Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Spider-Men, by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli et al.

The reason this book exists is the very reason that so many people find it hard to "get" superhero comics. Briefly? There's another "Marvel Universe"* outside the regular one with all the heroes you probably know (from the movies if nowhere else**). This "Ultimate universe" has the same heroes, mostly, although with sometimes subtle, other times profound differences. Perhaps the biggest difference is that "Ultimate" Spider-Man--a youthful Peter Parker--died. In the Ultimate universe, at least so far, dead means dead (unlike the regular Marvel Universe, where people die and come back to life over and over, like clockwork). But before too long, Miles Morales, a thirteen-year-old mixed-race youth, gained spider-powers and assumed the mantle of Spider-Man. These two universes existed side-by-side on the comics store shelves for a dozen years, but until Spider-Men, there had never been a cross-over story bringing them together.

If you're confused, you probably don't read superhero comics all that regularly. And therefore, Spider-Men might not be the book for you to start with. Writer Brian Michael Bendis (who's scribed Ultimate Spider-Man from day one) does his best to set the stage(s) for this event: we get a very clear idea of who Peter Parker is, and a somewhat less-clear but still revealing portrait of Miles Morales. The first chapter opens with a several-page monologue by Peter/Spider-Man about why he loves New York City; once Peter gets transported to the Ultimate universe and Miles shows up, we see how the young hero is slowly fitting into the super-fabric of his own version of the city.

But the heart of the book--and I do mean heart--lies in the meeting, mid-point in the narrative, between "our" Peter Parker and the Ultimate versions of Peter's Aunt May May and Gwen Stacy (who, in our universe, was Peter's girlfriend until she was killed at the hands of the Green Goblin, in one of the most momentous story lines in the character's history--a death which haunts him only second to that of his Uncle Ben). Clearly, beyond the hook of the first cross-over between these universes, what writer Bendis is most interested in is these characters.

At first, May and Gwen--like everyone else--chides this adult Spider-Man for dressing up in the dead Parker's costume (his identity having been revealed to the world at his death). Once Peter unmasks and, predictably, May faints at the knowledge that her beloved nephew (at least a version of him) is alive and in her life again, the three characters have a lengthy conversation, which moves from tentative outreach and regret to gradual acceptance and, eventually, a kind of joy.

It's pure soap opera. But then, that's really what superhero comics are, when they work well. The costumes and powers and fights are part of the genre, of course, but the serial nature of superhero comic book storytelling has relied on the emotional histrionics of soap opera since at least the birth of the so-called Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960s. Writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four began the trend, but Lee and artist Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man arguably perfected the formula. Bendis and Ultimate Spider-Man artist Sara Pichelli show a lot of comfort working in larger-than-life, character-based psychodrama here.

Pichelli's artwork is lean and clean and very much what good super-hero comic art looks like now, with detailed environments and some very nicely exaggerated spider-poses on our eponymous heroes. But if anything, her depiction of facial expressions is a bit restrained--which would be fine in a literary slice-of-life comic, but super-soap gives you a license to kick up the histrionics. Still, that's a small quibble. I prefer my cartooning a bit more expressive and abstracted (see: Ditko and Kirby again), but as contemporary superhero art goes, this is fine stuff. Layouts are varied but always readable, moving the story forward without much in the way of flashy distractions.

I haven't talked much about the plot or the villain here. But really, beyond the fact that Spider-Man goes to the Ultimate Universe*** and meets not only his replacement but also several other heroes, the plot's incidental to the character interactions. If you haven't read many superhero comics--particularly Spider-Man comics--the character stakes might not mean all that much to you. (Again, serial storytelling means that you get to know these characters in depth; a small verbal aside here can feel freighted with import if you've followed the characters beforehand.) But for regular Spider-Man readers, Spider-Men provides a dose of emotion and a bit of wonder. And Peter's mysterious discovery at the very end ensures that there will be more where this story came from, in some other fashion.

*Actually, there are an infinite number of them, but I'm trying to keep this simple...

**Although the Marvel movies often conflate the "original" and "ultimate" versions of these heroes...

***Where everyone talks in a mixed-case typeface, unlike the all-caps "regular" universe. No, there's no particular reason I placed this footnote in this sentence; I just wanted to shoehorn in a font-nerd reference somewhere...

by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli et al.
Marvel, 2012
ISBN-10: 0785165339
ISBN-13: 978-0785165330
128 pages, $24.99

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: Tangles, by Sarah Leavitt

This is a very brave book. In Tangles, Sarah Leavitt recounts how her family lived with, dealt with, and was changed by her mother Midge's early-onset Alzheimer's (she began showing symptoms at only 52 years of age). We see an entire family coming to terms with this terrible illness, all in different ways, yet always out of love. It's not a guidebook for how to deal with Alzheimer's (how could it be?), but it is a record of what can be done, what might be done, and (only a couple of times) what perhaps shouldn't be done.

Tangles is simply awash in tiny details, thanks to Leavitt's coping mechanism of recording, in words and pictures, hundreds (thousands?) of observations of--and quotations from--her rapidly changing mother. The book's first-person narration of these tiny details seems to beg the question, Was this person who talked to broccoli still the mother who raised my sisters and I, the woman so engaged in education, the wife so loving and loved? The answer seems to be "Yes and no," of course. There's still a core of the Midge that we're introduced to in the book's preliminary, historical sections, but there's also a new person, one who sings to herself (no longer with her sisters) while being bathed or who writes ungrammatical notes to her daughter.

As a cartoonist, Leavitt draws in an unadorned, highly simple--even simplistic--style. I at first thought the style too simple but eventually recognized it as direct and honest. The book is a chronicle of Leavitt's feelings and impressions as much as it is a record of specific events, and I think a more highly rendered style would only serve to fetishize the events and overpower her impressions.

The book's large, square pages are generally constructed of five tiers of gutterless panels, leading to a dense reading experience; a lot happens on each page, and Sarah, our narrator, is often at a loss in trying to make sense of it all. How can you make sense of that which so often, by definition, is nonsensical? Such as the note from Midge to Leavitt's partner Donimo, which Leavitt reproduces, isolated in the corner of an otherwise blank page: "Love to Donimo / Hope you like Bmdows. / See you soon / family is / The whole / eags to see you / from Midge" (page 69).

The book is peppered with such large, nearly empty pages, falling in between some of the short, dense chapters. They often highlight quotations from Midge, or simple, striking moments: Actions divorced from time and context, much like Midge's perception of the world around her. Because it is so honest, Tangles is sometimes not an easy book to read. But it is a powerful one.

Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me
by Sarah Leavitt
Skyhorse Publishing, 2012
ISBN-10: 1616086394
ISBN-13: 978-1616086398
128 pages, $14.95

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review: Moby Dick (Cozy Classics) by Jack & Holman Wang


Cozy Classics: Moby Dick
by Jack & Holman Wang
Simply Read Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1927018110
ISBN-13: 978-1927018118
24 pages, $9.95

Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: Daredevil by Mark Waid vols 1 & 2, by Waid, Rivera, Martin, Rios, Kano, Pham et al.

I haven't read a new Daredevil comic book in many years, but I've heard enough about them to know that the character had been put through the wringer time and again, and that the title was known for being psychologically dark. Daredevil's secret identity as blind lawyer Matt Murdock had been made public (more than once?); he had become crime lord of New York (I think); he had been replaced by The Black Panther. In other words, typical high-impact superhero soap opera, though even grittier and more morally ambiguous than most.

But when Marvel Comics re-launched the title (yet again!) in 2011, it was announced that the character was headed in a new direction--or, should I say "old," for this new series, under writer Mark Waid, would be a return to the character's "lighthearted acrobat" roots, albeit one that would somehow not wipe away the character's more recent dark developments. Intrigued, I picked up the first two collected volumes from the library. What I found was a solid superhero comic, often visually innovative, which did indeed rekindle the sense of adventure and fun I recall from my own childhood reading of the character.

The gist of writer Waid's approach is that Murdock has survived being put through hell, and his coping mechanism is to treat life as a laugh (mostly--he is still a lawyer and crime-fighter, after all). While his secret identity was made public, the public's reaction to news is fickle, so while some people still believe that Murdock is Daredevil, others are unsure. Matt sometimes wears an "I'm Not Daredevil" shirt to deflect suspicion (though why that wouldn't just reconfirm said suspicion isn't exactly clear). His reputation makes it difficult for any clients he or his partner Foggy Nelson represent to get a fair trial, so he comes up with a new tactic: Their law firm will take on clients whom no one will represent and then coach them how to act as their own counsel, thereby allowing them to go to court without the distraction of all the "Daredevil" innuendos that follow Murdock wherever he goes. It's a narrative conceit that is as clever as it is utterly ridiculous; thankfully there's enough super-action that we don't see too, too many of these cases.

The artwork is in keeping with this lighter narrative approach. Particularly in the case of artist Paolo Rivera, we get characters composed of clean lines (if often a bit stiff in the staging) and innovative, almost bouncy page layouts. There are some new tricks to represent Daredevil's "radar sense" (often red contour lines over black backgrounds, as well as tiny inset panels which draw our attention to small details, highlighting Murdock's own heightened view of the world) as well. Even Rivera's cover to the first collection (which was also the cover to the first new issue) plays with how Daredevil exists in a world without vision: everything in the background environment is composed of words, representing how his brain "molds" objects out of sound. Examples: birds are built out of the words "flap flap flap," a water tower out of "glug gurgle drip drop," exhaust out of "hsssss." And Daredevil holds one of his billy clubs directly in front of his eyes, emphasizing for the reader the character's sightlessness.

The stories also work thematically with the character's attributes, pitting him against adversaries like Klaw (a being composed of solidified sound) and the nearly blind Mole Man--both, I think, for the first time. He also teams up with Spider-Man (a character with whom he has a long history) and hooks up with The Black Cat (a morally grey acrobat herself). And the macguffin of the OmegaDrive (a quantum hard drive containing information on several crime families and syndicates) ensures that Daredevil is never far from a tussle with any one of Marvel's many mafia surrogates.

All in all, these are solid, well-crafted superhero stories, light-hearted (usually) but not light-weight.

Daredevil by Mark Waid vol. 1
by Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin et al.
Marvel, 2012
ISBN-10: 0785152385
ISBN-13: 978-0785152385
152 pages, $15.99

Daredevil by Mark Waid vol. 2
by Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, Emma Rios, Kano, Khoi Pham et al.
Marvel, 2012
ISBN-10: 0785152407
ISBN-13: 978-0785152408
136 pages, $15.99