Buy Multiple Copies of Lumberjanes; Read One

I’m a 30-something guy who likes superheroes, sci-fi, and crime noir stuff. I am in the target demographic for most comic books being published today. I am not in the target demographic for BOOM! Studios’ Lumberjanes.

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I found it in the “All Ages” section of my local comic shop, not my usual corner of the lcs, but I was looking specifically for Lumberjanes. The book is about a group of girls at a supernatural summer camp. It’s funny and sweet. In the first issue our heroes break curfew to fight off a pack of three-eyed monster foxes. Lumberjanes is sort of Scooby-Doo meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer at summer camp.

Its aesthetic is something like Adventure Time, but it’s a little less second-wave emo, if you know what I mean. Lumberjanes is more earnest and little less weird – more My Little Ponies. It has the potential to be a great, ironic adventure series about monsters and mysteries. When I was reading it, I was thinking, this book has that kind of “cool” factor I wanted to find in Black Science or Dead Boy Detectives but just couldn’t. You could say that there’s an “it” factor here that’s just hard to replicate; you could also just say this is good writing. After one issue, I feel like I know the characters and I like them. I want to read more about them. If you enjoyed The Fox, or you enjoyed some of the other books I’ve mentioned here, I’d recommend you give Lumberjanes a try.

It’s a cool book, though it’s a little precious in places. There’s dialogue like “What in the Joan Jett…” and dialogue like “I like kittens!” There are moments when the book is needling you in the ribs with its girl-positive message, but it’s not overdone. The art and the story are strong enough that this doesn’t feel like an animated lecture about male privilege. It’s a comic book about friends who fight monsters and get in trouble and argue and tease each other. They happen to be girls – sort of awesome girls.

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Ultimately, the story is good, the characters are well drawn, and the art is stylish. I’m going to buy future issues of Lumberjanes. And if the series has hooked someone like me (way outside it’s target demo) I’m guessing it’s going to be a cult hit amongst the younger set. I’ve got a hunch about it, I think the first issue could be an in demand book before long. I’ll be picking up more copies on my next trip to the local comic shop.

 

Caliban and The Field: First Issues and The Elevator Pitch

While driving in the car last week, I heard this great radio bit on elevator pitches. An Elevator Pitch is a concise, catchy synopsis of an idea. Imagine you’ve stepped onto an elevator with a movie producer or a bigwig from a publishing house. You’ve got about 30 seconds to pitch your best idea before the person who can give you your big break gets off the elevator.

The story reminded me of a couple of new comic book series: Image’s The Field and Avatar’s Caliban.

I picked up the first issues of both series about three weeks ago because the previews I found online were concise and catchy – great elevator pitches. Here are my synopses of the first issues:

The Field: An amnesiac wakes up in a field wearing only his underwear and holding a cell phone. A stranger arrives in a car and offers the amnesiac a ride. Just then, our protagonist starts receiving cryptic texts warning him of impending danger.

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Caliban: Garth Ennis, creator of Preacher, brings us a new sci-fi thriller about a spaceship that crashes into an alien vessel… while travelling in hyperdrive. The resulting accident fuses the two ships together, and the human crew of the Caliban comes face to face with another species.

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Both of these series have a “cinematic” feel to them. In both cases, the opening premise grabs you. I mentioned in a post about “binge watching” that this seems to be an increasingly common trope in comic book storytelling.

I’ll pick up the second issue of both of these series. Both The Field and Caliban made me wonder what was going to happen next. This is more than I can say for some other recent high profile releases like Undertow and Deadly Class.

From a speculation standpoint, both of these series are limited, not ongoing. So the ceiling is likely capped in terms of monetary value, unless one someday becomes a movie. Of the two, Caliban is a much more traditional sci-fi story. If you were betting on one of these being optioned for film or television it would be the Ennis book.

So, in conclusion: provocative storytelling, limited re-sale value.

Pretty Deadly & Ten Grand: Occult Comics Done Right and Wrong

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For awhile there, back in the summer of 2013, Ten Grand was one of my favourite comic books. The first offering from J. Michael Straczynski’s Joe’s Comics label over at Image, Ten Grand was a film noir story with a supernatural twist.

Now, from the get-go, Ten Grand was derivative. Joe Fitzgerald is a mob enforcer. When he and his girlfriend, Laura, are brutally murdered, she goes to heaven and he goes to hell. Except that an angel intervenes and offers Joe a deal: work for the forces of good and every time he dies in a righteous cause he’ll get to see his beloved again for five minutes. The five minute thing is weirdly specific, but whatever.

So, mix together Hellblazer, The Crow, and Spawn and you kind of get Ten Grand. But early on, the mixture worked.

It worked in part because of imaginative little details. Joe had a variety of talismans and gimmicks he used to ward off and take down demons. There were a few clever and creepy confrontations with otherworldly creatures. And there was a cool hardboiled vibe to the comic; Joe was trying to solve the mystery and that gave the series a natural narrative drive.

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Ben Templesmith’s art on those early issues was also something to behold. Templesmith created a compelling urban landscape, it was sooty and greasy. It had a really distinctive style, something really special. Templesmith left the book after issue #5. It was a weird situation. Apparently, Templesmith was having trouble getting the work done, and Straczynski decided to make a change… or maybe it was Templesmith’s decision. It’s all a little murky.

I appreciate the desire to get books out on time, but looking back, Stracynski should have done whatever he had to do to keep Templesmith. No offence to C. P. Smith, Templesmith’s replacement, but the book hasn’t been the same since he took over.

However, the decline of Ten Grand isn’t all about the art. In the second half of the series, the main character, Joe goes on an adventure in the afterlife. The whole trajectory of the series changes. Instead of a cool supernatural crime story we get watered-down, warmed-over Milton. The whole series is heading towards a climactic battle between heaven and hell that really doesn’t feel very climatic. Ten Grand is the story of a once promising comic that went terribly wrong.

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Image’s supernatural western series, Pretty Deadly, has followed a different path. I was a little skeptical of Pretty Deadly at first, a little worried it was more hype than substance, but the series is starting to come together.

There isn’t anything else like Pretty Deadly out there. For that reason, the first few issues were actually a little disorienting. The main character of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s comic is Death’s daughter. Her name is Ginny and her story is narrated by a butterfly and a rabbit skeleton. (Yes, that is a thing you just read). Ginny’s world is populated by half a dozen other wanders and gunslingers all of whom seem to have mysterious, shadowy pasts.

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It wasn’t until issue #4 that the relationships between some of the characters were clarified and things started to come together. That’s a long time to wait for a new series to pay off, but Pretty Deadly has something – an it factor. It’s been compared to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and those comparisons aren’t too far off the mark. Obviously Pretty Deadly has a long way to go before it matches one of the greatest comic book series of all time, but the magic and the mood and the kooky narrative framework do remind one of Gaiman’s work.

Emma Rios’ art is mostly gorgeous. There are some moments where it’s hard to tell what’s happening. The violent fight scenes can be hard to follow, and characters are occasionally hard to distinguish from one another. That said, there’s a vivid and eerie visual atmosphere to this book. It doesn’t look like anything else on the shelves.

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I’m not a TPB reader, but those who are might appreciate reading Pretty Deadly in trade form. The first arc will come off best if read all at once. And I’d recommend you do check out Pretty Deadly; it’s fresh and different. I used to feel the same way about Ten Grand, but sadly, that series has failed to deliver on its initial promise.

What’s Worth Reading Now?

Shortly after starting this blog I put together a short list of four comics that I couldn’t get enough of. I’m still reading those books, and I still really love them. But I’m promiscuous in my affections; I can’t be tied down by any one universe or any few books. Here are a few more series I’ve had eyes for lately.

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 I’m a big Superman fan, but I’m often disappointed by Superman comics. Maybe I’m too committed to a particular interpretation of the character. I don’ know. I do know that I love Pak’s Superman. This version of the Man of Steel feels fresh and classic all at the same time. Pak’s Action Comics has a sci-fi feel to it: Superman fights monsters and explores underground civilizations. There’s a retro vibe, but the story never feels goofy. Also, there’s a healthy dose of Lana Lang. (You know how much I love Lana Lang). So far in Pak’s run, Lana has been Clark’s foil. She’s ballsy and tomboyish and she has no problem giving Clark… er… Superman a piece of her mind. Lana also adds tenderness and warmth to the series though. As the figure of first love and missed opportunities Lana fills the pages of this book with an atmosphere of nostalgia that fits Superman perfectly.  I recommend you start reading Greg Pak’s Action Comics with issue #26. Skip the Zero Year tie-in (#25).

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Alex + Ada is unlike anything else I’m reading. It’s a near-future sci-fi tale about young man whose grandmother buys him a fully functioning female automaton. Obviously, there are lots of potential  advantages to having a robot assistant/companion, but Alex’s grandmother clearly thinks that he should use Ada for … um… adult… things. The comic speaks metaphorically, of course, to the ways our friendships and relationships are increasingly digital.  People use the Internet in all sorts of ways to satisfy their social desires and exercise their sexual demons. Ada is just a logical extension of those drives. But Alex never feels quite right using Ada as a sophisticated scratching post. He begins exploring the taboo world of sentient A.I. That’s when things get interesting. The art in this series is superb. Everything is clean lines and subtle facial expressions. Beautiful stuff. I’ve never seen a comic that can make sitting down and having a conversation look so interesting.

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Let me start by saying this: God bless the local comic shop proprietor. As I was perusing the rack today, the manager at my local shop came over and all but shoved a copy of Moon Knight #1 into my hand. I was considering picking up Magneto #1, but I had no interest in Moon Knight. None. I picked it up solely based on my comic guy’s enthusiastic recommendation. And I loved it. Normally, I like to wait a bit before giving my verdict on a new series. First issues can be a bit like movie previews – lots of promise, not a lot of substance. You don’t know how good the series is going to be until you’re into a story arc. Just like you don’t really know how good the movie is until you see it. All that said, Moon Knight is off to a very promising start. This may seem like strange compliment, but this is a Marvel book that feels like an Image book. It was dark, mature, and cool. I should stress that I had no previous experience with Moon Knight. I have no experience with the character, no knowledge of his back story, no attachment. Nothing. So, as “jumping on points” go… let’s just say “nicely done, Marvel.”

Note for speculators: if I had to put money on an All New Marvel Now series becoming “hot,” I’d put my money on Moon Knight.

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If You’re Not Reading Manifest Destiny, You Should Be Ashamed Of Yourself

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I’m trying to put this in the strongest possible terms: you need to start reading Image’s Manifest Destiny. It’s the best comic being published today. Superior Spider-Man and Snyder’s Batman are fine superhero books. Sex Criminals is hilarious and  Pretty Deadly is a poor-man’s Sandman (I mean that as a compliment). Some of the stuff coming out of Valiant is hella original too. But Manifest Destiny written by Chris Dingess with art by Matthew Roberts and Owen Gieni is amazing.

Part of it is the humour. It’s a funny book. The dialogue is very sharp. Another part of it is the amazing, atmospheric art. There’s a clear style here and Roberts is so good at communicating character and emotion through his faces.

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But the crux of this book is its classic adventure narrative. It’s a story about the frontier, the perimeters and boundaries of western civilization. So many great adventure stories are about open space. The Walking Dead is all about space – being out in the open, finding shelter, locking yourself in a prison. Most post-apocalyptic stories are like this; they dramatize and explore the human need to comfort themselves behind walls and control spaces. The delineation of space is the stuff of civilization – my property, your property, public space. Scott Snyder’s The Wake operates on the same theory: the reader is plunged along with the characters deep, deep into a bottomless black ocean. What lurks in the untamed spaces? It’s the premise of almost every horror story.

Manifest Destiny applies this same principle to the American West. Adventurer-Cartographers Lewis and Clark along with a motley band of military volunteers and convicted criminals. Along the way they run into Buffalo-headed minotaurs and plant zombies. They’re aided by the skilled warrior, Sacagawea. Every issue of this series is filled with an uncanny mixture of comedy and dread.

If you enjoy some of the more oddball stuff coming out of Image these days – Pretty Deadly, Sex Criminals, Black Science – you’ll love Manifest Destiny.

If you’ve only read superhero stuff to date and you’ve never really been tempted by “indie” comics, now’s the time. Manifest Destiny is accessible and incredible. If you like Brian Michael Bendis’ dialogue or enjoy Archer & Armstrong, you’ll love Manifest Destiny.

There’s so much to like about this book. It’s the most satisfying read from my pull-list week-in, week-out. If you’re not reading it, you don’t like good comics.

Lazarus, Let’s Be Serious

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I’ll be honest: I was all set to write a pretty negative review of Lazarus, the sort-of-new sci-fi series by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. But I waited. I waited one more issue, and they may have turned it around.

My negativity might be a bit surprising. If you’ve heard anything about Lazarus it was probably good. It showed up on a lot of “Best Comics of 2013” lists last month. And I’ll agree the concept is cool. Lazarus is set in a near future in which the predatory tendencies of capitalism and neo-liberalism have gone unchecked. Capital has been concentrated in the hands of a select few “families,” who have then turned America into an aristocracy. The main character, Forever, is a nearly invincible, sword-wielding bodyguard of the wealthy Carlyle clan. Forever is treated as a member of the Carlyle family; she’s referred to as “sister” and “daughter,” but she’s not really a member of the family. Her origins are mysterious. What we do know is that she was trained from a very young age to be a killing machine and she’s been “augmented” somehow by technology so that she’s nearly impossible to kill.

Lazarus is obviously intended to speak to our current political climate. The Carlyle family and their ilk are the 1%; they’re the Mitt Romney set projected 100 years into the future. Instead of gated communities, now we’ve got full on militarized compounds patrolled by private armies. That makes Lazarus timely. I also think it’s part of what makes it trendy.

But Lazarus stumbles on the fundamentals. Lark’s art is shadowy and stark. There’s a strong sense of atmosphere and style here. However, at times, the style gets in the way of basic characterization, by which I mean facial recognition. It’s sometimes hard to tell who is who in this comic and that’s a problem when you’re trying to get to know characters. To be fair, maybe that’s less about Lark and more about Rucka. It’s taken about six months for any of the characters in this comic to take shape. That’s too long.

The first issue of this comic was gangbusters. Lots of tension, lots of questions. The rest of the first arc… was not good. The characters were transparent and uninteresting. Forever’s father is (so far) a caricature of a tyrannical, inhuman CEO. Her siblings are similarly hateful. For months I didn’t care about anybody in this comic. The first arc revolved around a betrayal that was neither surprising nor suspenseful. Speaking of suspense, for several issues now, Forever has been getting cryptic text messages from an anonymous source telling her that the Carlyles are “not her family”. The problem is, we’ve seen that three times now. Forever has made no attempt to track down the source of the texts, nor has the anonymous texter supplied us with any other information. There’s been no movement on that plot line, and as a consequence it’s gone cold before it’s even developed.

So, I was all ready to write Lazarus off. Then I read issue #5, which introduces a group of ordinary farmers to the narrative. These future-age serfs lose their home in a flood, and then draconian corporate and government policies force them to abandon their land in issue #6. These characters I care about, and not because they’re the noble working class people who struggle under the thumb of their vicious Carlyle overlords. No. Simply because there’s a story here. Something happened to these characters. Their struggles are relatable and I want to see what else happens to them. Meanwhile, we’ve also been getting flashbacks to Forever’s youth. We see her training – late-night pushups while conjugating Latin verbs – and we see how desperate she is for her “father’s” love. It’s twisted and unreal, but not so unlike any kid who plays sports or studies all night or parades around in pageants just to win the approval of a parent. Finally I’m starting to feel something for Forever.

If you’ve been thinking about getting into Lazarus I would suggest you track down issue #5 and #6. Start there. It’s a new arc. There’s nothing in the first five issues, you can’t pick up in a few minutes, and the comic is just starting to pick up steam.

Lazarus may have turned the corner, and it may turn out to be something cool… but there’s one other thing that it has to get right. The comic takes itself way too seriously. It beats us over the head with its allegory. “See! This is about what’s happening right now!” In fact, in case we missed any of that, at the end of every issue, The creators give us a list of recent scientific and political developments that gesture towards the dystopian future he’s presented to us. For example, it’s been revealed that every middle class family has a “Post” in their home. Basically, it’s an Internet box connected to a pole. After the letters page we get this from the Lazarus team:

“The Post really isn’t fictitious at all. The XBox One is filling homes and listening to you say its name, and yes, you can keep it offline, etc, but the fact is, the console was designed to always be on and always be listening (and watching). I’m giving it another month, at the outside, before we hear the first story of an individual or individuals hacking the Kinect security to play Peeping Tom.”

There are a couple of problems here. One way to read this is that the creators don’t really respect the intelligence of their audience. They need to spell out every theme and symbol in the book, so we don’t miss any of their genius insights. The other problem is that its didactic, and didacticism doesn’t make for good art. Part of the problem with the story and character development might be this emphasis on making an “argument.” When characters become ciphers for political movements and economic trends they cease to be engaging.

Anyway, I really think the creators ought to ditch the “News of the World” recap. We get it. It’s about Occupy. It’s about the 99%. It’s about austerity and late capitalism. It’s about biotechnology. It’s as if the comic is shouting and pointing at its own panels: “DO YOU SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE? THIS IS POLITICAL! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS SYMBOLIZES? THIS IS VERY SERIOUS STUFF!”

Comics can say serious things, of course, but when they start to take themselves too seriously, they fall flat. We might do well to remember that the most serious comic ever written, a comic about the most serious subject there is, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, was just a cartoon about some mice and some cats.

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Kitty Pryde, Jean Grey, and All-New Heartbreak

I’ve been enjoying Brian Michael Bendis’ All New X-Men for a while now. I like the premise; I think the characters and dialogue are excellent. I’ve especially enjoyed the relationship between Jean Grey and Kitty Pryde, who has taken the old/new X-Men under her wing. It works so well because Kitty used to be the “little sister” of the team and Jean was the mega-powerful mutant authority figure. Now Kitty is the experienced one and she’s doing all she can to help a teenaged Jean come to grips with her Phoenix future/past.

That’s all been great, but lately the series has taken a turn for the worse. Mostly, I’m a little cheesed off about the “Trial of Jean Grey” story that’s part of the All New Marvel Now Reboot. The arc is a cross-over with Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a six-issue arc, which means if I want to read it I’ve gotta buy THREE ISSUES of Guardians of the Galaxy. What!? Sorry, no.

I get that Marvel is trying to push GotG in advance of the movie. But three issues? C’mon. To make matters worse, this cross-over is coming on the heels of this fall’s 10-part “Battle of the Atom” cross-over. I didn’t mind “Battle of the Atom” so much because I was already buying three X-books, which is probably normal practice for your average X-Fan. So “Battle of the Atom” meant I was buying about four extra books over the course of two months. The story was decent, so no big deal.

But now, after three mediocre stand alone issues with sub-par art you’re going to try to get me on the hook for another cross-over event? One which requires some pretty silly storytelling in the setup.

Also, you’ve absolutely ruined the team’s costumes. Painfully generic multi-coloured costumes? Are you kidding me? These might be the worst costumes in comics? How does more than one person think this is a good idea?

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Hey, maybe you can fix them by giving all the team members spiffy helmets. Kind of like…

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Yes! Exactly. Heroic. Not at all juvenile.

Long story short this may be enough to drive me away from a series I’ve loved over the past year. It’s a shame and a real miscalculation on the part of the X-Editors and Bendis.