John Byrne is at his best when he’s doing science fiction. Take Next Men as the ultimate example. That series followed the old-school rules of science fiction, by setting its premise and following through as realistically as possible. Byrne’s affection for classic Star Trek (i.e., the good stuff, not the recent reboot flicks from Jar Jar Abrams) and its attempts very early on to be the TV version of classic science fiction literature is obvious.
A lot of that drives The High Ways (IDW, $3.99 each) a four-issue sci-fi series that should be better than it is. The story begins with rookie Eddie Wallace joining the crew of the space freighter Carol Anne, along with first mate Marilyn Jones and Captain Jack Cagney. After Wallace is appropriately initiated into space life (always wear your suit!) the Carol Anne heads out to pick up some cargo on Europa. That’s where the mystery begins, with a strange creature spotted outside the science base there and no cargo for Cagney to pick up.
What follows is an odd story with a bunch of twists and turns that end up feeling very random instead of satisfyingly twisty. This is the kind of story that attempts to avoid the common sci-fi criticism of scientific inaccuracy by being as scientifically realistic as possible. And it achieves that aspect of it, but in doing so it fails to give its characters any real personality or tell a story with sufficient emotion or reason for the reader to fully engage in this world.
Byrne’s art remains consistent and I still think no one draws spaceship-style tech stuff as well as he does. The storytelling is very solid and Byrne’s style has evolved over the years into something looser and more expressive than his classic 1970s and 1980s work on X-Men, Fantastic Four and Superman. It’s quite a nice change if you can just let go of expecting his work to have that same clean and pristine quality and just enjoy it for what it is, and what it is is some damn fine drawing.
I would check out a sequel to The High Ways — I think there is something in the approach and style. A more engaging story could build this up into something really cool.
The Incredible Hulk #1 was better than I expected. Not having read the book in years, I missed out on and don’t understand most of the Red Hulk stuff or what mental state Bruce Banner and the Hulk are in these days. I therefore expected to be confused, but wasn’t, though I’m sure it helped that I recognized the Mole Man’s underground minions. Writer Jason Aaron did a good of job of putting it all together and making sure there was some actual action in a first issue. The art by Marc Silvestri et. al was quite good — definitely Silvestri’s distinctive style but amped up with some nice detail that came through quite well in the inks and was well-complemented by Sunny Gho’s colors. That said, I”m not interested enough in the Hulk to make this a regular read at $3.99 a pop.
Daredevil #5 is another terrific issue from Mark Waid and Marcos Martin. This reads very, very smoothly and is clear enough that I think the average reader could pick it up and understand pretty much the whole thing. It looks incredible, too. Martin and colorist Javier Rodriguez deserve very high marks for making such a great-looking book.
Cold War #1 is a new, period espionage thriller from John Byrne that I was mildly disappointed with because I thought Byrne had done such a great job on the revived Next Men series. This isn’t quite as good as that, as it’s just a bit too restrained and dated. The dated part is on purpose, as though this is a series Byrne has wanted to do for decades, i.e., a time when this kind of thing would have been much more relevant. It’s still a nice modern Byrne comic, though, with solid art and decent storytelling. It just doesn’t have the kind of zip that a book like this should have.
The Last of the Greats #1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Brent Peebles is for me a tough one. I like the concept, which is that seven alien beings came to Earth and used their powers to solve many of mankind’s problems in return for demanding control and fealty from the people of Earth. People then turned on them, and all but one were killed. The issue begins with six humans coming to the last of these aliens, dubbed the “Greats,” and asking for his help with a fairly big problem. But I think the execution is talky and exposition heavy, and think this could have been much more compelling by show more than telling.
On to the DC relaunch books, Aquaman #2 was about the same as the first issue — a story that’s slick and commercial if not particularly deep — but it was the cover that struck me the most. My first thought was it was a recolored version of the cover to Star Wars #64, my least-favorite issue from the original Marvel series. It’s close enough to be an homage — or a swipe if you’re so inclined — but it’s far too distracting for me and I don’t know I will remember much else about this particular issue.
Justice League has been getting better with each issue and #3 is the best yet. Finally, we get to meet Wonder Woman, and she both charms and kicks ass. The action kicks into high gear with a huge invasion from Darkseid’s minions, while writer Geoff Johns delivers a nice chunk of the ongoing Cyborg origin subplot. It’s interesting to note the ways in which Jim Lee’s art has evolved as well as the ways its stayed the same. The finale’s introduction of Aquaman gives him a hairstyle, facial hair and costume straight out of 1996. Some other details, like the cops on the first page also look a bit dated. But the way Lee draws his heroic figures — both men and women — has improved tremendously from his days on The Uncanny X-Men, with anatomy and posing that’s overall more realistic and more solid looking. Wonder Woman here is a far cry from the somewhat plastic looking sexy Psylocke from way back in the day. Anyway, issue #4 looks like it’s going to be a barn-burner.
That’s only a fraction of the stack I’m looking to get through, so I may just stay up late and read funny books until my eyes pop out of my head to get a look at more New 52, the Fear Itself epilogues and more X-Men: Regenesis.
I don’t have nearly enough books in the category that this post covers: Books about the art and lives of specific artists. I think there are a lot more out there, but for some reason I don’t have as many of them as I thought I might.
I’ll start with The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino, which I bought at a convention directly from the publisher and it was an autographed copy. I only met Carmine once, and it was at a convention and I simply said how much I had enjoyed his art on the old Marvel Star Wars series. That series was the one that got me reading comics and I had, as a kid, mixed feelings about the art. First, the comic was a lot better as soon as Infantino came aboard with writer Archie Goodwin. The stories were cool, fun to read, easy on the eyes and had some very clear storytelling. On the downside, none of the characters in the comic looked like the actors from the movie. That part bugged me enough — especially after seeing the bang-up job Mike Vosberg did on Star Wars Annual #1 — to write a letter to Marvel about it. All of which digresses from this book, which is an amiable recounting of Carmine’s career as he remembers it. That’s both a good and bad approach — there’s lots of good little anecdotes and plenty of cool artwork throughout the book, but there’s not much criticism. That leaves a few areas of comics history — especially during Infantino’s tenure as top editor at DC Comics during the late 1960s and early 1970s — no closer to any kind of definitive history than we were before. Still, fans of Infantino’s artwork should get a real kick out of this volume.
Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier is a very solid and enjoyable read that attempts to cover the life and work of Jack Kirby in a single volume. Given the sheer amount of writing that Kirby’s generated over the years, it’s obviously not going to be possible for any such book to cover every single thing Kirby did in the detail his fans would like. (For that, I always understood Evanier also was working on a much more detailed biography of Kirby that, I assume, will be published at some point in the future.) But this is a very solid account of Kirby, packed full of his amazing artwork and photos and well worth the time of die-hard and casual fans alike.
If you can’t get enough Kirby, then there is always TheCollected Jack Kirby Collector. I have four volumes of this series, and expect a few more have come out I don’t own. These are terrific for getting into not just the specifics of Kirby’s career, but also his impact on the field and fans. The articles range from scholarly examinations of Kirby’s work to vintage interviews the artist gave over the years to recollections from people who either worked with Kirby or were just huge fans of his. Each volume also is generously illustrated with Kirby art, often photocopies of his original pencils. Reading this much about a single artist can be a bit overwhelming, so I read through these somewhat slowly, taking my time between stints to avoid Kirby burnout.
Mythology: The DC Comics art of Alex Ross is a beautiful art book packed full of Ross’ amazing paintings. No one really captures a sense of how classic superheroes would look in the real world quite the same way Ross does, with his extensive use of models, photo reference and an amazing talent for producing finished art that looks photographic. I think in a lot of ways, Ross’ art is better suited to being displayed in this kind of glossy format than in actual comic book stories, where painted art can slow down the reading process because it demands to be looked at. I bought my edition at a signing Ross did to promote its release a number of years ago at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. Putting on my Variety hat, I asked him what his favorite comic-book movie was. His answer: RoboCop.
Tim Sale: Black and White is a lovely art book produced by Richard Starkings’ Active Images. Printed in stark black and white on glossy paper, this book really shows off Sale’s atmospheric art to great advantage. The dark, inky pages are easy to get lost in, and there’s a career retrospective interview in there to boot. I think this particular book was released around the time Sale’s art was making a big impact on the TV series Heroes, back in its first season when it was quite the hot property.
Last on this list (for now) is Brush with Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens. This was a gift I received from a fellow comics fan on my 40th birthday and really loved digging in to. I had long known Stevens’ work from various pin-ups and, of course, The Rocketeer. But this books goes a lot deeper and shows some of his contributions to many other projects, including such great films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the long-form music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It is a satisfying portrait of the artist, written mostly as autobiography but, unfortunately, finished by other hands after Stevens died from cancer a few years back.
One other volume that springs to mind is another TwoMorrows project, the Modern Masters series. I picked up the John Byrne volume at least in part because of some of the sketches from Byrne’s days at Charlton and later on X-Men. I also was pleasantly surprised to read Byrne talking about his days as a kid in Edmonton, Alberta, which is my hometown, and recognizing a couple of the places he described. In particular, I remember the newsstand at the downtown Eaton’s department story, which was right inside the front door and well-stocked with magazines, newspapers and paperbacks, though not too many comics by the time my teen-age collecting years kicked in. I also enjoyed Byrne’s brief recollection of Mike’s, a famous newsstand on Jasper Avenue that always had several spinner racks stuffed full of comics. I once made my father trudge over there on his way home from work to pick me up a copy of Star Wars #1 that I had seen there the day before but not had the 35 cents to pay for at the time. Here’s a story on Mike’s, which went out of business just a few months before my family moved to the States, complete with a photo of its distinctive neon sign.
I think I have one more post for this series, this one on comic book movies, including my own tome, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen.
I have several large stacks of comics on my desk right now, including a bunch of current superhero releases from Marvel and DC. Some of these are not recent releases, but most are, and indicate where my head is in terms of comics these days.
Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 (Fantagraphics, 104 pages, black and white, $14.99) contains one of the best comics stories I’ve read in a very long time: Jamie Hernandez’s “Browntown.” It fills in the history of Maggie’s family with a story that is realistic, honest and true in every way that matters. Throw in a tale of “current day” Maggie, and some fantastic sex weirdness from Gilbert, and this easily is the best $15 you can spend in a comics shop.
Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection (Harper, 576 pages, black and white, $24.95) is really interesting to read for the first time so many years after having absorbed Scott McCloud’s most famous work, Understanding Comics. That’s because he obviously is experimenting with some of the ideas for comics storytelling he eventually put into Understanding Comics, and it’s interesting to see those ideas put into practice with a real story. What I didn’t expect from this book was how gentle and sweet it is, and how well McCloud’s art style fits with the story. It’s also a big, thick and satisfying read — complete with commentary by McCloud on each story. Another excellent read for a great price.
John Byrne’s Next Men #(3)1 and (3)2 (IDW, 28 pages each, color, $3.99 each) were a pleasant surprise. I have been a fan of Byrne’s work for many years and I thought his original run on Next Men was easily the best, most original thing he had ever done. I love a lot of the work he’s done for DC and Marvel superheroes, but Next Men really stood out to me as the kind of comic top creators should be free to do. Having just re-read the entire original Dark Horse run prior to digging into the new issues only reinforced this in my mind, and I really think that the series would have been a huge smash and run for years had Image Comics and the speculator phenomenon not come along at the same time. But I have to admit disappointment in Byrne’s recent work — especially such DC projects as the unreadable Lab Rats and underwhelming takes on Doom Patrol and The Demon. I haven’t read his previous IDW stuff. But the first two issues of the revived Next Men really popped — the story picked up seamlessly and with plenty of surprises, and the art recalls Byrne’s style from the time he did the original series and is more inviting and stylish than anything I’ve seen from him in years. I’m glad Byrne finally came back to this series and hope it’s successful enough to encourage him to try more creator-owned material in this vein.
The Official Marvel Index to The Uncanny X-Men (Marvel, color, $19.99). I have always liked these indexes because it’s a lot of fun to just flip through info on so many series in one convenient place. This is a complete revamp from the previous X-Men indices (published in 1987-89 and 1994), and while I like that things like variant covers and some behind-the-scenes creative notes are included, I do have a few complaints: Please, Marvel, number the pages — especially if you’re going to say in the text things like “This issue has a 2nd printing variant cover, which can be seen on p. 165.” Because I can’t find p. 165 with no page numbers short of flipping through the book until I spot what I’m looking for. Second, I know space is tight, but using abbreviations for every title is a bit annoying even as I like that you added a year to each issue cited in this way. And lastly, if you’re going to index the X-Men, it would be useful to treat the X-Men in the index the same way Marvel publishes the comics: As a line of comics. It’s especially annoying when you have so many crossovers between The Uncanny X-Men and X-Men, and the index only includes the Uncanny side. I would hope a second volume is on the way to fill in those gaps. Still, I’m glad to have this and pleased is goes all the way up through 2009’s Utopia crossover.
Back to singles: The New York Five #1 (DC/Vertigo, 32 pages, black and white, $2.99) surprised me by being a lot better than I remember The New York Four being. This sequel from writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly — about a group of young women finding their way through their freshman year at college in New York City — feels more appropriate to a college age than the younger first book. The full-size comic book format also lets Kelly’s artwork really shine — it looks fantastic in all its detailed, gritty, urban black and white glory.
I picked up 27 #1 (Image Comics, 24 pages, color, $3.99) as part of an effort on my part to find something — anything — new to get excited about. And it’s a good start. Scripted by Charles Soule with art by Renzo Podesta, this is a tale of a rock guitar god whose hand injury has put his career on the rocks. Until an unusual solution is offered that has its drawbacks. Printed in a slightly oversize “Golden Age” format, the art looks like it was actually drawn (instead of the heavily Photoshopped
Lastly, I snagged a copy of Who is Jake Ellis? #1 (Image Comics, 28 pages, color, $2.99), which presents an unusual take on the well-worn spy drama. Written by Nathan Edmondson, our titular hero is a spy who has a sort of imaginary friend who warns and advises him on how to do his job and get out of the sticky situations it lands him in. It’s not clear either to Ellis or the reader exactly what this presence is, but it is nice (again) to read a first issue that presents enough of a new story to make me feel like I got my $3 worth. The art, by Tonci Zonjic, is clear, atmospheric and well-colored, making for a nicely designed package.
I realize this is the second John Byrne comics I’ve picked for this feature in a week, but I just came across this one and couldn’t resist for a number of reasons.
First, I loved the “Space: 1999” TV show when it was first on the air back in 1976 or 1977. It aired on ITV in Edmonton in the afternoons on Tuesday and Thursday, while “Star Trek” filled the same slot the rest of the week — making it perfect after-school viewing for a space fan in those pre-“Star Wars” days. The show seemed much cooler than it really was — especially now that I’ve revisited it on DVD — but the visual effects were terrific for the times, the Eagle was one of the coolest space ship designs ever, and this show had a great opening title sequence and theme.
Second, I bought this Charlton Comic off the stands when it came out and loved it for having all the action that the show promised but never really delived. The story is simple — an alien warrior whose ship is the size of an apple and more powerful than a small star slams into an Eagle on patrol and splits it in half. Commander Koenig, in the middle of the ship when this happens, is sucked out into space. There’s this great sequence where Koenig’s holding his breath as he twists and turns in zero gravity to try to reach his helmet. Byrne, who wrote and drew this tale, presents a great double page spread of 10 vertical panels of Koenig reaching for the helmet, counting down to the moment when Koenig’s lungs will burst. He grabs the helmet, of course, and manages to turn the back half of the Eagle into a flaring pinwheel that alerts his fellow Alphans to their location and they’re soon rescued. Simple, but cool.
Byrne’s art is the reason this whole thing works. All the elements that would in short order make him the most popular artist in the industry are here — in the inventive design of the alien, the detailed technology of the alien ship and the clean, sharp look of the Alphans’ ship and base.
It was about eight or nine years after this that I had returned to comics as a teenager and learned that Byrne was living just down the road in Calgary when he did this issue — a fact that surely would have impressed me to no end at the time I first read it.
The TV series remains a guilty pleasure for me — I own every episode from both seasons on DVD — but this comic remains my favorite Space: 1999 story and one of my favorite Byrne comics.
This is a bit of a throwback to the days of simpler comic book superheroes that I picked up recently in a bargain bin, mostly out of curiosity to see what John Byrne’s drawing. The story by Wayne Osbourne tells the tale of Tom Talbot, a kid about 10 to 12 years old who mysteriously acquires a superpower that lets him pretend up any effect he wants. Taking the superhero name FX, he and his pal Jack test out the powers against a renegade gorilla.
This story began as a commission Osborne wrote and paid Byrne to draw, with the result getting picked up by IDW. This very much falls into the fairly rigid interpretation held by Byrne and the fans at his forum of “what superhero comics should be” and undeniably does evoke the kinds of stories comics told back in the days when the only place to get them was the spinner rack and every issue was somebody’s first. Byrne’s art remains clear and strong, even as it reflects the somewhat more cartoony nature of his recent work.
At the same time, FX is too much of a throwback — too simple and simplistic – to make much of a mark in today’s market. Just because this kind of tale worked once, doesn’t mean it still resonates with the same force, especially as kids are increasingly exposed to more choices and more sophisticated fare than ever before. The result is little more than a nice bit of well-constructed nostalgia that has all the relevance of a “Leave it to Beaver” revival.