Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Horror and a colorful

COMICS PANELNew comics releases include alternate-history fantasy-horror and a colorful foodie memoir

Every two weeks, Comics Panel covers recent notable releases along the entire comics spectrum, from superhero/mainstream comics to graphic novels/art comics.
According to cartoonist Tom Gauld, there are some characters guaranteed to improve any story: one-armed pianist; schoolgirl detective; young Hitler; drunk time-traveler; talking crab; angry philosopher; pirates; and beautiful amnesiac. That’s a funny list. What’s funnier, though, is the way Gauld draws each of these: as tiny icons, with dots for heads, thin lines for legs and arms, narrow triangular torsos, and just a few distinguishing characteristics. The drunk time-traveler is wearing a space helmet and has “booze bubbles” around him; the beautiful amnesiac has her hand at her chin, as though trying to remember; and so on. Describing Gauld’s little figures can’t possibly do them justice. He has a way of taking the rudiments of geometry and making characters that are hilariously recognizable.
You’re All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack (D&Q) collects some of the comic strips that Gauld has drawn for The Guardian’s book review section, which means that most of them have a literary bent, riffing on famous authors and genre conventions. Gauld imagines a Brontë sisters videogame, with Charlotte racing across the moor toward an angry, cane-wielding man; and he draws some of the characters left out of Kenneth Grahame’sThe Wind In The Willows, such as Prawny, Madame Aubergine, and Viscount Stout. He re-conceives Charles Dickens as Batman (complete with Dickensmobile) and cites “Mary’s Undersea Adventure” and “Space Jesus” as some of the apocryphal Bible stories. The jokes inYou’re All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack are quick one-pagers, dispatched in just a few panels, but they’re rooted in a love of the human side of books: the real people who write them and the fictional constructs who occupy them. That Gauld is able to get so much of that across with so little is like the most disarming, confounding magic trick. [NM]
Gauld’s gag cartoons are in the tradition of Gary Larson, B. Kliban, and scores ofNew Yorker contributors whose sense of humor and distinctive drawing styles defined their work more than any recurring characters. These kinds of cartoonists have become even more prevalent in the Internet era, since they can deliver the kind of day-brightening jokes that are easily passed along, relying on attitude and ideas, not backstory. Stand-up comedian Demetri Martin isn’t a web cartoonist by trade, but his gag-cartoon collection Point Your Face At This(Grand Central/Hachette) is very much in the post-Kliban absurdist/observational humor vein, with jokes about a time-traveler’s tombstone (born 2012, died 1927) and how every bag becomes a barf bag after it’s been vomited into. Point Your Face At This is nearly 300 pages long, and Martin would’ve done well to follow Kliban’s example and cull that to the best 100. Some of the cartoons here offer thudding self-criticism or social comment—a dog named “Reality” shitting out “reality TV” would be an egregious example of the latter—and some just read like notes for bits of Martin’s stage act. But the best jokes in Point Your Face At This wouldn’t work any other way but on the page, because they depend on the ways readers process visual information. Martin makes comparisons between similar-looking objects—such as a coat-button and a “disappointing pepperoni pizza”—and guides the eye through illustrations where the punchline is mostly in the presentation. With more discipline (or if he didn’t already have a well-paying job), Martin could become one of the sharpest gag cartoonists of this era. [NM]
Unlike Gauld and Martin, Lisa Hanawalt mixes her one-off gags with multi-page humor stories, more in the mode of Michael Kupperman in terms of taking an approach that mixes illustrated text pieces, short strips, sketches, and sprawling sagas. Kupperman provides an approving pull-quote to the back of Hanawalt’s My Dirty Dumb Eyes (D&Q), joined by Patton Oswalt, Julie Klausner, and Kristen Schaal. Hanawalt’s comic style is all her own, though, mixing surrealism, raw sex, cute critters, pop culture, and her own first-person reportage and movie reviews. In short form, Hanawalt ponders how the creatures in Avatar poop (out of their mouths, she presumes), and shows what happens when a lover finds a woman’s “d-spot.” (She turns into a dinosaur.) In longer form, she has an animal-headed couple discussing the self-doubt of artists, and imagines celebrity chefs engaging in liquid-nitrogen fights. The subject matter in My Dirty Dumb Eyes ranges from the bizarre to the commonplace, and Hanawalt’s art can be both jaw-droppingly beautiful and purposefully hideous. She’s the opposite of Gauld and Martin in some ways, expressive where they’re minimalist. But what matters most is that she’s very, very funny, making what in other hands would be shock-comedy come off more like a friend describing a crazy dream. [NM]
Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta are responsible for two of the best stories to come out of Marvel Comics in recent history (Fantastic Four #588FF#23), and they bring their unique chemistry to creator-owned comics with East Of West #1 (Image). Taking place in an alternate reality where the Civil War was extended because of the involvement of the newly formed Endless Indian Nation, and then concluded when a comet hit the United States, this new ongoing combines elements of spaghetti Western with apocalyptic fantasy-horror as it follows the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse across a desolate future America. Clocking in at 36 pages for $3.50, it’s another impressive oversized debut from Image, a stylish journey through a world that’s alien but still recognizable. 
Jonathan Hickman’s first comics work debuted in 2006, and it’s astounding how prolific he’s become since The Nightly News. He’s currently ushering Marvel’s Avengers into the future with both of his Marvel Now! titles, and The Manhattan Projects hasn’t lost any steam as it moves into its second year. The sheer amount of content he’s putting out on a monthly basis is impressive, and hopefully he’ll be able to juggle all four titles and a summer event at Marvel without a dip in quality. Hickman has proven that he’s a capable genre-jumper, and he shows a strong understanding of Westerns with this first issue, beginning with the idea that the world is still a sprawling frontier full of possibilities. With artist Dragotta and colorist Frank Martin, Hickman has created an immersive alternate America with plenty of secrets still to explore. 
A lot of Hickman’s work has to do with the natural course of an event getting thrown off by a change in the process, and in East Of West, that event is the apocalypse. Death arrived before the rest of his Horsemen brethren, and has been wandering the plains with his American Indian companions The Wolf and The Crow. He’s hunting down people whom he previously faced in a showdown that’s briefly flashed back to but not explained, a mission that takes him from a bar on the Burning Plain to the office of the president, whom he kills at the end of the issue to get a head start on the apocalypse. Hickman provides extensive exposition on the history of this new continent but leaves an air of mystery around the characters, resulting in a story that’s dense with information but doesn’t feel overly stuffed. 
Dragotta’s art combines elements of Eastern and Western comics for visuals that are expansive and intricately detailed, yet still very expressive and dynamic. The design of this book’s world is reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, incorporating sci-fi elements into a culture that’s still largely dominated by a late-19th-century aesthetic, creating a look that’s simultaneously retro and futuristic. Martin is one of the most talented colorists working in comics, layering shades to give the linework added dimension while constantly experimenting with unconventional color combinations. His work elevates Dragotta’s art, making the book’s visuals as enticing as the script. [OS]
With his multi-Eisner Award-winning success reviving Daredevil at Marvel and recent work with Indestructible Hulk and The Rocketeer: Cargo Of Doom, Mark Waid has become the go-to writer for helping readers remember why these characters have endured over the years. Last month at WonderCon, IDW announced that Waid would be writing The Rocketeer/Spirit: Pulp Friction this July with art from the legendary Paul Smith, but before that miniseries hits stands, Waid is turning his eye to another pulp superhero icon with Green Hornet #1 (Dynamite). Waid has a talent for incorporating exposition in his scripts without cutting into the story’s momentum, and by the end of the first five pages, readers are caught up on the basics of the hero, his civilian identity, and his mission. 
By beginning the issue talking about how easy technology has made communication in the present, Waid shows how important the newspaper was for getting information to the general public in the past. The editor of a newspaper controlled what shape that knowledge took, putting Britt Reid in an exceptionally powerful position when he’s not pretending to be Chicago’s most notorious criminal: the Green Hornet. Using his costumed identity to get incriminating information that he then prints in the news, the Green Hornet is pulling one big sting on the entire underworld, and Waid’s story makes sure that the stakes are high for a hero who’s in this deep. 
Artist Daniel Indro does notable work capturing the pre-WWII time period, and he stages action sequences that display why Green Hornet and his partner Kato have been able to build so much street cred. Indro’s figures can be a bit stiff at times, but he has a vision for the book that captures the down-to-earth elements of Waid’s script without letting go of the superhero spectacle. Like Waid’s other recent works, Green Hornet #1 is a great jumping-on point for both new readers and longtime fans of the character, revitalizing the character by going back to what makes him so intriguing in the first place. [OS]
Considering Valiant’s first book was released in May of last year, it’s impressive how much the upstart publisher has grown to become legitimate competition for Marvel and DC. Currently publishing five ongoing titles (with a sixth on the way in the revamped Quantum & Woody), Valiant has done strong work laying the foundation for a shared universe while introducing readers to updated versions of ’90s characters like X-O Manowar, Archer & Armstrong, and Shadowman. Grabbing creators that have established themselves in the worlds of both creator-owned and superhero comics, Valiant has established a focused core group of titles in a broad range of genres, ranging from satirical buddy comedy to fantasy sci-fi and espionage action. But with less than a year of stories in the can, it may seem a bit early for the publisher to have its first crossover. Luckily, Harbinger Wars #1 (Valiant) is executed with the same level of care as the rest of Valiant’s line.
A four-issue miniseries tying into Harbinger and BloodshotHarbinger Wars escalates the conflict between Toyo Harada’s Harbinger Foundation and Peter Stanchek’s Renegades when a new crop of psiots are freed from Project Rising Spirit by Bloodshot, a PRS weapon gone rogue. If none of that makes any sense, it will after reading the issue, as writers Joshua Dysart and Duane Swierczynski make sure readers know who all the major players are by the end of the first chapter. They’re joined by artists Clayton Henry, Clayton Crain, and Mico Suayan, and the story justifies the use of three different artists by having each tackle a different section. Henry is the main artist, providing clean, energetic linework that’s a solid jumping-off point for Crain’s sleek digital art and Suayan’s moody, hyper-detailed visuals. From the art to the writing, Harbinger Wars is a smooth package that ultimately benefits from the youth of the Valiant universe; these books are still in their formative years, and there’s a sense that anything can happen and no one is safe—something that’s lost at Marvel and DC, where certain characters will always return to a certain status quo, usually right around the time a superhero movie hits theaters. [OS]
Vertigo’s recent anthologies reviving classic DC titles have only gotten better with each new release, and Time Warp #1 (Vertigo) continues the trend as it brings prestigious writers Damon Lindelof and Gail Simone to Vertigo for the very first time. The overarching theme is time travel and manipulation, and Lindelof starts the book with a story starring DC Comics’ Rip Hunter: Time Master as he prepares for his death by dinosaur consumption. Teaming with artist Jeff Lemire, Lindelof’s installment is a quaint little meditation on mortality, with the crudeness of Lemire’s linework bringing a youthful energy to the page. “Quaint” is a good word to describe Simone’s story, too, which takes place in a candy shop that sells sweets that allow people to relive their fondest memories. The relationship between time and memory is a major theme, and there are as many stories about trying to reconnect with the past mentally as there are about traveling there physically. 
Killing Hitler is another major motif: There are stories about people dealing with the fallout of Hitler getting killed early, one from the point of view of his sister who suffers after the loss of her child brother, and the other following two men who are charged with fixing the time stream after each new assassination. Simon Spurrier and Michael Dowling deliver the highlight of the anthology with the story of two scientists who have extremely unorthodox means of insulting each other, a hilarious and heartbreaking look at how two men cope with a shared loss. Peter Milligan and M.K. Perker’s “She’s Not There” has the distinction of being the last story edited by former Vertigo executive editor Karen Berger, coincidentally involving a woman leaving a man who won’t give her the freedom she wants. Berger’s departure was a major blow for Vertigo, but Time Warp, along with the upcoming debut of a new Astro City ongoing under the mature-readers imprint, shows that Vertigo is beginning to move forward, however slowly. [OS]
Part autobiography, part essay, part cookbook, Lucy Knisley’s thoroughly winning whatsit Relish: My Life In The Kitchen (First Second) tells the story of her colorful upbringing by New York foodies. Knisley’s cartooning style is simplified but specific, with just enough detail to bring to life the urban apartments, upstate farming communities, and international destinations that she moved between throughout her girlhood—not to mention the many ingredients, utensils, and plated meals that Knisley renders with care. There’s a real sense of joy to Relish, as Knisley fondly recalls some of the best and worst meals of her life, and ruminates on why it’s as important to appreciate a McDonald’s french fry as it is to savor braised foie gras. But while Relish is light, it’s no throwaway. 
Knisley uses food memories as a way of exploring her own temperament, her relationship with her parents, and her coming-of-age. Some of these vignettes might’ve been better handled in third person rather in Knisley’s cheery autobio take. (For example, the story of how her best male friend discovered porn in Mexico on the same trip where Knisley got her first period would’ve been more poignant if the author weren’t directly explaining its meaning.) But it’s hard to quibble much withRelish, given Knisley’s openness and insight into how people use food to satisfy needs that they often don’t fully understand. As she contemplates whether cravings are biological or learned, and considers whether her love of junk food was a way of rebelling against her parents’ snobbier tastes, Knisley gives each morsel meaning. [NM] 
Don’t know who the big purple guy was in The Avengers’ post-credits sequence? Marvel figured as much, so it’s getting readers up to speed on Thanos by presenting his full origin for the first time in Thanos Rising #1 (Marvel), flashing back to his early days as a geeky kid on Titan who’s reluctant to embrace his destiny as an agent of death and destruction. The sheepish, wide-eyed young boy shown here is a far cry from the aggressive hulk he’ll become as an adult, and writer Jason Aaron begins to walk Thanos down that path as he gets his first taste of death. The narrative of an ignored, misunderstood child who grows up to be evil is a fairly tired one, most recently popping up in the pages of Before Watchmen and Aaron’s own Wolverine And The X-Men. What sets this story apart is the sense of dread, that creeping feeling that Thanos’ true nature just needs the right catalyst for it to come rushing to the surface. Simone Bianchi’s artwork has a heavy European influence that generates breathtaking sci-fi locations, but Simone Peruzzi’s coloring can get a little too dark and muddy on the page. The artwork is perfect for a digital screen, though, and the illumination allows the details of the colored linework to shine through. This may not be the Thanos that longtime readers are accustomed to, but Aaron and Bianchi are making an effort turn him into a sympathetic villain.Thanos Rising doesn’t succeed on every level, but it lays a strong foundation for the character that will be chipped away as the miniseries continues… [OS]
The latest edition of the satirical quarterly The Devastator does its part to keep print alive through old-fashioned gimmickry. The Devastator #7—the “spies” issue—comes with a decoder, so readers can check out the secret messages scrawled in the margins. That’s in keeping with the spirit of The Devastator, which is playful by nature, mixing text pieces, comics, ad parodies, charts and graphs, and fun little surprises. The big draw of issue #7 is a few sample pages ofBrent Spiner’s Tok-Warz, which Spiner describes as, “What if Star Trek took place on Earth, and what if they didn’t go anywhere?” But as always, The Devastator crew also taps some top cartooning talent, including Michael Kupperman (who provides the cover illustration), JoJo Ramos (who draws Marly Halpern-Graser’s breakdown of how sexy movie spies differ from the cubicle-dwelling drudgery of real espionage), and Elan’ Trinidad (who collaborates with Lee Keeler on a deconstruction of an ’80s Burger King Kids’ Club placemat). The parodies of spy movies and TV series aren’t as cutting as they could be, but on the whole this is another clever issue of a humor magazine that values good design as highly as good gags… [NM] 
Speaking of cloak-and-dagger, Modesty Blaise: The Girl In The Iron Mask (Titan) represents the 23rd collection of Peter O’Donnell’s globe-hopping British spy comic strip, collecting three full arcs drawn by Enrique Badía Romero in the early ’90s. These stories find the mysterious, super-capable adventurer Modesty exploring ancient temples in the Indian subcontinent, defying the mafia in Australia, and living out an Alexandre Dumas novel in the Swiss Alps. By this point in the run of Modesty Blaise—a strip that debuted in 1963—the plots had become more formulaic, but Romero’s art is both detailed and stylish, especially in the title story, which keeps cutting between external views of Modesty wearing an iron mask and cutaways to how she’s struggling inside of it. She’s in a tight spot, and she stayed there for weeks when these strips were originally published. With this book, readers have the advantage of being able to zip straight through, to see how Modesty survives to make it to her next crisis… [NM]
Gifted with the Crystal Fist, a superpowered brass knuckle of alien origin, Trevor K. Trevinski is having the time of his life playing videogames all day and timing the pizza-delivery guy so he can get free food if the man is late. Monkeybrain is light on superhero comics for a reason, and Knuckleheads #1 (Monkeybrain) offers a different take on the costumed crusader, one that’s a bit more lethargic. The lovechild of Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro and a Judd Apatow bromantic comedy,Knuckleheads tells the story of Trev and his frustrated roommate Lance, who wants Trev to either get off his ass or give him the Crystal Fist and let him be an awesome superhero. Brian Winkeler’s script is largely a conversation between Trev, Lance, and the pizza guy, but the writer’s skill with witty banter keeps the pacing tight and constantly moving forward. It helps that he’s partnered with artist Robert Wilson IV, who draws expressive characters that nail the script’s comedic beats. And like all Monkeybrain books, the panels are laid out so that they can be read easily via guided view on a tablet or cell-phone screen. The publisher may not offer many superhero titles, but that helps fun and clever hero books likeKnuckleheads stick out in Monkeybrain’s diverse lineup of digital comics. [OS]

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