Monday, July 18, 2011

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Monsters #1: A Comic Review

B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Monsters #1
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writers: Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Art: Tyler Crook

I've missed an issue here or there of Dark Horse's B.P.R.D. series, so I'm not exactly sure why Liz Sherman is hanging out in a trailer park and living with a couple of goobers. But I've never objected to any Liz-centric story, neither this one nor the recently completed "The Dead Remembered" two-parter starring the character as a teen. Liz has always been a troubled and largely unhappy person. Just a guess here, but it probably has something to do with having killed her family via pyrokinesis as a child. Little things like that tend to make one prone to bouts of mopey behavior.

We love her, though. B.P.R.D. stories are full of fanciful freaks like Abe Sapien and Dr. Johann Kraus, but writers Mike Mignola and John Arcudi have never neglected the human element. They make Liz darkly fascinating and each new story reveals previously unimagined facets of her spiky personality.

So why is she living in low-rent exile among a bunch of drunks and wife-beaters? I'd better pick up some back issues, or maybe Mignola and Arcudi will reveal the answer in part two. In the meantime, they delve into a setting right out of one of the better episodes of The X-Files, with the supernatural elements coloring the edges until the gory cliffhanger on the last couple of pages. As far as I know, we've never met any of these secondary characters before, but Mignola and Arcudi bring them to vivid life with just a few lines of dialogue, despite tagging them with names like Jubal and Jeb. What the heck is Liz doing there?

But oh holy moley, we've got a live one here in artist Tyler Crook! While the amazing Guy Davis will certainly be missed, the creative team has recruited someone with a similar aesthetic-- a kind of loose, Alex Tothian look, perfectly attuned to the story's trashy setting and to its ominous undertones of encroaching menace; according to Dark Horse, he lists the great Milt Caniff as an influence and it shows. You can't go far wrong following Caniff, Frank Robbins or Harvey Kurtzman. Crook makes each character a distinct individual, with shabby fashion sense and deadbeat body language-- slumped over while carrying a case of beer, thrusting hands in pockets, angrily kicking at a frog in the rain. With a few impressionistic gestures here and some heavy black-spotting there, Crook's art-- much like that of his art influences-- is both caricatured and yet has an almost documentary-like believability thanks to a sharp eye for details such as cereal boxes on top of refrigerators, magazines downturned on the floor to mark the reader's place and beer cans tossed in the corner. This is my first encounter with Crook's art and I'm already in love with it. Colorist Dave Stewart-- a longtime series stalwart-- gives it a subdued palette that serves Crook well, all drab neutrals except for the red of Liz's hair.

I hope Crook has a long, long run on this series. People need to see the man's work! I'm looking forward to part two for that and to have all these intriguing questions answered. Or not, because much as I enjoy what Mignola and Arcudi do with their scripts, Crook's going to keep me buying B.P.R.D. for as long as he handles the art.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Red Robin #25 and Walking Dead #86: Comics reviews

Red Robin #25
Publisher: DC Comics

Script: Fabian Nicieza

Pencils: Marcus To

Inks: Guy Major

Just the other day I complained in this blog about having aged out of DC's target demographic. Yet it seems for this single issue of Red Robin, I'm the intended audience. Of course I don't really believe that for a second, but something happens early in this book I've often joked about.

As for the rest of the book-- have you ever wondered what a story about Dr. Watson's brother-in-law, with the Great Detective and the Hound of Baskervilles as ancillary elements would be like? Neither have I, but it would probably resemble Red Robin #25. Nicieza and To fill the story with all character beats, action and explosions you could possibly want. Unfortunately, they face the nearly impossible task of generating interest in a generic lead. Peter Parker has girl trouble, Dick Grayson has a tragic past, Bruce Wayne is brilliant and rich. What is Tim Drake but a pastiche of these familiar elements? It doesn't help that a good deal of his narration at the start consists of telling us how awesome his co-star is, thereby reinforcing his own status as a non-entity.

And thanks to Nicieza and To, Cass is indeed awesome again. We know this because she rescues the hero then involves herself in a little comedic background business while Red Robin and an unseen supervillain (why are these guys so gregarious and yet cryptic about their plans?) engage each other in yawn-worthy plot-twaddle. It's funny, effective and much more entertaining than this tired stuff about assassinations, evil geniuses and nebulous and nefarious schemes. Cass has about six lines of dialogue and she could scarcely need more. I love how Nicieza takes away some of her English fluency without turning her into a caricature; she eschews subject nouns like Rorshach from Watchmen without the psychosis. Mostly she expresses herself through physicality and in her wicked black outfit exudes enough charisma to outclass Red Robin in his own book. To's use of splashes and large panels in the action sequences ably display Cass's martial prowess. It's clean-lined and sharply rendered stuff and goes a long way towards soothing the savage Cass-fan that dwells inside.

Because it's so ensconced in the familiar-- one plot element is cribbed from the film The Dark Knight-- the story lacks a sense of danger or urgency. Even the potentially life-altering situation Red Robin finds himself in at the get-go is treated mostly as a joke, dismissed as "'A Very Special Episode' kind of attacked" and "a fate not-quite-worse than death." The taciturn Cass even has a quip of her own for the occasion. This gives the proceedings a detached quality, a kind of ironic distance in which nothing much matters and nothing much is at stake. Later in the book, there's a one page sequence set in Hong Kong that leaves Red Robin battered and bruised. With its bizarre villain-- shades of the killer kid from Kick Ass, the new Damian Wayne Robin and Cass herself-- it might have made for a more compelling or unusual adventure starring Cass with Red Robin as her guest-star.

Instead, it acts as an awkwardly inserted digression that reinforces my feeling DC has an ace creative team in place, but they're hamstrung because they're telling the wrong character's story; when Cass drops out of the narrative, so will I. If Nicieza suddenly finds himself assigned to a Black Bat monthly DC and I might find ourselves meeting somewhere in the middle again.

Walking Dead #86
Publisher: Image Comics
Script: Robert Kirkman

Art: Charlie Adlard

And to contrast Red Robin, here's a title which seems aimed at me almost every single issue. First and foremost, as an art geek I can't get enough of Charlie Adlard's gritty line work. I much prefer stylists-- impressionistic or expressionistic, loose and sketchy or clean-lined-- to the photorealists in comic book art. Photorealists excel at the mechanical aspects of their rendering, but they all too often detour through the uncanny valley-- Greg Land's gallery of lovingly detailed pro wrestlers and porn stars in the midst of orgasm come to mind. Adlard's pages ultimately have more believability because his characters aren't copied (or traced) from some easily-recognized celebrity. They inhabit a world of shadows where bodies have weight and presence. Adlard is also an exceptional storyteller who knows how to break up and pace a page, how to pose his figures and direct action sequences for clarity and maximum impact.

Kirkman's script for this issue is heavy on dialogue. Well, to be honest, most of his scripts for The Walking Dead are, but #86 falls between the end of one major storyline and the beginning of another so there's quite a bit of back-and-forth between characters in the form of casually handled exposition. Rick, the deadly Michonne, crackshot Andrea and the rest have found a refuge within a walled suburb, and they've just come through a massed zombie attack that resulted in lots of gruesome deaths and a shocking injury to Carl, Rick's son, depicted by Adlard in a drawing so gruesome it actually disturbed me. I plan never to look at that page again!

Now the cast is just kind of hanging out, working through their emotions. Yes, there are some shambling zombies to dispatch, but it's in the service of showing us where the castmembers are now while they describe to each other where they've been. After so many issues, it's a good point for new readers to jump in and start reading. I can't help but feel Rick's new-found optimism is yet another sign the poor guy's lost his mind, though.

What's most fascinating about this particular issue isn't the story; it's the letter page. The Walking Dead has the best letter page in the business, bar none. Editor Sina Grace and Kirkman himself mix it up with readers, cracking jokes and dealing with the largely endearing weirdness of the rabid fanbase this book has garnered over the years. Lately, they've run some blistering letters from readers upset about what Kirkman did to Carl.

I admire Kirkman's audacity and don't think he has anything to apologize for. This moment elevated the story's climax from a mere "third act action movie fight" to something approaching an operatic emotional intensity. It's also wickedly ironic considering some of the philosophies Kirkman has Rick espouse, a chillingly reductive viewpoint of us versus them, them being not the walking dead but the living families in his adopted community.

Essentially, Kirkman upset these readers by making his fiction do what fiction is supposed to do. A story should be about how and why the protagonist and, in a thickly populated book like this, the secondary characters transform from their initial state to something different. These changes are not always positive ones. A mainstream superhero comic is typically about how they stay the same for years and years and years until financially necessity dictates a new costume, a publicity stunt death-then-resurrection or a forced "new direction."

I'm not sure if Kirkman has an ending in mind for the overall narrative or if it's sustainable at great length without repeating itself-- already one of the book's weaknesses-- but he's not afraid to bring the hammer down on any particular individual character, all the while altering them in drastic ways because of story events. Rick has developed from competent good-guy lawman, husband and father to strong leader to crackpot capable of letting other people's children die to save his own... and now to someone with a potentially deranged evangelical fervor about making his new community work. Or maybe he's just become charged with positive energy and he's on his way to a happy ending. Whatever it is, Kirkman's written this organically rather than arbitrarily, and that's a major reason I've stuck with this book for 80-odd issues.

It is kind of odd, though, to find a line some readers aren't willing to cross in a story that features walking corpses who've devoured almost the entire population of North America, splattering gore, limbs chopped off, rapes and near-rapes and people constantly losing their loved ones. In fact, in the story they're upset about, Rick uses a hatchet to chop off a woman's hand-- just to add some charm, he's been sleeping with her and has convinced her to follow him in a desperate escape attempt that will surely doom any number of other people to horrific deaths-- and allows zombies to devour her and her child. That Rick has his reasons and that a zombie story demands sacrifice perhaps excuse him to a certain extent, but why stick at Kirkman's treatment of Carl in the midst of all these other tragedies?

Expanding on this idea, in order for the entire series to take place these zombies implicitly have to have eaten millions of children, including helpless little babies. Apparently readers can consign all those people to death in the interest of good clean fun. For audiences at large, aliens can disintegrate all of Los Angeles in a genocide of CGI fire in a movie or the entire world can fall apart killing billions because of some nonsensical prophecy in a stone calendar, but make sure there's a scene where a dog leaps to safety or else we're outraged. Outraged, I tells ya! Let Kirkman maim Carl, a character we've suffered along with for years, and it's "HOW DARE YOU, YOU INHUMAN MONSTER?!"

I've come to trust Kirkman, and find I can enjoy The Walking Dead without worrying he'll eventually have to ret-con things to keep his story going for the sake of protecting trademarks and cashing in on merchandise sales ad infinitum. So when he wounds my heart with a development like this, I have to give him his due as an author of substance. Kirkman must be thrilled to know his work impacts people this way, even if a lot of them are calling him names and vowing never to read The Walking Dead again. People care, and that's the mark of a great book.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Trying is the first step towards failure"

Thanks, Homer. I mailed a submission to a reputable comics company today. I won't tell you what it's about or the company involved. You'll be able to guess who they are when I suddenly start giving all their books negative reviews and writing angry screeds about how they're ruining the comics industry.

I wouldn't do that. Yes, I think my story is a good one, but the chances of publication aren't favorable. That's just the way things are. I've had short stories rejected by some of the best literary magazines. Nothing to take personally. They just hated my writing and they told me in as encouraging a way anyone can tell someone they stink at something he loves to do. In this case, however, I doubt I'll ever hear anything. This particular publisher is upfront with a "don't call us, we'll call you" policy.

So what do you do when float your message in a bottle and it sinks beneath the waves instead of bobbing up on some distant shore where it's found by a simpatico stranger who responds with love? You just keep writing and drawing and improving. I could possibly draw the comic myself and self-publish online or through one of those print-on-demand sites, or rework it into a prose novel. Whatever happens, I'll get this story and its characters out there somehow!

And then you can make fun of me for a change!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Here's an interesting essay-- or "open letter"-- to DC

Why am I telling you? You've probably already read it. I'm always a week or two behind on these things. Which makes me the Jackie Harvey of comics bloggers. Hey! At last I've found a niche!

Anyway, enough of my insecurities. Corinna Lawson has written an open letter to DC informing them that they don't particularly know what they're doing when it comes to fan interaction and social media. The Source, DC's website blog doesn't allow comments, for example. That's one way to control the message, I suppose, but it's not very fan-friendly. One might get the idea that certain people aren't interested in reader feedback to their seemingly arbitrary changes. It's kind of a modification of Fox News's old slogan: "We report it, you buy it or get the hell out." One of my favorite points comes when Lawson relates the story of how DC spammed one of her own Twitter followers who told them they're "doing Twitter wrong."

But this jumped out at me:

Don’t, say, announce that all the Robins will be getting showcase titles when what you mean is that all the male Robins will be getting showcase titles and that the current Batgirl (former Robin) Stephanie Brown is going into limbo, along with former Batgirl current Black Bat Cassandra Cain. Because, apparently, there can only be one Batgirl as multiple ones would be too confusing but four Robins is just fine.

I have to agree. Especially since I'm one of those bike-stealing Cassandra Cain fans. This is something I can easily see as a source of fan irritation. Is this what's happening? I don't know; I haven't been following the DC news all that closely lately because I've got my own thing going and it's taking up a lot of my free time. But it certainly seems like the kind of thing that does go on all too frequently.

Down in the comments section, please note the dissident response of one "Tiedye Guy," whose very name suggests the kind of retrograde attitude he espouses with his "screw newbies" philosophy. I can kind of sympathize, because like a lot of fans, I've seen my favorite books as a closed club where I am the Chosen One and all the rest of you are bandwagoning poseurs. Then I grew up.

Kind of. On the sober side of things, Tiedye's response makes me realize the difficulties mainstream comic publishers face. An aging fanbase easily alienated by almost any change, a certain sense of entitlement from the entrenched readers, resistance to growth and a desperate need to target a narrow demographic that's largely marginalized comics as an entertainment provider in a market crowded with more attractive choices.

It's so strange to me to have aged passed my own expiration date as a DC fan. Of course, they do target us old people with their omnibus books and Showcase reprints. So I've at least got that going for me as DC shuffles me off to an assisted living center and digs my grave. Excuse me if I don't move in just yet, Time-Warner. Maybe I'll wait to make my obituary official until Black Bat gets her own ongoing series. Until then, I'll see you on the Outside!