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Tue, September 23rd, 2008 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: September 23rd, 2008 at 4:33pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

A DECADE OF SIREN

Ten years ago, Image Comics released "Siren," a three issue mini-series by J. Torres and Tim Levin. The two were still finishing up "The Copybook Tales" over at Slave Labor, but also worked on this all-too-brief tale of a private detective set in a city of monsters and paranormal happenings. The high concept pitch at the time, of course, would have referenced "The X-Files."

As that creative team sees the second issue of their latest creation, "Family Dynamic," released from DC, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at a fondly remembered title to see how it ages. Thankfully, "Siren" ages well, though some of the flaws become more obvious to the more experienced critic inside of me.

The biggest flaw in the book is that there's too much going on. Perhaps Torres was trying too hard to invoke the same feeling James Robinson was able to create with "Starman's" Opal City. The city of Siren is a densely-populated island, filled with shape-shifters, superheroes (seen only briefly and in silhouette once), vampires, and a lot more. It has a different personality at night than it does during the day. The relationships between the various parts of the population are not always simple. Trying to cram all of that into three issues is a tough squeeze. You want to hit the ground running, but you don't want to drown your reader. (Suddenly, I'm doing triathlon metaphors. Wait, I need a bicycle gag, then. Perhaps I "spoke" too soon. There, I feel better now.)

The private investigator lead of the book, Zara Rush, has problems of her own. Her police officer/private investigator father has disappeared and is presumed dead. Her mother is basically catatonic in the wake of that event. Zara has gone into the P.I. business to continue her father's good work. He was a flawed man with a somewhat mysterious history. And people from his past come back to haunt Zara today.

Like so many books of the time, "Siren" works hard to establish a mythology in addition to the "Monster of the Week" story. Like I said, it's very "X-Files." But the two parts never quite came together in these three issues. What you wind up with is a solid mystery at the core of the three issues, and a lot of loose ends flying around. Subplots are introduced like Claremont "X-Men" threads, without any connection to the main plot. If this had been a monthly series that ran a couple of years, perhaps it would be more forgivable. As a three issue mini-series, though, "Siren" feels the strain of the weight upon its shoulders.

That all said, it's still a very enjoyable comic. The main characters, Zara and her assistant Evan, are likable enough. He's a young and slightly adventuresome young lad, obsessed with the paranormal corners of the city. He's dated all species of women, and in this storyline is involved with a vampire who he wants to be bitten by. You want to slap him sometimes, but you also admire his adventuresome streak. If you were in a city that weird wouldn't you want to experience more of it?

He also worked for Zara's father and has a mysterious missing part of his life that's only hinted at but never told. Like I said, there are plot threads and potential storylines littered all over these three issues. It's tantalizing, if slightly frustrating.

Torres also does a nice job in using the city's weirdness to his advantage. Zara's case involves a missing teenager. It's standard P.I. storyline material, but this boy is a shapeshifter, and his parents lay out a dozen pictures of different looks the kid has taken (including Jonny Quest and J Torres himself). It's a nice hook, quickly delivered at the start of the first issue. It's a well-played first scene of the series, setting the tone for the book while introducing a high concept or two.

The series ends just as well, with plenty of threads weaving together nicely to give the reader an action-packed (and, out of nowhere, gorilla-filled) ending, along with a satisfying explanation of what had happened. It might be too expository, but I don't mind that. When there's as much stuff going on as there is in "Siren," I appreciate some talking heads to straighten it all out for me.

Levins was coming off "The Copybook Tales" at this point, and hadn't yet moved on to drawing DC "Adventures" titles. As such, his art is much more reminiscent of "The Copybook Tales" than it is of "Family Dynamic." It's a nice expressive style, down to earth, yet stylized enough to be interesting. Befitting the book's subject matter, he splashes an awful lot of ink down on the page, including making each page completely black in the gutters and borders of the pages. It does make the art feel claustrophobic in spots, particularly when panels are drawn very small inside a sea of blackness. Perhaps a more standard grid arrangement would have worked better. I know I wanted to see more of Levins' art, and less solid black, after a while, but I give him the leeway for experimentation with his style so early in his comics career.

Unfortunately, there's no trade paperback of this series available. It was published at a time when that wasn't the standard operating procedure. It's too bad, but with any luck you might find a few copies in a dollar bin at a convention somewhere. It's worth a read. If "Family Dynamic" finds a second life elsewhere, demand for a "Siren" trade might pick up and we might see it, after all. Maybe even a new story? Dare to dream.

STRANGE CASES CONCLUDES

Here's one that slipped through the cracks this summer. Released on July 10th, "Steve Niles' Strange Cases" #4 is the end of the story for now, but it's another greatly entertaining standalone story in the same comedic horror vein as the previous three issues. The 16 page story this time around takes Phillip (the Constantine-looking one) to a local college, tracking down a recently open rift that's letting in horrible man-eating extra-dimensional creatures of one sort or another. There's a whole hand-wavey explanation thing inside the story, but the details don't matter. The fun comes from Dan Wickline's script, which combines witty dry and humorous dialogue with horror movie conventions that you'll all recognize. The monsters show up in the girl's dormitory. Their final fate reminded me a bit of "Ghostbusters," and the cast of television's "Numb3rs" show up to kick things off.

That's right; this is the first comic crossover with "Numb3rs" that I've ever seen. I don't think I've ever read a reference to the show in even a joking manner. This book goes so far as to open with two pages of their dialogue to set up the plot. Using familiar characters and situations to ease you into the story helps take the sting off the necessary exposition. It's a nice trick, and artist David Hartman does a great job in capturing the likenesses and attitudes of the characters on paper.

Hartman's artwork is great throughout the issue, using his animated style with a heavy dose of Photoshop to knock out lots of black lines along the way. ("Color Assists" are credited to Kathleen Hartman and Bill Bronson.) He has a lot to jam into this story, and does a great job in filling the pages with multiple panels while keeping the storytelling clean and clear.

Like all good humor books, though, there is actually a story behind all the banter and visual splendor. There are real consequences for the actions of all the characters in this book, and it's just a darn shame that there's no issue #5 lined up to capitalize on it next. Pity.

I really loved "Strange Cases," but I fear I might have been alone.

We did a Commentary Track for the third issue back in January, if you want to get a look at some of the visual style for the series.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED ABOUT THE SPIRIT

It was a relatively small bit in last week's column, but it generated the most number of responses I've had in a long time. It's the topic of the television movie of "The Spirit."

It did happen, folks. Lots of people saw it and are still trying to forget it, twenty years later. Sounds like ABC tried to burn it off while nobody was looking one summer. They've successfully kept it forgotten for all the time since, though one can't help but wonder if some budget DVD production company isn't looking into getting the rights ahead of the upcoming Frank Miller movie's release.

If you need proof that it happened, I can only point you to the IMDB page for it, and this fan page. It doesn't have much, but there are a few screen grabs, so you can see what The Spirit looked like. Fun trivia facts: Sam Jones played The Spirit. You might remember him from the recent "Flash Gordon" revival over on SciFi. (Update: Or not. He was the "Flash" in the 1980s movie. Sorry for the confusion.) Commissioner Dolan's daughter was played by Nana Visitor, of later "Star Trek: Deep Space 9" fame. And the guy who played the "Ebony" type character, "Eubie," went on to do voices in animated series such as "Batman Beyond," "Legion of Superheroes," "Transformers: Animated," and many more.

With a lineup like that, how could anything have gone wrong?

Thanks to Felix L. and Jim L., amongst others, for their help and links.

THE WEEK IN PODCASTING

It began innocently enough, with the weekly Pipeline Podcast for Wednesday, September 17. 2008. It had a top ten release list that looked like this:

10. Glamourpuss #3
9. Mighty Avengers #18
8. War Heroes #2
7. Halloween Mini Comic Bundles 2008
6. Family Dynamic #2
5. Superman Kryptonite HC
4. Billy Batson And The Magic Of Shazam #2
3. Local HC
2. Gene Colan Tribute Book
1. All Star Superman #12

You can listen to it here. (7MB, 15:17 long)

THE PIPELINE PREVIEWS PODCAST followed on Friday night. Jamie Tarquini returned, and we flipped through the "Previews" catalog, seeing what might catch our eyes for November 2008 and beyond. That ran just over an hour, and you can download it here. (34MB, 1:11:00 long)

Finally over the weekend, I was the guest on an episode of Comic Geek Speak. The Geeks invited me on to discuss the wonderful world of letterhacking, something I have a little experience in. ::cough cough:: 400 letters printed ::cough cough::

It was a fun hour, and I thank Peter Rios, Bryan Deemer, and the man known only as "Pants" for having me on board. We read some of our most embarrassing letters on the air, we traded letter column stories and we talked a bit about comics in general, from the latest crossovers to my own pick of overlooked comics gems.

I didn't think to say it while we were recording, but I did want to congratulate CGS on their successes in the last year. Hitting the 500th episode of a podcast is amazing enough. Publishing three issues of a magazine is impressive. Running your own comic show? Just plain nutty. Congrats to them, and I look forward to stopping by again someday.

And be sure to listen to the spin-off show, "Exploring Bede," which talks about those Franco-Belgian comics I mention here from time to time. The second episode has a great interview with the man who translated the amazing "Ordinary Victories."

Next week: Another review out of left field.

The Various and Sundry blog is still updating Monday through Friday, now with Tweet Compilations, DVD Releases, Random Thought Pieces, and Link Dumps.

My Twitter stream flows briskly, carrying random thoughts through the ether with the force of white rapids. Very Zen.

The daily news bits that grab my attention in the worlds of tech and comics and more can be found at my Google Reader Shared Items. Several items are added to that page every day. I'm an RSS feed junkie.

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 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  j torres, family dynamic, steve niles, tim levins, strange cases

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