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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The World Below - From 1999

(Pictured is the trade paperback.)

Concrete is one of the finest comic books published today. The World Below is not one of the finest comic books published today. Both titles are written and drawn by one of the best writers and artists in comic books, Paul Chadwick, known for his rich and believable characterizations and dialog, intriguing plots and distinctive art. The World Below will not be known for four of these five Chadwick strengths.

So, what's up down below?

"Electronic magnate Charles Hoy has sent the Team of Six down a sinkhole in rural Washington State. From it came the strange mechanical flyer, years ago, which yielded the patents that made his fortune. Now he needs more technological magic...and so these six search The World Below."

Holy SF, that sounds like Jules Verne's classic novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and that can't be all bad! And that Team of Six sounds like artist Jack Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown comics title where a team of men with special talents tackled supernatural creatures. That can't be all bad either!

It isn't all bad. Chadwick's art remains distinctive, although the wild underworld creatures here are too heavily influenced by Jack Kirby's silly looking creatures from old monster comic books. Floating albino jellyfish? Flying lawnmower blades?

That Team of Six is part of the problem. There are simply too many people in this shindig, and that means characterization, Chadwick's greatest strength, is almost non-existent.

Plot and dialog are also part of the problem. Chadwick does an excellent job of recapturing the nuances of old '50's and '60's "B" movies and SF comic books -- stiff, pseudo-scientific phrases and creatures, plants and landscapes made of cardboard and plastic borrowed from Salvador Dali. With today's level of special effects sophistication, these nostalgic touches just seem silly.

Regrettably, The World Below is not above reproach.

The World Below #2 & 3/20 pgs. & $2.50 ea. From Dark Horse Comics/sold in comics shops and by mail.

Reviewed by Michael Vance

The Justice Society Returns - From 1999

(Pictured is the trade paperback.)

Anyone with the slightest interest in DC Comic's oldest team of super heroes, the Justice Society of America, will want the latest series based on their adventures, The Justice Society Returns.

This is a complex package. There are two issues of All Star Comics that provide the beginning and ending episodes. There are also seven separately titled issues that contain the "in-between" parts of the story. (All-Star was the venerable title in which the Justice Society appeared from 1939-1951.)

DC uses the original All-Star logo and its original corporate logo. The story structure also resembles that of classic Justice Society stories. The seven separate issues have different artists, another homage to the past.

For the separate issues, DC has revived titles familiar to Golden Age comics collectors: Adventure, All-American, National, Sensation, Smash, Star-Spangled and Thrilling. (Some of those were published by Quality, a firm acquired by DC in the 1950's.)

There are too many artists and writers involved to mention, but the writing is generally good. Some of the political ideas are more typical of the late 1990's than the mid-1940's.

There is more variation in the art. The best art is in National and Star-Spangled. I also give National credit for its effective use of Mr. Terrific, a very obscure character.

The narrator of the series is Hourman but he does not dominate. A strength of the series is an exploration of the relationship of weaker members of the Justice Society to the "powerhouses" such as Green Lantern or Hawkman. The treatment of Johnny Thunder, Atom, and Mr. Terrific adds considerable depth to their characters.

I had almost forgotten DC's experiments with sword and sorcery characters in the 1970's. Most lasted for only a few issues, particularly Stalker. That character becomes the major antagonist for the series.

This elaborate package is a prelude to a massive reworking of the Justice Society. Other attempts have not worked well, but I hope DC can set it right this time.

Reviewed by Dr. Jon Suter

For Better or For Worse - From 1999

Since the advent of The Yellow Kid, a market has existed for reprints of comic strips. Supermarket racks teem with compilations of Beetle Bailey and Family Circus; patrons of bookstores encounter larger anthologies. Frequent reprinting of older anthologies provides a barometer of the continuing interest in continuity strips such as Doonesbury and Lynn Johnston's For Better or Worse.

Polls consistently give high ratings to Johnston's fictional Pattersons, a family akin to the cartoonist's own. The characters age in real time and encounter the hilarious and dark sides of life. Death and violence have touched characters close to the Pattersons, but not the family itself.

In 1995, the infant April was rescued from drowning by Farley, the family's aging sheepdog, who died as a consequence. Some readers were aghast; others applauded the realism. Consistent readers shouldn't have been surprised. Johnston foreshadowed the event thoroughly. Two recent anthologies make this clear.

In "Starting from Scratch" (McMeel and Andrews, 1996), Farley sired a litter of pups, including Edgar, whom the Pattersons adopted. Prior to that, we find allusions to Farley's age and physical deterioration. The book ends with Parley's death and burial.

In a shrewd effort to capitalize on public interest, the publisher has issued "Remembering Farley", a reprise of sequences from his birth onwards. Readers can follow his growth from tiny puppy to aging hero. (This reader found an earlier and forgotten reference to Farley's age.) Effective closure is provided by the inclusion of strips from the summer of 1995 which depict the oldest child's first visit to Farley's grave.

Those who own the original For Better or Worse anthologies may not want the repackaged "tribute," but this format does allow a view of Johnston's consistent skill at characterization and plot development.

If aging humans are allowed to die in the next few years, it will be interesting to see how the public reacts. No comedy strip has allowed a major character to die "on stage."

Reviewed by Dr. Jon Suter

Superman - From 1999

Superman is the most durable of comic book heroes, and has survived lethal foes from Toyman to Luthor to Doomsday. In the long run, his most dangerous enemies could be the artists and writers who chronicle his adventures. No one seems able to maintain the level of intensity needed to keep the character interesting. Just when it seems nothing new can be extracted from Superman, however, along comes something different. Three current titles are worth consideration.

The first, an oversized volume, appeared in late 1998, Peace on Earth. Fans of Alex Ross's paintings of Superman and other heroes will want this. Others will be intrigued by the plot's attempt to answer the old question, "Why does a world with Superman still endure war, poverty, etc.?" For $9.95, this is a good buy.

Another oversized volume, Superman/Fantastic Four, is a collaboration between DC and Marvel Comics in which Superman teams up with the Fantastic Four to battle the planet devourer Galactus. This is a least as good as the two Superman crossovers with Marvel's Spider-Man several years ago.

Dan Jurgen's script and art are good. His rendition of The Thing is as good as any of Jack Kirby's. Some panels seem a bit rushed, but may be due to the inking rather than the pencils.

The one missing ingredient is Marvel's Silver Surfer, a character closely associated with Galactus. Since Superman becomes a herald for Galactus, some reference to the Surfer seems appropriate. For fans of crossover stories, this is another good buy at $9.95.

The third and best item is a four-issue series entitled Superman/Batman: Generations. John Byrne uses DC's Elseworld format to follow the careers of Superman and Batman from 1929 to 1999. I've always admired Byrne and this is one of the most satisfying stories he's ever written.

The plot is based on the natural aging of the characters. There is enough tragedy to satisfy anyone, but there is also an optimism rarely seen these days. Give this an A+.

Reviewed by Dr. Jon Suter