Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ssso while my interest in Animal Man is being consumed by The Rot ... really I don't get why they would make a "character" out of that anyway. The Annual even took great pains to explain that The Rot itself wasn't interestingly evil at all, just things in normal life that had become a little unbalanced. What is The Rot, what does it signify? Auto-destructive Unamericanism which you have to flee in a trailer from? Seems like poor Rot has come under the influence of these foreign agentssss with the funny accentsss ... I think I'd prefer if DC had reshuffled Ann Nocenti to write this title instead of her goofy (though somewhat enjoyable) Green Arrow revamp, and we'd at least have some sensible environmental issues ...

Well, so while my interest in Animal Man has gone to waste, I did take a curious look at how its former artist Travel Foreman would fare with his new title, Birds of Prey. The very first impression is that for a writer who needed something easier on the nerves due to personal hard times it looks like a frying pan into the fire situation, because the carnage here grabs immediate emotional hold, with this tableau inspired by photos of real people having died horribly during the Civil War: 

But that's just the wake-up call and from then on the body count is restricted to people who are already dead. Anyway the art is spectacular. Inks are handled by Jeff Huet (who had inked Foreman on AM sometimes), which makes the black patches that cross faces somewhat lighter, and the moves somewhat easier, though the uncertainty of anatomy becomes a little riskier through his services. The heavy foreshortening, often strengthened by hatchings or straight lines that follow the ground, the flat geometrical architecture, clean-surfaced and empty, together with wonderful colors by one Gabe Eltaeb, which in their lightlessness look like they've turned stale through chemical reaction, combine to a sort of early renaissance mood. A beach party in this world would be like this here Masaccio.

Upstream I've lamented the strange computer-rendering of a house or a car in Animal Man, how utterly incompatible they seemed to the very expressive linework, but here I love these contradictions. Pictorial space seems digitally collaged together, it's structured in askew layers which despite the steep foreshortening make no sense at all, which funnily seems to give it a sort of old-school quality. Movements are frozen or expressed by lines which would usually define surface. See this panel with the car an absolutely solid, unmovable object yanked from a standstill to a rampant posture by the glare of its headlights, while the concrete surface we stand upon comes crashing toward us like a waterfall. Similarly, on the lower right, the floor is pulling itself from under the pews ...

The story? I don't know, pleasant enough. Probably some cheesecake would have served it better. The jokes merely disrupt the mood and, though the issue is mostly composed of action and bonding rituals between the women, there hovers an air of indecision about them, of pauses that correspond to the empty digital spaces. Here's an interesting panel after the deed, the composition centering on the lid of the freight car that has just been closed to contain the threat, while the heroines linger each alone with their blues, two with even their heads cut off by the image frame.

So while I don't suppose it's a good comic by any proper standards, I'm really looking forward to how the series will continue ...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Superhero Spring Round-Up 2012

I am sorry but I may have inadvertently jinxed Animal Man (DC). They were still doing okay when several posts upstream I suddenly started to doubt the series because it seemed to display a lack of interest in its title character, and since then writer Lemire has only been stalling and artist Foreman has been mostly in hiding. Issue 6 read like Lemire, unfulfilled by the half dozen titles he is currently writing, was pitching a slacker superhero comic to Fantagraphics. He had no real idea for it yet except that the former superhero would be boring and depressing with a thoroughness that ticks all the obvious boxes: alcohol, divorce, a kid that just wants to love his dead if only the old guy weren’t so pathetic. Which invites unhappy comparisons to Grant Morrison’s classic run on the character, where we had the last appearance of a former would-be super-crook in “The Death of the Red Mask.” Which was pretty depressing also and ended in a suicide, but it took super-heroics (and writing about them) as the actual topic. Whereas Lemire gives us run of the midlife crisis.

The comparisons with classic Morrison become even unhappier in the latest issue, where Buddy and Cliff take a walk so they can bond and they bond over the fact of the awesomeness of Buddy being Animal Man. Which is about the first time he appears as Animal Man since the first issue, here to impress a couple of girls for his son. Just see how awed the girls are. I mean, wow, superheroes. It makes me long back to Morrison’s “Home Improvements,” where the Martian Manhunter took over impressing duties, frightening Cliff’s schoolmates to stop them from picking on him, and everything was a little more ambiguous, funny, and true. In fact Lemire used to be quite good on family in the early issues of his run.

But it’s really strange, sometimes it is like the comic itself had amnesia, the way that Buddy forgets what it is that is coming after them, and the way he needs a dream to enter worlds that before seemed like pretty much everyday rot reality?

And does Travel Foreman actually have better things to do or is he getting ousted the complicated way, because he has fans out here?

The other comic I had previously jinxed was of course Daredevil (Marvel). After two abysmal issues there has been a slight return to form, though Daredevil hasn’t quite recovered from the Spidey mash-up and therefore calls himself “hero to the judgment-impaired everywhere” among other self-deprecatory jokey stuff. Also, the storyline has the new, fun Daredevil plunging the bowels of the earth to retrieve the body of his dead father from all sorts of yucky creatures, only to find that he just doesn’t care anymore.

Art by the Riveras still is beautiful, especially the page layouts are great. But where in Daredevil one usually derives some pleasure from ingenious or playful ways to visualize his radar sense, they have now established the convention that Matt sees like we do only sort of in pink contour line drawings on a black ground. To the last detail. In one panel of the latest issue, there is even a break in perspective where we see Daredevil as a pink outline falling through a chute drawn as a contour map. My guess? They just don’t care anymore.

I’m still following Supergirl (DC) with distrustful delight. I fear I have to start giving the writers credit, because they’re keeping the pace marvelously (and I wasn’t exactly keen on how the so-called worldkillers looked in recent issues, these creatures weren’t designed by evolution, that’s for sure). The comic really builds: all the fights following from her natural impulse to just hit into something with grim determination for the lack of knowing what’s happening exactly. I especially like that so far there has been no out and out antagonist wanting to kill her. First her cousin, then that dealer in outer space flotsam who wanted to use her, now a worldkiller as a sort of bossy potential sister figure . . . values kept in clear boundaries only by the healthy workout of a fight. Or one could read this as a different take on fighting as means of communication in superhero comics, where usually opponents will keep up more or less witty small talk during the fights, which stays pretty meaningless, while the fists engage with each other and propel the narrative. This learning to get to know the world (and yourself, even in death) through your fists is explored with unprecedented care and detail here:

To make this a proper round-up: a quick shout-out to Milligan’s run on Hellblazer (Vertigo). It’s the only real run on a character in comics there is right now? I wonder how Milligan does it, since he also is churning out three or four titles a month, all the others complete and utter dreck? I do not really judge single issues anymore, I just greet them as friends (in need of some help before they go to hell), as long as they give me that dark eye-sockets crumbling from habitual dread-like stare Camuncoli and Landini are so great at. Also this:

I haven’t been able to get into the first issues of Brubaker and Phillips’ Fatale, they seem such a staid team by now, maybe they should try making a graphic novel out of De Lillo’s Underworld or something. But Winter Soldier (Marvel), Brubakers other new title with one Butch Guice on the pencil, has me hooked so far (yes, you need to get beyond unforgivable title pages). I usually wouldn’t much like art that looks like photo collages pushed through a digital faulty xerox plug-in, with all hand-drawn parts in complete ignorance of anatomical or physical logic, but they do that so very well. Also, the story, at least as long as I can’t quite follow it (I try to prolong that state by only skimming over the text), proves the healthiness of the motto for Brubaker/Phillips’ earlier Incognito: “The secret ingredient is pulp!” In this case an 800 pound gorilla blasting away on his 50 caliber machine gun:

If you want more great page layouts, the wonderful Javier Pulido has now been on The Shade (DC) for two issues. Although he can’t really help the thing. And Saucer Country (Vertigo) might prove worth following.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I’ve been reading City of Glass, the cartoonization of the Paul Auster novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. I hated it before it even began, since unfortunately, against my usual custom, I read the foreword, by one Art Spiegelman, editor of the book. He recounted his choice of an artist: “I enlisted David Mazzucchelli, whose art on Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One had shown a grace, economy, and understanding of the form that made the superhero genre almost interesting.” Oh yeah like it takes your breed of anthropomorphic mice to make the holocaust almost interesting again. I threw the book into a corner and read some Supergirl instead.

When I took the book up once more, I became really excited about it on page 15, the panels you see above. This is Peter Stillman talking, the face of the mystery (happily I won’t have to go into the story for this, so no spoilers ahead except ultimate disappointment). Or rather, this is his speech bubble talking through him. It’s such a simple but brilliant move. The man becomes a puppet of his own voice. 

Then a slow zoom and we move past the uvula into allegorical realms where there are all kinds of things that the voice is speaking through, like cave paintings, drains, gramophone horns, turds, teddy bears, all defining the character as his attributes . . . but more than that the speech bubble’s tube down the throat of things channels the author speaking, first of the comic, but on a deeper level of the original novel, Paul Auster, whose puppets Karasik and Mazzucchelli are (and who in fact has a cameo in the comic/novel itself, wrapping this up structurally). And by acknowledging that all the images are read/read out by that auctorial voice, the art fights back and you have a real back and forth between words and image that in this richness is a very rare thing.

But they can’t keep it up.

Here’s the upper two tiers from page 100. “Quinn spent the following day on his feet.” And you get feet. For “every twenty minutes he would call Virginia” you get a clock. “The busy signal had become a comforting metronome,” that was actually two panels earlier, bzzt bzzt. “The random noises of the city” . . . are cars in the city that random? but yeah, they help us understand the word “noise.” Mind-numbingly literal. “Negating speech and the possibility of speech,” and you get the graffiti on the wall behind . . . that’s actually a subtle gesture I’d have enjoyed earlier in the book. Still, it has become obvious that the art has no life of its own left but merely illustrates the narrator’s voiceless text boxes.

Which is a clever demonstration of why adaptations usually suck.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

One more quick convergence, because really I have the feeling that I'm unto something. Above is the Metal Master from issue 6 of the original Hulk wielding his powers, art by Steve Ditko. This is how the Master himself explains his artistic process in an earlier panel: "On the planet Astra, our sculptors make magnificent statues of metal, forming them, shaping them, by their mental commands alone!"

Should you now wonder what became of this pretty awesome work, as clearly you should (did it really dwindle away into--gasp--nothing? despite the fact it just seems to take on a life of its own), here's On the Hook from 2006, a steel sculpture by Berlin artist Alexej Meschtschanow, who as far as I know works in a similar way. It's too obvious for words, really. The sculpture is even cut off where the panel ends ...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Once you see it, it’s so obvious. Whoever drew this panel from the May 1942 issue of Blue Bolt must have been heavily into Swiss artist FĂ©lix Vallotton, member of the Nabis, who had painted The Punished Crime (see how even the title fits!) in 1915, as the centerpiece of a triptych. Well, I just casually drop this fact to establish that you can trust me on stuff like this because ...

... let me now introduce you to German painter KRH Sonderborg, a post-war artist who is usually grouped under the label Informel—that’s roughly the European counterpart of abstract expressionism. (If you’re interested, there’s a good interview with the artist online here.) Some of his work looks very much like he had an affinity with comics, porous black silhouettes of building cranes or powerlines deviding the white, painted with a quick decisiveness that gives a psychological edge to the objects. Maybe best known of those is a portrait of an electric chair that fills the complete frame, with a curious eye for the way its parts have been assembled and screwed together, like a human perspective against Warhol’s oppressive silkscreen of the same object. Sonderborg’s most easily recognizable signature style, though, is painted in black and white diagonal splatter with just a dash of red added, spray drops of paint from the impact of color on canvas dripped along the lines of the action, accumulating into untidy power centers and sometimes repetitive forms like parts of machinery. And if you are a comic artist and stare at this long enough you will start drawing panels that look like this:

How serious am I? It’s difficult, because who knows, it might all be coincidence. But contrary to the single panel in Blue Bolt, which seems to reference the one painting and then everything goes its own sweet way, when I started reading Miller’s Holy Terror, I saw the shadow of the spirit of Sonderborg, at least for the first 50 pages or so. It did not make me think of a certain painting (though once I strated searching I immediately found one that was compositionally very close to a panel), instead for a moment it seemed again so obvious that Miller was heavily into the earlier painter. In my delight, I almost didn’t notice his book was challenged in its morals :-)(I might actually write it up at some later date, it’s a pretty impressive comic in many respects).

Oh and: Peace.

Monday, January 9, 2012

It’s nowhere near that bad, of course (and also the Swamp Thing would be in much more dire need of saving, if you ask me). But the final page of Animal Man #5 (DC) does indicate a certain emptiness at the core—it’s a story in need either of a character, or of some graspability to the evil forces that drive it. Well, they’re against life. And because they block life, Buddy doesn’t get to be Animal Man very much, only a guy running away from his own melting face, while his daughter, set up to be the more effective superpower, does not yet have the personality to handle it. Or maybe it’s just that both enemy and friendly forces are too amorphous, bloating up or cooking down all characters they occupy into formlessness, with the rot for now winning over the red (how’s that for a sound shift?).

The still glorious art meanwhile has solidified, away from the sketchiness of the beginnings to something more hard-edged, moving closer to the almost art nouveau tracings of Swamp Thing. It does feel less free, but even the inconsistencies are interesting and invite reading for content. Like the house in the country that has served the family as a base for the last two issues and first made me groan because of its unreal appearance, like a first computer rendering not yet completely filled out—it really has proved a diaphanous setting for unreal happenings, so that kind of fits. And thumbing back through the completed arc it even seems as if one could, by way of an academic exercise, read Buddy’s surface treatment, the untidy cross hatches versus the more orderly and compact blots of shadow, as indications of how close to his life force he is in a given panel. But still…

There is no real reason for disappointment. Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman have transitioned into long-haul mode, where they can introduce guest artists in ways that don’t hurt (the last few pages this time, and seemingly most of the next issue), and while the lack of character so far is sad, they now have a family on the run and hopefully much time to explore everybody in a little more detail. And maybe Buddy will even get to be Animal Man again.

Only they should get the Swamp Thing crossover done with soon. It’s getting old before it happens.