Here we go again with Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, in which I attempt to spotlight several 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/Art: Raina Telgemeier
Scholastic/Graphix Books, $10.99

Many of the reviews I’ve seen have taken this to task for a perceived lack of conflict, or dramatic tension, or some something that the critic was looking for — some standard they usually apply to the sort of comics stories that they’re used to reading. Me, I think they’re looking for something that doesn’t need to be there, and are missing the forest for the trees, to coin a cliche.

This is no hyped-up saga of personal rediscovery and coming-of-age and struggling with inner and outer demons, a la Blankets (to cite, perhaps unfairly, one example). It is a quiet, unassuming account of a handful of years in the life of its (I assume, I’ve never met her) likable and unassuming author, and to dismiss it because it isn’t gripping drama isn’t really fair. Preteen Raina, already preparing to get braces, falls in her front yard one evening after returning from a Girl Scouts activity, knocks out one tooth and drives another up into her gums…and embarks on a six-year ordeal of orthodontics and dental work, as well as learning to cope with junior high and high school and all the attendant problems that many young girls and boys face.

And therein lies the rub for many; there aren’t really too many highs and lows, unless you count earthquakes in San Francisco circa 1989…but geez, are we that jaded that we can’t take a nice little story, well told, at face value, and find enjoyment in little things — things that made me laugh out loud at times, such as when her temporary fake front teeth fell out as she was showing them to her friends…one which also sneaks in a subtle little message about self-image and self-esteem and overcoming negative in both in order to find happiness and a sense of place as well as belonging? Maybe my standards just aren’t high enough, who knows.

I think Miss Telgemeier, who’s main gig is illustrating a new series of Babysitters’ Club graphic novels for Scholastic/Graphix, is an engaging storyteller, with a pleasing drawing style that makes me think of a cross between (admitted influence and preface writer) Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse, of which this is a kindred spirit) and Hate‘s Peter Bagge. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through my share of dental hygiene dilemmas (hee, Zappa ref) in my life as well, and that makes me more receptive. Regardless, and especially if you have kids or younger siblings that might be receptive to this sort of message, you could do worse than to check this out. You won’t be jolted or shocked or overstimulated, but you might be entertained and maybe even moved just a little. It only seems like yesterday since I was reading this online at Girl-a-Matic; now here’s little Raina all growed up. I hope she has more where this came from. (A copy was provided for review purposes by the publisher)

Script/Art: Kazu Kibuishi
Scholastic/Graphix, $12.99

Here we have another new collection of strips that originally were published serially online. I became aware of Kibuishi mostly through his lead role in getting the Flight anthologies off the ground; I has seen Copper panels and pages here and there, but hadn’t really been moved to investigate further. Having done so with this collection, it reads to me like a mix of Calvin and Hobbes and Little Nemo in Wonderland, as the titular boy has many surreal adventures (often while asleep), all the while accompanied by his dog, who functions as the darker, more pessimistic (and some would say “realistic”) side of his personality. They usually always come to some little epiphany as they’re confronted with this and that, and it’s often pleasant, sometimes downbeat, for variety’s sake if nothing else.

It doesn’t quite have the depth of feeling and sense of wonder that Watterson often brought to Calvin, but that’s a hard trick to pull off successfully so this gets by. Kibuishi, like Telgemeier, has a loose, cartoony, ready-to-be-animated, please style which adds to the eye-pleasing overall impression and his coloring is absolutely gorgeous, with many rich, saturated hues and shades providing contrast and mood. Another good read which isn’t so long that it overstays its welcome, and Kazu’s production notes which make up the last few pages are interesting and informative as well. I could see some young would-be artist finding this quite inspiring. (A copy was provided for review purposes by the publisher)

Script/Art: Various
Marvel Comics, $

Ew! Girl Comics! Boys, I hope you’ve had your cootie shots! The latest of Marvel’s attempts to ingratiate themselves with female comics readers (and those who serve as advocates for females who create comics) bears a whiff of a paternalistic, condescending “You want more comics by female creators? Well, here! Now go away, I have to concentrate on the fifty-seven varieties of X-Men and Avengers comics” sort of vibe, and while that may or may not be true, and this was launched with the best of intentions, releases like always going to be regarded with a skeptical eye — simply because there are so many agendas on both sides and rare the twain do meet.

So, looking at it objectively, as I try so hard to do at all times, I must say that, as with most anthology-style titles, it’s awfully hit and miss. Many of its delights are visual, and by that I mean right off the bat we get a nicely designed logo over the top of a typically clever and well-drawn Amanda Conner cover. Colleen Coover contributes a panoply of Marvel female characters delivering a girl-power manifesto, her work is always a joy to behold. We hit choppy waters next with a story which features the very male Nightcrawler of X-Men fame, coming to the rescue of a fraulein-in-distress backstage of some German cabaret; I suppose Willow Wilson meant it to show that they aren’t going to toe the expected “empowered females represent” line, but it does kinda diffuse the whole point of the collection. I’ve seen much better work from Ming Doyle on the Net as well; for every great panel or sequence we get one that looks rushed and awkward. She’s a talent to watch, though, and this will be a footnote in her career.

My favorite in the set is next, a story of the original Atlas/Marvel Venus, a longtime favorite character of mine. This picks up where the original series left off, as a bored Goddess of Love decides to leave Olympus again and resume her duties at Beauty magazine, where she worked in the late 40s and early 50s. Of course, complications ensue, but it’s a lighthearted and entertaining romp as written by cartoonist and comics historian Trina Robbins, an old hand at this sort of thing (and WHEN is her Eclipse Rohmer adaptation Dope gonna get collected?), and illustrated by Stephanie Buscema, daughter of Big John of ’60s-’70s Marvel Bullpen fame, who renders it all in a proto-Scott Morse style reminiscent of children’s books illustrations of the ’50s and early ’60s or Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I liked this a lot, (unsurprisingly) thought it the best of show.

Valerie D’Orazio and Nikki Cook are next up, with a short neither-here-nor-there Punisher tale that unfolds in rote fashion. I’ve read better, but I’ve read worse, call it a warm-up for D’orazio’s Punisher series which is coming soon, if it hasn’t already. Cook’s style puts me in mind of a blend of Paul Pope, Becky Cloonan, and probably a dozen artists I’m unfamiliar with; it’s sloppy, but she knows how to pace a story well. Lucy Knisley, who does some of the best autobio comics out there on her LiveJournal, contributes a cute Doc Octopus two-pager (Doc Ock gets mad when people dis octopi, like the Geico Cavemen with…well, cavemen slights). Next up, Agnes Garbowska brings her charming supers-as-little kids style to bear on Robin Furth (with whom I’m completely unfamiliar)’s oddball text-heavy clockwork take on Hansel and Gretel, starring Franklin and Valeria Richards (I don’t read Fantastic Four, so I had no clue who Valeria was for a long while), featuring tons of mechanical animals and of course a wicked witch — it’s somewhat rambling, or maybe that’s just the effects of all the text, but Garbowska makes it work.

Finally, ’90s DC vet Devin Grayson and up-and-coming Emma (Strange) Rios collaborate on an X-Men story that deals with the eternal love triangle that matters so much to so many fanfic writers, Scott/Cyclops, Jean Grey (whatever they call her these days), and Wolverine. It’s good, and I’m in the tank for Rios, but it, like many of these stories, scans like a tryout script in the hope that they’ll get more work down the road. A couple of heartfelt tribute pages to longtime Marvel vets Flo Steinberg and Marie Severin round out the package. There’s a lot to like about this issue — it does spotlight some great talent that deserves recognition…even if they’re not always at their best. Hopefully future issues in the series will offer as much.

Script: Brian Azzarello, Art: Rags Morales
DC Comics, $3.99

This is the first full issue of DC’s latest attempt to throw some 1930s and 1940s-vintage poop against the wall, in the fervent hope that it will stick. Good news? Some of it does.

The conceit here is the adventures of Doc Savage, The Spirit, and a still-green, gun-in-hand Batman, all running around (often literally) and eventually, I’m sure, teaming up in a world in which superheroes do not exist. Azzarello, who’s only really hit me where I felt it on his magnum opus 100 Bullets, does a really nice job of giving us a sort of high-octane pulp fiction here from the Raiders of the Lost Ark-inspired intro, featuring ancillary Fabulous Five member “Johnny” Littlejohn — nice move, spotlighting one of the least-used of the group — through a dramatically valid funeral scene which will seem Watchmen-inspired to many but actually extrapolates events from the first Savage pulp novel, The Man of Bronze, with the kind of dialogue that Azzarello excels in.

The feel that Eisner and his assistants brought to The Spirit is a difficult thing to pull off, too, and while Azzarello doesn’t quite manage that he gives us a decent enough facsimile, especially in the relationship between Commissioner Dolan and The Spirit, not as warm as the canonical version, of course, but featuring some enjoyable back-and-forth banter. Azz does well by John Sunlight, the only reoccurring Savage pulp foe, playing up his Russian heritage without overdoing it. No Batman yet, but don’t worry, he’s coming. Rags Morales is an artist whose style, so hyperexaggerated, rubbery and kinetic, obviously inspired by Frazetta and Wrightson but with troubling shades of people like Bart Sears and Jackson Guice as well, gets on my nerves at first glance…but the more I look at it, I tend to come to appreciate the nuances in expressions and staging he uses. He’s a pro’s pro, and I can think of a dozen artists I like better…but he does OK here.

DC recently wrapped a so-so Spirit revival attempt, and the company never has really gotten a handle on Doc Savage (in all fairness, Marvel wasn’t much better though Ross Andru’s art really suited the characters back in the 70s), and so I wasn’t terribly optimistic about this…but at least after one issue, I’d like to see more. We’ll see if it has legs.

And now, what I hope will be the dynamite sensation of 2010 and beyond: RATE-O-RAMA, which will see me rating and briefly summing up other four-color endeavors that crossed my optical scanners in the previous week. All seriousness aside, I do read a lot more books than I’ve been writing about, so this is a way for me to cover them as well. A sentence, a letter grade, a slap, a tickle. And it goes like this:

INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #24 : Appropriately tense finale of the most recent arc, marred somewhat by the hoary old cliche of the bad guy gloating and talk talk talking and not kill kill killing, and thus giving our Tony’s friends and allies time to protect him.  A-

SCALPED #35 : They used to call them “inventory stories”, done by fill-in artists, put on the shelf, and whipped out when the artist or writer was behind. They were never as good as this issue, a tale of an aged and isolated Sioux couple. Regular scripter Jason Aaron writes, and Vertigo stalwart Daniel Zezelj fills in. I’ll write more about this series someday. A+

UNDERGROUND #5: Jeff Parker is a writing fiend these days, truly a man among men or a writer among writers or something like that…and this 5-issue series is the best thing he’s done since The Interman. He’s also fortunate to have Steve Lieber on art at the top of his game helping out. The best adventure story about Kentucky caves and park rangers that maintain same that I’ve ever read, and seriously, the guys nail the verisimilitude…believe me, I know. A

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: CRY FOR JUSTICE #7: This has been getting slammed throughout the Net, and for good reason. The absolute wretched worst of overwrought melodramatic superheroics these days…and if this makes you curious, take my advice and resist the urge. It’s not Ed Wood or even Fletcher Hanks good, it’s just reprehensible. F

NOLA #4: Remember this one? Well, it finished in predictable fashion. That said, it could easily be coming  to a USA Network or Spike TV near you someday. C+

See you next Tuesday!

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