Opus 49:

Thumbin’ & Squintin’. Standing at the rack of comic books, thumbing through the new arrivals to see what’s there, you don’t take the time for much more than a glimpse at the contents before deciding whether or not to buy. Here are a few glimpses into the current crop.

"The Return to Krypton" story arc running in the Superman titles these days makes you wonder whatever became of model sheets. The artists on the various titles are apparently permitted to render the first flying member of the longjohn legions in whatever their own particular style of drawing is--at the moment. Remember when Jack Kirby drew Superman "his way," and the DC editorial suite dictated that all the faces be re-drawn to achieve the more conventional "Superman" appearance? Not so long ago. Well, these guys today would have none of that, tovarich! It’s their way or no way. And their way is to distort physiognomy into grimace and anatomy into postures. And in Superman: Man of Steel No. 111 even the lettering in the captions is so affected that the verbiage cannot be read easily. Or hardly, for that matter.

The Himalayas get some attractive treatment in Tomb Raider No. 11, but Billy Tan’s visual razzle-dazzle often obscures the storyline not to mention the action it is supposed to be depicting. Lara Croft bails out of a helicopter over the mountains wearing skis and an oxygen tank that comes and goes to suit the exigencies of the plot, but it’s impossible to tell just how she lands on the snow-covered slope and what, exactly, direction she goes in across the panels at the bottom of that page. And where does she get those cool rose-colored specs all of a sudden? But the pictures are beautiful; they just don’t help tell the story sometimes.

Batman: Hollywood Knight No. 1 is out, but I haven’t figured out, yet, whether any of the characters therein is actually Bruce Wayne. Jack Napier shows up, though, and he gets violent if someone calls him the Joker. Dick Giordano is doing the art chores, and while his work is pure and good, it seems his figures are a little stiff and his feathering a little forced--compared to the wonders he did on, say, Wonder Woman when she was out of costume back there in the late sixties or so.

Al Rio is up to his old tricks again in rendering David Campiti’s Shawna McMatta Diaz and Lisa Shannon, the toothsome duo of ParaTech Research who delve into the paranormal. Rio and Campiti together constitute the new Bill Ward of funnybooks, putting their heroines in the boudoir and before the make-up mirror once every issue so we can see them standing around in their skivvies. Campiti’s storyline inevitably requires Rio to draw his patented shredded-clothing picture of at least one of the girls at least once. And in Exposure: Second Coming No. 2, he gets to put mini-skirts on them, too. The second story is drawn by Wilson Tortosa, whose women are a little more generously proportioned but whose line is not as voluptuous as Rio’s. The story? Well, paranormal stuff. We don’t buy this one for Elizabethan blank verse, kimo sabe.

Crusades: Urban Decree launches a new series from DC that has a spooky knight in armor roaming the streets of San Francisco and slaughtering assorted souls, intoning "Evil to him who evil does" in French, thereby baffling everyone. The unfolding story in this issue, however, focuses (and that’s the operative word, as I’ll explain in a trice) on a radio talk-show host Anton Marx and his paramour, the fetching Venus. The book is clearly intended for an adult audience: we have dismemberment, beheading, and fornication depicted in the opening nine pages, and the lingo includes several choice obscenities as well as reference to "dykes." Clearly, as I said, this book is intended to entertain adults. But it’s the artwork by Kelly Jones that amazes me. He assaults the eye on every page by choosing some new and wildly different perspective to depict the action from. Once he even "shoots" from inside Anton’s big and constantly running mouth! Exercising a manic sense of visual humor, Jones routinely distorts perspective for comedic effect, but the odd angles combined with deep (and often misshaping) shadowing render the characters unrecognizable from one appearance to the next (sometimes in the very next panel). And since we have no history with this ensemble whatsoever, the personages need delineation and definition rather desperately until we become familiar with them. If we didn’t have the color here, we’d scarcely know who we were looking at from page to page. Writer Steven T. Seagle does give us a short history of toilets that’s engaging, though.

P. Craig Russell’s third of the three-issue Ring of the Nibelung, "Siegfried," is out, and it is beautifully drawn. Exquisite. He gives us clarity and variety and occasional pyrotechnics. And purely recognizable human anatomy and faces, too. Just when we’d begun to despair of finding decent artwork in this visual medium.

But the despair is short-lived. The next four titles are the well-drawn ones.

Sergio Aragones’ Actions Speak is up to the second of its six-issue run in black-and-white, and Sergio’s antic imagination is as antic as ever. With nary a word, he gives us 24 individual comic strip gags, one to a page. Some of the gags are laugh-provoking; others, prompt but a smile. But all are warm testimony to the comedic visual invention of one of the world’s master cartoonists.

In Desperate Times No. 2, Chris Eliopoulos continues his black-and-white chronicle of the ill-starred duo, Marty and Toad, searching, ever-searching for chicks. This time, they go skiing. Kennedy the three-toed sloth is on the cover (a Time magazine mock-up) but not inside; instead, we have Staci, the girl ventriloquist whose hand puppet utters only vile insults. (This is almost as good as ol’ Edgar Bergen who made a fortune on the radio throwing his voice to a wooden-headed dummy named Charlie McCarthy. Think about it. Ventriloquism on the radio. In a comic book.) In two different back-up stories, we have "Zap Peters, Space Avenger" and "Alienz" with Zort the alien. Eliopoulos paces his tales with plunchlines two to a page, right at the end of the second and fourth tier on a four-tier layout. Seems to me that he’s changed the proportions of his characters for their comic book incarnation. When they were aimed at a comic strip venue, the heads were larger in relation to the bodies. His brush is still bold and his pictures skillfully spotted with sparkling blacks. A treat, in other words.

In Big Bang No. 35, we have all three parts of the "Mighty Man vs. The Wicked Worm" tale, black-and-white homage to C.C. Beck and Otto Binder’s Captain Marvel worm epic that spanned many issues of the Fawcett title while the Big Red Cheese attempted to find the mastermind behind a world-wide wave of crime in a long-running serial called "The Monster Society of Evil." The villain was Mister Mind, a tiny worm. Gary Carlson does the writing and Bill Fugate draws the first two; John Thompson, the last one. Fugate is the more adept at evoking Beck’s bold-line style, but Thompson’s draftsmanship is perfectly adequate: it’s just that his line is a little thin for Beck-work. His story includes a couple cameo appearances (Tawky Tawny, the Tiger, and even Sivana) and a sly reference to the writing Binder brothers, Earl and Otto, whose byline was "Eando"--in this case, the secretary at the radio station "Bobby" works at is Miss Eando. Cute. Throughout the Big Bang tale, the Wicked Worm takes over the minds and bodies of animals that he then directs into criminal acts. Carlson maneuvers this homage stuff with an exquisite sense of fun. A lion holds up a bank, saying to the teller: "Give me all the money or I’ll eat you." Wonderful.

Image’s new Double Image title flips to offer two new series: "The Bod," about Kelly Gordon, a really built young woman trying to break into movies in Hollywood ("Nice tits," says a female co-worker; "got the job pretty quickly for being new in town, didn’t you?"), and "Codeflesh," about a costumed bail bondsman who is his own bounty hunter. Larry Young writes "The Bod," and John Heebink draws it with Walden Wong inking. I remember Heebink’s work in Action Planet Comics, and if I’m recollecting a-right, he did his own inks on "Wrathbone and Bitchula" better than this. But that’s just my preference. The story at hand, in which our embonpoint heroine somehow makes herself invisible, promises to fulfil its hype for "humorous hi-jinks in a sexy vein." "Codeflesh," an exercise in hard-boiled cops-and-robbers, is a visual treat--boldly limned, deftly shadowed, and nicely paced (alternating an on-going fight sequence with flashes into the life of the hero’s long-suffering girlfriend, waiting for him in a bar, then at home, where she complains to her roomie about her lover’s thoughtlessness) by Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard.

And then we have the latest in the new nasty Mad: No. 403, in which the management begins to accept advertising. Bill Gaines never would. He thought the magazine would be freer to ridicule popular culture in all its ramifications (which includes, often, the gimmicks of Madison Avenue) if it weren’t at all beholden to advertisers. If you don’t have advertisers, you don’t have to worry about possibly offending them with the latest lampoon. Well, those days are now gone. The new corporate objective is to make money not to ridicule popular culture. So, judging from the content of this issue, we won’t find Warner Brothers being made fun of--or PlayStation 2, or Finger Eleven, or--. No matter. You get the message. The satirists have sold out. Just like the politicians. Big bucks runs it all now, every aspect of American life, from television news to the White House and Congress. So what do you expect in a capitalist economy? Oh--and some of the interior stories herein are in full color, another editorial innovation. (Probably needed the advertising revenue to pay for the color.)

Speaking of rip-offs, I just witnessed Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. (Yeah, I know: movies ain’t my beat here. But movies and comics are visual kin, and both are securely vested popular culture, so I’ll hazard an opinion off the reservation this time.) It is a measure of just how far popular taste has descended into the trivial and the brainless to realize that this two-and-a-half hour flick is up for an Oscar. I guess I thought Forest Gump’s win of a couple years ago was an aberration, an accident. But if Gump was unfettered silliness masquerading as Profundity, Gladiator goes it one better by reaching into the very dregs of meaningless spectacle. As a story, it is wholly implausible--from its basic premise (Roman military hero sinks into obscurity as a slave gladiator) to its idiotic conclusion (a fist fight to the death [!] in the arena wherein Russell Crowe’s nearly mute character gets to kill his political antagonist who is [pause] the Emperor!). This is a tasteless tale of heartbreak and revenge and good old imperial incest with so many loose plot ends that it requires an act of will to call it a story at all. Apart from blood and gore and brutishness, the movie is mere sentimental swill. And if the Academy’s members think it’s a great motion picture, they must be counting sprocket holes in the celluloid instead of (1) acting, (2) characterization, (3) plot, (4) story, (5) meaning or theme, (6) importance or significance to the human spirit, (7)--but why go on? We’ve reached the absolute nadir here, tovarich.

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