Funnybook Babylon

January 28, 2011

Top Ten Pamphlets Bought in 2010 Not Named Daytripper of the Year: Part Two

Filed under: Blurbs — Jamaal Thomas @ 9:57 am

We celebrate New Year’s all month long at Funnybook Babylon. Here’s more of the top ten pamphlets of 2010 not named Daytripper.

6) Amazing Spider-Man #630-633: “Shed” (Zeb Wells, Chris Bachalo, Emma Rios: Marvel Comics)

“Shed” was the highlight of a great year for the Amazing Spider Man title, as the long-running Gauntlet plotline (in which Spider Man is not only tested in battle with his greatest enemies by the Kraven family, but by crippling personal and professional setbacks) and the “Brand New Day” era drew to a close. Shed is an understated story about restraint, simultaneously one of the subtlest and most terrifying mainstream comic book stories of the year.

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Zeb Wells begins to subvert the classic Marvel/DC monstrous doppleganger narrative from the first issue. The first story starts in a conventional manner. Spider Man and the Black Cat bust a robbery. Dr. Connors — the nefarious Lizard — continues his struggle against the reptile within under difficult circumstances (estranged from his family, sexually frustrated, disrespected by his boss). Peter has boring family problems. Chris Bachalo plays with black and white backgrounds in a vaguely intriguing way. At this point, I figured that this would be another story in the Gauntlet saga that finds an inventive way to reintroduce a classic Spider Man villain. Maybe the Lizard would be more powerful, or more intelligent. By the middle of the issue, Wells gave readers a hint that something would be different, by giving a character a premonition of how the story would end that perfectly matched reader expectations. We all know how a Lizard story ends. Connors goes wild as Lizard until he’s confronted by a family member or loved one. Even when a writer pushes against the limits of this narrative, we know that they will stop short of the edge. The vision of a happy ending is a warning to the reader. This will not be a classic Lizard tale.

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Over the following three issues, Wells and Bachalo tell a taut horror tale that comes remarkably close to inverting the traditional Spider Man story. I’ve read a lot of stories in which Spider-Man’s struggled or even failed against an antagonist, but this feels different. Almost all of his assumptions about the Lizard are incorrect: even at the end, he still thinks that he’s fighting a mutated Curt Connors. All of his time-tested strategies for defeating a super villain prove completely ineffective. It feels like he’s always five minutes too late. There is no banter. In the end, Spider-Man doesn’t achieve his goals via a prolonged action set piece, he wins by outthinking his opponent and in one key moment, refusing to act: surrendering to a vicious mob in a dark nod to a famous scene from the second Spider-Man film.

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It’s a refreshing departure, particularly when I realized that Shed featured relatively few trademark Spider Man feats of acrobatic violence.

I also appreciated Wells’s willingness to engage with his premise by the end of the story. On one hand, “Shed” is a story about the triumph of human decency, from the Christ-like faux sacrifice of Spider Man to the subplot featuring Aunt May, over the reptilian darkness within. Mammalian propaganda if you will. On the other, the end of the story reminds us that shame and guilt don’t necessarily deter someone from engaging in wrongdoing. I’ll admit, on the first read, I thought that Shed presented a moral universe in which commonly held values about shame, nudity and murder were treated as essential to the human experience. Even though I suspect that we’re meant to assume that the Lizard is either dishonest or delusional when he talks about “killing” Connors, I thought the scenes where the Lizard realizes that he is unclothed and needs to be dressed and where he feels shame for Billy’s death, which seems to come from the fact that murder is wrong, not that killing ones’ offspring is wrong, didn’t resonate. Upon further reflection, I think that Wells was aiming for something a little more complex: the Lizard was disoriented when the mammalian part of his brain began to reemerge, but the end of the book suggests that he had successfully integrated his two selves, with potentially unpredictable long-term results.

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I wish that I could buy a Bachalo-pencilled title every month. He combines kinetic (and coherent) action scenes with uniquely expressive characters to tell a compelling story, no matter the quality of the actual writing. Bachalo is in absolute control of every page, using all available space to move the story forward, set the mood or focus the reader’s attention. Everything is layered with meaning.

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The first time Spider Man confronts the Lizard in “Shed”, Bachalo gives the reader a stylized version of a classic scene: the two foes confronting each other in a pile of rubble. The Lizard is big, almost alligator like, but has the familiar slacks and lab coat. His mouth is closed. Even though he poses a threat, there’s almost something docile about his appearance, as if he’s just a strangely mutated man.

As David Brothers observed in his great piece on Bachalo , the image below doesn’t just focus the reader’s attention to the two figures in the panel, but underlines the severity of the threat faced by Spider-Man. Bachalo shows us a Spider-Man overshadowed by the redesigned Lizard, who has transformed into a giant humanoid reptile. This Lizard is utterly inhuman. He/it doesn’t just want to defeat Spider Man. He may want to devour him.

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I could’ve easily picked a number of Amazing Spider Man arcs for this slot — “Grim Hunt” itself and “Origin of the Species” come to mind — but there’s something else that puts Shed over the top.

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This is the moment when Shed became more than a flawlessly executed superhero book. The Lizard finally sees the world from a ‘mammalian’ perspective and realizes that even in his evolved state, he had been viewing the world through a blinkered perspective. It’s a tragic moment that calls back to classic monster movies. In a perverse way, it’s almost moving.

5) Batman & Robin (Grant Morrison, Frazer Irving, Cameron Stewart, Andy Clarke, Dustin Nguyen: DC Comics)

Batman & Robin is the perfect blend of clever ideas that inspire annotations and almost flawless storytelling. Morrison puts on a clinic with fully realized characters, pitch perfect dialogue and thoughtfully constructed action scenes, particularly the ones depicted by Cameron Stewart, Andy Clarke, and Frazer Irving, who turned in some of the best work of their respective careers this year. Yeah, Morrison’s grand Batman narrative is great fun, but that sense of relief you felt when Bruce returned in issue 15?

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It only matters because Grant’s writing makes the reader feel invested in the characters and care about the stakes in the world he created.

Coming Soon : The third part of the Best Pamphlets of 2010 Not Named Daytripper! More cool pop-culture things in 2010!

January 10, 2011

Top Ten Pamphlets Bought in 2010 Not Named Daytripper of the Year: Part One

Filed under: Articles — Jamaal Thomas @ 8:13 pm

There’s something ridiculous about year-end top ten lists, especially when they’re written by non-professional critics. Ordinary folk like me probably haven’t read a representative sample of books published in any given calendar year due to budget limitations, established genre preferences and a lack of time. The date restrictions also feels artificial – many of the books I enjoy most in any given year weren’t actually published that year. My real top ten would probably include Zot!, Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus, Tomb of Dracula, Jar of Fools, Mesmo Delivery and the six part Scott Pilgrim saga. In 2010 alone, I know that I missed out on Pluto and Duncan the Wonder Dog and all the cool things on Douglas Wolk’s list. I stopped reading Scalped after the first trade and am about two trades behind on DMZ. I don’t read manga, which should probably disqualify me from writing or talking about comics at all. In short, any “Best of 2010” list I can come up with would be woefully incomplete.

But…. I like list-making. So, here’s part one of a two part look at ten books published as single issues in 2010 that I found especially intriguing and/or moving that are not Daytripper (which I’ve written about ad nauseum):

10) Philip K. Dick’s Electric Ant (David Mack, Pascal Alixe: Marvel Comics)

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January 7, 2011

Avenging the Week – Succumbing to Peer Pressure

Filed under: Avenging the Week — Jamaal Thomas @ 10:39 am

After a lengthy winter hiatus, Funnybook Babylon is back for 2011!

Apologies for the unannounced break – a wedding, work responsibilities and the holiday season conspired to keep me away from regular blogging for the last two months.

This week we’re going to embrace convention with part one of my randomly selected Cool Things in 2010 List! In the next week, we’ll take a look at the Top Ten Pamphlets (series or limited) bought in 2010 Not Named Daytripper of the Year, the Top Five OGNs of 2010 and other fun things.

10. Daytripper

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I may be in the minority, but 2010 was a pretty good year for comics. Chris Ware’s “Lint” was a modern classic and the best book of the year by far. Darwyn Cooke exceeded expectations with The Outfit, his latest adaptation of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels. David Hine and Shaky Kane pushed the limits of comic book storytelling with The Bulletproof Coffin (check out the first issue here). Brandon Graham’s King City brought back memories of when comic books could still surprise.

At the end of the year, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s Daytripper was the book that truly haunted me, that still lives on in my imagination. Daytripper is a laconically paced post-modern fable about one man’s (Bras) journey in life. Each issue took place over a short period — ranging from a single day to about a week — in a different year of the man’s life, focusing around a moment that helped define him as a person.

On one level, the brothers are telling us a series of archetypal stories suffused with magical realism, but their naturalistic approach to character development and dialogue set the book apart from other good Vertigo books. The brothers also collaborated on the art, which is nothing short of breathtaking. Dave Stewart is on coloring, and turns in another masterful job.

I don’t think that any book this year affected me as personally as Daytripper. I saw parallels to my own life throughout this book, ranging from Bras’s evolving relationship with his father, his career challenges, and his tumultuous love life. I know this sounds like a worn cliche, but Ba and Moon did an amazing job of capturing the sense that life is a journey: the son worships his father as a child, feels lost in his shadow for a bit, reconciles himself to his father’s legacy, and as an old man finally understands him. In the end, Ba and Moon tell a deceptively simple story with amazing art, which is all I can possibly expect from a comic.

Although all four of the books I cited in the first paragraph were more formally ambitious, when I think about the comics published in 2010, Daytripper will be the first that comes to mind. (more…)

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