The Buy Pile

Thu, January 24th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Hannibal Tabu, Columnist

WHAT IS THE BUY PILE?

Every week Hannibal Tabu (journalist/blogger/novelist/poet/karaoke host/jackass) goes to a comic book store called Comics Ink in Culver City, CA (Overland and Braddock -- hey Steve and Jason) and grabs a whole lotta comics. These periodicals are quickly sorted into two piles -- the "buy" pile (a small pile most weeks, comprised of planned purchases) and the "read" pile (often huge, often including comics that are really crappy but have some value to stay abreast of). Thursdays (Diamond monopolistic practices willing), you'll be able to get his thoughts (and they're just the opinions of one guy, so calm down) about all of that ... which goes something like this ...

THE BUY PILE FOR JANUARY 23RD, 2008

Johnny Hiro #3 (AdHouse Books)
Jump from the Read Pile. Every once in a while, a comics reader gets one of "those moments." When you pick up something on a whim -- an image on the cover gets your attention, or you hear people in your shop talking about it -- and you discover something you really like. It's those moments that really fuel the continual opening of number one issues and the indie movement, and today that kind of moment came to the Buy Pile. A Google search turned up the cover for this issue of "Johnny Hiro" by the apparently multitalented Fred Chao (art and writing, apparently) which, sitting innocently in the new issues box at Comics Ink, was a brilliant combination of design and minimalism.

It should be stated that the Buy Pile is late to the party: this is the third issue, and apparently this series has been out since last April if the Comic Book Series Wikia is to be believed. This should have been nominated alongside "Iron and the Maiden" as best new series last year. It is, to us a word that's wholly appropriate and not in any way hyperbole, awesome. As a matter of fact, this issue of "Johnny Hiro" was so awesome that it caused this reviewer to go back and buy the previous two issues, which were also awesome with a side of awesome sauce and an awesome shake at no extra charge. Okay, yes, it's black and white. So?

"Johnny Hiro" is heavy -- the paper stock is of high quality, the printing is done with great craft and ability. There are about twenty eight pages of story with no ads whatsoever. Shockingly, this still cost only three bucks. Probably what you get for skipping color, save on the gorgeous covers. Then we get to the actual content itself -- Johnny and his funny and understanding girlfriend Mayumi have moved to New York City from Tokyo (where, funny enough, her mom had an interesting job, but that's a spoiler from issue one, which isn't relevant today) and are struggling to make ends meet after Johnny got sued by a former landlord (again, not a discussion for today) and hasn't gotten far professionally, working as a busboy. So Mayumi gets the idea to grab cheap tickets to the opera for a special night out. They run into Toshi Yamagoto, an old friend of Johnny's who's now some kind of internet millionaire. Sounds normal enough, right? That's when the 47 samurai businessmen show up. It's all craziness from there, but done so with such humor and such delicacy and such deftness that even ridiculous things seem to make sense. This is fantastically entertaining, and there's almost not enough good to be said about the down-on-his-luck protagonist (seriously, those "Brand New Day" guys should take notes here) and this charming, charming series. A new "buy on sight" title if ever there was one.

Iron and the Maiden: Brutes, Bims and The City #1 (Aspen Comics)

Sketchbooks suck. It's a fact. You get warmed over concept art and blah blah text and rarely anything worth your money. So when this great new series stops producing, you know, stories to do a DVD extra, that could give you some pause, right? Wrong. Because this isn't any normal "behind the scenes" story. Apparently, writer Jason Rubin is one of the minds behind the "Crash Bandicoot" and "Jax and Dexter" videogame franchises who took all his chips at the height of his game and walked away. After locking himself away for months to write about this world he was intent on creating, Rubin then used the gobs of cash he had on hand to literally buy his way to quality. "Comic books don't usually get pre-production work done before they start," Rubin wrote, "... the business model just doesn't support the costs." Lucky for him he had a mountain of cash to use, and it shows. You can see the alarming, almost digital level of detail that he wrote into the work long before signing on powerhouses like Jeff Matsuda, Joe Madueira and Michael Turner, as well as "soon-to-be household names" Francis Manapul and Joel Gomez, as well as many others. Unlike your normal sketchbook, this is fascinating in the ways it depicts the world of The Order, The Government and The Syndicate with detail that you may have flown by in reading the series. Well worth studying and a good primer to get new readers up to speed on what's happening.

Legion of Super-Heroes #38 (DC Comics)

Speaking of Francis Manapul, he's handling the art for Jim Shooter's comeback to the property that first made his name, as Lightning Lad's just plain stupid (in an endearing way that works narrative wise) and that fuels the entire story. An overmatched Legion team battles surprisingly effective faceless automatons (normally such a force can be boring, but the tension they're shown delivering here works) while the aforementioned Garth Ranzz has no idea what he's doing. The United Planets tries to shove some new members on him, and he's too dumb to see how they could be useful. For example, Fruit Boy has the power to make fruit ripen (sort of like Ned on "Pushing Daisies" but without the lethal side effects). Dumb? Maybe not to a famine starved planet. You can send this chucklehead along with a ship full of rotted fruit (and maybe other things, maybe he hasn't really explored his powers) and feed people. That's useful. But Lightning Lad's not a thinker, he's a puncher. Or Spy, who can sense strong emotions and thoughts, and has enhanced senses. Espionage Squad, anyone? Voice can compel dumb people to do what she wants. This while Lightning Lad's got a pesky bureaucrat holding his budget hostage. Garth can't see that. The reader, however, can easily make these kinds of connections, and it showcases how overburdened the character is by his role as Legion leader. The action works, Saturn Girl shows some real combat chops and the whole issue works on a lot of levels. Great fun, and as noted with Francis Manapul's involvement, gorgeously rendered.

Omega One #1 (Big City Comics)
Jump from the Read Pile. Now here's a surprise. Say you're a small publisher with a cadre of extrahumans -- heroes, villains and what have you. In their individual books, they're not exactly burning up the sales charts, and despite having dedicated creators, the characters aren't really "popping." So you get yourself a cute hook -- pressed into "on-call" black ops government service or your loved ones start turning up dead -- and throw them together like Brad Meltzer playing with the JLA. The result? Surprisingly effective -- a character like Ant, who previously seemed like sheer cheesecake, works as the tough center of the group (much like Vasquez from "Aliens"), played against a Tom-Hanks-in-"Saving-Private-Ryan" leader, a flying Latin hothead who could be taking notes from Checkmate's Fire and so on. The surprise appearances -- a popular character makes an uncredited cameo at the end -- make it all the more intriguing as characterization and nuance carefully work alongside action to keep the plot rolling. Admittedly, it could use a grammar check ("airplane hanger," no, another few errors) and the Nazis reference (albeit quick) was probably a bit of overkill, but still a very pleasant surprise.

WHAT'S THE PROGNOSIS?

This is a "who knew?" day, and that's a good thing.

THIS WEEK'S READ PILE

Honorable Mentions: Stuff worth noting, even if it's not good enough to buy

Another pleasant surprise that almost made the mark was "Transformers Spotlight: Blaster," which cast the anachronistic mechanoid as the propaganda officer for the Autobots, broadcasting a pointed message like Radio Free Europe during the Cold War. However, somebody wants that broadcast cancelled permanently, which leads to a murder mystery that's quite smart. The problem? The haunted, hunted Blaster's not much of a charismatic lead, and the really good surprises are too fast as they pop up at the end. Points for using a really surprising culprit, though.

"Prince of Heroes" #1 is probably the prettiest comic book out this week, with grandiose panoramic vistas and detailed marketplace scenes that'd make George Lucas head back to make another Special Edition. With an interesting combination of martial arts, mythic-styled storytelling and manga-influenced artwork, this only lacks a sense of urgency. The storytelling borders on the pompous, trying to wow you with visuals like a hot girl in a low cut top trying to trick you into buying her a drink. If it eventually cashes the check its Joseph Campbell-inspired plot is writing, this would be worth going back for, perhaps.

"Amazing Spider-Man" #548 (after finally seeing the Diamond-shorted #547 from last week) was not bad, despite what the retail troll behind the counter was telling customers about it. "You got cancer by touching it," he told one man buying a copy. "You've read it, but now you've got eye cancer. It's like visual AIDS." Admittedly, it just makes Peter Parker out to be very, very dumb as he simply doesn't pay attention to a wide variety of things that could have made this story go much easier on him. If you wanna reset your Spidey-stories to the seventies, there could be worse ways to go, perhaps.

"Blue Beetle" #23 makes a very good showing for itself, weaving in lots of smart bits but not getting them to gel enough as a coherent whole. Still, the tyro hero Jaime Reyes makes quite a show for himself, his scarab is easier to understand and the Reach got scared. Not bad, but just missed the mark for making it home.

"Young Avengers Presents Patriot" #1 was okay, with an Ed Brubaker script heavy on craft and not so much on actual story logic. It doesn't stand to reason that somebody as angry as Patriot would go around wearing the flag he does regardless of his legacy, but the story itself is told well, if in a somewhat "Afterschool Special" way. The Winter Soldier makes a tolerable appearance (is he Brubaker's Pete Wisdom?) and tells some stories, but this isn't quite what it needs to be (perhaps "American Way" could offer some notes).

"Crime Bible: The Five Lessons of Blood" #4 was an improvement over the tedious previous issues, as it turns out that the new Question's not only hunting, but is being hunted as well. There's a nice twist in the mystery here, but there's too much hand wringing over Vic Sage and too little, as they might say, making with the "biff" and the "pow."

There's something going on in "Ultimate Fantastic Four" #50, which shows Reed's fully activated Cosmic Cube going up against the interdimensional teens that introduced him to Ultimate Thanos in the first place. The problem is that Reed's too blinded by science to see the strategies going on around him, which is cute and sad and funny all at the same time as the rest of the gang sticks with him. Not bad, but it could be a smidge less circuitous.

Had it shown up before any of us had seen "The Nightly News," "New World Order" #1 would be the talk of the town (especially since its art is not so idiosyncratic). As it is, with its alien slant and extrahuman powers, it's talking a good game, but like "Prince of Heroes," has yet to come on with the come on.

How much of a surprise is it that "Countdown Presents: Lord Havok and The Extremists" #4 is still improving, with a "Heroes"-esque approach that casts Dr. Diehard as a Chuck Xavier figure (or maybe just Mags when he ran the school) and gives Dreamslayer some grounding (which may or may not have been a good idea, as he was the most interesting of the Extremists in his secrecy). Why Lord Havok is playing a waiting game irks the reader as much as it does the characters, and his opposite number makes a deal that's no good for anybody. Still, worth watching ...

"World War Hulk Aftersmash: Damage Control" #1 had about a quarter of the humor the property is known for and a lot of logistical details that, while probably mean a lot to the plot, aren't especially interesting. The script was businesslike and crisp, but showed all the more why Stark's no good.

The best thing in "Superman/Batman" #45 was a brief but smartly pointed commentary by the new Aquaman, who kind of painted Clark and Bruce in an ideological box they're not very comfortable with. Other than that, though, it was nothing special.

In a move that astonished fans, "Astonishing X-Men" #24 showed up at stores, but they seem more bewildered than astonishing as they make a lot of strategic and tactical errors (way to plan, Slim) as they graphically misunderstand something really important (way to analyze, Hank), get manipulated and generally serve no purpose outside letting Wolverine get in good quips. It's pretty, though, that John Cassaday sure can draw well ...

No, just ... no ... These comics? Not so much ...

"Army @ Love" 11 was not shipped to Comics Ink due to Diamond screwing up the order. So there you have that.

Re: "Iron Man" #25. We have a phone call for the Mandarin, there's a Ra's Al Ghul on the line. He says he wants his shtick back. He sounds pret-ty peeved ...

"Testament" #22 is, apparently, the last issue in the series. This can only garner three letters for this impenetrable coda: "WTH?"

How the mighty hath fallen -- "She-Hulk" #25 is just plain no good, with Jen walking around in circles in the woods and whining for way too long, a very predictable switcheroo and two just plain weird backup features with Man-Elephant (huh?) and Juggernaut getting lucky. What's that line from "Ren and Stimpy?" "No, sir. I don't like it!"

"Wonder Woman" #16 ... make it stop, please. Gorilla Knight? A new Nazi homeland on Themiscira? Poorly depicted flashbacks? Gah.

Things were going okay for "After the Cape Book 2" until this week's #3 showed up, with an ending so facile and lame that it saps all the real developments in the issue of any significance.

"Tonight, on a very special episode of 'Smallville' ..." woops, rather "Teen Titans" #55 was all chatty, featured a classic Clana-styled moment (regular watchers of the show know what they did every five minutes for seasons) and generally was just a bad night on the CW. Not worth three bucks at all.

As it practically rained frogs, "Ultimates Volume 3" #2 showed up today, which featured people looking for Ultimate T'Challa (and no one finding him), Ultimate Pietro's family business (which includes lots of whining) and a pointless last page cameo. Oh, and the coloring's too dark and moody. Oh, and Stark's not much of a super genius. Oh, and it's dull. That pretty much covers it.

"A thousand explosive insect children." "Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters" #5, that's just creepy.

Okay, Namor's a hothead. But he's also the head of a very technologically advanced society. So for him to do what he does in "The Order" #7 ... either Namor is irrevocably stupid or this issue is not very good. Either way, it didn't work, especially since -- fun fact -- two of their team members are still wounded, hiding and hunted by people wanting to kill them. Way to drop a subplot after getting readers invested in the characters.

SO, HOW BAD WAS IT?

Twelve okay reads versus ten annoying and/or bad ones, and a few "eh" titles where not enough happened to merit a real mention ("Countdown" #14, "Ultimate Iron Man Book 2" #2, "Authority Prime" #4) ... that's good, right?

WINNERS AND LOSERS

Killer jumps make even dazzling mediocrity shine, so we'll call it a win.

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