Vacation Comics Roundup

(This was started a while back, and finally written and posted now.)

Another May, another week at the beach, with time to kill and a big box of my buddy Joe’s comics to work my way through. Here are some capsule reviews.

Runaways: Volume 3, by Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona

I fell in love with Runaways during last year’s beach reading, and thoroughly enjoyed Volume 2 in the meantime. Volume 3 was written under the assumption that the series was cancelled, and while apparently its future is a little more hopeful, the final issues did suffer from having to rush the plot to its resolution. Too much comes too fast, and the worst of it is that the motivations of the traitor aren’t at all convincing. It would have been nice to see this story take a fuller form, but as it continues from here it’ll still be well worth reading. The post-Buffy mannered speech of these teen and pre-teen heroes is still great fun—something to smile at on every page.

Hellboy: Weird Tales Volume 2, by various authors and artists

There’s some good stuff in here, but all in all both this volume and the first one serve as reminders of how cool Mike Mignola is, and how rare his genius. Nothing here quite measures up, except Will Pfeifer and P. Craig Russell’s “Command Performance,” which has Hellboy going toe to toe with the French theater. Shiver.

Astro City, by Kurt Busiek and Brent E. Anderson

I enjoyed Busiek’s introduction more than the book itself, I think, but that’s a compliment to the intro and not a detriment to the stories themselves. They consist of a series of vignettes about not just the superheroes of Astro City but also the ordinary people, from those who live in the heroes’ orbit to the everyday bystanders.

A couple of somewhat tangential thoughts came from reading Astro City. First, it’s a little ironic that a comic whose focus is explicitly on the characters in this superhero-inhabited world, and their emotions and relationships, doesn’t end up fleshing any one character out in much detail (with the exception of the Samaritan). This is because another, unstated focus of the book is to make the setting come to life by presenting it from the perspective of a whole bunch of different people. So while plenty of characters have cameos or figure indirectly into many of the stories, only a few actually appear on more than a few pages, and only the Samaritan gets enough attention that we feel we really get to know him.

In the intro Busiek also praises one aspect of superhero comics that I’ve never liked as much. It’s present in Astro City and in the classic Marvel and DC lines, and been pastiched in plenty of places more recently, from The Authority to Top Ten. The aspect I’m talking about is the over-the-topness of the setting, not in terms of what sorts of weird things are present (aliens! weird science! magic! time travel!) but the sheer volume of it. Busiek notes that this tendency is at odds with what he refers to as a more science-fictiony approach to the setting, which would attempt to make sense of the implications of, say, time travel, alien visitors, magic, undersea civilizations, and whatever else are present—to imagine what effect these things would have on society, and describe that society accordingly. This doesn’t happen at all in any high-volume settings I can think of—instead, the fact that these things all somehow exist in the same world while most people go about their lives the same way they do in our world is just one of the conventions of the genre.

The other extreme would be something like Moore’s Watchmen, which has it easy in that it only introduces a handful of heroes (and almost no super powers) into the world in the first place. In that world, the U.S. won the Vietnam war, and cars are all powered by electricity and juice up at little hubs on the sidewalk—both thanks to the existence of Dr. Manhattan. Reading Astro City I realized that I like that sort of low-volume, consider-the-effects approach to a superhero setting, like Watchmen or Rising Stars.

Arrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms, by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco

Many aeons ago, when the roleplaying game Shadowrun first came out, my buddy Ed would describe it, with mock enthusiasm, this way: “It’s cyberpunk: WITH MAGIC!” That certainly wasn’t the first instance of the “just add magic” school of setting formulation, and it definitely won’t be the last. Arrowsmith is the most recent example I’ve encountered—it’s World War I: WITH MAGIC!

Cynical take: So you want to tell a story about a young man coming of age in a time of war, and having to face the awful brutality of one of the most terrible conflicts of last century? Fine. Do it. But magic? Come on. The only purpose it’s serving is as a plot crutch—and your “sorta real” setting, with Albion instead of England and Columbia instead of America, is only there so you’re not obligated to do your historical homework.

Generous take: Infusing the setting with magic works, and Tolkien could tell you why—he’d call it “recovery.” When those soldiers in the Great War saw poison gas rolling toward them in the trenches, or a tank rumbling forth from between the trees, these were things so new and terrible that it might as well have been magic. It’s impossible for us to understand how it must have seemed to them, and it’s difficult in any case for us to get outside what we think we know about a period of history we’ve probably studied many times. Tweaking the setting helps us to see the thing anew, to gain a new perspective. Ditto the “sorta real” setting—giving a place a new name makes us think of it, however slightly, as a new place, and therefore to discard some of our accumulated assumptions about it. We get a fresh look.

I thought I was on the fence about what interpretation was mine, but having written them out, I’m sure the latter one is closer to the truth. Pacheco’s art helps immeasurably here—it’s crisp and down-to-earth, so it keeps the dragons and ogres and sky-duellers from seeming at all ethereal. This is only the first volume of the story, and I’m eager to read more.

The Dark Horse Book of the Dead and The Dark Horse Book of Witches, by various authors and artists

Much of the stuff in these is forgettable, and a lot of it held promise if it was worked into a proper length story instead of crammed into four or five pages, but as it was, didn’t quite work. My memo to a good number of the authors represented here would go like this: You can end a story on an ambiguous or suspenseful note, but still with some sense of completeness. Or you can simply not end a story because you’re too lazy or puzzled to figure out how it should end. Please learn the difference.

The glowing exceptions in each volume were (not surprisingly) the Hellboy story by Mike Mignola, and the dogs ‘n’ cats tale by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson. I loved the Dorkin & Thompson stuff especially—each story is told from the perspective of a merry band of neighborhood dogs who must contend with the neighborhood cats and their inevitable involvement with witches and other supernatural troubles. Great fun—and I say that as a cat person.

Castle Waiting: The Lucky Road, by Linda Medley

After a long week of gothic horror, gritty espionage, and the horror of war, Castle Waiting came along as both a breath of fresh air and as the highlight of the week, comics-wise. This was also the only black-and-white one in the batch, and I was surprised at what a difference that made—its clarity, contrast, and simplicity were accentuated in comparison to everything I had read before.

The story takes place in a mythical land where all the characters you’ve ever heard of in a nursery rhyme or fairy tale has a home. A pregnant duchess leaves her castle in the night and travels east to Castle Waiting, a place of sanctuary. We’re left in the dark about just what prompted her to leave, and there’s a bit of plot tension concerning what danger she may be in, but the real focus of the book is on the diverse cast of characters inhabiting the Castle and their everyday, bumming-around lives. It’s told with a light, humorous, and oh-so-deft touch.

At the opposite end of the fairy tale spectrum you have Fables, which I read volume two of last year, but have read 1, 3, 4 and 5 since. Fables takes a certain perverse glee in having the Three Little Pigs strung up as revolutionaries, or Little Boy Blue beat up in an alley by Pinocchio’s younger brothers. But the fidelity to the old tales is just as strong, in its own way, and for all the differences between them, I enjoy Castle Waiting and Fables equally.

(I also read the following, though they’re not worth particular mention: Black Widow: Homecoming by Richard Morgan, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Goran Parlow, and H.P. Lovecraft by Hans Rodionoff and Enrique Breccia.)