The Books of Magic (1993-2019)

Books of Magic v1

Books of Magic

Original series and recent “Moveable Type” trade paperback

Back in 1991, DC decided to let one of their successful new writers, Neil Gaiman, fresh from his success with The Sandman, an opportunity to play in the sandbox with a bevy of their silver age B list characters, weaving them into the origin of what they hoped would be a new success, The Books of Magic.

It concerned the big four of these lot, and their concern and involvement on what the universe handed them was a new disciple of the mystic arts, and whether he was up to standards and was either to be allowed or eliminated, depending on this trial phase.

Books of Magic introduced Timothy Hunter, a young English lad thrust into a world of magic and mysticism, that would later perhaps influence another English writer into “inventing” a similar character, with similar attributes, with an owl familiar with whom most of you know of already. That DC’s parent company, Warner Bros., would have huge success producing a series of movies based on the best selling books of the later incarnation, would give us the pathway of what turns the money world and how it forms decisions at a corporate level. If Tim Hunter were privately owned by Gaiman and not work for hire, Harry Potter’s place in history might have turned out to be a very different story.

Warner Bros.’s handling of the situation is illuminated well by the almost thirty years that have passed since his first published tale.

Books of Magic, a four issue, prestige formatted book given four different and highly talented artists, was indeed a good vehicle for keeping Gaiman busy and happy at DC, an exercise in giving him reign over some of the mystical “heroes” and incorporating them into Timothys story, allowing him access to, and eventual “certification” to belong and influence events in this portion of DC’s universe.

The books themselves took young Tim on a journey throughout each book, with the b list characters leading the way, showing him bits and pieces of what came before him in the DC supernatural mythos, and whether he wanted to or even could assume his place among them.

Here is Gaiman’s strong suit as a writer of comics, his love of English fictional lore, and his ability to take previously invented characters and weave them successfully into the tapestry of the DC Universe, yet still giving him some freedom to pick and pull at the characters, reinventing them for a new modern feel, giving them relevance they really didn’t have before as B listers of the past.

And weave them he did, much like the Sandman before him, Books of Magic, while not reinventing the wheel, provides a decent respite from the previous ham fisted depictions of magical lands and environment that had escaped DC before. Each of the four comics more or less completes a chunk of Tim’s introduction, along with the weight of deeper roles Gaiman obviously enjoyed depicting.

By the series end, Gaiman brings it all around, and with the help of the artists, completes a grand tale that pretty much satisfies the hunger of readers of such things, and more importantly, brings forth and refreshes another portion of the DC portfolio to explore and publish stories about.

While I must confess, fairies and mythical monsters aren’t my sort of thing, but I got the set of them cheap at a comics fair during my hunts, and wanted to see what the fuss was about in a manner that allowed me to sample them inexpensively. All in all, I thought it was a successful series, imbued with solid visual storytelling skills from the artists (the Charles Vess issue is outstanding), and Gaiman’s writing, while not my cup of tea, kept me interested, and by its finish, I felt none the worse for having read it. My time invested didn’t exactly enhance my experience with comics, but I didn’t feel there was a couple of hours of my time wasted either.

Many years later, DC Comics would move its offices from New York where it had been since the invention of comic books themselves, to the west coast, incorporating itself fully both in it’s physical and etherial presence within the sconces of the Warner Bros facilities proper.

In the meantime, Books of Magic had gone on to an aesthetically successful run of seventy five issues and numerous appearances in the DC comics canon. I noticed while attempting to acquire a collection of this run through my local library that a collected book of the most recent series published after their move was available, so I reserved it and read it.

Now according to the cover blurb, Tim is published under them banner along the top as part of the “Sandman Universe” with the Vertigo imprint still used as a differential label to distinguish itself from the rest of their mainstream properties. Gaiman’s name is listed as a co creator, but really none of his presence other than utilizing his regurgitated universe seem to show evidence of his presence here.

The six issue mini series that is collected here pretty much goes through the tropes of once again revisiting and reintroducing the characters, perhaps to make it more accessible to a new audience, which is a solid goal for these things. The problem is, after reading it, I’m no closer to actually reading an actual story than I was when I started. We seem to be going through the chore of not just reintroducing characters, but one of plot as well. You can checklist this book entirely through its more or less stereotyped events that comics of this sort have already demonstrated; sadly this comes off as if you’re watching an old rerun of a television show you’ve already seen many times. Worse yet, after six issues and almost identical page count to the earlier saga, we are woefully short of an actual story and no closer to one by the series end. It has served merely as a prologue to a larger event that continues on in what I imagine will be the next volume.

Now this is where some modern published comic books seem to have hit a wall, both in terms of garnering a new audience, and giving value in the time spent reading it. The creators here, I imagine through no fault of their own, shall remain nameless because a creative person needs to work. They have turned in what looks entirely like an editorially mandated exercise, checking off the points it needs to hit, along the way to offering a product that lives off its own previous success. It doesn’t provide any new creativity or invention, and is produced to seek out the most common denominator in finding a customer, giving them the impression something is actually going on here, hooking them into investing themselves in the next volume to continue or perhaps complete the story.

At short of twenty dollars with tax included, readers would be better served by studying and referencing other comic stories and creators, an easy task these days with as much access to information as we have, and searching out material that has been vetted and written about to give inspiration to find such things.

This current volume of Books of Magic isn’t about introducing the reader to a new fascinating character and mythology, but more about the numbing of creativity, franchising a copyrighted product and fooling its consumer into buying something that looks like the real McCoy, but sure doesn’t taste like it, akin to eating a fast food burger and wishing it were made with real ingredients by someone that puts creativity, invention, and love into it. Sadly, the hour it took to experience this book gives neither satisfied taste buds, and the impression my time could have been better spent elsewhere. The dearth of invention displayed here makes it look like an undernourished imitation of the version that came before it. How sad.

Sorry Harry, oops, I meant Tim.

Better luck next time.

Deathbed #2 (May 2018)

Deathbed #2

Deathbed still has pacing issues. Williamson does a lot better without exposition on the girl. The first issue pretended she was the protagonist. This issue reveals she’s the sidekick. She’s a good sidekick, but just the sidekick.

And it’s not even because the lead guy–Luna (the aged but still virile adventurer–seriously, how long has it been since Tom Strong established the old man adventurer in comics); anyway, its not because the lead guy gets more to do. He obviously does, because there’s a big fight at a funeral. Artist Rossmo’s comedy chops exceed his action. The action is good. A little busy but good. The comedy is great.

The comedy art will need to be great because Deathbed isn’t just about Luna and his biographer having adventures. It’s about Luna growing as a person. Williamson writes Luna the grower better than Luna the shower. Oh, sorry, I must still be thinking about how fixated Deathbed is at showing Luna nude. It might be funny if the biographer cared but she doesn’t. Instead it’s weird. Is it a machismo thing?

Anyway. Much improved second issue.

It does still read too fast.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Riley Rossmo; colorist, Ivan Plascencia; letterer, Deron Bennett; editor, Amedeo Turturro; publisher, Vertigo.

Deathbed #1 (April 2018)

Deathbed #1

I’ve been reading indie books so long I forgot what Vertigo pacing feels like. Besides the pacing, Deathbed actually doesn’t feel too much like a “Vertigo book.” Sure, the witty, buxom female protagonist feels like a Vertigo book–oh, no, am I going to regret saying it didn’t feel like a Vertigo book–but the subject of the book doesn’t feel like a Vertigo “hero.”

Deathbed is about a failing writer who agrees to ghostwrite the autobiography of some guy she’s never heard of. But he’s rich. And it turns out he’s a monster hunter. It’s never clear whether or not the protagonist–Val–is aware there are monsters. It’s a problem, but writer Joshua Williamson skips over it. He’s got the issue to finish.

It’s going to be six issues, which is probably fine. Nothing much happens here–not in terms of establishing the protagonist (though it’s entirely possible she’s not going to get any more character than she’s got at the end of issue one)–except there’s eventually mummies attacking a naked old (but astoundingly fit) guy and him killing them all.

It’s not a spoiler. It’s kind of the point of the book. He’s on his final quest–rid the world of bad guys until one of them kills him. Val, ghostwriter, will be there to watch.

Riley Rossmo’s art is all right, but the book’s so rushed there’s not a lot of time to appreciate it. There’s a strange reliance on double page spreads, which just hurry things along even more.

Deathbed needs to slow down.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Riley Rossmo; colorist, Ivan Plascencia; letterer, Deron Bennett; editor, Amedeo Turturro; publisher, Vertigo.

Frostbite 1 (November 2016)

Frostbite #1

You know what, Frostbite would be a perfectly fine graphic novel. Maybe not with the colors–Luis NCT adds a bunch of fake perspective with the pointalized coloring and it takes even more personality out of Jason Shawn Alexander’s art, but as a single sitting commitment, it’d be fine.

It’s about some post-apocalyptic wasteland with an artificially created atomic winter complete with a mysterious plague called frostbite. Freezes the body into an ice cube. Can’t you just see it on a TV show? I feel like the CW just needs to commit to a Vertigo anthology TV show and then we could get back to more interesting comics from them. But maybe not.

There’s a plucky, but dark, Han Solo-type leading this group of ice mercenaries or smugglers or something. Doesn’t matter. There’s an annoying scientist the team has to save so the world can be saved. It’s like when a TV pilot just doesn’t do it. I don’t care. The hook isn’t in. Not with the art; even though Alexander’s got the right setting, he doesn’t have fluid enough lines. His art doesn’t move.

And he’s really cheap on backgrounds.

Maybe I’ll read the first trade.

CREDITS

Writer, Joshua Williamson; artist, Jason Shawn Alexander; colorist, Luis NCT; letterer, Steve Wands; editor, Maggie Howell and Jamie S. Rich; publisher, Vertigo.

Dark Night: A True Batman Story (June 2016)

Dark_Night_A_True_Batman_Story_2016Superheroes appeal to children because, as Paul Dini points out in this memoir, they’re a child’s power fantasy. This book is about how he got brutally injured in a mugging while working as a writer on Batman: The Animated Series and his irrational shock that Batman wasn’t there to save him. Therefore the book is also about the fragile mental state of adults who still idolize superheroes beyond childhood, but Dini skims over that. He still idolizes funny underwear men for a living to this day, and that perceptual limitation is really the only thing keeping this very good comic from being great. Still, it’s probably the best Batman story of the year by far. They should’ve gone all out on promotion, instead of making it a Vertigo Book and arbitrarily consigning it to second-tier notice, for the sin of admitting Batman isn’t real.

A young man’s interest in fictional superheroes as objects of sincere admiration, rather than entertainment, grows inversely to their maturation, including the ability to physically defend themselves. This is the true stereotype of the 98 pound weakling who’d rather read Batman comics than play sports growing up – and now it’s worse, they’d rather play the Arkham Asylum games which Paul happened to write. Batman wins every millennial’s popularity contest for being the so-called “most realistic” superhero. His lack of superpowers suggests the illusion that if his geekiest admirers were sufficiently motivated by the most primal early trauma (premature loss of parents) and had access to unlimited time and money, they too could become strong enough to scare bullies. To step back and chart one’s enjoyment of Batman over time is to graph one’s personal growth or lack thereof. For those lucky enough to land a job writing the character, reality can get even more confused if you’re not sufficiently grounded. Paul Dini was vicariously living in Batman’s world for a living before reality kicked the living shit out of him.

Dark Night is about his rehabilitation and the wisdom garnered, only he didn’t seem to learn all that much in the final analysis. So he uses Batman, who has more moral authority than Jesus to people of my generation, as one of several licensed characters serving as an imaginary chorus whose words can convince us, and himself. It’s a very well done comic, but also a bit of a therapy session that’s overly self-congratulatory. Big questions about the power of myth or the actual danger of crime are sidestepped in favor of solipsism. At the conclusion he postures towards sharing some greater knowledge from the experience, but it winds up a fatuous “shit happens, dust yourself off and don’t be bitter” kind of message, after frequent avoidances of weightier aspects touched briefly and then ignored. The only one he devotes any attention to, since it figured most prominently into the difficulty of his recovery, is the low self-esteem of the average nerd. Even one whose dream of writing Batman cartoons came true.

I grew up on Batman: The Animated Series and as many fans will tell you, Dini wrote several of the most memorable episodes. What seems obvious in hindsight is how many of his episodes were either about bullied wimps or the lovesick: Joker’s Favor, The Man Who Killed Batman, Heart of Ice, and especially Mad as a Hatter – an effective origin tale for The Mad Hatter in which Jervis Tetch plays White Knight to his own workplace Alice and becomes a Dark Knight villain. At the episode’s climax, Alice is rendered comatose by mind control and Batman enrages the lovelorn geek by pointing out that what he truly wants is “a soulless little doll,” not an actual three-dimensional woman. Dini makes a big point of establishing his unsuccessful love life as the catalyst of fateful evening, albeit indirectly – it happened after he walked home from a bad date, rather than accepting a ride from the young would-be starlet who’d just given him the kiss-off. As Dini points out, the walk was through wealthy West Hollywood so it wasn’t an irrational assumption that he’d be safe. As he imagines various Batman villains anthropomorphizing his inner demons, the face of womanly torment is Poison Ivy rather the perhaps more apt choice of Mad Hatter. When narratively taking stock of his poor life decisions, chief among them is his pursuit of dating actress/model types whom he could brag about to his friends, rather than a woman he could someday marry. Soulless little dolls. As the adage goes, Hollywood is high school with money and a writer for Tiny Toons with ties to Steven Spielberg is like a dork whose rich parents are lending him their Bentley.

Dini puts so much weight into his lack of validation by beautiful women before getting jumped – and then, weirdly, the only follow-up is the unsurprising detail that one of these gold diggers barely cared about his situation when called up for sympathy. By this point we’ve already read the chilling page where, bloodied and beaten, he realizes upon staggering home that there will be no one inside to comfort him. Later in a flashback sequence during his hospitalization, he recalls being stood up by another pretty girl as his date to the Emmys. Despite winning and taking home one of the awards, his self-loathing apparently ran so deep he proceeded to cut himself in front of the mirror using the statuette, expressing disgust with his own chubby bespectacled nerd self. It’s a stunning and powerfully symbolic admission. He prefaces the night of his attack with all this fear of sexual inadequacy, but fails to draw any connection between the twin injuries to his masculinity: romantic rejection and getting your ass kicked. It doesn’t get any worse than that for the male ego, especially in the course of a single evening. His subsequent despair that he somehow deserved what happened, as karmic balance to his artistic success in life, is a crisis of manhood that he thinks himself too unique to grapple with. As his own narrator to this chapter in his life, he never lets on any understanding that the reader might have endured the same fears and sufferings, including his soon-to-be lowest point.

Recuperating from the horrific attack, holed up in his apartment and descending into depression, the principal question quickly becomes how Paul will find the will to continue writing Batman in a world where Batman doesn’t swoop in to save you IRL. The most striking passages of this comic aren’t Dini imagining Batman as a stern father figure, telling him to get up and stand tall after being knocked down. They are of The Joker insidiously urging him to wallow in self-pity and retreat into comforting overindulgence – fast food, video games, movies, et cetera – after the world has traumatized him. Joker even sells this retreat as a return to the “childhood bedroom” of Dini’s “invisible” youth, fleshed out in a few autobiographical pages at the start. This is particularly fascinating when taking into account how The Joker has equaled or eclipsed Batman’s popularity in mainstream culture by embodying narcissistic hedonism. (The 1989 film puts the sensitive creative person’s spin on this: The Joker as the dark power fantasy of the insensitive artist who “makes art until someone dies.”) Paul’s apartment is a den of toys, animation cells and “the trappings of geek nirvana.” Holy Target Audience, does he even realize he’s describing a large section of his readership? What’s disappointing is that he took what could have been a widely relatable true-life parable for every superhero fan about the limits of their escapism, and the soul death of arrested development, and instead portrays the restoration of his professional status quo – product output at the dream factory – as the crucial triumph.

Probably the most fascinating and telling scene is Dini’s anecdotal rebuttal to the traditional methods of manning up. As the wounds start to heal, Batman recommends that if he feels unattractive and physically vulnerable, he could lose weight, get in shape and start learning how to fight. In response to this completely reasonable proposal, Paul does a shock jump-forward to the day he almost bought a gun. Batman then mocks him for wanting to be like James Bond. In an evasive obfuscation, Paul retorts that he could never be like Batman. Now, Batman wasn’t implying that Paul become a real life Batman, just that he could regain confidence by dropping a few pounds and looking less of an easy target. Batman, who is of course Paul Dini writing a dialogue with himself, accuses Paul Dini of engaging in a power fantasy. It’s circular and manipulative; Paul is actually reassuring himself that there’s no middle ground between being totally defenseless and deluding yourself into thinking you can become James Bond by buying a gun, or Batman by taking karate lessons.

In the introspective wrap-up of the book’s conclusion, The Scarecrow taunts Paul with the potentiality of living his life in fear of future assailants, to which he retorts that he can’t live his life in fear of lightning strikes, either. He seems oblivious to the fact it is an extraordinarily privileged position to regard potentially fatal assault and battery as a statistical freak occurrence, no more predictable than natural disasters. For pity’s sake, one of the best scenes in the comic is the LAPD’s indifference to Paul’s plight after the incident, and his incredulousness that they’re not even going to dust for prints like The Dark Knight Detective™. He certainly admits to the hard-learned fact that the police aren’t always going to be there for him, let alone Batman, but he still won’t take any personal measures to feel safer in the future, still regarding violence as something unreal. Rationalizing to Batman that he’d have been murdered if he’d “tried anything physical,” he’s more or less alluding to the “one bad day” trope of The Killing Joke every Bat-fan knows by heart, telling The Joker that to “embrace anger and cruelty and try to use them to feel powerful” would be going down the path of Joker rather than Batman. Jeez, Paul, we get it, you didn’t want to start lifting weights. It’s a bit socially irresponsible to promote the idea that taking measures towards self-defense is tempting fate, just because you never thought you’d have your life threatened and don’t want to believe it could ever happen twice.

There’s an awkward racial component in Dark Night, injected but never acknowledged, which may help explain why Dini depicts himself as so guilty over his instinct to somehow toughen up after his bloody beating. Yes, the two guys who stomped him bore the curse of Ham and moments before their paths cross, Dini’s inner monologue chastises himself not to “be the dick who changes direction just because he sees a couple of black guys.” Later, Batman criticizes him for not thinking like Batman would upon seeing “two figures huddled close together, faces obscured, moving toward toward you in a predatory manner!” Hey, Bats, you don’t really need to profile when you live in a fictional city unstuck in time where all the criminals still wear fedoras. Batman then blames Paul for not changing direction from the two thug-lyfe looking gentlemen because he was “too worried about looking scared or judgmental.” It’s worth considering that at the time, it had only been a year since the Rodney King riots and Los Angeles was still on edge about black-on-white violence. One page later, a black colleague at the Warner Brothers Animation office bluntly asks Paul if the guys who did it were black. And he lies – he says only one of them was. “Damn it” the staffer says, and offers Paul a handshake, an implicit apology on behalf of all brothers. The matter is never brought up afterwards, and Dini doesn’t feel it incumbent on himself to explain to the reader what it says about him that he felt the need to lie. Later, there’s a suspicious glance cast at a black guy who approaches him in a music store, but whew – turns out he’s just a Tiny Toons fan. Again, as omniscient narrator, Dini never acknowledges any of this racial tension. I’d guess his reluctance to start seeing the world in a harsher light is at least somewhat tied to a fear of racially profiling which his conscience can’t allow. This fits right in to his self-absolving faith that the morally superior attitude towards violent crime is, as he literally states, to think of it as lightning which won’t strike him twice.

Dark Night promises more than it delivers in terms of thematic depth. However, the emotion is all there. The concept of a Batman writer, especially a talented one like Paul Dini, using the characters as invisible friends and enemies throughout his true story of surviving being the victim of a violent crime is such a solid, inspired basis for a graphic novel. It’s the kind of meta-story for which these characters are very well suited after 75 years of exhausting every possible straightforward comic book plot. They function best now as icons, which is why the comic is a clever and enjoyable read and The Lego Batman Movie will make more money than all the other Batman movies combined. It’s always preferable to see more poetic use of the characters than seeing them wedged into ill-fitting “realistic” stories. Dini does muddle around the big questions when he uses Batman for rhetorical stances on actual important matters like guns and criminal justice. What’s genuinely moving are the times when he sincerely exposes his vulnerability, holds his ego to account and examines how creative artistry shapes his worldview, in good times and bad.

Speaking of artistry, there’s really nothing to say about Eduardo Risso’s illustration except that it’s masterful. Dini’s career requires him to visually reference not only Batman: The Animated Series but other pop culture from Beany and Cecil to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and he’s always on-model. His own original designs for the Batman villains are simultaneously ugly and very appealing. He draws Paul past and present, in realistic and caricatured styles, sometimes changing from panel to panel depending on narrative needs, without ever misstepping. The color is also incredible, emphasizing every mood and blending human beings with Paul’s cartoon imaginings seamlessly.

This “True Batman Story” ends on a note of hope, with Harley Quinn welcoming Dini back to work. Harley Quinn is one of the worst Batman characters ever created, a supremely irritating Manic Pixie Dream Girl that could only have been invented by someone with issues around women.

Still, at least she only shows up in the last couple pages. Highly recommended!

CREDITS

Dark Night: A True Batman Story; story, Paul Dini; art, Eduardo Risso; letterer, Todd Klein; publisher, DC Comics.

Suiciders 1 (April 2015)

Suiciders #1

Because no one remembers Escape From L.A., it’s time for Suiciders. But people do remember Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome–or at least the Thunderdome. Writer and artist Lee Bermejo rips off one of those movies, or just any other movie where post-apocalyptic guys fight in an arena to do the death for the enjoyment of the masses. Wasn’t it in a Zorro too?

There’s nothing original about Suiciders, except maybe bringing illegal immigration into it except it’s probably something Judge Dredd did thirty years ago.

But the comic’s extremely readable. Bermejo’s not a good writer, but his dialogue’s passable (maybe editorial actually did some work on the comic) and it’s a gorgeous looking comic book. Suiciders gets away with everything because it looks gorgeous.

When will the stupidity outweigh the gorgeous art? Depends on how much cool stuff Bermejo gets to draw.

It’s a desperate attempt from Vertigo though.

CREDITS

The Brutality Malady; writer and artist, Lee Bermejo; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Jared K. Fletcher; editors, Gregory Lockard and Will Dennis; publisher, Vertigo.

Moonshadow 4 (December 1994)

Moonshadow #4

This issue has Moonshadow and Ira getting forced into military service. It’s an intergalactic war, which gives Muth a lot of great stuff to draw. Moonshadow is conceptually low-tech and almost junky in how it shows extraterrestrial civilization, but Muth does find occasion for some really beautiful details. Space travel through individual bubbles, for example, is breathtaking.

DeMatteis has a lot about war, which he always tells from Moon’s romanticized point of view, even when Moon doesn’t think he’s being romantic. There’s a great little subplot for Ira too. DeMatteis tells it over a page or two–Moonshadow is told in summary, with short emphasized scenes. DeMatteis sometimes focuses these well, sometimes poorly. This issue he focuses them well throughout.

The most affecting part of the issue takes place in flashback, one of Moon’s mother’s memories. DeMatteis forces this flashback (as he does them all) but the content’s strong.

B+ 

CREDITS

The Crying of the Wind; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

Moonshadow 3 (November 1994)

Moonshadow #3

Things get a little too slow this issue, with Moon stuck in an asylum and Ira, his combination sidekick and antagonist, has to break him out. Why? Because Ira needs Moon to work odd jobs to support them. In the meantime, Moon has some encounters with his fellow inmates and there’s a lovely sequence when he plays the flute for them.

Muth’s art for that sequence is gorgeous. It flows, which is sort of strange, since the second half of the issue has a lot of action and a lot of examples of Muth not flowing. He does straight action scenes, very realistic painted panels. They’re technically good, but a little too static. It doesn’t help DeMatteis’s script kind of runs around in a circle too.

If there had been something along the way, something significant for Moon, it would’ve worked out a whole lot better. Instead, it’s gorgeous, troubled.

B 

CREDITS

The Crying of the Wind; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 8 (August 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #8

Either the reader is going to buy into Gaiman’s setup for this issue or the reader is going to reject it. Even before Gaiman gets into the “meat” of the issue, which is basically a lengthy monologue from Dream about the importance of Death. Both as a natural event and as Dream’s sister.

The issue opens with them seeing each other for the first time after Dream’s escape from captivity and his quest. Gaiman goes really far on the self-aware dialogue, using Death to expound on the comic book and on its protagonist.

He also goes with an inanely cheap ending; many of Sandman’s worst moments are just ones cribbed from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (without any of the context).

Once again, Gaiman does a montage of regular people who he doesn’t care about. It’s slightly less tedious than the overdone immortal sibling dialogue.

Dringenberg’s art annoys too.

C- 

CREDITS

The Sound of Her Wings; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Mike Dringenberg; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 7 (July 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #7

Ah, the big fight issue. Doctor Destiny versus Dream for control of the Dreamworld. Or whatever it’s called. After the two stand-off in the diner, after some glimpses of the world going mad, Doctor Destiny has a trippy dream he’s Caesar and then the big fight. It’s the two of them against a white background. Not the most visceral setting for a comic book fight scene.

Gaiman has a lot of problems trying to make this issue work as a comic. He’s so wrapped up in traditions, he doesn’t just not do anything new, he doesn’t do anything worthwhile. The glimpses to the world gone mad don’t create concern, they create distance.

Dringenberg’s pencils don’t help things. The awkwardly proportioned figures change throughout, without rhyme or reason. Sandman gives the pretense of thoughtfulness and depth, but it’s generic.

There’s no sense of scale or character. Gaiman avoids writing Dream.

C 

CREDITS

Sound and Fury; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Mike Dringenberg; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 6 (June 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #6

The issue takes place over a day at a diner. Doctor Destiny is trying to bring about the end of the world and he traps a bunch of people in the diner and slowly drives them mad. Or not slowly.

Gaiman makes the characters distinct, horrific, pitiable. He doesn’t have time to establish them as sympathetic so he doesn’t even try. Some of them he plays for laughs, others for shock value. Dringenberg takes over the pencils; he doesn’t do a particularly good job. There’s no personality to the art, especially not in the horrific scenes. Some of the talking heads stuff is decent.

The issue feels so derivative, so manipulative, it starts to get boring before the halfway point. Gaiman’s using sensational human suffering. Even when he writes a good scene, it’s still just a cheap trick in a bridging issue.

All to avoid giving Doctor Destiny a personality.

C 

CREDITS

24 Hours Diner; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Mike Dringenberg; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 5 (May 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #5

Gaiman’s strings show a little too much this issue. The Justice League guest stars–well, just Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle. Turns out while Dream was away, someone became a supervillain with one of his gadgets. It ties things into the DC universe a little too much. There’s a great bit where Mister Miracle is dreaming of Apokolips and Kieth and Malcolm Jones III do a fantastic Kirby homage.

But most of the issue is this supervillain kidnapping a housewife and having her drive him to the location of this gadget. It’s in Justice League storage, which is just a storage unit somewhere. No security. It’s idiotic, but fits the issue, where Gaiman goes the predictable route every time.

He does have a handle on the humor. And, oddly enough, Dream barely narrates. It’s like Gaiman doesn’t want him to distract from the winks back to previous comics.

Too bad.

C+ 

CREDITS

Passengers; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Sam Kieth; inker, Malcolm Jones III; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 4 (April 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #4

Dream goes to Hell, which requires the Demon as a guest star. Gaiman doesn’t have anything for him to do, past rhyme a little for the protagonist and cause some mischief. It’s a pointless cameo, though Kieth and Dringenberg do fine on the Demon. They don’t do so well later, when they have to draw every demon in Hell. Actually, they do fine on the demons… they lose their hold on Dream at that point. He feels too out of place.

The issue has maybe the most narration from Dream so far and it gets tedious. He needs to outwit the demons of Hell with riddles and so on. Intentionally or not, Gaiman’s so sincere he doesn’t have any wit. It’s all very heavy and very boring.

Just when things should pick up in the second half, the comic slows, getting more tedious. So far, Dream’s boring as a lead.

C 

CREDITS

A Hope in Hell; writer, Neil Gaiman; pencillers, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg; inker, Dringenberg; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 3 (March 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #3

Dream’s quest brings him into a John Constantine story–and with Constantine comes a return of Kieth’s improbably proportions for people’s legs–but it’s the strongest issue so far. Gaiman writes Constantine really well, with enough nods to his adventures and the DC universe but never to the point he’s just filling in.

And having Constantine and Dream team-up gives the reader a somewhat human perspective on the fantastical things in the issue–especially since Constantine doesn’t know about Dream. He’s experiencing these things for the first time too.

It’s also nice how Gaiman doesn’t go too far outside the issue’s narrative. He doesn’t work on subplots, just the particular quest experience for Dream and Constantine’s strange encounter. It feels more cohesive, but it also feels a lot more organic. Gaiman’s not trying too hard.

Other than the stumpy legs, Kieth and Dringenberg do really well on the art.

B+ 

CREDITS

Dream a Little Dream of Me; writer, Neil Gaiman; pencillers, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg; inker, Dringenberg; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 2 (February 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #2

For the second issue, with Dream ending up needing help from Cain and Abel–who appropriately bookend the tale–Gaiman doesn’t do a lot except continue to setup Dream’s eventual quest. He needs to regain his talismans or whatnot; all the exposition about what’s happened to his world in his absence is secondary.

Until the end of the issue, at least, because there’s where Gaiman introduces the next steps Dream may take. It’s a promised tour of the DC supernatural universe–with Constantine–but also the superheroes. There’s a Batman connection, including an Arkham Asylum visit.

The result is Gaiman doesn’t really do anything to establish the series, which is fine, but he also has a floundering Dream. For a protagonist, in a second issue, it doesn’t help. It leaves the series–and the reader–without footing when relying on the lead.

Nicely, the art’s consistently strong throughout the issue.

B 

CREDITS

Imperfect Hosts; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Sam Kieth; inker, Mike Dringenberg; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

The Sandman: Master of Dreams 1 (January 1989)

The Sandman: Master of Dreams #1

Neil Gaiman starts Sandman with the world changing. Except it’s in flashback, so it’s entirely possible the reader has been living in this changed world without realizing it. Except it’s sort of in DC continuity–the Golden Age Sandman shows up–so the reader isn’t really in that world anyway. Gaiman plays with the ideas a little, but doesn’t go particularly far with them.

Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg’s art is fantastic for these parts of the issue. Creepy, gory, but never overboard with it. They find the exact balance–and retain some physical humor in the art. It’s great.

Then the titular character comes in and, all of a sudden, Keith can’t draw figures in the right proportion anymore. And Gaiman’s narrating from Dream’s perspective (he doesn’t get named yet but still), but only from the second half of the issue or later.

It’s disjointed overall, but pretty good.

B 

CREDITS

Sleep of the Just; writer, Neil Gaiman; penciller, Sam Kieth; inker, Mike Dringenberg; colorist, Robbie Busch; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Art Young and Karen Berger; publisher, DC Comics.

Moonshadow 2 (October 1994)

Moonshadow #2

Moonshadow continues with DeMatteis going high sci-fi–Moon, his mother and his sidekick, Ira, investigating a desolate spacecraft–while also going absurdist humor. DeMatteis works emotion into both and one of the most startling things about the comic is how dark DeMatteis will take it. The humor and the fantasy never distract; in fact, DeMatteis uses them to amplify the importance of the emotional goings on.

It’s rather phenomenal. And very hard to take because DeMatteis doesn’t offer any relief. All the humor comes with the emotional weight.

Muth renders some fantastic visuals this issue, particularly with his mix of styles at the end. And his work on the spacecraft exploration is positively frightening. Even though Muth’s art often gets to be far more playful than the script, that element of dread still lurks. DeMatteis and Muth create beauty, hope, dread and fear and intricately tie them all together.

B+ 

CREDITS

A Very Uncomfortable Thing; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

Moonshadow 1 (September 1994)

Moonshadow #1

For Moonshadow, writer J.M. DeMatteis doesn’t shy away from showing off the comic’s sci-fi influences. There’s a little Douglas Adams, a little Kurt Vonnegut. But DeMatteis doesn’t rely on those nods to move the story along, they’re just around to make the reader feel comfortable.

This first issue introduces Moonshadow, a half-human boy being raised in an intergalactic zoo, and his supporting cast. There’s his mother, who was a hippie on Earth, their cat, Frodo, and then Moon’s de facto best friend, Ira. Ira’s a shaggy alien who looks like Cousin It from “The Addams Family.”

Not a lot happens in the first issue, just the setup–Moon, at twelve, ready to explore the universe–and a lot of good narration from DeMatteis and some beautiful art from Jon J. Muth. The comic moves deliberately and calmly, with DeMatteis carefully including some humor and Muth delivering gorgeous pages.

A- 

CREDITS

Songs of Happy Cheer; writer, J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Jon J. Muth; letterer, Kevin Nowlan; editors, Shelly Bond, Laurie Sutton and Archie Goodwin; publisher, Vertigo.

100% 5 (July 2003)

100% #5

Wow.

I remembered this issue being amazing, just because Pope has such a fantastic closing moment. But he's also got a lot going on throughout the issue with how he handles the narration.

Daisy gets close third, close second, with Pope juxtaposing it against her gastro dancing. She hasn't been a mystery to this point, but she's definitely been closed off. Opening her up in narration comes at just the right time, same with Eloy getting close second person narration. Instead of the established characters getting narration–John and Kimberly–Pope flips it. He flips it and opens up the comic.

Because 100% isn't about the future or the gastro dancing or the international boxing circuit or the hinted at world wars, it's about these people. And Pope figures out an amazing way to tell their story amid all the hubbub and noise. And he visualizes noise this time.

It's peerless comics.

A 

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Paul Pope; colorist, Lee Loughridge; letterer, John Workman; editors, Mariah Huehner and Shelly Bond; publisher, Vertigo.

100% 4 (October 2002)

100% #4

Pope tries so much different stuff with this issue–he's got one scene in here where he seems to be homaging Charles Schulz. Everything he tries is successful; some of it is more wildly successful than the rest, but it all works.

He has his cast set. He has lovers, John and Daisy; he's serious about them, she's not. He has potential lovers, Kim and Eloy–she won't compromise and he needs to decide whether or not he's going to compromise his artwork. Very little thing but Pope makes it hugely consequential, even as he skims over the future society details.

Then there's Strel, who gets a bunch of pages again since her husband is back. The backstory is both confusing and not–Pope has a great way of getting in the exposition.

He's also doing things with narration–flipping flopping who gets first and third–and ambitious panel pacing for scenes.

It's brilliant stuff.

A 

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Paul Pope; colorist, Lee Loughridge; letterer, John Workman; editors, Mariah Huehner and Shelly Bond; publisher, Vertigo.

100% 3 (October 2002)

100% #3

This issue has three things going on. First is the boxer who's Strel's ex-boyfriend. He gets a couple chapters–Pope splits 100% into chapters and there are a lot of them in this issue. Anyway, the boxer gets a couple chapters. They're mostly for mood and exposition.

But then John and Daisy get to go on their date (after some flirtation earlier on) and John has managed to swipe Daisy's panties from work. Quite innocently, of course. Between this problem and Kimberly's date with Strel's cousin to get sushi, the comic feels like Love and Rockets. Not in the art, but in how Pope presents the little adventures of the cast.

It's sort of meandering. There's a lot of personality and mood, but Pope's muted. And then, out of nowhere, he executes the exceptional sex scene and all of a sudden the issue's the best in the series.

Just crazy good.

A 

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Paul Pope; colorist, Lee Loughridge; letterer, John Workman; editors, Mariah Huehner and Shelly Bond; publisher, Vertigo.

100% 2 (September 2002)

100% #2

Pope introduces a few new characters this issue, including a couple fairly substantial ones. He opens the issue on some guy who's calling Strel; she doesn't want to talk to him. Later on, Pope introduces Strel's cousin, who's interested in Kim. Kim doesn't exactly narrate her scenes–Pope uses close third person, which really brings the character into focus.

For focusing on Strel, on the other hand, Pope uses her home-life. Strel in the club or even hanging out with Kimberly isn't as vibrant as her at home with her family.

But this issue also has Daisy and John and their blossoming mutual interest. John's the other lead–narrating in the first person, explaining gastro dancing to the reader. There's a wonderful disconnect in John's queasy explanation and the beautiful Pope visualization.

Pope plays the medium too–he's especially focused on sound. How to create sound in the comic book panel.

It's awesome.

A 

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Paul Pope; colorist, Lee Loughridge; letterer, John Workman; editors, Mariah Huehner and Shelly Bond; publisher, Vertigo.

100% 1 (August 2002)

100% #1

What's 100% about? It's about this club–the Cat Shack. One of the characters is a dancer there, another is a manager, another is a busboy, another is a prospective dancer. Writer and artist Paul Pope uses the club–which also has a dancer get murdered at the start of the story–as a central location; it's the embodiment of the setting. But Pope gets away from it enough throughout, it never feels forced.

Maybe because the opening scene is away from it. Pope's panel composition and flow are so intricately executed, it would be no surprise if he made sure he kept away from the club just as carefully.

The issue, which introduces the four main characters, has a couple narrators. One is busboy John, the other is dancer Kimberly. They don't intersect, except glancingly. Pope starts the characters deep, then just fills them out to show how deep.

It's phenomenal work.

A 

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Paul Pope; colorist, Lee Loughridge; letterer, John Workman; editors, Mariah Huehner and Shelly Bond; publisher, Vertigo.

Bodies 1 (September 2014)

Bodies #1

Some time during the first part–of four–of Bodies, I realized it didn’t have much media exploitation potential. The gimmick is simple–a similarly mutilated body is found in London at different times in history (and the future) and the police investigate. Writer Si Spencer shows his hand as far as interest–with the present and the nineteenth century getting the most emphasis. Both these periods drive the narrative, with the future and the WWII eras sort of garnish.

There are different artists for each period. Meghan Hetrick for the present, Dean Ormston for the 1800s, Tula Lotay for the future, Phil Winslade for the World War II. All the art is decent and appropriate for its period; Lotay is the least successful.

Spencer tries to establish his characters quickly, but through flash not substance.

It’s a competent comic, but there’s nothing compelling about the mystery or the characters.

C 

CREDITS

Writer, Si Spencer; artists, Meghan Hetrick, Dean Ormston, Tula Lotay and Phil Winslade; colorist, Lee Loughridge; letterers, Dezi Sienty and Taylor Esposito; editors, Sara Miller and Shelly Bond; publisher, Vertigo.

Trillium 8 (June 2014)

Trillium #8

Lemire has a great device in this issue–lots of small panels full of conversation to show a rapid-fire exchange. Not sure if it's his own creation but it's a wonderful tool for pacing the reader while still having visually dynamic panels. They're just smaller panels.

The good composition and pacing continues until about halfway through the comic, when it all goes to pot.

Lemire goes for a really cheap ending to Trillium; really obvious, really self-indulgent (he changes styles at one point and I think photoshops in panels from earlier issues, regardless where the panels are from–he photoshops badly). The ending reveals how the series's pacing problems disabled it too much. The characters have changed too much, too quickly and the ending Lemire goes after needs a lot of thorough work.

Lemire ignores the series's finest qualities for its finish.

Oddly, I liked his art here more than anywhere else.

D 

CREDITS

Two Stars Become One; writer and artist, Jeff Lemire; colorists, José Villarrubia and Lemire; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual; editors, Sara Miller and Mark Doyle; publisher, Vertigo

Trillium 7 (May 2014)

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Until the hard cliffhanger, which is just too jarring both in the narrative and visually, Lemire finally gets back to fulfilling Trillium’s potential.

He makes a decision about his characters too. He’s been wishy-washy on assigning a protagonist lately–not just for issues, but for the whole series; letting his time and star crossed lovers share the position wasn’t working. He decides well.

What’s most impressive is how he lets himself go with the sci-fi spectacular visuals. Lemire’s been doing a lot with trying to dictate how the reader approaches the book (the vertically flipped pages, reading back to forth, practically choose your own adventure). This issue had grandiose visuals (many tying to previous issues’ imagery). It works beautifully without any artificial attempts to control how the reader digests it.

Lemire does well with the B plot too.

As far as penultimate issues go, this one’s outstanding.

A- 

CREDITS

All the Shadows Have Stars in Them…; writer and artist, Jeff Lemire; colorists, José Villarrubia and Lemire; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual; editors, Sara Miller and Mark Doyle; publisher, Vertigo.

Brother Lono 8 (April 2014)

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As finishes go, Lono doesn’t have a bad one. It’s not great. It’s good enough. Azzarello seems to be showing a lot of restraint, like he didn’t want to do too for a finish. Like he didn’t want turn make Lono into too much of an action hero.

Instead, Azzarello focuses on the bad guy. He’s comical at this point, just because no one’s scared of him anymore and he’s got the whole twin aquarium thing going on. It’s humor. Very, very black humor, but still humor.

But the story isn’t a humorous one. The stuff with the priest and the nun isn’t funny at all. The issue doesn’t have a tone. Azzarello doesn’t commit to any of the ones he toys with.

It’s a shame Azzarello couldn’t maintain the level of intricate plotting he had at the beginning of the series. Like I said, though, the issue’s not bad.

B 

CREDITS

¡El Perro Loco!; writer, Brian Azzarello; artist, Eduardo Risso; colorist, Trish Mulvihill; letterer, Clem Robins; editors, Gregory Lockard and Will Dennis; publisher, Vertigo.

Coffin Hill 5 (April 2014)

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With the aid of Photoshop, Miranda takes Coffin Hill’s art down worse than anything in the script could save. Of course, Kittredge doesn’t have a good script so there’s no hope anyway. The way Kittredge is developing the story–Eve versus a hidden witch, fighting for the attentions of the one good looking guy in town–there’s probably no hope for the series either.

The plotting is bad. The art’s occasionally terrible (Vertigo never would have put out a book with such weak art a few years ago), but it’s occasionally just plain mediocre too. Kittredge’s plotting is continuously bad this issue. The flashbacks are the worst. Kittredge uses them to avoid having to move forward with her actual story.

The ending, which is supposed to be a big detective scene, is the worst. Kittredge can’t write it, Miranda can’t draw it.

It’s unbelievable this book started out strong.

D 

CREDITS

Newness of the Night; writer, Caitlin Kittredge; artist, Inaki Miranda; colorist, Eva De La Cruz; letterer, Travis Lanham; editors, Sara Miller and Shelly Bond; publisher, Vertigo.

Trillium 6 (April 2014)

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The pace is a mess. Lemire blows six pages or so on a flashback to Nika’s childhood. She’s the future lady, stuck in an alternate reality past–or who knows, maybe the whole thing has a different history and Lemire is just messing with the reader. But opening with a tragic flashback and burning about a third of the issue? And not giving Nika’s counterpart William a flashback? Padding.

There’s a lot of talking this issue, another sign of padding. The conversations are all about what a character’s going to do or what the character has just done. It’s not exactly a bridging issue because Lemire does take his characters on a journey… he just skips the most interesting part. He skips the journey.

Instead there’s talking.

There are also a lot of the flipped pages, which are losing their effectiveness.

Lemire’s winding Trillium up; shame the plotting isn’t holding.

B- 

CREDITS

Escape Velocity; writer and artist, Jeff Lemire; colorists, José Villarrubia and Lemire; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual; editors, Sara Miller and Mark Doyle; publisher, Vertigo.

Coffin Hill 4 (March 2014)

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Somehow it manages to slide further downhill and redeem itself simultaneously. Kittredge has a cool cliffhanger. As much as the issue flops–Eve’s now a completely lame protagonist–the cliffhanger makes decent promises. So instead of giving up on Coffin Hill, I’m back for another.

Kittredge has a lot of problems with Eve. She can’t write her in flashbacks anymore, because she’s shown all her cards regarding the character and her limits. She can’t write her in the present because her supporting cast is terrible; the scene with the mother, right before the cliffhanger, is astoundingly bad.

But Kittredge can introduce new characters and they can be compelling. For half an issue anyway.

As for Miranda, the art is definitely continuing its slide as well… but without any to save it. There’s lots of weak composition, there’s almost no detail to characters; this comic is not nice looking at all.

B- 

CREDITS

Death upon Her Eyes; writer, Caitlin Kittredge; artist, Inaki Miranda; colorist, Eva De La Cruz; letterer, Travis Lanham; editors, Sara Miller and Shelly Bond; publisher, Vertigo.

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