Benjamin Marra and I talk about Rambo: First Blood Part II.

For The House Next Door's "Summer of '85" series, Benjamin Marra (Night Business, Gangsta Rap Posse, Lil B album covers) and I discussed Rambo: First Blood Part II. Go read it!
Brandon Soderberg: Let's talk about the waterfall scene towards the end because it inspired this discussion. Basically, Benjamin was part of a panel at the Small Press Expo (SPX) called “The New Action” that was talking to “indie” creators engaged with more visceral narrative styles. At one point in the discussion, Benjamin just kinda lovingly describes the scene, late in Rambo: First Blood Part II, where Rambo fires this explosive arrow at this guy on a waterfall and there's like one killer beat between the arrow launching and the explosion and then—blam! The guy just gets decimated.

Benjamin Marra: Yeah, that whole scene really resonates with me. I really love it. The music, the way it's edited, it all just really sticks in my head. I think the scene is emblematic of the action movies around that time. Death Wish 3, Cobra, Commando, The Running Man, Invasion USA, Red Dawn, feel, through the prism of time, completely bizarre. I get the feeling they were constructed without any self-awareness. I can only speculate really that what occurred in those movies at the time they came out was totally acceptable and normal action. That's at least how I felt about them, but I was pretty young. If any of those movies were released today, they'd probably be perceived as satire.


Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #1 “The Battle of the Hawk’s Mouse & The Fox’s Mouse”

David Petersen’s Mouse Guard: Fall and Winter draws you in with the art and keeps you reading with the story. That may sound simple, but so many comics these days do one or the other--and just as many do neither. Petersen constructs his universe with a Tolkien-like precision and then, stuffs it full of realism and adventure. Instead of magic and monsters, Mouse Guard is populated with the animals that surround us every day. Maps, and world building details--and even the characters' way of speaking--provide glimpses into the much larger world of Mouse Guard. The overall effect is akin to being in high school Social Studies and that one bit of cultural anthropology or off-to-the-side history that sticks with you and sends you to the library to do your own amateur nerd research.

Despite Petersen's rarefied, handmade world, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard shows the comic handed over to other creators. The legends work with varied degrees of success, but it's always interesting and unsurprisingly, the more these stories have in common with Petersen's Mouse Guard, the better. Jeremy Bastian’s legend “The Battle of the Hawk’s Mouse & The Fox’s Mouse” continues Petersen’s focus on realism and universe, but adds in some classic fairy tale elements into the mix as well. It’s really an origin story, but Bastian makes the ending very close to being a parable or fable--and the simple fact that the story has plenty of different interacting brings up memories of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
The structure of “Battle” is delicately balanced, with each strand of narrative carrying individual meaning that both supports the story and Petersen’s universe. It's formally perfect, with everything lining up or counter-acting. In "Battle", two opposing feudal states of the Fox and Hawk are set up the same with minor differences and the same goes with their mouse underlings. Each mouse servant is allowed to keep one companion mouse. One chooses a wife while the other chooses a son.

The pages where each mouse and their predicament are presented have mirror layouts and are reminiscent of Petersen’s Social Studies textbook tone. Looking at the pages is almost like looking at arrangements of “typical period costumes” in history textbooks. The strong parallels between opposite sides supports the story in its final panels when the mice come together and realize for the first time that they are really all on the same side.
Bastian’s art has the same supportive effect. He is more detailed oriented than Petersen giving his story a distinct ancient quality. It also respects the power Petersen has placed in the carnivores that populate his world. It enhances the story by providing a gravitas to the potential origin of the Mouse Guard.

An interesting subtext in the story the way it subtlety presents a balanced view of history. It takes place in a time before any mouse civilization and is heavily described by the narrator as being complete chaos. Despite the grim description of the time period, the hawk’s mouse and the fox’s mouse both have extremely intricate clothes and weapons giving the impression of some sort of structure to the society. It reinforces the idea of the story that mice have a great potential, but it also reflects how people think of the past in terms of lack of current technologies or societal institutions and not in terms of the actual daily life of that age.

The narrator comments at one point that even though this special arrangement between predator and prey is tyrannical it was still a better alternative to the other options the mice had. It's a smart way for Bastian to humanize the time period and to basically say to judge the past on it's own terms.

The other stories in issue #1 are enjoyable, but don't carry the same weight as Bastian's. They feel like they could have been told anywhere whereas Bastian's inhabits the Mouse Guard universe and fully understands what makes Mouse Guard worth reading. The art in "Battle" is clearly gripping, but the focus on the humdrum details of daily life of the characters in between their adventures is what makes Mouse Guard stand out from other animal personified adventure comics.


White Box Hero: Gringo #1

Everybody here at "Are You A Serious Comic Book Reader?" is the type of comics nerd to spend two hours flipping through a quarter box of comics with the hope that there will be at least something sorta cool in there. Every once in a while, the nerdity pays off and you end up with something greater than you could've ever expected...a white box hero!

In the strangely forthright introduction to Gringo, writer Kyle Garrett tells readers that the intention of the issue is to “test the waters” for future Caliber western comics. Why this one-shot Western comic put out by Caliber in March 1990 even has an introduction is the first of too many times you'll say “what the hell” if you read through this thing.

Garrett—the perfect surname for a western writer by the way, extra funny because it's a pseudonym for Caliber publisher Gary Reed—also uses this introduction to provide a small but interesting look into the struggles of a comics publisher and comics writer: “Let me tell you, it would've been a lot easier to do a mini-series than just 32 pages. How much can you do in 32 pages when you know you have to place a character in a situation and resolve it in such a short amount of space?” The tension between publisher—it's cheaper, less risky to do a one-shot—and writer—writing a one-shot is tough—isn't one most comics types are willing to address, especially with such sobriety, so that's pretty cool.

A few paragraphs later, Garrett/Reed even wrestles with the anxiety of influence, stating that “one of the hardest things to do with a western is to remove it from the images of the movies.” Gringo's story does read like a western comic raised on the movies—a mysterious stranger who can't remember his past enters a town and helps save the day—but it doesn't feel like one, which you know, is more important anyways--that feeling.

Where Gringo stops having much of anything to do with western movies--and western comics for that matter--is in the art and visual narrative from Wayne Reid. Namely, the comics bounces around from a really rigid, conventional panel design to sudden, awesomely awkward page-high, panel-less whirls of images and dashes of ink. Gringo is is all weird amateur experimentalism, and in its simultaneous adherence to western genre conventions via the story and rejection of expectations with its comics grammar, is one really weird book.

Let's start with Wayne Reid's awesome-terrible style. Everyone in the comic is kinda handsome or like ruggedly beautiful, the men and the women, and they're often rocking like perms, and sometimes their faces are a bit too small for their heads? And sometimes their heads are too small for their bodies? Whatever. In short, he's got a style. An identifiable, tangible style, and like, everybody from Jack Kirby to Gene Colan to Rob Liefeld to Frank Quitely has that and on a good or bad day, some snob could say how any of those guys' art isn't "realistic" or messes with anatomy or is just plain bad, so those asides about Reid are totally not a critique, but a celebration. Nothing else really feels like the art here, even though it might even come off as a bit generic or third-rate, it's really damned consistent and has a scratchy, line-y thing to it that helps to counteract the idealized sexy cowboys.

Maybe the best example of this tension is on the first page of the book: A six-panel, time slowed-down page that shows Gringo, sunbaked, confused, wandering up over a sand dune. The first three panels illustrate a basic elapse of time and then, the small fourth panel gives us a close-up of Gringo.

He's stunned, his eyes all glazed-over, his hair sticking up and messy, all kinds of crap of his face. There's a sincerity to Gringo's face, the result of Reid's bizarre art; the guy looks cherubic, or almost like a baby-faced actor with some B-movie grit and grime slapped across his face, not a guy, even a guy in a comic, who's actually wandered through the desert. And then, just as we're introduced to Gringo, he falls flat on his face. The page's final panel is presumably a few hours later, when Gringo's discovered and taken back a local ranch.

The next page begins with a similar, slowing-down time technique, illustrating Gringo's return to consciousness via four panels that move from black, to hazy indistinct confusion, to comic book clarity. The rest of the page introduces the setting (Ranch De Macido), two of the important characters (Juanita and Manuel), and the fact that Gringo doesn't remember his past...or does he?

The title/credit page comes next, and it's the first of many panel-less inky whirl of images--dollar store Gene Colan--and in the very corner, Gringo, answering Manuel's question from the previous page ("Hey Gringo, who are you? Where'd you come from?"): "I-I don't know." This page kinda plays on the readers' perception of this comic as goofy and amateur because it's hard to tell what's going on or if you're supposed to take it literally. You're kinda in this zone of "this comic's out there so maybe some shit just doesn't make sense" but, it's all really awesome set-up. Later in the comic, it's revealed that Gringo does indeed remember and so, the page functions as a hint to the reader that he does remember (the cloud of images, his memory), but at first view, it seems more like Gringo's being bombarded with pieces of memory and he can't parse it all out--which is more like actual memory loss, it isn't blank, just the details don't fit together yet. Either way, it's a cool way to represent Gringo's hesitant mind-state.

Let's step back for a second because just three pages in, you're getting a sense of Gringo's kitchen-sink approach to visual narrative. The first page was a word-less sequence. The second page introduces a lot of information but begins with a slowed-down montage pretty much exactly like the one on the page before. Then, the comic opens up into a splash-page. It's all just a little bit too much, like one too many ideas crammed in there. But then you turn the page and it's all straight-forward panels for a while, until another splash page and some weird panel/montage tricks. And then there's a relatively normal page and a panel-less splash page across from a big wordless panel?

There's a nutty structure to the thing. As Gringo goes on, the amount of pages that are "normal" decreases, there's a bunch more oddball splashes and panel-less explosions of images, and even the panel construction gets pretty nuts. More and more pages are based around a main image that's panel-less and then, stuck on top of that, are some typical panels. Again, none of this is groundbreaking or new on its own, but the sheer amount of weird stuff going on, page to page, builds up.

The weirdness really hits its breaking point, appropriately enough, during a duel between Gringo and one of comic's villains, Stoner (I'm purposefully avoiding plot summary because it really doesn't matter). At the top of the page, there's the shit-talking, experience-less Manuel dropping out of the duel, Gringo stepping in for him. It's done in small, wordless, close-up panels.

The middle panel is your classic Western medium wide shot but it's effective and then it gets really effective further down the page, when the panel's copied and reduced and surrounded by the nervous eyes of Gringo and Stoner. It's just like, what?

And then, to increase the tension even more, before the men fire, there's another one of those panel-less splash/memory pages, and then finally, the duel, in another world-less panel.

You turn the page and you get a cool, awkward montage of how the duel plays out--Stoner gets shot--and again, Reid's odd approach to anatomy makes the sequence work. Stoner twists and turns around with each hit and it's awkward and strange-looking, unhinged, not cinematic, or barely cinematic really--a little closer to what a person may look like when they're shot.

After this, Gringo just gets AWESOME as the mysterious cowboy systematically takes revenge on every one of the land-stealing Dardin's men, of which Stoner was one. He throws a guy through a window--the build-up is established through that slow-motion four panel thing again--and then uses a fire-poker to burn Dardin's eyes out. Then, he returns to the ranch to inform Manuel, Juanita, and their father that their farm will be okay and he rides off into the sunset--illustrated with one final, four-panel montage.


Something Old, Something New: Wilson vs. BodyWorld

So yeah, I did a piece on Dan Clowes' Wilson and Dash Shaw's BodyWorld for the Baltimore City Paper this week. There's a ton of other stuff to discuss about these books than what I crammed into a thousand or so words, but my main point is simple: Wilson is pretty much a loathsome waste of time and BodyWorld is just jesus christ amazing.

Primarily I was wrestling with the feelings I had while reading Wilson, which were "Wow, the younger me would've loved this but now I just find it really obnoxious and off-putting." I see why the books works but I don't care. This kind of cynicism, this disdain for everybody--which Clowes undoubtedly has, this isn't as simple as mistakenly reading Wilson as Clowes' voice--makes me uncomfortable and sad. And that's the intention but um, whatever?

When you read it right along with BodyWorld, the books are almost arguing with one another. There's literally no way Shaw was making his book as a response but it works through that lens. BodyWorld's Paulie Panther is very Wilson-like but we end up kinda "getting" him and feeling for him, even though he's a clueless asshole. And then there's the issues of visual narrative and like, a care for the comics form, which Clowes--like Ware--loves and loathes. Dash Shaw just loves comics and it's rushing through the whole damned book. In the review, I compare BodyWorld to Infinite Jest and I mean it!Anyways, click below to read my take on these two graphic novels...
"Every year--at least since Art Spiegelman's Maus, and most certainly by the time Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was a bookstore-ready hardcover--a few sophisticated, sprawling comic books make their way out of the alt-comics echo chamber and into the mainstream. Last year it was David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp and R. Crumb's Book of Genesis; April alone saw the release of Daniel Clowes' Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly) and Dash Shaw's BodyWorld (Pantheon). Though it won't replace the great American novel anytime soon, the past 20 years have certainly witnessed the rise of the great American graphic novel.

Both Wilson and BodyWorld are graphic novels in the loaded, fancy sense of the term, but each book also subtly defies the expectations for the kind of smarty-pants comics that get write-ups in magazines and, well, free alternative weeklies. Clowes' collection of depressive joke strips--a parody of the Sunday funnies--about a middle-aged, out of touch douchebag, shuns comics' recent fascination with the grand statement, opting for a terse take on America in the aughts. It feels like a relic from an earlier indie comics era when every release didn't have to swing for the fences. Shaw follows up 2008's Bottomless Belly Button--a 720 pager about divorce--with an erotic, pulp-obsessed, 384-page book about a strand of weed that makes you psychic: It's a new kind of comics epic..."


Wake Up, Wake Up It's Best of the Month: May 2010

Return of Bruce Wayne #1 & #2 by Grant Morrison, Chris Sprouse, and Frazier Irving.
Didn't really expect these to be as good as they are, but Morrison always finds ways of taking a "cool" idea and adding extra layers onto it. Here, the layer is Superman's squad time-hopping around, trying to stop Batman from coming back to the present, which. Issue #2 tackles it mostly and artist Frazier Irving draw Superman as thin and vaguely wimpy, which actually goes along well with the hyper-sincere tone Morrison's adopted for Superman since All Star Superman and Final Crisis.

The first issue is just paced perfectly. With not a lot of dialogue, the story moves along really quickly but somehow keeps you fixated on each and every panel too, like there's caves of meaning in every sequence. And it uses simple comics tricks, like weird colored skys and backgrounds to enhance the time travel element of the story, and make the world of the cavemen seem like it's forever on the verge of violence. Little tricks like reversing expectation and having Bruce Wayne's speech incomprehensible and not the cavemen is subtle and just good, smart comic book stuff.

Issue #2 pumps up the dialogue and almost lost me in the mix a couple of times, but as the issue pushes on it picks up steam. Things become more frenetic for both Superman and Bruce towards the end of the issue and Morrison/Irving do a good job of slowly modulating the pace as it goes on. Throwing in these hints of the Batman/DC history we all know, such as Bruce's familiarity with the cave and Annie's Wonder Woman connection are once again, fun comics nerd things but they also highlight the sad, fleeting connections that this dip through time allows.

Spider-Man Fever #2 by Brendan McCarthy.
A big improvement over the clunky first issue, this issue sheds most of the weak humor of the first issue and replaces it with more intense images that are spooky, bizarre, and even, strangely beautiful. The plot now revealed, McCarthy sinks his teeth into the meat of the story with Spider-Man and Dr. Strange on duel quests in a bizarre magical realm.

The story actually retells Spider-Man's origin as a magical event and not a science-based one--which is actually a pretty ballsy move, even out of continuity. It turns out the spider that bit him is part of the weird spider cult that has abducted him in this magical realm--or something--and he's creepily turning into a giant spider, kind of like the six-armed Spider-Man in the 90s cartoon.

Strange's and Spider-Man story go well together, each having to deal with the inhabitants of this odd territory and both making it work. Strange is obviously in his magical element, but Spider-Man feels oddly at home too, hanging out with spiders and the nomad/wanderer look really works with his character.

Wolverine #900 by Various.
The curiously numbered Wolverine #900 is just Wolverine doing what he does best: one shots. The issue is crammed with 104 pages and a bunch of solid, one-shot stories. There seems to be a never ending stream of sad ass Wolverine one-shots, and this issue dares you to get tired of them, but it's one of those things that only the most obsequious comics nerd gets mad about--too much of a good thing.

The stand out tale is by far the Wells/Rivera "Birthday Boy." Wells' Wolverine has a palpable inner sadness that's in lots of Wolverine stories but is sensitively done here. Wolverine's emotionally locked away, aware of his position in the world as a killer and maybe murderer and struggling with it. Basically, Wolverine gets Spider-Man to hang out with him because Spider-Man's a decent guy and sees the good in Wolverine, and he doesn't want to feel like a shit on this night.

Wolverine and Spider-Man are philosophical opposites--Spider-Man as a young naive "Good Guy" and Wolverine as a proud cynical hard-ass--and as the story progresses, you get glimpses of ways they meet in the middle. That's the emotional tension of the story, but the big reveal, the devastating detail that makes this story so great is Wolverine's last-page reveal as to why he convinced Spidey to come out and hang: It's his birthday.

It's borders on sentimentality, but Wells holds back and lets the reader wonder, and even sympathize with Spiderman's whining, until the end when Spiderman finally gets it and feels bad for giving Wolverine a hard time. Rivera's art is perfect as always, and helps add a bunch of little touches that give this story a subtlety and nuance that makes the entire issue worth the $5 price tag.

Free Comic Book Day:
Weathercraft and other Strange Tales by Jim Woodring.
I'm not a big fan of Woodring's Jim or Frank and things are even kinda similar in Weathercraft, but take out the words and replace cute characters with a weird piggy man and things work out pretty well. The plot is told remarkably well for being silent and the whole thing does a good job of focusing on the main character's spiritual-esque journey. The tale could easily be a scene out of the movie Holy Mountain or something, particularly the comic book transcendent ending in which Weathercraft's absorbed by the space around him. It has the same sort of uncomfortable power of Jodorowsky's film.

Iron Man/Thor by Matt Fraction and John Romita Jr.
Just a well characterized, drawn, and composed, team-up of two characters who spend a lot of time in each other's company but don't necessarily interact all that often. They always seem to be fighting and yelling and never just have a conversation. Similar to "Birthday Boy", here are two characters who are really different and nearly opposites just hanging out. Thor's old fashioned and his power comes from an inner strength, while Iron Man basically lives in the future and his power comes from his ability to be on the bleeding-edge of technology.

Although they clash in certain respects, they end up complimenting each other as a team. The story's subtext highlights Thor as a God which is often forgotten or just kinda accepted without comment in the comics. As Thor talks to Iron Man on the moon, Iron Man suddenly realizes that Thor is talking in space and how every once in a while Thor will just do something impossible like that--because he's a God and all. Like Iron Man 2's characterization of Stark/Iron Man, it breaks down his techno-futurist edge and reveals his knowing, child-like sense of wonder.

Others: Orc Stain #3, King City #8, Joe the Barbarian #5.