Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
First Second, 2012
I’ve never read any of Jack Vance’s work before, and the laudatory introduction (originally published elsewhere) to this book makes that seem like a crime, but that would be easy to dismiss as hyperbole were it not for the marvelous story that follows. Adapted smartly by Humayoun Ibrahim, in a style rife with color and ornate within its small panels, the narrative is compact and well embroidered at the same time. One of the things that’s most pleasurable about the story is its lack of heroism. Ordinary people, behaving ordinarily, in extraordinary circumstances always makes for a good formula, and Vance/Ibrahim work it well. The visual format, if anything, seems to benefit the story, which involves life in a world where people communicate primarily through musical means, using a complex array of different instruments, each conveying a particular tone. Ibrahim’s choice of different borders for speech balloons (spiky, curlicued, purple, green, etc.) is an intelligent approach to solving the problem and an example of what he brought to this project. (HB)
DC Comics, 2012
The first few issues of the new Wonder Woman comic were among my favorite of DC’s New 52 relaunch. That’s largely because of Cliff Chiang’s striking art, which is about as good as you’ll find in superhero comics. His lines are clean and sumptuous, his figures bold and dynamic with a touch of cartoonish abstraction. Chiang’s art is like a less classical version of Michael Allred’s, or Darwyn Cooke’s without the midcentury obsession. It’s the best thing by far about Wonder Woman, which starts off with an intriguing new take on the problematic heroine before gradually running aground. Azzarello digs deep into the character’s mythic underpinnings, idiosyncratically (and humorlessly, for the most part) recasting the Greek Pantheon as punks, hipsters and other countercultural types. It lets Chiang indulge his love of drawing bands in the midst of seriously rocking out, but it doesn’t necessarily complement the story Azzarello tells. These gods are a serious lot, with only a bit of hipper-than-thou cattiness from Strife and the confused dejection of an anxious human pregnant with Zeus’s latest bastard breaking up the gloom. Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente covered broadly similar territory in their amazingly fun and light-hearted Hercules comic just a few years ago; it might not be fair to compare this book to that one, but if you’ve read both it’s hard not to. Still, Chiang’s art is tremendous, and Azzarello’s story is less off-putting than curiously remote. If the story was as lively as the art Wonder Woman would be unbeatable. (GM)
Between the subcutaneous buzz of Peter Panzerfaust and Green Wake, Kurtis Wiebe recently inflated from a blip on the pop culture radar to an official indie up-and-comer. A debut from Jim Valentino’s Shadowline corner in the Image Universe certainly doesn’t hurt either. And if that debut is called Grim Leaper, the tongue-in-cheek quotient is worth a look alone. Unfortunately, some goofy schlock is the only frill that makes this first issue worth a look. The Grim Leaper in question is Lou Collins, the victim of a curse that forces the target to perpetually die in gruesome accidents before waking up in the body of somebody else. Half of this equation works perfectly because Collins is devastatingly dull; fiction would not mourn his violent passing. The fact that he reemerges from the grave to hit on girls at funerals and vomit self-aware jokes about his cyclical torture puts the reader in as much pain as Collins. An end twist adds romance by introducing a fellow Leaper for Collins to canoodle with. Wiebe could be taking the Groundhog Day route to show how a man in existential misery can grow to love, but there’s a wide gulf between likeable jackasses and boring ones, and Bill Murray is nowhere to be found. (SE)
Previously attempted in shorter format, Derf Backderf’s memoir of his high school years and his friendship of sorts with future serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer is certainly compelling. Rather than the usual platitudes about the killer being “a nice guy” who “kept to himself,” we get a story in which a million signs went unheeded. It’s effectively rendered as tragedy while never minimizing the horror of Dahmer’s crimes, partially because it contains so many details of a geek’s high school experience in the 1970s, not an element we usually find in the true crime genre. The art works well, too. Backderf’s characters look sort of like Peter Bagge’s but elongated and less spittle-flecked, and his rendering of Dahmer’s robotic posture is exaggerated just enough to make it effective. The book isn’t powerfully illuminating, but it’s a unique insight into the early years of an infamous criminal and, at very least, it’ll make you mentally rifle through your graduating class again, wondering what’s become of the folks who don’t show up to reunions. (HB)