Saturday, September 5, 2009

My Weekly Dose: A Collection Of Strange Tales, Some More So Than Others

I picked up a fun batch of books this past Wednesday, just a handful of oddities in a slow week for my usual caped melodrama. And after a couple of mixed and meh pulls, it's nice to know I've got nothing bad to say about this trio of titles.

First up, Marvel's answer to the refreshingly experimental Bizarro Comics and Bizarro World anthologies, Strange Tales (#1 of 3).

Like the Bizarro books, Strange Tales hands the creative reigns of "serious super heroes" over to Indie artistes and small press superstars, only instead of unexpected pairings like Batman by way of Tony Millionaire we get the Inhumans by Paul Pope. And because we're dealing with independent critical darlings--the types of artists who win all the awards and get all the write-ups in The Comics Journal--you know this book is 100% high brow!

In terms of execution...well, DC got there first, and I thought framing their two volumes around resident weirdo Bizarro (not to mention 5th-dimensional lords of chaos Mr. Mxylpltk and Bat-Mite) was genius. They also jumped head on into releasing each volume as a hardcover graphic novel. Marvel is definitely late to the game on the concept, falls back on what seems to be the "What The?!" version of the Watcher to set things up, and has opted to roll the book out as a 3-issue limited series of standard-size floppies. And given the history of the Peter Bagge offering (The Incorrigible Hulk, which was supposed to come out long ago as a one-shot special), they seem to be more hesitant to embrace the hipster creatives from the far end of the release rack, tentative about releasing the project. Marvel has been dipping their toes and easing in for years, where DC jumped right in, knees tucked and eyes wide open, and has already left the pool for something else.

(By the way, I feel like I just did a lap with that useless diving metaphor.)

But the book is out now, and Marvel is pushing it--so good on em. And it is a good book--weird where it wants, quirky where it can be, and fun all over just because it is so different from the usual super stuff. The thing I think I like most about the concept behind Strange Tales and the Bizarro books is that there's such a fine line walked by the Indie creators involved between revelling in the opportunity to show off just how very different comics can be versus just making fun of the crap we mainstream fanboys gobble up each week. It's important for these creators to get a brighter spotlight and a bigger stage. It's also important for the spandex-clad shenanigans that normally take place on that stage to be the butt of the joke on occasion. The danger lies in the creator who pushes too far to the wrong side of that line and simply comes off like he or she is mocking their new, temporary audience...and thankfully, that doesn't happen in issue 1.

My favorite bits in this issue were the short bits by Nicholas Gurewitch (he of the demented The Perry Bible Fellowship webcomic), Spider-Man by way of Jason (he of the powerfully human stories told by way of anthropomorphic animals), and the Punisher by way of Johnny Ryan (who somehow puts the x Angry Youth Comix, though I'm not sure how and just needed something clever to say in these parentheses). The Paul Pope Inhumans piece that opens the book is also amusing, and Junko Mizuno should seriously be considered for an all-ages Spidey and MJ book. But, like in any anthology, the individual pieces strike different chords and tend to be subjectively hit or miss. The best thing about the series is that it exists at all, exposing the Marvel zombies to alternative styles and new creative visions.

Psst...Do you smell that? I think it's...yes, definitely...Mmmm, segue.

Speaking of "Marvel zombies," they're back! Again. For the fifth or sixth time. Like the bad joke told over and over until it becomes funny, Marvel Zombies Return (#1 of 5) picks up where Fred Van Lente and Nick Dragotta left off with whatever the hell the last unnecessary Marvel Zombie mini-series left off, beating the (un)dead horse so hard this time that the whole goofy/gross mess seems to finally click in that same great way it did with Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips original crack at spinning off the insane Mark Millar inventions into their own series.

I ate this issue up like it were the tasty Zen Lavian-meat filling inside the Silver Surfer's cosmic shell. Violent, disgusting, funny--but with heart (not just for devouring). The whole book is top notch, but this page really captures what you should expect. The comic's creamy, brain-filled center, if you will:

The final book on my list isn't "strange" for the same reasons as the previous two oddball titles, or even because I had to break out a dictionary to understand the title (who says "Gyre"?!). In fact, Batman: The Widening Gyre (#1 of 6) happens to be a really, really good Batman comic--smartly written, unexpectedly adult, introspective toward the whole Bat-franchise, and (so far) outside of the confines of current dead-Bruce continuity--so we're dealing with the REAL Batman, fo' sho'. This book is merely strange for three reasons:

1. It is written by Kevin Smith--something I will never get used to, no matter how many comics the guy who made Alanis Morrisette God and Ben Affleck watchable slaps his name onto.

2. This series--Smith's second crack at Batman with Flanagan, the previous mini already in the bag and well-received by fans--is allegedly going to be released on schedule! This is something fans (or would've-been-fans) of his Marvel work (not even worth linking too, to tell the truth, and some of which took years between issues, while the rest is STILL taking years) have been conditioned to think as unlikely as Bucky coming back from the grave (I guess we saw how that worked out, eh).

3. The book is illustrated by Walt Flanagan, the guy who manages (managed?) Smith's Red Bank, NJ, comic shop and, according to legend, has an awesome dog. Being a punchline in Kevin Smith's movies before he became a very competent comic artist (shades of Matt Wagner) is going to haunt Walt for a long, long time.

But forget all that insider fanboy junk. This is a solid Bat book that is just as good (though in different ways) as the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely "Bat-Dick and Damian" series that everyone (me included) has been raving about. Smith's Batman is more than just brooding and batarangs (how can you brood when you eat a bagged lunch in the Batmobile en route to action?), his Dick Grayson is full of personality (not a euphemism), and his Poison Ivy will make you feel funny in the pants (that one IS a euphemism). The story builds at a nice pace, has more than one unexpected turn, and ends on an intriguing question mark that will definitely bring me back for issue 2. It will also bring me back to my local comic shop looking to pick up that last story he did with Walt, which I originally skipped out of lack of faith in his ability to get the job done, be it on time or at all. I'm back on board for Kevin Smith, Comic Book Writer.

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