Thursday, October 04, 2007

Review - Clockwork Creature: Chapter One

Review - Clockwork Creature: Chapter One
Written & Drawn by Kyle Strahm
Ambrosia Publishing, Fall 2007; $6.95

“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”

This infamous line, which is uttered by a witch during the opening of Act IV of Shakespeare’s tragic play Macbeth, could replace the tinderstick-like title text of Clockwork Creature: Chapter One. Better still, the rest of the artwork in the book lives up to this devilishly enchanting forecast - delivering a carnival of menacing shadows and bewitchingly garish patterns. In short: Pure visual delight from cover to cover.

Drawn exclusively in high-contrast black and white, Kyle Strahm’s pages are black pools of night etched with figures and structures ablaze in searing white moonlight. His ghostly farm-town and its inhabitants are strung with diaphanous shadows that conjure amazing subtleties of depth of field. The spectral details of their agrarian charms are strangely visually magnetic: The frayed edges of overalls and errant facial hairs cast harsh shadows in the unforgiving glare of sinister moonbeams.

The creature itself appears graceful and innocent in comparison, despite its mammoth proportions. The solid, quadrapedal beast is hidden beneath a patchwork quilt of checkers, stripes and polka dots, stitched together with big loops of ivory thread. The blanket edges and hollows billow and flap gracefully about the creature, rife with anthropomorphic suggestion. In odd contrast to the vintage environment and its own old-fashioned drapery, the creature has rounded, metal robot feet, with big coiled springs for Achille’s heels.

If only the actual story were not such a disappointment, CC would be a masterpiece. At best, CC promises to be a tepid adaptation of Frankenstein; at worst, a mystery with no intrigue. Not every mystery has to have a clever twist, but every story has got to have a resolution. And nothing compelling is accomplished in Chapter One.

The story is not without promise during its set up. A bizarre creature has appeared in town; men have disappeared. Fearful townies have gathered at a local watering hole to suss out a solution. Weakened by panic (and, one suspects, not being overly-endowed with a surplus of mental acuity in the first place) the men fall prey the verbal rallying of the nefarious Baron von Salt, who looks like an evil circus ringmaster. Sadly, the gist of the Baron’s diatribe is to kill the beast with what looks like a Tommy gun, which he ridiculously brandishes as a “weapon … FROM THE FUTURE!” The only thing the presence of the modern-day gun really destroys is the delightfully antediluvian atmosphere.

Meanwhile, some of the missing men have found some of the other disappeared fellows, who in turn have figured out that the creature is not a menace at all. Rather, they have determined that the beast was lonely, based on the fact that several of its supposed victims (chickens) are still alive, and that the mute beast itself has saved a man from the creek (which reminds me of a scene from Universal Studio’s 1931 version of “Frankenstein,” in which the famous monster makes friends with a little girl on the bank of a lake).

In a very movie-monster manner, the pitchfork-brandishing mob descends upon an old mill, where the creature waits unsuspecting with its new friends. There follows the most awkward shoot-out scene of all time, in which almost everyone gets killed by the Baron. Enraged by this slaughter, the creature brutally murders the Baron, thus frightening its remaining friends (who are oddly un-phased by the mass murder of their neighbors by a total stranger). They run off, leaving the creature alone, to bow its head and amble along alone once more. Ho-hum.

None of the characters were developed enough for the reader to care about what happens to them! The creature has not been developed enough for the reader to care that it is lonely (again). The Baron may have had an evil design upon an innocent creature, but we don’t know enough about it to rejoice in his downfall. Finally, the townfolk (with one exception) have that sort of collective personality that, in the end, simply amounts to unaffecting numbers, in the same way that newspaper reports of body counts are less moving than a single tale of tragedy.

The sole exception to this stale conclusion is a man by the name of Jebbins. He is the man who was saved from the creek by the creature. As Jebbins’ friend tells it, “I don’t reckon you could get Jebbins away from its side if you wanted to.” But the scene in which Jebbins is saved is not part of the story. He’s also the first to die in the massacre. Perhaps a future issue will flashback to this scene, which would go a long way toward developing some characters that would make this book worth reading in the long term.

Without a proper ending, a masterfully illustrated comic book is little more than a gilded goblet with a big hole in the bottom. It gets you geared up for a drink of something special, and all you are left with is a faint taste on your lips and a very wet lap. At least when you’re finished reading it, you won’t feel guilty about snipping out a few choices panels for some uniquely cryptic home decor.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Review - Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 No. 5 (variant cover)

Review - Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 No. 5 (variant cover)

Writer: Joss Whedon
Cover Artist: Georges Jeanty
Penciller: Paul Lee
Inker: Andy Owens
Colorist: Dave Stewart

One-shot issues are the quickie of the comic book medium. And, like its sexual counterpart, the one shot can be incredible and mind-blowing, or - more often than not - an embarrassing experience best hastily forgotten by all those involved. Buffy the Vampire Slayer No. 5 bounces back and forth between these two poles.

The in-and-out nature of communicating a story in one issue is an unappreciated challenge: On the one hand, the writer has got to show his faithful fans a new angle of familiar material; while, on the other hand, the one-shot affords the writer an opportunity to step out of continuity and reach a new crowd. In this case, the new reader could be (gasp) someone so unfamiliar with the Buffyverse (Joyce forbid!) that they just bought the book because they dug the cover art.

For Buffy buffs, the success of No. 5 hangs, quite literally, by a nose. There is no denying that Sarah Michelle Gellar's most idiosyncratic facial feature is her long, thin nose, which has two very angular pieces of cartilage sitting atop each nostril. BTVS No. 5 presented Paul Lee with a daunting task: To draw a vampire slayer who has gone undercover posing as Buffy that looks enough like Buffy to fool other characters in the story, but also enough not like Buffy that fans know she's not the real Buffster. Lee achieved this by making imposter-Buffy's nose look different. Alas, I didn't catch that imposter-Buffy was not the genuine article until the story revealed the plot twist. I just thought Buffy's nose looked funny. This was a pretty crucial blow to enjoying the book the first time I read it.

And I don't administer that nose note as a criticism of Lee's art. The illustrations in the book are solid. Particularly memorable are the underground creatures, such as the faeries, slug clan ... and who can forget "that thing that looks like a leaf-blower"?

That said, the non-linear storytelling in this issue further confounded the reveal. Whedon seems to vacillate between wanting to spell everything out for new readers, and being flippant with rehashes to keep his fan base satisfied. For example, one sequence jumps quickly among three threads: Imposter Buff (henceforth IB) on her present undercover mission; IB passed out on her high school lawn after the physical trauma of realizing she is a slayer (which involves being hit with the collective memory of a bajillion slayerettes at once - very skillfully illustrated by Lee); and listening to Giles give a speech at the slayer academy. Running over all these panels is some throw-away monologue about what it means to be a slayer. To give him the benefit of the doubt, Whedon likely had too much to say and not enough space to say it, which resulted in some fast-forwarded, over-dramatic build-up with no, ahem, climax.

The few choice moments when Whedon does slows down to assemble the moment-to-moment narrative is when he really woos the reader. These scenes include such stellar quotes as, "I didn't lay my faerie eggs inside your inner ear canal to watch you die!" And let's not forget: "I left you one to wipe with." Perhaps my favorite sequence in the book is Whedon's depiction of a slayer field training session, in which IB and her slayer squad face off with a group of vamps in (where else?) a dark alley. IB's fighting skills aren't flawless and winning her hordes of adoring fans, but she does "take a bite" (from a vamp) while saving a fellow slayer. This poignant vignette captures a truism we all know yet too often forget: It is better to be loved by one person than popular with many. A million fans won through acts of showmanship are worth less than one loving friend acquired through an act of self sacrifice. And self sacrifice is more difficult. When IB disparages her neck wound as the result of her lack of prowess, her friend not only reminds her of this, but also dishes out the clever compliment: "Besides ... I hear Buffy's got a neck wound too." (Can you hear me smiling?!)

So, all in all, for Buffy fans, this one shot does what any good quickie should: keep you coming back for more. The name "Buffy" means something different to every fan, but what all BTVS fans have in common is the knowledge that, as IB so cleverly illustrates in BTVS No. 5, "millions of people go into making a name." BTVS No. 5 gives us a glimpse into the life of one of those millions; one who is ultimately OK with living and dying anonymously. In this era of fame-worship and celebutantes, that is a very stirring idea.

But what about non-BTVS regulars? They may still find the aforementioned heart of the book moving, but maybe not as much as a Buffy fan, to whom the name really means something. Although it may not appeal to every comic book fan, I think there are enough enticing story angles to compel certain persons of discerning and unusual taste - those who like their entertainment to have a heart and a lesson plan - to return for another round.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Law of the Jungle, or Lions Love Their Children, Too?

Based on true events in which a group of lions escape from a zoo during the opening days of the U.S. "shock and awe" bombing campaign against Iraq, Brian K. Vaughan's Pride of Baghdad dramatizes their short adventure through the ruins of the eponymous city. Driven by hunger and the need to avoid intermittent explosions, the four lions- a protective, savvy male; an eager cub; and two lionesses- one old and world-weary, the other in her prime, pining for freedom from the Zoo- explore, hunt, fight, and take time out to gaze at the sunset until finally they are machine-gunned to pieces by a dopey American soldier.

Niko Henrichon's art is drawn with a confident, sketchy style brought to life with painterly coloring- particularly nice is his use of light and shadow filtered through trees, as well the varying concentrations of algae in the water. Detailed cityscapes, strong use of perspective and careful attention to leonine anthropomorphic facial emoting makes the overall presentation very attractive.

Vaughan's characterization is adequate though at times perfunctory, with relationships just plausible enough to keep the story moving forward and its premise afloat. The writing is at its best when Vaughan takes the time to develop a unique animalian culture. Creating something foreign yet plausible is pretty hard to do with sort-of- sci-fi situations (think aliens with Chinese accents). I like to see how writers resolve this problem. In this case Vaughn creates feline-specific maxims: "Little brains belong in our mouths, not in our heads."

Still, the effect is at times undermined by the occasional colloquialism seemingly coopted from their human oppressors. "You don't look a gift horse in the mouth," says Zill (the male lion), "you eat him." I would guess this particular line was hard to resist, but the story suffers from this inconsistency. It may be a comment on the institutionalization of those imprisoned, but it's somewhat less interesting than being taken through something idiosyncratic and new, a possibility I see existing for the depiction of a familial unit of animals who in nature do little else but kill and sleep.

The basic idea behind the premise, which is to see the devastation of the Iraq war through the eyes of animals (i.e. 'innocents'), is the only really well supported theme in this story, but it feels tired and weather worn, especially considering the fact that it's been used in every animal drama from Bambi to Twilight of the Cockroaches. And there was the inevitable comparison to Disney, vis. the Lion King, initiated by the evident resemblance between the respective lion cub characters and perpetuated by the story's underlying sentimentality w/r/t the lions' love/meat relationship with humans, all of whom they naturally refer to as 'keepers.' While obviously more violent and gritty (giraffe explodes halfway up the neck), it's hard to keep akuna matata from niggling in your head, at least for the first few pages.

It's tough to pin down the story's central themes: Statements like "trust me, nothing that size has enemies" when referring to roving tanks seems weighty and ironic, but isn't supported by and therefor doesn't contribute to any other aspect of the story, and doesn't really even make sense. When the dopey American soldier scrambles to justify the shooting, his superior officer consoles him by saying the lions are now "free."

Even the epiloguey final word, following a note informing the reader that all this really happened, is unsatisfyingly ambiguous: "There were other casualties as well." Considering the context it's hard not to conclude that Vaughan means to suggest the human cost is somehow less tragic than that of the lions. That humans are vile and deserving of the horrors they visit upon themselves is a fair attitude for a certain kind of writing to have, though considering the half-million and rising civilian death toll in Iraq, it's inappropriate here. And in any case, it contradicts one of the central conflicts, which is whether humans are friends or meat.

In general this story feels like a drama that can't decide whether to use the adventure/tragedy as an analogy for man's intrusion into nature and innocents specifically or as a self-aware critique on the vile human condition. By straddling the line between the two, not fully committing to either, Pride of Baghdad comes off as opportunistic and unfocused.

Best line: "I always wanted to kill a baby goat!"

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sugarshock #2 is available @ DHP!

Get thee to the Dark Horse Presents myspace page! (Unless you haven't read the first issue, then click here.)

The Joss commandeth you! Oh, and a special little piece of news: It appears that the 3rd issue will be the final. Show your support of this delightful title, although I can't see Sugarshock! disappearing forever.
While you are over at DHP, also take a moment to look at the other complimentary issues including Tony Millionaire's Sock Monkey.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Review - Buffy Season 8 #5

By Joss Whedon, Paul Lee & Andy Owens
Colors by Dave Stewart, Letters by Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy
Published by Dark Horse Comics, August 2007. $2.99

Joss Whedon has weaved his basic themes of redemption, equality, and female empowerment in all of his stories and here he is doing it again with confidence. A decoy Buffy, explored in this issue, received her powers with a shock of thunderous pain, along with the bonus prize of shared memories and the legacy of female strength. A hilarious television commercial is presented by Andrew, who I imagine is functioning in a public relations capacity, which calls back to his many awkward daydreams and graphs in season 7. Decoy Buffy is recruited through these means and her life is forever changed. She feels the tug of humanity, and discovers the resources to believe in her abilities. In one of her first missions with a group of young slayers she is savagely bitten while trying to save a fellow mate. The mate lets her know the wound is a badge of honor as she has heard Buffy has a neck wound too. One particularly moving sequence involves a recruiter offering her the mission as decoy Buffy saying, “….I gotta figure you want the truth. As in ‘Why me? Did I get the hardest, darkest path to walk ‘cause I’m strong, I’m good, I can handle the heavier burden? Or am I weak, expendable, the one that won’t be missed. The truth? There is no truth. There’s just what you believe.” That passage cuts to the heart of the whole series

Yes, I am the resident Joss Whedon fanatic, and it would be difficult for me to point out any serious flaws in anything he has done thus far. I feel fortunate that I can say “The Chain” is his best work since Angel season 5’s disturbing episode, “A Hole in the World.” With that, I must point out this is not the strongest issue to enter the series as a new reader. The structure is non-linear and there is only brief mention made of our new world of 2,000 slayers and the decoy Buffies running around. The comics have proved innovative in allowing Joss to focus his microscope away from the core Scoobies. If you’re only a fan of the adventures of our merry band, this may be a difficult issue for you. The television series would never have had an installment like issue #5. Within its pages are rooms in the house of the Buffiverse we have never explored. Finally, guest artist Paul Lee does an impressive job over regular artist George Jeanty. The various underground faerie-tale creatures the decoy Buffy brings the gift of equality are fantastically realized, even the one that looks like a leaf-blower.

I am bowled over by this one, I must admit. It holds within its pages one of the best genre stories to explore the human condition in 16 pages. Up next, Brian K. Vaughan brings us Faith, the darkest slayer yet!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Can we get together and make this happen please?

Dame Darcy!

Flavor Flav!

Flavor of Love 3!

Go vote for Dame Darcy today!