Sean Maher's Quality Control

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Silent Dragon and Flak Riot: I'm in a colorful mood

Before I get into the comic pimping, which will be short tonight because I'm working on some longer pieces for early next week, I'd like to point out for my fellow San Franciscans a fine bar I've been spending some time at this week. It's called Dave's. It won "Best Totally Unpretentious Bar" from SF Weekly in 2003; here's the write-up they gave it:

Where can you get a hot dog with everything and see good art? Where can you order a top-shelf margarita and settle in for a good read? Where do people always look relaxed and happy? Why, at Dave's, of course. Walk into Dave's, and no one looks up to see what you're wearing. The 'tenders are friendly, the jukebox is good but never turned up loud enough to drown out conversation, and the food is delicious and not fried. The place has some TVs, but watching sports isn't an overwhelming force, just there if you want it. Dave's is a bar that has no image problems, a bar that likes itself just the way it is, and therefore it's a bar that likes you, too.

I've been digging on their sandwich combo special: a sandwich, a side, and a pint of anything on tap for nine bucks. I get a turkey garlic pesto sandwich with some black bean chili and a Guinness, and it makes me happy. It's also cool because there's sort of an interesting day crowd - it largely seems to be union guys taking off from work to sneak to the bar. Gives the place some nice atmosphere.

Dave's is at 29 Third Street, just off Market. You should go there.

So, the comic pimping. Two things.

One. You know the images I posted yesterday, from Silent Dragon? Y'see how they're really detailed and how cool that looks in black and white, and how it's the kind of art you usually wish would stay in black and white because the colors would obliterate the detail and ruin the art? Don't fuckin' worry about it. They got Dave Stewart. Yeah, the guy I was pissing my pants about in the Conan review. Dave Stewart is a genius and a hero. This is the most beautiful new book I've seen in months. Diggle's script is pretty good - he relies on stock lines like "Since the moment I first saw you" a little too much for my taste, but he's got a fun premise going on with sharply defined characters and he's really been impressing me with his ability to write to his artists' strengths.

Two. Flak Riot #1 (of 4). This one's about six or eight weeks old, so you'll have to do a bit of looking to track down an issue, but I was just flipping through my Flight trade and remembering how struck I was by the artwork on that puppy. The premise is fairly by-the-numbers, a classic fish-out-of-water story about a young lady bored with her hum-drum workaday life who suddenly finds herself in an outlandish struggle for the fate of the world, with an endearing mad scientist and a funny robot and such, but it's scripted with some respectable verve and the art is absolutely stunning - especially Mike Garcia's colors. As so:

There's a five page preview on the Image website for those interested in checking out more of this, and the Diamond order code for issue #1 is APR051659.

I really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to more.

P.S. - There should be a feature going up on Bookshelf Comics very shortly featuring the staff's picks from the October solicits. I got to make two picks, and I'm really excited about both of them, so take a look into the future with me, won't you?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Andy Diggle: Ruining my afternoon for sport

So, here I am, minding my own business, reading Andy Diggle's pimpin' of Silent Dragon (issue #1 comes out today), when I open my mouth and blurt out:

See, once I know I'm gonna be at least checking out a book, I try to stop looking at everything about it until it actually comes out.

For example, Silent Dragon? All I needed to know was this:

And like that, I was sold. The rest of it is all noise to me until I've actually got the damn thing in my hands - I'm definitely vulnerable to "buzz overkill" and I know it affects my reading (almost always as a negative), so I try to go head-in-the-sand before that happens.

To which Diggle responds by posting these, JUST TO SCREW WITH ME WHEN I CAN'T GET TO THE COMICS SHOP UNTIL TONIGHT!!!:

So, there you have it. Andy Diggle is a jerk.

And here I am, passing it on to you. 'Cause now I'm a jerk, too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Conan: Wait, are you serious?

My third and final argument for Mr. Rodriguez will find me singing the praises of Dark Horse's rousingly successful rejuvenation of the Conan property, but before that, a moment for the runners up.

Robert Kirkman's two big Image books - The Walking Dead and Invincible - both have plenty of internet praise already, and the arguments for tradewaiting both books are reasonably strong. The Walking Dead often features so large a cast that reading the story in larger chunks makes it easier to keep track of each character, though in reading the serial issues I've found this mildly irritating at worst, and it's more than made up for by the thrill of the pulpy monthly developments and Kirkman's industry-best cliffhangers. Invincible is a book I've considered tradewaiting for a while, but frankly, it's just too damn good. I don't want to wait. Since I started collecting the series in single issues (around issue #9), only one or two have been duds, and the rest have all been shining stars in my super-hero comics reading.

Another guy who writes truly excellent super-hero comics is Dan Slott, but sadly, he's got nothing coming out regularly right now. I have a lot of great expectations for his upcoming Thing and She-Hulk series, and I know from experience that he can write the hell out of 22 pages. Definitely a man to watch, and whose work reads well in three-dollar chunks.

I'd pimp Planetary, but honestly, if you're not already reading it by now, you should just get the trades. It's almost over, anyway.

So. Conan, then.

If you'd told me two years ago that I'd be endorsing a Conan book at all, I'd be pretty goddamn skeptical.

But Kurt Busiek is a name that buys a lot of leeway with me. So I tried out the 25-cent #0 issue, and I've been hooked ever since.

First of all, this is colorist Dave Stewart at what I believe to be his career best. He may very well have better in store for us, and if he does I'll be first in line with my cash in hand, but this is very possibly the best coloring I've ever seen in a comic book. It's evocative, it's vivid, it's versatile... and Stewart gets extra room to show off because he's coloring directly onto Cary Nord's pencils.

Speaking of Nord - his work has sometimes been a little too sketchy for my taste, but his monster designs are really top-notch and make Busiek's scripts just as visually exciting as they are imaginative.

And he conveys action really well, too.

I really enjoyed the most recent issue, #18, thought I wouldn't recommend it as a jumping-on point - it's sort of a special issue, very little of Conan himself and none of the regular art team except on the cover, which you can see above.

The issue focuses on the travels of Conan's helmet, passed down from doomed wearer to thief to... well, the next doomed wearer. I'm a big fan of stories like this, including as much history as they do, but it's not a good indication of what the series is usually like. No, better for new folks would be issues #16 or 17, which launched the new arc of the book.

Busiek has combined the classical, mythic kind of storytelling that Conan demands, describing his adventures with all the proper reverence and legendry, but it's not just an excercise - he combines this storytelling style with a very modern sense of characterization, and Conan himself becomes much more interesting as a result - he's not just The Untouchable Hero. He's given to arrogance and abuse and hedonism, and we see that regularly - it serves to keep him a relatable character, and suits his more heroic traits pretty well.

Basically, this series serves up the same sword and sorcery adventures you'd expect from the property, but it does so in a way that's concious of modern storytelling conventions. It feels classic, but it doesn't feel dated.

On top of that, the whole team really packs a lot of reading value into every single issue. They're not all self-contained stories (though many of them are), but there are important character moments and scenes of exciting action in every 22-page installment. Additionally, there's a decent letters page included and an unusual (but intriguing) comic strip in every issue that chronicles the life of Conan creator Robert E. Howard.

As wonderfully as this series reads in serial format, I've been hard pressed to buy the recent trade collection anyway.

The production values are really stellar, with a gorgeous cover and a really reasonable price point - $15.95 for 7-and-a-half issues is really attractive, especially when the book is this good.

Still, everything I mentioned above makes Conan one of the best books I buy every month. Always exciting, always interesting, always worthy of my three bucks. It may end up on my bookshelf as well, but I can't turn my back on such an incredibly done monthly comic.

P.S. - I'd like to say real quick how useful Dark Horse's website is. I've pimped out their books quite a bit this week - from Conan to The Goon to Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities - and it's been a piece of cake to find cover art and interior samples. Other comics companies should take advantage of the example being set, 'cause it makes it really easy to advertise their comics for them.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Batman TAS: Watching my stories

Taking a break from my crusade against Jason Rodriguez tonight. Molly and I've been watching the Batman - The Animated Series Vol. 3 DVD set.

Hot damn, this is good stuff.

I miss the great Clayface and Joker episodes from the earlier sets, but they're replaced here by the overdue appearance of Ra's Al Ghul (who gets about four episodes this time around). His first appearance is written by Denny O'Neil, which is about as legit as it gets, and the guy they got to do his voiceover, David Warner, does an absolutely perfect job, a voice-to-character fit that's every bit as good as Mark Hamill's awesome Joker. Hell, he's even got a completely apeshit laugh to compete with.

There are also a few great Harley Quinn episodes, and it's interesting to watch them this time around knowing that they invented the character for the show - she was so seamlessly built into the "Batverse" (Christ I'm a dork) that I never questioned where she came from. She brings a great element of humor to the series, and her episodes are markedly energetic and fun.

One thing gets me thinking... there's an episode here called "Showdown," which starts out as a Ra's Al Ghul episode and ends up flashbacking to an old Jonah Hex western tale. It kicks ass, but there's not enough Ra's, and it starts the gears moving... we've seen the "last" Ra's Al Ghul story (and honestly, I thought Rucka kinda dropped the ball on that one), but how about some more of the early stories? I'm sure the first one, the origin tale, has been done already and I just haven't read it. But if the guy's been alive for six hundred years, how many other cool stories must he have?

I never figured myself to be the sort with a "Batman story" or a "Wolverine story," if you know what I mean. But maybe I should reconsider... 'cause damn, that's a seriously untapped wellspring of story possibilities.

Small Gods: I tore my mind on a jagged sky

Okay, so part two of my campaign to get you reading serial comics. Today, I’m talking about Small Gods.

This book launched last year, one of the early runners in Image Comics’ recent slew of new titles, and it’s my favorite among them.

The premise of the series is that heightened mental powers have been discovered and have become a part of the real world. One in every hundred people has enhanced abilities of one kind or another, and each of them has a story to be told.

It’s a strong high concept because it’s just specific enough to tie the series together thematically – the characters are faced with similar ethical issues of intimacy, trust, control, and power (and its abuse) – while leaving each arc free to tell its own story.

Writer Jason Rand is a talent to watch. His dialogue and characterization are both subtle and intense; he writes with a sharp knife, punching each sentence with rhythm and meaning, and it really helps pull off the mental "beat" you get from reading the best comics. The first arc dealt with a cop with abilities that threaten the sanctity of due process; he suppresses and denies them in an effort to stay a cop, so he can keep helping, keep saving people. Of course, this gets him into trouble and he has to make some tough decisions; a familiar cop drama setup, but what sets this apart is the main character’s self awareness. We’re used to seeing these kinds of characters painted as strident, unthinking representatives of one ethical standpoint or another – one guy believes Cops ARE The Law, another believes in Doing It By The Book, one of them shoots the other, we all go home. What I love about Rand’s work here is that no one character is seeing things from such a blanket perspective; every character thinks, responds to the plot with actual ideas and emotions, and it all feels very organic. Instead of just waiting for the action scenes, so you can find out which one of these guys is the baddest ass (though these scenes are provided as well), I really become invested in the characters’ lives. This also makes a number of sequences gut-churningly uncomfortable, which all such stories should be.

Rand is also no slouch when it comes to providing some excitement, and his action scenes always feel like they belong in the story and come at the right time.

And it’s in both regards that artist Juan Ferreyra really carries the tune. He matches the scripts almost perfectly, with visual pacing that suits the rhythm of the script and innovative physical cues to inform the dialogue. His women are sexy without being embarrassing – their facial expressions and character designs are just as specific and personal as the male characters. His action scenes - especially car chases - are detailed and breathlessly paced, balancing the realism of his style against the (often impressionistic) needs of the ass kicking.

So, it’s a great book, yes? Then, why is it worth buying in the serial format?

Because it’s structured that way. These guys aren’t working towards the trade, though the collection of the first arc reads just fine. Each issue is carefully crafted to include enough plot and character development to make it a satisfying, self-contained piece of the story, and almost every issue has some great action to keep the blood pumping. I’m reminded a bit of Peter Milligan’s Human Target series, which (when it was “on”) established its characters succinctly and effectively, put them in a fucked up situation, lit the match and watched the results, often in just 22 pages. Some series are just built perfectly for this format, and I think Small Gods is a great example of how to use serial comics.

So far nine issues of the main series have come out – a four-issue arc and a five-issue arc, each focusing on a different set of characters – with a one-shot special released two weeks ago that details the first meeting of these two disparate character groups. The special is a great value, with 27 pages of story for three bucks. It’s a fun story, and well worth the money, but I think a better introduction to the series would be the first trade paperback, Killing Grin. It collects the first four issues for just ten bucks, and it’ll pretty much catch you up to where you need to be to enjoy the Special. Issue #10, which comes out next month, will start a new arc with new characters and should be a great place to start, as well. Both Rand and Ferreyra are very active on the Small Gods messageboard, often posting preview images and cover sketches and such, so if you're interested in finding more material, that would be a good place to start.

If you're missing good crime noir and looking for something new - a series that puts its characters in uncompromising, no-win situations and passes no judgement on their response, that amps up the action every few pages to keep the pathos from weighing it all down, that functions on many different levels of entertainment - this is something you should be reading.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Paul McCartney: We have to *astonish* them

So, Molly picked up this DVD set of musical performances from Saturday Night Live. Basically, she wanted it because of the Paul McCartney performance of "Hey Jude".

Now, I'd remembered this performance being really good. But we watched it again last night and it's unbelievably good.

Starts out a little mellow, but builds and builds until I'm sitting there on the couch rocking back and forth with my hand in the air singing along. Actually laughing from how awesome it is. It's just fucking HUGE and excited and happy. Paul's totally swept up and electrified by the music; he's so goddamn happy to be playing it. That's a seriously infectious kind of enthusiasm.

I've kind of avoided The Beatles in general because, honestly, the bulk of their Big Hits haven't really grabbed me and I've known a few people who were way too into them and it kinda turned me off.

But if they were anything like this in their hayday? Man, those concerts must have been incredible.

Oh, and there's also a really great sketch where Mike Myers plays Mick Jagger and Jagger himself plays Kieth Richards. Jagger's immitation is hysterical. Then they interrupt the sketch to have some dumbass commentator saying how Jagger's immitation is really good. *sigh* Well, it was still cool to find out the set's got a bunch of bonus sketches. It pretty much doubles the value of the set.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Goon: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Jason Rodriguez freaked me out today with this post in his comments section:

"I should just give up on the monthlies and go with all trades at this point."
Sweet Jesus, Jason, say it isn't so!

One of the keystones of comics for decades has been its unique grip on entertainment as a serial experience. Sure, TV still runs in episodes, but comics have a vice grip on me as a weekly dose of pulpy enjoyment.

Now, I'll admit that recent industry trends have had a somewhat repressive affect on the monthly issue format of many comics. And there are a lot of great discussions being had on the subject, as people wrestle with the excellent, relatively new format we've called the OGN (original graphic novel).

But not everyone's going quietly into that good night. And in the interest of saving Jason's soul, I'm gonna spend the next few days talking about some of my favorite monthly purchases.

Stray Bullets, I already know you're reading, Jason. We've talked about it. And I'll be devoting an entire post, I'm sure, to the next issue that comes out. So for now I'll leave it alone, though I would reference folks to my reviews of the recently released Volume One and Volume Two trades. This is the best comic on the market and deserves your immediate attention.

But obviously, I don't need to sell you on that book. So right now I'm gonna talk about The Goon.

Okay, so this isn't quite monthly, but Eric Powell is one tough sonofabitch writing one hell of a pulp comic. Every issue is jam-packed with attitude, great dialogue, hysterical characterization, stunning artwork (which recently took on a painted finish that I'm absolutely loving), and a satisfying chunk of story. This is one of those rare books that's really worth owning in both formats for me - I get it in trades because it's so good, I know I'm gonna want to be able to read it forever.

But I also buy it in the single-issue installments because, frankly, it reads really goddamn well that way. This week's issue #13 only cemented this belief, though my favorite is still #3, which tells the story of how a young Goon first met his sparkplug, Scrappy-Doo-As-A-Kneebreaker buddy Franky.

One thing I really dig about the book is its versatility. Depending on what Powell wants to do, each issue can give you black tough guy humor, horrific images of monsters and zombies, Kirbyesque trips into unknown dimensions, smoky shades of noir mystery, or heartfelt and tender character developments. Often, you'll get more than one at a time. By spinning each of these plates with such variety, Powell keeps what could easily be a tired genre-homage extremely fresh and unique.

Issue #13 is a great example of this. Page one is full of the Franky attitude. This guy is one of the best supporting characters in comics - his short-tempered little man tough guy routine is funny as hell and it's a little different every time - it's a character trait, not a catch phrase (to be honest, Franky does have a catch phrase, but it's a really good one - he doesn't say it too often, either). Then there's a lot of sick, charming humor (see yesterday's post), prison drama, brutal violence (beautifully drawn and painted), a long-standing character making an important personal choice, a Johnny Cash reference and a fist fight with a shark.

This is all in 22 pages, and none of it feels rushed. I mean, could this get any better?

Powell also isn't married to any one style of pacing. Most of the issues he's released so far have been self-contained adventures (contributing, as all great one-shots do, to the overall arc of the tale of the tortured Goon), but we've just wrapped up a stellar three-issue arc and Powell's also just finished a wonderful four-issue miniseries called Billy the Kid's Old-Timey Oddities.

This series started out a little slow, I thought, introducing Billy the Kid as a backwoods, piss-stinkin' outlaw with no class but a lot of skill with a six-gun. At first, I didn't dig it as much as I dig The Goon, but the heroic and stupid behavior of Billy in the third issue really got me ramped up and this last issue knocked it out of the park, with the same manic blend of horror, dark humor, action and heart. Billy's relationship with the little boy in peril is moved forward on nearly every page, but it never weighs down the fun, and Kyle Hotz is a perfect choice for the artwork - he hits all the best points of Powell's script and contributes his own touch at the same time.

Frankly, Eric Powell is one of the greatest talents in today's comics. He does such stellar work that you often don't see his technique; it feels almost as if he's showing you something he's discovered, something natural that you never would have noticed without him.

Remember the first time a kid in the neighborhood found an animal run over in the street, and he ran and got you so you could both look? And the animal was gross and cool-looking and he tried to pick it up with a stick so he could throw it at you?

That kid was Eric Powell.

The Dark Horse website has previews for both The Goon #13 and Billy the Kid's Old-Timey Oddities #4, for those so inclined. But really, you should skip that and just go buy them. You don't have to take my word for it, either - Powell took home two Eisners over the weekend.

So, y'know. Smarten up. Read this.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Arsenic Lullaby: The Farrelly Brothers and Todd Solondz are Pussies

So here I am reviewing my opening salvo, and it occurs to me that maybe I’m coming off a little "PG".

Ho ho, I love comics, this shit rocks, come join me, hip hip hooray!

Well, I certainly want to keep the focus here positive and constructive, but that doesn’t mean I'm only gonna be reviewing Bambi, y'know, and what better way to demonstrate that than by giving you a quick look at one of my favorite, awful, awful comics?

Ladies and gentlemen, if you haven't been reading Doug Paszkiewicz’s wonderful Arsenic Lullabies, the odds are fair that it's not for you anyway. The series requires a really muscular, flexible sense of humor, as it's rife with jokes about the holocaust, abortion, child molestation, and violence.

Normally, I'd hear that and find myself only mildly interested. Usually, when folks are going for "grossout" or "black" humor, they do one of three things that make me lose interest: they try to make some kind of important social point, they rely on the darkness of the humor to be funny for them, or they flinch.

If I'm reading cruel humor, I want some actual cruelty in it, okay? If you’re gonna show me a kid getting mauled by a bear, just go ahead and do it; don’t make it complicated.

But Paszkiewicz neither complicates things nor flinches, and he puts a surprising punch of comedic talent into the book - it's not just funny because an aborted fetus zombie crawls back up into a woman's uterus for revenge, it's funny because the man's got real chops with timing and delivery. And his sense of humor has guts to it, and so on top of finding things like this really funny:

--I also find it charming.

What’s that? I’m a sick bastard, you say?

Whatever. Here's the thing: when I read this kind of stuff and laugh, it's not like I'm somehow endorsing child molestation. That's completely ridiculous, to a point of such obviousness that I'm embarassed to have to say so. I'm laughing at the unexpected, at the outrageousness of the story being told, at the clever characterization of Voodoo Joe and other recurring characters. But it's important that I'm also laughing at myself - I do have a strong concience, and like a lot of people, I spend a lot of time evaluating myself, picking apart each little action and thought, trying to be sure I live up to my own expectations - it's exhausting. And often, it's silly and dumb. And the fact that Paszkiewicz is able to make me laugh at such terrible things helps me take myself a little less seriously.

I'm thankful for that. Every issue of Arsenic Lullaby that comes out is a real joy for me, because I know I'm going to be able to sit back and relax with some big, fat belly laughs, with no strings attached.

Am I recommending this to everyone? Hell, no. I've only met a handful of people in my life with a sense of humor robust enough to enjoy Aresenic Lullaby, and those people have all become fast friends. If the rest of you want to laugh at Cameron Diaz putting jizz in her hair, that's cool - but I don't think that goes nearly far enough. I need the line pushed farther.

And Paszkiewicz is always pushing it for me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Welcome to Quality Control

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sean Maher. I love comics.

You may have seen me posting comics reviews and contests on Millarworld over the past couple years, championing great books like Sleeper and Small Gods. You may have read my old blog, the now-dead Zealot’s Lore, and seen the Rob Osborne World Domination Poetry contest or short essays like “How To Sell Me Your Comics”. You might have enjoyed my in-depth reviews at Bookshelf Comics. Or maybe you’ve been following the exciting experiment I just recently wrapped up – The Great Retailing Experiment, when I took full control of James Sime’s Isotope – the comic book lounge, slamming the pedal to the metal in four-and-a-half unbelievable days, running the gamut from swank partying with Fat Tire ale and sweet DJ grooves to an educational field trip with a class of reading-challenged kids discovering comics.

Throughout all this, I’ve dug into the world of comics as deep as I could; exploring contemporary fandom, observing the paths today’s creators have blazed, learning how comics retail works, and picking apart the industry as if it was a pocketwatch, trying to figure out what makes it tick.

From top to bottom – from fans, to retailers, to publishers, to creators – I’ve noticed a consistent, often dominant element: frustration.

I mean, have you seen the comics internet these days? It’s a hornet’s nest. Everybody seems to be pissed off about something. And often, they have a good reason.

But that’s not why I’m here. That’s not what this site is going to be about.

This is about enjoying yourself. Comics are riding the wave of a true renaissance, and I’m glad to be around to see it.

I’m here to talk about what I like. I’ll try to stick to comics, but sometimes I’m gonna have a meal that’s just too good to keep to myself, or I’ll see a movie that sends me walking away with a huge smile on my face. I’ll share that, too.

I’m building an oasis in the comics internet. There will be no sarcasm here, no bitterness or snark. Take that shit somewhere else.

Will you be critical of anything, I hear you cry? Are you telling me the emperor’s new clothes look great?

Well, that’s a delicate issue. If all I did was tell you everything was great, what reason would you ever have to believe me, right?

I’ve got two answers to that.

First, if I’m not talking about it – maybe I don’t like it. I’m not here to say the industry’s perfect and that everywhere you turn is peaches and cream. But I’m also not here to add my voice to the chorus of complaints. If you want to find out what sucks today, head on over to Fanboy Rampage; my good buddy Graeme McMillan will take care of you, and never steer you wrong with his intelligent criticism. Here, I’m narrowing my focus to what I like.

Second, I know that my liking something doesn’t make it perfect. There’s a term that’s been lost to comics as far as I can tell, a hell of a thing called constructive criticism. Look, anybody with the balls to put together their own comic and send it out into the world has a couple of points in my book. That doesn’t mean I have to dig what they’re trying to say, or how they’re saying it. But what I do see there is potential and passion. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people create comics because they love the hell out of them. These are people who are genuinely looking to make a real contribution to their chosen art form. And frankly, I think that means I owe them some consideration in return. Will every review you see here be a positive one? No, definitely not. But when I find something I don’t think is working, instead of panning it and tossing it in the bin, I’m gonna try and figure out what’s wrong with it and what works about it and how it could be made better.

And that’s what you’ll find here. I’m working to make life better; I’m stopping to smell the roses.

I’m running Quality Control.

And I hope you’ll join me.
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