Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Goon: Nothin' But Misery-- review by L. Vera

Guest post today from my friend L. Vera, discussing one of the all time modern greats, Eric Powell's THE GOON.

Let me introduce you to the best comic since . . . well since . . . Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. Eric Powell is a madman working in the Zombie Resurrecting Lands of Crazy Town and this is his baby. Say, "Hi," to The Goon. He's a face bashing, mob enforcer with his trusty friend Franky, who loves to stab people in the eye.

When I talk comics, I recommend this collection to everyone. It's a classic Goon Story. Goon chases zombie thugs, beats them to death, and Franky stabs someone in the eye. You got talking spiders, monsters, grave diggers, cannibal hobos and a whole lot more.

The volume collects the first self-published issues THE GOON, THE GOON COLOR SPECIAL, and THE GOON short story that's included in DARK HORSE PRESENTS. And it's a great way to get introduced to a comic series that doesn't care about selling comics but about delivering the best craziness in comic book form. These aren't the first Goon issues. If you want those you need to shell out some big bucks or buy vol. 0.

The story line is summed up in the first comic in the volume. Where a young Goon works for a mob boss/ loan shark named Labrazio and after some terrible events ends up murdering him and finding his little black book of people who owe him money. The Goon assumes the role of his "enforcer", even though Labrazio is dead, and becomes the feared, hulking bastard of a man in the small zombie infested town collecting money from anyone who borrowed from his dead boss.

We also meet Buzzard, a former sheriff who is now cursed to eat the flesh of the dead. The characters are full of this obscene mind blast that has you liking the weirdest of the bunch. I've always liked the spider in the bowler hat named Spider, who The Goon hates and constantly beats up, and Merle who's a gun-runner and a werewolf. But overall I like Goon and Franky, the slack-jaw punching duo not afraid to beat up that stupid fortune telling Seal.

The art is great, the writing is beyond witty. And it's all done by one man, Eric Powell.

You can snag it here on Amazon.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Best Comics Ever: Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison

The original Doom Patrol started way back in '64 or thereabouts, in a short-lived DC comic called MY GREATEST ADVENTURE, and the odd thing about it is that, three months later, Marvel launched the X-Men. Odd, because the similarities between the two titles were extraordinary: both comics featured a small band of misfit heroes, hated and feared by the world at large, and led by a genius-type in a wheelchair. There's been speculation that X-Men was a rip-off of Doom Patrol, but really, it's more likely just one of those odd coincidences. There's a lead time in comic publishing, and it's pretty unlikely that Stan Lee could've known anything about DP.

The original Doom Patrol, as written by Arnold Drake, featured main characters Robotman (not a startlingly original name, I know): a human brain in a robot body; Elasti-Girl (she could, you know, stretch and stuff) and Negative Man, who was... I'm not sure. An alien negative being inhabiting a human body? Something like that. Regardless, this odd team was led by the afore-mentioned wheelchair-bound genius Niles Caulder, and they faced off against some fairly bizarre villains, like the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, the Brain (a genius brain in a jar) and Monsieur Mallah (a genius ape).

It was a strange comic. Which is probably why it didn't last very long.

Drake killed the Doom Patrol off in 1968, and for a long time that was the end of them.

But comic companies are always loathe to write off old characters for good. After a failed bid at a re-introduction in 1977, DC tried again in 1987 with a brand new Doom Patrol, written by Paul Kupperberg. The only original DP member to return was Cliff "Don't Call Me Robotman" Steele-- all the other members were brand new characters, and this new Doom Patrol was very clearly an effort to cash in on the success of Marvel comics like X-Men. Gone was the free-wheeling weirdness of Drake's DP, replaced with a rather traditionally super-hero-ish comic full of sexy young good guys and typical bad guys.

It was pretty boring.

Readers thought so, too, apparently. By the time the title reached it's teen numbers, it was dangerously close to being canceled. So DC turned to young British turk Grant Morrison, who had been doing spectacular and weird stuff with Animal Man, and said, hey, you want a shot at this one? Do whatever you want with it.

So Kupperberg, in his very last issue of the title, very kindly killed off almost his entire cast. With issue 19, Morrison had very nearly a clean slate. And he proceeded to write the weirdest, most fun and bizarre mainstream comic anyone had ever seen up to that point.

Again, the sole link to the past was Cliff Steele, suffering depression at his unfortunate circumstances (human brain, robot body, etc). Cliff would prove to be the most normal member of the new team, the every-man who the reader would identify with over the course of the strangeness.

Rounding out the new team were Crazy Jane, an emotionally damaged young woman with 68 different personalities, each one of them possessing its own super-power, and Rebus, a radio-active alien hermaphrodite.

Yep. A super-powered schizophrenic and a radio-active alien hermaphrodite. Being a human brain in a robot body doesn't seem all that unusual now, does it?

 Once again, the team was guided by Niles Caulder, although he wasn't quite the benevolent father figure of before. There was something vaguely sinister about him now. The DP's support team were the two survivors from Kupperberg's team, Josh Clay (who could shoot force beams out of his fists-- yawn) and Dorothy Spinner, an adolescent girl born with an ape-like face and the ability to call her dream and nightmare images into reality. Dorothy would play a huge part in Morrison's denouement on the title.

So those were the good guys.

The bad guys were, well... amazing. Over the course of the run, the level of weirdness in the villains grew greater and greater, starting with the Scissor-Men, ultra-dimensional beings who could actually cut people out of reality, leaving gaping human-shaped holes where the people used to be. From there, the DP almost immediately faced off against Red Jack, the Butterfly Collector.

There was the Shadowy Mr. Evans, and his boy assistant. There were the Sex-Men. The Beard Hunter, a homo-erotic parody of the Punisher, who's sole purpose was ridding the world of facial hair. But most notably, there was the reformed Brotherhood of Evil, now calling itself the Brotherhood of Dada, led by Mr. Nobody. Mr. Nobody's greatest scheme involved stealing a bicycle belonging to Albert Hoffman (the scientist who invented LSD), attaching it to a bus, and criss-crossing the country getting everyone stoned on acid and running for president. Before his scheme could take root, Mr. Nobody was assassinated by the strange creature called Yankee Doodle Dandy, on orders from the government.

The Doom Patrol allied themselves with another hero called Flex Mentallo, Hero of the Beach-- a character inspired by the famous Charles Atlas physical fitness ads. They faced all these strange threats from their headquarters on Danny the Street-- a sentient, teleporting, transsexual street that acted as a safe haven for all the world's persecuted misfits.

Amid all the free-wheeling, fun weirdness, there were genuine moments of empathy and emotion in Morrison's Doom Patrol, especially in the ever-changing relationship between Cliff Steele and Crazy Jane. Cliff's desire to save her from her own deepening madness over the course of the series was genuinely touching. And Rebus' attempts to regain his rapidly-dwindling humanity were frightening.

And the end of Morrison's run was... wow. If you'd read the series from the beginning, you couldn't help but have an emotional stake in it, and so the revelations in that last story were just shattering. The DP were nominally up against the Candlemaker, a rogue creature from Dorothy Spinner's nightmares, but what they-- and Cliff in particular faced-- was a monstrous betrayal and the complete destruction of everything they thought they knew about themselves.

No spoilers here, but in the very last issue, Morrison still manages to find a glimmer of hope for his characters, even after all the destruction and shattered dreams. He leaves Doom Patrol with the promise of a better world, a place where the fragile and outcast can live safely from all harm.

The entire run is available in trade paperback, if you have trouble finding the individual issues. It is, without question, one of the Best Comics Ever.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Sickness in the Family- Denise Mina & Antonio Fuso

My friend Gordon Harries will be pinch-hitting here at BammPow on occasion, dropping reviews of various solid stuff. Happy to have him. Here's his take on one of the better releases from Vertigo's new-ish crime imprint.

A Sickness in The Family
Denise Mina/Antonio Fuso
Vertigo Crime

Family, so the argument goes, best operates as an enabling device: the family home as a safe haven where the natural abilities and virtues of a child can unfurl, before that child is exposed (via work, university or whatever) to the difficulties that real life can offer.

This isn’t a story about that family. It’s a story about the other family, where love (should it have existed) has long since curdled. Leaving the family at the heart of this narrative –The Ushers- less a support network than six people who share blood, secrets and a keen desire to eviscerate one another. Naturally, a McGuffin is required to expose the ushers to one another and that’s provided here by Ted Usher’s recent selling of the family business. Each member of the rest of the family –whether it be university dropout William, recent graduate Amy, adoptive child Sam, wife Biddy or grandmother Martha—find themselves with competing agendas for how the money is to be used. All are frustrated by Ted’s decision to buy an adjacent flat, enlarge the property and provide “an investment, for all of you, for later.”

Its right around then that people start to die.

Of course, such a set-up would be a cheap thing indeed if the characters’ were not invested with sufficient depth. Across five discreet chapters author Denise Mina–both via a clever framing device (wherein the reader finds out, several years hence, just what one of the more passive characters’ thought of the events unfolding before us.) and a series of compelling character studies—does just that. In Ted’s chapter, for example, we see his difficulties in tolerating his wife’s continuing infidelities, which offers sobering counter-point to the escalating violence within the family home.

It’s worth noting too, that in a genre where violence is too often utilized as a cartoon-ish prop, Mina’s brutality –both here and in her acclaimed prose work-- is often jarring. This is perfectly complemented by both artist Antonio Fuso (who with the aforementioned framing device illustrates that he can draw age beautifully, a rarity amongst comics artists) and the book’s greyscale moodiness.

Denise Mina and Antonio Fuso’s neo-gothic is, for my money, the best graphic novel that Vertigo Crime has yet published. It is dark, violent, funny, profane and profound about the psychological hinterlands that our families tend to occupy. Not only will it, as Greg Rucka promises in his blurb “leave you walking with its echoes for days to come.”, you’ll find yourself marvelling over a clever (seemingly throwaway) line of dialogue and re-assessing the book’s content every time you think of its ending. It’s that good.

(this piece previously appeared on Needle Scratch Static)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The New 52, so far

DC Comics is now nine months into their big, sweeping re-launch of the entire line, the project they call “The New 52”. And despite the early naysayers, it’s proving to be more than just marketing hype. Over all—at least on most of the core titles—it’s been a real success, commercially and creatively.
Not that it’s been without the occasional crash-and-burn utter failure. Of the 52 titles that launched the first month, I was able to check out about 20 of them, so I can’t speak for the quality of the majority. But of the titles I read, only a few were disappointing. A quick run-down on those before getting to the good (and great) stuff.

SAVAGE HAWKMAN was a disaster from the get-go. I’ve always had a soft spot for the character, but very few creators have done good work with him. Tony Daniels and Philip Tan continue the tradition of mucking Hawkman up. Lately, DC is allowing artists like Daniels to write as well, and this title illustrates perfectly why that’s not such a good idea. Daniels is a decent artist, but his writing leaves much to be desired.

BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT came almost solely from artist David Finch—again, a case of a very good artist being given the reins as writer, with poor results.

DETECTIVE COMICS is also written by Daniels, and also fails to be interesting.
All three of the above mentioned titles have just been handed over to different creative teams, so hopefully they’ll get on track.

GREEN ARROW is another character with loads of potential, but the New 52 re-launch of the character takes away everything that made him interesting and replaces it a with shallow, dull-witted Tony Stark impression. The art is static, the story is predictable. Again, a new team has taken over, so maybe they can salvage it yet. It would be nice to see Green Arrow get the treatment he deserves.

CATWOMAN has had her ups and downs over the years, but Ed Brubaker showed that tremendous things can be done with her. There’s a fine, fine line between writing Selina Kyle as a complex anti-hero with more than her share of sexiness and writing her as a total sexpot. Judd Winnick (who is normally a decent writer, I think) goes the exploitive sexpot route, to such a degree that it’s hard to take her seriously. And the ridiculously exaggerated art of Gulliem March only accentuates it. This one was especially disappointing.

SUPERMAN… the super-hero of all super-heroes should NOT be boring. And yet he so often is. The re-launch changed many things about Superman, but not that. The first couple issues were busy, busy, busy, cluttered with unnecessary prose and about a million panels per page. Yet again, the original creative team here has been replaced, so this titles future could still be bright.

RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS was sort of a mess.

BLACKHAWKS had a lot of potential to be a sort of DC Universe version of G.I. Joe, but missed the mark.

Now, the titles that were decent, but not quite special enough to make my pull-list (although, if money wasn’t an issue, I would still consider hanging around to see where they were going)…

NIGHTWING is written competently and the art is solid, but over-all it felt fairly rote. Nightwing is a great character, though, and as part of the Batman world, not much has changed (not much that is apparent yet, anyway).

BATWOMAN is one of DC’s best new characters, and the initial run (in Detective Comics), written by Greg Rucka and with amazing art by J.H. Williams was fantastic. The re-launch more or less picks up where the first run left off, except this time it doesn’t have the saving grace of Rucka’s script. Artist Williams has taken up the pen, and unfortunately his skills as a writer don’t match up to his skills as an artist. Still, the book would still be worth picking up if it still featured his art… but it doesn’t.

JUSTICE LEAGUE, written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Jim Lee, is a fan-boy wet dream. I liked it enough to stick around through the first six-issue arc, but almost immediately after that it began losing its appeal for me. I’m not crazy about the new team dynamics here, the way the heroes interact with one another. But that’s just me.

And now, the winners:

BATMAN, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Greg Capullo, is an absolute gem. The core Batman books don’t seem to have been affected much by the re-launch, so Snyder is able to draw on Batman’s recent history to tell a terrific and involving story, and Capullo’s art is really fresh and dynamic.

ACTION COMICS—Grant Morrison gives us the Superman we deserve here. His first arc is a reimagining of Superman’s early days in Metropolis as a brash, headstrong young hero out to help the common man. He’s likeable and fun and the story is just jam-packed with great action and mind-blowing ideas. If you’ve read Morrison’s ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, you know what to expect. Great stuff.

THE FLASH is pure super-hero fun, with a focus on crazy science and flat-out action. The art by Francis Manapul is gorgeous. I didn’t think anybody could do justice to The Flash after the great run a few years ago from Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins, but the new team is kicking all kinds of ass.

WONDER WOMAN is a book I never thought I’d be reading, but so far, month after month, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang are blowing me away with this title. Incorporating Greek mythology, horror, and dynamic super-hero action, Wonder Woman is one of the best new surprises to come from the New 52.

Now, as for the non-core titles that really nail it:

ALL-STAR WESTERN was a no-brainer for me, as I loved the ongoing JONAH HEX title that this one replaces. It’s the same writers, with new artist Moritat—and they’ve gone in a decidedly “weird western” direction. I sort of miss the old single issue story format of the old title, but they’re doing a very nice job of keeping me invested in the new version. I do hope, though, that our man Hex gets away from Gotham City and back out West again soon.

 ANIMAL MAN is probably the smartest, weirdest book to come out of the New 52. Writer Jeff Lemire is forging a bizarre, horrifying epic here and I hope more people pick it up because it’s just amazing.

SWAMP THING, newly re-introduced to the DC Universe after a long stint in their “adult” pocket Vertigo, is written by Batman scribe Scott Snyder (you should also check out his AMERICAN VAMPIRE, it’s aces), and seems to be closely related to Animal Man. I was dubious and a little annoyed that they were reincorporating Swampie into the mainstream DC Universe, but I needn’t have worried. Aside from “younging up” the characters, they don’t seem to have changed much of the rich back-story.

FRANKENSTEIN: AGENT OF S.H.A.D.E. doesn’t seem like it would be worth reading, does it? Wrong. It’s flat-out brilliant. Jeff Lemire has the reins on this one as well, and gives readers a bizzaro saga packed with great ideas and almost pulp-style action. Some readers have pointed out that the premise has more than a little in common with Hellboy and his BPRD, and yes, that’s true—but I don’t see a problem with that.
So that’s my take on the New 52. Over all, I’m really pleased with the re-launch. DC as a company seems committed to telling the best stories possible, and even though they may have stumbled a little bit out of the gate with a few titles, I’m invested enough in many of them that I’m sure I’ll be there for the long haul.

What’s your take? And are there any that I didn’t mention that you think are worth reading?

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Life in Four Colors

Another comic blog. Yep.
There are lots of them, for sure, the readability of each ranging anywhere from amazingly sharp and insightful to utterly juvenile. I read many of them on a regular basis, because… well, I love comic books. Always have.

When I was about eight years old, my mom took me to the barber shop one afternoon and while sitting and waiting to have my head decimated I happened to glance at a little table next to me and spotted a comic book. A figure that was barely recognizable to me as Batman graced the cover, swathed in shadows and looking very spooky and gothic.

I was puzzled and intrigued. The only Batman I knew was the bright and funny camp of the Adam West TV show, which I of course adored at the time. I picked up the comic, started reading… and from that moment on I was a Born-Again comic book fan.
I still remember the story, even: Batman was chasing some crook through the woods, over a suspended bridge at night. He tracked the guy to a little camp where a group of circus freaks were hanging out. The story’s climax featured Batman rescuing some kid with flippers from being thrown off a bell tower. I wouldn’t know (or care) until years later that this was a classic issue written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Neal Adams—creators credited with ushering in a newer, darker version of Batman that harkened back to his earliest adventures.

But whatever. At the time I just knew that the story made my heart race, the art was full of sinister grace, and Batman was seriously fucking cool in it.

After that, no trip to the local drug store (they actually had comic books at the drug store in those days!) would be complete without me begging and cajoling for three or four comics. My mom fed my habit willingly because comics were cheap those days and kept me occupied. When I wasn’t reading them, I was emulating them: wrapping a towel around my neck, running around humming my own theme song and jumping off the porch to pounce on invisible bad guys.

Batman was my favorite, but anyone in colorful tights (and optional cape) was okay in my book. Spider-Man, Captain America, Flash, Hawkman, whatever. I was a fanatic.
Over the years, of course, my taste in comics changed, just as the comic book industry did. If you’re a fan at all, I don’t need to tell you about the explosion of maturity and talent in the eighties, like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, or Frank Miller’s dystopian Dark Knight Returns. I was on-board for all that, sure. And then, of course, the halcyon days of Vertigo. I still enjoyed the occasional foray into super-heroics but most of my pull list consisted of stuff like Doom Patrol, Sandman, Shade… and then later, Lucifer, Preacher, 100 Bullets… you get the idea.

These days my comic book reading is a little harder-edged, a little more challenging not only morally but emotionally. They still have all the visceral punch that we expect from comics but are much broader.

But I still like super-heroes as well.

When I mentioned on Facebook that I planned on starting this blog, a cousin of mine who didn’t grow up reading comics pointed out that he thought it was odd that grown men would still do so. That’s an attitude I’m seen before, one that inevitably comes from people who don’t have a connection to the art form. They don’t get it. That’s not a slam against them, really; I mean, how COULD they get it?

But someone in the comic industry (I don’t recall who, it could’ve been the above-mentioned Denny O’Neil) once pointed out that comics are “not just for kids anymore—in fact, they’re not even MOSTLY for kids.”
Younger readers these days are not as enamored of American comic books as previous generations. And so, in order to stay alive, comic books have had to grow up, along with their readers. That’s why the vast majority of comic fans are adults, and younger readers are scarce.

Me, I’m all growed-up, too (although I suppose that’s debatable), and I love comic books.

This blog is meant to share the love and maybe even get more readers into the form.

I hope that readers feel free to comment and interact here, and I’ll be sure to make it very easy to do so.

By the way, a big THANK YOU to my friend Luis Vera for coming up with the name of this blog. You’re some kind of genius, L.