Author Archives: Ryan C. (trashfilmguru)

Review: Doomsday Clock #1

And so here we are — the “big event” that all of DC Rebirth has been leading up to, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s eagerly anticipated/thoroughly dreaded (depending on your point of view) DCU/Watchmen mash-up, Doomsday Clock. The lines between the two formerly-separate fictitious universes were blurred, of course, in last year’s DC Universe Rebirth Special, and here they’re completely wiped out. We’ve known it was coming, now it’s arrived — and it wants five bucks a month from you for the next year as it plays out over the course of 12 issues. Should you do what it (and, specifically, DC) wants?

Lots of critics are answering that question with an emphatic “yes,” some no doubt charmed by the free pancake mix and maple syrup that preview copies of the book came packaged with (DC shrewdly, but wisely, calculating that many comics critics — like many comics creators — are fucking starving), while others seem to genuinely like the fruits of Johns’ and Frank’s “imaginations.” Allow me, then, to do what I’m best at and piss on everyone’s Corn Fla — err, pancake breakfast.

Granted, to say I wasn’t expecting much from Doomsday Clock would be putting things mildly, but I was genuinely taken aback by just how much I despised this thing. Frank’s art is certainly competent enough, I suppose, highly detailed but utterly devoid of personality, a triumph of style over substance, and Brad Anderson‘s colors are a reasonable enough computerized approximation of original Watchmen colorist John Higgins‘ singular palette, albeit with more gradations in regards to shade and hue, but hey, you know what they say about lipstick and pigs — and this story is one hell of an oinker.

Johns has clearly read Watchmen dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years — but the entire point (hell, points) of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ seminal, transformative classic was just as clearly lost on him. Every page — in fact very nearly every panel — of Watchmen was layered with thematic, conceptual, even allegorical meaning, but if you’re a facile, “surface-level” reader? Hey, it’s just a clever super-hero “whodunit” with a decidedly dark tone. Issue one of Doomsday Clock makes it abundantly clear what sort of reader Johns is.

It makes it abundantly clear what sort of writer he is, as well — one whose abilities are dramatically limited by his reading skills. Nobody apart from the most continuity-obsessed, intellectually adolescent fanboys have ever even wondered  how you could cross over the DC and Watchmen “universes,” never mind what would happen once you did so, and for that reason I really can’t fathom how anyone apart from a continuity-obsessed, intellectually adolescent fanboy would find what’s going on in these pages remotely interesting : it’s 1992 (a 1992 where variations of the term “deplorables” are in common use, where a Brexit-type event has triggered to the collapse of the EU, and where there’s a wall along the US/Mexico border — even though President Goldenshower isn’t in office, Robert Redford is? Does anyone even edit Johns’ scripts for such basics as logical plausibility?) on “Earth-Watchmen,” and things are a mess with Adrian Veidt’s scheme exposed and the purported “world’s smartest man” the subject of a global manhunt. Rorschach is on the case, but they make it clear pretty quickly that this Rorschach isn’t that Rorschach (special points for tone-deafness on Johns’ part for putting a black guy in the costume made infamous by a racist, civil-rights-trampling, vigilante lunatic — again, where’s an editor when you need one?), and that his part in whatever the hell’s going on global meltdown-wise isn’t what it seems. In fact, he’s working for —- fuck it, spoilers and all that — who’s very much alive but — fuck it, spoilers and all that again — and they’ve got a plan to — by this point you already know I’m not really going to give any “big” details away. Then we wrap up with a scene of Clark Kent on “Earth-0” (or whatever it’s called these days) having a dream about his parents’ death that doesn’t jibe with what we’ve known before.

Now, plot twists were a key component of Watchmen, of course, but they were the icing on a damn deep and rich cake. Here, though, those twists are all that Johns and Frank are serving up. This is a cheap, “flashy” story dependent on “wowing” you with one surprise after the next — but again, those surprises will only be effective if you give a shit about this cash-grab premise in the first place, and no reason for the skeptical, or even merely curious, to “buy in” is ever offered by these low-rent “creators.”

Hell, truth be told, they’re like Trump in that I don’t think they know how to reach beyond a hard-core base. Watchmen was the comic you could give to people who don’t read comics, but in order to begin to understand Doomsday Clock you need to have been deeply invested in the intricate minutiae of DC product (let’s just call it what it is) for a couple of decades or more. If nine-panel grids and grumbled “hrrrmmm”s are enough to convince you that Johns and Frank are “honoring” the legacy of Moore and Gibbons, then I guess this’ll do in a pinch, but for anyone else? Say, somebody with a modestly-developed sense of discernment? This comic is as insulting to you as it is to Watchmen‘s creators, neither of whom were even given so much as a courtesy call to let them know this toxic sludge was about to slide down the pipeline.

Johns has made some public statements clearly designed to mollify concerned parties, saying that this series won’t be saddled with any “tie-ins” to other books because he doesn’t want to “dilute the Watchmen brand” (as if its very existence doesn’t do precisely that), and that he doesn’t intend to wrap things up with a Superman vs. Doctor Manhattan fight but, rather, with a “conversation” between the two of them — but that presupposes that he has anything worth saying about either character. Based on the evidence offered by Doomsday Clock #1, I’d say it’s painfully obvious that he doesn’t. I won’t be sticking around to find out, of course — and neither should you. So enjoy those pancakes, everybody — they sure taste better than the shit sandwich that came with them.

Story: Geoff Johns Art: Gary Frank Colors: Brad Anderson
Story: 0  Art: 4 Overall: 2 Recommendation: Pass

DC Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

REVIEW : DARKSEID SPECIAL #1

As mentioned in my other reviews (on several occasions, broken record that I am) of DC‘s “King 100” specials for this site, these comics have been up-and-down affairs on the whole, but I have to give credit where it’s due — between The Black Racer And Shilo Norman Special #1 and the subject under our metaphorical microscope here, Darkseid Special #1, they at least closed them out on a high note. Yes, we had to endure a couple of clunkers along the way, but these last two both give you plenty for your $4.99.

Mark Evanier was a natural choice to write at least one of these books, given his background as Jack Kirby‘s assistant and, later, biographer, and I can’t think of anybody more qualified to re-introduce the comics-reading public to the original (as opposed the bastardized, “re-imagined” version wreaking havoc in the so-called “DCU” today) version of perhaps the most powerful and iconic symbol of pure evil in the history of the medium than him.  That being said, it would be a lie to say that Darkseid himself is actually the “star” of this book that bears his name.

No, that honor would have to go to a tough-as-nails and decidedly determined young lady named Makayla who, along with a couple of fellow escapees from the orphanage/proving ground run by the dread Granny Goodness, is out to bring the lord of Apokolips down, permanently and by any means necessary. For those who find the societal and economic structure of New Genesis’ dark twin of particular interest, there are plenty of rapid-fire yet entirely effective re-introductions on offer here in addition to the aforementioned Granny : the streets (and sewers) of Armagetto, the Female Furies, Parademons, the Omega Beams, Desaad, Slaughter Mountain — they’re all present and accounted for, not to mention as compelling as ever. Makayla and her cohorts are never going to succeed in their mission, of course, but whether or not they live to fight another day is a fairly open question and offers a bit of “hey, I actually don’t know exactly what’s going to happen here” suspense/intrigue that’s largely been missing from this month’s other Kirby tribute specials. Bonus points to Evanier for titling his story “The Resistance!,” in a move that’s sure to raise the hackles of the increasingly desperate and easily-butt-hurt (talk about “snowflakes”) pro-Trump crowd.

On the artistic side of the ledger, Scott Kolins isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off with his illustrations here, but it’s at the very least competent (if uninspired) work and the splash pages, in particular, offer a fair enough approximation of Kirby-level majesty and impact in a pinch. Dave McCaig‘s dark-ambient colors offer a nice finishing touch and on the whole these are pleasing, if far from gob-smacking, pages to look at. If you want great art, well — this ain’t it. But it’s plenty good, and sometimes (this being one of them), that’s good enough.

Considerably better, though, is the reunion of the fan-favorite team of  Phil Hester and Ande Parks in the too-damn-short OMAC back-up strip written by former DC head honcho Paul Levitz. The story’s no great shakes — OMAC finally wises up to the fact that Brother Eye is bad news and goes on the run from the Global Peace Agency — but it offers a nice little “twist” ending that old-school Kirby aficionados will appreciate, and the illustrations are straight out of the Steve Rude style school (to the extent that Rude himself is even given a hat-tip in the credits). Pitch-perfect coloring from the always-reliable Dave Stewart adds the finishing touch to this decidedly fun yarn.

As always, the back of the book is handed over to The King himself, and with another “Young Gods Of Supertown” (this one from Forever People #5) strip, and a very interesting story from Tales Of The Unexpected entitled “The All-Seeing Eye” that offers some none-too-subtle visual precursors to Brother Eye, you really can’t go wrong — so if you’re looking for a “total package,” I’m pleased to say that Darkseid Special #1 provides exactly that. Oh, and just for the record, Evanier confirms it in his backmatter essay : it’s pronounced “dark-side.”

Story : Mark Evanier and Paul Levitz  Art : Scott Kolins, Phil Hester, and Ande Parks

Story : 8  Art : 7  Overall : 7.5 Recommendation : Buy

REVIEW : THE BLACK RACER AND SHILO NORMAN SPECIAL #1

Who in their right mind wasn’t intrigued by this one when it was first announced? The Black Racer is, after all, one of the more immediately-arresting and enigmatic characters in all of Jack Kirby‘s Fourth World canon, and Shilo Norman was fondly remembered as the trusted “kid sidekick” of Mister Miracle — but given the Racer’s occupation/mission, it was pretty obvious from the outset that any story that would bring these two together would possibly, if not probably, mean that poor Shilo’s days were numbered.

And so it would seem right from the outset of Reginald Hudlin‘s script for The Black Racer And Shilo Norman Special #1, wherein Shilo, having assumed and/or inherited the Mister Miracle mantle for himself, is strapped to a missile (a hat-tip to a concept The King first utilized in Scott Free’s adventures four decades back) as part of a charity event sponsored by a casino magnate who’s an obvious stand-in for — shit, do I even need to say it? Suffice to say, we all want to see this asshole forced to fork over the cash to Shilo’s charity of choice, but the Racer appears to have other plans —

If, like me, you prefer your Kirby homages to be of the big, bold, and brash variety, then Hudlin and pencillers Denys Cowan and Ryan Benjamin, along with inkers Bill Sienkiewicz and Richard Friend, certainly deliver the goods — this is fast-paced, and decidedly high-stakes, storytelling that gives a number of terrific comics veterans who we don’t see nearly enough of anymore the chance to really flex their creative chops on some of Jack’s out-and-out coolest characters and concepts as Shilo, desperate to stay alive, finds himself not only making a quick pit stop into the world of Kamandi, but getting into an underwater tussle with none other than OMAC himself! In short, strap yourself in tight because this is one wild ride.

For all its breakneck action, though, there is also plenty of humanity at the heart of these proceedings — we get a deeper look at the Racer’s civilian alter-ego, Willie Walker, than we have at any point since his first appearance way back in New Gods #3, Shilo is both as likable and, frankly, immature (not to mention a tad bit sexist) as ever, and a genuine air of mystery and the unknown is imbued back into “The Source” in a manner that would no doubt make Kirby himself smile with appreciation. Yes, this is as much a re-hash as any and all of the other “King 100” specials, and there’s certainly nothing revolutionary about its sabotage/betrayal central plot conceit, but damn, it hits all the right notes and frankly hits them so well that I think it will have appeal to more than just the “hopeless nostalgia” crowd.

Needless to say, that’s not entirely due to the story alone although, as discussed, that’s certainly quite good — the simple fact, however, is that for a book that’s got an “art by committee” approach, this thing looks pretty damn seamless (thanks in large part to Jeromy Cox‘s vibrant and attention-grabbing colors throughout), and the Cowan/Sienkiewicz team, in particular (always a winning combination “back in the day”), appears not to have lost a step at all. This is fluid, graceful, and expressionistic stuff, rendered with obvious love for both the creations they’re playing with and, crucially, their creator. Heck, it’s borderline majestic in many instances — particular Willie Walker’s Vietnam flashbacks — and consistently dynamic and bracing from start to finish. Prepare to be thoroughly impressed indeed.

Finish it all off with three Kirby “Young Gods Of Supertown” back-up strips from New Gods #s 4, 5, and 6, respectively, and you have a comprehensively fun and entertaining spectacle with plenty of soul to both balance out and underpin all the gloriously far-out cosmic otherworldliness. I’ll be the first to admit that these DC Kirby tribute books have been a decidedly mixed bag on the whole, but The Black Racer And Shilo Norman Special #1 is definitely the best of the bunch and well worth its, fair enough, pretty steep $4.99 asking price. As The King himself used to say : “Don’t ask — just buy it!”

Story : Reginald Hudlin  Art : Denys Cowan, Ryan Benjamin, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Richard Friend

Story : 7.5  Art : 8.5  Overall : 8  Recommendation : Buy

Review: Manhunter Special #1

Of all the “King 100” specials that DC announced to celebrate Jack Kirby‘s centenary, this one probably had the biggest number of question marks swirling around it — the Paul Kirk iteration of this character is not one of the most fondly-remembered of the Golden Age, after all, and successive re-boots over the years have pretty much done away with the idea of a wealthy former big-game hunter with no super-powers to speak of putting a steel mask on his face and beating the shit out of criminals in favor of international, and now inter-galactic, “Manhunter” organizations that are increasingly further afield (conceptually and location-wise) from what Kirby and Joe Simon originally put to paper — and now that Manunter Special #1 is here, I’ve gotta say that most of those question marks remain, chief among them : why bring back this character when so many other, and frankly better, Kirby creations (one of which features in a back-up strip in this very comic) continue to gather dust?

The main story, featuring plot (to the extent one can be said to exist) and layouts by Keith Giffen, dialogue by DC “suit” Dan DiDio, and finished art by Mark Buckingham at least looks good — Buckingham’s illustrations pay homage to The King without sinking to the level of pastiche or, even worse, parody, and the fight scenes (in other words, the entire feature) are dynamic, impactful, and “pop” off the page. Unfortunately, that’s about all we can put in the “plus” ledger here.

Nearing the end of a brutal beat-down of some mid-level (at best) gangster-types operating on his Empire City turf, our “hero” is interrupted by the Golden Age version of The Sandman (in his Simon/Kirby duds — sorry, fans of the original gas-mask look) and his youthful sidekick, Sandy, who dispense a much-needed morality lecture in Manhunter’s direction while engaging in fisticuffs with him. The dialogue is flat, lifeless, and predictable in the extreme, and doesn’t seem so much intentionally reminiscent of days gone by as it does just plain bad, and the overall feeling one gets from this wholly pointless scrape is that this is a battle/debate that has happened before, will happen again, and hey, no one will ever change — and wouldn’t you know, the last page drives that exact message home, as Manhunter plunges head-first into danger one more time, aching to dish out some punishment for nothing other than the sheer and perverse thrill of it, no lessons having been learned from his more-ethical (and, who are we kidding, nicer) fellow costumed vigilantes. Good luck stifling your urge to yawn.

Slightly (I guess) more successful is the second story, featuring Etrigan, The Demon — the script by Sam Humphries is thoroughly uninspired, but it at least makes thematic sense and offers a decent representation in microcosm of what we already know about Jason Blood and his hell-spawn alter ego. Yes, it’s by-the-numbers, but at least those numbers fit together in a way that keeps you involved in the proceedings, which is more than you can say about the main feature. Best of all, though, is the gorgeous art by Steve Rude, who actually stepped in at the last minute following the departure of originally-announced artist Klaus Janson. The Dude and The King don’t have much in common stylistically, but Rude has always ha — and continues to have, as his recent issue of Kamandi Challenge demonstrates — an intuitive understanding of Kirby dynamics and pacing, and manages to successfully translate them into his own wholly unique (and always awesome) visual language. This Demon strip can’t be said to be anything more than “competent” (and only just,at that) in terms of plot and dialogue, but it looks like a million bucks — even if its brief length can’t justify the five that this comic (which I paid for out of pocket, just for the record) costs.

As has been the case with all of these specials, though, it’s the reprint material at the tail end of the book that’s the best comic-booking on offer here — a thoroughly entertaining Simon/Kirby proto-EC 1940s horror tale entitled “The Face Behind The Mask” from Tales Of The Unexpected, and two overly-optimistic (but, hey, who knew at the time?) looks at the future, “The Rocket Lanes Of Tomorrow” and “A World Of Thinking Robots,” both of which originally ran in Real Fact Comics. All this stuff in tons of fun to read, and gorgeously illustrated.

As an entire package, though, Manhunter Special #1 comes up far short of even the amorphous and unquantifiable “expectations” I had for it going in. The art ranges from “plenty good” on the low end to “stunningly brilliant” on the high end, which means this comic ranks well above the travesty that was Shane Davis‘ New Gods Special #1, but the scripting in the main story is flat-out atrocious and in the backup only passable, so this is quite easily the “second-worst” of the “King 100” books, far beneath both The Sandman Special #1 and The Newsboy Legion And The Boy Commandos Special #1 in terms of its overall quality.

Story: Keith Giffen, Dan DiDio, and Sam Humphries
Art: Keith Giffen, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Rude
Story: 3.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 6.0 Recommendation: Pass

All Hail The King!: 100 Years Of Jack Kirby

On August 28th, 1917, in New York City’s rough-and tumble Lower East Side, the most visionary and significant artistic innovator of the 20th — and, so far, the 21st — century was born. I say that without a hint of hyperbole, exaggeration or, even more appallingly, irony, because the boy that  Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg named Jacob (or, in their native Hebrew, Ya’akov) went on to shape modern popular culture — and, by extension, culture as a whole — more than anyone else you can name.

And speaking of names — he had many, in addition to the one written on his birth certificate. Some called him Jolly. Some called him The King Of Comics. Some shortened that to simply “King.” Early in his career he experimented with nom de plumes such as Fred Sande, Curt Davis, Jack Curtiss, and Ted Grey, among others. But the “handle” by which he is best known is the professional moniker that he stuck with, the one that would adorn all of his monumental works in the decades to come, the one that would eventually be engraved on his tombstone — Jack Kirby.

If you love it, odds are better than good Jack created it : Captain America. The Fantastic Four. The Hulk. Thor. Iron Man. Black Panther. The Avengers. The X-Men. The Silver Surfer. The Inhumans. Doctor Doom. Magneto. Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Galactus. Darkseid and The New Gods. Kamandi. The Demon. The Newsboy Legion. The entire romance comics genre. And all this? It’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Jack Kirby created characters as effortlessly as most people concoct excuses. He was literally a non-stop idea generator. And his ideas stuck. The overwhelming majority of them have not only stood the test of time, they’ve gone on to earn billions. What is cynically called “intellectual property” these days? Most of it came from one man’s intellect.

Here’s the damndest part of all, though — he never slowed down. Never stopped. Innovation was in his blood. He may not have created the comic book. He may not have created the super-hero. But he re-created both so many times that they would be unrecognizable today, if not extinct altogether, were it not for him. And with each successive project he undertook, he went bigger. Bolder. Challenging himself to push beyond what he’d done before, and to re-shape not only his readers’ expectations, but their perceptions.

No less an authority than Grant Morrison has called Kirby “the William Blake of the 20th century.” The comparison is apt. Like Blake, Kirby seemed attuned to something beyond that he was able to translate into the immediately recognizable. He filtered complex thought-forms into visionary illustrations and stories that were both mythic in scope and human in scale. The universe of the imagination was his playground, and he not only went to worlds far beyond our own, he invented them. Time and time again.

Jack Kirby re-wrote the rules with explosive force. While his predecessors concentrated on making four-color action smooth-flowing and balletic, he set out to sock you in the jaw. While they went for something akin to formal grace and even elegance, he went for impact. Art that you’ll always remember is nice, but art that makes you remember how it feltto see it for the first time with each subsequent viewing? That’s something else altogether. That’s, as the kids say today, “next-level shit.”

Look beyond comics for a minute and consider films. Consider that Jack Kirby gave us “The Source” and Orion being Darkseid’s son before George Lucas gave us “The Force” and Luke Skywalker being the progeny of Darth Vader. Ask yourself if the concept of the “blockbuster” film as we’ve come to know it would exist if not for Kirby. The scale, the magnitude, the grandeur of the multi-million-dollar Hollywood production — Kirby did it all on the printed page first.

How about video games? Today’s “POV” and “multi-player/interactive” games all put the action right up “in your face.” Who was the first person to introduce that perspective? To put the consumer right in the middle of the action and “see” things from their vantage point before he put pencil to paper? You got it.

To drag things back to the medium that Kirby not only operated in and excelled at but flat-out owned, there are entire artistic tropes that he devised from whole-cloth and that remain entirely his as surely as the label “King Of Comics” does and always will : “Kirby Krackle.” “Kirby Tech.” “Kirby Collage.” All these are spoken of not only with awe, but with reverence. There’s nothing else like ’em. There never will be.

Let me add one more innovation to the list that The King never gets enough credit for — “Kirby Dialogue.” It was singular. It was, appropriately, mythic. It was as unconventional as his art — and every bit as effective. It contained, and communicated, entire universes of meaning. It was magnificent, in the strictest dictionary definition of that word.

What could motivate one man to do all this — to reach for the stars and bring them down to the rest of us day in, day out? How about love. Kirby was never too proud to admit that he was, at the end of the day, a worker. And he took pride in how hard he worked for the best and most noble reason of all — he was doing it to put food on the table. To provide a better future for his wife, Roz, and their four kids. Sure, he wanted to keep us glued to the page — but he did so in order to provide for them. Intentions don’t come any more pure than that.

Jack also served his country in the European Theater in WWII. Those experiences, as well as his hard-scrabble upbringing, frequently made their way on to the pages he wrote and drew, and that leads to yet another point I want to make : for much-larger-than-life modern mythology, the entire Kirby canon is, in all ways and at all times, a highly personal one. There’s more than virtuoso artistry and dynamic scripting in every Jack Kirby comic, there’s a hell of a lot of heart and soul. His work speaks to us all on a core level in a way no other comic-book creator has ever been able to duplicate — and trust me when I say, they’ve all tried.

In the coming years, we’ll be hearing more about Jack Kirby than ever. The power of his imagination, having been tapped by the Marvel/Disney bean-counters and suits for well over a decade at the box office, is about to bear lucrative financial fruit for DC/Warner, as well — Darkseid, and the rest of the Fourth World characters, are about to take center-stage in the so-called “DCEU” in a big way. Residuals, which hopefully his heirs won’t have to fight tooth-and-nail for as they spent decades doing with the so-called “House Of Ideas,” should be enough to help guarantee them all a comfortable retirement. Yup, even 23 years after his passing at the age of 76, The King is still providing for his family — and something tells me that if he’s looking down on this world, that fact makes him proudest of all.

As for everything else going on down here on the mortal plane? Kirby saw it coming. Streaming entertainment, consumerist gluttony, pointless war, clashes of ideals, global communication, even Donald effing Trump — all predicted, often with uncanny accuracy, in the pages of his books.  The King was a product of his times, without question — but he was also, and always, a few steps ahead of them. That depressingly-overused “genius” label that now gets applied to anyone who writes a half-decent novel or makes a watchable film? It’s actually too small in this instance.

And so the legacy of this great man is destined to continue on, for as long as there are ideals to aspire to and children (and grown-ups) to dream. For all the turmoil Kirby foresaw in the times ahead, his work always retained an essential and irreducible optimism — a belief that the human spirit would not only endure, but triumph. If you were to ask me to name a more aspirational, and inspirational, artist, I couldn’t do it. But Jack did a lot more than hope for the best from us — he was the best of us.

I have four heroes in this life : my mom, my dad, my wife, and Jack Kirby. The first two raised me, and continue to do so, because goddamnit, I’ll always have a lot of growing up to do. The third saved me. The fourth inspired me to dream and his work continues to keep those dreams alive. My existence wouldn’t be anywhere near as rich, as rewarding, as joyous without them. And they each, in their own way, show me the way forward every day. One could argue that I only personally know three of these remarkable, extraordinary individuals, sure —

but then I pick up any random issue of New Gods. Or Captain America. Or Kamandi. Or Machine Man. Or Black Panther. Or Silver Star. Or Challengers Of The Unknown. Or Mister Miracle. Or OMAC. Or The Sandman. Or The Forever People. Or my personal favorite, Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, and I realize — the fourth name on that list? I know him, too. And I know that, cliched as it may be to say, “He Will Always Be The King.”

(originally posted on Trash Film Guru)

Review : The Sandman Special #1

At this point, there have been way more comic book “Sandmen” than a person can rightly count, and while the most popular remains the Neil Gaiman iteration, it owes a heavy debt — and over the course of its run makes references both tangential and concrete — to the version of the character introduced by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1974. Simon and Kirby had collaborated on another “Sandman” altogether around three decades previously, but the ’70s version, while short-lived, remains beloved by fans and creators alike, and so when DC announced its series of specials in celebration of The King Of Comics’ centenary, it was certain he’d be making a return appearance — and so he has.

The Sandman Special #1 is neatly divided into three distinct sections — the first story, written by consistently-busy veteran Dan Jurgens and illustrated by nowhere-near-as-consistently-busy veteran Jon Bogdanove, sees the land of dreams’ sworn protector, along with colorful and loquacious sidekicks Brute and Glob, working overtime to try to contain the extra-powerful imaginings of a precocious little boy; the second, scripted by Steve Orlando with pencils by Rick Leonardi and inks by Dan Green, sees a now-grown version of Jed, who figured prominently in both the Simon/Kirby and Gaiman series during earlier phases of his “life,” trying to make amends with his past after the death of his grandfather; and the final third is a collection of “Strange Tales Of The D.N.A. Project” back-up strips by Kirby himself that originally ran in the pages of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. That’s the particulars out of the way, then.

You already don’t need me to tell you that the final section of this $4.99 book is the best one and worth the price of admission alone (that is if you haven’t read all these short, two-page strips already), so let’s talk about the new material : the Jurgens/Bogdanove yarn is definitely the stronger of the two, and while it’s entirely predictable, that’s also the source of its strength and charm — you know who the over-active little dreamer is from the get-go (or at least you know who you want him to be), and events play out precisely as expected. Jurgens’ script is simple and efficient, and really just gets out of the way and lets Bogdanove, who treats us to some sumptuous double-page spreads (including an amazing Kirby-esque collage) have all the fun. That’s as it should be. The art style is pure homage all the way, yet delivered in a manner free of the curse that is intentional irony, thereby allowing it all to look and feel as entirely respectful as it is. Nobody’s re-inventing the wheel here or anything, but I defy you not to have an ear-to-ear grin on your face by the time it’s all said and done.

Somewhat less successful, but still not too shabby, is the Orlando/Leonardi/Green strip — it’s great to see Jed again, don’t get me wrong, but having his grandfather be a physical doppleganger for Kirby feels like a clunkier and more forced tribute than the more seamlessly-woven one delivered just a handful of pages previously. It’s okay enough in its own right, but only that — okay. Again, the art is basically what we’ll call an extended, and entirely polite, tip of the hat to The King.

On the whole, then, I admit that I had plenty of fun reading this book, and a supremely cool cover by the great Paul Pope provides the icing on the cake for this birthday tribute celebration. I paid for this comic out of pocket and didn’t feel ripped-off in the least, and I’ll look forward to reading it again when I go through all these specials in a single sitting once they’ve all been released. Of the three that have come out so far, I’d rank this one in the middle of the pack, just a notch behind Howard Chaykin‘s The Newsboy Legion And The Boy Commandos Special, but well ahead of the dull and unimaginative travesty that was Shane Davis‘ New Gods Special.

Okay, fair enough, the greatest tribute one could pay to Jack Kirby would probably be to create new and innovative characters and concepts that actually push the medium forward, but if you’re bound and determined to play the “nostalgia card,” you could do it a whole lot worse than it’s done in these pages.

Story : Dan Jugens and Steve Orlando  Art : Jon Bogdanove, Rick Leonardi, and Dan Green

Story : 7  Art : 8  Overall : 7.5  Recommendation : Buy

 

 

Review : The Newsboy Legion And The Boy Commandos Special #1

On paper, this sounded like an idea that was either really going to work — or miss the mark by a country mile.

Howard Chaykin‘s name has, of course, been synonymous with revamping “old-time” characters for decades now — he was the first to do it for The Shadow, and later took a crack at such venerable properties as BlackhawkBuck RogersDC‘s various Silver Age sci-fi stalwarts, and many others. Doing it one more time surely shouldn’t be too much of a challenge — but this is the first time he’s taken on a Jack Kirby creation front and center, and given the relative innocence and whimsy that are the heart and soul of both The Newsboy Legion and The Boy Commandos, well — let’s just say Chaykin doesn’t seem like a “natural fit” for either. And certainly his newly-minted status as very nearly a persona non grata among many fans isn’t going to help matters much in terms of sales here, but if we leave all the controversy aside and just examine this book on its own merits, I have to say — it’s not too shabby at all.

If you’re “off Chaykin,” fair enough — but if you’re not, there’s plenty to really like in the pages of The Newsboy Legion And The Boy Commandos Special  #1 (I’m getting the full title from the copyright indicia even though both “the”s, as well as the “and,” are omitted from the cover) : Chaykin’s typically-crowded and garish visuals are nicely evocative of the worldwide air of confusion and disorientation that no doubt prevailed anywhere and everywhere during WWII; he displays an immediate and easy understanding of his large and sprawling cast and makes them all seem like fairly unique individuals; letterer/effects artist par excellence Ken Bruzenak brings his “A” game and then some; colorist Wil Quintana (who seems to have replaced Jesus Aburto as Chaykin’s hues-man of choice) adds terrific depth, nuance, and vibrancy to every panel and page; the “team-up” of these classic “kid gangs” is achieved by means both logically sound and narratively seamless; the stand-alone story cleverly telegraphs its simple-yet-effective ending early on in a manner that will bring a smile to your face when you think about it later — honestly, this all reads like a very heartfelt and respectful tribute to The King Of Comics that isn’t so much stuck in the past but informed  and inspired by it. The only thing missing that I would have liked to see? That would be The Guardian — but hey, he at least turns up in the classic Joe Simon -scripted, Kirby-drawn Golden Age Newsboy Legion reprint story that’s included as a backup feature (and is, in fairness, the highlight of the book — but how could it not be?), and that serves to round off a nicely-done package that’s $4.99 (which I paid out of pocket) well spent.

There’s a fine line between respectful homage and slavish, uninspired rehash, of course, and these “King 100” specials are sure to have plenty of both (and, indeed, already have, as Shane Davis‘ lackluster New Gods Special #1 was definitely the latter), but it’s probably not fair, given their editorial remit, to expect any of them to be especially groundbreaking or innovative. Chaykin doesn’t strive for either with this book, but he successfully operates within the parameters he’s been given to craft a perfectly enjoyable story that even manages to incorporate some genuine historical material (specifically the attempts of domestic “fifth column” Nazi sympathizers in the US to stage a coup against their own government) that adds an air of intrigue and authenticity to the proceedings that goes well above and beyond what we as readers probably have any right to realistically expect from what could reasonably be assumed, going in, to be nothing more than a simple “throwaway” yarn.

All that being said, if you weren’t a fan of Chaykin’s signature — and frankly singular — style of storytelling prior to this comic, there’s pretty much zero chance that you’ll enjoy it here, either. Things are cluttered, frenetic, deliberately “messy,” and events occur in staggering, rapid-fire succession. He’s been doing this since American Flagg!, and he’s not going to change now. You’re either on-board with “Chaykin Comics,” or you’re not. I admit that I am, but do understand why many readers aren’t, as any number of consensus “Comic Book 101” basics are either bent into unrecognizable form, or ignored altogether in Chaykin’s works. So keep that in mind before you fork over your hard-earned cash for this book.

Final verdict, then : odds are you’ll know whether or not The Newsboy Legion And The Boy Commandos Special #1 is “your kind of comic” before you even give it a glance at your LCS. If it’s not, then it won’t be. If it is, then it will be — and may even exceed your expectations.

Story : Howard Chaykin  Art : Howard Chaykin

Story : 7.5  Art : 8.5  Overall : 8  Recommendation : Buy

 

Review: New Gods Special #1

New Gods Special #1

I dunno — on the one hand, writer/artist Shane Davis seems to “get” Jack Kirby: his recently-released New Gods Special #1 (cover-priced $4.99, which I paid for out-of-pocket) is big, brash, bold, and battle-centric, revolving as it does around a conflict between Orion and his brother, Kalibak, who’s in the business of setting up an “Apokolips Pit” deep beneath the surface of New Genesis and the notice of its residents/protectors, the New Gods. In the worst tradition of his father, the dread Darkseid, however, he’s building his pit utilizing slave labor, and one of his “volunteers,” the ever-intrepid “Bug” known as Forager, escapes to warn the New Gods — who, for the record, have been marginalizing and abusing his people even longer than Kalibak has — that their whole world’s about to come crashing down. I guess he’s just thoughtful like that.

And this is where it starts to become apparent that on anything other than a surface or aesthetic level, Davis doesn’t “get” Kirby at all. There’s no nuance or depth to any of the proceedings in New Gods Special #1 — none of the deep and profound philosophical questions that The King Of Comics was asking with his Fourth World opus (like how can New Genesis be anything other than a deeply flawed “paradise” given that it sustains itself by means of the exploitation of “lesser” races?) are anywhere to be found, no facile nods even thrown in their direction. If you sucked all the actual meaning from Kirby’s work, and filtered it through a distinctly ’90s-Wildstorm-style artistic lens, then what you’d probably end up with is something very much like this. As a result, this comic — even though DC just published it last week — both feels and looks far more dated than any of the original Fourth World books themselves.

New Gods Special #1

Which isn’t to say that Davis, inker Michelle Delecki, and superstar colorist Alex Sinclair didn’t obviously put their “all” into this comic. I contend that the visual evidence, at the very least, is proof positive that they did. It’s just that their “all” isn’t nearly enough to stand in Kirby’s shadow. This is very much an average comic book fisticuffs struggle, albeit one with some cosmic trappings, and while it passes the admittedly low bar set for “competence” by today’s “Big Two” standards, it’s thoroughly devoid of the inspiration that informed every panel that Kirby ever drew and every line he ever scripted. Tonally, Orion, Lightray, Forager, Kalibak, etc. all sound right — but minus the crucial spark of Kirby’s animating genius, none of them feel right. And while it may be inherently unfair to compare anybody to The King, the simple truth is that if you’re going to put out a comic ostensibly intended to honor his legacy, that comic should honor said legacy, rather than merely imitate it.

New Gods Special #1

The legendary Walter Simonson fares somewhat better with his brief backup strip — his lavish art looks as gorgeous as ever, and while the story is also essentially a basic run-around (based on concepts he introduced in his Orion series revolving around New Genesis’ aquatic life), it’s one with at least as much substance as Davis’ much-longer main feature. It’s not a terrific story by any means, or even an especially memorable one, but it’s at least mercifully short and quite pretty to look at.

So — does New Gods Special #1 have anything going for it, then? Well, yeah, it does — buried at the very back of the book are a couple of short-but-oh-so-sweet Young Gods Of Supertown strips by Kirby himself, and while no one’s going to claim that these stories, which originally ran in the pages of The Forever People and feature the character Lonar, were essential components of the overall Fourth World arc, they fleshed out the world of New Genesis nicely and remain prime examples of excellent little adventure yarns.

In fairness, though, those stories are already available in several different reprint collections (and will be in the forthcoming Fourth World Omnibus), and hardly constitute a reason to shell out five bucks for this hollow “tribute” comic.

Story: Shane Davis  Art: Shane Davis
Story: 3.0 Art: 2.0 Overall: 2.5 Recommendation: Pass

Review : Everything Is Flammable By Gabrielle Bell

Honestly, I don’t know how Gabrielle Bell does it. And I mean that on two levels.

On the first, purely technical level, her stringent adherence to six-panel grids on each page and “mid-range camera” perspective means that she draws full figures in almost every panel. When you think about that what that means in terms of sheer labor and dedication to craft, it’s just straight-up nuts. Admirable, absolutely, but nuts. Not many cartoonists could handle the workload, much less maintain it at her remarkably prolific pace.

It’s on the second, thematic level, though, that she deserves even more special recognition  — that’s because as a memoirist, her ability to take an honest, unflinching look at both her own life and the lives of people around her is unequaled in the contemporary “alternative” comix “scene.” She doesn’t go out of her way to make anyone look bad, that much has been evident throughout the course of her nearly-two-decade career, but she doesn’t sugar-coat anything, either. I believe it was legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite who used to say “and that’s the day that was” at the close of every broadcast, and Bell seems to have absorbed that philosophy, even though her more unconventional upbringing in the wilds of northern California most likely precluded her from watching the news most (if not all) evenings, just at a guess.

And it’s that upbringing — and its lingering ramifications — that form the spine of her latest, and most accomplished to date, graphic novel, Everything Is Flammable, recently released under the auspices of the consistently-fascinating Uncivilized Books, an outfit I’m proud to say hangs its metaphorical shingle in my hometown of Minneapolis. Bell has been slowly circling her way toward a genuine masterpiece for many years now with notable works such as The Voyeurs and Truth Is Fragmentary, and now that moment has unquestionably arrived — a heady mix of painful memories, frayed nerves, keen observations, and compelling characters navigating equally compelling situations, this is “next-level” autobiographical storytelling that will grip you as surely and firmly during its quiet interludes as it does during its emotional avalanches. If you’re ready to buckle in, Bell’s book isn’t going to let you go.

Consisting of a conjoined admixture of re-worked (and newly-colored) entries from Bell’s eagerly-anticipated annual summertime cartoon diaries and material previously unseen anywhere in either “rough” or “polished” form, Everything Is Flammable limns the tense trajectory of its author/subject’s life from 2014 to 2015, a year in which her aging mother was literally forced to start over from scratch after a devastating fire left her both homeless and penniless, a proud and independent “off-the-grid” woman suddenly forced to rely on the kindness and generosity of friends, neighbors, acquaintances — even her partially-estranged family. If this sounds to you like fertile ground for long-suppressed tensions to bubble to the surface, give yourself a gold star for your precognitive abilities — but by all means, whatever you do, read the book anyway.

Here’s the thing, though : the ever-present pathos never threatens to overwhelm readers, and while much of that is down to Bell’s deft and tonally near-perfect scripting skills, just as much of it is due to her disarmingly engaging art style. Deceptively simple yet highly evocative, the amount of sheer visual information that she’s able to pack into each illustration is a veritable clinic in efficient shorthand communication from brain to hand to readers’ eyes. Important details make their way to the foreground in a naturalistic and unforced manner, while anything-but-superfluous background objects, persons, places, and animals (always be on the lookout for plenty of animals in Bell’s work) are fit into place with ease, never competing with each other for your attention, but always getting it in due course and smooth-flowing sequence. Emerging cartoonists at the art school level and beyond seem to be paying close attention to Bell, as well they should — and if she turns out to be one of the primary influences on the next generation of illustrators coming along, the future should be pretty damn bright, indeed.

Still, one thing this book never lets you forget is that Bell is a multi-faceted talent : her sharp ear for authentic dialogue, immediately engaging first-person narration, smart story pacing, and sympathetic-without-being-cloying narrative tone ensure that the daily struggles, garden-variety headaches (and I mean that more literally than it probably sounds), often-debilitating neuroses, and familial complexities that are consistently swirling around and/or passing through her life and her mind remain humanistic and relatable rather than subjects examined in a petri dish from some omniscient power, whether seen or unseen. You’ll care about the people in this story and what happens to them rather than viewing them as objects of prurient or morbid fascination, and that’s not always the easiest thing for a biographical work (auto- or otherwise) to achieve.

I’m not sure if, at the end of the day, Bell leaves her characters/subjects in a situation that could be called “optimistic” or not, but if it does (and arguments could be made for or against such a reading), it’s not delivered in a manner that could be considered even remotely ironic, earnest, or anything other than absolutely sincere. I’ll be thinking about — and returning to — this book for a long time to come, of that I have no doubt, and while there are no esoteric mysteries to unpack or hidden meanings to be deciphered interspersed throughout its pages, there is a cathartic expunging of very personal pain and confusion that plays out over the course of events here that results in something dangerously close to feeling like a tenuous sense of peace has been achieved — hell, earned — by all parties involved by the time all is said and done. That’s a good thing, to be sure, even if it all turns out to be fleeting — but Everything Is Flammable is much more than a good thing, and the spell it weaves is as far-removed from fleeting as one can imagine. Even if your copy of this book were to tragically go up in flames, the effect it has on you won’t be going anywhere. This is a comic that burns in the best possible way.

Story And Art : Gabrielle Bell

Story : 10  Art : 10  Overall : 10  Recommendation : Buy

 

Review : Songy Of Paradise By Gary Panter

I suppose it’s possible that I’m just showing my age here, but to me, the release of a new Gary Panter book still qualifies as a “drop everything” moment — especially when said book marks the concluding chapter of a long-running trilogy that’s followed a circuitous path from 1991 right up to the present day. So, yeah, when Fantagraphics Books dropped the long-awaited Songy Of Paradise this past Wednesday, it was indeed a very big deal.

Some quick background is no doubt in order for those not in the know : Panter began this story — or, rather, this series of interconnected stories — 26 years ago in the pages of his Jimbo series from Bongo Comics‘ short-lived (as in, created just for him) Zongo sub-label, but nobody (probably including the cartoonist himself) knew it was part of a larger, sprawling epic at the time. Fast-forward to 2004 and the release of Jimbo In Purgatory under Fantagraphics’ auspices, which appeared to be a stand-alone Jimbo graphic novel — until 2006, when Jimbo’s Inferno (also coming our way courtesy of FB) was unleashed upon the world, featuring material re-worked from the seven stand-alone Jimbo “floppies” of (then) 15 years previous, and placed those comics within the framework established by the 2004 book.

Got all that? Okay, good — we’re all up to speed, then, but with a caveat : it’s really hard to say what the “first” part of this unnamed trilogy is. You could make a convincing argument for either of the prior installments being the first and/or second chapter, it’s true, but for our purposes it doesn’t really matter which side you come down on — we know what the third part is, and that’s what’s important.

Enter a new protagonist — stereotypical hillbilly simpleton Songy — and yet another new physical format : at 14.75 x 12 inches this is a damn big hardcover book (although not as big as Jimbo In Purgatory‘s 17.5 x 12 measurements), but at 32 pages it’s not an especially long one (by contrast, the aforementioned Purgatory ran 36). Other key differences abound as well, of course — the purposefully busy and cluttered art of both prior segments has been abandoned in favor of a cleaner, more “polished” (relatively speaking, mind you) look in this one, but make no mistake : the visual density hasn’t been “dialed back” in the least, and there’s still a ton to unpack in each and every panel here — it’s just that there are a lot fewer panels to dig in and analyze this time out due to Panter’s newfound affinity for big, bold, and highly detailed illustrations, up to and including splash pages. Likewise, the script here is a much more straightforward affair, sticking to a nearly note-for-note re-vamping of Milton’s famous 1671 poem “Paradise Regained” (a literal and thematic sequel to the even more famous “Paradise Lost”), albeit with Jesus’ role being assumed by our titular backwoods nitwit. No wholesale “borrowing” from disparate sources ranging from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to a late-’60s magazine interview with then-contemporary supermodel Twiggy in this one — it’s all surprisingly, perhaps even disarmingly, straightforward stuff, at least at first glance.

All of which makes Songy Of Paradise something of a two-edged sword — it’s entirely accessible to “newbies” who haven’t read the previous two chapters, but one could also be forgiven, perhaps, for (mistakenly, as we’ll get to shortly) thinking there is less obvious “red meat” for long-time Panter readers/admirers to obsessively over-analyze. You can read this one without having your browser open to Google and get through it just fine — or so it would seem.

Satan, in his role as Christ/Songy’s great tempter, undergoes a slow and breathtaking visual transformation in these ingeniously-rendered pages, each new iteration littered with illustrative “clues” that are, in the best Panter fashion, head-scratchers to be sure,  but generally easy enough to pin down — until they turn out to represent something else altogether. The best example is probably the ever-shifting crossword-puzzle motif visible on his many and varied forms, but in a recent TCJ interview with Dash Shaw, Panter reveals that those aren’t standard-issue empty “down” and “across” letter boxes at all, but actually symbols common in ancient Javanese manuscripts. So, ya know, there’s probably no such thing as knowing exactly what’s happening in a Gary Panter comic after all.

Which is a huge part of their appeal, of course. At 35 bucks, a book this slender (if gorgeous) had damn well better give you plenty to mull over, and there’s no doubt that this does : I’ve read it four times since buying it just over two days ago, and new elements — as well as new ways of interpreting previously-noted elements — reveal themselves each time, and easy answers are not just in short supply, they’re downright non-existent. Is Songy’s dipshit dialogue and general obliviousness a sign of his pure-hearted innocence, or of contemptible ignorance? Is he simply a stand-in for Christ, or for the author himself? Are the subtle changes Panter makes to Milton’s conclusion meant to make his “happy ending” ironic — or anything but?

I don’t have the answers, of course — only questions, and lots of them. And those questions deepen with each successive re-read. Songy Of Paradise is certainly a book that can be marveled at for its beautiful illustrations (many of which openly contradict aspects of Panter’s visual philosophy that he’s expounded upon in the past) and the lyrical quality of its script, but if you want to give it your full attention — as well you should — it’s a veritable puzzle-box of challenging concepts, expansive philosophical concerns, and metafictional extrapolations that will provide plenty of fuel for internal debates between yourself and your own preconceived perceptions for years on end. Panter has a well-earned reputation for being a good couple of decades ahead of all his peers in both the “fine” and “underground” art scenes (which is probably why he remains the most influential of just about any of ’em and has been able to move so effortlessly between the two), but the illusory simplicity in which he packages the undeniable complexity of this new book shows that he may now be moving a decade or two ahead of even himself. Multi-layered without being intimidating, endearing without being cloying, precise without being clinical, Songy Of Paradise is as close a thing to a working definition of a comics masterpiece as you’re ever likely to find.

 

Story And Art : Gary Panter

Story : 10  Art : 10  Overall : 10  Recommendation : Buy — Immediately!

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