Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie No. 79
Hey, remember when I used to do these things once a week? Neither do I.
Anyway, 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.
A lot of comics come across as speculative or repurposed movie and TV pitches these days, and this is no exception…but if the execution is there, the secondhand nature of any given project can be transcended and the oh so elusive good comics tag can be applied without reservation. As you can probably guess from that longish buildup, this is such a project. It certainly wears its film-inspired intent proudly, and thanks to its not-so-easy-to-replicate real-world verisimilitude it gives off a modern-day heist thriller vibe a la Ocean’s 11, or even more so the flick from several years ago, 1999’s Entrapment, which paired Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a master thief/apprentice understudy type situation. We even get a Saul Bass homage via the logo on the cover, which makes the rather clunky title look good. Not so much the (intentionally, I hope) poorly kerned type at the very top, though. Anyway, in ToT, we meet a Clooneyish fellow named Conrad Paulson, who goes by the nom de thievery “Redmond”. We are then shown the nature of his partnership with “Celia”, who assists him in his heists, and are privy to their first meeting, when Redmond catches her trying to steal his car. Finally, we are brought up to the present, where we find out that Redmond is stonewalling his “employer” Arno, who wants him to pull a large-scale heist. Redmond finally meets with them, makes an unexpected statement, and we’re off and running. All basic scene-setting and introductions, but if Redmond and Celia can stay on our, the reader’s, good side and remain interesting this could be a very entertaining little heist thriller.
Spencer’s byline has graced several recent comics, some of which I kinda-sorta liked, like DC’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents revival and his quirky Jimmy Olsen Action Comics backfeature (later collected), and one I was mostly indifferent to, the (I think it is, anyway, haven’t paid close attention) popular-in-some-circles Morning Glories. He does pretty well with the more down-to-earth nature of the subject matter, especially dialogue-wise. Artwise, and here we come to the reason I checked this out in the first place, Spencer is very ably assisted by Shawn Martinbrough, whose picture surely accompanies the word “underrated” in the Good Artist Dictionary. I’ve enjoyed Martinbrough’s work for years; he contributed stellar art for the Greg Rucka Detective Comics Batman run, gave us the best Creeper since Neal Adams, was pretty much the only reason to pick up the Vertigo series Angeltown, and was the one artist that could hold Jock’s…well, jock on The Losers. Recently, he’s been doing work on some fine series that I have yet to sample (DMZ, which I stopped buying years ago; Captain America, and a stint doing the Black Panther), but it’s good to see that he hasn’t lost anything; in fact, his strengths- staging, perspective, layout, pacing- are sharper and better than ever. If you’re loving stuff like Criminal, then you owe it to yourself to check this out as well- it’s right in that same sweet spot so far.
While I haven’t been checking them all out (I can’t buy everything, you know), it seems from my admittedly incomplete viewpoint Dark Horse has been doing pretty well by its Robert Howard repertoire; its Conan comics seem to be in capable hands, and although the most recent Solomon Kane miniseries was a muddled disaster, the first two, especially the first, were top-notch. Still, so far, the decision makers haven’t been terribly out-of-the-box in their thought processes when it comes to presentation; a lot of solid, if unspectacular, craftspeople have brought us the Cimmerian’s exploits. That seems to be changing a little, though- seems that DH is bringing us a Conan-Groo the Wanderer teamup, a joint project by Mark Evanier, Sergio Aragones, and Timespirits’ Thomas Yeates, due in April- and they enlisted Becky Cloonan to do its latest Conan series, which is as unexpected as it is brilliant.
Written in very evocative fashion by the solid-as-always Brian Wood, free from his DC commitments (including Northlanders, which certainly came across as Conan-ish once in a while) after what seemed like an eternity, his script, an adaptation of Bob Howard’s novelette Queen of the Black Coast, is dialogued impeccably and while, bear in mind, it’s been decades since I read the original and some of it may be Howard verbatim, Wood does a great job at evocative narration as well, giving us a vivid foreshadowed portrayal of Conan’s soon-t0-be partner in mayhem Belit…and while Cloonan certainly amplifies, it’s not all on her. Becky’s the real star of this show, though, as she tends to be…her Belit is feral and charismatic, just as the stories Conan’s hearing make her, and her version of the Barbarian in his youthful early career is as attractive as Barry Windsor-Smith’s early 70s version. She does a great job of making it all look cinematic and exciting. Of course, Wood and Cloonan have teamed up before, most notably on the two DEMO series, and this shows that they remain in sympatico.
Of course, I found myself wondering exactly how Belit maintains that snow white tan while sailing the open seas and wearing little more than a chain link bikini from the Red Sonja line of impractical female barbarian wear…I suppose she uses SPF150 Cimmerian Sunscreen. But seriously, folks, this promises to be a remarkably good take on Howard’s venerable tale…so that means you should check it out.
Two of the most recent attempts to address a market that seems to be perceived as not only underserved, but also apparently ripe for growth- comics for young children, as well as the young at heart. Although DC has given it the old college try with its animated style DCU releases as well as the oddball, and recently-canned, Tiny Titans, Boom! has certainly done its level best to establish itself as well with numerous titles in that vein, like The Muppet Show, its Disney-related releases, and now, Charles Schulz’s venerable Peanuts and a more current franchise, Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.
Schulz and Peanuts is a hard act to carry on, no doubt about it, and the handful of writers and artists brought to bear certainly do try very hard. Boom hedges their bets somewhat by including ringers- what I assume are Sunday strips by the man himself rearranged to fit the comics page format, and they do tend to separate themselves from the more modern stories by virtue of nebulous things like vibe and feel. The writers, as I said, are game, but they tend to rely too much on established tropes from not only the strips but the TV versions, which more people are familiar with anyway I’ll bet…you know what I mean: “You blockhead!”, “The sweet sound of nickels”, “Rats”, “I oughtta slug you”, Schroeder at the piano, Snoopy and his supper dish, Lucy’s psychiatry booth, etcetera etcetera. Rarely do they deviate from the expected character beats, just like well-behaved next-level perpetuators of intellectual properties do. The artists, for their part, seem to be bringing a definite Bill Watterson mindset to the layouts, and the attempts, while sometimes a little forced, to liven up the proceedings. And I’ll say this- one thing I was always sad to see in the waning days of the original strip was how shaky Sparky’s inkline had become, and that’s mercifully missing here, though no one has thought to go back and attempt to replicate Schulz’ fat-line 50’s-60’s look just yet. Look, it’s pretty much a given that for reasons that aren’t always easy to articulate, comic book versions of established TV, film and even comic strip properties usually always suffer in comparison to the originals. I may be damning with faint praise, but Boom’s attempt to do Peanuts isn’t terrible. Neither is it all that great, though.
And, sorry to say, that rule also applies with the new Adventure Time!, but to a lesser degree. Now, pretty much from the first time I happened to catch the two new Cartoon Network shows that made their debuts a year or so ago, Adventure Time! and The Regular Show, well…I loved the Regular Show. Mordecai and Rigby and their slacker efforts are reliably affable and weird and random and funny. Adventure Time? Well…I kinda kept my distance at first. Never having been a gamer, I didn’t really get a lot of the shoutouts to video and boardgaming (and let’s face it, at 50-something if I had it would have just seemed kinda sad and strange), and it was just so preteen and goofy that I thought they were having a laugh at the expense of kids who didn’t realize they were being laughed at in the first place. It all just seemed so unnecessary. However, I wold often watch the tail end of AT episodes, waiting for the Regular Show, and lo and behold, I was soon won over by the what-the-hell surreal charm of it all. Plus, Jake and Finn’s friendship was convincing and cool, and I could plainly see that a heck of a lot of imagination was brought to bear in giving us what amounts to a mashup of Conan, Dungeons and Dragons, and Candy Land. The comic version pretty much sticks to the same general feel in both story and art, adjusted for the fact that writer North seems to have grown up on a steady diet of serialized superhero comics, but it doesn’t quite gel as much as I would like and the continued-story finish of the lead story seems odd to one who is used to the 15-minutes-and-done-in-one of the source. The backup tale is by Aaron (Spiral Bound, Unsinkable Walker Bean) Renier, who has a better feel for this sort of thing- his story is as charming and as silly as the TV show can often be.
So the summup: neither are as good as one wishes they could be. But that doesn’t mean I hope they stop trying.
The Rehabilitation of Rob Liefeld’s Extreme line continues apace; first, we had a very good new take on Prophet, now here we have a pass at the line’s Wonder Woman analogue Glory. As with its predecessor, I never sampled the character’s previous exploits, though I will cop to buying Supreme when Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse were collaborating on it. So as with Prophet I don’t really have anything to compare this new version to, and maybe that’s just as well. Can’t help making comparisons, though, and I’m a little amused that one of the first I made was to The Boys, Garth Ennis’ savaging of superhero tropes, and its Superman and Wonder Woman stand-ins, the Homelander and Queen Maeve, during the scene in which Supreme and Glory have a confab on the beachfront in the wake of World War II. There’s also a generous dollop of Moore’s Promethea as Keatinge gives us young Riley, an Asian American girl who’s been haunted by dreams of the superheroine Glory all her life and is obsessed with finding out the whys and wherefores of this situation. She travels to France, following a particularly solid lead…and of course finds out more than she bargained for. Cue cliffhanger ending. This remake/remodel is a bit less successful than Roy and Graham’s Prophet revival, simply because it’s less out-there and imaginative. But really, that’s apples and oranges anyway. As with Conan above, it’s not really the story that’s the focal point anyway- it’s Ross Campbell’s art. Campbell, for whom cherubic-faced girls are equivalent to square fingers to Kirby or square-jawed Jewish heroes to Chaykin, brings his usual quirks to play…but he’s grown within his quirks and in my estimation is a far better artist than he was five years ago. His line has gotten rougher, but he’s really gotten good at layout and especially facial expressions, most notably in the aforementioned Glory/Supreme chat/confrontation. This comic, kinda like Graham and Prophet, will remain worth watching as long as Campbell’s on board. Take him off, and not so much…although they might find someone as good, it will change the equation and make it something else again. Given how fleeting and brief artists’ tenures are on comics series these days, that may not be the best strategy in the world, making your relaunched comics so dependent on the creators staying put, but that’s Image’s problem. We, the readers, can only shrug and enjoy it while we can.
I recently read, thanks to a friend, issues #10-22 of Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s recently concluded Punisher Max run, and was somewhat surprised to note that other than the revelation (within this self-contained, that is to say non-canon, which is to say not beholden to any past or future continuity universe…and for all I know, no Punny fan I, someone like Steven Grant or, oh, Garth Ennis has already done this, too) that Frank came home from Vietnam a real head case and was prepared to divorce his wife prior to their Mob murder, which serves to completely eliminate the old Punisher origin that he went on his murder spree to punish those, and those like them, who were responsible for killing them…that absolutely nothing Aaron came up with here in the way of actual events were not any that haven’t already been done many times before in other comics series and even with other characters…Punisher’s in jail- he’s not in there with them, they’re in there with him! Bullseye! Extreme, almost-comic violence! Lesbian Elektra! (Is this a not-so-secret Frank Miller homage/sendup?) The Kingpin! and yet, against all odds, this was still highly readable and entertaining. I suppose the ending, which I won’t spoil for you, is different… though it wouldn’t surprise me if someone hasn’t done that too. Be that as it may, Aaron’s highly capable of finding the right tone and maintaining it throughout, and Dillon, for his part, is a past master at such shenanigans, and is as solid and expressive as he usually always is. Like the Stones covering Chuck Berry or Lennon covering Fats Domino, they don’t add much to the originals, yet are still great because it’s the Stones or Lennon (the first examples of this that came to mind) that are performing the songs, such is Aaron and Dillon’s PunisherMax. Plus, 22 stellar covers by the great Rev. Dave Johnson! I will most likely drop coin on the trade, when and if it ever comes out.
As always, thanks for reading. See you next time.