Comic Book Reviews

These reviews come from The Spine, the newsletter of the Visible Shivers

Cerebus

A lot of people think comic books are just for kids (not us, see issue #2 for a similar expose of the Tick). They see it they way people who make "films" see television, a bastardization of a medium for the titillation of the masses. To be fair, this is true for some comics but not all of them. Another case in point is a comic book called Cerebus. Cerebus is published by it's author, Dave Sim, by his company Aardvark-Vanaheim. It started as a sort of sword and sorcery book with the main character being an aardvark. He stands upright, talks, kills people, etc. Really, he's more like a human than an aardvark. He very cynical and speaks of himself in the third person a lot. ("Cerebus wants quiet. Whether you are quiet and ALIVE or quiet and DEAD, Cerebus doesn't care.") Along the way of making a book full of "ha-ha" (as Dave puts it), Dave realized that he had a much larger statement to make with Cerebus. He now plans a three hundred issue storyline about Cerebus and the greater world of Iest (his home). It is literature, with themes, foreshadowing, death, grief, life, revenge, and a giant cootie. Oh yeah, the Cootie. Well, Dave has this incredible knack for caricature. Among these he's done the Marx brothers (Groucho as Lord Julius is perhaps one of the best politicians in the entire saga), Elric of Melnibone (or Elrod of Melvinbone, who talks like Foghorn Leghorn), and the Wolverine. The Wolverine is a good example of the evolution of Cerebus. He started as a vaguely insane person known as the Wolveroach (a definite jab at costumed super-heroes), he moved on to parody others including the Punisher and the Moon Knight. Cerebus is all about power, personal and otherwise. He's become Prime Minister and Pope. It's funny and thought provoking. What more could you want? Except the next issue of the Tick.


Starchild

I found a new comic book, Starchild, at the "Heroes Aren't Hard to Find" convention in Charlotte (see related story). I began talking to the creator/writer/artist James Owen after giving him some money for a poster that he, Dave Sim, and others had done. We discussed him supporting himself only through his comic book. Last year, he'd had an accident and had crushed his drawing hand. He wasn't sure if he'd ever draw again. His fledgling comic book (there are only three regular issues) was in danger of falling into obscurity due to his enforced hiatus. Some well-known friends pitched in to put together Starchild #0. He plotted and laid it out and they did most of the drawings. You might have heard some of the names before (if you haven't, I don't think you can call yourself a comic book person, at least not a complete one): Dave Sim & Gerhard (Cerebus), Will Eisner (Spirit), Paul Chadwick (Concrete) and many others. As a result of this tacit endorsement by some of the giants of comicdom his circulation went from 3,000-4,000 for the first two issues to 45,000 for issue zero alone. His regular issue three orders went up to 12,000. A bit of that may help Owen to keep going long past the first few issues that seem to be the do-or-die for most comics just starting out.

And well he should continue. In the first two issues, he draws the reader into the strange and intriguing story of the Higgins family. A few letters from Homer Higgins to his brother Matthew sets the scene for mystery. Homer has gone to the city of Raveloe to search for a trace of their father, a weaver in a scarlet cloak. He disappears into a wood for sixty years, and returns without appearing to age a day. Among the stories told in Raveloe about the father is that he can be seen drinking with the crew of the Flying Dutchman. At the end of the first issue Matthew, who has been gone for four months after receiving a summons from Homer, contacts his son to come to Raveloe and the Wildwood. Issue two introduces us to old Tom and his wagon which is larger inside than out and filled with books (some of which seem to fly about on their own).

The art of both issues is very evocative. Strong blacks and whites give a nice sense of forboding to an already mysterious story. The layout and pacing are also equally nicely done.

I await the third issue (as soon as I find it) with great anticipation and look forward to following the story of Starchild for the projected one-hundred issues that I'm sure will be equally satisfying. Definitely recommended.


Bone

Yet another in the long line of comic books that I'm recommending is Bone. It's the story of three cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. In the first issue they have been run out of their town (Boneville, of course) and are walking through the desert trying to find their way back. As the result of a locust attack, Fone gets separated from the others and must forage by himself after finding his way to a lush valley. Along the way to issue ten, we meet Thorn (a beautiful girl), Grandma Ben (who races cows, literally), and the stupid, stupid rat creatures who are on Phoney's trail.

Jeff Smith, the writer/artist/publisher of the book, used to work at an animation studio and it shows. Every panel is really cleanly drawn and all the characters are really full of life. The work appeals to all ages and has been likened to Walt Kelly (Pogo) and Carl Barks (Disney). It's just a straight-up funny book, which is nice amid all the grim-n-gritty ones being published nowadays.

Jeff has comitted to keeping all the books in print, so you shouldn't have trouble finding them. Also, the first six issues (of ten total, so far) are collected into a book. So, be on the look-out for Bone if you're looking for a good laugh.


Hellboy

Mike Mignola knows shadows. Mike is a comic book artist who's probably best know for the Batman story Gotham by Gaslight which set Batman in the late 1800's. His artwork for that story really evoked the mood that should exist in a Batman story. His style involves the use of shadows and darkness to evoke the mood he's looking for. In his new creation, Hellboy, Mike continues that mood.

Hellboy is Mike's own creation that is being published by Dark Horse Comics. The first four-issue mini-series Seed of Destruction is just finished. It begins with Hellboy's summoning by a character who turns out to be Rasputin. Hellboy is not your typical comic book hero. He's billed as the world's foremost paranormal investigator. However, he's someone who should probably be investigated himself since he is red, with horns, a tail and one hand made of some unknown (but extremely hard) material.

Mignola's evocative art heightens the strangeness of the subject matter. He blends Egyptian, Pre-Colombian, and Lovecraftian settings and characters into an intriguing mix that lets the reader know that there are many things in the world operating behind the scenes or on the periphery. It is this sort of story enrichment that makes Hellboy a great reading experience for me. I enjoy the idea that there are things going on all over that we aren't privy to. It helps to heighten a cohesive worldview that is put over by the creepy, shadowy art that fills each issue.

Mike plans on producing Hellboy as a set of mini-series (while collecting each mini-series into a bound volume) as well as occasional appearances in Dark Horse Presents (Dark Horse's anthology series). He claims to have twenty years of Hellboy stories to tell, and we can only hope that the Elder Gods will allow him to do so.


Sin City

It's been quite a long time since a genuine noir film has been released. Sure, you could make a case for certain movies (like Chinatown), but I would say that they are more "noir-ish" than true noir. You've got the hard-nosed detective type, the dangerous woman type who drags him into the muck of immorality (usually only getting a knife in the back for his trouble), but you don't have the atmosphere. A true noir has to be in black and white, that's where the term comes from in the first place! Back when they were making movies like Double Indemnity and In a Lonely Place, they knew how to use light and shadow in a way that you don't see nowadays. It added to the atmosphere and heightened the sense of decay and debauchery.

However, even if you can't find a noir film, you can get a fix from Dark Horse Comics. Frank Miller (who placed Batman back into context with his Dark Knight Returns series) has created Sin City, a place of brutal corruption, retribution and recrimination. The original series ran in Dark Horse Presents and has been collected into a book called Sin City. It tells the story of Marv, a huge hulk of a man who does most of his talking with his fists. From the beginning you can tell that Marv is doomed; he's just too much of a steamroller to survive. Miller's narration and dialogue are hard-boiled at their past, tough guys spitting verbal nails at each other.

The real star of the series, however, is his art. Frank uses strictly black and white to capture the look and feel of a true hard-boiled epic. Much of the time characters are depicted as white outlines filled with a sea of black, giving visual cues to their character even before they open their mouths.

Miller plans to keep releasing Sin City stories as limited series. The first of these, A Dame to Kill For, has just completed, and it's possibly even better than the original. It should be released as a collection in a few months. It's a must-read for those who long for the days when Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade were on the case.


Kurt Adam
mage@arglebargle.com