Outland, The Complete Library–Sunday Comics: 1989-1995, by Berkeley Breathed
The second installment of Breathed’s “Opus trilogy” is when, sadly, the cracks started to show. Granted, Bloom County was in no way an easy act to follow, but Breathed’s own statements indicates that the shift to one day a week was meant to play to his strengths as a cartoonist with seemingly the world’s worst work ethic. His commentary in this book, as well as the Bloom County collections, makes frequent note of his chronic difficulty in meeting deadlines for a daily strip. So he went Sunday-only with Outland…and he still had trouble keeping up. I’m starting to wonder if Breathed wasn’t biting off more than he could chew pursuing a career in newspaper comics.
To be honest, I’m not altogether certain why Outland needed to be a separate strip. Distinct it’s very much not–while the strip started out playing with surreal, Krazy Kat-esque landscapes, this fell by the wayside pretty quickly, settling into a look nigh-indistinguishable from that of Bloom County. Also falling by the wayside were quite literally all of the characters introduced for the theoretically “new” strip, the focus settling on five or six holdovers. Late in the series we even see the return of the “Binkley’s anxiety closet” gag, and Binkley was never even a real presence in Outland. Running one day a week plays hell on Breathed’s sense of pacing and comedic timing, as well–lacking the room to build serious story arcs and running gags, the series winds up feeling very choppy and over reliant on such weak gags as characters’ asses randomly falling off, which is only funny the first three times it happens.
It’s not terrible–the inherent charm is still there, and Breathed still has a wonderful facility for vocabulary. And if anything ever needed Breathed’s deft hand at biting social commentary, it was the weird identity politics and touchy-feeliness of the early 1990s. It’s just not Bloom County, is all. Outland’s tragic flaw is its inability to make a clean break. Had Breathed not needed to keep selling Bill the Cat dolls to fund his powerboating habit, who know what he would have been capable of.
This is, I’m afraid, another one of those “take a good long look at that cover” reviews. I’d pretty much read Greg Rucka’s grocery lists, and that cover still had me vacillating over whether or not to check this book out. Though this description in no way applies to Rucka (not yet, anyway), the cover really does make this collection look like the latest uninspiring effort from a long-off-his-game bestselling author coasting along on reputation. Note how the author’s name is in bigger text than the title, for instance. Note also the horrendous art, like something off an especially skeevy romance novel. Get used to it now, because not only does Greg Horn draw every cover in this collection, he’s allowed to draw an entire issue. Presumably he was in possession of various Marvel execs in compromising positions, possibly involving ungulates.
This collection has, no joke, some of the absolute worst art I’ve ever seen in mainstream comics. Rob Liefeld only wishes he could inspire such literal, visceral revulsion. Greg Horn is just wildly inappropriate, persisting in drawing Elektra like she’s just been rescued from a Thai brothel. The scary part is, Horn’s not even the worst of it. This collection is a primer text for “Why Chuck Austen Doesn’t Get Work Anymore 101”. You thought that whole thing with Communion wafers disintegrating people was bad? Just check out Austen’s art, which looks very much like he posed a bunch of action figures, took pictures and slapped some Photoshop filters over them. Actually, I think I’ve just described something much more engaging, or at least funnier. These days most webcomics have better art than this, and these were books people were expected to pay money for! Thankfully the whole TPB’s not like this–Bennett and Pagulayan are quite nice, which is good because I don’t think I’d have made it all the way through this book had Horn and Austen been handed the keys entirely.
Writing-wise, these issues are pretty alright. Not exceptional maybe, but that might just be because I don’t have any particular attachment to the Elektra character. There’s some interesting meditations and reinterpretations (not retcons, thank god) on the character and her backstory, albeit with some weird curveballs along the way–a bizarre, not very successful attempt to play The Hand for laughs, for example. Also, the final issue’s abrupt ending serves only to negate most of the character development to the previous twenty-ish issues, which I can only assume was editorial mandate.
There was a lot of hoopla leading up to this book’s release, concerning DC’s announcement that Barbara Gordon would no longer be in a wheelchair. This was a problem, as many people–myself included–felt she was far more interesting and awesome as Oracle than she ever was as Batgirl. (Is it weird to say I liked a lady better when she was a paraplegic? Because that seems weird to me. Especially when I yelled it at my ex.) Most people assumed that this retcon would be a straightforward one, with Barbara simply never having been in the wheelchair at all. Which would make sense, what with the supposedly all-new continuity.
What happened instead, however, was just plain weird. In the continuity of the relaunched DCU, Batgirl still got shot, still wound up paralyzed, and later underwent an experimental procedure that enabled her to walk and swing around punching criminals again. No mention whatsoever of her having been Oracle at all, leading me to wonder whether DC has any clue what people liked about that part of Barbara’s life. Considering this is Dan DiDio we’re talking about, I’m gonna go with “probably not”. On the plus side–assuming there is one–this does mean The Killing Joke still happened, so I don’t have to throw that book away.
That stupidity aside, this book is pretty good. It’s not Simone at her best; the writing feels rushed, as though the script could have used an extra draft or two. “As a general rule, I don’t believe in ghosts” strikes me as a stupid thing for someone living in the DCU to say, for example. So long as you’re not expecting Secret Six, however, it’s not irritating. In fact, there’s a lot of genuinely effective stuff here–the first story-arc is a meditation on survivor’s guilt and the different ways people react to unexpected, life-altering good fortune. And the rest of the book concerns itself with the dark, predatory side of power and privilege. It’s genuinely thought-provoking stuff, with plenty of slam-bang action and humor (such as Batgirl stealing her motorcycle back from an impound lot) to stop things getting preachy. Syaf’s art is pretty amazing as well–you feel the exhilaration of Barbara’s new lease on life just as keenly as she probably does. Or more so, ‘cuz you’re real. You know what I mean. And it’s always nice to see an artist who actually understands how fabric sits over breasts–no boob-socks here.
As a creator, Umezu has pronounced strengths and weaknesses. On the weak side, he’s pretty crap at lengthy narratives, specifically when it comes to endings. The Drifting Classroom, for all its merits, eventually sputtered to a halt, piling one ludicrous contrivance on top of another to give the series the one thing it never under any circumstances should ever have had: a happy ending.
On the other side of the equation, Umezu is an indisputable master of the lingering image, the horrific sight that sits on the page and fills the reader with more dread and disgust the longer you look at it. This is a key element to any successful horror comic, and it is for this reason I feel comfortable declaring Umezu Japan’s finest horror-comic creator, in spite of whatever flaws he may possess as a storyteller. Umezu is equally adept at Cronenberg-esque body horror (he’s basically the Japanese Bob Powell–not something I say lightly) and classical ghost/monster stories–I’ll never call the yokai goofy again. Nor, for that matter, am I likely to ever go on a hike through the Japanese countryside without a veritable shitload of holy water and silver bullets. You know, if I ever visit Japan.
This horror-anthology series, collected by Viz across two massive volumes, sees Umezu make the horror genre his own personal playground, with mixed results. The stories are at their best when playing to Umezu’s strengths–that is, when they’re kept short. When they are, we get stuff like the genuinely sad and moving, but still creepy as hell “The Stairs”. When they aren’t, we get “The Band Of One Hundred Monsters”, whose solid premise eventually gets bogged down in befuddling plot-twists. Some of the longer pieces do work well, such as the wonderfully Lovecraftian “The Tsunami Summoners”, but most of the time less is definitely more.
I wrap up this week with a suitable alternative to Before Watchmen for those who wish to give Darwyn Cooke money. That said, however, this is probably the weakest of the Parker adaptations so far. Actually, that’s not accurate in the least; the adaptation is just as note-perfect as ever, albeit not as innovative as The Outfit. It’s the source material that’s at fault here; while I haven’t read the original novel, I get the impression it’s on the scarce side. As a result, this supposed heist story is really three-quarters setup. This may not be so unusual as I think; I am, after all, accustomed to heist stories being all about how things go wrong, as opposed to the minute details. These sequences do work well in establishing Parker to be as competent as he is amoral, which makes him all the more unsettling. Parker’s sullen, fourth-wall-piercing glare is every bit as scary as anything Umezu ever drew. When the heist itself begins, Stark seems to be having funs toying with the reader’s preconceived notions, setting up myriad opportunities for things to go wrong which come to naught. What does eventually go wrong is so unusual as to border on contrived. To be honest, were it not for Cooke’s adaptation I don’t think I’d like this book nearly so much. Which, really, is a good problem for a comic to have. Cooke seems to be making Parker adaptations an annual occurrence, and considering how many of these things Stark wrote he could keep this up for twenty years or more. We should declare a national holiday.