St. Swithin’s Day
Oni Press – Grant Morrison (w); Paul Grist (a)
This is sort of a first for me and the column: my first retro review. I thought it’d be a bigger deal, like my planned complete review of Hellblazer #1-whatever issue they’re on when I finish it. But instead, it’s a review of a four-year old Oni Press Grant Morrison one-shot, something that I missed by the simple virtue of not being a comic book reader at the time that the book was initially released. And thanks to random resolicitations by Diamond and Oni, I’m able to read and review it now.
St. Swithin’s Day is a beautifully written, depressingly accurate portrayal of teenage angst and desperate cries for attention. Our protagonist, who is never named and is quite clearly insane, plans to assassinate then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A simple enough plan, the book opens with our ostensible anti-hero examining the handgun he plans to use and musing over what to do about the cold that he has caught. Over the course of the book, things become a bit more complex, with the boy’s memories of the past juxtaposed with his plans for the immediate future. By the issue’s close, the events and situations that have left him in this fairly fractured mental condition are considerably more lucid than at the issue’s beginning, though they are never entirely clear.
That having been said, the book is the sort of thing that I would like to see more of from Morrison. The Filth is all fine and good, mucking about what he believes to be the perceived limits of the medium, but St. Swithin’s Day, in my opinion, is the sort of thing he deserves to be famous for.
On a side note, it’s interesting to note the intentional (at least, I think they’re intentional) parallels between the protagonists of St. Swithin’s Day and The Catcher in the Rye, a connection made more amusing by the central character of this book’s decision to be carrying a copy of J. D. Salinger’s magnum opus when he is arrested.
Anyway, it’s unlikely that your local comic book store ordered this, since it’s a fairly obscure back issue (to my knowledge, at least) and was fairly surreptitiously resolicited in Previews. But in any event, they can reorder it for you, so have them do so. It’s a great read, quite moving and clearly lovingly crafted by Morrison.
Image Comics – Matthew Cashel (w); Jeremy Haun (a)
I…have no idea what the hell this was about. Sometimes that’s OK, like in most issues of The Filth. When Morrison writes incoherent babble, it’s almost acceptable because 1) he’s Morrison and when you’ve done as much good stuff as he has, I think you’re allowed to wallow in your own drug-addled haze for a bit and 2) even when it’s incoherent, it feels genuinely creative and original. Cashel and Haun is no Grant Morrison and Paradigm, at least this issue, doesn’t read like originality; it reads like something produced by a second-year, 20-year old Creative Writing major and his friend the art student.
I complained previously that Paradigm #1 was completely over-inked, to the point that it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to make out what’s going on in the panels. That trend not only continues, I think it’s actually gotten worse. There are some panels where things have been inked so heavily that they begin to lose all sense of depth and just look flat. Other panels are just flat out ugly. Oddly enough, Haun produces some absolutely impressive looking panels, but they’re so inconsistently spaced that they can’t redeem the issue.
And as far as the story goes, it seems to me to be a derivative mixture of Sandman and The Matrix (or should that be The Invisibles?), dealing with worlds within reality and god-beings manifesting themselves to humans. This is all fine and good, but it’s narrated alternately by one character’s overly self-indulgent diary and another’s whiny dialogue. Sadly, both the diary writer and the speaker acknowledge the general lack of quality inherent to their portions of the book. The writer makes a crack about the reader cutting him some slack because he’s new at writing and the speaker rants about the “bullshit posturing” that’s going on. Letting the reader know that you’re aware of how poorly you’ve written your book is not a good way to sell an issue. To boot, the two characters are alternated between rapidly, making for a generally confusing narrative.
It’s not really that bad, I’m just completely under-whelmed by it. Simply mediocre.
The Flash #191
DC Comics – Geoff Johns (w); Scott Kolins (p); Doug Hazelwood (i)
Geoff Johns writes three comics every month (or possibly four, I can never remember if he works on Hawkman or not): JSA, The Avengers and The Flash. In my store, both of the team-related books that he works on outsell The Flash, typically by about a 2:1 margin. And while I can understand the appeal of team books over lone superhero narrative (“Why read a story about one hero when you can read a story about ten heroes?” the average reader asks himself), it’s sad to me that the one book that truly shows off Johns’ writing chops is the one that sells the worst.
And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I were revamping and relaunching a Silver Age title, any Silver Age title at all, I could pick Geoff Johns to write it and I would feel perfectly justified in doing so. The man’s love of the Silver Age is so obvious in all three of his monthly books, and he does such a competent job with all of them, that he’d be a solid choice no matter what the book was. I’m not saying that Johns is the perfect choice for every revamp, just that you could always do a lot worse than him and it’s hard to do much better, at least as far as superheroics are concerned. Anyway, my stroking of Johns’ ego aside, this is just my way of reiterating that it’s The Flash that really shines as a showcase of both his ability and his love of the Silver Age.
And I’ve had problems with both JSA and The Avengers, under Johns, so far. Both of them are passable attempts at superhero team books and successfully incorporate both the testosterone-charged posturing and daytime television-like melodrama that are needed to make for an interesting story. However, there’s something lacking in both of them that I seem to find in The Flash. And, to be honest with you, I’m not sure what that is.
I think it’s the Silver Age simplicity that so often run rampant through The Flash that just isn’t there with his other two books. JSA and Avengers both deal with older characters, but they’re attempting to modernize them, at least a little bit, for a newer audience. The Flash, however, barely even attempts that and under Johns, it’s rarely missed the mark for me.
Essentially, the charm here is that Johns manages to keep the kitsch and cheese of the Silver Age stories without coming across as too forced (as Mark Waid often does) or poorly written. I know it sounds terribly simple, but believe me; it’s apparently not that easy. Look how miserably Chris Claremont tried to recapture the ’80s with X-Treme X-Men and he was only trying to mimic himself. Imagine trying to channel Julie Schwartz and Carmine Infantino successfully on The Flash. Absolutely, mind-bogglingly intimidating.
Anyway, suffice it to say that this issue reads so much like a circa 1955 issue of Showcase. A random Flash villain (Brother Grimm), complete with a hackneyed reason for hating The Flash (he hates him because he blames The Flash for his brother’s death, and hence wants to usurp The Flash’s position in Keystone City, complete with Linda West, The Flash’s wife), appears and attacks Keystone City. When that villain exhibits a defense against Flash’s abilities, there’s only one logical solution: that’s right, it’s time for a random team-up, this time with Hawkman.
I’ll admit, there really is no rhyme or reason to this story and it’s essentially just a fill-in issue between story arcs. But, for me, the best issues of Johns’ run so far have been the one-shot, self-contained issues, of which this is certainly one. If you’ve already been enjoying Johns’ run, I imagine you’ll get a kick out of this one already. If you’ve never tried it, do so now. It’s a great place to start.
The Avengers #59
Marvel Comics – Geoff Johns (w); Kieron Dwyer (p); Rick Remender (i)
I knew when I read The Flash, enjoyed it, and starting writing the previous review in my head, that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance that this month’s Avengers would match up to it. And I was right, because it’s not really that good.
If The Flash under Johns is an example of everything that can go right with retro-style storytelling, so far, his Avengers run has been an example of how terribly bland that same style can be. The problem is that when you pattern your story arcs after those of days gone by, you run the risk of recovering old ground or, even worse, writing new stories that simply feel like they’ve been done before. This issue is a case of the latter.
It’s not that Avengers has been so terribly bad thus far, it’s just that it’s not worth noting. The opening story arc has simply felt like every other cosmic threat type of story, like that, at best, we might get the “death” of a character at the conclusion (though that character will likely come back within six months) of the arc, but aside from that, all will end happily and neatly. The problem with these types of stories is that we all know, before we even open the book, that by arc’s end, Manhattan and all the other major cities of the world will be back in their original locations. There’s simply no suspense.
To boot, it seems like Johns is blatantly lifting a plot device from Mark Waid’s closing issues of JLA, where the League discovered that Batman had been keeping secret files on all of the other members, in case any of them should turn rogue. It seemed amusing and appropriate when Priest used the thread in Black Panther (and it might have actually pre-dated that JLA arc, I’m not sure), but its use here, complete with the “how can we trust him” arguments, just seems too similar. Incidentally, for those unaware, it was revealed in Black Panther that the only reason T’Challa originally agreed to join The Avengers was to keep an eye on the team and assess the threat they may present to his nation.
Again, this isn’t a case of the issue being patently bad, it’s just mediocre. And, frankly, I just have grown to expect better than this out of Johns. I’ll certainly stick around for the next arc though and hope it gets better.
Usagi Yojimbo #61
Dark Horse Comics – Stan Sakai (w/a)
I’m a recent convert to Sakai’s work, having picked up the first four Fantagraphics trade paperbacks only recently when a customer at my store traded them in. Those self-same trades collect Sakai’s earliest work with the character, short stories from various now-defunct books, as well as about half of the work that he did for the Usagi Yojimbo ongoing for Fantagraphics. I’ve heard good things about both the book and Sakai for quite some time, but to be honest, I was always a little hesitant to pick it up.
For one thing, it always seemed that every time I went to read a new issue of the book, it was smack in the middle of an extended story arc (like Grasscutter, for example). For another, my only impression of the character for the longest time was the memory that somewhere in my father’s basement, my TMNT action figure of him is in a Rubbermaid container full of my old toys. Neither of those are the sort of impressions that tend to make you want to hurry out and try a new book, regardless of all the good press it gets from reliable sources. It didn’t help any that Diamond has one Usagi trade in the regular “Comics” section of their Star System catalogue and all the rest in the “Manga” section, where I neglected to look for them for every time I’d get curious. However, having read Sakai’s early work recently and the newest issue even more recently, I can now attest to the man’s genius and join the ranks of those who have done so for so long.
If I had to use one word to describe Sakai’s craft, both the story and the artwork involved in Usagi, it would be “efficient.” I know this is a stereotypical term to use in reference to a person of Japanese heritage (though I’m sure the Japanese portion of my family ((and I kid you not, I do have one, even though my family is normally quite Irish)) would be amused by it), but it’s just so fitting in this situation. Regardless of whether he’s writing or drawing, Sakai seems to use the minimal amount of phrases/lines to effectively convey his story. I know it sounds like a no-brainer, but in these of days Jim Lee clones continuing to over-hatch everything they pencil and Chris Claremont, over the past twenty years, teaching would-be writers that over-written melodrama is the path to success, Sakai’s simple style is, all clichés aside, a breath of fresh air. His artwork is nothing to scoff at, to be sure, but it doesn’t really strike you as impressive until you really start delving into his work. When you’ve read for a while, you’re just hit by how fluid every panel is. At the risk of sounding cheesy, this is the first series in a long time that I’ve spent time just staring at the panels after I’ve already read the page. The stories themselves are indescribably paced. My mind is blown at how effortlessly Sakai shifts gears, moving from an extended story arc in one trade to a series of one-shot stories in others. It just never seems forced and I’m embarrassed at how easily it is to simply pick up one trade and start reading. I should have done this years ago; you should do it as soon as possible.
If you aren’t convinced enough to buy a trade, just buy this issue. It’s $2.99, it’s not like it’s going to break your budget. The book is currently starting a series of stand-alone issues, having just closed a longer arc with the previous issue. You need only know a precious few simple facts to understand this story: Miyamoto Usagi is a ronin (masterless samurai) in feudal Japan (albeit a feudal Japan where humans are replaced with anthropomorphic animal characters, which isn’t half as goofy as it sounds, once you read it). He wanders the land like Cain from Kung Fu. Recently, he has begun traveling with his illegitimate son, Jotaro, though the boy does not know the truth of his parentage, believing Usagi to merely be a friend of his mother’s. Anything else that might arise in the issue is explained quickly and simply as it appears.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for a samurai story (which I am), but I can really see why this book has such a rabidly devoted fan following now. I’m already pounding my arm like a junkie, waiting for my next fix.
30 Days of Night #3
IDW Publishing – Steve Niles (w); Ben Templesmith (a)
This is a book with a lot of buzz on it lately (it’s been optioned for a movie) and it’s partially deserved. To be blunt, 30 Days of Night is notable for a relatively original high concept (vampires invade a town in Alaska, where the land can sometimes go up to a month ((hence the title)) without sunlight). However, the execution is lacking in some respects.
I’ll be real honest and to the point: this book will make a better movie than it does a comic book. That’s not something I’m going to say often, if ever again. But it’s the truth. Good horror, in my opinion, is born out of use of atmosphere, which this book has in spades. Ben Templesmith provides some suitably muddy artwork, conveying both the haze that the few surviving humans operate in and the visceral nature of the action with admirable ability.
Steve Niles, to his credit, is putting on the show of his career with this book. However, if this book is the highlight of his resume, it’s really only because everything else on that resume is so mediocre (or, in the case of his Hellspawn work, flat out bad). Which is not to say that 30 Days of Night isn’t a good book, but it certainly is a lot of fun and, as I said before, a great idea. It’s just that the plot tends to be a bit on the predictable side and this issue in particular feels terribly rushed, which is sad, because I’m fairly certain that it’s behind schedule (though only marginally, if at all).
Like I said before, 30 Days of Night has been a decent read and I’m satisfied with it. But it seems to lack the certain indefinable something that is needed to push it over the edge from solid book to great book. And as I also said previously, a good film translation of this book won’t be hard to make. Simply avoid, as Niles has done, nearly all vampire clichés: no vampires as tragic anti-heroes, no romantic nosferatu, and certainly none illogically gay vampires (I’m looking at you, Anne Rice).
DC Comics/Vertigo – Mike Carey (w); Marcelo Frusin (a)
If you’re one of the long-time John Constantine fans who were turned off by Brian Azzarello’s version of the trenchcoat-covered magician (and there were many), you’ll be happy to see the book continuing to take steps in the right direction again this month, again under the pen of Lucifer scribe Mike Carey.
Hellblazer is supposed to be a horror book, but it’s a fairly specific type of horror, in my opinion. Generally speaking, Constantine isn’t suited for hunting the undead or some such tripe. Leave that for Blade and Buffy and company. Rather, John’s misadventures usually consist of the type of horror that is born of out of nothing more and nothing less than human frailties and fears. To rephrase, there’s a distinct humanist bent to a good Constantine story. To be sure, there’s nearly always an element of magic involved, but Constantine’s solo book is considerably more mundane than the epic and mystical title that spawned it (Swamp Thing). In Hellblazer, the horror is born of the human condition more often than not, less the machinations of some hell-spawned monstrosity (though those stories do occur and occur successfully) than the fears or mistakes of a fellow human being.
In this arc, Constantine, investigating the disappearance of his niece Gemma, discovers an arcane war ready to erupt, with all parties peeling off to choose sides. As per always, John stands in the middle, siding for no one but himself. You need know nothing more than that to grasp the story, so this issue is a good place to start for new readers (though the previous two, Carey’s first arc, would be better, I imagine).
Constantine’s apparent resurrection is still unexplained, but for the moment I don’t mind, because the cliffhanger ending is so…well, cool. This is the first time in quite a while that I’m actually looking forward to reading next month’s issue and here’s hoping that the length of time between issues narrows in the coming month.