Yes! Everyone loves award shows!

*I went to a professional function today. Eight in the morning on a Saturday. Lovely. Could not have anything less to do with comic books.

There was a PowerPoint presentation. With clipart. Not fifteen minutes into the damned thing, what is it that shows up in from to everyone?

Alex Ross’ Superman.

I blinked, still tired.

This stuff - it’s following me.

*Delightsome Quotes From the Past Dept:

To be honest though, the kind of subversiveness found here is as banal and impotent as the kind of drivel you find in the tabloids, though lamentably not quite as humorous.”

- Ng Suat Tong, unimpressed with Grant Morrison and John J. Muth’s The Mystery Play, from The Comics Journal #168, May of 1994. I reviewed it here, and I totally missed some of the Yeats and tarot references that Tong picks up on. Thanks, Chris!

*Delightsome Quotes From the Present Dept:

Funny how the word ‘Fascist’ brings up so many emotions for me, especially concerning this series…”

- Joe Casey, presumably, from the Infoscroll running across the bottom of The Intimates #11, released two days ago. The penultimate issue of this series provides the occasion for quite a few allusions to editorial alteration, as well as some general outside-the-box commentary. Longtime Casey and/or Wildstorm fans will be rewarded by the appearance of characters from WildCats 3.0 in this and the next issue, as the series wraps itself up.

*It seems that Skip Williamson, he of many an underground comix mag, now has his own website. It’s worth a visit if only for the ‘movies’ section, filled with vintage comix-related clips. Plenty of free sequential art too, so go at it.

*I also sat down and watched the first episode of Naruto on Cartoon Network tonight; I’d heard a bit about it and my curiosity was piqued. I think there was another episode on afterwards, but I turned it off. This is the sort of thing where I understand how it’s popular, and I suspect it’s ultimately very useful in bringing in a load of young people to the animation-loving (and comics-reading, regarding the manga version) fray, but it’s not anything I’m personally interested in watching at all.

It’s really naked, carefully-constructed youth wish-fulfillment, a bad kid with little supervision who’s hated by the popular kids and always gets into trouble and sucks at school, but who's still in possession of amazing powers. It’s the kind of kid-targeted thing that people intermittently demand superhero comics return to, and it’s a damn effective example of the style, as utterly generic as it is in a storytelling sense. If you’ve seen any random three middle-of-the-road anime from the last ten years, you’re guaranteed to pick up on every stock character type, every tired old trope. So it’s run-of-the-mill, but not incompetent, the animation quality lurching around from sluggish movements and lots of stills and pans to momentary bursts of excellent fluidity. Granted, Neon Genesis Evangelion started out as a dead-boring parade of clichés too, and that later turned into something admirably insane, so maybe Naruto gets a lot better with time?

*It was a special week, warranting special awards:


Oh god let's start now!

#1! - Winner’s Circle Grand Prix Jackpot ‘o Gold Excellence Citation!

Garth Ennis’ 303 #5 (of 6)

Despite a wealth of delays, and the substitution of Andrew Dalhouse for Greg Waller in the colorist’s slot, this remains Ennis’ most compelling current series. Essentially a head-on collision between Ennis’ superkiller (The Punisher MAX) work and his tales of human combat (War Stories), with heavy doses of polemic kneaded therein, this book has already been from Afghanistan to the US, characters being introduced and dying within the space of two issues, and I still don’t know where the damn thing is going to end up, although I expect most readers have picked up on at least what Ennis is getting at.

Playing into the usual Ennis themes, the story is directly about the United States, and directly about its history of violence. It’s told through the eyes of a former Soviet master soldier, a veritable Frank Castle in his extreme skill and unwavering drive. But his nation is one that’s fallen, and he’s been forced to hire himself and his men out on wars of political gamesmanship. But he becomes fascinated by the state of war in the US, and aware of a certain divide between the architects of modern death and the soldiers that carry it out. So he goes to the US, more specifically a small desert town (the book’s sandy settings a constant reminder of arid morals and dusty dreams), where he comes into conflict with a suicidal law-enforcement officer who lost his beloved wife to health care lapses and now sweeps around a diabolical slaughterhouse dubbed McHell, blood pumping through its veins courtesy of methamphetamine-addled illegals.

This issue basically consists of a long chase scene between the two men, with an emphasis on hallucinatory hellscapes and Ennis’ parallel streams of caption-based narration, maybe a tell-tale product of the Ennis’ initial intent to release the work as a prose novel. But Jacen Burrow’s art adds a special dimension; Burrows isn’t one for psychedelic visuals, rendering everything in the utmost in straightforwardness, Dalhouse filling up his simple, clean figures as if they’re animation cells (Dalhouse's is also not much of a departure from Waller’s own style, that which established the Avatar ‘house’ look, though Dalhouse does lay off the textures a bit). But Burrows is nothing if not devoted, and his drive to directly depict any crazy thing that Ennis (or Warren Ellis, or Alan Moore by way of Antony Johnston) throws at him. And there’s a lot here.

The pursuit crosses the gore-soaked floor of the slaughterhouse, entrails and feces littering the ground, folks slipping around in the muck. There is no suggestion, no hinting - it’s all before you. Then the chase moves out into the desert, but the two are really running through time, the sands shifting into the Old West, the 17th century, the wilds of Vietnam, and the heat of the Middle Eastern desert (where, you’ll recall, the book began). And through it all, there’s killing by Americans, whether natives or pioneers or soldiers in foreign lands, the history of the country entirely written in blood, and two men running through it all that while. And the everyday killings of the slaughterhouse represent a post-industrial bloodletting of economy; now it need mean nothing, just hopped-up men and women forced into their slots to serve the needs of the rich, their own deaths little more than momentary economic burps. Ennis is pragmatic, refusing to decry violence for the sake of being violent; his heart is with both sides of the issue's chase, ‘good’ men let to roam in a hypocritical atmosphere, and it’ll come as no surprise to the constant reader that Ennis sees the ‘good’ killer as the best of them all.

As you can no doubt surmise, there isn’t a subtle atom in this book’s makeup, but that’s part of the apppeal, I think. It’s not just the arguments that Ennis is making, which are aged and almost cozily familiar. It’s the application of his pulpiest, most lurid and hard-bitten aesthetic to this thesis that gives rise to the book’s impact. Those looking for a calm, dispassionate analysis of current issues should probably go elsewhere, but this is a disarmingly smooth melding of Ennis’ individualized entertainment drive to a heightened-volume political screed. As one might expect from this writer, the sheer spectacle of it all is particularly adept at keeping one’s attention.

#2! - Audience Choice’s Silver Medal Most Honored Mention!

The Authority: The Magnificent Kevin #1 (of 5)

Truly the way into my heart is by toasting up some Mad Magazine chestnuts, so imagine my delight to discover a nice lengthy ‘musical’ sequence in this issue, a couple pages of a character sashaying around and singing their heart out through long ropes of humorous lyrics, musical notes dotted around. All it was missing was an asterisk and a footnote, informing us which tune to set the words to. Just lovely.

But really I was onboard from the very beginning; the presence of artist Carlos Ezquerra apparently prompted Ennis to cook up a little 2000 A.D.-type fantasy sequence to open up the issue with, the vulgar master killer Kev enjoying a ruthlessly self-referential reverie, all while the same joke that always opens these books reappears for yet another spin. Sure, Ennis’ teasing of inter-Irish conflict is about as well-known a sight as gunfire in his books, but at least I learned a lovely new euphemism for masturbation, the epic ‘ham-shank,’ brilliantly combining my twin humor obsessions of ham and bodily functions into a man-made divinity of pure humor. Truly, God is now usurped.

Anyway, the plot of the book sees The Authority (a superteam Ennis obviously cannot care less about) bedeviled by a strange imp with a habit of popping out of nowhere, announcing “I’m a vagina!!!” and thrashing members of the squad with coma-inducing pies to the face. Only one hero escapes, and mysteriously demands aid from Kev, despite the fact that the two of them haven’t quite gotten on in the past.

While former interior artist Glenn Fabry (now relegated to covers only) is sorely missed, Ezquerra adds the necessary amount of jaundiced action poses and amusing facial expressions to make this sort of thing work. Humor is all subjective, obviously, but I laughed a good deal. Clever superhero franchise tie-in or not, Ennis’ focus on sniggering vulgarity, broad parody, and even good old fashioned dialect humor marks this as a worthy enough successor to the likes of Dicks. And isn’t that what we all wanted a bit more of?

#3! - US News and World Report Top Thee Finalist Olympic Podium Powerhouse!

The Punisher MAX #25

This is the kind of book you don’t need to worry about anymore. I don’t really read a lot of Marvel books, so I couldn’t in good faith call this ‘Marvel’s most consistently entertaining book,’ but I imagine it’s pretty close. Take the conversation between two cops we see about halfway through; it’s funny and telling, imparting valuable background details whilst building up the characters as sympathetic in a swift, page-efficient manner, without stooping to woodenness or sentiment. This dynamic duo later run into our dear Frank Castle, who doesn’t like messing with ‘good’ cops, so he disarms them (which is to say, he takes away their guns - he doesn’t literally remove their limbs, which is always a possibility in this title) and sends them on their way.

Little does any party to the confrontation realize that they’re about to become part of a political cause célèbre, partially prompted by sex slavers that Frank happened to upset during a routine hit. He also takes in yet another innocent and/or ally (it’s pretty much one for every story by this point), and we get an issue-long undercurrent of the sympathy and support that Frank is getting from certain private and professional sectors. But mostly the book is holding steady as usual, setting up the latest plot with a little bit of action and blood thrown in, with touches of humor (“You can go whenever you want. Except I’ll have to sedate you and leave you somewhere. Eat your bagel.”). Semi-regular penciler Leandro Fernandez is as solid as ever, with new inker Scott Koblish providing little differentiation from Fernandez’s last storyline. There are not many ways to say ‘it’s a good issue of The Punisher MAX,’ so I guess I’ll just be direct.

#4. And the No-Prize Goes To…

Ghost Rider #1 (of 6)

Oh crumbs. This isn’t very good. The wrap-around cover and thick, heavy 48-page feel made me think that maybe we were at least getting a few extra pages worth of story for our three bucks, but there’s actually still only 22 story pages, coupled with a one-page preview of next issue, a four-page preview of the awful-looking Keith Giffen-scripted Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos (you see, it’s a sci-fi horror book - they howl because they’re werewolves or something! get it?! get it?!?!), and a whole lot of ads. Not that I really wanted this to last much longer.

For the first four pages, at least, Clayton Crain’s spackled, 3D-feeling art manages to succeed richly in a certain death metal album cover manner, with near-abstract crowds of flame-kissed demons pursuing Ghost Rider down Hell’s highways, red and yellow and black everywhere, the muddiness of the color a momentary boon. Ennis, meanwhile, drops a Thomas Pynchon reference on page 2, perhaps in a desperate bid to keep himself entertained.

It doesn’t quite work, so soon he’s resorting to page after page of weary mockery of the Ghost Rider concept. It’s enlightening to compare this to the vastly more successful Kev book examined above; Ennis manages to create and maintain his own little humorous world in that one, laughs coming out of individual personalities and situations, while this one finds him merely taking shots at such terribly difficult targets as out-of-date character names and nonsensical ‘70s origin stories. It doesn’t help that Crain’s earthbound artwork resembles slightly painterly videogame screen caps, making the book feel like some sort of X-Box CineManga. It’s not a great sign when I turn the page to an advertisement for that new Incredible Hulk game, and I have to blink a few times to realize that the Hulk isn’t making a guest appearance in the book itself. Occasionally Crain manages some decent visual humor; I liked the inhuman, bulbous ‘cute’ eyes given to a little kid (eyes that big can’t stay undamaged for long), but mostly the issue’s look turned me away like a bouncer at the club door.

The story is a nihilistic theological stew, with haughty, puritanical angels and vile, violent demons releasing emissaries to the human world to hunt down a sinister figure that an ambitious member of the heavenly host loosed upon humanity. The two emissaries wander around doing awful and violent things, a character by the name of ‘Buttview’ is forcibly created in a way too dim action scene, a pair of angels snark about the situation over and over again, and finally someone gets to idea to go find Ghost Rider over in Hell since, well, it’s his name in the title, and he’s got a movie coming up (this isn’t actually how they decide to get him, by the way - I might have liked that a litter better, but probably not). End of issue.

It’s watered down, that’s the thing. It’s got to conform to Marvel Knights standards, so Ennis can’t indulge in his usual obscene wordplay. The blood and gore can’t flow too freely, so basically we have the lights turned down on the action. And I’m not getting the feeling that Ennis really has much to say with Ghost Rider, apart from making cracks at old Marvel properties. Maybe this book is what the Kev series would look like if Ennis didn’t have content freedom and was forced to stay focused on The Authority themselves. Not a nice vision. So let’s enjoy the books above, books where the writer is more free to be himself, and relegate this one to the parallel universe of a softer Garth Ennis, a place we fortunately don’t have to live in.