Pope Hats (2009) #6

Pope Hats  6

I’ve read Young Frances, which collects Pope Hats, but haven’t actually read any Pope Hats issues. Based on this issue, it’s different to the point I can’t imagine what it’s like to read Young Frances serialized, not if Hartley Lin intersperses it with his one or two page lyrical comic strips. They’re all non-fiction (or at least appear to be non-fiction), often involving either becoming a parent or just plain parenting. One strip is Lin up late trying to get the baby to sleep, another is a flashback of sorts to the hospital room where the intensity of labor starts to fade into memory. Memory also plays a big part, with Lin reflecting on his past, usually as to how it’ll affect his parenting.

For example, will Lin pass his terror of worms—scoleciphobia—on to the next generation or will he be able to handle the slimy cylinders once his son gets old enough to consider them. Lin’s got a great observation or two about how much of his life is going to be just for the son’s experience—i.e. Lin’s only going to learn constellations because he doesn’t want to pass bad information to the kid.

It’s a somewhat tender moment—all of Pope Hats #6 is tender—but implies a murkier depth. Most of the insight in the strips are observations about others or the discernible, much less about Lin himself.

He’s got this obsession with the empty house across the street, where teenagers go to drink beer; when he reminiscences—or the strip reminiscences—about the lost friends of his youth, it’s hard not to juxtapose those histories against the (off-panel) teens. Other than some recurring—numbered, in fact—drives through Vermont, not many of the strips call back or ahead to one another. Instead, there are these gentle echoes.

It’s a strong comic. Lin sometimes relies more on the writing, which isn’t always startlingly insightful (people have been writing parenting anecdotes for thousands of years now?) but he’s always got the accompanying art and the art’s always superb. And Lin always chooses the right accompanying imagery for the anecdote.

After Young Frances, I wanted to read more Lin; I need to read more Pope Hats.

Clue: Candlestick (2019) #1

Clue Candlestick  2019  1

Dash Shaw’s style is perfect for Clue: Candlestick. His cartooning is through, detailed, and loose. His figures seem to expand and contract as needed, when they’re pontificating they seem big, when they’re recoiling they seem small. Works with them being noisy and not as well. The comic opens with Professor Plum getting an encoded letter, which reveals a bunch of backstory about the game pieces—Candlestick is a licensed Clue comic—although Plum’s physically imposing, his calm makes him seem anything but.

He lasts for most of the issue as the protagonist, or the closest thing to one, until the ending when the attention shifts to Miss White and Miss Scarlet. Shaw showcases some of the other characters throughout—especially Colonel Mustard, who does the exaggerated pontificating during the dinner scene. It’s a pretty simple first issue—the invitees go to the mansion for a dinner party, someone ends up dead, they have to solve it, then by the end of the issue someone else ends up dead. Cue cliffhanger.

Shaw plays with the board game rules at one point as he describes the “rules” for the characters investigation (it remains to be seen if they’re actually going to factor into the story or plotting) and he’s always pointing out details. Are the details clues or just details… are all details clues? Something else we’re going to have to wait and see about.

There’s some really good investigating towards the end, but with one character discovering things and, while not making any conclusions about the clues, Shaw definitely knows how set up the intrigue and the implications. It’s an extremely well-designed narrative. Better, obviously, than the board game itself. I love me some Clue but it’s not the best mystery.

And Shaw’s wholly resisting leveraging Clue: The Movie. Clue: Candlestick feels like its own thing, with the board game references just adding meat instead of gristle.

Chasing Echoes (2019)

Chasing Echoes  2019

The most perplexing thing about Chasing Echoes isn’t how it got made—there’s a writer, there’s an artist—but how it got published. Specifically, the market research saying there are people who are going to buy this thing. If it weren’t for the swearing and the women always bonding over the most unrealistic sex talk anyone's gotten published in ten years, maybe it'd be good for YA. Only there aren't any active teen characters. Pseudo-protagonist Malka has a teenage son who goes off to live with his dad because Mom’s a poor at the beginning of the book; she ostensibly spends the rest of the book worried about being homeless but not really because writer Dan Goldman doesn't know how to write worrying. Or really any other emotional state.

It's a problem. One of the many.

Goldman’s characterizations are bland—caricaturization is the word (and a word)—but so’s his dialogue (even with the occasional f bombs) and plotting in general. The book’s about an extended Jewish family going to see an Elton John concert in Poland and hitting up the family history sites, specifically concentration camps and the grandfather’s hometown. Except they need to find the hometown, which no one except Malka’s going to have any idea about because she’s the family historian even if reigning patriarch (and Malka’s uncle) Jack, doesn’t realize it.

But then they discover Poland’s just as racist and Nazi-primed as ever. It doesn’t really figure into the story—the big moment where it does is so managed it has the same resonance as if someone told off a racist in a Facebook thread—but only because there’s not a story. The book’s about the family deciding even though Malka’s a poor, it doesn’t mean she’s a bad person. But no one has any good eureka moments or comeuppance moments; Goldman doesn’t have a take on any of his caricatures or their ideas. He’ll bring up stuff like modern day genocides or whether or not Japanese-Americans get to be upset about internment and then immediately run away. Thank goodness it’s an early eighties extended family without any gays—just lots of divorce, (let’s not go too far now, it’s not Parenthood) interracial coupling, and “class” differences—because it’s unclear how Goldman would handle any actual friction.

He’d do it poorly, obviously, but probably in some really icky way.

You can tell how artist George Schall would handle it because he’s bland in very predictable ways. He’s technically proficient at his art, though never interesting or ambitious. He doesn’t have a caricature-style (he’s got no distinct style) but he manages to incorporate the details well. Like how Malka’s a wine drunk. Ha. It’s funny. Wine on the face. Ha. Funny. Drunk. Poor.

I mean, props to Goldman and Schall getting someone to pay them for this work but it’s concerning to think someone’s out there earnestly reading it. It was pretty clear how blandly bad Chasing Echoes was going to be a quarter of the way in. I only finished it out of morbid curiosity. Was Goldman ever going to do something well? No, he was not.

Eve Stranger (2019) #1

Eve Stranger  2019  1

Eve Stranger feels a little retro. Lead Eve is a woman who only can remember the last week before her memory resets. She’s an assassin or something. Some kind of mercenary. Her mission this issue is shockingly unimportant; the story skips from her getting normalized in her situation and to the mission itself. Nothing about the aftermath of the mission, which is kind of a bummer because everyone likes ice cream and there’s the promise of ice cream.

Anyway. There’s action and mystery—Eve’s got a handler who follows her around and seems to have some kind of romantic history with her (the whole thing feels a little like Memento crossed with Run Lola Run, with what seems to be a Rocket Girl nod)—but there are also the people who want to hire Eve’s services, which is a very secretively and potentially lethal process.

The only thing keeping Eve going, as Eve tells herself in a letter to herself (from one self to the next, which is a convenient device for writer David Barnett, but nowhere near as good as he seems to think), is the hunt for the truth. Her dad is out there somewhere and he knows all. Someday she’ll find him.

Probably around issue three… though it’s a five issue series, not four, so maybe issue four.

It’s a solid read. Philip Bond’s art is good. He doesn’t really get a lot to do (it’s mostly establishing shots, not action) and Barnett seems a lot less interested in his narrative than its setting. Eve going past a women’s march, for example, has a lot of built-in subtext given her situation, whereas the comic itself doesn’t have any. Yet. It’s unclear if the things on the walls (proverbial and not) are Chekhov rifles or just decoration.

But it’s definitely one of those first issues where you get done and have no idea what the rest of the series is going to read like. It’s also a fast read… a tad too fast. Especially given there’s back matter with the protagonist in an alternate life as a reporter in a slightly absurd comic strip—art by Liz Prince, script by Barnett—and it’s got more entertainment potential than the feature. Like, it’s a biting smart and funny, where as the feature’s a safe smart and a tad too efficient.

Lodger (2018) #2

The Lodger  2018  2

I may have already read this issue of Lodger. I thought I’d only read (and mostly forgotten) the first issue, but this one seems very familiar. Going into it without having read the first issue recently and not really remembering the setup—it’s about some white guy named Dante who travels around causing trouble without people realizing it while he does his travel blog and then some white girl who’s chasing him down because he did something to her. Can’t remember if he did it in the first issue or if it’s going to be a reveal later on in the series. It’s not in this issue.

I also don’t know how Lodger would read if you were unfamiliar with David Lapham, co-writer (with Maria Lapham) and artist. There’s no way there’s not some creepy thing going on with the Dante guy even if he weren’t blogging about how he happened onto a serial killer—even though it’s fairly clear he’s the serial killer who’s framing the other guy—and perving on a teenage girl. The Lodger is just a Stray Bullets remix. It could even be a spin-off, though apparently not at IDW and Black Crown (Stray Bullets is at Image, at least as of this issue’s publication based on the house ad). So it’s hard to get too invested in any of the characters. The teenage girl, Ricky, is a victim, whether she knows it or not, the reader knows it. Her mom is a victim. Her dad is a victim. And so on and so on.

The issue starts a little weak on art—Lapham’s very inky style doesn’t work well in extreme closeup but does great with medium shots in small panels—but it’s fine. For what it is, it’s fine. Is there any reason to keep going on it? Did I keep going on it before? I never wrote about it, but there’s a long stretch where comics only went on the Comics Fondle podcast versus blog responses. But I don’t even remember talking about it. I just remember reading it and thinking… oh, Lapham’s doing the teenage girl victim in danger thing. Again.

It’s kind of his genre.

The Stringbags (2020)

The stringbags  2020

When I saw the announcement for The Stringbags, after the obvious glee at a new Garth Ennis comic, the publisher stood out; publisher Dead Reckoning is the graphic novel imprint of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval Institute Press. So war comics but for war history enthusiasts, which is about the only way to phrase that demographic without making them sound exceptionally callous. And something about Ennis working with them clicked, potentially; he’d finally have a place—theoretically—with a matching concern for war comics.

And The Stringbags is even better than I’d hoped. It’s not just Ennis getting to do a longer form—a hundred and eighty-ish pages split into three parts, so it’s the equivalent of eight issues? Only without forced twenty-two page chapters. Ennis gets to take his time. Each part of Stringbags has text exposition, giving historical context, sometimes bridging between scenes; it’s great text too. Ennis writes history with a mix of enthusiasm and flair—he takes it seriously, explaining his creative choices with facts in the afterword (because he too seems to recognize the potential of the project)—so even as you wait to find out what’s happening to the heroes, you don’t really want the lecture to end. Ennis is concise and fact-filled, with an intention of making those facts count not fill. The historical context stuff often has very little to do with the eventual story content—with major exceptions, sure—but there’s also a history of the Blitz just to set up a scene occurring during the Blitz but its content unrelated. It affects the initial read pace in the first part, then changes throughout. The second part, which has that Blitz opening, ends up being the shortest as far as the text exposition goes but has the most historical contextualizing in it. You get the feel for the time period, knowing what Ennis has explained, seeing how the characters interact with each other in it, with the setting. It works out beautifully and, really, could be Ennis’s thing going forward with this kind of work. He’s finally comfortable enough telling the history and making a story in it. He’s had war story heights before, some quite high and even more effective than Stringbags, but he’s never done the history amid the historical fiction so well before. It’s fiction with straight non-fiction tangents.

It’s awesome.

Stringbags is the story of these particular planes—the Fairey Swordfish, which was a cheaper, older plane used by the Royal Navy—WWII, at least in so far as it relates to the planes (like where they were used), and then the three fictional leads. In that order of importance, but the fliers don’t make any sense without the planes and the war and vice versa. Like these planes were so slow barrage balloon cables couldn’t cut them fast enough. Enemy ships and planes’ guns weren’t timed for them. So the pilots are experiencing the events around them through this slower paced lens; in the first story, they sit back to watch the British bomb Italian ships and are in almost pure wonderment. Ennis has this fantastic narrative distance to play with; the three leads are in the war, but detached from it, both by the speed of their plane and then of their combined circumstances. Captain Archie is a mediocre pilot with goofy man-slut (but pretty thirties chaste) Ollie for a navigator and then gunner Pops, who’s been in the Royal Navy for ten years without a promotion. Archie gets ambitious, which changes their destiny and gives Ennis some particular points of view to examine the events through. They’re occasionally stereotypes so Ennis can get across the average—besides the three, there’s only one other recurring character; everyone else is purely functional—which contributes to the whole feel of the setting.

So, really good work from Ennis. Like I said, he’s figured out how to do this comic. Because the heroes aren’t just trying to get through their missions, they’re trying to get through the war, through life. The third part—heavy on history text third part—is also the culmination of a distance C plot in the first part and then a still distant B plot in the second. Ennis does it subtly. Or maybe he doesn’t and it just seems subtle because he’s got this inherent distraction of the history text.

I’ve read Stringbags three times and will definitely read it again. But reading it each time, once Ennis and PJ Holden establish the comic’s narrative language, this anticipatory enthusiasm kicks in. Stringbags is always good in the right way and Ennis doesn’t restrain himself in finding ways.

Holden’s just as important. Stringbags has details without being too detailed. There’s a fluidity to the people, particularly when they’re talking or listening, and a different kind of fluidity with the action art. Holden’s very affable with the characterizations too, so it’s fun to see how the leads react to things. Their expressions, occasionally gestures. It’s fun. And the book can get away with the lightness because these guys are removed from their surroundings. Technologically detached, which fits them.

The Stringbags is, one more time, awesome. Even if it doesn’t kick off a new phase of Garth Ennis’s creative career, it provides another supporting pillar in it.


Thanks to Dead Reckoning for providing me with an advance review copy of The Stringbags, which is due out May 20, 2020 and available for preorder from the U.S. Naval Institute as well as the A word.

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (2019) #1

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen  2019  1

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen has fairly unsurpassable creator pedigree. Steve Lieber’s mainstream superhero outings are always visually delightful since he’s able to infuse a bit of Silver Age glee into his otherwise hyper-realistic (but still very artful) style. There’s this great page where Lieber drops the background at the Daily Planet newsroom for some effect (comedic effect, actually) and it’s all the better since every panel around it has extreme detail on the setting. It’s also a fun scene because you get to see Perry White have to praise Jimmy over Jimmy’s viral popularity. Updating the Daily Planet for new media always seems like an iffy proposition but of course writer Matt Fraction can do it.

Even though Jimmy Olsen doesn’t have a grandiose story yet—in his latest stunt Jimmy destroys a bunch of the city and has to get out of town; they can’t fire him because he’s so popular his YouTube ad revenue is keeping the lights on, so they fake his death and ship him out to Gotham, presumably to reveal the stunt later on for hits. The Gotham stuff gets summed up in three panels out of a three page scene with Jimmy’s new landlord terrifying him. It’s unclear it’s Gotham until the last page, which is fine. On first blush it seems obvious, but then it seems smart. Fraction’s got a simultaneously grounded and outlandish (which Lieber does exceedingly well) reality for the series and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with Gotham. Though it’s not a really satisfying last page reveal. It sets up the series but, depending on if Jimmy’s actually staying in Gotham or going on a DCU road trip… the issue feels like someone left a window open. It’s simultaneously constrained—Fraction does it in little Silver Age-esque chapters, all have their own epical structures (very neat, it’ll be interesting to see if he can keep them going for eleven more issues)—and a little too open. The reveal at the end manages to be narratively solid but thin; it’s good for the series, not the comic. The jump from Perry plotting Jimmy’s working exile (to keep insurance down but views up) to the new location and then the further jump to the fake death? Too many hops. Efficiently done, just… leveraging a lot on shock value and goodwill.

But the book does generate a bunch of goodwill, every page, almost every panel. Fraction knows how to write this comic, Lieber knows how to visualize it. Jimmy Olsen is a can’t miss so it remains to be seen how far Fraction wants to rock the boat. Is he going to try to do anything he knows he can’t get away with… and does it matter either way. It’s still going to be Lieber and Fraction doing a Silver Age Jimmy Olsen homage. That setup is more powerful than a locomotive.

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