27 January 2012

Chainsaw Comics Presents: Fear

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

I don't fear death. I know that oblivion and non-existence await my consciousness at the moment I breathe my last, and there's comfort in that thought. After all, I spent billions of years not existing before I was born, so I figure I'll be pretty good at it again after I die. In between my two long periods of non-existence, though, I did learn to fear a few things.

Dental work. There's not much more I dread. I have recurring nightmares of looking in the mirror as my teeth fall out, one by one. The clinking sound they make as they impact with the porcelain sink haunts me. I've gone months in ever-increasing agony because I fear going to the dentist. And since every trip to the dentist has ended with the problem resolved and the pain gone, it is about the most irrational fear I can imagine.

Pain. Closely related to the above, yes, but I also worry about falling on the ice (I live in upstate New York, when ice is a possibility about six months of the year) and breaking a bone. Last year my daughter turned to hug a friend on the sidewalk and twisted her foot the wrong way, and don't even ask me how this is possible, but she broke the hell out of her foot and was in a cast and in pain for nearly six months. To watch your child suffer while you are helpless to make it go away is one of the most frustrating and awful parts of being a parent, and one they don't mention in those cheery, hazy impending parenthood videos.

Poverty. I spent a lot of time in the past couple of years fearing what any worsening of the already devastated economy might mean for my family. It was a dark time, one that I am glad to be emerging from, and I hope the many millions living in similar circumstances are given a hand up sometime soon. But seeing how ineffective this nation's leaders are, I fear they won't be.

There are other things I fear, but I should stop introducing and let the reviewing begin. Chainsaw Comics Presents: Fear is filled with cartoonists I enjoy, like Jason Marcy, L. Nichols, Box Brown and others. I didn't find the time to write a review myself, but luckily the Flashmob Fridays gang did.

Joseph Gualtieri:

Chainsaw Comics Presents Fear, edited by Aaron Brassea, Nathan Stryker, and L. Nichols is like most comics anthologies a mixed bag. At a slim 100 pages of comics and just under 30 stories, there’s always another story just a few pages away that might make up for a dud. All the stories deal with the theme of fear, as befits the title, but the approaches vary greatly. Some illustrate what seem like deeply personal fears, others illustrate common phobias, and quite a few tales are humorous.

“Hug” by Simon Taylor is probably the single best story in the anthology. It’s quite creepy and beautifully illustrated in a Manga style. “Where Will You Spend Eternity” by Flashmob Friday favorite Box Brown is other contender for that title. It’s a terrific semi-abstract dream about the fear of what happens after death. “Be Careful Where You Hide Your Secrets” by Dino Caruso and Paul Little is another one of the strongest shorts; the art is probably the closest to that found in mainstream comics within the volume, and the story deftly combines fears about intimacy, the invasion of privacy, and what happens when you share your art.

“A Bigfoot Adventure” by Jefery J. Manley and “Big Bad Wolf” by Clifton Chandler are two of the better-looking tales in the anthology, but have weaker stories. The former is clearly trying to be wacky, as the characters include a Grim Reaper and some sort of floating blob, but it never quite comes together. “Big Bad Wolf” has gorgeous chiaroscuro art, and no dialogue. It feels like the beginning of a story rather than a complete take on the wolves from fairy tales.

There are too many short funny tales in the volume to mention them all but standouts include: “A Grave Error” by JT Yost, a hilarious take on the fear of being buried alive, “Atychiphobia” by Aaron Brassea and Nathan Stryker, where a man’s fear of failing at creating his own music leads to him quitting his job to be in a Beatles cover band, and “What Not to Think About in the Dark” by Evan Nichols, where an adult at a summer camp is persuaded to tell the kids what he finds scary in the dark. The latter in particular stands out as exactly hits on the difference between the fears of children and adults, which makes it rather poignant despite its short length.

Anthologies are always a rough sell, but Chainsaw has a good model here and I’m already looking forward to their next book, this time about Joy.

Roger Green:

I LOVE the idea of the Chainsaw Comics anthology on fear. Different perspectives about what people are afraid of. The trick with a multi-creator product, though, is that it will almost invariably be of differing quality.

So, story #1 -meh, story #2 - meh; are these guys brothers of different mothers? A similar vibe. Story #3 - meh. Then there was story #4, which has some of the worst lettering ever; it's in cursive, and I found it REALLY irritating.

It's about this point that I decided that the exercise wasn't worth it. But then story #5, Addie by Robyn Jordan. I didn't love it, but it was about something. What Have I Done? by Brad Britton was slight, and he can't spell "piece", but it showed better technique than the earlier works.

I actually thought A Boy and His Dog by Bren Collins was "real". And from then on, the level of storytelling improved quite a bit. Some stories I liked, others, not quite, but the percentage of positive tales was higher than the duds. Things That Go Bump in the Night by Aaron Brassea gave me a mild chuckle. A Bigfoot Adventure by Jeffrey J. Manley went on too long for the joke, and had some production problems on one page, but had potential. Big Bad Wolf by Clifton Chandler had an interesting wood carving effect.

Kurt & Adele: A Love Story by Emi Gennis, based on real people, was quite strong, though it too had a production issue. There's a nice twist in A Grave Error by J.T. Yost. Re: Thanatophobia by Non-Work in Progress - I've been there. My Silent Fear by Bob Lipski I liked. I KNOW the guy in Atychiphobia by Aaron Brassea and Nathan Stryker, and appreciated the Beatles reference.

Perhaps my favorite piece is Be Careful Where You Hide Your Secrets by Dino Caruso and Paul Little. Maybe it's because anyone who has ever been in more than one relationship might be able to relate to the situation. It's also arguably the best drawn item in the collection.

Anxious About How Guilty To Feel by Tom McHenry is interesting to me, because, while it doesn't particularly apply to me, I took it as information about others. Clever one-page is What Not to Think About In the Dark by Evan Nichols.

Someone should have edited Pumpkin by Simon Taylor. If, somehow, the message in the last paragraph had been slowly revealed throughout the last page, it would have been far more effective. Also the word 'you' is written 'yopu' at one point.

Finally, Perfect Man versus Confidence by Chris Fenoglio was a fun tale in the superhero motif.

Having read through it twice, I should say that it is far better than I had expected. But I think some of the weakest material is in the front. Still, I would give it a chance; enough of it is good to make it worthwhile. I'd be interested to see the subsequent collection, Joy, scheduled for later this year.

Buy Chainsaw Comics Presents: Fear from Amazon.com.

20 January 2012

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

The greatest minds ever to create comics -- I'm thinking of creators like Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Gil Kane, Robert Crumb, Bernard Krigstein, Carl Barks, Alan Moore, and of course, Harvey Pekar -- all rose to prominence, won the respect of readers and other writers and artists, and guaranteed their places in the history of comics because of one common element: Each of them showed the rest of us that there were possibilities in comics that no one had seen until they carved out the path. Toth showed how much you could do by showing only the bare essentials; Krigstein showed how breaking out of the expected box could lead to an infinite fractal complexity on the comics page. Barks demonstrated how powerful the wedding of children's characters and inventive storytelling could be; Moore taught those willing to learn how to use the power of imagination to create new heights of majesty in comics writing.

And then there's Harvey. Sure, there had been a few autobiographical or semi-autobiographical works created in comics before Pekar first began writing scripts about his life and times on the streets of Cleveland. But almost immediately, those with a vested interest in comics as an artform saw that there was an entirely unsuspected potential to be found in speaking plainly but thoughtfully about moments as common and diverse as waiting in line at the supermarket, crashing your car in the snow, or finding out you have cancer. By depicting and examining his own everyday existence in nearly obsessive detail, Harvey Pekar somehow tapped into a universality of the human spirit in a way that elevated the artform of comics higher than it otherwise would ever have risen. On a large scale, the potential of storytelling in comics form is greater now than it was before Harvey first set pen to paper. On the smallest scale, that of the individual reader, I know that my life has been improved, my spirit touched, my intellect challenged and rewarded, because this one file clerk in Cleveland made up some comic books about his life.

There is, in fact, no one in comics whose work I love more than I do the comics of Harvey Pekar. There may be a few I hold in equal esteem (pro tip: check out that list in paragraph 1), but no one has ever exceeded Harvey's reach. Few have even attempted to scale his heights, never mind done so for four decades. That Harvey did so for so little financial reward is kind of amazing and speaks to his tenacity as a human being. He knew comics was an artform, he knew his work was important (although it never, ever felt self-important), and I suspect he sacrificed a lot to bring his vision to life again and again, especially in the earliest years of self-publishing, long before comics and book publishers came calling.

Harvey liked to say comics are just words and pictures, and that you can do anything with words and pictures. We know that's true in large part because he proved it. I often think of him, and I hope that the respect and attention he garnered late in his career, especially after his American Splendor comic book became American Splendor the movie, was enough for him. I hope he knew how much we all loved his comics. I hope he knew how much we all loved him. Never before and never since has comics produced a Harvey Pekar. And never again will Harvey Pekar produce comics. Cleveland is his last work, and I'm very pleased that it's the subject of this week's Flashmob Fridays.

Christopher Allen:

What I believe is the final completed work by the late author Harvey Pekar is now available, an expansive memoir that also performs about half of the time as a history of Cleveland, Ohio. The so-called navel-gazing, emo, whiny autobiographical comics of the ‘80s and ‘90s were never as large in number as detractors claimed, but what there were always found an antidote in Pekar’s comics, which addressed disease, relationship and work problems with either a crusty humor or resolve, a get-it-out-and-over-with quality that Pekar brings to this finale project.

After some uneven work the past several years, such as the overrated graphic novel, The Quitter, a detached nonfiction look at Macedonia, and a Vertigo miniseries that more often than not found him unable to polish mundane anecdotes and observations into bright gems of humanity, it’s fitting that Pekar ends on familiar ground, just him and his beloved hometown. That said, much of the history of Cleveland, as told by Pekar, is not all that interesting, and while it seems fairly well-researched, some observations are arbitrary and inconsistent. For instance, African-Americans seem to have an above-average quality of life compared to other cities, for a while, and then by the ‘60s there are several riots, without much explanation how things deteriorated. What industries’ or athletic teams’ declines, or other factors contributing to Cleveland’s decline and lack of growth, are not examined. Which is fine; no one should expect this to be a definitive history, but one should understand that this is Cleveland through Pekar’s eyes as a lifelong resident, a working class, self-educated writer whose lens is focused more on the city’s cultural history as it happened to him, its great library and symphony, its jazz clubs, used bookstores and parks. If you’re interested in Cleveland’s rock and roll history, great restaurants, organized crime or political history, this is not the book for you.

Pekar has worked with some good artists before, but Joseph Remnant (and how ironic is that name for the artist of Pekar’s last book?) is really ideal for this material. Fairly realistic, not too stylistic, and with a warm crosshatching style that works well with Pekar’s prose to capture Cleveland’s past and present with both clarity and fondness. His figures are gently slope-shouldered, reminiscent to me of great children’s book illustrator Mercer Mayer (The Great Brain, Little Critters), which works very well in most of the book, aside from maybe the riots, which call for something a bit more dynamic. Remnant’s Pekar is cuddly without being a caricature. The only real issue is how often to include Harvey in the art and how often to just let him narrate, which results in odd choices like Harvey talking to the reader while sitting on a moving subway. It was probably Pekar’s choice to include himself periodically, but it seems unnecessary, as his voice is always distinct and present in the narration. It’s easy enough to just see the art as if one is looking through Pekar’s eyes, so there’s no much need to actually see him shuffling around the city.

Ultimately, although there is some merit in the historical portions of the book, the most compelling material is autobiographical, with young Harvey making friends, discovering a love of reading, scholarship and collecting, and some material on girlfriends/wives (much of which has been explored at greater length in prior American Splendor work), as well as a bittersweet conclusion that finds Pekar working hard in retirement to make ends meet, even as his intellectual curiosity has cooled. Maybe my favorite part was learning that as a middle-aged man, he immersed himself in literary scholarship out of spite for his ex-wife, which struck me as hilarious, practical, and totally Harvey. Not the best book he’s done, but well worth reading.

Roger Green:

Don't know just when I started reading Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, but it was definitely in the early period of his self-publishing mode in the late 1970s, with art probably by Robert Crumb. I totally identified with the main character, which of course was Harvey himself, a caustically sharp observer of the human condition, especially his own. But, in my comic book drought days, I had never read his later works published by Dark Horse or DC/Vertigo. (I did see, and love, the 2003 film of the same name.) I actively never watched him on Letterman, because I thought Dave would treat him as a buffoon.

So reading Cleveland was rather like going to a college reunion. Would I still like this guy? Would he still be as clever and pointed as that fellow I once knew? And when you read Harvey, you DO feel that you "know" him.

The book starts with a lengthy history of the title city. I got a bit impatient with it, not so much because of its length but because there wasn't enough of Harvey's voice there. I did, though, understand the point of some of this section, especially as it related to baseball and race relations, because when we FINALLY get to the Harvey part - on PAGE 43! - the context of the some of the earlier stuff begins to make more sense.

And it's in these next 80 or so pages that I said, "There's the Harvey I remember," analyzing his complicated relationship with women, how having losing sports teams gives a city an inferiority complex, his hoarding behavior with books and music, his work history, the value of the public library, and his staged blowup with Letterman.

The latter pages are bittersweet as he muses, in the words of Paul Simon, "how terribly strange to be 70." What will his future be like? Unfortunately, Harvey never made it to 71. Still, I was glad to spend one more round with an old friend.

Scott Cederlund:

A city where the sweet Twinkie filling flows freely out of pipes sounds like some magical place like Willie Wonka’s factory. The truth is that such a fantastic place exists in Cleveland, one of America’s historical cities that’s a sad shadow of the city it once promised to be. The building where Twinkie filling still runs trhough the pipes, a one-time Hostess factory now converted into a giant used book store, is a re-occuring set piece in Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, a book about a city the author lives in as much as it is about the author himself. Over the years, Pekar has become synonymous with Cleveland. One almost doesn’t exist without the other. When Anthony Bourdain took his Travel Channel show to Cleveland a few years ago, he had to have Pekar on the show. For Bourdain, like so many others, Pekar is Cleveland.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland begins as a hopeful dream. Pekar and artist Joseph Remnant begin the book in 1948 when the Cleveland Indians won the World Series. “Yeah, I’ve had plenty of good days,” Pekar muses, but the best was still the day when he was eight years old listening to the game over his school’s P.A. system. To this kid, sports were everything and his entire civic pride was wrapped up in his baseball team. Pekar regales his audience with stories of Cleveland Indian baseball from the late 1940s and early 1950s before delving into the history of Cleveland. Beginning from the earliest days in 1795, the desires for the city were always countered by a stark reality. Even as the city, more of an outpost then, began to grow along the Cuyahoga, the river itself became a source of disease and insects.

As Pekar chronicles the history of the city, for every success there is an equal or greater failing that the city experiences. His recounting of the 1948 World Series at the beginning of the book perfectly introduces this pattern. They won in 1948 but the Indians would go on to lose the 1954 World Series. It would take them another 40 years to reach the World Series but they lost twice during the 1990s and haven’t been back since. “For me,” Pekar writes, “the 1954 World Series was a turning point. I always looked at the Indians as an up-and-coming team. But now they seemed to be rotten to the core with success... A few years later, that’s how I viewed Cleveland: rotten.”

That’s the viewpoint of a kid but this book easily shows that Pekar’s feelings for the city are a bit more complex than that. By Pekar’s account, there always seems to be something eating away at the city and its people. For every step forward, there were two or three back. So maybe even if the city’s core is rotten, Pekar still finds the good in it. He finds the bookstores with Twinkies filling in the pipes. He finds the people and the joy in the city even as he recognizes all of the missed opportunities that exist for Cleveland and for himself.

For a book about a city, about halfway through the book Pekar takes a side path and begins talking about himself and his own life. It starts out as a diversion but it becomes the second half of the book. In it’s own way, that’s typical Pekar as so much of his work is autobiography but it also illustrates the relationship of the man and his city. As much as he can see both the good and the bad in his hometown, he expresses the same about his own life. There are loving but absent parents. There are wives but there are also divorces. There is cultish fame but it never translates into book sales. There is happiness but there is also cancer.

Remnant brings the whole book together, drawing Cleveland and Pekar showing their warmth and their warts. He doesn’t gloss over anything that Pekar writes, instead showing the life of the man and the city with the honesty and openness that Pekar expresses in his writing. Remnant also gives the book its steady foundation. Pekar is all over the place in his narration and feels unfocused. Is this a book about the city or the man? Pekar never makes clear his intent as he wanders from one moment in time to another as easily as wandering from one city block to another. Remnant keeps up with Pekar, shifting from the historical recounting of the 1800s to the 1970s when Pekar is talking about his own search for love and friendship. Pekar wanders in this book, starting in one place, going off in a tangent but bringing it all back together and never straying far from Cleveland.

In the end, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a bittersweet book. Two entities, man and city, are so intertwined and yet neither one is able to have the success or satisfaction they desire. This book could just as easily be titled Cleveland’s Harvey Pekar because their stories are split almost in half in this story and their stories are thematically so similar. One becomes a metaphor for the other. Pekar was great at making the mundane entertaining and enlightening but here he also makes the mundane sad but optimistic. He’s so discouraged by the city and life around him but he’s also so optimistic that tomorrow may be just a bit better than today. The city may be rotten to the core but as long as Twinkie filling flows through the pipes, there’s a bit of magic in this town and maybe the Indians will win next year.

Johanna Draper Carlson:

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, illustrated by Joseph Remnant, is the quintessential Pekar autobiographical graphic novel, a love letter to his hometown that unblinkingly looks at the bad as well as the good. Pekar's narration intertwines moments and memories of his life with incidents that demonstrate the downfall of what was once an industrial powerhouse.

I've never been able to really get the appeal of Pekar before. There was too much crotchety old man complaining about it, but here, the setting gives the work more of a hook for me. Looking at his life, even when he's grumbling, as a parallel to the downturn of a great American metropolis puts things in perspective. Plus, I now better appreciate the viewpoint of someone older and with experience; I think of his comments as having more perspective. Having seen how a community can decline, some grumpiness is understandable.

Remnant's work is a perfect choice for the material. It's straightforward, well-suited to the journalistic approach, but has its own character. Instead of simply drawing what we're being told, the illustrations add to the story by fleshing out the text and providing a real sense of place and time.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland is a fitting final work by the curmudgeon who made comic autobiography into the powerhouse it is today, as well as a wonderful starting point for anyone wanting to sample his work.

Buy Harvey Pekar's Cleveland from Amazon.com.

15 January 2012

The Wrap-Up Show: Action Comics #5

Hello hello! Friday's post on Morrison and Kubert's Action Comics #5 got our critics typing furiously -- so furiously, in the case of Scott Cederlund, that he was so spent after writing his contribution that he forgot to actually send it to your humble editor. So, with no further ado, because as Stan always noted, we've run all out of ado -- here's Scott's take on Action Comics #5.

Grant Morrison has already done the near-perfect version Superman’s origin story in All-Star Superman #1:

“Doomed planet.

“Desperate Scientists.

“Last Hope.

“Kindly Couple”

For the story we’ve no doubt seen countless times, Morrison and Frank Quitely reduced it down to eight words and four pictures. It reminded us of everything we needed to know about Superman. It’s not tied into any particular continuity or story but it’s so simple that it’s about all Superman stories. In that way, it made All-Star Superman a universal story. Anyone who knows anything about Superman could pick up that book and not have to worry about whether they were reading the Golden Age Superman, John Byrne’s reboot, Waid’s version of the story or Geoff Johns’s most recent retelling. Morrison created the platonic ideal of a “baby is sent away from an exploding planet to be found and raised by a farming couple.” Action Comics #5 does in 28 pages what Morrison slyly did in four panels.

The problem is that those four panels are expanded to the story beats in Action Comics #5 and they don’t even come together as a story. Slotted-in between the main story in issues #4 and #7, Action Comics #5 has the stink of an old-fashioned fill-in issue, complete with a story that has tangential ties to the rest of the series and a different artist. Morrison shows us these moments on Krypton and on earth that we’ve seen countless times without adding anything substantial to it. The costumes and the rocket look different. The Kent’s child-bearing problems are a bit more realistic and emotional but in a sense they were always implied. And in the end, mysterious, shadowy characters show up to tease us about future plot points.

In his book Supergods, Morrison describes Siegel and Shuster’s Superman as a socialistic hero a man trying to bring down the corrupt businesses of the late 1930s. He’s a hero of the people who isn’t actually of the people himself. He’s the perpetual outsider who’s strongest wish is to have the American dream life everyone wishes for. In Action Comics, Morrison has tried to recreate that version of Superman. This isn’t the Silver Age hero that he paid homage to in All-Star Superman and this isn’t any Superman we’ve seen in the last 40 years. This is a Superman who is going to be an American hero because he’s going to fight for the American people.

That’s where Morrison’s story started. Not with Brainiac and cities being stolen. Not with exploding planets and doomed races. Action Comics #1 started with Superman trying to force a confession out of a corrupt businessman. That doesn’t sound very super but I think Morrison knows that his Clark Kent isn’t Superman yet. Anyone can wear a t-shirt with the S-shield on it. I do it all the time. Morrison’s Superman is a primitive proto-hero and that’s the story that Morrison should be telling. Everything he’s done in the last three issues feel like Superman stories we’ve read countless times by Mort Weisinger, Curt Swan, John Byrne and Dan Jurgens.

In this last few years of political, economic and social upheaval in the United States, I think Morrison is on the right track in trying to redefine Superman. The 21st Century started out with a Superman that somehow tried to renounce any American citizenship and even was proclaimed as standing for “truth, justice and all of that other stuff.” But like the times when Superman was created, the “American way” is either corny, an anachronism or a lie depending on your views of the country. And how does the country’s #1 adopted son respond to that? That’s the story that it felt like Morrison was trying to tell in the first two issues of Action. How does the ultimate boy scout live in an era where the Boy Scouts are eventually sent overseas to fight wars that no one understands while those who stay home get rich and fat?

After only a couple issues of a 21st century Superman, Morrison falls back on retelling the stories we already know with Krypton and Kansas and Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Maybe that’s the new DC, the illusion of change and progress as the stories end up recycling everything we’ve seen before. We expect more out of Morrison though, don’t we? We expect to see some reinvention of these stories and these concepts but any changes in Action Comics #5 to the familiar origin are purely cosmetic and don’t add anything to the story that he has been telling. DC has become the masters of illusion with this revamp but it’s a thin illusion. Maybe if Morrison had shown us something we hadn’t seen before this issue would feel more significant but like the rest of Morrison’s Action run so far, it’s full of ideas and concepts that feel like they want to find a story to be a part of.

Buy Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel from Amazon.com.

11 January 2012

Action Comics #5

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

In my more contemplative moments (those moments I contemplate comics, anyway), I sometimes wonder whatever happened to the Grant Morrison that wrote The Invisibles, JLA: Earth 2, Flex Mentallo, The Filth, New X-Men, Marvel Boy, or even All-Star Superman.

To say Morrison's output in the days since Seven Soldiers of Victory has been largely a disappointment would be a huge understatement. It seems like, somewhere along the line, he lost some key element of his gift for writing comics. I was astonished at how poorly Final Crisis held up, after eagerly anticipating a reunion of the creative team from Marvel Boy, which was a work of sheer genius, and one of the best Marvel books of the past 25 years. So what happened to Morrison? I'd hazard a guess that spending much time literally or metaphorically with his DC Comics colleague, the witless writer of fanboy fiction Geoff Johns would be enough to damage anyone's brain cells. Short of that, perhaps Morrison is just phoning it in. I have no idea why the quality of his his work has fallen off so precipitously, but I am rock-solid in my conviction that it has.

I've kinda-sorta followed Action Comics since The New 52 event, but I haven't found anything in it to engage me. Unlike my fellow traveler Chris Allen below, I don't care much for the artwork of Rags Morales (I don't hate it, it just does nothing for me), and the first four issues seemed like so much placekeeping. This fifth issue feels more like a first issue, like the beginning of something new, but of course it's Superman, so we must relive his origin story for the 18,674th time. Seriously, DC? Hollywood? There are intelligent, highly-evolved blue-green slime molds living millennial lifespans in the southwestern rim of the galaxy of Andromeda that are bored as fuck with the retelling of Superman's origin. So you can bet your ass that we are too, right here at home. Besides, Morrison had the last word in Super-origin-retelling in the first page (see illustration, click it to see it bigger) of All-Star Superman. So why are we sitting through this again?

The gimmick that the rocketship is telling the story is new, and somewhat clever. Almost Morrisonesque, one might say. The art, by Alleged Watchmen 2 scab Andy Kubert, is attractive in that "half my dad, half Jim Lee" way that Kubert has about him. The shadowy, half-familiar villains lend a hint of intrigue. Which is a hint more than just about any New 52 title has issued forth, with a rare Wonder Woman or Swamp Thing-type exception. (And frankly, Swamp Thing is getting fucking draggy, folks.)

So here we are with Morrison feeling slightly more like Morrison than he has in some time, a clever idea or two, and much more attractive art than the title has seen at all to date in its relaunch. I'd recommend you check this issue out if you like the creators, or even the character, but I won't tell you it's a work of genius, or even worthy of being held up in the mid-range of Morrison's complete body of work. He's done worse, but he's done far better, too. As someone who generally likes Morrison's take on DC's major superheroes (his JLA remains one of the company's best-written books ever), I really wanted to love this issue. That I didn't hate it seems something of a miracle given the current quality of corporate superhero books as a whole, but I could have liked it a lot more than I did, if only it had been a little better written, and had any reason whatsoever to exist.

Christopher Allen:

Grant Morrison's short Action Comics run has thus far been plagued by a seeming lack of ambition unusual for Morrison. Usually, if a book isn't successful, it's due more to trying to do too much and not pulling it all together, so it has been dismaying to get through four issues where not a lot has happened besides a decision to write Superman as a cocky punk. In the past couple weeks, readers have discovered that DC put the New 52 together very quickly, and are now changing some creative teams, so it could be that Morrison had to come up with something quickly, making a hasty claim to another big character so as to not get lost in the Lee/Johns vision of the DCU of today. Who knows? What is known is that Action has been pretty forgettable, if nicely drawn by Rags Morales.

This issue marks a departure from the series so far, the beginning of a two issue flashback drawn by Andy Kubert that retells Superman's origin yet again. The story provides a chance for Morales to catch up, arriving suddenly in the middle of the first arc, and in some ways it could provide a bit of a breather for Morrison as well. How hard is it to write another wrinkle on Superman's origin? But Morrison digs in and does a nice job capturing the sacrifice of Jor-El and Lara and the pain of the childless Jon and Martha Kent, while tweaking past history with a rupture in the Phantom Zone leading to Kal-El being sent to Earth and Krypto disappearing, while Kal-El's craft is navigated by an early version of Brainiac, which goes into sleep mode when it's discovered by the government. Add to that a team of new enemies for Superman that seem to be embodiments of the goofy old alternate forms of Kryptonite of the '50s, and this is an issue that, while it isn't close to Morrison at the top of his game, is still clever and entertaining. Kubert isn't one of Morrison's more imaginative collaborators -- as witnessed by the ho-hum depiction of Krypton's destruction -- but Morrison has worked with him enough by now to know how to use him well, and Kubert is at least a solid storyteller who keeps things moving without drawing attention to himself rather than the tale being told.

Yan Basque:

One of my favourite things about Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman is the brilliant way they dispense with Superman's origin in a single page. It's the very first page of the comic and consists of four panels and a total of eight words: "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." Those words - combined with the images of (1) Krypton about to blow up, (2) Kal-El's birth parents, (3) the rocket flying away from exploding Krypton, and (4) a shot from baby Kal-El's POV with Martha and Jon leaning over him, Martha holding a piece of red cloth, and the big, bright, yellow sun in the background - perfectly encapsulate Superman's origin story. It's one of the best examples of compressed storytelling I've come across in modern superhero comics.

Part of the reason All Star Superman's first page works so well is that we already know the origin story. We've seen it, heard it, read it a thousand times already. For some reason, DC is obsessed with retelling it over and over again. In the past decade, we've seen versions of it in Superman: Birthright (2003-04), All Star Superman (2006-08) Superman: Secret Origin (2009-10), Superman: Earth One (2010).

So here, in Action Comics #5, we get a completely unnecessary retelling of that origin. What Grant Morrison had reduced to a perfect single page in All Star is now drawn out into a convoluted mess to fill a whole issue of one of the most overrated titles of DC's New 52.

I've read the first couple of issues of the relaunched Action Comics and found nothing to enjoy in them. The extremely inconsistent and rushed art was already getting patched up by fill-in artists by the second issue. Meanwhile, Grant Morrison's younger, cockier and angrier Superman feels to me like a very boring take on the character. This is just not what I want out of Superman comics. (But then again, neither was "Grounded" or much of what we've gotten in the past few years.)

This particular issue is about as insular and cryptic as an already well-known origin story can get, which seems to be exactly the opposite of what the New 52 relaunch was supposed to achieve. Wasn't it going to simplify things for new readers. Well, guess what? If new readers know anything about superhero comics, it's probably Superman's origin. So why is DC taking what those potential new readers already know and complicating it with this mess of a story?

In the opening scenes, Jor-El and Lara exchange some of the worst expository dialogue Morrison has ever written. They keep telling each other things they already know: "We built it together, you and I." Meanwhile, the narration from Brainiac/Superman's rocket's point of view might be kind of a neat trick, except that it's hard to figure out what he/it's talking about some of the time. Then when time travel got involved, I was having some bad flashbacks to the more nonsensical parts of Return of Bruce Wayne and I completely lost interest.

Andy Kubert's art is serviceable but unremarkable.

There's also a backup story by Sholly Fisch and Crisscross, about the Kents trying to conceive a child before Kal-El's arrival on Earth. I have no opinion about this story, but Crisscross is one of the worst artists at DC right now and I can't stomach the way his weird faces are constantly morphing from panel to panel, making you question how they could possibly belong to the same character.

Joseph Gualtieri:

Grant Morrison’s long-form comics projects, post-Invisibles anyway, tend to get off to a fast, appealing start, descend into a slow burn, and then reach an exciting climax that ties the series up nicely. New X-Men and the pre-Final Crisis Batman run are probably the two best examples of this. In the case of the former, “E for Extinction” clearly marked the beginning of a new era, then things settled down the series received some poor reviews until the rush of “Murder at the Mansion,” “Assault on Weapon Plus,” “Planet X,” and “Here Comes Tomorrow” turned general opinion around. The reaction to “Batman and Son” wasn’t as positive as the one for “E for Extinction,” but Batman fighting ninja Man-Bats against a backdrop of Lichtenstein paintings is a fun one. Unfortunately other than the JH Williams III illustrated “Black Glove,” Morrison’s Batman did not seem to gain any critical traction during its middle period. Then “R.I.P.” hit, and while it is one of the more divisive stories in Batman’s long history, it worked quite well for some critics and readers. The next period of Morrison’s long Batman run, on Batman & Robin, would go through a similar spectrum of critical reaction, with a positive response to the first arc, disdain for the second, and then an upswing towards the end.

So why take the long look at the reaction to some of Morrison’s more recent superhero work? Because from what I’ve seen, people hate Action Comics #5, and I think it’s well worth viewing it within the past lens of Morrison’s pattern of work. Whatever Morrison’s doing in Action, it isn’t close to the end yet, and his work usually does not become clear until that point. Reviewing a single issue in the middle of one of Morrison’s long form epics is not going to give you much of a sense of the totality of the work or of where he’s going.

In the very first Flashmob Fridays, we looked at an issue of Mark Waid’s Daredevil that was the conclusion and frankly, I savaged it. The comic did not provide the information necessary for a new reader to pick it up and follow what was going on in it. Action Comics #5 may be part of a longer epic, but unlike the DD issue reviewed here, it is comprehensible on its own terms. Yes, it’ll be clearer if you’ve read the previous four issues of the series, but for the most part it is a straightforward new telling of Superman’s origin, with the added twist of some of the story being from the sentient rocket’s perspective. Other than the mysterious new villains (who are mysterious new villains) it is clear enough who all of the major players in the comic are, so it passes that crucial test while Daredevil failed it.

There is another reason why this issue is not being well received — the first page of All Star Superman #1. It covers much of the same material as Action #5 in just four panels with eight words; it’s a masterpiece of economical storytelling and one of the best single pages of Morrison’s career. Consequently, at least some of the negative reaction to Action #5 seems to come from the change in approach; instead of super-condensed, now Morrison’s told the origin in a (relatively) decompressed fashion. If there are two things superhero fans seem to be sick of these days, it’s retelling origin stories and decompression; combine the two and it’s no wonder people hate this comic. Take those prejudices away though, and there is actually nothing wrong with this comic. Did the world need another telling of Superman’s origin? Not particularly, but this was obviously coming given the remit of the new 52. To steal a point from Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims, if Morrison didn’t write this someone else would have. Better to have a writer of Morrison’s caliber do it, and again, he isn’t just doing a straight retelling. Whatever’s going on with the ship that brought baby Kal-El to Earth is intertwined with Morrison’s on-going plot and this issue provided what will likely be key new details in that direction.

That all out of the way, there is one big flaw with the issue. It comes after #4 ended on a cliffhanger for Superman’s battle with the revamped Brainiac, which promised it would be resolved in #7. Clearly, the production on the comic is screwed up and as result the next story arc was moved up. Financially, this is clearly a better alternative for DC than not publishing Action for two months. As a reader, I’m not sure this is beneficial.

Action Comics #5 is far from being Morrison’s best work, but it works on its own terms, as a new version of Superman’s origin, and seems to provide key pieces of Morrison’s on-going storyline. It does nothing to deserve the critical drubbing it’s received, which seem to have more to do with love for All Star Superman than anything genuinely wrong with the comic.

If you’re wondering why I’ve no mentioned the Sholly Fisch back-up, it’s because now that’s completely unnecessary and adds to neither the on-going storyline nor to the Superman mythos in general.

Buy Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel from Amazon.com.

05 January 2012

Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

Oh, I wanted to review this one. But with a new job and intensive training all this week, and my wife needing rides in the middle of the night after working crazy overtime, believe me when I tell you it's a miracle I got these posted at all.

That said, I do want to chime in briefly and say I did read (devour, really) Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes from cover to cover, and the two things I have to note are that it is definitely one of the best-designed comics collections I have ever held in my hands, and also that Carl Barks is every bit the comics master you've always heard.

This series of book collecting his Ducks comics is pretty much the Barks project I have waited all my life for. As long as I've been reading comics (hint: Nixon had yet to resign the presidency when I started) I've been hearing about "the good Duck artist," and the samples I've read here and there always seemed to validate that claim. I can remember, however, not being terribly impressed by the oil painting recreations he did that were sold as prints in the 1980s. With a little more understanding of comics (and Disney) under my belt now, I am glad Barks was able to get some reward for his work in whatever way possible, as messy as his latter-day personal life may have become.

You'll learn about all of that and more in the text pieces that are included in this volume. More importantly, though, if like me you've never seen Barks's work presented the right way, you'll come away with delight for his seemingly effortless storytelling skills, and wonder that one hand could create so very many pages of absolutely flawless, brilliant comics. I thanks to everyone at Fantagraphics Books who helped bring this project to fruition, and I envy anyone who is about to read this book for the first time. Wonders await.

Roger Green:

If you've been to my Twitter link, you know that the logo is a duck version of me drawn by my friend, the late Raoul Vezina. Why did he dub me as a duck? Perhaps it was that I did a fairly bad imitation of an angry Donald Duck back in the 1980s, when we worked together.

There's something about the Disney ducks that is in my DNA. When they were made available, I bought several volumes of the Carl Barks Library between in 1983 and 1988; sad tale of why I don't have them now. Regardless, when I started buying comic books as an adult, I shunned the "kiddie" comics, yet was always drawn to Uncle Scrooge and his family. Truth was, I didn't know the name of the guy who wrote and drew the stories, only that I still liked them as an adult.

As Donald Ault wrote in the introduction to the Lost in the Andes collection, "Barks was perhaps the most widely read but least-known author in the world. Like other comic book artists at that time, he was anonymous during the years he was producing his comics. At the same time, because his work was so exceptional, he developed a huge number of fans, who only knew him as 'the good artist.'"

The book mixes the 20- to 30-page adventures, filled with incredible detail, with the shorter (8-10 pages) stories and some one-page gag strips. As Ault and other editorial contributors noted, the long form allowed Barks's imagination to roam; the tales are practically NatGeo documentaries of places that never existed. If I'm slightly less entranced by the long pieces, it may be a function of the evolving characters of the major players, which changed to fit the story needs. Also, the 'Voodoo Hoodoo' story uses caricatures of black people that are slightly off-putting, though nowhere nearly as problematic as Barks's contemporaries' work. Still, 'The Golden Christmas Tree' is a sweet tale of love.

The short pieces, which Barks found to be more work to write, tended to be jokier. The casual reader might find them, and the single pagers, a bit more accessible. I found the extensive editorial content almost as enjoyable as the comics themselves.

This is a fine collection, enhanced by the blend of story types included.

Joseph Gualtieri:

Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes magically transported me back my earliest days as comics reader. Like many children of the 1980s, licensed comics provided my gateway into comic books -- GI Joe, Transformers, Batman (OK, not licensed, but the '60s cartoon was a regular part of my after-school TV watching when it aired at 5PM on a pre-Spanish channel 27), and Disney duck comics. I was lucky I picked up my first Disney comics when I did, at the tail end of the first period when Gladstone printed Disney comics, prior to the Disney briefly trying to run their own comic company. The results of Disney handling their comics in-house were unpleasant, to my memory, though I may have been past the target age group as well, I think not because I loved the Gladstone duck comics at the time despite a general aversion to Disney films and TV shows, aside from the then-running Duck Tales and a couple of films. Duck Tales, of course, was heavily influenced by Carl Barks, which I learned from Gladstone mixing reprints of Barks’s work in with newer material and their back matter made sure Barks and Don Rosa were two of the earliest comics creators’ names I knew.

I get away from the point I was headed towards. Reading these stories 20+ years after my initial exposure to many of them, I’m not as swept away by many of them as I once was. The issue isn’t Barks’s penciling, which is amazing, but rather the writing, and more specifically the plotting. Too often the stories really on just one thing after another happening, utter absurdities (the square chickens and bubbles of the titular story), and deus ex machina endings (OK, the last one is really just in “The Golden Christmas Tree”). A few of the stories do work, and quite well (“Race to the South Seas” and “The Sunken Yacht”), but they are in the minority for the collection. I suspect that a younger reader (such as ten year old me) would be more willing to just go with the stories, unfortunately, I would hesitate before handing this particular collection to our hypothetical youth, as several stories feature depictions of minorities that are very much of their time. The most problematic story in the collection in this regard is easily “Voodoo Hoodoo.” “Race to the South Seas” does have Donald assuming some Pacific Islanders are cannibals, but he’s also shown to be wrong. In contrast, “Voodoo Hoodoo” has characters drawn like Ebony White and an evil, Voodoo-practicing witch doctor. Now I am in no way condemning Fantagraphics for reprinting these stories; in fact, I think they deserve praise for doing so, and Disney for allowing them to be reprinted. By contrast, a few years ago DC scuttled a Monster Society of Evil collection, supposedly because of concerns about the racially sensitive material it would have contained (never mind that they had already reprinted said material over several Archive editions). It’s important that this material be preserved and presented as a part of comics history. Unfortunately, that does cut down the potential audience somewhat.

Scott Cederlund:

I think I missed a key developmental stage of my childhood where I should have learned to read funny animal comics. There’s a world of differences between Carl Bark’s brand of funny animal stories like those found in Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes and the books I was stuck reading: Captain Carrot and the Amazing Zoo Crew (which I only stuck around for the first few “collectible” issue) and Cerebus. Captain Carrot was close enough to the superhero books that were my world at that point and Cerebus was pretentious enough for the art/English major I would become. Funny animals for the sake of funny animals is something that still eludes me.

I think what I really miss is more of an appreciation for the Carl Barks art. He’s the most well-known classic Disney artist but when I look at the stories in Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes, I see more of a generic house Disney style than anything else. I can’t pick out my Carl Barkses from my Don Rosas. It’s all Donald Duck and his nephews looking like I remember them from Disney’s old Sunday night movies. Somehow, Barks’s work in this book registers to me as stories but not necessarily as comics.

What I enjoy about Barks (and his spiritual descendant Don Rosa) is that he doesn’t tell stories about cartoonish ducks but he tells them about characters who happen to be cartoonish ducks. The stories themselves, from the adventurous and titular “Lost in the Andes” to the screwballish “Plenty of Pets” and even to the one page gag strips, are built around characters. Donald Duck is the loyal but easily flustered hero. He seems to be all about himself and how everything affects him but he’s always doing things for his nephews or his uncle out of a strong love that exists among these characters. Even as characters lose their tempers and get mad at each other, there’s never a sense of spite or selfishness around these characters. Donald Duck is like Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. He’s quick to anger but there’s hardly a bigger heart around.

Around this unique family (a duck, his nephews and his uncle), Barks builds these fun adventures as Donald travels to South America in search of square eggs or travels the oceans looking for his marooned uncle. There’s a surprising amount of adventure if all you expect from your funny animals is laughs and gags. Barks fills the pages of the longer epic tales (20-30 pages equals the epics) with adventure and danger on almost every page. And he gives all of his characters an ingenuity to be able to get out of the danger. It’s a cartoonish world that has its own logic and rules of physics but Barks makes it all logical and it makes sense that this is how it would work in the world of Donald Duck. Of course there would be square eggs laid by square chickens. And if there are square chickens, it only follows that there would need to be square roosters.

Barks creates some fun, entertaining stories so I guess they’re right when they call him the “good” Duck artist. Barks’s actual art and storytelling becomes a bit invisible behind the stories and maybe that’s the way it should be. The power of the characters and the rush of the stories is what the art is communicating. With little other experience with other Disney comics, it’s hard to tell just how good this stuff is. If you had given me any one of the comics that’s reprinted in this book, I guess I would have just naturally assumed that this is how well put together all of the other Disney books were. It’s strange not to know what the bad stuff is like because it makes it that much harder to tell how extraordinary the good stuff is.

Buy Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes from Amazon.com.