Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Some thoughts towards random comics reviews

I bought comics today.

The Escapists #1

The cover doesn't actually hurt my eyes, but that's about all that's good about it. The logo looks lost, the dominant colour is a bright orange-red flourescent which somehow manages to be dull, and the attempt to use some dynamic framing techniques just looks like the picture was poorly-cropped. Plus, as a general rule, super-heroes and arm-hair don't seem to mix.

So much for Frank Miller's contribution. The rest of the book was very nice. Brian K. Vaughan tells a nicely upbeat tale of a young man pursuing his dreams, and the rights to an out-of-print comic-book character. Mind, the story's not completed, so it could all end in tears. Seems unlikely, though; the way the thing's coming together, it feels like something else. Vaughan's pace is solid, and his dialogue sharp. Even some basic improbabilities -- most notably the 'meet-cute' between two characters -- comes off smoothly. If there's a problem, it's that the story's a bit too easy to take; we're not really getting a sense of his main character overcoming obstacles and facing conflict. But then, he does have both parents die in the course of the story, so it's not like there's nothing happening. And Vaughan's dialogue and sense of storytelling is so strong that you get pulled in.

Philip Bond's artwork is incredibly strong. Vaughan calls for stylistic variety in this book -- mimicking a golden-age comic, dropping into black-and-white and back into colour -- and Bond delivers. More importantly, he gets the basics. Characters act and emote. The design sense -- of apartments, faces, cemeteries, basements -- is all just exactly right, always serving the story. It's an understated visual feast.

The high point of this book comes in a sequence aping an Escapist comic (the Escapist being the comic-book character created by the protagonists of Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). Roth tells us how much the character meant to him as we see the Escapist fighting an evidoer named the Villainess. Roth's words about the importance of the Escapist replace the words in the speech balloons and caption boxes of the comic. It's a device that's been used before, notably by Chris Ware in a story in an issue of Raw, but whereas Ware used the device as part of his (essentially wise-ass) distancing effects, Vaughan and Bond make it work to draw the reader into Roth's story, to affirm the importance not just of the character but of the idea of the character; of the ability to escape. Roth's reaction to buying the last issue of The Escapist he needed to complete his collection is especially well-observed and well-imagined.

This story originally appeared in one of Dark Horse's earlier Escapist books, but here it's kicking off a new ongoing series. It did its job; I'll be looking forward to future issues. For an overall grade, I'd give this book a solid B+; call it an 89/100.

Detective Comics #821

It's a single-issue story, and a detective story at that, by Paul Dini. Dini (with his collaborator Bruce Timm) reinvented Batman for the early-90s animated series, and to my mind that show stands as the definitive version of the character; it was a nice mix of Batman as an infallible mystery-man and Batman as a fallible human investigator. Visually, it was often spectacular, a highly-designed gothic deco world owing something to the Fleischer Superman cartoons. So this book, by Dini and noted design-oriented artist J.H. Williams III, has some promise.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite deliver. It's not bad, and Dini does capture something of the feel of the cartoon; you can almost hear the actors delivering the dialogue in the word balloons. But what works over the air doesn't necessarily work as text. There's not much in the way of a sub-plot here, either. The story feels small. It has Batman, Robin, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, assorted Gotham socialites, and a new masked villain. But it feels small.

Williams' art doesn't help much. It's too designed; there's no motion to it. His depiction of fight scenes is particularly jarring; every punch or kick has its point of impact picked out with a flare of black-and-white, and these hot-spots draw the eye all sorts of odd places at inappropriate times. Plus, Williams uses a trick I found annoying on Promethea: spreading panels across the page-divide with no warning. It's a difficult technique to master, and one which I find works a lot less often than many artists seem to believe.

All this being said, the book looks stunning. The colour choices on each page are excellent. It's a nice-looking package, no doubt about it. The story is solid enough, the mystery is coherent, and the fair-play solution is well-explained when all is said and done. It's a Batman story which hits all the bases. It's not something that leads me to think of buying another issue, but it's nice enough for what it is. For a grade, I'd give it a B-; 81/100.

Moon Knight #3

This is an odd book, in a lot of ways. Writer Charlie Huston has a hard-boiled style which, in combination with David Finch's almost over-rendered pencils, results in a lot of gore. That's not necessarily bad, but in this case it's jarring. Huston's talked about wanting to get back to the spirit of the original Moon Knight stories, and you can kinda see that; but the over-the-top violence gets in the way, shattering the tone completely to pieces. Further, part of the feel of those old stories was an almost anachronistic pulp sensibility. That's nowhere to be found. Instead, we have bits and pieces of old continuity -- characters, an evil criminal organisation, a familiar statue, all the knick-knacks of the past (including an old villain, thankfully back in his classic and snazzier costume).

On its own terms, it's not a bad book, I feel. This issue parallels Marc Spector, still suffering from an injury and not ready to take up the mantle of Moon Knight, meeting with an old friend. Who comes out of the closet. It works, somehow. Then the violence kicks in. I've seen an interview where Finch has talked about his determination to get better at drawing conversations; I think some of that comes through. At any rate, the emotions come through strongly, though we do get a lot of close-ups of eyes. The plot is strong enough; you can see what happens, why, and there's a logical and at least vaguely character-based structure behind it.

But somehow, this book just doesn't come together. It feels like it's been divorced from some source of strength that made the original series work. That could be the pulp sensibility I mentioned above. Or it could be Bill Sienkiewicz's art, which was likely the most outstanding thing about the original book -- consider that his design for Moon Knight is still in use, despite the craze for costume reworkings of the past ten years or so.

If the original Moon Knight series was a notch grittier than the other books around it on the stands, then I suppose this version accomplishes much the same thing. But in the end it's moving forward awfully slowly; this story is a long version of the old chestnut about the fallen hero recovering himself, and it's taking its sweet time about it. It's not an awful book, but it's less and less compelling with each issue. There's only so far visceral artwork will take you. Grade: B-, 83/100, but that's only because I'm in a good mood.

The Atom #1

Idea by Grant Morrison, plot and script by Gail Simone, art by John Byrne: and it seems like there's a disconnect at each step along the way. It looks like Morrison came up with an interesting take on the Atom; a new physics professor joins a mysterious New England University, falls in with a group of eccentric genius fellow-profs, and discovers his predecessor's ability to size-shift. Exploration of new worlds, new perspectives, mixed with Lovecraftian mystery. Conceptually, that's solid.

Except that it's not much like what we get in this book. That is, in plot outline, this is more or less what we get. But there's not much of a sense of atmosphere. The eccentric-genius supporting cast is introduced, for example, but don't really come alive. Whether she invented them or not, Simone didn't seem to know quite what to do with these characters; as a result, neither does the reader. And John Byrne, who can be a strong super-hero artist, is out of place in a situation where atmosphere is called for. Consider his establishing shot of the college campus; it looks like something out of the Italian Renaissance, fitting neither with the New England ('Ivy Town') locale nor the dean's dialogue.

Worst, though, is the size-changing sequence that introduces the new Atom's powers. You can see echoes of the cool-factor involved in the idea of a size-shifting superhero: getting lost in your own clothes, fighting a rat the size of a dragon. But between expository captions and fairly bland art, it never comes alive. I gave a positive review once to The Essential Ant-Man because Jack Kirby showed in that book how to make a shrinking super-hero work: you make the world around him strange, something entirely new. That didn't happen here. Some of the fault belongs to Simone; her description of the Atom's awe doesn't work as sparking the imagination or as a deptiction of the thoughts of a young genius (which this character is supposed to be). And Byrne's depiction of the battle with the rat is uninspiring -- especially since the rat looks a lot like a mouse.

Overall, neat ideas, bland execution. I've got no plans to pick up another issue of this one. Grade: C-, 72/100.

Uncanny X-Men #475

Simple, but effective. Well, as simple as an X-men comic can get.

Lorna Dane, or Polaris, gets chased through an Egyptian bazaar while Charles Xavier gathers a group of X-men for a dangerous mission. Said group end up rescuing Polaris in the book's major fight scene. Now, I don't understand who it was who was chasing Polaris, or what it has to with Apocalypse, or what's going on with her powers. So the exposition could have been handled better, because I don't think all of these things were intended to be mysteries. But given the complexity of X-men history, some confusion is a given. The structure here is solid, andmost of the characters are brought in nicely enough (though one, Havok, doens't get his own page of set-up); also, the story ends on a nice line.

The point is, it's a clear introduction to a new team of X-men, with a clearly-defined mission. Writer Ed Brubaker is almost invisible, in a stylistic sense; he's not reinventing anything, he's not bringing in any particular quirks of structure or dialogue; he's just crafting a strong X-men story. Billy Tan's art is clear, but nothing especially attractive. His characters are stiff; their emotions are clear, but lacking in nuance, and their poses and proportions seem sometimes clunky. Tan also uses photoshop blur effects to emphasise action, and of all the tricks artists use to try to get across motion in a still image, that's one of least effective when used consistently.

(Somewhere, there's a comic-book limbo full of all kinds of neat comics effects which are criminally underused in mainstream books these days. Thought balloons, sound effects, and above all, speed lines. Although, saying that, I notice that there are sound effects in this books; Nightcrawler "bamf"s when he teleports, Warpath's knives "thunk" home. But big robot-suits get demolished with no sfx comment, and a bazaar gets trashed soundlessly. There's something inconsistent about that, if only at some subliminal level.)

It's a promising start to a long storyline. Grade B, 85/100.