Sunday, May 30, 2010

Scalped #35-38

With the release of the latest issue of "Scalped", Vertigo's premiere ongoing crime title has finished it's new spell of one-off stories. In preparation for a longer arc that is to come, Jason ("Other side", "Ghost rider") Aaron has scripted three accessible self-contained episodes, illustrated with the help of guest artists. Regular artist R.M. Guera was presumably so busy with the follow up story arc that he only found time to complete the final of these four issues.

Interestingly, the publisher has commissioned the work of expressionistic Danijel ("Plague", "Rex") Zhezhelj, with his issue being the first to open this latest cycle. The Croatian artist's style is so unique that anytime Vertigo uses him, he completely overpowers anyone's idea of a typical fill in. With his layered and painterly disposition, Zhezhelj is perhaps the publisher's most distinctive artist, which fits with Aaron's story providing a temporary break from the series' typical stylings.

Focusing on the farm life of an elderly couple, it brings to mind the independent work of recent Vertigo addition Jeff ("Essex county trilogy") Lemire, a slow, atmospheric work that seems an antithesis to "Scalped". Yet, the far more brutal ongoing still practices a leisurely pace, with it's frequent rotating points of view making such a connection possible. Zhezehlj picks up on this, and starts putting his rough brush strokes, and heavy inks at play, to try and capture a desperate family dynamic. Gulia Brusco's colors never let up from making the problems these people face appear anything less than bleak and unforgiving, while at the same time preparing the reader for the cathartic ending.

Acting as a complete break for the series, this is the most successful of the three latest short stories, yet it still falls short compared to some of the series' previous high points. As usual with these tales, Aaron's main writing contribution ends up being his choice of an interesting narrative perspective, for providing another view of the life on the Rez. This time, it centers on the farm outside the immediate casino surroundings, and it certainly provides for a distinctive experience. Yet, seeing the writer treat such a simple yarn through the medium of two dueling narrations, seems as excessive as some of the background recalled by the characters in captions. As a writing experiment, the story would have most certainly been better of by stepping back and leaving Zhezhelj to handle the bulk of storytelling with his distinctive visuals. Yet, even such an overwritten issue as "Listening to the Earth turn" doesn't prepare the reader for the story that follows.

And while it once again shares the writer's enthusiasm in creating a dense and layered backdrop, the very themes he chooses to spotlight provide for a very uncomfortable experience. On the face of it, by choosing to portray a solo mission the longtime background character Shunka is being sent to, it feels much more at home with the longer "Scalped" story lines. Yet, despite the plot-heavy approach, the writer once again aims for a decidedly simple emotional core, based on a very particular and polarizing aspect of Native American culture.

Davide Fuerno's art capably follows the series' conventions, easing the reader to deal with the controversial themes. Yet, the regular fill-in artist's work is so solid that it calls attention to itself, by reminding the reader of the artist's sheer improvement in technical prowess. Fuerno's soft penciling gives way for much rounder and realistic figures than before, instilling the characters with some much needed humanity and unique designs that are perfectly in tune with Guera's work, yet highly distinctive on their own. Gulia Brusco follows suit, with sepia toned coloring that maintains the pulpy black and white quality of the series' predecessors.

The story they illustrate is the one most adhering to the neo-noir conventions, which Aaron tries to subvert, while remaining true to the form at the end. yet, while the ending serves to bring the escapade in tune with the wider "Scalped" storyline, what precedes it is decidedly polarizing. On the one hand, the fractured narration, and chilling outbursts of violence are the series' forte, and they are used with great care and the precision in the first part of the story. Yet, the second half, with it's over the top narration that was it's only previous distraction leads to some very blunt storytelling choices.

And while the neo-noir trappings serve to round out the whole thing as an unexpected murder mystery, it still feels decidedly ham-fisted in both it's moralizing and the level of violence. Perhaps in retrospect, the excursion could be validated by picking up on the plot points down the line, and further integrating them with the larger narrative. As it stands, "a Fine action of an honorable and catholic Spaniard" is still certainly the most immediate of the short stories, and would likely headline the collection, should Vertigo decide to publish these issues on their own.

Finally, the last side story takes place completely in flashback, filling in the back story for Dash's father, and is once again a completely accessible entry to the series. It goes without saying that opening with a Vietnam war reminiscence takes a special note when taking into account Aaron's own biography. Being the nephew of the veteran combat correspondent Gustav Hasford, the writer was inspired to create his debut Vertigo work with "the Other side" mini-series, so that seeing him revisit the conflict in "Scalped" has much more than the immediate resonance. Even the issue's cover recalls the promotional poster to Stanley Kubrick's "Full metal jacket", that was adapted from his uncle's novel "Short timers".

That said, Aaron uses the opening pages dealing with the fighting to introduce Dash's father, exhibiting an air of the supernatural to his fellow troopers. This he proceeds to deconstruct, by detailing his life in the last days of the conflict. Even before Wade returns to America, Guera is once again set to illustrating the auto-destructive surroundings of a violent man's lifestyle, only set against a lush Asian backdrop, instead of the usual desert setting. Seeing the tragedy centered around a desperate man is nothing new to the series, and in fact the stylistic union proves something of a detriment to the episode as a whole.

The shootout that ends Wade's stay in Vietnam recalls Shunka's similar response in the preceding two-parter, and unfortunately brings to mind the many similar scenes from the accumulated thirty odd issues. That Aaron uses it to build up tension in the final scene taking place in America is a clever device, but one that doesn't make the story distinctive in it's own right. This is certainly fine in an ongoing series that needs to constantly redress it's core themes, but this far in "Scalped"'s history, a random graphic display feels largely inessential.

Moreover, the whole issue seems designed to close the short story cycle by returning the reader behind the typical parameters of Aaron and Guera's work, and it feels strangely limiting. "The Family tradition" ends up being memorable mostly for the regular series' artist returning in time to begin the next issue's "Unwanted" story arc, picking up on the shocking developments of issues 30-34. And with the series entering it's final phase, it seems that the self-contained stores that were so informative in it's beginning have settled into providing local color that is almost superfluous these days.

With three whole years behind it, "Scalped" has long since become the slow boiling neo-noir tale it's creators envisioned, thus making further fragmentation hard to justify. It could be excused previously, with the main character going into an extended seclusion, but certainly not now that he's in a different situation. Of course, the answer to that once again lies with Vertigo's decision to publish it's ongoing titles with no breaks in schedule. The editors count on the writer's fascination with the setting to provide for an entertaining diversion, but in doing so they harm the overall structure.

Faced with the artists increasingly incapable of fulfilling the monthly deadlines when producing highly detailed work, the imprint would do well to break the mold and at least try to publish their creator owned titles as series of mini-series. By forcing Aaron to adhere to a strict storytelling model employed by "the Sandman", the writer responds by saving the important story beats for the larger arcs, regularly bridged by short stories not illustrated by Guera, that seem to increasingly relish their tenuous grip on the series proper. One can't help but feel that with a looser artistic style enabling the artist to work faster, "Scalped" would have ended up a much shorter and more concise book, that still exhibits it's traditional methodical approach, without breaking clear to embrace the trivialities of it's bit players' background.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

the Marvels project 1-8

This last Wednesday brought the conclusion to the eight part "the Marvels project" mini-series, by the celebrated "Captain America" creative team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. In commissioning the story, Marvel must have wanted to celebrate it's 70th anniversary by green lighting a more ambitious project centering around the Golden age heroes, than the oneshot Specials published throughout the year. In many ways, this was always a risky proposition, considering that the company's heyday was always in the 1960s revolution of superhero publishing, but charging Brubaker with the project, they were certainly counting on the continually solid writer to approach the assignment with serious intent.

In itself, it quickly became labeled as yet another mini-series retconning the carefree days of the late 30is days of first superhero comics, a territory recently touched upon by series such as "the Twelve", and even "Ultimate origins", all striving for the prestige of an effort such as Darwyn Cooke's "the New frontier".

"Marvel projects"' basic outline consists of covering a time span of roughly two years, detailing America's preparations to officially take part in World War II, from the fantastical point of Marvel's early superhero characters. In choosing a narrator to smoothen out the jumps between such a large cast, Marvel has chosen to spotlight it's first superhero, the little known Angel, who has recently surfaced in the "X-Men: Noir" line of books. He is the focal point through which the reader slowly gets a glimpse of the huge conspiracy, that ends up giving birth to the Marvel universe, by basically getting America to war with Germany.

Unfortunately, the Angel's heroism and background of both being a doctor, and a son of a prison warden, somehow translate to the page as bland and unconvincing, therefore making him perfect for the role of the narrator. The framing story pertains to the company's modern day universe relevance of the tale unintentionally confirms this, as the new take on familiar events ends up being designed to propel a new character altogether, introduced in it's closing pages.

Truthfully, this was always going to be be a problem considering that one of the main challenges of the whole book was spotlighting heroes other than Captain America, the only one of these Golden age masked men to have an ongoing series in the present day, alongside the perennial guest star Namor the Sub-Mariner.

Yet, by evoking the word Marvels, the company was also intent on drawing a parallel to the seminal graphic novel of the same name, whose first chapter centers around providing the most recognizable modern version of the origins of some of these characters. The original Human torch, who was on the cover of the first issue of "Marvel comics" from seventy years ago, is even rendered using Alex Ross' updated character design. And for all of the care used by penciller Steve Epting and colorist Dave Stewart to translate the painterly interpretation on the pages of the traditional comic, the effort cannot help but seem derivative.

And so it is with much of the story, presented in a dense and competent way, yet reserving most of it's emotion for the book's final scenes. Tying the story around Captain America's frequently retold origin seems sensible, considering his status as an important superhero archetype, but it somehow ends up diminishing all of the other characters that "Marvels project" wants to introduce to the modern audience. In opting for a single plot tying them all together, Brubaker has once again relegated them to bit players, whose garish costume designs jump off the page, but despite the lightness of touch they remain curiosities defined by little more than their overblown code names.

This is particularly obvious in a scene involving the Human torch and Namor's epic clash, and the Marvel comic books' first historical crossover, depicted skillfully, yet slighted due to the scope of the project dictating it be cut short. It ends up as an excuse for a telling scene, pulling back the focus to the previously unmentioned effort of the therefore unconnected superheroes helping save the ordinary people from the tidal wave. The many Golden age characters get but a cameo appearance, before the real conflict is resolved by once again featuring Captain America, thus diminishing the Human torch's finest hour for plot purposes.

Among the curiosities spotted in Epting and Stewart's murky debris are some of the characters given attention in JMS and Chris Weston's "the Twelve", driving a sharp comparison to that series. "the Marvels project" ends up seeming much more general and laborious when measured up to what was an exercise in reintroducing the long forgotten Golden age characters front and center, one that is still talked about by the audience, despite the prolonged delay in production.

The simple fact is that Marvel's Golden age staple of characters hasn't been a draw for the audiences for a long time, even with the recent Alex Ross' "Avengers/Invaders" maxi-series, which the company must have been well aware of before green lightening this newest project. And with such a broad focus, they seemed to want to lay a classic all time foundation to their modern universe, but such an effort would seem to need much more passion than the workman-like attitude exhibited by Brubaker and Epting. And truly, they cannot be blamed for having left the series without much in the way of a personal touch.

By commissioning a book so heavily reliant on research, both of the Golden age comic books and the real world events of the time in order to foster largely a retelling of well known stories, a true success would have called for needed nothing less than the passion of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' series of the same name, that seemingly ushered in a market for large scale nostalgic projects. And such originality is nowhere to be found in Brubaker and Epting's work, perhaps precisely becasue of the number of interpretations that have inspired it.

Somehow, the dusty beautiful pages depicting the 1940s New York end up being continually driven through by precisely the same high end automobiles of the time, as if by using the best recognized model of everything relating to the book would somehow make it a classic in it's own right. Such a calculated approach on what must have been a very expensive mini-series recalls a big budget Hollywood period piece that still falters at it's humblest - the basic idea at the heart of the well costumed recreation.

Using John Steele as an example, the reader is treated to a very obscure Golden age hero, as he awakens to his potential, and starts combating the Nazi threat behind enemy lines. Yet, he does it in such a way as to appear utterly generic and hard to provoke any sympathy with the readers. Even his design is such a stock action hero look that he ends up being distinguished by name only, yet another player in a huge cast, whose plot relevance would determine the importance of his addition to the story. There is no real excuse for such a treatment, considering that John Steele is a completely new face to the modern audiences, and Brubaker and Epting had every right, perhaps even an obligation, to change him into a much more interesting character, no matter the inconsistencies with the original simplistic idea.

The duo are somewhat better at redeeming their inclusion of the less propaganda-inclined characters such as Phantom bullet, whose background ends up adding some dimension to his over the top unappealing costume. Unfortunately, such characterization is mostly implied via the Angel's caption boxes, as they typically set up a scene shift for another part of the planet, sometimes to further elaborate the role young Nick Fury is needed to play in his heretofore unmentioned having helped liberate doctor Erskine, the scientist behind the process that created Captain America.

As for the immediate plot, it sets to humanize the German spies playing the role of their masters in New York's suburban neighborhoods, replacing the typical prohibition gangsters as the standard Golden age comics foes. By having such strong motivations for trying to smother the superhuman boom in America, and eventually reverse engineer it in their own laboratories, the story gains some pace as a legitimate thriller, when not switching back to provide the origin of even such minor characters, as Human torch's sidekick Toro. Even when these scenes are somewhat integrated in the shady proceedings, they still break form by subverting the hard won 1940s atmosphere. It's very hard to get into the history/science-fiction mash up when faced with Golden age minutiae of the Torch enlisting as a police officer to get a better perspective on the humanity. In this aspect, DC's more fantastical "the New frontier" was much easier to consider, which, Kennedy's speech aside, didn't really consider itself with reality, beyond what was needed to retell the origins of Silver age superheroes, before uniting them to fight on the Dinosaur island.

"The Marvels project" employs a much more naturalistic art style, and the many panels illustrated with every brick in the wall visible, or a typical rooftop water tower in the background seem determined to drive home the subjectively more realistic Marvel universe. This shaky balance is especially the problem in later chapters, as the somewhat more sympathetic German spies get replaced by the much more fanatical supervillain foes. The problem is that there is no real conspiracy for any reader familiar with the broad strokes of Marvel's past, without even brining the real world events into play. The story Brubaker supplants as the connective tissue between the bevy of superhero origins works almost too well, as it seamlessly connects them to play out their familiar tales, with most of the surprises relegated to the very last chapter. It itself, the scope once again ends up becoming the problem, forcing the villains to act through the proxies, while the page count gets eaten up with Captain America, Namor and the Human torch reenacting the most iconic events of their Golden age past.

This is to be understood at some level, considering that with their elimination, the creative team would likely end up constructing a story that could have been done using any of the rival publishers' staple of superheroes, at a time when they were new and mass produced for the hungry audiences. Still, the lack of an actual new element, to act as a secret at the heart of the plot of the conspiracy, does rob the book of some much needed innovation. Brubaker and Epting are careful to try and pace the dense story in a way that it doesn't overpower a new reader, but they leave out a simple idea that was present in a project such as Brian Bendis and Jackson "Butch" Guice's "Ultimate origins" mini-series.

Leaving aside the tie-in to the "Ultimatum" line wide event, Bendis was constructing a story that still centered around the company's most famous characters, and not their Golden age predecessors. Captain America and Nick Fury (himself a Silver age character) notwithstanding, the story centered around Spider-Man and the Hulk, with the chief revelation concerning Wolverine and the X-Men. In such a way, the writer managed to both tie the Captain America's and Wolverine's origins into a story that provided direct foundation for the line, without getting bogged down in watered down history and underdeveloped obscure character revamps.

But then, "the Marvels project" seemingly never had such a clear set of goals, existing as it does to map out a history of the superhero universe, that was more or less created wholesale twenty years later by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, working for a company that but inherited the rights to the previous publisher's back catalog. As such, they made rare references to the period despite propelling Captain America as the leader of the Avengers, while recreating Human torch as a completely different character. And when you have him recognizing Namor as a staple of Golden age comic books, before he goes to fight the rest of the Fantastic Four, it's easy to recognize the inherent discontinuity behind the late 1930s original "universe".

And even Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting at their professional best couldn't do justice to a time period more famous for it's subsequent retcons. In retrospect, Marvel is best to try and negotiate the completion of "the Twelve" series, which is justifiably becoming recognized as a rare successful effort in revisiting their Golden age past. Both Brubaker and Epting known to continue working on a serial such as Captain America, that is at least concerned with something of a current grasp of politics, while being rightly considered the publisher's premier superhero solo title, the irony of it's Golden age origins aside.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

BPRD: King of fear 1-5

With this week's conclusion of the "BPRD: King of fear" mini-series, Dark Horse has promised a major turning point for the franchise. The Hellboy spin-off has up until now been remarkably stable and has lead the publisher to experiment with other similar projects. Ironically, amidst the many spin off minis, the main "Hellboy" series has been distinctively separated from the bulk of the material, leaving "BPRD" to act as de facto flagship title for the whole line. This is all the more remarkable, considering the limited engagement Hellboy's creator Mike Mignola has had with the series of mini-series that is "BPRD".

That Dark Horse is well aware of the virtues of writer John Arcudi and artist Guy Davis' work could not be clearer, considering that "King of fear" is poised to act as a break from the accumulated continuity, but only in conceptual terms. The creative team is set to continue with their roles, with their effort going a long way to provide hints as to the upcoming direction.

Structurally, the five issues are bookended by two long conversation, that fittingly, start and resolve the future direction of the team, albeit from an administrative stand point. In between, the cast is split in two locations, revisiting both the first mission of the team's current incarnation, and their last outing with Hellboy that preceded it. "King of fear" is at it's strongest when it centers on Kate Corrigan, the human face of the paranormal fighting organisation, as she reconnects with a potential love interest from the previous mini-series.

Leaving aside more iconic characters such as Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman, the creative team use those scenes for a trip down the memory lane, that resonates with the feelings of both elegy and horror. The tension is released through the carefully chosen interaction between the characters, as Kate and Bruno discuss their relationship along with the history of the organization. Although the precise incident that leads them to "Hellboy: Conquerer worm"'s Hunte castle feels a bit contrived, a stray plot from the previous mini-series, the rest of the recap works wonderfully.

By sifting through the ashes of that final Hellboy mini-series that was to serve as the ending of the character's adventures in fighting the remnants of occult Reich, the creators employ limitless patience in recapping large amounts of plot, in a way that is very accessible and inviting. Unfortunately, this whole subplot is cut short, as it simply ends with the immediate situation involving Johann Kraus is resolved at the close of the second issue. The back and forth with the scenes featuring Abe and Liz thus turns into two subsequent issues devoted solely to the situation at hand in the "Hollow earth" locale from BPRD's debut mini-series.

The shift is purposeful, as it enables the series to capitalize on the drama and the foreshadowing. A more direct kind of horror is encountered as the BPRD team start investigating the Agarthan monastery, but it still leaves a lot of room for reminiscing of the organization's adventures, following Hellboy's leave. Unfortunately, no doubt because of the amount of plot Mignola and Arcudi needed to reference and provide some kind of closure to, a lot of it requires the reader having recently (re) read the previous books.

Such as it is, the bulk of the sentiment comes of, but, as always with Mignola's epic mythology, some of the minutiae might seem distracting. This is not a problem when it comes to separating giant monster Gods Ogdru Hem from Katha Hem, but it seems a bit careless, when it comes to having one of the team's major foes reappear not only without a proper name, but also lacking the context that was so lovingly introduced in the Hunte Castle scenes just an issue before.

Still, analyzing the scenes for what they are, they reveal a typical adventure plot, with the group even further splintering, enabling the villain to monologue for a long time. This is followed by some contrived drama, giving way to a conversation with Abe Sapien, considering his origins. Having separated Liz Sherman in what turns out to be the action sequence receiving the largest amount of time, Mignola and Arcudi proceed to recreate what feels like the whole of her tenure with the organization. Thus, her scenes end up enacting a dream like sequence, proclaimed to be the definite future by her mystical contacts.

By and large, both Abe and Liz have been in the similar predicaments before, but the ending of the fourth issue suddenly turns out to bring a huge change to the mythos. With the final issue, it become clear that the many homages and call backs have served a definite purpose, and that was to provide an end point to what has been the previous decades stock of plots involving the team. And even more, it serves to set up the make up of the characters and their world that the creators seemingly can't wait to get to. Unfortunately, such a shift seems not only slightly arbitrary, but largely unclear, as the fifth issue starts some time after the directly preceding events. Perhaps the creative team would have been better off, had they used the designated space of "King of fear" mini-series to depict the rapid fire events in more detail, and simply leave the setting up of the new direction for the beginning of the next book.

Even with this, Dark Horse's latest effort mimics "Conquerer worm", that acted as the epilogue for a whole era of Hellboy stories. Yet, while Mignola's decision then certainly seemed noble, as everything in the remarkably dense and complicated plot seemed to indicate that the then-current direction has worn out it's welcome, the same couldn't really be said for "BPRD", at least not at this point. It stands to the testament of the creators that they feel so visionary so as to sidestep the problems that would befall them some time in the future, by making the change so well in advance. Only time will tell if the adventures of BPRD post "King of fear" indicate a turn for the better, or an arbitrary decision, brought on by enthusiasm.

In any event, the mini-series itself has interestingly spent a large amount of space tying in with Hellboy, who was up until now much more present in spirit. By explicitly featuring the dark future that the main series has worked towards, BPRD could well be on the track of realigning to the flagship that has somewhat distanced itself from it's spin offs. Then again, the series parallels the parent book's plot once again in hinting a role for Abe, almost as conflicting and important as that foisted upon his friend's shoulders. The only concrete sense of the book's new direction can be found in the team's next adventure, that could well serve as much of a drastic change of pace, as the initial BPRD mini-series has seemed to the Mignola's work thus far.

Yet, the book didn't really gel into feeling until Guy Davis and John Arcudi succeeded Christopher Golden and Matt Smith. Davis especially brought a distinctively different feel to the art that was missing from the slightly derivative "Hollow Earth" mini-series. And just as the readers warmed up to the war on were-frogs as the book's central plot, so was the new artist quietly accepted as inseparable from the title, a quality that he's retained since, and that is in full display in "King of fear". Interestingly, he is called to illustrate the flashbacks to scenes previously featured in the pages of "Hellboy", and while such a direct comparison to Mignola's iconic art certainly slows down the book, the artist more than makes up for it in the reminder of the series. As always, Dave Stewart is called to separate the mood by coloring David's work differently than the series' creator, bringing out both the bizarre and humane in the characters through his characteristic earthly hues. Again, just being able to read the solid, dynamic layouts of Guy Davis is a boon to any reader familiar with the series, and will no doubt serve to further cement their hopes that the continual stability of the creative team is for everyone's benefit.

John Arcudi was Mignola's second addition to the series, and his character based flavored storytelling is once again on display in "King of fear". And while smoothening out the BPRD creator's mythology is certainly a much less apparent when done in the elusive co-writer credit, he has certainly brought a lot the the series. In regards the just finished mini-series, Arcudi was certainly willing to carry out some swift twists and turns, while all the while keeping his characters grounded and sympathetic. It's a testament to his strengths as a writer that he has managed to keep the writing on a spin-off at such a high level, that it has remained both respectful to the characters, and the accumulated continuity, as well as always providing for interesting excuses to make for the backdrop of a very solid genre book that is BPRD.

All that said, "King of fear" remains what it was advertised to be, a drastic change for the series, and a culmination of almost seventy issues of plots getting to a head. It was also noted to make up a somewhat larger trilogy with the two preceding mini-series, which doesn't really cohere taking into account the continuity that was called upon, and still left partly unresolved following it's conclusion. In any event, it's another typically strong volume in a very particular series, that has persistently remained a fan favorite precisely because of the unusual care and caution employed by everyone at Dark Horse. And even better, there is no reason to think that it won't continue as a prime example of horror/science fiction at it's comic book best.