Busy week this time around, with more than I could actually afford to bring home. I’m starting to think I need to take a moment to assess the books I’m reading issue by issue to get a better idea of what I desperately need to read the moment it arrives and what can wait to be picked up in trade format. That (along with plans to bring more new blood into my reading) will have to wait till another column, however, as there’s plenty to talk about today.
Writer & Artist: Jeff Smith
From page one of Rasl, it’s clear this is exactly the sort of thing Jeff Smith should be following up the incredible success of Bone with – a darker, more adult series, featuring characters and settings from somewhere far away from any place with cow races, talking bugs, or stupid, stupid rat creatures. While I love Bone more than a great many things, I was more than a little afraid of what his next creator-owned work would be after the palette cleanser of Shazam. Fone Bone and friends were a life’s work, after all, starting in the comics section of Smith’s college paper before going on to make him one of the most famous independent comic creators around. The cynical bit (that is, most) of me was worried the temptation to fall back on familiar territory would prove too strong, resulting in something that, while good, would ultimately be more of the same. If this first issue is any indication, I clearly need to stop doing that the thing where I second-guess highly creative people doing something they love.
Which is not to say Bone didn’t have its share of dark or more adult-ish moments. If this first issue is anything to go by, however, then Rasl appears to be a dedicated move towards something a little more mature. For instance, while both books begin with their main characters wandering the desert, the scene here couldn’t be more different – rather than trying to keep his cousins from killing each other, Rasl is alone, beaten and bleeding, looking for all the world like something the cat dragged in, dragged back out, and buried in the backyard.
The flash back to somewhat less messy times doesn’t do much to set him up as a hero, either: our boy’s an art thief with expensive tastes and a bad habit of signing his jobs. There are hints that he’s either not very good at this whole thievery thing or stuck in the middle of a run of bad luck, a problem he gets around through the use of strange machinery and something called the Drift. While it seems to make for a handy exit strategy when the cops are closing in, it’s not without problems of its own – where he ends up and what the trip takes out of him appears to be a bit harder to control than making the jump in the first place. This can be a bit problematic, particularly when the people Rasl (presumably) stole his fancy toys from catch up with him in a strange bar far from home.
My excessive use of qualifiers such as “seems”, “presumably”, and “apparently” isn’t just down to my short attention span – it’s a slower start than you may be used to from Smith, full of questions and not much in the way of answers. Luckily, as fans of Bone and its twists and turns can tell you, this is just the sort of thing he excels at when given the time to tell stories at his leisure. It’s far too early to say if the book will keep its current tone – the sci-fi, near-noirish tone could just as easily drift towards fantasy or any number of directions. However things turn out, though, I’m sure it’ll be okay. Smith has planted enough seeds here to let the story grow down whatever roads it sees fit, and even if some of those fell like familiar territory it’s almost guaranteed to be worth following for a good long while.
BUY STATUS: Dude, it’s a Jeff Smith comic. I’m pretty sure I’m genetically incapable of not buying it.
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: John Romita, Jr.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a book this proud of itself. In addition to the front cover declaring it “the greatest superhero book of ALL TIME!”, the back of the thing is covered in quotes from comic pros and Damon Lindelof, him what does stuff on Lost, declaring it the most wonderful thing ever seen by man or beast. It appears that Mark Millar has never run into a situation where too much hype could hurt, nor has he quite worked out that his particular brand of bombastic, BEST THING EVAH enthusiasm for his own work combined with a cloying, desperate love of any sort of attention from anybody remotely connected to Hollywood has become more than a little grating in the last few years. Wrapped as it is in this blitzkrieg of exclamation points and adulation, it’s hard not to go in to Kick Ass without a handful of preconceived notions. And if more than a few of those notions tend towards annoyance, well, you’d forgive a guy, yeah?
Luckily, these feelings are somewhat tempered by the book itself being good. Not great, not a gift carried down from God himself by angels driving chariots made of chocolate and unicorn horns; not even as good as his Fantastic Four from a couple of weeks ago, but good. The story follows one Dave Lizewski, an average high school nobody in a world much like ours: one devoid of costumed adventurers in colorful outfits, where the only superheroes are found in movies and comics (comics like Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, which Dave thinks is totally awesome – not exactly like our world after all, then). He’s utterly unexceptional, the sort of kid you knew in high school and immediately forgot once that bit of paper touched your hand, except for one little detail: He wants to be a hero. Not when he grows up, mind you, but right now.
So, donning a costume made out of an altered wet suit, he begins to spend his nights on patrol looking for wrongs in need of righting. This being something like the real world, however, he learns two unfortunate lessons in short order: 1), Crime in New York City isn’t nearly as convenient as in, say, Gotham, and 2), when it does happen, it’s probably going to take a little more than a mask and a billy club to sort it out. The results are predictably messy, setting the stage for some event in the next couple of issues sure to set young Dave on the true path to realizing his destiny.
As first issues go, it does the job – meet the character, get the origin out of the way, establish a premise with the potential for something truly unique, and end on a cliffhanger. Whether we get that something remains to be seen, however – this issue is filled with the sort of bad habits responsible for reducing so much of Millar’s “mature” work to thrilling, ultimately shallow displays of hyper-violence that, while a fun ride the first time through, lack any staying power. Dave’s voice is far too much like that of the protagonist from Wanted for comfort, and I’m really not interested in putting up with that sort of vapid snottiness disguised as personality again. It’s a good start, and I’d like to see it go somewhere, but for now I refuse to get excited.
BUY STATUS: In for the next two issues. There’s lots of potential here, but I’m worried Millar’s lesser demons will keep him from ever reaching it.
Writer: Fred Van Lente
Artist: Ryan Dunlavey
If you were to ask me my favorite comic of the last few years, I would without hesitation say Scott Pilgrim. If you were to ask my other favorite comic, however, I...well, I’d most likely keep talking about Scott Pilgrim, going on and on about how the first time reading vol. 2 led to me getting lost on the G train for the better part of an hour and how great vol. 4 was. But if you were very, very patient and more than willing to put up with the one-track nature of my feeble brain, I might eventually get around to remembering how much I absolutely love Action Philosophers and its casual, often hilarious look at some of history’s greatest minds and the stuff what they thought.
Action Philosophers is the definition of easy access – each of its nine issues offers biographies of three (or more) famous philosophers, usually grouped by a common theme or chance to make a cheap joke. You also get a simple and straightforward tour of their most famous works and contributions to philosophy, providing just enough information to entice you into exploring further or at least sound smart at parties. No real bias ever enters into things, and each philosopher is given plenty of room to either shine or come off as crazy on their own merits. More often than not it’s a little of both, but what do you expect from people who think at a professional level?
This volume collects the last two issues of the regular series and the special “Lightning Round” finale, bringing together a whopping nineteen smart guys for your reading pleasure. The book was clearly a labor of love on the part of Lente and Dunlavey, as even the philosophers given the fewest of pages still get their lives laid out in a unique, clever way that leaves more of an impression on you than “person (x) who said thing (y)” for the next time you’re hunting through the shelves at Barnes and Noble for something to enrich yourself with. Up next for the pair is Comic Book Comics, a similar look at the history of – wait for it – comic books supposed to start up in March. If comics are very, very lucky, they can expect the same sort of treatment philosophy found here.
As good as Action Philosophers is on its own, as funny and enlightening as each of its nine issues found time to be, I think what I enjoyed most of about the series is how very unique it is. Lente and Dunlavey wanted to do a comic, and instead of an illustrated diary or remixed heroics, they decided to make that rarest of things: an educational comic that never tries too hard to be cool, never talks down to its readers, and above all never bores. It's a genuinely useful book, one that leaves me happy to have read it for more than just the sake of a good story while pointing out some areas of my life that could do with shoring up. Anybody wanting proof of the medium’s potential could do worse than to start looking right here.
BUY STATUS: There’s nothing more to buy, sadly. Expect something on Comic Book Comics when the series starts next month.
A busy week means there’s not time to talk at length about brought home, so a quick roundup of what else came home:
Teen Titans #56 (McKeever, Barrows): And lo, McKeever has found his voice. Last issue’s calm gives way to the storm in a big way with a full issue of Kid Devil being generally crap in the best possible ways, Nice moments include what happens when you wake up Robin in the middle of the night, Blue Beetle’s laugh, and the sort of consequences you should expect for doing a chest bump. Oh, and our first introduction to the rest of the Terror Titans. Next issue: More hitting!
Captain America #35 (Brubaker, Guice): Bucky’s transformation into Cap continues nicely, as do the Red Skull’s plan. No sign of the firearm this issue, making its existence feel more and more like somebody’s tacked-on idea of cool than an actual evolution of the character. Which is fine. Much like Bendis’ Daredevil at its height, this book continues to show how well superhero comics can pull off serious stories: Captain America is an intense, engaging suspense story of the highest order where the main character happens to have a metal arm and another guy can sort of talk to birds.
JSA #13: I’ve really enjoyed this book since the One Year Later jump, and while I understand the Society’s mandate to find legacy costumes and train them up into proper heroes, things are getting just too crowded for the nice character moments that punctuated earlier issues to survive. That the characters themselves are now commenting on the lack of breathing room leads me to think this is going to change soon, but with so many pieces in need of placing the story is taking its sweet time getting there. I should really be reading this in trades, shouldn’t I? Nice little fight scene at the end, though.
New issues of Angel and Criminal had to stay at the shop due to lack of funds, but I’m definitely grabbing them next week. Same for PS238, the new issue of which I didn’t find till today after checking three different stores. I can’t find Atomic Robo for the life of me, leading me to suspect you people made it up just to drive me crazy. If you live in New York City and know where I can find a copy, please give a shout. Reading suggestions are always welcome in the comments or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.