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Words With Friends: Jeff Talks About A Few Comics

Jeff Lester

I promised myself if I ever got caught up, I’d do one of these.  The last couple of podcasts, we’ve wrapped up with a one or two books that I’d read still left unmentioned.  Hmm, I thought to myself.  If only there was a way I could actually share my thoughts on these books without ceaselessly cutting off Graeme just as he was saying something sensible and well-reasoned.  Via some kind of…written medium, maybe…

After the jump: the miracle of the written word!

MIND MGMT #1:  Did you pick this up?  It’s an odd, paradoxical package: a $3.99 book without any real “hand” to it that is actually a full, satisfying read; a “by-the-numbers” plot that feels unique and idiosyncratic; art that straddles the line between off-putting and charming; a comic that all but screams “self-published labor of love” that comes with the Dark Horse stamp on it.

None of it should work.  Almost all of it works. And it works because the creator Matt Kindt is the kind of guy who has ambition to burn and mad formalist chops.  The best I can do to make my point is to point you to page 24 of the book, where the bottom six panels of the nine page grid are actually a single image just as the narrator explains the secret behind a psychic able to see the future by reading the minds of every living creature around him.  You literally see “the big picture” at the same time as the revelation, which lets you experience how the psychic’s power works.

While I didn’t put down the book with any especially strong desire to see what happens next in the story, I can’t wait to see the next issue, to see what Kindt tries to pull off next, and to see if he can use those formalist skills to make me care about what’s happening.  This is quite a GOOD book and worth your time.

MUD MAN #4Mud Man is one of those books I soooo dearly want to love.  Paul Grist is really working the Lee/Ditko vibe of Amazing Spider-Man, trying his damnedest to re-create that odd, off-kilter feeling of a teen superhero trying to get by without a rulebook to follow.  Rather than follow the beats laid down by Lee and Ditko (and copied by generations of comic book creators since), Grist is using his own rhythms and ideas and the limitations he’s put on the title character.  There’s a charming little essay on the inside cover about where the title should go in comic books, the last line of which is “Why Don’t People Do Comics The Way I Want?” and it’s pretty easy to see Mud Man as Grist doing the superhero comic he wants to read the way he wants.  I feel like he should be lifted on the shoulders of the comics industry for it.

And yet, once you strip away some of the smart and dynamic page layouts, the masterful use of white space, and the charmingly low-stakes action (this is our first supervillain, and he’s a shirtless old guy),  the book doesn’t really have that much different from it from what you’d see in, say, the Rogers/Giffen run of Blue Beetle: it’s very much the “young hero gets a cool, enigmatic  mentor” turn with an additional four page action sequence that turns out to be a daydream.

I know, I know: that’s a lot of amazing stuff to put away to one side, like I decided to complain about a cake with the opening argument of “putting aside the amazing frosting and the amazingly rich texture of the cake itself…”  But I think maybe there’s some validity to not being satisfied with a chocolate cake without any chocolate in it.  In Mud Man, our hero makes a heroic choice to save the guy who bullies him in his secret identity, but he does it without any use of his superpowers.  (And the best, most exciting example of his power ends up utilized in the four page daydream sequence.)

Lee and Ditko did an amazing job of making Peter Parker an object of pathos, in both his secret and public identity.  But we also got to see Peter kick some ass in exactly the right proportion to all the superhero-deflating hijinks.  I know it makes me a bad reviewer to judge this book on what I want rather than what Grist intends, but just a dash more superheroing in this superhero book would make it so much more than the OKAY read it is to me.

PLANETOID #1:  Okay fine I admit it I am a stinking bourgeois pig who went out and got an iPhone 4S a few months ago when I came to the perfect intersection of necessity (we needed to change carriers) and culpability (as I recall, Apple had just opened Foxconn and their partner manufacturing plants to outside review) but you know what: don’t tell me you couldn’t give a shit about Siri because YOU ARE LYING.

I submit this sci-fi book by Ken Garing as Exhibit A, because no sooner than the protagonist crashes on a strange planet than he activates RICTER, his interactive analytical assistant.  Yeah, that’s right, bitches:  our indy comic protag only makes it four pages before he decides he needs a faceless servile voice to catalog his inventory.

So don’t tell me you don’t dig the idea of holding up your phone and giving it some numbers to calculate a percentage of, or what time sunset is set for, or to send a message to your wife telling her you’ve managed to lock your keys inside the car for the third time this month and could she please come downtown with the spare set.  Because I’ve got HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paul Bettany in all those Iron Man movies, and mother-fucking Ricter from mother-fucking Planetoid #1 to call you out on your shit.

As for the book itself, it’s a very generous 32 pages for $2.99, and although it’s about as by-the-numbers as you can get, it’s lovely to look at and is scratching that new, weird sci-fi comic itch recently brought about by Prophet, Saga,  the first two years of Uncanny X-Force, and being able to buy issues of Matt Howarth’s Those Annoying Post Bros. and Savage Henry for ninety-nine cents a pop over on Comixology.  It’s an OK book, the kind of thing that could be entirely disregarded if just one of the factors (price point, talent, individual interest, use in dumb pop-culture arguments) wasn’t met.  But they were so, yes, OKAY, indeed.

POPEYE #2:  Comes sooooo very close to being the absolute slice of licensed genius I want it to be: in fact, that Sappo story in the back by Langridge and Tom Neely is in fact something breathtakingly close to perfection.  In the way it takes an goofy premise and logically makes it goofier and goofier while keeping it grounded by its characters (or character types, really), it reminds me of a lot of what I loved most about Segar’s work.

The Popeye story, however, doesn’t work quite as well despite having a classic premise–Popeye has to compete against the dastardly movie star Willy Wormwood for Olive’s affections.  All of the pieces are in place and each character is recognizable and in character–Olive is fickle, Popeye is a sensitive roughneck, Wimpy is a smooth conniver–but for some reason nothing really quite lands.  I don’t know if the licensor had problems with the script, or Langridge didn’t have time to finesse things  or what, but when you’ve got a potentially genius set-up as Wimpy playing Cyrano and feeding lines for Popeye to say to Olive and you get rid of that idea in a quarter of a page, something has gone screwy.

I know Langridge and Co. don’t have the freedom to  play a comic bit out for as long as they want the way Segar did with his strip, but, unlike with the Sappo piece, the main story felt overly full and oddly static at the same time.

Thanks to the Sappo story, I’m giving this issue an overall GOOD rating, but I’ d love to see it get even better next issue.  It’s got more than enough potential to do so.

13 Responses to “ Words With Friends: Jeff Talks About A Few Comics ”

  1. Wow, I always thought that was Jude Law voicing “Jarvis”

  2. Yea, print!

    I discovered in the first few issues of JACK STAFF that 1) Grist likes to do comics the way he likes to do comics, and 2) the way he likes to do comics has very little to do with story. He likes his characters, and he has some plot points he is sure to hit, but the detail of putting all together just isn’t his bag.

    But his Good Guys are Good, his Bad Guys are Charming, if Quaint, so I am more than happy to look at the pretty pictures. The pretty, pretty pictures…

  3. An enjoyable set of reviews Jeff. I didn’t get what the premise of Mind MGMT is, but you did give an idea of how you found it.

    I read the first Mudman and quite liked it; I must buy more, support a fellow Brit.

    And as a Brit, Popeye wasn’t much on my cultural radar – he’s one of those characters that are much-licensed but little seen. You have me curious about the comic.

    Planetoid also sounds worth a look, ta for the heads up!

  4. Mind MGMT was good!

    I really liked that book.

  5. Curious as to why you boycott Marvel but have no problems buying products made by Foxcomm(which really is a truely evil company)?

    Next you’d be telling us you shop at Walmart!!

  6. I here I thought Siri was only good for telling you whether it’s raining outside, telling you where to get organic mushrooms for risotto for dinner for your booty call, and having her tell you awful jokes when you’re lonely. Who knew that Zooey Daschenel was blind, John Malkovich had such an underdeveloped sense of humor, and that Samuel Jackson was such a pussy hound? Or that Jeff Lester was so absent minded?

  7. Thanks for the reviews. It prompted me to look at your “related posts” and your old review of Inception and Gogol 13 which was fun to revisit since I finally bought a collected edition of Gogol 13.

  8. In reverse order, because hey why not:

    @Kevin: I’m glad to hear you checked out Golgo 13–I love that book like it was tasty, tasty food. And I’m glad you also checked out those earlier reviews: I’m more than a little rusty and was also zonked on muscle relaxants when I wrote this most recent bit and I feel like it’s not my best stuff. So I’m relieved you found something a little closer to the mark.

    @Robert G: I’ve managed to hide my absentmindedness from you until now? Really? I’m nearly giddy at the thought!

    @georgesmith: I do have problems, actually, which is why I mentioned it in passing in the review. As you know, Apple isn’t the only tech company that contracts with Foxconn–from what I’ve read, it’s almost impossible to buy a high-end tech product without coming into contact with Foxconn: they’re the largest maker of electronic components in the world.

    But I bought my iPhone right after Apple announced it would be putting more pressure on Foxconn to treat its employees better, and also opening the plants up for independent review. This struck me as a responsible move in the right direction, and more than other companies were doing. I was really relieved that they did so, because I wasn’t sure if I would feel comfortable buying an iPhone. But they did, so I was. And I feel like there’s a better chance of change that way.

    Currently, I’m buying DC comics but not Marvel; I’m not eating fowl or red meat, but I do eat fish and wear leather; I don’t shop at Walmart but I do shop both locally and at chains; and I don’t buy physical products from Amazon but I do buy e-books from them when they’re on sale (mostly).

    It’s impossible to be up on my high horse about all that–clearly, I’m a mess. But I doubt if there’s a sweet spot to living in this world that renders anyone absolutely impervious to criticism or charges of hypocrisy so I’m not even going to try: what’s important to me is trying to find a way in the world where I can feel okay about how I live my life, and I try to be honest about it because, among other reasons, I’m a terrible liar.

    So, yeah. That’s how it stands. I hope that helps.

    @Mateor: It was! And I haven’t really taken much of a shine to Kindt before now, so it was a great surprise.

    @Mart Gray: Thanks for the kind words, and yeah, I kinda botched that Mind MGMT review. As I said, I’m more than a little rusty!

    @David Oakes: That’s a very good point about Grist, and I should really adjust my expectations accordingly.

    @S: Nope, it’s Mr. Jennifer Connelly, baby!

  9. Hey Jeff,

    Good to see you writing again. Have ALWAYS enjoyed your posts, as rare as they are these days. I don’t have the time or patience for podcasts, so make sure you crank up the old analytical skills for those of us that like short, to the point sources of comics criticism. Thanks!

  10. Nice to see you back Jeff; hope to see you around more often! Enjoyed the reviews!

  11. @Vernon and @Luke: Thanks, you two! I do hope to have more soon(ish)!

  12. Jeff:

    A couple of serious questions here. First, I guess I intellectually understand and appreciate on an emotional basis the boycott of Marvel. That said, it is usually accompanied by an explanation that you don’t want to underwrite a corrupt system, or send any money to the guys who are willing to screw Kirby and so, so many others.

    I get how that would/should prevent you from buying digitally: the cash goes DIRECTLY to Marvel.

    But in buying a TP (or a monthly) from a store, you are not putting one cent in Marvel’s pocket: the retailer has already done that. It’s one of the perversities of the DM system that the store is the actual customer. You buy from a store, you actually get THEM their money back, in a virtual sense. Not buying a book hurts the retailer, it does SFA to actually penalize Marvel. Sure notionally there is one fewer copy “sold” to the “actual” end user, but Marvel doesn’t care. It doesn’t show up on sales (qv numbers ‘sold’ for Faction’s Defenders #1), and it sure isn’t the basis under which they seem to do any business planning. (This assumes, of course, that you don’t have the store bring you in a copy they otherwise would not have carried. So buy one off the rack a month or two in, and all will be fine. And certainly don’t buy from a ‘just in time’ logistics outfit like amazon, but you don’t do that anyways, so we’re safe).

    The reason I ask is because this logic is so inextricably linked in your “I can buy it USED and that’s probably okay” argument. In buying the book from the DM, there is NO practical, ethical or monetary difference. The DM is just a big used book store (rather, more of a remainder table, if we are being frankly honest), for new comics. Food for thought.

    Secondly, your tales of the mythical used TP store in San Fran, and my own recent visits to the gargantuan BMV Books in Toronto, have me wondering something. I have never tried to ‘sell” a used TP to any of my LCS, but I bet I would get shocked stares if I did. They are seen, in most stores I would wager, as being practically valueless, or with little demand. But what if that wasn’t the case….!?

    Serious question: the trade wait mentality which now seems the basis for publishing decisions depends ENTIRELY on there NOT being a viable “used” TP market around, either through the comics market or traditional used bookstores. For many stores (Hibbs included from the sound of his columns), churning TPs is a major line. They are the new periodicals, and are dealt with as essentially being disposable/consumables. But what if….? There are a TON of copies of Sandman, Sin City and Watchmen around (Walking Dead too). If these actually STAYED in circulation and passed from customer to customer through street-level dealings, I bet it would be DISASTEROUS for many publishers.

    All of this to say, I WANT you to have Marvel Firsts: The 1970s – Volume 3. I want you to enjoy comics you have already owned, and I want you to do so guilt free. I also want Hibbs to free up the cash he sent Diamond to get you a copy, and get whatever thin slice of profits he is owed for his troubles. It would be good for him, and for you.

    Marvel isn’t any part of this.

  13. Corey (Ottawa): Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you–vacation and all that.

    First off, lemme say that I really, really appreciate your concern, interest, and support with regards to me getting the (Marvel) comics I want.

    Secondly, while you’re right in the general sense about how the direct market works, I think it’s (sadly) a bit disingenuous to think that even though I’m an indirect purchaser, I don’t have direct responsibility in the marketplace. For better (go Team Comics!) or for worse (go Team Comics!), that’s not the way I’ve been a comics purchaser.

    But it’s also not how the system works: the retailers buy to sell to their customers. If the customers don’t buy, the retailers don’t order those books rolling forward.

    (Also, if you’re not careful, they go out of business, which is why Hibbs knows about my Marvel boycott and unsubscribed me from those titles. I also bought them through to the period he’d ordered them for me so he wouldn’t lose out on any money spent ordering titles for me. That he bought Marvel Firsts just to tempt me is mainly me joking.)

    I am considering the secondary market for buying things (like those Englehart Dr. Stranges or stuff that will never be collected) I’m interested in, but I really don’t know if I’ll feel too conflicted about it or not. I gotta go with what feels right for me, and right now, I just think supporting Marvel is giving money to people so they can continue to avoid addressing the shitty way they’ve treated past and present creators (and workers).

    But, again, I really, really appreciate you taking the time to work out a solution for me. Believe me, I’ve got a lot of longboxes and a lot of memories reading Marvel comics…it’s probably safe to say I’ve gotten more enjoyment from them than most.

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