Books  |  Reviews

Comic Book & Graphic Novel Round-Up (2/8/12)

February 8, 2012  |  12:00pm

Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.

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Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works
by Jonathan Gruber and Nathan Schreiber

Hill and Wang, 2011
Rating: 5.8

Much along the lines of Government Issue and Will Eisner’s collected PS Magazine, both of which I recently reviewed here, is MIT economist Jonathan Gruber’s comic book that attempts to explain the Affordable Care Act to Joe Schmo. In other words, like many comics produced with educational aims, it succeeds far more at the education part of its goal than at entertainment. On the other hand, you could hardly publish a book with only Gruber’s very simplified way of laying out the issues. Minus the pictures, whether or not they explain anything (and often they serve more as a way of stretching out the text than as genuine illumination), it would amount to a pamphlet. That’s also the book’s strength. Even those of us who read the newspaper probably aren’t well versed in all the ACA’s provisions and what they may mean. Gruber, as one of its architects, may not be impartial, but he’s obviously knowledgeable about it. Consider Health Care Reform the CliffsNotes version of policy. It’ll enable you to get into effective arguments with your friends and family members and follow what’s soon to take place in the Supreme Court. Read it for the comics? Nope, but that doesn’t mean you might not want to pick it up. (HB)

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Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast #1
by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan

Dark Horse, 2012
Rating: 7.7

Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard molded his swords-and-sandal hero in the Civil War mythologies of his youth, fueled by tales of blood-stained pioneers stranded in untamed country. Characterization and motive were passive at best; everywhere and everyone that wasn’t the good guy was probably trying to kill him. The series reads like Jack London playing Dungeons & Dragons, with endless horizons full of deviant gods, demons, warlords, sorcerers, beasts and broads devoted to mankind’s unavoidable destruction. Leave it to highbrow scribe Brian Wood to introduce a murderous barbarian in prehistoric hell with no violence and lots of talking. (OK – one guy dies, but only in a flashback). And it actually works. Woods and frequent collaborator Becky Cloonan reframe Howard’s landmark Queen of the Black Coast arc with elegance and wit, casting Conan as a 20-something swashbuckling adventurer before his growth into a beefcake conqueror. The majority of the issue occurs on a merchant ship as an escaped Conan listens to his captain describe an albino pirate goddess who’s destroying all maritime commerce. The absorbing script hints at the DIY amputation service Conan is known for, but Cloonan sells the package with some truly stunning art. Every hair lock, muscle and nautical structure is perfectly proportioned, but still retains a coarse darkness like a wood engraving. Her rendition of the Black Queen is particularly mesmerizing, combining sex, violence and savagery without looking like an 80’s black metal album. Hellboy colorist Dave Stewart makes the characters pop against auburn sunsets and crimson skies, lending a charged air to the shitstorm that’s sure to break next issue. (SE)

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Jinchalo
by Matthew Forsythe

Drawn + Quarterly, 2012
Rating: 7.2

It’s not really fair to complain that Matt Forsythe’s 120-page wordless story based on Korean folklore isn’t long enough, especially when every page is beautifully drawn and even the bar code on the back is creatively rendered, but the lack of verbiage may mean it reads even quicker than the average comic and the swift end leaves you less breathless than desirous of a real conclusion. The art conveys much. The protagonist, a little girl of boundless appetite, is emotive in her body language, and characters are quickly and clearly defined. The narrative is charmingly weird, progressing in the meandering way of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, where you’re never sure what’s a dream and what’s really happening. Much as with silent film, the book is theoretically accessible to anyone speaking any language. All of these aspects deserve much credit, but the tale needs either more space to unfold or a little more structure. When the end arrives, you feel that something is missing. Still, each page remains enjoyable on its own, even if their collective potential is unfulfilled. (HB)

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Winter Soldier #1
by Ed Brubaker and Butch Guice

Marvel Comics, 2012
Rating: 7.0

Ed Brubaker is the most consistent writer in comics today. He’s had one or two minor missteps (hey, Uncanny X-Men) but when he sticks to tightly plotted crime or spy thrillers you can expect, at the least, a briskly paced, hard-nosed, thoroughly competent action yarn. He’s also not averse to the rich and ridiculous comic book history of the Marvel Universe, suffusing his earnest espionage stories with awesome old goofball ideas from the 1960s, like a magical cube that can reshape reality and monkey astronauts with superpowers. Winter Soldier #1 unsurprisingly feels a lot like Captain America, the book it spun off of. Brubaker sets up what looks like a Bourne riff with Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, tracking down augmented Russian superspies that have remained in stasis in America since the 1950s. This first issue takes a last second left turn involving Latverian politics and a longtime Fantastic Four villain that has largely been played for laughs for decades. That reveal is slightly jarring, and might unnecessarily clutter up the simplicity of Bucky tracking down Russian sleepers built to replace him. Brubaker made this work over in Captain America, where he brought in characters like Arnim Zola and the Nazi Master Man while maintaining a serious and slightly realistic tone, so if he is aiming for a similar “spandex John le Carré” vibe with Winter Soldier there’s reason to think he can hit it. (GM)

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