Here we go again with Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, in which I attempt to spotlight several recent works of sequential graphic storytelling that I find noteworthy, and think you might too- many of which may still be purchased for your very own personal enjoyment at a comics shop, bookstore, or online merchant near you if you’re lucky. Or not, as the case may be.

Script: Joshua Dysart; Art: Cliff Chiang
DC/Vertigo, $19.99 hardcover

First, there were solo acoustic shows leading up to theatrical costumed stage performances, in which Neil first presented his ambitious “Eco-fable”, then the album, which was greeted with no small amount of anticipation by the Young faithful, whose number I still counted myself among back in 2003. Possessing an actual concept this time out, an ongoing story thread if you will, it promised to be an intriguing attempt by Neil to merge two of his creative interests, filmmaking and music making, as well as make some statements about ecology, the economy, politics, love of course and the relationships between family members, and even the act of creating art, all subjects Young has dealt with time and time again in his music. It told the story of the Green family, who lived in the titular small California town, specifically eco-conscious teenage daughter Sun and her stubborn grandfather, as well as a cousin who kills a state trooper, and a mysterious, shady stranger who has a bad influence on the males of the family. Problem is, both the album (with rambling, overlong and ramshackle, albeit mostly likably bluesy, songs) and the subsequent film were a disappointment to many, and Young’s eco-friendly fantasy didn’t really reach much of an audience outside of his legion of faithful fans- although it did get reviewed favorably in places, most notably in Rolling Stone, who named it one of the best albums of 2003. If you’d like to know what I thought about both the album and movie in January of 2005, go here. The Thasher’s Wheat website also has a lot of info. At the time, there was also word of a trade paperback by persons unknown, which I assumed had come and gone as well. That said, in 2007, DC announced this, and now, finally, in 2010 we are presented with it, and I’m pleased to say that with a few caveats, it’s pretty good.

Dysart, whose work on two B.P.R.D. miniseries was excellent, but whose Unknown Soldier for DC left me mostly unmoved, does a great job of focusing Young’s somewhat diffuse concepts-  giving them a clarity that you just couldn’t get from reading the booklet notes of the CD or by watching the movie. He plays up the supernatural elements that Young just hinted at; I’m not sure whether it was Neil’s idea or Dysart’s, but it does go a long way towards enhancing the goings-on, even heading off the road and into the Stephen King ditch upon occasion- the presence of the less-than-benign fellow in the fedora, reminiscent of the Randall Flagg character from The Stand (the grandmother of the Green clan also reminds me of Mother Abigail) and Needful Things, and many of Sun’s troubled dreams involving the man as well. Other aspects of the plot will remind movie buffs of such films as The Witches of Eastwick or Practical Magic, perhaps if directed by David Lynch. It’s interesting to me to see how Young portrays men and women here- the male characters are all flawed to varying degrees- Grandpa (who seemed to have a bigger role in the CD and DVD than he does here) is a cranky old coot with Alzheimers’; his brother is equally as old and cranky to the point of being hateful; Cousin Jed is a frustrated Army vet who runs drugs, carries a gun, and has a perpetual chip on his shoulder; Dad is a borderline alcoholic frustrated, ineffectual artist who only creates anything of consequence when under the spell of the Randall Flagg guy (and what is Young saying about his own creative endeavors here, I wonder?). All the women, on the other hand, even the ones who have mysteriously disappeared over the years, are portrayed as nurturing, caring (often literal) Earth mother types who stand by their men. Now, just from reading the Young bio from a few years ago, Shakey, I recall that Neil often had a fractious relationship with his parents, and while his first marriage was often rocky, he’s been married to wife Pegi for many years now, so I don’t know how much one can read into all of that. I do think it’s worth pointing out.

Dysart’s dialogue style works well; it’s not flashy and prone to comic book-speak. Best of all, though, is the art by Cliff Chiang; it’s nuanced and imaginative and expressive and combined with Dave Stewart’s sepia-based hues (one the first dozen or so pages, anyway- the advance copy I was sent wasn’t in full color), enhances and further clarifies what Young and Dysart are trying to get across.

One quibble I have is something that probably couldn’t have been helped- the politics, relevant  in 2002, seem kinda dated now with its mentions of Bush, Saddam, and the “search for weapons of mass destruction”, although much of the disdain for corporate politics and their impact on the environment (and boy, isn’t that sadly current right now) is still a going concern. The ending, which at least has the virtue of not leaving us hanging as the film’s finale did with its staged concert, still isn’t totally satisfying- much is left unanswered and the cynic in me wonders what, if anything, was resolved, even though it does at least provide give us some explanations. I was also left a bit nonplussed by the constant admonitions, by one of Sun’s aunts in her dreams, to “Be the Rain”. Not that I expected her to magically transform into literal rain and drown the mysterious stranger, but really, all she does is a bunch of Tefe Holland vine-growing tricks on him at the end. I suppose it points to how Sun becomes one with nature towards the end, fulfilling her legacy and joining up with the other Green women, but It also comes across as a not-so-subtle way to work in a song title from the album, and little more.

It’s almost as if they’re leaving the possibility of a sequel dangling out there- and while I wouldn’t be averse to it, especially if this creative team returned for it, but I’d be very surprised if that was in the cards. (Reviewed from an advance copy, provided by publisher)

Script/Art: Ryan Ottley, Jason Howard. Text intro by Robert Kirkman.
Image Comics, $4.99

First impressions: one, the title reminds me of the days when Z-movie filmmakers would film pretty much anything if the title was cool enough, whether they had a story or not- witness the likes of Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary, etc. etc. Second, I suppose this owes a lot to recent filmed endeavors like Megashark vs. Giant Octopus, a “what the hell” idea if ever I heard one. High concept aside, this is a little schizzy- lead “Sea Bear”, while no less gratuitously gory (OK, a little less) at least tries to establish a mood of sorts and aspires to a Stephen King-esque “secret civilization living under the nose of the world at large” scenario, which elevates it a notch above its co-feature, which trades in lowbrow humor and overdone gore and wears out its welcome about five pages before it actually ends. Both these guys work on other books, neither of which I read; Invincible for Ottley, The Astounding Wolf-Man for Howard, and judging by the results here I think I’d be more likely to check out the latter rather than the former. Sometimes, when confronted with titles like this, you get into Snakes on a Plane territory- it sounds so cool that you assume that it will be- how can it not be, with such a great title and concept? Unfortunately, the execution isn’t always up to the promise the title makes, and to me it got real tedious before it mercifully ended. For five bucks, I’d think you damn well want to be sure you want to read about Sea Bears and Grizzly Sharks.

Script/Art: Brandon Graham
Image Comics, $2.99

First discovered Graham via a black-and-white Xeroxed copy of Multiple Warhedz that Oni Press sent along back in 2007; shortly thereafter I discovered his LiveJournal, in which he posts image after image of his own, and others’ work…it’s really quite informative and plain old fun to look at, almost reason enough to maintain a LJ account. When Image announced it was going to be re-presenting the work Graham did for Tokyopop, I was interested but decided to wait for a collection of some sort rather than buy the singles, and now I’m kinda wishing I hadn’t…by deciding to check out this issue so I could write about it for all of you, I was plopped right into the middle of an ongoing story about which I knew next to nothing. Of course, after reading a while I could figure out where the conflicts were and what background the story took place in, but reading the first eight would have definitely come in handy, no doubt about it. This issue, at least, follows a “cat master” (i.e., he has a cat he carries around with him that does, and helps him do, extraordinary things) who is searching for something, and we spend time with his equally quirky friends and the city he’s in and…honestly, I can’t really describe what’s going on here after reading only one issue. There’s just too much going on, an explosion of imagination and funny dialogue and Graham’s art, a loopy, open style that reminds a little of Moebius and Ditko and early Jaime Hernandez and yet doesn’t look much like any of them, just too much to process for me to describe it adequately. I love Brandon’s use of zip-a-tone (or more likely Photoshop) to give the art some depth and contrast. I’m pretty sure owning the previous eight issues is key, or the trade when or if they ever print one, and that will make a world of difference. I think Graham’s quite an interesting talent, and this is a good example of what he does, but this is just too dense for me to recommend it to you cold. By all means check it out, but proceed with caution.

Script: Jeff Parker; Art: Emma Vicieli
Marvel Comics, $3.99

The solo spotlights on the Agents of Atlas continues with Namor the Sub-Mariner’s cousin, also a human/Atlantean hybrid. Introduced in 1947, she briefly had her own title but mostly appeared in her cousin’s own book, and when superheroes in general faded away in the 1950’s, so did she. Eventually, decades later, Marvel (never a company to let a licensed property lie fallow) reintroduced her in the Sub-Mariner’s 1970’s series, only to kill her off again, only to be seen in flashback stories until Jeff Parker decided to add her to the roster of repurposed 40’s and 50’s heroes in Agents. In this, her turn in the spotlight, she’s shown searching for displaced Atlantean subjects (apparently at some point, various tribes left to start colonies on their own elsewhere), in order to bring them all back home again to the newly relocated city. She encounters a group of former Atlantean subjects who are seemingly living in a blissful state in a Shangri-La kind of scenario, under the protection of a benign giant…but of course there is more than meets the eye. By now, Parker knows his characters well enough to avoid making any false moves, and he does a great job defining Namora, who’s been a bit of a cypher until recent appearances in Atlas and Hercules. One scene in particular stands out- while investigating the source of the settlement’s well-being, she encounters her daughter Namorita (who is, I assume, still dead in canon as of Civil War, but who is also alive and kicking in other-dimensional form in Thanos Imperative right now), and they have a reunion that really is effectively moving, in no small part due to Vicieli’s art, and yes, also because I’ve always kinda liked Namorita, since Bill Everett introduced her in 1973. See page at right; click to see leviathan-size. She draws with a style that’s reminiscent of Jill Thompson, giving us a more lithe and feminine version of the character than we’ve gotten in the past, and benefits greatly from some vivid colors by Rachel Rosenberg, whose byline I’ve not noticed before on anything I’ve read previously. Can’t not mention the sweet alternate cover above, pencilled by the great Ramona Fradon, who drew Aquaman and Metamorpho for DC back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and inked by Mike Allred, whom I’m sure he counts among his artistic influences. It’s always great to see her byline and she accepts commissions! Parker and Marvel are doing their level best to get you interested in the world of Atlas, and if comics like this one don’t do the trick, then I just don’t know what will.

Review writing playlist for this week: Neil Young- Greendale (go figure); Heart- Passionworks; Parliament- Tear the Roof Off 1974-1980; White Zombie- La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1; Savage Grace- Savage Grace; Elliott Murphy- Just a Story From America.

Thanks for reading, and as always, send review inquiries, love letters, and other correspondence to johnnybacardi AT gmail.