Friday, April 2, 2010

Review - Daredevil

Written by Brian Michael Bendis; Art by Alex Maleev
2002, 2003 Eisner Winner for Best Writer
2003 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series

Three years ago if you asked me about it I would tell you that I did not like Daredevil. A major contributing factor to that is that his writers seem to have learned everything they know about the legal system from bad television dramas and this was a problem since they liked using the fact that the vigilante was also an attorney. So inevitably when I read Daredevil I would be about a superhero who was acting unethically and illegally and this was presented as a good thing. Who cares about a little suborning perjury or evidence tampering; he's the good guy! Eventually I read Frank Miller's defining run on the series which was really good and I was willing to give Daredevil another chance. Enter Bendis who strikes me as the first person who realized what a big deal it was to have a character who let his double life as attorney and vigilante cross regularly and he turned those inherent conflicts into a tense, gripping story.

A long time ago a crime boss discovered Daredevil's identity and has used that information to torment him time and time again. Word is getting around the boss's organization about this and some of his lieutenants decide to just kill both the boss and Daredevil to end their extended game and take over. Their scheme falls apart and New York City becomes a war zone for families seeking to fill the power vacuum. Daredevil's identity is printed as a front page story of a major tabloid leaving him in a position where he has to cover up and deny everything since any evidence of his double life will destroy him.

The schemes to protect a secret identity have been used over and over again in superhero comics but this is one of the few times where it works very well. This isn't something that can be fixed by having someone dressed like him show up at the same place he is; it could be anyone in that costume, after all. And if anyone can connected Daredevil with his real identity then he will go to jail for his numerous illegal actions. If anyone else could be shown to be Daredevil this problem wouldn't exist makes it a hole the character has dug for himself and it is a very deep one.

That makes the reaction a natural one. The cover up isn't some complicated scheme; he sues the tabloid for libel. That's a method that's popular enough in the real world for attacking someone saying something incriminating. Bendis understands that Daredevil isn't just morally gray, he's a character who has gone pretty far into the black. Through that understanding he can tell an unpredictable story where I can never be sure where things are going next. Daredevil has already taken a lot of steps down a self-destructive path so I couldn't be sure if he would take the next one.

Speaking of those legal problems Bendis also wrote the best courtroom sequences I've ever seen in a comic. He's got a good feeling for the ebb and flow of a trial and avoids sticking the dramatic beats at the usual points.

The downside to these stories is that I did not like Maleev's artwork. While he can be readable at his best far too much of his artwork looked like traced pictures of people over top of photographs that have been run through multiple Photoshop filters as backgrounds. It gives his artwork a kind of paper cut out feeling to it and his characters don't necessarily go with the action. The backgrounds are a muddy out of focus mess. He also loves double page spreads and tends to put panel splits on the page fold. I often didn't realize it was a double page spread until I had read the left side and wondered why things didn't make sense.

I am not fond of other things by Brian Michael Bendis that I have read. His Daredevil run, however, is exceptional. It's easily the best take on the character that I have ever encountered. It's not just a good superhero book, it's a good book on the moral complexities of vigilantism. It's a shame about the art but the writing is so good that I'd say it's worth it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review - Swallow Me Whole

Swallow Me Whole
by Nate Powell
2009 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album

I can't tell you how long it took for me to finish Swallow Me Whole. For months I poked at it occasionally reading a few pages before setting it down again. I finally just dived in and went through it from beginning to end and once finished I could tell exactly why I had so much trouble getting past those first few pages. Swallow Me Whole is not about the narrative. A plot does emerge from time to time but this is more like comic book poetry. It's about building a setting on mood and tone. On those terms it's very successful at what it does but at the same time it is not very compelling reading.

There are a pair of siblings with psychological problems. The both have hallucinations and compulsions toward certain actions. The sister is focused on insects, hears them talk to her, and steals preserved specimens from her biology class. Her room is dominated by shelves that hold dozens of these bugs in formaldehyde which she rearranges constantly. Her brother sees a wizard who stands on top of his pencil and demand that he draw certain things. The wizard tells him that he has a special task to do and must obey.

There's a tendency to romanticize these kinds of mental problems in fiction. Swallow Me Whole avoids that completely. These characters aren't brilliant but disturbed; they're just disturbed. They don't have some special insight into the world; they're withdrawing from it for their own hallucinations. These teens are in serious trouble and Powell paints a bleak outlook for their lives. That makes them very difficult to relate to as characters. I wound up feeling bad for them but not really interested in if they'd find help or what problems they'd run into.

The reason for that is the almost complete lack of anything resembling a plot. One quietly slips in fairly late in the book but it is so low key that it doesn't matter. There's very little change in the characters and even with the big event that concludes the book I have a difficult time thinking that anything is really going to be different.

What Powell does do with Swallow Me Whole is build his story around illustrating schizophrenia. Scenes are fragmented and jump around often without resolution. Dialog is squiggled and can be hard to read like whispers at the edge of hearing. The artwork flows around that leading you into topsy-turvey visions. I was bewildered and lost half the time in the same way that the characters were.

It makes the Swallow Me Whole a chaotic jumble and I think that's the effect that Powell was going for so he definitely succeeded on that front. It also helped prevent me from caring about his characters beyond the superficial sympathy for people who were out of control in a way that they could not recover from on their own. Creating a book with the tone of hallucinations is quite an accomplishment but it never worked for me beyond that level.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Review - I Killed Adolf Hitler

I Killed Adolf Hitler
by Jason
2008 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of International Material

When I talked about Jason's other two Eisner winning books I mentioned that they had inspired me to seek out the rest of his work. At this point I'm wishing for a nice hardbound collection of everything he's done. Every time I read something new by him I can't wait to read something else by him and these tiny booklets that Fantagraphics publishes just aren't enough for me. So it's safe to say that I loved I Killed Adolf Hitler.

There is a world where life is cheap and murder is legal. A hitman is growing weary of the day to day grind and his girlfriend may have tried to kill him. Then he receives a different contract: to use a time machine to travel back to the early days of World War 2 and kill Adolf Hitler. Hitler takes the assassin by surprise and steals his ride back to the future. The hitman waits the long years for him to arrive and shoots him but Hitler escapes again. So the now elderly hitman gets together with his girlfriend in order to track down the Nazi.

The strange thing in I Killed Adolf Hitler is that Hitler is completely unnecessary. This is a story about a man being given a long term perspective on a relationship dealing with someone for whom the wounds are still fresh. For him a lifetime has passed and he's no longer the same person, for her it's been days and the real story is how they have changed. Killing Hitler is just the plot device that lets them become separated by years and then keeps them together later.

This wouldn't have worked if Jason didn't create some compelling characters. These people (anthropomorphic animals?) are interesting. He's getting worn down by the act of killing over and over again and withdrawing from the world. She's a flighty, immature woman who demands all of his attention. Together that fight Hitler... er... change and reevaluate their lives.

If you're the kind of person to obsess over how time travel works or changing histories then this story might wind up annoying you. Jason has created just one rule for his time travel and it has nothing to do with changing time lines or things like that; it's a rule that exists for drama's sake. It didn't bother me since this is a story about a relationship rather than a story about time travel but I know some people who do get bothered by that kind of thing.

I would say that the only disappointment in I Killed Adolf Hitler is that it ended but that's not true. This is a tight short story that depends on the pacing. The story zips along quickly but not so fast that it feels hurried. Dragging it out with extra scenes or padding wouldn't have enhanced it. So while it is a very short book it's also the right size.

I did have one small problem with the artwork. I found that this time Jason's anthropomorphic animal characters looked too much alike. Early on there are some characters who are drawn almost identically to the protagonist which made the scene confusing. Beyond that the book is in his usual efficient style with simple layouts and rigid figures.

Those tiny caveats aside I can't recommend I Killed Adolf Hitler highly enough. It's the most touching story about a time travelling assassin getting back together with his girlfriend after being apart for sixty years from his perspective that you'll ever read.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Brian Bolland's Eisner Winning Covers

I'm working on a few other projects these days so I thought now would be a good opportunity to touch on the cover artists that have won the Eisner. So I'm going to be putting this up on the weekend starting with the first man Brian Bolland who won in 1993 for his covers on Animal Man: