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Gabbity-Gabbity-Gab: Got Around To It: Jeff’s Reviews of 5/24 Books.

Jeff Lester

So, did anyone catch Art School Confidential yet? Edi and I caught it on Sunday and thought I would talk about it in a non-spoilery way before gabbing on last week’s books.

ASC is a weird little film and, frankly, I don’t think it’s at all successful in what it tries to do. But what’s interesting about it is that everything that makes it a failure as a movie would’ve made it successful as a graphic novel (particularly a Dan Clowes graphic novel). As you probably know from any slight interest in the film, ASC follows freshman Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) as he enters Strathmore Art Academy and learns that neither unremitting ambition nor sizeable talent is going to help him make an impression on his instructors and fellow students, nor will it help him lose his virginity to Audrey, the girl of his dreams (Sophia Myles). As for what will help him, that’s the meat of the movie and I’ll stop the nickel tour here. I will say, however, that Clowes’ and director Terry Zwigoff’s substantial pessimism for the human condition trips them up here, as the early parts of the movie clearly chalk up Jerome’s fixation on Audrey to his high standards and self-consciousness about sex. Consequently, it’s hard to care about Jerome’s romantic longing when the filmmakers all but tell you Jerome really just needs to lighten up and get laid.

Such cynicism isn’t the real problem, though. What really kills the picture are the sketchy nature of the scenes that don’t really flow into one another as much as file listlessly past you on the big screen, the presentation of stereotypes without insight or development, and an inability to suggest the passage of time in a genuine living environment–an inability that’s usually the classic mark of a bad film.

But at about the two-thirds mark, I realized that it’s precisely that feeling of static isolation and disconnectedness that gives Clowes’ comic work such a punch. In his comics, characters move through the world without being part of it, either lost in their own thoughts and conversations or voyeuristically gaping at events happening around them which are either cartoonish, brutal or grotesque (or usually all three). And it’s their isolation–and the isolated nature of the events around them that suddenly leap out then unexpectedly fade away–that gives the work its eerie power or, when combined with a character’s vital and profane anger, its humor. (I’m thinking here of Ghost World and David Boring, in particular.)

Unfortunately, in a movie, you can’t just have characters go through their first semester in higher education without giving the sense of a chaotically changing community. For that matter, you can’t set scenes in art school studios in the dead of night with no one around–there’s always someone up at four a.m. playing 4AD records and smoking up a storm, no matter how late–and you can’t have a dorm room with three roommates on what appears to be an otherwise empty floor. Critics have complained about what a cipher Jerome is, but ciphers work fine in cinema, as long as the world around them is full and rich and vivid. (Fellini, Lynch or Cronenberg are three of the more extreme examples of this.) Nearly all the strengths of Clowes’ narrative cartooning end up working against Art School Confidential and it’s a crying shame. On the other hand, if you’ve read a lot of Clowes, you can pretty much imagine what his graphic novel adaptation would look like and that’s kind of cool.

Christ. Okay, for those of you still alive, on with the books:

52 WEEK #3: Is the cover some clever allusion to Lex Luthor Red and Lex Luthor Blue? I can’t decide if that’d be totally cool or totally suck. Probably a little played out after the Alex Luthor thing, but it could work. I found this issue to be a bit draggy but that’s because I don’t like Steel much and the Black Adam stuff didn’t feel that new to me. (As a Marvel fanboy, I find it kind of a bummer that Black Adam is basically Sub-Mariner but done right precisely because he isn’t Sub-Mariner, if you get my drift). OK, but I’m not all a-tingle.

ANNIHILATION RONAN #2: Sure, it’s a little, I dunno, haphazard, maybe, in its plotting but lovely art+beloved C rate cosmic characters (The Shaper of Worlds? Glee!)=Good in this fanboy’s obviously biased playbook. I liked it.

BATMAN #653: “Heroin. Cocaine. Weed. Opium. Valium. Crystal. Acid. Ecstasy.” Two-Face’s list of vices trumped by the appeal of villainy runs so long I wanted to call James Robinson’s N.A. sponsor. Also funny is Batman’s bagging on every other hero in Gotham–“The Creeper? Have you ever tried talking to him? Ragman? He smells like old socks. And don’t get me started on The Rose & The Thorn…”–while recruiting Harvey, when all we really needed was an expressed desire on Batman’s part to put things right again. Most of the heavy lifting (Hello, who cured Harvey?) is relegated to scenes we’ll probably never see and some of the choices were kinda retarded but it still was highly OK, and highly funny.

BLUE BEETLE #3: I’m really enjoying this title. Getting us to care about characters we’ve just met in mid-One Year Later change-up is no small feat. Good stuff.

BUCKAROO BANZAI #1: Ouch. Gimped by some really bad storytelling (I love the part on page 2 where the adoring fans greet Buckaroo and then everyone just stands around staring uncomfortably at each other) and just a big ol’ globby mass of uncomfortable dialogue, most of which sounds more like Three’s Company than Buckaroo Banzai. (“It was my late husband’s–for protection!” “Everyone should carry protection.”) But, let’s face it, the original was more than a little bit of a clumsy mess too, and I got the idea the writer was trying in places to mimic the original’s sour mash of different goofy dialogue styles. It’s more or less Eh, and maybe even a bit higher than that, but you’d have to be a die-hard Blue Blaze Irregular to make it through without feeling a migraine coming on.

COMICS JOURNAL #276: Between Part One of the Bob Haney interview (in which we learn Chevy Chase’s dad is Bob Haney’s brother-in-law, among other things), Joe McCulloch’s (a.k.a., Jog of Jog The Blog) initial installment of regular feature “Cape Fear” and 34 pages of early Krigstein comics, this is perilously close to a must-buy. Good stuff, although I’ve barely made a dent in it.

CHECKMATE #2: After goofing on the first issue, I’m abashed to admit I kinda got hooked on all the interdepartmental politics shown here. And yet, there’s no real urgency to it–the struggle for the team to remain part of the U.N. is hardly the stuff that’ll keep me up at night. And Kobra? Has anyone except a writer looking for a nice, all-purpose terrorist group ever been really impressed with Kobra? OK, but it’s gonna have to go quite a bit further before I’m a fan.

DAREDEVIL #85: I’m still grooving on it and this issue had some really cool stuff in it, but the change-up at the end kinda stalls out a little bit–if you’re not going to put The Kingpin at the center of the attempt to manipulate Murdock (and I like that he apparently isn’t) you’ve got to come up with someone a little cooler than Hammerhead and the Harlem crime lord from an old Captain America run. Still Very Good, though.

EXILES #81: In concept, the ongoing battle against Proteus seemed close to perfect–it spans a huge number of alternate worlds with real consequences to the team in nearly every turn–but in execution, it’s grown pretty flat with each issue falling into a predictable “Proteus tricks heroes of the new reality into fighting The Exiles until finally the mistakes have been realized but not in time to stop Proteus from getting away” routine. A drag, because if Bedard and Co. paid as much attention to the structure as they did to their latest batch of forgotten Marvel toys, this would be awesome instead of Eh.

FOLLOWING CEREBUS #8: The conversation between Chester Brown and Dave Sim in which Sim examines his reasons for being excluded from “The List” of top cartoonists and the extent to which the members of “The List” are consciously trying to dismiss Sim’s work to their own advantage is both impressively candid, depressingly paranoid, and perversely readable. But Following Cerebus also includes a surprising mix of whatever Sim finds worthy of interest–Roberta Gregory, jam comics, the mini-comic opus One for Sorrow. If the first few years of The Comics Journal had been all about Gary Groth trying to figure out why people didn’t like him, it would have read a bit like Following Cerebus. Good, albeit distressing, stuff.

HAWKGIRL #52: In this month’s installment of Boy, We Hate Hawkgirl: Simonson and Chaykin have Hawkgirl defeated by a gangster nicknamed Four-Eyes, perfectly setting up next issue’s clock-cleaning by the gangster Fat Kid With Asthma. Also, Hawkgirl tries to remember some fighting advice given to her by Bruce Wayne but falls asleep before finishing her thought. And then the issue ends with the thrillign cliffhanger of Hawkgirl waking up and stretching. Awful as awful can be, if not even more so.

NEW AVENGERS #19: The saga of the mysterious being named Michael enters what feels like its fifttenth continuous year, and I kinda couldn’t care less. Also, right above the barcode on the cover, it says “Rated A.” Is that “A” for “Adults?” “All-Ages?” “Apathy-inducing” “Avengers, New?” Marvel’s rating system sucks serious ass. (Maybe it’s “Rated A” for “Ass?”) No worse than Eh but unbelievably dull.

NEXTWAVE AGENTS OF HATE #5: My favorite Celestial with that awesome thumb-pattern making the loser symbol? Funny. The other cheap shots at Marvel heroes? Also funny. But either Ellis’s best ideas got shot down or he just can’t be arsed to come up with anything funny that isn’t unbelievably scatological and/or profane–adorably cute killing machines are just the sort of hackneyed gag I’d expect from, I dunno, Chris Claremont. Eh, and it’s a god-damned shame.

POWERS #18: If you’re still invested in the lead characters, there’s some stuff in here that will make your balls sweat. (In a good way, of course…) And that should be enough to forgive the awkward framing sequences (I mean, really, that was the reason for the whole spoken-word monologue thing?), the drastic plot shortcuts and the powerful whiff of anti-climax. So if you can wrap your head around all that, Good.

SCOTT PILGRIM AND THE INFINITE SADNESS TPB: Sadly, this book came out in what is clearly one of my mouthy “Yeah, but…” weeks. On the one hand, SP&TIS is fun, funny and impressively ambitious–I loved (as I always do) the videogame stuff, the witty dialogue and particularly the boss villain who’s unbeatable because he’s a vegan. (Fucking. Hilarious.) On the “yeah, but…” side, the ambitious alternating flashback structure didn’t work as well as it should have (why did Kid Chameleon fall apart again?), too many of the characters looked alike (despite O’Malley’s thoughtful attention to design) and the endless number of new characters felt less like a rich and bustling world and more like a confusing parade of in-jokes and shout-outs.

Is SP&TIS worth buying? Will you read it several times? Does it give you the sense of an artist working his ass off to improve himself at every turn? Fuck, yes. But does it make you wish O’Malley hadn’t been staring down the barrel of a blown deadline so he could’ve taken the time to really fine-tune the material? For me, the answer to that is also: fuck, yes.

Despite the “Yeah, but…” Very Good stuff and my TRADE PICK OF THE WEEK.

SECRET SIX #1: Normally, I find the superhero based stuff in the real world kinda groany and preachy and squalid, but it was actually pretty kick-ass here. Throw in some cool characterization and a very cool cliffhanger and you’ve got a very strong returning first issue. Good stuff and if you liked Villains United, you should really like this.

SQUADRON SUPREME #3: Profoundly anticlimactic. Also, Straczynski tries so hard to tackle the issue of race in a way that won’t come off as patronizing and trite that it comes off as ultra-patronizing and trite. Eh.

SUPERGIRL AND THE LEGION OF SUPER HEROES #18: The hints here about the “A.I. wars of old” certainly point to Waid as the author of that Magnus-Morrow scene I liked, so that was kinda interesting. And we’re finally seeing some movement on the Brainiac 5 subplot. But without Kitson’s ultra-clean linework and sense of body language to distinguish all the many characters, I found myself on the edge of overwhelmed and at the point of tuning it all out. (Monthly superhero team books set in the far future must be an unbelievable bitch to draw.) Highly OK, but I think the title is going to always be wobbly as a monthly and that’s a drag.

TEEN TITANS #36: Really a shock–and not an unpleasant one–to have Morrison’s Doom Patrol run moved so quickly from Byrne’s “never happened” take to the front-and-center approach it’s given here. I’m not entirely sold on it–several issues into One Year Later and it doesn’t feel like this book has a direction other than an incorporated Doom Patrol pitch from Johns–but I really, really want to be sold on it and that’s something. Definitely OK.

TESTAMENT #6: For a few pages of this issue, Testament becomes the book it’s pitched itself as–a metafictional take on religion that challenges the reader to think of established concepts as dynamically fluid archetypes–and then the rest of the time it’s Biblical references tossed onto a Procrustean bed that isn’t even close to a good fit. Would that this work had gotten the editorial attention and guidance needed to help shape it. Eh but goddam that Liam Sharp can draw.

X-STATIX PRESENTS DEAD GIRL #5: Falls apart at the end (doesn’t most of Milligan’s stuff?) but falls apart funny. And wow, Laura Allred’s colors on this, with the tints on Tyke’s glasses and the shadows on people’s faces, are really top-notch. Good but not great, I wish the market could support this sort of insanity on a regular basis. It’s fun.

PICK OF THE WEEK: DAREDEVIL #85, because it had me on the edge of my seat right up ’til the very end.

PICK OF THE WEAK: HAWKGIRL #52, because Simonson & Chayking handle the title like it’s a PG-13 version of Wendy Whitebread, Undercover Slut.

TRADE PICK: SCOTT PILGRIM! SCOTT PILGRIM! SCOTT PILGRIM! Even if, compared to the first two issues, it’s more like SCOTT PILGRIM. SCOTT PILGRIM SCOTT PILGRIM(!). It still blows the rest of this week’s releases right out of the water.

Okay, that’s all from me for a while, I promise.

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