Salutations, compadres! Ambush Bug here and I’m dressed all in black. It’s been a while since we required an intro for this here column of ours, but I think this one warrants it. For the first time in…well…ever, we have more reviews of indie books than mainstream books. Sure, Wildstorm is part of DC, but still, there is a significant lack of stuff from the Big Two in this column. Does that mean that the @$$holes have packed up their capes and utility belts and traded them in for berets and made tracks for the local coffee shop to mope? Hells no! It just means that this column just happens to be a very special…
So sit back, order a latte, smoke a clove cigarette, complain about life, and enjoy an AICN COMICS Indie-stylie.
Don’t worry, cape-heads. We cover some mainstream stuff in the Cheap Shots section. And we’ll start out with our sole mainstream review from the Prof.
(Click title to go directly to the review)
DEAD WEST #1
HERO SQUARED #1
ASTRO CITY: THE DARK AGE – BOOK ONE #2
Big Eyes for the Cape Guy presents CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL Vol. 1
JUSTICE #1 (of 12)
Writer: Jim Krueger
Artists: Doug Braithwaite/Alex Ross
Publisher: DC Comics
Reviewer: Prof. Challenger
"Meanwhile...back at the Hall of Justice."All right everyone. After what seems like an eternity of press releases and hype, it's finally here: Alex Ross's official CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS comic book. The guy weaned himself on the SUPERFRIENDS cartoon and gives off the impression that this is the project he's dreamed of doing since before he was potty trained. Now before I start let me acknowledge -- yeah yeah, I know, every damn one of you reading this review has already read the freakin' thing. So what? I'm still going to ramble on about it and if you don't want to read it you can go back and make some more hot monkey love to your bagged and boarded multiple copies of HOUSE OF "M." It also means I'm probably going to spoilerize throughout. So, here's your one and only warning.
-- Superfriends Announcer Guy
THE WRITING: The comic starts off with the end of the world in wrenchingly dramatic detail. It's the result of worldwide nuclear strikes and not even the Justice League of America can prevent the destruction. In the end, they all wither under the onslaught and despairingly resign themselves to ultimate failure and incomprehensibly massive death tolls. Superman becomes the lone survivor of both Krypton and now Earth.
But wait. It's only a dream...a nightmare. But whose nightmare? Superman's? That seemed to be everyone's assumption when DC released the preview pages of this opening segment. No. The nightmare is haunting the villainous Black Manta and simultaneously tormenting many other villains. It was a brilliant choice to have the entire issue narrated by Lex Luthor -- but without revealing Luthor as the voice until the end. What this does is prevent us, the readers, from entering the thoughts of any of the other characters unless it is Luthor interpreting what he believes must be their thoughts during any given moment. Which is to say that, when he throws out his derogatory assumption of what must be Aquaman's thoughts as Manta's team overwhelms him, there is no indication other than Luthor's own cynical hubris that Aquaman is dwelling on how to be clever. But, surely this is the sort of thing that someone like Luthor would assume must occupy the thoughts of the heroes. It has been said that the worst caricature of a villain is the Snidely Whiplash moustache-twirling villain who revels in his own villainy. It has also been said that the truly evil villain is so scary precisely because he never perceives himself as a villain -- he sees himself as the hero. Luthor's narrative, in one issue, defines his character more succinctly than decades of characterization. Luthor, also haunted by this nightmare that he believes is a portent of the future, sees Superman and the rest of the superheroes as usurpers of the greatness of mankind. These self-appointed saviors of humanity not only brought to Earth extraterrestrial threats that otherwise may not have ever even discovered our lone planet hidden in the cosmos, but they lulled all of us into a self-preservational laziness. Because of these great protectors, humanity lost the creative and inventive edge that had previously guided us rather quickly to the pinnacle of Earth-based evolution. And the only logical solution Luthor sees to this problem is that he needs to ally himself with a team made up of the most powerful villains to accomplish an all-out search and destroy mission directed at the heroes who make up the Justice League of America. In doing this, humanity will be re-motivated to survive by their own wits guided by the brilliance of the simply human Lex Luthor. And, of course, the events foretold in the nightmare will be prevented and Earth saved.
Luthor only wants what is best for mankind -- which should also translate into what's best for Luthor.
The hero who gets the most page time is the above-mentioned Aquaman. The interlude scene between Aquaman and Mera is character revealing as well. First thing you should notice is that Luthor's narrative does not appear during this scene. This is a cutaway that gives the uninformed reader a quick and insightful glimpse into who Aquaman is. The reader sees the unfiltered truth about who Aquaman is rather than the view through a cracked prism that colors Luthor's view of the man. Aquaman, Arthur Curry, and his wife Mera come off very much as a modern Arthur and Guinevere type. Mera, the loving wife, wistfully accepts her lot as stay-at-home mother and supporter of her husband. Aquaman is a distracted husband and father weighted down by the pressures of his responsibilities as King of all Atlantis and protector of humanity above and below the seas. He suffers from an all-too-common affliction among born leaders -- an intrinsic unwillingness to delegate responsibility. And this time, setting out on his own to investigate an unidentified dome-like object on the ocean floor puts him right smack dab in the middle of the trap laid out for him by Luthor and Manta. The first step in Luthor's plan has been successful.
THE ART: Remember those old Superheroes versus Supervillains tabloids from the 70s? The ones where the covers were always a group of DC heroes running right towards a group of DC villains who were likewise running towards the heroes? Well, the dual cover choices for JUSTICE create a striking homage to those tabloids. I happened to pick up the villains cover myself simply because Alex Ross interpretations of the DC villains are not quite as commonplace as his heroes. So, I've spent a good bit of time just admiring, once again, Ross's ability to backlight his figures in such a way that they look unlike they ever do under anyone else's paintbrush. The other nice thing about Ross's work on the villains is that he has a little bit more freedom to play around with the costume designs because the characters are not so mass-marketed and trademarked in their looks. I particularly like the way he subtly reworked the Cheetah's costume so that it really looks like she's wearing an actual cheetah pelt. What was one of the goofiest looking costumes ever now looks cool.
I unfortunately think that Doug Braithwaite is going to receive an undue lack of attention for his work on this comic, but I want to extend high praise and compliments to him for his story-telling ability here. I love Alex Ross but I have to confess that even as I admire the beauty in his lighting and color choices, I am sometimes distracted by a noticeable over reliance on posed reference material -- especially the recurrence of the same posed reference material (I'm thinking specifically of the under the legs view he first used back in MARVELS for a photo from below of Giant-Man that I've seen reused more than once since then in other projects). Braithwaite brings a completely different feel to Ross's art. He tells a story in pictures differently and it makes Ross's finishes on the interior art better than I can recall any interior work when it was Ross alone. I know I'm not alone in feeling very familiar now with Ross's static interpretations of the JLA characters, so it was almost shocking when I turned to the double-spread of the JLA by Braithwaite and Ross. Braithwaite's drawing generated a sense of movement, energy, and excitement that I properly gawked at for a long time.
My favorite Braithwaite contribution to this combination of talents was his interpretation of Superman. Braithwaite brought back that barrel-chested Wayne Boring-style Superman that just works on so many levels here where Krueger/Ross/Braithwaite are going for the "classic" look of these characters. Superb accomplishment. Two months between issues is too long to wait, but it's worth it for a visual feast like this comic.
THE WHOLE ENCHILADA: As good as this comic is, there's still a few things that just tingle the continuity-sense. I totally "get" that Ross is going for a classic view of the league circa 1976-77. And that's fine. So, we've got Lois and Clark not married yet and Lois not realizing Clark is Superman. We've got Mera and Aquababy still alive and fine. Aquaman's never had one of his hands eaten off by a hungry Peter David. I also hear that when the Teen Titans show up, they'll be in their original forms with Dick Grayson as Robin and no Cyborg, Starfire, et al. All that's well and good. But the inclusion of Capt. Marvel as a member of the JLA doesn't feel right. Neither does the inclusion of Plastic Man. Plastic Man was never a member of the JLA until Grant Morrison relaunched the title not that long ago and Capt. Marvel didn't join until the Justice League of Slapstick era. So, for me, the inclusion of both characters rubs me a bit wrong, especially considering that none of the villains on this cover have any relationship with these two characters. Couldn't Ross figure out how to add in Capt. Nazi or IBAC or someone? And Plas has always been so goofy he doesn't even have any arch-villains. As a result, they seem like out of place tag-alongs.
I thought it slightly amusing that the series kicked off focusing on the one character most often referred to as the lamest member of the Superfriends. Flitting around on his giant seahorse and unable to breathe air for more than an hour, focusing on Aquaman always seemed to be a storykiller. As a result, Aquaman was mostly good as a damsel-in-distress to lure the other heroes into a trap. And here it looks like that's how he's being used again -- giant goofy seahorse and all. I just thought that was funny. It's also making me start to wonder *shudder* if Ross is so obsessive about the SUPERFRIENDS that we're about to be treated to a Wendy, Marvin, and Wonderdog appearance sometime over the next 24 months. It kind of filled my fanboy heart with a bit of pride, though, when I saw that giant goofy seahorse and, under the pencils of Braithwaite and the paints of Ross, it didn't look goofy at all. Aquaman looked kind of cool riding that thing. Also, Black Manta just looks damned sinister -- both with his helmet on and with it off.
On the back end, we readers are treated to one-page fact files on Aquaman (with a nice full-color pin-up shot of Aquaman), Black Manta, and Lex Luthor. The fact files on Manta and Luthor spotlight Ross's character sketches for the characters. He chose the most interesting faces for both of them. But I gotta ask: How in the name of Nemo does Manta see out of that helmet?
But, overall, this is like the ultimate super-hero comic book. If they can just keep trying to top the previous issue, this thing could end on such a bang that it leaves all other super-hero comic books eating their dust. JUSTICE #1 is a textbook example of exactly how you kick-off an overhyped mini-series! Marvel take notes.
Rick Spears & Rob G: Creators
Gigantic Graphic Novels: Publisher
Vroom Socko: Making more room in hell.
As anyone who’s seen my comments on Western Tales of Terror can tell you, I just looooove Zombie Indians. There is nothing cooler than a dead Indian walking around killing people. The concept just plain rocks the Wild West. And really, so does Dead West, the latest book from Rick Spears and Rob G.
Starting with the slaughter of a tribe of Plains Indians, the story proper shows the lone survivor returning to the land of his fathers, all grown-up and eager to lay down retribution on the town that has sprung up on the field where his tribe was destroyed. He mystically encircles the town, causing all the dead bodies within to arise. This section is replete with ghastly looking stuff, including one corpse who manages to gnaw his way free from the gallows. The story then jumps ahead a week, when Tuco arrives in town, being pursued by The Man with No Na- err… that is, a pudgy Mexican bandit is pursued into town by a stern, silent bounty hunter. Yeah, that’s it. In either case, each one of these two newcomers quickly finds themselves joining one of the two factions of survivors struggling against a Main Street chock full of undead.
Part of what makes this book such a blast is that the survivors are as hardcore as possible. When one of the people hiding in the upstairs level of the saloon is wounded there’s no attempts to treat the poor guy, no debates on “Can we save him? Will he turn?” nope, the poor bastard just gets kicked out the motherfucking window. That’s hard, man. My favorite moment, however, comes near the end, when the Indian who started this whole thing comes face to face with the spirit of his father. Solid writing, that bit.
Solid is also the word to describe the artwork throughout this book, from the massacre at the beginning to the showdown at the end. Almost every page has something horrifying on it. And I’m not just talking the zombies, either. The most disturbing imagery is the depictions of ordinary human violence. The bloodletting that is done to bring on the zombies is honestly some of the nastiest stuff I’ve seen from a comic book in a good while.
This book is nasty, hard and bloody. It’s also one of the best comics I’ve read all summer. Rick Spears and Rob G have done one other book I’m familiar with, the brilliant Teenagers From Mars. While this isn’t the instant classic that TFM was it is a damn fine piece of work, one that should send shivers shooting down your spine. At the very least, it proves that these two are no one-trick pony, and are definitely a duo to watch out for in the future.
Writers: J. Scott Campbell and Andy Hartnell
Art: J. Scott Campbell
I can’t believe it.
I actually LOVED WILDSIDERZ.
I really, really can’t believe it.
After I picked up the preview book WILDSIDERZ # 0 and could barely finish it because it was essentially just PR for the first issue with no story whatsoever I was ready to write the whole book off. I was already pissed that I paid two bucks for a book that amounted to nothing so I was completely closed minded to picking up the first issue.
So when I saw WILDSIDERZ in the shop this week I hesitated to pick it up. I almost decided against it when I saw the price (By the way Wildstorm, nice job hiding it on the front cover. If I were a more cynical type I’d almost say you were trying to trick people into paying more for a book they wouldn’t regularly buy at that price. Don’t believe me? Just try and find the price without any effort. Go ahead.) but I am a big fan of Campbell’s art. His books haven’t really been able to keep me buying a monthly title, mostly because of the writing, but I figured I’d give it a whirl.
I’m so, so glad I did.
Let me start with the obvious. In last week’s talkbacks I bemoaned the use of overly computer colored books. Well colorists out there should take heed of the beautiful job done on WILDSIDERZ. I’m not talking about the glowing animal bits that are layered over the protagonists every time they use their powers. If anything I think that is the worst part of the book. The effects that the colorist/designers are using for the Wildsiderzs’ powers are actually extremely distracting. If anything they end up looking a little bit like a glowing mess of scribbles over otherwise great artwork. Especially in the opening pages where the ‘siderz are squaring off against what look to be animated light illusions. The creatures they are fighting are hard to make out within the action that occurs on the page. This is something that needs to be addressed as I think many readers are going to find the effects that the design team probably thought looked cool actually increasingly annoying.
Where the coloring and design really, really shine are when the story actually moves into the main characters’ everyday lives. The coloring/design of the book are just so well done that they accomplish exactly what they are supposed to do: enhance the art without being a distraction. This surprised the hell out of me as obviously the gimmick of the book was the glowing tech that the characters use to enhance themselves. What I actually ended up being impressed by was the techniques used in the book where no superheroics occurred whatsoever. WILDSIDERZ is a beautiful book to behold not because of what will more than likely be thought of the art’s main draw, the use of layering techniques, but because of the actual vivacity that all the elements (penciling, inking, coloring, design) bring together to make even the most mundane panels spring to life. If anyone out there is paying attention, I think WILDSIDERZ is a great example of the way comic art should be done…except for the glowing animal bits. Figure out a less visually distracting way to do those and the book will be perfect art-wise.
But the art wasn’t the only thing that impressed me. So often comic fans go on and on about how the fun has just been leeched out of comics. How everything in superhero land has just become so grim and gritty. Well, WILDSIDERZ’s first issue is the perfect antidote for the grim and gritties. What we have here is a book that’s incredibly lighthearted and fun. While the characters do have to be fleshed out a bit more, the personality templates are there. Sure they’re stereotypical to a degree but they are amusing. The other thing I loved was the fact that the “Whiz-Bang factor” was intact. In so many movies and comics today you see people do spectacular things in their universe, which no one has done before, and the story and characters just move on without noticing. No one stops and goes, “Holy Cow!” anymore. There are no “Look, up in the sky!” moments. In WILDSIDERZ, however, the “Whiz-Bang factor” is in effect. When incredible things happen in the book people notice and comment on them and it adds to the humor and wonder of the book.
Fans of the teen hero phenomenon will be very pleased with the first issue of WILDSIDERZ. This comic treads the same ground as fan favorite “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It’s able to combine action and a great sense of humor with interesting and goofy characters without getting too caught up in the drama of it all. While the actual forming of the team at the end of the book is completely contrived and comes across like a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show in the barn!” moment I was able to forgive it.
I was also able to forgive the fact that the lead character/inventor actually lets the jock who had threatened him earlier on in the story join his super team. I mean, honestly, if someone had threatened to kick your ass several hours ago would you want to let him use your keen new invention so he could have super powers? Didn’t think so. For some reason, though, it worked for me in the context of this book.
In the end the first issue of WILDSIDERZ ends up being a really entertaining ride full of promise for what might become a really fun series if they don’t let it get dumbed down too much.
Now if only they’d fix the glowing animal bits…
HERO SQUARED #1
Writer: Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis
Artist: Joe Abraham
Publisher: BOOM! Studios
Reviewer: Ambush Bug
Have you ever been at a crossroads? Where you just know that if you go down one path, your life would turn out one way, but it would be completely different if the other path were followed? I have to say that I remember quite a few times in my life where I was conscious of the presence of such a fateful decision be it before or after I faced that fork in the road. In BOOM! Studios’ new series HERO SQUARED, Milo actually comes face to face with himself and sees what he would be like in a reality just a bit different than his own. This comic plays out like the ultimate buddy movie, except the twist is that the oddball pair teamed up here are alternate versions of the same person: one a broad shouldered, spandex-wearing, moralistic super hero, the other a lazy, sarcastic, couch-riding slacker. It is a concept that I’d read the blurb about and say, “Hunh, that sounds kind of fun.”
That is, until I found out that it was Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis (of DEFENDERS and FORMERLY KNOWN AS JUSTICE LEAGUE fame) writing the series. By reading the moniker I have chosen, you know I am a Giffen fan from way back, but I have to admit his most recent work has left a lot to be desired. His recent JLA CLASSIFIED run was fun at times, but lost that spark that snap, crackled, and popped out of the mouths of his characters. In HERO SQUARED, that spark is back.
One of the things that I liked most about this first issue was the fact that it hit the ground running from the very first panel. Giffen starts this story a good time after Milo has met his heroic alter ego, who goes by the code name of Captain Valor. He smartly lets the reader piece together the events which lead to the situation the two Milos are in. By mid-book, you realize that this is a complex and multi-layered story about second chances and making choices that affect the rest of one’s life.
There are many cool aspects to this book. First and foremost is that the villain that destroyed Valor’s reality and plans on moving on to Milo’s is actually Milo’s girlfriend. And she was Valor’s girlfriend in his reality too until he did…something…to cause her to want to not only destroy him, but the entire world he lived in. Any guy who’s been in a bad relationship knows there’s no better villain than a woman with a grudge. Giffen and DeMatteis know this too and I have to admit, Caliginous (love that name) is a worthy villain. Part of Valor’s mission is to make sure Milo doesn’t do the same thing in this reality and turn his girlfriend into another all-powerful Caliginous.
If you think this book is the type of reality-bending, wormhole theory, sci-fi babble that makes your (and my) head spin, think again. This series is seen through the eyes of Milo, who is jaded but sarcastic, intelligent but an idiot, and is having a hell of a hard time believing any of this is happening to him. This isn’t about making complete scientific sense. It’s about having fun with superhero conventions, laughing at them a bit, and then making them interesting by placing them into a well crafted story. Check out the four page preview here if you don’t believe me. Funny stuff.
On top of the fun story, I was pleased with the art of Joe Abraham in this book. I’ve never seen his work anywhere else, but he’s come up with some imaginative designs for the funky space outfits that Caliginous wears. Abraham shows a lot of promise. His lines were a bit shaky, but this may be a style he is developing and I’m willing to stick with it to see how this artist evolves. His panels are dynamic and he has a good command over facial expressions. And in a Giffen/DeMatteis book, an artist needs that skill to survive.
I’m definitely picking up the next issue of this series and seeing where it’s all going. The $3.99 price tag did make me balk a bit (let’s hope this is a 1st issue rate and not forever), but with art and story this strong, I plan on sticking around to seeing how Milo and Valor get out of this mess. So if you’re at the comics shop and at one of those aforementioned crossroads deciding whether or not to buy HERO SQUARED #1, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Who knows what kind of fucked-up alternate reality you’ll create if you don’t?
ASTRO CITY: THE DARK AGE -- BOOK ONE #2
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artists: Brent Anderson
Cover/Kibitzing: Alex Ross
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Reviewer: Prof. Challenger
You know, there's something just extra creepy about The Blue Knight. The cover to this comic features The Blue Knight -- a murderous vigilante dressed like a cop with a glowing skull reflected in his helmet lens. He kills criminals. Never mind the logical paradox that this makes him a criminal as well. He's like Ditko's Mr. A without the Ayn Randian pontification. The world is black and white. If you're on the black side (commit crimes), you die. Societal hierarchy of the seriousness of crimes be damned. A thief, an embezzler, a forger, a murderer, all of them receive the same sentence from the one-man Star Chamber -- death.
This comic is Part Two of a multi-issue epic by Busiek and Anderson that will surely unsettle some longtime fans of his ASTRO CITY series. A good portion of the appeal of ASTRO CITY has been its generally positive outlook on a world functioning with the presence of super-heroes for decades. When ASTRO CITY originally premiered, this perspective kind of flew in the face of many years worth of "darkening" seen in the major super-hero publishers. ASTRO CITY was something of a throwback to the days when a character like The Punisher still just used rubber bullets rather than mercilessly slaughter the bad guys. And that was attractive. As the series progressed over the years, Busiek has expanded his approach to incorporate some increasingly complex character studies that peeked into the darker side of ASTRO CITY. He also teased his audience with oblique references to a dark time in the past that involved The Silver Agent, ASTRO CITY'S Capt. America/Guardian analog. Where he's going with this current storyline is anyone's guess. One thing for sure is that those of us who transferred our intrinsic fondness for Capt. America and The Guardian to the Silver Agent when reading ASTRO CITY in the past may find ourselves feeling the same betrayal of our trust as past issues have alluded to have happened in the citizens of Astro City. Years ago, my gut feeling was that Busiek had in mind some sort of homophobic storyline where Astro City's most beloved hero came out of the closet during the less tolerant 70s leading to rampant disillusionment, riots, and eventually a bigoted assassin's bullet taking out the Silver Agent. Looks like I was off base. Now I'm wondering whether the Silver Agent is himself an insane murderous racist xenophobe who used his super-hero disguise as a way to pursue his ignominious goals. Busiek has not let me down in an issue of ASTRO CITY yet, so I have this sick feeling that I, the reader, am not going to see one of those "possessed by a bad guy" deus ex machina resolutions.
Now, as usual with ASTRO CITY, Busiek tells his story through the eyes of a citizen. Right now the story unfolds through Royal Williams' eyes. Royal is a petty thief and his brother, Charles, is a police officer. Charles looks like a young Danny Glover and Royal looks like that guy who played Huggy Bear in the old STARSKY & HUTCH tv series. Royal and Charles dislike and distrust all the super-heroes. At the beginning of the story we don't know why; by the end of this issue, we understand why. Royal constantly hooks up with the wrong crowd and is always looking for low-haul criminal opportunities. Throughout this issue, we glimpse through tv reports and other sources the chronicle of the downfall, capture, and trial of the Silver Agent for the on-camera murder of the Mad Maharajah. As a parallel to the career spiral that the Silver Agent is caught in, Royal finds himself stalked by The Blue Knight. It doesn't seem to matter where he runs to, suddenly The Blue Knight is there and shooting all Royal's fellow criminals right between the eyes. But Royal always seems to escape unharmed and terrified. We get caught up in Royal's terror when he discovers some supernatural gunsight tattooed on his neck that allows The Blue Knight to track him. We're left to wonder, though, why Royal is used and not killed. Is big brother the Blue Knight? One thing's for sure, Royal's nerves are not helped by his big brother's "I told you so" attitude.
I read some reviewer and fan complaints about the first issue in this storyline. Not that it wasn't well-done, just that it felt too much like set-up only. I didn't agree with that assessment. When I read ASTRO CITY it's not for the same reason that, say, I might read a JLA comic. In your average continuity-laden super-hero comic, the emphasis is upon plot and action before characterization. And that's generally how it should be for that type of eponymously named comic where the reader marvels over the adventures of super-powered adventurers and crimefighters. ASTRO CITY, on the other hand, makes no claim to that sphere of the genre. ASTRO CITY tells character-based stories of normal people who happen to live in a world where the supernatural surrounds them. By its own aspirations, both issues so far in this new story arc have been perfectly successful. We readers understand the interpersonal relationship between these two brothers as adults and that last page informs us as to the shared life-changing event in their lives that drove them down the paths they chose and fostered a hatred and distrust for all the super-heroes.
Much like what happened in our country during the years surrounding the Watergate scandal, President Nixon's resignation, and the pervasive malaise that crept into the hearts of the citizenry, the scandal and aftermath of what happened to the Silver Agent unraveled the world of ASTRO CITY. It is their common reference point for the time when everything changed. From a comic reader's perspective, it is probably the equivalent to the death of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man. Before that time, the hero always saved the girl in distress. Spider-Man's failure and subsequent blame for her death just triggered a change in tone that ever so slowly crept into comics widely and without which the suicide of Phoenix, the murderous Punisher, the death of Jason Todd, the rape and murder of Sue Dibny, etc. would likely not have occurred. Or I may be overthinking the parallels here. But that's the thing about ASTRO CITY, it always provokes thought -- and a little bit of rumination....well, that can be a good thing.
Anyway, as usual with an ASTRO CITY comic, we get but snapshots of the world of the super-hero and this time we are introduced to a Dr. Strange-like character named Simon Magus. Only this time, we get what Busiek bills as a "Handy-Dandy Space-Filling Bonus Feature" where we get to see the design process used in coming up with the physical look of Simon Magus. I love this type of thing and wish the "Bonus Feature" would become a "Regular Feature." Considering that Magus only appears in one stinkin' panel, there sure was a lot of thought behind the guy. Busiek shares his initial written concept and Anderson's first attempts at sketching a look for the character. Unfortunately Magus was coming off a bit TOO derivative of Dr. Strange. So, the baton passed to Ross who went with a whole different approach to the character that just screams "Cool!" Busiek announced that between the different "Books" chronicling THE DARK AGE, that he would have ASTRO CITY SPECIALS focusing on individual heroes outside of the DARK AGE continuity. May I be one of the first to request the first one be a SIMON MAGUS special?
Written and Drawn by: Stephen R. Buell
Published by: Lost in the Dark Press
Reviewed by: superhero
VIDEO is a comic about the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Did that get your attention?
Well it did get mine when I read about the comic online several months back. So, once again, when I went to the San Diego Comic Con this year Video was on my list as books to look out for. It’s not that I’m particular religious or anything. It’s just that VIDEO seemed like an interesting take on an “End of the world” type of story and if there’s one thing I love its end of the world stories. Whether they involve bloodthirsty zombies or nuclear warfare, for some reason end of the world stuff just fascinates me.
VIDEO opens up with society in a complete freak out fest as in the past several hours the image of Jesus on the cross has appeared in the sky for all the world to see. Not only that, but when the public rushes to their television screens and computers to find out exactly what’s going on they are greeted with the message: “Stay tuned for a message from your Savior”. Every channel they go to and every URL address they seek says the same thing so, of course, without television or the internet to guide them the populace gets even more freaked out.
The thing about VIDEO is that, despite the scope of the concept, it tends to focus on a small group of friends as they try to find their way to where one of them thinks they can find a bomb shelter to protect them from whatever it is that’s coming. This is one of the small disappointments that I sort of had with the mini-series. That, despite the grandness of the concept, the storyteller doesn’t really give you a better idea of what’s happening in the world. It’s not that they don’t refer to the madness that the world has plunged into, obviously that is a large part of the story, it’s just that what’s happening seems so huge that it was a bit disheartening to initially think that the books were just going to focus on this small, and quite honestly, not very appealing group of characters.
But as the books move on the pace of the story picks up and certain things become clear. You see why this particularly small group of people is the focus of the story and the narrative begins to grab hold. As I went from book to book the stakes got larger and the events sucked me in. If anything, I’d have to say that this is one of the equally great and detrimental things about this series…the pace didn’t really get going until I was at the end of the second book but once it had me…I was all in. Which is why I’d recommend the publishers getting a trade out there as soon as possible. If I had only read the first book on its own I’m pretty sure I would have brushed off this book as not my cup of tea. But since I had all of the issues available to me I was able to keep reading and the story was able to suck me in. I’m seriously of the opinion that this story should not have been broken up into individual chapters but should have been released in a graphic novel format.
The truly fantastic thing about this book is…oh, did I say it was about Jesus’ return? Well it is and it isn’t. Towards the end of the story certain elements come into play which actually reveal VIDEO’s true theme. While it is about the return of the “Messiah” to a certain extent the story eventually becomes sort of an anti-television polemic. I don’t want to ruin anything for potential readers out there but as someone who thinks that Television is an invention that’s stunted the populace’s capacity for imagination as well as their ability to relate to reality and other people, VIDEO’s message rang loud and clear. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love television and I have several shows that I watch on a regular basis but I’m still of the opinion that the “idiot box” certainly has been responsible for turning some of America as well as the world beyond into a planet of “vidiots”. Either way, I certainly appreciated the point that VIDEO was trying to get across and found parts of the later chapters to be a welcome surprise.
Oh, and I also loved the fact that Jesus, to me anyway, looks a bit like Stan Lee when he finally does shows up. Whether that was intentional or not I can’t say but it certainly put a smile on my face when I saw it. If it was done on purpose it was certainly a clever gimmick even if I personally don’t see Stan Lee as the saint that others do.
While VIDEO, as I said before, takes a while to build it becomes a truly engaging story with an interesting resolution that seems to lead into Lost In The Dark Press’s next mini-series entitled FRAGILE PROPHET. The art is minimalist at best but it works for the story being told. Fans who demand incredibly detailed art won’t be pleased with what’s inside the pages of VIDEO but if you’re more into actual storytelling the art accomplishes its goals rather well. The book is in black and white which makes the combination of grey tones and a sparse art style add to the steadily increasing creepy vibe that builds throughout its pages. It’s not perfectly illustrated but it is well written and I can’t fault Buell for the art as the book doesn’t suffer for it too much. It may turn off some readers but for me it worked and I’m sure that others will be able to appreciate it as well.
I’d highly recommend VIDEO for the comic fan that’s looking for something different out of their reading experience. While it does deal with religious themes it does so in an irreverent way that doesn’t take the issues it’s dealing with too seriously. The characters aren’t particularly fleshed out but they do grow on you as the story develops. I wouldn’t call the story horror per se but if you’re a fan of stuff like the X-FILES or KOLCHAK THE NIGHT STALKER this may be a book you want to pick up. If anything it’s a comic that reminds me of an independent film that came out several years ago called Last Night. If you liked Last Night, heck if you even know the film I’m talking about, then this book is probably up your alley. The only thing that I recommend is that you buy all the books in the series at one time from the Lost In The Dark Press website if it sounds like something you’d be interested in. It’s a series that really should be read in one sitting and would probably lose something if it’s just read in pieces.
CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL Vol. 1
Writer/Artist: Eiji Nonaka
Publisher: ADV Manga
Reviewed by Dave Farabee
The mission statement for our manga feature here is to sift through all the strangeness of the East and find those manga that just miiiiiight appeal to Western eyes raised on capes ‘n’ cowls. Doesn’t mean we won’t drop a dime on bad manga on occasion (I’ve been critical of BERSERK, .HACK, and NEGIMA in the past), but given that manga’s alien to many ‘round these parts, our focus will always be on finding the best outings.
And I think I’ve got one for ya, gang.
Foisted upon me by a friend who had to overcome my skepticism (the series does look like an eyesore at a glance), CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL ended up kicking my ass six ways to Sunday and becoming one of my favorite surprises of the year. It’s a spoof of the “juvenile delinquent” subgenre of manga and it’s laugh-out-loud funny in its look at the absurdist doings of Tokyo’s toughest high school. This is a school where every student is a badass. In fact, they’re so badass that they seem to spend most of their time talking about how badass they are in lieu of actual being badass.
Truth be told, they’re all kind of likeable. And incredibly stupid.
Our hero is Kamiyama, a decidedly non-badass kid who finds himself enrolled in Cromartie’s den of badassery. He’s so terrified of the thugs surrounding him on his first day that he can’t hold his pencil steady. He drops it! It rolls over to a thug sitting right next to him! The thug picks it up and holds it out! “Silly me,” Kamiyama thinks to himself, “I guess there are good people here, too.”
And then the thug eats the pencil.
“Ah, but Cromartie is famous for its delinquent students,” thinks Kamiyama, inexplicably taking it all in stride. It’s only when we get one of the year’s funniest visuals - the thug gathering up an entire handful of pencils and eating all of them - that Kamiyama realizes, “…this is definitely not a normal delinquent school!” Ever seen that picture of a guy smoking 50 cigarettes at once for the Guinness Book of World Records or somesuch? Picture that with pencils being devoured and you have the first great image of CROMARTIE’s brilliant stupidity.
The rest of the thugs are equally bizarre. There’s Takenouchi, a man-mountain of a badass whose ambitions are constantly foiled by his extreme motion sickness; Maeda, a wannabe who gets no respect because he doesn’t have a badass nickname (“You don’t need one, but if you’re name is, say, ‘The Black Panther of the North Sea’…you have a lot more impact.”); and my personal favorite, Freddie. Freddie is…
He’s Freddie Mercury. The Freddie Mercury. A mute, shirtless, hairy-as-hell Freddie Mercury. Awesome! As a visual, he’s on par with Bill the Cat in old BLOOM COUNTY strips or Kramer on SEINFELD – always and inherently funny.
Kamiyama, now taken in by the thugs of Cromartie, actually spends several chapters trying to figure Freddie out. In one ridiculous scene after another, he makes radical assumptions about Freddie based on his every move. Freddie raises his hand in class and we see Kamiyama’s dramatic internal thoughts: “But class began not five minutes ago! What amazing vigilance…far beyond the norm to be sure!” But Freddie’s just raising his hand so he can go take a leak. And what to make of Freddie’s sudden impulse to do push-ups? His reading books upside down? His cell phone calls to the gorilla in the class (yes, an actual gorilla)?
In the end, the findings are inconclusive: “All anyone really knows about him is that he’s got one hairy chest!”
Is this one fucked-up comic or what?
I don’t think I’ve ever read a manga so irreverently off-the-wall as CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL. Paradoxically, I think it’s one of the most approachable manga on the market because its format actually resembles newspaper strip collections. Each chapter is only six pages long and each chapter is self-contained – really, no different than a CALVIN & HOBBES or PEANUTS collection, but with a little more breathing room for each gag-packed vignette. I think it’s a genuine enticement that a given volume of CROMARTIE stands on its own, with no need to read dozens of follow-up volumes to see how things play out. Oh, you’ll want to read follow-ups (a third collection has just been released), but you don’t have to. Just pick a volume up when you feel like laughing your ass off. You’ll definitely want to read more exchanges like this one, excerpted from a moronic student cram session:
“Since antiquity, my family has passed down knowledge of a memorization technique known as the mystical mnemonic. Use it, and you shall never forget what you commit to memory!”
“I never heard of anything so rad! How does it work?”
“I regret to say I forgot the technique.”Visually, CROMARTIE’s a little on the ugly side, but like SOUTH PARK’s crude cut-out animation, it just adds to the slapstick humor. It’s a series filled with out-of-date pompadours, flaccid mohawks, dramatic exclamations, and sudden! dynamic! poses! I’m told it’s all spoofing Japan’s ‘70s action manga, but you really don’t need to know anything about the source material to get how ridiculous these characters are supposed to be. Hell, the brains of the pack is a robot that looks like a walking oil drum and doesn’t know he’s a robot, and you haven’t lived till you’ve seen a crappy-looking robot call a bunch of hoodlums “PANSY-ASS BITCHES.”
CROMARTIE is so colossally weird that it might seem merely dopey at first glance, but there’s real comedic genius lurking behind it (it recently won Japan’s prestigious Kodansha Manga Award). The gags are brilliantly timed and always come from left field, avoiding those snoozer set-up/punch line patterns we’ve become overly familiar with from newspaper comic strips. I’d liken CROMARTIE’s brand of absurdism to movies like PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, kids’ books like Louis Sachar’s WAYSIDE SCHOOL series, and TV shows like SCRUBS. Like any of that strangeness and you’ll like CROMARTIE.
It is also, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the finest comic of the year to star Freddie Mercury.
Remember, if you have an Indie book you’d like one of the @$$holes to take a look at, click on your favorite reviewer’s link and drop us an email.
Remember, if you have an Indie book you’d like one of the @$$holes to take a look at, click on your favorite reviewer’s link and drop us an email.