Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy is the comics debut of My Chemical Romance frontman, Gerard Way, and as it turns out the man can write. This is an utterly original, hugely ambitious book the succeeds wildly at everything it tries.

The story revolves around a dysfunctional family of super-powered siblings who are reunited at their foster father's funeral. Throughout the course of the story they eventually unite to prevent the end of the world, at the hands of a killer orchestra. This book is edited by the ingenious Scott Allie, and the tone of the story bares a strong resemblance to the moody humor found in his other Dark Horse books, Hellboy and the Goon.

And much like those books there's a general (somehow believable) wackiness to the world in the story. Besides the orchestra the book also contains such sites as alien squid wrestling, a killer Eiffel Tower, and more talking monkeys than any other book in recent history. The art from Gabriel Ba (along with the best coloring I've ever seen from Dave Stewart) sells every insane moment, and I could not imagine another artist capable of pulling this book off. Between this and Casanova last year Ba is my #1 artist to watch.

This would have been a shoein for my book of the year, if Iron Fist didn't come out at the same time. It's definitely a good time to be a comics fan.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Coffin

The Coffin is the first of Phil Hester and Mike Huddleston's psychological horror collaborations, and it's really good. The publicity for the book markets it as being a Frankenstein story, in which the scientist turns himself into the monster. That's a bit simplistic but not too far off. The plot involves a scientist working on a suit capable of trapping a soul in a corpse, allowing the soul to control the body after death. An attempt is of course made on his life and he is forced to test the suit on himself. A fairly ordinary revenge story follows.

However, what makes the story interesting is the toll on the protagonist's psyche. He is trapped in his own corpse, while his soul is constantly trying to tear itself away (despite the fact that he seems bound for hell). This makes for an interesting vengefull ghost story on top of the typical mad scientist tropes.

And then there is Huddleston's art, which elevates the story the story even further. Huddleston is an incredibly atmospheric artist who is able to greatly modify his style to fit any given scene. And it probably helps that Hester is a decent artist in his own right, and thus someone who really knows how to write for an artist, making for a pitch perfect collaboration.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Born on the Battlefield

Dark Horse's current Conan comic has the distinction of being the only Conan adaptation that has ever matched the greatness of the original Robert E. Howard stories. More than one reviewer has actually said that they're better (they're very close to my mind). The comic regularly features gorgeous art from Cary Nord, and Kurt Busiek's writing is an unbelievably faithful take on the Conan mythos.

And scattered throughout the ongoing story have been a series of tales from Conan's youth, featuring the amazing Greg Ruth on art. I had trouble with these comics originally, Ruth's art was a huge departure from Nord's, and the idea of an ongoing story that was only progressed every half dozen issues or so drove me nuts. Fortunately they have now been collected together into Born On the Battlefield, and I think it's now my favorite arc the series has had. Highly recommended.

O.M.A.C.

O.M.A.C.: the one Man Army Corps, was the last of Jack Kirby's DC work, and it was also by far the strangest. The story takes place in "the world's that coming" (a line that never seems to get old), in which Buddy Blank has been molecularly altered by an intelligent satellite named Brother Eye into becoming a one man peacekeeping force. Together with the Global Peace Agency (comprised of legions of faceless (in order to appear raceless and thus completely neutral) they battle legions of super rich gangsters.

The concept gives Kirby lots of room to let his imagination fly, and the result is a sort of stream of consciousness wonder that I don't believe was matched until Grant Morrison came along (Kirby was a huge influence on his work). OMAC confronts subway mutants, pseudo people, and in my favorite issue an entire city that is rented out as a deathtrap.

The only fault with the book is the way it ends. After 8 issues, Kirby finally ended his time at DC to return home to Marvel (where he worked on Captain America, Black Panther, and the Eternals). And since the sales weren't that good on the book (it was far too ahead of its time), DC changed the final panel so that everyone randomly explodes. It's very surreal, but not in a good way. Otherwise I think I actually preferred this book to much of the Fourth World books Kirby worked on during the same period.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Immortal Iron Fist

As a follow up to finishing the Essential Power Man & Iron Fist I read through Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction & David Aja's newest take on Iron Fist. What this team has produced is a nearly perfect comic. The writing is strong and the art is gorgeous, but what really sets this book apart is the scale of it.

Iron Fist is a billionaire martial arts expert who was raised in the otherworldly city of K'un-Lun. This basic premise was always a bit ridiculous, essentially merging Batman and Kung-Fu. But what Brubaker and Fraction have done to make the idea brilliant is to give the whole thing some history. Iron Fist is now merely the most recent person to hold the title, and the presence of all the previous ones are strongly felt in the series. Most especially Orson Randall, the immediate predecessor to the current Iron Fist, who led a group of pulp adventurers in the wake of WWI.

The resulting story from all this spans 8 worlds and a millenium of history. There's also tons of action and the introduction of Fat Cobra to seal the deal. This is essential reading for all comics fans.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Monster Zoo

Doug TenNapel is back with Monster Zoo, his third graphic novel in the last year. The title pretty much sums up the story this time, a group of teens are trapped in a zoo in which the animals have been turned into monsters. But because this is a TenNapel book it's much better than that might sound. He is just a master storyteller who combines a hyperactive imagination with expert storytelling skills and the best brushwork in comics. And he makes it all look so effortless.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Deadpool Classic

Deadpool is the most recent major comic character that no publisher knows what to do with. He's currently about to make his 3rd attempt at an ongoing series, not counting when he was sharing the lead of Cable/Deadpool or when he temporarily lost his own comic to Agent X for a year. There are two main reasons for why these various attempts never last. First of all the Merc with the Mouth is a simply bizarre sort of character for a heroic lead. And second, Deadpool has been living in the shadow of the Joe Kelly run on the title ever since Kelly left.

Which finally brings me to the first volume of Deadpool Classic. As I've just said the only classic Deadpool stories were the Joe Kelly ones, only the first issue of which is in this collection. This issue launched the careers of both Kelly and artist Ed McGuinness and lead to one of the best runs in recent Marvel history, which will hopefully get collected in a future volume.

The rest of this book is made up of Deadpool's first appearance in the New Mutants and the two mini-series that predated his ongoing, written by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Waid. The Nicieza series was an enjoyable enough action story, but was largely forgettable. The Mark Waid follow-up was a bit more interesting as it advanced Deadpool's character quite a bit by setting him up as a killer with the potential to become someone better. These are all good reads, but all this book really does is make me want the second, all Joe Kelly volume.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Philosopher's Apprentice

The Philosopher's Apprentice is the latest of James Morrow's salvos against the forces of fundamentalism. Now normally I love this books unconditionally. Morrow is a amazingly gifted writer and in my case he is very much preaching to the choir. However this time around I have some mixed feelings.

My main complaint is that Morrow has finally written a novel in which the moralizing runs away with the story. Granted that's sort of inevitable when the protagonist of the story is a failed philosopher turned ethics teacher. But the story is quite good when it is given a chance to exist apart from the author's preaching.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist

Power Man and Iron Fist is one of the more ill conceived comics that Marvel has published during its history. Both of the title characters were the leads of underselling (very) 70's titles. Power Man was Marvel's token Blaxploitation comic, and Iron Fist was their attempt to merge super-hero books with the kung-fu fad. The two characters have nothing in common and making a billionaire character like Iron Fist decide to join Power Man to form Heroes for Hire (an equally bad concept that has never worked) seemed even more forced.

However, it is to the writers' credit that the pairing feels surprisingly natural. The concept may be ridiculous, but the two characters are strong enough to survive it, albeit just barely. The plots do a somewhat decent job of merging the back stories of the two leads and the writers are seem to be very aware of the faults in the heroes for hire concept. Quite a few stories revolve around the Heroes being hired by disreputable clients and then trying to find a way to get out of their contracts and still get paid, not exactly the most noble of superheroes.

Which leaves us with some good characters, decent art, fairly good writing, but a reason for existence that is totally ludicrous.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Amphigorey Again

Edward Gorey is a legend, plain and simple. He was one of the few truly unique storytellers the world has ever seen. And thus I had extraordinarily high expectations for the final collection of his work, Amphigorey Again. Sadly the book did not quite reach them, but then there was really no way it possibly could.

This book collects whatever pieces didn't make it into the other 3 Amphigorey collections. There are a few standouts, I particularly like the two stories featuring the Bahhumbug, The Haunted Tea-Cosy and the Headless Bust. But many of the tales presented here are leftover story ideas, a few of which were never completed.

Of course being from Gorey these are all impeccable examples of his skill. But in the end I can only recommend this collection for Gorey completeists . For everyone else, stick with the other three books in the series

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Dexter In the Dark

Dexter In the Dark is the most recent of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter novels, and I have the same problem with it that I do with the prior novels, the plot just isn't very good. In fact the plot this time completely took me out of the story by adding in some entirely unnecessary fantasy elements that to my mind ruin the heart of Dexter's character.

However, while I hate the new conception of why Dexter is compelled to commit various horrible acts, the character himself is as strong as ever. Furthermore, the subplot of this novel, in which Dexter begins to train his step children in how to get away with murder is brilliant and makes the book worth reading just for those scenes.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Losers

I went into the Losers expecting something amazing because of the creators involved. Andy Diggle is currently writing what my be the best Hellblazer run in that title's history, while Jock has become the #1 artist to watch in my mind with his work on such titles as Green Arrow: Year One and Faker. But I think the Losers just didn't live up to the hype for me.

The story focuses on a group of rogue special forces operators who are attempting to make public a rogue CIA agent who left them for dead. It's a fairly standard espionage set up that allows for some great action set pieces, and both creators milk the formula for everything it is worth. This is probably one of the great action books of the last few years.

However, the book falls down when it comes to the characters involved. I just couldn't bring myself to care about any of them and found them to be fairly stereotypical. The Losers are comprised of 1 hacker, 1 femme fatale, 1 doting father, 1 silent killer, and 1 company man, not one of which ever seemed to have more depth than the label applied to them. Still they do serve the purpose of the story nicely, I just expected more from Diggle after the character work he has put into John Constantine.