Sunday, February 10, 2013

Yet more courtesy of the library...

Continuing some reads from the library. This time, 20th CENTURY BOYS, intriguing so far, LOCKE & KEY pretty decent, better art than story, "New 52" SUPERGIRL some good bits but weak overall and SUPERMAN: GROUNDED, holy hell, I didn't know comics could be this bad.

20th CENTURY BOYS Vol. 1 - 3
The latest Naoki Urasawa comic to see translation from Japanese to English, created between 1999 and 2007 and published in English by Viz since 2009, with the last of 24 volumes set to come out soon as 21st CENTURY BOYS Vol. 1 and 2.

I thought Urasawa's MONSTER was, on balance, a very good comic. Uneven and definitely overlong, and not really a satisfying ending but with a couple of really brilliant bits and generally good storytelling and artwork. On the other hand, I gave up on his PLUTO a few chapters into the second book. So I'm definitely open to giving a well-regarded series by him a chance, without getting my hopes up too high. I've avoided reading too much about the book until now, but I'm getting the impression that some people don't think it holds up across the 24 books.

It doesn't start off great, and if I were paying to read it, or if I didn't have the next two books sitting here, or if I hadn't loved some bits of MONSTER, I'm not sure I would have continued past the first book. I'm glad I did, it picks up a lot as the second volume ties a few things together, and by the end of the third I was pretty much fully on-board. I've got the next three on the way already. I still have my doubts that it'll end up being a story that needed anywhere near its 5000 pages to tell, but that's the case with almost every Japanese comic I've read.

About the actual comic, it's a science fiction tale about some so far unspecified crisis at the end of the 20th Century, and how a group of long-time friends helped to avert it. Flashing back and forth through time, we see these friends making up fanciful stories as pre-teens in 1969, which end up forming the basis of plans for world domination by the leader of a cult in 1997 who may be one of those friends. It gets pretty convoluted, and I can't say I'm going in with a great deal of faith that Urasawa can pull off a satisfying reveal at the end, but I'm fairly confident that there'll be a few pleasant surprises on the road.

LOCKE & KEY Vol. 1 - 5
The soon-to-be-concluded series created by Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill, published since 2008 by IDW as a series of mini-series and one-shots that have been collected into five volumes, with the contents of the final volume currently being serialized as LOCKE & KEY: OMEGA. I actually read the first two books a few years ago, and thought they were okay, but wasn't impressed enough to rush out to read the subsequent books as soon as they came out.

That's pretty much still where I am. I'll definitely read OMEGA if and when the library gets a copy, but I can wait. The story is pretty decent, for the most part, although the middle drags quite a bit. Hill can be a pretty frustrating writer at times, clearly in control of the story and with a lot of stuff planned out, but sometimes a bit clumsy in the execution, with things feeling like writing tricks to achieve an end. I do like that he structured the book for serialization, and think it's a shame that it took IDW until Volume 4 to realize that they should present each issue as distinct chapter, with the cover art as a chapter break, instead of running the comics seamlessly and sticking the covers in the back. It was really jarring in the earlier books to go from one chapter to another without that visual cue. I wonder if they'll revise the earlier books to fit the structure of the later ones?

Rodriguez is definitely the more interesting of the two creators, and I'm looking forward to seeing where he goes after this series wraps up. His art is nice and clear, easy to follow, fairly open but with a lot of detail in the right places, very expressive faces and body language, imaginative designs.  His prior work seems to be mostly some comics based on the TV show CSI, which don't seem to look as interesting, but that could be the need to do actor likenesses.

Basic pitch of this one is that the Locke kids and their mother move into the family home, the Key House in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, following the murder of their father and find themselves drawn into a world of family secrets, magic and horror involving various keys with special properties. The exact nature of the horror is sort of tipped by the name of the town (is it just me, or do comics seem to lean pretty heavy on the Lovecraft influence for horror?).

SUPERGIRL Vol. 1: LAST DAUGHTER OF KRYPTON
Another of DC's "New 52" reboots launched in 2011, this collects the first seven issues of the latest iteration of the character derived from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's creation Superman. Supergirl is probably a poster child for why DC needed a reboot, as I'm really not sure when looking at a "Supergirl" in a DC comic book published between 1987 and 2011 if she's supposed to be Superman's cousin, or a shapeshifter of some sort, or his cousin from another dimension, or his daughter from a possible future, or his clone or something else.

Anyway, for now they seem to have decided to go with the "Superman's cousin" in this continuity. We'll see if that sticks. The comic is written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson, and mostly drawn by Mahmud Asrar. They all seem competent enough, and Asrar at least draws a more tasteful Supergirl than many of the more recent artists, though the costume he's been handed isn't one of her best (but far from the worst in the character's history). The big problem I have with the story is that we're supposed to accept that Superman finds another survivor from Krypton, one who claims to be his cousin, and after a brief fight appears to just leave her to her own devices, unable to speak the language or properly handle her powers, even as she gets captured by a low rent Lex Luthor stand-in and then fights some other apparent survivors of Krypton. That's not a Superman that makes much sense to me, and this initial storyline doesn't establish a Supergirl worth following, or any supporting cast.

I liked Asrar's art enough to consider reading the second book someday, but that's about it.

SUPERMAN: GROUNDED Vol. 1 - 2
Another poster child for DC's need for a reboot is this, the storyline serialized in SUPERMAN #700-711, 713-714, the last year-plus of the previous continuity of Siegel and Shuster's creation.

Now, to be fair, I expected not to like this, and you're perfectly right to ask why I would read it, even for free, when there are stacks of books I own that I know I'd like better waiting for me to read, a huge selection of more promising books available from the library and boxes and shelves full of comics I'd enjoy re-reading. I sometimes mock other people for continuing to read stuff they seem to get no joy from, including a regular column on a major website that seems to be based on the notion of "people reading comics they know they won't like". What can I saw, sometimes you have to rubberneck the crash as the side of the road...

And yeah, this is even worse than I was expecting. It took three writers and over a dozen artists to get these comics out. Some of the artists seem decent enough, but often appear to be rushed,  others really weren't ready for prime time. My understanding is that this was initially going to be one of those "bold new directions" for Superman that they need every few years after the last direction left them wandering aimlessly, this time led by the somewhat popular and occasionally entertaining writer J. Michael Straczynski. The storyline was presented with the very easy to mock concept of "Superman decides to walk across America".  For whatever reason, the story first saw "interlude" issues written by G. Willow Wilson, and then Chris Roberson brought in as the credited scripter for the second half. I don't know what was said officially, but it's hard not to assume that as plans were finalized to reboot the whole line the luster really fades on the "new direction" that's suddenly a "last nail in the coffin".

It's hard to know who to blame for this mess.  Based on his solo issues, Straczynski didn't really seem to have a firm grasp on any Superman I'd want to read, but I suppose there could have been a planned third act twist that would justified the set-up. Still, on their merits those are some weak Superman stories. I have no idea how much liberty Roberson had in his issues, once it was clear he was wrapping up the last 25 years on continuity rather than setting up a future direction for the character. His issues were slightly less dire than the preceding ones, with a few hints of a writer who might be able to write a Superman comic I'd want to read (which obviously isn't going to happen), but still far from good.

Ah well, there's no point in going point-by-point on what's wrong with this thing, and looking through it now just makes me more sad than anything else. If you ever ask yourself "Must there be a monthly SUPERMAN comic?", read these and see that there are worse things than DC not publishing Superman at all.

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