Vacation Comics Roundup

I never bring anything with me to read when I go to the Outer Banks. This is partly because my friend Joe brings his Xbox, but also because he invariably brings a Box o’ Comics Goodness. In one swell foop I am able to catch up on all that is hip in the world of sequential art. Or at least some of it. Here are some capsule reviews (with minor but no major spoilers):

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II, by Alan Moore

The first issue, taking place on Mars and starring John Carter and Lemuel Gulliver, is wonderful fun, what with all the sweeping Martian landscapes and warring alien armies. Everything after that runs downhill. The rest of the story never comes back to Mars, but rather deals with our “heroes” fighting off the alien invasion in and around London.

Running counter to expectation and thwarting convention are fine things to do, but only if you have something else to put in their place. I can’t see what’s to be gained by creating the expectation that the action will get to Mars, and not going there. Or of sending Moriarty up into space and then not bringing him back in when the bad guys come from, y’know, space.

On the other hand, given the actual characters that were presented in Volume I, as opposed to their literary antecedents, what ensues in Volume II among them (betrayal, brutality, rape, death) should come as no surprise whatsoever. Without that first thrill of the premise, though, there’s not enough left to make the sordid details anything but just plain sordid.

My chief thoughts after reading Volume II involve some much bigger ideas that tie in The Authority and The Ultimates from comics, The Sopranos from TV, and Tarantino from film. But it’s going to take a bit more ruminating (and a new entry) to do those thoughts justice.

Up points on Volume II: great art, lots of of fun literary references, and the wonderful miscellany in the back of the book, especially the board game.

Fray, by Joss Whedon

Fray is a far-future tale set in the universe of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and involving a Slayer in a post-magic world. Despite the unusual setting, it felt very Buffy-like, and invoked themes, tone, even plot devices from the TV series. I suspect it was something that Whedon tossed off rather quickly while the main force of his creative energy was directed at Firefly. Still, it’s a decent enough story, and an interesting extension of the Buffy mythos, for those interested in that sort of thing. The art (by Karl Moline) is perfectly suited to the setting and tone.

Orbiter, by Warren Ellis

A long-lost space shuttle crashes back to Earth after ten years, having been tampered with by something extraterrestrial. Three scientists have to figure out what the heck happened. That’s the premise, which masks what is essentially an extended argument for continuing the manned exploration of space. Orbiter is too short by at least half, with heavy amounts of scientific jargon and only the lightest touches of character, which is too bad because the scientists seem like pretty interesting characters. Still, I’m enough of a geek to get into the technical explanations for what had been done to the shuttle, and enough of a dimwit to not know whether they were the least bit plausible. As such I was caught up in the story, and felt the exact sort of thrill I’m sure Ellis was going for as things got revealed at the end.

Blankets, by Craig Thompson

The worst thing you can say about the much-hyped Blankets is that it fits too neatly into a tired genre. Jim put it well a few months back:

Surrounding the teen romance and the middle aged breakup is a lot of very familiar genre baggage, The Diffident Adventures of Sensitive Lad, as it were. Overbearing father: check. Repressive background (evangelical Christianity): check. Mean kids at school: check. Early sexual abuse: check. Renunciation of repressive background: check. Saved by his creative vocation: check. Almost a century after Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the cliches of this genre have been as solidly established as those of the locked-room mystery or superhero comic. (Sensitive Lad always has, for most of his early years, a secret identity. But he desperately wants someone to discover it.)

I like superhero comics just fine, but I can sympathize with the folks that talk about getting comics “past” the genre of its infancy. All too often, though, what’s put in its place is coming-of-age and/or gritty autobiography—a genre that is quickly tiresome and hard to do well. I set down Blankets after the first several pages because I had no desire to read another comics story about a comics artist whose childhood sucked. Only after I ran through a bunch of other stuff in Joe’s box did I come back to it—but I was glad I did. I’ve had enough of a tangential experience with evangelical Christianity growing up to appreciate Craig’s deft description of that sort of world in rural Wisconsin. And he gets first love just right, too.

So, a very well-done example of a genre I’m still not much inclined to read more of any time soon.

Runaways: Pride and Joy, by Brian K. Vaughan

This little bit of light, even teenybopper fare turned out to be my favorite of the week—it certainly garnered the most laughs. The premise: a bunch of kids finds out that their parents are a team of supervillains. This first series introduces the characters and has them struggling against the previous generation and running from home; subsequent issues will, presumably, track their adventures from there. While the original issues were printed as regular-sized comics, the TP version is released in the smaller, manga-sized format—Marvel is clearly gunning for the younger audience, here.

The kids speak in a hip lingo full of all sorts of pop-culture references, many of which I actually got. This makes me suspicious. Is this really how kids speak these days? It seems much more likely that this is the take of someone clever and roughly my age on how kids might speak these days—which may explain why I find it so very entertaining. Anyway, Vaughan has that knack for good dialogue, a la Bendis, that makes it fun to read even if not much is going on in the way of story development. But here, there’s actual story development going on, too! The real trick will be sustaining the series having established the premise, but I’m eager to see if he can pull it off.

Murder Mysteries, by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell

I doubt anyone would have bothered to turn this short story into a comic if it hadn’t been by Neil Gaiman. Strip away the completely superfluous frame story and you have a decent gumshoe tale taking place in the literal city of angels. It’s the sort of thing that might easily have appeared somewhere in the run of Sandman, had Morpheus only had a cameo in a couple of panels. Best part about it is Russell’s art—always a treat.

Fables: Animal Farm, by Bill Willingham

This is the second volume of Fables, and I kind of wish I had read the first first. The schtick is that all the creatures from fairy tales and fables exist but live undercover in New York and (if they can’t mix in with humans or anthropomorphize) in The Farm in upstate New York. Anyway, as the subtitle suggests, there’s a little bit of a political problem at the Farm, a sort of revolution of the proleteriat, and Snow White has to fix it. Fables is to Hans Christian Andersen as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is to Verne, Doyle, et al. And, similarly, the best parts are the throwaway literary references. The rest is just OK.

The Bloody Streets of Paris, by Jacques Tardi

Such are the vagaries of reading from a borrowed box: I only got about a quarter of the way into this one. It’s a gumshoe tale taking place in occupied France. Very promising so far.