Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Big-@$$ Graphic Novels Round Up

I've been re-reading all of my favorite graphic novels which I own and took advantage of some free time recently to read 10 that I had never read before. Here are some mini-reviews of them dashed off quickly:

Foiled written by Jane Yolen with art by Mike Cavallaro
Published by One Second, who were responsible for one of the favorite graphic novels that I own, Journey into Mohawk Country, I had high hopes for Foiled. Also, I have been reading Jane Yolen's books since I was a child. I was impressed at her ability to personify a teenage girl. With dissections, lab partners, teenage angst/love, mysterious possibly dangerous love interests, and high school cliques, Foiled seems superficially to have a lot in common with Twilight. However, there are no vampires and no extended chastity metaphors (that I can find!). Instead, Alia is a New York high schooler whose adopted mother is obsessed with antiques and created histories. Alia lashes out by being preternaturally devoted to fencing, with her only respite being playing RPG with her disabled cousin (and listening to Enya, Ani DiFranco, and Loreena McKennitt, which made me laugh given I have all of their music!). Oh, and she's color-blind. The art by Mike Cavallaro is excellent, stylized but more sophisticated than manga. However, by the time I finished, I felt I had missed something. It wasn't meant to be a two-part story, was it?

The New 52: Wonder Woman Vol 1: Blood by Brian Azzarello with art by Cliff Chang and Tony Akins
I have had decent success rates with the Wonder Woman titles I've read (which may be, to date, only one written by Gail Simone). I thought you could hardly go wrong by going back to basics, which I presume is the whole idea behind the New 52. So into this world I plunged, and I was not disappointed. This was not only highly accessible, the art was superb, and I enjoyed the use of Greek myth (which was probably always there with Wonder Woman but I never understood as she was being advertised as All-American). The narrative made me smile in places, and I think Diana came across as someone with whom to identify, often difficult with larger-than-life superheroes. Cliff Chang's reinterpretation of Greek gods like Apollo, Hera, Zeus, and Hermes was pretty impressive. I definitely wanted to know what happened next.

Gotham City Sirens: Union by Paul Dini and Scott Lobdel with art by Guillem March, David Lopez & Alvaro Lopez
I had read what I think is the third volume in the series, Strange Fruit, which was enjoyable. However, I wish I had started at the beginning, because this first volume is by far the more impressive. The art is strong, but moreover, the writing was superb. I am a big Dini fan, and I thought he quite surpassed himself here. Moreover, Harley Quinn and Catwoman are two of my favorite Batman characters, and if anyone could write Harley going home for Christmas with her in-laws, its her creator, Dini. Poison Ivy has always represented to me a near-miss, because her general shtick makes for a good villainess—yet it really limits her in terms of character growth (and frankly, most of the time she's just an excuse for male artists to get their jollies trying to draw her as near to naked as possible). She doesn't steal the show here, but is better developed than in most other stories about her that I've read. I found the whole “decompressed-we-hate-thought-bubbles-narrative” going into overdrive in this particular volume, though the creative time is strong enough to just about hold it together (love a good Riddler story too, I do).

The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughn with art by Jason Shawn Alexander, Steve Rolston, Philip Bond, and Eduardo Bando
This was probably the best of the ten graphic novels I read. It played with the form, it was funny, incisive, creative, and, yes, full of escapist fun. The ripples of influence stretched far and wide, from “The Grey Ghost” of Batman: The Animated Series to Kick-Ass. Like The Master and Margarita (the graphic novel version), it employed the different styles of different artists to good effect. The workaday, almost web-comic-like stylings that told the story of Max Roth, a Jewish kid from Cleveland, Ohio, who loses both parents and then decides to pump new life into his father's secret passion, The Escapist comic, a superhero whose tiny Lone Ranger-like mask signals associations and nostalgias of days long gone by (he reminded me of The Spirit). You might think that the Escapist's exploits had seen their day, but Max has the help of his friend Denny and recently discovered artist/inker Case Weaver (who is the epitome of cute geek girl—seriously, she looks like she belongs in Chicks Dig Comics—it would have been nice to see a fat girl or a plain girl who can draw, because, believe me, we can). Nevertheless, I loved the “heart-to-heart” confessional feel of The Escapists, and because of that, I could follow it anywhere. Furthermore, “Case”'s art for the revamped Escapist is amazing. If I'd been Max, I would have hired her, too. I have not read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Chabon upon which this is based.

American Vampire Vol 1 by Scott Snyder and Stephen King with art by Rafael Albuquerque
I thought I would give this a try, and though it (surprisingly) has a bit in common with last year's Dracula TV series, for the most part I had to admit it was well-written enough to keep me reading. I was a bit annoyed at some of the lack of historical accuracy (if you're going to set in the 1920s, do some radio research for God's sake) which seemed to matter less during the sections set in the Wild West. However, in the end the story and conceit lent themselves quite easily to the chosen historical settings. I enjoyed seeing a bedazzled Hollywood of the 1920s, I like the heroine, Pearl, and I enjoy the ambiguity of the vampire anti-hero Skinner Sweet (dude, a vampire who loves candy!). He reminds me of Jack of Fables. Anyway, the “bad” European vampires are a bit weak as adversaries, but I imagine they will improve. And for the record, Stephen King's first graphic novel writing is good but not great, but I'm sure that, too, improved. It's all solipsist-ically well-told, which is nice to see when encountering vampires for the umpteenth time (and it looks like there are 5 more volumes to come).

Fatale Vol 1: Death Chases Me by Ed Brubaker with art by Sean Phillips
This was disappointing. I've highly rated all of Ed Brubaker's DC writing. Mood and atmosphere were key in this noir offering, both of which it abounds in. Despite the fact that as an ongoing series, it was going to leave more questions unanswered than solved, I felt rather in the dark by the time it had ended and not all that tempted to read on to find out what was happening. I suppose it's unfair on the volume itself, but I've had quite enough of cults and groups of aristocratic white men summoning up the Devil while making human sacrifice, etc (see The Five Fists of Science). I was bored with that years ago. It would have helped had Josephine herself been a more interesting character, but like the majority of Steven Moffat's females, she was just a mystery wrapped in an enigma waiting for a man to explain her. So, the first volume was well-plotted, well-paced, and well-drawn, but not for me.

King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel by Timothy Truman with art by Tomás Giorello & José Villarrubia
A rather unusual choice for me; I have never known anything Conan the Barbarian other than I remember in first grade someone at school had a record player that played some Conan adventure or other. What is immediately obvious about this story (and probably the majority of Conan stories) was the absence of women. Fair enough. Adventure series of yesteryear seem to believe, with Frederick Faust, that a good horse is more important than a woman. Timothy Truman has put his heart on his sleeve to demonstrate that he is invested in the source material and wanted to recapture that 1930s style of Bardic, fantastic imaginings. This is a weird and dreamlike, though warlike, world. I let the art carry me along. As a story, I found it satisfying.

The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction with art by Steven Sanders
I had real mixed feelings about this one. It is all about the Steampunk, though rooted in reality, of course. Mark Twain seems to be a surprising fixture in alternate history comics, and nutty Nikola Tesla is a natural for Steampunk-y, science-y plots. However, this Twain is a lot less depressed than the one who wrote The Diary of Adam and Eve, which was the last thing of his I read. The victim of genteel poverty, Twain is out to sue for world peace using some of Tesla's inventions—on a quite impressive scale. For some reason, they need a woman, who is yet so incidental to the plot that I cannot remember her name nor does it appear on any of the Amazon reviews. I had mixed feelings about the dramatis personae provided at the beginning of the volume. It helpfully told us that most of the characters were based on real-life historical personages, but also revealed that the creators had made some rather arbitrary changes to the characters in order for the story to work. For example, making J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and and Thomas Edison evil cult members (see Fatale) and Marconi into a buffoon (a Fascist he may have been, as the creators note themselves, but a buffoon—I think not). The story is, naturally, on a big scale, and a lot of fun. Twain (seemingly by default) makes a great comics protagonist, and Tesla is interesting, too.

Northlanders Vol 3 by Brian Wood with art by Vasilis Losos and Danijel Zezelsj
This is my favorite volume of Northlanders so far. I was way underwhelmed by The Cross + The Hammer. Although the first two stories (“Lindisfarne” and “The Viking Art of Single Combat”) were enjoyable (well, perhaps enjoyable is not the right word for this brutal and bloody series—satisfying is perhaps more apt), “The Shield-Maidens” was excellent. What perhaps makes this treatment of female Vikings different is its lack of idealistic backdrop. The three Danish women are not on a quest when they bear arms—different, then, from the other shield-maiden who springs to mind, Eowyn in Lord of the Rings—but have lost their husbands and protectors and are fighting to survive. They use cunning, brute strength, pagan feminine mystique (!), and hardiness to fight against their Christian Saxon adversaries. And, not to spoil anything, but . . . they survive!! “Sven the Immortal” was a nice conclusion (?) to the story from Sven the Returned.

Fables Vol 6: Homelands by Bill Willingham with art by Mark Buckingham
It's such a shame I've read these out of order, because the big reveal in this volume—of the real Adversary in the Homelands—would have packed a punch had I read them chronologically. Nevertheless, Boy Blue's heroism and daring are enjoyable and impressive.

Finally, I hate to be that old Victrola playing the same old broken record, but out of ten graphic novels, only one of them had a female author or artist. You might think titles like Wonder Woman or Gotham Sirens might attract women writers at least. Are mainstream comics becoming more girl-friendly? I see contradictory evidence.

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