Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Comics Panel: January 18, 2008

Over two volumes and 26 slooowwwly released issues, writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch used The Ultimates to refit The Avengers and its attendant superheroes for an age of global terror and moral ambiguity. The stories were big and violent, but also remarkably smart and surprisingly nuanced. With one issue, Ultimates 3 #1(Marvel), new writer Jeph Loeb and artist Joseph Madureira flush all that down the toilet. Loeb mistakes big for dumb and the freedom to indulge in mature themes as a license to go puerile. Madureira's art renders it as pages of muddy smears. It succeeds only as looking like a mess at every level… D

Loeb fares better with Marvel's Hulk #1. It isn't technically a relaunch, since The Incredible Hulk is still ongoing, now with Hercules as the star, but this title is now meant as the main focus of Hulk action. The red Hulk on the cover is just the first hint that things have changed, but the story veers in some unexpected directions as the Hulk's supporting cast investigates the murder of an old enemy. It's an intriguing rethink, and the prettier-than-usual Ed McGuinness art helps sell the intrigue… B

But the big Marvel reboot belongs to Spider-Man, whose main title, The Amazing Spider-Man, is now scheduled to appear three times a month. Relaunched with issue #546 under the story banner "Brand New Day," it follows the controversial "One More Day" storyline, which wiped Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane out of the history books. The new guys almost have it easy: Anything after that has to be less controversial. The creative team will alternate, but writer Dan Slott and artist Steve McNiven look strong out of the gate. Peter is poor and on the prowl again in the first compellingly told issue. Nothing here really moves his character forward, but superhero storytelling is ultimately more about finding ways to retell the same stories creatively anyway. Like superpowers, that's both their great power and their inhibiting responsibility… B


This past week's installments of Chris Onstad's online comic strip Achewood have mercilessly parodied the style and preoccupations of alt-comics mega-star Chris Ware, but anyone who's followed Onstad's career knows that the parodies come from a loving place. Onstad is a Ware fan, and only a Ware fan could take him apart so astutely. With the recent release of three new Ware books—The Acme Novelty Library #18, The Acme Novelty Library #18.5, and The Acme Novelty Datebook: Volume Two (all self-published, but available from Drawn & Quarterly)—devotees of the aloof cartoonist again have the opportunity to confront the mixed feelings his work often provokes. The 18th issue shelves the novel-in-progress "Rusty Brown," which dominated the previous two editions, in favor of a lengthy chapter of "Building Stories," another long-form piece that Ware has been parceling out in the pages of anthologies and magazines for the past several years. So far, "Building Stories" is the story of a chronically depressed one-legged florist and her memories of one really bad ex-boyfriend, though there are indications that the overall narrative is going to expand to include her equally mopey neighbors. Acme 18.5, meanwhile, collects Ware's somewhat goofy bird-themed New Yorker covers in an oversized portfolio that's gorgeous to behold, even though the strips within are fairly minor. As for Datebook, it's another useful look at Ware's process, reprinting four years' worth of his sketchbooks and showing how his polished, minimalist design emerges from rough life-drawings and daily ruminations on human misery. As always, Ware's (sometimes needlessly) complicated panel arrangements and his persistent wallowing in painful melancholy can be off-putting at first glance, and even the Ware faithful may wonder if his shtick is starting to get a little tired. But the sketchy versions of strips in Datebook and the layered storytelling of "Building Stories" become increasingly involving with each new page. "Building Stories" in particular contains extended stretches of narrative—as when our heroine recalls her stint as a housesitter/nanny for a rich family, or when she remembers how her only real love affair went sour—where the colors pop, the details haunt, and the simplified figures on the page carry as much emotional resonance as a wilting bouquet… #18: A-; #18.5: B; Datebook: B+

In contrast to the sophistication of Chris Ware's latest Acme books, his stint as the editor of The Best American Comics 2007 (Houghton Mifflin) is a real disappointment, overemphasizing indie- and art-comics at their crudest and most self-indulgent. (The book might as well be named "The Best Of Mome, Kramer's Ergot, and Drawn & Quarterly)" There's plenty in the book to like, including an otherwise-uncollected Ben Katchor story and some Art Spiegelman New Yorker pages, but lengthy excerpts from Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Charles Burns' Black Hole seem a little pointless, given that those graphic novels are readily available, and it's hard to imagine that the comics novice will be enticed by the primitivist art of David Heatley, Gary Panter, and Ron Regé, whose collective style dominates the anthology. Meanwhile, adventure stories, humor strips, and other more accessible narrative comics are essentially ignored, giving a poor overall sense of what's really going on in one of the current era's most vital artforms. For next year, maybe it's time to ditch the "guest editor" concept in favor of a board of experts with more inclusive tastes… C-

Anthology fans will find a lot more variety and accessibility in Image's mammoth "mix-tape" Popgun Volume One, which reads like a 450-page answer to Villard's lovely Flight collections. The contents run from extended stories like Derek Hunter's 15-page Powerpuff Girls-esque goofy-girl-hero comic Gamma Rae to one-page posters and smirking faux-ads like Danny Hellman's sly, smirking ant-farm solicitation. While there are some kid-friendly stories, the tone runs generally darker, with ninja battles, noir murder mysteries, ghosts, vampires, monsters, zombies, and robot-on-robot violence cropping up amid the odd, alternative superheroes. Virtually all the work is colorful, entertaining, and immediate, with a strong sense of experimentation and play throughout; it's hard, in this rich an environment, for any one work to stand out. But Andy Kuhn's "Mexican Wrestler Funnies," in which two wrestlers trade Monty Python-esque barbs like "It is I who will make love to your corpse, with a Waring blender… set to puree!" is pretty hilarious, and Adrian Dominguez and Matthew Weldon's anime-influenced teen-hero story "Ellie Saves The World" is particularly gorgeous. But then, the wide variety of tones and visual styles guarantees something for just about everyone… A-

Faith Erin Hicks' Zombies Calling (SLG) lacks robots, ninjas, and Mexican wrestlers, but it has plenty of zombies, descending on a Canadian college campus and bugging a student with a horrible hairstyle and a fixation on zombie movies. The book isn't quite a parody—the horror gets reasonably horrible—but touches like the sign outside a government facility that reads "A Nondescript Building; Trespassers Will Be Shot" sets the none-too-serious tone. So does the conversation between protagonist Joss and her buddies, Sonnet and Robyn, about how following zombie-movie rules will guarantee their survival. The black-and-white art gets crowded at times, especially thanks to the talk-heavy panels, but the characters' ruminations on everything from virginity to horror movies make the characters feel nuanced and lived-in. It's a quick read, somewhat visually and tonally similar to Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim books, with a little bit of Buffy The Vampire Slayer thrown in for kicks… B


Just as talky and teen-oriented, but much less silly, is Liz Baillie's teen angst-fest My Brain Hurts, Volume One (Microcosm), a prickly collection that recalls Ariel Schrag's work, but with more detail about New York gay teen punk-fan life, and less babbly, insecure self-examination. Baillie's early-teen protagonists fight, worry, go to shows, gets drunk, try to figure out their sexuality, and endure reproach and violence from their parents as well as their peers. The black-and-white art is variable and often amateurish, but the emotions cut deep… B-

Here's the wonderful problem with World's Finest comics: The idea of Superman and Batman teaming up to do anything is essentially ludicrous, since the ways they fight crime—and the criminals they fight—are so different. So in the 40-odd stories collected in Showcase Presents: World's Finest Vol. 1 (DC), The Man Of Steel and The Caped Crusader mainly take turns impersonating each other in order to fool Kryptonite-wielding criminals and snoopy girl reporters. Though not as imaginative as the Superman comics of the same era (or as tightly plotted as the Batman comics), these late-'50s team-up tales are reassuringly frivolous, ripped from a time when superheroes mostly spent their time enjoying how utterly awesome it was to be themselves… A-


Most of the volumes in DC's "Showcase Presents" series have been noteworthy for their artwork, or their historical significance, or for the entertaining ways they remind readers of a more innocent kind of comics storytelling. But Showcase Presents: Sgt. Rock (DC) may be the first book in the line that ranks alongside essential archival projects like The Complete Peanuts, The EC Archives, and Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus. As the central figures in DC's Our Army At War (and occasionally G.I. Combat), Sgt. Rock and Easy Company gave writer Robert Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert (among others) a forum to tell punchy, hard-boiled war stories notable for their colorful characters, white-knuckle drama, and verisimilitude. In black and white, Kubert's inky backgrounds and finely cross-hatched faces look better than they ever did, and at 543 pages with a $16.99 list price, this collection offers better value-for-money than nearly any other comic on the shelf right now… A

Much like his limited series The Secret, Mike Richardson's original graphic novel Cut (Dark Horse) reads like a standard-issue horror movie in storyboard form. In this case, it's a monster movie, in which a girl, bleeding after attacking her philandering boyfriend, is nabbed by something and wakes up locked in a creepy, rundown house with another bleeding victim. Quick pacing, solid atmosphere, and Todd Herman's Mike Mignola-esque chunky art makes the book a fairly breathless thrill ride, but Richardson undercuts it all with a nothing ending that feels like it doesn't finish the story, so much as take it unsatisfyingly back to somewhere in the middle… C


Andi Watson's Minx book Clubbing was bland and unremarkable, but maybe he was just putting too much of his energy into his bimonthly mini-book Glister (Image), a terrifically loopy, sweet all-ages book about a girl who lives in a ridiculously complicated magical house in a semi-magical world that vaguely recalls Castle Waiting, in a dreamy, cheery sort of way. October's issue #2 focuses on the house, which gets into a sulk and goes off on vacation, leaving Glister and her father to seek other accommodations. December's issue #3 is a more melancholy fable about Glister seeking her lost mother in Faerie, amid tricky creatures and angry kings. The manga-influenced characters are deceptively simple amid the sprawling, creative black-and-white-and-fuzzy-gray page designs, but the real appeal is the fairy-tale storytelling, which proceeds with a mild whimsy and a serious, emotionally evocative tone. It's fun, but also distinctly touching… A-

As usual, Preacher's Garth Ennis is all about the shock value in the collected edition of The Pro (Image), the story of a cellulite-assed, foul-mouthed, grimy-haired hooker who's none too thrilled when she gains super powers. (Well, she appreciates the way her super-speed lets her jack off clients in two seconds apiece, guaranteeing her a better nightly rate.) Ennis uses the story to make fun of specific hero peccadilloes, from Superman's squeaky-clean rep to Batman's youthful ward, but also makes some broad statements about the ridiculousness of four-color hero comics in general. It's graphic, grotesque, sexually explicit, and cheaply funny, but Amanda Conner's super-bright, cartoony art really makes the book, at least for those who aren't tuning in just for the superheroine nip-slips, thong-wedgie jokes, and the prospect of a "hero" who pisses on her fallen enemies in front of the entire UN, just to show how annoyed she is… C+


Finally, for those who like smart, informed talk about superhero comics, the three hosts of "The Stack" video podcast—Alex, Justin and Pete—run through the current highlights of the mainstream and indie-hero realms with a lot of charm and insight. Nerdy but agreeable, The Stack's trio trade off-the-cuff lines but rarely waste their seven-to-nine-minute timeslot, instead running through the reviews quickly, with lots of illustrations, a fair amount of friendly disagreement, and none of the snooty pissiness of many Internet comics critics. They're the kind of guys it would be fun to talk comics with down at the local. The Stack is available via pulpsecret.com, or as a direct download to TiVoCast-enabled TiVos. B+

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