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Comics roundup

Fables: The Mean SeasonsSupreme Power: Powers & PrincipalitiesFireDaredevil: Golden Age

I haven't read any comics for a few months, and when I do I don't usually comment on them, but a recent influx of titles and lack of other things to talk about remedies that.

Fables by Bill Willingham and a collection of artists isn't the Sandman rip-off that I thought it would be given its premise - fairytale characters living a hidden life in present-date New York. Sure there are similarities in subject matter and theme, but the title has its own distinctive tone. The quality of the prose isn't up to Gaiman's standards but the stories are engaging nonetheless, arguably more of a fun ride than Gaiman's tales, if not as innovative.

Willingham has created a large, interesting cast of characters led by Snow White, even more practical than I remember her from my youth, and "Bigby" Wolf, who's just as big but not as bad as he's made out to be in the fairy tales. I like the conceit that the same Prince Charming married, in turn, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella - then divorced all of them, leaving the three women little in common but to bitch about him over coffee. The five trade volumes to date have dealt with murder, insurrection, romance and war, with war being the dominant recurring theme. The fifth and latest collection The Mean Seasons is still worth reading but it seems like Willingham is marking time and setting things up for events down the line. Given how engrossed I was by volumes one through four, I'll be looking forward to how the tale will spin out. Fables really deserves an in-depth review and maybe one day I'll get around to writing it.

Supreme Power by J Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank is a revisionist take on the old Marvel title Squadron Supreme which was in turn a nod and a wink to DC's Justice League of America. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Green Lantern are of course much more iconic characters than their Marvel counterparts so Supreme Power comes off more like a revisionist JLA than SS. I really enjoyed JMS's subversive take in the first volume when I read it a few months ago, but the follow-up, Powers & Principalities, doesn't have the same punch. Perhaps it's because the central conceit has lost impact and the story now has to stand on its own merits. Still, Powers & Principalities isn't as overwritten as some of Straczynski's other works. I should really pick up the last volume of the finally-concluded Rising Stars which deals with many of the same concerns. The art by Gary Frank and John Sibal is fine - high quality "standard" comic book fare.

I was introduced to, and taken, by Brian Michael Bendis via his graphic novel Torso (co-written by Marc Andreyko), and Powers is for my money the most interesting comic written today. Conversely, I couldn't get into his acclaimed title Jinx at all, to the point where I never even finished reading it.

Fire, the work that first drew Bendis notice, is somewhere between these two extremes. The storytelling isn't quite as clear as in Powers which could either be because it's an early work or because the spy thriller genre dictates a certain level of obscurity.

The art is stark and scratchy, somewhere between Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean, but suitably moody. The 2001 Image Comics edition has been "remastered" by Bendis, changing a bit of dialogue, cleaning up some of the art and completely redoing all of the lettering. Judging by the panels included as a comparison this was definitely A Good Thing.

Bendis writes more mainstream superhero fare as well and I picked up the Daredevil: Golden Age collection on a whim. I'm sure I'm not alone when I consider the golden age of Daredevil to be Frank Miller's run about twenty years ago, but this stacks up pretty well. I didn't realise it at first but Bendis has been writing this title for quite a while and Golden Age is the eleventh collection under his tenure. As such as well as the main self-contained story arc there are threads that are part of the ongoing series.

It seems that recently Matt Murdock was "outed" as Daredevil and he now has to split his time between denying this (true) allegation and fighting crime. While this is going on Alexander Bont, New York's Kingpin of Crime from the 40s, has returned from a long stint in prison ready to wreak his revenge on the man who sent him there sometime in the 60s or 70s. As most readers know, comic book time doesn't work like normal time so there's some nimble footwork (read deliberate vagueness) about when exactly Bont's rise and fall occured, and The Golden Age blithely ignores how Murdock is still a young man today even though Bont is now in his 90s.

Unlike Fire the storytelling is clear even though the plot is complex. Not only do events unfold over three distinct eras - very long ago (40s), long ago (60s or 70s), and today - but the "today" segments are further subdivided into different time settings - weeks ago, days ago, yesterday etc. Yet the chronology of events never gets lost.

One way Bendis, artist Alex Maleev and colourist Dave Stewart achieve this is by emulating the comic book art style of the time the story is set (thereby justifying the arc's title). So the 40s are presented in black and white, the 60s/70s look overtly "dotty" as if separated by early 4-colour plastic sheets, and the modern sequences have the painterly look brought to life by today's sophisticated technology. I've seen this technique used once before, briefly, in Neil Gaiman's 1602 but never as a central narrative device. (And in any case I'm not sure whether Gaiman or Bendis used it first.) Despite its ostentatious post-modernism, the schtick worked for me and didn't really take me out of the story. Perhaps because I read a lot of black and white titles so the lack of colour didn't clash, and because I'm old enough to remember those primitive separations fondly. Like Alan Moore in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, The Golden Age banks on its readers' nostalgia to lend weight to his story (even though, like Moore's Watchmen this nostalgia is artificially induced).

Maleev's art is suitably gritty and atmospheric in the scenes where people are milling or talking, but his depiction of combat is stilted and posed.

Of the four titles I enjoyed The Golden Age the most. Yet when I had the opportunity yesterday to pick up other Bendis Daredevil collections I passed. Wonder why that is...


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 8, 2005 8:46 PM.

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