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Littlest Voice: Jeff With A Few Capsule Reviews for You.

Jeff Lester

Cue the “Hello, I Must Be Going” music: I thought it’d be a lark to do two of these in two weeks, but I admit I’m a little hampered by my lack of reading in stuff that’s current (my visit to the store last week was super-quick) or complete (I feel like I’ve been reading that Simonson Thor Omnibus forever and I’m only two hundred pages in) and there are a few other (SavCrit) related projects I’ve got to work on.

But, you know, considering my current writing project is all shot to hell–why not?

(And with those awe-inspiring words in mind, follow me after the jump for some thoughts on a few scattershot books, will you?)

BATMAN AND ROBIN #23: Thanks to Guillem March’s cover, I’ve finally realized how much the Red Hood’s chest logo looks like Blinky from Pac-Man.  Doesn’t that seem like that could’ve been a fun novelty gang for, I dunno, Robin to fight at one point? And yet, weirdly, I would’ve been disappointed if, at the end of this issue, Jason had been sprung by three other dudes with other Pacian chest logos–in fact, I wasn’t thrilled by the appearance of three Thundercats and Sgt. Dinosaur, either. I guess that’s because I (still!) find Jason Todd/The Red Hood an appealing character (or idea for a character), despite how terribly he’s almost inevitably handled, and think the dude deserves a little more gravitas than a toyetic shout-out.

In fact, as far as gravitas goes, this issue has very little but I still enjoyed what felt to me like any number of subtextual and metatextual shenanigans, starting with the cover.  I mean, I don’t think Judd Winick is openly declaring war on the post-Morrison status quo, no matter how blatant that cover–which is very clearly Batman & Robin #1 being shanghaied by the Red Hood–might make it seem.  But certainly, that first scene, in which Bruce visits Jason and refuses to compare notes about resurrection or even to answer a question as basic as “But tell me…how are you?” doesn’t work half as well with what we know of as the post-Return Bruce.  And Jason’s dismissal of Bruce’s death (“Darkseid fries you with his omega effect?  Please.  Too much metaphysical horse crap.”) can be very easily read as a dismissal of a huge chunk of what Morrison’s done in his run.

It feels like a cold war–one in which the Red Hood is fought over the way the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. did over those crucial satellite countries–but I’m not sure it’s being fought on any conscious level.  I think it’s just that Winick is tweaking Morrison’s conception of Jason just as heavily as Morrison’s tweaked Winick’s and, in the process, inadvertantly points out how entrenched “gritted-teeth Batman” is for some writers and artists–and how the ancillary characters they write about interact with him.

For myself, I like the Jason Todd of this issue much more here than the one from those hideously drawn issues of B&R:  his casual, floppy-haired manner in the first scene seems deliberately modeled on Bishonen/Shojo manga to me, and I’ve thought for a few years that’s really one of the best directions you could take the Batverse. In fact, Jason seems to me to be the pinnacle of that internal drama aspect to the Batverse–where nearly a dozen characters rotate around Batman, each with a different desire to prove themselves to him, and each with a slightly different relationship to him–that Morrison has played down in favor of a Bat-army where the relationships are far less personal but the scope is refreshingly larger.  (It’s the difference between family and business, I guess.)

Morrison used Jason as a prop, as a way to examine where a grim and gritty conception of Batman led (deformed sidekicks, absurd villains who are unstoppable, uninteresting killing machines), but based on this issue, I don’t think that very valid point is going to stop Winick or anyone else from writing Batman as the hardasssed father figure whose overwhelming responsibilities drive him to withhold affection from all his many sidekicks and satellite characters.  It’s that conception of the character, as much as any desire to conjure the ghost of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, that is going to keep this little cold war going–because it’s true to the ancillary characters as established, it’s a quick way to provide drama to all the non-punching exposition, and it feels like something recognizably human (to me, at least).

All that said?  The scenes with Jason in prison are rote and dull, the breakout stuff equally so except where it’s muddled (so Jason’s whole plan was to get into prison, kill a bunch of dudes and then just go back to Arkham?  That’s…limp.)  This issue is no more than GOOD, if that. It’ s just I like this conception of the Red Hood–the wayward son acting out to get his dad’s attention and to take revenge on his dad’s disapproval–and I guess I read comics for the characters as much as I do for the crazy, big ideas.  And so the parts I like, I liked a lot.

FEAR ITSELF: SPIDER-MAN #1:  That scene with the Iranian cab driver getting beat up by a fear-crazed crowd of New Yorkers really reinforced for me how essentially cowardly I found the robo-Nazis at the end of Fear Itself #2.  In fact, although I found Chris Yost’s listing of various fears running through various characters in the storyline maybe a bit too ripped from the headline and on-the-nose, at least I felt like I was reading what had been sold to me as the event’s pitch. But, man, if Fear Itself #2’s ending is that everyone–as they are here–are flipping out so much the heroes can’t respond to respond to Cap’s call? I did not get that from the ending of that book at all…which is not great.

KISS & TELL & EMITOWN TPBs:  Agh.  It must be so annoying to be a female creator and find yourself  habitually thrown into the critical gladiatorial pool, again and again, with other female creators.  (Unless you’re married to a male creator, in which you can count of having your work compared to and weighed against his, again and again and again…)  And yet, I picked up these two books within a month or so of each other and realize now they’ve got enough in common that their differences and similarities can highlight stuff I wanna say.

Which is:  Emitown is a 400 page cartoon diary by Emi Lennox and is $24.99; Kiss and Tell is a 330 page romantic memoir by MariNaomi for $15.99.  Emitown is gorgeously drawn, consistently clever, alternately gossipy and elliptical.  Kiss and Tell’s art style is little more than functional (to my eye, it looks a lot like Marjane Satrapi but without Satrapi’s limited abilities), a little pedestrian, and sticks to its concept (a memoir centered around every romance from earliest childhood to earliest adulthood) in the most superficial way possible.

And so it says a lot about the essential hook of “and then what happened” that I much preferred Kiss and TellEmitown has just about everything going for it, but with each page representing a day and having no real flow to the next, it rapidly turned into an exercise in bored page-flipping for me.  I loved what I was looking at but I had mistakenly thought when I bought the book sight unseen I would get a narrative–even if that narrative was no more than the rise and fall of the diarist’s obsessions.  Lennox has a lot of talent–really, just boatloads of talent and charm to burn–but Emitown was not the book for me. That’s very much my fault:  I know enough to take praise from well-connected types with a grain of salt, and it’s not like I couldn’t have gone online and read the archives to get a taste for it first.

By contrast, Kiss & Tell does indeed give you a string of narrative and MariNaomi is committed to the book’s essential propulsive gimmick–who’s she going to hook up with next, and why is it going to fall apart?– all the way to the end. In some ways (okay, a lot of ways), it feels like David Heatley’s “My Sexual History” stretched out from 15 pages to 300 and downshifted from an NC-17 rating to a soft R…which means the impact and the candor of that work is diluted, hopefully in exchange for more insight or context.  But Kiss & Tell is exasperatingly contextless, and even when lovers get more time on the page, there’s no added depth to them: the model who speaks six languages and ends up in prison isn’t any less of a cipher in 14 pages than the punk rocker who gets one.

In fact, although I give MariNaomi credit for breezily skimming through topics other authors would happily make hay with–three months of homelessness gets distilled to one page with a decent punchline–only the cartoonist’s first acid trip, with its combination of telling detail and narrative shape, is truly memorable. And yet still I gotta admit it:  I did pick this book up and read it all the way through in one go.  It sounds like the most damning praise ever, but it is more of an accomplishment than we tend to realize.  And it was pretty cheap, too.

Although I give both Kiss & Tell and Emitown the quasi-dreaded EH rating, I suspect it’s Kiss & Tell that will end up checked out of libraries and or bought and read by bored teens and adults browsing the shelves. On the other hand, I suspect Emi Lennox could easily give more to the medium in the long run.  Or, if you don’t care as much about narrative as I do, but are happy to peruse a thick pile well-put-together pictures and pages, Emitown is for you.

ORC STAIN #6:  Had a surprising amount of trouble jumping back into this storyline.  Perhaps that would be different if I’d just sat down and re-read the first five issues before doing so (something I just don’t do anymore, nor was I ever one of those dudes who would re-read every book in a series before the new book came out, the way some did) but I feel like it’s more than that–I wanted more of that patented Stokoe over-saturation of detail but the first dozen pages of this felt a little slight–admittedly by Stokoe standards, if nobody else’s.  Fortunately, I made it to the end, where a crucial flashback for One-Eye (and a related gorgeous two page spread on the very final pages) gave me everything I wanted and then some.  And along the way, I realized how well-thought out the cartoonist’s world view is and how sharply the story turns are sculpted.  (When one character throws everything away in the name of his blood oath, it’s that much more chilling when another character takes up his at the end.)  Everything in Stokoe’s Orc Stain is too much–much too much–but that gives any of the subtle bits unexpectedly satisfying heft.  I came for the David Cronenberg’s Flintstones by way of Ralph Bakshi’s Conan, but I think I’m now staying for the story and I don’t think there’s anyone more pleasantly surprised by that than me.  Highly GOOD stuff.

POWER MAN & IRON FIST #4:  It’s weird how quickly “densely plotted” can become “exasperatingly overstuffed,” isn’t it?  Almost everything I liked in the first three issues–a surplus of new characters, new situations, and constant action–led to me making unhappy faces as I quickly turned the pages here.  Probably that’s because there’s not nearly enough interaction between the new Power Man and Iron Fist and what there is feels really forced. Van Lente has put more on his plate than he can probably handle (certainly more than Wellinton Alves can handle) and the feeling is exacerbated by the murder mystery hook supposedly driving the story.  As mysteries go, it’s definitely more “The Two Jakes” than it is “Chinatown.” By the time I reached the last two pages, the stakes had never been higher…or my interest lower.  God-damned shame too because I was enjoying the book until now.  EH, but I’m really hoping the final issue of the mini makes up for it.

XOMBI #2:  Pretty god-damned great, right?  I hope you guys are still buying this because it really does scratch my “Man, remember how good Vertigo books could be in the early to mid-’90s?” itch in a way that hasn’t been scratched since…well, the early to mid-’90s, I guess.  VERY GOOD stuff and well worth you searching out.  Seriously.

9 Responses to “ Littlest Voice: Jeff With A Few Capsule Reviews for You. ”

  1. I did wind up reading Orc Stain 1-5 before 6 came out. I’m usually npt that guy either, but I’d had the trade laying around for a while and it just happened to work out that after I finally tore through it, 6 showed up in my shop shortly thereafter. That was pretty nice.

    I didn’t get any of the meta content you did from Winnick in B&R. Maybe that would have made it more enjoyable, but I still would have probably rolled my eyes at the Thundercat reveal. I’m not one of those guys who has a mad on for Winnick, mainly because I haven’t read the vast majority of his work that’s caused so much acrimony, so this was just eh for me for the most part, in Sav lingo. Total “that sure was a comic book” thing, and it makes me realize I really ought to drop this series, given that I haven’t actually liked it since Morrison left. (I stuck Cornell’s underwhelming fill in out because I like him, and Tomasi and Gleason’s first arc was okay but nothing I probably would have followed were this not on my pull list).

    Oh, and thanks for the content. Always enjoyed reading your stuff.

  2. I picked up the first two issues of XOMBI on the recommendation of seemingly the entire internet, but found them frustrating. I get the sense Rozum is really trying his damndest to pack these pages with entertainment and in doing so has overlooked very basic storytelling elements.

    There’s a great deal of real creativity in the book – and not the “Pair two disparate ideas and ha ha, look how crazy” faux-creativity that powers so much of so-called “high concept” work in comicdom, but true creative work – and it’s all fabulously illustrated by Mr. Irving. But two issues in, the protagonist has no apparent personal mission or motivation (I don’t even know how he feels about being called at his apartment and told to go stop a prison breakout. He doesn’t seem to be in this Julian person’s employ. Is he just a basically nice person who can’t stand to hear that bad shit might be happening?).

    With those things missing, it goes without saying Kim doesn’t have a personal conflict going; we know he’s discomforted at working with a Husk and that his nanotech body ate his friend, but all of this comes off as just recap for those of us who haven’t read the first series, not as part of a current character arc.

    And there doesn’t seem to be any larger subject around either, any theme. What’s this series about?

    At the moment, the whole narrative just seems a thin excuse for Rozum to bedazzle us with his whacky concepts. Unfortunately, those don’t add up to a compelling story any more than Kewl Moments do.

    I may yet buy the third installment, because again, there really is a metric ton of talent here, even in the dialogue, but three is definitely the maximum number of issues I give a title to explain itself to me, to at least hint to me it’s interested in saying something (anything!), before I drop it.

    Well, we shall see.

  3. Jeff, that’s a really great breakdown of Batman and Robin– not least because it pointed out subtext I didn’t even notice in Morrison’s Red Hood story. Something about his post-RIP Batman work just isn’t gelling for me, and I don’t know why– maybe the manic pop thrill vein he’s been mining is just too slick a surface for me to get a grip on.

  4. So far XOMBI #1 had very little measurable plot. 22 pages of mostly weird for weird sake’s. (and or nuns with funny names and guns)

    Hope #2 gets things moving.

  5. and stop using “sub-text” and “gravitas”.

  6. Brad: Thanks for the kind words–good to hear from you, as well! I definitely can appreciate your “that certainly was a comic book” feeling and suspect mine would’ve been stronger if I hadn’t enjoyed that one scene as much as I did. (Too much, probably.) It may also have helped that I jumped off this book after the Cornell fill-in…which was, sadly, about three issues too late.

    Adam (and to an extent McCracken): I think the criticism about the book feeling plotless and the protagonist being ill-defined is a really good one, and I should’ve addressed my own similar feelings about it in issue #2 where it was more pronounced.

    Essentially, neither point bothers me as much as it probably ought to but I didn’t really put any time into why it never annoyed me. Thinking about it, I’d have to say that although I have no idea what David Kim wants or what’s he driving him, he’s written so clearly I don’t have any problem with it. I guess I’m trusting Rozum on this count. Currently, Kim seems like a very decent guy–he treats everyone kindly and in a friendly way–that is refreshing to me. I also may have more doubts than you as to whether the things we find out about him are *not* part of a slower character arc–I thought there might be a point in his interaction with the Husk where Kim points out that his lack of emotional reaction to is odd, and that we might be building to an idea that Kim is slowly becoming an emotional zombie of some sort…

    Anyway, as you said: we will see. Thanks for both checking out the book and pointing out your frustrations.

  7. Joe: Glad I could help, although I’m 99% sure that subtext is one helpfully explained to me in annotations by either David Uzumeri at Funnybook Babylon/Comics Alliance or the Mindless Ones. Either way, I’m glad to pay it forward–thematically, Morrison’s whole B&R arc is largely concerned with Batman duplicates, spin-offs and analogs and, I think, how ideas/memes are powerful but potentially destructive without the right personality focusing them (Bruce after he returns and puts together Batman, Inc., and arguably Morrison is making the case for Morrison as well).

    I can’t remember if Uzumeri’s and the MO’s annotations develop precisely that point but I know I couldn’t have gotten that far without their knowledgeable reading. You may dig checking them out.

    Mckracken: Sorry to misspell your name on my previous comment but I’ll warn you now–there’s no way in hell I’m going to stop using “subtext” and “gravitas” (or the currently reviled “trope”).

    For one thing, the term “gravitas” comes from the Atari video game “gravitar,” which I dearly loved growing up. It’s that infusion of knowledge and tradition I feel compelled to bring to my comic book reviews. Also, I clearly enjoy writing pretentiously and/or mock-pretentiously and/or flipping back and forth between the two. You’ll find no escape from my state college education here, my friend!

  8. K. As long as you keep doing capsules, you are forgiven.

  9. I thank you too, Mr. Jeff Lester, for the reviews.

    As of this writing I’ve only read the first issue of XOMBI but there’s enough thrilling nonsense to keep me going for a bit. Remember how Morrison’s DOOM PATROL seemed to be all surface sheen and idea splash but by the end he’d sneakily built characters so rounded and charming that by the time you got to the bit with Robotman…and..sniff..Craz..choke…Crazy Jan…I’m sorry, can you just give me a minute? I’ll be okay. Waaauuuuughhhhh!

    Um, sorry. Anyway I’m just saying it could end in a very different place to the one it has started in. And if it doesn’t? Well, I’m okay with a constant parade of the inmates of Rozum and Irving’s joint Imaginarium. It isn’t like Too Much Imagination is comics’ biggest concern at the moment after all. I mean, I’d buy it for the art alone but Rozum’s certainly keeping his end up in fine style.


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