Jason’s Things to be Thankful for in 2008

Nov-25-08

Okay, now it’s my turn. This took a bit of research for me and the results are still kind of nebulous. My problem is that I have so many trades and books and magazines and single issues lying around that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. That makes it hard for me to figure out what actually came out in 2008 and what came out two years ago but only has a thin layer of dust on it because my wife likes to clean.

It’s actually quite sad how big my “to read’ list pile is.

Anyway, here are 10 things that stood out for me in 2008. No real rhyme or reason to the numbering. Hell, there’s no real rhyme or reason to the reasoning either! (I’ll copy Jason’s format and just insert my comments right after his.)  Just sit back and pretend that I know what I’m talking about. I’m thankful for:

1. Kirby: King of Comics – The basic truth behind this pick is that you’re either a Kirby fan or you’re not (or, in my case, you weren’t a fan but learned to be one). However, regardless of your feelings about the man’s style, the book is an excellent biography of a person who was never fully appreciated even though his comic output was tremendous and his influence is primarily responsible for the books you read today. There are some great pieces inside that show a truly different style to the square-jawed faces everyone is familiar with too. As an honorable mention in the biography/art book category, I’d also mention Paul Pope’s Pulphope (which came out in 2007 but I haven’t gotten around to reading yet) and Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (which I haven’t bought yet but hear many good things about).

Three artists who I can appreciate in the abstract, but can’t love in the reality.  However, as I’ve probably stated before on the blog, I’m more of a follower of writers than artists anyway (yes, I know, all three also write comics, but these books focus more, I believe, on their artistic talent).

2. Northlanders – A couple years ago, when I still had my store and ran a blog about it, I posed the question, “What would be the next big thing?” At the time, both zombies and pirates (and probably pirate zombies) were at the height of their respective popularities, robots were still going strong and ninjas were making a resurgence. I threw out the notion that vikings would make their mark next. Turns out I was right! Brian Wood has managed to craft a gritty world relatively free from the stereotypical horn-headed, mead-swilling, “thee” and “yon” spouting heathens and replete with anti-heroes who value honor over conquest, payback over duty. He uses modern language (earmuff the kids if you’re reading out loud) to paint what can only be described as “the ‘hood” of medieval Scandinavia. Couple this series with the also excellent DMZ trades and you get a pretty grim, yet entertaining, picture of the “real” world both past and present. Almost makes you want to go outside and hug someone. Almost.

I have heard good things, but this hasn’t made my list of books to read yet.  Actually, despite the buzz about Brian Wood, I’ve not yet read anything he’s written.  My bad.  I’ll put that on my to do list for 2009.

3. Criminal – Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips continue their magical partnership. The third volume of this creator-owned series came out in 2008. No one writes better double-crossing, in it for themselves characters than Brubaker. He has the Midas touch when it comes to crime comics. Whether the storylines deal with good people caught in bad situations or dastardly types struggling to redeem themselves in a world that continues to beat them down, his work is aces. And Phillips’ line work gives it all the requisite rough-and-tumble look it needs. These people are dirty, they’re raw and they’re either in trouble or looking for it.

My scintillating commentary continues, as I can again say I’ve never read this.  However, this is on my Christmas list, and I’m hoping the big red guy comes through for me (don’t let me down Hellboy)!

4. Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil – While we’re on the topic of Ed Brubaker, we may as well talk about Daredevil too. I’ve followed Daredevil on and off through the years…yes for Miller, no for Nocenti…but no one has been able to truly capture the underlying angst and tension that Matt Murdock seems to find himself in the center of. Brubaker is able to show that Daredevil is merely the lens that we witness all of these horrible people through. For the past few years, things have been happening to Daredevil that seem like payback for the years of heroic work he did. Nothing is going right and nothing is getting better, and that’s what makes it so much fun to read.

5. The end of the Brubaker/Fraction Immortal Iron Fist run – Can you tell that I enjoyed Brubaker’s work this year? I know it’s kind of strange to praise the end of a run that you’ve enjoyed so much, but I have my reasons. In less than two years, Ed and Matt managed to create a whole new world for the Iron Fist character…they added a lineage with vibrant back stories, a stable of allies and adversaries that gives a much needed depth, and managed to inject a light humor into the serious business of karate chops and glowing chi dragons. I praise the end of their run because it ended on a high note. I didn’t start to get bored. I wasn’t second guessing any of their decisions. Basically, they left me wanting more, which is always a good thing.

6. Scott Pilgrim – Technically, Volume 4 came out in November 2007 and Volume 5 isn’t due until February 2009, but that’s reason enough to mention these little bundles of excellence. Bryan O’Malley combines the perfect amount of videogaming and pop culture references to this romantic comedy wrapped up in a loose manga influence. You really can’t go wrong with a book that caters to everyone at once and yet no one in particular. There’s something for every boy and girl to enjoy!

While I love me some Ed Brubaker (as I mentioned on my own list of things to be thankful for, when I singled out his commitment to Captain America), I didn’t have much to say about the last two entries.  Partly because I haven’t read them, but also because….ok, it’s entirely because I haven’t read them.  However, I have to give a shout out to Scott Pilgrim!  I am absolutely in love with this series, which helped to restore my faith in comics when I read the first book.  I had read some really awful books, and hadn’t stumbled upon anything new in sometime that had really spoken to me, and this book knocked my right on my tuchus (in a good way).  I breathlessly await the new volume in 2009!

7. I Luv Halloween, Ultimate Twisted Edition – Here’s another quasi-mangaesque gem that combines three separate black-and-white volumes into a full-color hardcover edition with bunches of extras and artwork. Ben Roman’s cartoony style adds a touch of whimsy to Keith Giffen’s otherwise gruesome tale of trick-or-treating kids awash in a sea of zombies and suffering. Goofy things happen by circumstance. A kid who may or may not actually be the Devil shows up. And there are entrails and screaming galore. Fun read. And can be used as a formidable weapon too.

I have never even heard of this.  I feel so uncool.  I tend to think of myself as quite up to date on the world of four color (and one color) funnybooks, and this is completely off my radar.  I’ll have to do some research myself.

8. Comic Foundry – As a gross generalization, useful comics journalism sucks. The Comics Journal tries too hard and Wizard doesn’t try at all. I’m happy that there’s finally a happy medium that relies on neither fart jokes nor lengthy snobbery to get its point across effectively. Tim Leong puts together a solid magazine. My only complaint is that it doesn’t come out often enough!

9. City Cyclops – There are a few webcomics that I delve into on a semi-regular basis. I’m a pretty avid reader of Penny Arcade. I used to follow PvP for a few years. And I’m catching up on Order of the Stick. But when I want a solid dose of awkward and surreal superheroes, I make a beeline to the home of Jon Adams’ Truth Serum series. He slyly incorporates current events into the three-panel examinations of these sad sack “heroes” and “villains” who spend more time griping about their living conditions than they do actually fixing anything. Always good for a pondering chuckle. And his Lonely Parade collection is the sharpest political satire set against the world of superheroes that I have ever read.

I echo the sentiments on Truth Serum, a truly amusing series.  However, I want to single out Order of the Stick, which you mentioned, and recommend it to everyone.  It’s a great comic.  The first 10-20 installments may lead you to believe that it’s just a vehicle to do jokes about D&D, and that’s an understandable impression.  Give the strip some time though, and you’ll find that the characters have actual personalities, that a huge, sprawling world is unfolding before your eyes, and that the strip doesn’t just go for the punchline; it’s telling a story, and some of the strips aren’t funny, but are actually touching.  This strip is much more than it might appear at first, and I encourage everyone to give it a try.

10. Other stuff – Yeah, that’s not very specific, is it? What is this “stuff” I’m talking about? Well, it’s a nebulous collection of odds and ends that I’m proud of…from my conversational connections to certain creators and comic professionals, to the confusing attention our blog received because of a similarly named award nominee, to the way John and I interact with each other online, to the fact that my Amazon wishlist is filled with more and more independent comic collections and experimental artwork than ever before. There’s a lot out there to appreciate in comics. I like to toss the snark probably more often than necessary, because a good chunk of what we’ve cherished over the years has been turned into much buffoonery and heavy-handedness. However, I’m always willing to try new and different offerings in the hopes that I can recapture the feeling I had when I first opened a comic book and was sucked in by something wonderful. Every time it happens, I feel like a kid again.

That’s what I’m truly thankful for.

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Comics Reviews: Who, What, Where, How and Why

Oct-22-08

Since Jason and I began talking about comics, lo those many months ago, we haven’t really done any comics reviews. There are a couple of reasons for it, and he and I have discussed the issue at length. One of the reasons we’ve been shying away from doing actual comics reviews is that they are difficult to do properly. It’s very easy to pick a comic and discuss it, but so often what happens is that someone says, “Yeah, man, that was awesome!” or “Yo, dude, that sucked!” and there’s not much more to the conversation. You’re getting people who are simply skimming the surface of the comic, and picking out the most obvious successes or flaws in the work, but they’re not giving a reader anything of substance. I’m not really sure how much substance we have around here, but if we’re going to take the time to examine a comic in detail, I’d like to think that we’ll be able to explore that work in depth, for good or ill.

Another reason we’ve been reluctant to dive into reviewing comics is that neither one of us considers ourselves experts. We’ve been reading comics for years, and we’re both bright fellows, but I do not, by any means, have formal training in criticism. I am also not much of an art critic. I can normally delve into the other aspects of a comic (plot, pacing, characterization and the like) with at least a modicum of intelligent discourse, but when it comes to art, I fall more into the “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. I certainly have artists whom I prefer and a few whom I avoid, and I can articulate a few reasons why that is, but I’m not an expert. I know a lot about the field of comics (and some other fields), but I’m never sure if I’m exactly qualified to comment on the work of others in a public forum.

Finally, Jason and I have been concerned about insulting creators. Whether or not I like the art of Ron Lim has nothing to do with whether or not I like the man himself; how could I say whether or not I like him, since I don’t know him. When commenting on a creative endeavor like a comic, sometimes the work and the creator behind the work both become subjects of derision during the discussion. Jason and I have both made some negative (some may say snarky) comments about the work of certain creators in passing on the blog, but we try to focus on the work and not the person. Hopefully our readers will keep us honest in the future, as we begin to start doing some actual comics reviews.

The reason that I’ve written this overly long introduction to the idea of bringing reviews to this site on occasion is because I was one of the many people watching the recent blogosphere discussion that resulted when Noah Berlatsky at “The Hooded Utilitarian” blog reviewed 100 Bullets. Berlatsky was not a fan of the issues of 100 Bullets that he read, which is, of course, his right. What started the brou-ha-ha is that, during the course of his review, he complained about the art of Eduardo Risso, using one particular cover as an example; a cover that Risso did not draw (Dave Johnson did).

Whoops! This mistake quickly attracted the attention of others. Heidi MacDonald of “The Beat” was probably the first to notice and comment on the error. She rightly points out that he used a different artist’s work to complain about one artist, but then she spends most of the post defending Eduardo Risso, which seems to detract from her main focus; Berlatsky made a mistake. From there, things snowballed, with others joining in to condemn Berlatsky, comics writer Mark Waid getting involved, and generally unpleasant comments being thrown back and forth.

Why do I find this interesting? Well, this hits on some of the concerns that Jason and I had about doing reviews in the first place. Berlatsky made an error that I hope we wouldn’t make, but it’s not something that can be ruled out (although certainly this has made me more determined to check my facts before I post something in the future). Second, Berlatsky got negative comments from the blogosphere (although he did have his defenders), and many of those comments seemed to stem from his dislike of 100 Bullets. His review of the series was snarky, and that seems to have been what ultimately ran him into trouble; by confusing the artwork, he left an opening where fans of the series could defend it. Could his review have been less snarky? Sure, but let’s be honest, snarky reviews are more fun to read and to write. Heck, our entire website is built on snark (ok, maybe not built on, but certainly snark is one of our basic four food groups).

The Berlatsky situation made me think it was important to preface any actual reviews with a few comments and answering the most crucial questions available to us: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why.

Who: Jason and I. We’ll be doing the reviews, and that’s important, because different people perceive things in different ways. Reviews are subjective; I can give you every reason why you should love a certain piece of work, and in the end, it may just not appeal to you. I loaned Jeff Smith’s wonderful series Bone to a friend of mine, thinking she would love it. She was completely underwhelmed by it, and couldn’t finish the series. It simply didn’t appeal to her. Sometimes, this sort of thing will happen, so it’s important to make it clear that, no matter how eloquently you praise or attack a series, some people will have the opposite view. Don’t let it shake you up too much. Let us know if you agree or disagree with what we’re saying.

What: Sometimes we’ll be choosing things that are associated with a current media adaptation, since people are more likely to be searching such works out. Sometimes it may be things we particularly like or dislike, in the hopes of drawing readers to them, or warning people away. In the end, we hope to be choosing works that will be of interest to our readers.

When: As with everything else here, there will be no set schedule. I can’t see us doing reviews more than once every few weeks however. In the end, we are not a review site. There are plenty of those, and I’m not sure the blogosphere really needs one more, although I’d like to think that our dual viewpoint allows us to bring something different to the table.

Where: We’ll be picking works from all over the comics universe. Yes, superheroes will have more than their fair share of space, but this will be a good place for us to draw focus to other works, some of them out of the mainstream and some of them dancing at the edges of mainstream.

How: Oh, with snark. I’m not sure we have another way we can write, and again, it’s more fun for both us and you. However, like I said earlier, we’ll try to comment on the work and not the creator.

Why: We’ll be reviewing things because we hope to provide readers with information on whether or not a comic is worth their time and money.

In the end, we rely on all of you to let us know what you think. More reviews? Less reviews? Specific things you’d like to see reviewed? Agree with our comments? Disagree? As always, let us know.

Let me chime in first by saying that I agree wholeheartedly with everything that John has put forward so far in this post. I would like to confess that one of the major reasons we don’t do more reviews, beyond the fact that there is already an overwhelming abundance of comic review sites (for both good and bad), is that neither John nor I read many monthly comics anymore. I know that probably instantly places us in some sort of lower tier in the eyes of many fans out there, but the simple truth is that…and I don’t want to get off on some sort of scolding of the industry here…most books that interest us, whether for plot or characters, seem to be written solely for the trade consumption.

The comics medium has changed drastically in the last 10 years or so (to a greater degree in the last 3 or 4 years actually) and the pacing, both in the exposition and the action, has brought everything to the point where I usually only buy things once a month now instead of every Wednesday. And the number of titles I’m interested in (at least on the superhero side of things, which seems to be our bread-and-butter here) has dwindled from a few dozen to…just a few. Amazon gets more of my business these days than any neighborhood store, because of increased availability, lack of urgency and simplicity of shopping.

And don’t even get me started on how much the online community has ruined, or nearly removed, the anticipation and suspense of the monthly comic cycle. But that is neither here nor there for this discussion, so let’s get back on topic, shall we?

The recent revelation by JG Jones concerning his output on the Final Crisis miniseries at DC is another example of how online criticism can really go beyond the pale. Brian Wood pointed me to a CBR thread that facilitated the figurative drawing-and-quartering of Mr. Jones in the eyes of the fanboys. There’s no need for that kind of vitriol in any realm. I’d be tempted to go off on a political rant here about how our country is increasingly divided and angry, but that would bore everyone. Suffice it to say that personally attacking someone for drawing (or, in this case, NOT drawing) pictures on paper is both uncalled for and downright idiotic. If you aren’t happy with the finished product, don’t buy it.

NOTE: Hell, if I were you I’d be more concerned with the confusing, meandering, languidly-developing, inside-speaking, continuity-muddled plot of the series more than how it’s graphically represented. No amount of Picasso or DaVinci can polish that mess.

It’s completely inappropriate to praise someone for their work as long as it arrives to your liking and then immediately lash out at them once that work stops arriving. JG’s style didn’t change. His dedication to his craft isn’t lacking. He merely doesn’t have the time…and has, at the least, realized that and confessed as such. I’ve met JG Jones. I’ve talked to him. He’s not some horrible creature hiding in the dark and plotting ways to screw up your Wednesday buying habits. He’s an amazing artist who deserves some appreciation for the work he has produced. Admire it or don’t, but never cast stones at him for admitting a weakness or a mistake.

Now John Byrne? That’s another story altogether. ZING!

Since Jason mentioned it, I’ll confess that I don’t read ANY monthly comics pamphlets at this time, and haven’t for about two or three years. I buy five to seven trade paperbacks a month, some of them current, and that more than keeps me spending enough money on comics (I still support my local comics shop when I buy them; yes, I could get them cheaper elsewhere, but I always prefer to support locally owned small businesses, and Ralph – my local comic store proprietor – is a heckuva guy!). I also spend a lot of time online, and thanks to the fact that no surprises are allowed in comics anymore and must instead be announced in various internet sites months before publication, I can follow the plots of any series I wish (and often large chunks of issues are posted to read; I do NOT pirate comics and don’t recommend pirating anything online. Yes, it may make me seem old and fuddly-duddly, but I can live with that). I’d like to think I’m quite caught up with the goings-on in the superhero universes, and then I read most of these comics a few months in the trades after the pamphlet reading public.

As for the JG Jones news, I can’t say I’m surprised. I absolutely love his artwork; I think he may be one of the best pencillers out there. However, he’s not someone who works quickly, so why oh why would DC have hired him to do this miniseries in the first place? I have something of a gripe against so many comics being released late; I think it hurts the industry when it happens, and it can certainly hurt a lot of comics. Often, it’s the pencillers who get the bad rap for working slowly, although that’s not always the case (Kevin Smith, my peepers are squarely trained at you!), but really, what is management thinking? I’m not saying not to hire JG Jones; that would be crazy! The guy is good! But don’t hire him to do the pivotal miniseries on which your entire superhero line rests. There are plenty of excellent pencillers to do that series. Let him do an ancillary miniseries, if he wants to be part of Final Crisis; a miniseries that isn’t central to the plot or can stand on its own.

What surprised me even more was who DC chose to replace him: Doug Mahnke. Doug Mahnke may have one of the strongest individual drawing styles I’ve ever seen but that style is very much removed from Jones’ more realistic style. I love Mahnke when he’s doing things a little off target from the mainstream: Major Bummer and the Frankenstein issues of Seven Soldiers are brilliant. However, I’ve never enjoyed the issues he did of JLA. I simply don’t think he works on the big team titles and I think his artwork on the last issue of Final Crisis will seem grossly out of place. However, to quote Peter David, “But I digress…”

So, yes, attacking someone like JG Jones is silly. The man’s doing his job to the best of his ability and he’s not trying to ruin anyone’s life. That’s the sort of thing we won’t be engaging in. But, how did I know you’d have a John Byrne comment before we finished? Of course, Byrne is an example of how some creators put themselves out there in a public forum, and at times almost beg people to dislike them. I still try to tread carefully in those cases, but I’m sure that we’ll run into those situations, particularly in the case of an outspoken creator like Byrne (although he seems to have been somewhat quiet lately).

Yes, I will never attack John Byrne unless he asks me to…or I feel that his online musings are just begging to be mocked. And even then, it’s more like this:

Granted, that image works just as well for nearly every naysaying fool posting on the web. That’s most likely the problem with the majority of poorly executed comic reviews: they’re set forth by nameless, faceless people who are only seeking the hive-minded approval of other nameless, faceless people. The anonymity and temporary status afforded by message boards and blogs allows people to say stupid things with nearly zero accountability or retribution. Spit out whatever mean-spirited thing you’d like and I guarantee someone will read it and laugh, or worse, try to one-up your horrendous attitude and insults.

We shall tread carefully. We are under no illusion that anyone out there should agree with us. Heck, we often don’t agree with each other. But at least we aim to provide lucid grounding for that disagreement, with examples that back up those opinions and a willingness to concede the smaller differences. There shall be no name-calling or references to each other’s mothers and farm animals. We will never threaten to hunt each other down or punch each other in our respective faces because of words exchanged on an imaginary playground in a digital land. Besides, we still meet for dinner at least once a month and that would just make things awkward.

That was digression #1…

I think it’s also important to point out that our focus is unabashedly on the superhero genre. Sure, we read other things and those things influence the way we view and read comics in general. But, and I’m not sure John illuminated this point enough, we will always write with an eye towards the whole hero/villain scene. If you don’t like that, or wish to bemoan the societal downfall of the genre, do it elsewhere. Sure, superhero comics can be immature and stunted and obtuse and mired in the various cliques and coteries of the industry (and I’m sure we’ll call for their heads once or twice), but they helped form our childhoods. I, for one, will never fully turn my back on the colorful exploits of these powerful characters.

And digression #2…

Of course, by the time this post is disseminated to the general public, I’m sure that someone else will say something stupidly critical that we can call out as the “wrong way” of doing things. If you think the plotlines in certain comics are predictable, take a look at some of the “fan” reactions when you have a spare week and some self-loathing to spare.

I shan’t continue to belabor these points, but instead I shall take this opportunity to disagree with Jason, at least a little.  I agree that, yes, superheroes are our main focus, and no, I don’t feel like I need to apologize for them.  There’s certainly a ton of absolute rubbish in the genre, but there’s some great stuff too, and it doesn’t take too much searching to find it.  That being said, I do plan on branching out a little, if in reviews only, to touch on some of the non-superpowered comics out there.  Now, Jason left the door open for that, at least somewhat, by saying we’d focus on the hero/villain thing, and if that’s our focus, it allows us to still do all sorts of non-superhero comics.  While I’ll always love superheroes, there’s some other amazing stuff out there that I’d like to discuss with our readers, from the almost mainstream Usagi Yojimbo or Queen and Country, to perhaps the slightly more obscure Action Philosophers, Scott Pilgrim or Barry Ween

But otherwise, I’m in total agreement with Jason.  I’m not sure when the first reviews will show up here (perhaps next week), but at least the groundwork is laid.