Saturday, December 17, 2005

HOLLYWOOD CALLING

Yep, another silver screen fellow has stepped into the writer’s chair on a comic. However, this time it’s an actor. In fact, it’s an actor quite well known for playing a comic book character…

BAD PLANET #1
Written by Thomas Jane and Steve Niles
Drawn by Lewis Larosa and Tim Bradstreet
Published by Image Comics


Much like FEAR AGENT, BAD PLANET is an homage to the EC comics of the 50s drawn by folks like Wally Wood. An alien intelligence that spends its time eradicating entire planets from the face of the galaxy has targeted Earth next, and the unsuspecting populace is completely in the dark, only knowing that some sort of meteor is heading straight for the planet.

The early scenes are all riffs on the classic “discovery of threat from space” setup, but they do the job, introducing the characters and priming the reader for the arrival of a marauding army of (as the writers put it) “alien death spiders.” They sound charming, don’t they?

Along the way, we also meet alien truckers who are addicted to some very disturbing pornography, an arrogant astronomer named after comics’ greatest enemy, and another astronomer named after a famed sci-fi writer. The two astronomers are surely meant to be nice nods, but they have the odd effect of throwing you out of the story, and you immediately wish they’d taken less obvious routes to pay tribute.

On the flip side, the art is simply gorgeous. Lush, detailed, and full of life, every page has something to stop and make you look twice. The only blip is that the coloring printed way too dark, and obscures some of the finer details. It’s almost as if there was an expectation for a different paper stock that would hold the colors in different fashion, so I don’t think it was a deliberate bad choice.

For a long time, I was unable to warm up to Steve Niles’ work, but with GIANT MONSTER and now this book, I’m beginning to come around on him. BAD PLANET looks like it’s going to be a ton of fun, and the minor flaws that it has are imminently fixable. Bring on the alien death spiders!

/Mason

Friday, December 16, 2005

GOOD TIMES

Heh.

AMAZING JOY BUZZARDS #2-3
Written by Mark Andrew Smith and Drawn by Dan Hipp
Published by Image Comics


If you aren’t reading this book, shame on you.

Are you allergic to laughter? Do you only like to read comics that have grim and gritty vigilantes who tear off the genitals of evildoers? Will you only buy comics you can finish reading in five minutes or less?

If so, then I cast even more shame upon you.

Since its early issues, AMAZING JOY BUZZARDS has managed to do the one thing that most comics completely fail to do, which is show steady improvement in both the writing and artistry departments. Of course it helps when there’s actually something worth building on from the start, and AJB was quite the amusing little piffle from the start. However, as we’re into a second volume (and therefore about eight issues), now the boys are firing on all cylinders.

Let me count the ways: first, we discover why Stevo only speaks in pictographs: he’s half Yeti. We even get a Yeti sex scene, which disturbed by buddy Beaucoup Kevin (I think he dated a really hairy chick once and hasn’t gotten over it), but got a huge laugh out of me. Then there are the vampire robots. The ghost Mexican wrestler who appears when the team summons him. The Beatlemania spoof. The phony ads the boys create and stick in the middle of the story. And the way that, even with all the broad comedy going on, there’s still plenty of gags both in the character interaction and in the expository captions.

So many comics barely scrape by in the race to actually be worth their cover price, but AMAZING JOY BUZZARDS is never lacking in value. Smith and Hipp are a finely tuned comedy machine, doing work that they can truly be proud of. Do yourself a favor and check out this quiet little gem.

/Mason

Thursday, December 15, 2005

SPEAKING OF THAT HOWARD GUY…

He has a new book out.

BLACK HARVEST #1
Written and Drawn by Josh Howard
Published by Devil’s Due


As Howard puts it himself in an accompanying essay, he hasn’t stretched too far away from what brought him to prominence to begin with: cute girls and gratuitous violence. And why should he? When you have a winning formula, you don’t piss it away pointlessly.

This time around, we have a bit of a UFO/conspiracy tale. A blogger/reporter decides to make his next story the town of Jericho, Texas, where each fall strange lights appear in the sky for six nights and then vanish. Their origins are a mystery, but when our reporter shows up, the mystery deepens. As he drives into town, he hits a young girl crossing the road. The odd part? She’s been missing and presumed dead for three years. Plus, she has the word “repent” carved into her abdomen.

Considered a suspect, the reporter finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that he cannot even begin to imagine. And the deaths are just beginning to pile up…

It took me an entire miniseries to warm up to DEAD @17, but Howard does a much smoother job of making a world the reader can get into with this new effort. The only moment that falls completely flat is the treatment of the reporter by the local cops; in this modern age, he’d be cleared with two phone calls and a lot less attitude, so I just wasn’t buying it. But the rest of the local population feels less stereotypical and forced, giving the book a genial, easy feeling as you read it.

Howard’s art looks sharp, as you’d expect by now, and the book’s got a cover that will grab you by the lapels and start shaking. It’s also more ambitious in scope and size, set for six issues rather than the four that were standard for DEAD. A creator’s next step is always fascinating to watch; so far, it looks like Howard is on solid footing.

/Mason

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

HMMM

This is a hard one to figure out. Honestly, I’m sure whether or not the reader is supposed to take it very seriously.

DEAD@17 PROTECTORATE #1
Written by Alex Hambyand Drawn by Benjamin Hall
Published by Viper Comics


When last we saw DEAD @17, we had reached the end of the line for heroine Nara Kilday. She sacrificed herself and her immortality so that her best friend Hazy and Hazy’s unborn child could live. Nara’s saga reached over three volumes worth of material, and creator Josh Howard made sure that her story paid off in a satisfying manner befitting the series.

Nara was a very modern heroine, even for a girl resurrected from the dead. There was nothing weak or stereotypical about her as far as the horror genre goes; she was an ass-kicker of the highest order, never a victim, and could at least lay claim to being sort of a proto-feminist figure. Now, however, Howard has stepped aside and allowed someone else to tell a DEAD story, and the series, perhaps by necessity, has taken a complete 180-degree turn in its choice of heroines.

PROTECTORATE introduces us to young Grace, a minister’s daughter who doesn’t realize that her father is involved with some very unpleasant things. The story, set in 1945, adopts a very 40s sensibility in its approach to who she is. Grace is sweet, somewhat na├»ve, and her ability to survive seems a bit predicated on her ability to find some luck. Oh, and she happens to be a busty blonde girl that spends a decent chunk of the story running around in nothing but a slip of a nightgown.

There was a definitely sexual undertone to Nara’s adventures, but it never felt quite as… salacious as it does here. Hamby’s story seems to be deliberately reaching to remind the reader of a Hammer-era horror flick. That leaves the reader a few questions to address. One, is this the right move?

Certainly, if you’re going to attach the DEAD moniker to another project and play in that universe, you don’t want to keep humping a corpse. You simply must do something a little different, or the readership will grow tired of the property very quickly. The game, then, becomes whether or not you play it tongue-in-cheek, and add an element of cheese to the proceedings as is done here, or you find a different way to introduce Grace (or someone else) as a protagonist. It occurs to me that other avenues, such as making the new girl an 80s pop star (i.e. Debbie Gibson or Tiffany) or perhaps a disco era drug addict might be interesting as well. There are so many directions for the book to go that you could find new ways to play for a long time.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Grace was a safer route to take in keeping the property alive to start. Plenty of readers will be drawn to the snazzy cover of the girl with the big rack running away from zombies in her nightgown, and that might get them over the hump of nervousness about Howard being absent the proceedings. Now, what remains to be seen is if her story plays out as compelling, and if she grows as a protagonist into someone we can really care about the way readers did Nara. And if she can keep interest in the book at a level where even more intriguing heroines come into the mix. It’s a delicate task for a small, but very good, publisher. I’ll be watching very closely.

/Mason

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

PONDERING THE ETERNAL QUESTION

Why?

SPAWN #150-151
Written by David Hine, Brian Holguin, and Todd McFarlane
Drawn by Angel Medina and Philip Tan
Published by Image Comics


True confessions: I actually bought the first eighteen issues of SPAWN when they originally came out.

Part of that was a reaction to the times I was living in as a comics reader. Back then, the book was selling in numbers to the fanboys that these days would require having a prostitute poly-bagged with the comic. Seven digit numbers pounded the charts, and the character’s creator would go on to become more famous for using some of the money he made by making the best toys and action figures on the market, and for overspending on home run balls. At the time, however, it was purely comics, and even if I didn’t enjoy the book very much, I still picked it up, just to see what Todd McFarlane was doing with his time. He was simply the most powerful man in the business.

But eventually, after some nifty guest creators rolled through the credit box, I turned my gaze elsewhere and let the book go. My time, and my money, were required elsewhere. Occasionally, I would pick up an issue and read through it, and I felt very validated by that decision. The book became hopelessly grim, and the stories began to feel a little thinner on substance and heavier on cool-factor. Todd scaled back his involvement, eventually to the point that it seemed like he had very little to do with the book. And suddenly, Image was kind enough to plop a few issues of the title in my lap for review, so I’m back to being familiar with it again.

However, many of the problems that I described above remained. Overly grim stories. Artwork that didn’t always service the stories well when they had the potential to do something interesting. So with issue #150, McFarlane and company have cleared the decks for a new creative team and approach to the book, looking to see if it can be resuscitated. However, if you’re asking yourself if the new team and direction are any good, then you’re asking precisely the wrong question. The real question is: should the book still be being published at all?

However you feel about Todd McFarlane, you simply have to respect that he did exactly what he wanted to do all those years ago. He took control of his destiny, took ownership of his ideas, and assumed a leadership role in helping other creators do the same. SPAWN, along with SAVAGE DRAGON have become the children who have grown through puberty and become adults. However, with issue #151, Todd’s name no longer appears in the credits. I can’t help but wonder if maybe, with McFarlane stepping further away, it might have been time to put the character to rest for a while, rather than keep the book going in this manner.

That isn’t to say that Hine’s work isn’t readable. Indeed, the storyline here is actually kind of interesting, as a young boy winds up absorbing a piece of Spawn after he’s torn to pieces, and he begins turning into a Hellspawn himself. It’s a fantastic direction to take the horror-aspect of the book, and the first time in a long time that I’ve been sucked into a Spawn story.

But then my brain kicks in again. Says that seeing SPAWN turned into strictly a work-for-hire title now seems antithetical to what the book was originally about those twelve years ago. Merchandise and media tie-ins are still solid business, of course, but the trademark could be serviced by the occasional special or something that McFarlane decided to put together. I don’t know. What I do know is that it is quite a bizarre conundrum to sit here and say that the book is better than it’s been in five years and yet feel like it should have died a peaceful death. That’s why no one ever said reviewing comics would be easy.

Or that it would always make sense.

/Mason

Monday, December 12, 2005

MORE FROM ARCANA STUDIO

Two more books from Canadaland, one that does its job quite well, and one that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

EL ARSENAL #2
Written by Salvador Vazquez and Drawn by Daniel Perez Sanchez


This is the middle part of what looked to be a promising and action-packed mini about futuristic mercenaries on the trail of a nasty bioweapon. But while the book looks fantastic (Sanchez is an incredible find) and has a number of nicely written scenes, it doesn’t quite hold together as an issue. Instead, it feels more like a placeholder so that the story can get to its climax, rather than an essential piece of the tale.

Of all the risks you run when writing a story with a three-act structure, this is the one that looms largest, especially when your story has an element of chess to it: it needs the pieces in certain spots on the board so you can execute your strategy for the finale. This is precisely what a read of EL ARSENAL #2 gives you. The characters gain information, have sex, change locations, get their ideas formed; the trick is to find a way to keep the pace from flagging, and unfortunately, Vazquez doesn’t quite get there. The pieces are perfectly acceptable, and you get the sense that Sanchez could illustrate the phone book and it would be gorgeous. However, you never quite shake the feeling that issue three is really what the duo want to be working on and that there is some boredom involved on the creative team’s part, alleviated only by some rather frank sexuality.

The other thing that surprises is the lack of actual action. Issue one was very lively, with a zippy pace, and lots of traditional tentpole film moments. But there’s only one brief spot of action here involving two guys shooting at each other in a bar, but it only lasts for a single panel. I get the sense that we must be in for a huge climax with the way this book held itself back. Hopefully, Sanchez and Vazquez will come through and deliver the goods.

100 GIRLS #6
Written by Adam Gallardo and Drawn by Todd Demong


On the flip side, this book delivers the action and plot movement in spades, powering itself up to a dramatic conclusion next issue. Young Sylvia finds the other ninety-five clones of herself and must battle a trained assassin in an attempt to set them free and absorb them back into herself. And hey, isn’t that a bit screwy, considering she’s only absorbed three others? Where’s that hundredth girl, anyway?

This is executed perfectly, first by giving the new reader a non-expository recap of the previous five issues through dialogue and story progression. Then all the pieces for this book fall into place in the exact same manner. There’s no slowdown, no hesitation, just a straight putting of pedal to metal and getting the book firing on all cylinders. It’s surprisingly brutal, as you easily forget that Sylvia is a young teenage girl, and to see her getting beaten up is somewhat disturbing. Yet that is precisely the effect you would want as a creator, because you want the audience to accept your stakes as real.

100 GIRLS ends with issue seven, and right now, I’m not sure if that means that the book will reach a definitive conclusion or evolve into some other form in a second series down the road. Either way, it has done well for itself, and its creative team has grown immensely and should be proud. If there’s more to come, I await it eagerly. If not, I salute it for a job very well done, indeed.

/Mason

Sunday, December 11, 2005

WELCOME BACK

No comic started better or went off the rails faster in 2005 than SEA OF RED. The first issue was probably the best debut of the year, but damn, did I lose my happy feeling about the book quickly. Now, the first arc is done, and we’re underway with a second one, and I have to sit here and tell you that I’m out ten bucks. Goddammit.

SEA OF RED #5-7
Written by Rick Remender and Kieron Dwyer and Drawn by Paul Harmon
Published by Image Comics


You see, Rick Remender was feeling smug. So smug, in fact, that he offered to put his money where his mouth was. Knowing how I had soured on this book, he was so sure that they were back on track that he said he’s send me ten bucks if I didn’t read these and like ‘em.

It sucks to be a man of integrity sometimes.

Because, yeah, the book is completely back on track. Getting further away from the interminable movie plot/fake James Cameron, the book brings Marco the vampire back in touch with the vampirates we met back in issue one, particularly their leader Blackthroat. Secrets are revealed, and we begin to discover that what we saw happen in issue one was really only a surface examination of what truly happened on that pirate ship 500 years ago. It makes a world of difference to put the modern characters into the background and put the focus back onto what made the book interesting to begin with.

There’s a new artist this arc, Paul Harmon, and since he uses layouts from Dwyer, as previous artist Salgood Sam did, there’s a pure consistency to the storytelling. The first issue is a bit rough as far as keeping the characters differentiated well, but Harmon shows improvement over the next two episodes.

SEA OF RED, with this shift in arc and approach, has achieved a nice unpredictability to it. With a concept this rich, there’s no reason that this book can’t be one of the best book son the stands each month. If Remender and company can maintain what they’re doing now, they’re well on their way.

/Mason