Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bookshelf: A Trio of Trade Reviews

I picked up three trades this week, so I'm going to jump right into it

- Runaways Vol. 3;

Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways is the little book that can, and does.

In this case, it’s a literal little book as they’ve reprinted the first 18 issues in three digest-sized volumes. I used to look over at the bookshelves at the store, eye-balling digests with confusion and disgust. Sin City is where it began for me. When they canceled the good, old fashioned, 8 by 11 trades and began only publishing Miller’s fantastic looking noir in tiny pages, I was annoyed and frustrated. But when I found out that Runaways was only being published two ways, in three travel-friendly digests and a hardcover. I’m damned picky about my hardcover comics. I like to keep them nice, the slip-covers damage so easily and they’re typically big, in this case 18 issues. So I sucked it up and dropped the 7.99 on the first trade.

To almost no surprise I flipped over it. It’s Vaughn, so the writing is razor sharp, but I feel that with Runaways he’s stretching the reference rubber band a might bit thin, a reference to The West Wing in volume three being the most strained of the bunch. It’s a tiny problem, but one I felt needed mentioning.

Runaways immediately garners some respect from me by being a team book full of original characters, a concept that can seriously miss. And oddly, through 18 issues, Wolverine doesn't show up. Marvel Editorial must have been asleep at the wheel on that one. Thankfully, Vaughn decides instead of linking them together by a similar super-power or ability, he links them by a more common theme: our parents are evil. The Runaways are a group of teens (and a pre-teen), that find out one day that their parents are super-villains, and not the “ground you on the weekend of the big party” super-villains, they’re a group of super-villains with capes and costumes and human sacrifices. So, keeping with the title, they band together and run away.

The most immediate benefit to the book, and the reader, is that instead of forcing characters into the personality to match powers in the theme of animals or elements or types of candy or whatever, Vaughn gets to use characters that seem like real kids. My favorite is Molly, the junior high-schooler who could kick the Hulk’s ass. One of the other Runaways gives her the nickname “Bruiser”, but she demands to be called “Power Princess.” She says that while punching her way through solid rock walls. Just awesome.

Vaughn gets a lot of attention as he's one of the popular new kids in the comics class, but Adrian Alphona’s art is extremely pretty. Like almost everything else, it’s heavily influenced by manga, but it works for this book. The characters all look… different. I know that sounds silly, but when you browse through a book like New Avengers, or even something less mainstream like Blue Monday and you can’t tell the characters apart from page to page, well… you learn to appreciate characters without their costumes looking like different people. Unfortunately, the book's art suffers the most from the format, as it's not only shrunken down, but also has it's colors washed out from the cheaper paper-stock. I assume the hardcover will shine in this respect.

In this volume, we learn the truth about the traitor, find out what’s in The Pride’s codec, and see which direction the teen’s hormones ping-pong off in. It’s some good, good stuff, pick it up, either in hardcover, or these adorable little digests.

- Superman/Batman Vol 3, Absolute Power

Superman/Batman is a fine book for punchings. Sometimes the punchings are good, as in volume one when Superman and Batman hand out said punches to the somewhat sanctimonius Hawkman and Captain Marvel. Sometimes it’s not, as in volume two, when Batman punches Darkseid. Yes. Darkseid. Yes. Batman. Boo.
After reading volume three, I found it to be excellent, both for punchings and for some more crazy things, like time-travel and dimension hoppings.

Carlos Pacheco takes up art duties and does his usual bang-up job. But, oh, the things Jeff Loeb gives him to draw! My golly! This story starts when Lightning Lord, Saturn Queen, and Cosmic King go back in time and scoop up the wee versions of Superman and Batman to raise them as their own. Now, what would having the most powerful brawn and the most powerful brain on Earth loyal to you get? Well, for one, the Statue of Liberty is now the Statue of Batman and Superman, it’s new inscription reading “OBEY OR DIE!”

I love this stuff. The whole alternate time-lines and possible future stuff tickles me pink. I get all tingly in my nethers whenever I read a good Elseworlds or What If...? story. It frees up writers to explore the characters further, boil them down to their essence and then send that essence in a new, sometimes crazy direction. It’s what makes the Elseworlds line so popular and effective in it’s storytelling, but those are typcially "imaginary stories*". When you find a way to throw these stories into continuity like in this, and the time-traveling Teen Titans story-arc a few arcs back, the writers get to do a little more, and add some foreshadowing on the upcoming arcs.

This story has a Wonder Woman/Freedom Fighters team up, Uncle Sam with a Power Ring, JLA Zombies, Ra’s Al Ghul, Jonah Hex, Kryptonite bullets, and some New Gods. Most importantly, I had no idea what was going to happen from page to page, something that’s rare in a comic nowadays. Good stuff.

- The Cute Manifesto by James Kochalka

A mild way to describe the James Kochalka catalog would be “diverse”. The man can put out a huge book of stories about a cat who thinks she works in an office and wears various hats, or a semi-erotic story about a frog in his sexy forrest. And he puts it all out consistently and constantly. In the last month alone, he released both SuperF*ckers!, a sort-of super-team book, and The Cute Manifesto, a collection of graphic essays on everything from the state of comics to his decision to have a child. The one I intrested in was The Cute Manifesto, and after reading it, I was unforunately dissapointed. As it's a collection of essays, I'm going to tackle each one individually.

Craft is the Enemy & Craft is Not a Friend;
Ok, well, maybe not INDIVIDUALLY individually, but these two are so similar in tone and content that they have to be talked about together. These essays are less than a page of text each, and yet they were probably the most interesting things Kochalka had to say on the matter of art for hire and the comics industry in general. Talking about art versus honing your ability to make art, what defines quality, and if quality in art is even something that matters, as long as you've communicated what you, the artist, wants. Actually quite powerfull articles.

This was... less powerful. Sunburn is the kind of thing people who read exclusively superhero comics envision when you try to get them to read a non-capes title. Entirely captioned first-person voice-overs with nothing to say, lots of observations about things that don't warrant as much attention as they're given, and overdrawn, black-and-white close ups on things that don't seem relevent to whatever the narative is. Maybe it just went over my head, but it's somewhat more likely that it's just cliche.

Reinventing Everything, Part 1;
A huge step up from Sunburn, this essay espouses Kochalka's view of the world, diessected into pixels and grains of sand. He loses himself halfway through (something he makes a nod to in the second to last page of the essay) and begins to cross over into Scott McCloud territory. Fortunately, Kochalka slowly ties his point back to the first two essays of the book, and how to best serve your art. Because of this, his sincerity seeps through the vauge message and manages to give an interesting, if not completely successful, telling of his world view.

Reinventing Everything, Part 2;
Part 2 of Reinventing Everything is Kochalka's best chapter of the book. It's a mixture of what he believes in, how the plane crashes on September 11th affected him, and how much his child means to him. In fact, it's the story that explains how he and his wife came to the descion to have a lil' elf, and it comes of just as emotional and personal as it sounds. It's full of humanity, and beauty and honesty and a tiny bit of that naval gazing of the earlier essays, but in this huge, life-changing context, it more than makes sense, it's sympathetic. A great, great short.

The Cute Manifesto;
Only a few pages in length, this is Kochalka's "There's beauty in everything" bit, but it doesn't really come across as such. It starts pointing out the cuteness inherent in everything, even ugly things, and spirals down to "we must choose cuteness." Unfortunately, it fails to explain why cuteness is "good" and why ugly is this story's "evil". Whatever happened to beauty being in the eye of the beholder? Just felt it was dashed off and underthought.

The Horrible Truth About Comics;
In this chapter, Kochalka talks about why he doesn't sleep - he can't stop thinking about comics. It streches out into everything he sees is wrong with the comics medium, and the artists working in it. It's the longest essay in the book, and it feels much like the insomnia he talks about... it goes on forever, and you're just sort of waiting for it to end. I've read it and re-read it, trying to figure out what he's saying, but sadly alot of it is said allready in the excellent, first two essays, and everything else seems somewhat insubstantial. He deserves credit for practicing what he preaches, however - he's expressing what he wants to with the tools he has now. The question is, I suppose, if the problem with the essay is the message or the tools? Ah well.

In the end, I was pretty let down with this one. Art-wise, the drawings were quite good from Sunburn on (though Kochalka gets credit for trying a new style), but the writing was just sort of unimpressive and over-worded. This is also sort of an arguable point, but it's a tiny book, about 4x4 inches, and it's fairly thin and the price point is 19.99. I know that since he's not going to move as many copies of this as he might say, Peanut Butter and Jeremy or Tiny Bubbles, then he needs to charge a bit more, but when I plunk down a full twenty, I just expect more. I'll still pick up anything he puts out, since this is the first thing in a large, varied, and excellent catalog that's dissapointed me at all.

So that's what I've picked up more recently in the trade department, later tonight or tomorrow I'll have my pull list for this week up, and then I'll talk about what's been consuming too much of my time, a GameCube game called Animal Crossing.
Till then,


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