Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Best comics of 2017

Best graphic novel

I felt that “The Customer is Always Wrong” was the strongest piece of work published in 2017 that I read all year. The memorable and well cartooned coming of age story remained fast paced throughout and brought the narrative Mimi Pond started in “Over easy” to a sombre yet very definite end.

Best webcomic

Until recently I was not aware of Derf hosting a new webcomic. Yet, after reading "Punk Rock & Trailer Parks" and finding it hilarious and page turning, the author's social media feed mentioned a website update. Thus, I was informed of the existence of "The Baron of Prospect avenue", a follow-up to Derf's earlier project. Sporting the same manic but kind-hearted protagonist, as of right now the webcomic's episodic structure manages to more than  make up for the lack the narrative cohesion of the original. 

Best manga

“My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness” was a suprise hit in many ways. The intimate story by a newcomer endeared many fans to her personal confession. Functioning almost like an illustrated essay, Kabi Nagata's story is both witty and heartfelt, making for a great read that exploits the mediums' potential to full extent.

Best mini-series

The long-awaited second volume of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely's "Jupiter’s Legacy" was expected to be the final word on the ambitious project started by a pair of the superhero industry's top talents. The long gap in the publishing lead to a pair of spin-off series and further delays which saw the final issue come more than 4 years since the project was first announced.

And while the story's compressed conclusion ultimately left some fans unfulfilled, with the promise of some kind of a third volume it may be that Millar and Quitely have yet to have a final word on their grand superhero epic.

Best ongoing series

With both Marvel and DC's output increasingly failing to capture the fan's interest, and Image seemingly unable to pick up on the promise of it's supersteady 2012 and 2013, it was hard for me to really declare any of their monthly comic efforts as a favorite.

Eventually I settled on "Kill or be killed", as the series' twists and turns genuinely feel well crafted and unpredictable. Another high quality Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips collaboration, the ongoing seems poised not to outstay its welcome while maximizing the impact it makes along the way.

Best writer/artist

With "Who'll stop the Reign", the latest Shaolin Cowboy story, Geoff Darrow seems to have really come into his own as a creator. His exquisite highly detailed art has finally been matched with a story so satirical that it has forced out the writer in him to try and bring out the most of the over the top social commentary running through these four issues. While still sporting it's fair share of bizarrely mismatched fights, Shaolin Cowboy seems more biting and relevant then ever, and will hopefully continue to be so for a long time to come.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Nina Bunjevac: Heartless

Debutting in 2012, “Heartless” is a collection of short comics by Nina Bunjevac, a Serbian artist living in Canada. Working in stark black and white, her work veers from hyperrealism to a more caricatural look. The dialogue is minimal, with carefully worded captions blending seamlessly with the art, working primarily to capture a moment and a feeling, akin to illustrated poems.

The emotion on display is primarily longing, as Nina’s characters all seem to be in a state of quiet desperation. While hoping for a better tomorrow they reminisce at the oddities that brought them there. The opening story works as an over the top affair showing a young woman emigrating to Canada and trying to adapt to her new circumstances that on the surface seem bizarre but feel very real. It’s important to underscore the humor that permeates the telling, as it rounds out the way Bunjevac presents her subjects.

It’s especially noticable in the following vignettes which make the bulk of this collection, as they mostly feature an additional step toward cartoonishness. In creating Zorka, the cat on the verge of nervous breakdown constantly trying to raise her beau Chip the stripper on the phone, Bunjevac forms a loosely knit set of stories exploring the dynamic of a girl looking for sex and love. While approaching even such heavy subjects as abortion, the author explores the idea of a woman’s right to choose and the frolics that come with being single and trying to date in your twenties.

Leaving Zorka’s antics behind, Bunjevac follows with another well cartooned vignette, this time dealing with a couple that tries to improve on their home life in their separate ways. Again, Bunjevac goes for surrealism to underscore her female protagonist’s hopes and fears, and once more she manages a story that lands somewhere between humor and pathos. While at first glance it’s not apparent how to read the conclusion, that can’t be said for the final entry which succeeds it.

By illustrating the last letter her mother sent to her terrorist father, Bunjevac decides to complete the collection of her early work by dispensing with the fictional stand-ins and their frolics. While depicting actual events from her life, she finishes by tying her father’s radical actions to his homecountry’s conservative leanings at the beginning of the 21st century. In this way, the author introduces the themes she will go on to develop to great effect in her follow up “Fatherland”. Yet the short stories presented in “Heartless” persist in showing another side of the acclaimed graphic novellist, a softer and more melancholic outlook that gives us an intimate look how she developed as an artist and a person.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Discipline #1-6

Originally planned as a Vertigo title, the controversial "Discipline" pairs veteran writer Peter Milligan with the imprint's longtime artist and former collaborator Leandro Fernandez. With the series eventually seeing publication at Image, the whole production seems riskier than it would likely have been had the title saw print as initially announced.

At its heart, "Discipline" is an erotic thriller that bills itself as a supernatural coming of age story. It follows a young woman whose longings for escape from a passionless marriage make her a target for seduction by a sect of centuries-old sexual predators. Mellisa has little time to get used to the idea when the organization's natural enemies make her a target. 

And while the basic setup seems immediately familiar, the character's coming to grips with the dangerous new world is genuinely gripping thanks to the creators' efforts. The lithe, whipsmart Mellisa could have easily come off as condescending considering her station in life, but by defining her by her limitations, Milligan and Fernandez turn her into a compelling protagonist. By not immediately losing sight of her life and family once she comes in contact with the mythology they have created, the creators make her all the more believable.

Indeed, despite featuring Mellisa in all sorts of undress, she loses none of her appeal, as her sexual awakening is part and parcel of the coming of age aspect that works in concert with the genre elements. Thus, working in reverse of a traditional superhero narrative, "Discipline" commits to both sides of the adult equation. Having the characters actually engage in sexual activity that is graphic but never gratuitous works to make the story live up to the billing of an erotic thriller. Sexuality in "Discipline" is intriguing and dangerous, but it's also at times humorous and ironic, with the creators' status as veterans in the field enabling them to imbue their story with the appropriate wit and sophistication. 

Fernandez' fluid cartooning keeps up the pace throughout even when his designs for the supernatural aspects of the Discipline and their enemies might take some getting used to. The organization is sketched out in broad terms as a secret society that the creators can't help but tie to major historical figures. Thus, an extended flashback sequence set in ancient Rome features in the follow-up story featuring Mellisa going on her first solo mission in Eternal city. Unfortunately, having a break in publication with the artist continuing to work for the publisher on another title means that the readers have yet to see a definite announcement concerning the title's continuation.

On the strength of these initial six issues, it's clear that Image has grown past a superhero publisher to support a series that acts as a more mature take on "Witchblade". It's another matter entirely whether it will end up supporting "Discipline" until the title connects with it's intended audience. The extended delay may signal that the publisher is considering how to proceed with the property, and hopefully this won't be the last we see of the intriguing characters and set-up behind Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez' creation.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Loose Ends 1-4

This last Wednesday has seen the long-awaited final chapter of the "Loose ends" project, initially published to some acclaim in 2011. For the last several months, Image has reissued the Jason Latour/Chris Brunner collaboration, having finally completed the series in time for the July publication of the trade paperback collection.

At its heart, "Loose ends" is a strong early work in the neo-noir tradition, featuring a cast of broken people on all sides of a drug deal gone bad. The largely self-contained first issue introduces the sweaty, hungover people dreaming of a better life and finding only violence all around them.

As the series widens its scope, the debut issue's local thug gets replaced by his dead-ringer, a police officer helping his partner exploit the dual leads' drug connection. Of the two, the creators spend more time with Sonny, while his friend and fellow ex-soldier Rej serves more as the plot instigator.

Following the initial cliffhanger, Sonny is on the run with a girl from his past, which in Brunner's hands quickly devolves into a frantic drug binge amidst the hot neon colored Florida. Each subsequent issue sports character defining monochromatic flashbacks, with colorist Renzi completing the aesthetic. Despite its focus on the characters, the well paced series quickly builds to its action filled conclusion, where the principal cast has one final chance to escape their past and the predators looking to feed upon them.

By publishing the years in the making final issue, the creators have ensured that the audience gets a chance to enjoy the full scope of their deeply personal collaboration. Latour has already proven himself a solid mainstream comics addition as both a writer and artist, but hopefully the collected edition of "Loose ends" will lead to more comic assignments for Brunner, a natural storyteller who definitely has a place in the industry.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mayday 1-5

On May 24th, Image is issuing the collection of "Mayday", the just concluded Alex de Campi and Tony Parker mini-series, featuring a pair of Russian spies on the run in 1971 America. Labelled as a Codename Felix adventure, the book is slated to be the opening storyline in a series featuring the Cold War adventures with a realistic bent.

The veteran writer has made a name for herself in the industry with the spy-inspired "Smoke", and "Mayday" certainly starts off with an intelligence agency briefing before it veers off into the strange and poignant. By the end of the first issue, the protagonists' extraction mission has been firmly charted through America's counter culture underbelly, with the creators making it clear that both will stay on as a part of the story. Thus, the numerous office-based scenes don't serve only as framing devices, but the agency infighting actively acts to heighten the drama. 

Thanks to Parker's contribution, these dialogue intense sequences flow well and feature distinctive character designs. The artist of "This damned band" is certainly at home when the story switches to the wild world of sweaty, Vietnam era America. Only in "Mayday", the sex and drugs and rock'n'roll gets seen from the eyes of the outsiders and punctured with horrible violence, showcasing his clean and dynamic work.

The 45 year distance allows the creators to present the Russian spies in a more balanced way, with danger coming to them from both sides. The writer is clever to portray them as victims but never shies away from the hurt they inflict back on their new surroundings. Of the two, Felix is decidedly the more active participant, with this initial series serving to set the stage for his further Cold War adventures. On the strength of "Mayday", the readers can only hope that de Campi and Parker will continue on as a team long enough to tell them.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Ultimate Comics: Thor

"Ultimate Comics: Thor" marked writer Jonathan Hickman's first foray into Marvel's once relevant Ultimate imprint. It lead to his taking over the core "Ultimates" title and giving him a chance to be one of the last authors that truly defined the since cancelled line of comics.

Pairing Hickman with a veteran superhero artist like Carlos Pacheco, the company seemed adamant that he starts working off Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's template. Only a year before, the penciller collaborated with Millar himself on a spin-off Ultimates mini-series that ended up as some of the writer's last work for the company. On "Ultimate Comics: Thor", Pacheco manages to work in Hitch's vein, which helps when the story constantly calls back to the celebrated artist's genre defining run. 

Without being able to actually relaunch Thor in his image, the writer is thus poised to fit his story around previous continuity, resulting in a splintered timeline that gives rise to only slight innovation. The Asgard flashbacks are perhaps most noteworthy, setting up this creative team's version of the Warrior's Three. The origin story eventually ties in to the World War Two scenes featuring Baron Zemo, with the present day sequences serving as framework.

Throughout, Pacheco's clean layouts and solid figurework help maintain the brisk pace and create strong fight sequences featuring the Frost Giants. These keep the mini-series on level with some of the imprint's more workmanlike entries, but the hurried last act prevents it from being more than a prequel to the original "Ultimates" run. By relegating the present day showdown with Loki to the previous series, "Ultimate Comics: Thor" gains a barrage of scenes featuring Nick Fury and eventually the Hulk, which genuinely rob this story of its real conclusion. Eventually, both Hickman and Pacheco end up restaging Millar and Hitch's sequences with added context, which speaks a lot to the publisher's lack of confidence in their own creative abilities. 

On the back of this story, the writer has gone on to have his own critically acclaimed run on "The Ultimates", but unfortunately it wasn't popular enough to save the imprint from swift cancellation. Still, it paved the way for his work on Marvel's mainstream "Avengers" titles, with Hickman eventually helping the publisher relaunch their entire superhero line, where Pacheco has remained a valuable asset.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Catwoman: When in Rome 1-6

In 2004, DC published "Catwoman: When in Rome", acting as a spin-off of the Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's popular "Batman: Dark victory" storyline. Released following the duo's stint on Marvel's prestige books, the mini-series acknowledges the tie-in, but exists largely to tell it's own story.

Ostensibly, the series elaborates the character's origins, but by the time of it's publication the company had already went ahead with a different version of the character. Taken as a collaboration of the two talents well suited to telling the stories together, "When in Rome" turns into a treatise on the character's appeal.

Characterized as a sexy thriller with a healthy dose of humor, the series truly reads like an artifact from a different era. The heroine looks and acts like a sex bomb, her "costume" merely a couple of curios added to her skintight leotard. That is not to say that Catwoman doesn't spent a large part of the story wearing even less, but she takes it all in stride.

The plot concerns Selina arriving in Italy with a purpose that reveals itself only later on, after she has already become complicit in affairs of a criminal don she'd never heard about before. The tone and atmosphere are seductive enough that the reader doesn't really question the many twists and turns rocking the story to and fro from the Batman universe, confident that it will all make some kind of sense in the end. Loeb is of course pedantic enough to ultimately clear up any confusion, but it's Sale's work that leaves the lasting impression.

The whole presentation strikes the reader as very visual and gorgeous to experience, with beautiful ink washes by Dave Stewart making for a spin-off that has all the hallmarks of a major publishing project. Putting Catwoman in an idealized Italian setting, the artist pairs her with contrasting figures of a love interest and a comedic foil. It is the original character that proves the more memorable, as the Riddler's role in the story ultimately feels as shoehorned as most of the other plot elements pertaining to the story's status as a Batman spin-off.

What attracts about "When in Rome" is precisely the chance of watching two acclaimed creators enjoying themselves. Reading this well paced, politically incorrect story it's clear that the duo are having fun which has the effect of charming the reader into accepting both the goofy and the intriguing bits.

It might be a footnote in the duo's opus, but Loeb and Sale's work here should absolutely be taken into consideration by a reader looking for a lighthearted DC story with high production values.