The Complete Terry and the Pirates:vol. 1, 1934-1936, by Milton Caniff
In these times when newspaper comics are steadily declining in relevance–not that they have anyone but themselves to blame for it, as a quick visit to The Comics Curmudgeon will prove–it’s a weird thought that at one time a strip could catapult its creator to celebrity status. Such a feat was altogether more difficult in the days before the internet; indeed, back in the mid-1930s mass media itself was still in its relative infancy, making the accomplishment all the more remarkable. And I’d have to say Caniff more than earned the attention with Terry and the Pirates. While these first three years don’t have the strongest material, there’s still some landmark stuff in here, which would inform action/adventure comics for decades to come. One memorable story arc even pioneer the psychological drama–Pat Ryan proves himself as good at effing with your head as he is cold punching you in the face. It’s well drawn, makes fantastic use of shadow and body language, and is often legitimately funny.
It’s also really, really racist.
Maybe I’m being obnoxious in pointing this out, but it’s the plain truth. I’m fine with admiring a well-made product of an earlier time in spite of its now-obnoxious views, but that doesn’t grant license to ignore or excuse said views. Buckteeth, day-glo skin tones, huge ears and swapping of r’s and l’s abound here, reaching apotheosis in Pat and Terry’s sidekick/pseudo-slave Connie. The racism takes on an odd slant (heh heh?) against the strip’s overall milieu–Terry is, in many ways, a love letter to imperialism, the protagonists often treating Republic-era China as their own personal playground. Let me put it this way–you know that scene in Die Hard With A Vengeance where the guy is forced to walk into a black neighborhood wearing a sandwich board that reads “I Hate N*****s”? Well, if Milt Caniff had written that scene the locals would have thrown that guy a party. It gets even weirder when you consider the Dragon Lady character, who gets progressively less and less Chinese as the strip goes on–by the end of this collection, she looks like your standard brunette old-timey actress. Which I guess means people liked her?
Thing about all this is, it could have been worse, as a perusal of other portrayals of Asians in comics at the time will soon reveal. Caniff does at least seem to realize Chinese people are human, even as he stereotypes them to hell and gone. For all his apparent buffoonery, Connie is fairly competent–Pat and Terry would have died several times over in this book without him, which to their credit they acknowledge. At the very least, they eventually stop calling him a “ch*nk” to his face. So, that’s Terry and the Pirates for you–expertly-crafted, influential, and no more racist than it needs to be. Which I suppose is a recommendation of a sort.
Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir, by Nicole Georges
This is a graphic memoir that walks a narrow line, endearing without becoming twee and soul-searching without becoming self-indulgent. Considering Georges is a Portland native, that the former was avoided is particularly impressive. Georges’ life story (the part of it she sets out to tell here, at least) may not be all that unusual in the final analysis, but when you read the book it seems like a very big deal indeed, just as it likely did–and does–to the author herself. This is hardly unusual to the genre, at least when it’s done well–nobody whose opinion I care about would ever call Fun Home banal, after all. Don’t let the title fool you–Dr. Laura’s involvement, while germane, is relatively brief, her unsurprisingly-not-very-good advice providing a mere stepping stone on Georges’ path to unraveling the knotty issue of her mother and parentage. (I do, however, find it interesting that Georges apparently neglected to mention that she’d yet to come out to her mother at the time she called the show. Who knows how differently things would have gone if she had.) Georges’ artwork is a bit too washy and Mary Engelbreit-ish for my tastes, but is still well-suited to the overall tone. Those interested in Dr. Laura’s side of things can read all about it in her upcoming book, I’m Batshit Insane And I’m Not Even A Real Shrink.
Batwoman, vol. 2: To Drown The World, written by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, art by Amy Reeder and others
A bit of a letdown, to be honest. While still well-written and fantastically composed, the series suffers from the lack of artwork by Williams in this volume. I’m not certain why he gave the pictures a miss in these issues, though I suspect the old specter of “scheduling conflicts” had a hand in it. I certainly hope he takes it up again soon, if he hasn’t already; that fill-in artist Reeder left the book under apparently acrimonious circumstances would seem to indicate he has. Speaking of Reeder, while I’d consider myself a fan of her work, and she does her usual decent job here, the book just doesn’t quite hang together in terms of atmosphere with the style change. As a result, the series, while still enjoyable by New 52 standards, veers dangerously close to run-of-the-mill.
Green Lantern (New 52) vol. 1: Sinestro, written by Geoff Johns, art by Doug Mahnke and Mike Choi
And now I’d like to leave my readers on the lighter side of New 52 letdowns. “Letdown” isn’t the right word here, actually–unlike with Batwoman, I expected not much of anything from this book, and was in no way disappointed. I’ve enjoyed Johns’ Green Lantern in the past, as have many others; enough, in fact, that DC saw fit to change precisely shit-all in its alleged relaunch. I think Batman saw more reimagining than this franchise, to be honest. About the only noticeable difference is in Johns’ obvious fatigue with writing Hal Jordan, his always-odd portrayal of the character taking a turn for the borderline hateful. Hal spends most of this volume as an idiot who says and does idiotic things; stupid as the Guardians (who take a turn for the outright villainous here) are, you really can’t see even them trusting this guy with a ring that basically lets its wearer hack reality. And the hell of it is, for all the apparent effort that’s gone into making him a cool anti-hero, Sinestro doesn’t fare much better. And at least Hal’s consistent in his Reynolds-ification; Sinestro’s competence and motivations are all over the map (he can’t seem to decide whether or not his plan to shut down the yellow power battery hinged upon his becoming a Green Lantern again, just to cite one particularly annoying example). As for art, I find myself wondering once again why the hell Doug Mahnke is ever allowed to draw an entire book. His style works great when a character is supposed to look creepy and off-putting (look up the cover of The Man Who Laughs if you feel like you’ve been getting too much sleep lately), but when the purported protagonists plunge into the “terrifying rapist” pool the effect is a derailed book. Choi’s work is an all-around failure, but is at least not unnerving. This is only recommended for die-hard GL fans; certainly those of you who read the old-DCU Johns books will have no trouble following it.