Comic Book & Graphic Novel Round-Up (4/27/11)

Salt Water Taffy, RASL, The Homeland Directive, Action Comics

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Comic Book & Graphic Novel Round-Up (4/27/11)

Every week, Paste looks at some of the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.

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Salt Water Taffy Volume 4: Caldera’s Revenge, Part 1 by Matthew Loux
Oni Press 2011
Rating: 8.3

I’d avoided the Salt Water Taffy series so far, thinking a) that’s kid stuff, and b) that I’d have to go back and read all the previous ones to understand the narrative. I was more than half right, but what I didn’t realize is that Matthew Loux’s wild tales of the Maine coast are so enthralling and sweet that I’d swear out loud upon realizing this entry in the series is a cliffhanger. Imagine the Hardy Boys with a far better sense of humor and, at least so far, much less in the way of narrative formula. If there’s a flaw to this book, it’s that it really does help to have read the previous three, as Loux takes a page from The Simpsons, with nods to a growing cast of characters from earlier episodes. One even gets his own brief story, written by Loux and drawn by Brian Stone, that serves as a make-up gesture for the main event’s not being concluded. Loux’s art is crisp without being workmanlike, full of interesting, distinctive swoops, and the tone strikes just the right note of goofiness without being too corny or full of life lessons. Should you buy these books for your young nieces and nephews? Absolutely, but you should read them yourself first. (HB)

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RASL #10 by Jeff Smith
Cartoon Books 2011
Rating: 8.6

In the 10 issues of his audacious sci-fi noir RASL, Jeff Smith has proven that his fluid animated style can gloriously tackle any genre he sets his pencil to. Though it hasn’t quite captured the absorbing excellence of Smith’s classic Bone, this series is well on its way to proving just as substantial as its forebear. The book features Rob, a universe-hopping art thief who might as well have wandered over from a Raymond Chandler novel. He’s a hard-drinking, pugnacious womanizer who doesn’t speak much, but is certainly heard when he does. A former scientist experimenting with theories from electrical innovator and wunderkind Nikola Tesla, Rob’s adventures have slowly deteriorated into a desperate cat-and-mouse chase involving a sociopathic government hit man and parallel versions of ex-girlfriends. The results have been a concentrated thrill; the simple line structure and minimalist dialogue hide sprawling plot undergrowth that has expanded with each issue. If there’s one arch-complaint, it’s that RASL isn’t the smoothest ride on its current schedule: suspense can’t function on a bi-monthly (and oftentimes more sporadic) schedule. Fortunately, Cartoon Books does a bang up job of releasing trades, and the eventual one-volume tome that’ll come out when this series wraps will be a definitive must have.(SE)

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The Homeland Directive by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston
Top Shelf 2011
Rating: 7.0

I remember a time when a man had to work to learn about conspiracies. That stuff used to be a secret. The Internet has made it easier to be paranoid than ever before, as any grandma or Fox News host can stumble upon the ludicrous mumblings of Alex Jones or Willis Carto. The Homeland Directive is a decidedly post-Internet work, both in its embrace of government paranoia and how it uses society’s dependence on staying wired in as a plot point. The conspiracy at the heart of this superbly paced thriller makes the Illuminati and the New World Order look like rank amateurs. It’s a deeply implausible plan in real world terms, but you’ll forget to ask questions as you’re pulled along in the wake of Venditti’s tight script and well-placed action. Huddleston’s art is impressive from a design standpoint, especially the coloring. Like Traffic, the colors change dramatically from scene to scene to match the environment, from the dingy brown air around the Atlanta airport to the institutional monochrome of hospitals and office spaces. Too bad the heavy-handed epilogue ends The Homeland Directive on a bum note. (GM)

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Action Comics #900 by Paul Cornell, Pete Woods, and many others
  DC Comics 2011
Rating: 3.5

With Action Comics #900, DC blows a perfect jumping on point for new readers. This double-stuffed edition of Action Comics commemorates the second oldest and longest-running comic , piling back-ups and guest spots from a number of well-known creators behind a lead from the current creative team of Paul Cornell and Pete Woods. That’s exactly what a book like this should be. It should also welcome the new readers that will no doubt check out this milestone issue, and that’s a test Action Comics #900 fails. In a crucial error the main story in Action Comics #900 isn’t a stand-alone adventure, or even a clean launching pad for a new storyline. Cornell’s story wraps up a long-running arc in which Lex Luthor is somehow imbued with God-like cosmic power. Perhaps this breakneck mass of lofty speeches and outer-space explosions is a satisfying and sensible conclusion, but it’s an incomprehensible mess to a curious reader randomly picking up a supposedly important comics landmark. Compare this to the recent 70th anniversary issue of Captain America, whose lead story unobtrusively explained current storylines while setting up the next major arc, with assorted back-ups telling simple stories that focused on different facets of the character’s essence. That doesn’t happen here. The best thing in Action Comics #900 is TV writer Damon Lindelof’s muted aside set on Krypton right before the explosion, with art from the always fantastic Ryan Sook. Fans of Geoff Johns or Gary Frank shouldn’t pick this up for their story, which is basically a two-page gag strip that misunderstands what the word “gag” means. Also skippable: the Richard Donner-penned screenplay-and-storyboard nonsense at the end, which misses the point even more than those awkward motion comics that often pop up as DVD extras . At 14 pages it’s easily the second longest story in the book, and that’s a lot of space to give up to something that is neither active or even really a comic. (GM)

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