The Auteur Theory Of Licensed Toy Comics In Action : Michel Fiffe’s “G.I. Joe : Sierra Muerte” #1

In point of fact, this is probably the sort of comic that I’m predisposed to dislike : it’s not just that I don’t give much of a shit about G.I. Joe and didn’t even when I was at the age where I was supposed to, it’s that exercises soaked in nostalgia don’t appeal to me as a general rule of thumb, and that there’s quite likely no one and nothing appearing on these pages that I’d have any sort of mental or emotional investment in. No offense to anyone who either dug this stuff when they were 12 or who may dig it even still today, but some books simply aren’t this critic’s cup of tea, and by all rights, this should be one of ’em.

But you know what? I said the exact same thing about Bloodstrike : Brutalists, and Michel Fiffe made me glad I stepped out of my own well-delineated “comfort zone” to give that a try. It would be foolish of me to bet against him doing the same here.

It seems a bit strange that IDW is “pushing the envelope” in more — and more interesting — directions with their Hasbro-licensed properties than either of “The Big Two” seem willing to with their venerable cash cows (or maybe it doesn’t?), but between Tom Scioli’s mind-blowing Go-Bots and the book we’re here to talk about, G.I. Joe : Sierra Muerte, that’s precisely the case, even though, at least on paper, Michel Fiffe doesn’t appear to be breaking the mold in any particularly significant way here. Could it be, then, with any pretenses toward “revisionism” off the table either by choice or editorial edict, that it all just comes down to execution?

One issue in it’s probably too soon to answer that for certain, but it’s probably not too soon to say that it at least appears to be the case — Fiffe’s page layouts aren’t so much “inventive” as they are a combination of “just different enough” and “well-considered”; his actions sequences are less “mind-blowing” and more “impressive”; his skilled figure drawing and muted color palette better described as “pitch-perfect” than genuinely “innovative.” And you know what? For this kind of project, all of that actually really works.

I don’t care about the history of this franchise and likely won’t check it out again after these three issues are over with, but that doesn’t mean I’d be enthused about seeing Fiffe re-invent the wheel here. He’s already done that with super-team books in a more general sense quite masterfully in the pages of Copra, so what intrigues me about this is the prospect of him importing some of the unique sensibility established there over into something tried-and-true, and to see what happens when those worlds either collide or meet halfway. Maybe both.

In that sense, then, sorry to drag out the most obvious cliche possible, but — “mission accomplished.” I don’t have to care about “The Joes” to be immediately drawn into this fairly simple set of fisticuffs against their Cobra adversaries (and for those who don’t know any more about the franchise than yours truly, maybe even less, comics scribe Chad Bowers provides a “back-matter” essay more than thorough enough to bring everyone up to speed) and to be taken in by its smart storytelling structure and cinematic pacing and presentation. Every character reads as the one-dimensional cipher that I’m sure they are (apart from head baddie Cobra Commander, who appears to be deathly ill), but they’re not here to express their individuality (which, in fairness to Fiffe, may end up coming into play later), they’re hear for their sheer utility, and as chess pieces on a board they serve their purpose just fine. It’s the shape, size, and scope of that board that is of far more interest.

Not that you would or even should get a full idea of all that in a debut installment, even one for a series this short, but Fiffe drops enough hints about what he’s ultimately playing at here to whet your appetite for more, and he manages to do so in a way that doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence, whether that someone is a lifelong “Joe Fan” (or whatever they’re called) or an art-comics snob. There’s a universality to what he’s doing here, a willingness to engage with different audiences on their own terms while relinquishing none of his own artistic control, that’s as admirable as it is refreshing, and the end result is something that’s both mercifully un-pretentious and yet in no way self-consciously “dumbed down” a la, say, too damn much of Ben Marra’s work. Fiffe loves this dusty old toy line, that much is evident, but he’s not about to compromise his own unique style to fit a pre-established mold. He tells what I assume to be a very traditional G.I. Joe yarn here, but he does it his way. What’s not to love about that?

If you want to see something radically different, look elsewhere, then, I suppose — but if you want to see the kind of story you can likely predict from start to finish written and drawn in a manner you likely never thought possible, then G.I. Joe : Sierra Muerte is proof positive that auteur sensibilities and lowest-common-denominator mainstream action-adventure storytelling can not only comfortably co-exist, they can actually bring out the best in each other.

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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 : 12/03/2017 – 12/09/2017

Great stuff to tell you about this week, friends, so let’s eschew the time-wasting in favor of getting right the fuck down to business —

Twilight Of The Bat is Josh Simmons’ second “unauthorized” take on DC’s most bankable property, following on from his 2007 mini-comic simply titled “Batman” (later re-christened, no doubt for legal reasons, “Mark Of The Bat”), and this time out he’s joined by artist Patrick Keck for a 20-page ‘zine boasting high-quality Risograph printing and an $8.00 price tag set in a post-apocalyptic G _____ City where “The Bat” and his mortal enemy “Joke-Man” are the only survivors. The true nature of the most psychologically complex hero/villain relationship in comics is laid bare in frank and stark terms here, Kek’s rich and no-doubt-time-consuming linework is exceptional, and damn if this story won’t even make you laugh a couple times in spite of yourself. Yeah, okay, the Killing Joke influence is too obvious to miss, but this is, if anything, even more harrowing and tragic, even if does posit the same (and only)  inevitable outcome for this pair of star-crossed haters/lovers that Moore and Bolland did thirty years ago.

Damn! Now that I feel positively ancient, I’ll just mention that the inside covers feature pin-up art by Tara Booth and Anders Nilsen, who both contribute outstanding work — even if I can’t begin to decipher what Nilsen’s illustration has to do with the book at all. Well worth a buy, and damn, do these guys ship fast — I got mine in two days. Order yours at http://www.coldcubepress.com/shop/twilight-of-the-bat-josh-simmons-pat-keck

Uncivilized Books wants six of your hard-won dollars for John Porcellino’s South Beloit Journal, and you know what? You should give it to ’em. This is an engaging little collection of diary strips drawn at the low point of Porcellino’s life in the winter/spring of 2011, and if we’re going to measure it on a “diary comics bleakness/hopefulness scale” that has Gabby Schultz toiling away in the doldrums and Brian Canini serving up sunshine and rainbows at the other end, I’d have to say that it falls firmly in the middle. Certainly there is depression, anxiety, and even nihilism to spare, but by the end, things are looking up for Mr. King-Cat, and his shot at potential happiness feels well-eared, if almost nonchalantly arrived at. But then, that’s kinda how life works, isn’t it? Things suck until, slowly but surely, they don’t anymore. Chicken-scratch minimalism doesn’t get much more honest and engaging than this. Get it direct from the publisher at http://www.uncivilizedbooks.com/comics/south_beloit_journal.html or the author at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/south-beloit-journal-by-john-porcellino/

Eric Haven is a cartoonist whose work first caught my attention when I was a teenager and he was putting out a three-issue series called Angryman for Caliber’s short-lived Iconografix imprint (anyone else remember that one?), and while his Hollywood gig as a producer on Myth Busters has kept him away from the drawing board more than I’d like, on those rare occasions when he does produce some new stuff, it’s always worth checking out — and his latest, the Fantagraphics-published hardback Vague Tales, is certainly no exception. A nearly-wordless collection of interlocked stories featuring super-heroes, super-villains, super-barbarians, and super-sorceresses that’s part Winsor McKay, part Jack Kirby, part Fletcher Hanks, part Charles Burns, and part something else entirely, this one seeps into your brain as you read it and simmers there for days as you try to piece together exactly what it’s all about/in aid of. Big, bold, brash — and yet profoundly subtle at the same time. Seventeen bucks is a bit much, true, but I don’t feel cheated in the least as this is one to re-visit over and over again. Porcellino’s got it at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/vague-tales-by-eric-haven/

Fantagraphics also serves up our final offering of the week, Michel Fiffe’s Zegas, and this is the point where the spirit of full disclosure compels me to admit that I’ve never quite loved Copra as much as my fellow arbiters of taste breathlessly assure me that I need to. Mind you, I don’t dislike it in the least, I just fail to see what all the fuss is about.

This, though? Yeah, this one’s worth fussing about. Fiffe actually self-published this vibrantly-colored, assuredly-drawn story in serialized form before his more -celebrated (and still ongoing) super-hero homage, and for me this tale of two siblings with vastly different, but equally-compelling, problems trying to make their way toward vastly different, but equally-compelling, goals in a recognizable-but-not-quite city of the future, collected here in one volume for the first time, is supremely confident, visually literate stuff of the highest order. The sci-fi landscape is a tricky one to navigate, but in Emily and Boston, we have two fascinating guides, albeit for distinct — even disparate — reasons. Can’t recommend this one highly enough — well worth the $19.99 cover price, but easy enough to find for less even without resorting to Amazon. So don’t.

Alright, that ought to be enough to empty your wallet for one week — it was for me! — see you back here in seven days for another round!