Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Godzilla: The Half-Century War
by James Stokoe
The first issue of James Stokoe’s wide-screen Godzilla: The Half-Century War was given to me for free by a reader who was so impressed with what he discovered that he gave five additional copies to random strangers at the comic store. This man wasn’t a promoter or a retailer, just a guy who enjoyed watching a nascent lizard god wreak visceral havoc on 1954 Tokyo across double page spreads. I can’t fault the man’s generous enthusiasm. Writer/artist James (Orc Stain) Stokoe gilds his pages with an absurd amount of detail. Whether he’s armoring the titular monster in hundreds of rigid platelets or framing the windows of an exploding metropolis, these pages take minutes to fully absorb. These images should be dissected, not watched. The story also staggers into a cool direction, sharing the required destruction porn with a focus on Lieutenant Ota Murakami, a tank operative who watches his city burn on one of his first assignments. Murakami sports an assured, everyman voice that lends a title about plasma-spewing reptiles some worm’s eye relativity. His motivations, which veer toward suicidal, aren’t quite as relatable; there’s no sense of trauma or survivor’s guilt to explain why a 20-something recruit would sign up to fight a nuclear demon. It’s a tiny complaint for a book whose production values are so mammoth, though. (SE)
The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America
by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and Wayne Vansant
Hill and Wang, 2012
From the same team that brought you The Vietnam War: A Graphic History comes this tale of the in some ways parallel lives of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the two figures who may have done the most to end the institution of slavery in the United States. Clearly laid out, with a clever device that renders each story in a different color (until the two men meet and it switches to full color), the book is probably best for high schoolers, despite its focus on compromise and sometimes subtle political points. The simplicity of its language and the difficulty in finding compelling visuals to accompany a story that, after all, is at its heart about negotiation hamper it a little. There are moments in which we get Douglass’s and Lincoln’s own words, which make the rest of it all seem on the dry side, but the book can serve as an excellent teaching tool to bring out the gray areas even in a discussion of the Civil War. Anyone who doesn’t specialize in this material will learn something. (HB)
The Superheroes Employment Agency
by Marilyn Singer and Noah Z. Jones
Less a comic than something resembling a book of Shel Silverstein’s poems, if they had a loosely connected narrative running behind them, this spoof of superhero tropes is still kind of cute and best targeted at the 6-10 age range. Almost every poem, brightly illustrated by Noah Jones, can stand on its own, with the exception of a few featuring previously introduced characters, and only a couple of them have more than one panel. Jones’s bright, cartoony renderings of characters including Blunder Woman and Stuporman are pleasing in the same realm as James Kochalka’s kids stuff, not to mention indicative of yet another style he can execute well. Although the meter isn’t always perfect in the verse, the thought process behind each superhero knockoff is apparent. Rather than be content with a joke on a name, Singer has put some time into thinking up what, exactly, Muffy the Vampire Sprayer would wield (garlic caulk). The conceit wears a little thin by the end, especially for younger attention spans, but the result is generally positive and a fine idea for kids who haven’t had their love of puns shamed out of them yet. (HB)
Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1
by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo
DC Comics, 2012
Some of the arguments against Beyond Watchmen make sense. The only reason these comics exist is because Time Warner knows they’ll sell. That in no way diminishes the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, or differs from pretty much any other comic released by a major publisher. It can make these comics creatively suspect, though, and that suspicion is only heightened by the high quality and self-contained nature of the original. (And anyway, these comics really don’t need to exist—the references and pastiches that Moore deployed as characters serve no vital purpose outside of the original Watchmen series.) Other arguments don’t make any sense at all, though, especially any that lead laughably strident pundits to disparage Joe Kubert in an obituary because he took a job inking his son. The overblown reaction of the anti-Before Watchmen crowd makes otherwise sensible critiques almost feel like tacit endorsements of these comics, comics that, sadly and unsurprisingly, have been largely bad. In short: the only correct reaction to any side of this story is a long, dejected sigh.
Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1 is another disappointment, despite strong and appropriately realistic artwork from the reliable Lee Bermejo (whose style works far better here than in the Superman serial from Wednesday Comics). Rorschach might be the most popular character from the original among (potentially misguided?) fans, but he’s also the most simplistic and, thus, least interesting. His backstory, so tragic and shocking to a thirteen-year-old reading Watchmen for the first time, now feels like a crass cliché pulled from the Wikipedia entry for any notable serial killer. Azzarello’s script recaps that origin in short bursts from Rorschach’s journal but otherwise focuses less on the man than the morally destitute New York City of 1977, with stock scenes of porno theaters, street corner prostitutes and drug-dealing biker gangs. Pastiche works when you glide over the details—spend too much time on any one angle and you can get bogged down in the tedious and overly familiar. This is a mediocre script from an often fine writer. Don’t hold it against creators for doing their job, but you can totally grumble when they don’t do it as well as they’ve proven they can. The best thing about Rorschach #1 is the variant cover from Jim Steranko. (GM)