Sunday, July 29, 2012

Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews for 07/25/12

It's time for your Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews for the end of July!  I'm taking some time to really focus on two books from two creators that I usually really like, Jeff Lemire's National Comics: Eternity #1 and Ed Brubaker's Winter Soldier #8.  I think the results of my perusals of these two titles may surprise you, so hit the jump to find out!

Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Cully Hamner

When the New 52 originally launched, I was somewhat taken with the idea of DC Universe Presents, a title created with the purpose of spotlighting some of DC's lesser-known characters who might not have the legs to support their own ongoing series.  However, my initial interest soon waned when I found myself not really feeling the adventures of Deadman, which took up the first six or so issues.  Once half a year had passed and they'd selected another focus, the title had kind of fallen off my radar (as I feel it has for many).

However, I was intrigued when I heard of National Comics, DC's latest attempt at an anthology ongoing series.  The difference here is that each issue is a self-contained one-shot story, meaning that you can more or less get an entire story within the confines of a single comic book.  I recognize that the ultimate goal of finding a series that resonates with readers so that DC can greenlight a successful ongoing or limited series is rather mercenary.  That's fine.  After all, it is the nature of comic books as they exist nowadays.  The exciting part (in my estimation) is that it can give talented creative teams the opportunity to really let loose and put together some exciting concepts to explore and play with.  While I don't know what will come, I can happily say that that's exactly what Jeff Lemire and Cully Hamner do.

National Comics: Eternity opens with a full page splash of our leading man, Chris Freeman, sleeping.  It doesn't sound terribly exciting, but Hamner manages to make unconsciousness pretty darned exciting, drawing a close-up of Freeman's face upside down, with a panel placed on his cranium that provides a literal inside look at his brain.  It's a simple image that visually grabs the reader from the get go.  More impressively, it links really well with Lemire's captions of Chris introducing himself to the reader, speaking about his near-death experience the year before and how it changed something inside of him.  This first page demonstrates the excellent connection our writer and artist seem to have.  The two work brilliantly together, with the images and words really supporting each other throughout the book, reinforcing the same messages in natural and effective ways.

That kind of relationship between writer and artist is not an easy thing to achieve, but I think it doesn't receive nearly enough recognition for how much better it can make an issue.  Hamner's work in Eternity isn't necessarily super flashy, but it doesn't have to be.  He seems to always provide exactly what Lemire's script calls for, often in subtle ways that may not be immediately evident during the first read through.  But even if you don't consciously notice every single thing, it adds a heck of a lot to the story.

And what a story it is. Told over the course of 32 pages (amazing, right?), discovering what Chris' mysterious new talent is actually takes up nearly half of the page count.  However, it's not because Lemire and Hamner suffer from decompressed, stretched out storytelling, but because they have a wonderful habit of getting sidetracked in this book.  What I mean is that Chris will be explaining something to the reader or interacting with another character, and while there will be a degree of closure on that topic, the comic will actually introduce another aspect of the narrative or elaborate on a previously mentioned thing.  It might sound a little odd, but it's a really effective device that enables them provide a full background for Chris in a natural way that still manages to move the story along.  And it also prolongs the question of just what it is that Chris can do that happens to be so helpful to his job in the coroner's office.

Once that part of the story is let out of the bag, we move onto the murder mystery that was teased in the solicitation to this issue, and I, for one, really enjoyed that little investigation.  It struck me as the kind of mystery that a reader could conceivably solve based on the initial clues offered them, which was kind of nice, and it was also interesting to see Chris, the character that Lemire and Hamner spent half the story building up, actually show some of his skills in action.  In my opinion, the time we get with Chris before the investigation starts actually makes the rest of the book more interesting, as we have some emotional investment in him and it's interesting to see what we've learned about him play out in the "real world", as it were.

I also particularly liked Darby Quinn, the antique shop owner who ends up looking into the murder with Chris.  Darby was an interesting addition to the cast who provided some much needed comic relief, ribbing Chris about his difficulties interacting with other people.  His inclusion also gave Chris someone to talk to, providing us another side of the character that we hadn't encountered before.  But most importantly, Darby gives Chris the opportunity to prove himself in some clutch situations, showing off a surprising proficiency in detecting as well as some nice character moments.  I also quite enjoyed how Darby developed over the course of the story, as Lemire and Hamner subtly demonstrate that he might not be quite as nice of a guy as he initially appears.

There's a lot to this issue as it throws out a lot of ideas, such as Mr. Keeper and Chris relationship with Captain Philips, that add a lot to the overall story, even if I don't focus on them here.  Lemire and Hamner really take advantage of the 32 pages afforded them, taking the time to develop these characters and concepts to create a really interesting story by issue's end.  It shows a lot of restraint on their part to do so considering that this may very well be the only time they get to work on Chris Freeman and the world he inhabits.  For my part, I hope it isn't.

Verdict - Buy It.  Jeff Lemire and Cully Hamner combine for a really enjoyable read that is a nice change of pace from the regular DC-fare: a deliberately paced, slightly supernatural mystery starring a pretty regular joe lead.  The ending is the only part I would call a little rushed, unnecessarily eliminating what could have been an interesting plot point, but considering this might be the only story Kid Eternity gets, I can't really hold it against them.

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Michael Lark

While I'm pretty new to Ed Brubaker's rather extended run with Marvel's Captain America characters, having only jumped in with his new Winter Soldier series, I do understand that Brubaker is pretty integral in the current understanding and interpretation of most of the property.  However, it wasn't the characters of Bucky Barnes or Natasha Romanov nor was it Brubaker's extensive work on this section of the House of Ideas' large universe that attracted me to the title, it was Brubaker himself.

Having sampled plenty of his other work, including the excellent Criminal and Incognito series, I was interested in seeing some of his work on mainstream heroes again (having also thoroughly dug Gotham Central and other books).  I figured that all the continuity I would have missed before this series started might impede my ability to enjoy the book, but it's actually been pretty easy to follow.  No, I've found the main issue for me is that Ed Brubaker is writing the comic.

Allow me to explain.

The first seven issues of this series have been near perfectly composed and paced, providing an intriguing look into part of Bucky's sordid and nebulous past, and the Winter Soldier #8 continues that impressive track record.  Everything that you encounter as a reader has a purpose and a meaning.  Every piece fits perfectly into the larger, intricate puzzle.  The whole package is incredibly slick as an example of what you should do when writing a comic book, but it's so slick that I've had difficulty actually getting swept up in the action.  The story is so well constructed and presented that I've had a really hard time seeing past the craft of the story and simply getting lost in the narrative.  This has made it challenging for me to really care about these characters and what's happening to them, something that was quite evident while following Bucky as he tries to track down the location of the kidnapped Natasha.  The whole issue should be tugging at my heart strings or drawing on my empathy - and I definitely see how the comic goes about accomplishing those things - but it just doesn't resonate with me.

Don't get me wrong.  Brubaker is a crazy talented writer.  He's become well known for his brilliant handling of the hardboiled / noir genres.  He's almost made a career of turning nearly anything he touches into just that.  Look at all the titles I listed above: while they all look at crime and criminals, they focus on the topics from different perspectives, but Brubaker always managed to work in himself and his noir sensibilities.  The same holds true for Winter Soldier.  It's written in that terse and tense manner that I've come to know and love from Brubaker, and it's done really well, but after seeing it so much, it's hard for me not to feel like I've read this before.  All those great stories are starting to feel like they're bleeding together, and I'm getting that feeling with this run with Bucky.

I am still quite happy to have Michael Lark on this title.  Brubaker and Lark's past collaborations are clear as day on each and every page.  These guys know each others' styles incredibly well and they bring out the best in each other.  Lark's pencil work is augmented by Brian Thies and Stefano Gaudiano on inks and Bettie and Mitch Breitwesier's colours, but the sum product is a slew of dark and moody pages that are a great match for Brubaker's script.  While Brubaker's narration tells the reader that Bucky is frustrated and furious at Natasha's kidnapping, it's Lark's art that shows the reader just how far gone Bucky is.  Those pages of him going through elements of the criminal underworld are brutal.  They're also exactly what that sequence called for.

Verdict - Check It.  This comic really is two incredibly talented creators (and their supporting cast) delivering an extremely well-constructed comic book that is an excellent example of what a gritty, hardboiled story should be.  However, with the two being so well-versed in the genre, the entire thing is bordering incredibly closely on being too perfect, too clean.  If you're a die-hard Brubaker fan or relatively new to the writer, there's a lot to love in this book.  The same holds true if you're especially partial to Bucky and his ongoing adventures.  For me, it goes over that edge, and I can't immerse myself in the world they're creating.  You might not have the same problem.

And that's that.  Did you get your hands on National Comics: Eternity #1?  If so, what were your thoughts?  What about Winter Soldier #8?  Am I being too harsh here?  And were there other titles you read this week that really turned your crank?  Hit up the comments to let me know!

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Steve said...

I definitely don't intend to nitpick, but it's actually Cully Hamner, not Hammer.

Great reviews, though. I also really enjoyed Eternity, and would gladly buy more stories from this creative team. I'm still anxiously awaiting the first trade of Winter Soldier...

Grant McLaughlin said...

If providing helpful feedback like pointing out that I've misspelled a creator's name throughout my review is your idea of nitpicking, then please nitpick away!

I'm glad that you enjoyed the reviews, despite that oversight (which has been corrected).

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