Every Wednesday, Paste looks at some of the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame outfielder, is as celebrated for his commitment to charity as his exploits on the baseball diamond. His life and playing career were tragically cut short while trying to bring aid to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua in 1972. Wilfred Santiago’s reverent comic biography 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente respectfully portrays both the player and the humanitarian without ever devolving into hagiography. Brief glimpses into Clemente’s childhood in Puerto Rico hint at his future, showcasing his natural talent on the diamond, the ambition and work ethic inspired in part by the early death of an older sister, and the poverty and deep-seated religious conviction that forged Clemente’s lifelong commitment to good works. Santiago doesn’t belabor any points in depicting the external pressures that forged Clemente’s personality, from the grief caused by premature loss to the racial intolerance he had to confront in the South of the 1950s and 1960s. Santiago’s pleasantly cartoonish art defuses the sort of stifling sincerity that often turns well-intentioned works like this into ponderous bores. His dynamic layouts during the excellently rendered game scenes are tremendous, amazingly capturing the tension and euphoric release of a successful at-bat. Santiago stretches and skews panels to imbue those moments with motion, from a player sliding into a base to a ball soaring over an infielder’s outstretched glove. Santiago makes the sport exciting for even the most die-hard anti-baseball lout, but more importantly reminds us of the man behind one of the most inspirational figures in sports. (GM)
Image Comics, 2011
Butcher Baker is Joe Casey’s cynical riff on Captain America, brimming with all of the testosterone two engorged biceps can squeeze out of the American Dream. Propelled by a nice teaser marketing campaign, this could very well be the next buzz-worthy gem for Image Comics. Heavens knows no other mainstream publisher would print anything as graphic as what’s found in the first 18 pages of this issue. The story begins with (no joke) Jay Leno and Dick Cheney stumbling into an X-Rated den full of prostitutes and blow to call retired uberpatriot Butcher Baker back into active duty. Most of the panels revel in pure shock value, featuring full-frontal nudity and four letter tirades. One can’t help but feel that Casey and artist Mike Huddleston are holding up a massive yield sign to anyone expecting some good-humored fisticuffs. Knowing the talent, be prepared for a reckless dive into satire and cultural commentary, but we’ll have to wait to see how Baker’s further adventures pan out to gauge the necessity of this hardcore posturing. If past is predicator though, more than a few similarities can be made to Automatic Kafka, Casey’s cool, if short-lived, exposé of silver-age icons crawling their way out of obscurity. Huddleston’s linework is worth the cover price alone, tinged with an animated, fluid edge similar to Mike Kunkel (Herobear And The Kid) and Christian Gossett (Red Star). (SE)
Top Shelf, 2011
If you had to guess which of the two fellows who worked on this crime noir OGN was making his debut and which was more experienced in the field, you’d probably get it wrong. Eric Skillman, who wrote Liar’s Kiss, has a background in graphic design and packaging, but his writing abilities are pretty solid. Yes, if you’re at all familiar with the genre, you’ll most likely figure out the twist ending before you get there, but the dialogue isn’t too corny, the pace is quick, and the action full of sex and violence. Soriano’s artwork, on the other hand, really takes away from the impact. The idea behind it is right—simple black-and-white panels, heavy on the black, and exaggerated characteristics like lips, chins, and eyes—but the pages end up looking messy rather than having the crisp impact of true noir, and Soriano’s people are often ugly more than stylized. It’s a quick read and not an unpleasant one, but it’s not quite up to Ed Brubaker’s level. (HB)
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011
Here’s a theory: if you can’t find something to love about John Stanley’s Melvin Monster, you’re probably a miserable human being that I never want to talk to ever. Not that I’m judging you, or anything. Stanley’s decades-old comic for kids is probably the most adorable cultural artifact from the 1960s monster fad that spawned stuff like “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family.” Stanley’s only goals are to be cute and funny and he nails them both. If you’re the type who recoils from cuteness and is annoyed by fun then get back to your sad-faced superhero dismemberfests and leave real comics like this for us home-owning adults. The third volume of Drawn and Quarterly’s beautiful hardcover reissues collects the last three issues of Melvin Monster, and also finally rights the gravest wrong from the previous editions and includes a gallery of covers from the entire series. Sure, it’s fundamentally more of the same, as every issue consists of gag strips built around the conflict between the cheery, optimistic Melvin and the more monstrous denizens of Monsterville. Unlike most kids comics Melvin Monster is actually funny, though, forsaking the bad puns and stock situations of (for example) Harvey titles like Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost for Looney Toons-style absurdity and genuine wit. Also, like I said, Stanley draws the cutest damn monsters you’ll ever see. (GM)