Sunday, April 26, 2009

Battle of the ... enhanced ... ladies: Eve wins!

Do you love comicbooks? Do you read them in public, say while commuting to work on the train?

I don't. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite. But comics has a certain reputation for being juvenile, for appealing to creepy old men who've always wondered what Wonder Woman looks like under that goofy outfit of hers.

And, yes, there are the breasts. Those Marvel and DC superheroes sure do live in odd neighborhoods: Every woman who lives near them have pumpkin-sized breasts. How do they all stand up?

It's embarrassing, all right. C'mon, comicbook artists. Stand up to your publishers. Tell them there's nothing wrong with normal, human-sized breasts. They're just fine that way, really.

Now, all that being said, I'm looking at two different comic series today that both feature scantily clad, rather curvy (to say the least) heroines. One, though, is clever and funny. The other is a colossal bore.

Let's get the bore out of the way first. Writer Paul Dini's Madame Mirage, published by Top Cow Comics, features a title character who needs to buy some bigger shirts. Seriously. How she can run after a bad guy without killing herself, I'll never figure out.

Top Cow, like most publishers hoping to one day become Marvel or DC, has never shied away from the ultra-busty heroines. But Madame Mirage is a stretch even for them. In fact, the character's appearance really does distract from the story.

Though maybe that's not too bad. The story, your basic revenge yarn, isn't all that deep. In fact, Madame Mirage is little more than a slick excuse for women in tight outfights kicking the shit out of baddies. If that's enough for you, then check this out.

If it's not -- and it shouldn't be -- then instead explore Eve: Vampire Diva. An independent comic created by writer Frank LaPerch, Eve concerns the adventure of a vampire who also happens to be a fading pop singer. The pop singer angle is a lot of fun, as Eve is constantly reminded that she hasn't had a hit in quite some time. She also has to deal with a slovenly, piggish manager who provides some welcome comic reliefe.

Eve is a fun character, too. You actually like her. And, if you're like me, you're more interested in seeing if she can score another number-one single than you are in if she can defeat the monsters she's poised to battle.

Yes, Eve is a good vampire. She's also usually scantily clad. But there's something about the way Eve is drawn. She's not quite as maddeningly slick as is Madame Mirage. Maybe I'm just predisposed to like independent comics better than I am more mainstream fare, butEve left me wanting more, whereas Madame Mirage left me wanting to hide my face for even picking up her first trade volume.

For more about Eve: Vampire Diva, check out this Web site. For more about Madame Mirage ... well, find it yourself online. Shouldn't be too hard.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Even Alan Moore can screw up once in a while. Right?

Alan Moore's not perfect.

Yes, I know this is heresy. Moore, of course, is the writer behind some of the greatest graphic novels of all time, works of art such as Watchmen, V for Vendetta and, of course, the greatest run of Swamp Thing of all time.

Moore is also responsible for the amazing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and its long awaited sequel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier. The first is another hit, a work that once again proves that graphic novels and comic books, when done right, are as powerful as any prose novel. The second, unfortunately, is an indulgent, nearly unreadable mess.

Most people know the story behind The League. Famous characters in literature -- Allan Quartermain, Capt. Nemo, Dr. Jekyl and the Invisible Man -- band together to, basically, save the world. Along the way, they must overcome their own shortcomings.

The book is filled with snappy dialogue, amazing action and lots of dark humor. You also come to care for these characters, even if they don't necessarily resemble their more classic versions.

The Black Dossier, on the other hand, is a mess. Moore seems to throw everything at the pages here. There are lengthy excerpts from a book of adult -- read, "dirty" -- stories that aren't so much titillating as they are annoying. The characters, too, lack the zip of the original adventurers from the first volume.

There is one, and only one, bright spot in Black Dossier: James, or Jimmy, Bond. Moore depicts him as a failure-prone thug, a violent monster far unlike the suave agent played by Sean Connery or Daniel Craig.

If you're looking for great writing, check out 99 percent of Moore's work. (I'd stay away from the well-known Batman story The Killing Joke, though. It doesn't really hold up over time. From Hell, though, is amazing.) Don't, though, pick up the Black Dossier. Trust me on this one.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Comics and politics: Palin beats Obama, this time

Barack Obama trounced John McCain and, by association, his quirky, not quite lucid running mate Sarah Palin, in last November's elections. But Palin has gotten her revenge on the comic book shelves. Her comic book beats the snot out of Obama's.

You might remember last year that both John McCain and Barack Obama received the comic-book biography treatment from publisher IDW. Bluewater Publishing, a smaller independent company best known for series featuring scantily clad female heroines, entered the fray, too, making a big splash with their comicbook biography of VP candidate Sarah Palin.

Both publishers received scads of publicity for their biographies. There's a big difference between the offerings from Bluewater and IDW, though: Bluewater's biography is fun. IDW's, both of Obama and McCain, were dreadfully boring.

Ever watch a movie biography? Remember the one Ed Harris did of artist Jackson Pollock? The movie was earnest and informative. It strove to teach what made this strange, almost socially inept artist tick. And it was dreadfully boring.

It's a problem most biographies seem to have. There's no real strong narrative pushing these movies along. In short, there's no real story with them. That's what happens with IDW's biographies of McCain and Obama.

Both comics are filled with captions. They crowd the panels. It's like reading a straight biography with pictures thrown in. Neither book takes advantage of the ceativity that the comicbook format allows creators. There are no surprises in these books. Nothing to make a reader laugh or swear. And who wants to read a comic like that?

Bluewater's Palin book, though, goes the opposite route, and it pays off. There's a story here. While Palin is the subject of the book, and the comicbook does illustrate the highlights of her life, the main story focuses on writer Neal Bailey's struggle to write a comic about a woman whose politics he doesn't necessarily like. There's even a floating sort of Jiminy Cricket character who tries to streer Bailey toward the objective path.

This allows for a load of funny asides, and a closer look at the struggles of the creative process.

The Bluewater story, in short, does take advantage of the comic medium's unique qualities to tell a story that can only be told this way in a graphic format. I can't imagine a movie or prose biography on Palin that would be as much fun.

The good news is that Bluewater is planning several more biographies of famous polticians and female leaders. The company has already published books on Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is now promoting its upcoming biographies of Colin Powell and princess Diana.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Two new worlds: One's fun, the other's not

Comics can take us to other worlds like few other mediums can. It all depends on the artist and writer. They don't have to worry about special effects budgets. They don't have to fret over cheesey computer graphics.

With the right writer and the right artist paired together, comic books can create rich alternate worlds that make us readers forget that we're heading off to another day at our cubicle.

Of course, with the wrong artist and writer, comic books can create alternate worlds that are as cheesey and unsatisfying as anything George Lucas spits up at the screen.

I recently stumbled upon examples of both of these extremes. On the good -- actually, the very, very good -- is writer/artist Ben Templesmith's Wormwood Gentleman Corpse: It Only Hurts When I Pee, the second collection of the surreal adventures of Templesmith's suave and wise magical worm.

On the bad -- the very, very bad -- is Marvel Comics' Spider-Man/Red Sonja trade paperback by writer Michael Avon Oeming and artist Mel Rubi.

A style all its own

Both of these trade paperbacks try to take readers to new world, Wormwood to the twisted kingdom inside Templesmith's mind and Spider/Sonja to what turns out to be an extremely generic sword-and-sorcery world.

But only Wormwood succeeds because only Wormwood boasts both art and writing that works together to create a bizarrely amusing alternate universe.

For those who don't know, Wormwood isn't really a corpse. He's a worm he lives in the skull of a corpse. Somehow, the worm animates this corpse, leading to several oddball adventures with his two companions, a heavily tatooed tough girl and a mechanical man who resents the fact that Wormwood has never granted him a functioning metal penis.

The first Wormwood volume was entertaining. But its ending left me cold. Volume 2, however, is a far more satisfying read. This edition focuses on leprechaun troubles.

Don't think of the green-clad, brogue-spouting leprechauns of cereal commercials. Think monstrous, slobbering, unintelligible and filthy little beasts. These are leprechauns that have been twisted and rehsaped by Templesmith's ample imagination.

As usual, Templesmith's art is dead on. It's creepy, gruesome and, somehow, extremely comic. You know Templesmith is a wonderful artist because his comics look like no one else's.

The writing accomplishes a major feat: It makes animated corpses, magical worms and hateful little leprechauns into likeable, rather human characters.

It Only Hurts When I Pee is a fun, clever trip to a new world.

No style at all

Spider-Man/Red Sonja, on the other hand, does not accomplish much of anything. This is unfortunate, because of all Marvel's heroes, Spider-Man is the one I've always enjoyed most.

Red Sonja, however? She's always been an incredible waste of ink. C'mon, that steel bikini she wears? You can't tell me that protects anything. And, yes, I know why she wears a steel bikini. (I am familiar with comics' main demographics.) But that "armor" seems a little ridiculous even for the sexist rules of the mainstream comics world.

The "story" here, involves Mary Jane, Spider-Man's main girl (at least before the mess of Brand New Day changed all that) being somehow telported back to Red Sonja's time. In fact, if I read this correctly, Mary Jane sort of becomes Red Sonja.There is a reason for this buried somewhere in the book, but I honestly can't remember it.

The biggest problem here is that this super team-up works the same way most Marvel team-up stories work. The two protagonists at first don't understand each other. They spend a few panels trying to knock the crap out of each other, learn to work together then take on their mutual villains.

That's what happens here. And I won't be spoiling anything by saying that, yes, Spider-Man and Red Sonja eventually work together to save the day.

By the way, you might compare this story to Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602, which also transports Marvel superheroes to a new time. If you do, you'll see Spider-Man/Red Sonja simply doesn't hold up.

Welcome to the worst and the best of the comic-book world

Serious scholars used to sneer at comic books.

That might be because comic books were usually bad.

Today, though, that's changing. Even the stodgiest scholars have to admit that some of today's graphic novels are pretty damn good.

With this in mind, I've decided to start this blog comparing the very best of the comics industry with the very worst. Three times a week -- Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday -- I'll compare two related comics. One will be great. One will be horrible. But they will be related, somehow.

I hope you enjoy this blog, and that you might even discover some gems of the comics world that you may have overlooked. Feel free, too, to suggest your own best- and worst-of works. I'm always ready to discuss comics.