Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review - Plastic Man

Plastic Man
by Kyle Baker
2004 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2004, 2005, and 2006 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist - Humor
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Title for a Younger Audience

Plastic Man is one of those instances where my preference for getting comics as trade paper backs has worked against me. I don't buy a lot of comics in the monthly magazine form since the collected editions are generally a better match for me. Every so often though I find a series where I'd like to get more of and there just isn't any. Even though there were twenty issues of Plastic Man released and the entire run earned Baker awards only two collections have ever been published. It's been almost four years since the last one so it is very unlikely that they'll ever be bound together. So I have to consider Plastic Man based on those first twelve issues. Those two books have left me wanting to read the rest of it.

The first book, On the Lam, is easy enough to describe. Plastic Man's secret identity, who happens to be a reformed mobster, is framed for a murder. When his secret identity is uncovered he has to look for the real killer while running from his partner in the FBI, his sidekick, and the law.

That's about as straightforward superhero story you're going to find. If I stripped out the part about the FBI and the sidekick it could describe every single character published in the last fifty years. The difference here is that Plastic Man is a slapstick, loony series about a guy who changes into the craziest things possible (in fact the On the Lam book is bound in plastic with a cover that looks like Plastic Man disguised as the book). This is a cartoony book and the story exists only to give a structure to the gags.

The second volume, Rubber Bandits, is less universal in structure than the first as it opens with a story about comic book continuity and the trend of making characters unpleasant under the guise of being "realistic". Fortunately it immediately links this back to a time traveling Abraham Lincoln. Most of the rest of the book is more friendly to new readers with shorter stories.

There's a fine line in humor between "zany" and "random". When something is suppose to be funny just because it's out of place I tend to get bored because when you could have anything then nothing is effective. Plastic Man does not stray over that line even though Baker could have easily filled the pages with pop culture references and Plastic Man mugging for the reader. Instead Baker establishes his insane situation and drops his insane characters into it which prevents the plotting from degrading to a series of panel gags about what Plastic Man turns into next. He did not forget the jokes as he wrote these stories.

The artwork is for Plastic Man is absolutely stunning. It is very firmly on the cartoony side of the realism scale which lets Baker take advantage of his hero's malleable form. Plastic Man tends to have huge reactions that tie him in knots (sometimes literally). The animation influence is given a real showcase at the end of Rubber Bandits where the last story is a Tom and Jerry homage.

The animation metaphor extends to the lack of panel borders throughout the series. He also often uses sequences where it was paced in like animation where Baker has just drawn the key frames over the course of the page. Even the backgrounds seem to be on a separate floating layer from the foregrounds due to the coloring and style differences. This book looks like a cartoon and it's an effect that is pulled off well.

After reading Baker's Plastic Man there's no one alive who I'd want to see handling the character ever again. There's little else I can add to that since it is a series where the humor will work for you or it won't. It's charmingly goofy and made me smile.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review - Tender Morsels

Tender Morsels
by Margo Lanagan
Tied for 2009 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

There were several times while reading Tender Morsels that I had to stop and double check the dust jacket and the publisher's page. I had to make sure I wasn't mistaken when I saw that the jacket identified it "a junior library guild selection" and it was published by Random House Children's Books. I kept checking because I could not conceive how Tender Morsels could have been published as a YA book; it's far more mature in every sense of the word than a vast majority of novels I have read targeted for adults. It's also an exceptional book partially for that reason.

A young girl who has been raped retreats into a dream world made physical in order to raise her daughters. They have an idyllic existence there until the bubble of their reality is punctured by a a man seeking wealth. After that things leak into their world from outside and they have to start dealing with the less than perfect nature of the real world.

The first thing that I have to mention, and the thing that kept driving me to check that it was in fact a YA book, is that this book features a lot of sex. None of it is explicit but there's around a dozen rapes in the first fifty pages. Lanagan may not go into detail on the physical acts she does not shy away from the emotions. If that wasn't enough the book takes some fairly deep steps into bestiality as the blossoming girls become interested in animal companions. Lanagan is more cautious on side stepping this (laughably so at one point not involving any female characters that read more as an editor forcing a statement on the issue given the context of the rest of the scene) but the concept is just about impossible to avoid.

Sex is a huge theme of Tender Morsels and as you may guess it tends to be neither romantic or erotic. Men are bestial, women are naive, and the two often conflict violently. It makes the few times in the novel where there is a healthy relationship between a man and a woman the odd one out. (Strangely enough there's little in the way of homosexuality but then given the themes tied to sex in the novel it might be better off that way.)

It takes more than just people having (or avoiding) a lot of sex to make a book "mature". Tender Morsels is also about the raising of children and what effect a sheltering environment can have. It's about the changes that a person undergoes throughout their life and the need for companionship. Modern attitudes are crushed hard in this psuedo-medieval land and there is no comforting moral to make up for that. There's a lot of themes to the book that I think would only strongly connect with an adult making this the most adult YA book I've ever read.

I was extremely impressed at the way Lanagan has the story unfold. The book abruptly shifts focus multiple times and every time I thought I had worked out where things were heading Lanagan derailed my preconceptions and threw it into a completely different direction. And every time she did this she made me more interested in what was going to happen next.

The book is not completely without faults. The characters are a bit shallow. While I'm certain that is intentional given the themes of the book I don't like being able to wrap up someone in a few words. There is exactly one positive depiction of a man in the entire book; anyone else who is an adult with a Y chromosome is a monster.

The recent rise of YA books as a publishing phenomenon has been a problem for me with some of the recent Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award Winners. Books intended for a target audience of twelve year olds typically are disconnected from me as an adult reader no matter how well done they are (see The Graveyard Book for an example of that). That is not the case with Tender Morsels. This is a rich novel that I'd recommend to anyone. It's a light-hearted dark-fantasy; a Grimm fairy tale in a modern fantasy style. It is a gripping book and I'm glad I read it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Review - Criminal

Written by Ed Brubaker; Art by Sean Phillips
2007 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2007, 2008 Eisner Winner for Best Writer

Noir is the new black. It seems like everyone is going for noir these days (at least the ones who aren't going for zombies). You put some detectives in a gritty urban setting with a depressing narrative and you've got it made. Comics in particular have started producing a lot of noir in the past few years and the best of these that I've found is Criminal.

There have been three complete story arcs for Criminal so far and all of them are contained in Criminal: The Deluxe Edition. The first one is titled "Coward" and is about a thief who survives by planning every detail and following a strict set of rules. Those rules make other people think of him as a coward, especially since he fled the scene of the last big job while the rest of the crew were gunned down. He is driven to break his own rules as part of a new job that's bigger than anything before and it has some troubling consequences.

The second story is "Lawless" where a man trained as the army's perfect killer goes AWOL to seek his own brother's murderer. His brother was a criminal and the signs point to the murderer being part of his own crew. So this man infiltrates the gang by cutting a bloody swath through the underground.

Finally there is "The Dead and the Dying" which is three interlocking stories of a former boxer, a soldier just returned from Viet Nam, and a woman who loved the wrong man. Their lives collide as the woman seeks revenge on her former lover, the soldier attempts to find a place for his violent nature, and the boxer attempts to protect the woman he accidentally hurt.

These could have been simple stories about bad people doing bad things but Brubaker creates some compelling personalities to center the story on. These stories are from the school of writing where you throw together a bunch of strong-willed people together, put them at cross-purposes, and see what happens. These stories aren't about the big heist, they're about what happens after the heist.

One aspect of that is that these are bad people doing bad things and Brubaker does present them as heroes. It is appropriate to a noir story that the characters given heroic development but it can be a bit off putting when the guy you're supposed to be cheering is murdering people in cold blood.

Sean Phillips impressed me with his ability to carry these stories. These days it's more popular with artists to create large designs but he has created pages that are dense. He's fitting in seven or eight panels per page and while he stays locked on a three tier format he does not limit himself to variations on the nine panel grid. He enjoys the tight, inset reaction shot and uses it well. This wouldn't have worked if Phillips wasn't able to do a terrific job with the characters' faces.

I don't usually single out the colorists like this but Val Staples does a standout job with Criminal. It would have been easy to do a traditional coloring job with this book and it would have been fine like that. Staples on the other hand rarely uses more than two hues in any given panel which gives the book a washed out feeling that's appropriate to its style.

Even though I wouldn't call Criminal a perfect book I'm unable to come up with any specific flaws. Everything is good, I'm just left with a nagging feeling that it could have been better. However if you like noir at all then I can think of no reason to not read this book. The Deluxe Edition is well worth it too as a terrific looking hardcover that collects everything current and a whole lot of extra material. On the other hand if you don't care for noir then I doubt that Criminal is going to change your mind.