Thursday, April 06, 2006

Getting Literary…

GIVE IT UP! and Other Short Stories
Written by Franz Kafka
Adapted and Illustrated by Peter Kuper
Published by NBM

Now on its fourth printing, this NBM collection has clearly struck a chord with readers. Kuper, who also adapted Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS, doesn’t really do a straight translation of Kafka’s short work here; instead, what he depicts is almost an impressionist take on the classical author’s work.

Kuper’s artistic style is very bold and striking; knowing that the work will be published in black and white, he uses that to his advantage in these pages. Much of Kafka’s work was drenched in darkness and despair, and Kuper embraces it by using the inks on the page in smooth concert with the open areas to allow the negative space to tell as much of the story as the delineated art does. It’s an effect that few artists do well (Frank Miller being one of the obvious exceptions), but Kuper is definitely one of them.

My reaction to the rest of the book isn’t necessarily enthusiastic as it pertains to story execution, however. I understand that Kafka’s works resist literal translation to the sequential format; at the very least they’d be a little dull. But at times it feels like Kuper takes his impressionist act a little too seriously, and some of the stories get loose in the delivery. However, when Kuper puts the focus to material, like “The Hunger Artist”, the book sings and displays an amazing vitality.

In the absence of series like CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, only NBM seems to be taking aim at the literary graphic novel market. Books like GIVE IT UP! have an important niche to fill in the market, and it’s gratifying to know that there’s enough of an audience for them to require multiple printings. This book wasn’t my cup of tea for the most part, but I respect the effort and concept.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Written by B. Clay Moore and Drawn by Jeremy Haun
Published by Image Comics

BATTLE HYMN was a book that I ran hot and cold on as it shipped its individual issues. Installment one seemed to be trying too hard to “darken” the classic INVADERS or ALL-STAR SQUADRON concept and lacked interesting characters. By issue three, I’d softened on it, believing that Moore and Haun had done a decent job of carving out their own niche with the archetypical characters. But as issue five concluded, I felt like they had rushed through the story and closed with an unsatisfying ending. So taken together as a whole, how does it read?

Pretty much like the individual issues did: inconsistent, and somewhat frustrating.

Seeing the story collected and reading it in one sitting, the issues with pacing become much more apparent. By the time the end of the series rolls around, you feel a bit like it needed another issue to flesh out the characters and make the tale feel more complete. Characters come and go, and much of the motivation of the background players (i.e. the government types who put the team together) is fuzzy.

The Captain America. The Union Jack. The Namor. The Human Torch. The Whizzer. The types we’re all familiar with are here, and set against the Nazis in the Second World War. But in Moore’s take, they’re mostly sleazy and un-heroic, plus they get their own hooker who sleeps her way through the team. Not quite Roy Thomas, is it? But throw in a conspiracy angled towards an unknown goal and the lack of an obvious reason for the team to be together, and you have genuine intrigue.

Part of the issue is that there’s no real perspective from where the tale is told. Betty, the hooker, is the add-in, but she’s vacant except for her sexuality. The one heroic character, the Mid-Nite Hour (the British hero), is never quite given as much to do as you’d like, rendering him sort of impotent as far as affecting the story. His purpose seems to be mostly observational, which is deliberate as far as the plot goes, but that prevents him from giving the reader the foothold so desperately needed.

If I were looking at BATTLE HYMN from a cynical point of view, I’d question whether or not it was a deconstruction of the archetypal stories from the Silver Age or simply a middle finger extended in their direction. In my final analysis, though, I don’t think that Moore was aiming for cynicism, so much as he was hoping to ground the comics that he loved from his youth. But whether or not he had purity in his purpose, BATTLE HYMN doesn’t quite reach the mark he’s targeting, despite a number of fine elements (including Haun’s art) that get him in the nearby zone. Noble effort, misguided result.


Monday, April 03, 2006


Just because I’m not over-extended enough, check out the new version of the Comic Foundry; you’ll see me there monthly doing my new column “Buy The Numb3rs,” playing swami and trying to guess sales numbers.

Written and Drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith
Published by Fantagraphics

FREEBOOTERS is one of the more high-profile “rescue” projects undertaken by Fantagraphics in the past couple of years. After Windsor-Smith’s STORYTELLER was unceremoniously under-promoted and under-noticed while being produced by Dark Horse, the series and the material languished and the creator stewed. Enter the fine folks in Seattle to take the reins and get the work back into the public eye.

Windsor-Smith became a household name in comics by drawing a barbarian; Conan to be exact. He’d move on to a variety of other projects, and return to the concept of traveling barbarian warriors in the early 90s with ARCHER AND ARMSTRONG. Clearly, the milieu suits his eye. STORYTELLER contained three series within its pages, and FREEBOOTERS, his latest take on ancient warriors was a big part of it. The set-up is pretty simple: young warrior Aran has had a vision detailing the end of the world. The last time this evil surfaced, it was dispatched by Axus the Great, so he heads off to the big city to find Axus and draw him into the fray. What he doesn’t know, however, is that Axus has gotten old, fat, and drunkenly stupid… and that he licenses his name and image to idiotic pretenders so he can rake in some extra coin.

Printed in an over-sized format and in luscious color, FREEBOOTERS is Windsor-Smith’s finest comedic work. Rather than take things too seriously, even when dire moments occur in the story, he throttles back on the angst and lets the natural humor of his loutish hero take control of the story. The best sequence in the book finds Axus aggravated by the arrival of another warrior who happens to be everything Axus isn’t: young, in-shape, and stout. So in a fit of self-loathing, the modern pirate decides to take his friends and rob the local governor (known as the Kalif). Unfortunately, this spells trouble, because he not only chooses to do so on a night when many people have entered his tavern in other to hear him discuss his adventures… but he has painted “The Kalif is an asshole” on the side of the balloon he puts his men in for the attack… and misspelled “asshole.” It’s a gut-busting series of scenes that still keep a slight dramatic undertone as the threat to the world finds its way into the night’s pillaging.

I’ve long admired Windsor-Smith’s work, and he remains one of the most distinctive creative presences on the shelves. Fantagraphics has treated him right with this excellent book design and packaging, and I certainly hope that someday we’ll see more work from him in this format. He’s one of the real legends in the biz, and he certainly deserves it.