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.
BABY’S IN BLACK: ASTRID KIRCHHERR, STUART SUTCLIFFE, AND THE BEATLES
Script/Art: Arne Bellestorf
First Second Books; $24.99
Gosh, I just love it when my interests intersect! There are thousands of stories peripheral to to the Beatles. and very few of them are as poignant as the one of the brief life of original bassist Stu Sutcliffe and his even more short-lived romance with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr. For those of you who may not know the story, Sutcliffe was the first bass player in the early incarnations of what we came to know as the Beatles. John’s friend, and it was at John’s insistence that he be in what was still, at that point, his band that kept him there, even though his heart belonged to painting and the art world. That all changed when the great (I’m sorry, I’m an unabashed Klaus fanboy) Klaus Voormann happened upon the lads playing one night in a dingy dive in Hamburg, Germany, and then dragged his ex-girlfriend-still-best-friend Kirchherr to share his discovery. Stu and Astrid found they were kindred spirits, and soon fell in love, and she was a galvanizing influence on the Liverpool lads, helping them style their hair and making legendary photos of them. When the Beatles had to return to England, Stu stayed behind with her (not to worry, Paul took over on bass) to study art and paint…but didn’t have long to live, collapsing not long after and eventually dying from what is best described as a brain haemorrhage. You can read Stu’s story here and here, and I recommend the film Backbeat, which features Stephen Dorff as Stu and Ian Hart giving an excellent debut performance as the young John Lennon.
This book was first published in Germany in 2010, it has slowly been released in other countries since then and finally is seeing US release thanks to First Second books. Bellestorf doesn’t seem to be interested in dwelling on any of the more unseemly aspects of the whole Beatles-in-Hamburg experience; this if squarely focused on the romance, and an almost young-adults flavored one at that, so there isn’t a whole lot of “fook” and “shite” or German bird-shagging, and that’s OK up to a point- it’s not so much concerned with the early days of the Fabs as much as it is Stuart and Astrid’s romance. I’m not familiar with Bellestorf’s work prior to this, and its script, written with input from Kirchherr herself, doesn’t really give me a good feel for what he brings to the table. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s sensitive, which is to say that it’s not cynical or abrasive or even especially objective, but it’s nice. Reverent, even. And as a Beatle fan from way back, that’s fine with me, but may not work for others who seek a little more roughage in their recipe. Bellestorf’s star shines a bit brighter in the art, however; his is a somewhat deceptively simple style, a bit expressionistic in places (or perhaps that’s just the whole German flavor of the thing) and rendered in what I’m assuming is ink and charcoal (grease pencil, perhaps), though sometimes he fills in areas with what looks like grey crayon. Everyone is babyfaced, with rosy cheeks…especially Paul McCartney, who, well, is as babyfaced as they come so that’s all good. Perhaps it’s a subtle commentary on the youth of the principals, can’t say for sure. I will say this- he does a nice job in places you wouldn’t expect- depicting the streets of Hamburg and the dingy, claustrophobic Kaiserkeller club- and (I’m pretty sure I’m not spoiling this) he saves the best for last- his symbolic “suggest-more-than-show” rendition of Stu’s death is very well done and I found it deeply touching. Beatles fans, especially those interested in their early days and these two (three? Klaus, remember) subjects in particular will find it a welcome addition to their collections. Those who are of a more skeptical bent may not be as charmed as I was. If you like this, you might want to look for this as well…it reminds me of a more grownup version. Anyway, you can judge for yourself; preview pages can be found here.
Script: Bill Willingham; Art: Phil Jiminez
Kind of a transitional period at Vertigo, with a couple of series ending (most notably the consistently-excellent Scalped) and a couple of others underperforming (or both), and the launch of a handful of new titles, of which these two are the first. Country at first blush looks to be a Sci-Fi/Conspiracy Theory/X-Files/Political Thriller mashup, kinda like if Mulder and Scully were confronted with the Manchurian Candidate. Brit Paul Cornell writes, and while it sure looks like he’s never going to write anything else that I’ll like half as much as his still-missed Captain Britain and MI-13 (and I can hear him sighing now), this at least seems to have more of his personality in it than the last thing I read with his byline, the New 52 Demon Knights. Now, I invoked the dreaded X-Files name just now, and that’s not completely accurate- so far, there are no shadowy special agents lurking though there are plenty of Secret Service guys filling up panels. That said, these days, in the wake of that show, anything with this subject matter will invite that comparison, at least in my head. I don’t know how much of a real student of American politics Mr. Cornell is, but nonetheless he presents us with the unlikely-named “Arcadia Alvarado”, who aspires to be the Democratic nominee for President of the U.S.A. While I have my doubts that, as one of her advisors states at one point, America is ready for a “female, divorced, Hispanic President” (even though I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing one, as long as she wasn’t a nutjob or passive-aggressive like so many candidates seem to be these days, and that’s one of the few times I’ll get political here in my little forum), still, that’s what we’re given and Cornell goes to great pains to show us what she’s dealing with, which includes, among the usual candidacy folderol, latent memories of being abducted (and perhaps worse) by aliens. Rounding out our cast is a Harvard folklore professor whose advocacy of UFO belief gets him suspended at that venerable institution. He also interacts and gets advice from small ghostly people, who mimic the illustration of human male and female figures sent along in space probes. Arcadia’s rather disgruntled ex-hubby also promises to factor in before it’s all over, I’d bet. Art is by Ryan (Local) Kelly, whose work is often very good but seems to be channeling Val Mayerik or Don Newton here. It’s not bad, and he has a lot of nicely staged panels, but there’s a certain crudity of line and awkwardly composed heads and faces that took me a little aback. Not to worry- Kelly has shown himself to be capable of excellence, and I’m sure he’s just getting started. Oh, and by the way, alternate cover illustrator Sean Murphy- I saw what you did there.
Speaking of covers, the spiffy Adam Hughes cover to Fables spinoff Fairest is a bit of a cheat- it shows us most of the female entourage of the mother book, doing little things that give us signifiers to their identity. Problem is, none of them are actually in the comic book that they’re wrapped around so adorably. Instead, what we have is an Ali Baba adventure story in which he acquires a mostly-powerless blue skinned genie that comes across as a Howard the Duck type, on hand to provide wise-ass comments at odd times. He reminds me a lot of the two demons that made up a big part of Mike Carey’s Lucifer series. It’s beautifully illustrated by Jiminez, who’s done nothing but get better since his Invisibles days. Problem I have with this is that it just seems like Willingham just has too many stories to tell and feels like he can’t work them into the subplots of the main series, so pow- give me another $3 monthly, please! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I have a limited income, y’know. If you’re a hardcore Fables fan, you’ll want this- it’s fairly clever and as breezily written as that book at its best can be. If you’re not, it’s eminently skippable unless you just love Jiminez, as you should.
NIGHT FORCE #1 (DC Comics): It’s getting to the point where you just don’t know what the hell DC will resuscitate next. I guess I should gear up for the eventual (God forbid) return of Thriller. Anyway, it’s nice to see Marv Wolfman continuing to get regular work, though he’s sadly past his sell-by date by now, and maybe it’s the 90’s Spectre fan in me, but it’s cool to see new Tom Mandrake art as well, even though there’s a stiffness here that I don’t recall from his earlier work. Anyway, Force was Wolfman’s mid-80’s attempt (with the late great Gene Colan) to catch Tomb of Dracula lightning in a bottle, this time for the competition, and though I tried a couple of issues I found it a bore. This is a bit more lively than the first go-around, but the central character, a mysterious manipulator named Baron Winters, remains an enigma, intentionally- not real good for reader identification there- and even though Mandrake’s updated his look a little the Baron still serves mostly to keep the reader at a distance. Depending on the strength of the stories Wolfman can conjure up, this might be worth following for a while. B+
HELL YEAH! #1 (Image Comics): I’ll say this- it’s hard to resist a comic with a title like that. But this, yet another weak sauce deconstructive take on superheroes with barely competent art, will leave you saying “Hell, no”. D+
SUPERBIA #1 (Boom! Studios): The official line on this is Desperate Housewives with superheroes, and that’s certainly true up to a point, but really, this comes across as a less smirky cape comic “deconstruction” a la The Boys, and if you want to go back even farther, Watchmen, and there’s just way too much of this stuff coming out these days. Took me some Googling before I remembered who writer Grace Randolph was; she’s something of an internet celebrity who specialized in half baked movie satire/criticism via YouTube videos, and now she’s seeking to branch out into writing, specifically half baked superhero satire, something we’ve seen a thousand times already. The art, at least, aspires to novelty- someone named Russell Dauterman provides a kinda-sorta loosey-goosey somewhat cartoonish style, reminiscent of better artists like Sonny Liew or Mark Wheatley but nowhere near in that league. He’s not all bad- the inkline (or Photoshop line, or whatever) is terrible, but he doesn’t screw up anatomy often and his staging is fine. He may bear watching in the future. I guess if you haven’t read a single comic book in the last 30 years, you might find Superbia to be an audacious take on superheroes. Somehow, I doubt that 1) that audience will find this comic in the first place; and 2) this applies to most of, if any, of you. C
POLLY AND THE PIRATES Vol. 2: MYSTERY OF THE DRAGONFISH (Oni Press): The first Polly series, written and drawn by Ted Naifeh, was good fun- kind of J.M. Barrie/Robert Louis Stevenson type adventure yarn filtered through Naifeh’s unique sensibilities, and managed the neat trick of not inviting “Courtney Crumrin on the High Seas” comparisons, despite both series featuring preteen blondes in unusual situations and sharing a publisher. This time around, Naifeh scripts and Robbi Rodriguez illustrates, and they don’t miss a beat- although really, as good as Rodriguez is, and I do think he’s good even though he’s managed to avoid that high profile project that thrusts him into the limelight so far, he’s not Naifeh and Ted’s always been his own best collaborator. Anyway, the clandestine pirate queen goes once more into the breach, at first to help out her friend Emperor Joshua (based on the real life Emperor Norton, I’d say), who’s been arrested, and then of course things get even more complicated as the Emperor requests her aid in getting to the bottom of the machinations of an evil foreign power. I’m no expert on what the demographic for this series wants or likes, but I’d give this without hesitation to a preteen girl or boy, or anyone who enjoys a romping adventure yarn despite the age of the protagonist. A-
JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #634, 635 (Marvel Comics): Y’see, I’m a bit of a fan of Marvel’s Son of Satan/Daimon Hellstorm character, especially the 90’s Warren Ellis/Leo Manco version, and I tend to be interested when he pops up in Marvel books, if nothing else but to see if they handle him right. Anyway, JiM is about a young Loki these days, and another equally youthful female companion, a sister I think…and I don’t really know much more than that though Loki’s quite witty here and seems to be positioned as the fellow who grows up to be in the Thor movie. Or something like that. Anyway, Old Doc Strange baddie Nightmare is the foe in this three-parter, and he’s doing what he often does- mucking around in people’s dreams, acquiring “power” of some sort, and the twist is that he’s siphoning it from metapowered individuals’ dreams. A somewhat-more-youthful-than-I-like (though a fine portrayal overall) Daimon’s helping Loki and his friend thwart his ambition, and generally gets to act grouchy while the sister does the heavy lifting and Loki gets to be droll. Phonogram‘s Kieron Gillen writes, someone named Richard Elson draws in a generic superhero comic fashion with a lot of Photoshoppery added by “IFS’s Jessica Kholinne” (Are all colorists part of some combine or another these days? Or do they just think the initials look kewl? Are they unionized? Get benefits? Can I apply?). Anyway this is par for the course for Marvel these days; written well, if a bit formulaically, drawn in a thoroughly competent fashion, but overall kinda dull. B-
In the interval between columns, one of the true legends of comics, especially European comics, died- Jean Giraud, who often signed his work “Gir” or “Moebius”, passed away on the 10th of March. Deeply influential on a whole generation of today’s artists, and an illustrator of boundless vision and assured craft, he leaves a very large hole in the world of comics, fantasy, and illustration. Lots of tributes all over the Web, and as always you should go to Tom Spurgeon’s roundup at the Comics Reporter to find them.
That’s all for this go-around; thanks for your patience. Hopefully I’ll see you again in less than a month this time.