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Comics Column #6: Fourteen Capsule Reviews

I thought I’d take a minute to scoop up a big random pile of stuff here and do some old-fashioned reviewing.

Michael Peterson



Comics Column #6: Fourteen Capsule Reviews
Photo: Top Shelf Productions

After this columns’s previous installment, I thought the format needed a break. My wife and I have a pretty wide-reaching library of comics (and comics-related works) in other media here at the house, and so I thought I’d take a minute to scoop up a big random pile of stuff here and do some old-fashioned reviewing, the way Mama used to do it. Let’s see what I could find:

Kill Shakespeare #1, McCreary/Del Col/Belanger, IDW Publishing

Tom Stoppard this isn’t.

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is recruited by Richard III and the three witches of Macbeth, who want him to kill an evil (?) sorceror in exchange for the resurrection of his late father. The sorceror’s name is not a surprise if you have read the book’s title, or indeed, any metafiction ever written.

This comic is off to a bad start just on the basis of its back cover. The high concept pitch may have gotten the book published, but putting “…a dark saga that is Fables meets League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with a dash of Northlanders” in your cover copy is both arrogant and dangerous in the expectations it sets—and in this case does not meet. The first two books in that list offer intriguing twists on the original characters in classic stories, whereas this issue does not promise new insights so much as the sliding around of puzzle pieces.

More interesting is the claim to the third title: I haven’t read Brian Wood’s Northlanders, but one of the viking epic’s draws has been the portrayal of brutal action by a number of strong artists (though their rotation has apparently left some inconsistent story arcs). That seems to be where their claim is leading here, as the first issue is mostly set during the off-scene pirate attack in Hamlet. Unfortunately, the art is workmanlike at best, with no dynamism to the action scene and a limited range of facial expressions. Moreover, the pirate scene adds nothing to the story but “action,” and reads more like the two writers had always wanted to see the moment play out.

More petty is the way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern repeat each other’s names over and over during their few pages. Were they concerned we would not be able to tell them apart? Seems pointless, as they of course die before the issue is half over. A poor beginning to a series with an idea that could be used in interesting ways under a stronger hand.

Super Spy: The Lost Dossiers, Matt Kindt, Top Shelf Productions

I’ve previously spoken highly of Matt Kindt’s Super Spy, one of that year’s strongest graphic novels. This new volume isn’t a sequel but a victory lap, a set of DVD bonus features, with some new short stories, sketches, reference photos, etc.

The short stories are notable here for being a bit more experimental than the material in the original—without having to fit into the original’s format, Kindt has more room to play around a bit. The “blur your eyes 3D” stereoscopic gimmick falls flat, but one of the book’s largest stories, in which you reassemble a set of nonlinear story beats along a map, is genuinely interesting (and fits right in with the theme of my previous article on the book). The highlight of the volume, however, is the annotations for the original text, offering commentary on process.

It’s a fun and worthwhile addendum, and for fans of the original a must-purchase, but it would make a poor introduction to Kindt’s real strengths, which play out over his long books like Super Spy or 3 Stories.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Starring William Baldwin, Mark Harmon, Chris Noth, Gina Torres, and James Woods, Warner Bros. Animation

If you get James Woods to play a supervillain, why the holy Hell would you ask him to play the character without emotion? The actor’s strengths lie in switching between rage and smarm—even Disney knew that. It’s not a question of Woods phoning it in; even in the video game series Kingdom Hearts, reprising his Disney role, he does more heavy lifting than the next six voice actors. No, it’s a script decision to recast the evil alternate universe Batman as an emotionless psychopath, and it is a baffling one, not only on a story level (if he’s Batman’s opposite, he should be decadent, as Grant Morrison’s version of this story showed), but also drains all pacing and energy out of the film’s third act.

An early-in-their-career Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter) come into conflict with an alternate universe in which evil versions of themselves are holding the world hostage. They travel to the mirror universe and do battle. Not much else happens. Dwayne McDuffie is a strong writer, and he had a hand in many memorable episodes of the Justice League animated show, but this feature-length DVD film is spectacle from beginning to end. The Martian Manhunter is given a romantic subplot, but not until partway into the second act, and many of the characters remain as ciphers. Many of the straight-to-DVD films that DC has put out in the last few years have been lazy, but this one, based on a classic story and with the potential for an examination of moral relativism, is particularly frustrating.

There are highlight moments; Gina Torres as Superwoman, the evil Wonder Woman analogue, vamps it up and appears to be having more fun than the rest of the cast. And superhero fans get a good laugh out of which character is U.S. President in the mirror universe. But the film is largely forgettable, except perhaps for a climax which suddenly shifts in tone and has Batman straight-up commit murder against an opponent when it’s arguably unnecessary, which is difficult to swallow.

Speaking of decadence, the DVD contains a featurette with DC staffers patting themselves on the back regarding a series of poor choices and embarrassing stories over the last few years. It’s telling that they choose to celebrate their retrograde choices on the same disc as a film which reverts its heroes from the original, beloved animated incarnations of particular heroes (the Wally West Flash, the John Stewart Green Lantern) to the bland earlier versions that the supposed wider audience of an animated film would have no connection to.

The film also comes with a short based on The Spectre, largely a snoozer only worth mentioning because it used an iteration of the character that hasn’t existed in years—the current Spectre’s human host is an African-American man, and it’s clear that they went with the older character to support a lazy noir pastiche, but it speaks to a larger whitewashing of DC Comics that has been under discussion lately. Draw your own conclusions.

Our Sentence is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles,” Patrick Meaney, Sequart Research & Literacy Organization

I’m not entirely clear what Sequart is doing with these volumes. This is the second one they’ve done focusing on the work of Grant Morrison, and while this one is a stark improvement over the previous (Grant Morrison: The Early Years), it’s a bit of a mess.

Sequart has a laudable goal. From their website:

“Sequart Research & Literacy Organization is a non-profit organization devoted to promoting comic books as a legitimate artform. Our mission is twofold. First, we promote research into comics-related topics, publishing books and other materials that encourage comics scholarship. Second, we promote comics literacy by promoting the medium itself and encouraging others to experience the unique artform known as comic books.”

Unfortunately, this volume, like its previous on Morrison (the only ones I’ve read thus far), is only approaching these ideas in a roundabout fashion. “Research” implies a level of formalism, but of course there are no citations—indeed, there is very little in reference to secondary sources at all. This is commentary, by a fan (Meaney is also directing a Morrison documentary through Sequart), and reads like one.

The book is formatted one issue at a time, and consists of a great deal of plot summary, with interspersed analysis. Some of the analysis is strong, and there’s an awareness of how these themes tie into Morrison’s other works. That’s solid. However, the extent to which the stories are summarized feels greatly like padding—this is a book analyzing a single comic series, and people who would pick up such a volume are going to have read the series in question.

The book has a great deal of merit, but needs a much stronger editorial hand. The previous book about The Invisibles, Patrick Neighly and Kereth Cowe-Spigai’s Anarchy for the Masses: An Underground Guide to The Invisibles, was derided in some fan circles, and it’s easy to see why, as that book featured a lot of opinion on particular stories and plot twists, opinion which doesn’t really fit a guide that offers analysis and supplemental reading. Unfortunately, Meaney suffers from the same problem, and a lot of “this issue really moved me” and “this one is my favorite” slips in, as well as a lot of opinion on recent American politics, which makes the volume feel like a collected set of blog entries. The former volume’s explication often went so basic as to be condescending (it explains to the audience who John Lennon is), whereas Meaney sometimes assumes you know a little too much. Both volumes offer explanations of different ideas, and each offers some theories that the other doesn’t, and one can imagine that a good editor could probably merge the two books into one better one, with a bit less plot regurgitation.

The Invisibles is a complex work, and it’s nice to see more books looking back on it not only as its own book, but how it fits into Morrison’s oeuvre. However, the book isn’t strong enough to “promote comics literacy” or serve as a text on its subject of analysis. Sequart is going to have to diversify their subjects—and their authors—if they want to serve their mission statement.

Mirror’s Edge, Pratchett/Smith, DC Wildstorm

When my wife picked this book up, she was not aware that it was based on the game for the Playstation 3. The game, which I haven’t played, received criticism for (among other things) poorly conveying the dystopian story that underpins the mechanics. The setting is an Orwellian nightmare city where all communication is controlled except for messengers who scale the roofs and balconies Parkour-style. The graphic novel is an attempt to clear up the game’s backstory, which would be great if said backstory wasn’t paper-thin and cliche.

Faith (groan) is a new “Runner” with an older mentor and parental issues, and a sister who has joined the enemy police. She learns that her absent father is still around and is a target of the enemy, and in rescuing him comes face to face with the truth about who her parents really were. A very bland set of revelations telegraphed miles in advance.

The book’s art style is appropriate: when conveying Faith’s acrobatics and feats of balance in the air, there is a great sense of motion and a lot of money shot poses of her “cool moves,” but whenever details are to come into focus, things collapse. Most egregious may be the portrayal of a seedy strip club bar, which looks airy and spotless, even as Faith is revolted at how sadly it’s fallen from its days as a charming pub hangout. It took a second time rereading the scene to even understand that it was supposed to be a strip club. The book is a style over substance exercise without half the style to support it.

Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Knopf (Random House)

At C2E2, the new Chicago convention, they were handing out a pile of these little graphic novels for kids. They’re cute, the quality varies of course, but this one may have been the most fun, casting school lunch ladies as super spies with an array of cafeteria-themed gadgets. They all have a monochrome-with-one-accent style, in this case yellow, and Krosoczka’s cartooning is expressive and simple. It was an enjoyable enough little breeze, though I wonder if it’s quite charming enough for children to re-read.

The evil plot the lunch ladies must foil involves a science teacher replacing the other teachers in school with cyborg substitutes who are no fun, so that he’ll become the favorite teacher. Which is silly enough, except…I don’t know, casting the fun teacher as the villain and the other teachers as possible slaves of said villain kind of gives the wrong idea, doesn’t it? Probably just me.

G.I.Joe #155 1/2, Hama/Padilla, IDW Publishing

May First was this year’s Free Comic Book Day, an annual event timed to coincide with a major superhero film release, in which the publishers give out free books to encourage comic shopping. Comic shop patronage goes up a little, there are sales and signings and events—it is virtually the only time that I see kids visit comic book retail stores in Chicago. This year’s batch of freebies may have been one of the most cynical collections yet, overall. There were still some fun releases, but the ratio of give-aways that were not even comics, but collections of advertisements and checklists, was higher than ever.

One of the releases was this prelude to a new ongoing G.I.Joe series, reuniting Larry Hama with the property that he built single-handed at Marvel in the 1980s. Hama’s actual military experience always lent the original title a surprising realism that battled tooth and claw with increasingly ridiculous characters and equipment that were dictated by Hasbro in the book’s service as a toy advertisement (Hama always did a better job with his property than the Transformers writers did, sadly).

Nostalgia’s newest hold on the superhero comics business has been the institution of a series of books where creators are given their own title to continue formative runs of their work from decades earlier. Chris Claremont, who is almost single-handedly responsible for the X-Men as we view them in the modern day, has come back to continue his original story in X-Men Forever, and that book has inspired a number of other Forever spin-offs with other creative teams. Hama’s return to G.I.Joe is in this vein, and so it’s destined to suffer a similar problem that the other books in this style already have: that is, it’s been decades, the world has changed, the characters have been used since, and there’s no such thing as a “perfect reset.”

This prologue issue involves perpetual antagonists COBRA putting a secret government agency in their back pocket (written for maximum current political commentary) and a catch-up on the status quo vis-à-vis their perpetual infighting and frequent brainwashing of each other. It’s decent enough material, but everything is off by just a degree or two, as Hama’s style has changed naturally over the years. The dialogue is off just that little bit (Destro and The Baroness, two of Hama’s pet characters, suffer the most here, and a confrontation between two other characters is awkward given their long history rubbing up against the aforementioned brainwashing). The art is competent but boring—the original title’s run had some talented artists and some hackwork, and this falls closer to the “talented” side, with solid figurework that move naturally, but the action sequences are a little perfunctory and have little pop to them.

For a freebie leading into the story, it’s fair work but doesn’t fully entice. You don’t get any more sense of how the series is going to work than you would have without it.

Krazy Kat (A Novel), Jay Cantor, Vintage (Random House)

Cantor’s more recent novel. Great Neck, also dealt with comics; the revolutions of the 1960s and 70s were partially framed in terms of a fictitious underground comic and its characters as superheroes, with only a cursory glance at the actual comics industry of its time. The book was well-crafted but largely an exercise in miserablism. There was, however, one really brilliant comics-related moment: the suggestion that the darker and more comparatively realistic twinge to superheroism in the wake of the birth of Marvel Comics in the 60s was a way of sublimating the pre-Code subversiveness (a parallel drawn between the silver age self-loathing hero and the shift in American Judaism to self-loathing is less solidly-delivered).

This book, though, in which legendary comic strip characters Krazy and Ignatz witness the first atomic detonation (Coconino country being not all that far from Oppenheimer’s test) and subsequently awaken to their status as characters, tears me in two ways. There are flourishes of genius and equal slogs of trite, but that also seems to be somewhat purposeful.

I asked Jog, sharpest man in comics, for his opinion on the book on Twitter:

“Yep—it’s both kind of interesting and crashingly obvious, very much the product of some inherent whoop-de-doo whimsy, assumed from dragging cartoon characters into elaborated sexual and political personae. A little condescending. But some decent ideas…felt like a modern superhero revamp to me, a ‘rethink’ that’s more common, reflexive now.”

He’s a very prideful author, to be sure. And he does seem to know the material, Tiger Tea and all. I think that, as precious as some of the individual ideas are, the satire of using critique to justify “low art” worked at large. He’s playing with two conflicting ideas, that by dissecting and postmodernizing the characters, they become “rounded,” versus their “less-rounded” nature being what allows criticism in the first place. But he inherently segregates into “high art” and “low art” to make his argument in the first place, which mucks it all up and raises the question: is this exercise because Krazy and Ignatz are iconic, or because as comic strip characters, they’re simplistic enough to fuck with? The “love them” versus “using them” argument then overpowers a lot of what he’s trying to do. It’s a fascinating book, even if it’s not a perfect one by any means.

Unknown Soldier Vol. 1, Haunted House, Dysart/Ponticelli, DC Vertigo

Dr. Lwanga Moses, Ugandan expatriate, returns to his homeland to provide humanitarian aid in 2002. However, the enormity of the situation there quickly tries his pacifist stance, and awakens something buried deep inside him, an unstoppable soldier bred to destroy everything in its path. Moses, at war with himself, attempts to use these sudden and surprising skills to fight a one-man war against an entire nation’s suffering, even as the C.I.A. roll into Uganda to follow up on an old project.

The story is meticulously researched, well-scripted, and is unflinching in its portrayal of Uganda. The art’s scratchy, dirty style is visceral and portrays the violence as ugly while still conveying the skill of “The Unknown Soldier.” It’s a brilliant book, except that its very premise is controversial and difficult. A drama set in war-torn Uganda is enough without the genre trappings that no doubt helped get it published (the character’s name and bandaged face mark it as a new iteration of a DC-owned war character dating back to decades ago). The mystery of what has been done to Moses and why he has these skills is well-conveyed and engaging, but in the face of the rest of the book, it trips things up. The painstaking realism dry heaves whenever Moses lets his persona take over and moves about like a superman, and speaks to the Twilight Zone that is mainstream comic books.

That said, in its final pages, Dysart attempts to lay out a way of making the two books that he’s writing here dovetail into one ethical examination. Moses declares his new statement of purpose, his one man war, and a supporting character states the obvious: “But that means declaring war against an army of demoralized children.” Uganda has no action movie fix to its problems, and Dysart clearly wants to get at that, and in the process he may along the way offer trenchant critique on the American desire for a fictional solution to problems they don’t want to pay attention to. Unfortunately, he has a long and difficult road ahead of him if he’s going to get anywhere with it, and despite the story’s strengths, it may in the end prove too difficult, considering the cognitive dissonance that the book has thus far provided.

Sparta USA #1, Lapham/Timmons, DC Wildstorm

This wasn’t a Free Comic Book Day release, per se, but some of the local comic shops were giving away #1 issues of a number of recent titles, which tends to be far more useful for publishers than the specially-targeted crossover advertisements that they ship out for that event. Chicago Comics, I know, was handing out first issues for the Morrison/Phillips mini Joe the Barbarian, a beautifully-drawn fantasy comic that at its halfway point is only just barely now hinting at the idea of thematic layering, and for the Ba/Moon Daytripper, in which the twin brothers (new favored sons of pop mainstream comics) do a riff on the magical realist novels of their South American heritage—their gifted linework only somewhat masking the triteness of their “carpe diem” storytelling.

But this one I hadn’t read, and David Lapham built up so much credit (which he is burning through rapidly) as the creator of Stray Bullets, still a landmark for crime fiction in comics, that it was worth a read… I missed Lapham’s last book, Young Liars, which had a pretty even split with readers, who only apparently agreed on the word “crazy” as a descriptor. It seems equally relevant here, if not moreso.

The story is apparently about a not-so-idyllic small town under the control of a blue-skinned man named The Maestro. The residents seem under the impression that they are living the American dream, but the only resident to leave the town borders has returned (with red skin) to tell them that “America” does not exist and that he has returned to free them. The opening pages that establish the community are full of blunt-object political commentary, overly cynical about red state ideals, which makes the flipped skin color of the two opposing forces the only interesting twist. Most of the first issue is concerned with a power struggle between residents whom we’ve yet to actually meet—little of Lapham’s economical storytelling seems in play here, and the characters are all ciphers.

But, of course, the most off-putting detail to the book is the one which has come up with every review. Photo refrencing versus tracing versus original figure drawing is an argument that could easily fill a column on its own, and anyone that does care about that argument should be reading Dave Sim’s Glamourpuss for a look at how all this got started and also so confused; but all of that dialogue falters before the simple fact that the hero (?) of Sparta USA looks like Colin Farrell and it’s distracting me from the story. I don’t know if everyone here knows that a big part of the reason for casting Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in these Marvel movies is because writer Mark (Kick-Ass) Millar deliberately based his new Nick Fury on Jackson, and that everyone viewed it as (A) distracting, (B) a shameless attempt to get him interested and subsequently cast, until it actually worked. As many comic artists become less and less concerned with hiding which actors they’re referencing, we’re only going to see more of these books, which are unreadable because we’re all too busy trying to figure out if they’re just movie pitches in comic form or comic stories with lazy artists.

With a writer like Lapham supposedly steering this project, we should be able to expect better.

Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 20-22, Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media

We just caught up on these here at home, after a prolonged period when we couldn’t find volumes without ordering online—which I thought was strange, since this series has always been a phenomenon here in the States, and even now is enjoying a resurgence due to a brand new anime series.

That said, the extended break from this series did it no favors with me. I’d always been a bit surprised with how much I ended up enjoying this manga series, about state-controlled “alchemists” (their use of the term “alchemy” basically gives it an all new definition) at war with a group of homunculi based on the seven deadly sins. It comes, I think, from an adolescence spent soaked in console RPG video games—the title was originally published in Square Enix’s manga magazine, and reads very much like a manga conceived as an RPG in print (one of many reasons that it’s so baffling how bad Squeenix’s game adaptations of the series have been to date). Protagonists and characters who could easily be called “NPC’s” slide around the board into various configurations, engage in short skirmishes before a “boss battle” in which someone is finally killed off. The early volumes were especially notable for this, as main characters Edward and Alphonse Elric would go to a new town on the world map and get tangled up in a new conflict which fed back to the main plot—there was even Squeenix’s favorite Final Fantasy staple, the battle aboard a train. Contrasted with many of the popular shonen titles, Fullmetal Alchemistwas also notable for having protagonists who were not concerned with being the best at their particular field, except insofar as an increase in their abilities might aid their quest for a more concrete and identifiable goal, the restoration of their own bodies.

As the series enters its last act, however, the building sense of menace is starting to give way. So many characters need page time, and the political maneuverings which gave the earlier arcs needed grounding have now created so many double- and triple-agents, that no time is given for any particular event to breathe, which is unusual in a genre that usually runs overlong in order to let things play out. And indeed, there’s something very Western in the way Arakawa tells the story. The panel-to-panel and page-to-page pacing rarely slows for action, the way it would in traditional shonen: pages flow vertically, rather than straight-shot horizontally.

To steal a remark from Jog, talking about a different manga:

…for youth-targeted genre manga of this type, panel-to-panel flow is crucial to the expression of action. Time is dilated to a considerable extent, while place dissolves into temporary lines and partial white void, pliable in much the same way as the emotive character cartooning typical to Japanese comics. Of course, manga like this also benefits from a fairly secure industry allowing for long, steady serialization of self-contained stories (and proctoring the assistant-stocked studio setup often necessary for continuous production), which encourages the use of page space for stretched time; even at the height of the ‘decompression’ popular half a decade ago in Marvel comics, the effect of wide panels and bleeding pages was primarily the conveyance of enormity.

And “enormity” is the only thing Arakawa will pause for, the earth erupting due to a well-timed spell or a villain’s transformation to a giant lizard creature. In earlier volumes, this technique (along with making it very approachable for Western audiences) allows Arakawa to have some grace notes with regards to character and dialogue, but in the ramp-up to the final battle, all that’s left is exposition and witty rejoinders, and so Fullmetal Alchemist reads more than ever before like an American superhero comic, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses.

Long-running series of this type usually creak at this stage, however, between the final moments of character growth and the action climax, when characters and plots get juggled around. Arakawa has plenty of time (and pages) to bring things to a conclusion worthy of the book’s earlier volumes. However, there is a sense that the mangaka may have gotten tired, maybe frustrated at having the anime lap the book twice over now (Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, still working on the original Evangelion manga adaptation, could relate, I’d think), and while the series has been on the whole reliably entertaining, there may in the end be nothing to the book as clever as the original two character designs, for the two Elric brothers, still one of the smartest designs in recent shonen history.

Problem Sleuth, Volume 1: “Compensation, Adequate,” Andrew Hussie, Topatoco

MSPaint Adventures may be one of the most consistently reliable, enjoyable sources of humor and entertainment on the internet; and the level of craft that Hussie now displays on an almost-daily basis (he updates more often and regularly than most any other cartoonist I can name, but he’s been understandably intermittent of late due to concerns out in the “real world”) belies the bad-on-purpose aesthetic that his website’s title would imply, a title which was initially far more accurate, if almost never literally true. The only thing that might trip him up a little bit is the argument some quarters might forward, which would be that maybe what he’s doing isn’t actually “comics” at all.

This sort of defining for defining’s sake always leads too far off the road for me, this “what is comics and what is not,” it’s just not all that useful except when you’re looking to exclude things. That said, Hussie’s projects on that site have consistently poked at the boundaries of the form, for the most part without much thought or recrimination. The style of MSPaint Adventures is to mimic, to some degree or another, the old-style graphic “point and click” adventure PC games of the previous generation. An individual panel represents, to some greater or lesser degree, the window that would contain the game screen, and so the majority of the time there is only one panel on screen at a given time (which an orthodox proponent of McCloud’s definition of comics would immediately raise as a red flag). More interesting has been his intermittent use of multimedia.

A friend and I once went to a talk where Ivan Brunetti (a cartoonist who gets to sit at the table) scoffed at the idea that comics were flourishing on the web—this was a couple of years ago, but not that many, before some trends but well after some others—and he said a thing that we’ve always found funny, that he literally could not conceive of doing a comic online without adding in sound, animation, etc, that the temptation would be too great and that no cartoonist, unequivocally, would be able to resist that impulse. That Chris Onstad’s Achewood has now largely been accepted into the canon means there’s a readily-available single example out of the trillions to hold up (second place being, I suppose, Penny Arcade, not for the artistic merit or lack thereof but merely for the sheer size of its phenomenon) as proof that Brunetti was being a characteristic crank. But some cartoonists have been probing those regions, either as deliberate experimentation or just for the sake of their particular story. At this point, Hussie’s current comic Homestuck, midway through serialization on the site, has contained not only animated gifs and embedded music, but full animated Flash sequences, interactive battle sequences, embedded minigames, and in a few instances full-fledged game sequences which can take up to an hour to explore while still representing a single “panel.”

There were minor animated images in his earlier works, but the real root of this style came in Hussie’s year-long epic Problem Sleuth, the (ostensible) story of a detective who has locked himself in his own office and requires the reader to assist him escape through the solving of Sierra/LucasArts-style adventure puzzles. Hussie’s more deliberate experimentations have involved varying degrees of reader input, and in the case of Problem Sleuth, virtually every “game command” which would lead to a new panel was provided by the readers. It’s very silly, of course, and part of the appeal is watching Hussie dance with the readers as they each try to foul the other up. Homestuck is deeper, and relies upon actual characters, and is an all-around more satisfying read, but Problem Sleuth is arguably a “purer comedy” for its devotion to the slapstick and running gags at the expense of virtually everything else.

Topatoco has released the first of a series of print volumes collecting Problem Sleuth now, and the book takes on a second dimension in that it is an interesting case of something very specifically designed for the web making the formatting jump back to print. Some things get lost—certain jokes that relied upon the animation are here watered down—but the consolidation of multiple panels to a page and the removal of the multimedia also bring it back in line with more traditional “comics,” and inadvertently reinforce the narrative aspects of the project: it feels more like an actual story now, albeit one that’s a goofy parody. The flip side is that the feeling of “playing” the adventure game is eliminated almost completely, which makes the format seem a little more arbitrary than in its original format. In one respect, though, this brings out a bit of humor that was a bit lost in the original, the idea of keeping track of each character’s “inventory,” because the smaller panels make that part of the artwork a little harder to make out in the strip’s rough style—only, you lose nothing from not keeping track, as the collection of items was always played for humor and becomes more and more pointless as the story goes on.

The book thus becomes an interesting artifact as well as a funny comic; the only downside is Topatoco’s poor editing job. There are a number of typos (even in the indicia) and production gaffes (a footnote repeats on two pages), which makes the whole thing look a little more unprofessional—ironic, given the aesthetic style of the comic in general.

Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays, Edited by Brendan Burford, Villard (Random House)

Anthologies. Sigh. Comics don’t do well with anthologies, generally speaking. Other media have similar problems, but price points and varying art styles widen the gap further in comics.

The subtitle is instantly off-putting, as well, “Nonfiction Picto-Essays.” It’s because there isn’t anywhere near enough cohesion to the pieces contained within the book, some are autobiographical, some are reportage, some are something else entirely. The book frustratingly reads throughout like an attempt to put something together solely for use in schools, “everyone pick a piece and write on it,” etc. There’s some solid work in here—Alex Holden’s “West Side Improvements,” about particular graffiti, has terrific linework and uses the comics medium particularly well to tell its story, as opposed to just fitting the story to form after the fact, as some of the pieces do (including “Boris Rose: Prisoner of Jazz,” written by the editor). Victor Marchand Kerlow’s portfolio-piece collection of full page sketches of subway buskers, on the other hand, is non-narrative, non-sequential, and is text-free, barely fitting into the anthology at all.

Some strong work lies within (including an appearance from Nick Bertozzi, who as the largest name involved understandably opens the book), but the book is so non-notable and directionless that there’s little to recommend it overall., Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Online

E-Merl was, actually, one of the very first comics I ever publicly reviewed, back a couple of lifetimes ago when I was doing reviews for Cellar Door Publishing, an indy comics outlet, back when my review of Scott Pilgrim could still be counted as shedding light on an undiscovered gem. Cellar Door has just started putting out a very sharp book by a very good friend of mine, Richard Carbonneau’s The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons, which would be unprofessional of me to review. But reviewing E-Merl all those years ago, I enthused:

“Merlin is one of those guys who makes the miraculous look so simple that you almost want to hate him for it. Better instead to hate his sadistic avatar Mr. Nile… Merlin and Mr. Nile don’t just experiment with the comic form—they are full-blown mad scientists, and their twisted creations now run rampant across the internet, changing whatever they touch. When Scott McCloud spoke of “Reinventing Comics,” he was talking about Merlin…what it feels like to exist in sequential panels of movement, and how sound exists in comics. There are questions answered we didn’t realize we wanted the answers to.”

Which is hyperbolic, to be sure (I was young, your honor), but not entirely inaccurate. Merlin’s early career was about pushing those limitations of form we were just talking about, also playing with nonlinear narratives and McCloud’s idea of the “infinite canvas” potential of online comics. He was so enjoyable as a formalist, in fact, that it came as something of a disappointment when he spent the last few years focused on more traditional stories, occasional print work-for-hire, and approachable but unchallenging humor strips. They were frequently still fun, but felt like hollow works, grasps at wider audiences.

Goodbrey may have felt the same way, because upon retiring his previous humor strip All Knowledge is Strange, he revised his site and launched three strips simultaneously, two of which are the resurrections of his long-lost projects for other webcomic collectives, including the delightful The Nile Journals, a faux-journal comic for his sociopathic breakout character in an “Unfolded Earth” where the multiverse has something of the consistency of uncooked dough. The return of Mr. Nile and the way Goodbrey uses Flash to illustrate the character’s higher consciousness and shifting reality is a breath of fresh air in a webcomics community which has largely (but not totally, as mentioned above) stagnated into a series of humor strips with niche audiences that frequently overlap. It was hard to realize how much Mr. Nile had been missed until he made his triumphant return. Now all Goodbrey needs to do is follow through with one of his daring formalist hypercomics, and his site will be fully unmissable again. And with Patrick “E-Sheep” Farley making a full return in June on the wave of overwhelming fan support, we may be due for a new formalist webcomic renaissance.

There is no conclusion to be drawn from this grabbag of reviews, except just maybe a reminder of the breadth of modern comics. It’s just a snapshot of what I had around, what’s had me thinking lately, and in a few cases what’s worth seeking out. My generation of comic readers will probably be the last one to find novelty in there being so many interesting books that I’ll never get to them all, something which in this still adolescent medium was not true at all not so very long ago. I can be grateful, then, that it’s hard for me to take that for granted. It used to be that discoveries were made in a limited number of genres, from sifting through water-stained longboxes; now, it’s just a question of taking a chance on something that might be right on the shelf at the local comic shop, or the big box bookstore, or on Amazon, or hosted online as a webcomic, or as a digital download, or, or, or. Writing a lot of these reviews, when they were negative, made me tired, but looking back at the collection in full, I’m reminded how much I love doing this.

Next Time: My comics can beat up your comics!

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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