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Monday, February 28, 2005

Remarks on recent comics (2005.02.27)

Catching up on reading a few of the stapley-type comics I got recently.

ROB HANES #6 - #7 - Got the two most recent issues of Randy Reynaldo's self-published book, featuring Rob Hanes, globe-trotting agent for Justice International. With these issues Reynaldo has gone back to doing single issue stories, with a focus on humour as well as adventure. It works perfectly in #6, "The Hunt For Octavius Jebru", where Rob and partner Abner McKenna are sent on a mission in Paris to find a missing scientist, which leads to the old favourite chase on the ski-slopes, while a sub-plot deals with his company trying to cut costs. An excellent adventure story in just 20 pages. #7 features "Death on the Moors", which has a mystery set around a dinner party at a mansion. Didn't work quite as well, with a few takes on cliched "dying clues" that didn't work, but it had some nice character bits and other bits of humour, as well as Reynaldo's usual entertaining artwork. In the back of this issue he also includes various pages of unused material that are entertaining, such as samples pages he did for Eisner's Spirit back when they were publishing that SPIRIT: NEW ADVENTURES book (very nice looking pages, I hope they consider him if they ever revive that).

JACK STAFF v2 #6 - #7 - Still enjoying Paul Grist's version of a British super-hero universe quite a bit. He's tossed in a whole bunch of new characters recently (to the point that he's actually started running a scorecard, in the form of the "trading cards" he's been running in the middle of each issue), all of which are fun, but a bit irritating at the same time as they take the focus away from the fun main characters. Anyway, he stays imaginative in his storytelling style as well, I thought one thing that worked especially well in the most recent issue was the dream sequences. Dreams are always kind of tricky to portray in comics, and he did an interesting job of it.

SEVEN SOLDIERS #0 - I picked this up, even though I've never really read anything from Grant Morrison I liked. J.H. Williams art looked nice, though, and there's a big chunk of it in here, 38 pages of story for only $3 (I'm not sure why Morrison comics seem to be singled out for this kind of almost-reasonable pricing). The art is indeed nice, so I can't really complain. Williams is sometimes a bit too fond of "clever" page layout and sometimes does some odd rendering (at times it feels like each character in a page is drawn by a different artist as each has a different rendering technique, generally lifted from another artist who's done "iconic" work in the "archetype" they represent). The story, well, hasn't changed my mind on Morrison in general, although parts of it were mildly entertaining. He grabs a bunch of DC trademarks not in use for a while, throws them together in various ways, with either the original characters, characters related to the originals or what I guess are all-new characters with the same names. It doesn't matter much, since (without giving away the ending) there's a reason none of the characters that gather in this book are headlining any of the "Seven Soldiers" mini-series that follow.

As I said, parts were good. Having read too many comics as a kid, I kind of got a kick out of the oblique references to things like Solomon Grundy's origin, or the JLA/JSA crossover that brought back the original Seven Soldiers (whose membership now, it seems, despite my memories, included an archer not named Green Arrow. I think he was replaced by the father of this new Spider/Spyder character, but I wasn't clear on that), and even a reference to the mystic Seven that guided Dr. Occult (made me wonder if Morrison was disappointed that Sovereign Seven wasn't owned by DC and therefore unavailable). It was almost sad how many of those I got, really, though I hope that there were some I missed.

But overall I just didn't feel any real excitement about the story, and thought it was a trifle mean-spirited in a lot of places (and not in the good way that I'd usually mean), pretentious in others, and just had an aura of pointlessness. I probably won't pick up any of the mini-series taking off from this, though I might pick up the last chapter if it looks this pretty and is this cheap.

USAGI YOJIMBO #79 - #81 - Stan Sakai has been working on single issue stories for the last little while, alternating the focus on Usagi to various supporting characters. So if you've never tried the book, any of the recent issues are a nice place to start to get a feel for Sakai's storytelling abilities. I especially liked #80, "When Rabbits Fly", which reminded me a lot of the first few years of the book. In this one Usagi meets an inventor trying to come up with a flying device. Sakai always manages to come up with inventive twists to these storylines, and backs it up with some excellent layouts on the action scenes.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Superman Graffiti Game

Comics used to be allowed to be pretty fun. For example, here's a feature from BEST OF DC #1, back in 1979.

If you don't recognize the signatures, that's Curt Swan, Joe Kubert, Kurt Schaffenberger, Neal Adams, Joe Orlando, Dick Giordano, Dick Dillin, Sergio Aragones, Mike Kaluta, Irv Novick and Howard Chaykin.

Kubert seems to have been missing drawing Tarzan.

Kaluta seems to think moving a monocle from one eye to another is a clever plan for maintaining a secret identity.

Chaykin's version is very 1970s. And kind of looks like how Superman was drawn for a while in the 1990s.

I'm not sure what Irv Novick was thinking.

Friday, February 18, 2005

PHOENIX - YAMATO by Osamu Tezuka

Been catching up on Viz's release of Osamu Tezuka's PHOENIX lately, picking up Volumes 3 and 4, YAMATO/SPACE and KARMA. For those unfamiliar with this, Tezuka was one of the foremost comics artists and animators in Japan for several decades, and PHOENIX was probably his most ambitious work, a dozen interconnected graphic novels jumping through time.

YAMATO is my favourite of the stories I've read so far. Based around an unfinished burial mound in Asuka Japan (I'm curious if that's a real-world reference), it's about a young prince, Ugano, in Japan around AD 350. His father is trying to write a self-aggrandizing history and building an elaborate tomb, where he plans to bury many servants alive when he goes. Ugano rebels against that, and is sent on a mission to take care of a rival ruler who is writing a conflicting history of Japan. On the mission he falls in love and encounters the mythic Phoenix that ties all these stories together (and meets the man who encountered the Phoenix in the first book, DAWN). On returning home he tries in various ways to interfere with his father's plans in various ways.

It's a fascinating and creative story, with a lot of interesting characters, surprising twists and some evocative images. It also has a lot of Tezuka's quirky sense of humour, like most of his work (other than ADOLF, I guess), which doesn't always work for me, but sometimes manages to elicit a chuckle in this one.

YAMATO is combined with the next volume, SPACE, in the recent collection, which goes off to the future. SPACE is one of the most surreal comics works I've ever read. More on that later.

Monday, February 07, 2005

POGO POSSUM #13 by Walt Kelly

I would hope that most people reading this have some appreciation of Walt Kelly's work. POGO was one of the best comic strips of all time, and I sure hope that the recently reported success of the PEANUTS collections and LITTLE LULU book inspire a publisher to pick up the rights to it in a format similar to either of those, or maybe a continuation of the large format Fireside books of the 1980s. I wasn't that fond of the format Fantagraphics used for their last go-round at reprinting the dailies, but even those would be better than nothing if they finally got to unreprinted strips.

I also hope that at some point Kelly's later comic book work get's reprinted. I haven't been too familiar with all of it, mostly a few 1980s reprints of the Christmas comics and the really early ANIMAL COMICS work that evolved into Pogo. Recently I picked up a few of the POGO POSSUM comics he did for Dell after the strip launched, and found they were just brilliant, maybe even better than the comic strip work of the period.

One of the comics I picked up was POGO POSSUM #13 (1953). A big 52-pager for the princely sum of 15 cents, it's packed with Kelly's work, with three long comic stories, a two-page text story, two black and white gags on the inside covers and even an illustrated subscription ad on the backcover.

"Thud and Blunder" is the shortest of the three stories, and is just hilarious from the start, at Owl lectures Churchy about trying to be funny in a comic book, which is against all sorts of rules. This exchange follows:

Churchy: What's the word "comic" for, then?
Owl: THAT is a synonym for BLOOD!
Churchy: Blood? [to a passing grasshopper] Did you know that a comic book is made of cinnamon and blood?

That's all far funnier than it has any right to be. Anyway, Owl goes on a crusade to make the comic book more serious, with twists along the way.

I was especially struck by this page, which is one of the most well constucted gags I've ever seen on a comic page. It's been long demonstrated by Scott Shaw! that there's nothing funnier than a fish hitting someone in the face. Comedy gold, I tells you. So it's not surprising that Walt Kelly doing such a classic bit would do it better than anyone else. It's not so much the fish-in-the-face, but the two-panel reaction shot that follows that really makes it work. Especially Owl and Turtle.

The story "Van Winkle, Van Blinkle and Van Nod" follows, and shines the spotlight on Albert the Alligator, who tends to be my favourite character visually. The others may get better lines and situations, but no one in the strip moves quite like Albert. In this one we get to see him walking upside-down and getting into an arguement with a tree (and losing).

Short interlude for a 2-page text story. In almost every comic from that era I've seen, the obligatory text story (I think they were required for some sort of postal exemption) ranges from skippable to almost physically painful. Kelly provided some of the few exceptions I've seen, partly from providing some nice illustrations for the stories, and also from his gift for language.

The final long story is "High Noon, or The Fiasco Kid Rides Again", wherein Churchy accuses Owl of murdering him with books (especially the triggerbonicky one). This causes Albert to declare himself Sheriff of the Swamp to fight that lawlessness. From this spring misunderstandings that movie star Lawn Norder is coming to the swamp and that there's a bolshevik invasion coming.

Now, I gotta say, there's just something wrong with a world where these pages haven't seen the inside of printing press in over half a century.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

EC - Death Must Come (Feldstein)

Death Must Come
8 pages, art by Al Feldstein
Crypt of Terror #17[#1] (1950)

This book took over the numbering from CRIME PATROL, and soon was re-titled to TALES FROM THE CRYPT, the flagship of the EC horror line.

Feldstein is obviously better known as a writer/editor for EC, but he did draw a few dozen stories in the early years, as well as many covers. His art is interesting. He's obviously a lot less stylish and flashy than the EC artists who are bigger names, but his storytelling is clear, his faces are easy to read and he does sometimes come up with something visually inventive.

This story features a pair of scientists who come up with a method of maintaining youth by using a gland taken from the spleen of a younger person. One of them insists that it be tried on him, and they do the grave-raiding so common in EC stories to get the gland for a recent accident victim. We follow them through the years, as one man gets older and the other stays young, but needs replacement glands at a faster pace. Finally the older man refuses when the younger suggests using a child's gland. The older man is killed, and the younger lures in a messenger and kills him to steal his gland, but winds up rapidly aging and dying when he finds (for no reason explained) that the messenger's spleen was missing the gland.

Obviously this early in the EC "New Trend" they were still feeling out the storytelling, but this was a good early trial, and I thought Feldstein handled the aging of the characters well.
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