Weekly Reading Round-Up : 07/28/2019 – 08/03/2019

Sometimes, as a writer, you like to throw little challenges at yourself, just to make things more interesting — especially when it comes to long-running columns such as this. My self-appointed challenge this week : to see if I can crank out one of these Round-Ups in 30 minutes or less. Let’s see how that goes —

Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang ride off into the sunset with Paper Girls #30, the conclusion to their long-running Spielbergian fan-favorite series from Image, and as far as finales go, this one’s a clinic : we start with a dream sequence, we then return to the “real world” much as our memory-wiped protagonists have, and how much they will or might remember is sorta the theme here. Lots of gorgeous double-page spreads give this extra-length issue a little extra “breathing room” to say a proper good-bye to the girls, and all in all these creators hit all the right notes on the way out the door. Oh, and I defy you to keep both eyes dry as you read it. This is calculated stuff, sure — it’s also pretty goddamn wonderful.

Once you get past Jason T, Miles’ amazingly bizarro cover for Floating World Comics’ All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #2, what awaits within is one of  the most bizarro issues to date of this always-unpredictable project. Josh Bayer and Josh Simmons introduce an utterly inexplicable villain in their script who’s a bit like McDonalds’ Grimace with a nihilistic philosophical bent, there are some truly eyeball-gouging battle scenes, and the “heroes” of this ostensible “universe” seem less heroic than ever. Benjamin Marra and Ken Landgraf kick things off with the first five pages of art, but it’s the main chunk of the book, as illustrated by the great Trevor Von Eeden, that’s the real draw here, and worth the price of admission. “Dynamic insanity” is, I believe, the term I’m straining for here — and now that I’ve found it, I need not say much else about this comic other than “buy it.”

Cullen Bunn and his fellow Sixth Gunn creator Brian Hurtt team up on writing duties for Manor Black #1 from Dark Horse, illustrated by Bunn’s creative partner on Harrow County, the magnificent Tyler Crook, and while the story’s a bit of a confused introduction to this world of magic and legacy, the whole “old-meets-new” dynamic works, and the art’s just straight-up gorgeous. This concept seems like it should have some legs, and even if the story doesn’t improve significantly, Crook is reason enough to hang around month-in and month-out — at least to see how this comic looks, if not where it goes.

Bunn’s got another debut to his credit this week with Aftershock’s Knights Temporal #1, a time-travel-meets-mystic-secret-society thing stunningly delineated by Fran Galan, who gives things a decidedly Eurocomics feel with his lush illustration. Again, the story’s a bit of a head-scratcher, certainly by intention I’d assume (although we all know what happens when you do that), but it’s reasonably intriguing, and the art hooks you quick and reels you into this world. I’m definitely planning on sticking around for more, even if how much more is a bit of an open question.

Okay, so 45 minutes. Not so bad, and just enough time before my day gets rolling to remind you all that this column is “brought to you” each and every week by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for the low price of as little as a dollar a month. Your support would be greatly appreciated, needless to say, so if you’d be so kind please give it a look (and hopefully a join) by heading on over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

ATC Week : “All-Time Comics : Crime Destroyer” #2

Andrew Buck pulls out all the stops to deliver an eyeball-melting cover for All-Time Comics : Crime Destroyer  #2, the fifth (I know, at this point things are getting a bit confusing) installment in the first “season” of Josh and Samuel Bayer’s resurrection of “Bronze Age” aesthetics through a post-modern (or, if you prefer Kim O’Connor’s designation for many of the creators involved, “Post-Dumb”) lens, and certainly the ultra-violence in depicts is thematically in line with the book’s contents — but the comic itself is relatively free of the gruesome and gory, truth be told. You should not, however, take that to mean the story isn’t kinda, well, sick.

As was the case with All-Time Comics : Atlas #1, the issues that find Benjamin Marra in the creative driver’s seat (he pencilled and inked this one, and co-wrote it with Josh Bayer) are decidedly more vicious and morally questionable than the rest, and with the villain taking on our Vietnam-vet-turned-vigilante (back in his hometown of Swan City) this time out being a Joker-esque “dandy highwayman” (apologies to Adam Ant) known as The P.S.Y.C.H.O. (Personality Symbolizing a Yawning Chasm of Oblivion, if you must know), the twisted (a)moralizing he offers in defense of his sociopathic “philosophy” is basically a green-light for Marra to indulge in a sanitized version of his Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. excesses.

If you can stomach Marra, then, you can probably stomach this comic — and may even find it kinda tame. If you can’t, then stay away. His only other helpers here are Matt Rota on colors and Rick Parker on letters, largely charged with (successfully) stream-ling the aesthetics of this entire enterprise at their respective margins, and as such, they don’t do much to either alleviate or accentuate the distinct feeling that this is a Ben Marra comic through and through.

No claiming you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for here, then, and the idea that this “chapter” is one (more) giant Marra “piss-take” is rather inescapable and frankly kind of undercuts the attempts that everyone else makes in previous and subsequent issues to stay just shy of “pastiche” or “spoof” territory. But in many ways this is typical of ATC on the whole — one step forward, two steps back. Sometimes, thankfully, the other way around.

But not, unfortunately, this time. The blunt-force examinations of Crime Destroyer’s own methods and motivations — you know, the old “am I really any better than the criminals I’m fighting?” stuff — is even more obvious and heavy-handed than you’d expect it to be in one of these books, the psychological ugliness of everyone involved is more alienating than it is intriguing, and the last-ditch effort to save the issue by ending things on an ultra-shocking cliffhanger (that we’re never likely to get any sort of resolution to) feels like the desperate “Hail Mary” pass that it is.

So, yeah — if you’re getting the distinct impression that this is my least favorite ATC comic, then you’re a perceptive reader, and I’m doing my job right. A failure both on its own and within the larger scope of the project itself, the second Crime Destroyer “adventure” is an empty-headed regurgitation of ideas done earlier — and far better — by far too many comics creators to count.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Join up! Please! It only costs a dollar and there’s a ton of content up on there already, which means — great value for almost no money!

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ATC Week : “All-Time Comics : Atlas” #1

It’s hard to know where to even begin with this, the third comic released as part of Josh and Samuel Bayer’s All-Time Comics project, but if I had to describe All-Time Comics : Atlas #1 in just one word, that word would be — nuts.

Seriously, this is one of the most batshit-crazy comics I’ve read in a long time. On the one hand, it would be easy enough — and probably accurate — to view it as a particularly amoral and mean-spirited approximation of the “internal struggle” narratives churned out with regularity by “Bronze Age” scribes like Steve Gerber and Don McGregor, emptied of any degree of charm (however accidental, and perhaps visible only in retrospect) those authors imbued their work with. On the other, though, it’s not hard to see it as the kind of comic those guys would have loved to write. At this point, I’m sure an explanation is in order, so we’ll kill two birds with one stone by delving into that concurrently with a discussion of the “bare bones” elements of the plot —

The issue starts with our ostensible “hero,” Atlas — the closest thing ATC offers to a Superman analogue — decking a crooked congressman right in front of God, country, and a big crowd. A crowd that includes his fiancee’s kid, who turns on his “hero” instantly. Atlas is in the right, of course, but no one knows this, and he’s hauled off to prison — fortunately, his Jimmy Olsen-esque sidekick still believes in him, and he goes out and commits some petty crimes until he, too, is locked up, and can give his buddy a hand. Unfortunately, any help he might offer is bound to fall on deaf ears because Atlas himself is — a complete chickenshit?

Yup, our “hero” is actually anything but. In truth, he’s a yellow-bellied coward whose anti-matter-based powers make him extra-susceptible to fear over and above all other emotions, so he’s busy having an existential crisis (largely communicated by means of “purple” pose-laden thought bubbles where he just “talks” about how fucking sorry for himself he feels) while his buddy finds himself on the wrong side of the other inmates and his own personal Lois Lane reporter/fiancee places herself in mortal danger by getting too close to the congressman her man clocked. And what do the two people he’s closest to in the world get for their trouble? Would you believe — each burned to a crisp and left barely clinging to life after two separate, and highly flammable, attacks?

Their victimization is enough to snap Atlas out of his reverie and into action, but whether or not this is a case of “too little, too late” is left unresolved by issue’s end. All we know for sure is that this guy isn’t much of a super-hero and that getting close to him is going to get your body seared from head to toe with third-degree burns. In point of fact, between their brutalization and Atlas’s own pathetic cowardice, it sure seems like co-writers Bayer and Benjamin Marra (who also does both pencils and inks for this one, and shows a great deal more restraint than in his more overtly “spoofy” work) actively hate all of these characters.

Which probably isn’t too far removed from how a great number of “Bronze Age” writers felt about the properties placed under their charge after awhile. Cranking out story after story starring forgettable, even interchangeable, costumed do-gooders on a month-in, month-out basis for near-minimum-wage page rates has to fry your last nerve at some point, and for my part, I had absolutely no trouble envisioning a Steve Englehart or a David Anthony Kraft cranking out a script like this for their own personal edification just as a way of blowing off steam.

What we’ve got here, then, is the sort of ugly and overtly cynical comic that a number of 1970s “floppies” probably wanted to be, if only the authors could have expressed how they really felt about their jobs while still being able to, ya know, keep them.

Certainly Matt Rota’s Ben Day-dot colors, Rick Parker’s easy-on-the-eyes lettering, and Das Pastoras’ agreeably-cluttered cover all could/would have made it past editorial, and this deliberately toned-down iteration of Marra art wouldn’t have ruffled too many feathers, but the story? It’s way too spiteful — and way too honest — to have ever seen print back in the day.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics — but there’s a new piece up on there that expands upon our ATC-related themes quite a bit that folks who are enjoying these reviews will probably dig, as well. Joining up only costs a buck, so seriously — what have you got to lose? Needless to say, I’d be very gratified to have your support.

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ATC Week : “All-Time Comics : Bullwhip” #1

If there’s one thing “Bronze Age” comics didn’t do, it was subtlety. It was alien to their very DNA. And your ability to accept this as fact will go a long way toward determining how much you enjoy — or don’t — All-Time Comics : Bullwhip #1, the second installment in Josh and Samuel Bayer’s post-modern take on 1970s super-hero comics.

Josh Bayer’s script is a mess (as is the Das Pastoras cover, if we’re being totally honest), but I don’t necessarily mean that in the pejorative sense — at times it’s a rather delightful mess, as nominally “feminist” (but really much more of a stereotypical male-fantasy take on an equally stereotypical dominatrix figure — entirely, I would contend, by design and not accident, since flubbing every lame attempt at portraying empowered women was a staple of comics “back in the day” — and, all too often, remains one to this day) protagonist Bullwhip rips her way through one villain after another, starting with (speaking of obvious) The Misogynist, landing for the most part on The Time Vampire, and ending with the mysterious Raingod. Do try to keep up.

Or don’t, since it really doesn’t make that much difference. The flavor matters more than the ingredients here, and if cringe-worthy dialogue and a non-sensical series of battles (in Metro City this time out) bothers you that much, you’re in the wrong place. Penciller Benjamin Marra helped out with the plot here, and it shows : his penchant for wink-and-nod exaggeration is on full display in the storytelling, but curiously — and thankfully — toned down in the art, thanks to the always-leveling effect of Al Milgrom’s inks.

Confession time : Milgrom was probably my least favorite of all Marvel artists when I was a young reader (that would be the mid-’80s, in case you were wondering), but his presence here is a welcome one, necessarily toning down Marra’s ever-present “edgelord” sensibilities. For that alone, I’m willing to pin the MVP award for this issue front and center on Milgrom’s lapel. He may bow if he wishes to do so.

Of course, the not-even-near-miss attempt at feminism culminates in a barely-sublimated (if that) lesbian embrace, a trope as old (and as geared toward pubescent male readers) as Wonder Woman herself, but by and large the nods here are cast more in the direction of “B-list” Marvel heroines like Hellcat or Valkyrie, as the comic clumsily attempts to hide its inherent sexism under layers of bombastic dialogue and OTT action. Again, if you take this as being intentional — which to me it clearly is — you’re going to dig the whole thing a lot more.

Matt Rota’s colors are solidly “retro” here, and generally work, while Rick Parker’s letters are straight-up delightful. Their efforts help position the comic squarely within the stylistic continuum being aimed for, and are as valuable to the proceedings as the contributions of the “main” creators themselves. The end result is more of an overt nostalgia-fest than anything else this series produced (or at least has produced to date), and probably the working definition of a “your mileage may vary” comic. I understand and respect the arguments put forth by people who were offended by it, absolutely — but for my part, I don’t think it was ever trying to be a serious enough work to cause offense in the first place.

Yes, that’s me damning the comic with faint praise — but it’s also me admitting that I kinda liked it, maybe even more than it deserved to be liked.

Which, again, amounts to a pretty qualified endorsement, I freely admit.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics — but hey, there’s a new piece up on there that delves deeper into, and builds upon, the ATC-related themes we’re exploring here on the blog this week. You can join up for as little as a dollar a month, so seriously — what have you got to lose? Needless to say, I’d be very gratified indeed to have your support.

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ATC Week : “All-Time Comics : Crime Destroyer” #1

With the recent release of All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #0, the opening salvo of the second “season” of this ongoing, idiosyncratic project — as well as the All-Time Comics trade paperback collection of “season” one (both published under the auspices of new “home” Floating World Comics) — now seems like a good time to look back to 2014/2015 and examine where the brothers Bayer have been in order to possibly limn out the parameters of where they’re going. A few general observations here, and then we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of each issue as the week progresses —

First up, it’s gotta be said that this whole thing reads much better in trade than it did in single issues, even if I miss the cheap newsprint. The aims of creators Josh and Samuel Bayer with this concept are multi-faceted — and yeah, maybe even more than a bit muddled — but what they’re “going for” becomes much more clear when absorbed in its totality than it did over the course of six sporadically-released installments. As to what those aims are

Simply put, I think the two major artistic goals are the exact inverse of each other : on the one hand, ATC is about transposing the aesthetic and storytelling ethos of “Bronze Age” comics into present-day comics; on the other, it’s using the sensibilities of said present-day comics to re-examine the past. There’s an inherent tension between those two metaphorical tributaries that causes them to run independently and without merging at times, to diverge entirely at others, but when they do flow together, or at least parallel to each other, the results can be quite interesting indeed — which is all my long-winded way of saying to expect almost as many “misses” as “hits” here. We’ll get into those with more specificity as we go along —

The de facto “line” made its debut with All-Time Comics : Crime Destroyer #1, sporting a cartoony ultra-violent cover by Jim Rugg (each issue also featured a variant or two, but for purposes of time we’re just not even gonna go there) that, along with the participation of Benjamin Marra (on board for this one as inker), probably led readers to believe this was an exercise in pastiche at best, spoof at worst, but in truth the script here by the younger Bayer brother (that would be Josh) plays it pretty straight — yeah, it’s absurd, but not to the point of being what the Brits would call a “piss-take.” In point of fact, most “Bronze Age” comics were absurd, and cleaving to their temperament necessitates channeling a fair degree of that absurdity, for good or ill.

Hence the “purple fist” shoulder-pads of our protagonist, a Vietnam-vet-turned-vigilante (but otherwise a fairly obvious Batman stand-in) bound and determined to fulfill a promise to a fellow soldier who’s landed behind bars by checking on the well-being of the man’s daughter, a task which takes him from his “home turf” of Swan City to the mean streets of Optic City, generally considered to be under the protection of Atlas, purportedly the mightiest hero of the ATC “universe.”

Not that he appears to be doing a very good job of it — the place looks like a shithole, and that comes across pretty damn well thanks to the pencils of the now-late Herb Trimpe, who turns in solid work throughout and may just be the unsung “star” of the book. His art gets you to “buy into” the idea of a sewer-dwelling cult that wears pilgrim costumes and worships some kind of snake-god (for reasons that become apparent later), and lends just the right air of near-plausibility to Bayer’s admittedly scatter-shot script, which goes from stage-setting at the penitentiary to obligatory Crime Destroyer/Atlas team-up to sewer battle to a typical serialized non-resolution “ending.” It’s a bumpy ride smoothed out by solid, workmanlike illustration that manages to retain a nice bit of personality even under a thick layer of Marra inks.

I was less sold on Alessandro Echevarria’s colors, which were a bit too self-consciously saturated and syrupy for my tastes, but the decidedly un-self-conscious lettering of the great Rick Parker balances out the efforts of the book’s “rhythm section” nicely. “Tonally uneven” is a constant theme in these comics, but insofar as this debut installment goes, it’s not a “deal-breaker.”

It would be a reach to say this comic marked an auspicious beginning to the line, it’s true, but it provides enough — even if just barely — to keep folks marginally “hooked.” Whether or not that there’s an ultimate pay-off for readers who remain interested is a question that is, frankly, still being answered, but we’re going to do our best to puzzle out what those answers might be as our “theme week”  continues.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics — but there’s a piece up this week that directly ties into, and fleshes out, our ongoing ATC theme here. You can join up for as little as a buck a month, so seriously — what have you got to lose? Needless to say, I’d certainly be very grateful to have your support.

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Nothing Works Your Nerves Like A “Jesusfreak”

I’m not sure what it is about “Bible comics,” but there’s something appealing about the whole notion, even to a devout non-believer such as myself. Whether it’s the fire and brimstone of a Jack T. Chick or the scaled-down intimacy of a Chester Brown, I’m down for a sequential-art spin on the Good Book anytime.

So yeah, Joe Casey and Bejamin Marra’s new Image graphic “novel” (length-wise it’s probably generous to call it even a novellaJesusfreak was something I was intrigued by from the moment it was first announced. Both creators are hit or miss for me — Casey seems to do his best work when he’s in pure “homage mode” (Godland and Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers  both being riffs on The King, Sex reading like an answer to the question “what if Howard Chaykin did The Dark Knight Returns?), and ditto for Marra, who can get awfully self-consciously “cheeky” when not reined in by the at least the pretense of trying to pay respect to his Bronze Age influences.

In that respect, then, the idea of the two of them sharing a sandbox (or maybe that should be a soapbox) almost has an air of inevitability to it, and one would assume they’d play well together. Which, I’ll state right here in the early going, they most certainly do : you can always tell when a pair of creators is on the same page as they go about the business of — errmmm — filling up the page, and these guys are simpatico in the extreme.

Points for that, then — Casey is writing like Doug Moench, Marra is drawing like Paul Gulacy. And Jesus is their very own Shang Chi.

Yeah, I missed that part of the Bible, too — where the son of God goes on a “vision quest” within himself, emerges a super-powered martial arts warrior, and fights a fucking lizard man. But hey, here it is. And for all its thematic and aesthetic coherence, I’m wondering why I shouldn’t simply have read my old Master Of Kung-Fu back issues instead.

There’s a great deal of mystery surrounding Jesus’ “wilderness years,” of course — the period in between his birth and the weeks leading up to his crucifixion that, funny enough, all four gospels just blow off completely, and Casey does his level best to fill in some of those blanks before having his Sonny Chiba iteration of the son of man arrive at his crucial first meeting with John the Baptist, but once we get past all that, the book’s rationale more or less completely disappears : we’re not in “what happened during the time we don’t know about” territory, we’re in “what happened that we don’t know about during the time that we do know about” territory, and I can think of a lot more interesting ways to answer both of those questions than what we’re given here.

Which probably sounds like a harsher condemnation than the book deserves given its sheer technical merit : Casey scripts with a kind of forced-but-eminently-readable “purple”  tint to his prose, Marra adheres not just to the style but to the visual storytelling smarts of the aforementioned Mr. Gulacy and the originator of his artistic line, Jim Steranko, and Brad Simpson’s hues are just plain incredible, modern technology in service of approximating the look of the best of done-by-hand colorists of years gone by, such as Steve Oliff. It all reads and feels like an entirely sensible updating of a 1975 Marvel comic.

Which is no bad thing to be, mind you — but deploying this more-than-competently-executed bit of “retro chic” in service of  the most “retro” story ever told? Sorry, but some sort of reason for existing in the first place would be helpful at this point, and all I see here is Casey and Marra stretching an “edgelord” premise out way too far. Those ideas you come up with over a few beers with friends at a party? Not all of them are the best use of  your creative energy, to say nothing of your time.

All of which is to say that Jesusfreak reads precisely like the vanity project it no doubt is — something Casey himself even states pretty plainly in the book’s introduction, wherein he essentially challenges readers to find any sort of deeper meaning or hidden subtext in this work and lets them know in advance that they’ll come up empty, because all he and Marra were trying to do was make the sort of “fun” story they’d both enjoy reading themselves.

Then, in his afterword, he talks about comics like Watchmen and says that he hopes this comic will get people to think in much the same way that one did. So, ya know, which is it? Tests of one’s faith are constant in this book, but it’s the way that it lacks any sort of clearly-discernible central thesis beyond “my dude, wouldn’t it be cool if Jesus kicked ass?” that’s most likely to test your patience here.

Not that making something just because you can is necessarily bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it’s a lot better when the work produced bothers to address the issue of its own raison d’etre and maybe even endeavors to find it. Failing that, it could at least opt to convince its audience that they might be able to take something from it that the creators didn’t necessarily intend for them to, but nope. Casey and Marra let it be known they’re not putting any particular meaning into this thing, don’t even want to pretend that they are — then they say they hope you came across one regardless. But if you haven’t taken the time to examine why you want to do something, then why should readers give one good goddamn whit what it is you’ve come up with, much less waste their time mining the non-existent depths of a work that openly admits it has none?

I dunno. Jesusfreak isn’t actively bad by any means, but that’s because it really isn’t actively anything. Two guys figured they’d take a crack at turning a small portion of the Bible into a ’70s Marvel book, and they managed to pull it off. I’m not going to damn them to the pits of hell for it, but I’m hardly going to jump up and yell “hallelujah!,” either.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a whole lot of politics. Your patronage there not only allows me to keep things going, it also ensures a steady supply of entirely free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I strive to make sure you get good value for your heard-earned money, so rest assured — there’s a bunch of material on there already, and if you like my work, you’re seriously going to dig what I’m up to on the other side of a very affordable “paywall.” Join up, and you can find out for yourself.

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Is Benjamin Marra An “American Psycho”?

In a way, I suppose, it makes sense that a cartoonist as image-conscious as Benjamin Marra would find “inspiration” in the ultimate story of excess and artifice, American Psycho, but for a guy who’s spent most of his career deliberately confounding readers as to how much of what he’s doing is sincere and how much is, as the Brits would say, a “piss-take,” his decision to do a bunch of pencil-and-ink drawings based not on Brett Easton Ellis’ novel but, specifically, on the Mary Harron cinematic adaptation starring Christian Bale is, if anything, too obvious — after all, when you strip away any pretense of “spoof” from Marra’s work, you rob it of a pretty good chunk of whatever ostensible “power” it may possess. “I just dig this shit” is an honest enough statement to make, however surreptitiously, but when you steadfastly refuse to answer the natural follow-up question to that — “Okay, why?” — then what’s really left?

As it turns out, if Marra’s Floating World Comics-published American Psycho broadsheet is any evidence, the answer to that is “not much,” but what are you gonna do? My wife’s a huge fan of the film and when I saw copies of this impressively oversized “newspaper” on sale at the Floating World store a few months back during a trip to Portland, I forked over the five bucks they were asking for it. And, yes, I did check out the entirety of its 32 pages, and found myself not just fundamentally unimpressed — but fundamentally uninterested.

Marra’s Patrick Bateman doesn’t especially look like Bale, but whatever : the idea is more to capture the intent of each still he’s chosen to reproduce rather than to simply aim for straight visual fealty, and that’s fair enough, but let’s get real — the clinical austerity of these drawings runs entirely counter to the deliberately-dated aesthetic of the film, and doesn’t posit some radical (or even tepid) new interpretation on the material in its wake. The end result just ends up looking lazy, lifeless, a rote exercise in freehand “copying.” The term “cash grab” even comes to mind — except for the fact that this thing is sold on the cheap.

That being said, for whatever reason, this has been an “in-demand” item for Marra’s fans — it was originally printed in mini-comic format as part of the Elf Booklet series under the rather lengthy title of Drawings Inspired By The Motion Picture “American Psycho,” and when that sold out it found new life, as well as a new publisher, in this 15″ by 22.75″ format, which also features three new illustrations and new covers.

In strictly formal terms, there’s plenty these drawings “get right” : the balance of blacks and whites is stark bordering on unforgiving, and Marra has a way of zeroing in on the menace in every scene he depicts — but, crucially, he doesn’t accentuate it any appreciable manner beyond what Herron, Bale, et. al. managed to. Anything but, in fact — he’s managed to “de-fang” the material by default, simply  because the concept itself is so ill-considered and his approach to it lacks any sort of passion.

Say what you will for Marra’s work on the whole — and plenty of well-reasoned arguments have been advanced by both his partisans and his detractors — but whether you love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between, the idea of him swinging  for the fences and missing doesn’t usually enter into the equation. You either respect his intentions or don’t, and that discussion is beyond the scope of this review, but there’s no doubt they at least exist. The only thing I took away from American Psycho is that he felt like making some drawings based on a film he liked, and while that’s an entirely reasonable thing for an artist to do, who are we kidding? That’s what sketchbooks are for.

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 06/10/2018 – 06/16/2018

If it seems like Image Comics is rolling out a new series (be it limited or ongoing) every week — well, that’s because they are. But even by their standards, four in one week is a lot —

Bloodstrike : Brutalists #0 is the one everyone’s been talking about (although that fact was apparently lost on my LCS owner, who ordered precisely one fucking copy — and it was the godawful Rob Liefeld variant, as opposed to the awesomeness shown above), as it brings the punk ‘zine/”alt” comics sensibilities of the great Michel Fiffe (most notably of Copra fame, although my favorite of his works is unquestionably Zegas) crashing headlong into the mercifully-shuttered world of the aforementioned Mr. Liefeld’s Extreme Studios line-up circa about — I dunno, 1996 or some shit. From the book’s numbering to its purposely-stilted dialogue to its admittedly lame core premise (undead heroes who bear more than a passing resemblance to a bunch of Marvel characters fight equally generic villains for reasons never apparently thought through all that completely) there are any number of deliberate “call-backs” to a late and decidedly un-lamented era of comics history on offer here, but Fiffe isn’t content with some basic-ass exercise in nostalgia, instead allowing his inventive page layouts and inherent sense of visual “flow” to propel the narrative along in a manner that Liefeld (goddamn, there’s that name again!), with his clunky, static, over-rendered-yet-still-hopelessly-sloppy “Hollywood blockbuster on bathtub PCP” imagery never could. This story is apparently a continuation of one left abandoned in the wake of Extreme going belly-up, but it doesn’t matter : no one who was working on the book “back in the day” had any idea what was going with it, either.

Fortunately, Fiffe does, and despite the rather annoying fact that you really do need to read the backmatter here (which comes complete with some hijinks courtesy of Paul Maybury, Benjamin Marra, Charles Forsman, and Ed Piskor, so you won’t regret spending time on it in the least) in order to fully grasp the scope and intentions of the project as a whole, to say nothing of this issue’s narrative specifically, it seems that the characters are given far more meat on their bones in a handful of pages here than they ever were in the sum total of however many issues this series ran for in the past. In short, this is fun stuff with a reasonable amount of thought put into it, especially aesthetically, and since it’s gonna be a brief run (three issues, I thought I heard?), there’s almost no way you won’t get your four bucks’ worth every time. You certainly do here.

Proxima Centauri #1 kicks off a new six-parter appropriate for all ages from the always-interesting Farel Dalrymple, and it’s as utterly charming as it is visually striking. I defy anyone not to take an immediate liking to teen inter-dimensional adventurer Sherwood Breadcoat, and while the “quest across the universe to find our hero’s brother” story is pretty standard as far as plots go, the people, places, and things he encounters along the way are anything but. Rendered with a pleasingly loose line that makes the pages breeze by in something very near to stream-of-consciousness fashion, this is intricately-woven stuff cleverly designed to look and read like it’s literally being made up as Dalrymple goes along. Once in awhile a book hits the stands that is so obviously inventive it literally hurts — this is one, and you don’t want to miss it under any circumstances. Another one well worth forking over $3.99 a pop for.

And while you’ve got four singles out (wait, sorry, that’s eight so far), grab another four and fork ’em on over for The Weather Man #1. Jody LeHeup flexed his comedy “chops” writing Shirtless Bear-Fighter!, and while he’s not toned down the absurdist humor in the least for this one, artist extraordinaire Nathan Fox does his part to ensure that the belly-laughs are matched with an admirably ambitious futurist tour-de-force of, dare I say it, mind-blowing proportions, all colored with uncharacteristically garish aplomb by likely-best-in-the-biz Dave Stewart. Earth has been destroyed in some sort of mass catastrophe, what survivors there are have colonized Mars, and the beleaguered masses are kept entertained by an asshole TV weather guy who seems to have more in common with a morning radio “shock jock” than he does with an actual meteorologist. Except, ya know, there’s a lot more to him that we ever suspected if the implications of the absolutely jaw-dropping cliffhanger are to be believed. I figured I was gonna like this book, probably even like it a lot — turns out I actually freaking loved it.

One that I didn’t expect to care for, though, was The Magic Order #1. Yeah, okay, Olivier Coipel’s art is always lush, evocative, and magnificent, as it is (and then some — I mean it, this is absolutely gorgeous work) here, and Dave Stewart (hi again, Dave!) absolutely kills it with his understated, cinematic (is this guy versatile or what?) color scheme, but let’s be brutally, painfully honest : when was the last time Mark Millar actually wrote a comic that was any fucking good whatsoever?

Well, I’m pleased to report that drought (however long you think it may have lasted) is over. This first Millarworld title to be published since Netflix bought the imprint lock, stock, and barrel is the surprise hit not just of the week, but maybe of the month : a simple premise (family imbued with magic powers going back generations battles otherworldly monsters to keep us mere mortals safe — and we never even know about it!) admittedly ready-made for Hollywood exploitation (hey, Millar is still Millar, right?) needn’t necessarily be a bad thing, and here it’s not : the protagonists are all immediately likable to one degree or another, the story moves along at a solid clip, the “ground rules” are laid out succinctly, and the “fight scenes” are equal parts trippy and fun. Mostly, though, the whole thing is just breathtaking to look at and I’d happily shell out $3.99 for Coipel’s art even if the story sucked — which, in this case, it actually doesn’t. In fact, it’s really damn good — and no, I still can’t believe I’m saying that, either.

So there you go — four great reasons to hit the comic shop in one week. I had a huge smile on my face after reading every single one of these books. Will next week prove as bountiful, dear readers? Only one way to know, of course — join me back here in seven days!

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 01/28/2018 – 02/03/2018

Would’ja believe — there wasn’t too much that came in my mailbox this week and it was my LCS that kept me busy with new stuff to read? I swear, it’s true, so let’s have a look at some items of note that I picked up —

For a series/line that prides itself on being “old-school,” Josh Bayer’s All-Time Comics seems in some ways to hew pretty closely to modern publishing norms. Issues frequently ship late, for instance, and their latest release, the bumper-sized (and subsequently more expensive than usual) All-Time Comics : Blind Justice #2, marks the end of the first “season” of the range, with an Image-style gap of three or four months now on deck as they get their ducks in a row for their next not-exactly-an-arc. The script this time out is a Bayer solo endeavor, and frankly not the greatest — the last half of the comic essentially being an extended “bad guy rant” — but it’s still kinda “warts and all”-style fun that will appeal to most Bronze Age babies like myself by hitting all the right nostalgic notes. It’s really down to the art to essentially carry most of the weight here, though, and weird as it sounds to even say things like “Noah Van Sciver inked by Al Milgrom” and “Sammy Harkham variant cover,” that’s precisely what you get here, and it’s every bit as awesome to look at as said phrases would lead you to expect. I have no doubt that the overall ATC project will continue to confound readers looking for some over-arching unifying grand purpose, as it appears that Bayer and co. really don’t seem to have one, but for my money that’s a large part of the appeal of what they’re doing, and even though I’m sure admitting as much will brand me an intellectual simpleton in the minds of many in the critical community, I’m seriously looking forward to seeing where this whole thing goes next, as regulars like Benjamin Marra return to the fold and newcomers like Gabrielle Bell (yes, you read that right!) join in the four-color carnage. Operating in a previously-unexplored middle ground that exists between the polarities of “homage” and “spoof,” these comics are hitting a “sweet spot” for me — even when they run six bucks, as this one did.

It’ll cost you seven, though, to pick up the second issue of Shelly Bond’s Black Crown Quarterly, and to be honest, I think I’ve seen enough at this point. The format’s nice, with heavy cardstock covers and high-quality glossy paper, and to be honest, most of the individual strips range in quality from “pretty decent” (Rob Davis’ “Tales From The Black Crown Pub,” Jamie Coe’s “Bandtwits,” Leah Moore and Nanna Venter’s “Hey, Amateur! How To Be A Badass Goth In Nine Panels”) to “actually quite good” (“Cannonball Comics” by Christopher Sebela and Shawn McManus, who illustrates in a very engaging and eye-popping style quite unlike anything he’s ever done), but the “Cud : Rich and Strange” ongoing by Will Potter, Carl Puttnam and Philip Bond continues to be a dud, the inclusion of more preview pages for David Barnett and Martin Simmonds’ forthcoming Punks Not Dead make me wonder if we’re not going to end up seeing the entire first issue before it even comes out, and the text pieces are either essentially extended promo blurbs for other Black Crown titles like Kid Lobotomy, or else self-consciously “hip” music and travel recommendations. What frustrates most about BCQ, though, is that Bond’s hopelessly dated tastes and aesthetic sensibilities end up making the overall package less than the sum of its parts, and at the end of the day it almost feels like she’s assembling a comic for an audience of one — herself. Unless you, too, are an anglophile whose musical knowledge doesn’t extend beyond the borders of late-’70s UK punk, it’s hard to see the appeal in an anthology this specifically — and rigidly — constructed. Gotta love the pull-out poster featuring the Bill Sienkiewicz cover variant for Punks Not Dead #1, though.

In what passes for a “bargain” this week, five bucks will get you in the door of Justice League Of America/Doom Patrol Special #1, and while it’s not a spectacular read or anything of the sort, I did have fun with this first part of “Milk Wars,” a five-part weekly crossover that sees Gerard Way’s Young Animal line clashing head-on with the “proper” DC Universe. Way and Steve Orlando wrote the script for this book, and thematically and tonally it seems pretty well right in line with what the My Chemical Romance lead singer is doing with his main Doom Patrol series, in that it borrows equally from Grant Morrison’s run on the book and Larry Cohen’s cult-favorite horror/comedy hybrid The Stuff. I don’t know much about the current Justice League Of America line-up, but it appears to be a bunch of B-and C-list characters like Lobo and Vixen, so I guess re-casting them all as a 1950s neighborhood decency brigade is no particular skin off DC editorial’s back, and for the purposes of this story the conceit works — as does ACO’s frenetic, mildly psychedelic art. Perhaps even better than the main feature, though, is the two-page backup strip, which begins what I’m assuming will be an extended introduction to the character of Eternity Girl, who will soon be featuring in her own series courtesy of this story’s creators, Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew. I’m as shocked as anyone to see a cartoonist of Liew’s caliber taking on an assignment for DC, and equally shocked that he wouldn’t just write it himself since that’s how he’s made his bread and butter previously, but if this brief Silver Age-style yarn is any indication, he and Visaggio should make a good team. Anyway, all in all, this comic stood head, shoulders, and udders (read it and you’ll get what that reference is all about) above most “Big Two” fare.

Lastly, we come to Motehrlands #1, the first of a new Vertigo six-parter from writer Simon Spurrier and artist Rachael Stott that proudly wears its 2000AD influence on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to plunge you in at the deep end from the get-go and trust that you’ll catch up — at some point. The action’s pretty breakneck in this one, though, and absolutely absurd, so don’t expect much hand-holding in this wild mash-up of badass-bounty-hunter, “reality” TV, and dysfunctional family tropes, our main protagonist being an inter-dimensional mercenary skip-tracer who lures her mother, a sort of washed-up female version of that “Dawg” guy, out of retirement in order to help track down the third member of the clan, the good-for-nothing brother/son. It’s a fast-paced and — here’s that word again — fun read, and Stott’s art is a nice mix of the conventional and the far-out, so I’m probably gonna stick it out in single issues, but if you missed the first installment, “trade-waiting” probably wouldn’t do you any harm, and will more than likely save you a few dollars.

Okay, I think that’s good enough for now — the small-press stuff was in short supply this week, which is kind of a bummer, but I’ve got a box on the way from Retrofit any day now of some comics I missed out on from the tail end of 2017, so hopefully I’ll have read enough of those books by this time next week to talk about at least some of them in my next round-up column. Hope to see you again in seven short days!

There’s No Business Like “Night Business”

So how does this work? I mean, you either know what you’re getting into with a Benjamin Marra book or you don’t — and if you know that much, you probably also know whether or not you’re going to like it. No artist in the comics medium this side of Steve Ditko has pursued such a singularly myopic and obsessive worldview, and whether we’re talking about outer-space barbarians, post-Civil War freed slaves, secret agents in the “War On Terrorism,” or “gangsta” rappers,  the basic formula really doesn’t change, does it?

“Characters” as we understand the term don’t really exist in Marra’s world(s), but caricatures abound : men are invariably square-jawed, misogynistic, super-powered, and either “all good” or “all bad” (usually the only difference being that the “bad guys” start the killing off while the “good guys” finish it); women are basically all T&A and can’t seem to help either throwing themselves at the “good guys” or being raped by the “bad guys”; cops are corrupt, incompetent, or both; taking matters into one’s own hands is presented as the only viable solution to any problem.

Huh. Looked at that way, just take out the sex (and sexual violence) and you’ve basically got any ole Marvel or DC comic, don’t you?

Well, yes and no — clearly the tropes inherent in vigilante-themed fiction are more than just “laid bare” in Marra’s comics, they’re dialed up to levels that even the most bloodthirsty Punisher adventures wouldn’t dare to emulate. One would assume, then, that he must be engaging in some sort of de facto deconstruction just by dint of sheer excess, but that’s where things get confusing — and maybe they shouldn’t, because by and large this is almost gleefully simplistic stuff.

Take, for example, Marra’s lengthiest work to date, the just-released hardcover graphic novel Night Business (the first four chapters of which were available in “single issue” form as print-on-demand jobs bearing the label of Marra’s Traditional Comics imprint). Set in a 1980s New York brimming over with strippers, pimps, gumshoes, studs, serial killers, and sleazeballs, this is every bit as unsubtle as Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. or Gangsta Rap Posse, but its tongue is placed far less firmly in its cheek, and I’ll be damned if there’s anything like a guilty-pleasure chuckle to be found anywhere within its 232 pages. But does that mean Marra’s taking either himself, or his material, seriously all of a sudden? Don’t bank on it.

In his “pull-quote” on the back cover, Sammy Harkham says Night Business is “like Douglas Sirk directing an Abel Ferrara script,” and while I’m not one to take exception with the words of one of the finest cartoonists of his generation, to me what Marra’s created here is something more akin to Nicolas Winding Refn cranking out a remake of Fulci’s The New York Ripper : exotic dancers with names like Jazzie, Krystal, Chastity, and Alexis are either victims of, or bait for, a violently woman-hating psycho known only as The Slasher, but their erstwhile “manager,” Johnny Timothy, is determined to both protect the “clients” in his “stable” and discover the identity of their assailant. Will one man be enough to unravel a scandal that comes complete with hooded cult members and leads all the way from the city’s posh penthouse suites to its seedy (and literal) underground, though?

Fortunately for Johnny, he’s got a human ally in the form of a less-than-mysterious helmeted do-gooder who rides around on a motorcycle in sexy lingerie, and a chemical ally in the form of a “super-serum” administered to him by his mafia “patron,” Uncle Enzo. Cue a shitload of sleazy nightclub shenanigans, domestic violence, back-alley butchery, even necrophilia. Over the top by design, but without any real moral compass, those looking for a “message” here are going to be hunting high and (mostly) low for a long time — but does a work really need one in order to validate its existence?

I guess that’s up to each reader to decide for him or herself, but if what really floats your boat is the idea of a comic that could be set to and endless loop of Wings Hauser’s “Neon Slime” theme song from Vice Squad, then seriously, you need look no further. Marra’s drawings are as intentionally ugly as his subject matter, and here take a more intentionally “realistic” tack than in some of his prior efforts. Facial expressions are designed to leave nothing to the imagination; bodies are exaggerated, sure, but not to the point of being entirely outside the realm of possibility; buildings, streets, vehicles, etc. are illustrated to emphasize a kind of foreboding but recognizable utility. This is a city we recognize conceptually, if not literally, and the same is true of its inhabitants. It would be a heck of a stretch to say that Marra’s delineating the ’80s as we remember them (assuming “we” were around back then), but it’s definitely the ’80s we remembered watching on early-era cable TV late-night movies.

What it’s all in service of remains either a tantalizing or frustrating thing to parse out, though, and while I both understand and respect the critics of Marra’s work who point to the easily-discernible fact that all of it too self-aware by half (at least), his steadfast refusal to define Night Business by the narrow parameters of “spoof,” as he’s done so often before, makes it an inherently more exciting, and perhaps even ambitious, narrative than we’re used to seeing from him. I just wish I had a more firm grasp on whether or not I feel it’s a more successful one.

Future re-examinations will no doubt help me come to grips with that question, but that’s a quietly remarkable thing right there in and of itself : most of Marra’s earlier comics were easy enough to pin down and probably only warranted a re-read if you were looking to laugh at the same outrageous shit one more time. Night Business is the first to require further, and deeper, analysis in order to intuit its very meaning — and even if, in the final analysis, all he’s looking to do here is tell some hyper-masculine revenge tale bursting at the seams with relentless rage, sadistic slaughter, ample aggression, and big boobs — well, hey, at least he’s done that much really goddamn well.