Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review - Absolute Promethea

Absolute Promethea Volume 1
Written by Alan Moore; Art by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray
2000, 2001 Eisner Winner for Best Writer
2001 Eisner Winner for Best Single Issue (#10)

I've rarely been as conflicted about a series as much as I am about Promethea. There's a fine line between using beliefs in a story and proselytizing. Moore not only falls on the wrong of it often, he's completely off the deep end. He'll tell an engrossing story for several issues worth of material and then slam it to a halt with thirty pages of psuedo-philosophical babel. It goes from interesting to frustrating in the a blink of an eye.

Promethea is a goddess of imagination who manifests through a woman associated with those inspired by her. She's different in each incarnation and her most recent ones have been superheroes. Sophie is a college student researching the chain of fictional Promethea and the real-world sightings when she becomes the newest incarnation. Evil magic is set against her and she is determined to learn magic to fight back.

When Moore sticks to an actual narrative thread then Promethea is brilliant. Moore uses the same larger-than-life world he used in Tom Strong and Top 10 which is at the end of the twenty century, but it's an end of the twentieth century as envisioned in the science fiction of the 1930's. While Tom Strong gets lost in that setting and Top 10 uses it to play with homages Promethea has it as a contrast to its mysticism and history. The story jumps back and forth between previous incarnations of Promethea and each of them inevitably has a tragic story that needs to be told.

A lot of time is spent in this volume trying to define who the new Promethea is. As a superhero she's ambiguous and does whatever is necessary to move the story along. On the other hand this is used as part of being tied directly to the imagination. So instead of focusing on a character who can do anything and lacks a solid personality Moore plays up the human part and explores what Promethea could be. That made me interested in what she would become.

The problems start when the lectures begin. Moore is a devotee of a new age belief system and he often uses Promethea as a platform for his beliefs. Initially these are awkwardly bolted onto the story but later he spends whole issues on just preaching at the reader. It's not simply a lesson in what the characters believe; that's something that could be summed up in a few word balloons with having no impact on the story. This is a full assault by a new age guru. As someone who can easily spot the logical fallacies and arbitrary nature of the statements it was incredibly unpleasant to read.

Issue ten was one of those issues that I hated. Beside my annoyance with the magic lessons Moore brings in one of my least favorite concept in SF: sexual liberation resulting in hot women throwing themselves at dumpy men. In this case it's a full issue of sex between Promethea and a magician who is roughly Alan Moore's age. And while they're having sex they're explaining the metaphysical implications of screwing while the visuals are taking an LSD trip. It's a throw back to the worst parts of SF from the 70's. Instead of just getting a full issue of new age magick lessons (you've got to spell it with a "k" or you're not being obnoxious enough) you also get Moore's sexual fantasies.

In my complaints about Promethea J. H. Williams III is faultless. He was given the task of illustrating hallucinogenic playgrounds of the mind and tackles with gusto. This is a visually lush book with some of the most exotic visuals I can recall and Williams does a terrific job with it.

While I'm interested in where the story in Promethea goes from this point my tolerance for new age babel was worn away a long time ago. So I have no intention of going any further with the series. On the other hand if you have a higher tolerance for that kind of thing then there is a lot to like in Promethea.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review - Marvels

Written by Kurt Busiek; Art by Alex Ross
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Painter
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Production Design

When you have fifty years of near continuously published comics things can get a bit awkward. Current events become ancient history and what was in style twenty years before becomes embarrassing. So when Busiek and Ross created Marvels as an everyman's view of the Marvel comics golden and silver age I was expecting them to quietly gloss over the fact that they were depicting stories that were written thirty years before their story. Instead of taking that route they make a point of maintaining the look of the era. It emphasizes nostalgia for that period which is the entire point of Marvels.

Phil Sheldon is just starting as a news photographer in 1939 when he goes to a press conference held by a Professor Horton. The professor has created an artificial man with the minor defect that it bursts into flames. Witnessing the debut of the Human Torch kicks off a career of pursuing superheroes for Sheldon. He chases the big stories irregardless of the personal cost to his family who cringe every time that he chases after them.

It's obvious that Marvels is a direct precursor to Busiek's Astro City (which Ross provided covers for). They're all about seeing a superhero universe from the perspective of the civilians. While Astro City has the room to explore the concept more deeply Marvels sticks strictly to the shifting perspective people of the Marvel universe have regarding super powers. It opens with horrified reactions to the first superhero which transform to cheers as that hero takes the fight to Germany in World War 2. Later sections have the division in reactions between mutants and other superheroes and how the people respond to heroes failing.

I found that Phil Sheldon as a character wasn't that interesting. He seems to react to many aspects of the Marvel universe more as a comic book fan than someone actually living in it. I think that's from trying to push together a "realistic reaction" with silver age comics and trying to justify the predetermined reaction. Sheldon has to wind up admiring the heroes and cheering for them in order for comic readers to identify with him and it winds up feeling like his arc is constructed backward. It makes a kind of cognitive dissonance that bothered me as I read the story.

On the other hand one of the fun things about Marvels is that it is a smash up of so many old Marvel comics. Busiek peppers the book with references to stories and events from the silver age which make the book an indulgence of nostalgia. It seems that every page something gets interrupted by a supervillain attack or a hero stumbling through on their way to a story that could have been purchased from a drug store spinner rack..

There's a bit of synchronicity in talking about Alex Ross on Norman Rockwell's birthday. Ross's paintings owe a lot to Rockwell's style; the lighting and texture of the images are very similar. In a way that brings the art in the book back to the nostalgic tone. I do find that Ross's snap shots of action tend to look a bit stiff so that while the image looks nice they feel natural.

If you're familiar with Marvel comics from before 1972 then Marvels is a fun romp down memory lane. If you're not it's a decent attempt to look at the insanity of the Marvel universe through normal eyes. The end result is entertaining but something that I think won't be interesting to anyone other than fans of the old comics.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Review - Batman Year 100

Batman: Year 100
by Paul Pope
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist

I'm snow bound at the moment and I took the opportunity to read some lighter material than what I had been going through lately. I had been reading a lot of dreary independent comics that were the exact kind of material that I don't like. Between stuff with no narrative or point and works where I wound up hating the autobiographical main character (or in a few cases both) I have had my fill of "serious and important" books for a while. So I went to their polar opposite and picked up Batman: Year 100 expecting something less pretentious and more action driven. And I got just that; Batman: Year 100 is solidly in the camp of "pretty but dumb" superhero comics. It's a pleasure to look at but not to think about.

In the year 2039 a Federal police officer has been murdered and the hunt is on for a man in a bat costume who appears to have done it. There's scraps of information that indicate that this Bat-man has been around a hundred years but no one knows any details which make the feds pressure the Gotham City police for any information. Batman meanwhile investigates the murder on his own and finds a conspiracy tied to the same people who are hunting him.

This comic is a black hole of plot. I finished it without gaining any significant knowledge about the characters or story that I didn't know going in. There's a whole lot of vague hinting at multiple possibilities for things that never get resolved one way or the other. Is Batman over a hundred years old or have multiple persons been wearing the outfit? Depending on which scene you're reading it could be either. The scheme itself at the heart of the story is so needlessly complex that I had to go over it several times to make sure I wasn't missing anything. The plot literally occurred so that the plot would occur in a kind of recursive loop that goes beyond the idiot plot. The setting has vague allusions to things like intrusive government surveillance but nothing ever comes out of them. It's a generic dark future where generic characters do generic villainous things because they have to provide a plot for a comic book.

On the other hand Pope does a lot of the details well. He crafts some terrific action sequences that exciting to read. I liked the style of his Batman which is recognizably based on the version we're familiar with while also being more horrific. He still won't kill the villains but he'll terrify them in ways that I don't recall ever seeing before. It's Batman as a monster in all senses of the word whether he's putting on a face that will give someone nightmares or taking actions that should give everyone in the world nightmares.

The art in Batman: Year 100 is spectacular. Pope has a cinematic style but instead of blowing up the pages for that he shrinks them down. This makes most pages incredibly dense visually where he usually places eight panels a page in a double column format. He uses this canvas to give a movie style flow while avoiding the natural breaks that would occur while turning pages. He has enough panels that he can use silent reactions without it slowing the pace of the comic too much. He crams detail into each panel that makes me wish I had the book in a larger format so I could have appreciated that artwork better.

With all of that in consideration I found Batman: Year 100 to be a decent but not brilliant superhero comic. If you're just looking for an exciting comic where Batman freaks out a bunch of guys and then punches them then Pope delivers. It wasn't something that I particularly enjoyed but if you liked Frank Miller's Batman work then there's no reason to skip over this. Especially since it is so nice to look at.