Author: Van Jensen

Van Jensen is a former crime reporter turned comic book writer. In addition to ComicMix, he contributes to Publishers Weekly and Comic Book Resources. He lives in Atlanta, and his blog can be found at graphicfiction.wordpress.com.

Review: ‘Gotham Central: Book One’ by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka

The Gotham police force has been around for pretty much as long as there’s been a Batman. But aside from James Gordon, the cops have always amounted to essentially cannon fodder, either dying at the hands of the rogues or vainly attempting to bring in the Bat during his various stints as a wanted man.

In other words, the cops have always only existed as extras in the blockbuster Batman stories. Writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka flip that equation in Gotham Central, starting with the cops — specifically the unit working metahuman cases — and only bringing Batman in as a vague background player, almost a deus ex machina who both enrages and inspires the force.

It’s not especially different from Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers, except in how that series exaggerates policing for maximum bombast while Gotham Central more effectively captures the often droll, depressing and cynical atmosphere of a police department (In case you question my bona fides, I worked as a crime reporter for years). Collected now in a nice hardcover, the first volume of the series features two stories, one about the death of a cop and another about the public outing of Detective Renee Montoya.

With well-suited art from Michael Lark that firmly grounds the story, the writers drop readers immediately into a full precinct (it does get a little fuzzy keeping track of who’s who) as one cop is killed by Mr. Freeze. The obvious angle they explore is how mere humans can try to take down a bad guy with so much power, and how they resent Batman for always having to bail them out.

Thankfully the book goes much deeper than that, and Brubaker lends just as much pathos to these detectives as he does to his dealers, robbers and thugs in his series Criminal. None more so than Montoya, who is here developed as one of the most realistic lesbian comic book characters yet seen. In fact, her story, “Half a Life” was justly recognized with several awards. Sadly DC editorial later let that characterization drop in favor of hot-chicks-in-lingerie scenes in 52.

There’s a funny blurb on this book’s cover, saying it’s the “best Batman comic published,” which is both sad and true. One can only wonder if the team of Brubaker and Lark had been handed the Batman duties, instead of going on to bring their brand of realism and slick plotting to Captain America.

And we’ll probably never know. But it doesn’t diminish at all what they and Rucka accomplished in Gotham Central.

Review: ‘Gentleman Jim’ by Raymond Briggs

Like so many of the great cartoonists, Raymond Briggs operates almost in disguise, using his innocuous-appearing drawings and simpleton characters as a front while he delivers thoughtful commentary and a piercing wit.

The British pioneer of the graphic novel field (he was, at the very least, a contemporary of Will Eisner’s, though Briggs is too generally labeled a children’s book creator) offers up this sneaky blend of the adult and childish in the reprinting of Gentleman Jim (Drawn & Quarterly, $14.95).

The eponymous Jim is a bathroom cleaner with fantastic ambitions — in his mind. For years he’s been content to only dream of trying on a new career, and one day he finally decides to make those dreams real.

What follows is a seemingly childish series of adventures, as Jim attempts to enter unrealistic careers (a cowboy, a painter, a soldier) but is stymied at every stop.

Eventually he becomes dedicated on being a highwayman, stealing from the rich to benefit the poor. He buys fake weapons, creates a preposterous costume and brings home a pathetic donkey, then embarks on his misadventures.

Of course, this enterprise fails as well, which makes a simple enough little story. But what makes it so appreciable to a more mature audience — beyond Briggs’ delicate and beautifully composed art — is how he uses Jim as a foil to poke at the bureaucracies, laws and stuffiness of modern society that tamp down anyone daring to be odd.

Much as Charles Schulz and Richard Thompson instill children with adult sensibilities to great effect, Briggs does the reverse, making Jim both adult and childish, even giving him a baby’s broad face.

Like so many of Briggs’ characters, this allows Jim to be foolish and stupid but still endearing, a loveable bumbler who is deeply wise in his simplicity.

‘X-Factor’ and Event Fatigue

Though you can’t go to a comics convention panel without hearing some fan decry crossovers, it’s readily obvious why they keep appearing and tying up comics series: Crossovers sell.

As editors and creators quickly point out, slapping an event label on a comic cover can immediately boost sales by a healthy margin. And when books are struggling for readers, those opportunities are hard to pass up.

But for those who closely follow a particular series, crossovers certainly have the potential to seriously gum up the works, which is made evident with perfect clarity in the two issues of X-Factor released last week.

The issue from the main series has the main team in Detroit, sort of teaming up with She-Hulk to take down a Skrull attacker. The other, a Layla Miller special, has that character still stuck in the future, having some very strange adventures and knowing stuff.

The series proper has been one of my favorites since it started up again a few years ago, with Peter David knocking out  some of the best superheroics seen this decade. His scripts are smart, funny and well crafted, and continued reading makes clear how good he is at plotting stories out in the long term.

But the past two Secret Invasion tie-in issues have been easily the worst of the run, in part because of sub-standard art and in part because the Skrull situation feels as forced as it is. Even Jamie Madrox’s patented monologues lack their usual flair.

This is then highlighted (or perhaps lowlighted) by the brilliant Layla Miller issue, which is clearly Miller in more unadulterated form. Layla — herself a deus ex machina from House of M, another event/crossover — has been a driving force of X-Factor. But for now she’s relegated off to an alternate future, not coincidentally by the last X-Men crossover, Messiah Complex.

All told, the past year and a half of X-Factor has seen it cross over with three events (Civil War being the only one I haven’t mentioned yet). For fans of the series, all we can do is wonder what the book might have been if David had been left to his own devices.

Interview: Elizabeth Genco of ‘Comic Book Tattoo’ and ‘Blue’

The past few months have brought a swell of attention to indie comics writer Elizabeth Genco, who scored a coup by having a story included in the Tori Amos Comic Book Tattoo collection from Image Comics, and then her graphic novel Blue — a modernization of the Bluebeard legend — sold well in part thanks to a plug from Brian Wood.

Genco took the time out of her busy schedule to chat with ComicMix about her music-infused projects and what it was like to work with an idol in Amos.

ComicMix: Let’s talk about the Tori Amos project first, since it’s the book of the moment. How did you get connected to that gig? Were you a fan of Amos previously?

Elizabeth Genco: I’ve been a fan of Tori’s for almost 15 years. Both she and her music have been hugely influential, especially in my creative life. Tori is very smart about how to create a creative career while staying true to your vision, and I learn from her. Of course, like many of her fans, her music has helped me through some dark times.

As for how I got involved, a few years ago, editor Rantz Hoseley and I got acquainted via Warren Ellis’ old board, The Enginge; he and I have been pals ever since. When he extended the invitation, I jumped onboard immediately.

CMix: How did you approach the assignment? Comics is such a visual medium, it’s not that common to hear creators be inspired by sound.

EG: I want to say that I’m not inspired by sound so much as I am by words — that is, lyrics. But the interesting thing about lyrics, of course, is that they take on a completely different meaning when you add the music. I would even go as far to say that 99 percent of the time, song lyrics are incomplete without the music. (Music is a huge influence on me, and I’ve aspired to be professional musician at several points in my life, especially when I was very young. So I’ve thought about this a lot, actually.)

Music inspires my writing quite often, and the process is usually the same. A line will capture my attention, and I’ll start noodling — following the thread, seeing where it goes. In this case, I decidedon the song and then went looking for that line.

As for the song itself ("Here. In My Head"), well, I spent all this time going through Tori’s catalog trying to find the right one before going, "Duh!" It’s been my favorite Tori song for years, so it wasthe obvious choice.

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Review: ‘The Dead Boy Detectives’ by Bryan Talbot and Ed Brubaker

By my count, there are four good reasons to buy The Sandman Presents: The Dead Boy Detectives, now out from Vertigo.

First, it’s cheap, at a slight $12.99 for some 100 pages of comics.

Second, it’s a heckuva good mystery yarn with plenty of occult elements.

Third, it’s part of The Sandman world, and there are plenty of readers who snap up anything associated with Neil Gaiman’s creation.

But the last — and, for me, best — reason to pick up the book is that it further illustrates Ed Brubaker’s dexterity as a writer. I’ve long said that the thing that makes him so talented is that if his name wasn’t on the cover of his comics, you wouldn’t be able to recognize him as the author (also, his books are all quite good).

Unlike a Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis or Brian Michael Bendis, Brubaker writes comics without stamping his voice all over them. And, in The Dead Boy Detectives, he shows off a wholly new voice, slipping seamlessly into the world of the ghostly boy sleuths and their London setting.

Like all great P.I. stories, this one begins with a girl, then gets all weird with shriveled dead bodies, witches and immortal creeps. It’s not quite unpredictable yet manages to be surprising.

But, mostly, the great characterization of ghosts Charles and Edwin and their childish interplay is what makes this one a winner. Well, that and the other reasons listed above.


Van Jensen is a former crime reporter turned comic book journalist. Every Wednesday, he braves Atlanta traffic to visit Oxford Comics, where he reads a whole mess of books for his weekly Reviews. Van’s blog can be found at graphicfiction.wordpress.com.

Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Van Jensen directly at van (dot) jensen (at) comicmix (dot) com.

‘Sandman’ Celebrating 20th

This year marks the 20th anniversary for The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s famed comic book series from Vertigo. And, no surprise, the DC imprint is putting out a bunch of Sandman material to celebrate.

We’ve already seen the anniversary poster (see below), and a few other projects and events were just announced.

The fourth volume of The Absolute Sandman, collecting the last 19 issues, comes out in November. The Sandman: Dream Hunters also comes out that moth, a four-part mini series with art from P. Craig Russell. And Vertigo is releasing a tarot deck set featuring Dave McKean’s covers from the series.

There will also be a CBLDF and DC Comics tribute and auction in New York on Nov. 8 at an undetermined location, and Chip Kidd of Pantheon will interview Gaiman at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on Nov. 9.

For a list of characters in the poster, check out New York magazine’s Vulture blog, which originally posted the image.

Review: “Air” by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker

There’s something so unabashedly original about writer G. Willow Wilson that it’s nearly impossible to not enjoy her comics projects, like last year’s graphic novel Cairo and this week’s new series Air.

Wilson brings an entirely new voice and outlook to comics, keeping relevant to contemporary culture while digging into issues like terrorism, nationalism and identity. In Air, the focus is on Blythe, a stewardess who has the unfortunate disposition of being afraid of heights.

While a lesser writer might use that gimmick as a crutch, Wilson allows it to simply exist as one aspect of a fully realized world. The focus from the first stunning page (M.K. Perker deserves a lot of credit here) is on the shadowy forces hijacking Blythe’s airplane, and a world of intrigue opens up chaotically.

For such a structured writer (Wilson’s end note on writing is worth a read), she lets the reins go slack a little too much in this issue, with its convoluted narrative and repetitive settings.

With nearly every scene being set in an airport or airplane, it’s difficult to follow the issue’s chronology, though that has the likely intended effect of establishing how confused Blythe is.

Vertigo allowed me to read the first arc of the story, and it takes about that long to gain a sturdy footing in this new world Wilson has created. But it’s an endlessly fun and inventive ride, and by the sixth issue Air appears on the verge of becoming the next great Vertigo book.

If nothing else, it’s deeply ambitious and delightfully new. Of course, I might be biased, as Wilson is a fellow journalist turned comics person.


Van Jensen is a former crime reporter turned comic book journalist. Every Wednesday, he braves Atlanta traffic to visit Oxford Comics, where he reads a whole mess of books for his weekly reviews. Van’s blog can be found at graphicfiction.wordpress.com.

Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Van Jensen directly at van (dot) jensen (at) comicmix (dot) com.

Watching the Train Wreck of “Final Crisis”

I may as well just get this out of the way up front: in my opinion, Final Crisis #3 is one of the worst comic books I’ve ever read.

Coming into this event season, I had high hopes for DC to regain some of the Infinite Crisis magic, but after three issues (sorry for the delay, but I was away from comic shops and the Internet) the latest and likely not last Crisis has clearly entered the realm of train wreck.

And yet many comics critics posted some largely favorable reviews. "I can’t wait to see what happens next!" said one not atypical reviewer.

Throughout many reviews, the critics looked at writer Grant Morrison’s approach of stringing together flashes of disparate stories into making a larger narrative and praised how new and challenging it is. There didn’t seem to be a single bizarre element he used that couldn’t elicit a glowing remark.

When reading those comments, I immediately recalled this quite-good essay by B.R. Myers on The Atlantic Monthly Web site. Writing about contemporary literary fiction, Myers complains that today’s writers have become obsessed with style at the expense of substance.

We are supposed to have entered a golden age for fiction, he writes, and yet readers don’t pick up literary fiction en masse, or much at all. Myers offers a simple explanation: the books are all self-absorbed fluff, and the nuts and bolts of telling a story have been left by the wayside.

Which brings us back to Final Crisis.

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Review: ‘After 9/11’ by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón

A few years back, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón came up with the novel idea of retelling the 9/11 Commission Report in comic book form.

Now they’re back with something of a sequel, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror (Hill and Wang, $16.95). While their earlier book was a simple recreation of an existing document, this is a more impressive endeavor, as they compile facts from a great number of sources to create one of the most encompassing yet looks at our ongoing wars.

I really only have one criticism. The book is labeled “graphic journalism,” which is a bit of a misnomer. The creators did no original reporting, as far as I can tell, instead researching media reports for their information.

It’s really an illustrated work of history, an encompassing paper-bound documentary of the past seven years in American foreign policy. Which is to say it’s a pretty depressing read.

The creators organize their collection of news reports and government documents in chronological form, as the U.S. launches its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter through no small part of deception.

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Review: ‘Astro City: Dark Age’ by Kurt Busiek

Kurt Busiek’s brain is about average-sized, I assume. And yet it contains this entire city, detailed down to every last resident’s personality and scrap of trash in the street.

His mastery of Astro City is on full display in the latest collection of the WildStorm series, The Dark Age ($29.99). Busiek ventures back to the not-so-pleasant past to tell the story of two brothers who go on very different paths amidst the chaos of superheroes and villains.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of superhero stories told in a down-to-earth way, or viewed from the average man’s perspective, maybe most notably in Busiek’s acclaimed Marvels with Alex Ross (who provides the killer cover at right). Neither of those elements is what sets Astro City apart, though they fuel its success.

Rather, its the depth to which Busiek explores the brothers’ lives (and those of everyone else). Charles and Royal Williams go through childhood tragedy and end up on opposite ends of the law.

Each is plagued in his own way by the super-powered element, with the bombastic battles tearing Astro City apart.

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