Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review - Starman: Sand and Stars

Starman: Sand and Stars
Written by James Robinson; Art by Tony Harris and Guy David
1997 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story

During the dark days of the nineties for superhero comics there were few bright spots. The brightest of these was Starman which stepped beyond the typical superheroics and told the story of a man trying to live up to the ideal of the superheroes. It's title character is better remembered by his actual name than the pseudonym he took up. It had its emotional ups and downs but even at its worse avoided reveling in the violence and gloom that defined superhero comics at that time. It's a story best told from the beginning but if you want to jump into the middle then Sand and Stars is one of its high points.

Jack Knight's father was the superhero Starman in the 1940's and was followed by many other people in his foot steps. Jack himself had no interest in it and enjoyed a quiet life dealing in collectibles. When events conspire to force Jack to take up his father's mantle he does it reluctantly at first. Over time he gradually becomes more comfortable in his role as hero of the city.

A few years later comes "Sand and Stars" where a hunt for a cherished belonging of his father's greatest enemy sends Jack to the home of man who was the superhero Sandman in the 40's. When a neighbor is murdered the retired superhero and the man who isn't sure he wants to be a superhero join forces to track down those responsible.

It's not the plot that makes "Sand and Stars" enjoyable; the mystery is a bit light and I coudn't get that interested in it. What is terrific in "Sand and Stars" is the characters. Jack reveres the past so working alongside a hero from fifty years before inspires him. He has to deal with hero worship and not all of it directed to Sandman. The Sandman on the other hand is living in a comfortable retirement until Jack inspires him to become involved in a new case. They play off each other fantastically in a way that works with Robinson's strengths. They're men who are not superheroes and yet find themselves in that role.

This storyline is a turning point in Jack's heroic journey and that aspect of it makes it a weak place to start with Starman. It is where he starts finding his willingness to jump into action and grows in other ways. Still it is very understandable on a basic level as just an adventure story on its own.

Tony Harris has a style that matches such a character driven story well. On the other hand I'm not fond of how he depicts action; it seems a bit static and the layouts don't ever go beyond a basic level. Since action tends to be the least important thing in Starman this didn't really bother me. Guy David on the other hand did a brief sequence in the story in the style of a 1930's New Yorker cartoon and it looks fantastic. It would have been distracting if it went longer but he did a great job at giving it a unique feeling.

If you want to read Starman, and I do recommend it to anyone who isn't completely repulsed by the concept of superheroes, then start with Sins of the Father or the first volume of the omnibus. The entire arc from beginning to end is a great story. Sand and Stars in isolation is also great but it will feel like just another superhero story to someone who doesn't have the background.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review - The Mystery Play

The Mystery Play
Written by Grant Morrison; Art by Jon J. Muth
1995 Eisner Winner for Best Painter

Grant Morrison might be the most divisive man in comics today. To some he's a stylistic genius whose concepts leap from the page and to others his concepts tend to be a mishmash of randomness with little underlying structure. I'm in the second column since for every work he does like All-Star Superman where Morrison juggles the lofty ideals with telling the story there's three where he drops the story for the sake of the big ideals. The Mystery Play falls in this second category where Morrison piles metaphor upon metaphor and loses track of both the mystery and any kind of structure to his metaphors. Muth's artwork may have been fantastic but it can't save this book.

As an attraction a small village in England is staging a performance of the Mystery Play cycle, a set of medieval plays with a biblical theme. During the performance of the initial play the actor who played God is murdered. A quirky police detective arrives to investigate the murder and in the process dark secrets are uncovered.

Morrison's plot is confused. That's not a typo; it's confusing as well thanks to how it's told. The story shifts focus wildly; it's hallucinogenic sequences collide with the abrupt transitions to narrative scenes that feel shuffled like a deck of cards. Is this out of place scene a dream sequence or part of the plot? This does not come across as an intentional effect since as the scene goes on the context makes it clear.

Another case of this is the use of metaphor. For the first half of the book "God" has no name other than "God" and I thought this was an intentional part of the story. Then suddenly in the middle of a scene someone starts talking about an argument with a "doctor"; since there was a coroner in an earlier scene I thought they were talking about him until a few pages later it became clear that they were talking about the murder victim. There's one more scene where the victim has a name and then it's not referenced again. So was Morrison trying to isolate the victim from the story, build a metaphor around the death of "God", or just couldn't decide what he was doing?

Even when he's explicit with his themes Morrison can't bother to establish them smoothly. There's brief segments that establish a moral decay in the village but it's a case of telling the reader about it rather than showing it. Supposedly the murder is changing things for the worse but we as readers never actually see that happening. When it comes to the use of religion there's pieces that look clever when they're isolated and when put in context with the whole work don't fit. As an allegory it fails leaving only the plot to carry the weight.

Not that the plot makes a lot of sense anyway. Morrison attempts to build to a big plot twist that once revealed doesn't make any sense and then throws it out for an ending that's back to metaphor.

Despite all those complaints I have nothing but compliments for Muth's artwork. He paints scenes that are hauntingly beautiful in their gloominess. Everything is overcast in his art; gray and black predominate and the negative space formed by them in the panels creates striking images. The book is done in oil paints with the characters in fine detail and the background is broad strokes of shading. It's a wonderful style for a mystery and I'd like to see more of it.

The failings of The Mystery Play are completely Morrison's. He tries to have things both ways and have a allegorical story and a murder mystery and fails to do either well. Muth's artwork is great but it's not a good enough reason to read this pointless story.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I'm going to be busy for a while...

I have a few things to read.

That's what I got from the Great Diamond Pricing Glitch of 2010.

First impressions? Iron Man wavers up and down in quality of writing based on Fraction trying to be realistic but not understanding how certain fundamental things like the criminal justice system work. I call it the uncanny valley of superheroes - the more "realistic" you try to make them the more glaring the problems with how unrealistic the story is. As a helpful guideline to other writers: law enforcement officers illegally kicking in the door to a CEO's office and hauling them off to indefinite detention without trial would be on the national news and get them and their bosses fired then arrested; that's assuming it already hasn't happened since they publicly shot up a well-off Washington condo with no legal basis a few hours before that. Also doctoring images to cover up a crime only works if you didn't commit the crime on world wide television in the first place.

The flip side of that is the Captain America which features a robot Nazi, a Russian oligarch sharing his brain space with a super villain, and a guy with a robot arm and indestructible shield who goes around fighting terrorists and it manages to be a rip roaring good time. I think it's because it never got bogged down in minutiae that made me think about how flawed the story was.

I don't have as many golden age reprints in my collection as I'd like so I'm enjoying the Golden Age Marvel Comics omnibus. Still that's the kind of thing only for extreme comic book nerds and fans of pulp.

Daredevil has me interested but I'm waiting to fill in some gaps before I continue. There's about five smaller books I need to get before I can go past that first volume on the top of the stack.

I've read those issues of Walking Dead but it's nice to have my own copy. I don't know if I can take forty-eight consecutive issues of it given how depressing it is.

Along those lines I already own most of the issues in those Nexus Archives but I couldn't resist having the Steve Rude art in a nicer format. I'm probably going to bump that one up the priority list for reviews since I love his art so much.

The Creepy Archives are awesome. The stories may be hokey but listen to this list of staff artists from #16: Neal Adams, Dan Adkins, Eugene Colan, Johnny Craig, Reed Crandall, Steve Ditko, Frank Frazetta, Jerry Grandenetti, Rocco Mastroserio, Gray Morrow, Joe Orlando, John Severin, Angelo Torres, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, Wallace Wood. No matter how silly the monster stories are every issue looks great.

The Mister X Archives I bought on a lark since I recalled hearing about the series a long time ago and never gave it a shot. What better time to try it than when I can get the whole thing in a nice hard bound edition for twelve dollars.

Then there's Comic Book Tattoo. The one item on the list that I explicitly added to my cart because of my hobby. I am not looking forward to that one.

So I better get to this. That yard of books aren't going to read themselves.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review - Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers

Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers
Written by Bill Willingham; Art by Mark Buckingham, Craig Hamilton, and P. Craig Russell
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story

There are some series that won multiple awards that I have talked about in one shot but with Fables I've been spreading things out. There's two reasons for this. The first is that unlike the other lengthy series I spoke about Fables is still ongoing so it is likely to win a few more before it's finished. The second is that the awards have been for specific stories which are conveniently collected in individual books. This is the case with "March of the Wooden Soldiers". The last time I said that I liked Fables but didn't like that initial storyline. At this point twenty issues later in the Fables story it is deep into the intrigue and quality that endeared the series to me when that initial story turned me off.

Fables is about fairy tales living in the real world as refugees who fled their own stories in the face of a conquering army led by someone they only know as "the Adversary". This story opens with a flashback the fall of the last fortress in stories and how it held out for one last group of refugees to escape. Centuries later one of the people who failed to escape from that last stand stumbles into the real world signaling that the war that they had fled has found them. Adding another complication is that in the middle of this crisis a mayoral election threatens to overturn the power structure of their sanctuary.

At this point Willingham has moved beyond his phase where he seemed to think that appropriating existing characters and using them in contrary ways is clever. His characters have developed their own voices so while Prince Charming may be a cad he's also a diabolical, scheming, and extremely charming one who is has appetites for wealth, women, and power and the abilities to gain them. Bigby Wolf isn't just the hard boiled detective; his lupine traits are clashing with his human as he reaches out to Snow White. And she's grown from being the tough woman as she's allowed to have vulnerable moments. Part of this is that Willingham has had twenty issues to build on the character but a lot of it is that he's just gotten a handle on how he wants to develop his versions of these familiar characters.

This story is also works on its own with just a basic understanding of the premise. The stories before it were about establishing the world they live in. "March of the Wooden Soldiers" is when the overarching plot that had been simmering in the background since the beginning finally moved to the foreground. This is the point where Fables stops being about story book characters living in the real world and starts becoming about their war which they stage from the real world against stories. It's kicked into high gear for something that's fast paced and exciting even though action really only bookends it. It's a page turner with plots, counterplots, hints of things to come, and tension that ramps up until it becomes unbearable.

Craig Hamilton and P. Craig Russell handle the art duties on the opening chapter which is stunningly beautiful. They put together scenes of lovely horror, the fairy tale charm running into mass slaughter. It's the last stand for legendary heroic warriors and they capture it with a style that's effective in its contrasts. Mark Buckingham provides the art duties for the rest of the book and while he can't match the other two for style he is great with how characters look. You will never mistake one character for another in Buckingham's art and the facial expressions could almost tell the story with no words at all.

I enjoy Fables as a series a lot and I'd like to say that "March of the Wooden Soldiers" is a high point. I can't do that since in my view everything from the second storyline to the tenth are spectacularly good. I can say that "March of the Wooden Soldiers" is something that anyone can pick up and if they love it then they'll love Fables. And I have a hard time picturing anyone who has ever enjoyed a fairy tale not loving it.