Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fair was Helly Glover: "Hellboy: The Crooked Man" 1 Review

Hellboy: The Crooked Man #1 (of 3)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Story: Mike Mignola
Art: Richard Corben
Colors: Dave Stewart

Capsule review: Mike Mignola and Richard Corben take Hellboy deep into the misty Appalachian mountains where he finds himself battling a twisted (but sharply dressed) evil for the souls of a wandering hillbilly and his childhood friend. Rustic witchcraft lore and a unique setting make for one of Hellboy’s most atmospheric and affecting tales.

My list of top horror comic artists is pretty short these days. Sure, there are the old masters, the guys who did stuff for EC and Warren back in the olden days before I was born. But among today’s active artists? Not including a few from Japan, I’d put only Mike Mignola, Richard Corben and Bernie Wrightson at the top. And what a disparate trio. While I’d love to see Wrightson illustrate a Mignola strip, I think Corben is the perfect match for Mignola’s Hellboy.

Strangely enough for two artists who work together so well, Corben’s and Mignola’s art couldn’t be more different. Sure, neither adheres to classical ideas of body proportion, and they both work a kind of moody magic on the page. But Mignola’s figures are abstractly geometric, almost flat, while Corben’s are weirdly textured and more three-dimensional. You can even spot some odd Jack Kirby or P. Craig Russell flourishes in Mignola’s blocky monsters.

Corben, though?

Richard Corben is unique. I can’t think of anyone else whose art his resembles. Oddly stretched or squashed figures, shadows with a crumbly edge that make his figures pop, but also gives them strange fungoid textures. Creepy and nauseating, but in a good way. I mean, we’re talking about horror comics here.

Mignola writes to Corben’s strengths by setting The Crooked Man in the Appalachians of Virginia and peopling the hills with melancholy backwoods types. Corben can distort their bodies almost to the point of caricature and bathe them in pale light and inky shadow. Stick them in haunted dells, thickly wooded and mossy, heavy with portents of evil. Depict in full, sickly detail women who leave their rubbery, cast-off skins lying around on beds in wooden shacks, temptresses who ride on desiccated horses. And a hideously misshapen figure in a top hat who plays both ends against the middle as he does Satan’s work on earth. Or is he, himself, Satan?

Despite the weirdness of it all, Corben gives the most visually ludicrous figure, Hellboy himself, a solid muscularity that makes him almost plausible with his sawed-off horns, red skin and wrinkled trench coat.

After wreaking havoc through Lovecraftian pastiches, Celtic adventures and stock Eastern European set-tos, Hellboy plunges into the folklore of his adopted home country. It’s a more than welcome change and really invigorates this installment. There are only so many times Hellboy can bop undead Nazis or tangle with worms and tentacles from beyond space before it all blurs together. Mignola’s plot and dialogue are heavy on the southern gothic, with down-home characters solemnly intoning lines like, “So one day I found me a squashed black cat… An while my ma was out, I boiled it till it went all to pieces… Then I took that mess down to the creek to wash out the bones.”

These are superstitious earth-folk, and they have good reason to be. Their mountains are haunted places where Satan’s agent shambles through the woods and offers deals too good to be true, and none too safe for the immortal soul. These mountain people seem to approach living half in a nightmare with a tired fatalistic acceptance, and not even the sight of a muscle-bound demon wearing clothes and toting a big pistol throws them off their stride. Hellboy fits right in from the start.

It reminds me of “Jess-Belle” one of the most inventive and original Twilight Zone episodes, penned by Earl Hamner, Jr., who later went on to create The Waltons. Like Crooked Man, “Jess-Belle” is set in the Appalachians (the Blue Ridge Mountains, to be exact) and deals with witchcraft and its consequences. In it, James Best plays a young hillbilly bewitched away from his fiancee by the darkly beautiful and ultimately doomed Jess-Belle, played by Anne Francis. Between that TV story and Hellboy’s, I guess it proves cain’t nobody walk the paths of the fallen without payin’ a heavy toll. We all know whatever Faustian bargains Hellboy’s new pal Tom Ferrell made in his past will come at a similarly heavy price for both him and his childhood friend, Cora Fisher.

I’m not sure what John-Boy would make of Hellboy, but this is as close as we’re likely to come to that particular crossover. Unless Mignola and Corben are building towards a climactic scene where Hellboy bids goodnight to an almost endless stream of hard-working and good-hearted farm people with their various genders appended to their given names.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Blecchhh in Her Own Series: "Batgirl" 1 & 2 Review!

Batgirl 1 & 2
Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Adam Beechen
Penciller: Jim Calafiore
Inkers: Mark McKenna, Jonathan Glapion and Jack Purcell
Colorist: Nathan Eyring

Capsule review: Batgirl issues 1 and 2... the perfectly-constructed 4-color vehicles for delivering ennui to a new generation of sonambulant comic book fans.

Beechen said that the story will answer all the questions from the last few years, and will address all of the questions of why Batgirl has been acting the way she's been acting, and set the stage for new Batgirl adventures to come. -- quote from some old Newsarama story that no longer exists.

You know, it's never a good sign when your writer's big plan for a new story is to tell you things you already know.

After DC screwed up the Cassandra Cain Batgirl character by turning her into a horrible Dragon Lady stereotypical villain and thereby alienated the character's very vocal fans (which is a kind of irony, I suppose), they took steps to fix things and earn back some good will. Batgirl popped up in Teen Titans, readers found out she was acting screwy because she'd been drugged, Chuck Dixon added her to his Batman and the Outsiders team and all was right with the world. And that's all we needed to know. Bad drugs as a silly, comic booky but acceptable explanation for bad writing. The end.

But here comes the new Batgirl miniseries, written by Adam Beechen and instead of moving forward, he chooses to rehash and overexplain a lot of storylines that for everyone but Beechen had already been dealt with and finished. And to do so in ways that are both boring and surprisingly inept. At one point early in the first issue, Nightwing catches Batgirl sneaking a peek at her Christmas presents and-

Actually, Nightwing finds Batgirl using the Batcomputer to foster a personal vendetta, and they discuss this for a few panels while engaging in a wussy slap-fight... before Batman and Robin come in and also start jabbering away. Talk, talk, talk. At this point, writer Adam Beechen and penciller Jim Calafiore gift the readers with a panel where an ant-sized Robin head groans under the weight of enough copy to explain the Libertarian Party’s presidential campaign platform. Twice.

The plot is your basic vengeance quest. In comic book terms, this means Batgirl gets some deus ex machina help from that old standby, the all-knowing computer, runs around at night beating up random people, then suddenly and conveniently meets strangers who either try to kill her or else offer her vital information. Or both. Take it from Batgirl: cooperative enemies make revenge a breeze!

Batgirl wants to kill Slade (the man who drugged her) and Cain (her father, who is still giving her hell despite that storyline having come to a fairly satisfying conclusion in the original Batgirl series). This is all well and good. Batgirl should be edgy and dangerous. But Beechen has her tell us this practically at the start. Goodbye surprise and suspense.

Wait! Don't close your eyes and nod off yet! I haven't told you the best part! According the Beechen, Batgirl's ultimate motivation- what truly drives her and pumps blood through the secret-bearing chambers of her heart- seems to be... I feel a Dr. Smith imitation coming on here… the pain… the pain... the desire to have a “normal" life.

Just like Buffy in the early days of her vampire slayin’ TV show. Just like cheerleader Claire in the first few episodes of Heroes. Just like so many other teen or teen-ish characters involved in the supernatural or the superheroic. And never mind Batgirl actually tossed away her civilian identity at one point- by revealing her face to a government agency- in order to become more fully Batgirl. Forget entirely this is a woman who made a metaphorical deal with the devil by taking lessons from killer mom Lady Shiva and promising a death duel in a year’s time rather than lose her fighting abilities and give up being Batgirl. And don't worry that she constantly risked Batman's wrath by trying to be Batgirl each time he fired her.

Yeah, wants to be normal. Good one, slick.

Yep, Beechen still does not have a handle on how to write this character. Hasn't a clue. Doesn't really seem to care. After all, he didn't bother to concoct an interesting plot. Out of the story’s many weaknesses and disappointments, this failure to develop a believable characterization for its protagonist is the most damning and inexplicable.

Beechen’s most clever conceit is having Cassandra reveal at one point she’s taken ESL classes. This is an attempt to explain one of the stupider goofs Beechen made in the Robin series, where a girl with hardly any verbal skills has become loquacious and fluent not only in English and Supervillainese, but also in Navaho. Within the space of a year. That must be some ESL school!

This plot element also seems a clumsy attempt to shoehorn a totally lame romance into the story. One look at some bland, nice guy we’ve never seen before and Batgirl’s already in love. And we know this not because the character registers as anything more than a plot contrivance or because Calafiore's art emphasizes anything resembling romance through reaction shots. No, we know this because Beechen has Batgirl (on patrol, no less) thinking about this dull new character’s “nice eyes” and musing that she “hasn’t felt this way since…”

Since some past romance from some other comic I haven’t bothered to read, about some character I don’t give two craps about.

Yeah, guess we’ll have to take Batgirl’s word for it, because nothing else in that sequence informs us of anything other than the ol’ “tell, don’t show” storytelling style popularized by classic Scooby Doo cartoons written for very dim suburban kids is still alive and well at Time/Warner.

Despite some blood in the early going, there’s no sense of danger, no thrill, no atmosphere. Superheroic generica starring a once-intriguing lead turned cliche. It’s fine that Batgirl has verbal chops now to go along with her fists of fury, but does she have to be so chatty? Some people can speak perfectly well but choose not to. Alternately, couldn’t she at least be sullen or moody? Garbo speaks! But has nothing of interest to say!

Instead, Batgirl narrates in familiar super-person style rendering her little more than an interesting costume. She could be anybody now. They should rename her "Li'l Miss Anycharacter." In fact, she is everybody because Cassandra-clones are popping up all over the place. She wasn't big daddy Cain's lone success. That would leave her unique. Interesting. No, now we have Marque. As issue 2's cover copy asks, "Who Is Marque?!"

God, who gives a shit?! She seems to exist mostly to dilute what little narrative thrust Beechen generates with Batgirl's own need for vengeance by showing up with her own, even less interesting one.

Well, I suppose at one point Beechen has Marque tell us who she is including her favorite color and what she ate for lunch each day in elementary school in one giant block of dialogue, and then she and Batgirl play Boggle, Scrabble and Super Password hosted by Burt Convy, but I missed it because I'd fallen asleep from boredom and crumpled my copy into an unreadable ball of colorful paper.

Tired, rote plot. Labored exposition. Teen emo. Perfunctory fight scenes, more A-Team than Kill Bill. Beechen and Calafiore would’ve done well to read a little of Koike Kazuo’s Lady Snowblood to learn how to depict a deadly woman on the vengeance trail. Batgirl should be scary. You should feel afraid of her and for her at the same time. To this end, they could’ve rented Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and tried to infuse Batgirl with some of Jen Yu's life rage, with the same sense of inevitable tragedy about her. There was a girl who may not have known exactly what she wanted, but it sure as hell wasn't to be "normal." Not after tasting power and independence.

But that would have imparted a little style and substance to this flimsy, thrice-told little tale.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

9th Annual International Manga Summit Concludes Comics Are Educational

Kyoto, home of the Kyoto International Manga Museum, recently hosted the 9th annual International Manga Summit. According to a story in the Japan Times, the manga summit concluded that comics can be used to educate people on a wide variety of topics, from the environment to food safety. It also noted that Finnish cartoonists are increasingly influenced by their Japanese counterparts.

Interesting developments, to be sure. But I declare comic books in general to be fun and entertaining also. Especially Nana. That is some good stuff!