Here we go again with Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, in which I opine on various recently released publications of the sequential graphic nature, some of which may be sitting on the rack at a comics shop, or awaiting the click of a button on some online merchant’s web page, near you. If you’re lucky. Or not, as the case may be.
I read the first issue of this, DC’s latest attempt to sell us Will Eisner’s most memorable character, and reviewed it several months ago. As I recall, I liked it OK but wasn’t compelled to follow up on it, nor was I particularly drawn to the other “First Wave” titles either, though I thought they were, for the most part, handled well. However, after a long period of overlooking The Spirit, my admittedly flighty attention was captured by the minimal, but really striking, Jose Ladronn cover to this issue that you see at left- Denny Colt, against a stark white background, suggestive of fog or snow. being fired upon by an unknown assailant. The distinctive retro early newspaper strip logo, standing out in black against that blank backdrop. The Spirit’s shoes. Now, bear with me- sometimes the mark of a good artist is how he or she draws normal, everyday clothes. And while the Spirit’s clothes aren’t really a shade of blue that anyone wears anymore, they still need to look convincing as outerwear; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the art of this or that hotshot superhero artist and thought that if they could draw people wearing jeans or t-shirts half as well as they could draw men in capes throwing punches at each other, then they’d really be getting somewhere. Anyway, if you click on the cover at left, you’ll notice how well-placed the folds are in the Spirit’s coat and necktie are, and how functional and comfortable, perfect for a mobile detective who often has to chase or brawl at the drop of a blue fedora. Those shoes were what drew me in.
Footwear appreciation aside, I can see by the credits that Mark Schultz, who wrote the first three issues, has moved on and has been replaced by English comics vet David Hine, most recently seen doing Bulletproof Coffin and Detective pre-Scott Snyder/Jock. I went back and checked out #’s 2-9; Hine does a good job of carrying forward the revised concepts that the series launched with, including perennial trouble spot Ebony rethought as a streetwise young lady and the Greek chorus of sorts of young ‘hood kids that pops in and out to comment in song form occasionally. It works better than you’d think. One wrinkle which Hine seems to have expanded upon is the presentation of eternal Spirit archenemy The Octopus; we have yet to actually see a single pair of purple gloves- instead, we have a group of Central City crime bosses led by one Mr. Ovsack, second in command and the only one of the bosses that gets to see the Octopus. It’s fairly obvious (by his appearance, if nothing else) to everyone but the characters in the story that he’s really the Octopus, pulling a Wizard of Oz…but it’s led to some interesting moments at odd times in the story. This particular issue features a one-in-done tale which kinda suffers in comparison to the previous arc, which was an involving four-parter showing the Spirit dealing with a murderous drug lord and a souped-up coke-like drug called “frost”. This one reminds me of a mash-up of two old Eisner stories, one about a talking cockroach and the other about a fellow who kills someone in the heat of the moment and fears the Spirit is pursuing him- roaches are just a motif, but this tale of a small-time crook, locked in a closet with bugs as a child, who murders a fence and then spends the rest of the story paranoid that the Spirit is after him overcomes its derivative origins and does get the reader involved after a while, and the dialogue remains sharp as previous installments.
Equally impressive is the work of one-named artist Moritat; when I reviewed #1 I thought his stuff reminded me of Rick Veitch, but nine issues on I can see a strong Filipino influence as well- people like Alex Nino and E.R. Cruz, 70’s stalwarts who often had the same approach to drawing figures and such. I also see traces of people like Ed Risso, especially in his luscious women, with their pouty lips and sassy attitude. He does an amazing job of illustrating Central City and its cluttered mass of buildings, alleys, and docks, and that was always such an important part of what made those old Spirit stories special. And even more admirable, Mr. Moritat has drawn all ten issues with only minimal assistance, and has done the lion’s share of these issues all by himself. Well, with his trusty colorist, who deserves a lot of credit for the mood the art conjures, no doubt. Anyway, in these troubled times, when many artists can’t seem to do full art on a monthly comic to save their professional lives, Moritat’s achievements here deserve a lot of praise. I’m also fairly sure, since I’ve said this, that we’ll be getting a fill-in artist soon.
I’ll go out on a limb and state for the record that I think this is the most successful (aesthetically anyway) Spirit revival since Mr. Eisner did one of his last turn on the character in the pages of the Harvey Comics Spirit #2 waaay back in 1966. And yes, nitpickers, I know he drew Mr. Colt a few times in those later Kitchen Sink reprint magazines. I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is better than Darwyn Cooke’s recent neither-here-nor-there revival attempt, or what came after. Everyone who thinks (correctly) that Criminal and ironically Cooke’s Parker graphic novels are hot shit could do worse than to take a look at this series- but do it quick, before DC forgets why it’s publishing it in the first place and cans it.
As comics sales maintain their gradual decline, it’s become almost de rigeur to try and get the attention the great unwashed. the non-comics buyers, out in the “real” world and, to much fanfare and great manufactured hype (they hope) take a character that has a modicum of name recognition to that group and kill him/her. Or unmask him/her. Or something world-shaking like that. It’s kind of the equivalent of smacking a donkey on the nose with a sharp stick to get its attention, and when it works, we get stuff like Byrne’s re-imagining of Superman, also his much-ballyhooed death a few years later. Batman recently suffered a similar fate. Spider-Man had his unmasking and divorce, Captain America’s high-profile death…that sort of thing. It gets picked up on by the likes of Time Magazine and USA Today, and the casual observer might, interest piqued, check out what all the fuss is about, thus spiking sales figures, and helping the company’s bottom line. Any gain is better than nothing, right? Of course, despite the fervent “This one changes everything” style promises the publicity screams at us, nothing could be further from the truth- Superman is still among the “living”, Batman made a recently-concluded convoluted resurrection from his demise, Cap of course came back…these changes rarely, if ever stick. Only the slow-witted and the inattentive think otherwise. The Fantastic Four are the latest beneficiary of this strategy, and this much-hyped “Death in the Family” issue hit the stands on Wednesday to much buzz. Kids, this isn’t the first time this has happened in this title, as this pundit so cleverly illustrates- and the status quo is only one editorial or authorial change away from being reverted back to form. The donkey then forgets the rap on the nose, and goes on his merry way.
OK, now that I’ve attempted to show you that this particular Emperor is stark raving nude, I can hear you say “Well, YOU picked it up, didn’t you? Sucker!” To be honest, I only picked it up so I could be among the hundreds of Interweb reviewers writing about it, plus, I got plain old curious about how they were going to pull it off. The answer? Well, surprisingly, it’s not terrible. I’m not going to pretend that I really caught on to everything that led up the fateful finale; this comic, while mostly well written by Hickman, is too steeped in what seems like a decade’s worth of backstory and despite the helpful recap at the beginning, I found myself not caring after a while, because the buildup to the money shot was clear enough, and the end, when it came (Freud would have a field day with this review, wouldn’t he?), actually had me feeling a bit of sympathy, as well as admiration and a tiny dash of “fuck yeah”, for the unfortunate FF member, as well as also being convinced of the grief felt by his best friend and family. I guess that’s a spoiler. Sorry. I have to say that I didn’t care for Epting’s art for the first three quarters of the story…he and his inkers are shooting for Bryan Hitch, Alan Davis or Michael Lark-ness but just isn’t quite there yet. It’s a matter of feel, perhaps, or the inability to consistently and convincingly render the human figure. This said, it does get better in the climactic scene, and Epting is listed as inker last, so perhaps letting him ink his own pencils is the trick. Anyway, if you’re a regular fan/reader of this comic, I’m sure you’ll be quite moved and enthralled. Even I, who came in cold, had to admire the ending. For a somewhat crass money/attention grab, this was presented in the best possible way and I’d think you could buy this and still respect yourself in the morning. But if you think this character’s going to stay dead, well, I have a run of Death of Superman comics I’d love to sell you.
John Byrne ever really went away, but it seems lately he’s been keeping a higher profile via the revival of his long-ago Dark Horse series Next Men and now this, an extrapolation of the whole “Dinosaurs- Today!” thing that Michael Crichton started several years ago, inspired, no doubt, by the giant monster movies of the 50’s; Steven Spielberg continued (no stranger he to those films either) via his blockbuster 1993 film, until a couple of lesser sequels pretty much killed all interest in further filmed versions. That left the comics to carry the standard forward- first, now-defunct Topps in the 90’s, and now IDW, who have already issued one mini-series besides this one last year. For this, the latest in the series, they’ve decided to let Mr. Byrne drive the Jurassic vehicle, and this is the result.
Basically what he’s given us is Them! or even closer, Tarantula!, dare I even say Tremors- except with prehistoric creatures instead of mutated insects. The setup is very similar- small Western town, dead livestock found all over the place, then dead people; the authorities investigate and can’t make heads or tales of it but find- gasp- footprints! When the plaster cast of same is sent for identification, a team is dispatched, and of course it’s a scientist and his lovely assistant. I mean this follows the giant monster B-movie template to the letter. And I don’t mean that to sound like it’s a bad thing, necessarily; what it lacks in innovation it makes up for in tried-and-true, and this does work. It moves along at a fast pace, the inevitable inter-character dramatics (small-town hero/sheriff has a history with grieving widow of the first discovered human victim) are handled surprisingly well, and this sports some of the best Byrne art I’ve seen in quite some time. He seems to be having fun using a movie-screen inspired widescreen-layout style, taking advantage of the situation to give us small town streets, desert vistas and craggy bluffs, like any giant monster set in the desert oughtta should. There’s still something about the way he draws heads and faces which bugs me, but really, this is a solid effort from a seasoned pro, who may just be getting his second wind. We’ll find out by the time this is over, no doubt. You’ve all heard of popcorn movies, and I suppose this could be considered a popcorn comic- it’s a mile wide and an inch deep, but it’s not dull, and if you’re looking for a fun read, this will do.
Short Takes! With the Dreaded Letter Grades!
MEMOIR #1: (Image Comics) Stop me if you’ve heard this before: intrepid reporter travels to small town in which a mysterious event has taken place (in this case, mass amnesia), and the locals are all surly and uncooperative. Then, a ghastly discovery is made! Gasp! Of course, this is only issue one, and this thing may go off the rails and get really wild and crazy by the time it’s done. Let me know if this happens, OK? Thanks. C
WOLVERINE AND JUBILEE #1: (Marvel Comics, of course) So now the Jubilee character is a vampire, apparently a small part of some sort of company-wide event; now that they have them all going on at the same time, how do they keep them straight, but in the fictional world as well as in the mostly-real world of the comics reader? Oh well, doesn’t matter- better buy, or you’ll miss out on something when it does happen! Anyway, this one’s by Kathryn Immonen, who still possesses some mojo in regards to interesting writing, and this is well-done within its narrow parameters. It’s very linear in ways that she doesn’t usually go; I guess the big “X” on the front can suck the life out of anyone, Morrison excepted. Phil Noto’s the artist, and he remains as frustrating as ever- he draws mostly pretty people in a variety of static poses with minimal backgrounds and a routine layout style. As an interior artist, he does great covers. He’s just good enough where you can’t dismiss him, but damn I wish he’d get that stylistic stick out of his ass. Jubilee’s having trouble with her newly minted vamp status; Wolvie and Emma Frost do the tough love thing until other vamps approach Ms. Lee and try to seduce her to the dark side. How on Earth will this turn out? B
BATGIRL #17 (DC): For years, fans of the Stephanie Brown character, named “Spoiler” and featured for a while in the Bat-books, clamored for DC to bring her back, and eventually they did, cooking up a contrived story to explain her death, then turning over the mantle of Batgirl to her and attaching the original Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon now Oracle in a role of mentor. The result has been a pretty entertaining read, not so much because the story or art is anything earth-shaking; Bryan Q. Miller has steadfastly adhered to the Modern Comics Template of Scripting for Comics, and usual artist Lee Garbett has determinedly stuck to what seems to be the DC house style of drawing comics as well. But Miller has done at least one thing right; he’s done a great job of enabling us to like this Stephanie Brown aka Batgirl, to the point where we identify with her insecurities and revel in her triumphs. She’s a strong, capable character, yet still subject to the foibles of being young. This hasn’t always been easy- he dredged up the reprehensible Wendy & Marvin being mauled by Wonder Dog thing from Titans in a four-issue story arc, and while it didn’t sink to the depths in the original, the goings-on were still mighty icky at times. This particular issue also continues another of Miller’s positives, the rivalry between Batgirl and the Damian Wayne Robin; they can’t seem to stand each other, but they become grudging allies in battle and we are getting signs that they may become good friends in time. The art in this issue is poor; it’s by a fill-in. If Miller can continue the balancing act and can manage to not lapse into standard superhero melodramatics, this is worth your time and money. B
As always, The Ever-Popular, All-Purpose Review Writing Music List: ELO- Out of the Blue; Todd Rundgren’s Utopia; Jethro Tull- 20 Years of Tull; Donovan: Essence to Essence; Manfred Mann’s Earth Band- Glorified Magnified, Foster and Lloyd- Foster and Lloyd.
Coming soon, Duncan the Wonder Dog and The New York Five #1, neither of which I got read in time to get them in this week.
Contact info remains johnnybacardi AT gmail.