Monday, December 15, 2014

Black Science, Volume 1: How to Fall Forever

Black Science is at once familiar and compelling. After reading it, I found myself grasping to make analogies to describe it, and here are some of them:
  • Like Venture Brothers, only with dimension travel and played seriously.
  • Like Lost in Space, only darker and with alternate worlds.
  • Like John Carter, only with a family and lab partners and crossing over multiple worlds.
  • Like Dr. Who, but American, with corporate dynamics of Avatar.
  • Like Jumper, with a family, but I have not seen that movie so I can't really do much more contrasting.
What I can say though, is that this series is intriguing and fun, and although it may seem reminiscent of some other media, I did not feel it was derivative. And moreover, the parts I felt were reminiscent of other works were parts I found appealing and enjoyable. This book is an enjoyable bunch of sci-fi adventure.

The basic elements of the story are these: Dr. Grant McKay, a brilliant, pretty unlikeable, and self-centered scientist invents a "Pillar" that allows people to jump through dimensions. His funder, Kadir, is extremely shifty, manipulative, and controlling. On the day that they were to test the pillar, something goes wrong. Grant, Kadir, Grant's wife and collaborator Jen, Sara (an assistant who is having an affair with Grant), Ward (the chief of security), Shawn (a younger male assistant), Chandra (Kadir's sycophantic assistant), and Grant's two children, Pia and Nate (a teen and a tween) are transported to another world. The Pillar is broken and just keeps launching them into different dimensions on a uncontrollable timer. Making matters worse, there are a lot of competing interests among the cast, and some characters have vendettas to sabotage others.

Like the cast, most of the worlds in this story thus far are pretty hostile, inhabited by frog people who look like they were genetically engineered by Frank Frazetta, tribal people who wear futuristic bird-armor, trench warriors who look like they are still fighting World War I, and giant macaques. If the constant jumping, reorienting, in-fighting, and struggling to survive were not enough under these conditions, there are also a couple of people who seem to be aware of what's going on, and who seem to be jumpers themselves, in pursuit of this band of adventurers. Clearly, the plot has a lot going on, but I think that is what makes this series so interesting.

This series was created by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera, and Dean White. Remender is a writer known for his varied original series Fear Agent, Last Days of American Crime, Strange Girl, and The End League. His work seems ubiquitous today, as he has a long list of credits at Marvel and is currently writing their crossover series Axis, which spawned from his prior work on Uncanny Avengers. Scalera has drawn a number of comics for different companies, most notably runs on Secret Avengers and Deadpool for Marvel. His artwork is very kinetic and sketchy, almost cartoonish, in places, and I think it well portrays movement and emotions. White provides the colors, and his work adds depth and a painterly quality, which make most pages appear like the beautiful, old pulp covers. He also has a long list of comics credits, many of them at Marvel.

Most of the reviews I have read praise this series for its combination of sci-fi and pulp elements. And I have to say I agree with the majority of them. I found the story quite compelling, with lots of cliffhangers and jarring plot twists. The character dynamics are a big part of the appeal, because the disparate players all have different motivations and lengths they will go to, which keeps things fresh and fluid. But don't just take my word for it: Derek Royal wrote, "If you like your science fiction “hard,” and you appreciate a bit of the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, then Black Science is the series for you." Keith Dooley summed up his review simply, "it’s just plain fun."

Black Science is published by Image Comics. They have previews and more information about the entire series (currently at issue #11) here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kill My Mother

Jules Feiffer cuts a large figure in the world of comics. He was an apprentice to Will Eisner in the 1940s, a time when comics were in a nascent state. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoon work, all but created the genre of alt-weekly comics with his work for The Village Voice, was a comics historian, wrote the screenplay for the classic film Carnal Knowledge, and illustrated classic books like The Phantom Tollbooth. But until now, he had not written or drawn a graphic novel.
And this is some debut. It has lots of elements of 1940s noir films, which I guess should not be a surprise as the book is dedicated in part to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks. It stars the prerequisite private detective, though he is pretty much useless, a drunken lout who tries to be a womanizer and who seems to enjoy wearing women's panties. The folks who actually do things are all women, and what roles they play. There is Elsie, a young widow who decides to work as a secretary for a PI so she can investigate her policeman husband's murder. There is her daughter, Annie, who resents her absent mother while bossing around her friend Artie. There is a mysterious blond who hires the PI to find a tall, blond woman whom she resembles.

And of course, this being a noir tale, there are lots of scenes in seedy place like apartment buildings, smoke filled cabarets, and boxing matches.
 
The story is split into two parts, one in 1933 in Bay City, and the other in 1943 in Hollywood, where we see what has transpired in ten years. The tone of the second half is much different, as we see the movers and shakers behind movies, radio programs, and USO tours. Their world may seem cleaner and more civilized, but there are still bitter undercurrents of jealousy, greed, and potential murder. It is like having a movie and its sequel in one work, and I think that this graphic novel works extremely well in terms of its narrative. In fact, I think this is a book with all kinds of details that demands to be read and then re-read.
Part of what makes the story interesting is how it is laid out. I think that the panels (and at times, lack of panels) are constructed in interesting and fluid ways. There is something experimental about them in how they attempt to track how readers' eyes will move across pages. The sketchiness of those movements are a strength but also sometimes a detriment. The biggest issue I had with this book was that some of the characters look alike, but that seems partly the purpose in a book about changing societal roles and shifting identities.

Feiffer makes a great hash from his many influences, including dimestore novels, old comic strips, and noir films, as well as his years spent as Will Eisner's apprentice. This book is sort of a paean to those modes of telling stories, but it is also a commentary and critique of them, playing with their conventions and making something vital. The story is entrancing, and the artwork is provocative, ranging from paneled scenes to full page splashes that are surprising effecting and poignant. You can read more about Feiffer's influences and choices for making this book in this profile.

All the reviews I have read about this book regard it as a work to be reckoned with, even if they were not always uniformly positive. In the New York Times Sunday Book Review Laura Lippman called it "terrific" and wrote that it was "a thoughtful meditation on female identity and whether the not-so-simple art of murder can ever be defended as a moral necessity." Alan Cheuse called it "a darkly drawn confection." Dash Shaw was more critical of the book's layouts, calling them "herky-jerky" and summing up his review, "It looks like it was fun for him to make. I wish it was fun for me to read."

Kill My Mother was published by W.W. Norton & Company, and they provide a link to previews and more here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Rocket Girl, Volume 1: Times Squared

Sometimes I buy a book because its topic interests me, or I like the creators' work, or it's part of a series. And sometimes I buy a book just because it looks so beautiful. That was the case with this particular book, a trade paperback collection of the first 5 issues of the comic book series. I had no idea what Rocket Girl was about or who made it, but I knew it looked great. I am also happy to report that it read very well and that I enjoyed it very much.

The plot revolves around time travel. Dayoung Johansson, aka Rocket Girl, is a 15-year-old police officer from the future year of 2013 where flying cars and jetpacks are typical modes of transportation. If you are at all aware of reality you realize that there is a lot off in that last sentence, as we don't have those kinds of vehicles or law officers. The issue seems to be based in Quintim Mechanics, a corporation that is so large that it runs the government in 2013, but in a clandestine way, because no one seems to know who its board of directors are. In 1986, where the bulk of this story happens, QM is a research operation that makes a device that brings Rocket Girl back to past but blows up in the process. It seems hardly a threat, made up of a ragtag band of researchers, scientists, and graduate students.

I will be honest: the plot was good enough to sustain my interest and keep me wanting more, part fish-out-of-water story about a future traveler trying to adjust to the past/part mystery about what happened to make such a future occur. By the end of the book, I was left wanting to read more and looking forward to volume 2, but the plot is not the main star here. Just look at this 3-page sequence and you'll see what I am talking about:
I loved the energy and dynamism in the layouts, the expressive lines and vibrant colors, and I could luxuriate in those images for a while. I love that the protagonist looks like an athletic teenager and is not overly sexualized. I like that the art is a sort of modern take on the European comics artists I saw featured in 1970s and 1980s Heavy Metal magazines. Pretty much the worst thing I can say about the art is that 1986 New York City is not depicted in gritty enough fashion. It was a rougher city back then, with a lot more sleazy elements, and the day-glo images above make it look pretty clean. But that is a teeny tiny quibble.

This is the second book from these creators, the first being Halloween Eve. The art is by Amy Reeder, a multiple Eisner Award nominee whose past works include the manga Fool's Gold as well as runs on DC Comics' Madame Xanadu and Batwoman titles. The story is by Brandon Montclare, who has worked as an editor for a large number of DC Comics and Vertigo titles in addition to his writing a handful of individual issues and limited series for Image, DC, Marvel Comics, and TokyoPop. Both creators speak extensively about this book and series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this volume have applauded it. NPR's Etelka Lehoczky gave it praise, "There are all kinds of wonderful plot and character points in Rocket Girl, not to mention the sound effects." Niko Silvester called it "an appealing mix of elements with a definite tongue-in-cheek accent." Paul Fiander wrote, "From a vague beginning Rocket Girl has developed into a fun time traveling romp."

Rocket Girl: Times Squared was published by Image Comics, and they have a preview and much more available here.



Sunday, November 30, 2014

Twelve Gems

When I was a kid, I got into a few comic books, like The Amazing Spider-Man, The New Teen Titans, Mad magazine, and various Archie titles, because I liked reading adventures and parodies. It was not until later that I found something "deeper" from reading comic books, and the first titles that really gripped me in a meaningful way were cosmic odysseys by Jim Starlin, notably his Adam Warlock and Captain Marvel runs. Those comics were the gateways for me into reading more into my comics and opening up my mind to the possibilities for more philosophical or metaphysical narratives. Those comics also built on a tradition at Marvel Comics that has recently been embodied in the movies with the extremely popular film, The Guardians of the Galaxy: the epic space opera.

Now I bring these all up not just because I am a nostalgic old fogey but also to talk about what today's entry made me think and feel as I read it. Twelve Gems is a classic space opera done in a black and white style with lots of cross-hatching. I felt a lot like I did in reading fantastic space stories of my childhood, and the frank and blunt attributes of the story and artwork also harkened back to a child-like sense of storytelling where anything was possible but things were also tethered to a familiar framework. I don't mean that in a bad way, like this book is childish, because I do not think that is entirely true. I think my reaction to it borders on my wondering if it is meant as a sort of parody.  For instance, the stock, stereotypical characters seem to be crying out to be analyzed as commentary about genre comics. But the book's earnest storytelling and detailed artwork do not betray as much as a wink to the audience. All of this meandering thought is to say that I do not know much about what to make of this book but to say that I really enjoyed reading and re-reading it.

The plot is a simple one. A motley band of space folk are joined together in a common quest, hired to find twelve space gems for an eccentric scientist. Dr. Z wants them to animate a female robot, which seems to be an unrequited love object. But there may be something more sinister to his intentions. The band of space explorers is a trio:
Dogstar is a winged dog who can talk, repair anything, and fly spaceships. He's shy and very resourceful. Of course, he has a crush on...
Venus, a buxom space warrior who wears a slinky outfit and is tough as nails.
The third member of their band is a porcine, hulking, hairy, violent fellow named Furz, who is a criminal wanted for multiple crimes. Maybe his name should have been "Ham Solo" (sorry I could not resist). Together, the trio embarks on their voyage and come into contact with friends, foes, killer robots, many-eyed beasts, and lots of other strange characters. Also, interspersed in the action are lots of double page spreads that are pretty and lend an epic view of our heroes, if they do not really advance the plot much.
This book is the product of Lane Milburn, a comics creator who has published the Xeric Grant winning graphic novel Death Trap and the mini-comic The Mage's Tower. Milburn speaks more about his work on this book in this interview.

Reviews I have read of this book are varied, though they tend to be positive. Ben Humeniuk wrote about it, "There’s a surreal, Adult Swim quality to some of the gags, and the combat is no holds-barred. We’ve got blood. Punches. Explosions. Laughs. It’s episodic, earnest, and it’s totally a riot." Hillary Brown offered a conflicted view, writing that "sometimes the amateurness of the execution (the Napoleon Dynamite-like shading, the clunkiness of the plot, the extreme weirdness of the third act) is strangely charming, but it mostly illicits confusion and questions like 'Am I missing something?' Perhaps, but it may not be worth the effort to discover what that something is." Alger C. Newberry III offered this as his final verdict: "A valuable gem to add to any collection focusing on independent comics and alternative storytelling with its avant-garde narrative voice, classical art style, and brilliantly paced sense of adventure."

As you can see from the reviews, individual mileage may vary, but I enjoyed reading Twelve Gems very much.

Twelve Gems was published by Fantagraphics Books, and they provide a preview and more information here.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bumperhead


Last year, the prolific and legendary Gilbert Hernandez impressed with his semi-autobiographical exploration of childhood, Marble Season. This year, he follows up that book with his second one published by Drawn & Quarterly, Bumperhead. If Marble Season was about childhood, then Bumperhead appears to be about adolescence. The main narrative here follows the titular Bumperhead, who's really named Bobby, during five different periods of his life, which are defined by his musical choices and relationships. Interestingly, the book seems to start in the 1970s, but it really seems to exist in a strange state where each section happens in the exact same time period even though they depict very different portions of Bobby's life. It is as if time has collapsed into itself and all things happen simultaneously, and I felt it was a great way to think about the function and impact of memory on our lives.

In the first part, Bobby is a young boy who is teased because of his noggin. We meet his parents, his Spanish-speaking dad who cannot really communicate well in the US and his chain-smoking and detached mother. We also meet his friends, including his buddy Lalo who has a magical object that lets him see the future. Bobby is interested in certain girls he knows, but he is too shy to do anything.
He is also menaced by an ominous and horribly human-looking sky.
Over the course of the later chapters, Bobby and his friends age, horse around, and experiment with music and substances. Bobby begins to find it easy to talk to girls, and he passes in and out of relationships with several. He gets into glam artists like Mott the Hoople and Gary Glitter for a while, gets into a harder rock phase where he idolizes Alice Cooper and The Ramones, and settles into the raucous punk scene where he listens to groups like The Sex Pistols and The Germs. His musical tastes are part of his metamorphosing identity, and much of the book looks at how he fits into the world, how his family life radically transforms, and how religion fits into everything. Even though it seems to be the deceptively simple story of a life, and Bobby's tale takes on a sort of mythic or magical kind of status. In the end this is a book about a mundane life, the universe, and everything.
All of the reviews I have read of this book have been full of praise. The Onion A.V. Club's Oliver Sava called it "an engaging, immensely rewarding story about the nature of time and reclaiming the present from a tortured past." In The Comics Journal Richard Gehr opined, "Bumperhead finds Hernandez at his most humane and personal." Emily Temple lauded its "frantic" storytelling, commenting that "it reads like how memory feels: you get it in snatches, in patterns, in moments of glory or pain." Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, advising readers, "Do not miss this delicate, heartbreaking masterpiece."

Hernandez sheds more light on the origins and autobiographical aspects of the book in this interview.

Bumperhead was published by Drawn & Quarterly, and they provide an excerpt, reviews, and more here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Terra Tempo, Volume 3: The Academy of Planetary Evolution

Imagine you were a student in a selective class where you could study natural history by actually traveling through time. Where you could hear lectures about whales from Herman Melville, from Andrew Carnegie about the evolution of the horse in North America, from Annie Montague Alexander on paleontology, and from Alfred Russel Wallace on mammalian evolution. That is the premise of this book, The Academy of Planetary Evolution, the third entry in a series of Terra Tempo titles. I must admit I have not read the earlier titles in the series, but if they are anything like I've seen in this book, they are also very worthwhile reading that can enliven any science class or be of interest to a science-minded reader.

The focal point of this book, and the series are three children from Oregon, Ari, Jenna, and Caleb. Ari seems to be the ringleader, and he possesses a map of geologic time he found on one of his earlier journeys. Joining their clique in this book are Annie, who is from Berkley, California where her mom works as a professor, and Mara, a girl from West Virginia who has more economic interests than the others and who is quite interested in the potential windfalls of fracking. Of course, this is a contemporary issue where there is continual debate on whether it is harmful for the environment or not (disclaimer: I do not know if it is much of a debate in terms of the science. Most of what I have read is about how dangerous it is).
The inclusion of Mara in this group introduces some tension, because she and Ari are constantly trying to demonstrate just how much smarter each is over the other. Also, there is a move toward a more nuanced debate over issues of how much development humans should undertake with nature. Mara is not entirely unsympathetic, but in the end I think the debate presented here is pretty one-sided. Most of the scientists and naturalists the group encounters are interested in peer-reviewed, open access work, but there is a mustachioed, villainous figure, Seth Wilson who you can see in that crystal ball scene above. He tries to take the map from Ari, and he has been chasing these kids for a while now. Here, we learn that he is trying to recruit talent from the Academy for the seemingly innocuous company Resource and Energy Development, Inc. Thus, potentially anti-environmental business interests become associated with this nefarious character, and it's hard to find a reason to stand with his reasoning.

This is not to say that I think this book is entirely a leftist piece of propaganda. Andrew Carnegie was one of the wealthiest businessmen in the world and here he is portrayed rather positively. I think the overall message, which is particularly hammered home in the ending, is for there to be open and honest debate based on scientific facts and foresight, not simply based on economic interests.
One area I feel that this book really shined was in its artwork. It is somewhat sketchy and cartoonish at times, bringing energy to the proceedings. The coloring is done to great effect, and in particular the naturalistic scenes where the characters travel back in time, such as the one above, are fantastic. Those scenes are so lush and detailed that I really bought that these characters were transported to other epochs and eras. There were a few sequences where I felt the exposition took over a little too much from the artwork, but for the most part this book succeeds in storytelling with its action and naturalistic sequences.

This book is a collaboration between writer David R. Shapiro and artist Christopher Herndon. Shapiro is a business developer, author, and the founder and driving force behind Craigmore Creations. I am unaware of any other comics work Herndon has published, but he has illustrated a number of children's books. Also, he has awesome facial hair and shares a lot of fun pictures on his blog.

There were not many reviews of this book I could find online, but the ones I did read were positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "edifying and entertaining" and stated that it is "recommended for serious dinosaur aficionados looking for scholarly, in-depth information." Katie Cardwell wrote that the series "takes concepts which could be considered dull when read in a textbook and brings them to life in a full color graphic novel that will keep audience’s attention without question." In addition these reviews also remark on the usefulness of the academic features, which include a set of maps, bios, and a glossary.

The Academy of Planetary Evolution was published by Craigmore Creations. They have a preview and much more information about the book here

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Thank you, whoever chose to send it to me!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood

If you have read my other reviews of books in this series, you may remember that I feel they may be the best historical graphic novels I have ever read. The facts and events are very well researched, but more importantly they are presented in a most readable and enjoyable way. Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales are among the most engaging and interesting books I have ever read. So, does this book keep that spotless record intact?

In a word, YES. I thought that this book was most impressive, in that it packed a complete war account into a small space while also creating thrills, showing horrors, and cracking a couple of jokes. Here is the set-up:

And he is correct; this is not a pretty story. It's full of massive casualties, cruelties, and military mayhem. Although the artwork never gets explicit or shows gore, it does show just how brutal and unconscionable the destruction of World War I was. It also tells a very broad story, but not without some specific details included, like the story of Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon that saved 200 lives, and an account of the development of the tank, which was first used in this war to counter trench warfare.

Like I said, what is particularly marvelous to me about this book is how much ground it covers. Part of the reason it accomplishes this goal is the excellent and intelligent artwork. Hale chose to portray the combatants as animals, not only for metaphorical reasons but also because those depictions make it much clearer who is who in the conflict. Although the Executioner tries to play the animals for comic effect, they are not very funny (a few clever puns aside). Seeing a bunch of wolves, eagles, griffins, bulldogs, bunnies, and roosters (among others) engaged in war helps communicate situations almost instantly, in much quicker fashion than using elaborate explanation.
Spoiler: The war ends.
The great economy and efficiency of the artwork works like a combination of infographics and politic cartoons, as you can see in the page above. It is pregnant with ideas and implications about what happened at the end of this war and how it forecasted what would precipitate the next world war. That Hale accomplishes so much in such a short space, and for a wide audience of readers at that, is simply amazing.

In addition to creating the first three entries in this series, Nathan Hale also has drawn two other graphic novels, Rapunzel's Revenge and its sequel Calamity Jack. He has also worked on a variety of children's books, including Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody and The Dinosaurs' Night Before Christmas. He shares a lot of fun artwork and news via his blog. He speaks much more about his career and work on this book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read have been very positive. Kirkus Reviews called it "A neatly coherent account with tweaks that allow readers some emotional distance—but not enough to shrug off the war’s devastating cost and world-changing effects." Johanna Draper Carlson praised this entry in a "terrific series" and added, "I really appreciate Nathan Hale’s (the author, not the character, although that applies too) ability to streamline complicated historical events in such readable fashion." Miriam, Age 10 wrote, "This book was interesting and interestingly told, and very entertaining for a history book."

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood was published by Amulet Books. There is a preview available at Amazon. And if you are a fan of this series like I am, there is good news: a fifth book, The Underground Abductor, is on the way!