It’s a new year, and time for the return of Confessions of  Comics Shop you-know-what, 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.

Script/Art: Aaron Renier
First Second, $13.99

This one’s been out a while; apologies for the tardiness of the review but it took me a while to get this one finished! Better late than never, eh? Anyway, I liked Renier’s anthropomorphic Scooby-gang story Spiral Bound when it came out back in 2005 under the auspices of Top Shelf, and was wondering what, if anything, he was going to do next. And here it is, a sprawling Treasure Island-like adventure, full of British Navy guys and pirates and supernatural monsters and magical skulls made from supernatural monster spit and pirates, like a particularly wigged-out made-for-TV 1950’s Walt Disney endeavor, inspired by but not especially beholden to Pirates of the Caribbean. Young Mr. Bean, devoted to his Admiral granddad and beneath the notice of his martinet father, acquires one of the skulls from said granddad, who makes him promise to return it. It’s a very talkative monstrous paperweight created by a pair of giant lobster-woman witches who have been exiled to a place in the ocean, and while everyone else wants it for its presumed power, Walker just wants to take it back, with the witches in hot pursuit. It’s paced at a breathless breakneck speed; no sooner does Bean escape from one predicament or character than he falls into the clutches of another. Even though Walker isn’t a particularly proactive antagonist, he does manage to charm with his single-minded devotion to his grandpa and trying to function in the strange new worlds he finds himself experiencing. Artwise, Renier brings a fantastic amount of detail to the goings-on in his woobly style; every page and panel is packed with visual information. Sometimes, his tendency to draw every character as pudgy and baby-faced becomes distracting, but that’s a minor quibble and is easily overlooked. Renier gets in several double-page spreads that are downright cinematic in their widescreen sprawl. Colorist Alec Longstreth deserves a lot of credit here as well- he provides deep, rich hues throughout and enhances, rather than competes with, one’s enjoyment of the art. This leaves our hero and the acquaintances he makes along the way in a bit of a bind; however, this is only part one. Hopefully part two will come out sooner than the interval between Spiral-Bound and this. (Review copy provided by publisher)

Script/Art: Gerry Alanguilan
Slave Labor Graphics. $12.95

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to witness one of those oh-so-serious dramas in which a young man returns home to be with his ailing mom and dying father, and has to deal with not only long-dormant daddy issues but his siblings as well, who either disapprove of him or vice versa, you know, the staple of a thousand and one stage and screen melodramas- and wanted to see it enacted from the viewpoint of a chicken- well, wonder no further and check out this oddball opus from Mr. Alanguilan, who’s best known for his inking work for the Big Two, mostly Marvel. It’s as if Gilbert Hernandez got the urge to write one of his trademark family dramas, but this time starring Howard the Duck. Which is not to say that there aren’t some valid dramatics happening here; in a world in which chickens suddenly gained human-like intelligence and have become another minority group clamoring for attention and equal treatment, the young male chicken, name of Jake, definitely has some issues to deal with and finds out a lot of sobering revelations about his, and his family’s past and its relationship with humans, specifically a poultry factory worker named Ben, who protected Jake’s mom and dad (the Elmer of the title) when apocalyptic events transpired when the chickens woke up and realized what was happening to them. It’s all presented in deadly earnest, a la Maus– stopping short of Holocaust comparisons, thank goodness- but unlike the crude expressionism (not to mention verisimilitude) that Spiegelman brought to his saga’s art, Alangulian’s babyfaced, yet meticulous and finicky rendering never lets us forget that all this angst and sturm und drang is being experienced by a bunch of chickens. Not anthropomorphized chickens, no, actual realistically presented chickens. I simply could not keep a straight face sometimes, even at some of the most grave parts. I suppose if you can look past the inherent silliness of the whole thing, there’s an engrossing read here, but I couldn’t make that leap. (reviewed from a copy provided by publisher; go here for a PDF preview)

Script: Geoff Johns; Art: Doug Mahnke, Keith Champagne, Christian Alamy, Tom Nguyen, Mark Irwin
DC Comics, $2.99

Ever since I first encountered it, in the pages of the sadly overlooked and long-cancelled DC humor series Major Bummer, I have been a fan of the art of Doug Mahnke, who brings wit and precision to his depictions of super-people and their exploits. I’ve followed, marginally (that is to say, via other people’s writing on the subject), what DC has been doing with its newly refurbished, color-coded Green Lantern Corps as reimagined in Blackest Night/Brightest Day ad nauseum. While I’ve never really been a fan of the character, in whatever iteration (Hal, Kyle, John Stewart, Guy Gardner- who was fun in Justice League) they’ve chosen to present him/her/it in (well, actually, I liked those old Fox/Broome/Kane 60’s stories sometimes as a kid), to the point where not even the promise of Mahnke art can coerce me to buy on a regular basis, I thought I might take a look at this particular issue since it also sported a Spectre guest appearance. It used to be that all you needed to do to get me to buy a comic is put the Spectre in it; I’ve always had a strong fascination with the character, especially in his earlier incarnation as the alter ego of Jim Corrigan. Now, however, the mantle of the Spirit of God’s Vengeance has taken up residence in Crispus Allen, a murdered Gotham City cop who was one of the best characters in the late, lamented Gotham Central comic and is now a monument to wasted character potential as well as DC’s willingness to fuck with certain segments of their readership as the Goateed Ghost.

Anyway, this issue reads as more of a Spectre adventure, though the focus is on one of the Red Lanterns, named Atrocitus. In this new, color coded Corps, the Red Lanterns are apparently powered by hatred for some tragedy done to their people or something. I assume there’s more than one Red Lantern, since that branch is getting its own series soon. Anyway, Atrocitus is pursuing another ginormous alien creature called the Butcher who feeds on hatred, if I’m following all this correctly. Here, he manages to come upon a man whose daughter was apparently killed by some hardcase criminal who is getting the chair for his crime, and the man is getting the chance to vent at him a little for what he did, and seethes with hatred as the criminal sneers at the man’s anger. This also gets the hypermuscled (this was one time when I questioned Mahnke’s rendering decision; he tends to draw his superhero characters with exaggerated musculature, but the Spectre is not traditionally a strongman type) Spectre’s attention, who arrives to make sure his peculiar brand of justice is done. The Butcher possesses the angry man, and a three-way battle royal breaks out, with all concerned philosophizing constantly as they scuffle. Despite being featured on one of the covers, Hal Jordan isn’t in this story. I can honestly say that despite all the strife and bombast, or more likely because of it, this was one of the more joyless and tedious comics stories I’ve read in some time; Johns has his characters constantly pontificating, when they’re not sniping or quarreling with each other- I can see, I suppose, why someone would be interested in all this, want to read it even- but I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could actually enjoy this. There’s no leavening of mood, no joy anywhere to be found, not even satisfaction at doing the right thing; they all just go through their dramatic paces to a dreary conclusion that not even Mahnke, with his assured compositions, and a bevy of inkers (including old Major Bummer and JLA compadre Tom Nguyen) can elevate. So what conclusion can I draw? I suppose there’s an audience for this sort of thing that doesn’t get turned off by the bleakness, and GL is one of DC’s best sellers right now with the movie coming up and all. Mine is not a new complaint, I know- this approach has been the S.O.P. since Meltzer inflicted Identity Crisis on us what seems like 20 years ago. I guess that if this sort of comic is  up your alley, then here’s more of what you’re looking for. Me, I’ll just shrug my shoulders, move on to some sort of mass-consumption entertainment that, you know, entertains, and regret that Mr. Mahnke, while amply compensated, I’m sure (I hope) is wasting his talents on such tripe as this.

Short Takes:

THE OCCULTIST One-shot #1: A nebbish who has his life irrevocably changed by gaining abilities as the result of some sort of supernatural intervention is one of the oldest tropes in the history of sequential graphic storytelling, and that’s what we get, no more, no less, here. While it’s generically drawn, the lead was appealing enough and relatable enough to maintain my interest, and I can’t say I wouldn’t mind seeing where this might go if given a few issues to refine the concept. Guess we’ll see about that. (Dark Horse)  B

HELLBOY: THE SLEEPING AND THE DEAD #1: This newest Hellboy adventure finds the big red guy in England circa 1969, hitting (OK, in this case shooting) first and asking questions later, which gets him in a fair amount of trouble in the cliffhanger ending. Most notable this time out is the art of Scott Hampton, whose painterly approach provides a lot of nice, eerily effective scenes. Unless they totally punt the ending, another winner for Mignola and his collaborators. (Dark Horse)  A

SCALPED #44: A rare misstep from Jason Aaron on this book, as he takes a character that he’s spent the entire run setting up as a tormentor/adversary and suddenly completely changes the game for him via one of the most random and hackneyed plot contrivances I’ve read in a book of this caliber in a long, long time. Not a deal-breaker, far from it, because this character’s objective apparently remains the same (although I’m damned if I can see how he can continue to pursue his goal) and the dynamic remains intact…but jeez Louise was this issue a clunker. (DC/Vertigo)  C+

DETECTIVE COMICS #872: Scott Snyder is writing his ass off on both ends of this title, and is doing a great job, getting a lot of help from his artists, Jock and Francesco Francavilla. Right now, Detective is the one Batman title you need to be buying. (DC Comics)  A

A couple of very interesting announcements have been made recently: Fantagraphics stated its plan to reprint the Carl Barks Disney Duck stories, revered by comics fans the world over spanning several generations. While I’ve never really been a big fan of these comics, I do recognize that Barks wrote some cracking good adventure stories and utilized a deft cartooning hand to bring them to life. Also, at long last, DC announced that it will collect and republish in a hardcover format with bonus features the 1996 Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely Doom Patrol spinoff metatextual superhero-appreciation miniseries Flex Mentallo, one of my all-time favorite comics series. The title character was a play on the old Charles Atlas ads that appeared in comics for many years; you’d have to be familiar with what Morrison was doing in the DP comic at the time. Anyway, the Atlas company did not see the humor or appreciate the homage and sought to sue to keep it out of print. A settlement was eventually reached, but it’s been unseen, except by those fortunate enough to have purchased them originally as I did, found as a pricey run on eBay, or who may have downloaded them on the Internet. While the hardcover format is too pricey for my sadly limited budget, I highly recommend this intelligent and clever exploration of many of the same themes that Morrison would go on to expand on in subsequent works. For, along with a nicely thorough history, go visit Johanna Draper Carlson. Tell her Johnny B says hello.

Also, I’d like to pass along a mea culpa for accidentally omitting Jim Rugg’s Afrodisiac from my best of 2010 list. I actually reviewed it here from an advance PDF in January ’10, and Amazon’s listing stated it was published in late 2009, so I assumed it had come out a year too early for inclusion. I’ve come to find out since that it was mass released in early 2010, and indeed made it on many more astute pundits’ year-end lists. It’s a very good one-shot, and would have most likely made my list if not for my poor Googling skills.

Finally, what I know you’ve all been waiting for: The All-Purpose Review Writing Music List! Including CDs I got for Christmas. Justin Townes Earle- Harlem River Blues; The Black Keys- Brother; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers- Mojo; Sparks- Hello Young Lovers; John Hartford- Aereo-Plain; Come and Get It: The Best of Apple Records; Band of Horses- Infinite Arms; The Essential Clash; The Essential Miles Davis.

That’s all, folks! See you sometime next week, I hope.