Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams reintroduced the fantastic in June’s Super 8, channeling the escapist fun of ‘80s staples The Goonies, ET and other adventurous yarns aimed at kids. Little did Spielberg know that Grant Morrison beat him to the punch six months earlier with the first issue of Joe the Barbarian, an absorbing, clever fantasy overflowing with passion. Joe is an American everyboy with diabetes who recently lost his father. After some bullies steal his candy bar, Joe drifts into a hallucinogenic state induced by his dwindling blood sugar. He enters a surreal world where all of his toys and fantasies merge into a collective playpen of nostalgia. Veiled representatives from G.I. Joe, Transformers, Care Bears and the actual DC superhero pantheon make cameos. Fans of The Neverending Story and South Park’s “Imaginationland” arc will feel right at home. More impressive, Joe’s colorful quest mirrors his real-world struggle to find a can of life-saving soda in the kitchen two floors below his bedroom. For example, a bathroom collapse segues into a spirited naval fight between toilet pirates and a “sewer snapper.” In addition, his pet rat Jack morphs into the coolest anthropomorphic critter since Michelangelo. Sharp homage aside, Morrison’s characters convey heaps of personality with minimal dialogue, creating a deep emotional investment much like the writer’s other talking-pets book, We3. The rushed ending of this collection doesn’t live up to the ambition built by the first several issues, but Joe the Barbarian stands out as one of the most refreshing reads from Vertigo in recent memory. (SE)
Abrams Comic Arts, 2011
Ever wondered who produces those free comics that seem like they’re going to be a lot of fun but end up telling you to stay off drugs? No? Well, it turns out it’s frequently the government, which is kind of interesting, considering that the relationship between the feds and comics tends to be limited in common knowledge to Fredric Wertham’s crusade. That disconnect, along with the truest strain of “compulsive nerd in love with research”, is what prompted Richard Graham to compile this selection of government-produced comics, from WWII-era books drawn by Jack Davis, Milton Caniff and Will Eisner to Dennis the Menace telling kids how not to get poisoned. No doubt most of them are better as piece of ephemera than as comics, which is probably why Graham’s book is only a sampling of what’s out there, but the occasional gem pops up. For example, Walt Kelly’s Pogo explains how parents should manage their children’s television watching in an utterly charming work that instructs without feeling Jack Chick-ish. The book is good to dip into, but it might have better if it were even more comprehensive. It’s an interesting start. (HB)
Archaia Entertainment, 2011
The Sigh is a nice little book, a new fairytale you can breeze through within about half an hour. What it isn’t is a comic book. I’m not sure what the distinction is between comics that use one panel per page and a book that merely contains illustrations throughout (probably the placement of the text), but this one, like the Wimpy Kid series of books, is the latter. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading. Satrapi’s drawings aren’t her most careful work, but they have a breezy goofiness that’s appealing and the coloring appears crayon-like. The story may actually be better than the art, which wasn’t the case with her previous works, where they competed neck and neck. Anyone who grew up devouring Andrew Lang’s compilations of fairy stories, different versions of The 1001 Nights and anything with the word Grimm on the spine should really enjoy The Sigh, but it’s best suited for younger audiences still enmeshed in that world and not apt to be disappointed with its brevity. (HB)
Vertigo Crime, 2011
The latest installment in Max Allan Collins’ series of crime comics jumps from the 1930s to the 1970s, following up on two prose novels from the middle part of the last decade. It’s less of a throwback to the gangsters and G-Men mob movies of the Depression than the cynical vigilante films of the Nixon era. The Vietnam POW grandson of Tom Hanks’ Road to Perdition hitman embarks on a similar vendetta against the mob under the auspices of a Black Op organized by the Witness Protection Program. It’s like a government sponsored Death Wish, or if the Punisher was an undercover agent. What aims to be a taut genre exercise is undone by clunky, exposition-heavy prose and a lead character almost superhumanly skilled at all manner of “manly” pursuits but utterly devoid of personality. Terry Beatty’s realistic drawings of square-jawed men and curvaceous ladies suitably fit the subject matter, recalling the two-fisted work of John Severin, but when combined with the 1970s fashion (obviously a necessity given the plot) it can give off an unfortunate air of “Get Your War On” clip-art blandness. Still, the art’s the best thing about this unremarkable comic. (GM)