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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Daredevil by Mark Waid (mostly) vol 3

Daredevil

Marvel Comics

2012

160 pages  $20

I am beginning to get a little irritated by these volumes.  Volume 1 was outstanding, but 2 & 3 have issues.  True the art team has changed and is very uneven at times, but there are other issues here.  Literally.

This book reprints issues 11 through 15 of the monthly DD title by Mark Waid, but also reprints a 2 issue story from one of the Spider-Man titles and a Punisher book.  Like the previous volume, they are more or less “value added” material, but they distract from and are not done like the main title.  They are a decent story; they are just not what I signed on for.  These are written by Greg Rucka, and I like them, but I really only want the Waid stories.  Value added material isn’t really a value, at least not in this context.  These issues make this a 7 issue collection, so the cost is most definitely passed on to the buyer for these extra 2 issues.  If they only have a 5 issue arc, then just do a 5 issue collection!  DC appears to be slowly figuring this out, and they are still not succeeding all the time, but Marvel just sort of seems to tell the readers that they will like it and buy it or not.

The art is another issue.  While not actually bad, it is NOT as good as the first volume’s wonderful art by Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera.  Volume 2 had art by Khoi Pham and Emma Rios in addition to Rivera, thanks to the extra issues inserted into the book.  There at least, everything was written by Waid.  In this volume, the stories by Rucka are drawn by Marco Checcetta.  Waid does appear to have at least co-written some of these but Rucka is the style you feel and the art follows suit.  The regular DD issues are drawn by Pham, Checcetta and Chris Samnee.  They are all well done, but Marvel, and to a lesser extent DC, just don’t seem to care that changing artists like this has an adverse effect on the flow of the narrative no matter how good the art is in each issue.  They must not care, because the alternative is that they don’t realize it, and that is just not likely with all the genuinely talented artists and designers there.  Getting the book out on time is just more important.  I tend to be less interested in who is drawing the book than who is writing.  I buy this for the Waid stories and will continue to do so.  But the art can drive me away from a well written book if it is distracting enough.

As for the actual Waid issues, other than the art jumping around too much, I have nothing but good things to say.  Waid continues to put Matt Murdock into new situations or at least new twists on the same old situations.  It is interesting that Dr. Doom can be in a Daredevil story only by implication.  He never actually appears, but you always feel the threat and presence of the Monarch of Latveria, which is even more effective than his actually being in the story.  This is a tough trick to pull off, but since Doom is nowhere near as interesting these days as the legend of Doom, this is the way he needs to appear more often.  He was overused for a while, and now when I see him on a cover, my first inclination is to pass on it, but that part of this arc is outstanding.  The overdue resolution of the Omega Drive arc is not as satisfying, only because it all seems born of a fairly stupid but completely reversible choice by our hero.  The story is easily an issue too long, and the eventual resolution is obvious and leaves you with the thought, “well why didn’t you do that 2 issues ago, you doofus?”  It is clearly to show how fallible Matt is, and generally works to that end.  It is just a little longer than I would have liked.  Fortunately, the real reason to read Waid’s DD is for the characterization and style of storytelling.  Waid makes you interested in even the most mundane situations very easily.  We care about Matt and Foggy and the rest of the cast.  It is interesting that the supporting cast is only important when they need to be.  When they are they to simply move the other plot along, they are almost ephemeral, even appearing as off panel voices.  They never distract from the point, and are only there as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern type placeholders.  They are completely interchangeable unless they are needed for a character specific function, which is rare.  Waid is an economical writer, and in the restrictive format that the high-profile success of this title has created, even more so.  I know some people don’t like the sparser, stripped down style he uses here.  Many people prefer the excessive and wordy style of a Millar or Bendis, but those are the junk food of comics, and that is SAYING something.  In a medium where junk seems to be preferred over the real substance of good writing, it is amazing to me that Waid’s run on this books has been popular.  You can usually do much more with less and Waid and this fantastic run has been proof of that.  While this volume has its flaws, they are not Mark Waid’s fault.  I am sticking with it for at least one more arc.  Hopefully so will most of you.

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Not really all THAT incredible…

The Incredible Hulk

2012

Marvel Comics

176 pages $20  Hardcover

I was warned off this one.  Several people said that there were piles of promise here for something special and it didn’t deliver.  I decided to give it a try for myself.  There is much here to like, and just as much to be disappointed in.

This volume reprints the first 7 issues of the newest volume of The Incredible Hulk’s eponymous title, and is everything I was told to expect, just a bit better than most had told me it would be.  The story concerns Hulk and Banner, now separated into 2 beings, and the issues this causes for them both.  Jason Aaron is a writer I have recently begun to enjoy and I had hopes for this book.  Aaron is an economical writer.  He tends not to waste dialog (like a Bendis), or just allow the art to do all the heavy lifting (Millar).  In this book, like much of his other work, he gives us what is needed and not much else.  Unfortunately that does not amount to much either.  There is a lot happening here that does not pay off in this volume, and this book is the worse off for it.  The book is noisy like a Hulk book should be, but there is not much story behind this.  I think this would have been better served had they waited for a few more issues and done a larger collection, but the sales on this title have not been as strong as Marvel had hoped.  There have been some unavoidable issues creeping into the production.

Without blaming anyone for issues beyond their control, Artist Marc Silverstri was unable to continue on the book and only contributed to most of the first 3 issues.  This hurts the book.  There is really no way to say it nicer.  Silvestri and Aaron was a bankable team and when Marc was gone, fans started dropping the book despite Wilce Portacio doing a pretty good job of filling in.  Portacio is good, but he is no Silversrti.  My pet peeve with artists that choke the page with too much detail at the cost of the story does not extend to Marc Silverstri.  Yes, his pages are FULL of detail, most of it superfluous, but he is a capable storyteller and his work on the printed page in the last several years has been really something to behold.  Portacio simply cannot keep up.

The story of the conflict between Banner and the Hulk never really gets out of the gate.  There is so much more they could have done here, but it feels a bit like something changed behind the scenes that caused a shift in the direction of the story.  If this is NOT the case, then editorial dropped the ball.  This is a good enough book that I want to try the next volume to see where it is heading.  The Hulk is not an easy character to write and be interesting, and Aaron is giving it his best shot.  I think it is worth more fan support.

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The Man Without Fear is Yellow!

Daredevil Yellow

Marvel Comics

2002

$15 trade paperback

This is one of the books that is considered by many to be essential reads for all comic readers that I have never gotten around to reading.  It has always been on the list, just never got around to it.  To be fair, it is a big list, varies by who is making it, and I HAVE read a lot of it.  What has always slowed me down on this one, Like Spider-Man Blue and Hulk Grey, is that I am not much of a fan of Jeph Loeb or Tim Sale.  Loeb has never been a favorite and Sale is a very talented artist that I have always been lukewarm on.  I really enjoyed his run on Matt Wagner’s Grendel, but since then I have struggled to find something in his work for me.

This book has given me reason to rethink that for both of these creators.  The volume I read was the slightly longer Hardcover version from 2002.  It is getting very pricy to find in HC so I recommend finding the still in print trade edition.  This volume reprints the six-issue series from 2001 and is a really good read.  Like many books that seek to revisit/re-tell the origin story in a modern context, this could have just been revisionist, but there is very little that is actually changed here.  Like all the best retellings, this book is more interested in the color behind the static story we all know.  The origin has been more fleshed out than changed in any meaningful way, and the story is told in the form of a letter to Karen Page.  A letter that will never be sent.  The covers of the individual issues are a clue to the story structure.  They show DD looking in or looming above the main focus of the story.  This is entirely a flashback story, and is never meant to be something new to the myth.  It tells a story we mostly know, and does it in a fresh way.  We care almost immediately about Matt and Foggy.  Anyone that has never read DD or only knows the Miller stories will be fine here.  The Elektra thing is avoided completely as it should be.  Those familiar with the Bendis and the more modern “Matt has a gun barrel in his mouth” (borrowed that line from Mark Waid) type hellscape that Daredevil’s life had become before Mark Waid revitalized things last year, may have a harder time. More modern readers used to the darker stories tend to forget that even under Miller, DD was not in constant misery.  If you have enjoyed Waid’s run, this is a book more your speed.

Tim Sale’s art here is the bonus I didn’t expect.  While I don’t always care for his faces, as they are quite heavy and iconic rather than more realistic, the art as a complete work is beautiful.  There is a delicacy to his line that is not immediately obvious and it is only really evident when you look at the entire page as a unit.  I often gripe about artists that are all about pin ups or cramming a panel and page with as much detail as possible to the detriment of the storytelling.  Here the storytelling is effortless and seems organic to the art.  Loeb and Sale have worked together a lot and it shows.  The meshing of the 2 aspects of the story is seamless.  The words are a part of the visuals and the art never distracts or confuses the narrative.  Sale has been doing this a while now, and he is a master storyteller.  Any complaints I may have about his drawing style tend to be entirely on my side.  It has just been my personal tastes.  These tastes may be changing.  It looks like I may have to give the other two “color books” a try.

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We have always been each other’s greatest nemesises? Nemisi? Nemises?

Nemesis review

2012 Icon/Marvel

100-ish pages $15

This book got lots of hype when it was initially released, with the premise somehow being the big deal.  It was basically:  What if Bruce Wayne were a villain?  What if the main character of a book has the wealth, intellect and drive of Batman, but with The Joker’s desire for mayhem?  Not the most original premise, but it has been fertile ground both recently and in the past for telling some very good stories.  The best of these have been by the likes of Mark Waid in Irredeemable, but this was more of an exception than the rule.  Another book that comes to mind when I read this one is Mat Wagner’s Grendel.  The sections of that series referred to as “The Incubation Years” and what came after seems very heavily borrowed from by the time you finish reading this book.

This volume collects the four issue series by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven from 2010 and it is one of the fastest reads I have ever experienced, and not in a particularly good way either.  The above outlined premise is all you need to know about the story except that this is a fairly violent book.  That is not a problem for me or the book itself, but the action and violence in this story does not really do much of anything FOR the story.  In Millar’s Wanted, a much better book to be sure, everything fit together very well.  The violence served the story and the story needed the violence for impact and much of the narrative flowed around the violence.  Here the violence just seems to fill pages space and make the book read faster.  Again, not in a good way.  The master storytellers in comics control the pace and manipulate the reader to create the feel of a book and force the reader to keep up.  In Nemesis the story is fairly shallow and the characters are underdeveloped, so using them to flesh out the story is not an option.  The bulk of this book is action and it is not impactful violence.  They could have easily replaced all the action scenes with blank pages and text describing the action like a movie script and that would have been more exciting and interesting.

McNiven’s art is decent, but he has had much better books.  The Old Man Logan book being my personal favorite.  The art here is just not very strong in a storytelling sense.  Millar has had some great comics; this just isn’t one of them.  The first issue is pure set up, the second more set up really, just telling us what a bad ass everyone is.  It was not until the third part that things got even a little interesting.  Here we begin to see the real threads of the plan.  Some of what we are shown is misdirection, and all of it feels a bit forced. The final revelations lead very nicely into the second series, coming out currently.  There is enough here to make me want to read the next volume, but unless there is considerably more substance to that volume I doubt it will hold me for very long.  Currently in development as a film, directed by Joe Carnahan (A-Team), this might make a decent action film, as the less substance in a story, the better basis to start from for modern films.

This is a fairly thin review of a fairly thin book.  When the review takes longer to write than the source material, that is never a great sign.  There is a fair bit of smoke here, but not much fire.  As the first part of a greater story, this might be worth it, but as a stand alone story, there is nothing here to be all that interested in.

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