Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, No. 53

Yep, time once more for Confessions of a you-know what, in which I opine on various releases of recent vintage, which can be found in the comics shop or online merchant of your choice, if you’re lucky. Or not, as the case may be.

21: THE STORY OF ROBERTO CLEMENTE
Script/Art: Wilfred Santiago
Fantagraphics Books, $22.99 (Release date March 2011)

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a child; at the age of 9, on a whim, I bought a digest-sized paperback guide to the Major Leagues at a Bowling Green drug store. I read about every team and their players, and soon found out who the good teams and not-so-good teams were. Even better, the back cover printed every logo from every team, and this fascinated the hell out of me and my budding young artist’s eye. The team that interested me most was the Cincinnati Reds, with their running baseball-head guy superimposed over a wishbone “C”. I became a fan of the Reds and by extension got to follow them during what was arguably their peak period, the early-mid 70′s “Big Red Machine” years with Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and many others. As was the custom among me and my friends, we picked a team from the other league to follow as well, and for me that was the Chicago White Sox, and while my Reds fervor died back as the decades went by, my interest in the Sox got stronger and I remain a fan of the team to this day. The Reds’ chief rivals in those years were two teams- the hated Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom the Reds shared a division, and the Pittsburgh Pirates in the other division. The Pirates boasted some of the best players in either league, such as Willie Stargell, grinning catcher Manny Sanguillen, and best of all, outfielder Roberto Clemente. He was one of the most feared players in the league from the day I started following baseball, from 1969…until his untimely death, in 1972. He had it all- speed, power, a cannon for a arm- and even in a period when few players were prima donnas, unlike today, Clemente stood out for his dignity and humble demeanor. I still recall vividly the morning after the day he died…I had gotten up earlier than usual, why I don’t remember- it was New Years’ Day. I was watching TV when the news came on with the story. Now, some of my friends and I had united in our love for baseball, and baseball dice and chart games like Strat-O-Matic and APBA (the Fantasy Baseball of the day), and we all had our favorites- nobody I knew was a Pirates fan, but everybody wanted Clemente on their team, since he was one of the absolute best players. Shaken, I went over to a friend’s, where everyone had congregated (we hung out a lot at the home of these two brothers), and no one had heard the news- no one believed me, until we went inside and caught the news at noon. Everyone who loved baseball mourned that day and for a while after. That memory of being the first among my friends with the news has stuck with me for all these years.

And now, Mr. Santiago has presented us with this, which tells Clemente’s life in illustrated form. It’s a reverent, yet sometimes playful look at the man and what he had to go through to get where he did. As with most endeavors of this type, it’s hard to say how much is absolute fact and how much is embellished, but he gives us a convincing account, even intertwining personal reminisce (hey- as I did above!) with details of Clemente’s life, much of which I didn’t know a lot about except on the field, and career. He leans heavily sometimes on expository dialogue, but it’s not too much of an annoyance. The scenes with the various family members remind me a bit of what Gilbert Hernandez gets up to in Love and Rockets, that same sort of close-knit relationship thing. This is not a warts-and-all bio; if Clemente swore, screwed around, drank, jacked off, or anything else like that, we’re not privy to it. He does get awfully angry when he doesn’t hit, at least early on, and wasn’t very happy at finishing in eighth place in the MVP voting post-the Pirates’ 1960 Series win…so he’s not a complete automaton, but he serenely deals with his problems, including the casual racism of the day, as if it was only a temporary inconvenience. I’m not sure if he was this much of a saint in real life, but maybe that’s just the cynic in me.

Santiago’s art is cartoonish, yet expressionistic and appealingly loose. It sometimes reminds me of Shawn Martinbrough, and at other times reminds me of Scott Morse. He does a great job, and even the best of the best often have trouble with this, of drawing baseball players that actually look like baseball players- at bat, in the field, running, catching the ball. He gets the uniforms, and how they fit- loose in the 50′s, much tighter as the double-knit 70′s came on. He exaggerates a bit, but not excessively. The baseball action itself is done via a multitude of different stylistic and layout approached, from jagged, slashing panels to overlaid verticals to widescreen for establishing shots, or to provide a pause before the next event, with mixed media techniques used to illustrate different things. He really captures the action of the game very well, and it’s kinda hard to describe- it’s really some daredevil storytelling at times. His body language and facial expressions are top-notch, and there are some stunning full page and large panel shots of Pittsburgh. He even does OK by Forbes Field, the Pirates’ first home, and long-gone Three Rivers Stadium. Photo referenced, perhaps even cut-and-pasted-  the insides are drawn way too roomy, but the feeling of being in one of those old flying-saucer-shaped stadiums is evoked just the same.

Baseball season is just a few weeks away as I type this, and a March release date is a good time to get this noticed, I’d think. While perhaps it could be a bit more, shall we say, iconoclastic in its approach, perhaps it’s for the best that this celebrates the man that was a hero to a lot of people, from a time that was infinitely less complicated than today.

JENNIFER BLOOD #1
Script: Garth Ennis; Art: Adriano Batista
Dynamite Entertainment, $3.99

Now here’s something we don’t see in comics all that much- attractive female with a gun, blowing away those who cross her. However, the name Ennis in the writer’s credit still carries a little currency, in my book anyway, so I thought I’d give it a look. It seems to be essentially Punisher if Punisher was a suburban housewife, and therefore smacks of The Long Kiss Goodnight, minus the amnesia angle. At least it doesn’t seem like she has amnesia, guess we’ll see in the future. This reminds me a lot of Bendis’ Scarlet, though the motivations of the characters don’t really intersect- at least, I don’t think they do, because Garth hasn’t seen fit to explain why our girl has decided to take up the mantle of Bad-Ass Vigilante just yet. This isn’t played so much for laughs, as Ennis has a tendency to do; there’s a fair amount of suburban family sitcom sendup, but this Jennifer is kinda creepy; she patronizes her spacey husband (is there more there with him than meets the eye? Can’t tell just yet) and gives her kids crushed valium in their hot chocolate, to keep them from waking up while she’s out busting up drug deals and killing crooks. And there is a lot of crook killing going on- Batista does not scrimp on the flying gore and shattered bones. I wish that same recklessness extended to his art style; it’s a pretty generic mix of people like Ennis’ former Boys collaborator Darick Robertson, Astro City‘s Brent Anderson, and Image-influenced people like J. Scott Campbell, just the thing that the comics braintrusts believe the readers want. I didn’t care for it much at all, especially the utterly graceless, scrtachy, sloppy inkline- but it did move the story along and wasn’t so egregiously poor that I couldn’t get through it. I don’t know what Garth’s up to with this; it seems pointless and unnecessary. I suppose this is a response to a perceived trend or something like that, and that’s OK- I also recall not being terribly impressed with The Boys when it started either, and it got real good after a slow start. Let’s all hope that this follows that template.

FABLES: CINDERELLA: FABLES ARE FOREVER #1
Script: Chris Roberson; Art: Shawn McManus
DC/Vertigo, $2.99

Now here’s something we don’t see in comics all that much- attractive female with a gun, blowing away those who cross her. A couple of years ago, Bill Willingham started spinning off characters and branching out from his successful-by-Vertigo-standards Fables comic; in a world in which the Big Bad Wolf is a former soldier and mercenary, and Old King Cole is mayor of the secret town of fictional characters hiding in plain sight in New York City, it was no big stretch to extrapolate Cinderella as a super-secret secret agent covert operative type for the Fabletown government, Emma Peel and the Black Widow and Evelyn Salt all wrapped in one. I liked her well enough in the one or two appearances she had in the proper Fables comic, but I declined to pick up the first solo miniseries she starred in, From Fabletown with Love. (I wonder if we’ll see this series go on long enough to get to A View to a Fable or Fablepussy…?) Most of the spinoffs hadn’t blown me away, and I wasn’t looking to add any new ongoings to my already overfull pull list. This one picks up some time after recent events in the mother book- called in to help investigate a murder out on the “Farm”, Cindy realizes that she’s on a collision course with another deadly operative, whose identity I won’t spoil for you but I will say that she’s far from meek and gentle here. Roberson does a good job of approximating Willingham’s “voice” as far as this title goes; it’s a bit early in the proceedings to judge anything else. I liked the first couple of issues of his ongoing iZombie, (I’m tradewaiting, OK?) so it seems like he’ll be just fine. I’ve seen McManus’ work here and there for over 20 years now; he’s pretty good but his style has, in the past, seemed inconsistent; sometimes it looks Wrightsonish, sometimes less stylized and often appears to be inked with a crude, sketchy line. It’s frustrating sometimes. Here, it’s a little different; not an obvious but a subtle shift, even reminding me of Ramona Fradon in places. Which is a good thing. This looks like it could become a solid, entertaining miniseries, and will especially appeal to Fables fans.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #57
Script: James Robinson; Art: Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund
DC Comics, $2.99

As I’ve said on many occasions, there are just some characters which interest me more than others, and I will check out appearances by these characters regardless of where they appear. This is another case in point- and this time the character is Eclipso, who’s been a persistent bogeyman in the DCU for over 40 years now. Originally conceived as a high-concept Jekyll and Hyde type, competition for Marvel’s Hulk in a lot of ways, especially early in the histories of both- they both had normal human scientist alter egos, and both had a horrific transformation wrought upon them by the passing of day to night and back again. Eclipso’s been a good guy, sorta, and a bad guy, mostly- eventually he left his first human host and became some sort of supernatural former vengeance god of darkness, possessing unfortunate mortals and superpeople alike, forcing them to do evil and stuff n’junk, brandishing his black diamond. Eventually he even had the misfortune of being shackled to Jean Loring, the most batshit crazy person in the whole DC Universe. He’s been drawn by the likes of Alex Toth and Walt Simonson, been written by Bob Haney and (personal favorite) Robert Loren Fleming, among others, and usually always has been fascinating to me, even in the hands of lesser creators. Here, he’s in the hands of James Robinson, who’s certainly got the repulsive aspect of Eclipso down; no current comics scripter has done a better job of giving us repellent protagonists lately. Eclipso, once again shackled to Bruce Gordon, has decided to recruit a Injustice Gang of shadow-based superpeople, including Robinson favorite The Shade (from his Starman, you remember, I hope) and former Suicide Squad stalwart Nightshade and another clutch of character, most of which I’m unfamiliar…I guess Lamont Cranston was busy; ‘Clipsy doesn’r look for him. Anyhoo, the long-range goal is to revive some sort of forgotten elder god of darkness, all the better for Eclipso’s agenda. He also wants to recruit current JLA member Jade to the team (there’s an explanation which I suppose makes sense, especially if you’re following the series), and that will of course bring his new Shadow Squad (I mean Shadow Warriors) into conflict with the Justice League. There is a generous amount of the sour, decadent bullshit that seems to be the house style for DC scripters these days, but Robinson does manage to make Eclipso interesting, or maybe that’s just my fanboy nostalgia coloring my perceptions. The less said about the art, the better- it’s more of that early-Image wannabe, awkwardly posed and anatomically terrible Jim Lee/Al Rio/Scott Campbell stuff that just makes my eyeballs ache; everybody’s chin is planted firmly in their chests and what the holy hell is up with the way these artists draw female hair? It looks nothing like human hair ever has. It’s scratchily inked by Norm Rapmund, who is fast becoming a name I know to watch out for, as in pass if I see it in credits. Recommended only if you, like me, have a weakness for Eclipso stories.

The All Purpose Review Writing Music List: Genesis- The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; Elvis Costello- National Ransom; The Sensational Alex Harvey Band- The Impossible Dream; Van Morrison- It’s Too Late to Stop Now; Van Dyke Parks- Daytrotter Studio  2/14/2011; The Section- The Section.

As always, thanks for your attention. Review requests, love letters, naked pictures: johnnybacardi AT gmail.