Friday, March 27, 2009

Comics Round-Up #6

I'm typing this post quickly on the night before I fly out to the weekend of judging, so this will probably be the last round-up post; the things I read on the airplane and at the secret undisclosed judging location will likely get mentioned only in my month-end list, if at all. But here's some more books from 2008 that I was reading as part of my duties as an Eisner judge...

Water Baby by Ross Campbell (Minx/DC Comics, July 2008, $9.99)

Another one of the shards of DC's ill-fated attempt to make digest-size comics for teenage girls, Water Baby is a little too aimless, in the end, to be completely successful, but it does channel a strong line in authentic teenage aimlessness, and Campbell's art is strong. (He seems to linger on the curves of his female characters -- and also keeps them in short & tight clothes, which, I have to admit, are appropriate to their locations and personalities most of the time -- a little more than I'd expect in a book for girls. But there's a good-looking buff boy as well...though there's not nearly as much of him shirtless as there is of the girls in their bikinis.

Brody's the girl on the cover; she's the viewpoint character, the one whose leg gets bitten off by a shark while she's surfing on the eighth story page. The story seems like it should be about her coming to terms with the loss of her leg -- and it is, but mostly on the level of subtext. The story up front is primarily a road trip, as Brody and her best friend Louisa drive the aforementioned buff dude Jake back north (from Florida, where Brody and Lou live) to get rid of him. Water Baby has the rhythm of a road story, with stretches of boredom alternating with more interesting moment.

The end doesn't quite click as it should -- it aims for a literary or indy-movie style, with an important moment, but a lot of the story is left in the air at that point, so there's a feeling that the book should have some more pages. Still, Brody is a fine heroine -- grumpy, obnoxious, and twitchy as only a late-teenager can be -- and Campbell lets her story unfold. (He also gets in some quite good dream sequences along the way.)

Nana, Vol. 1 by Ai Yazawa (Shojo Beat/Viz, November 2005, $8.99)

One of my overly-optimistic plans was to read the first volume of a bunch of critically-acclaimed manga series, so that I'll be better able to judge whatever volumes of them came out this year. Nice idea, but there's no chance that I'll get to anything else in that line before I fly out.

There are these two nineteen-year-old Japanese girls named Nana, who are completely different -- one is a quiet art student who's finally trying to grow up and not fall in love with every boy she sees, and the other is a punk musician with a live-in boyfriend who's about to abandon her (and their band) for stardom in Tokyo. (The one thing they do have in common is that they both live in a provincial city -- I don't think Yazawa ever says which one, in either case.)

So this volume has two independent stories, each about one of the Nanas. I presume the later volumes see them both head to Tokyo, where they each want to go, and probably meet. At this point, it's a solid shojo relationship story, with more nuance than most and a drawing style that's not too flowery. I can see that several things that I've read are probably influenced by Nana -- or both were influenced by a third, older work, but Nana is better at working with those materials.

Superman: Kryptonite by Darwin Cooke and Tim Sale (DC Comics, September 2008, $24.99)

And here's yet another retro superhero story; if I still cared about these empty costumes, I'd find it deeply ironic that the best talents -- the creators who actually have individual styles, thoughts, and ideas -- only touch superheroes these days with prestige out-of-continuity stories like these or big ugly pay-the-mortgage crossovers, which no one ever expects to be good or to have a lasting effect. Luckily, I didn't read superhero comics much as a kid -- I read random Dell/Western titles more than anything else, and not much of those; only coming to comics really at the age of seventeen at college -- so I have no burning love in my heart for any of these silly characters.

This is quite good for a retro superhero story, though the plot machinations in the second half are very Silver Age-y -- and I don't mean that in a good way. It's set early in Superman's career, and depicts the first time he was confronted with kryptonite. That very pulpy material doesn't sit well with the semi-realistic, melodramatic background of the minor villain -- Lex Luthor is the major one, as of course he always is in any retro Superman comic -- and the time-period of the story is equally fuzzy. All of the characters look and dress like they're in the late '30s, but carry cellphones; I guess that's to have the best of both worlds.

Sale, as always, draws men with jaws the size of billboards and women with legs that stretch into next week. He's not quite a caricature of himself, but he does seem to be getting more and more stylized as he goes along. Cooke's story is fine for what it is; he scrambles up pieces of the Superman mythos that he particularly likes and pieces them together into a mosaic. It's a good-enough Superman story, and I guess there's always a market for those.

COWA! by Akira Toriyama (Shonen Jump/Viz, July 2008, $8.99)

This is one of the few Eisner-nominated items that I had at hand but hadn't read; I borrowed my older son's copy of it. (He's a huge Dr. Slump fan, and I keep thinking I need to take the time to read that series through -- maybe after I get tired of Naruto.)

COWA! is late Toriyama; it came out in Japan in 1997, a couple of years after the ending of the Dragon Ball saga. And it's also clearly for kids in a way that Dragon Ball and Dr. Slump weren't -- it's filled with kid characters, and even the martial-arts-filled fight scenes are shorter and less violent than Toriyama's norm.

I have no idea what the title means, if anything, the main character is Paifu, the little guy on the cover. He's a half-vampire, half-werekoala who lives in a community of monsters at Batwing Ridge. But when monster flu strikes -- it killed half the town the last time it hit -- Paifu and a few others have to make their way to Horned-Owl Mountain, to get medicine to cure everyone. (The one token adult is a human ex-sumo wrestler, Mako Maruyama, who handles most of the fights along the way.)

And the result is both very much a Toriyama book -- funny asides, semi-bombastic fight scenes, and entertaining bickering -- while still being appropriate for most grade-schoolers. And now I really do want to read Dr. Slump, as soon as I have time.

Mesmo Delivery by Rafael Grampa (AdHouse Books, November 2008, $12.50)

Grampa is a Brazilian comics creator who comes from the same circle as Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (whom I've heard great things about, though I don't think I've actually read a page that either of them have touched), and this is his first full-length graphic novel. It's not all that long -- just fifty-two story pages -- and his detailed art (of often ugly and unappealing subjects) is reminiscent of a more decadent and looser Geoff Darrow.

This is a story about violence -- it exists purely to showcase the violence, and the plot is a loose rope to hang the various violent scenes on. It starts out slowly, with a trucker and his minder coming into a stop, but the fighting begins soon after that, don't you worry.

So the pictures are very well done -- as is the coloring (by Marcus Penna) in an entirely earth-toned pallet. But the story is nihilistic at best and pointless at worst -- so I hope we see more work from Grampa in the future, but that we also see more ambition from him as well.

Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope (DC Comics/Vertigo, March 2001/October 2008, $29.95/$39.95)

I read the paperback edition, since that's what my local library had, but it's the hardcover that's actually eligible, since it was published in 2008. But I hadn't read any Pope since some issues of THB, more years ago than I care to remember.

In the mid-2070s, a young man called only S -- for "the Stooge," which is what the villains call him -- has stolen a quantity of the title substance from some New York criminals (with the help of one dead character and one live character who don't really affect the story). Heavy Liquid is very rare and very expensive, but only S and his friends seem to have actually found a way to use it as a drug -- otherwise it's apparently valuable purely because it is so rare.

There's a fair bit of goons chasing S, but the main story here starts when "the Collector" -- I gather there can be only one -- hires him to find Rodan, a brilliant young woman sculptor who disappeared a few years ago...and who is also S's ex-lover. Of course he finds her, and of course other forces find him, and of course his increasing Heavy Liquid use becomes very important -- though not in the way the reader expects.

Heavy Liquid is a stylishly told adventure story, complemented by Pope's carefully muddied, slightly off-true pen lines. I'm not sure the end is as transcendent or special as I suspect Pope wanted it to be, but it all comes off pretty well.

Amelia Rules! Volume 4: When The Past Is A Present by Jimmy Gownley (Renaissance Press, 2008, $11.99)

I've avoided this series in the past, because it looked just too twee and heartwarming for my taste -- the title of this volume is a great example. But it's actually pitched at a higher level than I expected, and is remarkably clear-sighted on the subject of childhood. Amelia herself -- the blonde girl on the cover -- is ten years old, the daughter of divorced parents, and, I gather, moved to a small Pennsylvania town with her mother in the first book after the divorce. By this point, there's a good-sized cast of mostly kid supporting characters, and nearly all of them come across as real people. (I except the kid called Pajamaman, who stays in the background.)

Amelia Rules! is sweet and mostly positive and life-affirming...but it's pretty good despite that, and despite having very wordy captions. Amelia herself is a complex, interesting character, with most of the confusions and complications of a girl her age. (There's even something like a date for her in the middle of this book, and it's handled well.)

Gownley also is a fine letterer, with a strong Dave Sim influence -- he uses similarly long stretches of dialogue and narrative captions, and pulls out a variety of tricks with size and emphasis to capture the movement of the voice.

So if you stayed away from Amelia Rules! as I did, thinking that it was too twee for you, you may want to take a closer look. It's a slightly cartoony (in several senses) look at childhood, but it's very clear-eyed most of the time.

Magic Pickle: The Full Color Graphic Novel! by Scott Morse (Scholastic, May 2008, $9.99)

I reviewed two of Morse's graphic novels for ComicMix last year, but I didn't see his work for kids before today -- and I wish I had, because Magic Pickle is a hoot.

You see, fifty years ago, a scientist's experiment went awry, and gave life, intelligence, and superpowers to an ordinary pickle, who was quickly codenamed Weapon Kosher and stuck into coldsleep. He's woken up when his arch-enemies, the Brotherhood of Evil Produce, reforms to do the usual nefarious deeds, and has to deal with the girl whose bedroom is above his secret lab home.

So this is the story of a flying superpowered dill that fights carrots, lettuce, and so forth -- the tone is serious (in a pitch-perfect near-parody of late superhero posturing), but the matter is very, very funny.

Morse's art is energetic and cartoony in all the right ways; he gives a flying pickle with two glowing eyes and no other human features a personality and a goofy energy that are infectious.

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