Friday, July 07, 2006

Crack Shots - July 7, 2006

Midnight Sun #1
By Ben Towle
Published by Slave Labor Graphics, US$2.95

I was really looking forward to this book after Towle's excellent, and underrated Farewell, Georgia collection of short stories, and Towle did not disappoint. A young reporter named H.R. is handed the story opportunity of a lifetime when his editor asks him to investigate the disappearance of the airship Italia somwhere near the North Pole. It could be the big break he's been waiting for, but in order to get the story, he has to travel to the North Pole, a prospect that is none too appealing. The art, which falls somewhere between Darwyn Cooke and Hope Larson, also evoking memories of Seth's Palookaville, still manages to take on its own style. Towle's storytelling is well-paced, never loading the pages down with too much exposition, and leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next, which is really the whole point of a first issue. The clearly researched and photo referenced panels add just the right amount of detail to recreate an authentic period piece without overwhelming the backgrounds, or giving the book a stiff feel that seems to afflict so many other artists working from still shots. Overall, this is a very impressive debut. It's as good a first issue as I've seen in a long time, and definitely the best new floppy to come out from Slave Labor since the debut of Street Angel. Grade: 4.5/5

Battlestar Galactica #0
By Greg Pak, Nigel Raynor and David Curiel
Published by Dynamite Entertainment, US$0.25

You know, you get what you pay for. With the increased frequency of these cheap introductory issues, you get a lot of people who figure why not; it's worth a look since it's so cheap. But when I think about it, I can't remember a single 25 cent issue that didn't suck. That being said, few are as disappointing as Battlestar Galactica #0. Why? Partly because it's based on the outstanding TV show which is probably the best science fiction television series since Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even Rachel loves it, and she usually falls asleep at the first sign of a spaceship. That such a popular show could be so colossally mishandled should come as no surprise given that it's published by Dynamite Entertainment, whose never once demonstrated a commitment to quality storytelling. Yet still I was hopeful. The problems with this book run across the board. The artwork is sloppy, cluttered, difficult to discern what's happening, and just plain ugly. The characters, especially President Roslyn, barely resemble the TV actors and instead have that vapid, Barbie-caught-in-headlights look, popularized by Michael Turner, that drives me crazy. The computer colors, as with so many books these days, are so overdone, they almost hurt to look at, and only detract, rather than enhance the art. And then there's the script, which is confusing, rushed, and filled with awkward dialogue. The ending, a typical superhero revisionist "back from the dead" cliche, is a total cop out. I may be way off base, but it's hard for me to imagine anyone who is a fan of the show actually liking this series. Not even worth a quarter. Grade: 0/5

The Eternals #1
By Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr.
Published by Marvel Comics, US$3.99

I never read Jack Kirby’s original series, so I’m already hampered by a lacking sense of history. But I figured I wasn’t the only one, and that Neil Gaiman would make an accessible series that didn't require any prior knowledge of the characters or concepts. In that sense, I think Gaiman has succeeded. This new version of The Eternals are a group of immortals (you might even say ‘Endless’), created by some giant robot-gods, called the Celestials, who came to Earth and created them with some clever rock machines. It’s very cosmic and high concept, as you would expect when building on a Kirby concept, but Gaiman, playing to his strengths, still manages to keep the characters as the central focus. And while there are several characters introduced, the main one, and most interesting initially, is Mark Curry, whose apparently an Eternal though he suffers from amnesia. Mark’s combative and sarcastic reaction at the arrival of Ike Harris, who announces his Eternal-ness is understandable, and mildly humorous. We also meet Sersi, who is also an Eternal, one presumes, though no evidence other than her featured scenes in the book of the same name appears to establish this fact. Sersi is an entrepreneur whose party organizing business brings her into contact with some shady Russians, whose scheming is only alluded to in this first issue, but will undoubtedly evolve into a major conflict at some point down the road.

Romita Jr.’s art is pretty consistent with his past works, with great superhero costumes and Kirby-esque poses, but flattened faces and awkward facial expressions. The cover by Rick Berry is disappointingly murky and odd, and a far cry from the excellent covers we came to expect for such a high profile series with Gaiman’s 1602. Overall, this first issue does a decent job establishing the characters, if not the conflict, and while I desperately want to like this story, there’s really not much to praise yet. I’ve said it before and I do believe that any superhero series is worth sticking around for 3 issues before passing final judgment. By that point, if the creators can’t hook you, then it's time to move on. There’s too much other good stuff out there to ride out a mediocre series. But at this point, I’d say it’s questionable whether I’ll be buying The Eternals #4. Grade: 3/5

Casanova #1
By Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba
Published by Image Comics, US$1.99

I've seen a lot of praise for this book online, even from people whose opinions I respect, but I just don't get it. Next to Battlestar Galactica, this might be the most disappointing comic I’ve bought in a long time. First of all, I think this concept of "done in one" is suspect. To me that's like saying a novel has to be 100 pages. It's an arbitrary restriction. If the story needs more pages, why restrict it? In the latest issue of Fell, Warren Ellis talks about how he studied Eisner's pacing to get inspiration. In Eisner's day, the industry enforced these requirements. If Eisner wanted The Spirit to get published, he had to keep it short. Today, these restrictions largely don't exist in the same way. So while I do think the format works well for Fell, I wonder if it isn't harming Casanova. Clearly Fraction has more than 16 pages of story to tell, so why force it when the result is that it feels compressed, hurried and left many people confused.

The story itself is also frustrating. The whole thing feels cliched and tired. How many times have we seen the rich, cocky, good-looking, international playboy spy thriller? It's derivative of a thousand better characters. Also, the dialogue feels like it's trying too hard to be clever. A particularly irritating scene that stands out is when Casanova leaps from an airplane (another cliche), and the captions reveal his inner thoughts. “I feel like I should say something important here. Or interesting at least. Maybe something cool or just nihilistic. Profound. Enigmatic...I got nothing.” Well, maybe if you've got nothing, then you should say nothing. This kind of narration is distracting and does nothing to serve the story or characterization. And while at first glance, Gabriel Ba’s artwork struck me as sharing some qualities in common with Mike Mignola (Hellboy) or even Tim Sale, it never really rises to either of their levels. Not that's it bad, it's just unremarkable.

I understand that Matt Fraction wants to follow in Warren Ellis’ footsteps in terms of doing a “one and done” series, but based on this first issue, he has a lot to learn from Ellis in terms of plotting, pacing and dialogue. Maybe Fraction’s a better writer than this issue would lead me to believe, and I recognize that I’m not the intended audience for this book, and truth be told, I probably shouldn’t have bought it in the first place, but I still like mainstream comics if they’re done well, and Casanova #1 is far from done well. Grade: 2/5

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