A Centaur’s Life, Vol. 1 (Seven Seas): Easily the weirdest comic I read this month, Kei Murayama’s manga is about an alternate world where everything is the exact same as it is in ours, save for the fact that there are multiple races like centaurs, angel folk, goat folk, cat folk, dragon people and so on. Oh, and while human beings apparently still exist, the only one glimpsed is a medieval knight seen in flashback, having enslaved a centaur is some bizarre armor/restraining device in order to ride him.
What makes the manga so weird, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason, at least not in this first volume, for why our heroine Himeno is a centaur, and why her classmates are all various fantasy races living out an otherwise completely mundane existence.
Himeno is a sweet, shy, pretty and popular Japanese schoolgirl (who is also a centaur). She’s afraid of boys, likes hanging out with her friends, and love sweets, although she worries about getting fat. The stories are mostly of the frivolous high-school comedy sort that could easily have been told with human characters.
In the first story, Himeno is self-conscious about her genitals, which she’s never looked at, as she’s afraid they might resemble those of a cow the kids once saw on a field trip (unlike some centaurs, the ones in this comic keep their horse parts covered in elaborate pants that appear difficult to put on and take off). In another, her class puts on a play, and she’s cast as the female lead, while her best friend — a girl with bat wings, a spade-shaped tail and pointy ears — is the male lead. In another, she’s suspected of doing some modeling work, in violation of school policy regarding part-time jobs.
Earlier this year author and religious scholar Reza Aslan released a new book about Jesus, giving it the intentionally provocative title of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is so much a part of modern life and culture in the West that it’s easy to forget just how extreme so much of what Jesus preached in the Gospels really was. And is.
I mean, the Golden Rule in and of itself is a hell of a thing to try and live by, but going out of your way to aid and love your enemy, turning the other cheek rather than raising a fist when violence is visited upon you, selling all of your possessions and giving the money to the poor? That’s some radical stuff, and Jesus’ exhortations don’t lose their revolutionary feel, no matter how many centuries pass or how many churches are built.
With Zealot already claimed, writer/editor Paul Buhle’s triptych look at the teachings of Jesus takes for its title a similarly evocative, provocative title: Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith.
The album-sized graphic novel from Herald Press is split into three sections, each illustrated by a different artist in a distinctly different style, and each concerned with the ways Jesus’ words and actions challenged authority in different time periods, from Jesus’ own lifetime to the modern era.
Another, written by Yukito Ayatsuji, art by Hiro Kiyohara, Yen Press, 720 pages, $29.99
Another is a ghost story in which no one is quite sure who the ghost is — or if they themselves are the ghost.
It’s told through the eyes of 15-year-old Koichi Sakakibara, who has been shipped off to stay with his grandparents in the country while his scientist father is conducting research abroad; his mother died shortly before he was born. The school year starts off inauspiciously for Koichi, as he suffers from a collapsed lung and misses the first few days of school.
While he is in the hospital, Koichi meets and briefly talks to a girl with an eye patch, Mei Misaki, and when he finally gets to school, he learns that Mei is in his class. He is intrigued by her and tries to start a friendship, but everyone else acts as if she isn’t there. The other students are friendly to him, but they don’t seem to even see Mei, and Koichi begins to wonder if she is real.
(Mild spoilers ahead)
Or: ”How I Learned to Quit Worrying and
Love Like Injustice: Gods Among Us.”
Knowing me as well as I do, I would have expected to absolutely hate Injustice: Gods Among Us, the digital-first comic based on the fighting game from the makers of Mortal Kombat, written by Tom Taylor and drawn by some eight different artists. It’s newly available in a hardcover collection of the first six issues that bears the tagline “The World-Wide #1 Bestselling Comic,” which I found dubious without qualification. (The whole world? Even counting Japan, where they have the One Piece and what do the kids read these days, the Naruto?)
Why would I expect not to like it? Well, a couple of reasons.
The costuming is pretty extreme. I was aesthetically offended by many of the New 52 costumes, which in general seem to be a compromise between the characters’ most popular outfits, whatever was in style at Image in 1992 and something that a Hollywood costuming department might put together for a live-action superhero movie or television series. Injustice took many of those designs even further, so that its Flash, for example, was wearing at least as much padding as NFL Super Pro.
His last major work of fiction was Big Questions, a 600-page epic fable involving a community of birds. If Big Questions was a graphic novel (in the most literal sense of the word “novel”), then his latest work, Rage of Poseidon, is more of a short-story collection. Here the cast of characters is grander: All seven of these stories star characters from Judeo-Christian belief or classical mythology and sometimes both, including Prometheus, Abraham, Isaac, Jesus, God and a good chunk of the Olympian pantheon.
But whether writing through birds or gods, the mundane or the divine, Nilsen’s true subject matter remains much the same: explorations of metaphysical and existential concerns, here more directly concerned with faith and religion than elsewhere.
Nilsen’s writing is spare and efficient; you could even say curt. In all of the stories, he writes quite conversationally, usually easing into second-person storytelling. “So imagine you are Poseidon, god of the sea,” the title story begins. That story is set in the present, but features the ancient Greek god; the same goes for “Prometheus” and the book’s longest and most compelling story, “The Girl and The Lions.” The stories “The Flood” and “Leda and the Swan” take place in their original settings. “Isaac” (“So imagine your name is Isaac and you are standing on a moutaintop with your dad”) is fairly true to the Biblical telling, but the ending finds Isaac playing a video game his father let him buy at the market (It’s Exodus 6: The Reckoning, if you’re wondering). The final story, the single page “Jesus and Aphrodite” is set in a bar in heaven.
Avengers: Endless Wartime (Marvel Entertainment): Marvel’s new line of original graphic novels — note the “Marvel OGN” logo on the spine — is off to a pretty strong start with this continuity-light Warren Ellis-written, Mike McKone-drawn story of an Avengers squad facing a new form of semi-sentient weapon evolved from a generation-old attempt to marry Nazi science with Norse magic.
That’s a good conflict for an Avengers comic, as the team includes a Nazi-fighting hero and a Norse god, and, better still, both Captain America and Thor were tied to the this new weapon’s origin.
Ellis does his usual fine job of mixing current science, speculative next-level science, elements of our zeitgeist and corporate superheroes with something that feels appropriate, cool and like the writer has something to say. Additionally, he has a pretty decent handle on the characters, and does a relatively good job of singling out particular voices (this is the first time in a long time that I’ve read an Avengers comic where everyone didn’t talk like Brian Michael Bendis).
Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Wolverine, Captain Marvel, Black Widow and Hawkeye, who reflects Matt Fraction’s version, are a bit of a rag-tag group, but they seem to be assembled primarily for their military backgrounds. “Do you know, I just realized I’m the only non-soldier in the room,” Tony Stark says at one point, and Captain Marvel sneers back, “That’s right, Tony. You’re just an ex-arms manufacturer in a metal death suit.”
I think it’s hard to overestimate the value of The Sandman, the 75-issue Neil Gaiman-written series that began its life as a revival of the late-’70s Joe Simon/Jack Kirby character, and ended up as 1,600-plus page epic that was one of the all-time best gateway comics — not to mention a powerful factor in the mainstreaming of adult comics content and a then still-emerging graphic novel market.
So Gaiman returning to Dream of the Endless (and the first Dream, rather than Daniel), for the first time since 2003′s The Sandman: Endless Nights? That should be a pretty big deal, right?
For The Sandman: Overture, which debuted this week, Gaiman is paired with Promethea artist J.H. Williams III (better known these days for his run on Batwoman), colorist Dave Stewart and letterer Todd Klein, who lettered all the previous Sandman comics.
As exciting as the project is, it also feels rather dangerous for writer, reader, character and publisher. You know what they say about going home again, after all, or catching lightning in a bottle.
The artwork in Elaine M. Will‘s Look Straight Ahead, a webcomic now available in print, is uniformly excellent. Striking the perfect balance between cartooning and representational art, she’s built a comic book world that’s recognizable as our own, but as drawn by her, and then she’s filled it with realistic characters delineated in a personal style.
As accomplished as the artwork is and as well as it succeeds in all the various categories comics art can be judged by — design, storytelling, character acting — some of it seems truer than other parts, and it’s these elements that make Look Straight Ahead a truly exceptional work.
The story is a fairly straightforward one. Quiet social outcast Jeremy Knowles is having a pretty rough time at his private school: He has a few friends, and is a talented artist, but he’s regularly bullied; he’s so shy he can’t even speak to the girl of his dreams (who’s dating one of his friends), he feels alienated from his well-meaning but clueless parents and, compounding everything, he can’t sleep.
One day at school he seemingly snaps, smashing glass beakers in the lab and storming out. Then he has a vision in which he thinks God, in the form of an Eastern dragon, is communicating with him. That night, his father finds him furiously digging in the backyard, convinced that one of the bullies from school has secretly planted a bomb there to kill him.
A young girl ventures into an abandoned, labyrinthine city in order to find her lost brother, despite it’s being haunted by malevolent demons. One of the strengths of Wartman’s debut graphic novel is that he doesn’t vary much from that core story outline. He dabbles in a lot of overly familiar genre and mythological tropes to be sure (there’s some business with the demons being named and people entering the city forgetting who they are) but he doesn’t play up these elements too strongly or let them overwhelm the story, instead keeping the focus on the girl and her desire to locate her brother. I also liked the relationship between the girl and a somewhat helpful demon who seems so astonished that someone would willingly enter the city that he ends up acting as a benefactor. Again, it’s a familiar trope, but paces the story well enough that it never once feels rote or cliched.
Another key to the book’s success is the city itself. I can’t emphasize enough the need for cartoonists, especially young cartoonists, to set their stories in a well-defined universe. This is especially true in fantasy stories, where the reader needs to get a sense of the physical world the characters inhabit in order to be willing to accept the supernatural and logic-defying events that occur in the story. You can’t map out Wartman’s city in your head, but the seemingly endless panels of well-detailed corridors, stairs, gardens and passageways give a sense of scale to the story. The city seems so foreboding and ancient, you worry the characters really will lose their way. Overall I just appreciated this well-structured, engrossing adventure tale and hope it’s a sign of more good things to come from this particular cartoonist.
DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint has been the subject of a lot of speculation over the past year or so, due to a variety of portents: the departure of founder and longtime executive editor Karen Berger; the end of the imprint’s longest-running title Hellblazer, with the character reclaimed by the DC Universe in Justice League Dark and Constantine; the debut at Image Comics of several comics that, not long ago, likely would’ve been pitched to Vertigo; and the launch of the offbeat Dial H, by none other than acclaimed author China Mieville, in the New 52.
There was the perception that the imprint’s branding had become confused, with books that used to fall under to the dissolved WildStorm imprint (and seem like better fits for the DC brand) appearing under the Vertigo banner (superhero comics Astro City and Tom Strong, movie adaptation Django Unchained). And then there were the low sales and cancellations.
Well, Vertigo’s still around. It launched The Wake, a limited series by American Vampire and Batman writer Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy, and the imprint has plans for a new Sandman miniseries and a Sandman spinoff. And in the last few months, it has launched enough new series to be considered a wave.
So what does that mean for the future of the imprint? I’ll be damned if I know. However, I do know it’s not the most important question in my mind. Of greatest import to me, as always, is whether the comics are any good. So let’s take a look at the the beginnings of Vertigo’s latest crop, excluding The Wake, which I think it’s safe to assume will find an audience.
Leach’s big follow-up to 2011′s Pterodactyl Hunters is a very entertaining, tightly paced crime comic about two hoodlums living in Newark, New Jersey, in the early ’60s and the trouble they get into running “errands” for one of the local gangsters. I really liked the way Leach sets up the story, with a violent incident on a bus that quickly establishes the characters’ personalities and relationships to each other but also becomes an even more significant incident once you learn what those two were doing on that bus. Leach has an angular, slashing style that fits the grittiness of the material and also keeps the narrative moving a hurried clip, rarely taking a moment to pause. There’s at least one big plot hole that gave me pause (without spoiling anything, I find it difficult to believe that a certain ancillary character’s death would generate such a minor reaction from family members, friends and various authorities not on the take). A bit more perspective and varied viewpoints (it’s notable there’s no parental units to be found in Iron Bound) might have given the story a bit more depth, although it could also have easily slackened the book’s drumbeat pace. Overall, this is a sharp, strong book, a smart follow-up to Hunters and proof that Leach is a cartoonist to watch. The book even comes with a flexi-disc record to play during the story’s big fight/climax, a really terrific conceit, even if the nerd in me is hesitant to play it, for fear of damaging the book’s “mint” condition (you never know what might be worth money some day).
What is the most basic, most fundamental function that a hero performs, one so integral it can be used as a way of defining the term hero? There are several ways to answer that question, of course, but one would be the act of saving others.
By that definition then, Batman is most certainly a hero, and not merely because of all the fictional women he’s saved from attempted muggings or all the times he’s pulled Robin out of death traps. Batman has saved real people, too, despite the fact that character isn’t himself real in one of the stricter senses of the word.
He saved Dean Trippe, and Trippe’s phenomenal autobiographical comic Something Terrible tells the story of how it happened.
Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor, Fantagraphics Books, 120 pages, $24.99.
I enjoy both hip-hop and reading books about the history of music or nascent art forms in general, so this book fits right in my wheelhouse anyway, but, man, did I like this comic. I liked the way Piskor designed the book, making it look like one of those oversized Marvel or DC “Treasury” books from the 1970s, and even goes so far as to use newsprint-like paper and print the colors slightly off-register at times, all the better to evoke those lap-sized comics of yesteryear. I liked the way he juggles a huge cast of characters, jumping around from one to the next without losing or confusing the reader. I like how he employs some wonderful bits of cartoonish exaggeration (that, it should be noted, never devolves into ethnic stereotyping), so that Grandmaster Flash wears an impossibly large cap, Mellie Mel’s afro seems larger than his head at times, and Russell Simmons is a cross-eyed guy with a bad lisp. Piskor seems to know intuitively how to relate the best, most revealing and juiciest anecdotes without bogging the reader down in minutiae. I’ve enjoyed Piskor’s work in the past (most notably with his hacker book Wizzywig) but he’s never seemed quite as confident a storyteller as he does here. Can’t wait for volume two.
At the risk of overstating things, I may have just read the single greatest book of all time, Capstone’s DC Super-Pets Character Encyclopedia, a compendium of more than 200 heroic and villainous pets, compiled mainly from the line of Art Baltazar-illustrated chapter books for young readers.
You see, here are four of my favorite things about comic books: 1) colorful characters of what has become known as the DC Universe, 2) pets and animal allies of superheroes, 3) Art Baltazar’s artwork, and 4) encyclopedias, profiles, atlases, maps and suchlike detailing the often-exhaustive trivia of a byzantine superhero universes.
In other words, this is a book that is pretty much perfect for me, despite that, at 36 years old, I’m well outside the target audience for the DC Super-Pets line of books.
I’ve read a few of those, but despite the copious amounts of Baltazar illustrations, they’re really hard to get into. They’re not comics and they’re not picture books, but illustrated prose; technically all-ages, but harder, I think, for grown-ups to get into than all-ages comics might be, as there’s no getting around the fact that an adult reader is going to feel like they’re being talked down to (and for good reason).
But this book is pretty much perfect for adult fans of Baltazar or those curious about the Super-Pets line who haven’t been able to get into those books, as it excises the worst part — the prose for kids — and boasts the best parts, the pictures and the often somewhat-insane characters starring in them (for example, there’s a book titled Swamp Thing vs. The Zombie Pets, in which Swampy and his animal neighbors in The Down Home Critter Gang come into conflict with Solomon Grundy and his gang of undead pets).
I devoured every page of the encyclopedia, and much of its contents were somewhat shocking.
Afterlife with Archie started out for me with a couple of potential negatives: I’m not a fan of horror comics, and I firmly believe the zombie subgenre has played itself out. But if there’s one factor that could make me enjoy a zombie comic, it’s the art of Francesco Francavilla.
The ongoing series, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, marks a significant departure for Archie Comics, in large part because it’s the publisher’s first direct market-only release. One has to wonder how much this will benefit the publisher, whose audience is found primarily outside of specialty stores, and whether its potential success will lead to more direct market-only titles.
But enough about the business aspects of Life with Archie; let’s focus on what makes its debut issue such a must-read. As much as the Archie line has redefined itself in recent years (the marriage storyline/titles, the introduction of gay character Kevin Keller, etc.), the use of an artist like Francavilla represents another leap. I count him among my favorite current artists for much the same reason I rave about Gabriel Hardman; When reading a story by either creator, the experience is like having a film playing in my head.