Sunday, May 01, 2005

Overdue Books #1

Money’s tight. You and your girlfriend move into a new, more expensive apartment to escape the noises of the 24-hour Jerry Springer show that rages upstairs between the rotating series of neighbors who all seem to attract the same police, the same social workers, and the same debt collectors. Money gets tighter. So much so that you limit yourself to one TPB or GN per month (if that often). You get most of your comics through online swapping. You close down your blog, in part because you can’t afford enough material to say anything particularly relevant. A website you write for announces a relaunch, and of course you want your voice to be right there alongside the other reviewers whose insight you respect and admire, but a reviewer needs material to review. No one’s sending review copies to your silly ass. So. What do you do?

Get a library card.

And there’s really nothing more to the concept behind Overdue Books. I love comics. Want to write about them. No money. Go to library. Libraries don’t make me pay. Commie bastards.

Well, maybe there is a bit more to it. Maybe I was a little surprised to find out just how many comics I found in my local library and wouldn’t mind surprising other readers in regards to what they might find in their own local houses of commie book lending.

And yeah, just maybe reading the columns here at CBG has been nudging me towards a less superhero-centric state of mind. I love my sadomasochistic harbingers of justice and won’t apologize for it, but change is always good unless it includes Herpes. I want to expand my horizons. I want to get as turned on about comics without colorful gloves cracking square jaws as I do when I see a preview pic of Hulk throwing down with Devil Dinosaur. Reading the e-mails between the CBG staff reminds me of a time when I was 11 or so and I sat with my father, my uncle, and my uncle’s friend as they scratched their chins and Hmmm’d and Ah’d at their discourse regarding dense intellectual texts, and I tried to impress them by mentioning I’d read the first few pages of The Silmarillion. The reviewers here spit out names of geniuses so completely alien to me. Dan Clowes? Andy Diggle? Peter Bagge (actually, I knew that name, he wrote a Hulk thing, I think)? Alien names from alien worlds too promising to not explore, and I’ve always been too inferior an explorer to feel comfortable putting my name next to the other guys on this site. Every time they’re gracious enough to allow me some space at CBG, I feel like Teen Wolf at a Hare Chrishna convention. I’ve got hair, they know I’ve got hair, and all I can do is pull it back and spout a bunch of BS about Louis Riel as if I actually read the thing.

And so, with an analogy that was meant as a sincere compliment but will probably get my ass kicked, I give you the first installment of Overdue Books. There’s no common element other than the fact that I found them all in one of my local libraries, and all the titles start with the same letter. This week’s column is brought to you by the letter A. A is for August and ADD and Alternative Comix and Adam Strange (GOD SAVE RANN!).

Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships
Script and Art by Eric Shanower
Published by Image Comics, $19.95 US

After discovering he is one of the Princes of Troy, the young and brash Paris is anything but apprehensive in regards to harnessing his newfound royal privileges. When he hears of King Priam’s desire to have his sister Hesione returned to him from the palace at Salamis, Paris volunteers to bring her back to Troy. Instead of returning Hesione to his father, he uses the opportunity to seduce and capture the beautiful Helen of Sparta, thus laying the groundwork for the Trojan War: a legendary conflict immortalized in The Illiad, leading to the events of The Odyssey, spawning tomes of both literary and historical conjecture, a Monty Python gag involving a wooden bunny, a town in upstate NY with lots of one-way streets, another chance to see Brad Pitt without his shirt, and of course Eric Shanower’s series Age of Bronze. A good chunk of the beginning of Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships focuses on Paris. Raised by the aged herdsman Agelaus, Paris is ignorant of his heritage. After a royal delegation procures a white bull from the old man, Paris forces Agelaus to bring him to Troy so he can find a way to win back the rare beast. Paris defeats Troy’s princes in various contests and when the humiliated brothers threaten to kill Paris, Agelaus is forced to reveal his ward’s true identity in order to save his life.

I was hopelessly bored with the beginning of the volume in spite of Shanower’s wonderful art, and I can’t decide whether it’s due to shoddy storytelling or the simple fact that this tale - young, brash hick boy finds out he’s got a kick-ass lineage and eventually becomes a hero - has become too often regurgitated to seem fresh in any format. Some historical sense diode switched off in my mind, allowed me to forget that Homer actually pre-dates George Lucas, and didn’t let me see young Paris as more than just another goddamn Skywalker.

As the scope of the story broadened, so did my interest. As Thetis races to hide her son Achilles from the coming conflict, and as Menelaus and Agamemnon begin to summon the armies of Greece to their side, the dramas multiply and the overall story becomes that much more enthralling. At first, it can be a little confusing. There are so many alien names in this book, more often than not ending with "us", but as my eyes adjusted to Shanower’s beautiful and historically accurate renderings (at least according to a bunch of blurbs from people who apparently know a lot more than me at the series’ website), the characters became more distinct. Paris revealed himself to be much more complicated than Darth’s goofy kid, due to one of Shanower’s more successful storytelling choices.

While he certainly does not abandon the more supernatural elements of other versions of this story, Shanower refuses to give them the kind of prominence you might expect from a straight reading of The Illiad. For example, when we hear of the contest in which Paris supposedly won Helen - a prize from the Aphrodite for his proclaiming her fairest of the goddesses - Paris says it came to him in a dream. In another example Cheiron, the tutor of Achilles who is a half-man/half-horse or "Centaur" in greek myth, is instead a "Kentaur," without any horse half to his body (he’s just really hairy).

The result is that in Age of Bronze, the conflict is tragic much more in the contemporary sense of the word than the Shakespearean one. So many of the stories of Greco-Roman myth could arguably be boiled down to a phrase like, "If the gods want to fuck with you, you’re a whole buncha fucked," and the story of the Trojan War is no different. By giving readers the freedom to ask questions like "Did Aphrodite really ensnare Helen for Paris, or was he just a good liar?" and "Did Helen’s face really launch a thousand ships, or did the fact that white guys like to kill other white guys and take their stuff launch a thousand ships?" Shanower has given accountability back to the humans, thereby making them that much more interesting and the wider conflict that much more riveting.

The genealogical chart, bibliography, glossary, and list of references at the back of the book should convince readers of the monstrous amount of research done to tell this tale, and the nitpicking helps drive the story rather than bog it down. Remember like Titanic and Smallville, we all know how this thing’s going to end, and a straight guys-charge-a-city-in-cool-splash-pages script ain’t gonna be enough to elevate this tale above the aforementioned examples. The politics behind the conflict, Agamemnon’s wooing of many of the key players on the "Troy sucks" side of the war, the hardships of trying to hold together that army, and Achilles’s bizarre drama before the war where he succeeds as western myth’s first cross-dresser are all integral in convincing the reader that this is a story worth reading, even if we all know what the final conflict will yield (SPOILER WARNING: Clark becomes a superhero).

I knew Age of Bronze’s subject matter long before reading this volume, and honestly felt a little apprehensive about reviewing it. I’ve never seen the film Troy, and considering its success at the box office, I felt discussing a story about the Trojan War without mentioning Troy would be comparable to reviewing a graphic novel about the Battle of Normandy a few months after the release of Saving Private Ryan without making a meaningful comparison. Now, I really don’t think it matters, because I can’t imagine that yet another example of Ridley Scott’s post-Blade Runner uselessness could compare to Shanower’s epic, and I’m looking forward to future volumes.

Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 8: Sins Past
Script by J. Michael Straczynski, Art by Mike Deodato Jr.
Published by Marvel Comics, $12.99 US

After he receives a long-delayed letter from a dead lover, Peter Parker is thrust into a mystery that adds an insidious element to one of the hero’s most well remembered stories.

At my job, the guy who collects the time sheets and makes sure we all get paid instituted a strange policy some months ago. Apparently, people were having trouble turning their time sheets in on time, so much so that the aforementioned pay check guy had to introduce a time sheet lottery. Turn in your time sheet on time, and you get a chance to win some pretty mediocre prizes. About a month ago I was one of the winners and received a free National Treasure DVD. Initially, I saw a wonderful re-gift opportunity (for my brother, probably, who I’m kind of angry with these days), but my curiosity got the better of me. One night I broke the plastic seal and watched the flick while my girlfriend was out with her friends and safe from my insane experiments. By the time my girlfriend returned home and asked me how it was, I already had my response prepared. I told her, "While I was watching it, a piece of shit actually jumped out of the litter box, sat next to me on the futon, looked at the screen and said ‘Hey! That looks like me!’"

I liked Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 8: Sins Past a little bit more than National Treasure.

I’ve never been a regular follower of Spider-Man’s various exploits, but after the buzz that JMS’s entry into the creative staff stirred I picked up a few of the trades out of curiosity. At first I loved it, and was more impressed with the humor than anything else. Writers have always given us a wisecracking Spider-Man, but it’s rare that those wisecracks have been genuinely funny. When I read the fifth volume, Unintended Consequences, I noticed a pattern emerging. The bulk of each issue would be dedicated to the hero vs. villain story, but there would be 2-3 page breaks that would be nothing but Peter and MJ. Sometimes it’s Peter and MJ sitting on a couch, sometimes at the breakfast table, sometimes in bed, etc. They joke a little, reveal things about each other they’ve never revealed before, and beat us over the head with how much they REALLY REALLY love each other because we just haven’t heard it enough.

Take everything that’s wrong with those 2-3 page breaks, stretch them out until they take up seventy to eighty percent of the story, and you get Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 8: Sins Past.

The story is so overloaded with epiphany, revelations, and melodrama it’s just exhausting. Comparatively speaking, it’s largely humorless. We learn lots of stuff Peter’s always thought but never said, and stuff MJ’s always thought but never said, and every other page we’re greeted with another revelation about a character and we should have always known it but we were too stupid to see it, and in case you’re unclear about the "dead lover" mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, JMS slaps that Gwen Stacy button so hard and so often that he’s got the thumb callouses of a 24-hour Super NES marathon.

I don’t know. Maybe if I was the kind of hardcore Spidey fan with a firm, unswerving stance on the subject of organic webshooters, Sins Past might carry more emotional weight. I’m not, it doesn’t, and with a writer whose work I enjoy - particularly while writing a character I’ve tended to enjoy under his care - it’s disappointing.

Ancient Joe: el bizarron
Script and art by C. Scott Morse
Published by Dark Horse, $12.95 US

As the charming poem heading the trade explains, Ancient Joe - a seemingly ageless man with a face that looks a lot like Brak’s from Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast - was fished out of the ocean in 1943 with no memory of who or what he was. He eventually found his way to Cuba where he drank and boxed with Hemingway, married and watched his wife grow old and die as he remained unchanged, and eventually became both a local fixture on the island as well as a subject of legend.

Ancient Joe: el bizarron opens with Joe hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up truck. During the ride, he endures the jokes and prodding questions of two boys who recount the tale of the mythic figure they believe him to be: El Bizarron. In the story, Joe tricks the devil El Diablo out of two bags of silver; an event - we find out in a subsequent chapter - Joe fears may have cursed his dead wife to an unpleasant afterlife.

Until the third chapter, there really isn’t a very strong indication that the main character is on any kind of quest, or that he’s doing anything but wandering around Cuba for lack of better stuff to do. There’s a strangely satisfying feeling of, not inaction, but non-action or non-progress in Ancient Joe that eventually drives home how Joe’s physical quest is secondary to his self-discovery.

His ignorance of his past, the oversimplified dialogue between mythic characters (the back-and-forth between Joe and El Diablo reminded me a lot of the "Pretty OK Team" script from Project: SUPERIOR, though less steeped in parody), and his connection to a mystical world coupled with his confusion about the supernaturalism of which he is an integral part, makes Joe quite similar to Hellboy. You might say Ancient Joe is what Hellboy might be if Hellboy were more interested in soul-searching than monster-hunting. Joe hitches rides and hangs out in bars. While he is undoubtedly a creature of legend to the people he encounters, he’s also their drinking buddies. It’s as if Batman hung out in all-night diners with the "supersitious and cowardly lot" he bloodies up all the time. The half-hearted promise of every superhero subplot - that the reader would somehow care as much about the trials and tribulations of the hero’s "real life" problems than how he’s going to take down Doctor Doom - is made compulsory in Ancient Joe. You care more about the hero’s day-to-day than his violent nights.

Morse’s renderings of romantic Cuban landscapes, always eventually zooming in on nondescript hovels or crowded taverns, punctuates the mystical elements of the story as well as giving the reader a concrete feel of the communities where Joe hangs his hat. The artistic realization of the main character doesn’t always lend itself well to overt emotion. With a mask-like face that you’d be more likely to find carved into a pyramid in Indiana Jones or a native’s shield in Zulu, Ancient Joe ain’t big on facial expressions, though it makes it that much more affecting when he lets out a beaming smile at the end of the second chapter. Morse’s simple panel layout, usually just one long rectangular panel after another, gives the story a strange feeling of realism. For example, in one of the few action sequences in the book - Joe boxing an old friend as payment for a favor - the scene goes by in a flurry of fists of and torsos. The reader can never get the full picture, something like the first-person-view fisticuffs from certain issues of Priest’s Black Panther, and so feels more present in the scene without the God’s-eye view of most comics.

More than any of the trades reviewed for this first installment of Overdue Books I’ve found myself flipping through Ancient Joe even after a few thorough reads. I worry that, with this first book published in 2002 and no subsequent trades or floppies published, future volumes may not be forthcoming. Hopefully, I’m wrong. Ancient Joe: el bizarron is touching, funny, and at times disarmingly dark. If it takes a while, it will be worth the wait, but it would be a shame if Joe’s adventures were cut short.

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