And now, for your hangover edification... the first good bookshelf comic of 2009!

Why I Killed Peter

That's right - what 2009 needs is a good stare down, and there's no better time than now.

This'll be out on Friday; it's a 112-page, $18.95 hardcover from NBM, bringing to English a 2006 work by writer Olivier Ka -- a prose specialist with various comics works to his credit -- and artist 'Alfred' (Lionel Papagelli), of various diverse comics projects (joined by Henri Meunier on colors). The two had previously collaborated on the 2003-04 humor series Monsieur Rouge, although I don't believe either have been published in North America before; this has proven to be their most acclaimed work, having enjoyed an Essentials designation (basically an 'honorable mention' prize) at the 2007 Angoulême International Comics Festival, along with Charles Burns' Black Hole and the final volume of the Emmanuel Guibert/Didier Lefèvre/Frédéric Lemercier comics & photography autobio-in-'80s-Afghanistan project The Photographer (forthcoming from First Second in an all-in-one edition).

Why I Killed Peter is also an autobiographical comic, and focused on subject matter that some readers will find upsetting - at the age of 12, Ka was sexually assaulted by an adult friend of his family, a priest who ran a summer camp the boy attended for several years before and after the incident. It was an isolated occurrence, and thus forms a core from which Ka urges foreshadowings and contexts and consequences to radiate, although this is not a particularly stream-of-consciousness work; its short chapters, direct past-present emotional correlations and recurring visual motifs suggest intense composure, even as Ka's story adopts so freewheeling a pose as to incorporate elements of its own creation into its later chapters.

No matter - the effect is consistantly that of a tightly-wound short story, to occasionally curt effect.

Ka begins his story at age 7, as he accompanies his grandparents to daily Mass; organized religion proves an ultimately boring experience, with the vivid side-effects of terror over Hell and anxiety over sex. It all stands in stark contrast to young Ka's life with his parents, a pair of free-loving suburban bohemians who think little of taking in strange folks in need, or letting the boy frolic ecstatically in a communal nude swim. And then there's Peter, the liberal priest who laughs broadly, wields a guitar and makes only endearingly sneaky attempts to foist religion on the kids.

Nothing remains the same for long, though - each new chapter begins with an image of Ka at an older age, and each year brings crucial changes, from liberated parents growing less fond of a 12-year old sharing a bathroom with naked women to the boy's own familiar mix of desire for girls and acute discomfort with his body. By the time Peter begins asking for a belly rub, there's no doubt as to how Ka's distaste for religion has gotten tangled with the priest as a 'good' authority figure, or how his genuine admiration for bodily freedom might affect his reception of Peter's demands, wrong as he knows they are, or how the isolated nature of the abuse could convince him that it's nothing to worry much about, just one of those awkward things - until the heavy psychological burden begins to buckle him, years later. The above jacket art ably illustrates how Peter (in red & white) becomes melded with the mental self (in telling, contorted black).

But Ka is perhaps too eager to provide such illustrations, to leave nothing in his recollection to chance. It's not enough to present the relative flaws of parents and grandparents - they must be discussed, in captions, atop an image of young Ka rending himself in two. The hazard of Peter's growing interest in the boy is bluntly foreshadowed by the presence of a scary dog that Peter lets Ka walk, as a special honor just for him, and while I certainly have no reason to doubt the presence of that dog at that time in this true story, its deployment in the book has only the character of a unsubtle literary device.

Moreover, these hammering clarifications are wed to a furious momentum. Nearly all of Ka's background provides some direct correlation of motive or understanding to something that occurs later, and while I understand the value of keying this entire life's story around a crucial focusing event -- not to mention the limited space with which Ka has to work -- the story's whole sometimes seems airless, and its telling thrust from one inevitability to another, which I think detracts from the writer's eventual confrontation of his pain as an adult, to 'kill' Peter.

It is fortunate, then, that Alfred is so versatile a collaborator. It's not just that he can switch from his 'default' style -- a bright, thick-outlined cartoon look prone to instances of emotional literalization, like a heart beating red in a chest or a happy man towering over a bus before an exciting trip -- to scratched, ink-smudged illness with ease, when the story's mood demands, but that he's so keen with navigating those deeper layers the visual component can add to a comic.

Sometimes it's a simple as drawing a panel of funny old folks as witnessed by Ka, age 7, and then drawing a scene-appropriate panel of similar composition to introduce us to a wedding reception attended by Ka, age 34, to suggest his arrival in the adulthood that once seemed so strange and gross. Or, with colorist Meunier, as seen just above, a character might suddenly spring to full, bursting hues as a means of popping out from faded, ossified look of Ka's grandparents, instantly identified as a departure from the religion of old, fearsome folks.

Yet Alfred's skill moves beyond even that, into the realm of bravura suggestion. He has a way of rendering natural scenes in thick gobs of brushed ink, lovely yet sinister at once. Nowhere is there more nature than at Peter's camp, of course. And when the awful night arrives -- to be fair, following some detailed, queasy dialogue setup by Ka -- the bodies of the boy and man are covered with similar splotches of ink, the blackness becoming more and more dominant as Ka offers short, frank bursts of words on what exactly is happening, until the whole scene is a deathly, abstract swirl, captions swarming and retreating as thoughts fly, punctuated by Meunier's most sickly colors as specific emotional jolts. It's absolutely harrowing material.

And then, after that, you really start to notice how Alfred's trees carry the same menace, and even quiet visions become soaked in latent threat, even if unacknowledged by Ka-on-page. One of Ka-the-writer's few moments untethered to some causation sees him at 15, still at Peter's camp, petting heavily with his first girlfriend. Peter sees them, and demands the girl return to her tent. But then he smiles at Ka and looks away, like a proud father, while the ashamed boy gets dressed before the black and hideous grass and trees, which are nevertheless also pretty and faded in calm colors. It is a truly haunting, powerful vignette, and a testament to all aspects of the form working in concert for meaningful conflict.

That's why this is a good comic -- some, I expect, will call it great -- in spite of my qualms. Even in as sensational a sequence as the adult Ka sprawled on a beach, shouting at inky images of characters (or versions of himself) from earlier in the book as they reiterate stances already made exceedingly clear, the visuals provide some added punch, tilting themselves slowly to one side so as to give the impression of the whole viewpoint slowly collapsing into a heap.

And do be aware that yes, the whole thing starts clicking together again as Ka turns 35, begins writing a book about his experience, recruits an artist he knows named Alfred, and heads off with his cohort to collect visual reference at the actual campground. Panels become digital photos of real scenery, until the pair arrive at the place, and discover what's still waiting. Conversing characters are then kept off-panel, as Alfred's nature scenes become what looks like digitally tinted photographs, two to a page, the caption-based narration sometimes dropping out altogether, as details begin to fade.

The ink vanishes; the trees become doodles. The colors are dabs of paint. Something is accomplished. Ka's story, so ferociously arranged to address its center event, can only stop; a final image freezes Ka's age, his many selves gathered together. The book is done. It's all out of him. It's something else. He killed it.


Farther Into the Future Than Usual

*The magic of Christmas.


Madman Atomic Comics #12

Plus, the start of a recurring movie 'review' feature, Netflix Instant Gratification Journal, which will continue for as long as Netflix remains viable/I feel like it.

*Note that the new books aren't due this week until Friday, Jan. 2, because Diamond is your friend, and friends don't let friends read comic books while swilling the devil's wine.


The Winter Men Special: You're goddamned right. It's been a while since we last saw this very troubled, very good Wildstorm (formerly Vertigo) series from writer Brett Lewis and artist John Paul Leon (who also did some scripting), tracking the lives and struggles of a disbanded Rocket Spetsnaz team in a fantasy Russia where miracles of science haven't stemmed the struggle of the post-Soviet everyday; now comes the long-delayed conclusion, 40 pages for $3.99. Prior issues have added up to a pretty dense work, so I'm not sure how friendly this finale might be to new readers, but do expect some finely-crafted dialogue and warm, rounded characterizations to go with your possible confusion. I'm gonna re-read the whole thing. Here's my review of the prior issue, from just under two and one quarter years ago. Preview here.

Why I Killed Peter: There's been some talk about this one, a winner of the runner-up Essentials prize at Angoulême 2007; it's an autobiographical account of writer Olivier Ka's sexual assault at the hands of a priest at the age of 12, and his subsequent confrontation of the man as an adult. The art is by 'Alfred' (Lionel Papagelli), whom I don't believe has been published in English before. From NBM, 112 pages for $18.95. Samples here; review by Bart Beaty here.

Baloney: This is artist Pascal Blanchet's and publisher Drawn and Quarterly's 80-page follow-up to 2007's White Rapids, an all-splash account of a village butcher's struggle against a local Duke and his infernal heating company, which doubles as a homage to Russian musical compositions of the 1930s and '40s. It's 80 two-color pages for $16.95.

The Hot Breath of War: A new collection of stories and drawings by (Trevor) Alixopulos, swirling around concepts of living and fighting through funny, distressing panels planted in a sea of white. From Sparkplug Comic Books, $13.00 for 128 b&w pages. Preview here, review by Tom Spurgeon here.

The Arrival: I don't know if this is a new edition of Shaun Tan's much-adored (Best Comic, Angoulême 2008), fantasy-bedecked, entirely wordless book on the experience of immigration, but it's definately showing up. I had some issues with the work myself. From Scholastic; $19.99.

Incognito #1 (of 5): A new creator-owned project from Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips & Val Staples, essentially filling in for Criminal on the Icon roster (with a similar $3.50 price point and accompanying outlay of backmatter). A supervillain is holed up in witness protection, but things are about to get over-the-top; call it the noir response to Sleeper's superhero-espionage blend. Preview here.

You'll All Be Sorry!: A new 160-page About Comics collection of the best of Gail Simone's career-launching internet humor column. Some new stuff too, including a guide to comics writing. Cover by Scott Shaw!, $11.99.

War Machine #1: I can't say 'superhero hits global hotspots to stop atrocities' is my favorite premise ever, but I like writer Greg Pak and artist Leonardo Manco ok, so here's a look at their new ongoing series about the version of Iron Man that shoots a lot more things than the other one.

Punisher War Journal #26: Being the final issue for this iteration of the Marvel U version of the character, and the last hurrah for writer Matt Fraction; expect some Secret Invasion wrap-up and maybe the filing away of a few specific characters, with guest art by Andy MacDonald of NYC Mech (Howard Chaykin checked out last issue). The series will relaunch soon as simply Punisher, with former co-writer Rick Remender taking on sole writing duties and Jerome Opeña stepping in as regular artist.

Punisher: War Zone #4 (of 6): What is this, 1993? Ennis & Dillon, though.

Kick-Ass #5 (of 8): JRJR.

30 Days of Night: 30 Days 'till Death #2: I just realized David Lapham is writing and drawing this, apparently at the same time he's writing and drawing the Vertigo monthly Young Liars (which I've heard is awesome, terrible, or even awesomely terrible). That's interesting; maybe one of them has been in production for a while?

Final Crisis: Secret Files: You know time-biding options are running low when it's "secret files" time, but be aware that some unknown amount of Frank Quitely art is lurking within this 40-page, $3.99 special, written by Grant Morrison & Peter J. Tomasi. Actually, Morrison can be pretty entertaining just sitting around and explaining things (see: the Final Crisis Sketchbook), so maybe it'll be fun? EDIT 12/30: Ok, well, as Douglas Wolk points out in the comments, neither Quitely nor Tomasi have billing on the final cover. Reader James adds that a preview has now been released, showcasing a story by Len Wein & Tony Shasteen, and thus suggesting that Morrison and J.G. Jones will do an additional story or illustrated feature of some sort; I like Quitely's cover art, though!



Netflix Instant Gratification Journal #1

(in which I react to various things available for anyone to "watch instantly" from Netflix via computer, Xbox, psychedelic breakthrough, etc.)

*Who's Camus Anyway? (115 min; 2005): A great place to start my journey of clicking on internet links and watching movies that aren't stolen - I'd known of this one for a while, but I'm not sure how high I'd place it in my dvd queue, and I'm pretty glad that I finally watched it.

The writer/director is Mitsuo Yanagimachi, who's a pretty big deal in the history of contemporary Japanese independant film; he's probably 'known' in English-speaking regions for his debut feature, the 1976 biker documentary Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for reasons apart from the content of the actual film. Who's Camus Anyway? is his most recent feature, the first he'd made in a decade, heavily inspired by time spent in the interim as a university professor.

It's both a dramatic ensemble piece and a loving/terrified homage to the power of the cinema, focusing on a little over one week in the lives of the members of a university film club as they go about making their very own movie, The Bored Murderer; many problems arise, not the least of which is the lead actor suddenly dropping out, mandating a quick raid of the theater club to secure Ikeda, a bright, eccentric kid with a laconic poise but eyes intense enough to carry him through the gory scenes Matsukawa, the student director, has planned. That's another problem - nobody can quite agree on the killer's motivation, prompting assistant director Hisada to hand her star The Stranger, although Ikeda likes being around her for less-than-intellectual reasons, as does seemingly half the club's male membership.

Yes, there's personal problems too! Womanizing Matsukawa has a troubled relationship with Yukari, his nervous, clingy girlfriend - he thinks nothing of sleeping with the project's continuity girl for much-needed production funds, as he is both cruel and devoted to his art. Hisada can't tie down a job, despite the working world looming large in the near-future, and she finds herself flirting with many guys while her boyfriend is out of town. And then there's the club's faculty representative, Professor Nakajo, a once-acclaimed director who's gone into university teaching (hmmm), just in time to fixate on a pretty coed with a thing for hip-hop dancing, and maybe a few secrets of her own.

But know that there's layers within layers here. The film's movie-crazed characters love to draw parallels between the lives of people they know (albeit at an easy arm's length) and their cinema favorites - Prof. Nakajo is the doomed Aschenbach from Visconti's Death in Venice, while Yukari is the obsessed would-be beloved of Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. And, at times, 'reality' seems to accommodate them -- Yanagimachi opens the picture with an excellent, unbroken six-minute swing around the bustling campus, even as characters discuss the wonder of long tracking shots -- though nothing is ever quite as profound as it gets in the classics: Prof. Nakajo is as sweaty and horny as he is enlivened by unattainable beauty, and Yukari is as indecisive as infatuated. As a result, there's always tension between Yanagimachi's low-key, almost anecdotal approach to campus life and the force of movie adoration that runs through his formidable craft and his characters' minds.

Lots of warmth too; there's keen attention paid to both the atmosphere of a buzzing campus and the interactions between polite, not-yet-adult students tossed together by shared interests. A few characters are filled out with quirks, yes, and some of Yanagimachi's homage plays out in odd, maybe-contrived ways, but to me that only bolstered the film's devotion to disconnecting waking life from the primacy of 'realism' - by the final reel, the students' lives and their film have totally merged, with Yanagimachi presenting both behind-the-scenes chatter and bloody on-camera mayhem as completely true, as far as us viewers can see.

But who is Camus anyway? Well, he had a book about a murder adapted to the screen by Visconti, which is surely important, but it's the philosophy that bedevils the film's crew, maybe because nobody is quite capable of looking beyond their (very heartfelt!) desires to grasp the big human picture - Ikeda's bored murder is eventually as 'real' as anything else, maybe rendering everyone's concerns awfully small, maybe embodying and vivifying them like the works of the French and Italian greats. One thing's for sure - absurd reality might drive a man to kill through simple physical stimulus, but there's different types of 'reality' to live in for the devoted; Yanagimachi posits that cinema is a particularly devouring one, and perhaps especially absurd.

*Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek (25 min; 2004): Of course, Netflix also has its hazards. I have a real weakness for original short-form anime, particularly stuff produced without the OVA market in mind; this one played a bunch of festivals, which filled my head with silly dreams of expressive, individualistic animation encouraged by a small staff's shared vision. I also happened to remember seeing Central Park Media's old R1 dvd sitting around back in the day, so I figured if it somehow scored a license without any multimedia support whatsoever it ought to at least be sort of good, if maybe not worth the $19.99 CPM was asking. Who could resist a few simple clicks, right?

Unfortunately, this thing is boring, dreary crap, little more than a tech demo for the latest cel-shaded computer animation techniques circa half a decade ago. And while I've seen Studio 4°C pull off some impressively entertaining show-off shorts along similar lines -- thus preserving some quantum of value after the new tricks have inevitably gotten old -- this CoMix Wave/Dentsu/Yamatoworks/D.A.C. production is the kind of thing that's content to launch right into flooding the screen with a gloomy CGI cityscape (lookit those graphics!) while spelling out its story premise through explanatory off-camera dialogue.

The plot concerns a bunch of kids whom fate as allotted one character trait, if that. Seven of them are supposed to meet in the aforementioned spooky city for a deadly game of tag, allegedly with demons. But shock - eight of them show up! One of whom is a spooky girl who looks kind of like the lead hero kid's lost sister and leads people on mysterious chases! Could she possibly be in with the demons, or is it all a too-Italicobvious red herring? No, actually she is in with the demons - director/co-writer Shuhei Morita (who also drew a tie-in manga) couldn't be peeled away from overseeing chase scenes to manage anything deeper.

I guess this could have gone better if the style had some charm, but... well, it's 2004's cel-shading, which means lots of smooth, 'realistic' movement, and virtually no human idiosyncrasy or discernible expression. That last part's literal too, since the technology apparently wasn't in place to tackle credible faces; the game thus requires everyone to wear unmoving masks at all times, which would have raised a laugh from sheer bravura shamelessness had it not been the most entertainment the short had to offer. Yet it seems interested parties were nonetheless struck by something other than the technical merits - Morita later helmed the 2006-08 Katsuhiro Otomo-designed OVA series Freedom, which I can only presume is as somnolently competent.

*Bonus Theatrical Mini-Review Dept: Man, I'm ok with David Fincher most of the time (if not screenwriter Eric Roth, of Forrest Gump fame), but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was awful, just chock-full of hollow platitudes, inconsistent salt-of-the-earth 'values' (helpful guide: whenever Brad Pitt leaves everything to fuck around, it's living life to the fullest; when Cate Blanchett does it, she's flying in the face of True Love), nonstop emotional button-pushing (did anyone fucking die in this thing without either saying something profound, leaving a touching lesson or providing a heart-tugging funeral someone else is just in time to attend?) and hamfisted symbolism that's helpfully explained in-dialogue more often than not, in case you might theoretically get confused in a parallel reality somewhere.

Also: there's a scene where Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are going out on a boat, and they're just in time to see a space shuttle launch, because that was the kind of thing that happened in that time period, you know! Need I get into the head-slapping Hurricane Katrina-as-death's-inevatibility angle? No, I think the space shuttle about covers everything...



Off my blog vacation.

Madman Atomic Comics #12

Did this used to be rock 'n roll?

I'll give you this: if there's one thing that's gotta be said about this current incarnation of Michael Allred's oft-adored superhero creation -- and trust me, back around '94 or so you couldn't read a comics-related publication that didn't have the word "Journal" at the end of its title without getting throttled with praise for the stuff -- it's that each page is now absolutely radiant with the serenity of an artist who's utterly in touch with the private world to which he's devoted a restless but assured craft, every last panel all rolled and soaked in as individual an aesthetic fascination as you'll find anywhere outside the front of Previews, although the publisher here is no less than Image Comics. In other words, if it's not always a satisfying thing to readers, issue by issue, it does sweetly hum with the glow of seeming deeply satisfying to the artist, which is a real and certain virtue for any comic.

And there's been a dozen of 'em since 2007! That seems like an awful lot - over half as many as Dark Horse published in nearly seven years (1994-2000). I've been following along since the (newest) beginning, and while this particular issue is smack in the middle of the series' second storyline, I couldn't possibly resist covering a comic that's dedicated (in part) to Osamu Tezuka and composed in consultation with (among others) Al Columbia, although I quickly realized that a review of issue #12 would almost have to become an overview of the series thus far.

But then, maybe that'll be useful. As big and present thing as Madman at least used to be, those exploits of once-dead pro killer turned gentle, scarred superhero Frank Einstein and all his snazzy far-out scientist-alien-beatnik-robot friends, it seems oddly needy for discussion; for all that 10-year old acclaim, you just don't hear an awful lot about the series anymore, critically or otherwise, despite the stuff getting out there more frequently than ever, and with distribution that many would kill for. Perhaps it's simply been around for too long, with too many stops and starts. Maybe the artist just doesn't have so much buzz behind him at the moment, having come off a smattering of Marvel projects (including the recent Thor God-Sized Special #1, I think) and a handful of issues of The Golden Plates, a laborious attempt to adapt the Book of Mormon to comics form.

Still, I'm tempted to chalk a lot of it up to Madman Atomic Comics coming off as inexorably different from the sprightly, love & pop, so-uncool-it-goddamned-well-knows-its-cool Tundra (1993) & Dark Horse comics that so many readers fell head over heels for in the midst of the gritted teeth and prolific pouches that sold millions of units at the same time. The aesthetic politics have since moved on - and look who's publishing!

In contrast, this new series (issue #1 is online in full) started off as a slow, compelling-frustrating callback to Allred's earliest and most ponderous work, with Madman spending page after loaded page conversing with himself and obscure beings as per his existence and destiny, which admittedly had been where the Dark Horse series was headed anyway in terms of tone. It wasn't until the Image issue #3, a dizzying homage to seemingly each and every one of Allred's 12,537 visual influences, one by one, moment by moment, the whole business cast as a type of cleansing ritual for Madman himself, lost in his own mind, words and statements becoming absurdly stretched and painfully reiterated to accommodate more space, more reference, more more more, that the series begin its gradual build as a respected veteran cartoonist's vessel for visual spectacle and whatever else.

There's other ongoing fantasy comics given to a similarly art-centered poise, of course - Hellboy would be a popular one that came of age around the same time, its layers of myth and lore and backstory stretching its action comic coat. But Allred's work has always seemed more coiled than coated, with even the loopiest superhero content wrapped tight around his personal obsessions: spiritual struggle; rock 'n roll; 20th century pop ephemera; the threat of emotional isolation; pure romantic love. It surely isn't for nothing that so many of his male protagonists are modeled after himself, and that all of them are disfigured or mutated, or somehow made weird - I'm sure Mike Mignola loves all the stuff that goes into his comic, but Allred is willing to throw himself right into the mix at any (even every!) moment, even at risk of upsetting an audience-pleasing status quo for his profound presence.

So I guess it's more immediately fitting that this latest, Atomic version of the series should proceed with a herky-jerky pace guided by seemingly nothing firmer than whatever fresh visual techniques Allred plans to pull off next with letterer Nate Piekos and beyond-vital colorist Laura Allred, though sometimes you come to long for narrative restraint. It doesn't seem to matter that following a no-talking issue (#7) with a winking movie-style wide panel recap issue (#8) and an issue devoted entirely to a left-to-right action scene set against a single continuous background image (#9) might play havoc with the wild dramatics the script has sent Madman, including multiple revelatory visions, an intergalactic journey, predestined war with a near-omnipotent monarch and multiple presumed supporting cast deaths - characters might frown or shed a tear or two, but it's soon off to the next set piece. It's a triumph of occasion over resonance.

This isn't to say the series quite clomps around with a numbing action comics boom - if anything, Allred takes an almost perverse glee in divining the contemplative potential from any new formal contortion. Yet the series often seems aimless, and Madman's nonstop angst can be tiring; there'll be little to hold readers who find Allred's thorough spiritual ruminations -- who are we? why are we here? what's in store for us? -- boring or inane, save for maybe the sheer force of his visuals.

And I can't say I'm entirely taken with those at the moment either - if you thought that long background image mentioned above happened to suggest an animation background painting, well, I think you've just figured out the Columbia influence and maybe the Tezuka dedication (although I can imagine the artist grooving on the visually agile philosophical musing of Phoenix), since Allred is apparently interested in transforming his panels into outrageously lush screen captures from the most lavish cartoon movie this planet has ever seen.

But as lovely as Allred's soot-shaded characters look against his soft backgrounds (and again, Laura Allred's increasingly delicate coloring approach is extremely important to the final effect), those images really do seem captured. I guess that's appropriate enough for the style Allred is shooting for, since an animation cel depicting a brute kicking Our Hero isn't supposed to look all that lively on its own (being purposed as a logical and pleasing portion of a sequence that will depict the action when put together), though for all the flying leaps and clashes going on there's almost no sense of movement, or any sensation of body-on-body connection, which compounds the story's sense of events leaving little impact.

Yet there remain pulses of real beauty; Allred is an excellent character designer, with even simple-looking creations like that blue guy on the cover feeling like they're embodying something conclusive about classic action man comic book art. He makes fine use of limited poses, as if distilling the most iconic gestures from a million prior superhero drawings, and his grasp of body language and facial expressions is formidable. If it's gonna sit there, it'll look pretty doing so.

There's also a certain playfulness to even his more stolid work, which can act to leaven his stories' psychological import; issue #11, for example, saw Madman racing through his parents' home to discover the source of long-winded black caption boxes that had been filling recent issues -- turns out Our Hero could hear them same as we could read them -- only to discover a phantom vision of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie living in the attic, calling itself Zacheous and seeking to turn him on to a distinctly Mormon vision of post-Earthly life. At which point Frank learns that his girlfriend Joe is finally being extracted from the body of superheroine Luna, wherein she'd been fused for the last few issues, possibly as a wink toward the women having near-identical character designs - you'd think that'd be the focus of the issue, but it's merely tossed out as a means of sending Frank Einstein (aka: Prometheus, dig it?) crashing out of his latest visitation, the real stuff of Allred's dreams.

This new issue keeps things rolling, more or less. There's a new visual trick, with Madman's race home taking up the top half of various double-page panel sequences while the bottom half (a big MEANWHILE is laid in between, in case you forget) depicts Joe and Luna hanging around back at the lab. The issue's title screams Madgirl!, though this sensational character find turns out to be Joe trying to surprise Frank by wearing a modified version of one of his costumes (with painted-on freckles!), a typically off-handed 'revelation' for the series. Then blue guy shows up, having been hinted at since issue #2, and whomps the hell out of everyone in a manner that involves sending them to a sort of Hell via an alien furnace.

As usual, it's not so much strange and fun as strangely fun, with a great deal of visual dazzle expended to an aloof effect. There's not that much tortured thinkItalicing involved this time, but you can sense it coming up soon enough, as it's as much the stuff of Allred's art as his drawings and Laura's colors, melding the whole into something even more vivid and distancing, like a wall of personal stuff that by its candor forces the witness to behold, though it's something to behold all right.

And, truth be told, beyond all that glossy contemplation, Allred is still coupling his unstoppable aesthetic-ecstatic desires to some possibly-fascinating perspectives on superhero tropes, albeit nothing so visibly ginchy as the pop that made his name. Something about the artist's barrage of upended belief systems and fresh 'truths' about existence seems to evoke the endless upheaval of contemporary superhero universes, while the comic's nearly blasé attitude toward actual death and rebirth via high science suggests the impermanent nature of caped disasters. Allred charges it all up so as to essentially overload the genre decadence, leaving some rather simple metaphors for adult pursuits - nonstop revelations become the human search for spiritual belonging, while the capability for scientific miracles is cast as Madman's longing to relate to an adoptive scientist father on a beneficial level.

Maybe this will all play out in the future, maybe not. Until then, Allred's beautiful misfits continue to sway slowly in a glamorous haze, to a beat that only one man could ever provide. Which is pretty rock 'n roll anyway.


Today the wind stripped the skin from my hands but I'm still typing, love, I'm still here.

*It might actually be less quiet around here when I'm on vacation.


Larry Marder's Beanworld Holiday Special (newly sprouted, for real)


Hellblazer #250

At The Savage Critics!

*Forthcoming Anime Dept: Oh my god, Mamoru Oshii's The Sky Crawlers might be so awesome. It opened in Japanese theaters this past August, and a US home video license is supposedly imminent! But now I'm not sure the actual movie can possibly compare to the caustic brew of time loops, basset hounds, war without end, formal-generic confrontation, purposefully vacant non-characters, chats, knuckle-cracking no-smiles satire, perversely subdued visual ultra-realism and miscellaneous cattiness I've got stuck in my head. God, for a scrap of that reality!

*Comics will be shipped for Wednesday, since Christmas Eve isn't really a holiday, but I guess it's up to your store how long (or if) they'll be open. I plan to beat the crowd by waiting 'till evening and knocking on my retailer's grandma's door during the family supper; I know he's got the stuff hidden in back.


Kramers Ergot 7: The infamous monolith from editor Sammy Harkham, editorial assistant Alvin Buenaventura and publisher Buenaventura Press, and the latest of the influential art-focused comics anthology series. Yes, the salon rumors are all true - it's 96 pages, 16" x 21" in dimension, and $125.00 on the cover, although if you really didn't want to pay that much there were (and are) considerable discounts around. The theme: lots of cartoonists draw stories with a small page count on sheets the size of ye olde newspaper funnies. I've barely gotten the shrink wrap off this bad boy yet, but I'm pretty amused that the book is large enough an item that it managed to fit all 60 contributing artists' familial names on the spine, in case anyone really had to make sure they didn't mishear Matt Groening's involvement. Also: at least one contributor includes a life-sized baby nestled in the center of his double-page spread, while another urges the menfolk to lay it down on the page and see how they measure up to the legends of classic comics. Top range is "Marmaduke Country." Some comics you want to put on your lap; with Kramers 7, you sit on it. Full list of folk and fun facts here.

Masters of American Comics: This is being offered again by Diamond; it's the 2005 Yale University Press accompaniment to the popular gallery exhibition that debuted around the same time, showcasing the works of 15 noteworthy cartoonists from Winsor McCay to Jack Kirby to Gary Panter to Chris Ware. Frankly, the most vivid thing I remember about it was Dan Nadel's very critical piece on the whole affair from Comics Comics #3, in which this very tome is excoriated for its reliance on featherweight artist-specific essays by fellow artists and 'name' scribes like Dave Eggers and Glenn David Gold in lieu of probing analysis by more attuned writers, among other faults ("love those word-balloon chapter headings. Who thought of that? Ingenious! I guess we should be lucky the exhibit wasn't called Splat Boom Pow, though the net effect of its content is no different"). There's also a big overview piece by editor John Carlin, and lots of reproduced art. Hardcover, 328 pages, $45.00.

No Enemy, But Peace: Being a one-off, b&w, 24-page pamphlet from Machinegun Bob Productions, concerning the true story of Navy Cross-winning Sgt. Marco Martinez, caught in an ambush in At-Tarmiyah in 2003. Written and drawn by Marine Corps. veteran Richard C. Meyer, who has a larger Iraq War work, The Bridge, planned for later in 2009. Preview here.

Lillian the Legend: I don't know a damned thing about this 80-page Conundrum Press release from writer/artist Kerry Byrne, save that it's about a Russian immigrant trying to walk and float her way back home from North America in the 1920s, and the cover looks kinda neat. It's $15.00.

Mister X: Condemned #1 (of 4): In which creator Dean Motter's sleepless architect returns to comics, still pondering the grave psychic effects his plans had on the good citizens of his finished city opus. This time there's serial murder, a heap of dead designers, urban renewal and more, written and drawn by Motter himself. From Dark Horse, $3.50. Preview here.

Captain America Theater of War: America First!: Nope, I didn't know Howard Chaykin was writing and drawing a Captain America one-off either. But here it is, a no-doubt wry piece set in the Commie-smashin' '50s of red-blooded patriots. Note the $4.99 price tag, and the presence of an authentic period reprint to fatten the package. In other Chaykin news, Image has the $19.99 American Flagg! Vol. 1 softcover ready for your Christmas tree, although be warned that it's smaller (198 pages) than the hardcover, thus collecting only issues #1-7 and cutting off in the middle of a storyline. I think it's missing the new prelude short too.

Unknown Soldier #3: Still liking this.

Patsy Walker: Hellcat #4 (of 5): Haven't read this, but I know a lot of people who love it, and David LaFuente Garcia's & (colorist) John Rauch's art does look pretty. It's one of those light-hearted superhero frolic books, in which amusing adventures and good times are had with Eskimo witches and polar animals (in contrast to superhero comics wherein tears dribble onto headstones). Check out Tom Spurgeon's interview with writer Kathryn Immomen for more stuff.

Punisher: War Zone #3 (of 6): Ennis & Dillon.

Savage Dragon #143: Larsen (boy, he's getting these out).

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #2 (of 6): .

Top 10: Season Two #3 (of 4): Ha.

Batman #683: So, for the record, after this final Grant Morrison-written issue (which will actually more-or-less conclude in Final Crisis #6, although I'm sure some kind of denouement will present itself here), we're in for the second half of a Detective Comics crossover from writer Dennis O'Neil (#684), then the second half of a second Detective crossover from writer Paul Dini (#685), then the first half of a third Detective crossover from Neil Gaiman & Andy Kubert (#686), after which I think the ongoing series takes a rest while Batman: Battle for the Cowl becomes its own miniseries from writer/artist Tony Daniel, although Daniel is also slated to return to the main series in some capacity directly after, and then, sometime in the unknown future, Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely might do a Batman story, somewhere, in some monthly format, maybe. It was charming that the rumor saw fit to assure us that Quitely was already hard at work. Oh well, live in the present, right?



I hope a Neil the Horse Valentine's Day Jamboree isn't far behind.

Larry Marder's Beanworld Holiday Special

See? Everything old can be new. Look at those happy beans - their holiday gift is visibility.

But it's not just the grub that's old-new. You can't tell from a jpeg, but this little Dark Horse publication embodies a pretty comprehensive set of current publication values vis-à-vis a color, pamphlet-format comic with (shall we say) modest sales expectations. The frills are minimal, and no space is wasted - the cover and interior stock are uniform, the front and back covers feature art (less on the back than the front), the inside-front cover offers helpful material for new readers above the credits and legal indicia, the inside-back cover presents an advertisement for related materials by the artist, and the 20 pages of guts in between are 100% story. It's still $3.50, which probably tells you something else about ye olde pamphlet format.

And yet, it's all rather true to the origins of this Larry Marder creation, which bubbled around in various forms until the artist xeroxed a stack of small booklets in 1983 and started giving them away to possibly-interested parties, some of their addresses culled from the letters pages of Cerebus and other titles of the day. Tales of the Beanworld would eventually be picked up by Eclipse Comics, becoming a seminal 'indy' title for many readers of the late '80s and early '90s, until publication suspended in 1993; Marder went on to nearly a decade and a half of comics-related administrative positions, including tenures as executive director of Image Comics and president of McFarlane Toys.

I haven't read much of Marder's comics work. Beanworld may have been one of those titles that every English-language alternative funnybook column/recommendations box on planet Earth mentioned at least once, but I don't think I ever saw a copy in person while perusing the not-very-adventurous racks of my local store and/or mall kiosk back in the day. It didn't help that the collected editions I'd later encounter never quite reached the end of the original run. But now Dark Horse is planning to reprint the whole thing in two omnibus hardcovers (vol. 1 is due in February), with the added whet-your-appetite bonus of a new online short and this very pamphlet.

Ah, but sign of the times - the next big Beanworld work, Remember Here When You Are There!, will be a bookshelf-ready original. I wonder how curious perusers will respond?

My own first impression of this comic, an old-timey pamphlet thing, is that Marder's work looks frankly modern, and not because it's suddenly in color; the artist's simple, iconographic character art, prone to repeated motions against limited environments, suggests a custom clip art webcomic (I get the feeling some digital cut 'n paste might actually be employed), while his fascination with a detailed fantasy creature environment suggests Mat Brinkman's Teratoid Heights as converted into a dialogue-heavy mainline newspaper strip, albeit an improbably large one.

That isn't to say Beanworld is fated to discover mass appeal in 2009, but that its particulars and idiosyncrasies -- mostly unchanged from 14 years' absence, by my glancing online study -- have aged pretty well, perhaps simply for being so especially particular and idiosyncratic. I sure can't think of any other comics present for the b&w boom that might seem as comfortable displayed on MySpace.

Granted, online resources have also suggested that the true power of Beanworld comes through accumulation, with bits and pieces of the comic's ecosystem becoming better defined with each subsequent issue, so maybe new readers like me are bound to miss something. This specific chapter certainly does spend a lot of space running through crucial activities of Marder's territory, which I suspect will prove familiar (and more resonant) to Beanworld diehards; I personally found certain aspects to be far more interesting than the whole, although I get the impression that the Beanworld 'whole' -- the "Big·Big·Picture" (yes, there's a formal term) -- probably isn't as important to the artist as his studies of stylized behavior.

The Beanworld, you see, is a small island sitting in a shallow lake, under which are four layers of Realities - the stuff of which things are made, lines and hoops and stars and wedges. Beans live on the island, playing and dancing by Gran'Ma'Pa, which is a sort of tree deity that provides them with the means to obtain nourishing Chow from the Hoi-Polloi, floating head-and-arm thingies that live in a sub-world beyond the Four Realities. There's a bunch of generic Beans in the population, but also a brainy Bean (Professor Garbanzo), an artistic Bean (Beanish), lil' baby beans (Cuties) and an authoritarian type (Mr. Spook) who leads Bean "sol'jers" down to acquire the Chow, which everyone enjoys by dumping it into the Chowdown Pool and literally soaking it up. So goes life in the Beanworld.

Marder's visual style is very amenable to getting all of this across cleanly - many of his characters are variations on simple core attributes (not unlike the stuff of the Realities), allowing them to be better cast as elements of a working ecosystem, while his landscapes provide scarce enough detail that every last object or item is charged with some assumption of purpose. This simplicity of elements occasionally results in something visually striking, like when nightime drops the whole book into black & white in lieu of anything getting dimmer beyond the empty sky.

But it's not an approach that's big on flair, or even very adept at conveying movement, which is an odd problem for a comic this focused on observation of activities to have - moving objects are often trailed by dotted lines, and the air around character forms becomes thick with frantic arcs and juts as proof of velocity, which gives Marder's visual study an almost academic cadance, like he's simultaneously trying to draw and mathematically formulate in cartoon shorthand a glob of stuff being thrown or someone lifting their arms.

Marder seems to compensate for his visual stiffness with exclamatory, sing-songey dialogue that sometimes boils into accounts of how folks stumbledunkled into a somethingness they can't quite riff into twined idealios - and you bet your ass the Cuties speak wike widdle kids! Combine that with the tweeness latent to some of Marder's environmental concepts (a sandy beach at one end of the island is actually named The Proverbial Sandy Beach), and you've got one comic book script that fully embraces the hazards of unabashed whimsy, in the face of symbol-like art and a sociological bent to boot.

Still, something tells me a devout reader would insist it's all part of the series' charm, and I might be inclined to eventually agree. There is an odd sparkle to Marder's digressive plotting, which eventually settles around a community effort to get the wee Cuties to start talking amongst themselves, for the good of their social development and the Bean society's future, since every element has its vital place in the living cycle. The answer may lie in the creation of toys (and hence the comic's tenuous holiday connection) from recycled Reality, which is something artist Beanish specializes in - the purpose of 'art' in the Beanworld appears to be that of evoking recognition (and thus education or enlightenment) through iconic representation, which is fitting, given the very iconic state of the Beans themselves.

That doesn't make Beanish's job any less strange or wonderful, though. Easily the most fascinating bits of business in this comic are part of Beanish's creative process, which involves his standing in a powerful circle and launching himself straight into the sun, whereupon he's transported to the summit of a phallic hill poking out of water. He then encounters a floating green female sunshine god/muse that causes green hearts to erupt from his body as he wriggles his arms and legs and floats in a state of BLISS (IN ALL CAPS), the ecstatic moment frozen in a large panel as his flailing limbs suddenly hang in the air, and then the hearts slowly break as his feet touch ground, and the experience concludes.

"'Now' has turned into "then,'" he thinks, before sparkling out of the zone and dropping from the sun back into the Beanworld.

It's far from the first take on the creative impulse as an erotic experience, but it fits in remarkably well with Marder's approach, neatly encoding the specifics in an all-ages form, yet missing none of the reverie or the frustration of its limitations. Or the small selfishness it engenders in Beanish, who totally does not want to share the feeling with anyone else. Such tiny bites of social complexity -- the Beans may need to take their Chow to preserve life all around, but Marder makes sure you know the Hoi-Polloi get hurt when Mr. Spook skewers 'em -- give this issue some added kick as it moves through the Beans' peculiar romps.

I can imagine a lot of ways the artist might build on this; recent interviews have suggested that Marder has the seasonal cycle in mind as a structure for his Beanworld megastory, which suggests a building aspect of poignancy, while playing into the series' studious nature (and nature study). It's definitely gone through the seasons of comics publishing, with frost now forming on the hanging leaves of the pamphlet format - a few might find it poignant enough that this is maybe the last floppy Beanworld comic for the foreseeable future, and just as it came back! Something tells me this stuff could look ok in any format, though - for all its faults, it never seems so much like a revival as a continuation, which is a rare thing.

And while I wouldn't call myself a convert to the study just yet, I can believe that lone ad on the inside-back cover when it tells me that just thinking about this stuff might be habit-forming.


Woo I'm Tired

*Who'd have guessed not sleeping would wear you out? I didn't even do anything.


Final Crisis #5 (of 7)

Shirtlifter #3 (I got an email today expressing hope that I'd follow every review of a high-profile superhero comic with porn coverage; you may yet see your dreams come true, internet friend, but this comic has a little more going on besides getting in on)

*Is there a holiday coming? Not yet?


The Quest for the Missing Girl: Oh man, Christmas just came a little early - it's a Fanfare/Ponent Mon sighting! But I'd caution you not to take the rarity of this particular manga release as some seal of unassailable quality, or even an indication of anything particularly innovative; it's really more of the 'airport read' type of book that I suspect a good deal of seinen manga looks like, though it's a rare enough thing around here that it carries a certain air of especial sophistication. Still, it's hard to go wrong with Jirô Taniguchi -- I just re-read Benkei in New York the other day and god, that all-fighting chapter with the wide panels still kills -- and here he's applying noir tropes to the urban youth troubles that puzzled Japan back in the late '90s (the Japanese edition hit back in 2000), as a mighty mountain man enters the concrete labyrinth for reasons carefully encoded in the work's title. Can he rise above? It's 336 pages for $25.00. Preview here; my review here.

Naoki Urasawa's Monster Vol. 18 (of 18): In which this nasty business reaches its fond farewell to moral strife and all of you. No need to cry, though - VIZ and Urasawa will be back in early 2009 with 20th Century Boys and Pluto, the latter featuring adaptation work by no less than Osamu Tezuka expert and manga-in-English godfather Frederik L. Schodt. I picked that tidbit up from the new Electric Ant zine from creator/publisher Ryan Sands and designer/illustrator Evan Hayden, of the Same Hat! blog, available for purchase at the bold link.

Vagabond VIZBIG Edition Vol. 2: That's vols. 4-6 of Takehiko Inoue's ongoing tale of the swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, making it a 632-page chunk of manga for only $19.99. Just seven more of these and you'll be almost caught up to the singles!

Hellblazer #250: No, I can't believe it either. But Vertigo's making sure the occasion doesn't pass without remark, since this special 48-page, $3.99, five-feature holiday anthology special is chock-full of excellent folk. To wit: (1) Jamie Delano & David Lloyd (they were there near the very start; also the team that brought you The Horrorist); (2) Peter Milligan & Eddie Campbell (Milligan is the series' new continuing writer, starting next issue; Campbell's providing the visuals, but he's also written the series in the past, #85-88); (3) Dave Gibbons & Sean Phillips (Gibbons is also new to the title, and, if you stop and think about it, probably one of the most recognizable comics 'names' in the world at this particular point in time; Phillips drew a good number of issues years ago, including the aforementioned Campbell run); (4) Brian Azzarello & Rafael Grampá (teaming a veteran Constantine scripe with the ever-striking artist of Mesmo Delivery, in his first North American pamphlet); and (5) China Miéville, Giuseppe Camuncoli & Stefano Landini (a pair of recent series artists join a popular prose specialist for what I think is his comics debut, save for a strip in one of his books, as pointed out by Chris Randle). C'mon, that's worth four bucks. One page from everyone here.

The Complete Ro-Busters: But if you want vintage Dave Gibbons -- not to mention a touch of early Alan Moore -- you'll need to hunt down this 336-page, $30.99 Rebellion collection of the famed Pat Mills-directed Thunderbirds parody-cum-social satire from 1978-79 (with periodic revivals through the early '80s), torn from the pages of Starlord and 2000 AD. Also featuring art by Kevin O'Neill, Bryan Talbot, Steve Dillon and others. Much info here.

The Boys: Definitive Edition Vol. 1: So let's say you have $75.00 burning a hole in your pocket, and instead of food or fuel or philanthropy or English robot comics from the late '70s, you want to spend it on superheroes all messed up real good. No problem, here's a Dynamite oversized (11" x 7.2") hardcover collection of issues #1-14 (or, the first two trades) from Garth Ennis' & Darick Robertson's ongoing superpowered-people-keep-superheroes-in-line project. Contains revisions, production art and the complete script to issue #1. My review of this content and more is here.

Little Nemo in Slumberland Hardcover Set: Or hell, why not the complete Winsor McCay classic in a pair of 300(ish)-page, 9" x 12.5" hardcovers? We can buy such things (for $99.99) these days, because our world is a lucky world. I'm 99% sure these are the 2007-08 Checker editions bundled together, which means they'll also throw in the complete Tales of The Jungle Imp and the 1926 Nemo revival at no added cost. Act now!!

Spaghetti Brothers Vol. 2 (of 4): There was a solicitation gaffe a while back that made it seem like this IDW English-language edition of Carlos Trillo's & Domingo Mandrafina's Italian-American crime opus was going to be abridged or something. However, vol. 3 is set for March 2009, so I presume we're going to see it all (although I've never seen a copy of vol. 1 in person myself). It's a 204-page b&w hardcover, priced at $24.99. Found in Diamond's holly jolly Merchandise section, along with the official Hugh Hefner 1953 Edition Bobblehead. Yeah, '53 had a good line of Hefs... nothing like the shrunken ones we've got today.

Aldebaran Vol. 2: The Group: Also in European comics this week, here's Cinebook's second collection of Les Mondes d'Aldébaran, a humanistic saga of space colonization from the Brazilian-born writer/artist 'Léo' (Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira). It's been an ongoing project since 1994, although it's currently in its third planetary section (Antarès), which some consider to be a third distinct series. Not Cinebook - this volume collects vols. 3-4 of the French release, and the upcoming vol. 3 will pair up the fifth and final tome of the initial Aldébaran section with the first portion of the saga's second section, Bételgeuse. Here's some pictures.

Beanworld Holiday Special: Being writer/artist Larry Marder's first new work on his signature creation in over a decade. I've never read much Tales of the Beanworld, but I know it was a very nearly era-defining 'indy' comic for many readers in the late '80s and early '90s, so I'm guessing a lot of people are gonna be stoked. It's a 24-page color comic from Dark Horse, priced at $3.50. Preview here.

The Programme Vol. 2 (of 2): The concluding Wildstorm softcover collection ($17.99) for Peter Milligan's & C.P. Smith's ambitious, not-terribly-successful-but-still-sometimes-interesting interrogation of national identity and political ideology in the extreme form of superhero Cold Warriors. It's like they're activated to whisk us all away from the nasty ambiguity of wars on terror and such, except nothing's so simple. My review of the endgame is here.

Conan the Cimmerian #6: Corben and others.

Punisher War Zone #2 (of 6): Ennis & Dillon.

The Punisher MAX #65: Last issue of the Gregg Hurwitz, Laurence Campbell & Lee Loughridge run. Featuring Jigsaw, for the purposes of massive movie monies.

Thor God-Sized Special #1: Another godly, high-impact Thor piece from writer Matt Fraction, this time concerning Thor and Loki's mighty team-up to figure out what happened with the god Skurge, most badass. Art by Doug Braithwaite, Dan Brereton & Marko Djurdjevic.

Madman Atomic Comics #12: Allred.

Armageddon Now Vol. 1 (of 6): World War III: Liefeld. As in the 112-page kickoff for Rob Liefeld's new Image series -- all bookshelf-ready hardcover tomes, sign of the times -- in which America is brought to its knees by terrorist attacks, prompting a military investigator to ship off to Jerusalem and encounter the cataclysmic truth behind biblical prophecy. That's right, it's the End of Days - Liefeld style. Co-written by megachurch pastor Phil Hotsenpiller, with colorist Mike Capprotti working straight from the creator's pencils. The cover alone features 14 pouches, two hidden feet, one huge gun and a nuclear explosion. Call it fanservice. Only $24.99; you can't take it with you.



More From the Qualms of Men

Shirtlifter #3

This is a an 88-page perfect bound comic from creator Steve MacIssac, published by his Drawn, Out Press. It's the $10.95 latest in a one-man anthology series started in 2007, although there's now more than one man involved, in that bonus strips are included, so I guess it's more one man in charge of a small anthology. I noticed it got the fearsome 'A' designation on Diamond's shipping list the week it hit stores, so you mght have to look for it on your favorite shelf of smut (or, you know, order it online from the artist).

And there is indeed a good deal of explicit sex in this comic, all of it between men, and presented in such a way that I get the feeling that the work is at least partially intended as erotica. I'll cop to not responding to that aspect of the work much, but MacIssac isn't interested in sex for sex's sake anyway even if some of his characters are. The artist is more taken with the oscillation of sex between an activity of sheer pleasure and an aspect of identity: something that carries as much force when contemplated as when it's experienced, although the two powers don't always play together nicely.

As such, this issue features chapters 1-3 of MacIssac's Unpacking, a serial (originally a webcomic) that will continue through issue #5. The plot concerns Matt, a Vancouver graphic designer who's been sleeping among moving boxes even since a longterm relationship went to pieces. He attends a housewarming party and accepts the concerns of friends, but most of the passion in his life is facilitated by Studhunter.com - lots of hotel rooms, lots of business cards to toss in a drawer in his unfinished apartment. The metaphor, as you can tell, is already quite unpacked.

But then Matt hooks up with 'Aussie Muscle,' a middle-aged fellow in town for a while on business, and an almost preternaturally talented lover, considering that he's married to a woman and resists all homosexual labeling, and claims to have never had sex with a man before the age of 40. Matt sticks around -- the guy is the best fuck he's had in a good while -- but it soon becomes apparent that his nominally straight lover views the gay encounters he (gleefully) takes part in through a distinctly heterosexist gaze, unwilling to accept that gay relationships can amount to anything that cannot be summarized and effectively contained by Studhunter.com.

The trick is, the man's cluelessness leads him unwittingly into wanting 'relationship' things -- going to hockey games, having a cookout, etc. -- which causes Matt to bristle, in that he's also trying to avoid having a relationship, in his own way, though his desires seem to reinforce a lot of suddenly vocalized stereotypes.

MacIsaac reserves a lot of space for conversation in this book; long chains of word balloons often run parallel down or across the page, tit for tat in a somewhat stylized, 'writerly' manner. The storytelling is at its best when kept close to the stuff of sex - the slow awkwardness of post-coital chit-chat rubbing on exposed nerves, or the mixed signals given off when one partner is getting a lot more out of it than the other. The work even delves into a little graphic flair via the latter scenario, as one partner's dirty talk becomes covered by transparent images of other people, as the second partner tries to work through suitable fantasies on the way to a feasible climax.

Mostly, though, MacIssac's visuals are just adequate. His style is subdied, with layouts of squares and rectangles, and scenes heavy on shadows for environmental or emotional effect. Nearly every male character sports a similarly muscular he-man build, unless the plot mandates some emphasis on his youth. I suspect this is either personal preference or an aspect of the comic as erotica, but it causes trouble when MacIssac's grip on the character art wavers; slightly shifting hairstyles might leave the same guy looking like two people.

That's a problem, given that observation seems to be the visual posture, an appropriate enough choice for a pretty studied look at sexual identity. Cool greens cover the whole book, combining with digital effects for a clinical tone. Yet even the sexual act seems a little distanced by MacIssac's art, distinguished from the rest of the story mainly by lots of close-ups and less dialogue. Sure, it gets the point across -- sex complicates a lot of things, though it's so wonderfully simple when it's happening -- but I'd enjoy seeing the act made even more vivid, in defiance of the angst it's merrily causing as the hot core of the story.

Still, the artist's directness has a way of disarming you with its game confrontation of slippery subject matter, and you do her involved you in how his inquiry might develop as it goes on, even if it isn't always effective right now. Certainly MacIssac is willing to present a broad perspective of things; this issue's supplementary strips seem positioned to lightly clash thematically, with Fuzzbelly presenting an easygoing ode to vanilla sexual encounters, while Justin Hall offers an excerpt from a longer work involving a mysterious hitchhiker unlocking a straight married guy's desires, complete with a near-threesome at a rest stop.

Shirtlifter's creator isn't so much in between those two approaches to sex as adamant that they both exist in life, and that life must continue once its most exciting parts are through, definition added and priorities duly arranged from the occasion.


Extravagant Dissolve

Final Crisis #5 (of 7)

My god, Final Crisis is falling apart right before our eyes!

What? No, I mean the cover. The logo breaking apart and drifting away - I like that. Sure, I like it a lot better on the painted cover, where the Crisis seems especially fragile against Wonder Woman's heroic pose (and that's pretty much all her heroic action for this issue), even though issue #4 seemed more like Darkseid shaking the comic itself with his fists. I suspect it's really supposed to convey a general sense of 'things falling apart,' which it does quite succinctly, even as the rest of this issue does it over and over again, neatly facilitated by no less than four credited artists - curiously, despite his full-blown 'artist' credit, Marco Rudy is omitted from the cover credits. Oh my god, maybe the creators themselves are going to pieces!!

You'd be forgiven for having thoughts like that about a lot of DC these days. Just to stay on the Grant Morrison beat, I'm sure by this late in the day you've read that the R.I.P. storyline in Batman has not only failed to 'end' in R.I.P. itself, but now appears liable to venture outside the Batman series itself to conclude in... Final Crisis #6! Which obviously doesn't have enough to do already! We're assured that this was the plan the whole time -- and, truth be told, it's supported by Morrison's oft-asserted concept of his own shared-universe superhero comics as a semi-private continuity of their own -- though it also does come off a bit like the time Rob Liefeld wrapped up that one Youngblood storyline in a nearby issue of Brigade, since he'd otherwise run out of options.

But you know, I kind of like guts behind this. It's like Morrison's backed himself deeper and deeper into a corner, and now suddenly -- in the friendly form of Dan Didio -- he's brushing off his jacket sleeves and facing his pursuers to declare that he, in fact, has trapped them. Woah, looks like Caped Crusader won't ever die! And sure, that doesn't make me like those recent Batman issues any more, but it's got a way of keeping the spark of hope alive, you know?

It helps that I enjoyed this issue of Final Crisis, maybe as much as I've enjoyed any issue of Final Crisis. I ought to mention that.

Certainly it's not perfect. The visuals are problematic, although not in the most obvious-seeming way; considering we've got a four-man job going on the drawings, there's actually a surprising cohesion to the basic look, maybe as a result of colorist Alex Sinclair layering on the painterly effects. But that kind of feeds into the real trouble - these pages are so dense with panels and words and info-stuffs, there's virtually no energy to the straight-on action parts. Everyone stands and poses like freshly-polished figurines, while the various narrative elements slow the eye to a crawl.

This issue's opening 'stop the trial!' rescue of Hal Jordan sequence has to be the most stately near-catastrophe of fisticuffs and cosmic gamesmanship I've ever seen in a comic, enough so that I wonder if everyone onboard is counting on such hyper-compression to force the Event into a contemplative mode. But then, why the action comics declarations like "You have 24 hours to save te universe, Hal Jordan"? It's mostly Morrison's tight coil of information that's doing it, I expect, and it's probably to the expanding art fleet's credit that coherency is preserved, if not energy.

And yet: a certain energy still erupts.

I know exactly when it happens too - over halfway through the issue, with Evil Mary Marvel literally thrusting her leather-clad crotch into Freddy Freeman's face, then Talky Tawny descending from the sky in a steam-powered jetpack, dressed in slacks and a checkered jacket while declaring things like "This is the quantum blunderbuss we confiscated from Professor Sivana's son," while an evil tiger-person in a Thundercats-style leotard waves a metal club and rides in on a giant mutant dog. This follows a ground war in the middle of a ruined city with human and animal superheroes and their capes and hoods and horns and tails and quivers of arrows riding motorcycles and jeeps while the sky fills with Supergirl and a Green Lantern and robots and things.

It's so goddamned po-faced, packed with miscellany and proudly clashing tones. At that moment, Talky Tawny's descent -- not keyed as a commentary on superhero decadence or the past saving the present or anything, but just existing as something that is -- the comic seemed to adopt a peculiar dream logic, or maybe a free-associative arrangement of otherwise discordant DCU elements, past and present, that tapped something surreal behind the histories and continuities involved. I think that's as good a way to go with an Event like this as any - hit hard on how the DCU shouldn't work, but must, and couple a dispassionately 'realistic' visual approach with catastrophic subject matter. Mix and serve.

From there on out, Morrison's rapidly intensifying crunch of information and characters starts making the book exciting in its rush forward. Ex-Monitor Nix Uotan is tossed in a room for being immune to Anti-Life, but his drawings of superhero characters remind us that even the worst revisions can be undone, and hope is possible! Two pages later a man solves a puzzle cube and villains' skin vaporizes!

Wait - now Libra is killing people and commenting on sexual violence toward superheroines. Lex Luthor is pissed! Ok, now we're in an evil throne room and dudes are spoiling the next issue of Batman and keeling over stone dead! That's what you get! Shit! Now Darkseid is God! Oh fuck! Frankenstein's quoting Milton! Wait! Now time is falling apart! The President of the United States has a gun! A hole in the sky at the hanging! Eyes in the night! Everyone on Earth is pumping their fists! Comics are suddenly flying at us and it's like an evil version of JLA: World War III transforming into Flex Mentallo and a man has a liquid television cloud for a helmet and LIGHTNING FASTENING HIS JACKET!!

Whew! That's the stuff right there! I mean, I'm probably setting myself up for a fall here, but now I hope this series continues to spasm inward and issue #6 is like some berserk DCU version of Poison River with scene transitions every panel, like random background characters from Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #136 bursting in screaming "THE METABONDS HAVE UNTETHERED" followed by Guy Gardner in a time vortex going "hhn" then a close-up of Batman's groin halfway across the globe followed by supervillain heads burning; it'll be so compressed there won't even be room for dialogue, just selected alphabetic characters, whisking us back to the primal force of phoneme like a word balloon Lettrism, at which point Kamandi initiates the chiselling phase of Darkseid's face.

Or it could just shudder and fall over. But if we're gonna have an overstuffed dark before the dawn, I appreciate it finally hitting a ridiculous superhero-level velocity with its clattering all-in-one-world mass, and I tip my hat toward Morrison's in-story distortion of space-time -- the logo losing its tangibility -- facilitating what has to be a necessary blast status of plot by now. Maybe there's even room for Batman to die (again)! It might not be clear, and it sure won't be smooth, but at least something will shake besides 2009's release schedule. And if it's desperation, it's a charming kind.


Unusual Output

*Fuck, I wrote some words! That's a change.


Powr Mastrs Vol. 2 (of 6)

Batman #682


Marvel's holiday funnies (Moon Knight: Silent Knight #1; The Punisher MAX X-Mas Special #1)

Criminal Vol. 2 #7 (see ya in five months, gang)

All at The Savage Critics!

*Yes, Marvel's site says Incognito #1 is due this week. No, it's not on Diamond's list. Don't bank on it showing up, though you never know.


Nocturnal Conspiracies: Nineteen Dreams From December 1979 to September 1994: Hell yeah - new David B.! This time it's a 128-page, $14.95 softcover from NBM, an English-language edition of a 2005 Futuropolis edition collecting the former Pierre-François Beauchard's dream comics. Now, in all candor, this is probably the weakest of David B.'s material to see a North American release; I tend to consider the great strength of his work to be the iconographic power his visuals build to compliment his autobiographical musings or adventure plots, but here he focuses more on the conveying the "chaotic and poetic structure" of dreams through straightforward panel-to-panel procession, which sometimes leaves his in-panel visuals leaning heavily on semi-realist representation, and his caption narration reciting what we can plainly see for ourselves. Still, David B. is a master, and his black, white & blue color scheme gives many of his depictions an eerie might. Preview here.

Nicolas: The newest release in Drawn and Quarterly's Petit Livres series of small (5" x 8"), inexpensive ($11.95) art books - it's a 64-page package of episodes from Quebec artist Pascal Giraud's ongoing understanding of his younger brother's childhood death. The Beguiling looks interested. D&Q also has a $16.95 softcover edition of Rutu Modan's acclaimed Exit Wounds this week; here's my review of the first edition.

Sulk Vol. 2: Deadly Awesome: The latest in Jeffrey Brown's old-school one-man anthology from Top Shelf, this time spending 96 pages on an action-heavy story of mixed martial arts. Have a look. It's 6 1/2" x 4 3/4", and $10.00.

Black Jack Vol. 2 Limited Hardcover: Finally, the second of three Direct Market-only $24.95 hardcover editions of Osamu Tezuka's mad medical adventure. Note that it lines up with vol. 2 of Vertical's softcover series, save for a special bonus episode that hasn't even been seen in some of the Japanese reprint efforts. Have you seen this sample story, perchance?

Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan Limited Hardcover: And in other manga expansion news, here's a $60.00 deluxe edition of the Chip Kidd, Geoff Spear & Saul Ferris collection of Jiro Kuwata's 1966-67 domestic Batman jamboree, newly stocked with an exclusive story featuring "a band of rogue alien robot art thieves at large in Gotham City," which sounds about right. My review of the softcover is here.

Herbie Archives Vol. 2 (of 3): And here! A $49.95, 256-page hardcover for Dark Horse's fat 'n furious reprint project, featuring a deluxe edition-only... er, everything, since the deluxe edition's the only edition. We all love Herbie, though. Collecting issues #6-14, from 1964 and 1965. Richard E. "Shane O'Shea" Hughes writes and Ogden Whitney draws; many suckers are sucked, and days are comedically saved over and over by the most laconic science hero of the all. Just look at it.

Camelot 3000 Deluxe Edition: It'd be pretty funny if there was new story content in this one, since we could all just say it was especially late. Boy would we laugh, because that would be a truly funny joke. We might even die of mirth. But no, this is just a new Camelot 3000 hardcover with bonus production materials from writer Mike W. Barr and artist Brian Bolland. It's 320 pages for $34.99.

Daredevil: The Man Without Fear Premiere: Marvel's got some hardcover stuff too this week, with a $24.99 reprint of the 1993-94 Frank Miller/John Romita, Jr. revised origin project for the superhero character, which I think was based on a movie script Miller had written. How time flies - we'll all have the option of intimacy with Frank Miller's movie prowess in a few weeks, won't we?

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the Complete Newspaper Dailies: Vol. 1, 1929-1931: Golden Age of Reprints? Still happening. This week's event arrives courtesy of Hermes Press, which debuts its line of 9" x 12" hardcover reprints of the first sci-fi comic strip, based on the creations of Philip Francis Nowlan and initially drawn by Dick Calkins. With an introduction by Ron Goulart, and all the expected suppliments; 336 pages for $39.99.

Blade of the Immortal Vol. 20: Demon Lair: Woah, this thing's 280 pages - is Dark Horse trying to synch its releases up with the Japanese editions now? This is, of course, the newest installment of Hiroaki Samura's much-admired ongoing samurai fantasy-horror opus (currently at vol. 23 in Japan), in which a tragically immortal swordsman must kill to die. I think this one puts us at or near the end of the series' supposed penultimate 'big' storyline. Have a look.

Phonogram 2: The Singles Club #1 (of 7): I'll cop to having not read past issue #1 of Kieron Gillen's & Jamie McKelvie's original Image miniseries (despite my hopes at the end of my initial review), a sort of fantasy evocation of writer Gillen's experience with Britpop, cosplaying as a Hellblazer homage with music literally acting as magic. An awful lot of people enjoyed it a good deal. Here's the second series, a now-in-color arrangement of short stories taking place on the same night, at the same club. This issue's got three tales, including a McKelvie-illustrated piece about a girl who learns "just how deep shallow actually gets," plus back-ups from artists Marc Ellerby and Lauren McCubbin. Big preview here.

Elephantmen #14: Also returning from Image - Richard Starkings' saga of walking, talking animals in a sci-fi gritty city. I think Ian Churchill & Boo Cook are doing the art on this one. Here's the entirety of issue #13, in case you missed it.

B.P.R.D.: War on Frogs #2 (of 4): This isn't quite a proper miniseries, remember, but a numbered collection of one-off tales from writer John Arcudi and various guest artists, set during the team's battle against those goddamned frog things. Not a monthly deal either - I think these comics pop up basically whenever a handy space appears in the Hellboy family schedule. This time it's the always-welcome John Severin drawing the pictures, and a squad of human Bureau operatives taking on the monsters. Preview.

100 Bullets #98 (of 100): Running low on ammo, are we?

Captain Britain and MI: 13 #8: British.

Savage Dragon #142: Larsen.

Watchmen #1: They found another way to sell this? Sure: a special $1.50 hit of Rorschach's first investigative steps. Leave them in playgrounds or inside baby carriages. They're pretty big, so they can cover several Jack T. Chick tracts at once; I'm planning to write an oath to accept Dr. Manhattan as your personal savior in the back of all mine.

Ythaq: The Forsaken World #1 (of 3): Another of Marvel's attempts to translate a series from French publisher Soleil to both the English language and the $5.99 pamphlet format. This one's Les Naufragés d'Ythaq, by writer Christophe Arleston and artist Adrien Floch, in which a space cruiser runs aground on an odd world, and fantastical shit ensues. Looks anime-informed on the visual front. As usual, be aware that this 'miniseries' will actually only collect part of the French run, which is currently up to vol. 6.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz #1 (of 8): Oh this is odd - Marvel is releasing a new Oz comic, written by franchise veteran Eric Shanower (also of Age of Bronze), with art by Skottie Young. There used to be a preview here, but I guess it's on the can.

Final Crisis #5 (of 7): Has evil still won?

Punisher War Zone #1 (of 6): Boy, Marvel sure missed the boat not getting this out last week to satisfy the hordes of filmgoers pouring into comics shops, famished for more Punisher! But you know, speaking as one of the 35 or so people that actually saw the movie in theaters last weekend, I didn't think it was that bad. Sure, it's mostly an early '90s Chuck Dixon storyline made tongue-in-cheek flesh (albeit with a few of Garth Ennis' characters tossed in for laffs), with an utterly uninteresting plotline involving Jigsaw (who's presented as sort of a knock-off simplification of the Joker, complete with a 'moral choice' trap at the end... or is that more Saw than anything?) selling biochemical weapons to terrorists via the Russian mob, and the Punisher is really sad that he killed an undercover FBI guy by mistake but then he saves the man's wife and daughter so it's ok! I liked a lot of the aesthetic to the action scenes - really direct and bloody, a lot of blunt force and ragged style (save for an awful The Matrix/bullet ballet bit at the top). The big problem was the lack of inspiration, both in the plot -- which I'm convinced could have been sort of spicy and mildly cunning-in-a-pulpy-subversion-way with more effort -- and in some of the action setups... too much of Ray Stevenson (who looks great) just walking into battles from one side of the frame. More flair! More spice!

Anyhow, this isn't an adaptation or a tie-in or anything at all - it's a new weekly miniseries from Ennis & Steve Dillon, seeing the former return to his 'earlier, funnier' Marvel U iteration of Frank Castle, although the preview doesn't have a lick of humor at all, which is maybe noteworthy for admirers of flair and spice, and blood-chilling despair.




Batman #682

Well, ok, first off: if you're looking forward to this thing as a means of explaining some of the lingering mysteries (not that there particularly are any, when you look at it) of the just-finished R.I.P., you're gonna be pretty steamed, even though writer Grant Morrison brushes aside the maybe-lingering 'gosh, is Bruce still Batman?!' non-question with the narrative equivalent of "for heaven's sake, of course he is. Sheesh!"

Not that it's a permanent resolution, mind you - can't have that when there's a Battle for the Cowl coming up (after two months of crossovers and Neil Gaiman's Alan Moorey thing). But, I guess we couldn't totally set things up in R.I.P. itself since, hey, Final Crisis is still going on, and that has to mean stuff to the DCU, so what we've got here is part one of two for an all-in-one-month Morrison megastory coda/Event tie-in.

And it's a very straight-on thing, so far, probably the simplest Batman story Morrison has written in his entire tenure. As you surely know from the unforgettable events of Final Crisis #2, Batman has been hooked up to an evil machine operated by horrible villains acting in bad faith. Everybody is aware that Batman is the most awesome man alive, so Darkseid's crew is out to dive into his mind and pinpoint what exactly is so goddamned great, for the purposes of bottling the lightning and creating an unstoppable Legion of Awesome for ill purposes. "That will be his legacy," scowls one of 'em, since the Dark Side way isn't just to defeat superheroes, but ruin them, leaving them shitty and unredeemable. Since Dr. Hurt had more or less the same idea running across the rest of Morrison's run, some continuity of theme remains.

So Batman gets his memories scanned, with his captors teasing out treasured info via a telepathic parasite in the guise of Alfred, although it could be a few words from the real deal are leaking out; you'll note there's no mention whatsoever of Alfred's "last hours," as featured in the solicitation, which gets me wondering if something got switched up late in the game. Still, there might not have been a lot to switch, since nearly the entire issue is a hop-skip tour of Morrison's all-inclusive Bat-history, complete with peeks into what could've been if something else flew in the window on that dark night, and notable scenes from ye olde issues rendered in modern style by Lee Garbett (pencils), Trevor Scott (inks) and Guy Major (colors).

They do a decent, clear job; not the most vivid or detailed or memorable visuals around, but they have some fun with the peppy years of Bat-mania, and I liked that the Final Crisis bits are noticeably grittier than anything else. Oh, and:

That's a nice piece of eye direction there, following the dead bat straight down to its burning future, with Alfred providing a date-breaking excuse to the left (the future having been established) while Bruce's mind continues to blaze with his great idea in panel #3. That's not only clever, but it's a specific type of clever this series has been missing for a while.

The rest of it's pretty much... what it is. The Life and Times of Batman. Morrison puts together some cute interactions between Batman and his young Robin; their gentle, daddy-and-son interactions stand in obvious contrast to a certain out-of-continuity take on the early partnership that tends to get prominent attention whenever it shows up, although Morrison is working from established writ anyway as part of his concept.

He also whips up some as-simple-as-possible restatements of his 'big' themes, flashing over to the Joker's history to establish his madness (and his status as Batman's evil alternate) through his willingness to throw prior personalities away and embrace the chaos of a personality revamp, and touching on Batman's desire to cope with his past. The motif of failed romance (see also: Talia, Jezebel Jet) is brought to the foreground to sharpen the latter point.

It's all cute enough, kind of a sweet tribute, with more than a drop of self-congratulation in the writer's callbacks to the Bat-arcana vital to his megaplot. I suspect if you liked Morrison's work on the series more than I did (and I really enjoyed some of it myself; man, #666 is even better after R.I.P.) you'll get more out of it. It'll be a ball to annotate. And hell, if you get misty over the nigh-ineffable glory of the Batman story, you'll possibly dig it even more.

But this was no All Star Superman for me, where I became convinced of the hero's awesomeness by the end of its cruise through the mythos - this is more 21st century superhero stuff, telling me and telling me and telling me, with lots of banking on my presumed pre-loaded affection, and little else of interest to show for it all. Maybe there's a real corker of an ending in store for two weeks and six days from now -- Morrison's pulled crazier stunts -- but I'm not banking on a conversion.