Opus Thirteen:

1.  Last Month at the Newsstand (11/17)

1. Last Month at the Newsstands.  Over at Marvel, they finally took
my advice.  Their $3.99 re-issue of All Winners No. 19 is a visual
treat.  Instead of drenching the color out of an old funnybook and
then reconstructing black-and-white art for re-coloring, it looks
like they just scanned the old comic's pages and then reproduced
them in color.  Warts and all.  A little out-of-register here, a
little bleed-through color there.  Just like the old comic book
itself.  The process even reproduced the yellow tinge of the antique
newsprint paper.  Delicious.  Warms the cockles of the heart.  I'll
take a reprint in this mode every time over one of those garishly
caramelized archival resurrections.  Nifty historical notes by ol'
Rascally Roy Thomas, too.  
      Here's something we don't get very often--perfection.  Diabolik No.
1 is a perfect example of an entirely pedestrian comic book
production.  A black-and-white re-issue on these shores from an
Italian comic book series, the title protagonist is a thief and
master of disguise.  The first of the series here, "Terror Aboard the
Karima" ($5.95 in digest-size squareback) offers no moral
justification for this guy's underworld enterprise: he's a thief and
that's that.  And Diabolik himself is a rather bland personality.
Nothing anywhere as intriguing as, say, Leslie Charteris' Simon
Templar (whose initials, ST, established him as "the Saint" and whose
conduct secured him the sobriquet "Robin Hood of Modern Crime";
nothing like that).  The Diabolik story, while mildly interesting, is
not much embellished by the visuals.  Don't get me wrong: it's not
badly drawn.  In fact, the artwork is thoroughly adequate.  But
that's the problem: competent as the artwork is, nothing particularly
distinguishes it.  Nor do the breakdowns or layouts do anything to
enhance the narrative.  In short, nothing I saw suggests that the
artist was getting any sort of a charge by drawing the story.  Or
that the artist even understood more than the rudiments of the
medium's storytelling techniques.  It was soulless from beginning to
end.  Reading it was an equally blah experience.
      In sharp contrast, we have (at last--at loooong last) the fourth
issue of the 4-issue black-and-white series, Jay and Silent Bob
($2.95).  Duncan Fegredo clearly enjoys rendering Kevin Smith's story
into static graphics.  Above and beyond a crisp linear technique, we
have numerous evidences of Fegredo's exuberant engagement with the
medium.  It shows in the "extras"--visual accents that are not
essential to the story but are nonetheless incorporated into it and
add atmosphere (and incidental comedy galore).  Background details,
odd camera angles or distances, comical facial expressions,
breakdowns that pace the narrative with two or more panels where only
one might serve just as well to push the plot along.  Silent Bob's
reaction to Jay's colossal flatulence is but one manifestation of
what I mean.  The books in this series are full of similar displays
of visual inventiveness that show how much fun Smith and Fegredo are
having.  In this final chapter of the epic, Jay tries peddling MJ in
a Chicago suburban high school where he encounters sophistication far
above his phoniness and discovers that the films of John Hughes are
not documentaries.  But he and Silent Bob escape and manage to
salvage their delusions and preserve (one more time) their machismo
without losing their virginity in one of the last of the book's huge
put-ons about adolescent self-deception.  Wonderful.  And you can
find all four issues bound together in a single tome from Image,
too--112 pages, including color reproduction of all the series'
covers; $11.95.
      Superman Inc. is a hoot.  Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez's pencils give us
page after page of his usual imaginative treatment (and some
excellent pictures of basketball action), and the story concept
itself is just about as adventurous.  Set in the $6.95 squareback
Elseworlds universe, we see what might happen if our celebrated
refugee from Krypton had grown up in the Super Bowl half of the
century instead of the Jimmy Stewart half.  Naturally (and our easy
acceptance of this narrative maneuver is an scathing comment on the
state of our super-star society), his superpowers are enlisted in
professional athletics and then thoroughly merchandised in order to
make a fortune for the star and his managers.  The tale doesn't quite
achieve satirical status because there's no overt ridicule, but the
juxtaposition of the Elseworld's story with our recollection of the
homespun values of the traditional origin story drips with the kind
of irony that usually infects satire.  Nice job, Steve Vance and DC.
      Bob Hall is back on the Cowled Crusader with Batman: D.O.A.  Hall,
you may recall, is Armed and Dangerous.  Armed and Dangerous, you may
recall, was a series of comic books that came out a couple years ago
in striking black and white.  Written and drawn by Hall, the books
told tales about underworld types like those Hall had known (or had
heard about) in the scruffier neighborhoods of New York City, where
he served time as a youth.  Hall was producing fiction in this series
but some of the incidents were based upon actual events (or
neighborhood gossip about actual events).  The stories were superbly
rendered in a stunning chiaroscuro manner.  And Hall demonstrated a
spectacular mastery of the techniques of comic book storytelling,
too--pacing the action and conjuring up atmospherics expertly on
every page.  A little over a year ago, Hall produced an stunningly
rendered and artfully concocted Elseworlds Batman tale, I, Joker, in
which Hall concocted an ingenious parable that parallels the
relationship between the comic book hero, Batman, and his faithful
readers, before whom (in Hall's story), Batman re-enacts periodically
the ritual conquest of a litany of arch villains.  Having set up the
allegorical resonances of this situation, Hall then proceeds to
explore its implications.  In D.O.A. ($6.95), Hall displays a similar
inventiveness.  Batman is poisoned and has only twenty-four hours to
live, to secure the release of a kidnaped child, and to find an
antidote for the poison.  As a vehicle to display Batman's obsessive
crime-fighting dedication, we could ask for nothing more acutely
perceptive.  Batman chooses to keep after the kidnapper, which he
does even when he is so close to death that he can barely move; Robin
goes after the antidote, and at the end of the tale, Hall rings in a
touching note as the Darknight corrects an earlier slip of the tongue
that must've hurt Tim Drake.  Throughout, Hall's usual deployment of
heavy shadows gives Batman's world just the right midnight grittiness
for the vigilante detective.
      The second issue of the Homage 4-issue series Ball and Chain is out
($2.50), and Scott Lobdell takes this unlikely concept another
amusing step forward as Edgar and Mallory discover they have
superpowers.  But they have them only when they're together.  The
poetic justice of this circumstance arises mostly from the fact that
when this couple is together, they bicker and argue in what Lobdell
imagines is a typical husband-and-wife manner.  I suppose it will be
entertaining to see the two always fighting and making up, the Ralph
Kramdens of the spandex set.  Ale Garza and Richard Bennett handle
the art chores with imaginative layouts and a quirky albeit pleasing
line.  Neither superhero is on steroids like most of the breed; and
Mallory is plenty attractive without basketballs on her chest.  (And
the artists manage to endow her with a vast array of facial
expressions, all of them cute.)  But editor Rachelle Brissenden needs
a short spelling lesson, so here it is: "alright" is not a word.
Already is, and so is always; but when everything is all right, you
use two words to proclaim it.  The same is true of "a lot"; two
words, not one.  I know this is the Internet Age and everything
happens fast, but
smashingwordstogetherisnotgoingtomakeanythinggofaster.  See?  It
actually makes them harder to read.
      The fourth issue of Shadow Man ($2.50) is another sad demonstration
of a wannabe comic book stumbling over the shortcomings in talent
among its perpetrators.  The artwork by Ryan Benjamin (pencils) and
Sal Regla (inks) is clunky and overwrought, and as a result, the
figurework seems stiff and unnatural.  Moreover, scenes shift without
explanation, and characters pop in and out without introductions.
The visuals lack clarity; even in fight scenes, it's difficult to
figure out what is actually happening.  And there are virtually no
backgrounds anywhere to clarify, however vaguely, where any of this
is taking place.  Part of the blame, of course, resides with the
writers, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who are probably having a
hilarious time conjuring up all sorts of disgusting sequences,
feeding each other bits that they doubtless find uproarious in their
grossness but which, in the last analysis, are not presented with
sufficient clarity to make a story.   The series is apparently about
zombies and crusaders among the dead, so the butchery we are made to
witness is, perforce, not "real."  Gimme a break.  Nothing in comics
is "real"; so everything is.  Probably all this necromancery appeals
to the mysteriousness loving among Gothic juveniles, but it slips by
me, tovarich.  This is another book whose only distinction is the
brilliance of the coloring.  But pyrotechnics alone cannot rescue a
confused tale crammed with disgusting images.  Too bad.
      Erik Larsen continues to entertain and amaze in the latest Savage
Dragon (No. 67, $2.50 from Image).  As Erica Schippers says in the
letters section, "The thing I like best about Savage Dragon is its
sense of fun."  And, she goes on, "I love the art, too.  You have a
great repertoire of moves, from subtle facial expressions to
bash-em-up scenes."  Yup:  Larsen knows how to produce emotional
impact with such visual nuances as breakdowns as well as how to
splashpage action sequences.  A master of the storytelling devices of
the medium, Larsen often shifts the scene with each turn of the page,
making the format punctuate the drama of the narrative.  Not that
every comic book should work this way; but it's engaging when it
happens every so often with such pronounced effect.  Returning to
this issue's letters section, Larsen regales us with the stunning
tale of how a joke he wrote into Nova No. 7 was edited out by an
editor with the mental acuity of concrete.  The point of the anecdote
is that Larsen is glad he has his own book because he doesn't have to
put up with the arbitrariness of editorial stupidity.  The edited-out
word, incidentally, was the name of a restaurant--Hooter's.
Apparently political correctitude frowns on flinging that term for a
portion of female anatomy into the faces of the nation's funnybook
reading youth.  But apparently there's no prohibition against drawing
basketball bosoms and flaunting them in the faces of adolescent male
America.  I guess pictures of 'em are all right if you just don't
talk about 'em.  Well, it's a visual medium, ain't it?
      If you happened to miss the four issues of Chris Eliopoulos's
Desperate Times, you can correct this mistake now: the entire series
has been bound together in a single fat black-and-white paperback,
which includes, as a bonus, a new 11-page story (all for merely
$14.95).  The action (just to get you going on this) involves a brace
of male roommates, Marty and Toad, whose activities are mostly
governed by a desire to pick up chicks, although they also go grocery
shopping and they frequent saloons (at both locations, trying to pick
up chicks).  They are unredeemed losers, of course, which provides
the humor.  About half-way through the book, they are joined by a
household pet--a three-toed sloth named Kennedy, who talks, drinks
beer by the keg, and chases wimmin shamelessly.  Kennedy has more
success than his owners, winding up between the sheets with Marty's
sister.  (You might think this is bestiality, but when you realize
that she has a boyfriend who always appears in his theme park costume
as a Goofy-inspired cartoon character, you will doubtless pause and
reflect.  I did.)  Eliopoulos displays both professional drawing
ability and a thorough grasp of the storytelling (and joke-telling)
capacities of the medium, deploying its penchant for comedic pacing
with great skill.  Desperate Times continues to grace the final pages
of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon comic book, where it first started, so
once your appetite for a good case of giggles is whetted, you can get
it whetted again and again in monthly doses.
      Stay 'tooned.

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