Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #402

Tue, February 22nd, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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SOMETHING FOR THE KIDDIES

THE DARE DETECTIVES! is a book that slipped under the radar when Dark Horse released it a couple of months ago. With the second volume announced for a May release in the last edition of PREVIEWS, I thought that this would be a good time to see if it's worth looking forward to.

While my recommendation comes with qualifications, I do think it is worth giving a chance.

THE DARE DETECTIVES is an all ages friendly action adventure comic book. It's set in its own little fantasy world where talking animals and humans co-exist. Maria Dare is a reformed crook turn detective, who handles weird cases with the help of her talkative rabbit friend, Jojo, and the big lug of a muscle-bound sweetheart, Toby. Don't expect deep characterization or even character arcs in this story. Everything is carefully calculated to create crazy action sequences with maximum one-liner potential. In short, this is a kinetic and frenetic comic book that grabs you by the lapel and drags you through the scenes without giving you a chance to think. If you're looking for something with deeper meaning or a solid plot, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a colorful and cartoony good time, you might want to consider this one.

Ben Caldwell is the lone credit for the book, and his animation background is obvious. These characters are constantly in motion, and are highly designed. Toby is the giant chinned neckless freak with a little boy's face and a heart of gold. Unfortunately, he's a bit dim-witted. Maria is a sexy crook with odd proportions. If you're a fan of the web strip, "Yenny's Diary", then you'll recognize the proportions here. Jojo is the kind of rabbit you're happy you don't have to sculpt a three-dimensional model out of, because you're not quite sure it would fit together from all angles.

Caldwell's storytelling is modified for this smaller page format, relying more on double pages spreads and lots of close-ups to tell the story. While it can be a little confining and occasionally confusing, the pace of the comic is non-stop and its sheer momentum carries the day. He uses lots of computer tricks to handle the colors, often muting the colors in the background, filling in the lines on the foreground, and using a few textures in place of flat colors. The paper quality is as dull as the Marvel Age books that collect the likes of RUNAWAYS. This helps keep the price down and doesn't hurt the art at all. If you're like me, though, you've grown so used to the glossy pages that this will take some getting used to initially.

The story in this issue is not complete. It will conclude in the second chapter, which is due out in May. Don't expect some big collection down the road. Treat this book like manga. At that same dimensions, it's just under 100 full color pages for the low price of $5.95.

. . .THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE

ELEKTRA: THE HAND is only tangentially an Elektra story. Given my relative ignorance of Elektra, this only helps the book. In fact, the book falters for me, personally, when the connection is made between the main story arc and the modern day Elektra character. I just don't know enough or care enough to be as wildly affected by it as I assume Marvel wants me to be.

The book -- collecting the original five issue mini-series -- is set at the end of the 16th century, as The Hand is founded to bring together the clans of Japan to root out foreign influence in the land. This is Marvel's attempt to create it's own little samurai book. While it did make me crave an issue of LONE WOLF AND CUB or BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, I don't think it worked quite in the way that Marvel wanted it to. I'm so used to these samurai books being decompressed down across hundreds of pages, that this trade often seemed like a Cliff's Notes version of the story. Things happen, perhaps, too quickly. When I want the sword fight to slow down to a crawl to dramatize the cut of the sword, the story carries on. Written by Akira Yoshida, the book feels authentic in its plot, but doesn't work as well in its execution. This isn't to say it's a bad story. It's enjoyable, but it's not as smooth as it might have been, had it the chance to find itself artistically more.

Christian Gossett (Mr. RED STAR) is on art duties this time, without the aid of total CGI backgrounds, ships, and special affects. This book falls on his pencil's shoulders. Some parts of it work better than other parts. At times, the book degenerates into floating talking heads, misplaced in a sea of background color, but no backgrounds. At other times, the layout mimics cinema, including a dramatic training montage sequence, and a sword fight in an open field. These things work, but the overall look of the book is a little too muddled, with Gossett's weaknesses showing. The final fight sequence lost me lots of times, sometimes because the action was inexact, other times because all the brown robes flowing together made it easy to confuse characters.

Again, this isn't to say it's a badly drawn book. The style sometimes looks less distinctive than it could have, and the ink line (from Jonathan Glapion) is often needlessly thick, in a stylistic effort to force depth in a panel.

In the end, ELEKTRA: THE HAND is a misfire, critically. There are moments to enjoy in the story, but there are better stories of a similar nature out there to enjoy. I don't see why you wouldn't want to go to one of those, instead. Heck, if you're looking for manga that's not manga, I'd suggest digging up the first trade paperback collection of CrossGen's THE PATH.

MANGA #1

HIKARU NO GO is your typical story of a boy, his friend, the spirit that resides within him, and their internal struggle to play the ancient game of Go. It's also wonderfully entertaining, without falling into any of the clichéd traps I thought it might.

The story starts with Hikaru discovering a Go board in his grandfather's attic. This is no ordinary board, however. An ancient Go spirit lives within, and quickly leaps into his body, sure that Hikaru is the one to bring the spirit the Go salvation the Spirit has long been denied. Or something like that.

The tricky part here is that Hikaru isn't buying into it. He fights the internal spirit, only cooperating when it's easier than suffering the physical pain he feels when denying it. Over the course of the first volume, we follow Hikaru's first shaky steps into the world of competitive Go, with a nice twist near the end that Hikaru just might be better at it than he gives himself credit for.

Like so many stories, Hikaru acts as the reader in this book. We learn about this world as he learns about it. It's a stale old trick in the world of superhero comics. It usually starts with a new person joining a team, and the story following that new person through a ton of clunky exposition as we -- and the character -- learn about everyone else. The same does not happen here. For starters, the Go world isn't that complicated. But, also, the Spirit is learning about Hikaru and his world at the same time. There's a lot of give and take between the characters. Hikaru has an attitude about him that's vastly more entertaining than the usual nondescript plain vanilla character you'd usually get in this story. He participates in the plot. He's not merely being lead by the hand through it. I like that.

The story also doesn't devolve into a series of small challenges. This isn't like the plotting of a video game, where you defeat a series of smaller challengers before getting to the Big Bad Guy. While some of that is lined up in the first volume, it's not being paid off right away. You can see some of where this book is heading, but the first volume acts as a nice introduction to Hikaru's world.

The art is solid and easy to follow. It doesn't change styles repeatedly. It has lots of big eyes and expressive faces, along with the usual assortment of speed lines anytime something moves. But it saves the melodramatic panels for just the right moments. When a Go expert slams a piece down on the board with authority, you feel it as much as when Jan stirs a wok in IRON WOK JAN.

The only thing I wish the book had gotten more into is the rules of the game. It assumes you know the basics going in. There are even a couple of small games played out in the comic that the reader is asked to play along with. Go seems to be a lot like the game of Othello or Reversi, but on a larger scale. It has as many moves as Chess, with just as many medieval sounding names.

The third volume of the series just recently hit store shelves. Published by Viz with the Shonen Jump label proudly stamped on the cover, each volume is only $7.95 for just under 200 pages. I'll be picking the next two volumes up soon, too.

For an introduction to the game of Go, I'd suggest this web site. If you get really serious, I'd suggest giving Hikarunix a shot. It's a complete Linux distribution that runs off a single CD for the sake of learning and playing Go. Guess who it's named after?

MANGA #2

I picked up NOODLE FIGHTER MIKI thinking that it might be an interesting complement to IRON WOK JAN. It's not. It's a completely different entity. This is a sit-com set in Japan at the Ramen Noodle, and if you're over 16, it's bound to give you a headache.

The series is set in a ramen shop, telling the story of a delivery girl named Miki. She's been drafted into the family business for a lack of any other skills. This book, however, is not about bettering herself in a series of battles. It isn't an exploration of the job nor a battle book. This is a flat out comedy. It's a sit-com set just outside a ramen shop. It's something I could easily picture Keith Giffen writing, if he had the flu and was dosed up too heavily on pain killers. It's manic, it's crazy, and it could very easily get on your nerves.

It's the type of comic that just isn't done in America. The closest we come to it is anytime Keith Giffen gets together with J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire. Even then, it's a superhero book. This is a sit-com done in comic book format. It's more like a series of animated shorts, though. Each story lasts about 16 pages, usually with a giant reset button pressed at the end. There's no continuity to speak of, and when it does come out it's usually by way of a broken fourth wall.

The protagonist, Miki, is incompetent. She has anger management issues. She's as likely to kick you in the crotch as she is deliver your ramen noodles on time. Her attempts at delivery are easily sidetracked by baseball games. An attempt to clean the sidewalk outsider her family's shop leads to a slow burn over obsessive garbage collection. A bird stealing a piece of her meal leads to a madcap chase across town. A challenge from the rival girl across the street leads to costumes, competition, and an overrun of children.

Anything and everything is likely to set her off, and the overall tone of the book is one that might be hard to take by some people. You have to enjoy watching someone self-destruct in every story, play it up for laughs, hurt others, and then go on to the next story like nothing ever happened.

More importantly, you have to be able to follow the art. It is as frenetic as the story. Jun Sadogawa's style skips all over the places, merging speed lines with caricatures with oversimplified cartoon representations of already cartoony characters. Panel to panel storytelling can be difficult in spots. Read the dialogue carefully and try to keep up. Sadogawa is dragging you through this book for a good laugh, and it's up to you to keep up.

This one comes from ADV Manga. It's the first volume. 190 pages. Ten bucks. Read at your own peril. In the meantime, I'll stick with my IRON WOK JAN collection.

ODDS AND ENDS

  • OK, so last week's podcast ended up hitting on time anyway. Sorry for the false alarm on its delay. This week's podcast should go live on Wednesday of this week, also. As always, if you're subscribed to the RSS feed, then you needn't worry.

  • It's certainly nice to see the letters column beginning to make a comeback, isn't it? Ed Brubaker has a nice thing going over in CAPTAIN AMERICA now. ASTONISHING X-MEN gets two pages of letters, even though they come without editorial comment. Gemstone continues its pages in the back of the Duck and Mouse books. Robert Kirkman has lengthy dissertations in his Image books. GRIMJACK promises more letters columns to show the young punk editors out there just how they're supposed to be done. And DC trails far behind on this one.

  • David Schifferdecker wrote in to point out that GRIMJACK wasn't originally printed on newsprint, as I had indicated in my review of it last week. Thanks, David.

  • Pedro Bouca was kind enough to send me a better translation of the French comic I discussed here last week. Let's go with his:

    "After a difficult start, our two characters become road companions. God tries to make Lincoln a new, Cowboy super-hero style, kind of messiah, but he wasn't counting with the somewhat odd and manipulative personality of his ward."

    Sounds like fun to me. Thanks, Pedro!

  • The return of JON SABLE looks pretty darn cool.

  • I like the sound of a new three issue mini-series for HERO SQUARED. I don't care who's publishing it, though Ross Richie looks to have a decent game plan.

  • Good news: The third volume of Tyler Page's STYLISH VITTLES is coming out in May. For a preview, check out the web site.

  • Here's another good looking French Western, GIBIER DE POTENCE. There are no interior sample pages, but those covers sure are nice.

  • While CONSTANTINE did well at the box office this past weekend, I'll bet my money on "No Sequel." At best, you'll see something direct to video with lesser stars in a year or two. Odds are, that movie will be more like the comics and will thus be criticized even more heavily by movie critics than the first one.

Next week: Pipeline Commentary and Review #403: Four out of five dentists agree. It prevents cavities.

I think it's also time for a return to Basin City.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: Complete AMERICAN IDOL commentary. What's wrong with the NBA? TiVo's Most Wanted. SURVIVOR commentary. WORLD POKER TOUR scheduling. More on the Lexus hybrid and the LOONEY TUNES revamp.

The Various and Sundry DVD Podcast continues to look at the week's DVD releases, every Sunday afternoon. Those of you with a podcasting program can subscribe to it right here.

All political discussions have been pushed off to one neat side at VandS Politics.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page. I haven't had that account in years, but they've yet to delete the page space. Go fig.

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