Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Comic Haul

Another day, another batch of books up for review. As per usual I'll be covering some older books along with the new and possibly a trade or two in-between.

Tank Girl: The Gifting #4: This book has the distinction of being one of two comics to make me laugh uproariously and repeatedly as I was reading it. Not an easy task, let me tell you.

I very much liked Alan Martin's mix of prose, comics, poetry and gags and even appreciated how, intentional or not, things seemed to ramp up with every issue. I don't know what was the overall cause for the trend, but the gags and the action all seemed to get more outrageous as each issue came out, culminating in me laughing my ass off while my wife and children stare on and wonder what's got into daddy.

And not only was the writing spot-on-perfect, but the amazing Ashley Wood somehow managed to make me forget that Jamie Hewlett is the only person alive who can truly draw Tank and the gang. I'll grant you that it took an issue or two to warm up to him, but Wood's style suited the book perfectly and gave it a very modern, stylish look while maintaining all the dynamism and zaniness that Hewlett originally brought to the character and her world.

I will be very sad indeed if this is the last we see of Tank, Booga, Jet, Barney and Boat Girl (snicker). If this is a just and rightous world, Martin, Wood and IDW will have another mini on the stands before we know it.

The Spirit #10: I'm going to open this one up with, "WOW! What a cover!" I think this is possibly the one image by Darwyn that I have seen so far which is the most evocative of Eisner's work. I love the rain, the shadows, the looser linework and the muted colours. I would be one of the first in line to buy it if they ever turned it into a nice sized poster. I've actually included a larger image if you click through to get a better idea of what it looks like.

Great cover aside, the story within gives us the return of Ginger Coffee (who we met in the first issue) in a tale that's laced with not-so-subtle commentaries on cable news networks and their controversial personalities. The Spirit, who doesn't do very much this issue, ends up joining forces with Ginger to investigate the mysterious murders of these over-the-top newscasters as they are picked off one-by-one by an unknown assailant.

"Death By Television" was a good story, but by no means was it a great one. Don't get me wrong, it's not like Darwyn phoned this one in, it just didn't register like I had hoped it would. To its credit, the art was solid, the storytelling was there, it's just that something vital at the heart of it was missing. Like the spark that you should get when one of the best talents currently working in the industry is crafting stories for one of the most beloved and important characters in its history. These are two ingredients that should be working better together but they're not.

I'm not sure if it's the modernity of the stories (the use of the thinly veiled YouTube clone, BoobTube, being a good example), the new characters, the format (remember, Spirit stories in the past were 7 or 8 pages long), or my expectations for the whole thing, but so far there have only been a couple of issues that really stood out for me so far in this run and #10 is not one of them, even if it does offer one of my favourite Spirit lines in the series to date.

Strangely enough, this issue felt very much like an old episode of Batman: The Animated Series in structure and execution. I'm sure Darwyn's art had something to do wiith that, as well.

Will I keep buying it? You betcha! Despite any of its proposed 'problems' or lack of va-va-voom each issue still has more class and craft than a lot of books currently on the stands. Does it measure up to my high very expectations? Not so much, but we'll see how Cooke wraps up his run with the next two issues. It could all turn around for me over the course of the next 40 pages or so, not to mention the fact that I'll probably be rereading the whole thing from ground zero and see if my opinion changes.

Usagi Yojimbo Book Seven: There isn't enough time in the day to say everything that I could say about Stan Sakai's brilliant anthrpomorphic samurai epic, so I'll just go on record as saying that these seven volumes have been some of the most enjoyable comic book reading experiences that I've ever had. The characters are engaging, the stories are full of drama, humour, depth and adventure. They have an enduring quality and never feel dated.

Sakai masterfully tells single-issue stories, often based on Japanese folk tales and legends, and will seamlessly slip into a five or six part adventure without losing a step. He is equally comfortable with the short or long-form story and at no point do you feel as if he is dragging things out to make a page count. In the current market, that's not something you see very often. There is an economy to Sakai's storytelling. He never overstays his welcome and he always leaves you wanting more.

It makes me wonder why I never jumped on the monthly bandwagon years ago.

Anyway, you pretty much can't go wrong with these books. Try one out.

Stewart the Rat: This was a strange but happy discovery for me. I was at the comic store a few months ago and out of the corner of my eye noticed the names Gerber, Colan and Palmer peeking out at me from one the racks. Now, these were the same guys what brought us Howard the Duck and right next to their names was a strange little picture of a rat with a pair of glasses on. Whatever this book was, I knew I had to have it.

I had never heard Stewart the Rat before but quickly found out (from the back cover) that it was originally a graphic novel published by the now defunct Eclipse back in 1980, post-Howard. Instead of taking place on the streets of Cleveland, they set this new story in Southern California. Instead of hanging out with a former art model like Beverly Switzler whose high school sweetheart has turned into the menacing Dr. Bong, Stewart's companion is a screenwriter being plotted against by her failed writer/ex-boyfriend who starts a self-help movment based on producing or acquiring units of noog.

There are so many similarities one has to assume that in the wake of their troubles with Marvel, the group probably decided to go and create something similar that they owned with all the same hallmarks as Howard. The biting wit, the sharp satirical voice and the same surreal, frustrated sense of humour that made the duck such a success are all present in Stewart, although the latter was not restricted by the Comics Code Authority and had a much more adult nature. It should also be noted that when Gerber returned to Marvel to write Howard once again under their MAX imprint in 2001, he turned Howard into a rat. I can't help but think there's a connection.

If anyone knows more of the history behind Stewart, I'd love to hear it.

Anyway, being a big fan of Howard the Duck from way back, I picked up Stewart hoping to achieve the same basic buzz I got off of the duck stories and, I have to admit, it was all there in spades. The writing is sharp, the artwork by Colan and Palmer is fantastic to look at and the story's scathing commentary on California life, the self-help craze and excesses of the 80s, and Hollywod in general all still ring true today. If you have a chance to pick this one up, or even just to read it, I highly reccomend it.

Howard the Duck #1: The second book this month to make me laugh loudly and heartily.

I wasn't really sure what to expect from this new incarnation of Howard but the name of Ty Templeton definitely caught my attention and there was something oddly compelling about the artwork of Juan Bobillo - just different enough to be interesting and not a tired rehash of what has come before. Sure, it wasn't a Gerber penned Howard but I picked it up anyway based on how much I enjoyed Templeton's short Howard tale in the Civil Wars: Choosing Sides one-shot. I figured, if it was half as entertaining as that, it would be worth the few dollars I spent on the thing.

A quick disclaimer, here. A lot of people are not happy that a writer other than Gerber is writing Howard, and I know where they are coming from. Every attempt to do the wise-talking anthropomorphic fowl since Gerber left the book has come up painfully short. Everything from Mantlo's handling of the character to Lobdell's (in the pages of Generation X, I believe), has been lacking one important ingredient: the intelligence of the satire. Howard is not a straight comedy character. He doesn't do this for the yuks, and Gerber never wrote him that way. He was cranky but not outright mean and trying his best to cope in a world he never made.

What impressed me about Templeton's take on the guy is that he seems to get it like no other writer since Gerber has. This is smart, funny, bitingly comic satire. And more than that, this is a fun comic book featuring characters going through their own personal non-cross-overable post-Civil War tie-in in four parts story. It's a little old school and that is appealing to me like nobody's business right now. The same goes for the art of Bobillo. The look of the book is not too cartoony but not entirely grounded in reality, either. Many of the characters have a stylized look and there is a playfullness in the work that comes through, yet Bobillo also does a nice job of having these characters running around in a very real looking world. There's a nice balance and I look forward to seeing what he has in store for the rest of the series.

I should make a few comments on 'the look' of Howard since Bobillo has redesigned the Duck. Like everone else, I'm sure, I'm assuming this is related to the Disney gripe that Howard is too similar to Donald. If I'm not mistaken, that was part of the reason Howard was turned into a rat in the last Gerber written mini-series. Still, I can't really fault the creative team for wanting to give the book a slightly different look, to make it their own, as it were. It's a bad analogy, but think of this version of Howard as you would the updated Battlestar Galactica. A lot of changes have been made, sure, but the heart of the original is very much still there and the creators handling the characters and world have a great respect for what has come before and the folks who created those characters and worlds.

I've read a few interviews with Ty regarding the mini-series and he seems to hold a certain reverence for the original series and Gerber's take on things, so, hopefully fans of Howard, and possibly Gerber himself, will forgive these guys for trying.

Oh, and I can't end this review without mentioning M.O.D.O.T.. If you thought Jeff Parker's use of M.O.D.O.C. in Marvel Adventures: The Avengers was hilarious, wait'll you get a load of this. In the immortal words of Giffen and DeMatteis, "Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!".

The Batman Strikes! #38: This issue, written by Russell Lissau and illustrated by Christopher Jones and Terry Beatty, was an encouraging read. As I've stated in other reviews of this title, the stories have often felt rushed and overly simplistic, something early episodes of the television series faced as well. There was the odd issue that really stood out, but nothing that came close to recapturing any of the greatness of previous animated Batman series'.

"Pretty Poison" starts off strong and Lissau's dialogue and pacing go a long way to making this one of the better issues I've read in a while and Jones' artwork remains strong, particularly through the quieter moments. Poison Ivy is, by no means, my favourite villain from this new version of Batman but I really enjoyed her here. There was nothing over the top, her motives were simple and led to a nice exchange between her and the Bat at the end.

Sometimes you just want to read a comic book, not get embroiled in a universe spanning epic saga or the shakedown of an entire company's stable of characters. It's why I pick up, and will continue to pick up, books like The Batman Strikes!.

That's it for now. I have stacks of stuff still sitting there waiting to be read so I'll probably add to this post later in the day.

Onwards and upwards!


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