Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Comics Panel: July 3, 2007

Feeling underappreciated and undercompensated, Jack Kirby rocked the comics world in 1970 by jumping ship from Marvel—where he'd helped craft a whole universe by co-creating the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and many others—and heading over to DC Comics. Given free rein, he set about creating a cosmic saga with intergalactic gods, cosmic hippies, a costumed escape artist, and Superman's best pal. Collectively known as the "Fourth World," Kirby's work in The New Gods, Mister Miracle, Forever People, and Jimmy Olsen sputtered out due to soft sales, but it's since inspired countless creators, and gained a sizeable cult following, thanks to Kirby's inimitable knack for creating memorable characters and employing big, occasionally batshit ideas. Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 1 (DC) kicks off a four-volume series reprinting the never-completed saga, and Kirby's work looks even bolder and crazier now than it must have at the time. The combination of science-fiction concepts and psychedelic philosophizing is the work of a man on the far side of middle age (Kirby was 53 when he began it), nurturing an odd faith that the wildly attired younger generation marching in the streets could set the world aright. He tried to give them the heroes he thought they needed to get the job done… A

And speaking of Kirby revivals: Sandman maestro Neil Gaiman has less time for comics these days, what with his novels and film projects, so complete Gaiman books like the hefty hardback collection Eternals (Marvel) are more of an event than ever. Of course, it helps when they're this damn good. In this compilation of the six-issue series, Gaiman reboots Jack Kirby's ultra-cosmic, Chariots Of The Gods-inspired '70s series about an Earthbound race of immortals and their all-powerful creators, respecting the source material but retooling events with a plotline that lets readers rediscover the complicated Eternals cosmology alongside the characters. John Romita Jr.'s bright, lovely art fleshes things out in grand style. Is there an antiquated comic character out there whom Gaiman can't improve?… A

Another big hardback full o' fun from Marvel: Runaways Vol. 3, the latest glossy, oversized prestige collection of Brian K. Vaughan's ongoing series about a little superhero team comprising the disaffected children of supervillains. As the series has continued, the novelty and impact of the first story arc have faded, but Vaughan's smart writing and brutal willingness to reconfigure his team with death or radical relationship changes have kept things fresh. Joss Whedon has been scripting the monthly Runaways comic recently, while Vaughan has written some upcoming Buffy Season 8 issues, which is no wonder; Runaways is about as close to Whedon's shows as non-Whedon comics get—clever banter, emotional wrenches and all… A-


The cover on the preview galley of David Lapham's original graphic novel Silverfish (Vertigo) made it look like a spin-off of Piranha, or some other cheapo monster horror flick. But the story is more Alfred Hitchcock than Roger Corman, the real monsters are all internal, and the (blander) official release cover evokes Strangers On A Train or Carnival Of Souls more than Orca. Lapham (Stray Bullets, Daredevil Vs. Punisher) weaves a breathless noirish tale of murder, assumed identity, robbery, and madness, but he starts off with the appealingly simple story of a sulky teenager refusing to accept her stepmom, not realizing the vast consequences her petty personal drama is about to spark… B+

And speaking of little personal dramas with big consequences, the initial trade collection of Mike Carey's new ongoing series Crossing Midnight (Vertigo) starts with a Japanese couple reluctantly giving in to a relative's demand that they bless their unborn child with an offering at a family shrine. But when the blessed event occurs, they have twins, both born with strange abilities, and a demon eventually comes around to claim what he says is his rightful property. With Lucifer concluded and Hellblazer in other hands, Carey has been branching out with a variety of projects, including a debut novel (The Devil You Know, from Warner Books), but his gripping, detail-rich, culturally precise storytelling here shows him still at the top of his comics game. Jim Fern's thin-lined art and sometimes stiff characters aren't quite equal to Carey's story, but the dragons sure look terrific… A-


Crossing Midnight isn't Carey's only recent book, either. The Plain Janes kicked off DC's girl-friendly paperback line Minx with an impressive comics replication of good modern juvenile fiction. Minx's second book, Re-Gifters, is more like a smart teen movie. Written by Carey and drawn by his My Faith In Frankie art team, Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel, Re-Gifters follows a Korean-American high-school girl who's having trouble handling her unrequited crush on a fellow hapkido student. The plot runs through the typical variations of stupid stunts designed to win the heart of a boy who isn't worth it, but the multi-cultural L.A. milieu is delineated well, and the cartooning is lively throughout. If Re-Gifters actually were a teen movie, it'd be a charming little sleeper… B+

The storyline of David Petersen Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (Archaia) isn't particularly satisfying; its cranky soldier-mouse protagonists don't have much individual personality, and his mouse society is ill-defined to the point where it's hard to care which side wins the book's internecine warfare. But the art is utterly fabulous, and all the rich fall colors and gorgeous compositions make it tempting to dissect the book and turn it into wall art. More Mouse Guard books are planned; hopefully they'll feature scripting that matches the fantastic depth of the illustrations… C+


Kim Deitch's Alias The Cat! (Pantheon) doesn't have depth problems in content or art; if anything, the quantity of both is overwhelming. Deitch's art recalls Fleisher cartoons fractaled out into incredible detail, whereas his story is a dizzying blend of faux-autobiography and increasingly weird fantasy. The story starts with Deitch and his wife obsessively collecting paraphernalia related to Waldo, the supposed vintage-cartoon cat perpetually weaving his way through Deitch's work. The mundane eBay quest for Waldo collectables leads the Deitches into a series of increasingly unlikely tall tales starring a real-life Waldo, sometimes as anti-hero, sometimes as shadowy background Svengali. It's all trippy and phantasmagorical enough to recall '60s head comics, but Deitch's solid storyline is as compelling as his creepy blend of fantasy and reality… B+

Rod Espinosa's The Courageous Princess (Dark Horse) strongly recalls the manga work of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki: The pastel art, kid-friendly themes, and cute manga characters mask a deceptively dense fairy-tale saga about a girl learning self-reliance as she helps various woodland communities during a quest to escape from a dragon. Miyazaki goes for much darker themes than this, but he'd likely give Espinosa a thumb's-up for style… B


Reading Edmund And Rosemary Go To Hell (Simon & Schuster), it isn't hard to guess that writer-artist Bruce Eric Kaplan is a New Yorker cartoonist; the simple black-and-white lines and ultra-dry humor are both New Yorker typical, and so's the wry story, in which a couple at odds with the world come to realize that they literally are in hell, and try to decide what to do about it. It's lightweight stuff, both in the simple art and in the brief story, but it's smartly smirky too… B

As graphic novels get steadily more mainstream, and more big-name book publishers get into the comics game, weird books like Nick Bertozzi's The Salon (St. Martins Griffin) are becoming more common. Which is certainly a good thing, though The Salon's pinched art and fussy, complicated story aren't likely to edge out grunting wish-fulfillment superhero fare anytime soon. In part, the book documents Pablo Picasso's development of Cubism, showing how it was influenced by and built in reaction to the art world of early-1900s Paris, but while real historical figures like Gertrude and Leo Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Paul Gauguin are running around, they're also drinking blue absinthe, magically jumping into paintings, and fighting a blue apparition that's popping off artists' heads. The book's heady stew of real, surreal, history, and parody all swim together appealingly, but all the plots drag out too long, and the Little Nemo In Slumberland feel overwhelms whatever Bertozzi is trying to communicate about art. It's a fascinating book, but it does too many things to do any of them really well… C+


Betty And Veronica Double Digest #151 contains the first part of the much-fretted-over story "Bad Boy Trouble," written by Melanie J. Morgan with art—very non-Archie-ish art—by Steven Butler and Al Milgrom. The gatekeepers at Archie Comics have assured longtime fans that this is a stylistic experiment, not a permanent "new look," and given how generically soapy "Bad Boy Trouble" is, and how indistinct the art looks, it's hard to imagine that anyone will be clamoring for an encore… C-

For more conventional Archie hijinks, try the new collection Archie's Camp Tales, which brings together roughly four decades of adventures set at the Riverdale-adjacent "Camp Camp." The three gags/stories most often repeated in the book? 1. Mr. Weatherbee accidentally swats a beehive. 2. The campers get lost on a hike and wind up having the best time of their lives. 3. Archie inadvertently saves the financially strapped camp when one of his disastrous plans winds up proving how deeply involved and basically fun-loving the Camp Camp counselors are. Lather, rinse repeat. At least the art looks good, especially on the older stories… B-


Speaking of good art salvaging crummy ideas, Marvel Romance Redux: Another Kind Of Love takes an assortment of old Marvel romance comics and replaces the dialogue with absurdist quips penned by the likes of Keith Giffen, Kyle Baker, and Peter David. The odd panel or two is amusing, but it's hard to sustain this gag over full stories, so most of the writers here resort to what they know, re-imagining these quaint melodramas as crackpot adventure stories. Frankly, the new dialogue is nowhere near as delirious as what Stan Lee and his bullpen concocted back in the '60s. But still—those Jack Kirby, John Romita and Gene Colan pencils? Pure cream… B-

Animator Cathy Malkasian makes an impressive debut as a graphic novelist with Percy Gloom (Fantagraphics), a singularly surreal story about a tender-tummied naïf who longs to be a safety inspector, but can't stop fumbling into accidents when he shows up to apply for the job. The pervasive whimsy is too curdled to be cutesy, though Malkasian's digressions into small-town mini-revolutions and unrequited love triangles are less smartly realized then her darkly comic depictions of office drone-dom. Then again, Percy Gloom's spontaneity—which partly explains its often half-finished feel—is a large part of its charm… B+


Walt Holcombe is another cartoonist with an animator's background and sensibility, though he also shows a deep appreciation for archaic American slang and the disjointed comic poetry of George Herriman. The collection Things Just Get Away From You (Fantagraphics) covers a decade of scattered Holcombe strips and stories, including his bittersweet graphic novella The King Of Persia and the funny-animal romantic roundelay Swollen Holler. Holcombe's drawings combine sleek curves and jagged lines, and his stories do much the same, taking sweet-looking characters and exposing the petty jealousies and failures of nerve that keep them from being happy. With a sharp-but-sour worldview like that, it's no wonder that Holcombe has remained a virtual unknown for so long… B+

A five-issue miniseries called World War Hulk anchors Marvel's big summer crossover series, and its premise is blockbuster-movie simple: Sent into space by Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and others, the Hulk has returned after a yearlong sojourn on a planet where he became a king, found love, then lost it all. And now he's mad. Greg Pak writes and the great John Romita Jr. draws. There isn't a challenging idea in sight, but sometimes Hulk just smashing stuff is all you need… B


For old-school Marvel action, look no further than Avengers Classic, a new monthly reprinting the original Avengers series with new covers and backup stories. The original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby issue is, of course, a classic, and at least one of the backup stories—a corny bit of meta-fiction written by and starring Lee, and drawn by the not-busy-enough Kevin Maguire—is worth the price of admission. Catching up should be a pleasure… A

Eric Powell's great series The Goon deftly combines lowbrow humor with unexpected emotional depth in its ongoing story of a big, not-so-dumb guy who does battle with zombies in a town seemingly dreamt up by Tom Waits. Occasionally the lowbrow humor gets the better of the series, however. And occasionally the results are apparently just unpublishable, as was the case with Satan's **** Baby (Dark Horse). Originally intended as the series' 18th issue, it was pulled and repackaged as a never-to-be-reprinted one-shot. Why? Well, the "****" stands for "sodomy," and the word applies to the conception, life, and execution of an adorable big-dicked devil infant who springs fully-formed from the ass of a hillbilly molested by Satan. It's stupid and kind of fun, but pretty far from the series' finest moment… C+


It's tough to judge limited series by their first issue, but The Highwaymen (Wildstorm/DC) gets off to a gripping start, albeit one confusing by design. Set in the near future, it follows two semi-retired secret agents called back into action to correct a mysterious mistake made in the Clinton administration. (The first Clinton administration, one character points out.) The old-guys-and-explosions action is winningly penned by Entertainment Weekly writer Marc Bernadin and Adam Freeman, and Lee Garbett's art has a '70s movie-poster kineticism. The only problem—which future issues might correct—is that it reads as more pleasantly familiar than groundbreaking… B-

Or maybe judging limited series from issues isn't that tough. The Other Side (Vertigo/DC) had an unforgettable debut issue, and it reads even better as a collection. Written by newcomer Jason Aaron, who has subsequently unveiled the impressive ongoing series Scalped, and drawn with bold, unsettling cartooniness by Cameron Stewart, the series looks at the war in Vietnam from the perspective of two points doomed to converge: An American draftee from Alabama, and a patriotic volunteer from rural Vietnam. Aaron is the cousin of the late Gustav Hasford, author of The Short-Timers, the inspiration for Full Metal Jacket, and Aaron admits his book owes a lot to Hasford's from-basic-training-to-the-depths-of-jungle-hell structure. But Aaron and Stewart make the material their own with haunting battle scenes and revelatory moments in which Vietnamese soldiers look at American anti-communist propaganda and ask what communism is, anyway. The double perspective could have been gimmicky, but The Other Side lets them play off each other like a hellish fugue to offer a ground-level take on war's absurdity… A


In Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds (D&Q), an Israeli cabdriver hears from an ex-soldier that his father may have been killed in a marketplace bombing; in the process of tracking down the truth, the cabbie finds out more about his Dad and about the ex-soldier, an awkward young woman from a rich family. Modan draws an appealingly thin, clean line, which makes her characters look like figures in a how-to manual, and while her story never builds to much beyond a pat exploration of the holes we leave in each other's lives, the unusual milieu and breezy style make this graphic novel an easy read… B

Early in Joe Matt's career, his nothing-off-limits autobiographical comics were bright and refreshing, and even as he gradually shed all attempts to make himself look noble and cute, and began portraying himself as a lonely miser obsessed with pornography, his honesty was bracing and his cartooning brilliant. But with the book-length Spent (D&Q), the long wallow in Matt's pathetic life has become practically unbearable. It isn't just that page after page of Matt literally masturbating is about as trite a self-criticism imaginable; in addition, the art has become flat and unimaginative, and the storytelling repetitive and dull. There's some residual fascination to watching a great talent destroy himself, but it's sure not much fun. C-


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