Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas comics: Sin City: Silent Night (Nov. 1995)

Writer and artist: Frank Miller
Cover colors: Lynn Varley
Editor: Bob Schreck

There's not much to say about the story in this issue, which can be summed as follows: Marv walks through a snow storm to a barred doorway that leads down to some kind of dungeon. He gives some cash to a woman dressed like a Nazi, who shows him a cell where a small and very scared young girl looks back at him. He turns on the woman and her armed thugs, shooting them dead right quick. He opens the door, tells the girl, Kimberly, that it's OK and she'll be home with her momma soon. He scoops her up and carries her out and back into the snowstorm.

This story is told completely in silent splash pages, with only one dialog balloon in the whole issue. That prompted a lot of howls at the time this was released since "reading" this black and white comic takes only a few minutes and it cost a then-whopping $2.95. But that belies that fact that it's 26 or so pages of Frank Miller Sin City art, which has always been worth the price of admission alone. I always thought this was Miller's attempt to do for snow what he did for rain in the first Sin City story. Was it a cash grab, as some have charged? Maybe, but again it's Frank Miller art and there are few comics at the time where the entire package was worth $3, let alone just the art.

Of course, this ain't the most happy, touchy-feely holiday story ever — but Marv's good deed does stand out as a worthy gift considering how tough and hard-boiled every day is in Miller's "town without pity."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Comics: Star Trek: The Next Generation #2 (March 1988)

"Spirit in the Sky!"
Writer: Mike Carlin
Pencils: Pablo Marcos
Inks: Carlos Garzon and Arne Starr
Letters: Bob Pinaha
Colors: Carl Gafford
Editor: Robert Greenberger

I can't recall many other Star Trek stories that dealt with Christmas — there was a Picard Christmas dream sequence in Generations — probably because the series' humanistic point of view just doesn't mesh well with the rituals and religious underpinning of the holiday. (Of course, Patrick Stewart's one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol from the 1990s was extremely popular.)

This is still a really hard story to swallow and to judge because of the circumstances. This was the second issue of the first Star Trek: The Next Generation series DC published. It was released to coincide with the debut of the TV series itself in the fall of 1987. While DC's classic Star Trek comic and the movie series were quite popular, no one knew if TNG was going to be a hit or a massive flop. So DC hedged its bet with a six-issue miniseries. And given the time frame of comic book production back then, the first few issues of the comic had to be completely written, drawn and ready to go to press long before the first episodes of the TV show were finished or aired. So all the comic creators had to go on were things like the series bible, early scripts, photo reference and the overall guidance of the Paramount licensing office.

So it kind of makes sense to do a Christmas story in this second issue, as Christmas stories can get away with a lot and it would buy DC another issue to try to figure out the new series.

Christmas Comics: The Uncanny X-Men #230 (June 1988)

“’Twas the night …”
Writer: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Marc Silvestri
Inks: Josef Rubinstein
Colors: Glynis Oliver
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Editor: Ann Nocenti
Editor in chief: Tom DeFalco

When they reprint classic merry mutant tales, they usually omit this one (more on the more popular X-Men holiday stories soon). Perhaps because this tale is tied into the Australian outback era of the The Uncanny X-Men, which is both admired and reviled, depending on who you listen too. This is easily the goofiest X-Men Christmas story, but it’s also not without its charms.

The story begins with the X-Men on a typical training session in the outback town they took over in the previous issue from The Reavers. But Longshot is absent, lured to a room filled with “haunted treasure” that wants to return to the owners The Reavers “liberated” it from. This is a weird idea, that these objects have some kind of sentience and, even more, an emotional attachment to their owners. This is ascribed to Longshot’s power of psychometry, which was an ability outlined in his original 1985 miniseries. Haunted by the pleas of these items, Longshot’s tales prompt the X-Men to try to return every item to its rightful owner.

The ridiculousness of the idea is commented upon extensively in the story — Claremont’s halfway successful technique for selling the idea to an audience most likely too "cool" to take the concept at face value — with Havok and Wolverine noticeably scoffing at the idea. But like most good Christmas stories, the season's good points melt away the skepticism and everyone joins in whole-heartedly. Even Wolverine gets in on the act, wearing a Santa hat and carrying a big bag of gifts over his shoulder — all of which is pretty out of character and most likely not "cool" with the average late 1980s X-Men reader, but it is Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Comics: Power Pack #20 (March 1986)

“Turning Point”
Writer: Louise Simonson
Artist: Bob McLeod
Letters: Joe Rosen
Colors: Glynis Oliver
Editor: Carl Potts
Editor in chief: Jim Shooter

Power Pack always was a book I really enjoyed and, for a time, was one of the best books Marvel published. This issue has a Christmas tie-in, but there’s a pretty convoluted plot to wade through, not to mention a fair bit of continuity that’s not well laid out for new readers.

This story began in Power Pack #18 — a Secret Wars II crossover! — when mom Maggie Power is badly injured by the rampaging Kurse while picking up poster board for her son Alex to use for a school science project. That lead to a crossover with Thor #363 (which was written and drawn by Louise Simonson’s husband, Walt) and a double-size Thanksgiving issue in #19 that guest starred Cloak and Dagger and, of course, Kitty Pryde and Wolverine.

There’s also a bunch of continuity from The New Mutants to deal with, as Illyana had somehow lost control over Limbo in another Secret Wars II-related storyline I don’t exactly recall at the moment. And that’s where this issue starts: with a bunch of Limbo demons running through New York looking for innocents to sacrifice so they can move the entire island of Manhattan to Limbo.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cooke's Hunter is a stylish, hard-core crime tale

Things don't get much  tougher on the crime fiction front than The Hunter (IDW Publishing, $24.99, 2009), Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of the classic Richard Stark novel introducing the iconic criminal character Parker. This is easily the most hard-boiled crime comic to come along since Frank Miller founded Sin City in the early 1990s.

Set in 1962, this is a tale of a truly unrepentant criminal who is out for revenge on the woman and men who double-crossed him and set him up for dead. And it’s that setting — 1962 Manhattan — that makes Cooke the ideal match for this project. His style, which evokes classic animation, captures the style of the era in a way few other artists could. It’s abstract at times, vividly concrete at others and always powerfully focused on its story.

Done in a lovely two-color format, the narrative does run out of steam just a bit by the end, partly because Parker never really becomes anything more than a one-dimensional vehicle for the kind of mayhem that must have really stood out in 1962 but is a bit more common now. That small quibble aside, it’s a very stylish and highly entertaining thriller that will surely wow hard-core fans and casual readers alike.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Stumptown makes tough tales fun again

Stumptown #1 (Oni Press, $3.99, Oct. 2009) is a pleasant surprise, mostly because it’s so great to see a writer with the talent of Greg Rucka take time out from writing superhero comics (although his Batwoman stories in Detective Comics are really, REALLY good) to do the kind of indie project that got him noticed in the first place.

Stumptown is an old-fashioned private eye story starring an unusual sort of private eye (for comics, anyway) in Dexedrine C. Parios, a smart-ass with a gambling problem who looks after her younger brother, Ansel, who has Down syndrome.

This is a smart book that’s tough but still fun. The art by Matthew Southworth and colors by Lee Loughridge are attractive, clear and a great match for the story.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Planetary ends better than it began

It took ten years, but Planetary #27 (Wildstorm, $3.99, Dec. 2009) is finally out and finishes up the popular series by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday.

Not having read or re-read any Planetary since #26 came out about a year ago, the specifics of the series’ plots were not fresh on my mind, but I still found it an interesting denouement.

Planetary is one of those series that I always had trouble really connecting to. I loved the second issue, with the dead giant Tokyo monsters all rotting away on an island, but found too many of the early issues weakened by being essentially riffs on various popular comics genres. Because of that, I preferred Ellis’ short but pitch-perfect run on The Authority, which began about the exact time as Planetary, and, of course, Transmetropolitan as the writer’s definitive works.

As for Cassaday, I go back and forth on his art. At times, it’s beautiful and subtle and others too minimalistic and reliant on a good colorist (which Laura Martin most definitely is). At least Planetary finally — after many long production interruptions — has made it to a satisfactory end, something few series can claim.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Crumb draws too-literal Book of Genesis

I tried very hard to read The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb (Norton, $24.95, 2009), but after a few dozen pages resorted to simply skimming the text and lingering over the best of Crumb’s always amazing artwork.

But, frankly, scripture has never been anything I’ve enjoyed reading. And in this case, with what seems like pages of biblical figures “begating” a new generation, it’s a real disappointment for Crumb not to portray that one activity he draws so well!

The literal approach ends up feeling more like an exercise for Crumb — it’s not really clear from his introduction or the book itself what, if anything, he was trying to add to these tales — than anything that could hold the interest of anyone but a die-hard fan. Which, in an odd way, means the Book of Genesis has a lot in common with most superhero comics.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Asterios Polyp needs a better ending

I for the most part really enjoyed David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, $29.95, 2009). Mazzuchelli, of course, is best known as the artist who collaborated with Frank Miller on Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Reborn, among other 1980s efforts at Marvel and DC Comics, before moving on to his own series Rubber Blanket.

This thick novel tells the tale of a divorced, pompous architecture professor who runs away from his life when his apartment catches on fire. It’s a beautiful looking book, drawn in a simple style suited to what’s accepted for a literary graphic novel, making nice use of colored line work in particular to create a lovely effect.

As for the story, I found myself very much drawn into the first half of the book and then drifting away from it as the plot seemed to stall in favor of a more episodic approach. The eponymous protagonist goes from a complex mystery to a rather human but mundane character. The story never really delivers on its most interesting element — the idea that Polyp is followed by what is essentially the ghost of a twin brother who died in the womb. The tale failed to achieve the kind of breakthrough character development that it promises early on, heading to an unfortunately predictable though not completely unsatisfying resolution.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bell's Invaders begins to clear path to Canuck hero knowledge

A book I acquired at San Diego Comic-Con in 2008, but had not read until now,  Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe (Dundurn, $40, 2006) is a book of obvious interest for someone like me who grew up a comics fan in the Great White North of yesteryear.

I’ve been interested in this topic since coming across John Bell’s article on the Canadian comic book heroes of the 1940s and 1950s in Alter Ego #36. For those who don’t know, Canada joined World War II in 1939 in support of Great Britain and the restrictions of the war economy quickly forbade the import of pulp fiction magazines, including comics, from the United States. A number of Canadian publishers struggled in this environment to find writers, artists, characters and even paper and ink to fill the void left on newsstands and in the process created a number of interesting and compelling characters. These publishers all faded away with the return of American comics to Canada in the post-war years, and many of these strips are all but forgotten.

Even a comics fan like myself who grew up in Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s 0was completely unaware of the rich history of Canadian comic books, at least until I read Bell’s article. I asked my father, who grew up in Edmonton in the 1940s and '50s about these books, but he didn’t remember too much about them.

As such, I looked forward to reading more about it in Bell’s book, and I can’t say I wasn’t at least a little disappointed. I don’t know if Bell was pressed for space, but it feels like he was — there’s places in the book that feature a lot of listing of names, publishers, titles, etc., and not much of an idea of what these stories were like. It’s also hard to gauge how popular these comics and characters ever became in Canada, and what — if any — kind of fan base still exists today. I think a solid collection of the best of these tales would be a sure-fire success on curiosity value alone, assuming it’s possible to work out the complicated rights issues involved.