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Written by Brian Wood, illustrated by Becky Cloonan
12 issues collected into one trade paperback, published by AIT/Planet Lar, $19.99

This is hard to review. As with Local, Demo consists of 12 independent stories, and in this case there's no linking narrative—this is purely a mosaic of a world. The problem for me is that of the dozen stories, I like about half of them a lot, find most of the others okay, am disappointed by a few, and am enraged and disgusted by the last to the point where I can't in good conscience recommend buying this to anyone. So I'll break it out into pieces.

The world in which some people are developing unprecedented powers and abilities and others have had them in secret for some time is a classic in several genres and media: superhero comics, manga and anime about psi powers and other secret forces, and on and on. It's great stuff, because you can say all kinds of things about the real world and about your influences (both what inspires you and what repels you) in the arrangement of stuff in your own take. Good ones do, among other things, what Samuel Delany calls the retroactive invention of genre. By making us see scattered sources as adding up to something and coming together, they change how we view our own literary and artistic pasts as well as telling good stories of their own. I love this stuff and am always up for interesting new riffs, and since I enjoyed Local so much, I thought I'd roll right on to the thing Wood had done right before.

Fairly early on, I became both fascinated by the kinds of stories he was telling and annoyed at some of their restrictions. Good part first.

Read more... )
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Written by Brian Wood, illustrated by Ryan Kelly
Published by Oni Press, hardcover, $29.99

This is a set of twelve single-issue stories that add up to something larger.

At the heart of Local is Megan McKeenan, whom we meet right on the edge of adulthood. She might be a bit under 18, or a bit over; what matters for the story is that she's in that realm where independence is possible but still very hard. You can read the entire first chapter/story, "Ten Thousand Thoughts Per Second", at Oni Press' site, a page at a time, and I recommend it. It took me a few pages to realize just what was going on, and then I fell in love with it. I've been there so often and had such a hard time describing it.

From there we follow Megan all across North America and through most of a decade. In some chapters she's front and center, like her heartbreaking experience trying to cycle through identities while working at a movie theater in Halifax. In others, she's present only in the most marginal way, like the one about the members of a band in Richmond, VA, retiring after 15 years together, their individual and shared experiences and recollections woven together. We see her younger brother trying a different path to establishing his independence and failing catastrophically at it, and we get looks back into the past, and especially into what Megan's rebellions mean to her mother and why her mother's willing to support them.

After the first couple stories, I had some real suspicion that this was going to be a glamorization of the young drifter's wonderful life. It isn't. The chapters focusing on Megan's own failings and repeated self-sabotage are compassionate but not condoning in the slightest—there's no question but that Wood and Kelly can sympathize without excusing. And the last chapter reminded me very much of the experience of my real-life friend who came closest to this kind of existence. As he did, Megan finds that she can take a lot of value from what she went through but still want not to keep doing it forever, and prepare for something else.

One of the chapters really didn't quite work for me. It involves a suicidal hostage-taker, and while one of my above-mentioned friend's friends has twice been in such situations, they are rare and it just felt like a bit melodramatic intrusion into the flow of the whole. But even it is well-done, and isn't any weirder than real life actually is sometimes. And the rest is so solid, and the whole so satisfying, that I have no problem recommending this as an example of what the marriage of prose and illustration can do for telling stories about the real world as well as about fantastic ones.

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 Marvel Comics says they've got the rights to Marvelman fair and square, bought from Mick Anglo and the whole deal. If this holds up...it sure would be nice to have fresh editions.

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Runaways: Pride & Joy (volume 1, collecting issues #1-6 of the 2003 run)
Runaways: Teenage Wasteland (volume 2, collecting issues #7-12 of the 2003) run
Written by Brian K. Vaughan, pencilled by Adrian Alphona, inked by David Newbold and Craig Yeung, colored by Brian Reber
Published by Marvel, $7.99 US each volume

I've been reading praise for this series ever since it started, but since I've been in isolation almost all the time since then, I never got around to it until now. I am very glad I have. 

The setup is gloriously simple: a group of teens with nothing much in common find out that their parents are actually supervillains, and that they themselves have powers and resources they never suspected. They go on the lam. Complications ensue. What makes it work is just how well executed it is.

As that cover image suggests, the art is beautiful in an ultra-clean line way. I'm fond of highly detailed rendering (like vintage John Byrne or Scott McCloud), but it's easy to badly (cf. most of the Image Comics founders). This style here is hard to do well, but when it succeeds, it makes the whole world it portrays vivid. The coloring helps a lot, adding beauty and clarity and nuance to the work - these volumes have some of the best-nuanced skin tones I can recall ever seeing in a superhero comic.

The writing is warm and friendly, and informed. I don't know how old Vaughan may be, but he clearly knows modern teens. They sound and act right. These are all bright kids raised with a lot of advantages to bring out their potential, and then they're thrown into something for which they're utterly unprepared, against adversaries who...it turns out, don't actually know them nearly as well as they think, either. Their parents underestimate them in just the kinds of ways parents do in these years when adulthood is coming in but childhood hasn't really gone out yet.

The writing is just plain funny, too. When two of the parents find their son gone with his bed stuffed with pillows and a mannequin head at the top, the mother bursts out, "What is our son doing with a male mannequin head in his room?" (The father says, "How the hell can you be concerned about that? Alex is out there somewhere out there, and he knows the truth about us!") And the police officer meeting Cloak and Dagger, lured in on false pretenses, says, "So wait. You're telling me that drugs turned you into super heroes? That can't make you popular with the parent groups." It's these flashes of reality amidst the weirdness that keep things rolling along so engagingly.

I understand that Vaughan and Alfona left after 24 issues, and that others handled it, and that they came back for a while later. I'll sort that out and see what additional volumes I want to check out. I loved these, and they lifted my spirits from a gloomy time.

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I'm a comic book reader. I don't buy a lot these days, to put it mildly, but I keep up with a reasonable amount of comics news online and get some collections via purchase or the library. So from time to time I'll get my geek on here.

Light Brigade, by Peter J. Tomasi, Peter Snejbjerg, and Bjarne Hansen, published by DC, $19.99 US.

This is fun.

Light Brigade is a mini-series set during the Battle of the Bulge—that's on the front line of the Allies' advance toward Germany in the astoundingly cold winter of 1944, at the point where a lot of American forces had gotten cut off by a German counter-offensive and were in imminent risk of being completely overwhelmed. Our protagonists are the members of an American company waiting for trouble and passing the time as best they can, when the anticipated German incursion begins. And so does the arrival of two falling angels.

From there things keep unfolding. This story includes Longinus (the centurion who pierced Jesus' side during his crucifixion and must now wait as long as it takes for Jesus' next coming), the last of the angels to mate with human women in pre-Flood times and some of the surviving half-angelic progeny of those unions, a zombie army with everything from Nazis back to Teutonic knights, and heroic sacrifices. It also has some surprisingly serious and mature talk about the problematic parts of dealing with incarnations of pure goodness in a world that really does have awful stuff in it, God's responsibility for the whole mess, and like that. Oh, and it also has the company comics geek who gets to be part of a band of super-heroes at last.

The mythology isn't anything original to someone who follows riffs like those in In Nomine, but then originality is overrated. What matters is how it works in practice, and Tomasi really pulls it together well. The story is very personal, with a sense of great stakes on various schedules. The fact that the grigori, the fallen angel, is the very last of his kind adds some poignancy to his struggle, and his relations with the nephilim, the half-angelic soldiers serving him, have a sense of mutual commitment in an almost feudal way. The grigori's a rotten bastard, but he's made promises that he intends to keep, and some of his tangled feelings toward God and what he wants out of God at this late date make very fine dramatic sense. There are other good touches all along the way, too.

It's not deep. It's got a bit more than would fit comfortably into a good movie by del Toro or someone like that. Maybe a four- or six-hour mini-series. But it's a ripping yarn that I enjoyed a lot, and that looked really good.

30 Days of Night, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days, 30 Days of Night: Return to Barrow, 30 Days of Night: Eben and Stella, and 30 Days of Night: Spreading the Disease, by Steven Niles and various artists, mostly Ben Templesmith, published by IDW, $17.99-19.99

This, unfortunately, is not so fun, because of two specific problems.

First the praise. Steve Niles has a glorious high concept here: vampires attack Barrow, Alaska, during the 30 days in November-December when the sun's below the horizon. We won't talk about the idea that European vampires never, ever thought of trying this in Scandinavia; that's just nit-picking. It's a rock-solid idea and the framework for its execution is thoroughly sound. For a story like this, you set up some interesting humans, work out a few conflicts for the vampires to have among themselves, wind it up, and let it go. To quote one of my favorite Stephen King lines, in Danse Macabre:
Most gothics are overplotted novels whose success or failure hinges on the author's ability to make you believe in the characters and partake of the mood. Straub succeeds winningly at this, and the novel's machinery runs well (although it is extremely loud machinery; as already pointed out, that is also one of the great attractions of the gothic— it's PRETTY GODDAM LOUD!)
Indeed so. The question for the author of such a thing is whether they can crank it up to the right volume and kind of noise. And right at the outset, Niles and Templesmith roar out with great promise. But there are, like I said, problems.

First, in the writing. Niles sets up background involving humans spying on vampires and some implicit vampire society with its own internal dynamics, and then never resolves anything satisfactorily. Plot bits get left hanging at the end of each mini-series, complexities spiral up without obvious plan in each successive one, and there's less and less justification for calling any set of installments an actual story. I remember when this same problem hit Dark Horse's Aliens mini-series back in the day, and later their Terminator mini-series as well. That original story by Mark Verheiden and Mark A. Nelson had a resolution; more or less nothing after it did. And 30 Days of Night as an ongoing series of works is right in the same morass.

This isn't itself fatal to my interest. I follow plenty of doomed-to-incoherence works. Nor is fatal that, as with Light Brigade, I recognize all kinds of inspirations and source material for the setting. What did kill my interest and reduce me to browsing through later volumes in the unfulfilled hope of something more interesting happening is just that I didn't find it very engaging.

This is where the second problem comes in. Templesmith is an interesting artist, but he can't or won't draw normal stuff well. His human beings aren't well differentiated and there are far too many details I'd have liked to see about Barrow that I never did. I came away with no good sense of the town's size or layout, or with a sense of (for instance) how a house weatherproofed to Barrow standards might differ in its appearance and quality of lighting from one down here in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the other artists are better, but it's persistently hard to tell what's supposed to be freakish in the eyes of observers in the story and what's just drawn that way.

I have to score this one as a reasonable success at the outset and each follow-up further from the mark.

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...I found myself starting to explain some of my feelings to a friend by invoking Marshall Rogers' interpretation of Batman to Frank Miller's. So I think I did the tribe proud.

(For the record: Rogers approached Batman as being driven but sane and in control of himself, and Bruce Wayne as being a real, multi-faceted persona for whom the Batman is a mask and a tool. Back before he went just plain silly and nuts, Miller was of the view that Wayne is a shell of a persona that the Batman uses when he can't be in the cowl, where he is most truly himself and free. I am imprinted on the Rogers interpretation, and this could segue into a long ramble about the ways in which Ceri and birth name feel real or not to me, but it won't right now 'coz I'm tired and too warm.)


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Ceri B.

April 2010

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