On captions and new comics

Doc Frankenstein #1


There’s a lot of laughs in this book, and I’d say well over three-quarters of them are fully intentional, but the rest I can’t quite be sure about. That annoys me, and I suspect many other readers will skip the whole unintentional humor angle and just jump straight to annoyance upon reading, unless they‘ve already built up a hardy resistance to overblown character narration. I’d love to just brush this element of the book aside, but considering that 14 of this book’s 24 story pages are anointed with the title character’s purplish musings I suppose that I shouldn’t. It’s a curious thing, the ongoing character narration, those little (or sometimes big) captions providing a sleeker alternative to the thought balloons of yore, a more literary window into the musing character’s mind. I’ve found that a bad narration can easily sink a comic, and it’s no wonder. Toss enough of those boxes onto the page and the prose becomes a controlling force, and all of the visual information you want to drink in becomes altered by the constant presence of the speaking character’s words. And it’s certainly possible to use purely visual means to convey a character’s unique perception of events, but the narrative caption is far more prone to distracting the reader, I’ve found, mucking up the visual experience and slowing down the reading with ill-chosen words, clogging up the page. These problems can be avoided by good, or merely decent narration. Even intrusive, flowery narration can interact with the visual experience in unique ways if handled with care and skill. But the writer is walking on thin ice when employing such tricks, particularly when the writer and the artist are working separately (since Frank Miller can usually synch up his boiling narration in the “Sin City” books to his own seething, high-contrast artwork, avoiding distraction through a unified visual/textual feel). “Doc Frankenstein”, for its first issue, crashes through the ice and into the freezing water, I’m sorry to say.

I am a cesarean inflicted upon the womb of your reality. My eyes were opened by lightening and my voice was born of thunder. My birth saw the death of your holiest of truths. I have been called everything from monster to messiah.”

The first floppy release from Burlyman Entertainment, they of the attractive-looking if largely rote “Matrix Comics”, the book is written by none other than Larry and Andy Wachowski themselves. In a short introduction, the brothers declare the comics art form to be superior to film, at least in terms of individual expression (since they temper their statement with remarks about the ‘excessive compromises’ that occur on the set of a major motion picture), and bemoan the lack of imagination in many of today‘s comics. I can’t quite disagree with them, and the premise of “Doc Frankenstein”, stitched together from parts of other things, much like the title character himself, seems to be a fun romp through pulpy violence mash-up territory. Basically, the Frankenstein Monster, hiding out in a frozen wasteland, learns that people will grow to love him for the kind soul he really is if he fights for justice. So he moves to the US and becomes a legendary hero of the Old West, from where his immortal reign of justice stretches into the current day, rescuing George W. Bush from a giant monster that’s stomping Washington DC. Not that Doc (as he’s now known) is a dirty neo-con! “I have told you Tex, this country is conservative because this country is afraid,” Doc mentions to a contact at his base, mainly referring to social issues I’m guessing. We are sadly denied Our Hero’s opinions on economic policy.

To hear my name is to know what happened that ‘dreary November night,’ to understand the moral created by my father as he maniacally stitched the rotting cadaver of the sacred to the everlasting dream of the profane.”

Oh, but we’re not denied his words on much of anything else! And therein lies my irritation with the book: its overblown, pompous narration seems intent on seeping all of the amusement right out of the story. Some of the navel-gazing gets so intense that for a few seconds I began to wonder if maybe the whole thing is supposed to be a pisstake on sloggy, overwritten interior monologues, but no, it seems that the Wachowskis are aiming at honest drama. But their command of the thesaurus greatly exceeds the power of their themes, at least thus far. So as the century-spanning story moves forward (and the pace is kept up quite nicely, I must say) we hear Doc moaning over and over about such time-worn superhero themes as The Effects of Violence (Doc kills a villain, and then the villain’s son tries to kill him for vengeance, so Doc kills him too, and he can’t even cry because HE HAS NO TEAR DUCTS OH NO!) and The Humanity of Monsters (which was exactly the same theme as this week’s issue of “Hulk/Thing: Hard Knocks”), and there’s no new spin on the material at all, nothing unique. The topics are brought up in the captions and carefully explained at length and wrapped up in a perfumed sash of Writing and there we have it. Some of the captions, as I’ve said before, manage to be accidentally amusing in their drive at Literary Power, but mostly it reads like an ill-conceived attempt to staple a sense of depth into the book, and the Wachowskis just aren’t pulling it off at the moment, and their attempts only detract from the fun of their premise. There’s even some decent jokes to be read (“--the enormous exposed brain was the Achilles Heel after all--”), but only after overcoming the urge to toss the book down and grab a Tylenol. Luckily, the last nine pages drop the narration as the Catholic Church’s secret air force launches an attack on Doc’s gleaming city/headquarters. Now that’s fun, even if the pilots are using phrases like “the succor of the Lord’s Heaven” while under attack. I can handle that.

I built a tomb with frozen slabs of current that I cut with guilt and mortared with self-abnegation.”

The art is by co-creator Steve Skroce (interestingly, the other co-creator is Geof Darrow, who otherwise has nothing to do with the book, although he has his own title, "Shaolin Cowboy", coming out from Burlyman). I really liked Skroce’s work with Alan Moore on “Youngblood”, and he does some really nice stuff here. Doc, while remaining essentially constant throughout the ages, is handled slightly differently for each environment he’s placed in: the ‘classic’ look in rags and bolts for the origin, a set of withered cowboy gear and a big hat for the Old West with the shadows over his facing making him look like a particularly curious old prospector, and a nice Boris Karloff crew-cut and superhero gray uniform for the present. The action is detailed and gory, handled traditionally, but with care. The book’s production values are high, and there’s even a bonus section with two pages of cut artwork. I suspect that Skroce’s art will provide the source of much of the enthusiasm surrounding the book, in the event that any should develop. It’s a bimonthly book, if it keeps on schedule, so we’ll see where it goes. From what I can see this issue, I get the feeling that the Wachowskis are going for a religious intolerance storyline, probably with a little fear of science mixed in. It’s been done many times, but it could be fun. I just hope that Doc doesn’t keep telling us what it’s all about…

Fear of death. Fear of difference. Of responsibility and consequence. Fear of tomorrow. My father’s fear had made me and orphaned me. It had driven me, hunted and haunted me. As the yeti charged I knew that fear could finally kill me.”

You see! This is why I can’t be sure if they’re serious or not!

Hulk and Thing: Hard Knocks #4 (of 4)

Man, that was a long review. This one will be much shorter.

Neato injury-to-the-eye cover aside, there’s just nothing very compelling here. Bruce Jones finishes delving into the past to arrive at a point of understanding between the two title characters that I’m pretty sure was always close to the surface in those classic stories anyway. Then there’s fighting and some mild plot revelations, and some stilted comedy to end it all. Even at his best, Jae Lee tends to get a little stiff when it comes to prolonged action scenes, lathering everything in heavy shadows and capturing each moment in mythic freeze-frame. But when this goes on for several pages, the lack of movement to the art begins to detract from the effect. Nice color work from June Chung, filling up those empty desert vistas from dusk to night to dawn.

The miniseries on the whole has been an uneasy blend of humor and brooding flashbacks and attempts to get inside the title characters’ relationship, to little unique effect. But Lee’s work on the monsters themselves is attractive, and will leave his fans with their fingers crossed for a better story next time.

BPRD: The Dead #2 (of 5)

More on Abe’s past, and more on the new adventures of the rest of the BPRD. I’m not a fan of new lovable dumbass Roger, and the team’s new boss seems to exist solely for the team to have someone to argue with rather than being much of a character in his own right, but the story remains pretty compelling. It’s positively thick with references to various “Hellboy” and BPRD adventures from the past: no less than five footnote citations are given to prior works throughout this single issue. But Guy Davis’ art is really swell, giving these recent series a constant feel, unique from “Hellboy”, which benefits the story a lot considering that it’s essentially an ongoing book divided into miniseries-shaped arcs with production breaks in between. A little info is doled out, a little intrigue is raised. My attention is still with it.

Wild Girl #2 (of 6)

This issue fills in some of the backstory that the prior issue lacked, such as how the title heroine survives on the streets. I’m still pretty sure the book is supposed to be aimed at kids, although the J.H. Williams III dream sequence, evoking Homer‘s “The Odyssey”, will probably fly right over younger readers’ heads, and I just know there’ll be a parent or two who’ll object to the presence of the word ‘bitch’, even if used in the dog sense.

I liked the clarification of the title character’s communicative powers (she can ‘hear’ the communications of animals as based on scents and expressions it seems), and there’s some cute bits of humor. But save for these gap fillings and some minor plot intrigue, not a whole lot happens, although the premise retains interest, and its all attractively presented.