Wednesday, 24 September

Hello, all, and welcome to the fourth edition of New Comics Day.

Thanks to Julian and Matt for having me here at for what will hopefully be a nice long run of ranting and reviewing.

As per usual, new comics Wednesday winds down at O’Malley’s Pub on Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Park. [Stop by some time if you're in Chicago the area -- I'm the tall, bespectacled guy drinking Sam Adams near the stage.] A beer on me for any comics fan, of course.

The bar is closed but the wine bottle at HQ is full, so let’s get to the comics…

True Story Swear To God #6

Tom Beland is back with the sixth issue of True Story of Swear to God, another home run for the always-impressive cartoonist Beland whose art gets better and better with every issue.

True Story Swear to God, for all those unfortunate folks who’ve never picked up an issue, is the story of how Tom Beland met his wife Lily, a beautiful Puerto Rican journalist. Their meeting was serendipitous, but their ensuing relationship proved difficult as Tom lived in California while Lily returned to Puerto Rico. In the latest arc, Lily is weathering hurricane Georges while Tom panics back on the West coast.

The storm hits as issue six begins. Beland opens with an astounding two page spread of rain and winds tearing through Puerto Rico, a black, inky page that’s reminiscent of an Andi Watson piece. (For those of you scoring at home, that’s a damn good thing.)

Tom freaks out at work and does his best to stay in contact with Lily who seeks refuge in a basement with two friends. The power is out and she’s not sure if the shelter will hold through the winds — assuming, of course, the flash floods don’t get to them first.

You know Lily will be OK, not just because this is a love story (Meg Ryan didn’t fall off the Empire State building, after all), but because Lily and Tom are now happily married. There’s no real tension in True Story Swear to God, or at least there shouldn’t be. Lily must be fine because she and Tom are married now, and yet Beland manages to make the hurricane seem genuinely threatening. He does such a nice job conveying the strength of the storm and the panic he feels, enough so that the reader freaks out right along with him.

One of the hallmarks of True Story Swear to God is Beland’s ability to draw humor from unpleasant situations, and he sneaks in a few amusing moments here. This issue is more serious than any of the previous installments, but the book doesn’t lose any of its charm. Beland makes Lily such an endearing character and keeps us rooting for him so strongly that the book works just as well without all the gags.

Beland’s art continues to improve. His Disney-influenced linework, cartoony as it is, is darker and more ominous here. Beland’s pages are usually light and open, but here the blackness of his inks swallows the panels as the power goes out and Lily and her friends are trapped in a candle-lit basement.

True Story Swear to God is an exceptional blend of giddy romanticism and blatant optimism. Tom took the light-as-air series into more grounded territory with his story of sexual difficulties, adding a confessional aspect to what was previously a largely sunny tale. This honesty adds an edge that makes the lovey-dovey moments work all the better.

Kudos to Beland for his exceptional series, consistently one of my favorite titles out there. They don’t hand out Eisner nominations for nothing.

Ultimate X-Men #37

Bendis’ Ultimate X-Men is really Ultimate Team-Up II featuring Wolverine and Spider-Man. The rest of the X-Men finally make their appearance, although it isn’t until later on in the book.

Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the best superhero books on the market, so you’d think that his pseudo-Ultimate Spider-Man book would be just as good. Unforunately, his attempt to crowd as many Marvel characters into the “Blockbuster” arc hasn’t been entirely successful. The story feels just that, crowded, with a thin plot that doesn’t quite make room for some seemingly random cameos. Four issues in and all we know is that some pissed-off assassins driving around in diaper delivery trucks want to kill Wolverine. They try, they fail, they try again, they fail, they try again. I’m sensing a pattern here. The only real way to tell a difference between issues is to see what Marvel hero makes a cameo. Last time it was Black Widow, and now Daredevil is tossed into the mix.

Shoddy though the story may be, David Finch’s artwork is superb. He draws action sequences that almost rival Jim Lee’s beautiful work on Batman, and Art Thibert’s inks compliment his pencils perfectly.

Ultimate X-Men is a nice-looking book with some amusing chats between some of Marvel’s most notable heroes, but the substance is sorely lacking.

On the other hand, at least it publishes on time.

Ultimate Spider-Man #46

Speaking of Ultimate Spider-Man

Bendis is an interesting writer. He’s undeniably talented, but he tends toward streaks. Four fantastic issues are followed by a rather mediocre installment. When he’s on, he’s nearly impossible to beat, but when he drops the ball (the monkey fucking issue of Powers, for instance) he really disappoints.

His work on Ultimate Spider-Man is about as consistent as it gets, though. In 46 issues I can recall maybe two that I didn’t like. He knows exactly what makes Peter Parker tick, and he balances the human aspects of the story perfectly with the superhero antics.

The latest issue is that rarest of creatures — for Marvel, anyway — a standalone story. Bendis writes in nice, long arcs that work perfectly in trades, but his single issue stories tend to be his strongest. Peter revealing his identity to Mary Jane, trying to sneak out of school to fight Rhino, Aunt May reconciling her fears of parenthood in an increasingly dangerous world — all of these stories stand out prominently in his run. Issue #46 fills in a gap between the third arc and the upcoming Ultimate Six [see below].

The debut arc for Doc Ock ended with Peter swinging away into the sunset — or so we thought. In #46 we see what happened when the S.H.I.E.L.D investigators came in to clean up the scene. The story is narrated by agent Carter, a character with increasing prominence in the Ultimate universe. She explains to her superiors what happened when she and her team moved into the building near the crime scene and found a new threat, one more frightening than any she’s faced.

The villain in question, a classic Spider-Man foe, has never felt more threatening. Bagley, a wildly talented storyteller, has never turned in a more beautiful set of pages. His pencils are fluid and kinetic, but usually his best work comes in animated conversations between the characters. He’s no slouch when it comes to fight scenes, but his work here is exceptional. He turned the Goblin into a darker, more ominous character, and now he turns this issue’s villain into a much more foreboding force.

Ultimate Spider-Man #46 is a perfect example of why Bendis is the current fan favorite. He’s a crowd pleaser who, when he’s on his game, can squeeze substance into what could otherwise be a fun throwaway story.

A Sort of Homecoming #1

Damon Hurd’s first major comics work, the graphic novella My Uncle Jeff, was one of last year’s best books. He wound up losing the Eisner, which is a damn shame as his tale of family strife was perhaps the year’s most affecting book along with Derf’s wonderfully eerie My Friend Dahmer.

A Sort of Homecoming is the story of Owen and his best friend Kevin. As the book opens, Owen gets a phone call from a mutual friend who tells him that Kevin is dead. Owen hangs up the phone and withdraws from everyone he knows for a day, wandering around his house alone and eventually making travel arrangements to head to the funeral. As he numbly goes through his day he recalls key moments with Kevin.

The sophomore curse is a familiar thing. Anyone who hits a home run with an early work as Hurd did with My Uncle Jeff is bound to wind up competing with his own hype. It remains to be seen whether or not A Sort Of Homecoming will work as well as his phenomenal debut, but Hurd certainly proves that he’s no flash in the pan.

A Sort Of Homecoming is a difficult book to read, painful and honest. Owen is a withdrawn character whose friend is his only link to a social life, and their relationship is far from perfect. Kevin is clearly more troubled than any of his other friends believe him to be, but he confides in Owen. The book’s strongest scene comes near the end when Kevin calls Owen during a moment of crisis and asks him to go out for cigarettes. The scene is quiet and powerful, the kind of understated and mundane moment that made My Uncle Jeff such a memorable work.

A Sort Of Homecoming isn’t without its problems. The dialogue in the early pages is a little shaky, occasionally bordering on the overdramatic. Hurd uses a couple of overly familiar tropes, in particular the “wise stranger” met during travel who imparts some words of wisdom.

About halfway through, the book hits its stride. The final scenes build to an emotional climax that pretty much demands that one buy the next issue.

Pedro Camello’s art is gorgeous. He never misses a step and proves himself capable of dealing with animated conversations as well as quiet, lonely moments. He translates Hurd’s story perfectly, particularly the cinematic transitions between past and present.

Hurd and Camello are at it again, producing one of the most emotional and powerful books on the stands. If you’re reading more than two books a month, you’d damn well better be reading this one.

New X-Men #146

Well that was a shocker.

I don’t read solicitations. I hate to know what’s coming in a book before I pick it up. Apparently Morrison went to a good deal of trouble to make sure his big reveal was kept under wraps, and it’s a good thing he did. The end to this one is about as big a cliffhanger as you’re going to get.

The real beauty of this story is that it builds so nicely on all the previous arcs. Like any good twist, anyone could have figured it out, probably should have seen it coming, although I, for one, certainly didn’t.

I skipped the last few issues of New X-Men out of principle. I refuse to read a book drawn by Chris Bachallo. If I wanted to read something murky and vague with poor panel layouts and lackluster storytelling, I’d drawn my own comics. Morrison’s stories are often baffling enough without stamp-sized panels filled with blotchy close-ups depicting nothing discernible in particular.

I’m also no X-Men fan, so my knowledge of X-history is pretty much limited to the Bryan Singer movies and Morrison’s issues. Some of the details are lost on me, but that doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable. Morrison has married his mad ideas and his pop comics sensibilities perfectly here, creating a kind of thoughtful soap opera.

Wolverine and Cyclops face danger in space. Jean goes to help them and leaves Charles vulnerable in the mansion to the mysterious X-traitor.

When a story builds this long to an alleged surprise, it’s usually a pretty big disappointment. (For instance, at this point I’m going to be let down unless it turns out that I, personally, am the Hush killer.) Not so with Morrison’s tale which manages to be both obvious and totally surprising. He appeals to longtime fanboys and casual X-readers as well. With the talented Phil Jimenez taking over art chores, this makes for what will likely go down as one of the greatest stories in X-Men history.

How is it that an X-Men book is this good?

Ultimate Six #1

Brian Bendis is one of my favorite mainstream comics writers. (See gushing above.) That being said:

I HATED Ultimate Six.

Not hate as in “I really hate cooked spinach,” but hated in the way you’d think of Prince being hated at Bob Jones University, or the way you’d think of anyone from Bob Jones University being hated at pretty much any social gathering you’d ever personally attend. Instantaneous contempt followed by nagging, prolonged loathing.

Why? ‘Cause I’m one cheap son of a bitch. I’m the kind of guy who drives around parking lots looking for meters that still have time on them. I figure up fifteen percent tips to the nickel. I’ve been actively battling the IRS for months over a few dollars on my state income taxes.

My job isn’t exactly conducive to making big money, so when I drop a few bucks, I better be getting something back, be it momentary enjoyment or physical nourishment or shelter or having the hooker kiss on the mouth.

And based on the “When I hand someone money, I presume that they will give me something of corresponding value” principal, I hated Ultimate Six #1. Not because it was poorly executed per se. The dialogue was fine and the art was reasonable, although the Quesada pages made Harsine’s work look a little lame in contrast.

But nothing goddamn happened. Nothing. You could pick up issue two and be absolutely no worse for the wear, without reading the recap page. Some dudes we already know are in prison together. Yeah, you know, that’s like a first-page kind of set-up thing, not a whole issue. Not half of an issue. How did Electro get officially captured? Don’t know, don’t really care. Kraven has modified his DNA? That could have been revealed in a panel in the middle of an issue where something actually happened.

The standard response from the pro-decompressed story crowd to the opposing camp is that those who disparage it are impatient and slow witted, lack the refined palette to appreciate and savor the proper build-up of a story. And sure, sometimes that’s valid. You don’t have to have a fight scene every three pages. Extended conversations are good. Character development is key.

You know what? I’ve read Pynchon, Wallace, Joyce, Carver, Thoreau. (I’m still waiting for my pat on the back, here…) I know what subtlety looks like, what pacing is. But this ain’t Gravity’s Rainbow or Cathedral or Infinite Jest. This is a fucking story that will, doubtless, end when some guys punch some other guys. A certain amount of set-up and character development isn’t necessary.

I’m all for taking a moment to establish a tone. But do I need 22 pages of idle chatter to find out that Sandman is mean? That Norman Osborn is greedy and angry? No fucking kidding. Everyone reading this book knows exactly who these characters are, and if they don’t I’m sure they could catch on. He’s not explaining particle physics, he’s establishing that the guy who turns into sand and beats people up is hostile.

What Bendis seems to forget sometimes is that, when a movie is slow for the first fifteen minutes, hey, whatever, I paid $8 to see it anyway. More movie for your money, even if it’s a little overlong. But when the first 6th of a comic is all padding, that was three bucks. Two comics = one good Chinese dinner, a fifth of a train ticket to go see my girlfriend, a pitcher of decent beer plus tip. So when I pick up a comic, I like to actually get something in the way of story for my money.

Geez, Bendis, these things aren’t free.

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