Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes

Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes was created by the same person who made Mind MGMT, my favorite graphic novel collection from last year. This book is similarly excellent, exploring similar themes about what defines crime and art while spinning a masterfully complex narrative full of quirky details and insanely compelling short tales.

The strange crimes that occur in the town of Red Wheel Barrow are myriad. There is a woman who steals only chairs, a thief who steals artwork so he can cut it into 100 pieces and sell them off individually, a magician who moonlights as a pick-pocket, a struggling author who steals street and building signs so she can create a warehouse-sized novel, and a photographer who creates personal conflicts and then profits from the images of them she captures.
There are two common threads connecting these capers: Detective Gould, who is infinitely perceptive and deductive, and who has never let a case go unsolved, and a mysterious Moriarty-type mastermind who tests him. Gould is a riff on Dick Tracy and named for his creator Chester Gould; he is a super-cop who always gets the culprit. He may have an excellent track record at work, but we catch glimpses into his personal life and see that his work obsessions have created distance at home from his wife, an art gallery owner.
This distance turns out to be a vulnerability where his enemy tests him, and in the process the areas of crime and art are blurred. The main conflict between Gould and his opponent is played out via a series of dialogue pages where the reader does not really know who is speaking. These sequences are text heavy and fraught with philosophical questions.
This existential, multidimensional, detailed, and addictive book was written and drawn by the  prolific Matt Kindt. He has created numerous graphic novels, including Super Spy and Revolver, worked on his own series Mind MGMT, and written a good number of titles at DC Comics, including Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Justice League of America, and Suicide Squad. He also has written a few comic books series at Marvel of late, including Infinity: The Hunt and Marvel Knights: Spider-Man. He has been nominated for multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards. Kindt speaks extensively about his work on Red Handed in this interview.

This book has perhaps been overshadowed by Kindt's many other works, but it has also been praised highly. CBR's Greg Burgas named it his favorite original graphic novel of 2013 and summed it up as "brilliant." NPR's Glen Weldon likened it to a mind trap that "snaps shut on the reader in a way that's ruthless, irrevocable and entirely satisfying." Booklist honored it with a starred review, and Kirkus Reviews called the book "elegant scribbles from an electric mind," "told by way of Socratic dialogue and pulp homage."

Red Handed was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and more information here.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Binky The Space Cat

Binky the Space Cat is the first of a series of books from Kids Can Press, a North American publishing company that specializes in children's books. I read it because my colleague Laura Jimenez recommended it to me, and I also really loved the Scaredy Squirrel books I read from the same publisher. The Binky book is like Scaredy Squirrel's in that they both use lists for comic effect and have a main character with a peculiar character affect. In this case, Binky the cat has a unique and wonderful view of his life. He thinks he is a space traveler who is on Earth to protect his family from alien invaders (we call them bugs).

A lot of the humor comes from his interpretation of mundane happenings, but there is also a strong sense of inventiveness and wonder throughout the book, as well as a bunch of small details that add spice to the narrative. The book is quite charming and fun. Plus, there are numerous fart jokes to liven up the proceedings.
Who doesn't enjoy these?
I decided to check out another of the five books in the series to see if they were all as engaging. I chose this one at random, and it turned out to be the final volume. 
I learned in this book that somewhere along the way Binky added to his cast of characters another cat, Gracie, and a dog, Gordie. This trio of house pets call themselves the space team, and here they have to deal with a dire circumstance. Their humans are going on vacation and leaving them at the local "pet motel" (a.k.a. the vet's office). This causes them not just a little bit of alarm.
The pets come up with a plan to escape, but there are complications and they end up meeting Professor Tuffy, an ex-space pet who is now working with the aliens.
This book was fun and enjoyable, but I liked it less than the first entry. Still, it had lots of interesting takes on ordinary behaviors and events to recommend it. And I think there is enough silliness in the book for it to be appealing and engaging for younger readers.

Ashley Spires wrote and illustrated these books. She has drawn numerous children's books, and been nominated and awarded multiple times for her work. I found her artwork to be fun and attractive and her storytelling to be quite good and clear. I think character work is her forte, and they are imbued with so much energy and personality. She speaks more about her work on the Binky books as well as her new projects in this interview.

From all the online feedback I have seen, these books have been well received. Kirkus Reviews gave the first book a starred review and stated about it that it "will keep readers of all ages giggling, whether they’re cat lovers or not." They wrote about the other volume, "Binky’s fifth and final adventure has all his trademarks: sly humor, a little slapstick, self-aggrandizing misunderstanding of human doings and, of course, space gas (poot)."

I guess now I'll have to hunt down those middle three books so I know what else Binky got himself into...

Here is a link to the general Binky page at Kids Can Press.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nowhere Men, Volume One: Fates Worse Than Death

"Science is the new rock 'n' roll," is a frequently repeated quotation in this book. Nowhere Men portrays an alternate world where scientists are regaled and worshiped like rock stars are on ours. The men in question are a quartet who band together in the 1960s to form World Corp., a company that rattles off a list of groundbreaking inventions, innovations, and scientific breakthroughs that completely change world culture, much like The Beatles did.
Like any supergroup, their partnership brings creative tensions, unrest, and break-ups. There is much drama, and unlike rock stars, whose exploits often involve drug overdoses and hotel room destruction, these scientists' excesses lead to unlawful experimentation, strange alien life, space debris, and a mysterious radioactive plague.

This inventive take on fame and science is not completely linear and jumps around in time and also setting. Additionally it is also not just a straight sequential art narrative but relies heavily on multiple kinds of text as a kind of collage that tells the story. There are complicated ads from imaginary products and companies, magazine interviews and articles that call to mind Rolling Stone or Creem, and excerpts from a tell-all oral history that propel the story and provide much needed background to the proceedings. Such features have been in other graphic novels to add verisimilitude, notably Watchmen and Ultra, but here are put to much more prominent use.

With all those narrative features, needless to say, this book is a pretty complicated reading experience, but it is not so arcane and impenetrable to be off-putting. There are so many details that alert readers are rewarded, and I feel this book  invites multiple rereadings. And its wide spectrum of storytelling, with its cerebral bits as well as its extreme action sequences, can appeal to many sensibilities. I felt Stephenson's story was incredibly dense and complex, and Bellegarde's art is exceptional, running a gamut from iconic tributes to polished advertising to moments of horror to emotional scenes in hospitals and boardrooms. I also very much appreciated the references to multiple songs and musical artists throughout this book (like Making Plans for Nigel - who else remembered that one?). Clearly, this book is full of wonder, craziness, and chutzpah.
But don't take my word for it. The critics I have read online have been very positive as well. John Parker called this volume "one of the most unique comic experiences on offer." Ron Richards remarked that this series is "a complete experience that’s unlike anything else on the stands." Andy Wolverton wrote, "Don’t be surprised to find Nowhere Men on many Best of 2013 lists. It’s certainly on mine."
one of the most unique comic book experiences on offer

Read More: 'Nowhere Men': Science, Drugs, and Rock N' Roll [Review] | http://comicsalliance.com/nowhere-men-review-stephenson-bellegarde-bellaire-fonografiks-image/?trackback=tsmclip
one of the most unique comic book experiences on offer

Read More: 'Nowhere Men': Science, Drugs, and Rock N' Roll [Review] | http://comicsalliance.com/nowhere-men-review-stephenson-bellegarde-bellaire-fonografiks-image/?trackback=tsmclip
one of the most unique comic book experiences on offer

Read More: 'Nowhere Men': Science, Drugs, and Rock N' Roll [Review] | http://comicsalliance.com/nowhere-men-review-stephenson-bellegarde-bellaire-fonografiks-image/?trackback=tsmclip
one of the most unique comic book experiences on offer

Read More: 'Nowhere Men': Science, Drugs, and Rock N' Roll [Review] | http://comicsalliance.com/nowhere-men-review-stephenson-bellegarde-bellaire-fonografiks-image/?trackback=tsmclip
one of the most unique comic book experiences on offer

Read More: 'Nowhere Men': Science, Drugs, and Rock N' Roll [Review] | http://comicsalliance.com/nowhere-men-review-stephenson-bellegarde-bellaire-fonografiks-image/?trackback=tsmclip

This book is the product of writer Eric Stephenson and artist Nate Bellegarde. Stephenson is the Executive Director of Image Comics and has also written a handful of other comics. Bellegarde is known for his work on Invincible and is also the co-creator of Hector Plasm. Stephenson talks about his ideas for this series here. Bellegarde speaks about his work on this book in this interview.

This volume collects the first six issues of the comic book series from Image Comics. There is a brief preview here from Comic Book Resources.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Into the Volcano

Into the Volcano is an interesting read. An adventure story that has elements of family drama, mysterious disappearances, a quest for the unknown, beautiful artwork, extensive information about volcanoes and plate techtonics, as well as an exotic setting, it tells the tale of two brothers, Duffy and Sumo sent by their father to spend time with their relatives in Kocalaha, a fictional island in the Pacific Ocean. Duffy is older, more adventurous, and athletic. Sumo is younger, whiny, and somewhat useless and annoying.
Sumo is a wee bit defiant.
The brothers squabble and try to get to know their unusual relatives when they are taken off on a quest for unknown reasons. This quest puts them in real danger and over time they learn that they are being used as pawns in a struggle for wealth and power.
Over the course of the story, we also learn revelations about the boys' family, their mother's secret work, and the mystery of why they are on such a perilous journey. The narrative gets pretty complicated, with apparent allies turning out to be adversaries and some prickly characters becoming more sympathetic. Even Sumo goes through some maturation because of this ordeal, and his obstinate attitude and distrust eventually comes in handy. I even got close to liking the little brat by the book's conclusion.

Don Wood wrote and drew this book. He won a Caldecott Honor for the illustrations in his and his wife's book King Bidgood's in the Bathtub. His artwork is meticulous and impactful, combining elements reminiscent of Maurice Sendak and Richard Corben, two visual grandmasters. This is his first stab at a graphic novel, and sometimes I had a little bit of difficulty sussing out his visual storytelling, but in the end I found his style very attractive and evocative. Wood speaks more about creating Into the Volcano in this interview.

This book has been praised and was named a 2009 American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults. Publishers Weekly called it "a visual stunner" full of "excellent adventure." Reading Rants gushed, "I have never seen anything quite like Don Wood’s Into the Volcano." The School Library Journal's Elizabeth Bird praised the art and summed up, "I’ve never seen a graphic novel written with a child audience in mind that was as out-and-out beautiful and gripping as this puppy here."

Into the Volcano was published by Scholastic, who provide a number of teaching resources and reviews here. There is a sizable preview available here from Amazon.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Superior Spider-Man: My Own Worst Enemy

Growing up, Spider-Man was my favorite superhero. I watched the 1966 cartoon series in reruns, watched the horrible live action 1970s TV show, bought his MEGO action figures, and learned to read in part because I loved those Pocket Books paperback collections. Today still, when people ask who my favorite superhero is I say Spider-Man, but truth be told I have not read a Spider-Man comic book regularly since I was in college, and only really checked in sporadically since with tweaked versions of the character, such as Brian Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man, the Tangled Web anthology series, or Dan Slott's nostalgic look back in the Spider-Man/Human Torch: I'm with Stupid mini-series.

All that said, lately there was some news buzz because Peter Parker was being killed in the milestone issue #700 of Amazing Spider-Man, and there is a part of me that is a seasoned comic book fan who could not care less about such theatrics and blatant media baiting about a corporate property I knew could not be substantially altered, at least not for long. Still, I knew that I liked Slott's other work and also that he had a respect for the version of Spider-Man I grew up with, so one day when I had a little bit of extra scratch and found myself in JHU Comic Books in NYC in November, I picked up this first volume of this new series to see what had happened to my erstwhile favorite superhero.

This volume collects the first five issues of a new direction for the webslinger. Peter Parker is dead, in mind but not in body. Dr. Octopus, his first major villain, pulled off the ultimate victory, trapping Parker's consciousness in his old, dying body and transferring his own mind into Peter's younger, more vital form. The catch is that Doc Ock also has all of Peter's memories and profound sense of responsibility. So he is compelled to be a superhero, and his profound ego drives him to be an even better, more efficient crimefighter than his predecessor, hence the series title.
This Spider-Man is more calculating and economical. He builds multiple devices to aid his quest to enforce justice. He is much more strident, violent, and ruthless than before. He has little remorse for his adversaries, and what is more, as a former villain who worked with many of Spider-Man's enemies, he has specific insights into their strategies, personalities, and pasts that he can use to his advantage. Still, he does his all to maintain his secret identity and not let others in on the fact that, despite outward appearances, there is an entirely different person in that body. And because he is Spider-Man, maintaining that secret identity does come at a price:
In all, I found this series very captivating, and I liked the contrasts drawn between the sensibilities of the characters who are Spider-Man. I particularly enjoyed how Doc Ock is portrayed as ethical in his own way; he's pretty much a horrible person but he does have a redeeming quality or two. I also liked that there are many relationships, such as the ones with J. Jonah Jameson, the police department, and Peter's friends and associates, including his girlfriend Mary Jane and his Aunt May, that are turned on their heads and examined from different angles. These situations made for some intrigue and drama, and I find myself wanting to read much more of this series.
Writer Dan Slott is a long time comics author, who is known for his ability to combine action and humor. I really enjoyed his past work on the Great Lake Avengers, a parody comic that ended up being more than a one-note comedy. I love the twists on classic Spider-Man tropes he makes, and the plotting and characterization in this book are exceptional. The art in this volume is by two different pencillers, Ryan Stegman and Giuseppe Camuncoli. Stegman's style is more cartoony and energetic with some ragged lines, while Camuncoli's is more polished and clean. Both are expressive and skilled enough to well capture the human moments as well as the dynamic action scenes.

Reviews I have read and heard about this series have been very positive. Matt Adams called it "a refreshing new direction for the 50-year-old superhero." Marty at the Rocket Vlog (video has some adult language) gave the book a 10/10 and commented that there were "some interesting bits of humanity in it." Ryan K. Lindsay gushed about the first part of the series, calling it "a complete success, a reboot issue that builds from what came before but is entirely accessible for new readers."

This collection is published by Marvel Comics. There is a short preview available here from Comic Book Resources.

SPOILER: I forgot to mention, Peter Parker is not dead. He's a ghost in his own body. And he'll be back very soon.