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.   


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