Special Note: This edition of Stuff I Read This Week coincides with the passing of underground-comix veteran Spain Rodriguez, who died Wednesday. I wasn’t super-familiar with Spain’s work, but what I saw affected me on a very real, personal level. While he wasn’t the best-known of his scene, there’s no denying we lost a giant of sequential-art counterculture this week. I didn’t read any of Spain’s work this week so he doesn’t really fit into the feature on a general level, but I didn’t want to leave his passing unremarked upon either. Therefore, this edition is dedicated to his memory. For those of you interested in exploring his comics, an excellent place to start would be the Fantagraphics volume Cruisin’ With The Hound: The Life And Times Of Fred Toote, available now.
I wish more comics creators could be like Los Bros. Hernandez. I don’t just mean I wish they could all be this awe-inspiringly talented; I also mean in the sense that they would all develop and mature as the years roll on, rather than lapse into rote self-parody as is more often the case. The key here has been the growth and change denied so many in the industry; we’ve been following these characters for just over thirty years now (this series is only a month younger than me), and they’ve been allowed to mature and develop right alongside their creators. While Jaime’s side of things has had the more organic process, Beto often seeming to prefer to become lost in surrealist experimentation, the end result is the same–two epic storylines as approachable as they are sprawling. The New Stories volumes aren’t what you’d call beginner-friendly, and this latest book is even less of an exception, but I refuse with a stubbornness bordering on intransigence to declare this a flaw. Rather, the fault lies with said beginners, for waiting until just now to dive into the single greatest American comic book. Luckily, it’s easily rectified, and that backlog will go by faster than you might think.
A bit of a dark horse amidst notable Batman artists, Don Newton was a latecomer to comics, his career beginning only ten years before his death in 1984. He arrived just in time to work on the period in which the Dark Knight really got his balls back, notably drawing the first appearance of Robin #2 Jason Todd. That…didn’t turn out so well, but good on him anyhow. That issue isn’t in this collection for whatever reason, but it’s still a pretty solid showcase of Newton’s work. I think Newton’s stuff is pretty all right, but not much else. He’s rightly applauded for his sense of expression, but I found his bodywork to be a bit rubbery for my taste. Still, he’s not directly injurious to any of the stories on display here, which suffer from scattershot writing more than anything else–I like Denny O’Neil just fine, but man was he pretentious as all hell. Some of the finishing artists weren’t quite up to the task, either–inking’s one of those things I tend to only notice when it’s done badly, and you better believe I notice it in some of these stories. One proffered issue of The Brave And The Bold is especially bad, doubly suffering from bad inking and having Red Tornado in it. I suppose this book is a must for all you Batman completists who presumably read this feature, but I found it little more than a curiosity–certainly it did nothing to supplant my image of Neal Adams as the definitive Bronze Age Batman artist.
I find these anthologies fascinating, because it’s not all straight comics adaptations–no Classics Illustrated reborn here. While many of them are indeed comics, just as many are “simply” a series of illustrations designed to match the mood and theme of the work, or even in some cases a deliberate inversion of same. Which is no issue at all–this book is vibrant where Classics Illustrated was stilted. Kick speaks in his foreword of his desire to take classical literature back from the musty pedestal so many educators place it upon, putting it back in its proper context and returning it to the masses. It works beautifully–it’s plain the illustrators are having a lot of fun (Lewis Carroll alone gets half a dozen entries). My personal favorite of the bunch would have to be John Porcellino’s Walden–I’d pay good money to see a full book of it. Running a close second would be Dame Darcy’s Alice In Wonderland–she may be the single best illustrator of the work since Tennille, her idiosyncrasies fitting the book to a T.
Another autobio comic from a female cartoonist, one that breaks the mold such things seem to be settling into. Neither exuberant nor self-flagellating, Bell’s work is strangely retiring. Bell isn’t the most social of folks–being all but raised by wolves will do that to a person–and often seems content to watch the rest of life pass her by. While she definitely needs to get out more (take it from someone who knows), Bell’s life is still both compelling and fulfilling in her attempts to puzzle out the funny little apes passing in and out of her view. To keep the reader guessing just as much as she often seems to be, Bell intersperses her accounts with obvious dreams and tall tales, which are seldom easy to spot. I thought the stuff with Michel Gondry was made up, for instance, but a Wikipedia search proves there’s at least something to it. I do, sadly, believe every word of her Comic-con experience, which reveals it to be what I’ve always suspected–a pile of corporate faux-geek bullshit with which true comics fans needn’t concern themselves. Bell’s artwork, furthermore, often seems just as shy and careworn as she herself seems to be much of the time, not that that’s a bad thing in this or any other case.
Well, I did it again. That is, I found myself saying aloud what I most always wind up saying when I read a Mark Millar comic, that being “Dear lord! This is shit!” I have no objections to Ultimate Marvel in principle, so long as it’s kept to itself with no attempts made to infect the mainstream MU with it. Which, all too often, is precisely what happens–you can’t tell me that’s not what Civil War was. The main problem with The Ultimates is that it’s just badly executed–it’s less a darker (though it’s definitely that), more realistic take on the Avengers than it is a case of “what if the Avengers were a bunch of crazy douchebags?” In addition to taking the Marvel Universe and stripping away all its fun and magic, this book is everything wrong with Mark Millar in a nutshell, from the shameless pandering to the endless, lame-brained pop-culture references, which serve only to make this series a product of a particularly noxious time in American culture. At least he’s not swearing like a special-needs kindergartener this time around. Hitch’s art is all right, but compositionally speaking is a mess, Hitch doggedly sticking to panoramic panels when they’re anything but appropriate. This is never gonna be The Authority, no matter how much Hitch and Millar try. I’ll probably stick around for one more trade, if only to see Cap make the infamous “do you think this “A” on my forehead stands for France?!” remark (oh, Mark…have I told you lately that I hate you?) and give Hank Pym the beatdown he so richly deserves. For the rest of you, I’d recommend just watching the Avengers movie, which is a lot like this, only well-executed.
Weird–a Bruce Jones comic I actually like. Really, really like, as a matter of fact. There’s always been a psychological-horror bent to the story of Bruce Banner and the other guy, but I’ve never really seen it explored like it is in this storyline. Favoring dramatic tension over mass destruction, Jones keeps Hulk largely off-page; in nine issues Banner “Hulks out” only twice, playing up both his menace and his fundamentally reactive nature. It’s all about Banner here, as he runs from a shadowy, increasingly bizarre government agency, he and his friends finding all manner of clever ways to stymie their efforts to make their own army of Hulks–the thing with the camera in the eye, and how they get around it, is an absolute joy. The conspiracy elements actually haven’t aged quite so well–this did come out at the height of X-Files fervor, after all–and the endgame is bizarre and contrived, but these are still the best Hulk comics I’ve read all week. Helps that he’s not bellowing about Freddie Prinze Jr. this time out.
We end this week with another one of those “dear lord, not this shit again” entries. New 52 Grifter is yet another case of great ideas and lousy execution. This initially looks to be a paranoid thriller, with its core concept of humans possessed by evil lizard-bug aliens and the protagonist being the only one who can see them, but instead is all about stuff being shot and blown up. It’s basically like if They Live was directed by Michael Bay. You can panic now. Between Edmondson’s bland scripting and Cafu’s action-oriented (and admittedly quite nice) art, there’s nothing resembling atmosphere or tension. It only gets worse when Cafu leaves after three issues or so, to be replaced by Scott Clark, possibly the single laziest professional artist in the industry today. The guy doesn’t even attempt backgrounds, opting instead to swipe terrain from what appears to be old Playstation 1 games and drawing the characters over that. I’m not alone in this–it’s pretty damn bad when Rob Liefeld says your work sucks. This would be bad enough from a startup publisher, but from one as well funded and established as DC it’s downright unacceptable. You charge people three bucks for your uninspiring shit, you can at least pretend to care. And another thing: while I may have had my issues with Wildstorm, it was miles better than what DC’s doing with its remnants. Midnighter’s appearance near the middle of the book just drives this home–the Midnighter I know would have beaten this guy to death with his own spleen just on general principle. Oh, well–at least Grifter is, you know, an actual grifter this time.