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My Bookshelf Is As Heavy As My Heart At Christmastime: Graeme reads and talks about trade paperbacks.

Graeme McMillan

Because you demanded it! Well, maybe not you, but Leigh Walton3000. He definitely demanded it, and because it’s the holiday season, what else could I do but deliver? And so: The Special Savage Critic Long Winded Book Edition. For you!

AMERICAN VIRGIN Vol. 1: HEAD: Here’s my big problem with American Virgin – It’s just not sexy. It’s not even just not sexy, it’s practically unsexy; there’s something about the writing that manages to be preachy and clinical at the same time, like someone’s dad trying to write for The Kids after spending an afternoon on MySpace and reading some Brian K. Vaughan (Steven Seagle, the hypothetical dad in question, has clearly tried to style this in a similar way to Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man – You get the stylized-disaffected dialogue, the last page splash cliffhangers – except the cliffhangers here are, well, not very interesting – and the self-centered male protagonist on a journey of self-discovery that he isn’t comfortable with even as he needs it, complete with fantasy sequences and lost girlfriend idol figure). Becky Cloonan’s art is wasted on this book, and maybe it’s just my reading into things that aren’t there, but you can almost see her lose interest with each successive page, even with inks by Street Angel’s Jim Rugg. But as wonderful as Cloonan’s art is (and her art is sexy, with asides and characters that are playful and full of life despite what the story makes them do and say), it’s not enough to make this book anything more than Crap. A book about the sexual awakening of a Christian fundamentalist should be sexy, goddammit.

ASTRO CITY: LIFE IN THE BIG CITY, ASTRO CITY: CONFESSION, ASTRO CITY: FAMILY ALBUM: Hi, and welcome to “Boy, I really should have read this a long time ago” Theatre. After I got pummeled in the comments for admitting that I’d avoided Kurt Busiek’s creator-owned superhero love letter for years, Hibbs leapt on my weak will against peer pressure and sold me on the first AC collection, telling me that I’d dig it. He didn’t say “The first one’s free,” or even “Hey, kid. Wanna see somethin’ cool?” followed by an evil chuckle, but he may well have done, because I ended up getting the next couple of books a couple of weeks later. Simply put, Astro City works. It’s got enough callbacks to play on the characters you are familiar with, giving you an idea of the context against which the real stories take place, without openly just aping Spider-Man, Superman and everyone else (In many cases, the characters in this series are cooler than their inspirations – I really, really like Jack In The Box, for example, and Crackerjack is a lot of fun as well. Maybe it’s just characters with Jack in their name that I have a weakness for. Who knows?). It also knows enough to know how to play against expectations and go small – the large epic stories take place mostly off-panel, which works really well because it allows you to fill in all the details and let them be the greatest super battles ever for you – which is where the series’ heart is. On the occasions where the stories come close to traditional superheroics – When Jack meets future versions of himself, or following the serial killer in Confession – that’s when it stopped working so well for me; everything just became about the costumes and the action instead of the people… And when that’s the case, you’re always going to miss the costumes you grew up reading about.

But, luckily, that kind of story is few and far between from what I’ve read so far (And in the case of Confessionals, the one long storyline I’ve seen so far, even there the supervillain plot is punctuated by lots of character moments). Busiek’s a weird writer; he’s a wonderful plotter, and it’s that that seems to dominate a lot of his company-owned work. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t do character well in those books, because he does – I really dig his Superman because of how he writes the characters, for example, not because of the plot which has still left me kind of cold – but the stories are much more about What Happens. His Avengers, in particular, I think is one of the best plot-orientated superhero books of the ’90s. But Astro City isn’t about the plot, when it’s really good. It’s about what the characters are thinking and reacting to instead of any other stimulus, and because of that, it can do things that almost no company-owned book can really do – or do successfully, without fear of revamp when the next creative team comes on, anyway – and make the people in silly outfits feel real, for twenty-odd pages at a time, at least. Life In the Big City: Very Good, Confession: Good, Family Album: Very Good.

ESSENTIAL DEFENDERS Vol. 2: There’s something about this book that shows just what it was like to be a Marvel fan in the ’70s. Stories career between series – this book collects not only Defenders issues, but also issues of Marvel Two-in-One, Marvel Team-Up and a Marvel Treasury story starring Howard The Duck – but so do creators (Steve Gerber seems to follow a plot from Marvel Two-in-One and then become the regular Defenders writer purely by being in the right place at the right time, and Sal Buscema is everywhere); it makes it seem as if the line was a fun, unified, thing even if it’s slightly… disorganized. But that disorganization fits this book, in a weird way (As opposed to something like Supervillain Team-Up, the Essential collection of which gets repetitive and kind of embarrassing with every second issue promising a new creative team and bold new direction as someone, desperately, tries to make the book work and hit deadline) – It is a “non-team,” after all, something that’s reinforced by the cover featuring the Silver Surfer who doesn’t appear at all in the book itself. Not that you miss him, given everything else that happens – the plots have a wonderfully free-wheeling aspect to them, bouncing from racist cults to carbombing the rich to revolution in the Earth of the future, with each one given equal weight and importance.

The series really begins to find its feet in this collection, as a core cast becomes cemented (almost entirely made up of characters outside of the team that most people think of as the Defenders; Dr. Strange and the Hulk are the only ones of the four to make it through the entire collection) and various subplots get started allowing for some sense of continuity for the reader. It’s the B-list nature of Valkyrie and Nighthawk that lets the collection work, as well; watching Steve Gerber do character work knowing that he doesn’t have to stay completely straight on a book like this, and letting himself get carried away with the already convoluted backstory for the two of them (False persona of a Norse Warrior possessing the body of an insane ex-bride of a demon and Batman-ripoff reformed supervillain, respectively). He manages to make them the classic Marvel mix of ridiculous pasts and down-to-earth personalities, even while working within the restrictive monthly Marvel format of the time. More than the crazy A-plots, it’s the smaller things like that that make this book Very Good if superheroes are your thing.

ESSENTIAL LIKE CAGE – HERO FOR HIRE Vol. 2: Yes, I know this is one of those books that we’re meant to ironically appreciate, but the weird thing about this book is watching the writers really try and do something with the series; Don McGregor, in particular, has caption attempts at social criticism mixed with noir narration that seem both out of place in a Power Man comic and completely fitting for a 1970s exploitation book. The other weird thing is watching B-level artists strut their stuff on the B-level book and, well, do a pretty good job. George Tuska, who knew you had it in you? It’s almost depressing when Chris Claremont and John Byrne come along for the last issues reprinted, with their slick and overly familiar styles, because up until that point, it’d been a pretty Okay oddity.

ETERNALS BY JACK KIRBY: Like I said before, my dad, bless his heart, gave me this for Christmas this year. It arrived early, and even though I’ve been very patient with every other parcel that’s arrived, this was opened almost immediately and has been my bedtime reading each night this week – It’s not something that’s for everyone, but Good God. The speed of Kirby’s work is astonishing – He just throws ideas out there and moves through them within an issue. There’s no such thing as a status quo in this book – One issue it’s all about Ikarus explaining about the origin of humanity, and then the Gods have come to Earth and they’re going to judge us, and then the Deviants are pretending to be Satan to trick humanity into declaring war with God and it’s about Sersi and the human girl in Sersi’s apartment, and then Ikarus is put into a coma for an issue while two new characters fight the Deviants in Manhattan and then and then and then! By this point in his career, he’d given in even more to his admittedly not-great dialogue tics and overwritten narration, but even if you don’t get the (limited) charm of them, the sheer flood of ideas that he throws at you could win you over. If you’re willing to overlook clunky dialogue and want the dayglo version of the history of humanity where God is an alien with circuitry on his hand, then this is Excellent. Pricy, yes, but seriously. Man, it’s good.

FABLES: 1001 NIGHTS OF SNOWFALL: This is a very frustrating book for me, because what I normally love about Fables is the writing – Don’t get me wrong, Mark Buckingham’s art is nice enough, but it’s Bill Willingham’s take on the characters that somehow manages to be cynical and sweet at the same time that sells me on the stories. But the frustrating thing about this anthology of new work is that the writing lets it down badly – It’s not that it’s bad, exactly, but so varying in quality that the weaker stories fare even worse in comparison. This is, most definitely, an artists’ showcase rather than any kind of coherent attempt at storytelling, and in that sense, it’s a success; all of the art here is impressive, even if the stars are not who you’d initially expect (James Jean’s pages are lacking the inventive design you see in his covers, but Tara McPherson’s section is beautiful. Similarly, Brian Bolland’s two-pager suffers from appalling flat coloring, while Derek Kirk Kim gets to draw bunnies with eyes that shoot lasers, and therefore can’t fail). Storywise, it’s more of a disappointment, with the shorter stories feeling like unnecessary and unfunny filler about characters you’ve never heard of before, stealing time away from the more interesting longer pieces that manage to work as introduction to regular characters for new readers and backstory for the overall arc for those who’ve visited the world before (The histories of Snow White and origin of Bigby, in particular, are the kind of thing you want more of – Chilling and exciting in the way they rework some old wives’ tales). None of the above should give you the idea that this isn’t enjoyable, because, really, it’s a Good book that verges on the Very Good at times. It’s just that it’s less successful for both new and old readers than any of the trades of the regular series, and probably works best as something someone who already loves the characters would enjoy.

JACK STAFF: EVERYTHING USED TO BE BLACK AND WHITE: Never before has a creator-owned series shown its origins as a pitch for a corporate character so openly as this opening of Paul Grist’s superhero series. Not only does the character look like Marvel’s Union Jack, but he even has a run-in with a vampire… just like Marvel’s Union Jack. Not that that spoils the fun, though; that gets spoiled by the disjointed writing, as Grist’s attempts to mix the anthology format of old school British comics with the longer form of American comics with less-than-entirely successful results. Things come together more towards the end, but even the greatest writing in the world would come second to Grist’s amazing art – He really gets how to do successful black and white art in an almost Alex Toth-like way, and some of his pages should be studied by wannabe artists to see the thinking that went on behind them. Overall, Eh writing mixed with Excellent art evens out as an Okay book that’s well worth it if what you buy comics for are the pretty pictures.

KAMPUNG BOY: American Born Chinese may have (deservedly) gotten more of the attention from the second wave of First Second launches, but this memoir of Malaysian cartoonist Lat’s childhood was an understated little gem in its own right. It’s interesting, because I think I was underwhelmed by it on the first read, but there was something about what Lat leaves out of the story that kept bringing me back, and finding more and more to enjoy in the book. The way he turns his life as a kid into something that everyone can empathize with, without losing flavor or sense of identity is impressive and bizarrely touching, and by the end of the book – a very organic breaking point for the story, considering what’s happening – then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want the next volume right away. It’s quiet and short and full of joy, and Very Good.

It’s trades. Should I do PICK OF THE WEEK and PICK OF THE WEAK…? Probably not, considering, you know, this is hardly a “week” thing (American Virgin is pretty weak, though). Weirdly enough, as good as they are, none of these books would make it onto a list of even my top six books of the year with the possible exception of the Eternals book by Kirby. Perhaps you should just spend your money on my favorites, instead, if it’s money you’re looking to spend – Those would be, in reverse order, De:Tales, American Born Chinese, Pride of Bagdhad, Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, Curses, and The Fate of The Artist. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about those at some point during the year or another, and Jeff mentions almost all of those in his round-up post below, so consider them all groovy and worth your time and attention.

Anyway, this may be my longest post here yet; hopefully I’ve made all of you realize that I should never talk about trades ever again. Now go and read Jeff’s post below; it’s a lot of fun, and he’s got good taste in comics, and I feel guilty for making another massive post and pushing his post off the top of the page already.

Happy holidays, Savage readers.

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