Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Comics Panel: July 19, 2007

Comics emerged from their "wow, they aren't just for kids any more" cocoon a while ago, but serious critical voices devoted to the form, as opposed to those simply acknowledging it, have been slow to emerge. But music and comics writer Douglas Wolk has delivered what will surely be a cornerstone of comics criticism for years to come: Reading Comics (Da Capo). It opens with a breezy, readable, but rigorous explanation of where comics come from and how they work, and closes with 18 case studies of applied criticism. While acknowledging the difference between art comics and mainstream comics, Wolk doesn't favor one over the other, offering a great explanation of why superhero comics continue to be pleasurable in one chapter, analyzing the formally playful qualities of Hope Larson's Gray Horses in another. Wolk is respectfully skeptical of some luminaries—including Will Eisner and Chris Ware—and perhaps not skeptical enough of visionaries who tend to go off the rails, but his book is thoughtful and entertaining throughout… A-

Stephen Colbert's science-fiction alter ego gets the comic-book treatment in the just-launched five-issue miniseries Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen (Oni). The first issue, co-written by John Layman and Tom Peyer with art by Scott Chantler, finds Jansen running afoul of some apparently altruistic aliens who offer tremendous advances in return for a one micro-percentage tax. It's all a bit one-jokey, but it does have a naked Colbert and a monkey robot going for it. Jim Massey and Robbi Rodriguez—who just released the first collection of their Maintenance series—provide a funnier back-up story in which Jan goes undercover to forward an alien civil-rights cause… B-

The first edition of Andy Hartzell's Fox Bunny Funny was a handmade comic, consisting of a screened slipcover hugging a series of three bound booklets—sophisticated, lovely, but unwieldy. The new Top Shelf paperback edition puts the same content into a more standard book with well-deserved wider distribution. Hartzell's powerful, starkly rendered black-and-white story takes place in a cartoony, anthropomorphic world divided into foxes and the rabbits they prey on; images of dead rabbits are iconic and ubiquitous in fox society, and the dividing line between the animal worlds is harshly policed. So what happens when one fox secretly longs to be a bunny? A lot of quick action and intense emotional shocks. It's most tempting to read Fox Bunny Funny as a gay coming-of-age story, particularly given the specific ways Hartzell's fox protagonist expresses his individuality, and the ways his society punishes him for it, reinforcing accepted mores via a male peer group that pressures him toward socially encouraged violence. But it can just as easily serve as a broad metaphor for any square peg who's experienced the pain of being hammered into a round hole… A


The nearly 400 pages and seven years' worth of mini-comics collected in the John Porcellino anthology King-Cat Classix: The Best Of King-Cat Comics And Stories (D&Q) may seem immediately inconsequential, hardly worth being preserved in a handsomely designed hardcover edition with extensive endnotes. But the best way to treat this book is like a collection of poems, to be dipped into lightly, a few pieces at a time. Beneath the crude linework and dream-journalism, Porcellino has crafted an affecting scrapbook of a part-time artist's life. The decade-plus remove from these comics' initial publication only adds another layer of poignancy, since so many of its concerns are those of a young man, unaccountably adrift in a decade geared towards his generation… A-

Writer/artist Darwyn Cooke, best known for The New Frontier, has spent the better part of this decade winning a fervent following with his sharp storytelling and Silver-Age-by-way-of-Saturday-morning art. His revival of Will Eisner's The Spirit continues to be a monthly wonder, but he first came to comics via another crimefighter. Batman: Ego And Other Tails (DC) (yes, that spelling is correct) collects his Batman work, beginning with his debut, Ego, in which Bruce Wayne battles his own alter ego. The art still pops, even where the psychology is way too on-the-nose. By the time he'd moved on to the gripping, tragic Catwoman heist tale Selina's Big Score (also included, alongside some Batman short stories) Cooke had found his own voice, one that let his characters carry a weight that his uncluttered art doesn't immediately suggest… A-

Writer J. Michael Straczynski plays an Ego-like mind game in his first issue reviving Thor (Marvel), which finds the long-absent thunder god returning to life with some coaxing by his even-longer-absent alter ego Donald Blake. Straczynski has a history of launching titles with strong concepts, then losing them in the follow-through. In spite of some nice work from French artist Olivier Coipel, his Thor gets off to a shrug of a start, so maybe he'll reverse the habit. Relocating Thor to Oklahoma is at least a new idea… C+

The previous three volumes of the Flight anthology have all been focused pretty specifically on, well, flight, but Flight Volume Four (Villard) leaves that conceit behind and gets significantly more random and expansive, without losing any of its predecessors' heartbreakingly beautiful qualities. A large stable of animators, graphic designers, and web-comickers each contribute short stories, though this time around, those stories tend more toward complete narratives rather than arty vignettes. Among the standouts: Scott Cambell's weird story about Igloohead and Treehead, two lumpish little creatures that live up to their names, in a world where everyone's defined by the everyday objects residing on their heads; Michel Gagné's continuing wordless tales of a little unicorn-fox creature bounding around in a vast, overwhelming fantasy world; and Sarah Mensinga's "The Forever Box," about a box that stops time for the person inside. But there really isn't a clinker in the whole batch. The content is even kid-friendly, though the melancholy tone and graphic sophistication is aimed more at adults. These pieces are uniformly smart, beautiful, and vividly creative—comics just don't get much better… A


It's hard to believe that DC took so long to dedicate a couple of "Showcase Presents" volumes to two characters who defined the Silver Age: The Atom and The Flash. But rather than grumble that the flippin' Haunted Tank got its own book before DC trotted out Showcase Presents: The Flash and Showcase Presents: The Atom, better to enjoy the collections in question, both of which spotlight the clever adventure storytelling of writers John Broome and Gardner Fox, as well as the still-thrilling art of Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane. The Flash has the edge when it comes to readability, if only because the super-speedster's rogues' gallery remains one of the weirdest and most versatile in all of superhero-dom. (Also, running very fast is way cooler than shrinking very small.) But artwise, Infantino hadn't yet hit the peak he'd reach later with The Elongated Man, while Kane was showing a skill at illustrating action that remains arguably unparalleled. The Flash: A-… The Atom: B+

Superman used to be so popular that even his sidekicks had their own books. The stories published in Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen generally had two plots: When Jimmy wasn't going undercover to get a scoop, he was turning into some kind of weird creature. A '50s and '60s Superman staff dominated by writers Otto Binder and Jerry Siegel and artist Curt Swan let their imaginations run wild with these stories, many of them collected in the collection The Amazing Transformations Of Jimmy Olsen (DC). None of them reveal why, after being turned into a giant turtle, a genie, an alien, and a wolfman, Olsen wouldn't wise up and be a little more careful… A-


Can someone please explain the point of Marvel's prestige-format Mythos: Spider-Man #1? Over Paolo Rivera's stiff painted illustrations, writer Paul Jenkins retells the Spider-Man origin story for what must be the 100th time, updating it slightly, but not extending the Spider-Man saga in any significant way. So why Mythos, and not Ultimate Spider-Man, or Chapter One, or the Spider-Man movies? Or heck, Amazing Fantasy #15? … D-

Is there a more reliably entertaining and artful series in comics today than Rick Geary's "Treasury Of Victorian Murder?" For volume nine, The Saga Of The Bloody Benders, Geary examines the legend of a serial-killing family that operated on the Kansas plains in the 1870s, and he deploys his usual blend of portrait-style illustrations, detailed graphs, and deadpan narration. As always, Geary first lays out the facts of the case, then gets into the rumors, which makes it creepier when, for example, a passing mention of a greasy spot on the canvas behind the Benders' dining-room table later gets its grisly explanation. By specializing in the true-crime stories of an era marked by copious but inaccurate reporting, Geary subtly evokes the weird mysteries of the past, and the veins of evil that run deep under civilized society… A


It isn't immediately apparent that writer Jason Lutes and artist Nick Bertozzi's graphic novella Houdini: The Handcuff King (Hyperion) is aimed at the juvenile market, so Glen David Gold's introductory Houdini bio may initially seem a little too elementary. But the main text excuses any spoon-feeding in the framing pieces. Sketching out a typical day in Harry Houdini's life, Lutes and Bertozzi skip the extensive explanations of Houdini's methods and social crusades, instead following him step-by-step as he prepares to jump from a Boston bridge, to the cheers and anti-Semitic catcalls of the milling throng. Cleanly written and clearly drawn, Houdini: The Handcuff King is a brisk, delightful read for all ages… B+

Continuing Marvel's recent habit of obsessively recycling the good ideas of decades ago, the new "Mystic Arcana" series delves deeper into old stories involving four of the company's more obscure magical characters. Mystic Arcana #1: Magik revisits Illyana Rasputin, the former New Mutant and sister of Colossus, and her journeys in and out of the extradimensional realm known as Limbo (as originally detailed in a handful of Marvel comics scattered across the late '80s). Louise Simonson's script is nice and full—compressed, rather than decompressed—but Steve Scott's pencils are unexceptional, and both this premise and the resulting story feel pre-chewed… C+


Sticking a mostly 3D issue in the middle of an already gimmicky plot arc probably isn't the smartest idea in the first place, but there's more wrong with Action Comics #851 (DC) than just the timing. The Geoff Johns/Richard Donner co-scripted story is an absolute mess, cramming in Lex Luthor, General Zod, the Phantom Zone, and long-ago fan-favorite Legion Of Super-Heroes character Mon-El. It's hard to follow even for people who've been keeping up with Action Comics, let alone people drawn in by the 3D art. As for that art, it's impressively three-dimensional, but rendering Adam Kubert's dynamic drawings in shady red and blue does them no favors… D+

Horror magazine Fangoria has just crossed over into the comics business, though at the moment, all its titles appear to be designed to promote movies it's also producing. Robert Kurtzman's Beneath The Valley Of The Rage is a four-part prequel to the upcoming movie The Rage, about a serum that turns people into rampaging monsters. (Note to litigious 28 Days Later investors: This "rage" is a serum, not a virus.) The John Bisson-penned, Stephen Thompson-drawn first issue of Beneath The Valley Of The Rage is impressively gross, starting with an early full-page panel that has a man explosively shitting out his own intestines. But there isn't much story behind the grotesquerie… C-


The second half of Avril Lavigne's Make 5 Wishes (Ballantine) is much less youth-friendly than the first volume, in spite of its appealingly rounded, soft-focus manga-esque characters and its troubled-schoolgirl plot. A strikingly grim, ambiguous ending once again underlines the fact that writer-artist team Joshua Dysart and Camilla d'Errico deserve better than to be working on an ephemeral album tie-in product… B+

DC's Minx line of graphic novels for girls carries on with Clubbing, written by Samurai Jam's Andi Watson and illustrated by Dead@17's Josh Howard in a sharply simple, iconic Bruce Timm-inspired style. The story is fairly bland compared to previous Minx installments—when the protagonist, Charlotte Brook, gets busted at a London club with a fake ID, she gets shipped off to her rustic grandparents, and has to deal with being a spoiled, self-centered, fashionista goth out in the unsophisticated countryside. Then weird things happen and she turns into a self-centered fashionista Nancy Drew instead. It all seems pretty demographic-calculated—in spite of her wicked rad goth gear, her rebellious independence, and her moaning over adult cluelessness, Charlotte is a good girl and a safely likeable type straight out of chick lit. Everything about her says "Wouldn't it be cool to be me, even when my life sucks?" That said, Clubbing is intermittently clever and funny, in its trying-to-be-clever-and-funny way… C


Gotham Central never really got the sales it deserved, and the series wrapped at issue #40, with the main characters going on to new prominence in the DC universe. It's too bad; the first half of the series' fifth and final graphic novel, Gotham Central: Dead Robin, showcases exactly what was most interesting about the series: the intersection between average Gotham cops and the superheroes and villains who make their lives hell. When a teenager in a Robin costume is found murdered, the Gotham PD has to figure out how to uphold the law: Assume the corpse is actually Robin? Arrest and depose Batman? And how do they deal with the fact that Batman is aggressively, violently pursuing the case himself? The second half of the book features an all-but-gratuitous Infinite Crisis crossover issue, then devolves into wheel-spinning setup for the series' end. But Greg Rucka's gritty procedurals and street-level cop action are still so different from run-of-the-mill superhero fare—while tapping directly into everything that makes superheroes interesting—that it's hard not to start missing the series bitterly as of the last page… B

Vertigo has been churning out the Hellblazer reprints like clockwork lately, collecting story arcs as they conclude in the monthly comic, but the latest trade, Hellblazer: The Devil You Know, is something different: It collects issues #10-13 from the title's late-'80s Jamie Delano run, plus some annuals and tie-in issues of The Horrorist, It doesn't hold together particularly well as a book, given the lack of continuity or ongoing story, but Delano's vast-cosmic-weirdness mentality, which stretches John Constantine across worlds and centuries, doesn't really lend itself to continuity anyway. It's worth reading this volume just to contrast its vast, trippy, dreamlike qualities with the series' current more standard-issue forward narrative drive. B


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