Sunday, January 13, 2013

Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews for 01/09/13

Welcome to the latest iteration of the Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews!  This is a week of beginnings and endings, as we place the magnifying glass on Infinite Vacation #5, Sweet Tooth #40, and The End Times of Bram and Ben #1.  How do these various books read?  Hit the jump to find out!

Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Christian Ward

Nick Spencer and Christian Ward's Infinite Vacation burst onto the comic book scene with one of the cleverest uses of multiverse in recent memory: a multiverse where it is possible to sell and buy your life to other yous from different worlds.  Want to live the life where you got the perfect job?  Won the girl?  Or even the one where you dropped out of school to open that surf shop on the Australian coast?  Theses options - and pretty much anything else you could ever imagine - are all possible in the world of Infinite Vacation.

It was one hell of a concept, and Spencer and Ward coupled it with an intriguing character in their slacker-protagonist Mark, a perpetual frequenter of these alternate lives, and his slow realization that the other Marks from different world were suddenly dying off with great frequency under mysterious circumstances.  It made for quite the compelling read, with lots of heady concepts and complexities to keep your brain wheels spinning at all the possibilities.

The only downside?  The series originally dropped in 2011.  And after three issues, nearly a year passed before issue #4 hit stands.  Unfortunately, the same thing happened again between #4 and this issue, the series finale.

However, the wait wasn't completely in vain, as Spencer and Ward have delivered a conclusion that is over 60 pages long.  So while you'll have to dig out your back issues to remember what the heck is going on, you'll still have plenty of new material to go through before reaching the end.

And as an added bonus, issue #5 is an excellent finish to this story.  Despite the delay, Spencer and Ward do not skip a beat here, picking up virtually where they left off in style and approach.  If anything, the delay looks to have allowed both creators to push their craft and storytelling to another level, as Infinite Vacation #5 fits right in with what has come before while changing things up for the better.

The extra pages are a real boon for the story, as it allows Spencer and Ward to tell their story at their own pace.  It's not that things are overly decompressed; it's more that scenes are able to run longer than one might see in an average monthly book.  This means that chases are fuller, conversations go further in-depth, and poignant moments between characters are more pronounced.  There is a series of full-page splashes towards the end of the issue that would not have been possible without the extra space.e.  Although they're, shall we say, a little light on dialogue, the effect this creates is the perfect punctuation to the scene, and perhaps the book, as a whole.

Ward's style is very different from your average comic book artist, bringing a commercial design and illustration sensibility to his work that has made Infinite Vacation stand out since day one.  His figure work reminds me a bit of Frazer Irving's digital painting, while also somehow looking both sketchy and refined at once.  Despite how different that already is from most comic artists, what really sets Ward apart in my mind is his layouts.  Panels and gutters are often nebulous things on his pages, challenging traditional definitions of where one ends and another begins.  It's a novel and daring way to approach the page and it works quite well in this story about identity and world jumping.

And while this experimentation has been on full display since issue #1, Ward pulls some new tricks from his sleeve throughout this issue, especially during the aforementioned chase scene.  He repeatedly rotates his layouts back and forth by 90 degrees, forcing the reader to turn the comic book to keep up with Mark as he tries to evade his pursuers.  It's a great choice that has come up a few other times last year, but it remains quite effective here, involving the reader in the action.

Spencer's renown has grown quite a bit since the first issue of Infinite Vacation due to his often challenging and avant-garde writing.  Rarely does he make things easy for his reader, and this mini has been no exception, as Spencer seemingly spent each and every issue adding another layer of complexity to his story.  Interestingly, having built up all those layers, Spencer goes the opposite direction here, slowly peeling them back over the course of the issue as he brings the story back full circle to its core message and moral.  The end result could perhaps be viewed as a little sappy, but Spencer pulls it off and his message rings true.

Verdict - Buy It.  Infinite Vacation has taken a mighty long time to reach its end, but now that we're here, I can say that the wait has been worth it.  Nick Spencer and Christian Ward's story of multiunverse jumping adventure and romance receives an excellent conclusion that is greatly improved by the extra page count.

Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Jeff Lemire

Sweet Tooth #40 is Jeff Lemire's concluding issue to his long running Vertigo series, and with last issue closing out the main narrative and tying up most of the dangling plot threads, this final chapter jumps forward a generation to look at the world Gus and friends have built in the wake of Alaska.  It's an interesting choice on Lemire's part, as this leap forward in time really allows him to explain how things end up for all the characters - and to an extent, the world - that we've been following, and he pulls it off with the usual style and panache that we've come to expect from this series.

Few stones are left unturned as this story is a mixture of continuous movement into the future and frequent looks to the past through memory and stories.  This mix gives the reader a very full understanding of how the world has changed without ever falling into down right exposition.  It's a fine line, but Lemire manages to walk it without ever going too far in one direction or another.

Interestingly, as the story moves forward, the reader becomes further and further removed from what's going on.  While we begin with lots of dialogue and explanations from the characters we know and love, as the issue develops, these direct communications are slowly replaced with captions from an omniscient narrator who is outside the narrative.  As these captions become more common, we too end up moving outside of the narrative.  In effect, Lemire turns Sweet Tooth from a story we've read and experienced into a story that he's telling us.  It's a little hard to describe, but this metatextual device provides some fascinating parallelism to the comic and is extremely well done.

Sweet Tooth #40 is also an oversized issue, and Lemire really delivers the goods here.  His style switches around throughout the book to represent the passage of time, looks to the past, and imaginings of the future, and it's all gorgeous stuff.  José Vallarrubia and Lemire are both creditted on colours, and the two do a great job, using the colours to help support the art in representing the many different scenes and times we encounter over the course of this issue.

Verdict - Buy It.  This is Jeff Lemire's goodbye to Sweet Tooth and its characters in more ways than one.  He uses this issue to write a heartfelt farewell to the world that he's created, and in the process, gives readers some amazing insight into how the adventure we've followed has impacted those who lived through them.  When so many stories choose instead to leave that to the reader's imaginations, Lemire manages the opposite in a surprisingly satisfying manner that still leaves room for interpretation.

Written by James Asmus and Jim Festante
Art by Rem Broo

The apocalypse is a topic that is always rife for stories, and The End Times of Bram and Ben is a comic that is happy to follow in that genre's footsteps.  However, unlike so many other stories concerning the end of the world, James Asmus, Jim Festante, and Rem Broo's book is keen to look at the subject with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The book's basic premise is that the Rapture has come and gone.  That is to say, all deserving people have ascended to heaven, while most of the population remains behind on Earth having been deemed unworthy.  The titular Bram is accidentally raptured (due to a clerical error) and returned to Earth shortly thereafter, where his roommate Ben is upset and worried that he wasn't deemed righteous enough for salvation.  Bram, meanwhile, is excited to take advantage of the post-rapture new world order in every way possible.

Everything rolls out of that initial premise (which plays out in the opening pages of this comic), and let me tell you, it's all pretty hilarious.  A buddy comedy to its core, Bram and Ben manages to have plenty of laugh out loud jokes while also building and developing an interesting narrative.  It's a testament to Asmus and Fetante (both of whom come from stand-up comedy backgrounds) that they can pack so many jokes into each page without ever sacrificing the book's plot.

It's equally impressive to see the many different types of humour and jokes that come up over the course of this comic.  Bram and Ben is not content with hitting the same note over and over again, with the humour coming in both high frequency and variances.  You can find sight gags, clever wordplay, puns, ridiculous situations, and much, much more in this issue.  A good portion of the overall humour comes from everyone playing things straight.  No matter how foolish things get, characters respond with the utmost ernestness, which creates a significant amount of laughs on its own.  There's one character in particular who delivers malapropisms of such a magnitude that they rival those of Arrested Development's Tobias Funke.

And despite the semi-serious subject matter, Bram and Ben maintains a lighthearted tone that makes it approachable for readers of most every background (although watch out for this title if you're not big on profanity, as it isn't shy on dropping the occasional F-bomb).  The book reads like a combination of Shaun of the Dead and Chew, and that's not a bad thing.  While the entire concept is pretty out there, characters react to these events with a certain logic to their choices, even if they are sometimes a little extreme.

Rem Broo's artwork can look a little rough around the edges at first blush, but it slowly grabs you over the course of the issue.  By the time I finished this 32 page opener, I'd come to appreciate his approach with his exaggerated and cartoony style perfectly matching the over the top scenarios and writing of Asmus and Festante.  Broo also does an excellent job with moments of physical humour, which this book is full of.  There were definitely a few sight gags that were on part with any of the other jokes in this title.

Verdict - Buy It.  The End Times of Bram and Ben is a lot of fun.  The book is steeped in religion and Christianity, but it's not concerned with who's right and who's wrong.  Instead, it's content to explore the  narrative possibilities and humour in the situation its creators have whipped up.  The book is irreverence without reverence, and I can't wait to get my hands on more.

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