Friday, March 14, 2008

Comics Are Expensive: COMIC BOOK COMICS #1 and MAINTENANCE #9

Comics Are Expensive is written by noted Expertologist Chris Lamb.

This column didn’t turn out exactly as intended. The original plan was to use this week’s piece to go over all the books I’m currently reading with a Draconian eye, switching to trades on some and dropping others entirely in the name of cutting out the chaff. With all the new things I’ve started reading since starting this column (thanks everybody for the recommendations), I was afraid my reading list might soon be straining the limits of my thirty-dollars-a-week comics budget, leaving little to no room for trying out new titles to talk about each week. I could see this column getting repetitive in a hurry as I strained my already limited reserves of clever in search of new ways to say “remember what happened last issue? Yeah, still happening.” A terrifying prospect, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Fortunately, a few quick calculations revealed I was nowhere near the budgetary red line (funny how math works, huh?). Oh, sure, the occasional big week here or there might push it a bit, but for the most part I’ve got all kinds of room to play with. While some titles are still getting the boot to trades-only (farewell, Angel - your story’s interesting and all, but spending four bucks a month for the dubious pleasure of picking it out of that mud you call art just isn’t worth it any more), I should be able to keep up with the ones I want to follow monthly and try out new books without breaking a sweat.

The current plan (depending on the looks of the shipping list) is to spend next week’s column talking about all new books – or at least, books that are new to me. Any suggestions of things to keep an eye out for would be much appreciated. In the meantime, this week’s column is a bit on the thin side, as the only money I had for comics (or much of anything else) was twenty bucks in store credit at Cosmic Comics. Despite not getting everything I intended (Tiny Titans and Thunderbolts were both left behind for next time), I think I managed to do all right.

Onwards, shall we?


Writer: Fred Van Lente

Artist: Ryan Dunlavey

So what comes next after running rampant through the big names of philosophy? What do you turn your talents to next in order to satisfy a steadily growing audience clamoring for a comic exploring new territory beyond escapism or illustrating somebody’s diary? If you’re Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey of Action Philosophers fame, you look to comics themselves for inspiration – specifically, the rich history of the medium from the first appearance of the Yellow Kid onwards. And you do it with the same accessible humor and love of the material as last time, just for good measure.

Of course, there’s more to Comic Book Comics than just applying a tried and true formula to a new topic. Where Action Philosophers often jumped all over history within a single issue, linking its subjects through such diverse threads as schools of though, countries of origin, or the chance to make an easy joke, Comic Book Comics takes a linear approach to history, taking great care to lay out the players and events shaping those early days and the links tying everything together.

It’s fascinating stuff, taking time out of its journey to explain the importance of things like Outcault’s tremendous storytelling innovation and the effects of the cartoon wars that marked the birth of animation between the Fleisher brothers and Walt Disney and the effect they had on a bunch of young guys named Siegel, Shuster, and Krutzberg (or as he’d later be known, Kirby). No matter how much you know or have heard about the birth of comics, odds are Van Lente and Dunlavey have found room for some fact in here you’ve never heard before.

For all the information being thrown your way, the book never feels too crowded or rushed. The creative team have refined the conservancy of space from Action Philosophers into a science here, establishing a steady pace from the get-go and keeping it throughout without the feeling that anything has slipped through the cracks. Best of all, it never feels like a lecture – the complex and interwoven narrative that is the history of comics comes across with all the casual ease of talking with friends over drinks (only Van Lente and Dunlavey are probably smarter and funnier than most of your friends, so hey, double win).

This is exactly the sort of thing comics need – an easy to grasp, fun to read history of the medium that flouts its achievements while explaining where they came from in the first place. It’s such a painfully obvious idea that I can’t believe nobody’s tried it sooner; but then, I can’t really think of anybody in comics who gets the same thrill out of both the subject matter and the chance to share it with others. That clear sense of joy from the creative team combined with the potential to be one of the more important books since Understanding Comics makes it a good book; the way it reminds me why I love comics so much in the first place makes it a great one.

BUY STATUS: $3.95 would ordinarily be a bit steep for a single issue, but the amount of content here makes it well worth the price of admission. Despite already knowing how it all turns out, I can’t wait to see where the story goes next.


Writer: Jim Massey

Artist: Robbi Rodriguez

Okay, look: I can’t really explain the talking shark. Or the zombie cat. Or the caveman scientist. What I can tell you is that they’ve all come along with Doug and Manny, two maintenance workers for the world’s leading supplier of evil mad science-y stuff, Terrormax Inc., on a secret mission to save receptionist Mendy from an evil alien trying to build his dream girl out of bits and pieces taken from other girls. Does that help any? No? Huh. Well, you can’t say I didn’t try.

This issue of Maintenance is the third part of a story arc that probably/maybe wraps up next issue, and as such is a horrible jumping on point. With that in mind, you could do worse than to hunt down at least issues #7 and #8 to get a better appreciation for what’s going on. Better yet, you could grab the last few issues and the first trade (titled “It’s a Dirty Job...” and out now), which should catch you up on just about everything. The adventurous among you could even throw caution to the wind and dive in right here, trusting that Maintenance is consistently one of the funniest comics around.

This particular storyline is actually promising for a series as whole in that, while earlier issues were mostly one-off adventures involving the horrors of working clean-up for a bunch of mad scientists with nearly limitless resources and a lot of time (and other things) to kill, it’s proof that Doug and Manny are strong enough characters things both rolling and funny over longer narratives. Not that the talking shark doesn’t help, of course.

A large part of that is down to Massey and Rodriguez being genuinely good at milking each and every situation for every ounce of humor lying within. For example, this issue’s running gag with the invisible spaceship parked in an apparent high traffic area is just great, as is the constant bickering amongst the would-be rescuers and improvised action music for when they finally spring into action.

It’s an easy appeal found in every issue so far – no matter what the current plot happening around them is, so much of the fun comes from listening to the characters talk and watching them bounce off each other that they could do quite literally anything and it would still be worth showing up for each month. Comparing it to impov comedy doesn’t feel quite right, this being a comic and all, but that’s the closest I can get to nailing down the feel of any given issue – Massey isn’t just filling the characters mouths with words to spit out and calling it a day, he’s giving them the pace to riff off each other and anything else that stumbles in to their line of sight.

If there’s a problem with the book, it’s the lack of easy access I mentioned from the start. While less of a bother earlier in the series, when each issue was usually a story unto itself, the lack of any sort of recap page or exposition can cheat you out of a lot of the good stuff if it’s your first time with the guys. Doug and Manny are great characters, funny in their own right while still able to sever as straight men to the insanity of their every day lives, and they deserve a proper introduction to the new readers they more than deserve.

BUY STATUS: Maintenance continues to get better with each issue, and I can’t imagine bailing out now. If nothing else, I might miss it when zombie cat finally makes his move.

And that’s it for this week, except to say that both Fantastic Four #555 and Atomic Robo #6 were loads of big fun that I’m very much looking forward to see more of. Recommendations are, as always, appreciated via the comments thread or email to See you next time for a bunch of brand new things to talk about.


  1. Draconian? Do you turn to stone when stabbed?

  2. It's a whole skin condition thing. I don't want to talk about it.

  3. I started reading the column. Got to the cover of Maintenance. Spent about thirty seconds just looking at the cover. Enjoying it. Not what I usually do, but this cover just really worked for me. Started your review and was busting a gut before I was halfway through that first paragraph. Yeah, I think I need to pick up the trade.

  4. Finished the Maintenance trade. Yeah, that was good. If there’s more of the zombie kitten in the next one, I’ll definitely buy it. The hint of kitten in the first one demands it. Oh, and Chris forgot to mention the talking shark’s name: Cobra McPunch. Yeah, baby.

  5. Thank god it isn't just me that thinks the artwork lets the story down in Angel. I love the fact that we have new Angel stories coming through, whether they be via television or print media, but damn... that artwork is hard to take.

    Mind you, it doesn't stop me buying every new issue. I hold out hope that while I continue to support one of my favourite vampires-with-a-soul, the powers that be will come to their senses and send us a new artist. I just don't want the series cancelled before they can.

  6. Patrick - Seriously glad you dug Maintenance, and I can't BELIEVE I left out the shark's name. I massively fail.

    If you check out Amazon and the like, you might be able to find a copy of Death Takes a Holiday, Massey's first comic. Different from Maintenance, and mostly one-page strips, but still really, really funny.

    moviegirl - I'm really glad for new Angel as well (though I kind of wish the current story didn't have to stop every five minutes to introduce another side character from the show), but yeah, the art is a mess. When I got to the end of the first issue I had to flip back an earlier image to make sure the guy at the end was indeed Gun, and even then could only tell because of the piping on his clothes. Last issue was a little easier to look at, but not by much. I want the series to continue (especially as its way better than the first attempt at a post-season five story), and will probably try the singles again eventually, but for now I can wait for the trade.