Wednesday, September 3, 2014

God Hates Astronauts #1

Now, Albert Einstein was a fuck-up as a cartoonist, that said which by the way is redundant in both writing and speech because, you know, you just said what you said and therefore never mind but he did manage to say something very smart and Einstein-ey-ish about starry-eyed dopes like God Hates Astronauts writer/artist Ryan Browne. No less of an authority than the internet says Einstein (supposedly) said: ''Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.'' Pro-tip: using overused clichés (talk about redundancy) like this one from Einstein (allegedly) in one's writing is like using the phrase 'that said' in everyday speech. That said … few piss into the wind or shovel shit against the tide better than Browne. God bless you and your tortured need for acceptance.

This is Browne's third (maybe fourth) attempt to (throat-clearing noise) launch this pet franchise of his into the hands of indifferent comics readers. First, GHA was a web comic, than a successful Kickstarter (backers even received what they ordered) and then a trade paperback published by Image Comics and now an on-going. Insanity. Pity colorist Jordan Boyd and letterer Crank for hitching their wagon Browne's star.

God Hates Astronauts #1 defines the word 'mistake' and (for once?) is a total miscalculation on the part of Image Comics. There can be little doubt Browne has Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson's dirty pictures. Perhaps GHA #1 is a 'mercy-publication' and somewhere out there in some sub-sub-sub-library of some Northern California court an intrepid soul would find a sealed presentment or some out of court settlement … the case of Browne vs. the board of Image Comics shareholders. Who knows. Who cares.

Honestly, why pay the $3.50 cover price for God Hates Astronauts #1 when in six months even the variant cover, by no less than Geof Darrow, will crowd out other has-beens and never-weres in the quarter bin or stuffed into grab bags at Free Comic Book Days for decades to come? Future generations will mistakenly stumble upon this paragon of defiance against good taste -- especially when there are so many post-apocalyptic zombie noir comics, crossover events and other original sins -- and ask wha?

Wow.

Why the ire for the plucky upstart Mr. Browne and his (albeit) feeble attempt to slice off his own piece of the creator-owned pie? Simple … satire. See, satire doesn't sell. Satire is the creeper in the corner who shows up uninvited, you know, like educational programming on corporately-owned TV stations. Best to air such dreck at 5 AM when the drunks finally pass out. That's the audience for God Hates Astronauts, blackout drunks, maybe masochists. Absurdity is an outlier, horses shouldn't drink beer from the bottle and the foibles of comics shouldn't be tweaked, whether playfully or not. Browne's a tweaker. His jokes depend on gratuitous visual gags, silly sound effects, bestiality and a deep knowledge of Billy Bob Thorton's filmography, four things no one asked for, ever. With, perhaps, the exception of 3-D Cowboy and The Impossible, God Hates Astronauts #1 is a comic best described as not for everyone.

Yes, Browne is an über-talented cartoonist and writer. And yes because of GHA he's more than likely going to end up having to pimp himself out as an über-talented cartoonist Uber driver when he's inevitably pantsed for defrauding comic book speculators who were (innocently) buying God Hates Astronauts #1 not to read (where the fuck have you been?!?) but because it was published by Image Comics, so money. Caveat Emptor dumbasses.

The good news is God Hates Astronauts will run eight issues, ten, at best, an adulterated un-fucked-around-with distillation of why we can't have nice things. Embrace the insanity, embrace the stupidity: God Hates Astronauts #1.

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Keith Silva knows satire and sarcasm are fool's errands so he started a twitter account: @keithpmsilva

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Tick #1

This review originally ran as the 'Dig the Long Box,' a column on the now defunct RCB.net 

New England Comics (NEC) in Brockton, Massachusetts was where I went after weeks of mowing lawns or stacking wood. Today, I think of it as a kind of nostalgic 'doper's dream,' the LCS as cathedral; phalanxes of long boxes lined up like a secretarial pool in a 1930's screwball comedy, comics covering the walls in clear Mylar sleeves that intensify gaudy covers, and (in my mind) acres of space  to wander (wonder?). NEC was where I was first struck by the lightning bolt of The Dark Knight Returns, learned what the word 'covet' really meant after seeing The Incredible Hulk #181, where I first encountered the earth-pig (Cerebus), made the acquaintance of Daredevil and when I first saw The Tick.

The Turtles hit at the apogee of my adolescent comic book collecting. My world was black and white and everything was anthropomorphic, skilled in some Martial art and a parody of a parody of a parody. No, I do not own copies of Geriatric Gangrene Jujitsu Gerbils or Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, yes, I did buy a lot of issues of Boris the Bear, one issue of something called Buce N Gar, and I even own a couple of the worthless issues of Albedo Anthropomorphics. Oh, sure, I did my required reading for Marvel and DC, but if it was black and white and put out by some fly-by-night independent publisher nobody had ever heard of, before (or since), I had to have it.

Original 'The Tick' strip
Creator-owned wasn't (really) a thing back then. In the mid-1980's, the black and white independent revolution in comics was just getting started. It was still more-or-less of a camp and not the Wild West boom town it would become. Eastman and Laird had staked their claim and the sharpers and innocents alike were quick to fill the speculators demand which meant both promise and a lot of lousy comics. When NEC published their own comic book, The Tick, from a strip that had run in their newsletter, it was a definite must have. Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (New Hampshire, sadly) the Tick was local, the creation of a fellow member of the Commonwealth, Ben Edlund, so, I bought it.

Sidebar: Like so many other comics from that time in my life, I own this #1 and that's it. I didn't know The Tick lives on until, my friend (and inveterate hoarder), Aaron Meyers, vehemently chastised me in a tweet. [Shortly after this review posted I sent my The Tick #1 to Mr. Meyers and the home he runs for comics, it's a safe space where I know The Tick #1 will be well cared for and happy] Apparently, there's money in these creator-owned comics, well, the 'good 'uns,' anyway, sucks to be you, Fish Police. I never saw the live-action The Tick TV show with 'the face painter.' I knew there was a cartoon (1994), I guess (?), but by then, as James Robinson says in Starman, 'I'd moved on to wine and women.' NEC continues to publish The Tick on occasion, so, good on them and good on Edlund. The various, sundry and (I hope) profitable permutations of Edlund's creation are all beyond my ken, so, let's stick to 1988 when all there was was a black and white comic book about a wannabe superhero who wore a View-Master around his neck.     

The Tick #1 feels different from all those other black and white critter books of the 1980's, see, it's (a bit) oversized. If a cheap, easy (and somewhat subtle) joke like that bends back your antenna, The Tick is your jam and Bob's your uncle -- the unnecessary reference to British slang here is not important to understanding The Tick; however, it does add to the absurdist nature of this comic. The Tick triumphs as comic and concept because Edlund understands parody and comedy are at their funniest when the characters take themselves seriously, the seriouser-er, the funnier-er. So acute (and so serious) is Tick, his story begins in a mental institution. Yes, superheroes stand-in as our modern myths, blah-blah-blah, and yet, Nano-suit or not, a guy in a cape would not fly outside a green screen or the pages of a comic book; and that, of course, is part of the fun. The Tick is in itself a parody of a parody (TMNT and its clones), but Edlund knows being self-referential is only (really) funny when one is self-aware as well.   

Other than from the force of his own internal monologue, issue #1 offers no explanation of how the Tick goes from being a padded room, where he feels restrained and bored, and a page turn later is leaping from rooftop to rooftop. As the saying goes, 'nuff said. Tick and The Tick moves fast. By page three, Tick admits he once thought his destiny was to ''become emperor of Greenland'' and then to ''build a Polynesian longship in my garage,'' and now he decides destiny has tapped him to be ''this city's superhero.'' And so it goes.

When The Tick takes its bow, Edlund is in college, not even old enough to drink (legally), but he was already seriously soused on comics. The opening panels of issue #1 show an artist who has heroic poses down pat and a writer with every heroic trope under his fingernails. It is safe to say, Edlund read a lot of Daredevil and paid close attention to ol' hornhead's penchant for bouncing off of conveniently-placed flagpoles. Edlund runs a flagpole gag a full seven pages, the sound, ''wub wub wub'' acts as ambient noise while a cigar-chomping vagrant takes the Tick down a peg or ten.

The deepest cut happens when the man asks the Tick: ''Didn't you escape from an insane asylum a coupla weeks back?'' The Tick thinks: ''My mind reels and spins at the speed of light as I search for the perfect response … the perfect alibi for the past two weeks.'' After an ''ah,'' ''eh'' and a few other mono-syllabic noises, the Tick answers: ''No,'' another clue Edlund gets it. Comic books are time-less. There's no clock and no calendar when it comes to sequential art, so try to keep up. 

The Tick is nigh-invulnerable which means he is not invulnerable. So should he fall off a roof and then through a concrete sidewalk or get hit by an on-coming subway train, he'll survive, but he's going to feel it. Like Quixote, the greatest danger to the Tick is the Tick as he shows when he is easily defeated by a common drinking straw and his own ego. Tick sidekick, Arthur, is nigh-noticeable in this issue. He doesn't interact with the titular Tick, but he can be seen flying around in the background while Tick dispatches with some nigh-Frank-Miller-looking-ninjas.  Arthur's nigh-appearance means Edlund has plans for Tick, more adventures and more chances to hole up at Hopper's after a long night of fighting crime or almost.

Ticks are common where I grew up in Massachusetts. They live in wood piles and hide in tall grass. I like to think Edlund knew about the nigh-invulnerableness of ticks when he came up with the character and I marvel at fervid and fecund imagination that filled in the rest of the details. The Tick is no superhero and he is certainly not a roach. What Tick is is a good idea for superhero. He's makes comics comic -- an anodyne to the super serious superheroes, a hero for every and all ages. Not the superhero you need, but the superhero you want.      

Hello, Old Friend

[originally published at comicsbulletin.com]

The postcard comes from the good people at Howard Johnson, and yes, the reservation number still works. The sketch of Michelangelo and the signature are courtesy of Peter Laird, co-creator of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The nerve to ask Mr. Laird for his signature and a sketch -- for free -- derives from a quality most twelve-year-old boys hold in surplus, ignorance. I know I did.

Until my pilgrimage to TCAF this past year, I had been to exactly one other gathering of my tribe. The show was in Boston at (yep, you guessed it) a Howard Johnson's hotel. I would put the show around 1985 or '86 about the time my turtle-mania was almost at pique. At the time I thought of 'the Turtles' as a New England 'La Cosa Nostra,' this thing of ours. The Turtles were local. Sure they were created in a different part of my 'neck of the woods' (New Hampshire). I had at least ridden through that state which for a kid caught in the tight Ouroboros-like circle of family, school and church was a damn sight closer (and therefore more real) than anything from New York City, where, so I thought, all comics came from.

When someone mentions 'the Turtles,' I think of Mirage studios, that's my permutation and those are 'my turtles.' When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #5 is released Mirage switches from printing in the oversized format to more standard comic book dimensions. Those oversized early editions (even #3 and #4) were always hard to come by back then so I must have bought them at the show. This allows me to (somewhat) carbon date meeting Laird and Kevin Eastman because they signed the inside front cover of issues #4 and #6, but not #5. Why? When I met Eastman and Laird they were a phenomenon, but not yet the franchise they would soon become. For me, seeing these two men and getting their autographs was personal. As far as I was concerned an author, artist and athlete was as mysterious and as intangible as God. So this was word made flesh. 

My father took me to the show. If I had to I'd guess there were as many vendors selling baseball cards as comics that day. I could be wrong. There was no cosplay -- seeing a woman dressed as Dagger would have set my pubescent brain to tilt for forever -- no artist's alley and as for advertising there might have been an ad in a local paper on in the back of the N.E.C. newsletter.

From what I can remember Eastman and Laird were set up at a banquet table in a hallway (maybe an atrium?) apart from the main room where the show was being held. Their appearance was a total surprise (which will come back to bite me in the ass, read on). Besides their signatures on TMNT #4 and #6 and Eastman's signature on Raphael -- why I didn't get Laird to sign it as well is lost to the mists of time -- and the postcard I have little else to tether my fractured memories. I do remember it took Laird less than a minute to draw Michelangelo. I (try to) copy those same quick motions I saw him use when I draw any of the Turtles, even today; they've been sketched on my brain and under my fingernails.

Here's where my good fortune falls apart (somewhat). When I get home I tell my cousin to come over. When I show him 'my haul' he immediately runs home, in tears. I had no idea what had happened. My aunt calls about five minutes later and bitches me out good. My cousin was claiming he had asked me to get him something if anyone 'cool' shows up. I can't remember if he did or didn't ask and either way my aunt wasn't buying it. I'd like to think I made good and gave him something of my spoils as penance for my sin of omission. Maybe that's why my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #5 isn't signed? Maybe I gave it to my cousin and bought another one to replace it. C'est la vie.   

I would continue on for a few more years as a youth in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles army. The last issue I have is #12 which came out in September 1987. So by the time the 'Turtle Power' becomes an international slogan I get my first taste of the sneering privilege that comes from saying 'yeah man, I knew them when it was all about the music … err comics' and by then I was on to something else. I don't think my cousin really cared about not getting an autograph. I think he was pissed he didn't get to meet Eastman and Laird. Maybe it was karma for the time he used a brick as the trash compactor and smashed my C-3PO. I sold most of my comics that were worth anything -- Amazing Spider-Man #129 -- to finance buying concert tickets and fancy CD box sets. I did keep my Turtles comics and the postcard.   

So what? Why was Peter Laird so nice to me, so gracious? What am I supposed to do thirty years later?

One of my (many) regrets from TCAF is I kept missing Ross Campbell. I had heard him talk on Kelly Thompson's '3 Chicks Review Comics' podcast about his love of the Turtles and how getting to draw them for IDW was a dream come true. I wanted to ask him if he had met Laird (or Eastman) and tell him about the postcard. I was too impatient to wait in line and too preoccupied with other goings-on. So, I missed my chance.

When I recently reviewed Campbell's work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #29 I felt the nostalgia, that 'turtle power.' I don't know which turtles are Campbell's turtles and it doesn't matter. His aim is true, his love apparent. When talent meets opportunity the result isn't some slavish pastiche, it's the best kind of creative act, it's inspirational and a revelation. Campbell does what every artist aspires to do with a franchise: find the joy, the charm and the creative energy of the original and make it personal. Campbell's art on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles makes the personal personal and that is grace. 

I've wanted to write about 'the postcard' for some time and Campbell's work put it in perspective. For me, the postcard signifies the decency in people and how acts of charity should resonate beyond the mere beneficiary. The 'why' is unimportant, it's the act itself that's sacred. What Peter Laird did for that thin-as-a-whip, oblivious boy with the postcard was to give him a gift; to show him (me) kindness and thoughtfulness. I called it luck, but good fortune is a better way to describe it. Now, almost thirty years later I see it for what it is: grace.

Many people have shown me such kindnesses in my life and in my time writing for Comics Bulletin, Jason Sacks chief among them. Grace is a two-way street and so I hope I have done and continue to do the same for others in 2014. The work goes on.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

(startin') to Go Steady!

In early September 2013 I became a regular contributor to Comics Bulletin's weekly review column, 'Singles Going Steady.' This kind of prescribed writing (each review runs about 400 words) allows me to work different muscles and (hopefully) permits me to not always run over the same old ground.

Going on two years writing about comics, I still find it curious so many reviewers race to be the first to post their thoughts on 'this week's comics.' I get it. Unless you get advances (I do and so does CB and so can you, probably, if you ask) what's the rush? I'd like to think something I write inspires someone to buy Sheltered or Locke & Key. That's not too egomanical, is it?

For me, writing about comics is a conversation. If I got more chances to talk comics more often with other people maybe I would write less -- Jason Sacks just felt a shiver go down his back.

These reviews ran in September and October of 2013 on Comics Bulletin.


Sheltered #3
(Ed Brisson, Johnnie Christmas, Shari Chankhamma; Image)

Sheltered #3 proves when there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. The stakes rise higher and the screws get tighter as artist Johnnie Christmas, colorist Shari Chankhamma and writer Ed Brisson continue to take a 'slow match' approach to one of the year's most incendiary comics.  

If you've been living under a rock, Sheltered tells the story of (what's left of) Safe Haven, a survivalist enclave. After stockpiling and digging in in preparation for the end times, each and every adult is murdered … by their own children. Yep. The Isaac of these 'children of the pre-apocalypse' is Lucas. His opposite number is Victoria. She and her friend Hailey are away from the compound (and apparently) the only two unaware of Lucas's plan when the guns were drawn.

Lucas's charisma has carried the day, but not everyone on 'team Lucas' is … well, well -- parenticide leaves a mark. Victoria and Hailey have holed up in a bunker and although Lucas has the numbers, Hailey and Victoria have … Victoria. Sheltered #3 marks the first battle in the war between the two sides.    

Christmas is a forced-perspective samurai. Victoria's gun is drawn, but never fired; it's a weapon of intimidation not incrimination. Christmas foregrounds the weapon -- a hand cannon ready to go off – to show the threat of violence, not the act itself, not yet anyway. Victoria is the last in line and Christmas makes sure she's oversized even though she's outmatched.

Something is always burning in Sheltered, evidence, corpses, or emotions and Chankhamma captures it in pumpkin and persimmon. These shades of orange appear as blocks of color to background extreme furies like when Lucas explains to Victoria why the adults had to die or when some of the younger conspirators refuse to toe the line. Chankhamma brings the fire to Sheltered's creatives.

Brisson's spare approach to storytelling borders on McCarthy-esque. The reader receives only what is needed and nothing more. Hailey and Victoria's story of survival nests inside (is sheltered by) the overarching narrative about the survivors of a survivalist compound; it's a smart move by Brisson and adds depth and scale to an otherwise small canvas. I suspect this nesting instinct to expand to other characters until morale improves which should occur the first of never.

 
Locke & Key: Alpha #1
(Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriquez, Jay Fotos; IDW)



 
As Tuco tells Blondie in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: ''You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: Those who read Locke & Key and those who should.''
 
If Locke & Key is beyond your ken, I am envious, envious for the blessed moment you crack the spine on Locke & Key Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft and discover the true consequences of ''the magic of comic books'' and ''the power of storytelling.'' This review is not for you; you have some reading to catch up on.  
 
Locke & Key: Alpha #1 hurts. It's visceral and corporeal, a story felt, in the gut, in the heart and in the soul. Above all, Locke & Key: Alpha #1 is not a story one ruins for others. These are, after all, anxious times for our heroes, as Kinsey says: ''I need to feel something besides panic.''
 
For this penultimate issue, storytellers Gabriel Rodriquez, Joe Hill and Jay Fotos choose to fight, to do the 'meat work' Locke & Key has been leading to since it began. Three talents (four counting letterer Robbie Robbins) at the height of their powers -- not a line, word, or shade out of place.
 
Rodriquez's cartooning is on a higher plane -- there's no other way to put it -- backgrounds, figures, all of it. Each panel roils with detail, every crease in every hat and hoodie, the sutures stitched across Rufus's face, and, of course, the terror, the desperate certain terror. The legions of demons Rodriquez draws in triumph and in repose rival a Fuseli nightmare. His character work has so much verve (such a spark) it's easy to miss a riff on a Renaissance master and the Almighty.
 
Fotos finds Nigel Tufnel's ''none more black'' black for almost every scene except when something is aflame: people, buildings, 'whispering iron.' His delicate colors for starry skies and the crescent moon are the story's only comforts.
 
Where did Joe Hill learn to write dialogue like this? He had to learn those filthy words, abject anger and maniac passion somewhere, right? What Hill does best is animate evil. In Dodge, Hill offers a gift: a villain's villain.
 
See Dodge's eyes. The shine? It's experience, knowing it's time for these creators to slip the long shadows of influence and begin to cast their own envious shades of inspiration.


 
Prophet #39
(Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milogiannis, Joseph Bergin III, Matt Sheean, Malachi Ward, James Stokoe, Aaron Conley, Lando, Ron Wimberly; Image)
 
Brandon Graham is the Yeezy of indie cartoonists. Prophet #39 shows he knows how to party.
 
Under Graham's watch, Prophet has been an art first comic. Often, in the case of Marvel and DC, artist showcases get ghettoized i.e. Batman Black & White and Marvel Knights. I admire Graham's chutzpah (with Image's blessing) to put out an on-going non-anthology title with an emphasis on cartooning and an unfussiness in regards to monotonous narrative continuity. For a creator who boogies to the music in his own head, it's a comfort to know Graham's got the industry juice to pull off Prophet in the first place. Art takes such a priority in Prophet #39 the credits are listed on the back cover. Ballsy.
 
Oftentimes when nine artists contribute to a single title it smacks of unreasonable deadlines and assembly line drudgery. Prophet #39 comes off as the exact opposite of a work-for-hire slog -- it's an artistic bacchanal that serves as a family album for Diehard. Each artist takes a crack at the more-human-than-human robot's life (lives?) across the millennia. Series artist Giannis Milogiannis counts off (on the inside front cover) with two half-page panels showing Diehard's current iteration as he noodles on an alien woodwind in a quiet starship corridor, ''an old song played by an old robot,'' poetry in both word and image.
Simon Roy, Prophet's other regular artist and the issue's co-writer, rounds out the proceedings. He bookends the story with what Diehard was up to before he meets up (again) with John Prophet in the current storyline. Prophet #39 is a must see for the five pages James Stokoe turns in and for the one panel from Ron Wimberly. One panel? Hell yeah, it's Ron Wimberly, dude's got big ups! Wimberly's cameo has Iron Giant-type heart and charm. Stokoe, the Woo-ping Yuen of comic book battle royales, gets to draw Diehard with a chainsword (a nod to Maximum 'Max' Absolute in King City).
 
It's fashionable nowadays to wrap a story arc with a palate cleanser character study. Where Graham and Roy break from tradition (?) is to show Diehard's life in montage, a life of war, but also full of families, children and brothers-in-arms. Graham makes Prophet more than its reductive descriptor, 'Conan in space,' by letting the sci-fi fly and allowing creators to create. Prophet #39 goes the does likewise for the 'old robot.'
 
 
The Wake #4
(Scott Snyder, Sean Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth; Vertigo)
 
The Wake #4 marks an interstitial entry in this otherwise nonstop go series. Either by coincidence or in service to its neither here nor there plot, much of the action in this issue takes place in a tunnel -- O.K., technically a pipeline, but you catch my drift. The Wake #4 exists between stations, between acts. For those 'waiting for the trade' these events will float passed like so much krill.
 
If it sounds like I'm damning The Wake #4 with faint praise, I'm not. A comic drawn and inked by Sean Murphy and colored by Matt Hollingsworth is a gift and should be treated as such.
 
When Murphy is being celebrated for his Asterios Polyp, American Flagg! or The Airtight Garage, today's reader will look back and brag about reading The Wake, in singles. Murphy's cartooning verve goes from louds (vivisection, an eyeball attached only by its optic nerve) to softs (pleas and promises). A master of negative space, Murphy's characters look scored out from the living ink itself instead of the other way around. God bless you Sean Murphy.
 
Hollingsworth's colors on The Wake call to mind the look Matthew Libatique got for the inside of Tony Stark's helmet in Iron Man. Whereas in Hawkeye, Hollingsworth's art provides pulpy vigor, his colors in The Wake add dimension, such is his astonishing range. The shades of calendula and electric green he uses for the heads-up display of the mini-sub tell the story of all hell breaking loose as much as Murphy's pencils and inks and Scott Snyder's words. Also, look for the Easter egg, third screen from the right.   
 
From its start, The Wake has followed an unusual pace as if it told in some 19/16 Frank Zappa-like time signature, or math rockers channeling King Crimson. Which is another way of saying Snyder really wants The Wake to feel epic.
 
Amid the action-adventure of the main narrative, Snyder peppers in Kubrick-ian 'Dawn of Man' type sequences bordering on Prometheus. These flashbacks deepen the mystery (somewhat), but at this inchoate stage in the overall story these past pastiches read like a malfunctioning strobe light in an already dim room.
 
What happened to the steampunk-dolphin from the first issue? Why hasn't Snyder gone back to the future and instead remained in the past? Noble savages with laser cannons have caché, but so too does Darwin from seaQuest DSV.

 


Rocket Girl #1
(Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare; Image)
 
Amy Reeder makes Rocket Girl #1 go. Her composition is magnificent, her layouts majestic and her colors sumptuous. Never has a video game arcade had so much showroom shine or looked so clean. And yet for all Reeder's first-class art, Rocket Girl's story is stuck in coach.  
 
The pitch for Rocket Girl is genius: Dayoung Johansson is a fifteen-year-old female detective in the New York City Teen Police Department in 2013. Totally radical. She travels across space and time to 1986 to, as she says, ''investigate crimes against time'' and ''save the world.'' Bad. Time traveling law enforcement officials are nothing new in comics, but few can cop to a jet pack as SOP. Bitchin'.
 
Anyone with basic cable understands how time travel is fraught with confluences, conundrums and complications. Writer Brandon Montclare makes a smart choice to damn the conventions and let Reeder's art propel the story. It's smart because there is time (nudge nudge) to explain how young Johansson's efforts will impact her future and again, Montclare and Rocket Girl have Amy Reeder.
 
Where Montclare's script gets gnarly is how it establishes stakes. Detective Johansson tasks herself with investigating Quintum Mechanics for ''cooking the history books -- going back and playing in the time stream.'' O.K., if the future is so ethically bankrupt, so time-corrupt it's the least dystopian future in history, except, according to the story's timeline, 2013 is the past. What? This 'past as prologue' is a time and place (NYC) the police commissioner, who rocks ruby red Jubilee shades, sez, ''Quintum Mechanics brought back from the brink.''    
  
And the mustache twirlers from '86 Dayoung is so fit not to acquit are nowhere near nefarious enough in their high waisted slacks, hoop earrings and bustiers, set aside the taste shown in the comic books kept in their apartments. Perhaps that's the point. Perhaps knowing the beginning of the end is brought on by the cast of St. Elmo's Fire makes the future (or the past) more reprehensible.
 
I have a lot of respect for Montclare. I backed his previous effort with Reeder, Halloween Eve, when it was a Kickstarter and did likewise when the duo first launched Rocket Girl in the same fashion. I will continue to support their efforts because the work holds potential. If Montclare muscles up to the heights Reeder consistently achieves, Rocket Girl will fly. Godspeed, Rocket Girl.
 
 
Multiple Warheads: Downfall (One Shot)
(Brandon Graham; Image)
 
In between stories about the poetics of love for a partner and the ecstasy of double penetration from both a human penis and a sutured on ''severed werewolf penis,'' Brandon Graham gives in to reflection: ''I sure drew a lot of butts in this comic. Maybe I'm just over thinking it. Hmmmm.'' The next drawing shows an earlier iteration of Graham as he pulls up in something that looks like two butts stuck together with ''Bumz 4 Lyfe'' written on the side and, oh yeah, this Graham has a butt for a head and the car (?) makes 'butt, butt, butt' sounds. 2013 Brandon's response sez it all:

Multiple Warheads: Downfall reprints three stories from 2003, 2004 and 2007. In most cases when a writer publishes their juvenilia or a musician releases demos it's because the publisher or record company is looking to make some quick cash off of sycophantic fanboys (the easiest of easy marks). As long as the market will bear it, so be it.
 
There's a flipside to this kind of cynicism which sez work like this shows the artist at his most naked, most authentic and most raw. If the self-awareness of letting his own ass swing in the air isn't clear enough, Brandon Graham doesn't need his readers to see him naked or unguarded. He's more than happy to drop trou and call himself on his own shit.
 
Reading Downfall is like watching Mean Streets after years of gorging on Goodfellas -- a realization of how the student became the master. 'The Fall' and 'The Elevator' hint at the charms, goofiness and truths Graham displays in the impeccable King City, his masterwork, so far. More than Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity, Downfall's 'The Fall' proves when organ smuggler Sexica and her werewolf boyfriend Nikoli hold each other, theirs is real love. For all his bad puns and sophomoric toilet humor, Graham is a softy, in love with love and comics.   
 
From the 'this isn't for everyone category' comes the one story here that requires some massaging. As 'Sex' and 'Nik' were gestating in his imagination, Graham was drawing erotica. The result of this ménage à trois (Graham, Nik and Sex) is a kinky bit of male wish fulfillment only Graham could imagine. It's not for kids and it shows a helluva lot of asses in the air. Then again, maybe I'm overthinking it. But … 

 
Letter 44  #1
(Charles Soule, Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque, Guy Major, Shawn DePasquale; Oni Press)
 
Letter 44 produces a kind of Heisenberg Principle of yarn spinning -- the story depends on the observer's influences -- full of unpredictability and creative chutzpah. Read it as a political thriller, a first contact story, a conspiracy theorist's wet dream or a clever reframing of American military policy in the Middle-East and Letter 44 answers.
 
Artist Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque and writer Charles Soule imagine a newly-elected US President who learns every decision his hated predecessor made was because ''NASA detected some sort of mining or construction operation in the asteroid belt, up between Mars and Jupiter.'' A team of ''Special Forces guys and scientists'' were sent to investigate, ''and they're getting close.'' Sound familiar? Of course, except for the NASA stuff. Yeah. Yeah?    
 
A wordy 'what if,' Letter 44 suffers some from Soule hammering at
certain plot points and an insistence on text over image which allows letterer Shawn DePasquale to earn his pay, but forces Alburquerque to draw too many meetings and too many talking heads. The gravity of Alburquerque's cartooning occurs on board the spaceship where colorist Guy Major makes the most of CRT greens and greys. 
 
One of the great magical items in a comic book's 'bag of holding' is the page turn surprise. Letter 44 offers a pair. The placement and plotting of these two moments demonstrates Alburquerque and Soule have timed their story for maximum effect. This diamond is not without its inclusions; however, for these two reveals alone the less one knows the better.
 
 
This week an excerpt was published from an interview with Bill Watterson in the December issue of Mental Floss, the 'get' of the year, hell, the last thirty years. He's asked why it's difficult for fans to let go after a creator moves on. Watterson says, ''… a new work requires a certain amount of patience and energy, and there's always the risk of disappointment. You can't blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like … predictability is boring. Repetition is the death of magic.''
 
Calvin and Hobbes works a different side of the street than Letter 44. What it shares with Watterson's masterpiece is the idea: 'predictability is boring.' If Alburquerque and Soule maintain the energy and promise of this first issue, 'magic will out.' In a story full of probabilities, disappointments be damned. Read Letter 44 and revel in the risk.
 
The Massive #16
(Brian Wood, Garry Brown, Jordie Bellaire, Jared K. Fletcher; Dark Horse)
 
(Word to your moms) in The Massive #15 writer Brian Wood came to drop bombs. Or not. In The Massive #16 Wood repeats the series conceit: what's the role of 'direct action' environmental-activists once the Earth has begun to collapse and survival and subsistence have become the rule of law? Who's left to fight and what's worth fighting for?
 
And then along came Mary.
 
When this series first shipped, magic realism was not on the manifest; The Massive #15 changed all that. Somewhere deep down in the code of The Massive, Wood wrote a hack, a Trojan. Mary. From here on out, (it seems) this series is heading in a different direction and towards a new destination. In a tense scene halfway through The Massive #16, Mag asks Cal the only (?) question that matters going forward: ''Where's Mary?'' Cal's initial response says it all: ''''.
 
For what it's worth, the judges would have also accepted: 'what's Mary?' In a flashback -- and perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy -- Mary tells Cal, ''But in the end … not all of us will get what we want.''          
 
In the meantime, a-whaling we go. Like the 'Subcontinental' story arc (#7 - #9), this arc, 'Longship,' looks to ply similar waters in regards to an emphasis on the group over individual interests.
Bors Bergsen is a broken man with good taste in single malt scotch. A former corporate bugbear and (pre-Crash) near the top of Cal's enemies list. Now, Bergsen stands bare-chested in the prow of a Viking longship, the Stúlka, and hunts Minke whales to keep a small community of northlanders alive. What's the harm? Do codes count? Do grudges stand? For Callum Israel, yes and yes. So he bangs the drum and points his ''970-ton military vessel'' at three wooden boats. The horror. The horror.
 
At this moment of madness, Bergsen radios Cal and asks to speak to Mary. Put another way, he begs Mary to intercede -- make of that what you will -- and put an end to Cal's Kurtz-ian craziness. Thanks to The Massive, artist Garry Brown has become a master at drawing world-weary desperation. The look he draws on Cal's face stands at the corner of impotence and idiot resolve. And so, Cal pushes on. As for Mary? Miss Mary—she gone.

 
Sixteen issues in The Massive remains a pillar in this golden-age of creator-owned comics.   

 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rocket Raccon mini-series (1985)

This review originally ran as the premire 'Dig the Long Box' column on the now defunct RCB.net 

Bill Mantlo was the Brian Michael Bendis of his time. Check that, Mantlo was Bendis and Jonathan Hickman … combined. Come to think of it, Mantlo might have been the Wolverine of 1980's comic book writers, seriously. At the height of his career, Mantlo was writing as many as eight Marvel titles a month.
 
Best remembered as the writer of The Micronauts and Rom Spaceknight, Mantlo introduces over fifty characters to the Marvel universe during his twelve year career. His creations range from the infamous, Shamrock and Hypno-Hustler, to fan favorites Cloak and Dagger, Lady Deathstrike and Rocket Raccoon.
 
Mantlo learns the art (and artistry) of comic books literally at the feet of the master -- Jack Kirby was his neighbor. As a teenager Mantlo would spend his afternoons hanging out with Kirby (!) talking about superheroes and storytelling. Mantlo made his Marvel, starting as a writer and a colourist in 1974. By April of 1975 he was writing full-time. In his tenure he would write almost every Marvel character before leaving comics for good to become a public defender in New York City. As Tragic as his departure from Marvel was for comic book fans, the real tragedy occurred in 1992 when Mantlo was hit by a car while rollerblading. The driver fled the scene and was never identified. Mantlo has never fully recovered from his injuries and now requires round-the-clock care.

 
Artist Keith Giffen and Mantlo debut Rocket Raccoon in the pages of Marvel Preview #7 (1976). At that time, Rocket was known as Rocky -- you can decide for yourself if this is a joke, a blatant rip-off of a Beatles song, a loving homage or all three. The Incredible Hulk #271 (1982), written by Mantlo with art by Sal Buscema, is where Rocket Raccoon earns his stripes as protector of the Keystone quadrant on the planet Halfworld. A four issue limited series, Rocket Raccoon, is published in 1985; Mantlo handles the writing with Mike Mignola on pencils, Al Gordon inks, the colors are by Christie Scheele and the letters are done by Ken Bruzenak.


At this point in his career, Mignola was known (primarily) as a cover artist and an inker at Marvel. Before Rocket Raccoon, Mignola draws the interior (and exterior) art on two other Mantlo-penned series, The Incredible Hulk and Alpha Flight. One could call his work on Rocket Raccoon proto-Mignola. The artist's distinct style -- ''a mix of German expressionism and Jack Kirby,'' according to Alan Moore -- was still in its Cretaceous-phase. The sun on the cover of issue #1 looks like it could set over the headquarters of the B.P.R.D., but not quite yet -- take look at Mignola's cover to the recently released Rocket Raccon and Groot Ultimate Collection to see the artist's current interpretation of the character. 

Rocket Raccoon had only appeared twice in a Marvel publication and his last appearance had been in a stand-alone Hulk story three years prior to the release of Rocket Raccoon. How does a D-list character, at best, manage a four issue limited series? What, was Professor Phobos on sabbatical?  Never underestimate the power of a quick buck.  By May of 1985, the world of comic books was in a full-blown revolution; The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had arrived a year earlier. The not yet christened 'heroes in a half-shell' were already changing comic book publishing and before long the names Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael would be more than merely renowned Renaissance masters. So, the time was right to dust off a talking bipedal raccoon who dresses like a fencer, smokes a pipe and fires laser pistols. Never let it be said Marvel's long-time editor in chief, Jim Shooter, didn't know how to seize an opportunity and ring the cash register.   

I. Is this some kind of joke?

The opening page of issue #1 is a pure delight stuffed with wit, goofs and gags. The image of a craftsmen working on deadline late into the night must have felt very familiar to the young Mignola. In narrative boxes made to look like scraps torn from some arcane text (more on that score in a moment), the reader is told the necessary particulars. Front and a bit off-center sits the Chief Toysmith. He is propped up on a pillow, his many efforts encircle him. Mignola fills the foreground with various toys, dolls and sundry implements of an artisan's labors. Humpty-dumpty crowds into the far right-hand corner adjacent to a real Easter egg, Rocket Raccoon himself, a banner sporting the words ''New! Improve-''acts as an arrow to draw the reader's attention to the titular raccoon. Rocket's first-mate, Wal Rus, is at Rocket's flank on the opposite side of the title card, the Rack 'n Ruin (Rocket'a ship) is tucked in behind Wal Rus. Another great inside joke shows Gumby as he poke(y)s out from behind the Rack 'n Ruin.
Along with Gordon's inks and Scheele's colors, Mignola's composition creates great depth by placing a battery of Kirby-like lights behind and above the toysmith. In the lower right-hand side of the page a silhouetted figure looms in a lighted entryway. Scheele uses the straw yellow of the light bulbs to reflect the color outside the opening; the toysmith, hunched over his workbench, echoes the doorway's arch. Gordon's inks on the back wall help draw the reader's attention to the approaching menace, going so far as to offset the hatching on a hanging clipboard. Only the empty eyes of the English bobby bear witness to the toysmith's approaching doom. Rocket Raccoon (and his world) may have started as larks; however, in the hands of skilled creators even jokes can make for serious comics. Then again …

II. ''... a strange and not always rational galaxy''

'Madcap' is perhaps the best word to describe the world of Rocket Raccoon although 'convoluted' could contend for the title as well. Ostensibly, this series is built around a trade war -- two words that give every fanboy a case of the howling fantods -- between two toymakers: Lord Dyvyne of the Spacewheel and Judson Jakes of Mayhem Mekaniks, the former, a lizard and the latter a mole. Jakes and Dyvyne provide entertainment, in the form of toys, for the mentally-handicapped human inhabitants (referred to as ''loonies'') of Halfworld. The 'loonies' are cared for by genetically enhanced animals like Rocket and Wal Rus. Yep.

For all intents and purposes, Rocket Raccoon is a four issue, eighty page, origin story. The trade war gives Mantlo reason to stage near death escapes, bar fights, and rides through underground caverns on giant worms (David Lynch's Dune had come out the year before). That's all foreground, the background is where this otherwise average 80's comic book gets bizarre.
A long time ago, a group of psychiatrists colonize a planet in order to care for people ''whose mental disorders had caused them to be cast out from our world and the companionship of our race.'' While the psychiatrists are ''expanding [their] knowledge of the functioning -- and disfunctioning -- of the human mind,'' their patients are cared for by robots; also in attendance are a diverse set of animals for the purposes of ''entertainment and companionship.'' When the psychiatrists funding gets cut (!), they are called back to their home world (not Earth). These well-meaning do-gooders decide to leave their patients behind (!!) in the care of the robots and in the company of the animals (!!!). And before these benevolent overlords skedaddle, they construct ''a space-encircling Galacian Wall that … would shield them [their patients] from the same society that loathed them'' which makes the planet kind of a prison or an asylum, albeit one filled with compassionate robots and benign woodland creatures.
These giant gobs of exposition and explanation are contained within the 'Halfworld Bible,' which neither the animals nor the ''loonies'' can read until Uncle Pyko, the chief toysmith of Judson Jakes, deciphers it and learns its secrets. Which happens while the trade war rages on between Jakes and Dyvyne, natch. What the Halfworld Bible doesn't explain is how Rocket, Uncle Pyko, Wal Rus and the rest gain sentience, not to mention their genetically-enhanced geegaws.

Uncle Pyko manages to noodle through this mystery and comes to the conclusion: the robots (must have) exceeded their programming -- the cause of which, Pyko figures, could have been from radiation from a nearby nova -- and ''developed and artificial intelligence.'' Before too long these logical machines tire of tending to their illogical charges and begin to dabble in genetics and enhanced intelligence -- instead of continuing the psychiatrists work and finding a 'cure,' but I digress.

You don't need to be an 'Uncle Pyko' to figure out how the animals learn to talk, walk and develop skills like marksmanship. With the animals now in charge, these industrious automatons retreat to their own side of the planet (hence the name, Halfworld) where they make the toys per the animal's design and work on how to deactivate the Galacian Wall so they leave Halfworld in a spaceship they've been building along with the toys, etc..
 
When Uncle Pyko finishes his dissertation, Rocket screams out: ''B-but … that means that I've spent my whole life searching for sanity in a universe established to house the insane!'' Rocket's reaction is a very human emotion, the reader can relate to trying to make sense in a world where randomness and irrationality sometimes seem de rigueur.
 
As I like to say here: so what? Mantlo needs to construct a backstory and explain (I suppose) how and why Rocket became the protector of this literal fool's paradise. It serves as a character moment to establish Rocket has integrity. If this one-note character is going to avoid becoming a demisemiquaver, not only does he need a reason to (ahem) blast off without abandoning the planet and the people he has sworn to protect, but he's got to do it with style and grace, otherwise, he becomes a punch line. Credit Mantlo for not having Rocket half-ass either of his obligations; Rocket Raccoon, it could be said, gives it his whole-ass.

For all its silliness and complexity for complexity's sake, Mantlo's world-building trips up on itself when the reader begins to consider how long it took between the time the psychiatrists left Halfworld to when the robots were able to genetically-engineer the animals to care for the 'loonies.' Continuity wonks will no doubt cry foul as well that it is not made clear how many generations Rocket and his pals are removed from the animals that first landed on the planet. Same goes for the 'loonies,' who several generations removed from even the sons and daughters of the original patients brought to Halfworld by the psychiatrists. Uncle Pyko speculates there were ''generations of loonies who, if not congenitally insane as their ancestors had been were born into it.'' And let's not get into the fact that this entire society is built on the making and selling of toys to a captive population. It feels less like a critique of our society and more like a dare from one of Mantlo's colleagues, some kind of Marvel Bullpen one-ups-manship -- 'yeah, but I bet Shooter won't let you get away with this!" 
 
In the last issue, the reader learns what passes for currency on Halfworld which is too grand to spoil and makes sense in a nonsensical Lewis Carroll meets Roald Dahl kind of way. Maybe Mantlo should be given some credit for going to a place where few comic books -- then (1985) and maybe even now -- would dare to go? Today's reader will chafe at the word ''loonie'' being thrown around so liberally (I did) not due to political correctness, but plain decency; and it should have bothered Shooter and series editor Carl Potts as well. There's a silver lining (of sorts) because for all its overdone intricacies the narrative of Rocket Raccoon, like a fairy tale, works out in the end. Rocket feeds the Halfworld bible to the Head Robot -- which is exactly what its name implies, a robot head with teeth -- for analysis (pun intended) and it produces a cure, the ''wonder toy,'' so all's well that ends well. The fact Mantlo would offer a cure for mental illness is wish fulfillment of the highest order and something one can (sadly) only get in a comic book.
 
''… under the cover of laser smoke''
 

As awkward, cringe-inducing and at times too hackneyed for its own good, Mantlo's scripting and plotting possess an esprit de corps that puts it alongside 1980's cartoons like Transformers, G.I. Joe and Thundercats. Mantlo knows (Kirby-like) when to move a story along and how to retain the reader's interest. Unlike too much of today's mainstream Marvel fare, talking heads don't dominate issues of Rocket Raccoon in order to delay gratification so that issue four plays out as one big showdown. Mantlo consistently writes to Mignola's strength to draw action; and each creator allows Rocket Raccoon do what Rocket Raccoon does best: fly around on his rocket-skates and fire laser pistols.
Because Rocket Raccoon takes place in space and because it came out after Star Wars there is an inevitable cantina/bar sequence in which Rocket and company get to blast away. Mignola shows his sequential art chops when Rocket's girlfriend, Lylla, is taken hostage (for like the fifth or sixth time in the series) by the chaotic neutral Blackjack O'Hare (he's a rabbit, in case you were wondering). In the first panel Mignola has O'Hare's left arm swing around Lila while his right arm holds a knife to her throat. Again, using opposite sides of the panel (as he did on the first page) Mignola uses similar visual elements to frame the action. In this case, the movement, the swish, of O'Hare's arm mirrors Lylla's tail as it swings up from the bottom of the panel and pulls the reader's eye to the knife at her throat. In the following panel Lylla elbows O'Hare in the face in the same exact spot where the reader's attention is focused. Lylla's elbow moves O'Hare up and to the left-hand side of the second panel which sets up the third panel showing how O'Hare gets a good 'Kapow' for his troubles. In this final panel Mignola shows the sweep of Lylla's arm which completes the 360° arc which was started in the first panel with O'Hare's arm. Mignola's hard-edged, horn-headed hero may be eight years away, but boy, Rocket Raccoon shows Mignola to already be a damn fine draftsmen and a hell of an artist.

When Lylla flips O'Hare over she calls him, ''you horrid hare!''. This is all but one example of the alliterative nature of Mantlo's script, no joke; there is alliteration at almost every turn of the page. It also appears as if Mantlo and Mignola were paid by the pun. The title to each issue is a play on words that reflects the issue's themes and plot. For example, issue #2, ''The Masque of the Red Breath'' takes place at a masked ball held annually by the 'loonies.' The big bad in the issue is an amorphous ''crimson cloud,'' the aforementioned Red Breath, which absorbs everything and everyone it touches -- no worries though, order gets restored when a quintet of Killer Clowns riding vacuu-sleds suck up the cloud and allow Rocket to escape. It's this kind of cartoon violence that gives Rocket Raccoon that Saturday morning or after-school cartoon feel, nobody really gets hurt, except maybe a few clowns, but there are always plenty of them to go around.
 
'' And the stars do beckon''


Rocket Raccoon makes for a gantry, a launching pad for fiction's best (and only) question: 'what's next?' Mantlo and Mignola's creation remains sturdy because its playfulness never takes itself too seriously, only seriously enough. Rocket's complicated and at times torturous backstory makes him more than a cartoon, more than a novelty (song), and more than a knock-off to turn a quick buck. In The Micronauts and Rom Spaceknight, Mantlo took the disposable and gave it a spark, a life -- like Geppetto, Mantlo made a toy real, made it live.

Guardians of the Galaxy is going to introduce mainstream pop culture to Rocket Raccoon; and for comic book readers, those of us who are already in on the joke, Rocket Raccoon is going to be a monster. How 'loony' is it going to be when today's twelve-year-olds (or younger) will be sporting Rocket Raccoon t-shirts and buying Rocket Raccoon toys … insanity, absolute insanity. As Mantlo proves, insanity makes for a 'rocky' start; however, if creators toy with it, tweak it, the sky (and the stars) are the limit.