Monday, September 26, 2011

Weekly Comics: September 21, 2011

The Boys: Butcher Baker Candlestickmaker #3 (Dynamite) - I'm usually very down on the idea of "guilty pleasures" — if I like something, I like it, so why feel guilty? For some reason Garth Ennis' The Boys has always seemed like an exception to that rule, because it's pretty much the definition of a guilty pleasure: dumb, violent, the extreme incarnation of Ennis' adolescent desire to shock and disturb readers. The series is often just a parade of typical Ennis tropes: deviant sex, swearing, drinking, lots of blood and violence, all of it delivered with a mix of gleeful exhibition and hypocritical moral scolding. So why am I still reading it? I guess it's just that Ennis, whatever else he is, is a great entertainer, and this ridiculous, blood-splattered series remains big dumb fun, month after month. This spin-off miniseries, on the other hand, is a more restrained affair, focusing on the origin of main character Butcher, providing an explanation for how he became the psychopathic killer that he is. This issue is entirely about Butcher's affair with a beautiful redhead, and in typical Ennis fashion it's broadly, exaggeratedly sweet and innocent and happy. So of course next issue I'm sure the girl's going to be dismembered in some outrageously horrible manner and Butcher will go crazy thirsting for revenge. That's Ennis' familiar pattern, and it's wearing a little thin in this series while he pretends he can tell a serious story in the midst of this thinly disguised excuse for creative cursing and disemboweling. Plus, artist Darick Robertson, whose blocky, somewhat ugly figures are usually so perfectly suited to Ennis' broadly satirical tone and blunt action, doesn't fit as well with this issue's upbeat romance.

Daredevil #4 (Marvel) - So this new series is really awesome. I've read the previous acclaimed takes on this character by writers like Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker, and what they all have in common is that they're extraordinarily dark and bleak, pushing Matt Murdock to the limits of physical, psychological and emotional endurance. Mark Waid's new run doesn't ignore that brutal history, but in terms of tone and style this is a fresh, self-consciously distinct approach to the character. Waid's style is light and witty, and his Matt Murdock is a man who's been through every possible kind of hell and come out the other side convinced both that he can handle anything and that he should appreciate anything he still has left. There's a hint of the manic in this Murdock that suggests that the darkness could yet return, but this is so far a refreshingly light-footed and charming book. The art, whether it's by Marcos Martin as in this issue or Paolo Rivera in previous ones, is just as lively and visually inventive, particularly in devising clever ways to visualize the way the blind Daredevil "sees" the world.

This issue starts with two simple, visually elegant pages that immediately demonstrate Martin's graphic acumen: panels of black shadows on a blue background alternate in a grid with black text panels, slowly dealing out minimal visual and aural information about the trouble soon to erupt for Daredevil. It's a stark and effective intro. Otherwise, this isn't quite as exhilarating as the previous three issues of the series, mainly because there isn't the punchy hook of each previous issue: the bounding enthusiasm of Daredevil at a mob wedding in #1, the clever weapon-switching battle with Captain America in #2, the visualization of sound in #3. This, on the other hand, has a lot of nice little moments and provides a sense of what amounts to mundane life for a guy like Daredevil. Martin's art is agile and fluid, a perfect fit for an acrobatic crimefighter like this, and there are plenty of subtle touches to admire, like Daredevil's satisfied smirk as he glides along a high wire towards a pair of machine-gun-wielding crooks. Colorful, exciting and fun, Waid's Daredevil is a great new series.

The Unwritten #29 (Vertigo) - This series has a great premise: Tom Taylor's father was the writer of a series of Harry Potter-like magic novels, in which a boy very like Tom himself is the hero. Now that Tom's father is gone, he finds that he actually has the magical powers of his fictional alter ego, and is set against a secretive cabal that seeks to control and manipulate the power of stories. Writer Mike Carey is exploring territory very similar to the "all stories are true" themes often mined by Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, but The Unwritten has enough of a unique slant on these ideas to feel fairly fresh. This issue continues the current storyline in which Tom probes into the early years of his father, who once worked for the secret organization that Tom now opposes. Not much happens in concrete terms, but the themes set up by the earlier issues of this arc are fleshed out as Tom learns about the tragic conclusion of a story involving a woman who wrote a superhero comic. There are obvious parallels here to the early years of Siegel and Shuster's Superman. This is a satirical stab at the dismal treatment of comics creators by the big comics companies, as well as criticizing the marginalization of women in the field. Peter Gross' art is clean and crisp, as usual; his minimal style isn't always well-suited to this comic's more magical and fanciful sequences, but he captures the more grounded scenes very well indeed. There's little enough magic in this issue, but one panel is especially striking: as Tom travels into the past via his father's diary, a series of overlapping pencil drawings depict Tom sequentially transitioning from his "real" self to the cartoony, simplified figure of his fictional counterpart from his father's novels. The flashbacks to the 1930s in this issue are inked by Vince Locke, who provides more of a scratchy, grimy look to set off these scenes from the more solid, clearly defined present. In its quiet way, this is a visually very striking issue.

Special mention should also be made of Yuko Shimizu, who has done the covers for all 29 issues of The Unwritten so far. Shimizu's covers are always gorgeous, but he's outdone himself here. This is his best work yet, in a run where he's consistently overshadowed what Gross is doing inside each issue. This cover's tribute to pulp novels and old comic books perfectly captures the spirit of the era that Carey is exploring here. This is amazing, and as always I just wish that Shimizu would or could draw the entire issue, to bring this level of artistry and imagination and glistening, unreal color to the interiors of the book.


  1. That is certainly a stunning cover by Shimizu...and yet another series I'll need to look for.

    The Boys is one of the comics I was following before I trailed off. I have to agree with you on why Ennis can get away with copious amounts of sodomy and decapitations while other writers can't -- he manages to tread that fine line between not taking the material seriously and also making you actually care about the protagonists in the series (this is at least the case for Preacher, Hitman, and The Boys...I guess his Punisher fails this particular test, it's more like mainlining his brand of absurd violence). The copycats of his style tend to think that it's JUST the outlandish aspects of his writing that have made him successful, and forget to include the characterization that makes it stand the test of time.

    Curious if you've read Chester Brown's Paying For It? I just finished it up and it's a fascinating, if not a little too disturbing look, into his mind. I've always loved his cartooning style, and that section of the book holds up quite well as a unique memoir. But he kind of goes off the rails in his "appendices" where he expands his polemic on prostitution viasome Dave Sim style prose, defending his views on the matter.

    Anyways, I'm hoping to catch up on the new 52 stuff later this week -- I have to give your posts credit for making me curious about comics again.

  2. I agree about Ennis in general, Troy, although I'd probably reverse your impressions of The Boys and Punisher. The latter is great, in the top tier of Ennis' work along with Preacher, while The Boys is pretty much just a big blast of over-the-top sex and (especially) violence. I still read it because it's entertaining and often absurdly funny, but it's really not very focused on character development or anything more substantial.

    I have read Paying For It, I liked it a lot. It's unique and refreshingly honest. I don't think his overall polemic is especially convincing — although in the broadest sense I do agree with him that prostitution should be legal — because he winds up in some pretty weird places. Like, I found it pretty hilarious that he genuinely envisions a future in which having sex for money is a common part of relationships. And in the end his whole argument about the value of romantic relationships versus just having sex for money gets all tangled up and contradictory when he winds up in a monogamous relationship with one prostitute. But he acknowledges that within the comic, and I found it fascinating how he keeps wrestling with this stuff, just spilling his guts about his ideas and the experiences he's had and letting the contradictions and points of confusion simply stand. So as a polemic on prostitution it's not very convincing and I doubt anyone will be swayed too much by it, but as a chronicle of one man's experiences of prostitution it's really compelling, complicated stuff. Psychologically, emotionally, ideologically, it's just really rich in resonances and subtexts. I agree with you that the prose section in the back of the book is not too strong, and gets tied up even more in the contradictions of his argument, but the comic itself is wonderful and multi-layered.

    Thanks for commenting! I hope you like some of the New 52. There's a lot I'll be immediately ignoring, but the best of it (which will probably wind up being something like 10-15 titles after everything is done) has had me more excited about Big Two comics than I've been in years.

  3. On Ennis -- Well, I absolutely love The Punisher (I forked out the money for the hardbacks of his entire run), but what I was getting at is that it doesn't seem to have that character the audience can relate to that the other series have. To me, it's definitely the epitome of "unstoppable killing machine/force of nature" with him able to tell some of his crime stories in the process. But I don't feel like it has much of a heart in it -- correct me if I'm forgetting something though -- as it's not like he opens up Frank in the way he did with Jesse Custer. And while The Boys isn't much more than him taking the piss out of superheroes, it felt to me like it had a bit more of heart in the form of Hughie (though I haven't read it for 20+ I wouldn't put it past Ennis to pull a switcharoo on the characterization there). Plus, I am probably just a sucker for Ennis obvious disdain for superhero comics -- that Punisher/Wolverine issue is probably one of my favorites of all-time.

    On Brown -- I entirely agree that the comic part of it is great -- I should have made that clear. I like the way he presents the story, warts and all, and it comes across more as a very honest story on how he's decided to view relationships more than anything else, laying bare all of his neurosis and psychological hang-ups, which is a fascinating thing to watch unfold. I can't lie and say it isn't intriguing to learn about a world I'll never enter into -- things like how a transaction occurs or the process by which the women are "rated", for instance. And I've always liked the layout and drawing style of Brown's in the few things of his I've read.

    But those appendices are "conspiracy theory" kind of nutty to me -- a series of strawmen and one-sided arguments that kind of made me uncomfortable, especially his turning a blind eye to the issues of exploitation of the women in the sex trade, most notably in the non-English speaking women (many of whom he obviously encountered along the way). The saving grace of that written section, now that I think about it, is that he allowed Seth to include his comments in there at the end -- Seth mentions something to the effect that Brown is a "robot" (code for Aspergers, perhaps?) and perhaps that explains better than anything how he could come up with that laughable section you mention on the perfect future of all relationships involving sex for money, as you can really only reach such a outlandish conclusion if you can't understand what the emotional constructs of a majority of people happen to be.

  4. It's been a long time since I read Ennis' Punisher, but I do remember it being more substantial and character-based rather than just blood-and-guts mayhem. But I could be wrong.

    You're totally right, re: Brown, that he dodges away from some of the more troubling implications of his prostitution experiences, touching on the question of sex slaves but not really going too deep into it. I think it's fairly obvious that Brown's mind works differently from most people's, whether that's Asperger's or just a unique way of thinking, and his mistake is that he tries to universalize his particular experience to everyone. This seems to be working for him, I guess, and that's fine, but his seems to be a very particular situation and he doesn't realize that other people think and feel about these issues very differently from him.