Saturday, March 13, 2010

Review - Tomorrow Stories Volume 1

Tomorrow Stories Volume 1
Written by Alan Moore; Art by Kevin Nowlan, Rick Veitch, Jim Baikie, Melinda Gebbe, and Hilary Barta
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Anthology
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Writer
2000 Eisner Winner for Best Penciler/Inker for Kevin Nowlan

Tomorrow Stories is an ironic title. Moore's anthology is not science fiction but going even further than that most of it's contents are rooted in the pulp traditions some of them predating the popularity of comic book superheroes. These are yesterday's stories and they are an interesting anthology.

Easily the best of the series in the anthology is Greyshirt. Moore and Veitch set out to do an Eisner homage and succeed brilliantly. Naturally Moore has no trouble writing stories with a pulp flavor that hinge on some irony; it's Veitch's artwork that takes it over the top. He replicates Eisner's flare for integrating multiple layers of imagery into a single story. The best of these features four parallel stories that are layered in floors of an apartment building and decades; each floor is it's own story and time frame and at the same time each of them comment on each other. The Greyshirt stories are visually exciting and well told. The only downside is that it made me more interested in getting more of Eisner's Spirit than it did in making me want to continue reading about Moore and Veitch's version.

Cobweb comes from the tradition of cheesecake in the pulps. She's a sultry vixen and her stories emphasize that. These are the least thematically consistent in Tomorrow Stories. There's an adventure story, two prose pieces, a few pages of science fiction, a historical, and a noir themed story done in the style of children's comics. These stories tend toward the entertaining but not exceptional. While Melinda Gebbie's illustrations keep up with the myriad of tonal shifts the lack of a theme beyond sleazy stories.

Jack B. Quick is comedic Tom Swift; a boy whose superscience inventions cause trouble in the farming community he lives in. I found these to be a lot of fun as Jack butters cats to work on antigravity or builds an FTL motorcycle so that the town cop can pull over speeding photons. Moore doing science jokes is much funnier than his attempt at satire. Kevin Nowlan's Eisner winning art is astounding; I liked Veitch's better but Nowlan manages to take some strange phenomena and make it understandable.

The First American is Moore's attempt at satire in the style of the Zucker brothers and are the stories that just fell flat for me. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the humor is often ten years out of date; a Ken Lay parody doesn't carry as much weight in 2010 as it did in 1999. The occasional funny gag isn't worth pushing through the ten weak ones to get there. The First American is also the only one of these stories that isn't in a pulp style and that makes it a discordant note in the anthology. Jim Baikie's artwork is hyperactive enough to convey the concepts; the problem here is completely on Moore's shoulders.

There's also a brief five page story a superhero parody called Splash Brannigan that Hilary Barta provides the artwork for. Presumably there will be more stories about this character in a second volume so I'll withhold judgment on it for now.

On the whole I liked enough of Tomorrow Stories to recommend it but I wasn't enthusiastic about it. The only stories that I'd have no hesitation on is Grayshirt and twenty-five percent of an anthology isn't a strong selling point. Fortunately I also liked Cobweb and Jack B. Quick as well which made the whole package worth my time.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review - Old Boy

Old Boy
Written by Garon Tsuchiya; Art by Nobuaki Minegishi
2007 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of International Material - Japan

For a long time the Eisner awards had just one award for foreign comics. The proliferation in the popularity of Japanese comics in the U.S. prompted them to divide the category in two with Japan broken off. I'm not sure I agree with that since the proliferation of categories in the Eisners makes things confusing. Still it did open the awards up to an extra category that wound up promoting lesser known books so I think it worked out for the best. The first winner in the Japanese category was Old Boy and while it has some rough edges it's also a fascinating story that had me gripped.

There was an average young man who was settling into an average life. Then someone paid roughly three million dollars to have him abducted and locked in a windowless room with no direct human contact for ten years. His only companion was a television set and after the initial shock wears off this man chooses to spend his time preparing himself for the day he could hunt down whoever had him locked away and ask him "Why?"

That's how Old Boy starts and across eight volumes it never lets up. It's a game of cat and mouse that never develops the way you'd expect it to. Even thematically Tsuchiya is constantly switching gears on the reader. It can get frustrating as you anticipate a climax to the current developments only to have him deflate that tension by throwing the story into a completely different direction. It strikes me as intentional; a technique to keep the reader just as off balance as the protagonist and the story never lost me with those change ups.

What starts as a very dark noir story that promises a lot of action turns into a game of mental manipulation and it ends up as an introspective psychological exploration. Action to intellectual to emotional. Setting to plot to character. That's just the broad sweeps of the story development and it's an impressive balancing act that Tsuchiya manages.

As you'd expect from a story built like this the characters are engrossing. Ten years in isolation left the protagonist in a precarious mental state that he's been keeping in check. His allies and enemies are broadly drawn with enough development to keep them interesting. The real focus is on the protagonist (who remains nameless because he stays nameless for the first three hundred pages) and how he has changed from an ordinary person.

I did have problems with the ending. There was a plot element introduced almost at the very end that felt out of place to me. It was very close to a deus ex machina since this outside force wanders in and hands the protagonist a solution. It's not the solution to everything and the emotional arc still works but people wandering in to help him over an obstacle happens too often.

Another aspect to the story that bothered me was that there was some extremely gratuitous sex scenes. This isn't simply the fact that the protagonist meets a girl minutes after leaving his prison who immediately jumps into bed with him. That's just gratuitous. The woman who has a post-hypnotic suggestion that can only be released if he makes her orgasm? That's extremely gratuitous.

I became very fond of Minegishi's art style. He puts an emphasis on faces in his artwork that makes everyone look unique. Many people including the protagonist have an unpleasant, rough and puffy look to them that makes them look distinctive. Minegishi is also terrific at setting mood, especially early on where his artwork builds an oppressive atmosphere.

So overall I liked Old Boy; there was a film produced from it that won it's own accolades that I plan on seeing because I think it will translate well to another medium. It's an interesting story about how an extreme situation affected a person. And even though it doesn't play out as smoothly as it could I was won over by the interest in what happens next.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Review - Invincible Iron Man

Invincible Iron Man
Written by Matt Fraction; Art by Salvador Larocca
2009 Eisner Winner for Best New Series

Despite being a life long superhero buff I've never liked Iron Man. I haven't liked the series, I haven't liked the character, and I even didn't like the movie. Iron Man tends to raise a lot of ethical questions that the creators just dodge and that leaves me feeling uneasy. They also tend to tie it to current technological trends which often feel dated very quickly. So I ignored Fraction and Larocca's recent restart of the series. Other people have tried and failed to get me interested in Iron Man and recent stories had reduced the character from one I didn't care about to one I actively despised. And still somehow they won me over. I still have all of my problems with Iron Man but I'm interested in seeing where they take things next.

The superhero Iron Man (for those not familiar with the comic or the movie) is industrialist, weapons manufacturer, and billionaire playboy Tony Stark whose good life was disrupted when he was severely injured during a field test of a weapon system. He was captured by the enemy who wanted him to work on weapons for them (they're North Vietnamese in the original and middle eastern in modern revamps). Instead he adapts the salvaged equipment to a device that keeps his heart beating and drives a suit of powered armor. Once he gets back to the U.S. he uses that suit to fight crime.

Which brings us to this series from Fraction and Larocca. A young tech wiz has worked out how to adapt the Iron Man technology to make human bombs and can do it cheaply. Besides selling that technology to terrorists he wants to destroy Tony Stark's company and stopping him involves punching things a lot.

What made this story effective for me when no other Iron Man story has been is how it depicted the titular character as a control freak. Fraction presents him as an Oppenheimer-esque figure who has let a genie out of a bottle that could kill a lot of people and realized it too late. Only Stark is trying to hold onto it as desperately as he can. It takes the question of "Why doesn't he use this stuff to improve the world?" and presents it as a situation where he doesn't trust anyone other than himself with it. At one point in these first few issues he justifies holding the armor technology back as too expensive at $4 billion dollars which has to mean that either as a defense contractor he doesn't have a clue how much the U.S. government spends on high end hardware or he's just making an excuse. The characterization is surprisingly subtle and I still think it leaves the title character as a jerk but it's an understandable jerk.

Thematically the book is interesting since it is about the proliferation of cheap but dangerous technology. That's a popular concept in SF and a genuine concern as things like nanotech and small scale prototyping become cheap to create and use. Fraction explores this through the current fear of terrorism and its effective because it's a logical extension of the risks.

On the other hand Fraction seems to know enough about technology to throw buzz words around but not enough to use them effectively. As an example the Iron Man armor has Dolby 7.1 in the helmet; the "7.1" means seven speakers positioned around a room and one subwoofer which is a set up that would be completely ineffective inside a helmet since you only have two ears. It's just "Dolby 7.1" equates with "expensive audio set up" to Fraction so he sticks it in there. That's far from the only problem; it's just an obvious one which will also make things seem as quaint and outdated as roller skates built into armor powered by transistors a few years from now.

Salvador Larroca's art has a sleek style that compliments the book well. His technology looks cool which is a major selling point when you're dealing with Iron Man. I'm not as fond of how he draws people; his faces just feel a bit off to me. Still when it's a series about about a guy wearing a suit of power armor punching bad guys that isn't a major problem.

I still don't like Iron Man and if Matt Fraction were to depart from the series I'd probably forget about it immediately. His Invincible Iron Man has me intrigued though. Intrigued enough that I've ordered the omnibus of his run. I want to read more about this Tony Stark who has so much potential and fails to live up to it because of his fears.