Monday, September 2, 2013

I Die At Midnight, The Geek, Prez: Smells Like Teen President

I Die At Midnight (Kyle Baker) - Part of Vertigo's pre-millennial V2K series, this is a fine example of Kyle Baker's briskly paced, animation-inspired humor comics. It's the story of a man who, distraught over a failed romance, swallows a bottle of pills to kill himself on New Year's Eve, only to have his lover return, apologizing and wanting to make up with him. The man then desperately casts about for a way to cure himself before the pills take effect, without letting his lover know that he was so unbalanced. It's frenzied dark comedy, which Baker communicates equally with his expressive, cartoony artwork and the typeset, wryly funny dialogue that he sets beside his images. As in most of Baker's work, he doesn't use word balloons as in traditional comics, preferring to set the dialogue and the occasional narrative captions beside and below the panels — the format resembles animation cells with a script running alongside them, though despite this separation, Baker's words and images definitely work together towards the overall comical effect.

Baker's work from the late '90s on tends to (over)use digital backgrounds, and in this book the Photoshop paste-ups, computerized blurring of figures to connote depth, and sporadic use of digitally constructed objects can be distracting, even if the style is arguably appropriate when Baker uses it for gaudy Times Square backdrops. But the focus, as always in his work, is on his figure drawings, and in that respect he's as great as ever, using exaggerated body language and malleable, mugging facial expressions to give his characters a rubbery energy and sense of motion on the page, a further connection to animation. Baker's humor and energy are more than enough to overshadow the occasional rough digital eyesore, and I Die At Midnight is another fine farce from a master of the form.

The Geek (Rachel Pollack & Mike Allred) - Part of the weird Vertigo Visions series that included Vertigo-ized modern interpretations of obscure old DC characters. This one updates Brother Power the Geek, an ill-fated attempt by Joe Simon to tap into hippie subculture in the '60s, and whose original series lasted just two issues. Brother Power was a living mannequin who, in Pollack's update, is enslaved by a constantly shifting evil being who embodies a carnival barker, a businessman involved in corporate takeovers, a neo-Nazi leader, and other icons of greed and violence. Pollack is presumably staying true to Simon's conception of the character as a wandering signifier for hippie ideals, fighting yuppies and racists and corporate flunkies, but it's all so bluntly polemical and at the same time incoherent in its narrative. Pollack intermingles Brother Power's journey with scenes involving the hero's friend Cindy, who is fleeing a life of prostitution to join a feminist goddess-worship protest group called PMS. Mike Allred would seem to be the perfect artist for this material, with its naive hero and the sweet relationship between Brother Power and Cindy, and his art is the main appeal here, though it's hardly his most compelling work, either. This is a forgettable look at a forgotten character; the early Vertigo era produced so many memorable new slants on older ideas that it's easy to overlook the many failed attempts to revitalize old DC properties.

Prez: Smells Like Teen President (Ed Brubaker & Eric Shanower) - This is another of the Vertigo Visions one-shots, this time focusing on an even odder Joe Simon concoction who was also part of DC's transparent attempts to appeal to teenagers in the late '60s and '70s. Brubaker's update concerns a Cobain-like Generation X-er who believes he may be Prez's son, and seeks out the retired teen president across an America that's gone way downhill in the wake of Prez's idyllic fantasy presidency. This was pretty early in Brubaker's career, and the result feels very rough and amateurish, a collection of simple political ideas expressed in very blunt fashion. It's an obvious attempt to tap into Generation X skepticism by depicting a society in which '60s-style idealism really did remake the country for a brief period, before the end of Prez's terms in office signalled a return to business as usual. Some nice sentiments, and Eric Shanower's wispy, delicately inked art is quite nice, but the wordy political conversations and complete lack of subtlety make it a slog to read.

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