The Death-Ray (June 2004)

The Death-Ray

Here’s the thing about The Death-Ray–well, more specifically, here’s the thing about Daniel Clowes. He knows what he’s got. At some point during the comic, it becomes clear his ambition and his confidence are almost equal. The comic just gets better and better and it covers a lot of years and a lot of panels. Not so much pages, but panels. Clowes packs Death-Ray with panels. Never too big, but sometimes even tiny. There’s so much content. Clowes homages the experience of reading a sixties Marvel comic, but integrates everything. There’s no letters page because he knows how to get the reading experience of a letters page–at least any memorable parts–into his narrative. Sometimes through tiny panels. He’s excited and it feels extremely communal. Clowes is showing off something he’s figured out you can do with the comic book medium. He’s exuberant.

Clowes forces the reader to evaluate each narrator and balance their perspectives.
Clowes forces the reader to evaluate each narrator and balance their perspectives.

What’s so striking about the comic is how much Clowes is able to get in. He casts two comic nerds as the leads. There’s no real mention of comic books in the comic itself, but they come up with the idea for a superhero. Maybe there is some reference, the point is they’re standard characters. Only they aren’t. The protagonist, Andy, has a really messed up life. His sidekick, Louie, has a similarly messed up life, but far less tragic in the details. Even though the comic opens with Andy narrating as a mid-aged guy–and Clowes continues using him in the flashback–somehow it’s Louie who gets to have the story for a good while. Clowes wants the reader to examine Andy not from the perspective of first person narrator, but from Louie’s perspective. It’s how Clowes is able to encourage a lot of questioning. There’s a lot of text in The Death-Ray, a lot of first person, a lot of exposition–and shockingly little dialogue, Clowes just wants to hint at it, the interior mind is what’s important here–Clowes needs the reader to pay attention. Otherwise they won’t get it and he wants to see if he can pull it off.

Look at all these panels; Clowes goes even smaller to fit it all in.
Look at all these panels; Clowes goes even smaller to fit it all in.

Clowes’s style is gorgeous. He’s got a simple comic strip–detailed, but relatively simple as far as his panel compositions–for the majority of the story. It’s far from hostile. When he goes off on a comic book medium tangent, he’s got a little bit different of a style. The flashback is already in color–the present day varies between color for “reality” and monochrome for Old Man Andy’s interior monologue–but these formal tangents are somehow more vivid. Clowes wants to do an ad, he wants to do a recap, he doesn’t want to hide the entertainment from the reader. He wants you to enjoy The Death-Ray.

The romance comic homage.
The romance comic homage.

Because an entertained reader is one who pays attention and Clowes does look at a number of serious things. Louie’s misogyny, for example, and misogyny in general. A little with race. A lot with class. The Death-Ray is unpredictable. Clowes initially promises a riff on the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Amazing Spider-Man with annoying indie comic sidekick. He excels on his fulfillment of that promise and then he moves on. He takes the reader through various stages of expectation–whether it’s Andy imagining everything, Andy being some kind of superhero, Andy being some kind of monster. Old Man Andy is narrating and The Death-Ray is all about readers having no idea who is in their head. And Clowes navigates it beautifully. He guides the reader, occasionally a little hard but always with respect. He never gets impatient. There are no false starts in The Death-Ray’s plotting. Clowes paces it deliberately, sublimely.

Clowes does regular high school comic strip too.
Clowes does regular high school comic strip too.

When the comic ends, Clowes gives the reader a multiple choice question. He directly asks readers to reflect back on the comic they have just read. There is a test. You had to be paying attention to the details in those really tiny panels.

The Death-Ray is a great comic. It’s also a singular use of first person, with the consequences of the narrative distance being something the narrator himself gets to exploit. It’s really good.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Daniel Clowes; publisher, Drawn & Quarterly.

The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade (June 2016)

lastcrusadeIn their 2016 campaign to Make Batman Great Again, Miller and Azzarello have temporarily abandoned all pretense of progress – as indicated by the retro DC logo on the cover – and gone straight back to the source with this one-shot prequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Batman nerds know Miller predicted the death of Jason Todd in the first issue of that series, before DC made it official with the Death in the Family storyline. You know, the one where fans could dial a 1-800 number and cast their vote to not to let Jason survive The Joker’s beating. Thus does The Last Crusade have a weird circuitous purpose: retelling a story whose conclusion is foregone, as the prequel to a story which predicted the event…as a hypothetical aside. Retcon-Elseworlds-Rehashing at its most truly incestuous.

The pleasant surprise is that Miller and Azzarello actually outdo their recent efforts. The Last Crusade is a more enjoyable read than The Master Race has been so far, and a better value at $6.99 for 57 pages compared to Master Race’s $5.99 for 35. Unlike the shallow bombast of Batman and Superman saving the world from Kandorians, this story aims low and deep and hits its target. From the start, there’s a nicely quiet sense of dread on a personal, non-apocalyptic level, building suspense as The Joker orchestrates his escape from Arkham while the division between Jason and an aged Batman grows deeper. The thrust of the action is utterly perfunctory as they investigate the most routine of Poison Ivy schemes, with a little special guest muscle by Killer Croc. Joker is separate from all this to the point of practically being in another book, his portentous importance is telegraphed by the cover. Even for the Batman comics reader unfamiliar with Jason Todd’s death at Joker’s hands, their fatal crossing of paths carries the aura of grim inevitability although the final pages don’t make the actual fatality particularly apparent.

I didn’t grow up in the Jason Todd years of the comics but if his gimmick was being a “Dick” instead of a “Dick Grayson”, it does read slightly weird for the Batman of Frank Miller’s sovereign Dark Knight Universe to reprimand this Robin for being too sadistic or reckless, when he’s been far and away the most inglorious bastard Batman of all time. Under questioning, Miller and Azzarello would probably argue that since this is the near-retirement stage of that Batman, he’s a little more mature and less psychotic than he was in the All-Star Batman and Robin days. Everything about superhero continuity lore has become so cyclical since the 80s, yet Miller and Azzarello still kind of justify this rehash by returning to the idea of Batman as a prize fighter whom everyone knows is past his prime – exploring his shame, the fact he knows he’s slowing down, that his friends and enemies are noticing too. This focus on aging, and on flesh not keeping up with a willing spirit, creates a thematic through-line with Dark Knight Returns and inadvertently kind of points up the absurdity of the sequels, where Bruce never seems to get tired anymore although he’s older than ever. Batman’s internal monologues and narration aren’t as memorable as those of Dark Knight Returns but they absolutely flow from the same vein. Prequel or sequel, this slim volume is so much closer to the kind of follow-up fans wanted than The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Better late than never?

John Romita Jr.’s art provides the work a needed prequel continuity as well. His draftsmanship’s sketchy grittiness is much closer to Miller’s style than Andy Kubert, as is Peter Steigerwald’s pale and muted coloring. The script doesn’t make the insulting choices seen in The Master Race, of padding a thin plotline across pointlessly large action panels. Here the terse writing is thoughtfully staged at a steady pace without filler. As a comic the action feels alive, rather than looking like conceptual art for a film or storyboards for a cartoon.

A few words about The Joker: first of all, he sells comics. That’s why he’s on the cover. But as someone who’s thoroughly tired of the character’s overexposure and hype, I’d forgotten how much I like Frank Miller’s Joker and it’s kind of nice to spend time with him again. Given Frank’s politics, I’m shocked he’s not re-teamed with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Miller’s Joker was conceived pre-Killing Joke and was arguably (unfortunately) more the basis for the modern mainstream conception of Joker, the version who’s supposed to be scary and edgy and never actually funny. This take made the most sense when envisioning an older version of the character to fight an older version of Batman – sort of what the real life Bill Murray became; not so much a sad clown as a clown grown jaded and smug. Miller just writes him so well as a wistful queen, and unlike Heath Ledger Miller’s Joker is genuinely enigmatic and creepy because Miller is kind of crazy himself.

If you haven’t bothered picking up The Master Race yet, you should definitely wait for the trade. But if you’d like a swig of Frank Miller that actually tastes like The Dark Knight Returns, The Last Crusade is a satisfying little one-shot.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, John Romita Jr; inks and colors, Peter Steigerwald; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

Pretty Deadly 10 (June 2016)

Pretty Deadly #10

Pretty Deadly wraps up its second arc with the series’s standard mix of action and humanism. Standard isn’t a pejorative; creators DeConnick and Rios have always taken a singular approach to genre with the comic. They refuse to firmly foot in any–this arc is a WWI story and the story of a black family in 1918(?) America–they also refuse to rely on any genre tropes, yet there’s always a familiarity with them. Pretty Deadly is an intentionally tough comic to digest. The digestion process is where DeConnick and Rios are able to affect the reader the most.

About half this issue is resolution to the arc, which suggests a single sitting read of the arc might be in order, and the other half is mostly action. Except it’s Rios’s mystical, yet very physical, action. There’s a fluidity to the movement in the mystical action–the reader has to find their own entry point and then follow the movement across the page. Lots of full page spreads here–again, it’s the last issue in the arc, so there need to be money shots. Rios fills them with glorious dread.

While DeConnick wraps up for the arc’s new characters, she does make a few hints to Deadly’s future. But as Pretty Deadly moves across time periods–it started as a Western–DeConnick opens it up more. The implications of the mystical world of the Reapers aren’t just how it relates to the present action of the arc. DeConnick and Rios are gradually introducing a much bigger world.

Pretty Deadly is simultaneously loud and quiet, thrilling and reserved. It’s an excellent comic.

CREDITS

Writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick; artist, Emma Rios; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Sigrid Ellis; publisher, Image Comics.

Manifest Destiny 20 (June 2016)

Manifest Destiny #20

I had assumed Manifest Destiny doing a story arc titled Sasquatch meant creators Dingess and Roberts were going for more visibility and media attention, but this issue might prove me wrong. Because the Big Feet turn out to be Cyclopses. Cyclopses humans enjoy consuming. It’s so weird, it doesn’t feel commercially minded. So I apologize for that cynical view of this story arc’s ambitions.

However, it’s still not particularly good. Dingess splits between boring stuff in the present–we get it, the criminals on the Lewis and Clark expedition are going to revolt, all the time, as the comic’s only steady subplot–and boring stuff in the past. A Spanish explorer ghost tells the pre-Lewis and Clark explorer guy in the past to eat the Cyclops and to feed it to the rest of the men. Strong cannibalism taboo for Manifest Destiny, which Dingess is going to get the split narrative for the whole arc. And keeping it is a bad idea. Because it’s boring.

Manifest Destiny is a comic book with giant monsters roaming the countryside and it’s boring. It’s talky, but it’s not talky in any sort of interesting way. Dingess used to present the fantasy historical information in exposition. He doesn’t even bother with that information anymore. It’s still competent and Roberts’s art is still gorgeous but Sasquatch has the series stalled out.

CREDITS

Sasquatch, Part Two; writer, Chris Dingess; penciller, Matthew Roberts; inkers, Tony Akins and Stefano Gaudiano; colorist, Owen Gieni; letterer, Pat Brosseau; editors, Arielle Basich and Sean Mankiewicz; publisher, Image Comics.

Scooby Apocalypse 2 (August 2016)

Scooby Apocalypse #2

It’s Aliens. Giffen and DeMatteis are doing “Serious Scooby-Doo Meets Aliens.” And it’s pretty good.

This issue has the gang trapped in an underground bunker where they have to crawl through the ceilings but avoid the monsters crawling through the ceilings. There’s a lot of emphasis on the humanity of the situation, but then there’s Porter’s art doing these exaggerated hero poses for the characters. What’s so strange is how little it has to do with Scooby-Doo. Giffen and DeMatteis have almost no interest in the dog (or his interactions with Shaggy). It’s not pop culture fulfillment, it’s a brand relaunch.

Hence the lack of Doo in the title?

It’s strongly plotted, great dialogue, excellent visual style. Scooby Apocalypse is great corporate product. It’s not sublime, but it’s great at what it’s trying to do. I just wonder how long Jim Lee, who’s credited with the concept, worked at it and whether or not he had help (or was filling a request from corporate).

CREDITS

Apocalypse Right Now!; writers, Keith Griffen and J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Howard Porter; colorist, Hi-Fi; letterer, Nick J. Napolitano; editors, Brittany Holzherr and Marie Javins; publisher, DC Comics.

I Hate Fairyland 6 (June 2016)

I Hate Fairyland #6

Based on this issue, which covers the entirety of the reign of Queen Gertrude the First (and Only?), maybe Young shouldn’t do arcs with I Hate Fairyland. He’s so good at summary storytelling, which fairytales rely heavily upon, he doesn’t really need to drag things out. He does amazing things with repeated visuals, repeated jokes. This issue’s narrative mostly takes place off panel but it’s still about as perfect a comic about a homicidal woman-child turned ruler of a fairytale kingdom could be.

The other thing about doing a bunch of short scenes is how much mileage Young can get out of the gore. Gertrude’s not just an evil queen, she’s bad at the job. She’s bad at being an evil queen. So he builds up expectation and then is able to fulfill it quickly before moving on. This issue is like a bunch of little hills. The gory, hilarious payoff is at the peak, but the journey’s the thing. While each gag has its punctuation point, the transitions are awesome too. Young knows how to make funnies.

I Hate Fairyland is high concept, but the series’s excellence isn’t in that concept. It’s in Young’s ability, which is sort of higher concept than the McGuffin. It’s masterful stuff. It just happens to be exceedingly gory and crude.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Skottie Young; colorist, Jean-Francois Bealieu; letterer, Nate Piekos; publisher, Image Comics.

The Spire 8 (June 2016)

The Spire #8

There are many impressive things about this final issue of The Spire, but I think the most impressive has to be how Spurrier and Stokely pace the whole thing. It’s got a quick reveal to solve a mystery, but then spins into this third act for the entire series. Not to mention a simultaneously tragic and awesome moment for one of its most endearing characters.

Hero fartslam indeed.

While Shå solves The Spire’s mystery internally, there’s also the external (to the Spire) battle raging. Or preparing to rage. Spurrier and Stokely toggle quickly between the plot threads, agitating the reader and the characters. Everything is urgent, everything is important.

There are lots of revelations this issue. Probably half a dozen, maybe a few more, but Spurrier has the reader (and the characters) ready to digest them while in motion. There are no pause points; he never has to go overtly expository. The Spire is sci-fi fantasy noir, using the best narrative devices of each genre.

It’s also the best kind of depressing–symmetrical in its tragedy. Spurrier and Stokely make it move so fast, it haunts the reader without ever having to shock the reader.

The Spire is outstanding. Spurrier and Stokely. Hero fartslam.

CREDITS

Writer, Simon Spurrier; artist, Jeff Stokely; colorist, André May; letterer, Steve Wands; editors, Cameron Chittock and Eric Harburn; publisher, Boom! Studios.

Lazarus 22 (June 2016)

Lazarus #22

Forever is out of commission this issue of Lazarus, giving Rucka time to develop Johanna further. The supporting cast of Lazarus is always something of a prickly situation as they know more than the protagonist and than the reader. It makes it hard to be sympathetic towards them, hard to trust them. Actively hiding something from Forever feels like actively hiding it from the reader. It’s hostile.

For instance, the little Forever Carlyle clone. She’s adorable. She has snowball fights. She’s probably going to either kill a bunch of people or get killed. It’s going to be tragic. And Johanna is aware of it and unfeeling about it. The most important thing Rucka’s done with his “world building” is make the characters of Lazaraus acceptably soapy. It’s the main suspension of disbelief. You have to believe the machinations.

This issue gives Johanna enough character–though Rucka does go a little far with the father issues. But Johanna does have enough character to function now. She’s rounded enough.

Now, all of this story stuff comes during what’s essentially an action issue. Lark gets to do two major battle scenes. With flying soldier guys. It’s awesome.

So nice to have another Lazarus.

CREDITS

Cull, Part One; writer, Greg Rucka; penciller, Michael Lark; inkers, Lark and Tyler Boss; colorist, Santiago Arcas; letterer, Jodi Wynne; editor, David Brothers; publisher, Image Comics.

Detective Comics 934 (August 2016)

Detective Comics #934

What a nice pilot for a new Detective Comics. Batman and Batwoman are partners–their mission is to train the vigilantes of Gotham to fight some new threat. This threat follows them around with little bat-drones, but Batman can’t figure out they’re still being followed. It’s a team book, but with familiar Bat-family members and a decidedly modern approach. Heavy on the one-liners, heavy on implied action, light on actual content.

Is the problem the art or the story? Well, Eddy Barrows’s art isn’t there but it might be with a better inker. Eber Ferreira doesn’t have a feel for the art. He rounds it, reduces it, instead of emboldening it. Would better art make a significant difference? No. Would great art make a significant difference? Sure. But it’s a monthly superhero book and Barrows delivers it.

So is it the writing? Yeah, sure? Sorry to be so noncommittal but Detective Comics feels pretty noncommittal. Writer James Tynion IV mostly gives everyone sound bites instead of dialogue. Spoiler and Robin have a conversation, Batman and Batwoman, Batman and Clayface, but these are quippy, fast conversations. It’s meant to entertain not tell a story, because Tynion doesn’t have a story to tell.

I suppose Detective Comics is better than I was expecting (though nowhere near what I was hoping for). But it’s just a mediocre superhero book (in desperate need of better editing).

CREDITS

Rise of the Batmen, Part One: The Young and the Brave; writer, James Tynion IV; penciller, Eddy Barrows; inker, Eber Ferreira; colorist, Adriano Honorato Lucas; letterer, Marilyn Patrizio; editors, Dave Wielgosz and Chris Conroy; publisher, DC Comics.

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