Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review - Astro City: Life in the Big City

Astro City: Life in the Big City
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by Brent Anderson
Covers by Alex Ross
1996 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
1996 Eisner Winner for Best Single Issue (#4)
1996 Eisner Winner for Best Cover Artist

Here's another one of those series that I'll be revisiting a few times. For four years in a row it continued to win awards. The format of Astro City means that covering all of the award winners in one go would be messy so I'm sticking to one trade paper back at a time.

Astro City is an anthology title. Each story shares the same setting: a metropolis like many others in comic books where a large number of super heroes live. And there is a huge cast of characters who occupy a kind of background tapestry wandering through different stories; occasionally they may step into the spot light but usually they just add some color to a scene. It's a pre-fab superhero universe for the most part built out of homages to existing characters. What ties it all together (and elevates Astro City above the crowd) is the unifying theme of the series: what everyday life would be like in a superhero universe.

A wonderful example of this is the first issue in which a Superman stand-in is too responsible to ever take a moment for himself. He spends his life dashing from one emergency to another as the ultimate workaholic driven by an inability to fail to save everyone he can. It's "With great power comes great responsibility" taken to its ultimate end.

And that's how the series goes. A newspaper reporter finds out what it takes to print the news when impossible things happen every day. A criminal stumbles onto a hero's secret identity and finds that it only brings more complications. An alien judges humanity by way of a blustering hero. Two busy heroes try to make some time for themselves and find it difficult to connect on a level other than as fellow superheroes.

The key here is that while the traditional superhero adventures are going on that's not what any of the stories are about. Typically the reader sees the start of a fight scene and the aftermath with very little of what occurs between.

The plotting in Astro City does rely on the reader having a general familiarity with comic book superhero tropes. It doesn't have to be a particularly deep set of knowledge but I couldn't imagine someone who didn't know superhero comics being able to connect with it. Things like signal devices and secret identities is about as thick as it gets. Busiek is playing with those broad concepts and how they affect people. Unlike some metatextual examinations of superheroes Astro City doesn't rely on homage or nostalgia and that makes it much more accessible to new comers even.

The fourth issue which won the Eisner for best single issue is actually my least favorite of the stories in this volume. That one centers on a woman from the bad part of Astro City where supernatural monsters dwell in the shadows and mystic forces stalk the streets. She commutes each day to the center of the city where the more typical superheroes hold sway but her family wants her to stay with her own kind. Busiek uses this story as a kind of bridge between more traditional fantasy and superheroes and in that aspect he is just as successful as he is with the themes in the rest of the stories. The conclusion, on the other hand, left a bitter taste in my mouth because of what I suspect is an unintended negative message portrayed in a positive way. It wasn't enough to make me dislike the story; it just made the last impression a bad one.

Brent Anderson struck me as an odd choice for handling the art work for the entire book. Not because his art is bad; he just has a scratchy, heavy style that seems out of place a lot of the time. Since Astro City is an anthology it makes me think that it would have been better served by having a rotating set of artists.

Anderson does create some striking images and has a terrific sense of design which he puts on display in the creation of the visual look of a huge cast of new superheroes. On top of that he captured the evolving style of some of the heroes who have been at it for decades.

I'm not going to say much about Alex Ross's covers since I like to have a larger sample size than six images before dissecting it. I will say that for the most part I liked the images he chose to represent the books (the cover to the first issue being an exception).

As I mentioned when I started reviewing the Eisner winners there are a lot of winners which exist mainly to appeal to superhero comic fans, to play off the genre, and evoke a sense of nostalgia. Though Astro City fits into that self-referencing genre navel gazing it also does it very well and tells stories that take advantage of the genre. I can't call it the pinnacle of these books because Watchmen is already there. Second place to that work, on the other hand, isn't a bad spot to be in.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review - The New Frontier

The New Frontier
by Darwyn Cooke
Colored by Dave Stewart
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Coloring
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - Reprint
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Design

I can't hide the fact that I enjoy superhero comics. But even as I like them I recognize that they are extremely hostile to someone who has not read them all their life. There's an awful lot of things that exist only because of genre conventions and history that were established fifty years ago when the target audience was ten year olds. The New Frontier is a book designed to appeal specifically to people like myself; people who know and accept the rules of superhero comics. It's a nostalgia piece for comic fans and that limits its effectiveness for anyone else.

In the early 1950's the government has banned superheroes. A few such as Batman have continued on despite the law. Others like Superman and Wonder Woman have started working for the government to enforce their policies. In this environment new heroes start to emerge such as the Martian Manhunter, the Challengers of the Unknown, and the Flash. While these heroes are fighting the occasional prehistoric giant monster or supervillain a test pilot named Hal Jordan is grounded from a space flight. And tying them together is the growing threat of a monstrous entity known only as “the center” that wants to wipe the upstart human race off its planet.

I did a fair bit of name dropping in that synopsis and that's because name dropping is just about the entire plot of The New Frontier. It opens with the Losers stumbling into the War that Time Forgot to rescue the Suicide Squad, jumps over to the retirement of most of the Justice Society of America and the death of Hourman, and over to a pre-superpowers Green Lantern fighting in the Korean War. I feel like I should be peppering my review with trademark symbols. All of this is absolutely meaningless if you're not already a fan of superhero comics, particularly the DC comics of the silver age. The New Frontier is a book designed specifically for comic book fans and if you're not in the club then you aren't invited.

Not that Darwyn Cooke doesn't do an admirable job of keeping the basic story elements clear. If you don't know the Losers then all you need to know is that they're an oddly named commando team and the rest can just go over your head. If you don't know who the Challengers of the Unknown are then their basic story is completely spelled out in the pages for you. The problem is that he doesn't really give someone not familiar with the characters a reason to care about them. Cooke gives the characters big moments that depend on the reader already having a connection to a version of that character outside of The New Frontier.

A good example of this is the Hal Jordan plot which is one of the longest in the book. There's a lot of plotting and events early on the story that play off the fact that he'll become Green Lantern, a straight laced space cop. Without that connection a reader is just going to get a weak drama; with it the nuances emerge.

It doesn't help The New Frontier that the central plot is dragged out for a long time mainly for the sake of referencing as many comics from the fifties and sixties as possible. It's a slow, lazy thing for the first two thirds of the book when suddenly the big reveal is dropped. Then just as it looks like it is dovetailing and building to a conclusion the brakes get slammed again for some extended sequences of showing off old characters. This book could have easily been half the length with the exact same amount of story.

By far the best aspect of The New Frontier is Cooke's art. Cooke is from the school of comic artists who use fewer, cleaner lines and have a terrific sense of motion. It will come as no surprise that he is another comic book artist who worked in animation. Also his visual aesthetic is very reminiscent of the 1950's and that compliments the story he is telling very well.

A facinating design choice that Cooke used in his layouts is that almost every page is built around a standard three panels. He almost never uses vertical breaks in the flow and only rarely blurs two of the rows into one larger panel. This formatting has two effects on the story. First, it gives the whole book a movie-like feel. Especially in the large format Absolute Edition (and I'll get to that in a moment) the eye can focus in one panel so that it fills your point of view entirely. It's a stunning effect when coupled with how it breaks the story into clean prose-like lines. It's the best of all worlds when it comes to this formatting. While I appreciate it when artists use more dynamic layouts this method of pacing his action worked wonderfully here.

The New Frontier wasn't the only book Dave Stewart colored for that 2005 Eisner but I don't think any of the other ones showed his skill as much as The New Frontier. Much as Cooke used a fifties style with his penciling Stewart chose to continue that effect in his coloring. In addition Stewart took his visual cues from the four color comics of the day and used a similarly bright palette. I cannot discount his work in helping create the impressive visuals.

The Absolute Edition of The New Frontier adds to the impressive visual style. By printing the book on pages twice as large as normal it makes it into a more absorbing experience. The effect of blowing up the artwork cannot be understated; it took what was a terrific looking comic before and turns it into something that is breathtaking. The only downside is that by being so large and heavy it makes the book a bit unwieldy to read.

If you're already a fan of DC comics, the kind of fan who picks up their Showcase Presents line to get some of the off-the-wall stories from the fifties and sixties, then The New Frontier will be an enjoyable book. Cooke knew his target audience and plays off them well. On the other hand if you don't know DC comics then you'll probably be left yawning at the story despite the stunning artwork. I liked the art, didn't care for the actual plot, and the moments were aimed right at me so my overall experience was positive but I'd never recommend it to someone who wasn't already a comic book fan.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review - "The Green Leopard Plague", "Basement Magic", and "Coming to Terms"

Something I wrote earlier this week has already become outdated. I mentioned that Stan Sakai was the only person other than Todd Klein to win the Eisner award for lettering. As of Friday that is no longer true. Chris Ware won the Eisner for the lettering in his Acme Novelty Library.

I've added this year's Eisner winners to the side bar, but I don't have a whole lot to say about them. The winners that I've read aren't bad though few of them are what I'd consider classics to transcend time. I'll get to them in time. Tonight it's time for the 2004 Nebula winners.

"The Green Leopard Plague"
by Walter Jon Williams
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In the distant future a researcher who is avoiding her recently resurrected lover embarks on a data mining project to find information on a twenty-first century philosopher whose economic and political theories revolutionized the world. He had been a minor figure until he vanished for three weeks and then reappeared with the first paper that set the world on a new course. Dividing time with her narrative is the actual story of what happened to that philosopher and how he became entangled with spies trying to kill a woman carrying a solution for world hunger. Stopping famine is a noble goal in itself but the couple bicker across Europe over the dangerous consequences that it could have.

Philosophically Williams puts forward economic concepts for a post-scarcity world which I can't say that I completely agree with. On the other hand he does understand the problems of unintended consequences and some of the less intuitive economic concepts that many SF authors ignore when postulating their future society (the value of labor being one of the biggest). The fact that he could support his economic arguments made a refreshing change from the usual libertarian/socialist utopias that turn up in SF which seemed to be managed by authorial fiat. And while the future that Williams shows the reader from the start indicates that it works out in the end the portions in the past avoid making either of the main character's positions morally correct.

One thing that I appreciated in "The Green Leopard Plague" is that while Williams sets things up as a spy story he avoids the standard pattern for the story. While a loose outline of the twenty-first century portion of the story might sound like a cheap airport thriller it only shares the broadest concepts. For one thing Williams gives his enemy spies more thought than most of them. They're far from superhuman, plot convenient engines of death; they screw things up, can't find the protagonists easily, and their actions are consistent with their motives.

Rounding things off nicely is how interesting Williams's characters are. Both near-future and far-future characters are troubled by the deaths around them but the implications for them are very different. This isn't a situation where I was left wanting more about these characters but that's mainly because when "The Green Leopard Plague" ended I felt that their story was finished and there wasn't anything more to say.

"The Green Leopard Plague" is classic SF in it's structure but very modern in its telling. I completely enjoyed it and highly recommend it.

"Basement Magic"
by Ellen Klages
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

"Basement Magic" is a story that is very familiar. A young girl in an affluent household in the late-fifties has a wicked stepmother. She is neglected by her parents and withdraw into books. She bonds with their minority housekeeper and when her stepmother does something especially cruel the housekeeper shows the girl a bit of magic to help keep her safe.

You can pretty much tell how the entire story is going to go from that brief description. The plot is strictly paint by numbers. And yet somehow Klages manages to tell it well enough that I didn't mind.

Partially it's because she captured the character of the little girl so well. It's a bit of a reviewing cliche (to turn the tables on myself) to praise something for having a child who isn't completely annoying as a character. Still, in "Basement Magic" Klages demonstrates quite a bit of skill in making a sympathetic childish character at the center of the story. Not just a "child"; actually childish. The girl isn't just a cute little adult; she's bewildered and lost and hurt and doesn't understand things as well as the adults around her think she does.

Kluges also keeps the narrative as tight as a drum which helps her keep the momentum of the story. So instead of dwelling on things that would keep the reader's focus on how generic the plot is Kluges pushes on to the next inevitable event.

All that makes "Basement Magic" an entertaining but not brilliant story. It's almost the storytelling equivalent of comfort food. You know it's not good for you but you enjoy it anyway.

"Coming to Terms"
by Eileen Gunn
2004 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

The trend of Nebula winners with negligible SF contents continue with "Coming to Terms" and once again I can't really complain since it is an interesting story. When an author dies his daughter goes to his home to sort out the belongings and once there she finds everything in the household neatly labeled with tiny bits of wisdom that her father left behind.

There isn't really much more to the story than that. Just a daughter getting to know her father through fragments of writing scattered about his home. If Gunn had tried to make the fragments of writing into something deep or meaningful I think it wouldn't have worked; instead they're tiny facets of a man that the reader gets to know at the same pace as his estranged daughter. It's a fascinating view into a character that only gets characterized through his belongings and notes. It's a slight story but Gunn does so much with so little text that it's terrific.