Welcome back to Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, in which I give you the skinny, the straight dope, the 411 (and other out-of-date slang terms) on comics and graphic novels of recent vintage, which will be, are, or have been on sale at a brick-and-mortar or online merchant near you.

Gonna be a kinda Top Shelf-centric edition this time out.

Script: Paul Tobin; Art: Colleen Coover
Top Shelf, $12.95 (Release date May 2011)

Everybody loves Colleen Coover, and for good reason- she has an open, appealing art style that looks great no matter what she chooses to illustrate, regardless of what she’s been asked to draw. Casual-looking, but really tight when you look closely. Also, she’s very proficient; the Net is full of her sketches and color illos, most of it done on a daily basis, and she’s always contributing to this or that blog. In short, she seems to be one of the really cool and most talented people of the Comics Internet. Now that she’s done all-ages comics as well as several Marvel projects for a while, it seems that she is ready to return to something a bit more for the grownups, like she did early in her career with Small Favors, and this original story, written by hubby Tobin, seems to be just that.

Tobin introduces us to Manic Pixie Dream Girl Annahnette, thankfully referred to as “Annah” for most of the story. Annah has many personality quirks, but none as pronounced as the one in which she’s convinced that she has an older sister who disappeared when her parents divorced, and is actively avoiding her younger sibling, who obsessively searches for her in a number of ways including visiting phony psychics and employing old wives’ tales-style magic. Annah is the object of affection of not one but two people- a young lady named Chili, and a luckless fellow named Jerry, who spends most of this story trying in vain to hook up with our Annah, who has instead gone out with Chili simply because she showed up first. That’s pretty much the stage that’s set; most of the rest of the story is taken up with the girls on their outing, as well with ongoing commentary about the nature of Annah’s quirks, ranging from Chili and poor Jerry to the phony psychic, a doctor, a bulldog, and a pigeon. It seems our girl is also convinced that an operation was done on her by her father, and her Penfield’s Homunculus was removed and somehow transformed into a sister, who was the recipient of all the “emotions and sensory feelings” between the two. It’s drawn like, and reminds Annah of, a gingerbread girl, hence the title. We find out a lot about her and her world but this ends ambiguously, and you all know how much that annoys me…still, Tobin does a great job of making his heroine likeable in spite of her flightiness, and wisely gives her some shades via her unhappy childhood. Of course, it helps to have Coover’s winning art bringing your characters to life as well; while I seem to only concentrate on her figures, she excels at drawing the city around them, and does a great job of staging it all. Her work is as strong as anyone currently working in the field today, and can bring across things that many of her contemporaries can’t or choose not to.

I enjoyed Gingerbread Girl for the most part; while I kept getting annoyed a how the story kept stringing us along and didn’t really resolve anything, it’s full of clever vignettes and characters, and in spite of my impatience I was still charmed. I wish I could suss out what exactly the point is that Tobin’s trying to make, though. It’s worth it for the art alone, but there’s still just enough story to make it more than a pretty art book. I sincerely hope that Tobin and Coover decide to revisit Annah and Her Suitors one of these days, there’s a lot left to tell about these people (and animals), I think. If you’d like to sample before preordering/buying, you can go here to read the first few pages. (Reviewed from a PDF provided by the publisher)

Script/Art: Jess Fink
Top Shelf, $14.95 (Release date May 2011)

Tobin and Coover’s Gingerbread Girl deals with adult themes, for sure, and even has a little chaste nudity. This, on the other hand, is full of sex, nudity, and more sex. If GG is a Harlequin romance, this is Anais Nin. Jess has been putting her heavy-petting Steampunk Chester story up on the web for what seems like a very long time now, and here it’s getting a justly deserved and high-quality print edition. It’s the tale of a young couple, an inventor and his lovely bride, who are having problems- he’s far too busy with his work to give his lady the reaming out she wants so much. He creates a robot manservant to take care of her (in more ways than one) while he’s working, and soon the young lady discovers that the manservant Chester has a full array of fully functional body parts, and when activated via a key, becomes a metallic gigolo for the sex-starved bride, giving it to her hard and heavy whenever she wants, even ejaculating oil, of course. Eventually, the inventor catches on and sells Chester in a jealous rage, despite the protestations of his wife. The buyer is a dark-haired young lady, who, after getting her first taste of the sweet sweet Chester lovin, decides that she’s not ready for the metallosexual experience, and attempts to return the ‘bot. I won’t go into anymore detail, because the ultimate resolution is pretty much exactly what you think it is, but just in case you don’t see it coming I won’t spoil it.

Fink’s story is lively and fun, and her art is loose and expressive, but she takes pains to get the period detail and other things down, and the effort shows. She has the most fun, surprise surprise, drawing the explicit sex scenes; her layouts become  even looser and decorative, suggesting action and reaction and swirling emotion. It’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening on the page, and that’s money, especially when you’re doing erotic comics. I’m a little surprised Eros/Fantagraphics hasn’t been knocking at her door; maybe they have been but their oversight/loss is Top Shelf’s gain. This is hot stuff, and will appeal to a wide spectrum of fandoms- Steampunk enthusiasts, Victorian period drama fans, sexual deviants perhaps…the sky’s the limit. (reviewed from a PDF provided by publisher)

Short Takes:

BIRDS OF PREY #10 (DC): I was intrigued by the Stanley “Artgerm” Lau cover, which showed the assembled mass of Batman Incorporated and Birds of Prey reacting in various ways behind a veiled Barbara Gordon aka Oracle, who holds the Oracle mask/logo before her face in enigmatic fashion. It’s kinda stylish and does all a good cover should do, that is, provokes curiosity about the contents. Sorry to say that those contents dosn’t quite measure up, especially artwise. Gail Simone’s script is the conclusion of a 3 part arc that seems to be trying to set up a change of role of sorts for the Oracle character, using an armed conflict with the everpresent Calculator to facilitate it. I don’t really get what the whys and wherefores behind Babs’ decision is, but I don’t suppose it’s all that important. Otherwise, Simone juggles her unwieldy cast as well as anyone could ask; characterization beats and fight scenes alternate, and nearly all the major players get a little screen time. It’s a professional job by a professional writer, featuring standard superheroics, and if it lacks any sort of real excitement or spark, well, that would just get in the way, now wouldn’t it? Perhaps that spark could have been provided by an artist, but unfortunately not the one we get here, whose work is stiff and static and kinda underdrawn and simplistic, no matter how hard Nei Ruffino colors it up in Photoshop. Sometimes I think Simone is undercut a lot by the artists that get chosen for her. Bat-fans and regular readers of this series will be interested, all others? I’m not so sure. C+

HEROES FOR HIRE #4 (Marvel): In which Misty wakes up to the reality of her surroundings, so to speak, but first we get a lot of “It’s all in her mind as she encounters painful events and people from her past” stuff, then a nifty cliffhanger almost as compensation. This whole Puppet Master thing has already gotten old after 4 issues, there wasn’t nearly enough Paladin, and the fill-in artist was competent but unexciting. I’m still on board, but I want to see something else soonish. B-

JONAH HEX #65 (DC): Another very low-selling title from DC, and I must confess that I’m part of that particular problem. I’ve never really been all that big a Western comics fan, and while I’ve bought a few over the years, it’s the rare series that keeps my interest for longer than a few issues- and that was the case with this particular iteration of Hex. I’ve picked up the occasional issue that was drawn by someone exceptional- J.H. Williams III, for example, or Darwyn Cooke. That said, a lot of this run has been illustrated by Jordi Bernet, and I do think he’s on par with almost anyone drawing comics today, he brings an assured, old-school Eurocomics vibe to the party, and I do love the expressiveness of his art. This issue has Hex traveling in a mountain snowstorm, and he’s taken in by a man about who, of course, there is more than meets the eye. Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are still plugging away on this series, and this is one of the better Hex stories I’ve read with their byline. I can’t see me becoming a regular reader again, but I am happy to recommend this issue and hope that next time I get curious that a) this comic will still be published, and b) it will contain a story this good. A

B.P.R.D.-HELL ON EARTH: GODS #3 (Dark Horse): This miniseries existed to do two things, I think: show the ramped-up tensions between Bureau members, especially agent Devon and Abe Sapiens, and also introduce this new character, “Fenix”, surely one of the worst nicknames ever coined by either John Arcudi or Mike Mignola. Also, this marks the final issue, for now, drawn by the great Guy Davis, who’s never had the most picturesque style but has always been capable of drawing anything presented to him with snap and aplomb. He’s been a big part of what has made the B.P.R.D. series so enjoyable, and while his replacement’s looks intriguing, he will be missed. Otherwise, this is mostly about the Bureau field team shooting, shooting, shooting, cursing, and shooting a bunch of horn-headed monsters and confronting the pack of runaway kids that this “Fenix” seems to lead. This is not one of those “good jumping on points” you hear so much about, but if you’re a longtime reader and fully invested in what’s happened so far, it’s a promising step towards what I assume is a more grandiose direction. B

BATMAN AND ROBIN#’s 20, 21 (DC): I must admit that I bailed on this series after Morrison did; I just figured the mojo would be gone no matter who wrote it (though I must admit I wasn’t always crazy about this even when Moz was on board), so it was a good jumping-off point. However, eventual replacement Peter J. Tomasi is a somewhat underrated writer, with at least two good series (The Light Brigade, The Mighty) under his belt, so I thought it would be worth checking out. Tomasi’s once again preoccupied with angels a la Brigade, except this time these are elaborate constructions, created by some sort of luminescent being called the “White Knight”, who seems to be killing relatives of Arkham Asylum inmates by dressing them up in elaborate angel guise and  offing them in odd ways. Tomasi does a good job with the burgeoning Bat-cast as it is these days, and I liked several scenes even if the villain looks like Dr. Phosphorus lite and sometimes the whys and wherefores of his motivation don’t seem to hang together. The art by Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray is inconsistent; for every nice action set piece there’s an awkward looking figure and face drawing. This arc seems like it could have been, in back in the day, a decent Legends of the Dark Knight 3-issue arc…but when this book was launched, it was supposed to be something special. This is not bad, but it’s not that. B+

The All Purpose Review Writing Music List: Van Morrison- A Period of Transition; Steely Dan- Pretzel Logic; Queen- Queen; John Cale- Paris 1919; Various Artists- Bloodshot SXSW 2011 Sampler (The Waco Brothers FTW); Todd Rundgren- A Wizard, A True Star.

As always, thanks for your attention and have a great weekend.

Review inquiries, love letters, meth cooking recipes: johnnybacardi AT gmail.