Saturday, June 26, 2010

Review - Strangers in Paradise

Strangers in Paradise Volume 1
by Terry Moore
1996 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story

I have this picture of how Terry Moore came up with Strangers in Paradise in my head. He set out to create a touching romantic comedy with a trio of characters caught in each other's orbit but unable to ever quite connect. While he was plotting that he was also working on a violent, noirish crime drama. Then one day he tripped while carrying both scripts and the pages got scrambled. As he was trying to put them back in order he said, "Hey, this could really work!" and history was made. I don't care if it isn't true, it feels like it should be. There's no reason why such an odd mix should work but it turns out it does in Strangers in Paradise.

Francine is an insecure woman who undergoes a traumatic break up with her boyfriend over her not wanting to have sex. Her roommate Katchoo is an artist with anger management problems and is in love with Francine. David wants to go out with Katchoo but she claims to have no interest in men though she finds herself becoming attracted to him more and more. Together they are alternatively funny and sweet as they try to feel their way through the relationships. They also have very dark secrets and one of them is being hunted.

The strength of Strangers in Paradise is in its characters. Moore's cast, including the extended cast, are not your typical romantic characters. Their relationships are well outside what you'd normally find depicted in stories; their emotions are rocky and prone to wild swings, their attitudes toward sex cannot be summed up simply, and their lives are not simple. I haven't read past volume one yet but if the love triangle resolves by the three of them deciding to have a group marriage to each other I wouldn't be surprised. I don't want to see any of them hurt which just tells you how much Moore managed to make a connection between me and his characters.

Since the characters are defined by the romantic possibility that's the setting that they work best in. Those slice of life portions are whimsical and charming. They carry an undercurrent of simmering passion that hasn't come to the surface yet in the series.

The flip side of that is the dark, violent crime drama and that is less effective. It's not that it isn't good. Having the cute characters put into the path of harm ratchets up the tension. The brutal violence is shocking in the context of a book that was about the love lives of the group a few pages before. It's just that this storyline is much less developed in the first volume. I couldn't wait for it to be over so I could go back to the lighthearted portions.

With the art Moore took the interesting direction of using a varied style depending on which plot was moving forward. When things are romantic the characters are cute and cartoony but the art gets a harsher look when the violence comes. Moore draws some impressively expressive characters. His artwork is an important aspect of bringing them to life.

I've only read one volume of Strangers in Paradise but I've ordered the next two. I'm enthralled by the lives of these characters and I want to see if through to the end. Moore has made it easy to fall in love with them just as they fall in love with each other.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review - Nexus

Written by Mike Baron; Art by Steve Rude

1988 Eisner Winner for Best Artist

If you listen to some people the concept of mature superhero comics was born when Alan Moore woke up one day and decided to make Watchmen. Obviously this is not true; Moore's work stood on the shoulders of many people and came in the middle of a pack that were changing superhero comics. One of the more interesting of those contemporaries was Nexus which took a crazy high concept and brought it down to earth. It was good but that wouldn't be enough to make it stand out without the brilliance of Steve Rude providing the art.

Nexus is a man with absolute power. In exchange for this power though he dreams of the victims of mass murders and feels their deaths. The dreams will not stop until he executes the murderer. Nexus lives in the distant future on a planet that was an abandoned ruin before his family arrived there. He opened his planet to anyone seeking asylum. His mission may be simple as he can walk in as an unstoppable force of justice but his life is complicated. He's a killer who would rather be arguing philosophy.

It's that contradiction that elevates Nexus above other superhero books. Baron went on to write the original Punisher series which was also about a man who wore a costume and went around executing criminals though it was a dramatically different series. Nexus may feature human cruelty on a grand scale but it never wallows in it or puts it on display. It's a strangely hopeful series since the message that it keeps coming back to is that a man pushed to killing can hold onto his soul. It might not be easy and it might not be morally justified but it's possible. That, along with the ethics of capital punishment, form the backbone of the stories.

This wouldn't work without an incredibly strong cast of characters. Nexus is represents the thoughtful side of things but his best friend is in love with the idea of being a dashing adventurer. His girlfriend cares for him though she can't always deal with the stress of having a vengeful god as a lover. The only weakness here is that most villains never get a chance to develop; it's rare that they get to survive more than a single issue.

Another distinctive aspect of the series was how the story developed over the long term. Baron treated it as though the time passing in the comic was the same as the time that passed in the world. It allowed a long term plot to slowly boil. Nexus starts alone on his planet sized home and brings refugees back with him from a mission. Word spreads that his planet is open to anyone fleeing oppression and the population grows over the years until the refugees have formed their own government dealing with overpopulation. Other plot lines develop gently over the course of years.

As much as I liked Baron's storytelling the real star of Nexus was Steve Rude. His vision of a future looked like a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and Jack Kirby; a sleek, fluid design done on a larger than life scale. His character designs were distinctive and expressive to match his gorgeous landscapes. It's a stunning looking book when Rude is drawing it.

I won't say that Nexus is a perfect series. Baron's dialog sometimes falls flat and individual stories, especially later in the series, sometimes aren't that interesting. But even at the weakest moments of the story Rude's artwork makes reading it worthwhile.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Adam Hughes's Eisner Winning Covers

I'm a bit baffled as to why Adam Hughes won the Eisner in 2003 for his Wonder Woman covers. While I'd never call them bad, Hughes artwork never stood out to me (well except in two respects). But setting aside my preference he only did six Wonder Woman covers that year. That's a fairly small sampling of covers for the award.