Friday, October 9, 2009

Review - Batman: The Long Halloween

Batman: The Long Halloween
Written by Jeph Loeb; Art by Tim Sale
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: Reprint

I know that I usually talk about the story first and the art second with these things but I'm in a charitable mood tonight so I'm going to start by saying that Tim Sale does a bang up job with Batman: The Long Halloween. He showcases some wonderful character designs, has some nifty page layouts, and generally produces some very nice to look at art. This is good for this book since his partner in the endeavor fails to produce something worthwhile. Jeph Loeb's story is a disaster; a brain dead lifeless lump that's only interesting when he forgets about his overarching plot.

At the start of his career as a vigilante the Batman is pressing the mobs of Gotham City hard. To finish them off he forms an alliance with newly appointed police commissioner Gordon and district attorney Dent. Complicating their work is a serial killer who is murdering on holidays. They spend a year hunting for this killer and working their way through the new breed of strange criminals who are taking the place of the old families.

The opening of this story is a rip-off of the opening of The Godfather. I don't drop the term "rip-off" lightly and I definitely do not mean "homage". An "homage" would be opening at the wedding of the daughter of a powerful crime boss or perhaps using a line of two of dialog. Loeb lifts chunks of the script whole and transplants them into his story. This sets the tone for Loeb's plotting which often involves taking from better writers than himself and putting Batman into it. This is not a formula for a decent story; the reader is getting carbon copies a bit more fuzzy and you might as well go to the original.

I suppose it could have been worse since the parts that are not taken from other works are the some of the worst parts of The Long Halloween. Toward the end Loeb decides to pile on plot twists in a way that makes the story pointlessly convoluted. I'm trying to avoid spoilers here but if you take all the information given to you as a reader toward the end of the book and try to fit it in with the information you had before then you're only going to get a headache.

There's also a real problem with the pacing of the series. Each issue of the series is tied to a holiday. While this is an intriguing format it means that characters will talk about doing something immediately and then it takes them over a month to actually get around to it. Events that should take only a few days are played out over months because that's the pacing of the issues.

The one good part of The Long Halloween, as I stated, is Tim Sale's artwork. His character designs for this story are terrific and distinctive; this is not a situation where every character is the same body with different clothes and hair. He draws a large cast and manages to make them all appear unique while only using the extreme shapes for the freakish supervillains. And his page layouts for action sequences look terrific. I genuinely wish that I could have seen this quality of artwork tied to a readable story.

So the only reason to check out Batman: The Long Halloween is for the Tim Sale artwork. Loeb's story suffers from the his taking from other, better source and never finding a compelling story of his own to work with. His mystery falls flat in the end making the reading the book feel like time that has been wasted.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review - Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home

Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home
Written by J. Michael Straczynski; Art by John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna
2002 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story

Thanks to the recent movies Spider-Man has been elevated to the most recognizable superhero in the world. His record with the Eisner awards, on the other hand, has been weak. While Batman inevitably has something that wins an award Spider-Man is the perpetual runner up. The one exception when it comes to stories is Coming Home which started the long run of writing Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski.

If you listened to fans on the Internet as it was being released Coming Home was the worst thing that ever happened. The problem for these people was that Straczynski came on the book and immediately got around to setting up a new status quo and that tends to upset comic fans who get nervous around new things. From the beginning where Spider-Man is confronted by a man with identical powers who asks him if it was a radioactive spider that gave him his superpowers or if it was just the spider itself. He is confronted with the possibility that his powers are shamanistic in nature and facing a villain who is built to hunt down and consume him. At the same time our hero looks to take a new job teaching at his old high school and the story draws to a close with the promise of an even bigger change.

When a new creative team starts work on a long running title it comes down to that first story for them to define what their run is going to be about. On that level Coming Home succeeds brilliantly; it says that this is going to be a bit more spiritual Spider-Man, gives him a new setting to work with, and establishes a new group of villains. It made me interested in seeing what happened next.

Straczynski gets the tone of Spider-Man's character right. The character shifts between the joking prankster and brooding smoothly without it feeling like it's two separate people. Straczynski does a better job with the lighter moments but I don't have any major complaints about any of it.

The biggest problem with Coming Home is that it just boils down to a fairly unremarkable superhero story. If you've read superhero comics then you've read this basic story plenty of times. Pure hearted hero, nasty villain who is stronger than him, they punch each other a lot before the hero outsmarts the villain. Straczynski tells it well enough that if you like your superheroes then I'd expect that you'd like this but it isn't going to make anyone who is turned off by vigilantes in costumes excited.

Romita's artwork might be the best of his career. This was the comic book that made his father famous and he worked on Spider-Man many times over the years. Of course historical significance wouldn't mean much if the book looked bad and his storytelling abilities are on full display through the story. Take the above page for example: it's perfectly executed with the the panel layout, body language, and structure. While every page isn't quite up to that quality there are more than enough of them to make the art stand out.

I enjoyed Coming Home quite a bit and my enjoyment of Spider-Man has been spotty at best. It's unfortunate where the end of this run wound up but that's not enough to make me say that it should be avoided. If you started reading Spider-Man here and continue on to later volumes of J. Michael Straczynski's run then my advice is to stop reading it as soon as you stop enjoying it; it won't get any better. This is a good example of terrific superhero comics; it's a light, breezy, adventure story.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review - Herbie Archives

Herbie Archives
Written by Richard E. Hughs; Art by Ogden Whitney
2009 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication

Until last year if you asked fifty comic book fans what they thought about Herbie forty-nine of them would say "Who?" and the fiftieth would start babbling about bopping people with lollipops. While Herbie's stories had received a quiet reprint in the early nineties they had been forgotten by the vast majority of comic book fans. With Dark Horse's Herbie Archives reprinting every single Herbie story they've been rediscovered by a fresh generation who are just getting exposed to the manic brilliance of Herbie for the first time.

There is no other word to describe Herbie other than surreal. The stories follow their own kind of strange logic where the titular star is constrained only by what he's willing to do. If he decides that he needs to go to Mars then it's going to happen. It's a series where the main character regularly travels through time by sucking a lollipop and riding in a grandfather clock. Famous figures of the early sixties populate the series and turn up at the oddest moments.

Herbie himself is a boy who brings new meaning to "rotund". Besides being generally spherical with a bowl haircut and thick glasses there is nothing that Herbie would rather do than lie in his hammock and enjoy lollipop all day. His father is disturbed by his son calling him, "A fat little nothing," and pushes Herbie to do things. What his father doesn't know is that Herbie is a world-famous go getter who makes women swoon, world leaders shake, and induces terror in monsters. Through the power of his lollipops Herbie flies (well, walks on air with a lazy gait), travels in time, and occasionally bops someone who deserves it.

There isn't much in the way of dramatic tension in the Herbie stories but that's okay because they exist mainly to set up the gag of Herbie strolling into a situation and watching it spiral out of control as people try to deal with him. Herbie is a fairly passive character to the point that even his speech is structured to the minimum number of words required (Alan Moore has said that he based Rorschach's speech in Watchmen on Herbie) so he'll typically stand there and take the abuse dished out by that story's villain whether it's the devil, a would be cave-girlfriend, or Fidel Castro. There are short, light comedy pieces. The fun in Herbie is in having a character that is both visually and personality wise the exact opposite of the reaction he has on the world.

While Whitney's artwork is very traditional in style he has a great sense of playfulness in the individual images that helps make up for his weaknesses. The comics are filled with the small humor touches that keep me laughing. Whitney's sense of comedic timing gets used quite a bit as some of Hughs's jokes depend on Whitney hitting the right visual beat.

Before Dark Horse printed the Herbie Archives my experience with Herbie was extremely limited. A few extremely beat up old comics and some talk about how crazy his series was. I'm glad that these three volumes are available because without them I'd have never almost all of the series. Now I'm pleased to have the entire run sitting on my shelf. These are some funny books and if you don't know Herbie then you need to check him out.