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Breakdowns -- Open Perils
April 8, 2004
With all that's going on in my life these days, I just don't have the time or energy for a proper Introduction this time out. I will say this, however: being out of work/waiting to start my new job has been a good thing only in that I've gotten to read a lot of books, so many that it's hard to know just what to review. In fact, in organizing my shelves, I'm finding a few books I meant to review and didn't.
This time out, I review an advance copy of the new PEANUTS collection from Fantagraphics, the first issue of the new NIGHTJAR series, the recent WIZARD EDGE 2004 special, MOTHER, COME HOME, SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR, SUPREME: THE RETURN, JUDGMENT DAY, FOODBOY, BE A MAN, BEFORE DAWN (those aren't related books, you filth!), and some real filth called...
AMERICANJISM BOOK ONE by Joe Denny. Pipe Dream Comics. $12.00
This is a nicely produced, self-published graphic novel, but the "Book One" of the title ends
up being a kind of threat. For inside the professional packaging is a really wretched, hate-filled
attempt at some sort of satire of American society. Denny takes a preacher, his wife, and their teenaged son and daughter, and shows us, at interminable length, just how depraved and inhuman they can be. But while there's plenty that an author could satirize about the dissolution of the American family; religious hypocrisy; teen sex; and the country's drug problems, Denny isn't up to the task. He has the preacher jerk off behind the pulpit, or the daughter getting an abortion in a "McBurger's" drive-thru, and thinks that's satire. He goes for the lowest common denominator and fails to elicit one laugh, because it's just too ugly and unfocused. There needs to be some recognizable truth, albeit heightened or exaggerated, but all Denny has done is shown us some thoroughly unpleasant, unreal people degrading themselves. Awful.
Still, don't take my word for it. I couldn't find an active website, but you may write for a copy to Joe Denny, P.O. Box 432, Sag Harbor, NY 11963
WIZARD EDGE 2004. Wizard Entertainment. $4.99
It's easy to criticize WIZARD MAGAZINE for its poor taste, sexism and mediocre, lightweight writing, but when the publisher gets something right, they deserve to have that noted as well, and this issue, which I read in Borders the other day, isn't bad at all. No bad fumetti or titillation; instead, it did a good job of shining a light on 25 mostly good, non-superhero graphic novels, provided an exclusive prologue to the recent relaunch of Brian Michael Bendis' and Mike Avon Oeming's POWERS, and featured a brief but effective interview with Dave Sim on the occasion of the completion of CEREBUS. Listen, you can criticize WIZARD all day long, but it's hard to get angry at a newsstand publication promoting BOX OFFICE POISON and HEPCATS.
FOODBOY by Carol Swain. Fantagraphics Books. $9.95
Swain's story of a young man trying to grow up while still holding onto a childhood friendship run its course is so full of pregnant pauses it takes almost a third of the book before it takes hold of the reader, but when it does, the images and feelings remain for quite some time after reading.
It's an unusual setting and subject matter, as the economic situation in post-Thatcher Wales has led to the emergence of a nomadic society, sort of a feral version of American hoboes, with its own language and code of conduct. Gary used to be close friends with Ross, but now they've taken different roads. Gary is the "Foodboy", so called because he works in a humble restaurant and sneaks food to Ross, who grows more shaggy and wild with every sporadic visit, with teeth gnawed to fangs and speech reduced to grunts. Trying to hold onto that friendship whose time has past, Gary not only gets Ross food but searches for him over the hills when he doesn't come anymore. This tale is immensely sad, rich and resonant.
COMPLETE PEANUTS 1950 to 1952 by Charles M. Schulz. Fantagraphics Books. $28.95
Unlike, well, most of the books reviewed in the column, if you've never read PEANUTS, you really have been living under a rock, or you're very young. It's the most popular comic strip of all time, and one of its longest-running, with every single one written and drawn by Charles Schulz until his death, when it ceased as well. So there's little reason to reiterate what the strip's about.
What's interesting in this volume, collecting the first two-and-a-half years, is how little of what many think are the "classic" elements of PEANUTS are here at this point, but it's still good. Initially, Charlie Brown is not even the star of the book, with just as much space given to Violet, whose mud pie-making shtick wears out and is ended in this volume, and Shermy, an average boy with no distinctive personality traits, and hair that's harder to draw than Charlie Brown's.
Schulz, from the start, has an excellent line, and is capable of delivering cute gags for the kids, but one sometimes has to look a little more closely at the strip and think of the time in which it was created to see how revolutionary it was. Schulz's brilliance is in conveying two seemingly conflicting ideas: kids acting just as cruel and even violent as they really are, in the genteel environs of the newspaper funny pages; and kids having the same emotions as adults, suffering from melancholy and envy and isolation.
PEANUTS was always a deeply personal strip for Schulz, and one finds in these early strips a rawer expression of his unforgotten childhood frustrations, with many episodes concluding not with a joke but with one of the tykes chasing after another with violence in their eyes, throwing an object at them, or just klonking them on the head. This may have been a bit shocking to some readers in those days, though nothing they hadn't seen in their own households.
Charlie Brown evolves rather quickly from a popular kid (the first strip has one envious character observe the "good ol'" boy and declare, "How I hate him!") to a luckless boy who often suffers rejection. He's not unpopular, but it seems he keeps himself in his social circle by an indomitable will. He has to be around the other kids, so he puts up with the mud pies, the losses at marbles and bridge, etc. One of his coping mechanisms is to occasionally embrace his negative image, playing pranks on his friends and running away ("It's risky, but I get my laughs"). He also tries to bolster his ego by being a know-it-all and blowhard, which never impresses. Increasingly, he will abandon a physical response to those who've hurt him, absorbing the pain and returning for more the next day.
As such, Schulz perhaps needs other outlets for his feelings and personality aspects, and so the cute dog Snoopy begins to become more human, able to express anger facially, without barking; able to mimic some simple human words like "Boo!"; and later in the book, the reader is finally given access to his thoughts. We also finally see his doghouse, and there's a TV aerial on it. Schulz has set the stage for the more fantastical elements of the strip, all his beloved childhood daydreams of being a fighter pilot or Legionnaire. His own know-it-all qualities and love of beauty and culture find expression in the introduction of piano virtuoso Schroeder, while the beastliness of children becomes concentrated in one character: Lucy.
In this period of the strip, Schulz is not fumbling his way to making something that would be memorable later. It's a good, well-drawn, often funny and surprising strip from the start, with great insight into the mindsets of children and their sudden changes of emotion. But what's fascinating about this volume is that it shows the author committed to growth, to transforming the strip from good to great, perhaps subconsciously adding the elements to it he would need to achieve this.
In addition to the strips, there's a very good Introduction by Garrison Keillor, as well as an interview with Schulz by Rick Marschall and Gary Groth. Also, if you like this one-and how could you not?-you may want to check out the upcoming collection of LIL' FOLKS.
ESSENTIAL PUNISHER by Gerry Conway, Frank Miller, Steve Grant, Mike Zeck and Various. Marvel Comics. $14.99
One of the Essentials volumes priced at $14.99-they've risen to $16.99, still a good value--ESSENTIAL PUNISHER also represents a bit of a break in format, as it collects stories of a character who didn't have or share his own regular book until later. Presumably, its appearance now is to take advantage of potential readers who will have seen the upcoming movie.
Frank Castle, The Punisher, is an important Marvel character, and this newsprint time capsule makes for an interesting study of Marvel in the 70s and 80s, as they maintained their popular superheroes while trying to capitalize on pop culture trends. The Punisher is one such attempt, and he's both their most cynical and most successful. This ex-military man sees his wife and children murdered by mobsters, and it causes him to go round the bend, dressing up in a black costume with skull motif and systematically wasting as many criminals as he can find. He's very closely modeled on popular vigilantes of that time like the Charles Bronson character from DEATH WISH and Don Pendleton's MACK BOLAN: THE EXECUTIONER series. He's a stone cold killer with a gun, no super powers at all. Not surprisingly, then, Marvel at first doesn't really know what to do with him, teaming him with wacko supervillain The Jackal until he wises up, in a two-parter from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Writer Conway has the formula down, so that there's enough action and Spidey wisecracks that it's mildly enjoyable, but that enjoyment requires than one can accept Punisher actually giving Spider-Man some difficulty in hand-to-hand combat, and that the Punisher readers know now would never ally himself with a villain like the Jackal. Still, Conway does have the basic gist of the character, as seen in his origin story in the next two-parter in the collection. They're serviceable Spider-Man adventures, with the proviso that Conway is no Stan Lee, and Ross Andru is no Romita or Kane.
One of Marvel's short-lived adult-themed magazines, MARVEL PREVIEW, provides a more sophisticated, and more violent, Conway story, as The Punisher seeks to avenge the death of a friend who had become an assassin. Even better is Archie Goodwin's gritty tale from MARVEL SUPER-ACTION, wherein The Punisher tracks down the mobsters who'd killed his family, and who are now living it up on a small but fortified island. It's very much in the EXECUTIONER mold, taking the character away from the city, but it works very well. While Goodwin has more of a way with words than Conway, they both treat Castle as a man, with sympathies and needs for companionship, less of a killing machine. Both stories feature excellent art from Tony DeZuniga, with ink washes and more detail than readers would find in the monthly superhero comics. They're a couple of the high points of the book
Then it's back to the usual nonsense, with Punisher as second banana in a couple Len Wein-scripted AMAZING SPIDER-MAN two-parters, and they're well within the formula at this point of stretching a one-issue story to two with a silly cliffhanger. Wein works The Punisher in with a silly terrorist front, a costumed hitman called, um, The Hitman, who's an old Army buddy of Punisher's, and even Nightcrawler makes an appearance, not to mention lots of subplots involving J. Jonah Jameson and Harry Osborn slowly developing. The Punisher now often uses rubber bullets, so his whole crusade is preposterous. Also, Wein has an irritating habit of having every male character call other male characters, "my friend." There's also an unintentionally funny scene where The Punisher is driving Spider-Man somewhere in his war wagon, and Spider-Man asks him to dish on his past history with The Hitman, whereupon The Punisher says, "Why NOT? What's past is PAST, isn't it?" This from the living embodiment of not being able to let things go.
There's a bad CAPTAIN AMERICA appearance, and a ridiculous Marv Wolfman/Keith Pollard/Jim Mooney Spider-Man trifle, and then things finally pick up again, with an AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Annual from 1981, written by Dennis O'Neil and with art by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson. This can be seen in color and on better paper in THE COMPLETE FRANK MILLER SPIDER-MAN volume, but that's rather pricey, and Miller/Janson still look great in black-and-white. The story, being an annual, kills a good chunk of time with old shtick like Spidey getting shot by Punisher and worrying he's going to die, before realizing it's them ol' mercy bullets again, and there's the requisite roughing up informants stuff, before Doc Ock takes the stage with a rather harsh scheme for him: he's going to murder five million NYC residents if he doesn't get five million dollars. O'Neil keeps things lively from here on, and wraps up nicely with a good joke on J.J.J., but the art's the star here, specifically Janson's finishes, which show his mastery of every type of line, as well as his effective use of Craft-Tint and dots of Wite-Out for sprays of light.
The fun continues with "Child's Play," a three-issue Miller/Janson DAREDEVIL arc, though it's a bit of a shame they've edited it a bit to focus on The Punisher's role and not the DD subplots. What, we needed the entirety of the budding J.J.J./Marla Madison romance?! The anti-drug story is dated, of course, and even preachy and naïve in parts, but the more realistic, bleaker parts make it work overall.
I remember the PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN issues collected here when they came out, and it was this story that turned me off on The Punisher for a while. Bill Mantlo writes him as a pure psychopath, shooting at jaywalkers and litterers as if they're just as bad as rapists and murderers, and Al Milgrom and Jim Mooney are at the low end of competence. The main guests here are Cloak and Dagger, and while they were never great characters to begin with, Mantlo's writing is irksome. He causes one of those bits of confusion that makes superheroes fight by having it appear to Spider-Man that C&D killed a roomful of junkies. Cloak not only doesn't deny this, he says they got what they deserved, but by the end of the issue they explain themselves, lamenting the lack of mercy shown the addicts, who were shot (by Punisher) with a "powerful, painful sedative." Nothing worse than a merciless, painful sedative.
The Punisher is the villain of this one, and jailed accordingly, which actually works out for the best, as it leaves him in position for Grant's and Zeck's masterful THE PUNISHER five issue miniseries, which closes out this collection. The Punisher in prison, fending off all those who have reason to kill him, like the disfigured Jigsaw, would be story enough for most writers, but Grant gets him out by the end of the first suspenseful issue. The Punisher then agrees to be funded by a mysterious organization called The Trust, who seem to have the same goals. Of course, that's not the case, and one doesn't even need the exotic femme fatale to know there's a double-cross coming, but she's fun anyway, and the vengeance-minded son of a slain mobster is another good subplot. While it's a gripping story of betrayal and revenge, with some terrific work by Zeck and inker John Beatty, Grant does the best job of any Punisher writer in humanizing and deepening the character. The Punisher tries to kill the Kingpin, and though he fails, he takes advantage of the big man's disappearance to claim otherwise, leading to a battle for control of the crime families. But the war gets out of control and innocents are killed, just like The Punisher's family was killed. This is still a unique moment for the character today, as he usually doesn't make any mistakes, or recognize and reflect on the ones he does make. There's a bit of anticlimax in the last chapter, as Grant and Zeck are gone for reasons I don't know, with Jo Duffy stepping in to script and Mike Vosburg penciling. Beatty's inks keep some measure of consistency, but Duffy's dialogue is a little off, and the fact that this is the fifth issue of what was billed as a four issue mini, with the main creators now gone, adds some sort of stink to it. Even so, it's still the best Punisher story in here, and led to the character's final breakout as leading man material in the late 80s.
BE A MAN by Jeffrey Brown. Top Shelf Productions. $3.00
After the achingly sensitive graphic novels CLUMSY and UNLIKELY, Brown tries, in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion, to work against type, with this slim collection of strips in which he reimagines himself as a cold-hearted sex machine, the kind of guy who won't wait by the phone for a girl, and might just tell her to fuck off for not being around when he wants her. One's enjoyment of the book may depend almost completely on knowing that Brown really isn't like the jerk in these strips, unless of course, you're the kind of jerk who does these things. So it's better to look at this as the flipside of the graphic novels, rather than a cheaper introduction to Brown's work or a satisfying unit on its own. It's a very funny book, but only in that context. It's also interesting and encouraging to see that Brown is this self-aware and able to poke fun at himself, while also trying to work against his instincts in order to grow as an artist, and possibly get something out of his system.
BEFORE DAWN by Wesley Craig Green and Jason Whitley. Green Fly Productions. $5.95
As Green writes in his Introduction, this graphic novel is an homage to two horror films influential to him, Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD and Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE. However, while both those films overcome budget restrictions and variable acting with sheer creativity and artistic verve, BEFORE DAWN is merely a pale copy, an agreeable gorefest but lacking in both the "insane genius" Green admires in the filmmakers, nor the basic story apparatus to keep a high level of interest.
The story begins as a contemporary nod to older horror, as a group of friends (their
relationships and personalities are not well defined, but then, most will be dead shortly)
join a female friend, Tabby, who has inherited a spooky old house from her grandfather. She
tells a bizarre childhood story about being called by something to come down into the cellar,
where she finds a strange book written in arcane symbols, before her grandfather rescues her
from whatever hold the book has on her. Sure enough, that night Tabby is summoned again,
with her boyfriend tagging along, and she's instantly transformed into some demon or monster.
The front yard of the house is, conveniently, a graveyard, and soon the dead are on the
move, abruptly changing the story from a haunted house story to a zombie story, with the
remaining two people, the straightforward Sara and naïve, nerdish Eugene, struggling
There are some fun, if confusing, wrinkles to the story, as Tabby turns into some awful creature with leathern wings, which you don't find in your average zombie tale, and there's some hellish Lovecraftian thing that emerges from the ground, perhaps the source of all the evil, and Whitley does a good job depicting it all, with good storytelling and nicely spotted blacks. Who knows how all these things tie together, or how they can be stopped, but it's entertaining enough for a good stretch of the book.
But somewhere a little past the halfway mark, the confusion is distracting. Once the others are killed in gruesome ways, it's just Sara and Eugene fighting to stay alive, scene after scene, with no real plans or moment to rest and let more suspense build or to let them say or do enough so that we'll care about them. Somehow, Sara becomes the cliché damsel in distress, with no ideas of her own, while Eugene becomes a man of action lickety split. For that matter, what does the title have to do with anything? And what's the purpose of the old book, if no one is going to then control these zombies? For $6, it's nothing to get upset over, and the cover is terrific, but the script really needed some more work.
NIGHTJAR #1 by Antony Johnston and Max Fiumara. Avatar Press. $3.50
Johnston and Fiumara pick up the pieces of an age-old Alan Moore/Bryan Talbot project that only saw the completion of one short introductory installment with what appears to be an ongoing series. In other words, after dutifully adapting completed Moore stories, lyrics and such, Johnston gets the opportunity to run with the concept and not only bring Moore's vision to life again, but hopefully insert more of his own ideas as well.
So far, so good. We're introduced to a young woman-a sorceress, Mirrigan Demdyke-who is following in her slain father's footsteps, he having been a sorcerer of some note called The King of Birds. She's out to solve his murder, and so naturally, this will likely bring up his old enemies, some secrets about him she didn't know, and perhaps someone she thought was an ally is really the one who betrayed him. Those are just guesses, I'm afraid, as Johnston has taken the approach of throwing a lot of short, mysterious scenes-o'-portent in the book that will no doubt make sense later, when we know the players. It's done well, actually, as I like to feel from the start that there's a lot going on in a book, but it isn't that easy to remember it after reading.
Fiumara is a good find for Avatar, and his illustration of a spooky, thorny forest is excellent, though some of the interiors in other scenes lack detail. He isn't completely consistent in the posing of figures, but there's an appealing, Windsor-Smith quality to the facial shapes. All in all, a pretty strong start.
COMIC BOOK ARTIST VOL. 2 #3 Edited by Jon B. Cooke. Top Shelf Productions. $7.50
I was a little low on spending money when this issue came out last week, but between picking this up or two or three of my regular superhero titles, there was no question. The reason for this, aside from the fact CBA is a reliably good magazine, is that Darwyn Cooke was the feature interview. Cooke has been wowing me ever since BATMAN: EGO, and it's a treat to finally get into his background, influences, approach-all the areas one would look for. Editor Cooke handles the interview himself, and as often happens, it's a warm, engaging conversation, letting the reader know quite a bit about both Cookes. Darwyn Cooke is a bit of a rarity, in that he had a whole other career or three in other fields (animation, magazine publishing, advertising) before making it in comics. Thus, while he's very opinionated, he's coming from a wider background of accomplishment and experience than the average hot young flavor of the month. Fans of DC: THE NEW FRONTIER won't really learn any dirt, but will get the genesis of the project and some of the machinations it went through, as well as read Cooke gush over one of the most significant figures at DC Comics in the past couple decades, editor and Art Director Mark Chiarello. Chiarello is also interviewed, as are top-notch colorist Dave Stewart, and Fantagraphics co-publisher Gary Groth talks up THE COMPLETE PEANUTS. Add the glossy, full color Cooke art section and it's well worth the seven-fifty.
MOTHER, COME HOME by Paul Hornschemeier. Dark Horse Comics. $14.95
Hornschemeier has been talked up, from the beginning of his now-defunct SEQUENTIAL series, as the "next Chris Ware", due not so much to a resemblance in artistic style-they like a clean line and similar color schemes and that's about it-but for a similar methodical, painstaking approach to this art, and similar themes of loneliness and isolation.
In this graphic novel, collecting FORLORN FUNNIES #2-4, a woman's suicide wreaks havoc on the husband and young son she leaves behind. It's narrated by the son, who, as children will do, struggles to keep order in his life, continuing to tend his mother's plants. He usually wears a Halloween lion mask over his face, but indeed his real face is a mask as well, as he has yet to let his emotions out.
The father, a professor and unlikely bestselling nonfiction writer of a tome on logic, is ironically faced with a tragedy that knows no logic, or at least it's something he did not predict. He's even more shut down emotionally than his son, almost catatonic, and much of the time we see him in floating in some dream state of despair, avoiding nameless, faceless terrors trying to drown him.
This is not a tale of darkness turning to light, and Hornschemeier shows guts for the direction it takes, which works well. He's extremely effective with the son, Thomas', voice, who is narrating as a grown man now but still obviously haunted by the events. There's a quality of quiet, pained detachment that's reminiscent of Rick Moody's writing.
Hornschemeier falters a bit in the pacing, using some repetition and arch design details when he could have worked just a little harder at building up to the conclusion, but it's a minor complaint. The artistry is stunning and the story is poignant, marking him as a major talent to watch.
SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR by Alan Moore, Joe Bennett, Rick Veitch, Gil Kane and Various. $26.95
For a period of the early-to-mid-90s, Alan Moore was relatively inactive in comics, working intensely on his novel THE VOICE OF THE FIRE, sworn off working for DC Comics and Marvel Comics as well, due to two different offenses. But he hadn't lost his love for writing comics, and probably was looking for lighter work after the novel, so the success of new publisher Image Comics was good timing for him. The superstar artists who had formed the company were none of them particularly acclaimed writers, nor did they have a lot of time for it with all the art they had to produce and business decisions to make. The prolific Moore took several assignments and probably successfully pitched others, and soon he had written some SPAWN and YOUNGBLOOD related miniseries, as well as taking on the monthly WILDC.A.T.S book. His work on that series is good, intelligent superhero comics, worth seeking out, but it was his work on SUPREME, briefly at Image and then moving to Awesome Comics, that is arguably more interesting.
SUPREME: THE RETURN by Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse, Rick Veitch, Matt Smith, Jim Starlin, Ian Churchill, Rob Liefeld and Various. $24.95
JUDGMENT DAY by Alan Moore, Rob Liefeld and Various. $16.95. All Checker Book Publishing Group.
Maximum Press/Awesome Comics began essentially when Image co-founder Rob Liefeld was ousted from the group, one of the reasons given was that he was already using Image talent for his own imprint, anyway, so they were being paid from the Image till instead of Rob's. Supreme was, for its first eighteen issues, merely a more violent, but very obvious, ripoff of Superman. Moore came to the character with a different plan, wanting to restore the sense of wonder to 90s superhero comics that had delighted him as a child reading 60s superhero comics. Much of that sense of wonder could be found in the 50s and early 60s Superman titles, with their time travel and aliens and endless varieties of Kryptonite. So, Moore's mission was twofold: to make this blank Superman knockoff interesting and different enough to stand up on his own two feet, and to mix in the contemporary superheroics with some short stories that attempt to recall the innocent thrills of those Silver Age Superman stories.
In THE STORY OF THE YEAR, Moore gets started on both goals right away, giving Supreme and instant history and structuring the story as a "three-part novel", which was how Silver Age comic books used to format their full-issue stories back then. Supreme is revealed to be part of "The Supremacy", which is an idea and a place containing all the past versions of the character, each arriving on this world the moment they are written out of history by some capricious aliens who control such things. Of course, most readers will instantly get that Moore is writing some delicious metafiction here, referring to the endless revamps and "new directions" corporate superheroes undergo in their careers. There's the Golden Age "Original Supreme", drawn in a Joe Schuster style; there's a jive-talkin' African-American woman Supreme, a future version (Supremax), etc. Joe Bennett is and was merely a competent artist, but he works hard for Moore with decent character designs, and a good shot of the city.
Every good hero needs a good villain, and so we have Supreme's own Lex Luthor, Darius Dax, who also exists in nearly all the same realities as Supreme. There's a Supergirl type, Suprema, and even a caped dog, Radar. Moore has a ball coming up with clever, though sometimes slight, variations on Superman's shtick, with the Fortress of Solitude becoming the Citadel Supreme, Kryptonite becoming Supremium, and more. There's even a kind of "Reverse Flash" named Emerpus, who is Supreme's opposite, and depicted as a negative image. Throughout the series, Moore indulges himself with flashback stories in every issue, almost all illustrated with a sure hand and a loving feel for the era by Rick Veitch. Coming up with a good six-page short is really just as tough as writing a twenty-two pager, so while the inspirations for the characters are obvious, credit to Moore for adding a lot of value, effort and fun to the issues.
Still, if it was just a retro homage/spoof, a la Moore's own 1963 miniseries, it would be an enjoyable but somewhat hollow exercise. Thankfully, Moore does make an effort to turn Supreme and his alter ego, Ethan, into worthwhile characters. He doesn't do anything suprising, really-Ethan is a nice guy touchingly unsure of himself around women, particularly a coworker, Diana Dane. Unlike Lois Lane, Diana is not pushy, though her line of work also pushes her uncomfortably close to Ethan's secret identity. She's a comic book writer; he's a comic book artist, and he admits to knowing Supreme. This is a fun choice of occupations, as Moore then gets to express what he dislikes about the state of the industry circa 1997, with the heroes being made as dark and bloodthirsty as the villains, the magic of the characters taken away from children and remade as something less, appealing only to the aging, hardcore fanbase. It's even more enjoyable when one realizes that Image and Awesome-Liefeld himself-were some of the culprits. In contrast to hot writer Billy Friday-the Jimmy Olsen lookalike at the same comics company who puts the character of Omniman through a number of 90s-style grim-n-gritty machinations-Diana is simpatico with Ethan, wanting to preserve the heroism and essential goodness of superheroes but still treat them seriously, still try to make them grow. Moore's revenge at what's happened to superhero comics is to put Friday through the kinds of dark tortures typical of many of the popular British comics writers of the time.
Bennett doesn't last very long, actually, but he's replaced by a number of fill-in artists for an issue or two who aren't that different. It's not until issue #50 when Chris Sprouse steps in, instantly demonstrating what the book could and should look like. At least up to this point, Veitch's flashback stories are always delightful, and he shows he not only does good Golden and Silver Age Superman imitations, but there's also an affectionate tribute to Jim Starlin's cosmic comics of the 70s.
The art returns to mediocrity in the modern stories for the rest of the volume, but at least the story picks up steam with the clever return of Darius Dax and the release of Supreme's other enemies.
THE RETURN actually collects the last four issues of SUPREME, then the six issues of SUPREME: THE RETURN. The reason for two series is that after #56, Awesome didn't have the money to continue for over a year, returning in May of 1999. Moore's scripts were already completed and some artwork as well, but it would take until June of 2000 for the series to finish. Now that the lengthy STORY OF THE YEAR is concluded and all the players are established, Moore shifts his focus for shorter stories and stories focusing on other characters besides Supreme. #54 finds the fictional Omniman made flesh, battling with Supreme as the result of Szazs, an otherdimensional imp much like Mr. Mxyzptlk from the Superman books. Moore then resolves the fate of Judy Jordan, Ethan's first love, a tragic casualty of Darius Dax until Supreme reanimates her as a Suprematon, one of the robots who guard the Citadel. It's a nice story, as she has to come to grips with this non-life, and Supreme is as fallible as anyone, coming up with the best solution he can, but it's not good enough, at least until she finds love with S-1, the most soulful Suprematon, the one most like her love, Supreme. They go off to make a new world for themselves.
Then, after an enjoyable altered history story, it's on to round up the other foes for several issues, The Televillain, Optilux, Slaver Ant and Korgo. Moore dates the book a bit for the Korgo story, and sacrifices the story for a cheap shot, but it's a pretty funny one: Korgo (a Genghis Khan type) takes over the White House and takes Hillary Clinton for his wife, only to quietly beg Supreme to punch him out and take him back to prison, as he can't bear here ("Gods, I thought I was ruthless!"). Sprouse does excellent renditions of the President and First Lady, and his Supreme is, well, supreme, bulky but not overly muscled.
That would be his last issue, other than what appears to be a hastily drawn two pages, though, as the rest of THE RETURN is filled out with other artists of varying degrees of ability. Jim Starlin does a full issue, a smart and very funny Darius Dax story, wherein Dax encounters Daxia, a villain's version of The Supremacy, with the counterparts to all the heroes seen in #41. With this new knowledge, Dax realizes he may not be unique, but he's encouraged by the fact that his conflict with Supreme is destined, perhaps a necessary part of every reality.
Matt Smith draws two issues, one a kind of spoof of Batman and Robin, only set in a world of light, kind of Moore's take on the bottle city of Kandor. It's amusing, but the issue is more notable for Veitch's Kirbyesque flashback story, and a few pages back in the Supremacy, though Jim Baikie is not well suited for straight superheroics, or the romance involved in the scene, for that matter. Romance of a different kind occurs in the next issue-one of the best stories-as Radar longs to feel the kind of love blossoming between Supreme and Diana Dane (who discovered he was Ethan), and goes for a fling supreme of just a few seconds, during which he impregnates hundreds of dogs. It's silly in a Silver Age sense, but of course the subject is adult, and Moore is able to even get a poignant moment out of it, writing Radar with more dimension than many writers are able to with their human characters.
The final two issues are a mixed blessing, crystallizing the best and worst of the series. "The Return of the Supremium Man" is a smart story, tying up Darius Dax and Billy Friday plot threads as well as fitting very well with the flashback story drawn by Veitch, but Ian Churchill is just a wrong choice as artist. His Supreme, and everyone else, is insanely overrendered, and only makes the elegance and simplicity of Sprouse and Veitch more evident. Then, the series concludes, appropriately enough, with "New Jack City" which is not much of a story, but is a warm, issue-long tribute to the imagination of the late Jack "King" Kirby. Veitch draws everything except Supreme, as Liefeld insisted on doing this. Consequently, there's an odd contrast in styles on every page, but it must be said this is one of Liefeld's better efforts, as he doesn't have to do anything but draw Supreme floating or standing around. He clearly has studied Sprouse, for the face and hairline are more like Sprouse's rendition than the way Liefeld drew the character before.
Moore essentially just has Supreme land on a strange world and encounter imitations of famous Kirby creations, from the Newsboy Legion to Guardian to Doctor Doom and one of those crazy monsters from Marvel's monster comics. Then there's a Sgt. Fury and Fighting American imitation, some Kirby Krackle, and it's on to the Fourth World saga and something like Asgard. It's when Supreme meets the "King" that he gets to talk explicitly about his pet theory of "Idea Space", though this was already basically explored throughout the series. Kirby is described as an "Imagineer", a guy who commuted to Idea Space every day, farming the space for produce (characters, concepts) for others to consume (the company, the readers). Veitch has in this story one of his finest showcases as an artist, constantly changing the giant head of Kirby from human into one of many distinctive Kirby artistic effects, such as the crackle, the bust of white-hot power, the inventive mechanical constructs. The story is both a tribute to Kirby's artistry and a hopeful eulogy, imagining that after shuffling off his mortal coil, Kirby is now free to create without stopping, without the limitations of an aging body. Though Kirby's experience with the Superman mythos was brief and not part of the elements that show up as prime influences in SUPREME, the quality of the tribute precludes any complaint about where it's found. It's a fitting end to an imperfect but often quite rewarding book, a valid and mostly successful attempt at bringing back the magic to superheroes.
JUDGMENT DAY was a miniseries uniting the various Awesome Comics characters, but focusing mostly on the team Youngblood, as one of their members is murdered, with another teammate looking like the guilty party. It's a curious affair, trying to make courtroom drama work in comics, and with Liefeld as the main artist, Moore has a tough time of it. Wisely, he gets out of the courtroom (a converted stadium at Supreme's Citadel, not that you'd know it from Liefeld's lack of backgrounds) frequently, employing a number of better artists like Gil Kane, Sprouse, Veitch, Starlin and others from the Awesome stable not so much better than Liefeld, for short pastiches of Western, sword-and-sandal and other genres. These are not mere indulgent filler, but actually build up a history of the magical book at the heart of the murder, the somehow-brilliant lawyer and former sidekick "Skipper" connecting the dots across the centuries to expose the real killer, another Youngblood member. Helpfully, Checker just goes ahead and shows the guy's face on the back cover and in the Table of Contents.
Moore has spoken of his frustration with the project recently, in THE EXTRAORDINARY WORKS
OF ALAN MOORE --TwoMorrows). He did his best, but was hampered by Liefeld choosing to take every artistic shortcut possible, unless he was drawing, say, Savage Dragon's muscles or something. Moore does an adequate job with the various characters featured, actually making Die Hard kind of interesting, and he treats them with more respect than many of them deserved, but there's not a whole lot holding this story together. Actually, it's not very dramatic, and that's not merely due to Liefeld, but because we're not made to care about either the accused, Knightsabre, nor the victim, Riptide. And the magic book thing is a little silly as well, but points to Moore for making it the cause of the grim and gritty 90s, as the murdering faux-hero changed the times to suit his dark impulses. That's a clever bit, and it's not a terrible book, but hardly essential.
A few random notes about the packaging and production. The first printing of THE STORY OF THE YEAR came out poorly, enough so that Checker offered to replace them to unsatisfied customers. That seems to have been mostly rectified, though both volumes show some signs of poor scanning, with the coloring of the modern era parts of some issues muted and grainy, often in the Chris Sprouse issues for whatever reason. They still look okay, just not their best, and I don't have the original issues to compare them to. As for the packaging, it's okay-a good choice to use all-white covers-but it's unfortunate that both books insist on showing ugly Liefeld renditions of Supreme on their back covers. He didn't even draw any of the first book. Maybe it's a contractual issue, as the back cover bio is also somewhat laughable, touting long-forgotten junk like COVEN and KABOOM as having blown fans away. The use of Alex Ross art for the covers and chapter breaks is more appropriate, as he's a good artist, but I can't say his rendition of Supreme as balding wrestling coach really works for me. Shame Sprouse and Veitch weren't represented at all. JUDGMENT DAY has a confusing geometric design element on its cover, it's too dark, and Liefeld drew it, so no points there, though admittedly it's better that his art is obscured by darkness.
Next Time: What next time? Isn't that enough for you people? Moore, Hornschemeier, Cooke, Schulz, Swain and um, Conway? You want more than that? Well, to tell you the truth, I'm going to be taking at least a month off, for personal reasons. I won't even be checking email (no, I'm not honeymooning with Chris Ryall, but congratulations, buddy!), but will be reading a lot, so feel free to mail stuff if you don't necessarily need it reviewed immediately.
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