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.

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