Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Comics Panel, August 16, 2007

The nearly forgotten early comic-book artist Fletcher Hanks is rescued from obscurity with I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets (Fantagraphics), which collects 15 of the stories he wrote and illustrated during a brief career in the lower echelons of comics publishing from 1939 to 1941. Hanks' work reads as if David Lynch, Daniel Johnston, and Ed Wood sat down to collaborate on a superhero comic—the exploits of Stardust the Super Wizard and jungle queen Fantomah are childlike in their endearingly naïve storytelling style and bizarrely imaginative, brutal revenge fantasies. For all his simplistic repetition, Hanks had a real gift for surreal imagery. Giant flaming maroon disembodied hands maul African lions; gangsters turn off gravity, causing billions to float helplessly into the stratosphere; 50,000 giant panthers are set loose on the streets of New York. These stories have the feel of great outsider art, which is only intensified by what little is known about Hanks' rather sad life—in an afterword, editor Paul Karasik paints a picture of an abusive drunk who froze to death on a park bench, ironically living more like one of his villains than his creepily virtuous heroes… A-

By titling his new graphic novel The Three Paradoxes (Fantagraphics), Paul Hornschemeier lets himself off the hook some for the book's slightness. The Three Paradoxes is intended as a possibly autobiographical sliver, covering an evening years ago when the lead character (a cartoonist named Paul, of course) reflected on his youth and on the philosophies of Zeno, the day before meeting an online friend for the first time. Zeno's most famous "paradox" is the one about the runner who never reaches the finish line because he always has to cross an increasingly infinitesimal space to reach a halfway point, so Hornschemeier's ruminations on what was and what might be don't actually get anywhere, by design. But intentionality doesn't make The Three Paradoxes feel any less lightweight, especially given how much promise Hornschemeier has shown lately, growing as a stylist and storyteller since his heavy-handed early work and his overly dramatic debut graphic novel, Mother Come Home. Hornschemeier seems to be easing up on the reins, letting his stories breathe instead of loading them with "meaning." And even though at times, The Three Paradoxes is mainly about Hornschemeier showing off different drawing techniques—from kid-friendly to two-fisted—those detours are fun to follow, and don't detract from the book's overall mood. The Three Paradoxes is at its most poignant in a one-page sequence where Paul asks his father if he remembers the schoolboy scuffle that dominates the book's flashbacks, and the father's face shows a decade-old disappointment, still as fresh as a paper cut. Moments like those have earned Hornschemeier his legion of champions, and that make us want him to reach a little more… B+

Marvel has spun several new titles out of the aftermath of its Civil War event. The Order is one of the more interesting ones conceptually: It follows a super-team in charge of guarding California. The catch: Their powers come from a corporate organization that isn't averse to swapping out members who step out of line. Upcoming writer Matt Fraction and artist Barry Kitson deliver a promising first issue that marks The Order as a series worth keeping tabs on, though it carries more expositional baggage than the standard debut… B

And speaking of titles spinning out of crossovers, DC has relaunched Booster Gold, who played a major role in the weekly series 52. Based on the first issue of Booster Gold, he's in capable hands. Co-written by Geoff Johns and Jeff Katz (who has a day job as a New Line executive) with art by original character creator Dan Jurgens, the new series' first issue reboots Gold as a time-traveling hero in the employ of Time Master Rip Hunter. There's a neat balancing act here. Everyone brings a light touch to the story but the new setup leaves Gold doomed never to be recognized as a hero, and driven by the desire to undo a tragedy with which he's probably stuck forever. DC has had its share of troubled relaunches lately, but this highly entertaining first issue isn't one of them… B+

The same can't be said for Justice League Of America, which has been handed over to novelist Brad Meltzer. Meltzer's ickily compelling Identity Crisis dragged DC herodom into grim, morally queasy quicksand which it's never escaped. Justice League Of America: The Tornado's Path collects the first issues of Meltzer's run on DC's signature supergroup. It isn't as dark as Identity Crisis, but it doesn't demand readers to turn the pages quite as well either. Mostly it's as inert as Ed Benes' overly posed art. It demands attention, but doesn't find any way to hold it… C+

Usagi Yojimbo: The Mother Of Mountains (Dark Horse) really isn't a great place to jump into Stan Sakai's long-running funny-animal saga about a rabbit ronin traveling across Japan, righting wrongs, fighting injustices, and just trying to live a good life. This latest book (number 21 in a series dating back to the mid-'80s) tells a stand-alone, start-to-finish story, but its character ties and dynamics stem from earlier books and an ongoing story. Still, the "Mother Of Mountains" arc tells one of Sakai's best stories to date, a politically and personally sophisticated saga about a treacherous warlord, a hidden mine, and an evil swordswoman using a trumped-up plague to hide her enslavement of the local peasantry. Sakai's characters are animals in clothes, but his rich understanding of Japanese history and culture, and the way he works it casually into his stories to teach newcomers and satisfy scholars at the same time, is always a pleasure… A

Osamu Tezuka's massive book Apollo's Song (Vertical) is less steeped in Japanese culture, though Tezuka, one of the great Japanese comics masters, helped redefine and recreate Japanese popular culture, particularly its pop art. Like Tezuka's better-known works—Astro Boy, Phoenix, the massive Buddha saga—Apollo's Song uses simple black-and-white lines and cartoony characters to tell a tremendously rich story about a boy so deprived of love as a child that he can no longer bear to witness affection; as a result, he tortures and kills animal couples and lashes out at people who are kind to him. Condemned by a goddess to find and perpetually lose love, Shogo plays out a series of complicated stories that overcome his defenses and barriers, but always end in tragedy. They read like an experiment in manga styles: fantasy, science fiction, romance, historical, and sports stories, each involving a core relationship that ends in tragedy. The sequence in which rebels kill dozens of cloned copies of the queen Shogo loves, forcing him to lose her grotesquely over and over and over, shows just how grim and powerful Tezuka's stories can be, no matter how childish his big-eyed manga-doll characters look… A


Gilbert Hernandez made a rare non-Love & Rockets foray last year with the graphic novel Sloth, a dreamy, though thematically pat, examination of fluid identity among young adults. Hernandez tops himself with his latest standalone graphic novel, Chance In Hell (Fantagraphics), another surreal semi-story that feels equally inspired by pulp fiction, the films of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, and Hernandez's own anxieties as a man raising a daughter. Chance In Hell covers three stages in the life of "Empress," an orphan who starts the book as a pre-teen rape victim, stumbling through a junkyard shantytown, and later becomes the ward of a frustrated middle-class poet, and then the wife of a rich industrialist. Chance In Hell probably holds up to analysis, if anyone wants to break down what Hernandez might be saying about social strata and the various kinds of exploitation therein. But after nearly three decades in the business, Hernandez is primarily a "pure cartoonist," working straight from his id, and Chance In Hell is best read as an inspired ramble through his fevered psyche. Hernandez began his career as a flippant punk, but this book is his most sustained howl of fear and rage… A

Rick Remender's Fear Agent Volume 2: My War (Dark Horse) isn't quite as much fun as volume one was; the manic pace has slackened a bit, and the novelty of its anything-goes, over-the-top space-madness storyline has worn off. Also, anti-hero Heath Hudson is shaping up to be a lot more of a belittling, selfish dick than just a troubled loner with a tragic past. Still, Remender's creative invention can't be beat, and he keeps finding ways to top himself; as one threat ends, things just get bigger and wider and weirder, until Earth's entire population has been devoured by giant weaponized plants and Heath is on trial for crimes against reality, and forced to stand trial in a room lined with Heath Hudson corpses, dragged in from alternate timelines and executed for similar crimes. Tony Moore and Jerome Opena's ultra-vivid, fiddly art ensures there's always something to look at on every corner of every panel… B+


Another, similarly big, sloppy, manic new Dark Horse book: Maxwell Strangewell, written and drawn by brothers Matt and Shawn Fillbach. Imagine The Man Who Fell To Earth, complete with an unnaturally tall, lanky alien hanging out with humans and getting into weird scrapes, and then add a crowded universe full of demanding aliens straight out of the likes of Phil Foglio's Gallimaufry series, or alternately, Men In Black. The titular Maxwell Strangewell is a vaguely dopey yet all-powerful McGuffin who turns up on Earth and bonds with a local girl named Anna; immediately, traffic descends from all over the galaxy, as factions seek to control, destroy, or worship him. What initially looks like it might be a huge galaxy-spanning, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy-style adventure packed with silliness turns into a more serious adventure, as Anna tries to preserve her bond with Max and keep him out of dangerous hands. The Fillbachs' sensibility is enjoyably left-field and ambitious, and both their expansive story and their chunky, solid black-and-white art recall Doug TenNapel books like Creature TechA-

Comics superstar Brian K. Vaughan was a creator on the rise when he wrote The Hood, a miniseries for Marvel's swear-happy Max line in 2002. Its high-concept hook: What if a down-on-his-luck guy used the gift of superpowers for evil instead of good? Neat idea, but in spite of stylish art from Kyle Hotz, it never quite takes hold. Instead, it occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between the usual superhero world and a place where the questions of good and evil get a proper philosophical scrutiny. It's an intriguing false start, albeit one that other writers have recently built on… B-


The Summer 2007 edition of Fantagraphics' quarterly alt-comics anthology Mome presents a couple of real cartooning finds: Joe Kimball, a novice whose surreal story "Hide & Watch Me" recalls Victor Moscoco's scarily psychedelic poster art, cut with Charles Burns and Jim Woodring; and Ray Fenwick, whose found-dialogue one-pagers capture the weirdness of cultural ephemera. (Like "Ten Things You Should Know About That Bitch!, By: The Internet," which collects random message-board comments on celebrities, like [sic] "Ok, she has herpes, It's in legal court documents. Basiaccly, she is a whore.") But the star of the book, as always, is Jonathan Bennett, whose "Meditation On The Grid" considers physical and social patterns in a subway car, with uncanny attention to panel rhythm and atmosphere. The rest of Mome is typically hit-and-miss, but so long as Bennett remains a regular, the series will be a must to pick up… B

Those who've been getting into classic comic strips via the popular reprint collections of Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy, and Thimble Theater might feel a little culture shock perusing The Early Years Of Mutt & Jeff, NBM's sampler of Bud Fisher's early-20th-century favorite, and the first volume in a new series called "Forever Nuts: Classic Screwball Strips." Surveying Fisher's feature from 1909-13—when it became the first wildly successful daily strip—The Early Years includes a few serialized storylines, but unlike the comics that started up just a decade later, Mutt & Jeff was mostly a gag-delivery machine. And a brilliantly constructed one at that. Most strips start with the lanky Mutt stumbling into a new moneymaking scheme that often involves blackening the eye of his diminutive partner Jeff. The scratchy art and rapid-fire comic rhythm takes some getting used to, but once readers get on Fisher's wavelength, just seeing Mutt gamely assert, "Jeff, we're in soft, I just got a job as war correspondent," is enough to generate a smile of anticipation… A


Writer Jason Aaron made a terrific debut with the terrific Vietnam miniseries, The Other Side, but little of his obvious potential appears in Scalped, his first ongoing title. A crime series in the HBO mold set on an Indian reservation, it's loaded with detail about its unusual setting. It starts strong enough, but its endless, shouted conversations between unpleasant characters prove exhausting over the course of Scalped: Indian Country (DC/Vertigo), which collects the series' first six issues… C

Political cartoonist Peter Kuper says he spent 13 years working on Stop Forgetting To Remember (Crown), the fictional autobiography of political cartoonist "Walter Kurtz." And for the most part, the book reads like it was put together piecemeal, with revealing teenage reminiscences set against a sketch of the author's modern life as a husband and father in pre- and post-9/11 New York City. At the end of Stop Forgetting, Kuper/Kurtz explains that the novel is about how "as we age, we forget or distance ourselves from our past behavior," but it's a knock against Kuper that he has to explain a theme that doesn't seem all that obvious from the book's rowdy, overfamiliar tales of sex, drugs, and eventual domesticity. Stop Forgetting is reasonably entertaining, but it feels like it's trying too hard to be profound, rather than just telling it like it is. And as a veteran cartoon journalist, Kuper should have that skill down pat… C+


The bad thing about Dark Horse's big, slick, hefty omnibuses collecting past issues of media spin-off comics is that they tend to emphasize how samey such spin-off can get while trying to endlessly recapture what was interesting about the movies that spawned them. Aliens Omnibus Volume 1 collects a bunch of Mark Verheiden stories about the xenomorphs of the Alien movies; Verheiden gets impressively ambitious with his range, as Earth is compromised by the alien invaders, then abandoned, and the action movies to space. At the same time, the basic story of the movies plays out over and over and over, as the evil Company tries to get its hands on some xenomorphs to study and weaponize, and a band of stalwarts gets picked off by the critters one by one, and eventually it becomes necessary to take off and nuke the site from orbit, just to be sure. At the point where Earth is a smoldering alien egg-farm and the company is still trying to get some saleable alien samples out in deep space, the whole dynamic starts to feel pretty damn silly. And how many times can a chestburster pop out of someone before the image starts to lose its shock value? Still, a bunch of artists (including The Maxx's Sam Kieth) get a chance to strut their stuff in chilling action sequences and hyper-detailed images of tubey H.R. Giger aliens, spaceships, and bloody guts galore. And Verheiden really should get props for spreading the action so far afield, instead of limiting it safely to a few doomed ships and mining colonies… B

Dark Horse's Aliens Vs. Predator Omnibus Volume 1 has a similar problem, in that the Predator movies never revealed all that much about the culture or personalities of the titular alien hunters, so any stories about them either have to follow the movies' plotlines or go out on a limb trying to cover new ground. This first volume tries both, with mixed success, as a variety of writers churns out stories about Predators hunting xenomorphs and vice versa, usually with human settlers getting caught in the middle on alien planets, and serving as the point-of-view characters. The volume launches with a particularly clever attempt to metaphorically use a human conversation to illustrate and explain what's happening in a wordless Predator sequence taking place far away, but few of the other storylines feature that level of ambition. Still, there's plenty of interesting stuff going on here, particularly in the protracted storyline of a human survivor who winds up trying to integrate herself into the Predator culture. The art is generally sloppier than the art in the Aliens omnibus, and the stories tend to have the same sort of "cast members dying one by one in a predictable pattern" kind of way, but for fans of the films, it's worth seeing what a bunch of different writers and artists do with an established property… B-


Finally, Dark Horse's Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Volume 1 is given over in large part to a comic-book retelling of the Joss Whedon story executed so poorly in the Buffy movie. It tries to bring that story back into the Buffy canon, with limited success. With Whedon currently scripting much better Buffy comics than the odds and sods found in this first collection, it's kind of hard to maintain interest, except maybe for hardcore fanatics. C

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