Category: Reviews

Book-A-Day 2018 #202: Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore and various artists (6 volumes)

I wouldn’t say that all of modern mainstream comics comes from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and The Dark Knight was just as influential, alongside the Claremont X-Men and the event frenzy kick-started by the Wolfman/Perez Crisis. And there have certainly been major developments in the thirty years since then. But our modern adventure-story comics world was formed in those days of the mid-80s when the Direct Market was strong and growing, when the outside world was reading “comics are growing up” stories every few months (with new examples each time), and the expectations of both readers and publishers started to bend to shocking revelations and long story arcs and Worlds That Would Never Be the Same. And that world was strongly molded by Alan Moore, starting with Swamp Thing in late 1983.

Thirty-plus years later, those Moore stories are both shockingly modern and shockingly old-fashioned: cold-eyed about humanity and the place of superbeings alongside it, but utterly besotted with their own wordy narration. These are intensely told stories: Moore in the ’80s was the culmination of Silver Age style, all captions and explanations and background and atmosphere, cramming all of his ideas and poetic descriptions into each twenty-three page issue, exhausting every concept as soon as he introduced it.

Swamp Thing, the character, was a scientist named Alec Holland, working on a “bio-restorative formula” with his also-scientist wife in what looked like a barn deep in the Louisiana marshes. (This all made sense in the early 1970s, when ecology and back-to-the-land were huge.) The usual evil forces of international business sabotaged his work: his wife was killed and Alec, permeated with the formula and burning to death from an explosion, fell into the swamp. He arose, a few days later, as the slow-talking Swamp Thing, to stop those evil businessmen and battle weird menaces around the world for at least the duration of the early-70s horror boom. His first comics series ended after 24 issues of slowly dwindling sales and quickly increasing gimmicks to try to reverse the sales drop, and was revived about a decade later when a cheap movie adaptation came out. The same slow-death started setting in, with similar results, and the second series began to look like it would run only about as long as the first.

And then Alan Moore took over writing what was then Saga of the Swamp Thing from Martin Pasko with issue #20. His first outing was a clean-up effort, tying off “Loose Ends” from the Pasko run, like a concert pianist running a few scales to warm up before diving into the meat of the program. A month later, he delivered one of the most influential and iconic single issues of any comic, “The Anatomy Lesson,” where he carefully explained that Swamp Thing’s origin and explanation made no sense whatsoever, and started the path to what he declared was a better foundation for the character. (He was right, and he shouldn’t be blamed that a thousand others have tried to do the same thing to a thousand other characters since then, with not necessarily the same level of rigor or success.)

Before long, the title had simplified to Swamp Thing — the same as that original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson series a decade before — grown the tag-line “Sophisticated Suspense,” and quietly become the first Big Two comic to ditch the Comics Code seal. It was also a huge hit, both critically and commercially. By the time Moore ended his run on Swamp Thing with #64, almost four years later, the Crisis had come and gone, he was in the middle of Watchmen, and the landscape of American comics had been radically changed.

(As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note that the editor on those early Moore Swamp Thing issues was Wein himself — it’s a fantastic example of a creator nurturing stories that reinterpret, even replace, the work he did earlier.)

That Swamp Thing run was one of the first to be collected in a comprehensive way soon after periodical publication, as the comics industry started to realize what the book industry had known for several generations: a creative property you can keep selling in a fixed form for years is vastly more valuable than creative properties that you need to refresh every month. The complete Alan Moore run is currently available as six trade paperbacks, under the overall title The Saga of the Swamp Thing , reprinting all forty-five issues with introductions by various people. (Not including Moore, though, as anyone who has heard about his contentious relationship with DC Comics since will expect.) If you’re looking for those books individually, have some links: one , two , three , four , five , six .

The first thing to note is that the divisions between books generally make sense: they each collect eight issues, except Book Five has only six, and they tend to break at important moments. This is partially an artifact of comics-storytelling norms of the time: then, a three-issue story was an epic, and anything longer than that was remarkable. (Of course, subplots would run longer than that — I mentioned Claremont up top, and he’s one of the major originators of the throw-in-hints-of-the-next-four-stories-in-each-issue plotting style — but the actual conflict in any issue would be done within fifty or seventy pages nearly all the time.) But Swamp Thing also tended to run to story arcs, more and more as Moore wrote it; it’s one of the origins of that now-common structure. So it’s partially luck, partially planning, and partially the nature of these stories that makes them break down as cleanly as they do into volumes. It means that a reader can come to this series thirty years later — it’s now impossible to come to it any earlier, if you haven’t already — and take it one book at a time, as her interest is piqued. (Or you can run through all of them quickly, as I did.)

Book One leads off with #20, “Loose Ends” — not generally included in Swamp Thing reprints for the first decade or so, as DC presumably wanted to start with the bigger bang of “The Anatomy Lesson” — and runs through the continuation of that story with Jason Woodrue and then a three-part story featuring Jack Kirby’s The Demon. These are the foundational stories, in which Moore resets everything about the series: tone, cast, mood, atmosphere, even genre. (There were horror elements in the earlier stories, obviously, but Moore moved it definitively from “superhero story with horror villains” to “horror story with a muckmonster hero.”) The Woodrue story also has a nice cameo by the Justice League, cementing Swampy’s place in the “real” DC Universe. Swamp Thing, and the Vertigo imprint that eventually grew out of it, would have a complicated relationship with that continuity over the next few decades — as that continuity itself got more complex and self-referential, in part driven by the work Moore did here and other writers did in a similar vein — but, when it began, it was just the weird corner of the same universe.

Book Two is anchored by the return of Anton Arcane, Swampy’s greatest villain, who Moore made even more infernal as he threw Arcane into Hell and brought him (briefly) back. I’m not sure if this is the first time we get an extended look at DC Comics Hell — there were a bunch of vaguely Satanic comics in the ’70s, though mostly on the Marvel side — but Moore’s vision of Hell, as amplified and extended a few years later by Neil Gaiman in the early issues of Sandman, was the model for DC for a generation from this point. This second book also has the first visual breaks from the main look for the Moore run: the majority of the early Moore issues are pencilled by Stephen Bissette and inked by John Totleben, but they have a very detailed, intricate style and Swamp Thing also tended to have heavily designed pages — which all added up to mean that getting twenty-three pages done, at that level and in that style, tended to take longer than the month between issues. So this volume has two issues drawn by Shawn McManus: the first a coda to the storyline of the first volume, the second a homage to Walt Kelly’s Pogo. And another issue reprinted here brings back Cain and Abel, the mystery hosts from DC’s horror-anthology comics of the early ’70s, in a framing story drawn by Ron Randall to showcase the original short “Swamp Thing” comic by Wein and Wrightson that served as a tryout and model for the ’70s series.

Book Three is the bulk of the “American Gothic” storyline, introducing John Constantine — who has gone on to fame on his own, with a very long-running comic and a movie that was at least higher-budget than any of Swampy’s — and sending Swampy cross-country to see and confront growing horrors in the world: nuclear waste, racism, sexism, and (of course) aquatic vampires. Here the art continues to move around a small team: Rick Veitch pencils one issue (he also helped out on some pages in two issues in the first volume), Alfredo Alcala inks another, and Stan Woch pencils a third. The team is clearly moving resources around to maintain a consistent visual look and at the same time maintain that punishing monthly deadline. These stories are the heart of Swamp Thing as a horror comic: Moore is taking individual concerns of the then-modern world (mostly; the aquatic vampires aren’t particularly emblematic of anything) and showing how they can be twisted and made horrible.

Book Four finishes up “American Gothic,” which leads into the double whammy of Crisis and Swamp Thing‘s own fiftieth issue, which was explicitly positioned in the story as a crisis after the Infinite Earths one. (Evil South American wizards — the same ones mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia , which I coincidentally read recently — knew the whole “worlds will live, worlds will die” thing was coming, and planned to summon Primordial Darkness to take over Heaven in the tumult.) This is one of Moore’s largest-scale stories, and from that era when he aspired to write big superhero-universe crossovers: Watchmen started out that way, and the aborted Twilight of the Superheroes project from 1987 was an even bigger take on the same idea. So Swampy almost becomes a supporting character in his own book, with the Demon and the Phantom Stranger and Deadman and the Spectre and Dr. Fate and John Constantine with a roomfull of minor DC magicians all demanding their time in the spotlight. It does all come together, and tells a strong story — even if the ending is strangely muted, with characters explicitly saying things like:

Happened? Nothing has happened. Everything has happened. Can’t you feel it? Everywhere things look the same, but the feeling…the feeling is different.”

One can admire Moore’s writing and plotting and still think this is a remarkably deflating denouement.

Book Five is another group of transitional stories. First, because the art team switches to Veitch and Alcala, except for one issue in the middle drawn entirely by Totleben. And, more importantly, because it moves from the aftermath of the “spiritual Crisis” through the arrest and prosecution of Swampy’s girlfriend Abby in Gotham City — and Swampy’s subsequent assault on that city through a massive green-ification project — before Swampy sets off, unexpectedly and not by choice, on his next story arc. At the risk of spoiling thirty-five year old stories, he’s catapulted off into space, where he needs to learn how to modulate his wavelengths (more or less) to get back home.

And Book Six is when he does so. By this time, Moore was also working on Watchmen, and was getting to the point where he’d nearly said all he wanted to say with Swamp Thing. So this last volume has stories explicitly planned as transitions to the story-sequence that would follow: Rick Veitch would take over writing (on top of pencilling), and so he writes one story here. Bissette writes another, a sidebar set back on Earth, in which Abby is reunited, for one last time, with her ill-fated father. One issue has a quite experimental art style from Totleben, all chilly mecanico-organic forms, and the big conclusion is something of a jam issue, with art from nearly everyone who contributed to the Moore run: Bissette, original Saga penciller Tom Yeates, Veitch, and Alcala, under a Totleben cover.

It all ends on a happy note: Swampy is back where he belongs, having learned more about himself and the universe and having found something like peace. If the series had ended there, it would have been an ending — but popular comics didn’t end in 1987 just because they had a good place to do so.

Instead, the next month there was a Veitch-Alcala issue, launching a new plot arc. Veitch continued the concerns and manner of the Moore run — though with somewhat less of the overwrought narration, which was becoming outmoded even in the late ’80s — but ran afoul of DC brass a little over a year later, during a time-travel storyline that was to culminate with Swampy meeting a certain religious leader in Roman-occupied Palestine.

But that’s all another story: a story not collected in the books I’m writing about here, and in fact never collected, since it was cancelled and twisted and broken in the process.

Moore wrote forty-three issues of Swamp Thing over a four-year period, including at least three double-length issues (and, again, Veitch and Bissette also each contributed one script as part of the overall plot line). He worked with a team that ended up being fairly large — Bissette, Totleben, Veitch, and Alcala most of the time, McManus and Randall and Yeates and Dan Day stepping in here and there. But the whole thing does hang together — it’s not quite one story, but it’s a closely related cluster of stories, with consistent themes and concerns, that took a fairly conventional “weird hero” and turned him and his world into something new and strange in American comics.

Others have built on this foundation since then: most obviously, Neil Gaiman with Sandman, who got the luxury of a real ending and who was able to take a stronger hand at choosing art teams to go with specific story sequences. But Sandman could not have happened without the Moore Swamp Thing, as a thousand other comics could not have happened — all of Vertigo, for example, and most of what Image currently publishes, and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe, among many others.

Modern readers might find the Moore Swamp Thing much wordier than they expect: he was the last great Silver Age writer, a decade or two out of his time, when he wrote these comics. They’re all good words, deployed well and to strong effect — but we have to admit there are a lot of them. The coloring is also clearly ’80s vintage: very strong for its time, and pushing the limits of what could be done with newsstand comics in those days long before desktop publishing, but still clearly more limited and bold than what we’re used to today.

All those things are inherent in reading older stories. And all stories are “older” before too long. The strong stories are worth the effort — frankly, even new strong stories require some effort, since that’s one of the main things that makes them strong.

You should read the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, if you have any interest in comics or horror or superhero universes or ecology in literature or spirituality or transcendence. If you’re not interested in any of those things, well, it sounds like a dull life, but good luck with it.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #200: Pocket Full of Rain by Jason

There are two ways of discovering beginnings. If you were there at the time, you see it as it happens, and watch as it becomes itself and turns into middle. But most of us aren’t there at the time, particularly for creative works — the point of beginnings is that creators come out of a vast pool of humanity, and can be anyone, anywhere.

So, most of the time, we see beginnings retrospectively, through the lens of what happened later. And that tends to make them into Just-So stories, the same way we judge old SF by how it predicts the present day — in both cases, the assumption is that Now was inevitable, and we’re just looking to see the proof of that inevitability.

But Now was not inevitable. Now is contingent and semi-random, based on a million choices and random accidents. And we need to remember that, whenever we look back. We could have been somewhere else; we could have been other people; we could have been almost anything.

Pocket Full of Rain  collects basically the first decade of the Norwegian cartoonist Jason’s career — the album-length title story, a couple of dozen other pieces of various lengths (including one daily strip), covers from his self-published comic Mjau Mjau. It was published in the US in 2008, translated by Kim Thompson, in the wake of several album-length Jason books over the previous few years. All the material here was originally published from 1992 through 2003, I believe primarily in Jason’s native tongue Norwegian, though the bulk of the material is from 1997-1998, with the title story coming in 1995. (At some point, Jason started publishing initially in the larger Franco-Belgian market, and even later than that moved to France himself. But I’m not sure when that was, or if it was in the middle of this material or later.)

Some of the work looks like his later books: deadpan animal-headed characters, absurd moments, random genre borrowings. That doesn’t mean his later career was inevitable, though. History has no vector, particularly personal history. Jason could have become any of a dozen other potential cartoonists; had a dozen other possible careers.

The title story is skittery, like melting butter on a hot skillet, full of moments that cohere into a narrative eventually but look separate when they appear. At the center is Erik, a young police sketch artist, and the girl he meets and starts dating. Her ex is an deeply possessive international assassin, who is himself being stalked by one of his surviving targets. Jason draws all of the people realistically, but their world is not always so: one date with Erik and his girlfriend seems to be a picnic on the moon,and several of the criminals he sketches are cartoonish monsters. In the end, there’s a mostly Jason ending: first the appropriate one for the genre, and then a coda to deflate it.

Everything else is shorter: some only a single page, the longest only five. They’re very different in style and subject, as you’d expect from anyone’s early work. Jason was clearly trying out different things — autobiography, parody, slice-of-life, several different varieties of surrealism — and finding the parts of each that he liked and wanted to work more with. The art is also quite varied, from pieces that look just like his mature style through less refined versions of that look to realistic people to one story, “Papa,” that looks to my eye like he’s trying out a version of Dave McKean’s style from that era.

The back of the book has a collection of non-narrative art: covers for Mjau Mjau and other things, posters, an ad or two, a Christmas card for Fantagraphics. This is even more varied — and less “Jason looking” than the narrative pieces, and maybe more interesting because of that.

This is the beginning, but is this the place to start with Jason? Well, it was good enough for whoever was reading Mjau Mjau back in the ’90s, so it’s not a bad place to start. But his standalone books are probably easier ways to “get” what it is he does in his mature work — something like I Killed Adolph Hitler or Hey, Wait or The Living and the Dead. Jason is worth reading, though, wherever you start — as long as you like genre materials subverted, dreams dashed, and endings twisted.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Rampage

REVIEW: Rampage

I had no idea that Rampage was based on a 1986 video game, I just knew it was a variation on the Dwayne Johnson and/or monster film to fill a spring slot (see Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island) until the good movies arrived. That it starred the always-appealing Johnson along with Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan made it a cut above somewhat interesting. Still, I passed on it at the theater once the reviews talked about it being predictable and average at best.

With the film on disc this week from Warner Home Entertainment, in the wake of Johnson’s Skyscraper hitting theaters, it’s a good time to finally give it a whirl.

Produced and directed by Brad Peyton, it reteams him with co-screenwriter Carlton Cuse and Johnson, the three previously having worked on the more-of-the-same Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas. The question is: do we really want to see more cities mindlessly destroy, collateral destruction of science gone awry? There’s a certain ho-hum factor built in these days and Peyton does little to try and rise above the dilemma. He’s content to just let things blow up, crumble, and go splat.

There’s a plot, derived from the eponymous game: a pathogen has come crashing to Earth, turning normal animals into lumbering, ferocious monsters in need of destroying. Among these poor victims is George, a rare albino silverback gorilla who has befriended primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson), who just happens to be a former US Army Special Forces soldier and still rather buff. The connection between man and gorilla forms the emotional core of the film and is even more poignant in the wake of the recent passing of the real life Koko.

When George is exposed to the pathogen, he gets big and frightening and is, of course, captured by the government. A she learns from Dr. Kate Caldwell (Harris), the evil Energyne, run by CEO Claire Wyden (Åkerman), used her research to turn the pathogen into a biological weapon and the government wants it for their own uses, pitting Okoye against monstrous animals but also Agent Harvey Russell (Morgan).

All three animals are lured to Chicago, because it’s always a good idea to bring monsters to a major metropolitan area (as opposed to the Dakota badlands, for example) and things go haywire.

That’s pretty much all you need to know.

The film has been deemed to have broken even thanks to a worldwide gross of $24 million and much is being made of it being one of the more successful video game adaptations to the screen, but really, it’s all faint praise for a by-the-numbers production that should have had a lot more wow built in.

The film itself was shot digitally in 4K and the 2K High Definition transfer is quite good although the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is a trifle overpowering.

For a lackluster film, it has superior special features worth a look. We begin with Not A Game Anymore (6:15), tracing the game to film with Johnson trying to convince you this was the greatest gamer he ever played; Gag Reel (2:43); Deleted Scenes, seven in total; Rampage: Actors in Action (10:45), actors discuss their physical preparation for all the action and SFX sequences; Trio of Destruction (10:08), spotlighting Weta Digital’s fine contributions; Attack on Chicago (10:23), Peyton details how he destroyed the city; and the best of the lot, Bringing George to Life (11:53) as movement coordinator Terry Notary and motion capture actor Jason Liles collaborate to make George the most sympathetic character in the film.

Book-A-Day 2018 #196: Shade, the Changing Man, Vol. 1: The American Scream by Milligan, Bachalo & Pennington

I’m here because I’m looking backwards. Why else would any of us be reading the first collection of a nearly thirty-year-old comics series? [1]

I recently read the first collection of the current Shade the Changing Girl  series, which reminded me of this Peter Milligan/Chris Bachalo/Mark Pennington version, which began in 1990 and ran through 1996, ending after 70 issues. (As usual for corporate comics of that era, Milligan wrote the whole run, but the art team changed more often — Bachalo ended up drawing more than half of the series, through.)

It was a fairly typical Vertigo series of the day, one of the many that followed Alan Moore’s template from Swamp Thing: start with a minor DC character, one as close to a joke as possible. Take him seriously, but not in comic-book terms — take him seriously in world-historical terms, bring in whatever other pop-culture or serious-culture material that energizes you and you can bolt onto it somehow. Run that character through horror plots, generally one or two issues long, each one encapsulating something frightening or appalling or norm-breaking. Do it all seriously, at a high pitch of writing, narrated strongly. Set it officially in the DC Universe, but don’t focus on the usual four-color stuff — maybe show it on the TV, maybe let it wander through the edges of your story.

That produced Animal Man, and Sandman, and of course Shade. It was a great model as long as Karen Berger could find new brilliant British writers to relaunch obscure DC characters, but inevitably that well ran dry [2], and Vertigo shifted to other models. Shade was probably the last big success of that initial model — depending on if you count Sandman Mystery Theatre as this model or a Sandman brand extension — and also brought in the perennial popular “British person ponders America” genre.

The British person in this case was Peter Milligan, who’d come to attention mostly from his work with artist Brendan McCarthy, later collected as The Best of Milligan & McCarthy . And he made the obsession of Shade America’s vision of itself — every one of those early Vertigo books had an obsession, from Sandman’s storytelling to Animal Man’s animal liberation to Doom Patrol‘s dada. As usual, a British person both sees things Americans usually miss and fundamentally misunderstands some things Americans know so deeply they don’t bother to explain.

The first six issues of that 1990 series were collected at various times over the three decades since — what I have here is the first of a series of trade paperbacks from 2009, which seems to have petered out after three volumes, with most of the series left uncollected. But that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? In any case, I did find and read this book: Shade the Changing Man, Vol. 1: The American Scream .

As usual for Vertigo of the time, the Milligan Shade reconfigured the premise: instead of the original Steve Ditko crew-cut superhero punching villains with the power of his shiny sunburst vest, this Rac Shade is on an epic, ill-informed quest to save his world and our own from “madness.” His powers are larger, less well-defined, and largely out of his control. And he’s no longer bodily on Earth: the M-Vest propels him into the body of someone on Earth. In this case, convicted serial killer Troy Grenzer, on the night he’s about to be executed.

Shade/Grenzer escapes, psychedelically, from the electric chair — this is the Deep South, for maximum American death penalty frisson — and lands with Kathy George, a young woman whose parents and boyfriend were Grenzer’s last victims. He of course is able to convince her he isn’t really Grenzer, partially because of the continuing eruptions of unreality he triggers and partially because Kathy is only moderately sane to begin with.

And they set off on the road, to find the American Scream in all of its manifestations, to confront it and stop it and foil it, any way they possibly can. To save the world: this is a comic book.

Shade is episodic from that point, like the horror version of the old Incredible Hulk TV show. (Actually, there was a comic version of the Hulk that was basically a horror version of the TV show around the same time: American comics liked episodic stories then, and we were besotted with horror.) In this volume, Shade and Kathy go to Dallas to reenact JFK’s assassination, and then on to Hollywood for some silver-screen madness.

As I recall, it goes on like that: hitting the places in America that foreigners know about and relate to. Shade eventually changed bodies, gathered more of a supporting cast — did all of the things that help keep an episodic story going. But this set the tone: Shade was about Why the Hell is America So Crazy.

In this first volume, the various partial answers include racism, gun violence, and obsession with image — not a bad start. I wouldn’t cite it in a doctoral thesis, but it’s sturdy enough as an argument. And, sadly, maybe even more true almost thirty years later.

These are early Vertigo comics, meaning they’re strongly narrated, heavily written. This was an era of comic writer as the strong voice, pouring out his (and it was his, in that era) obsessions and thoughts and ideas, filtering them through fantasy and fight-scenes. Milligan was a strong writer with things to say, so he does that well.

He’s well-supported on art, though I think the technology for either the coloring or reproduction or both weren’t always up to the ambitions of the team. (Colorist Daniel Vozzo, as well as penciller Bachalo and inker Pennington.) Sometimes there are muddy moments, or too-obvious white highlights, or other artifacts of circa-1990 comics printing. I’d love to see this recolored, preferably by Vozzo, with the full panoply of modern technology — but that will never happen, since we couldn’t even manage to get this version entirely republished.

The American Scream is still relevant: it’s still recognizably about the same America we live in today. Some of the details have changed, and we have fancier gadgets now. But the madness is much like Milligan described it.

[1] I can’t think of any other possible reason someone might want to read a story about an epic journey across the USA to find out why it’s gone so crazy.

[2] The well of “new brilliant British writers,” that is. The well of obscure DC characters is endless, and refilled annually.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #191: Mickey’s Craziest Adventures by Lewis Trondheim and Nicolas Keramidas

Let’s say there was a little-known Disney comic: Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories: Mickey’s Quest, which was published somewhere obscure for most of the 1960s and entirely forgotten since then. And let’s say there was a serial in that comic, called “Mickey’s Craziest Adventures,” a single page a month for almost that entire decade, with an ongoing story of a crazy caper involving Mickey and Donald and their supporting casts.

We can say all of that.

It’s not true, though it seems like it could be. Writer Lewis Trondheim and artist Nicolas Keramidas are telling that story here — “re-presenting” the “surviving” forty-four of the original eighty-two pages of that serial. But Mickey’s Craziest Adventures  is actually by the two of them, it was actually created new this century, and all of the “missing pages” are gaps because this is the way they wanted to tell and present the story.

Telling roughly half of a story that’s already designed to be madcap and full of random zany adventures does make it even faster-paced and more random, obviously. That would be the point. Trondheim and Keramidas want to make some moments, and vaguely sketch the larger shape of an already pretty shaggy-dog plot, and not worry about how it all fits together and whether any of it makes sense.

So Pegleg Pete and the Beagle Boys team up, first to steal a new shrink ray that Gyro Gearloose has invented, and then to use that ray to shrink and steal Uncle Scrooge’s fortune. (This all happens off the page, and is discovered afterward — even in the “full” version of the story that doesn’t exist. Trondheim is making this an story that bounces from one moment of high action or comedy to another, and then leaving out half of those moments.) Mickey and Donald set out after them, through jungles and oceans and deserts and snowy mountains and the moon, usually being chased by something large and hungry. In the end, they retrieve the fortune and capture the villains — without a lot of fuss, and mostly by happenstance.

What we have here are forty-four comics pages, full of running around crazily, with funny dialogue and cartoonish monsters, drawn lovingly by Keramidas and given a pseudo-aged Ben-Day dots look by colorist Bridgette Findakly. Every page is zany and fun.

If you’re hoping for a single coherent story, though, you will be disappointed: that’s not what Mickey’s Craziest Adventures is here to provide. If you want forty-four crazy pages of Trondheim and Keramidas, you are in luck.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #188: Royal City, Vol. 2: Sonic Youth by Jeff Lemire

Any self-respecting family story needs a flashback. Whether it’s a Ross Macdonald novel finally explaining just what horrible thing happened twenty years ago in Canada or a family saga that stops in the middle of Chapter Two to explain just how Sadie McGuffins first came to the Maritimes from Scotland as a teen domestic servant so many years ago, before too long the narrative needs to roll up its sleeves, dive into the past, and dramatize the things that are still casting a shadow over the present-day cast.

(It’s even required if a family story has no connection to Canada, though I’m not sure if that’s even possible.)

Jeff Lemire’s currently ongoing comic Royal City is a family story. And this second volume, Sonic Youth , is the big flashback — to 1993, when Tommy Pike was still alive.

(See my post on the first book, Next of Kin , if you’re not familiar with it.)

Lemire is either writing for the trade or his publisher (Image) is matching the books to the plotlines — either way; the first book was one “chapter” of this story, introducing everyone in the present day, and this whole second volume is set in 1993, in what the back cover calls “the last week of Tommy Pike’s life.”

This isn’t a spoiler for anyone who’s read the first book: we all know Tommy is dead, he know he died in 1993, and we basically know how he died. But now we get to see him alive, when we only saw him as a ghost or a memory in Next of Kin. The parents circle the main plot this time but are less connected to it, which is only to be expected in a story about teenagers. It’s all about the four Pike siblings: aimless recent grad Patrick, hell-raiser Richie, secretly pregnant Tara, and thoughtful, clearly doomed Tommy.

Tommy’s been having severe, debilitating headaches — more and more often, complete with hallucinations. He sees a doctor, has a scary giant machine scan his head, gets the “there’s something here that we need to explore more” speech, and is given a prescription for pills to take when his headache is bad. He’s told to absolutely avoid any drugs or alcohol wile taking those pills, but he’s only fifteen, so that shouldn’t be a problem, right?

But that weekend is the big blowout party — with most of the teenagers in town, in an abandoned factory outside this decaying industrial town. All of the Pikes will end up there, eventually. And will Tommy take other intoxicants on top of his medication?

Well, we know he dies, don’t we?

Lemire is telling a single longer, complex story here: it’s being broken up into single-issue comics and then collected into these books for cash-flow and market-need purposes, but it’s clear that Royal City has an overall shape and structure behind it. Unlike some creators, he’s not spinning out a single issue of complications at a time, or even one plotline. It’s difficult to say, at this point, how long that will be, but I’m confident that Lemire basically knows — he may have already written the last scene; he strikes me as the kind of writer who might do that.

I try to avoid predictions, mostly because I turn out to be wrong more often than not. But I don’t think we’re done with the flashbacks in Royal City. The next volume might return to the modern day (or maybe not), but I’m sure we’ll return to 1993 eventually, to see what happened after Tommy died.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #186: Paper Girls, Vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

So there’s a time-war, right? People further up the timeline (the “kids”) are trying to fix things they don’t like in history, and people closer to our time (the “parents”) are trying to keep history as they experienced it. It’s not entirely clear if they really are two subsequent generations of the same population — or, actually, if that concept even makes sense in the context of a time-war to begin with. But one group is “younger” and the other is “older.”

This is a universe where time is infinitely malleable, so each change rewrites the timeline until it’s in turn rewritten by the next change. But maybe the people in the middle of the time-war know what the changes were, so they can keep reverting them, like some transdimensional Wikipedia edit war.

Well, maybe not infinitely malleable — there’s at least one zone where time travel can happen spontaneously, which is the kind of thing that a writer may later mention was caused by some sort of “wearing out the tape” metaphor, that the successive time-changes actually start to break down the fabric of space-time itself.

That explanation hasn’t happened yet. It may never happen. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see it.

Four tween girls, all out delivering newspapers early in the morning of November 1, 1988, were in that zone, and have been jerked around that time-war for four volumes now. (I’ve written about the first three volumes: one  and two  and three .) They’ve been to “our time” and to prehistory, and in this volume they make it to Y2K land, where the time warriors are using stealthed battle mechs to fight it out in the sky, for no apparent reason other than it is Really Cool.

It’s a comic book — Paper Girls, Vol. 4 , written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Cliff Chiang. It’s an action story mostly about women, which is nice. And it’s pretty smart and twisty so far, though a cynical reader (such as me) may wonder if there are actual answers to the mysteries — the thing about a time-war is that you can always wipe out one set of explanations with another (better, we hope) one at any time.

So, this time, the girls get back to the early moments of The Year 2000! and the two sides are battling in giant robots — something we haven’t seen before. Why?

Why not?

And why do the future people speak a jarring horrible pseudo-leet-speek jargon — both the younger side of the “parents” generation and all of the “kids” generation? And why do the older parents speak standard English? And are the group that speak in an alphabet that looks very vaguely Korean yet a third generation, or just an offshoot from the two warring sides we sort-of know?

(It’s Cool! And distancing! And futuristic! But mostly Cool!)

We are twenty issues and over four hundred pages in at this point, and answers are still thin on the ground. One begins to suspect the whole point is to depict a time-war where everything changes continually, so there can be new stunning reversals and surprises into the future forever.

I’d take Paper Girls‘ occasional feints at an undertone of “look how your adult life turned out — not what you wanted, huh?” more seriously if they connected — to each other, to the main plot, to anything. More and more, it feels like a collection of moments loosely arranged, with a common theme and set of characters, like a Tarot deck than can be reshuffled and dealt out, over and over again.

They’re still good moments, true. The characters are well-developed and as real as any people in modern adventure comics. And Chiang draws all the strange technology and people as solid and believable. So I might just be back for the next book.

But I do expect that we’ll be talking about Paper Girls issue #50 before too long, with a brand-new shocking revelation that’s completely different from the shocking revelations in number 40, 30, and 25. And that it will stay in that mode as long as people keep buying it. And I’m getting to an age where I don’t like encouraging behavior like that anymore.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #182: Young Frances by Hartley Lin

I don’t want to oversell my expertise here: I’ve never worked in a law firm, and my professional work is generally marketing to attorneys within companies rather than firms. So I may be just saying that one thing I’ve never experienced personally matches another thing I’ve never experienced personally. [1]

But Hartley Lin’s Young Frances  is a remarkably nuanced, detailed, smart look at the pressure cooker that is a major Big Law firm, smart about office politics and full of off-handed details about both how bruising and all-consuming it can be and about how it used to be so much worse. Ever more exciting, that’s not the point of Young Frances: that’s the world she lives in, and the work she’s doing and trying to make meaningful, but the story of this graphic novel is about her personally.

Like all of us, her work life is not her whole life — but it’s a huge piece of that life, and influences everything else. She struggles with insomnia, and worries about what she should do with her life, and has a complicated friendship with her roommate Vickie, a gorgeous actress on the verge of a huge career breakthrough. In lesser hands, Young Frances would be a “quarterlife crisis” book — yet another story about someone young and aimless.

But Frances Scarland is not aimless. She just doesn’t have much confidence in her aim, and wonders if the life she’s building for herself is worth what it costs. We all wonder that, at least now and then, and I think most of us are not as confident as we look, either. She’s a hard worker, focused on details, and cares about what she’s doing — and she’s also embedded in an organization that is designed to bring in large groups of young, hard-working people every single year, run them ragged, and then spit out most of them within three to five years. A big law firm is a brutal place to work, even if you’re not an attorney — maybe even more so, since shit proverbially flows downhill. Frances is support staff, a law clerk: she’s very far downhill.

But firm politics also lead to alliances and schemes and favoritism. At the beginning of this book, Frances is given the kind of thing that can pass for promotion in an organization like that: asked to support another practice group and given more work as others are let go. So she’s soon working mostly for the chilly rainmaker Marcel Castonguay, head of Bankruptcies — and he seems to favor her, to want to further her career.

But the core of Young Frances is that question: is this her career? Is this really what she wants to do, or is it just what she happens to be doing now? How does it affect the rest of her life? And does any of that matter?

Her roommate Vickie pulls her in other directions — sometimes frivolous, work-shirking ones, sometimes scarily major, change-your-life-entirely ones. Frances Scarland needs to decide who she is and what she will do. Like all of us do. And, like all of us, it’s not a one-time decision: every day is another choice, another step in one direction or another.

Lin tells this story in quiet comics panels, three tiers to the large pages and a precise semi-ligne claire style. This is a book full of words — these are lawyers and their support staff, with a subset of actors! — but his open pages and crisp lettering makes it all flow smoothly and evenly throughout.

Young Frances is simply astonishing as someone’s first book: Hartley Lin has arrived, fully-formed, as a mature artist with a strong story to tell and a deft hand at handling characters. We’re only halfway through 2018, but this will be really hard to beat as the debut of the year.

[1] ObligatoryReference: “So, what you’re telling me, Percy, is that something you have never seen is slightly less blue than something else you have never seen.”

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #178: On the Camino by Jason

Why does someone go on a pilgrimage in modern Europe? The obvious reason would be religion, but that’s rarely the central purpose these days. It’s not part of general cultural life for Christians — not the way the hajj still is for Muslims — and many of the people who make those journeys aren’t particularly Christian to begin with.

But pilgrimages continue. People find a reason to walk, and find something for themselves at the end of the walk. The Norwegian cartoonist who works as “Jason” trekked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in northern Spain in 2015, soon after his fiftieth birthday. And he made a book out of it, On the Camino . He doesn’t say why he went; it’s not clear he knows, or has a single “why.” And he doesn’t tell us what he found out, for the same reason.

What he does is tell us the story of the trip, placing us in his head and shoes for that month-long walk, and to let us feel what it was like to be Jason on the Camino. (Well, his real name is John, and that’s what he tells people his name is in the book. But you know what I mean.)

It’s all told in a very Jason way: matter-of-fact, almost affectless, with animal-headed characters moving through a world depicted fairly simply. He works entirely in black-and-white for this book as well. Jason himself is at the center of the trip, obviously, and is the viewpoint the entire time. This is what he saw and did in thirty-three days of walking, told like a Jason graphic novel. He even gets in his abrupt shifts of points of reference, as when he sees a giant slug on the trial — first drawing it “giant” and then it’s actual size.

The story is inherently different from Jason’s fictional works: there’s no twists to the plot, obviously, and he can’t throw in genre elements for complications or interest. On the other hand, how do we know this is all true? We think it is because Jason tells us so, and because it has the everydayness and banality of real life — but that’s justification rather than proof. That’s the case for any non-fiction story, of course: how can we believe the teller and the tale? If there’s no reason not to tell the truth, we assume it is the truth — we’re all lazy, both as storytellers and listeners.

Jason is an introvert, most comfortable alone — as you would expect from someone who spends his life sitting in a room to think up stories and draw them — and much of On the Camino, starting from the very first page, is his struggle to be more open, to come out of his shell and engage with the other pilgrims and the locals. He has no gigantic epiphanies — we wouldn’t expect them from Jason, anyway. His hopes aren’t dashed, either, which would be more in keeping with his fiction.

Instead, he walks. He meets some people, and runs into some of them repeatedly. He has some good conversations and interesting thoughts while walking alone. He also has blisters and bedbugs and food that doesn’t agree with him. Every life and journey has good and bad, yes? It’s a cliche even to mention it.

And he tells that story, in his four-panel grid, with his stone-faced characters with animal heads — this is a Jason book, and it looks like one. He will not tell you what to think of it in the end; he’s never told you what to think of any of his stories. But you can take the trip with him. I think it’s worth the time.

(Note: this book does not credit a translator. And, in the story, “John” speaks English much of the time. So my guess is that Jason translated it himself, or wrote a text for this edition in English. I think I’ve found the original French edition, Un norvégien vers Compostelle , published only four months before the US edition.)

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Black Lightning The Complete First Season

Did we really need another DC Comics super-hero on television? That was pretty much the thought rattling in most minds when Fox first announced development of a series based on Black Lightning. When they passed on it, the CW snatched it up (of course), and ran the short first season starting in January.

The answer is a resounding yes. The show is most certainly heroic, but whereas the other Greg Berlanti-centric series fully embrace their four-color roots, this series pivoted for delving into its ethnicity. The production team of Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil wanted something more urban, something more “street”, exploring the black experience with heavy doses of super=powers to keep you riveted.  In the special feature Art Imitating Life: The Pilot Episode, Salim Akil described an all-too-familiar incident of being pulled over by a police officer and the choices a black man has at that moment. He wanted to translate that to something dramatic and make viewers understand in tangible ways.

The 13-episode series is now out in a two-disc Blu-ray set from Warner Home Entertainment well before the second season debuts in the fall. In case you missed it, this is a good chance to get familiar with the story. While there are heroes and villains, they are more relatable in some ways and they serve the black community well by showing a wide array of types.

We have the title star, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), a high school principal, his estranged wife, Dr. Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams), the albino criminal Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), and Police Inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton), all petty much as depicted in the comic book cocreated by Tony Isabell and Trevor VonEeden. However, another way this show differentiates from the Arrowverse is that Pierce has two daughters, teenage Jennifer (China Anne McClain) and her older sibling, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), a lesbian and counselor at the school.

Nafessa Williams as Thunder and Cress Williams as Black Lightning — Photo: Annette Brown/The CW — © 2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

The notion of Pierce being older, with children, went beyond Isabella’s original plan but enriches the character and setting. Pierce retired nine years before the show started, in order to give his girls a normal life. He threw himself into his work at Freeland High School, making the school a safe place for its predominantly black population.  That all changes when Jennifer gets caught up with a boy tied to The 100, the mob controlling the underworld, and is held against her will. Pierce suits up and gets back to work as Black Lightning, recognizing his city needs a hero.

Supporting him, in the most Berlanti-esque way is Paul Gambi (James Remar), no longer the humble tailor, but a covert operative who was involved in the government program that gave Pierce his powers and was now searching for ways to create more metahumans. Between this and the 100 spreading a drug called green light that addictively gives people temporary powers, Black Lightning has his hands full. With Gambi operating from a secret base, guiding Pierce and being a computer whiz (of course), the two pick up where they left off.

They need help and it first comes from Anissa, who has discovered her super-strength and invulnerability, suiting herself up to strike her own form of justice. When she and Black Lightning faceoff, secrets are revealed and an alliance is formed. Jennifer wants nothing to do the family business, preferring to work towards college and having a good time. However, an adrenaline surge reveals her own powers and like it or not, is caught up in the fight.

The series’ thirteen episodes touch on life in Freeland, which is where it excels. We see all strata of people and the difference good people can make. There’s the flipside, the dropouts and wanna-be thugs who contrast nicely with those just trying to get by. Most of the good guys and bad guys are of color and race is not avoided. The show is less interesting when it comes to the government conspiracy stuff in the background and with luck, it’ll be less relevant in the second season. Pierce is a little too perfect, a little too much the role model as a principal but he certainly commands the students’ respect (if only…)

The writing is certainly a cut above the Arrowverse shows with the Salim Akil setting the tone with the first two episodes then letting Jan Nash, Charles Holland, and playwright Kelli Goff among others run with it. Akil also directed the first and final episodes, again, bringing his vision to life.

While OWN’s series like the admirable Queen Sugar do a wonderful job treating the black experience with the respect it deserves, its noteworthy that many of the same issues and themes are on display here, a series more likely to be seen by a wider range of viewers, letting its message waft over us, seeping in between bouts of electrically-charged action.

The high def transfer and DTS HD audio track are just fine. The other special features include the too-short A Family of Strength, the obligatory Black Lightning: 2017 Comic-Con Panel, and Gag Reel. It would’ve been nice to have the source material explored giving Tony, Trevor, and DC their due but maybe next time. The bulk of the Special Feature time is well over half an hour of Deleted Scenes, clustered together rather than interspersed episode by episode. They’re worth a look since there are some nice character moments among the family.