The Prestige

*Review Nugget Dept: Warren Ellis has mentioned that Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. #10 was informed by his reading of the Brendan McCarthy-powered Solo #12, and the reader can read some pretty clear parallels into the new issue’s barrage of fantasy sequences. The dark revamped Forbush Man uses mental powers on the team to send them off into psychological prisons of despair, each of them approached in a slightly different way. I particularly liked Captain Universe’s journey through a Ruins-like superhero Earth; while I suppose one could read the issue as something of a statement on the emotional dead-end of ‘dark’ superhero books, there’s always been a distinct touch of self-reference to Nextwave from the writing standpoint. Obviously the more vivid material comes from art team Stuart Immonen (pencils), Wade Von Grawbadger (inks), and Dave McCaig (colors), their chameleonic approach to Ellis’ little stories a bit more like J.H. Williams III/Dave Stewart burning through specific visual evocations in Seven Soldiers than McCarthy and co.’s organic spins on a core style. It’s still a technical wow, mind you.

And I have to admit, since this is the first I’ve encountered of Marvel’s current controversial packaging procedures: 24 pages of comic and 24 pages of ads does make for a choppier-than-average reading experience, particularly in as art-driven an issue as this. And two of those pages of ‘comic’ are the recap page and the letters page, so really the sequential content is only the second biggest element of the package, which does trigger some sort of primal ‘wrong’ switch in the funnybook-reading curves of my brain.

Batman/The Spirit #1

Much in the way that issue week’s issue of 52 was supposed to be “a full length 22-page adventure” and just plain ol’ wasn’t, this one-shot special was solicited on DC’s site as Prestige Format, yet arrived at comics stores as a plain vanilla pamphlet (complete with advertisements), albeit a longer one than usual at 40 pages of comics. Not too bad for $4.99 (given the industry standards), but still a little irritating to this consumer.

Essentially, Batman/The Spirit is a special introductory book meant to familiarize readers with Will Eisner’s famed creation, in preparation for next month’s launch of his new solo book from writer/artist Darwyn Cooke. Hence, Batman is rolled out, as is co-writer Jeph Loeb (who joins co-writer/penciller Cooke and inker J. Bone). The story is an exceedingly simple thing, despite its costume of narrative convolution: most of the Spirit’s villains team up with most of Batman’s villains to strike at a police convention in Hawaii where Commissioners Dolan & Gordon are staying, prompting the title heroes into action. “Every great cop in the country will be there!” exclaims Robin, underlining the story’s emphatically light, throwback approach.

It’s all pleasant enough in the manner of a special episode of a cartoon or something, and it certainly looks pretty, especially under the sun-drenched paradise kiss of Dave Stewart’s daytime colors, providing a nice aura of relaxation and low-stakes for a story that doesn’t need to do anything to strain itself. All the best bits come in waves of characters just walking around a hotel and interacting with each other, before the inevitable team-up mechanisms growl their way into gear, and evil is duly stomped. There’s plot ‘twists,’ yes, but save for a beguiling sense of adult sexuality to the goings-on, none of it particularly registers as striking or outstanding. Just a decent, mid-tempo superhero book, good-looking.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if loading up the book with playful work involving the title characters’ extensive supporting casts isn’t kind of a self-defeating act for a book that’s so clearly primed to lead into a series - the Batman cast almost always arrives at greater impact through shorthand, since they’re the ones everyone is more familiar with, and the Spirit cast seems to largely draw power from their relativity to better-known characters. Certainly Denny Colt himself remains something of a cipher at story’s end, obviously a bit friendlier a guy than Batman but largely vacant a presence, which isn’t all that great a sign for a character that’s about to headline his own series.

Ah, but maybe that’s part of Cooke’s plan, focusing on the atmosphere and the non-title characters; it seems valid enough for 22 pages (bigger than Eisner’s whole newspaper supplement, let alone his original stories). We’ll see how he does without known DC properties to hang his hat on.

Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage #1 (of 2)

Meanwhile, this actually is Prestige Format, and all the better. Writer/artist Howard Chaykin is generally capable of looking at his books as a unified design whole, so he benefits more than usual from a total absence of advertisements. The first 11 of this book’s 48 pages are all the more striking for Chaykin’s ability to bank on having five sets of images facing one another, introducing a good portion of the cast through his signature repeating page layouts, maintaining a nice, steady beat between iconic images of action and breathless expository narration. It’s the sort of thing that’s only ever going to happen when Chaykin’s writing and drawing, immediately placing his recent affinity for acting as artist-only for superhero books at an evident disadvantage.

Indeed, it’s becoming awfully clear that traditional contemporary monthly superhero comics simply don’t play to a lot of Chaykin’s strengths. If he’s not writing the book himself, his art seems to lose the beauty of control that forms half of its appeal to me, as its forced to respond to outside stimulus that can’t ever quite grasp the style the way Chaykin does. There’s a certain tendency toward brawny action set pieces that Chaykin generally won’t tackle in the same way as most current superhero artists - he’s too enamored with texture and page breakdowns to throw himself into big splashes and hammering fights. His character designs don’t lend themselves all that well to the freestanding visual ideal that many superhero fans enjoy seeing in these artist-outliving characters; Chaykin’s versions of familiar properties inevitably resemble the usual Howard Chaykin cast dressed in superhero masquerade, which is fitting for the artist’s Tezuka-like recycling of designs as a means of maintaining a company of ‘performers,’ but isn’t much in keeping with today’s Marvel/DC outlook.

And really, his personal interests are just plainly a bit… different.

I have no idea what Green Lantern fans are going to make of this thing, but I can certainly say it’s now fully a Howard Chaykin book, which is to note that it’s not much of a space-faring superhero comic at all. Technically the plot is all about the Rann/Thanagar War, which Guy is supposed to be arbitrating a peace settlement in, though Chaykin happily dispenses with any notion of details or particulars or established continuity, all the better to tackle things on a purely metaphorical level (though he is keen enough to make a who's side are you on joke, knowing the line's pre-Civil War superhero history) - he even intentionally positions Guy as the perfect hero for the book, as he doesn’t really know anything about the machinations of Rann and Thanagar.

Really, both sides are just vehicles for Chaykin to play with his usual interests in politics, a disgust with the conservative outlook (Thanagar) coupled with even greater distaste toward the disorganized, sleepy state of liberalism (Rann). Guy sits in his bar, often in a dress suit, often flirting with women and generally being a boor, looking for all the world (universe?) like the traditional Chaykin semi-hero, now a little more bitter and especially caustic. There’s green rings and stuff, and sinister alien races, sure, but even those are only symbols for Guy’s broken-down sense of justice. There's hardly even much plot advancement (or rather it advances before you even know it), but it seems far more organic in Chaykin's hands than most of his other recent projects.

I think it’s the kind of thing that’s well worth handing a two-issue series to a strong creative vision to execute, though it’s surely going to appeal to established Chaykin fans more than anyone; actually, if it attracts any new readers, it’s pretty much fated to make them interested in prior Howard Chaykin works rather than prior Green Lantern and/or Guy Gardner books, as they’re never going to find quite the same experience. The plot darts around from location to location at almost the furious clip of Time2, characters crack odd jokes and strut through heavily decorated rooms. Images, images, textures, textures. Chaykin’s still an odd duck among superhero artists, but this is pretty easily the most satisfying of his genre works of recent vintage. Suggesting, therefore, that the trick is not for he to come to the genre, but to force the genre to come to him.