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Robot Reviews | ‘Dennis P. Eichhorn’s Real Good Stuff’ 1 & 2

Real Good Stuff #1 & 2There’s are a number of reasons why Dennis Eichhorn‘s Real Stuff was regarded as one of the better autobiographical comics of the 1990s. One thing, of course, was that he has lived an interesting and varied life – including a stint in jail – and has come across some unique, and at times bizarre, characters.

The other is that Eichhorn was a gifted raconteur, knowing exactly what beats of his story to hit and when, and the perfect point to deliver the punchline, even if it was retelling a funny thing someone said over drinks. Add to that the fact he collaborated with some of the most talented cartoonists in the industry at the time – Mary Fleener, Julie Doucet, Peter Bagge and Chester Brown, to name just a few – and tailored his stories to fit each artist’s unique strengths. I don’t know how the division of labor works with Eichhorn, whether he gives out detailed thumbnails or just a page of uninterrupted text, but he seems to understand the rhythm of comics exceedingly well.

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This week DC’s magic number isn’t 52, it’s 27

TEC #27 coverWhile DC Comics sacrificed some bragging rights in 2011 when it rebooted its superhero line, even the never-before-renumbered Action Comics and Detective Comics, one consequence of relaunching TEC was that it was only a matter of time — 26 months, to be exact — before the company got around to publishing a new Detective Comics #27. And that the second Detective Comics #27 would see release during the 75th year of Batman’s career, well, all the better.

The first Detective Comics #27, published in 1939, was, of course, the first appearance of Batman. The anthology’s cover was surrendered to an arresting image of a spooky man in tights, wearing a bat-mask and sporting huge bat-like wings, scooping up a gangster in a headlock while swinging in front of the yellow field above a city skyline. “Starting this issue,” the cover trumpted, “The Amazing and Unique Adventures of The Batman.”  Inside, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s pulp- and film-inspired detective hero cracked the “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and the amazing and unique adventures begun therein have yet to cease.

DC has honored that milestone in various ways over the years, with notable celebrations including Michael Uslan and Peter Snejbjerg’s 2003 Elseworlds one-shot Batman: Detective No. 27, and 1991′s Detective Comics #627, in which the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle and Marv Wolfman/Jim Aparo creative teams did their own takes on “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and both the original story and a 30th-anniversary version by Mike Friedrich and Bob Brown were reprinted.

This week brings Detective Comics (Vol. 2) #27, and another opportunity to celebrate that original issue, and Batman’s 75th anniversary, which DC does in a 90-page, prestige-format special issue — essentially a trade paperback with some ads in it — featuring contributions from the writers of all four of the main Batman books of the moment and about as strong a list of contributing artists as a reader could hope for.

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It’s better, down where it’s wetter: ‘The Wake’ & ‘Black is the Color’

wake-black

Before Scott Snyder began writing Batman and became the hottest writer at DC Comic and an overall direct market darling, garnering high sales and high praise for his work on the title, he was penning the Vertigo series American Vampire. Sharply written and clever in its conception and execution, it infused a longtime staple of fantasy literature with some fresh ideas, and was also both good and well-received (that Stephen King was writing back-ups in it for a while probably didn’t hurt any, either).

Not long ago, Snyder returned to Vertigo for another series scarily reinventing a legendary creature with The Wake, drawn by fellow Sean Murphy (Joe The Barbarian, Punk Rock Jesus, some Hellblazer), with whom Snyder previously collaborated on American Vampire miniseries (2011′s Survival of the Fittest). This time the jump from ordinary to scary is a lot further, as Snyder’s not reinventing vampires, but mermaids of all things.

Well, mer-people, I guess, as they all look rather androgynous, like sci-fi creatures from the black lagoon from the waist up, rather than pretty naked ladies, and, of course, fish from the waist down. Mer-creatures, then. Or maybe mer-monsters.

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‘Harley Quinn’ #1: Introducing DC’s answer to Deadpool?

harley quinn #1 coverIt’s been about 10 years since the first ongoing series of popular Batman: The Animated Series export Harley Quinn published its 38th and final issue, so she was due — if not overdue — for another shot, particularly given that DC Comics’ current strategy means publishing a certain number of books each month, and the market seems to be rejecting a lot of those. Looked at in that light, then, this week’s Harley Quinn #1 was something of an inevitability.

The character certainly hasn’t been idle all that time, of course: She was a frequent presence in the Bat-books, shared the 2009-2011 Gotham City Sirens with Catwoman and Poison Ivy, briefly joined the Gail Siomone-written Secret Six and, with the New 52 reboot, she received a new origin story and costume in the pages of Suicide Squad. And, of course, she appeared at least briefly in various Batman cartoons during that time, as well as in the extremely popular Batman: Arkham video games and the more recent Injustice: Gods Among Us.

Certainly the character is popular, and while different fans probably like her for different reasons, the important factors seem to be that 1.) she’s a lady, 2.) she’s a sexy lady, and 3.) she offers the same sense of anarchy and dark humor as her sometimes-boyfriend The Joker, but without the depravity. More often than not — particularly in the comics and cartoons — she’s as much antihero as villain, a safer alternative to The Joker, whose evil serial killer portrayal is no so deeply embedded into the character that it can be difficult for creators to walk him back toward any more lighthearted portrayals.

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Robot Reviews | ‘Artists, Authors, Thinkers, Directors’

Artists Authors Thinkers Directors

Artists Authors Thinkers Directors

Artists Authors Thinkers Directors by Paul Hornschemeier, Fantagraphics Books, 112 pages, $19.99.

This isn’t comics per se, but rather a collection of portraits Hornschemeier did of various notable figures as a late-night drawing exercise of sorts. One of the things I like is that Hornschemeier tries to change his style to suit the subject matter, or at least keep things from getting similar, so that Edward Gorey might be portrayed in a traditional stipple/cross-hatch method, J.D. Salinger and John Steinbeck are all made up of severe, angular, slashing lines, while P.G. Wodehouse seems to consist of a collection of basic geometric shapes that threaten to break off into pure abstraction. My favorites are probably the “blind continuous line” drawings, where Hornschemeier attempted to capture a person’s likeness without looking at the drawing or lifting his pen form the paper. These images have a lovely chaos to them that nevertheless manage to coalesce into an identifiable face.

On the downside, Hornschemeier has a tendency to elongate people’s faces, which can result in some rather odd-looking figures (Charles Schulz in particular seems rather off-model). He’s also obviously working off of photos, and part of me wished he took even more of a chance in attempting to draw his figures in different poses or expressions — especially with someone like Tesla, where the original image is so well know. On the upside, I also appreciated Hornschemeir’s notes in the back on each individual. Every so often he comes up with a delightful turn of phrase that captures an artist’s essence, as when he describes Richard Scarry art as, “The aesthetic equivalent of a towel fresh from the dryer.” All in all, it’s a nice little gift book that holiday present-shoppers can give to fans of Mother, Come Home or those who simply share the same sort of admiration Hornschemeier clearly does for these creative people.

Balloonless | Gaiman’s ‘Make Good Art’ speech, in book form

make good art coverI attended a small, perpetually broke Catholic high school that couldn’t afford to employ a guidance counselor. If we could have afforded one, it’s highly unlikely it would’ve been Neil Gaiman, as nice as that might have been.

At the time I was nearing graduation and about to go off to college to earn an expensive degree in pursuit of my lifelong — all 18 years of it — ambition to be a writer, Gaiman was just the writer of The Sandman (and a few other pretty great comics), and was, in fact, nearing the final story arc of that seminal series. At that point in my life, I certainly would’ve liked advice from the writer of one of my favorite comic series.

In the years since, Gaiman’s bona fides have only increased. In addition to writing comics, he’s written novels for adults and kids, he’ s written picture books, he’s written screenplays, he’s seen his works adapted into television and film, and he’s enjoyed  the rarefied position of being a writer whose works are not only popular, but acclaimed, as well as being almost universally beloved in the field of comics, an industry with more than its fair share of crooks and cranks, of drawn daggers and venom.

Who better to offer advice to a young person about to embark — or at least attempt to embark — on a life in the arts, particularly a young person who would like to be a successful, professional writer of quality fiction? Someone who might want to grow up to be someone like, say, Neil Gaiman?

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A Month of Wednesdays | ‘JLA,’ ‘Sabertooth Swordsman’ & more

centaur's lifeA 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.

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‘Radical Jesus’ chronicles the legacy of the liberal rabble-rouser

radical jesus coverEarlier 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.

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Robot Reviews | ‘Another’

Kiyohara_Another_TPAnother, 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)

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My strange love for Tom Taylor’s ‘Injustice: Gods Among Us’

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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.

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Anders Nilsen contemplates God and gods in ‘Rage of Poseidon’

rageNo one could ever accuse Anders Nilsen of lacking ambition.

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.

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A Month of Wednesdays | ‘Endless Wartime,’ ‘Death of the Family’ and more

endless war timeAvengers: 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.”

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Reviews | ‘Sandman: Overture’ #1 & ‘Damian: Son of Batman’ #1

sandman coverI 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.

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‘Look Straight Ahead’ depicts mental illness as only a comic can

look straight ahead coverThe 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.

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Robot Reviews | ‘Over the Wall,’ ‘Monster on the Hill’ and other all-ages comics

Over the Wall

Over the Wall

Over the Wall by Peter Wartman, Uncivilized Books, 80 pages, $14.95.

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.

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