When Words Collide: Transformers, Exotic P.I.s & Deathzones

Mon, June 18th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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Transformers in deep purple...

A few months ago, I was talking to someone about the Extreme relaunch at Image, and the overall quality of books like "Prophet" and "Glory," and he mentioned that Ulises Farinas was a name bounced around as possibly part of the re-do on the Extreme comics. Farinas would have been a great choice, with his meticulous style and clean but densely-detailed linework.

At the time, I'd only know Farinas from what I've seen of his work online -- and those images alone were more than impressive -- but I hadn't seen any of his storytelling. I didn't even realize he had drawn 2011's "Transformers: Heart of Darkness" miniseries for IDW.

I tracked down those four issues, eager to see Farinas show off on hardcore robot-on-robot action. I read the first issue last week. And that's as far as I got.

I wouldn't say I'm way outside the Transformers demographic -- whatever that demographic is -- but it's pretty clear this comic wasn't for me.

Here's Ulises Farinas, who draws each individual gear and cog on the transforming robots exposed innards, and he's given a script that reads like it's from a giveaway comic that comes free with a large Coke at Wendy's. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning write this thing, and what I've read of their work at Marvel and DC in the past has shown that they do just fine with space opera and building appropriate climaxes and giving things enough of a twist to keep the reader coming back, even if their stories aren't particularly dripping with substance. Not so much here.

No, "Transformers: Heart of Darkness" #1 is all Galvatron voice-over and statements like "Cyclonus, you fool! You're causing a rockslide!"

Jeffrey Brown can pull off that kind of declaration in "Incredible Change-Bots." In this Transformers comic, it isn't even so sad it's funny. Just deathly dull.

Of course, colorist Andrew Crossley doesn't even let Farinas's work shine through beneath the juvenile, pedestrian script. Crossley kicks his gradients up to max power and purple-hues the hell out of the pages. His agenda seems to be -- and maybe IDW editorial gave him this directive -- "make Farinas's style as close to the glossy toy packaging as possible. The uglier the better." Farinas doesn't stand a chance against the rest of the creative team conspiring to suck the life out of his drawings.

I'd still love to see what he could have done -- or still could do -- on one of the Extreme titles. Put him on Bloodwulf before it's too late.

Carlos Gonzalez gives us Slime Freak

Another comic I read last week -- as my Marvel and DC comics from the past few months are piling up, mostly ignored -- was Carlos Gonzales's final issue of his "Slime Freak" minicomic. Picturebox distributes these minis, and the only other issue I'd ever seen was one I picked up at a Picturebox table at some convention a year or two back. "Slime Freak" #13, the monstrously thick finale of the series, at 88 hand-stapled pages by my count, is a genuine conclusion to what I can only imagine is Gonzales's dream-like opus. (As I said, I've only read one previous issue, so I don't know the shape of the entire narrative.) Even as a single issue "Slime Freak" #13 is worth tracking down, via the Picturebox website, as it explores a futuristic vision that folds layers of existence into one.

Gonzales, based out of Tampa, Florida, according to his own liner notes, works in the C.F. school of naïve cartooning, injected with perhaps a bit more Gary Panter and overtly Jack Kirby design influences in the world-building. It's still hyper-simplistic drawing, no matter the origin, but, at its massive length, "Slime Freak" #13 works as a piece of minimalistically-drawn maximalism. Characters fold back on themselves, as simulacra experience things from other people and other times, blurring the relationship between personal identity and experience. In Gonzales's fictional world, the "electric hive mindset" is more than just a sci-fi device. It's a state of being, a kind of harmonious reality that blends memory into reality, and connects everyone together.

Most importantly "Slime Freak" #13 grasps at trying to say something about its characters and about itself as a work of art, and sometimes that's enough. It's certainly an individual artistic voice, playing off others who have come before, and adding something new to the conversation.

That's not quite true for 1977's "Power Comics" #5, which I'm also lumping in with the others because I read it last week, and it has its own flavor of rawness that has the potential to be charming. It's not actually charming, and that's disappointing, but the newsprint cover and bleeding colors distinctly identify it as a piece from an era far removed from the gloss of 2012's mass-produced comics.

Bluebird stars in "Power Comics"

Published by the Power Comics Company, straight out of Lansing, Michigan, this issue is a remnant of my lingering quasi-obsession with Mike Gustovich's "Justice Machine." Gustovich got his start on "Power Comics," and this issue even features an ad for a "Justice Machine" poster that shows the title predating the characters. In this proto-"Justice Machine," the team looks to be a group of "Power Comics" heavy-hitters, not an all-new creation by Gustovich. We never saw this original incarnation as a team, though. "Power Comics" never made it past issue #5.

By the way, the Power Comics staff, as listed in this issue? Names like Skip Williams, Mike Gustovich, Bill Loebs, Joe Zabel, and the one and only Dave Sim. Sim drew a story for the first issue -- an aardvark tale, fittingly enough, before he'd even started work on "Cerebus" #1 -- but he didn't contribute anything else after that. I don't know what it means that he's still listed as a member of the "staff."

The others are more prominent in this issue, with Joe Zabel -- best known for later drawing a bunch of Harvey Pekar comics -- proving the script for "Power Comics" #5's feature, Bluebird, and Gustovich and Loebs providing the art for at least the first half of the story. Bluebird, according to the opening caption, is a costumed superhero who is also "Detroit's most exotic private detective." Presumably, her exotic nature is revealed by her low-cut top, her tights, and her puffy sleeves. Because other than that, all she does is narrate her actions in thought bubbles and hide and then kick people for most of the issue.

The lettering is typeset, not even always level, and features elliptical faux-sci-fi dialogue that makes "Slime Freak" #13 seem straightforward and precise. "Take her to the surgery chamber," cackles the villain. Because that's what villains do, and it sounds scary, though it's really just an operating room. Later, when Bluebird escapes, she witnesses a femme fatale say, to a pleading bald man, "You have made no errors, faithful one…your only mistake was being born human!"

So that's a comic. From 1977.

Issue #6 promises a team up between Bluebird and Night Witch. But it was never meant to be.

Deadshot speaks for Fiffe

Other than checking in on Shaky Kane's newest "Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred" issue, the super-secret reveal in "Batman" #10, and whatever Brendan McCarthy is up to -- and he's up to a lot -- in the "Zaucer of Zilk," the only other comic I have read recently is Michel Fiffe's "Deathzone!" It's a "Suicide Squad" tribute comic, in case you haven't yet heard of it, complete with a Tucker Stone mini-essay on the inside back cover.

It's appropriate that Fiffe chose to loosely adapt the story from "Suicide Squad" #16-19 for his tribute, because that was an era when Shade the Changing Man was part of the team, and Fiffe has a natural (or well-honed) Steve Ditko quality to his drawings. Fiffe structures the comics around scenes and images rather than a coherent story, though it has the shape of one. But characters come and go, or slip through a dimensional portal and turn into pencil drawings, and none of it really makes any kind of sense. It simulates the feel of the old "Suicide Squad" stories without really providing the linking bits of narrative needed to make it complete. But completeness isn't what "Deathzone!" is all about. It's a gag comic, but the gags are serious bits of nostalgia. It's only at the end that the slapstick comes through, and we get a finish that's true to the classic days of the John Ostrander/Luke McDonnell "Suicide Squad" days but also has the flavor of something out of "The Venture Bros."

The rest of the comic doesn't go for such cheap laughs, and isn't interested in them. Instead, Fiffe seems passionate about recreating something he loved -- probably still loves -- in his own style. A cover version, something a bit different than a straightforward homage.

Does that make "Deathzone!" better than the current "Suicide Squad" comic? Not inherently. Not just because it's a variation on something from twenty four years ago, when the series was at its height. But it is better than the current "Suicide Squad," nevertheless. Fiffe makes sure of it.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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