Monday, February 20, 2012

Fatale #1

Image Comics, 24 pages plus extra material, $3.50

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Dave Stewart

“The past haunts, things you kept inside come out to make things worse, and it all ends in tears,” Ed Brubaker told me about what he called “the heart of noir” in the context of a 2007 interview. “I think that's why I love it, because within that structure, you can tell almost any story.”

And boy, does the past haunt in Fatale. Just take a look at the very first panel of the very first issue.

Someone—a guy by the cheerful name of Dominic Raines—is being put in the ground. Who was Dominic Raines? Why is Dominic Raines dead? We don’t know, but something in that picture tells you the narrator won’t like the answers, even before you read that first line of narration: “So here’s how my entire life went off the tracks in one day.” When it rains, it pours in Fatale, and the protagonist starts losing well before the story gets properly underway.

His name is Nicolas Lash, and—perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, given that first panel—he won’t make it through the 10-page prologue in one piece. In the course of the prologue we learn, among other things, that his father has “been in an institution for over a decade,” that Nicolas is the executor of Raines’ estate, and that there’s a manuscript of an unpublished novel evidently written by Raines in 1957, years before his writing career started officially. And then Things Get Worse for Nicolas Lash, just before the story skips to its proper first chapter, set in 1956.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years, you’re probably aware of Brubaker and Phillips’ previous collaborations, Sleeper, Criminal and Incognito. They’ve worked together on other comics before and since, but those are the ones that put them on the map as the go-to writer/artist team for well-crafted noir stories.

And once you’ve done your share of superhero noir (Sleeper, Incognito) and plain-vanilla crime noir (Criminal), I guess the horror noir of Fatale is a perfectly logical next step. As Brubaker says, within the particular structure of noir narratives, “you can tell almost any story.”

Indeed, much of Fatale reads like a textbook illustration of how to do a noir story with the trappings of the horror genre. Basically, Brubaker and Phillips’ approach here is to put a face on those things that come back from the past to haunt the characters. In Fatale, they don’t manifest as crimes or superhuman powers, but in the types of visuals, characters and creatures known from horror stories.

To those genre tropes, the creators apply the logic of noir: The further back the story reaches, the more horrific the manifestations become. In the present-day prologue, the horror consists of a couple of creepy-looking identical guys with black hats, coats and glasses. In the 1956 section, it’s a graphic murder scene right out of a Poe story. And in a flashback to events that occurred in World War II, it’s a Nazi cult led by a creature from the Lovecraft playbook.

Once again, as with most of their previous work, it would be an understatement to say that Brubaker and Phillips “know what they are doing” here. On a craft level, Fatale is as good as anything you’re likely to find in North American genre comics right now. The creators’ page-to-page storytelling is top-notch, and their firm conceptual grasp of the material is evident in every aspect of the work.

As with some of Criminal and Incognito, though, the characters and events in this debut issue aren’t as immediately fascinating as in the creators’ most effective work. The cast consists of well-rendered archetypes rather than genuinely three-dimensional people, and nothing particularly surprising or insightful is happening yet.

Intellectually and esthetically, Fatale #1 is exciting. It lays the tonal and structural groundwork for the story in a solid and appealing fashion. Ultimately, though, when all ends once again in tears, the payoff will hinge on whether readers are left with a sense that there’s anything worth crying about.

Grade: B-

Friday, December 23, 2011

Spidey Sunday Spectacular

Marvel, 36 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Marcos Martin
Colorist: Muntsa Vicente, Javier Rodriguez
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

This book reprints 12 two-page “Spidey Sunday” strips originally published in Amazing Spider-Man #634 through 645, as well as the “Identity Crisis” short from issue #600, all of which were written by Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee and drawn by Marcos Martin, who is probably one of the Top 5 artists working in commercial U.S. comics right now.

And, boy, does Martin go to town here. One of the first times the Spanish artist made my Jaw drop was when he drew a beautiful panorama of 1930s New York City in a double-page splash in the Captain America 70th Anniversary Special a couple of years back.

This time around, he’s doing it times 12, basically: The city doesn’t feature prominently in all of the panorama spreads collected here, but they still all somehow manage to have the depth of a cityscape. It’s incredible what Mr. Martin brings to the table in terms of depth and perspective and page layout. The lines and figure work look equal parts Steve Ditko and Hergé here. Most of all, though, Martin’s art suggests a sense not just of movement between the individual panels, but of rhythm—something that virtually none of his peers manage of pull off on a consistent basis. The earlier 12-page story included here as a back-up is less spectacular visually, but still hints at Martin’s gigantic potential as a storyteller.

I know I don’t give colorists nearly enough credit in my reviews, and that said, the bright, perfectly nuanced color work Muntsa Vicente applies to Martin’s art on these two-pagers plays a huge part in their appeal. It’s lovely stuff.

Stan Lee is being Stan Lee, which is to say expect to be won over by the charm rather than by the complex plots or suspense. Mostly, Mr. Lee’s aim seems to be to give his collaborator a frame in which to work his magic and then step out of the way. The result is a harmless and inoffensive romp, but every now and then Lee takes you by surprise, goes meta and casually reminds you that he knows his stuff and still has a trick or two up his sleeve. For instance, I love the part when the bad guys go “No time to explain. It slows down the story!” I wish Mr. Lee had told this to all those goofy “New 52” writers. He’s still very much on top of this.

So, all told, there are worth ways of cleansing the palate for 2011 than this book, in terms of reviews. If you don’t already have the Amazing Spider-Man issues this originally appeared in, track down a copy—the art alone is more than worth the price of admission, and Stan Lee still knows how it’s done.

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Rinse #1

Boom! Studios, 22 pages, $ 1.00

Writer: Gary Phillips
Artist: Marc Laming
Colorist: Darrin Moore
Letterer: Steve Wands
Cover artist: Paul Azaceta

The Rinse is a baffling comic, for a number of reasons.

This type of material—no fantastic elements, no big-name creators or characters, no superheroes—is a tough sell in the U.S. market, and so it’s laudable for publishers to try and broaden the market, particularly with the sort of commitment that results in the $ 1.00 price tag. So far, so good.

But that said, particularly if you’re willing and able to promote this kind of book with this kind of incentive, it helps to make sure that the material merits the push. And so it’s puzzling when you read the thing, and it turns out to be a run-of-the-mill story about a run-of-the-mill grifter.

I mean, this isn’t horrible so much as horribly mediocre. When the prose comes with clunkers like “I’ll get you… get you good,” or “I’m your worst nightmare,” that’s as good a sign as any that, maybe, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and wonder what exactly it is that you want to be bringing to the table. The overall storytelling is exactly as imaginative and light-footed as the aforementioned samples would suggest.

More to the point, though, even with the best execution in the world, this would still be a pretty standard grifter story starring a good-looking, slick money-launderer. There’s not a lot of meat beyond the well-worn genre tropes, and the tropes themselves have been done better.

What’s the idea?

Grade: D

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Big Lie #1 (of 1)

Image Comics, 27 pages, $ 3.99

Writer/penciler: Rick Veitch
Inker: Gary Erskine
Colorist: Dominic Regan
Letterer: Annie Parkhouse
Cover artist: Thomas Yeates

Arguably, it’s moot to judge something on its merits as a story when it turns out that telling a story was never the point. But given that The Big Lie, released in time for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, comes with a price tag and is published by Image Comics, a joint that usually tends to publish stories, I think it’s fair game, so here we go.

If you do purely judge this as a story, at any rate, and if you accept the premise that the September 11 attacks are fair game for stories, then the premise here isn’t half bad. The question writer/artist Rick Veitch starts out with is, What if you could travel back in time and were given a shot at saving the people who died on September 11, 2001?

The time-travelling protagonist of the story is Sandra Stratton, a physicist whose husband worked in one of the upper floors of the World Trade Center, and who went on to invent a time machine that enabled her to travel back to the date of the attacks 10 years later.

Unfortunately, that’s when the book throws any pretense at being a story overboard and turns into an all-out advertisement for 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Question: You’ve had 10 years to plan, you invented a time machine that works, and suddenly you’re standing in front of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, about one hour before the first plane hits.

What do you do?

Option A: You call in a bomb threat to get people evacuated. Option B: You run in the middle of a busy cross section and almost get yourself killed by four cars simultaneously.

For our protagonist, Option B is the answer.

When this cunning plan fails and she survives against all odds, Sandra decides to go up to her husband’s office, act hysterically, tell everyone she’s from the future and use her Ipad (wink, wink) to show her husband and his colleagues what’s about to transpire.

This happens on page 6. For the rest of the “story,” Sandra, her husband and the other characters present are hijacked by the book’s overriding political agenda and reduced to exchanging the pertinent Truther talking points.

It’s the comics version of that guy who yells at you in the street, and it’s every bit as engaging.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about creators having an agenda, of course. If they get a good comic out of it, more power to them. The Big Lie is not that comic, however.

The creators throw the story’s internal logic overboard almost immediately, and it’s clear that there was never any interest in exploring the premise to begin with. The page-to-page storytelling and the characters are one-dimensional in a way that suggests the material was intentionally geared towards meeting its audience at the lowest common denominator of what someone who read their last comic book 40 years ago might expect a current comic book to be like.

For something that pays so much lip service to the notion of “truth,” it’s amazing how little of it made it into the storytelling. The characters in the book are the phoniest and sorriest bunch of exposition delivery machines I’ve seen in a while. No character with a speaking part behaves in a way that’s broadly recognizable as “human” in this story.

Ultimately, it’s baffling that Image published this nonsense—not because of any offensive subject matter, but because it’s such an offensively crummy and ham-fisted effort as a comic. It’s hard to view this as anything but a cynical and fairly transparent attempt to make a few bucks on the media attention on the September 11 attacks.

Grade: F

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Snarked #0

Boom!/Kaboom!, 8 pages plus extra material, $ 1.00

Writer/artist: Roger Langridge
Colorist: Rachelle Rosenberg

Roger Langridge’s new kids’ comic is based on the Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”: The story is about Wilburforce J. Walrus (an anthropomorphic walrus) and Clyde McDunk (a carpenter), who live together in a little fairy house near the beach, in a little fairy town ruled by a fairy king who’s lost at sea. In the meantime, the kingdom rests in the hands of his two little kids, the princess and her little brother, the prince. There are oysters, too.

If you’re familiar with Langridge’s work at all, it won’t come as a great surprise to you that he nails it in the “charm” and “craft” departments. The material is neat, harmless fun, and there’s a good chance that it’ll make you smile a couple times even if you’re not, you know, a kid. Delightfully, in the spirit of Carroll, Langridge opted to forgo the need for easy and heavy-handed moral lessons. If anything, his story says that it’s okay to be a little bit of a scamp, as long as you don’t overdo it—and even if you are overdoing it, you may still get lucky.

Rather than to hammer home the author’s idea of ethical behavior, the material appeals to the reader’s own ethics: Hey, why is Mister Walrus blaming Mr. McDunk for his own mistakes? Why is he lying? That’s not right… right?

Which isn’t just a more effective way of making a point, but also more fun to read.

On the other hand, I think it wouldn’t have hurt for Walrus to have some redeeming features. At the end of the day, he’s the one who gets the most screen time, after all. It’s faithful to Carroll’s version, certainly, but while making the protagonist a lazy, stealing, lying, at times even outright cruel meany with no empathy for anyone may work for the duration of a poem, an ongoing comic is a different matter.

Also, and I realize I’m the biggest dork on the planet for bringing this up, I wanted to know what kind of a living arrangement it is that Walrus and McDunk share here—not necessarily in a werthammy kind of way, but in terms of story logic. Why is a Walrus living with a carpenter? And why is the carpenter carrying a hammer that he evidently never uses?

Hey, the kids want to know!

But this is only an eight-page teaser, of course (plus 14 pages of sketches, games and prose that tie in with the story, including a reprint of the Carroll poem), and as such it’s a perfectly fine story. We’ll be finding out more about this little town as the series progresses, surely, and we already know it’s in good hands with Roger Langridge.

There’s every chance the kinks and reservations will be hammered out before long.

Grade: C+