Friday, October 28, 2016

QUICK HITS: Archie, Astro City, Pirates of the Caribbean, Scooby-Doo Team-Up, Supergirl

Continuing my efforts to clean through the backlog of recent, unread comics . . .

ARCHIE, Nos. 12-13
Archie Comics, each 32 pgs., $3.99 — November-December

The Archie comics are hanging on to my pull list by one thin thread. As written by Mark Waid, the main title still has better characterizations than most things on the stands these days, but there's just not enough actual story per issue to justify $4. I wonder how much Archie Comics could save by not having three staples in the saddle stitching, instead of the two that's ben the industry standard for as long as there has been a comic book industry to standardize?

Issue 13, with the introduction of Cheryl Blossom into the New 52 Archie-verse, is the better of the two issues. It has artwork by Joe Eisma that is much more polished than the scratchy delineations in Issue 12 by Ryan Jampole and Thomas Pitilli. However, while more in line with the art style a super-hero comics fan might expect, the Eisma effort is far less dynamic than the highly kinetic Jampole/Pitilli pairing. To put it another way, pick any page in Issue 13 and you could drop it into most any Marvel or DC title just by changing the script. Issue 12, however, has the kind of art style you'd see on books that tend to show up on annual Best of Graphic Novels lists published by the New York Times Review of Books. It packs a higher emotional level, but is cartoony in a way that's not at all in the tradition of Dan Decarlo's smooth contour lines.

The Cheryl Blossom tale, at least, has a definite beginning, middle, and end. However, the story, like the artwork, just kinds of floats on by and one gets to the end thinking little more than, "Eh. Well, okay, I guess I've read that." Issue 12, in which the Lodges move from Riverdale, has a bit more meat on the bone, but still ends up feeling more like a vignette than an actual story.

Now, don't get me wrong, both issues have great writing and lots of funny moments. Best of all, with the stark exception of Hiram Lodge and, to a lesser extent, Cheryl Blossom, all of the characters read like real people. In the case of Lodge, that may be on purpose, with the over-the-top depiction of he and the other adults a meta-textual commentary on how these books are focused on the deadly serious lives of teenagers, who would view the actions of their parents and other authority figures just as laughably stereotypical as depicted. Cheryl, on the other hand, just comes off as a bit of the evil Heather from central casting. Like Waid says in his text introduction to the reprint of Cheryl's first appearance in 1982, she's the female version of Reggie Mantle, which carries with it the same hurdle of somehow showing a third dimension to the character.

ART: C (#12) | B- (#13)

BOTTOM LINE: Sure, Archie's not for kids anymore, but at $4 a pop, its a tough sell to the adults in the room, as well. Recommended for the rich.

ASTRO CITY, Nos. 38-40
DC Comics (Vertigo imprint), each 32 pgs., $3.99 — November-December

Astro City remains my single favorite comic book series currently being published. That said, this run of issues represents something of a dry spell. After an interesting origin of Mr. Cakewalk in previous issues, No. 38 gives us a later iteration of the spectral song-meister, in the from of 1920s-era Jazzbaby. I really wanted to like this issue, in part because it uses an omniscient narrator, a story-telling device almost as ostracized from modern comics as the thought balloon. But the narration is a tad laborious, and some things remain unclear, such as what exactly the villain is up to — he seems to be running down several different paths at once, uncertain himself at one point of what's happening. Meanwhile, it's not clear who the ancillary villains are, as they first appear as very corporeal crooks, but then are described as otherworldly demons. And, finally, Jazzbaby reverts to human form when weakened, which seems strange, given that she/he is long since dead, having become the living embodiment of the music of her age.

Writer Kurt Busiek does a better job at Issue 39, I think, which re-introduces us to Shadow Hill attorney/accountant Marta Dobrescu and provides an origin for the Hanged Man. Dobrescu is the kind of viewpoint character at which Busiek excels. Unfortunately, the trivialities of her mundane life end up being a lot more interesting than the paint-by-numbers backstory of the Hanged Man. The art of Carmen Carnero is decent enough. It tells the story well, even if it's not particularly awe-inspiring. Still, I am much more interested as a reader in clear panel transitions that serve the story than in layouts that try to  overpower my senses. So, I shouldn't fuss.

Issue 40 is probably the most disappointing of the trio, if only because I had such high hopes, based on the cover. The Silver Adept is one of my favorite Astro City characters, and this story does contain some epic coolness (packages that deliver themselves) mixed with cosmic level gosh-wowery. But the solution employed by Dobrescu to save the universe is so simplistic, it actually diminishes the Adept's character. The legal argument, as presented, would have been better positioned as having come from someone far-enough removed from the battle to see the forest for the trees, than as the kind of thing only an expert in contract law could uncover.

I'm assuming regular Astro artist Brent Anderson will be back after the two-issue layover in Nos. 39-40. I have said in previous reviews that his work has appeared rushed of late, and hopefully the pinch-hitting by Carnero may have given him time to catch his breath. Still, he is such a part of Astro City (it's almost as hard to see a story not drawn by him as it would be to see a writer other than Busiek at the helm) and I would prefer he take on an inker to speed the panelogical plow that skip entire issues. I've always thought an Anderson/Jerry Ordway pairing would be just about perfect for this series.


BOTTOM LINE: Now's the time to catch the Astro Train. As the title slips under 10,000 in monthly sales, it may not be around much longer. Recommended.

Joe Books, 28 pgs., $2.99 — November

One of my favorite things in life is pouring over the Diamond PREVIEWS catalog each month, drooling over all things I can't afford. But, occasionally, a month comes by in which I have a little extra room in the budget, and I'll pick something from among the "independent" publishers just on spec. Two months ago, that pick was this book, based almost entirely on that fun cover image. I liked it's cartoony Tin Tin-style and, let's face it, while I think the Johnny Depp movies are a hot mess, I'm a sucker for pirate comics, and there hasn't really been one since CrossGen's EL CAZADOR, way back in 2003.

I know nothing about publisher Joe Books, other than that the indicia indicates (that's its job, after all) that it's a Canadian company, based in Ontario. And, to judge from PREVIEWS, while IDW has rights to Disney's classic characters, Joe got the license for the post-Walt oeuvre. Well, if this book is anything to go by, Joe's other titles, based on relatively recent film properties like FROZEN, ZOOTOPIA, and Dreamworks' MADAGASCAR, are sure to please.

One would presume by the subject matter and art style that Joe Books are aimed at the adolescent set. However, one thing that struck me right away is that, while young reader books from Marvel and DC tend these days to define "young" as "lobotomized," this title is textually packed. That's both good and bad. It certainly held by attention on an adult level, and all of the characters sounded right (I could almost hear Depp's voice in my head as I was reading), but there was something about the rhythm of the script by Chris Schweizer, or of the lettering by Joe Flood, that gave be pause, occasionally causing me to go back and re-read a balloon here and there, to make sure I got it right. So, I have to imagine those lobotomy subjects Marvel and DC are so careful about might find this read tough sledding.

Still, they'll have plenty to keep them busy with Flood's artwork which is charming and tells the story pretty well all by itself. Sure, it's not as polished as something by Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, or Bill Watterson, but what is? Now, the inside art isn't quite up to the promise of the cover, which looked for all the world like a Watterson rendition of some Calvin fantasy, but it's fun. And hey, this book is only $2.99, so what's not to love.

In fact, I think the highest praise I can give is this.: The month after I ordered this first issue, I was able to fill the budget with my regular purchases, so I did not pre-order Nos. 2-on. However, after reading this issue, I asked my local comics shop — because the only issue of No. 1 he got was the one he ordered for me — to try and place a re-order with Diamond for the rest. 


BOTTOM LINE: Possibly the best book you didn't know was being published. Recommended.

DC Comics, 32 pgs., $3.99 — November-December

Well, this is kind of embarrassing. After making fun above of how DC's kiddie comics are written for kids with the intelligence level of a zygote, along comes one that has plenty of jokes for the adult comics fan to enjoy. Of course, nothing is laugh-out-loud funny. It's more of the "Oh, yes, I see what you did there," grin induced by some of the inside baseball references. Still, fun stuff.

The plot by Sholly Fisch is pretty basic, it's true, but that's okay. His script is enjoyable, not nearly as Dick-and-Jane as predicted in the PIRATES review above. Of course, as a longtime fan I do quibble at a few things. I thought the Space Canine Patrol Agency (or "Agents," as Fisch styles it) members came from various planets, like Krypto. I don't remember them all being from one planet populated by dogs. And, it seems odd to have one exceptionally anthropomorphic pup, Yankee Poodle, thrown into the mi-. Still, it was nice to see Rex, the Wonder Dog, and the jokes on the sheer number of "wonder dogs" were funny.

Artistically, however, I had to wonder why a planet of dogs would put up buildings that look exactly like those you'd find on Earth. And how, without opposable thumbs, did they build 'em, anyway? But, this book is clearly written with the 6-year-old set in mind, even if it's thankfully not written down to then, so we shouldn't labor our brains too much on the details, I guess.

The art by Dario Brizuela is fun, although dogs generally depicted with a more realistic look, like Krypto and Rex, look a little strange here, to my eye. He does a fine job with the more cartoony canines, however, and with the human characters, who are perfect copies off the model sheet. But I do suspect he draws on a tablet with some kind of pre-programmed "line weight," maybe actually cutting from an actual model sheet, and then zooms or shrinks the result to fit the required panels. Some pages have a mix of line weights (Page 3 is a particular example) that can be a little off-putting, as it makes the images look mechanically rendered and/or "pasted" into place, with exceptionally thick or thin lines that don't seem to be done that way to depict depth of field. But overall, the book looks nice, as it always has.


BOTTOM LINE: A good book for young readers, and those who refuse to grow up. Recommended.

DC Comics, 32 pgs., $3.99 — November

This is a book that tries to have it both ways. It adopts the continuity of the CW-cum-CBS television show, with Supergirl living in National City, and using that versions of Cat Grant and the Danvers, as well as the tv design of the Supergirl costume. But it has Kara in costume and working with the DEO while in high school (and probably as an underclassman, given the gym class), even though she did not "come out" in tv continuity until in her mid-20s. Because this series is set before the tv show — and it's unclear if the past of the alternate earth Arrowverse equates to the present of the printed DCU, or if this book actually is set in the past — Cat Grant is introduced as a Daily Planet reporter. That means we have to accept she went from beat reporter to CEO of a global omnimedia enterprise in about seven years. Possible, I guess, but that strains my suspension of disbelief just a skosh. Sure, Cat traveled the same path on the tv show, but Cat-actress Calista Flockhart is 51, implying a journey closer to 25 years, than seven.

And, it appears there is no Alex Danvers in this comic continuity. She's nowhere seen or mentioned in the Danvers household. There is a female in the scene at the DEO who could be Alex, but having her as an agent at this point would make her too old. For the timeframe of this story, she should also be in high school, maybe a year or two ahead of Kara. Oh, and while I know this is a quibbling to an extreme, the Danvers home was not a downtown brownstone on the tv show. Kara grew up there in something that looked a lot more like the Kent farm.

Meanwhile, the issue closes with the the last-panel villain reveal cliche, giving us the Cybog-Superman version of Hank Henshaw. It will take some doing, to be sure, to reconcile that with the J'Onn J'Onzz version appearing on tv. Of course, the villain does not actually say he's Henshaw, so there's plenty of wiggle room, I suppose. However, on the show, J'Onnz has said he's posed as Henshaw for 15 years, and Henshaw was head of the DEO (having actually founded it) when the switch happened. So, while including Cameron Chase as DEO director here seems a nice touch, it's another conflict with the tv show that's sure to confuse casual readers who try this book based on being fans of that property.

Now, having Supergirl in a high school setting is not a bad idea. Heck, her COSMIC ADVENTURES IN THE EIGHTH GRADE, though aimed at a different reading audience, was a fun book, and writer Steve Orlando does a pretty decent job of contrasting Kara's life on Earth with her former life on Krypton. Something that was rarely delved into in any depth before the tv show— that, unlike Superman, Supergirl had a full childhood on Krypton before coming to Earth, which would necessarily color her experiences here —looks to be a major factor in this series. Orlando also does a good job with the obligatory introduction-of-the-new-supporting-cast scene, in part because Ben Rubel is seen, but does not actually interact with Kara yet. So, we get the slow build and not the new character-dump that sometimes saddles debut issues of new series when the status quo is changed.

Still, my bigger concern is that this book doesn't seem to know which continuity it wants to follow, even giving us a flashback to the New 52 Supergirl's arrival on Earth, and that kind of cripples my ability to enjoy the narrative. I'd prefer no half measures. Frankly, Supergirl is a B-List character, so it should not have been too big a trauma to simply jettison prior continuity and say, look, the tv backstory is the new normal. Clean break. No mash-up that only serves to confuse and frustrate fans of either version. And it makes sense to go with the tv version. After all, the show has more than a million viewers, the comic less than 40,000. Still, either way, if we're going to set her adventures in high school, Kara should be out of costume, a la SMALLVILLE.

The other drawback to this series for me is the artwork of Brian Ching. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, and the cover is quite nice, it's just a little to manga-riffic for my tastes. Of course, fans of manga will call me a screaming nutball and says it's not at all like manga, but I know what I like, and what I don't. And, while I think Supergirl is a character ripe for a more stylized approach, I'd prefer something that looks more like LIFE WITH SUPERGIRL than BATTLE ANGEL AKARA.


BOTTOM LINE: If you've watched the SUPERGIRL tv show, prepare to be confused. Otherwise, it's not too awful, which, for modern day DC, is high praise indeed. Very mildly recommended.

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