Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Read these comics!

Let's keep the intro brief. I read comic books. I love comic books. You should both read and love them as well. Here are a few examples of what's current and good:

The Fifth Beatle - Recently released by M Press, a division of Dark Horse Comics, this graphic novel tells the story of Brian Epstein, the original manager of The Beatles. He died in 1967, and a lot of folks will tell you that it's no coincidence that the band broke just a few years afterward. (I believe that John Lennon even said that he expected things to fall apart once Epstein died.)

It's a fascinating story, part of which because he was both gay and Jewish, two things that were pretty unpopular to be in 1960s England - in fact, homosexuality was a crime in that time and place. He was even given medication to "help" suppress his gay urges.

While it helps to create a sympathetic portrayal of the man, if you're expecting some kind of depressing "Oh, it's tough to be a gay Jew in 1960s England" story, then you should know that there's a lot more to it than that. The book makes it clear why he was considered to be the "Fifth Beatle" by Paul McCartney and so many others. The man's ambition and personality were instrumental in bringing the band to the masses and turning them into not just a success, but a cultural icon.

Even more important, this is a great example of the art form. I was surprised that this was Vivek J. Tiwary's first comics work, as he knows exactly when to let the art do the talking, and the dialogue is sharp - some of it being an obvious homage to the snappy patter found in A Hard Day's Night. Andrew C. Robinson, who does the bulk of the art, is a born storyteller. I always say that you can tell a great comic book artist if you can flip through the book and get a good sense of all the emotions and plot without reading any of the captions, and he certainly pulls that off. There are also several moments which are great examples of what can only be done in a comic book, like when he discovers the band playing in the Cavern Club.

This was one of my favorite comics of the year, and I recommend it to both comics and Beatles fans, and it's even better if you happen to be both.

Bandette - I had the pleasure of reading the first chapter for free on Comixology. When I saw that there was a collected edition, I had to buy it. I can read the original e-comic, but I think that I'll always be a fan of the more tangible sort of comics.

A year or so ago, I tried reading Tin Tin, but I had a hard time getting into it. I appreciated it, but I'd be lying if I said that I liked it too much. Supposedly, Bandette has a bit of its inspiration drawn from that favorite comic, so maybe people who like that old Belgian comic should definitely pick this one up.

It's hard to describe what's so appealing about this. Basically, the lead character is a thief who also helps the police. She's spunky, sassy, etc., and she speaks like her dialogue has been translated from French by somebody who isn't too familiar with actual English/American idioms. (I'm fairly certain that it's deliberate, as it works even though it shouldn't.) The artwork, as you can see, is lively and charming. The characters aren't spectacularly original, but they're done so well that it doesn't really matter.

I'd recommend this one to people who are simply fans of the art form and/or anybody who has a daughter. It's not that I think that boys won't like it, as I would hand it to Logan if he was old enough to read. Girls just need as many fun characters with whom they can relate as they can get, so here's another one for them.

The Superior Spider-Man - For those who don't know, The Amazing Spider-Man ended with Dr. Octopus and Peter Parker swapping bodies, only to have Peter die while trapped inside Doc Ock's body. At the last moment, all of Peter's memories flooded Octavius's mind, and he resolved that he wasn't going to use Spider-Man's life and body for evil but to continue as a crimefighter, although Ock was going to prove that he'd be a more effective, "superior" Spider-Man.

So Octavius is trying to be a hero, and in many ways, he's doing a better job than Peter ever did. He adds new gadgets to his suit. He has a private army (paid off with funds he acquired during his life of crime). He has "spider-bots" patrolling the city at all times, letting him know whenever he's needed.

He's even a better Peter Parker, finally getting his PhD, spending time with his aunt, and ditching Mary Jane, as it's a relationship that was clearly going nowhere. (Okay, that last one is a bit mean.)

We've seen stories where the identities of superheroes are taken on by somebody new. We've even seen it with Spider-Man, the most disastrous of which was the much-maligned Clone Saga. I have a confession to make though, and many longtime fans might agree - The Clone Saga was a very compelling tale when it first started, but it eventually went careening out of control, resulting in the train going off the rails, only to be put back on them when much damage had already been done. The reason for this is that there was a story set in motion with a definite beginning and end, but when it sold well, it was artificially inflated.

Of course, this story hasn't ended yet (and we all know that Peter Parker will have to return - it's just a matter of how and when) but I think that its saving grace is that there seems to be a definite plan in motion. If one looks back at the comics before all of this happened, it's easy to see that much of this was put into motion a long time ago. Also, while an issue here and there might simply spin the wheels a bit, there has been a definite progression from the beginning up until what's going on right now. Yeah, Ock-Spidey is "superior", but he has his flaws (extreme arrogance being one) and just like a Fourth Act Shakespearean Tragic Hero, various forces are starting to move against him - one being Peter's girlfriend Carly Cooper (who's figured out what's happened and can prove it!) and the Green Goblin, who has an army and has figured out how to stay out of range of the Spider-bots.

I think that this can be best compared to what happened in the now-classic Kraven's Last Hunt, where another villain tried to prove that he was better than Spider-Man, although Doc Ock is a very different kind of villain than Kraven ever was, and this is a more long-term story. Also, it's somewhat reminiscent of what Ed Brubaker did over in Captain America, having Bucky take over Cap's identity. The comparison there is that it's long-form storytelling with an ending in mind from the start. (At least, I hope so! It hasn't ended yet. Hopefully the writer, Dan Slott, will prove me right while still surprising me along the way.)

The Carl Barks Library - Fantagraphics has been reprinting all of the Disney duck comics by artist/writer Carl Barks, known back in the day when Disney comics didn't credit their creators as "The Good Duck Artist".

So far, they've reprinted one volume of Scrooge McDuck stories and four volumes of Donald Duck. Much like with Bandette, I recommend that anybody who's a fan of comics as an art form pick up at least one volume (I'm partial to the Scrooge one, Only a Poor Old Man) as it's another great example of what comics can do.

The stories are for children, but if you're like me and appreciate a well-told story no matter what the target audience is, then you'll probably like it as well. The stories are full of inventive fun and amusing characters. Probably my favorite supporting character is Gladstone Gander, Donald's cousin who has ridiculous luck and doesn't have to work because he stumbles upon money. Donald relentlessly tries to beat Gladstone again and again, only to be met with frustration. You always know that Donald's gonna lose, but he's got that Wile E. Coyote level of tenaciousness that you can't help but root for him even though you know the outcome. (And you also wouldn't mind Gladstone finally getting what's coming to him.)

My only warning is that you need to realize that these comics are from the 40s and 50s, and you won't find them to be the most politically correct sorts of stories when it comes to depicting various ethnicities. (Not that there's anything outright hateful, but it's definitely a product of its time.)

Fantagrpahics is also planning on reprinting the Duck comics of Don Rosa, who is generally thought of as the successor to Barks. That should be worth a purchase as well.

The Complete Peanuts - Fantagraphics (again) is currently publishing every flippin' strip that Charles M. Schulz ever did. I didn't really intend to pick this one up, as my memories of the strip have been tainted by its last decade, where it wasn't exactly Family Circus bad, but it wasn't very good either.

My interest was peaked when my son received a book that tells the "Great Pumpkin" story, which prompted me to show him the TV special of the same name. He absolutely loves both of them, and I found myself enjoying the story on a level that I probably hadn't as a child. Has there ever been a better metaphor for religious zeal than Linus's devotion to The Great Pumpkin? He's a smart kid, probably the smartest of the lot, yet he won't let go of his belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence against it.

So, I went and checked out a few volumes. I deliberately picked the 65-66 volume, since the TV special debuted around that time. This seems to be Schulz's peak period, according to a lot of fans, and I'm agreeing with that notion so far. I also have the 57-58 and 61-62 volumes, and while the earliest one is good, it didn't grab me the way the one from the mid-sixties did. I just started the one from the early sixties, and that's becoming a bit more of what I like, as Schulz explores philosophical issues that he'll later develop as the stories go along. It's no shock to me that the man eventually claimed to be a Secular Humanist - he's far too thoughtful to have remained religious (in my biased opinion, that is).

So, why are you still sitting around reading this? You have some recommendations. Go to your nearest comic book store and buy these comics!

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