Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Two Collections of Miscellaneous Neil Gaiman Stories from DC

There's a vast gulf between the big earners and the rest. Not artistically, necessarily -- many of the big earners, in whatever field you want to mention, are meat-and-potatoes types -- but in availability and marketing enthusiasm and sheer flow of product.

So, when you have a creator like Neil Gaiman, who was first a really popular and successful writer of comic books (because of The Sandman in the '90s, primarily) and then either leveled up or transferred to being an equally popular and successful writer of mostly novel-shaped things since then, you find that nearly everything he's touched keeps coming back into print.

(The big counterexample, of course, is Miracleman: The Silver Age, but we all know that entire property is cursed, right?)

But, at least in the old, days, when people started out in comics, they did little things first -- backup stories, fill-in issues, one-shots. So that means someone like Gaiman has a lot of loose ends and short bits of string and pieces of stories and tidbits. And, therefore, the people who want to keep making some Neil Gaiman money from their ownership of all that random stuff need to figure out ways to package those stories that looks more purposeful and reasoned -- and, they hope, to put it into a form that can keep selling for years without having to keep worrying about it.

I have two such examples, from the same company, in front of me right now. So that company had enough stories to make two books, and had to figure out how to divide them. What DC did, more or less, was to take the mostly earlier, mostly horror-themed stories, put them in a volume called Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days, and publish it under the Vertigo imprint. And then what was left were the mostly later, mostly superhero stories, which became The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman, from the main parent company.

Now, it's not an entirely clean division. Midnight Days was originally published in 1999, collecting stories from 1989 through 1998 and one old script newly drawn at that time. DC Universe was originally published in 2016, and collected stories from as far back as 1988 but only as recent as 2009 -- and its newly-drawn-from-an-old-script project came out in floppy-comics form back in 2000. But, generally, Midnight Days is the one with stories about Swamp Thing and John Constantine and people concerned with dreams, while DC Universe has the stories about Batman and Superman.

Midnight Days is odder and more miscellaneous, maybe because Vertigo was an odder imprint to begin with. It collects Gaiman's great single-issue Hellblazer story "Hold Me," drawn by Dave McKean, and his pretty good Swamp Thing annual re-introducing Brother Power the Geek, drawn mostly by Richard Piers Rayner. And the long, atmospheric Sandman Midnight Theatre one-shot, co-written with Matt Wagner -- and mostly featuring Wagner's characters --  and drawn perfectly by Teddy Kristiansen. But there's also a silly little framing story from a reprint collection of House of Mystery stories from the 1970s, drawn by Sergio Aragones, and that minor Swamp Thing story drawn a decade late by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, and a nice back-up drawn by Mike Mignola from that same Swamp Thing Annnual that was to serve as a teaser for the Gaiman Swamp Thing plotline he never got to write, after the DC Powers That Be freaked out and fired Rick Veitch over his Jesus issue.

Again: it's a miscellany. Both books are. And maybe "sort-of horror" has a less distinct, specific tone than "modern superheroes" does.

DC Universe is bigger and flashier, with an on-the-nose Brian Bolland cover instead of the moody Dave McKean package of Midnight Days. And it starts out with a story that could have been in Midnight Days -- Gaiman alludes to it, archly, in that book, and to the DC continuity reasons why it didn't make it in there -- in a story from Secret Origins (remember that?) about Poison Ivy that was more Swamp Thing than Batman. There's also a full Batman-themed Secret Origins Special orchestrated by Gaiman, with a frame story (drawn by Mike Hoffman and Kevin Nowlan) and a Riddler story drawn excellently and quirkily by Bernie Mireault. (And also two other stories, from the teams of Alan Grant and Sam Kieth on the one hand and Mark Verheiden, Pat Broderick, and Dick Giordano on the other, telling stories about Penguin and Two-Face.)

There's an amusing short metafiction, drawn in deep sketchy blacks, by Simon Bisley, of Batman and the Joker bantering in the Green Room as they wait to go on-panel -- this is perhaps the most Gaimanesque story in the book, the one that no one else would have told.

And then the lost-and-refound story, a Batman/Green Lantern team-up that was originally planned to be the wrap-up issue of the failed weekly version of Action Comics but was finally drawn by an all-star cast (Eddie Campbell, Michael Allred, Mark Buckingham, John Totleben, Matt Wagner, Eric Shanower, Jim Aparo, Kevin Nowlan, and Jason Little) for an out-of-continuity one-shot years later. By that point, Gaiman was famous enough that the DC editors were happy to do his stories even if they were out of continuity. This one is a full -- too full, frankly -- superhero romp, more an exercise in getting from Point A to Point B than something really impressive in its own right.

But there's a great, short, poignant Deadman story next, drawn by Teddy Kristiansen (him again!) to follow. And a deliberate throw-back story about Metamorpho, originally published broadsheet size in the twelve issues of Wednesday Comics and somewhat diminished in size and scope when republished here.

And last, most recent and probably most central, is Gaiman's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?," his stab at the canonical dead-Batman story. Andy Kubert does a virtuoso job of drawing every art style Gaiman throws at him -- which is a lot of them -- and I found the story more affecting this time around than the first time I read it. It's still yet another Gaiman story-about-stories, joining the long line, and it more than faintly echoes Gaiman's stronger finale to the Sandman series, The Wake. But, as corporate comics go, it's pretty darn good.

That could stand as a judgment on both of these books, actually: it's all stuff created to fill a hole in a monthly publishing schedule and to exploit certain properties that DC Comics owns, but Gaiman takes it all seriously and does good work, as do his collaborators. (I'm afraid I've never warmed up to Kevin Nowlan's work, but I'm pretty sure he's good at what he does. And I pretty much like everything else here.)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/18

My SFF-loving peeps might possibly have been unhappy with this feature lately -- since I get so much manga, the SF and Fantasy books aren't as dominant. But, just for them, I have an all-SFF edition this week, due to popular demand!

(Actually, not: like every week, what gets listed here is purely because it's what showed up in my mailbox. But we can always pretend otherwise, right? Make up our own "alternate facts" when the world doesn't fit our preconceptions?)

So first up is V.E. Schwab's alternate-world fantasy A Conjuring of Light, the third and final book in the Shades of Magic trilogy about four warring alternate color-coded versions of London. The first one was a NYTimes bestseller, so I expect a lot of you are waiting for this book -- and you can get it as a Tor hardcover on February 21.

Also ending a fantasy trilogy: J.F. Lewis's Worldshaker, coming from Pyr in trade paperback on February 28. This one is the Grudgebearer Trilogy, and, since this is the big finish, there's the usual evil lord who has raised an army of the dead who must be stopped by the usual rag-tag group of heroes, in this case including the new god of death (which sounds awfully convenient).

Friday, February 17, 2017

Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White by Taiyo Matsumoto

The title is an untranslatable pun. It's set in an invented city. The main characters are frankly unrealistic, perhaps more to be taken as types or icons than as individuals. It's six hundred pages long, translated from a foreign language. Even the pages of art had to be physically edited or "flopped" for the comics to read well to a Western eye.

There's a lot to understand in Taiyo Matsumoto's first major work, Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White. And it's likely that I, or anyone else not intimately familiar with the Japan of the early '90s, will miss or misinterpret important, central elements of that book. So, with that understood, here I go....

There are two boys, called only Black and White. Black is older, by a year or so -- or maybe just more assured. They're ten years old, maybe. Maybe less. Not more than a hair more. They defend Treasure Town, or perhaps terrorize it, jumping up and down from roofs and walls and telephone poles, attacking gangsters, sometimes harassing regular people. They should not be able to jump as they do. They should not be able to fight groups of adults and win as they do. They should not be able to live, just the two of them, in an abandoned car in an alley somewhere.

They should not be able to stop plans to redevelop Treasure Town, hatched by gangsters and businessmen who are obviously worse than gangsters. And they might not.

And there's a young gangster, Kimura. His boss, the Rat, is good as far as such things go: focused, thoughtful, organized. But Kimura is between the Rat and the Snake, who may be a gangster or may be a businessman (or may not be a man; the Snake's presentation is creepy and leering, a thing unto itself outside of conventional humanity). The Snake demands things of Kimura, and threatens his pregnant girlfriend.

There's a lot of threatening in Tekkon Kinkreet, actually. Mostly among the shifting gangster alliances and powers: the boys just do instead of talking about it.

Oh, they talk. But their talk is in the moment, just as their actions are. They don't threaten or bluster, and barely make plans.

Black and White have no larger aims, no goals. They may not even be getting older as time passes. They are there, and they are who they are, and they do what they do. And Treasure Town endures them, or celebrates them, or ignores them, from day to day. Near the end, there's also a Minotaur, who may be someone else in the story, in a different form. But he, too, is there and must be dealt with or ignored or faced or repudiated.

There are also two cops. They're important, too, I guess. Amusingly, the two characters with the societal approval to use violence are the two we never see engaging in violence. I doubt this is unintentional.

I don't think I can say I understood Tekkon Kinkreet. I visited it, and saw some of the sights. And I'll have to visit it again. Some day, when I've spent enough time in Treasure Town, maybe I'll be able to be a better guide to its attractions. But, right now, I can definitely say it's worth visiting.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Corto Maltese: Celtic Tales by Hugo Pratt

I'm never sure how typical I am. I've been hearing about Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese stories for at least twenty years, but never read any of them. Oh, yeah -- the great European adventure series, intermittently translated into English and never published very well over here. I had a vague sense of it, but never read any of Pratt's stories. And I feel like that's pretty common: that a lot of people like me who read comics know who Pratt is, and have that vague sense that they might like his work, but haven't actually gotten to any of it. But I could be wrong.

Anyway, IDW's EuroComics imprint has been bringing out the Corto Maltese stories, in what I hear are both appropriately-sized books and good new translations -- both things that have not been as true in the past. (Again, this is second-hand info: I'm no expert.) And that gave me an opportunity to finally read Pratt's work.

The book I found was Celtic Tales, smack dab in the middle of the series -- according to the list in the end of the book, it's fifth in a series of twelve, though I'm not sure if internal chronology is the same as publication chronology, or which one is standardized in that list -- a collection of six stories set in Europe originally published in book form in 1972 (and, individually, sometime before that, though the book is silent on those details).

Corto Maltese is the main character, who I gather is an Italian sailor. The stories don't give him any background: he's just there, at or near the center of the action, and we take him as he is. He's not a talkative man -- adventure heroes often aren't -- and the wordy narration focuses more on scene-setting and explaining the geopolitical situation behind each story than on telling us about Corto and what he's trying to do. He's not in his very first youth, I guess, but young and vigorous enough, probably in that eternal thirties of other adventure-hero characters like Batman. And, at least in these stories, he's quite detached from the life and schemes around him: the few women (all dangerous and wily femmes fatale) don't stir him at all, and even the lure of riches seems only a minor drive. He's not quite enigmatic, but it's not clear at all what motivates him, or what he cares about.

That puts some distance from the reader -- at least this reader -- and these six stories, making them more historical and less personal than they could have been. Corto is wandering around the edges of the flailing dying struggles of The Great War, during 1917 and 1918, as he incidentally foils a spy plot in Venice, masterminds (mostly off-page) a big heist on the front near the Adriatic coast, falls in with Irish revolutionaries and then with characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream (the latter stopping a German invasion of England), passes near the battle of the Somme in time to see the fall of the Red Baron, and finally foils another, and very quirky, spy plot in northern France.

In these stories, at least, Corto only rarely breaks a sweat. He's usually on top of the situation, or not really part of it to begin with. I have no idea if that detachment is characteristic of the series as a whole, but it felt odd here, as if the main character was saving his energy for something more interesting or important that Pratt might tell us later, if we're lucky.

Pratt's art is strongly illustrative, almost impressionistic at places, full of blacks and messy lines to show the messiness of war. And his visual storytelling is fine and unobtrusive, keeping the action clear while also supporting quieter scenes.

All in all, though, I'm not sure what the excitement is about. I think I'll try again, but I'm reacting to Corto Maltese a lot like I reacted to Terry and the Pirates: thinking it's nice and all, without really feeling what the big deal was.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Arf Forum edited by Craig Yoe

For a few years in the mid-aughts, Craig Yoe had what amounted to a yearly magazine about comics, in an oversized album format, under the umbrella title "Arf." (Don't ask me why, but it's a very Yoe-ish idea.)

The third of the four Arf books was Arf Forum, from 2007. For some reason, it's the one that stuck on my find-this-and-read-it list, and so it was the one I'd been vaguely looking for. (With the even vaguer intention of figuring out the rest of the series and reading those if I liked it.)

Well, I have access to the vast holdings of the New York Public Library these days, since I work less than a block from the Grand Central branch. And I've gotten used to reserving library materials online over the past few years, because who doesn't like asking for free stuff and having it held for you?

So, yadda yadda yadda, I finally found and read Arf Forum. And it's a goofier, more idiosyncratic thing than I expected. I don't want to generalize about the other three books -- well, OK, I do, and my sense is that I can, so I will -- but this seems to be Yoe following his own very specific artistic loves, inspirations, and oddball ideas down some very quirky avenues to pull together a hundred and twenty big pages of reprint comics and new writing about comics, plus some aggressively artsy illustrations to tie it all together.

So this particular volume, the one I actually have in front of me, starts off with over twenty pre-Table of Contents pages of people reading comics: some photos (one of Elvis!), a bunch of strips, and a short comics story written by Stan Lee in the '50s. Just when the reader thinks this is going to be an artsy collage kind of thing, full of found images and loose themes, that ToC hits, and it becomes a more conventional magazine-type assemblage. Yoe leads off with an appreciation of Bill "Smokey Stover" Hollman. Then there's a short piece on Yoe by Stan Lee, and then mostly Yoe-written short bits on cavemen in comics, fine artist Max Ernst, the obscure funny animal character Harry Hotdog, the even more obscure cover painter William Ekgren, cartoonist Ted Scheel, cartoons about hell, and Italian cute-girl cartoonist Kremos. All of those are illustrated, generally with works by the people discussed, and in some cases with a new "portrait" of the artist by a contemporary artist in usually a very jarring style.

It's scattershot, unfocused, and seemingly random, like rummaging through the overstuffed attic of the least organized Museum of Comics imaginable. It's fun in its manic energy, but it's definitely a tour of Yoe's specific artistic/comic interests and obsessions, and will be of interest to other people almost entirely based on how closely one's own interests match up with Yoe's. Mine only loosely follow that pattern. But, after a decade, I finally found and read it, so I mark it up as a win.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Complete Peanuts, 1997 to 1998 by Chartles M. Schulz

The conventional wisdom is that Peanuts was tired and dull by the end of Charles Schulz's life, focused on standard gags and hampered by Schulz's increasingly shaky hand. And it's definitely true that the long continuities of the '70s were no more, and the more psychologically insightful (and sometimes emotionally painful) years of the strip were similarly far in the past. But Schulz had finally broken free of his four-panel prison a few years before, and the strips from 1997 and 1998 show an amazing flexibility and inventiveness, as Schulz kept finding new cadences for his strips and tried other panel layouts.

At this point, I should probably link to posts I've done over the past decade for the previous books in the series: 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-19641965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1991-1992, 1993-1994, the flashback to 1950-1952, and then just recently 1995-1996.

In that last post, I wrote about the looming end of the series -- we know it's looming, but Schulz didn't, until very near the end -- and how that can overshadow what's actually good and interesting in those strips. The same is true, probably even more so, for The Complete Peanuts: 1997 to 1998. Schulz's panel layouts get even more interesting in these years, with a number of strips with staccato panels -- up to six or seven of them -- to rattle through a run of dialogue, and many more in one single quieter long panel.

And if he didn't have the three-week epic camp or baseball stories of the '60s and '70s any more, he did something quirkier these years, bringing Snoopy's brothers Andy and Olaf in to visit, and then sending them off on an odyssey to find their other brother Spike, out in the western desert. Andy and Olaf are less capable than even the hapless Spike, so they keep coming back -- every month or three, the two funny-looking dogs return, with another story of not quite making it to Spike, and what they found instead. Schulz keeps these stories in the established milieu of the strip -- Spike's desert, the suburban landscape around Snoopy's doghouse -- rather than showing us Andy and Olaf actually in the various places they visited by accident.

And it has to be said that Schulz was a very funny cartoonist by this point in his career: each strip is funny and precise, based on the personalities of his cast and enlivened by new characters: Rerun, in particular, gets to grow into more of a rounded person, and not just be the little kid stuck on the back of his mother's bicycle, as he was when he first appeared.

Again, I still wouldn't call this peak Peanuts. But it's doing different things than peak Peanuts was, and doing those things equally well. This was a strong, vibrant, funny strip from beginning to end, the product of one devoted, hard-working, honest cartoonist sitting down at that board day after day for fifty years to come up with another idea, another joke, another drawing.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/11

I don't have anything clever to say here this week. (Cue the peanut gallery: "As opposed to every other week? Ho ho ho!")

But these are a couple of books that showed up in my mail this past week, both of them new manga volumes from Yen Press. And I thought that you -- yes you, don't look behind yourself -- might be interested. So take a gander:

Anne Happy, Vol. 4 comes to us from a manga-ka credited as Cotoji, and continues the story of the "happiness class" of Tennnomifune Academy. Apparently, in this particular story-world, luck (or lack thereof) can be measured and ranked, and the five girls with the worst scores have been stuck together in one group so their bad luck won't hurt anyone else. (Or something like that.)

Over in meta-world is Monthly Girls' Nozaki-Kun, Vol. 6, another manga about making manga, from Izukmi Tsubaki. This is the fantasy-world version of being a creator, though, so our hero is not only a busy high school student and a successful professional, but also spends this volume doing goofy things to get ideas for his work.