp Superman for DC, and some of his philosophical rigor began to curdle into stilted dialogue and stiff storytelling. Since the end of the '80s, Byrne's work on the big-name superheroes has grown increasingly dry, and even muddled. The major exceptions? Byrne's playful DC Elseworlds series Generations, and his creator-owned Dark Horse series Next Men. The Compleat John Byrne's Next Men: Volume One (IDW) has more than its share of overwritten dialogue and excessive explanation, but the 13 issues (plus one graphic novella) contained within these 400-plus black-and-white pages are also rife with imaginative conceits and vivid illustration. Opening with 2112, a story set in a far-flung future where engineered superhumans are common, the Next Men series jumps back to the present day, and follows what happens when the first group of genetically enhanced teenagers escapes into the real world. Simultaneously reacting to his own X-Men legacy and the early-'90s trend toward realism in superhero tales, Byrne created a universe with a carefully thought-out internal logic, and within that framework, he explored how it would feel to have special abilities, or to be an average person encountering such freaks for the first time. The book clunks some whenever characters open their mouths, but there's a level of emotional investment in this material that's been far too rare in Byrne's work over the past 20 years… B+

Much like his Lions, Tigers & Bears books, Mike Bullock's Secrets Of The Seasons: Gimoles (Image) is a ready-made animated special waiting to happen, a sharply drawn, book with appealing character designs, a simple, kid-friendly plot arc, and just a hint of scary darkness to titillate young minds. This one comes with an even more elaborately detailed (and just a wee bit twee) fantasy world, in which the seasons are governed by a few Heat Miser and Cold Miser-like individuals who not only bring about the seasons, but manage a staff of critters who effect all the seasonal changes. When the representative of winter decides it should be winter forever, it falls to the elf-life gimoles, the architects of spring, to go on a big adventure to stop him. Halfway between Disney's Gargolyes cartoon, a Rankin-Bass special, and the half-hour TV specials of the '70s and '80s (Faeries leaps to mind), Gimoles isn't challenging, but it's awful damn pretty, with reasonably broad appeal… B

The title of the graphic-novel collection Demo (Vertigo) suggests a sort of audition process, in which the creators show an audience (or the industry) what they can do. And the book's contents bear out that idea, with a series of compelling but achingly brief short stories that each introduce extraordinary characters, as though launching a full series to come. Collected in one book, Demo reads like a pitch list for a publisher: "Like any of these ideas? We could do a series…" And yet the people behind Demo—DMZ writer Brian Wood and American Virgin artist Becky Cloonan—are established industry success stories with little to prove. Demo's 12-issue run (each issue included supplemental material not reproduced in the trade) was justly acclaimed, but while the stories are compelling, and Cloonan's sketchy, expressive art (which veers from heavily manga-influenced to only mildly manga-influenced), it's easy to get frustrated that there isn't more. The characters created here—a girl from a very special family whose life only begins at her death, a girl whose vocal commands must be obeyed, no matter how destructive or unintended they are, an apparent telekinetic Carrie type with family issues, and so forth—are all worth following much further… B


The latest big omnibus edition of Tom Beland's True Story, Swear To God showcases a few minor flaws in his story: Assembled all in one place, the first 17 issues of his autobiographical tale of meeting and falling in love with a complete stranger from another country show a certain redundancy, as he tracks back and forth over his misgivings, his disbelief, his fears, and above all, his ebullient wonder that the woman of his dreams actually loves him back. But there's a charm, a light-heartedness, and a cartoony visual simplicity to Beland's story that's missing from most autobiographical comics, which often tend toward the maudlin and miserablist. True Story, Swear To God Archives Vol. 1 (Image) swallows its own tail a bit in telling the story of how Beland's dream woman, Lily, encouraged him to get into comics, and how he nervously started his comics career; he's so endearingly nervous about and unsatisfied with the material you're holding in your hands that it's almost impossible to think ill of it. His painful honesty certainly doesn't hurt, though the book still picks up significantly whenever he's documenting events around him—the attack of a gigantic palmetto bug in Lily's native Puerto Rico, say, or the way his family reacts to his new relationship—rather than navel-gazing about whether he's worthy of her love. B+

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