Friday, March 31, 2006

Reviews, or; The Nextwave of the Middleman's Monster Fist of the Dragon's Daughters Fell, guest starring Tom Strong

Monster by Naoki Urasawa- The front cover of this book bills it as being from "Japan's master of suspense", but what really sold me on it was an offhanded reccomendation from Jeff Lester over at the Savage Critic. Since he's pushing forty and loves old school Marvel comics, this somehow means we have nearly indentical taste in comics. It's weird. But this was a really good page turner. Lester called it "really good melodrama", and I completely agree.

By that I'm saying that you shouldn't expect really deep characterization. The protagonist, Dr. Tenma, is a Very Good Person. Pretty much everyone else is a Very Bad Person, from the other doctors to the director of the hospital to his daughter and Tenzo's fiancee, who may be the least sympathetic female character I've seen in a long time. To paraphraze Kanye West, I'm not saying she's a gold digger, but I have yet to see her wasting her time on any broke doctors. She shows some signs of not being a total bitch, but the way we leave her in this first volume, I have my doubts that we'll have see if it was genuine character development or not.

The first part of the book is really interesting, in that it's all about poor Dr. Tenma's life being demolished because he won't play politics. And while this is where the one-dimensional characters are on full display, I think the characters actions are believable enought that it doesn't slow things down. Although the scene where the Hospital Director literally steals candy from a child was a little much, even if it has an interesting pay off that really gets things moving.

But never mind that. Dr. Tenma's an easy character to root for, and like I said, it's really easy to get lost in. I don't read much manga, but I've read enough to be able to place them in two categories: good comics I would read again, and awful shit that gave me a headache. Monster easily fits in category one. I'm interested in seeing where the 17 forthcoming volumes go.

Now, for a manga in the second category; Fist of the North Star. I got this full color, 200+ page volume for $3 on clearence at Waldenbooks. It was published under the Raijin Comics banner by Gutsoon! (the exclamation mark is by their volition, not mine). I mention that because they went under a few years back, quite possibly right after this was published and because I remember getting the first issue of their Shonen Jump-for-adults-or-at-least-teenagers, because hey look, tits and blood!- anthology (which I think was called Raijin Comics) and liking it well enough.

What does this have to do with Fist of the Northstar? Nothing. But I can't bring myself to say much about this comic besides "It really sucked." It reads like a storyboard for an anime, which I'm sure it wound up being. Lots of ultraviolence and yelling in a post apocalyptic wasteland. There's a theme there, gotta give it credit for that; the strong prey on the weak, and only bad ass martial artist assassain Ken can stand against them. But it's mostly just yelling and ultraviolence. I don't have anything against yelling and ultraviolence, mind you, but it's just not that good yelling and ultraviolence. All of the "my fighting style is better than yours" stuff might be fun in a baldy dubbed kung fu movie, but in a comic? No thanks. Not if you're not up to much otherwise.

Tom Strong #36 is the series' fairwell issue, picking up where I assume Promethea left off in ending the ABC world. It's a nice end page to that universe of characters. There's a reveal that's pretty hackeneyed, but Moore being Moore, he makes it work. But overall, this is just a nice goodbye to the characters by their creator and principle writer (and I imagine Alan Moore talking about his view of the after life, although I may be off on that), and it works beautifully in that regard.

The art's worth noting. Chris Sprouse's usual elegant line work is combined with Jose Villarrubia's usual gorgeous coloring, that's no surprise, but what I did find really notable was how well pictures were integrated with the pencil art. I imagine that's Villarrubia's doing, and it's really good work, considering how garish most photo placement looks next to pen and ink artwork.

Due to a combination of my appreciation of Chris Claremont and Marshall Rogers work from the time period and our very own Greg Hatcher's writing about the Marvel black and white magazines from which these stories came from, I also picked up Marvel's Daughters of the Dragon reprint one shot. I think "Deadly Hands Special" was in there, too, but I can't be bothered to fit it in there. Anyway, this was mostly fighting, not so much yelling, but I liked it a lot. Considerably more than Fist of the Northstar. Not sure if it makes me ethnocentric or shallow, since I think Rodgers' renderings of the two title characters played a big role in my appreciation of these books.

But never mind my latent racism and lecherousness of cartoon characters, these are good adventure comics. This is Claremont before he became buried in his own cliches, and his prose and dialogue were in fact fun to read. He's also not writing a single mutant, so this feels really fresh by comparison to his X-Men work, both the good stuff I was weened on and the stuff he's doing now, that, well, isn't very good. One them that's come up in his stories quite a bit is pretty prevalent here in what at least seems to me to be some pretty heavy lesbian subtext between Coleen and Misty, and Misty's character in general. I don't have a problem with it, and at the very least, it is subtext, y'know? But they do talk about how much they love each other an awful lot. I'm just saying.

Also, these stories feel, for lack of a better word, more mature than what I'm used to from Claremont. This is street level violence, and while it's romanticized by Rogers' illustrations, you still get the feeling that Coleen and Misty are in considerable danger when fighting waves of thugs. You just don't get the same feeling from a story with Wolverine and Colossus, no matter who's writing it. There's also a bit involving heroin addiction, which, although it's handled in the context of being nothing more than another obstacle for our heroines to overcome, really, is something I can't imagine most mainstream comic tackling today without a mature reader's label and loads of uproar from various peanut galleries.

What really completes this package is an interview with Rogers, though. While I would have liked to have seen Claremont weigh in, too (although god knows how much space an interview with the current and reigning wordy king of comics would take up), Rogers delivers some interesting nuggets about working on the book and more. It's always nice to get this kind of commentary from creators, but it's especially interesting for a set of stories that aren't exactly considered classics.

So, speaking of Gregs, our very own Greg Burgas's review of the Middle Man in his weekly reviews reminded me that I did in fact buy the first issue of this series, solely because I'll give just about anything a shot at the cover price of $.99. Which explains why I bought Countdown to Infinite Crisis. Sort of.

Anyway, this is nothing like that loss leader/Ted Kord death march. Because I enjoyed it considerably. During the course of the issue, writer and creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach gives us a light, breezy, and occasionally quite funny script while Les McClaine provides some solid storytelling that lacks flash but certainly tells the story well. I mean, this thing even has an army of luchadors fighting a verbally abusive kung fu master who happens to wear a Mexican wrestling mask himself? How can you not love that. This is a fun comic, and sure as hell worth your $.99 to give it a shot. I'm sure Greg already said this, but it's worth repeating. Especially if you're like me and am skeptical of anything Greg says due to his rampant opium use.*

In the home stretch now, and we come to the latest issue of Nextwave. I was quite fond of the first two issues, you might remember. The third issue? Not so much. It was all right. Competent, certainly. Like Morrison and Quitely, but not quite as good, if only because they haven't worked together as much, I think you can at the very least expect that out of Ellis and Immonen by default.

But this really lacked the giddy rush of the first story, which felt like the fun parts of Ellis's Authority . This one was more like the set up issues of those arcs, as we get some action, yes, but its mostly about the pieces being moved in to place for the mass destruction to come. Also, I found the first two issues to have a great deal of hilarity, and again, this one came up lacking in comparison. I'm interested in seeing how these two issues read in one go, because that is how I read the first two that I adored so much, and how Ellis is writing them (each story in two issue chunks). So, like I said, I'm not quite ready to abandon ship yet, but this has certainly proven that my former comic god is quite fallible fairly early on. At least we got that out of the way before I started that Church of Nextwave. Whew! Hopefully we can get back to the over the top fun next time.

Finally, we come to Fell. Well, I do. I imagine I lost most anyone who might have been reading this awhile back. But anyway, possibly still interested audience, Fell is quite a good comic. Maybe this is the Ellis comic I should have been heaping insane hyperbole upon. I enjoyed the first issue, and certainly respected it for its price and done in one story, but hadn't picked up the subsequent two issues. I'll have to rectify that, because this is one satisfying reading experience. Ellis can do a hell of a job when he's called upon for tight scripting.

It's interesting to see his anecdotes about the research he did in the "Back Matter" pages after the story, instead of shoe horned in there, since he would have had to excise them for space even if he really wanted to put them in there. Apparently dogs are one of the only two animals that can be excised from the food chain with no discernible change. The other? Bloggers.**

Ben Templesmith's art compliments the story quite well, as it builds a nice bit of foreboding atmosphere while still telling the story well. It's, as the kids say, cartoony, more so than I noticed before from seeing bits and pieces of it from his collaborations with Steve Niles, in fact. But his figure drawing doesn't go in to the realm of caricature, and he does not give in to the temptation that other artists who work in this style endulge in of covering everything in atmospheric shadow (hello, Ashley Wood!).

It's interesting seeing these two guys reign in their excesses to do a straight forward, self contained genre story, especially because it's so damn refreshing in the context of an industry/artform where we can't even get a superhero fight scene in less than six issues anymore. While this doesn't compare to, say, the Spirit sections for the ultimate in page count to story satisfaction, it's the closet thing we're getting to a commitment to self contained comics storytelling these days, and damn good to boot.

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Blogger Greg said...

How'd you know? HOW?!?!?!

The kid scores it for me at pre-school, by the way. Man, three-year-olds are much more mature than I remember being.

4/01/2006 12:09:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I just like how there was an asterisk after the opium reference, as if to say that Brad was going to explain it later - but later, nothing!

4/01/2006 02:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

I agree with you on Nextwave, sadly. There's just no way the intro with the cop should've gone on for six and a half pages. Six and a half panels, maybe, if that. Nextwave is a comic that works best when it's moving at breakneck speed; just give us half a scene to establish he's a bad cop, then turn him into a fat mustachioed robot that eats cars. That's what we want - the fat mustachioed robot that eats cars! And this "seed" thing is too close to something Ellis thinks is cool (that is, something he'd put in "Fell" or "Desolation Jones") and not close enough to something Ellis thinks is absurd (that is, something he'd put in "Nextwave").

4/01/2006 07:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Mumei said...

Give Monster some time. You'll see that the series actually is about deep characterization, and not every character fits into the Good Guy and Bad Guy set. The first volume really gives no hint as to what it later becomes. I suppose if I were comparing it to an RPG, it would be like trying to discern what the game is going to do with its story before your character has been banished from the village.

As an aside, I'm saying this based upon the anime, which is identical to the manga, save two scenes that were omitted from the anime version.

Also, to Eva's credit, she does develop - of course, it means she becomes even more unlikeable, but I suppose characters like her are a terrible necessity.

I think that, given that you seemingly enjoyed the first volume, that you will enjoy that later volumes much more, as they begin introduce more well-developed characters - Tenma becomes a much more likable protagonist over the course of the manga, incidentally - the cast gets larger, and the villain is given more attention.

The manga isn't called "Monster" because Tenma is the star, after all.

As a list thing, something I enjoyed the most about the series was the apparent amount of research that went into the series, and the air of believability that the manga emanates. It, of course, certainly requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief, but quite a bit less for me than most.

5/03/2006 01:47:00 AM  

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