Monday, September 19, 2011

Weekly Comics: September 14, 2011

Here are some thoughts on the comics I've read this week other than DC's New 52 titles.

American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #4 (Vertigo) - This is a spinoff from Scott Snyder's gleefully bloody vampire series American Vampire. It's not so different from the main series, which tends to leap around in time for each arc, telling connected but distinct stories set in various eras of vampire history, from turn-of-the-century America to World War II in the Pacific. This miniseries (which will conclude next month with its fifth issue) is also set during World War II, with a couple of anti-vampire operatives infiltrating a German castle filled with squads of Nazi vampire commandos. It's pulpy as hell, and Snyder has a lot of fun delivering on the grindhouse promise of Nazi vampires. The plotting's sometimes a bit lazy — a double agent abruptly reveals himself for a last minute rescue, while time spent in a cell provides an opportunity for confessional bonding — but the propulsive action sequences and the appearance of an imaginative new type of ancient vampire provide enough thrills to excuse the issue's flaws. There's also the pleasure of seeing artist Sean Murphy (who did such brilliant work on Grant Morrison's Joe the Barbarian) take on Snyder's dark horror world. Murphy's angular figures and subtle cartoony flourishes provide a unique, idiosyncratic slant on Snyder's characters and the darkly hatched, shadowy world they inhabit. His art, along with the last-page promise of a mayhem-filled final issue, makes this miniseries, if not the best or the most substantial American Vampire arc, then at least one well worth reading.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent #4 (Marvel) - This latest Criminal miniseries by the team of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips has been some of their very best work yet. The unusual premise of this series is that it's a noir take on the characters of the Archie comics. Archie stand-in Riley returns to his hometown for the death of his father, and finds that his best friend Freakout is a messed-up recovering drug addict. Riley also comes to believe that he made the wrong choice when marrying one of his high school sweethearts: he chose the dark-haired bad girl and now regrets opting for her over the good-natured redhead next door. The series so far has been an examination of nostalgia and memory, with the memories of Riley rendered in the bright, clean tones of Archie's Riverdale, a perfect youth, at least as he chooses to remember it.

In this final installment, Brubaker and Phillips continue to explore the nature of memory and the rosy nostalgia that always makes the past seem so much brighter and happier than the present. The series has been structured in an interesting way, with most of the action happening in the first three issues, so that this fourth issue is a coda in which Riley's life is definitively split between appearances and reality. He's building a new life for himself, one modeled on the dreams and fantasies of his youth, but the reality upon which this artifice is constructed just gets seedier and seedier. Brubaker for once doesn't delve into a classically tragic noir ending, but the end of the issue is all the more devastating for its restraint, hinting at the darkness and ugliness that lurk just below the sunny, smiling figures of Riley's Archie-like teen years. Phillips' cartoony renderings of the past are the key to the series' poignancy, because implicit in these bold, brightly colored scenes of teenage bliss is the knowledge that these memories, filtered through the cleansing lens of nostalgia, are actually the foundation for all the squalid events of the present. What could have been a mere gimmick — the striking contrast between the shadowy noir present and the cartoon perfection of the past — becomes a very profound examination of how we remember (and misremember).

Optic Nerve #12 (Drawn & Quarterly) - I've never been much of a fan of Adrian Tomine. His clean, unobtrusive drawing style is attractive but kind of bland, and in many ways his writing can be described the same way. There's something so unassuming about his work; it's readable and occasionally offers up some minor pleasures or a flash of insight, but never cuts deeply or really bowls me over. This latest issue of his infrequently published series is mostly taken up by two short stories that do little to change my essential impression of him. "Hortisculpture" is formatted like a daily newspaper comic, with a series of 4-panel strips (plus full-pagers in color for the Sundays) about a middle-aged gardener struggling with seemingly universal indifference to the sculptures he makes out of clay and foliage. The newspaper format means that each strip ends with a gentle gag line, usually showing the protagonist suffering some defeat or moaning about his failures. It's hard not to think that this is Tomine's way of weeping about the difficulty of making art with an uncertain audience — especially when coupled with the 2-page autobiographical strip at the back of this issue, in which Tomine gripes about the obsolescence of pamphlet comics in a market dominated by "graphic novels." This kind of self-deprecating schtick has long been a tic of far too many indie cartoonists, and it's more than gotten old, so Tomine's stooped-shoulder irony, either in "Hortisculpture" or the autobio strip, is simply tiring.

The other long strip here is "Amber Sweet," and it's better but still pretty slight. The story concerns a young woman who looks almost identical to a porn star, and whose life is made difficult as a result. It's an intriguing idea, but executed clumsily and broadly, so the questions about identity, sexuality and the Internet raised by this story simply glide along the surface. Tomine's ideas — that real-life women often have to compete with porn stars in bed, that the Internet creates some pretty unusual connections — are basic and not particularly original. His main character's plight is moving (if not always especially believable) and the art is typically nice, with cool colors and elegant linework. But as usual it's the definition of tasteful and pleasant, without really tapping into the roiling emotions or fully exploring the ideas at the heart of this story. Tomine is too content to stay at the surface level.

Severed #2 (Image) - This series is definitely off to a great start with its first two issues. It's a slow-burn horror piece set in 1916, which presents the large, scary world through the eyes of kids who live on the road, prey for all the terrifying predators, human or supernatural, who dwell in the urban shadows. Writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft have paced the series patiently, spacing out the moments of horror and gore in between passages of careful scene-setting. Attila Futaki's moody art and sensuous colors provide the perfect sophisticated style for what Snyder and Tuft are attempting here, giving the impression that there's danger lurking beneath every ominous night sky, in every shadowy back alley. There's nothing here as brilliant as the way the first issue achieved a shivery thrill from a few methodical panels of a disguised monster taking out his false teeth, but the few real scares are still chilling.


  1. I definitely need to check out Criminal in general and this miniseries in particular -- I love the sound of the high-concept. I was a big fan of the Brubaker/Philips series Sleeper.

    Looks like you are a fan of Scott Snyder...Having been out of the loop for so long, I hadn't heard of American Vampire, but from the sounds of it you'd recommend the series as a whole? I stopped following closely with Vertigo series a few years back circa the end of Y, The Last Man, as there really wasn't really anything blowing me away in their new series (Fables still had its moments, but Scalped and Northlanders never captured my interest).

  2. Oh, if you liked Sleeper, Troy, then Criminal is a must. Very similar tone, same gorgeous art, minus the superpowers. Each arc is distinct, so you can really pick it up anywhere, but there are interconnections and overlapping characters and settings that make reading it all from the beginning very rewarding, so you can see how certain characters who might be a minor character or a namedrop in one arc suddenly take center stage in a later story. This latest miniseries is some of the duo's best work yet, I'd say, but it's all quite good. Any noir/crime fans should be reading this, period.

    American Vampire is definitely worth reading. It's pulpy good fun, for the most part, very dark and gory but with a real sardonic sense of humor that leavens the bleakness. Snyder's a very good horror writer; considering how much you like horror films he seems right up your alley.

    I haven't read Scalped or Northlanders, and there was a time when I would've agreed with you that Vertigo has lost its edge and its relevance. But Vertigo's actually got some really fine work these days, between American Vampire, Sweet Tooth, iZombie and The Unwritten. Some very different series that are all pretty interesting.

  3. So much for all the money I had been saving the last few years by not buying comics (and I only ever bought trade paperbacks -- the cost per page on single issues is simply atrocious to me). It's taking a lot of restraint to not just plop down $50 to buy the entire run of Criminal off of Amazon :)

    Oh well, it's a hobby I pretty much come back to every few years, so I guess this was to be expected. Fortunately, I just found out that my local library has a really good collection of titles on-hand (I checked it out the last time I took my daughter there -- I got all nostalgic when I saw the same copy of Watchmen I remember leafing through when I was a kid still on the shelf) so it makes sampling a few of these series much easier and cost-effective.

  4. Yeah, libraries seem to be picking up on comics big time these days - I was in this tiny random one the other day that had a surprisingly big and eclectic collection of trades.

    I only buy trades, too, I just like having a book so much more than a pile of single issues, not to mention the question of cost/value. I do download single issues, though, and read a lot of stuff month to month on my computer. It's a great way to check things out and keep up on stuff while it's happening, and then later I can buy the things I like in trades.

  5. Yeah, I was downloading single issues previously as well, which was nice month-to-month, but when I wanted to catch up on an entire series, having them in book form just seems so much more "right". You just get so used to the shape and size of the comic page after a while, and the tangible ability of turning a page is more exciting than hitting the space bar.

    The other nice thing about downloading comics is I actually was able to read un-collected stuff like the later runs of Shade, The Changing Man and Animal Man.

    I am curious to try reading digital comics on a tablet PC, though the size and layout still won't be quite the same as the dimensions of an actual comic.

  6. Shade the Changing Man is one of my favorites, I'll always recommend that to anyone who'll listen. It's a shame they seem to have stopped printing the trades with Volume 3, I would've loved to have Milligan's whole run on my shelf. But yeah, I never would've been able to read it in the first place without scans.

    I actually recently read some of the post-Morrison Animal Man, too. Milligan's short run on that is a lot of fun (and is where the panel in my sidebar comes from!), and Jamie Delano's longer run has some really good material as well.

  7. I always get the impression that Adrian Tomine is using comics to pick up teenaged indie girls. It was understandable when he was still a teenage Asian nerd yet to lose his virginity, but now it just feels stale at best, creepy at worst. That said, in 30 years, me and all of the critics will be hailing the pervy, 'outsider' work of a 60-something-year-old Tomine, applauding the fact that he's STILL making dry, seemingly self-critical but actually pointing out his own sensitivities comics, all in an effort to pick up teenaged indie girls. He'll become the Russ Mayer of underdeveloped chests, and the re-evaluations and misinterpretations will be kind.

  8. Hahah Ju-osh, that's a pretty good description of Tomine's vibe. He's definitely trying way too hard to present that "sensitive artist" artifice. He does seem to be pretty well-respected, though I've never really understood why.

  9. ON THE PLUS SIDE (a.k.a. Boy do I suddenly feel bad about making yet ANOTHER unnecessary internet attack):
    I do like Tomine's drawing style. It's by no means my favorite, but there is a memorable quality and eerie charm to his frail lines and stiff compositions. It sorta reminds me of what 'Ghost World' would've looked like if drawn by Charles Schulz. And that's A GOOD THING.

  10. Criminal definitely sounds like something I need to check out. I used to read the Archie comics insatiably when I was a kid, and I'm a huge noir fan. Perfect fit!

    I've been reading the DC New 52 ones on my iPad, since I apparently can't make it to the comic store before they sell out. It's quite good, and certainly convenient (and you can zoom in easily and see details in the art, which is a nice touch). But I still feel like I'm missing out on some part of the experience by not having the physical books.

  11. Yeah, Criminal is great, Jandy, and Brubaker has really outdone himself with this most recent arc.

    I read week-to-week stuff like this digitally as well, on my computer monitor. I prefer waiting for the stuff I like to be collected in books before buying physical copies, since I like books much more than stacks of single issues. Reading comics digitally is not always ideal, and it's better for some things than others (double page spreads can be a pain on computers) but it's a nice way to keep up with things without having to head to a comic shop every week.

  12. I was able to snag Batman #1 in print, and I actually did like reading the physical copy more. We'll see if I can find a few more when reprints hit next week. Definitely want to get Wonder Woman and Batwoman.

    On Criminal, can I start with the most recent arc, or do I need to start from the beginning?

  13. Batwoman especially reads MUCH better in print, with all those double-page spreads and complex layouts. Williams' work in general translates the worst to digital.

    Each arc of Criminal is a separate story, so you can really pick it up anywhere. The stories are interconnected only in the sense that they share some characters, and if you read it from the beginning you'll see how minor characters in one story will later become the focus of their own arc. It's a coherent world that fits together pretty well with all these little Easter egg connections, but I don't think reading the arcs out of order would interfere with that overall impression too much. The most recent arc especially is its own thing.