*Lacking anything else to do for fifteen minutes, I sat down at the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble and read some comic-related stuff.

Entirely by accident I noticed that bi-monthly music magazine “Paste” was having a ‘Visual Arts’ issue, and sure enough there was a ten or so page section of (often very) short essays on various comics topics. I had to smile at one of the early ones, praising comics’ forward-looking outlook in a pop culture mired in chintzy nostalgia-wanking and backwardisms. Ah, to perceive a fresh cultural aspect from the outside, the plastic wrap still taut! But I really can’t dislike a slick article that name-checks “Jimmy Corrigan” and “Street Angel” in the same breath. Most of the pieces were enthusiastic and heartfelt, covering shoujo manga and superheroes and art comics and everything. Not too much originality on display, but hearing from a columnist on her affection for the strong female leads of vintage late-80’s/early-90’s Fantagraphics books is wholly pleasant nonetheless. Only an absurdly cursory superhero-centric ‘timeline’ falls entirely flat. Good for a read on the bench near the racks.

I also peeped at Michael Kupperman’s comic in “The Believer”. Pablo Picasso’s dramatic life story is presented, narrated by a giant walking hamburger. But the hamburger only wants to talk about how delicious he is so Pablo gets mad, but then they become friends in the end. It was so nice.

*But it was today’s new comics that got the blood steadily pumping. Some genuinely exciting reads today. Even the store seemed to be tense with nervous power. The guy at the counter asked if he’d be seeing me at Free Comics Day this weekend.

Yeah, I’ll fight my way in,” I replied.

If it’s anything like last year, I’ll have to fight my way in,” the counter man said.

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #5 (of 6)

In the letters page in the back (yes - a letters page, but not featuring any “The World Below: Deeper and Stranger” mail like Chadwick promised back in 2000) we get some interesting information beyond the expected discussion of population control. Chadwick more or less pins the late appearance of this series (the cover on this one is dated 2003, so we are moving ahead) on his outside work, specifically “The Matrix Online”. Now if I warm up my ultra-fanboy engine I think I can recall a comment made in the 1995 “Paul Chadwick Fantasy Art” trading card set about how video games are a waste of time. Obviously, Paul experienced a change in attitude over the following decade as his enthusiasm about online gaming is quite infectious (and I imagine the pay is about twenty billion percent higher). And the workload looks quite tremendous: weekly plot updates for five years worth of gaming. Chadwick notes that he’s currently writing and drawing a new (unnamed) upcoming series, but things are going to be awfully slow. “I guess I’m toiling on the dark side, from a comic purist’s perspective, but it feels more like surfing on a tsunami,” quoth the author.

This issue is a whirlwind of activity, speaking of which. The very crabby, very pained Concrete is really getting pissed with all of these chat shows. He’s prone to tantrums and mood swings; we all know what’s going on, but Maureen interprets it as inner turmoil brought about by life on the speaking circuit. Chadwick smartly gives Conc some slightly more sympathetic (if bandwagon-jumping snarky) audiences this time, all the better to emphasize the title character’s growing instability. It’s pretty funny to see our stony friend jump up and play monster with his oratorical rivals. But it’s only in a later scene where the themes of queasy biological and mental strife in media-bred politics truly reach a near-surreal apex, with a roundtable literally smashing, acrid vapors in the air as pundits run screaming, their flesh literally boiling with Concrete’s doubt and unconscious hypocrisy. It’s a fine climax to this portion of the story, and it neatly ties the thematic strands of public performance and private impact together.

Larry’s story is visually tied to Conc’s at certain points, with the two positioned in similar poses in consecutive panels more than once. The exploits of Larry are more mundane, yet curiously remain less palatable than the rest of the book; maybe it’s all in the execution, the presence of a large stone man offering a psychological buffer against Chadwick’s occasionally ripe dialogue. Certainly a tipsy bar confrontation comes off as too precious by half. By the final page we’ve even got a character commenting on how bumbly the dialogue is getting, never a good omen but at least a signal of honesty on the creator’s part. Awesome pun on the next-to-last page, by the way.

But overall this is a brisk, page-turning issue, all the informational bulk of the last two issues trimmed away as we move toward the finale. There’s even a sense that maybe things are moving too fast near the end here, as a Major Event provides some choppy time-jumps, only to run into another Major Event (the sudden prominence of a violent crime subplot is reminiscent of “Fragile Creature” actually, though far more telegraphed here). Will the next and last issue offer mostly a cooling, a falling of action? Will everything wrap sufficiently? Will Chadwick kill off humanity with a doomsday virus as a means of making time for his Matrix gig? All will be revealed in due time (and thank goodness Chadwick and Dark Horse waited until the thing was about done - no delays yet!).

Ultimate Fantastic Four #18

You know, all complaints about insecurity with the source material and dodgy splash padding set aside (as they’re not terribly relevant to the issue in question), this is really a damned good superhero ending. The FF wind up pursued out of the Negative (ok ok, ‘N’) Zone by Annihilus (*sigh*, I mean ‘Nihil’), who’s piloting a huge organic dragon ship. Everyone smashes their way into Las Vegas and there’s tense piloting and fighting in the streets and last-minute revivals and a great slice of overt Ellis dialogue (“You will do as I say or I will come to your house in the night and steal your heart, lungs and children for the War on Terror!”) and even a simultaneously funny and gruesome send-off for the Big Bad.

Hell, there’s even a certain level of sadness to the whole affair, with the openly and proudly idealistic Reed (truly a contrast to the veiled rough-hewn idealism of the typical Ellis hero) lamenting the cruelty of living in a conflict-powered superhero universe, when all he wants is to discover wonderful things with fanciful science. Not in the Marvel Universe, Mr. Richards - things need punching at most hours around here. And accordingly, when the young FF finally ‘come out’ as a super-team it’s both a triumphant debut and a type of resignation, fitting with the tone Ellis has established throughout his run. The art (especially on the next-to-last page) looks a bit rushed and sketched-out; you know deadlines were looming when you see that Scott Hanna has suddenly been promoted from ‘Inks’ to ‘Finishes’, with penciler Adam Kubert credited with only ‘Breakdowns’. But the Big Action comes off well enough, and that’s the ticket to this one’s success. Well done.