Welcome back to Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, my little bully pulpit from which I cast aspersions on a choice selection of recent comics and graphic novel releases that most likely are on sale somewhere near you, be it meatspace or cyberspace.
I’m afraid I was never much of a gamer- when I was a teen, Pong and Space Invaders arcade games were new- though I did play a lot of early Nintendo games with my son, who was (and still is) really into that sort of thing. These days, if I do sit down and play something, it’s usually a sports game like Madden; I just don’t have the time or patience to get involved in the fantasy role-playing, wander-around-and-battle-things type games. So I suppose that automatically puts me at a disadvantage when discussing the relatively recent spate of comics series that use and reference gaming as a jumping-off point for their plots; although I do get the basic idea, I’m sure that there are a lot of insidery things that I totally miss. For example, Wikipedia informs me that a “non-player character (NPC) in a game is any fictional character not controlled by a player. In electronic games, this usually means a character controlled by the computer. In traditional tabletop role-playing game, the term applies to characters controlled by the gamemaster. (Though he is a participant in the game, a gamemaster is usually not referred to by the technical term “player.”)“. See? If you’re like me, you’ve learned something today. Who says comics aren’t educational anymore?
Anyway, what we have here is another entry in that “gamers are actually interacting with each other- in the game!” type things, which have become a staple of any sort of fantasy fiction that deals with people playing roleplayer games, as well as the influence of the hit film Avatar, which operated under more or less the same premise sans the game part. Since, of course (to my knowledge, anyway) this technology doesn’t exist right now Simpson hedges his bets by having this action take place in a future of the presumably near type, one in which robots take care of road repair and traffic work, and people are able to assume another face due to an app called “Lifeskin”, some (I assume) holographic tech. We begin this story in the virtual reality world; our girl Dana and her friend, in the course of the game, descend from a city of some sort in the sky and do battle with a princess and her bodyguard, who are discussing some sort of troubling personal matter as they ride inside a coach on some big dinosaur lizard looking creature. In the course of the battle, Dana looks to kill the princess, who abruptly disappears first, which is regarded as more than a bit strange by our girl, though her companion doesn’t seem to be all that concerned. Next, we see Dana in meatspace, as she wakes up, gets into a disagreement with her mother (stories like this tend to show how independent and sassy these kinds of characters are by having them get into verbal spats with everybody they know, y’see), and leaves for her tamale delivery job, changing her appearance before she goes.
Just a wee hint of what I’m sure will be more complicated goings-on to come, I’m sure. Even though we don’t really find out very much at all about anyone concerned, there’s just enough of the mystery foreshadowed to pique the reader’s attention. I think, at least at this stage of the game, the main attraction is Simpson’s art; it’s a lavish, detailed mix of influences and reminds me of work by people like Moebius, Brandon Graham, and Geoff Darrow, with a generous amount of the soft-focus stylings of Joshua Middleton thrown in for good measure. Overall, the effect is exactly what a gamer would like his or her game to look like, assuming that one could step into one, and the real-world scenes are all done with a nice enough Heavy Metal vibe. Sometimes faces and figures are underdrawn a bit; he seems to save his energy and effort for the backgrounds, which is fine with me. Each page, however, has something wonderful to look at, and I hope he can maintain this quality through the life of the series.
This series has been the recipient of some serious hype lately, part of a wave of recognition for certain creator-owned projects that Image has released recently like Morning Glories and Blue Estate (see below). All of them so far seem to be of fairly high quality, and while it’s early yet, this seems to be on the high end of that scale and may be of some interest to the discerning reader. You can find some info and samples here.
FEAR ITSELF #1
Script: Matt Fraction; Art: Stuart Immonen
Marvel Comics, $3.99
Here we go again, another multi-character line-wide Epic Adventure Saga, which will Change Everything We Know. Well, kinda. Actually, this doesn’t come across as anywhere near that ambitious, and while it seems to be the kind of story that Stan and Jack could have done in 3 singles or one annual, it’s not devoid of high points, if not the promise of adventure. Written by Fraction in his clarity voice (e.g. Invincible Iron Man) as opposed to his look-how-smart-I-am obfuscating voice a la Casanova, it’s that rare thing among these big epics- it comes across as character, rather than event-driven.
Which is not to say that there isn’t an event here as well to set the stage; in an episodic first chapter, in the aftermath of Marvel’s previous big hoo-hah Siege (end result being, apparently, that Asgard has crashed on Earth and its godlike residents are ensconced next to Broxton, Oklahoma, which seems to have made the natives restless) we see Captain America, or Steve Rogers anyway- I’m not sure where that stands these days- and Sharon Carter get involved in what starts out as an uneasy, yet peaceful protest, then devolves into a riot before it’s done. Next, we veer into what would be familiar territory if we were reading Hellboy– the Red Skull’s unsurprisingly sinister daughter Sin breaks into, with a group of loyal soldiers, a Nazi stronghold in the Arctic Circle in order to find a big Mjolnir-like hammer, which of course transforms her into an armored superbeing (as if having her dad’s red-hued mug wasn’t enough) who calls herself “Skadi”. Then, as Tony Stark (in a nice bit of crossover with Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man) announces that Stark Resilient will be building a new Asgard for Thor and his people, a disgruntled Odin watches (and spits) from above as the Watcher, well, watches. Seems he’s not pleased that he and his people are dependent on the aid of the lesser humans below, and as has been the case since Stan and Jack first conceived the big fellow, they disagree and scuffle. I understand working the Generation Gap back in 1967 for story material, but it seems a little quaint in 2011. Meanwhile, Skadi releases an ancient evil a “god of fear”, that strikes me as related to Odin the same way that Cronos was related to Zeus…this Big Bad is not pleased either, and has set a plan in motion to get some payback. Finally, we see Odin calling to all the Asgardians to say the heck with the mortals and let’s get the heck out of Dodge, Thor most strenuously objects, and he and Odin throw down again, the upshot being Thor is subdued and placed in chains. End of part one.
Fraction gets some nice set pieces across; I especially liked the opening with Steve Rogers and his bitter resignation to being unable to stop the rioting. Of course, I think he’s also trying to make a statement about Big Government/Haves and its relationship with the average people/Have Nots; the haves (Odin) are shown as arrogant, ungrateful and condescending, the Havenots are shown as fearful, distrustful, and quick to anger. Kinda lie what we have here in the real world, don’t you think? Also, the ace in the hole, and central to me enjoying this as much as I did, is Immonen’s art; already very good a decade ago, he’s grown by leaps and bounds beginning with his Nextwave stint, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down even though he’s reined in his expressionistic tendencies here in order to give us a more streamlined, mainstream style, similar to what he employed back in his Shockrockets run for Busiek.
I think there’s a lot to like here, at least at first blush; hopefully this won’t be protracted through a multitude of other spinoff series that are only tangentially related to the proper plot, and one can follow the main plot here in the main series. Guess we’ll see about that, but as long as Immonen’s on board, this will be worth watching.
Short Takes, because I had a hectic weekend:
HATE ANNUAL #9 (Fantagraphics): Maybe it was just me, but the last couple of Hate Annuals left me with the feeling that Bagge was going through the motions with the Bradley family, perhaps thinking he’s said all he can say with them but was revisiting them merely because his attempts at branching out at places like Marvel and DC had been met with apathetic sales. Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t…but this issue provides reassurance that he’s not quite out of stories about Buddy and Lisa just yet. This time, we meet Lisa’s dysfunctional family, which has the dubious honor of being even more fucked up, I think, than Buddy’s was- and we all know (well, if you ever read any Neat Stuff or early issues of the Hate ongoing) how bad they were. While I don’t know if Bagge will ever be as funny, or even as relevant, as he was in the 90’s, he shows a heartening return to form here. Pick this up if you’ve ever wondered what the fuss was about, then go get some trades. A-
BLUE ESTATE #1 (Image): Here’s another of those much-hyped new Image releases I mentioned above; this one’s pretty much a noir that aspires to satirize that most satirizable of targets, Hollywood Power Couples. Think Steven Seagal and Kelly LeBrock, Brad and Angelina, or pre-Ashton Demi and Bruce, and you’ll get the gist of what they’re going for. There’s also suitcases of money, the Russian mob, and a whole lot more stuff going on. While it remains to be seen where the story goes, I will say that I really liked the loosey-goosey, sketchy art, an apparent collaboration between four different people (a couple of which I’ve even heard of before) and amazing in how cohesive it all is. Worth a look. A-
JIMMY OLSEN #1 (DC): When I was a kid, I really wasn’t all that crazy about Superman, whose 60’s adventures I considered kinda dull, especially as drawn by the stolid likes of Curt Swan and the aptly named Wayne Boring. But Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, that was a whole ‘nuther thang. Despite the calcified Swan art, those Olsen stories were just nuts, as Jimmy found himself in a number of scrapes that usually involved him undergoing some sort of bizarre transformation, and they really entertained grade school me. Of course, this is 2011, not 1966, and Jimmy has a wholly different image these days, though he continues to wear that bow tie, and not being a regular Superman reader, I don’t know what has or hasn’t been done with him. This, however, is a collection of recent Action Comics back feature stories with a deliberate retro feel by the ever-present Nick Spencer, along with artists RB Silva and “Dym”, and show us a “typical” week in Olsen’s life, which, of course, involves a lot of craziness and alien Lindsay Lohan types and evil plots and video games and guest stars like Supergirl and…well, it’s really, really talky and explain-y, but it’s also quirky and often very funny, and the SilvaDym team doesn’t slow things down too much with their earnest would be Dodson/Pete Woods style. I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing more someday, but I won’t hold my breath. A-
HEROES FOR HIRE #5 (Marvel): The whole fight with a Puppet Master-controlled Punisher thing was handled pretty well, I guess, and I do really like the notion of Paladin having a crush on Misty and it causing friction between him and Iron Fist. But ho-ly schnikeys, they have GOT to settle on a regular artist on this book. Each issue seems to bring us someone new and less skilled than the issue before. That’s a problem. C+
FIRST WAVE SPECIAL #1 (DC): Well, the whole First Wave thing crashed and burned before it really got off the ground, though I will maintain till the day I die that the Spirit title that came from it deserved to continue because it was just that damn good. Anyway, this is a one-shot double length story that involves Batman-with-a-gun, Doc Savage, and Richard Benson, the Avenger, no Spirit in sight, dealing with a mob war in New York City. I liked the way scripter Jason Starr has Batman, Doc, and the portrayed-here-as-grimly-nuts Avenger interact, and it moves along snappily. That said, artist Phil Winslade, whose work on numerous miniseries and one-shots as well as the sadly-missed Monolith has always hit me just right, really fumbles the ball here- his storytelling is sharp as always, but he inks his work with a scratchy, sloppy line that evokes someone like 70’s stalwart Tony DeZuniga and it just does’t look good at all. This was a hangup for me, it may not be for you. Can’t help you with the pointless continuation of a dead imprint thing, though. B-
The All Purpose Handy Dandy Review Writing Music List: Spoon- Transference; Dusty Springfield- Dusty in Memphis; Flaming Lips- The Soft Bulletin and At War with the Mystics; Slade- Sladest; Simon & Garfunkel- Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Thanks for reading, see you next Monday.