Spandexless Reads | 06-30-2012 / by Alec Berry


If you haven't read that Ed Brubaker interview, well, get on that. Then come on back and read our scribbles. But, seriously, I walked away from that interview excited. Because Brubaker's been a favorite of mine for years now, and to see a guy in his position say "enough's enough" and make a move to work on his own, well, it's awesome to see. As the year of the "creator revolution" or whatever, that is certainly a specific, and huge, moment.

But, hey, this column.

This week, I write about Dark Horse's 2009 Noir anthology while Shawn Starr spills all sorts of praise on Josh Simmon's The Furry Trap. On manga, Rick Vance tackles Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Joey Aulisio balances it all out with his return and a few capsule reviews.

All for you, reader.

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Alec Berry / perpetrator

Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics / Various / Dark Horse / 2009

I’m not exactly sure what book kicked off last decade’s crime comicbook revival (Powers, probably), but 2009 was most definitely the peak of said “movement,” the year when crime went commercial and quickly lost its inseparable edge.

I remember this because that was the year I went diehard for the shit. Everything and anything that had to do with crime (minus the real thing) I immediately sucked up and deemed priority. I went from watching few movies ever to hand writing a must watch list containing anything from Out of the Past to Heat, and if I ever caught sight of a trench coat or dark alley on a comic book cover, said comic was bought. Ross MacDonald and Dashiell Hammet were also read, to a degree, and I even went as far as to brag to my friends that I was an expert on the genre in question when in reality, I was then, and still am, far, far from it. But I doubt they were very impressed to begin with.

But no matter my involvement, and as true as my enthusiasm may have been, this was sort of all spurred on by the growing popularity of the genre in my medium of choice: comicbooks.  Books like 100 Bullets, Powers and Criminal spent the 2000’s redefining the genre for comics, and while an entire essay or more could be written on such a topic, I’ll just skip ahead and say this redefinition culminated in 2009. It’s the year the trend caught on and died, but not before the industry gave us such things as Vertigo’s line of crime graphic novels, Marvel Noir (the nail in the coffin), Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (which is really more than a cheap gimmick, but just go with it for the fact it’s another big crime project released in the year 2009) and this: Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics published by Dark Horse.

My memory of this has mostly been of it being a disappointment, and after a revisit just this week I still find Noir to be as bad as my recollection deems it. It’s underwhelming when you consider the list of talented creators involved. I placed a lot of hope on this project at the time of its release – hoping it would somehow be the next great anthology – but really all I read was another mediocre one, which makes Noir a comfortable member of today’s usual anthology output.

Most of the authors in this collection try to place a spin on the crime story or the concept of what a crime is, but really none of them land anything but a failed attempt. It’s really the guys who stick to the classic components, like Lapham, Brubaker and Azzarello, who produce anything memorable. I don’t find this to be a point scored for the argument of classicism or anything, just that the people being ambitious didn’t have the skill to pull it through. There’s no greater theme there. Some people just blew it, is all.

But they blew it enough. Because after reading this, my unstoppable interest for all things crime noir stopped. I already knew crime did not equal quality, but the blatancy of this project – from the title to the Georges Bataille quote on the inside cover – only reassured the point. Where Marvel Noir was the ultimate gimmick, Dark Horse’s book represented this common interest of the time. It attempted to showcase the best of said interest, but in the end, Noir really only shed light on an unhealthy curiosity. Because everyone wanted to tell a crime story, everyone wanted to script that gravely narration, and everyone wanted the twist ending, but only few people’s voices and styles of storytelling were suited for such things.

Noir spotlights a handful of people dubbing crime fiction characteristics over stories strongly penned in their individual styles, and while it’s nice to see all of them attempt, what really presents itself is this weird sense of “hey, I can do it too!” that’s stated like a true six year old.  It’s really just a collection of stories confused about their identities, as a guy like Jeff Lemire attempts to meld his sullen country boy routine to a cold-blooded plot.

Or when M.K. Perker marries Turkish culture with mass murder.

Or when Paul Grist does Paul Grist but on a detective story (Kane goes farther back than this project, I know, but in here, at least, it doesn’t do much).

And there’s also the desire to land the EC Comics fucked up twist ending, but when Chris Offutt or Gary Phllips go for it, the attempts only come off as cheap and highly derivative.

What happened here was this: Dark Horse editors picked the hot contributors – or the ones they could get – and said, “tell us a crime story. people like those right now,” and the creators did, but what Dark Horse failed to realize was that even though they handpicked the “hot” creators, they did not handpick “hot” creators who were also “hot” crime storytellers. Those editors went name above suitability to the project, so it’s really no surprise we got what we got.

But, for the select few who were suited, well, those stories worked.

Brubaker and Phillips Criminal insert carries the same pedigree as the all the mini series. The pacing’s on key, and even when the duo arrives at their own twist ending, things work out because throughout their however many pages, they’ve earned such an ending.

Azzarello works within a gimmick, but when Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon present it, the story loosens its grip on the safety net and trusts itself, as a story, to do the job. Plus, Azzarello’s script doesn’t exactly force the surprise ending or shoehorn the catch. Instead, his pacing and dialogue let the reader arrive at the premise, making it more of an involved short story.

But the best of the collection resides in David Lapham’s “Open the Goddamn Box,” in which a young girl widdles her way out of a terrible situation through a sharp tongue and tensions on the side of her captors. What’s impressive about it, though, beside pure visceral reaction or the skill of Lapham’s line work is the story’s ability to really place you in a world in such a short amount of time. Lapham works within ten pages, but in those ten pages you really get an idea of who the three characters are – from background to now – as well as what the world they inhabit is particularly like. A lot of this comes down to pacing, obviously, so the author adjusts his grids on each page to accommodate such a thing. If you look at it, Lapham uses a majority of eight panels per page, and while design isn’t exactly a main concern, they do fine tune all the needed  beats of the narrative. Old fashioned storytelling for a comic book, but Lapham proves that its functionality still works now more than ever.

For those three stories alone, Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics is kind of worth picking up – especially at a discount. But you do have to sort through a heavy handful of mediocre imitations. Because that’s mostly what Noir is: imitations.

As for the crime comicbook, the genre still pleases many people, and guys like Brubaker and Phillips continue to produce some of the best. The trend subsided, though, thankfully, but science fiction, with books like Prophet and Saga, may be making a comeback. Who knows where that may lead.

- - - capsules

Joey Aulisio / lady killer

The Bulletproof Coffin #5 | David Hine, Shaky Kane | Image

Continuing the narrative experiment of last issue, Hine and Kane delve deeper into the single issue artifact nature of this series by telling a story through a series of playing cards from a long lost and deleted deck dubbed “The Hateful Dead”.  Images of Vietnamese jungles, burning wreckage, slaughtered soldiers, tortured women, and malicious zombies are strewn about the pages. Kane illustrates all this with an earnest silliness that highlights the inherent absurdity of not only “zombie comics” but “war comics” as well. Truly channeling the best of what EC Comics had to offer, finding the humor in the horrible and vice versa.

What Hine and Kane manage to do with loosely connected static images still feels far more kinetic than most modern sequential comics. There’s an attitude to their work together that is so refreshing and unique, and maybe it’s just the gaudy coloring talking but two years later and Bulletproof Coffin still feels like the freshest thing on the stands.

Joey Aulisio / "alec isn't funny"

The Strain #5  | David Lapham, Mike Huddleston (adaptation), Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan (novel) | Dark Horse

What Dark Horse has managed to do here is actually quite amazing; they managed to make a prose to comics adaptation that is actually worth the time and money invested into reading it. A big reason this adaptation works where so many others fail is that they managed to find two creators who are well suited to the material and let them go nuts on it (who knew it was that easy ?).

Mike Huddleston (of Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker fame) continues to show why he has been one of the most talked about artists in comics the last few years with his stunning page design and beautifully grotesque figure work. Huddleston who is not coloring himself on this project with his signature psychedelic palette is instead handled ably by Dan Jackson whose rather direct black and red color choices help illustrate just how suited Huddleston is to horror and bringing Del Toro’s visuals to the printed page.

David Lapham (of Stray Bullets fame) handles the adaptation and like on his own writer/artist work manages to zero in on the truly hideous and detestable instincts of humanity (or in this case the undead as well). The two together manage to elevate what could have been a mediocre forgettable mini-series into one of the most interesting comics being published right now.

- - - america is not the world: off to a valley of the wind

Rick Vance / like Shawn Starr, has a blog

In some ways this series is much easier to talk about, unlike Tezuka with his chameleon nature to shift the tone of a story on the drop of a hat. Hayao Miyazaki is a guy who very much tells excellent variations on a similar theme, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is no exception. Not to mention the films of Studio Ghibli, especially the ones with Miyazaki's direct hand involved, are at a level where I think most people have a grasp on the kind of stories he does.

Nausicaa, however, takes that very Ghibli story and uses the medium and length of time of creation to greatly expand the themes, characters, scope, scale, and stakes of the story to such a level that it easily dwarfs all the movies. This would be a good time to go into some history because it plays into how the story evolves and changes.

Nausicaa began in 1982, and the film version came out in 1984 and covers a condensed version of the first two volumes, then Ghibli was formed and continued with 86's Laputa: Castle in the Sky, 88's My Neighbor Totoro, 89's Kiki's Delivery Service and 92's Porco Rosso, before the Nausicaa manga is completed two years later in 1994.

The series is about Nausicaa the princess from the Valley of the Wind and her quest out into the world to both experience it and try to quell the violence and strife that cover the land in both the theaters of war and in the relationship between people and nature, meet an ever growing cast of interesting characters, learn more about the world, come to grips with human nature and the cycles of the world, have kick ass sword fights and glide through the skies on the wind.

Nausicaa is very unlike a great deal of comics because Miyazaki is unlike a great deal of artists; his work is straight pencils and according to reports, is less helped with assistants than what is common in manga. His comics look like they could perfectly fit in the original run of Metal Hurlant, if only the pages were not right-to-left. Adding to that, the general aesthetic of the comic doesn't bear much Japanese influence. On the surface, it resembles a more Medieval European look mixed with Herbert's Dune.

Nausicaa as a character is interesting because, from the opening in her idyllic home of the Valley of the Wind as she is thrust out into the more grey areas of the world, she is living on the premise that she has no problems whatsoever, showcasing how her decisions are not always correct or how her nature can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. She learns as the series continues and comes to grips with decisions she is forced to make to stay alive to succeed in her goals. She is human; therefore, the pure white outlook she takes out of the Valley is dyed and grayed even as her outfit is stained with blood. This doesn't lead to her giving up, though. In fact, her conviction becomes stronger as the series goes on, and she accepts the grey nature of the world and that we make our world through everything pure and corrupt, black and the white, and that anything else would not be a real life. While I do love his films though they never push past that bit where Nature seemingly takes over, Nausicaa does, showing that there is no winning or losing in this. There is survival and death.

The scale scope and grand nature of the story is enhanced by the focus on supporting players who hail from all walks of life, factions, genders and ages. Like how Miyazaki doesn't hold back from the stakes for the main character, he accurately portrays the results of this threefold war on people of all stations of life in a level of graphic violence, terror and horror that is really unlike anything else he has done. The book has moments of comedy unlike any I have seen from the creator. One scene in particular - a very gallows scene involving a severed head - is one I don't want to give away.

While this brutality is happening the series manages to keep the wind-blown airy quality of the art that moves into how the characters move through the pages, this action scene for example.

It is a duel to death from the first volume, yet it still reads elegant and visceral and it's astounding to be able to capture those things in an action scene at the same time. This pertains to the entire comic, the way he captures objects in flight or motion is magical.

The series also has strong roots in the incorporation of the past to propel the future; the world is built on the ruins of the civilization that preceded it using the technology found to run their machines. The large forest's 'Sea of Corruption' is a forest that builds upon itself as it purifies the lower levels. The war that sets the story is centered around ancient knowledge and the power gained from it. The religion of one the factions is an amalgamation / telephone game version of the original version that has recently been thought to be expunged by the ruling class.

"To see with eyes unclouded by hate" is the mission statement of Prince Ashitaka from the film Miyazaki made directly after finishing this manga, and it directly relates to the overall theme of this series. There is shit in this world: people act like shit, human nature is not always the most pure, yet there is still great to be found even in that impurity. That impurity is what makes us human, the darker the shadows, the brighter the light must be.

One final aside ... since I found this cool from a production stand point, some manga try to translate the SFX on the page, yet this book leaves them intact and then has a glossary of the SFX and their translation to English along with page / panel they appear. I found this cool, also it fold outs under the covers that either give world maps or ecological details pertaining to the life in the book.

- - - seduction of the innocent

Shawn Starr / wants you to die

The Furry Trap is what your parents warned you about. It's what Fredric Wertham warned America about. And it's what comics have desperately needed for a long, long time. It's funny, brutal, obscene, demented, subversive, horrific and everything else that the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was told comics could be, but never were. Simmons takes the best of Johnny Ryan's work, its rawness and "burn the world to the ground" humor, and adds another layer of dread and sophistication to it, creating a work that is somehow even more profane. Every page flip is done with the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen, but where Simmons excels is that you're left unsure if  the next page is going to show an image that will disturb your very core, or make you cry with laughter. He turns the flipping of a page into an act of abject horror.

With the exception of a "little" soliciting hiccup, nothing in this book's content could be confused with an all-ages work. The slasher movie inspired bloody footprint trail on the front cover, the nude blood drenched figures on the back cover and the stark red "ADULTS ONLY" underneath, all make this fact explicit. This book is not for children, but yet, for those first five pages of In The Land Of Magic, it very well may be, and that's the horrifying thing. Everything about the book as a physical object tells you it won't be, but the first story in this collection subverts your expectations for just long enough to make you wonder "what's the big deal? this just looks like some more of that sword and sorcery bullshit all those kids are into," and then everything goes wrong. A dragon is disemboweled on panel and the evil wizard is throat-raped over the course of eight pages by the handsome prince who keeps insisting that it's "SO FUCKING GOOD" even though all you want to do is go hide behind a bush like his fairy princess and forget any of this ever happened. But Simmons won't let you, because this is just the beginning of what’s to come. A template.

Simmons takes the normal, the stale, and adds an "edge" like none other, taking the tropes of each genre to the edge of a sharp cliff and then hurling them off so he can re-examine their splattered remains. Stories of leaving "A land of beauty...A land of wonder...A land of magic" and coming upon something darker, become more than just "kinda moody" pieces of literature under Simmons pen, they become apocalyptic.

Batman, the most brooding and dark character in comics for the past thirty years is taken one step further, past the fascist fantasy of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, and into the realm of the Joker in Mark of the Bat. If as so many people tell me, the Joker is simply an inversion of Batman then what could possibly be darker than turning Batman into the him and not, as in, The Killing Joke were the two are merely equated. I mean he becomes the Joker. Batman creates a device to maim and mutilate his victims by removing the skin from their jaw and putting a permanent "smile" on their faces. A mark of the bat to distinguish them from the good. Dreamed up on the rooftops he now calls home.

And the record spins on and on. Chester Brown surrealist horror stories turn into the next arc of Crossed staring a character named Cockbone who ejaculates a intoxicating drug that’s described as an “eight hour trip to heaven” by his mother. Local legends turn into tales of acceptance just before everyone's ripped limb from limb, and a trip to the movies ends with someone shoving blood drenched shit on the main-characters pants. Simmons brings the edge, and no one else can match him.

It's The Furry Trap, and the fun begins now.

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go buy the book Shawn wrote about.

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