Ginseng Roots (2019) #3

Ginseng Roots  2019  3

Okay, this issue is even better than last issue and not just because creator Craig Thompson has Black Jesus, White Yahweh, and a Chinese Holy Spirit, which is an amazing panel. Lots of amazing illustrative panels this issue, in fact, because the main plot isn’t about Thompson working on his comic or anything with his family—it’s about the history of ginseng.

Thompson starts with a creation myth straight out of The Phantom Menace and those other virgin birth stories. Except instead of doing the Jesus thing, this guy spends his life figuring out how best for folks to live off nature and to be healthy. Thompson has this absolutely glorious transition where the guy, Shennong, has to find the missing cute ginseng root, which has gotten successfully hunted because the hunter is worthy. Shennong is 28th Century BCE, so pre-Jesus, post-Anakin. Shennong then has to try to find his ginseng friend, which brings him to the twenty-first century and Thompson at a ginseng rally in Wisconsin. It’s beautifully executed. Just stunningly good work.

But then Shennong discovers the ginseng isn’t his old friend, it’s American Ginseng or whatever and how did it get there and we don’t get to find out because it’s the cliffhanger. The educational element of Ginseng Roots is the cliffhanger. It’s stunningly good. Like, if issue two was better than it seemed issue one could ever get, three’s just as much an improvement over two. It’s an exemplar comic.

There’s some great American political commentary, with Thompson managing never to come off sarcastic when he’s doing something sarcastic. A lot of it comes from Thompson’s understanding of comic book and comic strip mechanics; even the beginning treats the origin of Shennong like a sensational seventies Marvel book. Thompson’s got a lot of chops and is showing them off here.

I’m loving this book.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #2

Ginseng Roots  2019  2

Confession time—I never read Blankets, creator Craig Thompson’s first big work. And it now turns out Ginseng Roots is a somewhat direct sequel.

This issue opens with Thompson going back to Wisconsin—he’d been living in Portland, OR (of course), which makes the questionable L.A. cartography last issue more permissible—and meeting up with his younger brother, Phil, to drive to the family farm house. Not farm, but farm house amid other people’s fields.

On the way, Thompson introduces a second sibling, sister Sarah, who was left out from Blankets; there’s a bit about the fallout from Blankets, both in terms of the parents and the sister. The parents didn’t like it because it’s about Thompson’s fall from Evangelical faith and Sarah because she wasn’t in Blankets. She even wonders if it won’t be too confusing to include her in the ginseng comic, which Thompson is talking over with his family.

How’d it turn out? She’s on the cover of this issue.

And the parents have at least accepted Thompson’s previous work to the point there’s a copy of Blankets on the bookshelf, which is bare of books other than Thompson’s creative output. Presumably there’s a Bible around somewhere.

Creating a comic lionizing Red State farmers in 2019 is going to be something, but Thompson seems to be aware he’s going to have to address some things. It’s not like Portland is the bastion of social justice one would’ve assumed in the aughts.

The parents aren’t enthused about the ginseng project simply because they were laborers, so Thompson and his brother (who loves the idea of the comic) go to visit some farmers and former employers.

They’re a cute old couple who bitch about Americans not wanting to work anymore and how the environmentalists are ruining things. Turns out at the end ginseng can only be grown on a plot so I’m not sure an economist would agree with their take. But it’s a very nice, very informative sequence.

There’s a lot about how excluded Sarah felt from growing up with the brothers, which is awesome, unpleasant if genial work.

The first issue was good comics but this issue is outstanding comics. Hopefully Thompson can keep it going.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #1

Ginseng Root  2019  1

Creator Craig Thompson has a hell of a hook for the first issue of Ginseng Roots—he gets to be interesting. Thompson grew up in Wisconsin in the seventies and eighties when the state was the number one grower of ginseng in the world. According to Thompson; I’m not going to check it because you’ve got to trust your creators.

So Thompson and his brother helped their mother weed ginseng fields as kids. They got paid a dollar an hour, which eventually bought comic books. And Thompson goes into how they weeded the fields and why they weeded the fields and it’s all very interestingly done. Even though the ginseng market crashed in the nineties and ruined some lives, Wisconsin still makes it; they should’ve hired Thompson to do them a pamphlet talking about it. Just great educational comics right here.

Alongside Thompson’s story of growing up in a working class Wisconsin farming community and the associated troubles. In the present—he’s got a very quick and effective way of jumping the narrative ahead forty years—he still suffers class anxiety as he finds himself with all the artsy types.

A chance walk through Los Angeles’s Koreatown and Chinatown—okay, this one I checked and it’s not geographically accurate (hrm)—but on this chance walk narrator Thompson sees ginseng shops and communes with a particular barrel of roots and it tells him to “go home.”

It’s the adorable ginseng creator Thompson has had as gentle comedy relief throughout the comic, offering asides on multiple pages and so on.

The comic’s gorgeous; Thompson’s on not white paper, which gives the mostly black and white art a lot of personality. There are occasional colors, mostly reds. There’s even a letter page, where creator Thompson talks about the plans for the comic—twelve issues—so either the whole thing’s about his journey back home or some of it will be. His brother, who’s a character in the comic, also draws a couple pager about how he picked too much ginseng when rooting.

It’s a very nice comic; very nice reading experience.

Friday (2020)

Friday  2020

Friday is actually Friday #1. Or “Chapter One.” I went into it cold, only aware it was Ed Brubaker writing and Marcos Martin on art. I figured it was a done-in-one, but it’s actually the start of a new serial.

The titular Friday is one Friday Fitzhugh, who’s just come home from college to her New England town and found herself immediately in pursuit of some kid who’s run off with a sacred knife from an archeological dig.

The comic’s set in an indeterminate past, pre-cellphone, looks to be pre-laptop too. There’s not a lot of time to reflect on the seventies or eighties as quaint because it’s mostly action as Friday and her partner but he’s really the Batman to her Robin, Lancelot Jones, are in this pursuit. With the sheriff driving them. Sheriff answers to Lancelot.

There are lots of allusions to Friday and Lancelot’s “partnership” before college, though not as many as references to some cataclysmic rift in their relationship the night before she left for college. Did one of them get amorous and get shot down? Don’t know. Friday wants to talk about it, Lancelot instead ignores her and ditches her after picking her up—in the sheriff’s car—from her train to go on their mission.

There’s a lot of precedent for teen and tween boy detectives having tomboy female sidekicks (Encyclopedia Brown did, didn't he) and Brubaker seems to think there’s gristle in examining them after they’re able to buy cigarettes but….

Friday #1 ends with a postscript from Brubaker explaining its origins in the proto-YA novels of his childhood (mentioning Edward Gorey just makes you wonder how it’d read if Martin’s art were eerie in any way), which kind of constrains the whole thing and gives it some padding.

It may turn out to be worthwhile.

But a comic called Friday about a literal girl Friday (the reference just seems to target a forty-something, middle-class White male audience) and so far disinterested in examining its gender tropes by going all-on traditional? Eh.

Justice League: The New Frontier Special (2008) #1

Justice League The New Frontier Special  2008  1

It would be wrong to describe Justice League: The New Frontier Special as hack work. Darywn Cooke’s art on the feature, even his plotting of it, is not hacky. Neither is the Robin and Kid Flash story’s art, courtesy Dave Bullock and Michael Cho. Even the Wonder Woman and Black Canary go to a Playboy Club art by J. Bone isn’t… hack work. Bone’s cartoonish style does what it’s supposed to do.

Now, the writing on that last story might be hack work. Cooke opens with a gentle jab at political correctness, confirms Bruce Wayne is a pig in his off time, and then has Wonder Woman slut shame. It’s not quite cringe because it’s six pages, but it’s definitely eye-roll.

And the Robin and Kid Flash story is more just annoying. Between Robin’s hep cat narration and the proto-groovy dialogue (and the “commie” villains?), it’s tiresome. But gorgeous art. Arguably better looking than Cooke’s feature, which is… something.

The feature tells the untold tale from the original New Frontier (this not at all special Special tied into the release of the lousy New Frontier animated movie)—Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Greater Good. Besides getting some insight into how Cooke would write Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman if he’d written them more in the original comic (good thing he didn’t), it also has more of dickhead Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sends Supes after Bats. I remember reading something about (Canadian) Cooke thinking we needed Eisenhower back—when asked about his politics during Iraq War II, where there was only one right answer—which adds a layer to the comic.

If Cooke liked Ike… it’s hard to imagine how he’d have written him if he didn’t like him. Killing a puppy maybe?

The feature’s twenty-four interminable pages, with Cooke clearly not spending a lot of time on the art. The Batman and Superman fight itself is pretty good, rather drawn out, but with a goony resolution. It’s also one hell of a retcon of the original series.

Overall the most successful thing in the comic is the one page prologue with Rip Hunter telling everyone not to take it seriously.

All of a sudden, I’m real glad I don’t have one of the New Frontier collected editions with the Special included. If I’d read it on publication, I forgot about it. I hope I can forget about it again.

DC: The New Frontier (2004)

DC The New Frontier  2004

Darwin Cooke’s most impressive achievement with The New Frontier isn’t the art, which is a mix of sublime, grandiose, muted, and bombastic, or keeping track of all the characters (there have to be hundreds), but the voice he finds for characters. He starts big, with Losers member Johnny Cloud narrating the team’s adventures on Dinosaur Island. New Frontier is heavier with the science heroes and war heroes than with the superheroes. The Losers, Task Force X (the Suicide Squad), the Blackhawks show up, there’s a bunch with the Challengers of the Unknown—all of the mask-free, government sanctioned hero types, they play the biggest part in the New Frontier’s main plot, figuring into both Hal Jordan and John Jones’s plot lines and then consuming them. Though everyone’s plot is consumed by the finale.

Cloud’s memoir sets up the comic both in terms of Cooke’s approach—it’s going to be fantastical comic book action, but with a lot of heart in its heroes (New Frontier doesn’t have much in the way of human villains, as it turns out, just heroes who aren’t being heroic yet and then the politicians… they’re all bad), so awesome art and simple, sincere narration—as well as the main plot. Dinosaur Island’s going to figure in a lot.

After Cloud, Cooke cycles through the same main “leads”—Green Lantern-to-be Jordan and not yet Martian Manhunter Jones. There are tangents, but it’s their story for most of the comic. The big three—Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman—figure in a little. Wonder Woman and Superman more because they become government stooges and head off to Southeast Asia when tasked, which has long lasting ramifications and figures into their (scant) character development arcs. Cooke’s not telling a Wonder Woman or Superman story—despite showing up every issue, Superman’s basic ground situation still comes as a bit of a surprise at the end. Batman’s just there to support other characters, whether Superman or Martian Manhunter (without knowing he’s a Martian).

There’s also a possible plot hole with Wonder Woman knowing Eisenhower from the war but it’s unclear in what capacity because the superheroes weren’t involved in World War II (because “Spear of Destiny,” which means B.J. Blazkowicz failed his mission in New Frontier-verse). Cooke is cagey with the ground situation, which is fine when it works and he’s able to have a surprise reveal or little plot twist, but he’s intentionally manipulating. So when it doesn’t work, it’s real obvious.

As present as Wonder Woman and Superman is Lois Lane. She comes in early and stays to the end, often getting onto a soapbox to rant about the government wanting to control all the superheroes. See, the Red Scare goes to them too, not for being communists but for wearing the masks. Cooke does a fantastic job with the science heroes and how they exist in the world, but there’s nothing about how the regular folk regard the superheroes anymore. Tying them into McCarthyism when they would’ve been fresh in the public’s mind for do-gooding (presumably). It’s weird.

Of course, there’s not a lot of opportunity for Cooke to expound recent history because—outside the various narrations—the only expository device he’s got is the occasional article from some in-world reporter, Lois, Vicki Vale, Iris West, and they wouldn’t be appropriate for too much historical exposition.

The big fight at the end—will the United States’s earnest heroes be able to get over their fears and band together to stop an unimaginable threat, leveraging their individual abilities and the latest in Silver Age technology? Of course, it’s a superhero. It’s rather well executed, even if some of the details—Cooke’s design of the final boss seems like the physiology-free sketches of a child (in the Fifties, natch) and, well, something out of Max Shea’s imagination (obligatory Watchmen mention)… because New Frontier very much feels like Watchmen only with the DC Universe heroes. The Wonder Woman and Superman stuff… it does not exist in a vacuum. Cooke is showing off the potential for the regular stock of DC characters but does it too well.

The Flash, who gets less than stars Hal Jordan and John Jones but definitely more than Superman or Wonder Woman, fits really well in the 1960s context. Ditto Hal Jordan. In proving the characters relevance to their original historical context, Cooke makes everything else seem, well, second best. Again, with the caveat he’s very much gearing their characterizations—as expressed in their narrations—to fit his story. But you don’t get done with New Frontier and want to hunt down the latest Flash or Green Lantern issue. It’s interesting see these guys—and the comic definitely leans almost all male (it passes Bechdel because Wonder Woman chastises another Amazon’s fighting ability and a woman compliments another on her blouse)—as they struggle with their internalized jingoism and so forth. Cooke’s subplots often are just texture to promote this internal turmoil, like Hooded Justice—sorry, sorry, John Henry—who fights to KKK in Tennessee to national acclaim but is a local criminal. Cooke talks around the vigilantism stuff; he doesn’t have a character who can really get into it. John Jones does a little because he’s a cop in Gotham City, but supervillains aren’t really a thing yet.

Cooke takes huge bites and thoughtful chews.

The epilogue, set to John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (get it, get it), is clearly a labor of love for Cooke but also unnecessary if not wholly unsuccessful. Kennedy and speechwriter Ted Sorensen were not writing for DC Comics and Cooke’s juxtaposition of text about social injustices with the corresponding comic book images… it comes off a combination of callous, opportunistic, and forced. New Frontier reaches, which is just right, it ought to reach, but Cooke reaches a little too far in the end. He ends up derivative instead of innovatory, which is exactly what the comic shouldn’t do.

But it’s still a masterpiece of superhero comics, setting an insurmountable bar because—even with plot holes and pitfalls and rushed subplots and epilogue problems—Cooke’s four or five hundred pages of art aren’t ever going to be surpassed. It’s a gorgeous, affecting tribute, homage, and eulogy to the Silver Age of DC Comics.

Sleeper: Season One (2003-04)

Sleeper Season One  2009

Some of Sleeper doesn’t age well. There’s a whole plot line about the secret society running the world and, in 2020, it seems like a very dated trope. To be fair, it was dated in 2003 when Sleeper came out, but writer Ed Brubaker was at least utilizing the trope to sabotage it. There’s also the lack of Internet-backed technology in the futuristic setting, which was apparently where what all futurism somehow missed. And when they try to mainstream the book in the last few issues, brightening up Sean Phillips’s blacks, slimming his lines, it’s a mistake. Ditto going from the handwriting font for the protagonist’s narration to a really slick italicized font. Doesn’t read well in the context of a collection; there ought to be a footnote about how they were desperate to save the book from cancellation.

I’d also forgotten the book takes place in the Wildstorm universe, featuring TV news cameos from The Authority; Brubaker does a great job of not making those connections matter much, outside providing an established universe with super-powered good guys and bad guys. The crossover character is Machiavellian crime boss Tao (created by the Original Writer himself!), which doesn’t come up much throughout and even when Tao’s giving his origin story it’s barely a footnote.

Origin stories are a big deal in Sleeper, something the protagonist, Holden Carver—good guy spy turned double agent, posing as a bad guy super-powered spy for Tao’s organization—and his colleagues do when they’re bored. The villains sit around and tell their stories. Except it’s only for the newbs and Holden hangs out with the seasoned veterans so it takes a while to coax their origins out of them, whether it’s Holden’s best bud, Genocide Jones, or his lady friend, Miss Misery.

Where Sleeper doesn’t age—can’t age—is in Brubaker’s plotting of the series, which spends the first nine or so issues with a two steps forward, one step back approach to revealing Holden’s story. We don’t find out how exactly he got roped into the super secret mission—and we still don’t know how his handler, Lynch, got put into a coma right before the series started. Issues take place weeks apart, sometimes following up on the previous issues’ cliffhangers and finales, sometimes not. Brubaker and Phillips end each issue for effect, sometimes dramatic, sometimes tragic. So it really burns when the narration lettering gets cheesy at the end, just as Holden’s having some big moments of revelation. You want the personality of the character in those passages, not feeling like you’re being handled so DC can try to sell the book to its stupider readers.

Sorry, it’s been sixteen years but I’m still not okay with how badly they bungled this series.

The first issue does a fine job establishing Holden and some of the world, enough about his mission, enough about Tao’s villainous organization, but focuses on Holden’s friendship with Genocide. Genocide’s an indestructible big lug thug. After Holden starts sleeping with Miss Misery—a chainsmoker who needs to inflict pain or damage in order to live, literally—Genocide’s the only one he can tell about it because Holden shouldn’t be sleeping with his coworkers. Especially not when she’s an occasional squeeze to Tao and Tao’s right hand man, Peter Grimm, mad crushes on her and already hates Holden.

Holden’s basically indestructible, thanks to an interdimensional artifact. His body heals, but builds up a charge of pain energy (he doesn’t feel physical sensations anymore, unless there’s some kind of pleasure and pain mix, which makes him perfect for Miss Misery). He zaps people with the pain energy; it can be lethal. Otherwise he shoots people a lot. There’s a lot of shooting in Sleeper. It’s not the most exciting visual (at some point you wonder how Phillips is still ginning up the enthusiasm for the action sequences, given none of the main characters is actually capable of being hurt).

The book starts getting really good in the last third, after the illuminati subplot, as it becomes clear just how much Holden is breaking down undercover and what’s going to happen when a lifeline appears. He’s got to question whether the lifeline’s real, but then the further question becomes… is it better or worse if the lifeline’s real. Has Holden crossed the line in his undercover operation. Sure, Genocide Jones and Miss Misery are far from the worst compatriots in a hive of scum and villainy—Genocide’s likable and even sympathetic, while Miss Misery gets the very odd combination of female tragedy and male gaze (even if it’s arty Phillips male gaze… there’s a lot of it in the comic)—but what does it say about Holden.

Brubaker’s character development work on Holden is somewhat ramshackle, thanks to the fractured timeline and narration, but once he reveals himself to be something of a softy, it’s not at all unexpected. Or unwelcome. A little sincerity goes a long way in Sleeper, which is effective, engaging, excellently executed (enough Es), but definitely feels like commercial product. Brubaker’s scripts reward the reader’s attention without ever dragging things out too long. Holden’s narration cushions the plot twists and reveals, with Phillips art capturing what usually ends up being sadness in the moment. He’s really good at tragedy and desperation. Less so the super-powered gun fights or the occasional superhero fights. They’re not bad in any sense, but they’re not where Phillips excels in the book. You can tell he’s not interested in them. The supervillain outfits, for example, get a good setup panel and then otherwise seem like a chore.

But there’s a lot for Phillips to draw in this book and it’s impressive how well he gets through it all. Like, he’s got to be doing supervillains and superheroes one panel and then Disneyland two panels later. It’s seriously globe-trotting, which isn’t always great as far as the character development goes but… delayed gratification on that front. Brubaker and Phillips don’t work to make Holden a sympathetic protagonist even after things start falling apart. He’s presented matter-of-factly, which probably hurt the book’s commercial potential to some degree. Though who knows. If the last sixteen years of DC Comics has revealed anything, it’s they actually didn’t have a chance with their dedicated reader base.

Sleeper was also one of the first comics to do the “Season One” thing, even though it wasn’t intentional… they had to try for a new number one to get the series some interest because trying to force good comics to become hits is difficult. The “season” ends on an interesting narrative note for what’s to come for sure, even if the thinner Phillips line work and the gaudy lettering leaves it in a visually far less interesting spot than it started.

Did it read better month-to-month back in 2003 and 2004? Probably. But it holds up rather well, especially given the many aforementioned caveats….

Like, I think there’s at least a boob every issue, which makes you wonder if it was an editorial mandate… did DC have data on how many copies they sold based on bare boobs? And while they’re sometimes arty boobs—Phillips is classically trained, after all—sometimes they’re just boobs for boobs sake, maybe three lines. It gets to be an eye-roll after a while.

Though… it’s not like there’s much characterization to the (two) female characters in the comic, which maybe you can get away with because it’s Holden’s perspective and all, but them both being exhibitionists is a little weird. No fetish shaming just… what are the odds. Are there odds? Do female espionage agents prefer exhibitionism? It, like an apology for that second lettering font, needs a footnote at least.

Chad Agamemnon (2017) #1

Chad Agamemnon  2017  1

This first issue is, sadly, the only issue of Chad Agamemnon. Creator Nowak wrote and drew the book for the Ann Arbor Public Library and, whatever the arrangement, it wasn’t feasible for the book to continue.

A bummer, because it’s charming as all heck.

The titular Chad is a young wizard in exile, cast to the mortal realm, where people either don’t believe in magic or are completely indifferent to it (well, there’s the single dude who’s indifferent to it, everyone else is unaware). Chad’s got some binding bracelets to keep his powers down, which means he has to do things for himself.

He goes to live at a co-op with a bunch of other teenagers slash adult young adults and has to do things like help cook and weed the garden and be pleasant to his new roommates. He comically fails at all of it, sometimes because he can’t utilize his magic, sometimes—the times with the roommates—because he’s just a dick.

We get some insight in what’s brought him to Earth, with him composing a letter to his father in his head during a walk around—natch—Ann Arbor. Turns out Chad was just as big of a dick back in magic world but he’s trying to make friends. It helps someone offers him a bratwurst because they don’t have bratwurst in magic land.

The issue ends on the morning of Chad’s second day in the house, with a profoundly lovely scene between Chad, one of the roommates, and her guinea pig. See, Chad still can still communicate with familiars so he’s able to get the guinea pig’s real take on things. What makes the scene ever more interesting—and why it’s too bad there isn’t a follow-up—is the roommate can’t know Chad’s using the magic communications, so she’s going to think its his message, albeit with some cushioning.

There’s not a lot of detail to Nowak’s art—she’s got a heavy brush and the art has a great flow.

Like I said… real bummer this one didn’t get to continue.

To Be Seen (2014)

To Be Seen  2014

To Be Seen is this lyrical piece about an unnamed female tween narrator and her life at a particular time. There are six vignettes in the comic, with most of them echoing throughout others.

The strips are gentle, sometimes funny, sometimes scary—Nowak captures that period where in childhood where you’re figuring out the world isn’t what you thought but you also aren’t able to describe these new observations because you don’t have the vocabulary. There’s this great part about how the world is only ever two things—here and there—and its simultaneously giant and tiny. It’s just great. Especially with the expressions on the narrator’s face as she thinks through the big ideas.

But it also feels a little like a Peanuts homage—there’s a mysterious hole in the ground and it seems very much like a kite-eating tree and something about the lettering; there might even be a mention of it. I mean, there’s definitely a mention of “peanuts” but it’s unclear if it’s Peanuts or not. The narrator goes home to keep the kids who are in the TV company and someone on screen can’t eat peanuts. Nowak phrases it much better, profoundly better. Most of the comic just flows, but there are occasional great lines.

The narrator also has some bad dreams and, similarly to how she’s learning to comprehend the universe, she’s also learning to understand her dreams and why nightmares can utterly lack logic. But she can’t describe it, not even to herself. She doesn’t have the words.

There are some great other details, like the stuffed animals the narrator brings around with her. They serve different functions, the cat and the bunny, and Nowak does a great job implying what one’s presence or absence means for the narrator’s state of mind.

It’s a lovely little book, kind of haunting, but also not really. Haunting is a heavy term in a way To Be Seen isn’t heavy. To Be Seen is learning the world isn’t really magic but it’s kind of better for not being. Or something.

Great art too. The expressions on the protagonist are phenomenal.

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