Category Archives: Comics

Dave Stevens Stories and Covers review

Dave Stevens Stories and Covers

IDW

2012

272 pages $40

It has been a while since I had a big fat art book to review here.  I’m very pleased this is the one that I get to do next.  Since Stevens died in 2008 from complications due to Hairy Cell Leukemia, there has been an increase demand for his work, and IDW has been the one much of it has come from.

In 2011 IDW released The Complete Sketches and Studies, a compilation of the four convention sketchbooks he did in the 80’s.  With those original books now long since unavailable, and in some cases REALLY expensive to get, this book was a dream come true for those of us on a budget.  This is an even more impressive book than that fabulous volume.  Starting with the covers, this book has most of the covers that Stevens did for the various publishers through his career.  Shot whenever possible from the original art, this looks amazing.  There are only a few full color pages here and they are a nice contrast to the black and white with blue line pieces here.  The pages that are shot from the originals reveal detail that I could have never seen on the final printed books, some of which I fondly recall from back in the day.  Also revealed are hints to the methods used to produce the pages themselves, touches that were never meant to be seen by the public, but are invaluable in understanding an artist of Stevens’ caliber.

The middle section of the book is the stories section.  Some are not complete, as they are only there as a taste of work done early in his career (like the Star Wars pages he inked for Marvel), while others are the complete stories.  These in particular show just how amazing his panel to panel work was.  He did not do very much panel to panel work beyond his own Rocketeer creation, but what is here is beautiful.  The Rocketeer stuff is not included here as it was already presented in another volume, but it is not missed here as the included works are representative of every facet to his style.

The final section of the book is the pin-ups section, and OH.  MY.  GAWD!!  These are unbelievable.  As known for his mainstream good-girl art as anything else in his career, I have to confess that I had largely forgotten about the number of fetish art style pieces he had done over the years.  Selections from Verotik in particular are a real treat to see again after all these years.  The final section is more like a bonus; it is the con program covers and miscellaneous art done for various shows and events from early in his career.

There is one warning I would issue here for anyone thinking about picking this book up; the page formatting has some minor issues.  There are a few pieces spread over 2 pages, or as gatefolds.  This causes some of the art to be lost in the binding.  The selections in these instances are of a mixed source quality, so the loss is something of a mixed bag.  It is not a horror, but it does detract from about a half-dozen or so works.  This has become enough of a concern that as of this writing, Amazon has pulled the listing from their direct page, but you can still get it from some of their partners.

This book cannot hope to include everything.  Rights and ownership issues aside, there would just be too much of his work to have in a book like this.  Additional volumes would ultimately dilute the special nature of this volume.  This is the best possible selection of the best possible sources from the entire career of a master artist, and this package is a fine addition to the bookshelf.

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Kyle Baker

Recently I have been on a bit of a Kyle Baker kick.  Having not read much of his work back in the day, I felt the urge to go back and find 3 of the more acclaimed books and read them for myself.  Why I Hate Saturn, You Are Here and The Cowboy Wally Show.  While known as much for his work in animation, his comics work, while low in quantity, is of the very finest quality around.

Starting as an assistant at Marvel, then moving to DC, Baker’s first major solo effort was The Cowboy Wally Show in the 80s, followed by more work at Marvel and DC.  Then under the Piranha Press imprint at DC, he created Why I Hate Saturn in 1990, which has become one of the most critically acclaimed books of the era.  He was also known for the short story Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter, a story that was actually pulped and never distributed in North America.  Still, it won the Harvey Award for best short story. (Take THAT DC!)

Starting with You Are Here, I found a wonderfully silly and surprisingly involving story.  I should qualify that a little.  The story, and its eventual resolution is actually on the dark side, but the characterizations and the style employed to tell the story are funny as hell.  Baker has a great wit, sometimes a very dry one as well.  His animation background and influences are on full display in this book.  Full color, but with very little actual line work, there are moments when the art feels like a Warner Brothers cartoon.  Panels are full of vibrant color and action, and the visual gags in the character’s facial expressions and physical actions are as funny as any cartoon I have ever seen.  You really root for the main character and what he is going through.  The supporting cast is a bit more outlandish in some instances, but that is balanced by the action and plot.  The end was appropriate, but I was left feeling a bit sad for everyone in the story.  While it is a happy ending of sorts, I can’t say it was what you hope for.  Well, it wasn’t what I had hoped for.  But a great book just needs to leave me wanting more, and this did that in spades.

Fortunately for me, I had purchased 2 other books at the same time.  Why I Hate Saturn is one of the most famous

Cover to the Vertigo edition

books to come out of the 1990s and is credited, at least in part, as one of the books that proved the original graphic novel format was a viable one.  I have been working on this post off and on for about 3 weeks, mostly because I have to step away from these pages to digest what I have read.  You are Here was read in a sitting, but this book took a while to really appreciate.  Here the art is much more specifically structured to be like an illustrated book instead of a traditional comic.  The art is much more loose and relaxed, with less emphasis on the design of each panel and more on a feel and impression.  Black and white with some sepia shading, the dialog mostly takes place outside the actual panel and is short and direct.  As wordy as this book gets at times, it never feels overwritten, just smart and witty.  It does at time feel very episodic.  Sometimes it gives the impression of being collected from a serialized strip.  The chapters are uneven at times, and occasionally cover the same ground repeatedly, but I think that my be the point at times.  This book deals with Anne and her life in the hip, shallow New York social scene of the early 90’s.  When her sister comes to visit, claiming she has been on Saturn, and things are getting dicey, Anne’s world begins to spin out of control.  This book has a very different feel to it.  The structure of the story is not as familiar or comfortable as You are Here.  Since it is not traditional panel to panel, and the chapters are clearly broken up as smaller vignettes, this is better read in smaller doses.  The humor here is very topical, and since this was done over 20 years ago now, some of it is a little dated.  I enjoyed it for the most part, but it seems as though this was such a critical darling in the 90’s more because of its differences from what was common then over what the subject and style of the book were.  This is a quality book, to be sure, it is just somewhat harder to enjoy outside of its intended context.  Most of its setting has changed enough that this may seem a little hard to buy into.  That and the fact that I am not a New Yorker.  Who knows, maybe NY is still very much like this today, but I kind of doubt it.

Original 1988 edition cover

The Cowboy Wally show is a very different beast.  This is a darker, more jaded story.  Wally is not really a likeable guy and is very much a riff on all the talentless hacks that populate our pop culture and media.  He gets his start with blackmail and despite never really being a success at anything, manages to stay in show business for the long haul.  The art falls in between the above volumes in terms of style, and is fairly straightforward.  The placement of dialog in the non-balloon word balloons is sometimes a bit hard to follow, and my edition has some odd printing errors, like missing letters.  This is not a happy volume.  While the previous two are funny and occasionally dark, this is dark and occasionally funny.  Even then the laughs are uncomfortable and less like humor and more like irony.

These three volumes are as different from each other as can be, given they are all by one author, and are not all for everyone.  If you like being challenged by the subject matter of a story, without wanting to be completely depressed, these are all a good place to start if you also want to have fun tracking them down.

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Spider-Man: Blue-review

Spider-Man:  Blue

Marvel Comics

2011 edition

168 pages $20

This is the second of the “color books” from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale I have read, the first being the wonderful Daredevil: Yellow.  I can’t say I liked this one as much as that volume, but this is still a strong entry.  The 2011 collected volume contains the six issue series from 2002 and some bonus material in the form of notes and sketchbook pages.

Many people who I have asked expressed a preference for the Spider-Man book, which puzzles me a bit.  I think they generally feel closer to this material because it’s Spidey.  He is the more familiar character to even the most casual fan, and more people have a reference point with the MJ and Gwen Stacy characters than Karen Page from DD.  This book is more immediately accessible than the DD one for many reasons, but it is not a better book, just different.

The first thing that strikes you about this volume compared to the Daredevil one is the look of the book.  DD was a much more “designed” book and had a slicker look.  The art and page design here is much cleaner and less busy.  This is not a knock on either of these fine volumes, just a comparison.  The Spider-Man pages and panels are closer to a minimalist style that suits Spidey well.  Daredevil SHOULD feel busy.  Fill his world with texture and form, while Peter Parker’s environment should be free of clutter.  He is a very flexible character in many ways, and this book continues that, but it is contrasted by a static looking world that he inhabits.  More tight close-ups and a personal feel to the panels makes you identify more with Peter and his friends.  I have heard the Flash Thompson part of this story by many different writers and artists, but this is the first time he seemed human to me instead of just a caricature.  I never was all that familiar with the Gwen Stacy character before.  I had read the “death of…” story, but that was it, this story is a complete work as far as the Gwen character is concerned.  She is interesting and rich here just like Karen in Yellow.  You feel a strong affection for the character, just as you are supposed to.  The Mary Jane of this book seems less interesting and more like a pest, but the last few pages of this story are a good MJ moment and pull you right over to her side.

This Spider-Man is less the jokester than in the current books and more of a sad figure.  His life at this stage in his history was not fun and this story emphasizes that strongly.  Also powerfully done is the conflict of emotions he feels about Gwen and MJ’s interest in him.  His inexperience with women is obvious, but it is not played for anything other than realism here.  There is emotional and personal depth in this whole story that was not here in the first telling.

Like Yellow, this book is telling a story we have all heard before, and like that volume, it takes the form of a letter to someone lost to us.  This is an old storytelling device, but in this medium, heavy with first person narration, it works nicely.  The sadness and regret of the failure of the hero to save someone close to him is immediate and painful to read, though I didn’t feel the strong emotional pull as easily with this book as I did with Yellow.  By the time I finished reading it though, this was a complete experience.  Loeb is a writer that has begun to impress me.  Since much of his work I have been exposed to I have not cared for, I have avoided these books and other “big” ones in his career.  I still have not read The Long Halloween, and I still don’t plan to.  Not soon anyway.  I need to back away and assess what I like in his work and decide from there which ones I will try next.  Hulk: Grey seems the next most obvious choice, but I may change my mind on that.

This is a special book.  Any book that can revitalize one of the classics and make it relevant for a modern audience is good, but Spider-Man: Blue is, along with Daredevil: Yellow, something everyone that wants engaging characters and a well written book over huge breasts and fisticuffs should be reading.

 

 

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Stormwatch (New 52) vol 1

Stormwatch:  The Dark Side

DC Comics 2012

144 pages

$15

It has been a while since a post and this book is the reason!  I hated this book.  I also loved this book.  It really managed to bake my noodle, so much so that I found it hard to pick up another book for several days.  This is one of the most uneven books I have read in a while.  Alternating between moments that worked beautifully and beats so out-of-place, I expected them to be ads for delicious fruit pies!  (Bonus points to anyone old enough to get that reference)  I needed time to decide how I wanted to review this thing.

I was familiar with the Wildstorm version of Stormwatch, having read it so that I could get the back story for some of the characters in The Authority.  For the most part, the original book had never really impressed me.  It lost its way very early and never came back, much like The Authority did.  So while the characters and premise are familiar to me, putting this book into the DCU made very little sense.  What tried to make this work is that nobody is supposed to know about this team.  They refer to the Justice League as an amateur  organization and it is clear they have been around, working from behind the scenes for a long time.  Nothing more is really revealed about the origins of the group, and I suspect that will be a part of the ongoing story.  Things went off the rails on this book very quickly when Martian Manhunter was made into something of a jackass.  Why he is even part of this team is something that I find to be an issue.  There is a throwaway line about his involvement with the JL, but nothing more is really said, and if the purpose of this group is to defend earth from extra-terrestrial threat they really need to explain why a Martian is part of this team.

Some of the characterizations work well.  The Engineer seems a bit more interesting, while Apollo and Midnighter are getting a fresh start and seem to possess a bit more depth this time around.  The relationship that is sure to be re-explored between them can only improve, as it was a fairly shallow and uninteresting one, being noteworthy only because they started as one of the few gay couples in comics.  Characters that have been more interesting ones like Jack Hawksmoor are blunted and made less interesting at every turn.  Anyone not familiar with the Jenny (Sparks) Quantum concept, an indeed the whole idea of the century babies from the Wildstorm U will find her presence in the book just plain odd.  The century babies concept itself seems less effective now, presuming that we are going to ignore the WS versions like Elijah Snow. 

Written by Paul Cornell, the story is well crafted, but missing anything for new readers to connect to.  Miguel Sepulveda’s art is generally quite strong and flows well.  The characters are mostly pricks, or at least not developed enough to be of any interest.  This book was worth reading, but it does not belong in the New 52, at least not yet.  I am having a hard time seeing it mesh with the other books.  It is possible that they do not intend it to, and that would be fine, but to be honest, I just don’t see this book lasting a full second year.  It survived the first two rounds of cancellations, but I have my doubts about it holding on if it cannot find its footing soon.

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Batgirl vol 1 The Darkest Reflection review

Batgirl The Darkest Reflection

DC Comics 2012

144 pages

$23

The New 52 has been a pretty hit and miss proposition so far.  Many books started off very strong and faded within a few issues, others started weak and gained momentum and improved.  So far I have not seen much that has held quality through a complete volume yet.  So far the only exception has been the Batman book The Court of Owls, an outstanding book from cover to cover.  That was before I read the first Batgirl collection by Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf (with Vicente Cifuentes).  This was a sold book all the way through.

It has been a year since the “miracle” that gave Barbara Gordon the use of her legs once more and she has wasted no time getting back into costume.  For those that don’t know about the wheel chair days, it started in The Killing Joke(read it if you have not already done so) and ran for the last several years in books like Birds of Prey.  Her paralysis reversed, she is back to being Batgirl in the new 52.  It has been 3 years since Killing Joke in the new continuity (5 years since the first appearance of the DC heroes) and she gets right into the swing of things with a new villain called Mirror.  He is a revenge obsessed mystery man with a list of potential victims; all people who escaped death thanks to miracles of one sort or another.  At first, he seems like a throwaway bad guy for the first arc, and while we may never see him again, he is a very interesting character by the end of this volume.  His story and another revolving around Bruce Wayne and another damaged villain called Gretel, make up the stories here, but the real treat is the way Gail puts it all together.  This is a fun book.  More adventure and swashbuckling style than dark brooding bat book, this is the Batgirl from the Silver-Age in many ways.  That is even referenced a few times and the Barbara of this book is very fun in a style of storytelling that recalls those early stories.  Simone knows this character inside and out, and is clearly trying hard to redefine her in a way that does not negate the powerful concept that the Oracle version of the character was.

The art is strong and consistent throughout most of the book, never really wowing, but never flying off the rails either.  Much of the New 52 seems to have art that emphasizes action and style over storytelling.  This book only suffers from that occasionally, but like most of the new crop, the issue persists.  There are very few masters in the field on the art side of DC right now, and they seem to be leaving rapidly, but Syaf’s art is strong and generally easy to read.  With time he could become one of the best they have in the stable.

This is a much lighter book than I expected.  The bat books can be so dark, it was nice to be surprised.  While not for the very young, I think anyone over the age of 12 can read and enjoy this book.  As long as you are not still pining for the Stephanie Brown version, this is a fresh new start to an old concept.  If this does not rapidly become your Batgirl, then I really don’t think you have an interest in the character.

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Batman Earth One review, (or, How to Build a better Batman.)

Batman Earth One

DC Comics

2012

$23 cover price

I enjoyed Superman Earth One and look forward to the next book in that series later this year.  This book by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, with Jon Sibal, is something very different.  Where Superman felt at times like it was trying a little too hard, both to STAY Superman and be something different, this book suffers from nothing of the sort.

Superman’s sci-fi origin has aged fairly well and required very little tweaking to update, Batman’s however has actually become a little odd to modern viewers.  Suspension of disbelief is a seed that the writer plants, but without the reader to water it and nurture it, it will die.  Batman’s key origin points don’t work like Superman’s.  Grant Morrison summed them up perfectly in All-Star Superman:  “Doomed Planet–Desperate Scientist–Last Hope–Kindly Couple”  Boom.  That’s it.  That was wher JMS jumped off for his Earth one story because it needed very little alteration at its heart.  There was change in the background a bit;  it had to be fleshed out, but the essential concept of Superman did not get real change until later in the story as Clark grows into his new role.  JMS’s story seemed to struggle at time to find that balance.  It was not to the story’s detriment really, but the fan baggage was harder to overcome there.  For Batman it is different.  There are elements that have not rung true for many years:  Random violent street crime is harder for the modern audience.  We see random acts of terror, but we feel street crime is more targeted.  The first thing many of us think when we hear about a crime is that the victim may have been involved in something they shouldn’t have.  (This of course, excludes the accidental victims of violence)  Very few random crimes turn out random once the information about them is revealed.  Bruce’s parents being randomly gunned down is not erased, but it it made more believable.  It is still random, but just below the surface, there is more to it.  Rich doctor/indusrtialist?  Nope, that is now made more correct for a modern reader.  It is just a line or two of dialog that makes these things work, and that is the value of the approach taken here.  They are not over-thinking the ideas, just filtering them through a modern view.

The most important change alters what had, in the current continuity become a little creepy;  the bizarre enabling behavior of butler Alfred.  It always seems a little odd that a butler with a long history with the family would aid, or even allow Bruce’s obsessive path.  Here that is made far more palatable, by simply changing Alfred into something that fits the mold of the role he would play.

The city of Gotham is there with all the usual players, some in much different roles.  Gotham itself is more real and much darker, and the character beats that need to be there to keep this from being something other than a Batman story are there, again just more believable.

Geoff Johns is a dependable storyteller with a real grasp of why the classic characters work.  On this book he never misses a beat and the result is an outstanding book.  Gary Frank’s art is great as always.  A little looser and more relaxed in the the approach it seems, but a major part of the feel and flow of the story.

The packaging is staying with the format and visuals of the Superman book, but seems a little less appealing here, but the overall product is everything that we had been hoping for.  Anyone wanting something better than the New 52, or other attempts at rebooting Batman, free of heavy continuity should look here.  Unlike most other attempted re tooling of classic characters, this one is top notch.

 

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Daredevil vol 2 by Mark Waid review

Daredevil vol 2 by Mark Waid

Marvel comics 2012

136 pages

$20 cover price

Having previously read, loved and put up a review for volume one of the Mark Waid run on the re launched Daredevil series, I was really looking forward to this second volume collecting issues 7-10, 10.1 and Amazing Spider-Man #677. 

As it stands, every time Waid gets to work on an established book, he makes it his own, usually revitalizing it in the process.  Daredevil though, has to be a high point even in that list.  The story is easily the best that this title has seen in decades, particularly if you are tired of Marvel treating poor Matt Murdock like a punching bag.  Waid himself has said that he fully expected to see a gun in Matt’s mouth at some point, given the way it has gone.  This series under Waid and artist Paolo Rivera has brought the character back into the light.  The book is fun and still exciting; there are just no ninjas and demons, which were getting to be a bit much. 

This volume does not flow as well as the first, partly because the artists change.  Rivera gives way in the Spider-Man issue to Emma Rios and to Koi Pham in another.  The artist switch up can be jarring at the best of times, but with Rios employing a very rough line style here, it is doubly so.  The single issues are a bit choppier here than in the first volume, mostly, I think because Waid is less interested in writing for the trade than he is in putting out a good book every month.  That emphasis on a good month to month book is the idea, of course, but the collections do not always work as well because of it.  There are times when it seems as though some of the things done are a bit obligatory.  Captain America in the first volume and Spidey and the Black Cat in this one seem as though they were put in to cross market.  Marvel is very often and historically guilty of this, more so than most other publishers.  As a result, even when that is not really what is happening, it very often FEELS like it. 

These are minor quibbles though.  They are things to be expected from modern mainstream comics, and are nothing new.  The high mark set by volume one has just spoiled me.  Where that book was really special, this one is just very good.  That still makes it the best book Marvel is putting out with the exception of the Hickman FF titles.  If you enjoyed the first book, you will enjoy this too.  Rivera and Waid are a great team, and if they can stay together on this book, with as few fill in issues as possible, I see no reason that Daredevil will come off my pull list any time soon.

 

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