Bump in the road.

*Chaykin Dept: Hey - five-page preview of the upcoming Hawkgirl #50 is up at Newsarama right now. That’s the debut of sparkling new creative team Walter Simonson (writing) and Howard Chaykin (art). Sketchy skeleton things - nice! Witty comment on page 5 about Hawkman’s silly costume - not too nice. Still, I’m excited. Also up there are bits and pieces of the Kurt Busiek/Butch Guice Aquaman and Will Pfeifer/David Lopez & Alvaro Lopez Catwoman.

Just the other day I noticed that Chaykin was also doing art in the current Superman line crossover/Crisis tie-in epic - the one Graeme referred to as “complete fanboy continuity porn” the other day. I was surprised by just how much Chaykin did, at least in the first part - I figured it’d be kind of a pass-by thing, but he’s got a solid number of pages. Odd seeing him drawing Superman, especially since I’m going over those old American Flagg! issues he wrote and drew, except - ha ha! - for the first twelve, which I don’t own, having been anticipating that bloody hardcover thing for eons now. One of these days.

Solo #9

I suppose it was inevitable that there was going to be a comedown; the level of quality in Solo had been nudged so high that things probably couldn’t maintain themselves for much longer, especially considering that the series is based on giving showcase space to diverse talents, which naturally suggests a good shot at quality varying. It’s frankly still a surprise that quality hasn’t wavered more than it already has, and maybe that’s a credit to editor Mark Chiarello’s ability to marshal especially strong results from an already-impressive roster of artists.

This issue, focusing on Scott Hampton, isn’t especially strong on any level but pure visuals, though that hardly makes it a disaster - it’s more of a return to the likes of issue #2 (the Richard Corben one), where some good visuals buttress unspectacular stories, without even the thematic connecting tissue that made the also occasionally wavy scripting of the Mike Allred and Darwyn Cooke installments pop with technical design fortitude. Actually, this issue lacks even the classic homage focus of Corben’s stretch (something later handled much better by the aforementioned Howard Chaykin in issue #4 anyway); at first I thought Hampton’s cover image of a traveling salesman unsuccessfully hiding a reptilian tale under his coat was signaling the presence of stories about, well, hidden things, about masks and postures - admittedly, two (arguably three) of the stores in here do bear such markings, but then there’s all the other stuff, like the political allegory, and the straight-up chiller, and I have to admit that the book really just comes off as a hodgepodge, a compilation of whatever tickles Hampton’s fancy. And that’s ok - except for that fact that not a lot of the stories are very good, and thus all that pretty art is just left floating around, detached exercises in style. The presence of a three-page 'making-of' art process guide is thus even more pertinent than it'd otherwise be.

Among the ‘hiding’ stories, the stronger one is the book’s obligatory superhero tale, a Batman (and it’s really interesting how many of these artists go for Batman as their superhero pick - maybe something to do with the character’s vaunted ability to support multiple, contrasting-yet-logical philosophies and motivations) short co-written by John Hitchcock, the only story here not scripted solely by Hampton. It’s a pleasant enough, an undemanding and unassuming puft of cotton candy concerning an actor hired to impersonate the Dark Knight at movie openings and public events, the ever-private Batman apparently uninterested in taking legal action against motion picture companies profiting off of his likeness. Anyway, the actor’s young son thinks he really is Batman, and then a crime occurs nearby a ‘personal appearance’ with the actor in costume, and his kid wants him to spring into action, and fortunately the real Batman swoops in and - ah, you can fill it in from here, right? It’s good-looking, with some fine paint work and a great sense of fun to the character art (loved Batman’s big thumbs-up near the end), but utterly unsubstantial.

The other major ‘hiding’ story suffers more, if only because it has more ambition and falls decidedly short. It’s a dark comedy about a popular, aging superhero artist who blows a fuse in his editor’s office and hangs the fellow out the window (the skeleton of the situation is an old DC office anecdote, I believe), and finds himself thereafter blacklisted from the industry. He then hires a pair of slobby fans to pose as hot new talents, a team he’ll groom to be dynamic personalities and provide with all necessary artwork, so long as he gets the lion’s share of the fees. It works, the fresh coat of paint on the public personalities masking the fact that exactly the same art is being produced, but then greed proves to be the undoing of many. I’m sure there’s a genuinely excellent, biting piece of satire hiding in here, a nasty little something about the cult of personality surrounding Hot!! talents, and a knowing tweak of the homage that must be paid to even the most trailblazing artist’s influences, but such concerns are mere surface here. It’s decent surface, with some great single lines (“With just that essential touch of manga!”), but the whole thing swiftly dissolves into mild gags, familiar backstabbing intrigue, and a rushed, nearly inchoate finale (how'd that one character show up again on the next-to-last page?). And even then - lovely monochrome visuals, and beautiful body language humor.

Arguably buying into the ‘hidden’ theme is an adaptation of an actual letter Hampton found tucked away on a train he was riding in the early ’80s, a declaration of love from an inarticulate but hugely emphatic party to an unknown recipient. There’s a lot of text in the story, and Hampton doesn’t really do much with the premise in a sequential sense - it’s mostly just panel after panel of the imagined recipient sitting around and reading the letter. The ‘punchline’ (so to speak) is fairly good, mostly feeding off of the heartbreaking text of the letter itself, but there remains the whiff of the uninspired across all those inky black carriage interiors and station views. And the less said about the book’s political portion, a remarkably silly four-page EC sci-fi homage that somehow surpasses even those subtlety-deprived specimens of social comment in sheer goofy sledgehammer force, the better off we’ll all be. Did I mention the delicious art, this time handled in a Silverheels-reminiscent lacquered pulp manner?

Only in the book’s final story, a nicely eerie horror piece about a vehicle that might be haunted, does the book really shine. Skillfully employing judicious bookend color segments to compliment a misty b&w flashback center, Hampton’s visual skill is finally bolstered by a tricky, satisfying story, an air of mystery and anxiety surrounding every odd happening, dialogue and narration complimenting what we see, words trailing off into a final refrain of repeated images, sudden bursts of taillight hue emerging from the ink. Hampton is a well-respected horror talent, and he certainly lives up to the hype here.

Not a bad way to end it all - it's a strong note for sure. But one does wish that the rest of the book had remained at that level, instead of being mainly a batch of attractive good-tries and fallen-shorts. But then, the bar was set awfully high to start with, and maybe this is just Solo naturally leveling us off.