Permanent Damage

Wed, April 15th, 2009 at 6:28pm PDT | Updated: April 16th, 2009 at 7:58pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

It's tax day, and this year's exciting tax adventure makes the usual snarky yet immensely informative (not to mention self-delusional) essay problematic this week – sorry about that – so let's just leap back into the valley of the shadow of longform online comics, and hope for a return to form next week.

ACES HIGH by The Marvelous Patrick & friends is sort of an idiot savant strip with bad art – everyone looks like the artist(s?) used MR. BILL-style clay figurines (post-disaster) as models – almost redeemed by good coloring. The story, starring a hero whose main talent is infinite coolness, starts out very slowly, with "terrorists" blowing up a bank while spouting off how they belong to a group so large it can never be defeated. That's only the first comic book cliché spiking the feature, followed by others, like the tough-as-nails-but-bound-by-rules police detective leaving the room so the hero can "unofficially" interrogate a suspect. By this time, I was rolling my eyes. Then something odd happened. TMP ran a scene where the hero runs into the bank manager and everything takes on this weird... intentionality, suddenly going very tongue-in-cheek. Enough to make me wonder if the playdo art style isn't also intentional. Probably not, since the strip changes artists a couple times and the wonderful wackiness doesn't last, giving way to a more or less standard superhero strip with a couple unusual twists. But it does pick up some as it goes along.

Josh Hechinger & Jorge Muñoz's Yon Kuma is a energetic take on pro wrestling, mixed with popular manga motifs and done with strong cartooning. Still a bit early to tell where it's going – they're only one chapter and a couple gag pages in – but so far very well done, and much better dynamics than in most print comics, let alone online ones.

Didn't realize Jim Valentino's Shadowline has its own online comics, but Brendan McGinley & Mauro Vargas are doing a sharp little strip there, HANNIBAL GOES TO ROME that briskly covers much of the Punic Wars that very easily could've changed the course of history. Very sharply written and drawn, and quite funny (while much of it is straightforward history, there's more than a little ASTERIX in it too), and starring one of the great figures of history, not to mention one of the great war strategists of all time. Except when he wasn't. Exciting stuff, beautifully done.

I'm told RACHEL RAGE is an homage to blaxploitation films of the '70s, but I can't get the websites screwy, counterintuitive interface to show me anything. Looks like it's been awhile since anyone's worked on it anyway.

For the last year, Mike Luoma's been online publishing his strip PANTHEA OBSCURA, and currently beginning the fourth "issue." The premise – what the relationship is of ancient gods still walking the earth and a civilization that no longer acknowledges their existence, and currently facing the consequences of their own actions as they try to win some acknowledgement back – has gotten a bit well-trod over the past few years (Neil Gaiman has probably poisoned that well as much as anybody) but Luoma has done a pretty decent job of it nonetheless. Though the latest installment's taking on aspects of THE MIGHTY THOR, and that might not be a good direction. The art's okay, drastically improved by flashy coloring (I'm starting to wonder if too many strips aren't banking too much on computer screen luminosity for effect; then again, that's the medium...) but Luoma's writing is entertaining enough to gloss over it. This reminds me of some of the better independent comics published in the late '70s...

Another strip that could use better art – not that it's bad, just that the artist could use more practice, though layouts and storytelling are more adventurous than many in comics – is Gerimi Burleigh's EYE OF THE GODS. The title's allusive, thankfully; it's a conspiracy thriller involving a man who develops clairvoyance and finds himself on the receiving end of men who'd rather the hidden truths and plots he's now in a position to reveal stay hidden. Also mid-story, so far it's a good little thriller, at its best when Burleigh uses design to replicate the artist-hero's psychic experiences for the reader.

Finally, at least this week, is another thriller, Stephen Geigen-Miller & Patrick Heinicke's COLD IRON BADGE, an odd little police procedural set in what's effectively a modernized Dungeons&Dragons world, whose heroine's squad is tasked with policing elves, goblins and whatever other creatures might be pulling crimes. So far it's been mostly set-up so it's hard to judge how well the story's developing – design is generally better than art but the art's okay – but it's a good object lesson for anyone considering publishing comics online; it begins by publishing one page per installment, but only gets interesting when they start publishing several pages per installment. It's purely psychological, I know, but online strips turn out to be much easier to get into when you can scroll down a web page for a block of pages at once rather than have to link to a new page or wait a period of time for the next page. If you have a choice, go with batches.


1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 85-91):

From Marvel Comics:

SECRET WARRIORS #1-3 by Brian Bendis, Jonathan Hickman & Stefano Caselli ($2.99@; comics)

From now on, if anyone asks what constitutes an idiot fanboy idea, you can point to this series as the embodiment of the idiot fanboy idea. Not that there's anything wrong with the underlying premise – defrocked spymaster recruits specialists (in this case, superpowered teenagers) unknown to authorities into a "third force" special ops squad. I liked the setup when Bendis introduced it in SECRET INVASION. I like it now. The idiot fanboy idea – an "idea" so brilliant that only an idiot could take it seriously, but the kind that hardcore fanboys concoct to show how big a twist they can come up with (you know, like deciding Spider-Man is only the latest manifestation of a mystical lineage of spider-heroes dedicated to saving mankind from... um... flies?) – in the series is Nick Fury's recent discovery, and new motivational impetus (AKA current excuse for existence), that his former spy organization SHIELD is actually a branch of evil clandestine organization Hydra. Not just "Hydra snuck in and took over when people were paying attention to other things." That would be okay, if the same basic riff as the NICK FURY VS. SHIELD mini of the '80s. No, he discovers that not only does Hydra control SHIELD, they always controlled SHIELD. (And the US government, if I read my flowcharts correctly, but not much has been made of that, though it sure would help the whole Norman Osborn thing make a lot more sense.) And kept everyone (including, apparently, themselves) from finding out about it for all this time. So, okay, while this sounds like a clever twist – Fury gets morose on learning he has been working for "the bad guys" all along, and now wants to make it right – it means one of two things. Fury's been shutting down brilliant Hydra plans for, what, 44 years now? (Okay, let's say ten as Marvel time goes, give 'em the benefit of the doubt.) So SHIELD, which Hydra controls, remember, has costs Hydra untold billions, possibly trillions, of dollars and vast manpower resources as one costly evil scheme after another goes belly up, with no returns on investment. Which makes Hydra either brilliant beyond human imagination or the dumbest secret organization ever. Or... the whole thing's a con, but that puts Fury in the credulous git column, hardly the best place for a master spymaster. There may be ways this could be made to work - both Hydra and SHIELD are concoctions of a third party who uses them as an overblown puppet show to keep everyone looking over there when all the real action is happening over here (i.e., Bernie Madoff is the true head of Hydra) is the only one I can think of - but it strikes me as a solution that goes against Marvel's grain. (A likelier scenario is they're expecting the book to belly up before they have to make it make sense.) No complaints I can think of for Hickman and Caselli. I'd guess they're doing the best they can with what they've got. And I generally enjoy Bendis' Marvel work. And Marvel's generally pretty good at making strained premises at least acceptable for a few moments. But this one's braindead strained beyond belief, and threatens to unfortunately bury a team with some potential.

From James Robino:

ANCIENT TALES FROM THE FUTURE #1 by James Robino & Larry Blake ($3; b&w comic)

More '70s non-mainstream comics flashbacks. I remember when mock-Jack Kirby art was all the rage among fan artists, and this issue's main story is exactly that, as Robino & Blake retell the biblical story of Jonah as very Kirby-esque space opera, with vaguely satirical edge; it's hard to tell whether it's endorsing the Biblical viewpoint or cannibalizing it. (From the shorter second piece, I'm guessing the former.) If it's intended to be a "Christian comic," it's better than most.

From Avatar Press:

IGNITION CITY #1 by Warren Ellis & Gianluca Pagliarani ($3.99; comic book)

Ellis has become his own little cottage industry over at Avatar, with a steadily growing line of wild little books. This series combines a couple Ellis obsessions, parallel timelines and space travel, but filtered through his post-cyberpunk new depression worldview. (See TRANSMETROPOLITAN.) The big picture isn't exactly spelled out; it's 1956 but space travel for some reason has not only been in practice for decades but alien races have been encountered, wars on and off earth have been fought, and the human race is already tired of space and mothballing all rockets when a former pilot learns of her father's death and travels to collect his effects to Ignition City, once a launch site and now a decaying hellhole. That's all of the story so far, but Ellis has a real talent both for seeding stories with just enough scattershot detail (both in text and visual context) to give the impression of real, living worlds, and for corralling big tableaux like these with the emotional hooks of individual people. A fine start, beautifully drawn; Pagliarani is one of Ellis' best collaborators ever. I liked the Buck Rogers cameo too.

From Boom! Studios:

THE REMNANT #4 by Stephen Baldwin, Andrew Cosby, Caleb Monroe & Julian Totino Tedesco ($3.99; comic book)

Answering the question, finally, of how many people it takes to produce complete gibberish. Fight scenes, chase scenes, gunfights, the ****ing Rapture, and dialogue like this: "The play we're in now is an epic tale, the timeless struggle of good versus evil. And the end's already been written. One side definitely wins. But the losing side still has a hope. Understand? What if one of the play's characters forgets a line, stops playing their part? There are no second takes. This is live theater. The rest of the cast would have to ad-lib their way around the flub. And once the ad-libbing begins, well... maybe, possibly, perchance the losing side could ad-lib themselves a new ending." Err... isn't that the same as saying the ending hasn't already been written? Even if you accept all of it as, ah, gospel truth, if you don't know which side is destined to win, how do you know who ad-libbing will screw up? This series plays like one of those overly earnest action thrillers that only air at 2AM on the Movie Channel and really want to be thought of as deep, even spiritual, but are really only about gruesome new ways to use scissors. Is it any wonder I'm really tired of "good vs. evil"? Art's nice, though.

From Fantagraphics:

LUBA by Gilbert Hernandez ($39.99; hardcover)

Hernandez's main heroine Luba is something of an acquired taste – I know people who love her stories and people who can't get past her huge breasts – but, as with the "Palomar" stories she originated in, the Luba stories interweave into a panoramic soap opera that are as much about her friends and extended family as about her, a vast, chaotic superstory of a kind most comics creators can only fantasize about creating. And Hernandez has done it twice. This volume collects the post-Palomar, America-based Luba series and books done in the last decade; again as with the Palomar stories, read individually the stories are good, but read as a unit they really take on a surrealistic yet concrete life, infused throughout with a random coherence that nonetheless unifies into a real experience. It's an impressive act.

From DC Comics:

JONAH HEX #42 by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Jordi Bernet ($2.99; comic book)

Why hasn't more mention been made that Jordi Bernet's been drawing this book? The story's basically a vignette – a gunfight framing sequence whose ending is obvious from the first page, not, I suspect, that anyone was trying to hide it, allows a glimpse into Jonah Hex's childhood and his harsh family life to give some insight into the roots of Hex's psychology and how he's able to function as he does; it's fine as far as it goes, and the childhood stuff is well handled without going over the top – but Bernet brings such a welcome breeze of European sensibilities to American comics, and a great feel for the old west. (Kind of curious how Jonah's a kid out where there are mesas when he's from Virginia, though, or has that changed?) A nice change from all the hyper-realistic and pseudo-manga art DC publishes. How about some more Euro-artists being published over here? A little more idiosyncracy couldn't hurt.

From Image Comics:

BACK TO BROOKLYN #4 by Garth Ennis, Jimmy Palmiotti & Mihailo Vukalik ($2.99)

Man, it's hard to get more hardboiled in comics than Garth Ennis. Such a simple little story of twisted families and twisted violence, of the thin line between love and brutality, so elegantly done. There are some typical Ennis riffs here, like the impenetrable sanctity of true friendship, but Ennis and Palmiotti keep the action simple, surprising and effective. Of all current comics writers, Ennis is the best at building a brooding sense of violent inevitability, of men careening toward their dooms. Vukalik's art is generally pretty good – a "fight" at Coney Island is especially well-handled – with his main flaw being a tendency to make male characters look too similar. One bloody issue to go, and holding up just fine.


Notes from under the floorboards:

If you're desperate to read a good essay on comics and feel I've let you down this week, Noah Berlatsky has a good one on Wonder Woman and (my favorite new word of the week) "feministsploitation" that's worth a scan...

Apologies to Kieron Gillen and Charity Larisson of BUSTED WONDER, whose names I screwed up last week. Also didn't quite the connection that Kieron was behind Image's PHONOGRAM...

As long as I'm in total review mode today and there's not much in comics to talk about, caught a couple of shows debuting last week. Besides the newest DR. WHO SPECIAL - a fairly typical but well done Dr. Who story that nonetheless had a lot of both subtle and slapstick humor despite a fearsome world-threatening menace, and some nice special effects, but didn't it seem, really, to be a backdoor pilot for Michelle Ryan? – ABC and NBC both launched new cop shops, THE UNUSUALS (ABC Wednesdays 10P) and SOUTHLAND (NBC Thursdays 10P). THE UNUSUALS was the better, though the announced premise – a special police squad assigned to unusual cases – didn't really show up in the show; the show's basically a more serious, conspiracy-inflected version of BARNEY MILLER, where all the cases are wacky. Or a lighter version of NYPD BLUE, take your pick. A lot of good talent in it, though, including Adam Goldberg, Harold Perrineau, Terry Kinney and Jeremy Rennet. And Amber Tamblyn, entertaining for a change, as rich girl turned cop, who learns she's been imported by Kinney to investigate her own squad, starting with her partner Rennet. An endless string of "unusual" cases could get tiring, but the talent's the main draw, and it's the actors on whom the show will live or die. SOUTHLAND's focal character, a rookie patrol cop played by THE OC's Ben Mackenzie, is, oddly, also a rich boy turned cop, but the mood on SOUTHLAND is far more dire. The pitch is easy to imagine: "It's like HILL ST. BLUES done as THE SHIELD. But with good cops!" And teeth really, really grit. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop them from including really stupid things just for the sake of plot points? Is a veteran cop seriously going to ignore his own safety and haul off a murder suspect gangbanger without patting him down first, just to bust a rookie's chops? The setup's a con job; they spend a good part of the episode marking the veteran cop as a racist, sexist creep, so of course he'll casually ignore procedure and get shot for his efforts. And we'll feel it's what he deserves for his attitude. I don't buy it, and it was just dumb enough to put me off the show. That and the (smog?) haze smearing all the camerawork. I know it's intended to feel like life, but it feels like the bad side of life as imagined in Beverly Hills.

One of the goofier software products I've seen offered lately. I never really expected to see anyone trying to give Microsoft's Songsmith a run for its money... (Not an endorsement of either product, by the way, though I strongly endorse watching the hilariously cheesy Songsmith ad if you can still find it anywhere.)

By the way, I see the latest riff from the right is that Obama hates Christians. How do we know? Well, first he cut ties with the right Reverend Wright (you remember, the one who hates America, or so the accusation went), and now he has the audacity to say out loud that there's no state religion in America. Even though we don't. I guess the Christian Right just wants to keep on pretending we do, in the hopes that maybe someday everyone will come to believe it. But, really, can't they find something better to complain about, like how we can have all this lauded government transparency while the Obama administration keeps classifying things as not available to the general public? (Oh, yeah, Obama also apparently is going to surrender America to the Taliban. How do we know? He hasn't dropped a bomb on North Korea yet. I guess there's some kind of logic in there somewhere...)

Hmmm... the former senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission has accused the Federal Government of intentionally and systematically lying about the military response to 9/11, and about what exactly happened that day. Basically validating the "conspiracy theory" drowned out by the much more vocalized one questioning how the towers were really brought down: that standard procedure wasn't followed, orders weren't given, and, in general, parts of the US government took measures to ensure that defenses were down and the planes weren't stopped. Is it time to open a new, completely independent commission?

That Spanish prosecution (oh, hell, let's say it: inquisition; at least it's the right usage) I mentioned a couple weeks back of Ghost administration officials all the way up to Attorney General (and former Ghost personal attorney) Alberto Gonzales for authorizing and abetting torture is no longer theoretical: it's in the Spanish courts. And, yes, by international law, they do have a claim to jurisdiction. Potential bad news for those accused is that the Obama administration would rather have good relations with Spain that make an issue of the matter... In a connected matter, the CIA has announced it has shut down all of its secret "interrogation" facilities in other countries. Considering the announcement is the first official admission that those facilities even existed, how would we know for sure they've been shut down? And are the practices stopped, or are they just "rendering" suspects to Syria for "interrogation" again?

I see last year's market/mortgage/credit crash didn't cure banking firm Goldman-Sachs of cooking the books: they recently announced a $1.8 billion profit – wow, if that doesn't show the economy's in recovery, what does, huh? – without bothering to announce they shifted their reporting period to begin in January, not November, thereby eliminating the very costly month of December from their calculations. But as long as investor confidence is up, all is justified, right? Right?

Congratulations to Simon Keen, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "zodiac." Simon wishes to point your attention to Australia's action figure pop culture site Oz Figurama. Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but I won't hit you over the head with it. Good luck.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

TAGS:  web comics, review

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