Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review - Rose

Written by Jeff Smith; Art by Charles Vess
2002 Eisner Winner for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist

"Does Bone really need a prequel?" I asked myself when I first encountered Rose. I liked Bone a lot but it did start to drag toward the end. And rather than focusing on the comical misadventures of the Bones this was about the rulers of the fantasy kingdom that Bone is set in. It would make a radical departure in style to something that I thought that I probably wouldn't really care for. Still the place I first saw the book was at a convention booth for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and I thought that getting some pleasant Charles Vess artwork, an autographed copy of the book, and supporting a good cause at the same time wouldn't hurt and I picked it up. I'm glad I did because what I found was Rose wasn't Bone Part 2 or even Pre-Bone; it's a pretty good story that stands well on its own.

In a fantasy kingdom the heir is decided by which of the king's children has the greatest mystical abilities. Princess Rose is very strong, can sense danger, communicates with some intelligent animals, and has prophetic dreams but lacks the discipline to do well with her studies. Her sister Briar has the discipline but no mystical abilities. Together they are summoned to a remote cavern for the final test to determine who will be heir. An evil power is stirring and Rose accidently unleashes a tiny portion of it as a dragon. The dragon is just a fragment of a larger scheme and there is a high price to pay for its defeat.

I'm underselling the plot quite a bit in that brief description. Smith crafted a dense story where new subtleties and twists keeps pushing it in new directions. I'm sure that the broad strokes of the plotting will be obvious to anyone (even without the advantage of reading the previous comics); it's the texture that he gives it that makes Rose interesting.

Part of that is in the characterization. Rose is one of those characters who finds that being the hero of the story doesn't mean that things are easy. Her youthful follies out of love and innocence cause most of her problems. This may be the story of a fairy tale dragon slayer but its heroine is not the simple white knight of legends.

Vess artwork is magnificent. The actual layouts are traditional inked lines but all of the coloring is done with watercolors which compliment his swirling line work. It's a technique that he's used many times and I find that his painted colors give the book a gentler tone than more traditional coloring techniques would. In addition he mimics Smith's style of character design in Rose. Usually Vess's figures are are very elaborate and here they seem like a compromise between his extreme and Smith's simple animation based style.

In an interesting spin on things Rose works just as well if you read it before Bone as it does if you read it afterward. On the one hand there's plot developments from half way through Bone that will be given away by reading Rose, but on the other there's bits in Rose that turn some minor conversations in Bone to shocking revelations. The two play off each other amazingly well despite being dramatically different.

If you liked Bone then you really should read Rose. And if you haven't read Bone then I still recommend Rose because it's a charmingly told fairy tale style fable. Though Rose might be overshadowed by Smith's more popular book (I doubt I'm going to find this on shelves at Wal-Mart any time soon, for example) I think it's deserving of equal praise as a companion to it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review - Superman: Peace On Earth

Superman: Peace On Earth
Story by Alex Ross and Paul Dini; Art by Alex Ross
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Painter (Interior Art)

"Superman is too powerful to be interesting," is a common refrain among comic book fans. In fact it's become so common that it's not unheard of for those who write comic books to say it rather than doing the obvious thing and placing him in conflicts where that power isn't a solution. His abilities do raise an uncomfortable question that all superhero comics dodge: if he's so great why has he been around for seventy years and hasn't actually accomplished any change in the world? In my experience when writers attempt to address this problem head on they tend to make things worse no matter what position they take whether it's making an excuse or engaging in bland deconstructionism. Superman: Peace On Earth tries to be uplifting but it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and thinking that the reason Superman doesn't fix the world's problems is because it would be hard.

After living on Earth for his entire life Superman suddenly finds out that there are people who go hungry and feels guilty about it. So he decides that to deal with it he will distribute food to everyone in the world for one day. This plan consists of him gathering up donated food and dropping a cargo container filled with raw grain down in front of hungry people before flying off again. In his idealism he fails to recognize that comically evil forces don't want him making a hollow gesture and he encounters resistance.

No matter how you cut it this is a ridiculous story. Yes, I recognize the irony of saying that about a book where the main character is an alien who flies around doing good deeds. Even if you assume that it only takes Superman a few seconds for each drop off the delivery time is far longer than day; that may seem like picking at nits but the story makes a big deal about feeding the world for a day with an imposed time limit. Anyone with even a fundamental understanding of the scale of the population of the Earth and amount of time in a day will have their suspension of disbelief shaken pretty hard. Then there is the fact that dropping a cargo container of grain in a village of twenty and then flying away to the next delivery is about the worst possible way to handle such a plan. Since one of the major issues with food aid is corruption and inefficiency in getting it into the hands of the hungry individuals this scheme just makes things worse. So what we have is a hollow, inefficient gesture from a Superman whose flighty attention drifted onto this one issue for a few minutes and that makes the ending even worse.

Part of the message that Dini is trying to present in these pages is that while Superman is great he can't do everything by brute force. The problem is that even in the context of the book he can. The only actual problems he faces in Peace On Earth are authorial fiat which leaves a bad impression of the character in the end.

Peace On Earth actually exists to be a poster book for Alex Ross's paintings. It is a bit of stretch to call it a comic since the story consists of flat expository text with no dialog that is illustrated by Ross's art. For the most part Ross's artwork isn't used to develop the story and there are very few sequential panels. It's much closer to a picture book in that regard with prose as dry as a saltine.

Individually Ross does a fine job with his images though for some reason Superman's expressions in the book bothered me. He just seems passive in most of the paintings irregardless of what he's doing. Also I think that the format didn't suit Ross as well as it could have; when he does a two page sequence that demonstrates action things look better than the many stand alone images throughout the book. On the whole it's decent but it's not his best work.

I would only recommend Superman: Peace On Earth if you're a huge fan of Alex Ross's art. Dini's story is unpleasant as allegory or read straight and the actual text doesn't help it at all. If you've seen Ross's art elsewhere and enjoyed it a bit then you may find it to be a bit disappointing here. On the other hand if you can't get enough of his paintings of Superman then having them in this oversized format will be a joy for you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Review - The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot

The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot
Written by Frank Miller; Art by Geof Darrow
1996 Eisner Winner for Best Penciller/Inker

I've been selecting books to talk about this week based mainly on picking out some lighthearted ones. It occurs to me, though, as I sit here flipping through The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot that I haven't paid a lot of attention to the artists who have won the Eisners. The reason for this is that while I can tell what I like and can recognize how well an artist serves a story actually critiquing artists is beyond me. I can barely tell the difference between two inkers so getting much deeper than, "This guy's got a dynamic style that captures action well," just isn't possible for me.

The reason that this comes up is that The Bug Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot (which I'm shortening to Big Guy from now on) exists entirely as a showcase for Geof Darrow's artwork. Miller's story is barely a framework. It's a touch of fluff that acts as an excuse for Darrow to go crazy. The plot is paper thin and characterization is so close to zero that if you blink you'll miss it because this is a story about high tech fighting machines blowing up dinosaurs.

Here's the story. There's a lab and they accidentally make a dinosaur that spits stuff that turns people into small monsters. This giant dinosaur proceeds to rampage through Tokyo where the Japanese military is just as effective as it ever is against giant monsters rampaging through Tokyo. The government sends in a robot that looks a lot like Astroboy who can't beat it and then call in good old American know how in the form of a giant (but not as giant as the dinosaur) robot who shows up to kick ass.

It's ludicrous, over the top, and more of an excuse than an actual story. Miller plays it mostly straight so there isn't any winking at the audience to let them know that he's being goofy on purpose. This reads like one of those monster movies that are shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000 where people say the most terrible dialog possible with a straight face.

But enough about the Miller's writing. You won't be buying this book for it.

Darrow is known for his phenomenally over-detailed art. If someone is firing a gun that shoots a hundred rounds a minute he'll draw every one of those rounds firing and every spent shell that's falling. His character designs show every fold and crinkle in their faces. His cityscapes are heavily populated with modern life.

He goes crazy with this in Big Guy. There are huge double page spreads that you'll need to break out a magnifying glass to see all the complexity he packed into the images. The collected edition is oversized which helps you take it all in. This might as well be a poster book of Darrow's images.

And there isn't much more to say than that. If you like Darrow's art then you'll enjoy seeing him go crazy with this story and if you don't then Miller's story isn't even an interesting parody. For myself I think the weaknesses outweighed the positive and there's better books featuring Darrow's artwork.