Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, No. 5: “Mercury,” “Nola,” “Supergirl,” and More

In which I take the opportunity to point out various releases of the graphic narrative-type variety that I deem noteworthy for this or that reason, some of which may even be on sale at a comics shop of retail bookstore near you if you’re lucky…or not, as the case may be.

Big news in the World of Comics this past week, as DC Comics announced the new management team that people had been speculating upon since former President and Publisher Paul Levitz stepped down, in the wake of Warner Bros. Entertainment initiating the company-wide restructuring that led to its rebranding as DC Entertainment, Inc., presumably to get serious about making inroads into creating successful motion pictures that don’t star Batman. The appointment of a five-person team has led to much discussion throughout the Comics Internet, with reactions being, to put it kindly, mixed.  I think that Dirk Deppey’s remarkably even handed take (unless you’re Levitz) makes a lot of sense, and many other more-astute-than-I pundits have weighed in as well.

Me, while I am a bit disappointed that the “Five Swell Guys”, as one wag has dubbed them, are firmly in a middle of the road (Golden Age fetishist and Black Lantern creator Johns and Image co-founder/artist specializing in hypermuscled and slickly inked superhero titles Lee are talented, but aren’t known for their innovation or groundbreaking tendencies in the slightest; neither is Didio, and he doesn’t even have the benefit of producing any worthwhile creative works to date) tradition, they still represent a inter-company continuity that should (one would think) make decision making and progress towards whatever goal they have established for themselves a smoother process, and hopefully will at least result in a few less fiascoes like the Minx line, a line of graphic novels targeted at teenage girls, but not getting the benefit of getting creators who had an affinity for that genre…it was canceled after just shy of two years, a casualty of a misreading of the bookstore market demand for such material, among other things. The others seem to have solid credentials in the disparate fields from which they come. Anyway, like I am so fond of saying, we shall see what we shall see. A successful DC is a good thing for comics in general, I believe.

Hope you guys don’t mind me getting all topical…there are dozens of great sites for comics news out there, if you don’t follow them already, so I won’t try to be Heidi MacDonald or Tom Spurgeon each week. Still, I think this column description is broad enough to let me hold forth if a sufficiently interesting topic rears its head. Just let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree! And now…REVIEWS!

MERCURY
Script/Art: Hope Larson
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, $19.99 hardcover
Scheduled release: April 2010; preorder via Amazon.com.

I’ve loved Larson’s art since I saw it on a couple of websites back in the early 00’s; she has an organic inkline and a unique, distinctive way of depicting her perceptions of the world. Together with her companion Bryan Lee (Scott Pilgrim) O’Malley, they’re truly indie-comics royalty. I’ve only read one other of her book-length graphic novels, 2006’s Grey Horses, and unsurprisingly found its storyline a bit opaque, but the art unsurprisingly wonderful. I’m pleased to report that she’s crafted a much more satisfying read for her fourth, which eschews some of the surrealism of its predecessor in favor of telling a more linear tale- despite the fact that it utilizes a parallel narrative, and does involve some (at least at the beginning) not-especially explicit supernatural influences. Mercury tells two stories, involving two young girls and their families, descendants 100 years apart, and set in Nova Scotia.

At first, there’s little overlap, except for a mysterious necklace, containing a globule of the titular substance, that seems to be able to help its wearer locate desired objects- an heirloom handed down through the years. In one story, teenage Josey is smitten with a handsome stranger named Asa, an apparent wanderer and ne’er-do-well (and shape-shifter, perhaps!) who comes to live with her family after revealing to her father that he has located gold on their property. This does not sit well with the mother, who seems to have the gift of special sight, a trait which is covertly shared by Josey. Despite her protestations, Josie falls for Asa, but things come to a tragic end as her beau gets blamed for the disappearance of her father. In the other, modern-day Tara has mother issues of her own, since they lost their house (the same one Josey’s family occupied decades ago) to a fire and Mom has had to find work in another city, leaving her daughter with her sister’s family as well as sending her to public school after home-schooling her for several years. So right off the bat Tara has to deal with separation anxiety, the uncertainty of attending high school again, as well as the need to fit in and the attendant self-esteem issues (Tara gets mistaken for a boy and teased about it right off the bat, with her short hair and small bust). Still, she’s a resilient one, in contrast to demure Josey, and she eventually fits in, even finding a boyfriend (who looks a lot like her). She’s also still got a powerful attraction to her old house’s charred ruins, and when she receives Josey’s old necklace, and discovers its properties, she gets the idea to go look for the legendary gold treasure. Then, about three-quarters in, things really take a turn for the surreal when she embarks on the treasure hunt itself, including a magnificent, wow-inducing two-page sequence in which past and present collide head-on, which made me sit up and really take notice…something which doesn’t happen to me very often.

This story really works well on a number of levels, as far as I can see — supernatural folklore, teen relationship drama, as a period piece, and probably in other ways that I’m not perceptive enough to suss out. As always, this is lavishly illustrated, perhaps the most elaborate thing I’ve seen Larson attempt to date; it works especially well, unsurprisingly, when the arcane elements rear their heads…sometimes the more mundane aspects of figures betray some stiffness or clumsy perspective (a panel with someone entering a room, with only a oddly-placed, somewhat disembodied-looking foot sticking inside with nothing else showing), but overall the sequences that emphasize her strengths make any other shortcomings irrelevant. If I was looking for a good story for a pre-teen or teenage girl (or if you’re just someone who gets a charge out of seeing top-notch, imaginative work by a creator at the top of her game), you should look no farther than this. I think it is my favorite of Ms. Larson’s works so far. (a PDF was provided by the author/illustrator for review)

NOLA #’s 1-3
Script: Chris Gorak, Pierluigi Cothran, Art: Damian Couceiro
Boom! Studios, $3.99 per issue

Nola, N-O-L-A, Nola…la la la la Nola…dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnn. Sorry, had that Kinks song in my head there. Anyway, post-Katrina New Orleans is a setting rich for dramatic fiction of all stripes, and you should know that the ever-so-opportunistic folks at Boom! would be right there in the thick of it. Nola (get it, N.O., LA…New Orleans, Louisians, OK?) is an account of a young lady, living with her mom in pre-Katrina N.O. and indulging in some questionable lifestyle practices, i.e. having a affair with a married man, then getting upset when he won’t come home to meet Momma. They have an argument about it as they drive home from a drunken rendezvous, run off a bridge, and married guy leaves her for dead, setting the car on fire to make sure. Problem is, married guy isn’t very thorough in his murder/breakup attempt, and Nola lives, badly burned and unconscious. Then, while she’s out of it and lying in the hospital covered in bandages, the storm hits…and the doctor, seeing that she’s near death and with no ID, decides to leave her in order to evacuate other patients, who have “at least a chance of survival”. As if it would have taken more time and trouble to carry one more person out — of course, there may have been hidden motives.

Nola comes to, scarred from the fire but remarkably spry none the less, makes her way home only to find it half underwater, and her mom dead. Thought dead by the authorities, assisted by a friendly old cab driver and a girlfriend from the other side of town, and wearing a mask, she sets out to get revenge on those what done her wrong, and stumbles on a deeper connection between not only Evil Bad Married Guy and his rich employer, but her absentee lawyer father, who was apparently killed when it looked like he would expose certain shady deals. This all unfurls with a sort of low-budget direct-to-home-video feel; not to be too judgmental, since goodness knows I’ve done my share of dumb things in the past as well…but it’s hard to work up a lot of sympathy for our put-upon heroine, who seems smart enough to know that she was not doing herself any favors, especially by her knuckleheaded insistence on bringing E.B.M.G. home to meet Mom. She has a more legitimate gripe with the hospital staff, but even then such decisions aren’t always that cut-and-dried, and again the writers allowed me to see the other person’s side, usually a mistake when trying to elicit sympathy for your wronged character. Then, after her ordeal, she recovers a bit too quickly for someone who was so badly burned and beat up. She kills cops to get across a bridge to connect with her friend, and it’s also hard to get behind that, no matter if they’re presented as sexist assholes.

In short, one is asked to swallow a whole lot in order to get with this narrative, which is otherwise done with skill and a minimum of showoffishness and TV-scriptwriter ready, usually always a hallmark of Boom! dramatic properties. Of course, I write this not having read issue 4 yet; it could be the writers will bring it home in smashing fashion…guess we’ll see. Artwise, Couciero’s style echoes that of established illustrators like 80’s David Mazzuchelli, Tommy Lee Edwards, or Paul Azaceta; realistic, but not excessively so, and there are several nicely done establishing background shots, set in the flooded city, that show that he has a lot of talent, if nothing else but talent for reproducing photos.

Boom! has survived and thrived in today’s hit-and-miss comics publishing scene with properties just like this, as well as licensed adaptations of Disney/Pixar animated films such as The Incredibles and other venerable Disney properties like The Muppet Show and Uncle Scrooge… I have nothing but respect and admiration for their drive and initiative, and the way they conduct their business. They are, in a lot of ways, the American International Pictures of comics, holding their own with the Big Two, like Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson did with the major motion picture studios of the day. There are several comics that echo pretty much everything you can get in NOLA, some better than others…but you can read this series and still come away respecting yourself for having done so when you’re finished, and sometimes, in today’s world, that’s nothing to scoff at. (PDFs for review purposes were provided by the publisher)

ATOMIC ROBO: THE REVENGE OF THE VAMPIRE DIMENSION #1
Script: Brian Clevenger, Art: Scott Wegener
Red 5 Comics, $3.50 per issue

I’ve been quite underwhelmed with previous entries in this series, which pretty much replaces Hellboy with a intelligent robot.  I’ve also found the stories were often heavy-handed in its relentless drive to include whatever nutty idea or character that’s currently deemed “cool” by the Internet Intelligentsia- pirates, ninjas, vampires, Nazis, etc, and while Robo constantly banters and jibes with his friends and foes, to me he’s never really shown that much charisma, nor has there been a lot of real wit in any of the dialogue. That, and the manga-influenced (he kinda falls into the same category, whatever it is, that people like Craig Rousseau or Humberto Ramos fall into) but not especially eye-pleasing Wegener art, combined to keep me at arm’s length.

That said, I’ve always definitely been in the minority there as the Atomic Robo series is ridiculously popular, at least throughout the comics blogosphere, where it routinely elicits many hosannas and much praise. Me, I just couldn’t see it. At least not until issue one of this, the latest miniseries, which I found myself enjoying in spite of my previous misgivings- and I think a big reason is because of the introduction of a Simon Pegg-type character named Bernard, who comes into Tesladyne (A. Robo’s research and defense company) looking for a job, but winds up not only smack dab in the middle of an extradimensional vampire attack, but also getting the job by default when his rival is dragged away by the beasties. We then get to see them trying to deal with the invasion in a quarantined Tesladyne, aided by a big bruiser on staff named “Jenkins”, another new-to-me character.

Eventually, of course Bernard makes a key discovery about how to eliminate the threat, and that sets us up for a somewhat abrupt ending, providing no clue about how it leads into the next issue…which is kinda unusual for these miniseries-type things. Anyway, for the first time I was really entertained and engaged by an Atomic Robo issue, so I am pleased to pass this on to you. Make of it what you will.

SUPERGIRL #50
Scripts: Sterling Gates, Jake Black, Helen Slater
Art: Jamal Igle, Jon Sibal, Mark McKenna, Cliff Chiang
DC Comics, $4.99

Since we’ve recently observed Presidents’ Day, I’ll tie this review in by saying that “I cannot tell a lie”: a bit at a loss for a fourth comic to review for this column, I solicited some suggestions from my friends on Twitter, and one friend responded with this, which intrigued me enough to choose it.

I can’t think of too many characters in comics history than I’m more indifferent to than Supergirl; I mean, I understand the rationale for her existence, and also understand (though perhaps a little less so) why the braintrust at DC thinks it’s in their best interests to provide the character with a comics shop presence. Nonetheless, no matter what they’ve tried to do with her, and believe me they’ve tried a lot of stuff since the early ’60s, none of it has elicited more than a shrug from your humble reviewer, not even the jailbait slinky-waisted crop-topped slutty S.G. they tried to give us most of the previous decade. I can’t really say that I understand everything that’s happened leading up to this; right now, apparently, in the DCU lots and lots of people are getting all xenophobic about Kryptonians, and Supergirl by extension. There’s an opening sequence in which a young girl is found in a smoking hole out in a field and blasts a hole in someone with beams from her eyes that makes no sense to me…I guess I’d need to have read the last few issues to know what the f was going on.

Then, we go to some supersuited dude named Gangbuster, another repurposed Golden Age character who’s engaged in trying to rescue SG from some kind of hive full of  giant bug monsters, SG being sealed up in a big amber egg sac looking thing. Eventually, she does get out and battles, with the aid of the female Dr. Light and that Gangbuster guy again, what seems to be Lana Lang as Insect Queen, all evil and implied lesbian-y. This is pretty much standard boilerplate DC superheroics these days; heavily photoshopped and extremely professional George Perez/Jim Lee/Rags Morales style art that tries really hard to be exciting and kinetic, but just looks lifeless and dull despite several would-be cheesecake poses, script pseudo-realistic yet sour in tone, it’s not bad enough to be bad, but the appeal escapes me. Of more interest, I’d think, is the back feature, a SG tale co-written by Helen Slater, who of course played Supergirl in the flop ’80s feature film.

Don’t know what exactly she brings to the party here, and I’m not familiar with the style of the co-writer either, so I really can’t make a judgment on what her involvement signifies, if anything, other than stunt casting of a sort. It’s not that important anyway- it’s a neither here-nor-there account of talking heads on TV news discussing the pros and cons of SG in their city, designed, I guess, to shine light on the character, I suppose, but nothing to write home about if you’re not already invested. They did get lucky on one thing, though- it’s drawn by Cliff (Dr. Thirteen: Architecture and Morality, Human Target) Chiang, whose clean, appealing style really works well with the material. We don’t get to see nearly enough of Chiang’s work, if you ask me. Supergirl #50, despite the implied special event designation, is pretty much your run of the mill Big Two comic these days… for them what likes, here’s more of the same.

Perhaps, with the new management team in place, we will see a shift away from this sort of comics storytelling; I won’t hold my breath waiting, but I thought that would make a nice summing-up statement, bring us full circle from the beginning of the column. Thanks for reading, and see you next Tuesday!




  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    It's no big secret that, even during the Comics Code reign, sex sold. While there were really dynamic artists that got by on distinctive style, there were others that just knew how to draw hot bodies. In the 1970s, before the kids found out you could dive into the dumpster behind the 7-11 at the end of the month and grab all the outdated skin mags they trashed, characters like Red Sonja and the torn, tattered yet strategically stable blouse of She Hulk managed a fair audience, not always for storytelling purposes.

    But at least there was the pretense of function happening. Adam Hughes is a fantastic artist, but his favorite subject is (are) gravity-defying boobies. There are plenty of pencillers now that are super-talented, but their primary goal is to pose every comic book frame like a pin-up. Power Girl is a superhero, but man, her rack is immense. Why Supergirl needs the midriff nobody knows. Is it the hypnotic effect of Krypton-raised abs? And be careful when you take the young'uns to the comic shop. If you're not careful, it's nipples ahoy.

    I'm not prudish, and if sexuality is part of the story, then it should be addressed honestly. Most of the time though, the story is secondary to the preening of the female character (often drawn by males, as if that actually needs to be said.)

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