Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Drawn + Quarterly, 2011
It’s not that Kate Beaton dances on the thin line between stupid and clever. Instead, she plays both sides of the net between them, often simultaneously. Her mostly three-panel strips (and she has an instinctive sense of the rhythm of that form) address classic literature, Canadian history, and all manner of cultural highbrow whatnot, but they do not make you feel as though you are being forced to eat brussels sprouts. There is no “I should like this” as you flip pages or polite smirking as with many a New Yorker cartoon. Rather, Beaton zeroes in on the ridiculousness of all her subject matter and deftly gives Bram Stoker, the Bronte sisters, Shakespeare, and Simon Bolivar a Wet Willie. Her drawings aren’t neat—the pen strokes scritch and scratch all over the place—but the faces and postures of her characters are fiercely expressive and hilarious. She also has an excellent grasp of what’s funny, using profanity, absurdism, sexism, racism, acknowledgment of sexism and racism, and pop culture to provoke laughs. That all sounds like she could be the Seth McFarlane of comics, but her work is relentlessly intelligent and, even when it deals with scatological subject matter, it shows excellent taste. This is not to say that she doesn’t ever go for an easy joke, but sometimes the easy jokes are easy for a reason. You will probably laugh hard enough at this book to annoy anyone else in the room. I know I did. (HB)
Craig Thompson’s new book has been long in the making, but the resulting 3.3 pounds of intricate happenings and stellar art is totally worth the wait and a huge leap forward for him. Blankets was an important story but a bit on the whiny side; Carnet de Voyage a lovely object but not much in the way of story. Habibi, on the other hand, reminds one of nothing so much as the work of novelist John Barth, with its clear love of patterns, narrative, and beauty. Like Barth, Thompson structures his work finely and complexly, taking a page from the 1001 Nights in more than one way. There are no throwaway details in Habibi. Its nine chapters mirror the setup of a protective talisman, weaving connections between numbers and letters and reveling in the magic both provide. But it’s not just fun to take apart and put back together. Its deep affection for tale-telling is reflected in the love the two main characters have for one another, and Thompson’s sincerity coexists with his games. He impressively evokes grief and loss, difficult emotions to get a handle on without resorting to a Vader “noooo,” and the intricacy of each page suggests his involvement with its source material. Thompson may be an outsider, but Habibi doesn’t come off as Orientalist, even in its admiration. Rather, it is long-steeped in the tradition it portrays, and the fragrance of Arabic art (minus, of course, the human figures who appear throughout) permeates the book. It’s also incredibly compelling and readable on many levels. (HB)
Halcyon is the definition of a pleasant surprise. Nothing about it screams for low expectations, but it seems to have flown under the mainstream radar until recently. That’s a shame. Written by the husband/wife team of Marc Guggenheim and Tara Butters, this book is a smart, poignant ode to such post-modern classics as The Watchmen and The Authority. Guggenheim tips his hand in the Foreword, explaining that the book’s origin came about as a desire to pick up where Alan Moore’s seminal masterpiece left off. So just as manipulative mastermind Ozymandias ushered in an artificial era of peace in The Watchmen, Halcyon picks up the torch to show a new world where heroic archetypes struggle to find an identity after aggression ceases to exist. Sabre, the obsessive, violent brawler previously incarnated as Midnighter, Rorschach and Batman, is the sole costume to sort through the conspiracy to try to destroy the MacGuffin that’s made reality a pacifist theme park. Suffice to say, what he finds isn’t pretty. Working in derivative templates twice removed from their source material (post-post modern?), this cool narrative feels subversively original. Meticulously constructed like a tumbling house of cards, Halcyon’s intriguing mystery delivers from exposition to the last panel. And spoiler alert – the ending’s a doozy. (SE)
DC Comics, 2011
Rating: The Flash — 7.2, Aquaman — 4.3
For a character that just recreated the entire DC Universe with his feet, the Flash has struggled mightily to remain relevant these last few years. This “New 52” reboot is the fourth Flash relaunch in five years. It’s only one issue, but so far this is the best Flash comic since the abortive Mark Waid / Tom Peyer Flash family run of 2007. Barry Allen is still back, as square-jawed and earnest as ever. Writer-artists Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato compensate for Allen’s dull nature by setting up a love triangle, introducing an obvious future supervillain in disguise, and ending on an appropriately science-based cliffhanger. The story’s competent, but the art is excellent, with subtly expressive faces, striking panel layouts, and a double-page title splash that might be the best single piece of artwork out of the entire New 52.
Aquaman has it even rougher than the Flash. It’s not just his recent history but, well, everything about him that has fundamentally lost the readership’s respect. DC has tried to right Aquaman’s ship for decades to no avail. Maybe they should quit trying to win over the middle-aged man-child crowd, try to recapture the charm and positivity of Ramona Fradon’s old Silver Age Aquaman stories, and market that to actual children? If the goal is to make Joe Wednesday take Aquaman seriously as a confident, badass, modern-day superhero, Aquaman #1 isn’t too successful, as other than an introductory bank-robbery bust in Boston that basically drops Aquaman into The Town the comic consists of people making fun of the character. Instead of writing an interesting or perceptive story Johns and Reis try to rehabilitate an image ruined by hackneyed jokesters and snarky half-wits by having characters (including cops) make tired Aquaman cracks straight from Newsarama’s message board. The centerpiece and lowlight is a labored chat with a lazy blogger hipster stereotype who introduces himself with “I have a blog” (emphasis theirs) like it’s still 2004 or something. This sort of self-aware metacommentary isn’t clever, isn’t productive to getting your character over, and also makes no sense from a fictional perspective. Yes, Aquaman’s skill-set might not be as impressive as Superman’s, but if we lived in a world where both were real our minds would still be blown by a guy who can control sharks and leap hundreds of feet into the air. (GM)