Monday, September 12, 2011

Comics Round-Up: What's On Top of the Printer

This was the post I was expecting to write two Sundays ago -- the day Irene blew through these parts -- the book equivalent of the Movie Round-Up I posted the day before. My life has been one long lesson in the futility of making plans, though, so I'm instead getting to write about these books two weeks later and from a different location in the house. (I also used to mock-complain about blogging from a basement; we must be careful with what we wish for.)

So: these are comics and similar things that I've read sometime recently, and I'm going to review them in reverse-chronological order, because I'm lazy enough to want to just work from the top of the pile. They are actually no longer on top of the printer, since everything is all a-hooey now that I'm squatting in the kitchen instead of hiding in the basement, but they're still a pile, and that's what matters.

First up, then, is the book I read just today, an appalling concoction from the curdled teat of modern corporate comics called All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, Volume 1. It's written by the increasingly unfiltered Frank Miller and drawn by the slickly standard Jim Lee and Scott Williams, and has been dismantled conclusively in the fan press over the excruciating four years that these nine collected issues originally took as they fumbled their way into the world. (In fact, I read this book because I'd read several of those demolition jobs, and wanted to see the shaky foundations, out-of-true joists, and leaky roof for myself.) It features a magnificent introduction by Bob Shreck, one of those blurbs that a reader comes across only rarely, in which the writer tries to both maintain a cheerful, positive note while resolutely saying nothing whatsoever specific or laudatory about the work at hand. It's the "Gosh, that's certainly a baby!" of book introductions, and the fact that Shreck babbles for three pages about how much readers trust these creators can only be read (by this cynical reader, at least) as the lead-up to the unspoken "and just look at how badly they abused that trust!"

ASBAR -- that's what they've been calling it on the Intertubes, honest -- is a savagely overwritten and over-drawn Batman story, intermittently self-conscious about its crudities and stupidities but more usually wallowing proudly in the accumulated muck and filth of thirty years of Frank Miller's reflexive violences. It does violence to its characters, to the English language, to every theory of dramaturgy ever invented, and to the trees that had to die for this to be printed. Very little about it makes more than momentary sense, and it laughs at any thought of a comprehensible timeline. One reads ASBAR because one wants to see a lovingly-depicted Batman administer savage beatings to collections of pen lines one can fervently believe deserve it, while muttering nonsense. If Grant Morrison's Batman is the calm, collected detective superego, always in control of every situation, then Miller's is pure raging id, harnessed, however momentarily, in the service of what passes for righteousness these days.

I wrote a review of Orcs: Forged for War -- a graphic novel written by Stan Nicholls and set in the world of his previous "Orcs" novels, with art by Joe Flood -- for the December issue of Realms of Fantasy magazine, so you should really wait for that for the full force of my opinions. But, in short, it's a fun, moderately serious fighting-fantasy romp from the POV of the "bad guys," though it's more than a little obvious (pseudo-Puritan humans as the antagonists! Boo! Hiss!).

The other half of that Realms column in December is taken up by my thoughts on a weird single-volume manga by Jiro Matsumoto called Velveteen & Mandala. It's squickily sexual and scatological -- saying that it's about two very psychologically damaged schoolgirls who battle zombies in a should-be bucolic landscape only begins to scratch the surface -- but it's fully itself, and not quite like anything else I've seen.

I've been reading Roger Langridge's recent work on the sharecropped Muppet Show comics recently -- which are brilliant, by the way, and almost magically transmute the antic vaudeville/puppet-show atmosphere of the original TV show into something that works on the printed page -- and have been thinking for a while that I really needed to drop back and check out some of his own comics. I finally did with Fred the Clown last month. Fred is a figure of innocence, a lovelorn sad sack who keeps getting hit by custard pies -- and, even harder, by life -- over and over again, but keeps standing back up to go on. Langridge mostly tells his story in short wordless comics stories -- interspersed with a few much wordier pieces that are essentially illustrated prose pieces -- told mostly in his usual style, a crisp modern interpretation of the classic '20s animation look, with a few outliers in carefully-rendered aping of others' styles. They're slapsticky stories of a sad clown, using the accouterments of vaudeville and early Hollywood, that nonetheless feel entirely new and fresh and funny. I don't know how Langridge does it, but he does it very very well.

Sara Varon's Bake Sale is entirely a simpler book, and -- if you'll excuse the pun -- a much sweeter one as well. Varon has followed up Robot Dreams -- the wordless story of Dog, his best friend Robot, and the events that separated them (which I reviewed for ComicMix) -- with another story of anthropomorphized creatures in a world like our own. This time out, they're all food, so our hero is Cupcake, who runs a small bakery in what's probably Brooklyn. He hangs out with his friend Eggplant, he plays in a band -- it's all pretty low-key. There is a semi-buried message along the way, which is quiet and unobtrusive enough for a reader to overlook but does reinforce this book's origins for younger readers. (Kids need morals, remember!) It's more down-to-earth and less expansive than Robot Dreams was, but it does have a lovely matter-of-factnesss of its own. No one who enjoys the first book I reviewed above would find anything at all to like in Sara Varon's work, but the rest of us can read a cute book like Bake Sale and then pass it along to some smaller proto-person that we know.

And that's it for this time; I didn't quite get to half of the comics on the already-read-it stack, but at least I made a dent. Tomorrow may bring another similar post, if other events don't intervene.

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