SYNCOPATED

SYNCOPATED
Written and Drawn by Various, Edited by Brendan Burford
Published by Villard

Brendan Burford, comics editor at King Features Syndicate, brings together an unusually broad-spectrum of comics talent for his anthology, SYNCOPATED. Ostensibly a collection of graphic essays, this book, which features some dynamic and fantastic work, does suffer along the way from some unfortunately missteps. Still, the stuff that works really works and is worth your time.

I have written on the subject of anthologies many times over the years, and the one key I try and reinforce is that, a good anthology boils down to one thing: the percentages. There will always be some duds in an anthology. Always. But if you can keep the dud percentage below twenty-five percent, you’ve got a massive winner on your hands.

The book gets off to a strong start with Nick Bertozzi’s “How and Why to Bale Hay” and continues on a solid path, hitting its stride with Burford and Jim Campbell’s “Boris Rose: Prisoner of Jazz.” But then the momentum comes crashing to a halt with Tricia Van den Bergh’s “Portfolio,” primarily because that’s all it is; just a portfolio. The incongruity of a simple art portfolio stuck in the middle of some intensely personal stories and histories grinds the book to a halt. Van den Bergh’s work is lovely, mind you- it just doesn’t feel like it fits.

That effect happens more than once as you read SYNCOPATED. “Like Hell I Will” by Nate Powell dives into one of the worst moments of America’s racist past, but in look and feel, it seems off placed in front of Dave Kiersh’s “Welcome Home, Brave.” Nothing wrong with Kiersh’s work; it just doesn’t feel like it belongs there.

So I suppose my qualm with SYNCOPATED is in some of the editorial decisions made in putting it together. There’s plenty of good material here; it just reads as disjointed. Your mileage, of course, may vary. Recommended, with some caveats.

Marc Mason

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS
Written and Drawn by Marjane Satrapi
Published by Pantheon Comics

Coming off of PERSEPOLIS 1&2 and EMBROIDERIES, I was interested to see what direction Satrapi would take with her next project. Those memoirs were not only remarkably distinct in their tone and voice, they also had a feeling of history that is rare in sequential art. As it turns out, CHICKEN WITH PLUMS is quite different than her earlier work, and that turns out to be a very good thing. This wonderful look at one man’s final week on Earth delivers an emotional and visceral punch that sticks with the reader.

CWP is the story of Nasser Ali, Satrapi’s great-uncle. He was one of Iran’s most celebrated tar players, a figure of great respect. But after his instrument is broken, his spirit begins a downward spiral, and he takes to his bed willing himself towards death. As eight days pass, we learn, through a flashback and flash-forward structure interspersed with the visits his family makes (or don’t make, for that matter) what really lies at the heart of his pain and wish to die. And the case begins to build, both for and against, whether or not this man has reason and cause to undertake this final journey.

Satrapi’s art has come a long way since PERSEPOLIS, gaining some grace and fluidity that was not there before. She has also grown in her mastery and use of shadow and negative space, giving her pages more emotional depth and pathos than her earlier works. In short, this is an excellent work, demonstrating that the author will continue to be a force on the graphic novel scene for some time to come. She looks to just be getting started in figuring out just how good she’s going to be.

Marc Mason

DYNAMITE ONES

DYNAMITE ONES
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Dynamite Entertainment

Two new miniseries from the folks at DE are underway. Let’s take a look, shall we?

HEROGASM #1 is a BOYS spin-off from writer Garth Ennis and artists John McCrea and Keith Burns. A superhero sex book isn’t necessarily what you might imagine for a reunion of the HITMAN creative duo, but their longtime collaborative magic is here in full-force. It turns out that, in THE BOYS universe, once a year all the supers announce a massive cosmic threat and let the people know that they’re headed off into space to fight to save the world. But that’s actually a cover for a long weekend on a secluded island where every super on Earth gathers to have a massive weekend of fucking and sucking. Conceptually, that idea is sick, twisted, dirty and wrong: PURE GENIUS. The level of humor here never rises above junior high, and that’s pretty much perfect. McCrea and Burns do an excellent job of depicting the events and keeping the book just shy of being porn. Plus, there’s one sweet verbal gag that mixers someone with Zatanna’s powers and TROPIC THUNDER (“Krow eht tfahs… eldrac eht slab…”). If you don’t find that funny, you probably shouldn’t buy this. If you do, you should probably buy two.

At the extreme other end of the spectrum is THE COMPLETE DRACULA #1, from writers Leah Moore and John Reppion and artist Colton Worley. The creative team have taken the Stoker novel and translated it into a fuller version, lacking many of the edits and shortcuts previous adaptations have used to tell the story. What emerges is a detailed, layered story that I don’t feel like I’ve seen before. The familiar elements are present, but this comes across as almost scholarly in its intent. The menace of the count grows slowly, and Worley’s art enhances the sense of dread and fear growing amongst the principals. Throw in a sweet cover from John Cassaday, detailed authors’ notes, and a script page, and this makes for a fine comics package.

Marc Mason

ELEPHANTMEN 19

ELEPHANTMEN #19
Written by Richard Starkings and Drawn by Marian Churchland
Published by Image Comics

Going back four issues, to ELEPHANTMEN 15, I was colossally disappointed in this book. The series has taken huge strides over the past couple of years, becoming a very solid read after an extraordinarily shaky beginning. But that time out, a very important plot point (an entire sequence that the audience really needed to see on-panel) was glossed over.

I had exactly nothing good to say about that.

So it was with some apprehension that I have approached the issues since. However, to my surprise, what we get this time around is not only an in-depth look at one of the more enigmatic characters, but we also get the full and complete scene we missed in #15.

With art by newcomer Churchland, it pays off nicely. The feeling of being “robbed” melts away, and the book feels back on track. However, that said, I’m not ready to let #15 off the hook just yet. This arc definitely has the “writing for the trade” about it, and that does dent your enjoyment of the storyline. Fifteen failed to give the reader $3.50 worth of story, and that’s never acceptable. #19, though, does a fine job of making sure that the buyer has a satisfying experience.

Through all of that, your mind wanders… what will we get with #20?

Marc Mason

LOW MOON

LOW MOON
Written and Drawn by Jason
Published by Fantagraphics

I got off to a bit of a rough start with the work of Norwegian cartoonist Jason, many years back. I read HEY, WAIT…, and SSHHHH! and was singularly unimpressed with what I had seen, regardless of the critical hosannas the creator had been receiving. But as I got to THE LEFT BANK GANG and THE LAST MUSKETEER, my opinion began to shift: this was the work of a major league creator, and he had me firmly in the palm of his hand. Now, with LOW MOON, he has clenched his fist around me and won’t let me go- this is easily my favorite of his works to date.

MOON is an anthology collection, bringing together four stories (including the title effort) of wildly varied plots. “Emily Says Hello” is a wicked tale of murder, sex and betrayal; “Proto Film Noir” mixes James M. Cain with cavemen; “&” is a story about love and the many ways in which it makes us incredibly stupid; “You Are Here” deals with alien abduction and devotion to family; and “Low Moon’, which has to be the first-ever chess-western. The start here is “Moon”; in it, Jason takes the tropes of sheriff versus outlaw in the old west and mixes them potently with the game of chess quite literally. An old nemesis returns to town to fight the sheriff and beat him once and for all, but bullets aren’t involved- pawns and rooks, however, play a prime role. What amazes, though, is that the danger is no less real. Families and loves are at stake if the sheriff chooses to engage in this fight.

It’s that sort of creative character thinking that makes Jason such a good read. He takes very simple and traditional story clichés and gives them a new and unique spin. The characters are all anthropomorphized, but each is unquestionably human in their wants, desires, and reactions.

Top to bottom, I enjoyed LOW MOON very much. And I also enjoyed the format; Jason’s previous works have been printed in softcover format at a slightly larger than normal size for traditional graphic novels. This, however, is a 6×9 hardcover, and a handsome one to boot. A worthy addition to one’s bookshelf.

Marc Mason

BROKEN LINES 4

BROKEN LINES: CHAPTERS 5 AND 6
Written and Illustrated by Tom Pappalardo
Published by Standard Design

The adventures of Cowboy, Spaceman, Vampire and Maggie the Waitress continue as Tom Pappalardo moves his wickedly insane illustrated novel closer to the finish line. But this time out, their strange adventures take a backseat to a new character introduced into the mix: a demon named Sticky Buns.

BROKEN LINES is the story of a young waitress named Maggie who winds up fleeing on a cross-country road trip in the company of her three odd companions after the demons and vampire hunters chasing the trio burn down her home and tries to kill her. As these chapters pick up, Spaceman has crashed his robotic suit at the bottom of a lake, Cowboy has been sent to a lower level of Hell, and Maggie and the Vampire have fled in the hopes of staying ahead of the creature’s pursuers. Each has their own plot while separated, but it’s Cowboy’s that takes center stage and captivates. He first battles, then allies himself with, a large demon named Sticky Buns. That demon’s awesome power? He can make things adhere to his ass. In fact, his ass cheeks can act independently and snatch items from the air, people’s hands, you name it. He literally has… well, you know.

This Tom Pappalardo fellow? Either a genius, or a candidate to wind up on some sort of neighborhood “registry.”

The whole book is one cheerily absurd moment after another, and BROKEN LINES remains one of those little treasures that not enough people know about, but I suspect someday will. Find out for yourself why.

Marc Mason

THE COLOR OF EARTH

THE COLOR OF EARTH
Written and Drawn by Kim Dong Hwa
Translated by Lauren Na
Published by First Second

One of the real joys of reviewing books is when one arrives without fanfare and manages to knock you out with the quality of its art, storytelling, and dialogue. When I received a copy of this book in the mail, I set it aside and promptly forgot about it for a period of weeks. Nothing about its cover or the brief description of its contents that I read did much to entice me or convince me that its contents would prove to be extraordinary.

This, my friends, is an excellent reminder, of why you don’t judge a book by its cover.

THE COLOR OF EARTH is part one of a trilogy of graphic novels by Korean writer/artist Kim Dong Hwa. The stories and setting are relatively simple; in the beginning, we meet a young Korean girl named Ehwa, 13-years old and just beginning to question her life and the biological processes beginning to alter her body. We’re also introduced to her mother, a warm and gentle woman, owner of a tavern, her way of coping with being a widow. As these tales begin to flow out of Dong Hwa’s pen, what we see is a relationship between a mother and daughter that is starting to evolve. At this youngest age, mother is highly protective of her daughter and of her own heart, which remains broken after the loss of her husband. But as mother begins to educate her daughter on such things as why she is not deformed (seeing boys urinate, she at first cannot comprehend what is wrong with her for lacking the equipment), and why the local men and male children are besmirching the mother’s reputation (they’re projecting their own desires onto the only single woman around), we begin to see that Ehwa is ready to learn more. And her mother is ready to teach her.

As the teaching begins in earnest, and as the mother finds the seeds of a new love in the heart of a traveling salesman, mother and daughter see their relationship become closer and closer to one of dear friends, not just of parent and child. Over the years, as Ehwa undergoes many of the biological and emotional moments that define a more mature womanhood, her mother recognizes this process and deals with them by showing trust and respect, allowing her beloved child to grow and make her own way. And her own mistakes.

This was one of the most realistic and affecting portraits of a parent-child relationship I have seen in any sort of literature in quite some time. Dong Hwa’s crisp, clean art and storytelling style do a magnificent job of not only defining the characters and their physical growth, but also of presenting the male-dominated society they live in (I’m guessing mid-20th century or so). At every turn, I completely felt and bought into the talks between the two women; I saw the clarity in Ehwa’s questioning of her self and her adolescent changes; and I was captivated by how much I cared about these two and their happiness. But after I finished the book, jonesing for the second part of the trilogy, the book went up one more notch for me.

I didn’t do much beyond scanning the p.r. that came with the volume, only noting that the author had essentially taken their mother’s own life at age sixteen and written about it. So Ehwa was Dong Hwa’s mother. What caught me, though, was at the end of the book: an essay by a Korean book critic noting just how amazing the work was in its feminism, particularly in how the author portrayed his mother’s life experiences.

That’s right: this amazing memoir of mother/daughter love came from the pen and pencil of a male creator. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Regardless of gender, THE COLOR OF EARTH was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in reading a graphic novel in quite some time. It’s precisely the kind of book that I enjoy loaning to someone who has never tried a graphic novel before, because it shows just how much power lies within the genre, and that it isn’t just about perverts in spandex beating the hell out of each other. I give this book my highest possible recommendation.

Also from First Second:

ADVENTURES IN CARTOONING is written and drawn by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost, and is just about the perfect gift to give a budding young artist who is thinking they want to make their own comics. Using a basic story (knight goes off to fight a dragon), the authors run through panel creation, motion, work balloons, layouts, depicting the passage of time and place… you name it. It’s quite a clever approach, and one I think would have worked perfectly for me at, say, the age of ten… even though I couldn’t draw a lick. If you’ve got a kid in your life who’s having a birthday sometime soon, you could do much worse than picking up this nifty effort and wrapping it up for them.

Marc Mason

CHEW 1-2

CHEW #1&2
Written by John Layman and Illustrated by Rob Guillory
Published by Image Comics

When I first heard about CHEW I knew this was a comic with serious potential to snag a varied and loyal reader base mainly due to the sheer genius of the idea, and especially if the writing backed up the plot with intelligent humor. I was more than supported in my suspicions, so please read on to learn more about one of the most innovative and all-around successful ideas in the market today.

Welcome to the world of Officer Tony Chu, a straight-laced Philadelphia cop with a bit of a bizarre talent. When Tony Chu bites into a piece of food, he can discern the life and history of that foodstuff from seed to saucepan, or from fetus to finger food, depending on if it’s vegetable or animal. Unfortunately Chu’s ‘gift’ translates to a limited diet, as beets are the only snack on which his power has no sway.

Some years ago, the FDA declared a national emergency due to an alleged outbreak of the bird flu and pulled all poultry products from the market, declaring them to be illegal for the safety of the citizens. This is prohibition with a twist, as many people are on board with the new law, and many believe there is a government conspiracy to keep people from feasting on fowl.

In the introductory issue, Officer Chu and his polar opposite partner are on a stakeout in an attempt to snag violators of the anti-poultry law. What they find is more than they expected, including a bit of Chu’s personal history, the worst soup EVER and an unlikely alliance with the most powerful agency in the United States: the Food and Drug Administration.

CHEW has something for everyone, both in script and visuals. The writing ranges from smart jokes to gross ones, conspiracy theories to superhero powers, and includes cop drama with creative humor while never letting go of a certain level of intelligence. Layman has produced a unique and likeable ‘hero’ of remarkably unremarkable proportions, which in turn makes him all the more endearing.

Meanwhile, the artwork is incredible. The appropriately exaggerated characters are a little bit Manga, a little bit ‘mainstream’ and ALL in sync with the story. The two-page spread in the first issue where Chu has a bite of Satan’s soup is amazing. Miniature individual panels show a myriad of images demonstrating the pain of the victims, the twisted lust of the murderer, and the suffering of Chu as he unwillingly experiences both in his head. The attention given to background detail was certainly appreciated (look closely at the signs displayed; many will have you in stitches), as was the extra effort on the part of the letterer, who draped certain sarcastic word balloons with blue tint and icicles.

CHEW is a book worth its weight in gold, delivering a solid script with wonderfully magnificent artwork and tons of twisted laughs guaranteed to supply many smiles and, depending on the strength of your stomach, a few belly laughs as well. Highly recommended for all forms of comic connoisseurs.

Avril Brown

 

HOTWIRE 3

HOTWIRE: REQUIEM FOR THE DEAD #3
Created by Steve Pugh and Warren Ellis, Written and Illustrated by Steve Pugh
Published by Radical Comics

HOTWIRE continues to pop and sizzle in this explosive third issue starring the most badass smartass in comics today, Detective Exorcist Alice Hotwire of the Metro City Police Department.

When we last saw the adorably arrogant Hotwire, she was planning a trip to the Mots Island Maximum Security Cemetery, the final resting place for the ‘ghosts’ of the most hideously evil people who ever breathed. Armed with an ominous secret weapon known as a ‘soul-eater’ and backed by a reluctant Detective Mobey and several officers, Hotwire charges into the Cemetery, determined to eliminate the person responsible for the creation of the highly dangerous ghost bombs. Recently things have not been going well for Alice Hotwire, and this mission is no exception as she squares off against blue lights who are sporting some seriously evil personalities and the power to make your darkest nightmares into realities.

Steve Pugh and Warren Ellis have created an enormously intelligent idea rife with sass, science fiction, and a sexy leading lady who is impossible to ignore. Given the fact Pugh both writes and illustrates this jaw-dropping, wild ride of a book, it is a wonder how he manages to both spin such a smart story while also creating some of the most stellar artwork ever seen in a comic. The cosmic blend of neon and pastel colors draped over nightmarishly original images of walking skeletons wrapped in crackling energy and metal spiders hungering for fresh meat draws you in, clouding your vision until all you see are the stunning visuals and sharp wit of HOTWIRE. Ending with our heroine’s life in jeopardy, issue three of this must-read has efficiently built suspense for what should be one hell of a conclusion.

Avril Brown

IRREDEEMABLE 2

IRREDEEMABLE #2
Written by Mark Waid, Illustrated by Peter Krause
Published by BOOM! Studios

The second issue of this chilling tale of a superhero gone wrong, while not as disturbingly dramatic as the introductory issue, nevertheless keeps the blood pumping as one of the Plutonian’s former team members tracks down the mad “hero’s” former girlfriend to gather valuable information about his personal life in an attempt to stop the most powerful person on the planet.

Kaidan, wielder of ancient Asian spirits, arrives in the recently demolished Sky City seeking the woman who used to date the man responsible for the massive carnage. What Kaitan finds is the emotionally broken and paranoid shell of Alana Patel, who while willing to share her history with the Plutonian (and her knowledge of his true name), is unwilling to share the hope there is a chance of stopping him.

Through Alana’s recollections, we are exposed to several different aspects of the Plutonian’s (born Dan Hartigan) personality, from his tender, romantic, picnic-basket-packing side, to his font of rage and frustration towards ‘lesser’ beings, and finally his ignorance of the simple fact that no one likes to be deceived, especially girlfriends.

In just a few pages, Waid presents a character who is easy to love and fear, making him a fascinating man to follow as readers are doled out his mysterious past bit by bit. While a glimpse was given as to the possible starting point of the Plutonian’s descent into darkness, the true reasoning behind his madness remains unknown…as well it should, considering this fabulous story is only just getting started. Krause’s artwork remains solid, particularly in the panels where the Plutonian is vibrating with rage and cloaked with shimmering red energy, though I do hope it is eventually explained how Kaidan went from having black hair and red lips to white hair and silver lips. This incredible book is off to an amazing start, and the blend of Krause’s talents with Waid’s pacing and stellar story-telling should insure many future pulse-pounding issues.

Avril Brown