This Earth and Others: Four Visions in Comics

Crafting a new take on Superman after seventy-five years of cumulative legendary storytelling while still hewing to the essence of Kal-el's heroic myth and career is no easy task. But J. Michael Straczynski, writing, and Shane Davis, drawing, have managed this nigh-impossible feat and earned themselves bestseller status thereby.

The project began two years ago, with Superman Earth One. The book did not initially proclaim its status as the first in a series, possibly because folks at DC Comics were unsure of how it would prosper and what might follow. ("Earth One," by the way, traditionally refers to a certain independent continuum where Superman's adventures can be construed without contradicting what goes on in his monthly comics, home to the mainstream DC universe.) In it, Straczynski (noted for his helming of Babylon 5) managed to hit every note of the Superman archetype in fresh ways that resonated with the past mythology.

About half the book was origin story, half current-day action, a ratio of past to present maintained in the sequel. In carefully interpolated flashbacks, we saw the arrival of the Kryptonian infant by rocket on Earth, lone survivor of his planet's destruction; his moral upbringing by the Kents; his arrival in Metropolis, uncertain of his role or destiny; and his introduction to the crew at the Planet (Perry White, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen). Then, in realtime, comes an alien invasion with Superman the quarry. The big-screen rumpus settles Superman's identity crisis, and we leave him ensconced in his new selfhood and mission. As well, threads are established concerning how officialdom and the public take to this super-powered stranger in their midst. The story rebuilds the legend from the ground up, postmodern yet classic. And Shane Davis's art is gorgeous, full of perfect character designs, all highly expressive, as well as vivid set pieces.

The creative duo continue their superb performance in the sequel, which picks up right on the heels of the first book. Clark feels more confident at work, but snoopy Lois can't resist picking at the enigma he offers. Potential romance is in the works, with neighbor Lisa Lasalle (who bears those iconic LL initials). New threads arise, about how Superman must relate to individuals and governments. And the big action comes with the reintroduction of a classic villain, the energy-stealing Parasite, reconfigured even scarier. Straczynski endows Clark/Superman with a wry sense of humor and a high sense of justice. Davis's art conspires in that presentation, such as with the full-page spread where a flying Superman intersects a full moon perfectly, so as to form a saint's halo. For old-time fans, there are even Easter eggs, such as an allusion to a famous Larry Niven essay on Superman and a scene with a wife-beating bully that echoes one of Superman's earliest deeds. And -- a slight spoiler here -- we are set up nicely for Volume 3 with the arrival of a dapper new Lex Luthor -- and wife! One final lagniappe: this is the only extant Superman book where Smallville still wears his red BVDs in the nostalgic vintage manner, outside his tights.

If all other Superman comics were to magically vanish, the franchise could be reseeded as vigorously as before just from these two books.

 

 

Fans of the inimitable Harvey Pekar, who passed away in 2010, have been lucky enough to experience a freshet of posthumous publications from his pen, keeping his unique, curmudgeonly voice and style of graphic narrative alive. The latest such book, Harvey Pekar's Cleveland (with a vibrant introduction from Alan Moore) is a winner, showing us that the master of autobiographical ashcan realism in the comics world was still operating at the top of his form when he left us.

Pekar was famously a scripter only, having no prowess for drawing, and so he worked with a variety of artists during his career, to bring his visions to the page. His collaborator this time around is the excellent young creator Joseph Remnant (with a surname that's quite Pekarish). Remnant's assured linework calls to mind such predecessors in the American Splendor canon as Robert Crumb and Joe Sacco, capturing a seemingly infinite range of architecture and people with fluid grace. He confers gravitas on the city of Cleveland and the historical incidents that Pekar singles out, and his depictions of modern Cleveland, its sites and inhabitants, shift style slightly for a looser texture. I swear there's even the tiniest hint of the absurd, baggy-pants Gary Larson of Far Side fame in his artwork. As Remnant revealed in an interview, Pekar died when only twenty pages of the book had been finished, and Remnant consequently had to make all the remaining drawing decisions on his own. The fact that the book exhibits such an organic unity and feel, and shines with Pekar's light, is a testament to Remnant's simpatico talents.

The story itself is nicely bipartite. The first forty pages or so are an engrossing history of the city itself, from its earliest days to bits and pieces of the objectively reported late-twentieth-century era. But the bulk of that latter period is covered subjectively, beginning in the second portion of the narrative, through the eyes of Pekar, born 1939. His life, as always, is the lens through which the larger story comes into focus. As usual, his mix of bravado and fear, self-loathing and self-approbation makes for a charming voice. And examining the microcosm of his own life allows him to chart the larger destiny and developments of his beloved city. Lots of the details will be familiar to longtime readers of Pekar's oeuvre, but plenty of material, such as his second marriage, is newly revealing. And even the familiar stuff assumes a freshness in this altered context.

The result is an accidentally elegiac book that exudes both a certain melancholy and a deserved self-satisfaction and pride. Both Pekar and his fabled city saw hard times and endured, even flourished. Their legacy is enhanced by this entrancing urban memoir.


For the third time, artist and writer Darwyn Cooke returns to a match made in heaven: his sensibilities and talents paired with the Parker novels of Donald Westlake (written originally under the pen name Richard Stark). Arriving at roughly year-long intervals, the first two books -- The Hunter and The Outfit -- elicited raves from all quarters. The latest entry should draw the same accolades. Cooke's stylish fidelity to the originals provides a million-dollar heist of comics-reading pleasure.

The crystallization of Cooke's Mad Men-era groove can be traced to a superhero work from 2004, DC: The New Frontier. Set extensively in the JFK era, the book showed Cooke channeling the work of such midcentury-modern masters as Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Kubert. He distilled their essences into his own clean-limbed signature look, which suited the retro storyline perfectly. Given the similar provenance of the Parker books, Cooke had all the tools at hand to bring them to life as graphic novels.

The Score opens with our anthihero, Parker, being inveigled into a daring and bizarre caper. A canyon-encircled city boasts a lot of loot, a puny law enforcement crowd, and a weird physical setup that begs for robbery. The gang is assembled -- but who's that headstrong dame hanging onto the arm of one of the organizers? -- plans are lovingly framed, and the day of the heist arrives. But guess what?  Even the best-laid schemes can go kerflooey, especially when one of the masterminds bears a personal grudge against the whole city.

Cooke's storytelling armamentarium is so prodigious yet so invisible that the typical reader will be inescapably swept up in the telling without even consciously acknowledging the techniques and tricks employed. Maybe a second reading is mandated, once the suspense has been alleviated. Then the reader would see clever panels such as the ones that indelibly spotlight each character alone as they are introduced by name. Or the panel that shows weapons in the trunk of Parker's car as a kind of X-ray schematic. Or the use of Kirby-esque photo-collage (a film poster; model car kits). Or the full-page spreads that convey the vertigo of a deep mining pit, with the humans reduced to smudges. (Two double-page spreads -- 100-01 and 112-13 -- are antithetical counterparts.) Or the diabolically deft use of just a single color -- a kind of muted tangerine -- on each page to depict everything from shadows to highlights to smoke. Or the judicious use of meaty blocks of Westlake's text when that trick will move the story along most efficiently. All these strategems and more are employed by Cooke to produce an edge-of-the-seat thriller that recreates a beautifully rendered past era that never seems campy or kitschy but is full of living souls moving amid Space Age grit and glamour.

 

 

Grandville Bête Noire is the third volume in Bryan Talbot's series of graphic novels centering around Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard, following Grandville and Grandville Mon Amour. Two more are projected, and so I find myself entering the series at midpoint, having no acquaintance with Inspector LeBrock prior to now. This was my loss, I quickly discovered, for Talbot has created an absolutely fascinating and deeply coherent, idea-rich, solidly constituted world parallel to ours, stuffed with charming heroes, dastardly villains and much wild-eyed hugger-mugger of the old school variety.


Those who know Talbot from his weighty and metafictional Alice in Sunderland, an omnium-gatherum magnum opus, will be taken by surprise at the lighthearted tone and narrative zippiness of the LeBrock adventures. It's quasi Victorian Age of Storytellers thriller writing at its best. LeBrock's world shares much of our history, save where it diverged after Napoleon’s contrafactual victories. In the present milieu of the story, we see a steampunk mix of new and old technologies and a kind of old-fashioned genteel attitude to society and culture. But this blend, not so rare in current genre literature, is amplified and warped by another factor. The dominant intelligent beings of Grandville are anthropomorphic animals of all species. LeBrock himself is a big, tough badger, and his sidekick, Roderick, a rat. Aside from a few anatomical quirks from one to another, they display as humans from the neck down, with animals heads atop. More typical humans exist, but are an oppressed minority called "doughfaces."


Now, this animal allegory is an estranging strategy most famously employed in Spiegelman's Maus, but in that case with stylized black-and-white drawings. Talbot's arresting, naturalistic art is lush, brightly colored and almost three-dimensional. Sometimes, in the beginning, this gives off an unfortunate "furry" vibe, as if we are witnessing costumed humans. But soon this disappears as the reality of these creatures and their world attains heft. By the time you witness LeBrock and his badger paramour, Billie, engage in a deep snout-to-snout snog, it all seems quite normal and poignant.


Talbot takes his inventive subcreation and puts it though some James Bond-style paces. LeBrock and Roderick (bringing to mind, ironically enough, the pulp hero Bulldog Drummond and his pals) must unriddle the nefarious plans of Baron Toad, a Blofeld-like French plutocrat. Talbot uses this MacGuffin to comment on many topical matters, vis-à-vis income inequality and the 99 versus the 1 percent. He also has a lot of fun with the politics of the art world. Additional Easter eggs relating to literature, history, and art add little bursts of joy to every page. (Highlights include a drunkard version of Paddington Bear and a gimmicked exploding meerschaum that delivers a head-smacking joke about Magritte.)


Talbot's empathy-inducing characterizations, his intricate world building, his assured artwork, and his infectious glee make this adventure a regular carnival of the animals.

About the Columnist
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award -- all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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