Sunday, April 7, 2013

Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews for 04/03/13

It's said that April showers bring May flowers, and while we'll have to wait to see the veracity of that this year, I can say that it does bring you another edition of Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews.  It's a week for new beginnings, as we take a closer look at Abe Sapien: Dark & Terrible #1, Animal Man #19, and Polarity #1.  Check behind the cut to see how they all shook out!

Written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie
Art by Sebastián Fiumara

Abe Sapien: Dark & Terrible #1 sees one of Mike Mignola's earliest Hellboy characters return to active duty, as Abe Sapien has awoken from the long-term coma that has kept him out of the majority of the Hell on Earth storyline over in the pages of B.P.R.D. comics.  And while we're only one issue in, it's clear that Mignola and company have big plans ahead for Abe.

This issue feels a bit like the tale of two comics, as the first half of the comic is crazy tight, while the second half drags a bit in comparison.  Dark & Terrible opens with three quick scenes: two dark and mysterious men trying to raise nefarious spirits (as bad guys are wont to do in the Mignola-verse), a meeting at B.P.R.D. headquarters, and the aftermath of a battle between the military and some of the giant monsters that now populate the entire earth.  These scenes - all of which are four pages or less in length - are efficient storytelling at its best.  Things move immediately from one scene to the next in a natural way, and before you know it, you've met the figures who will presumably play the role of big bad for the miniseries, had some status quo building and catch up from the B.P.R.D., and subtly linked the main action to that opening dark magic ritual (through a shared location).

Things skip along at the quickest of beats, and you get a strong sense of where things stand.  And then the second half of the issue takes place almost entirely on a transport train while a few random characters talk about what's been happening in the United States lately with all those aforementioned giant monsters.  This sequence is a really clever way to help bring new readers up to speed, as we get a lot of stories and half-truths about what's happening where, but it goes on a little bit too long.

It's hard to deny that this conversation helps place the narrative in the grander scheme of Mignola's many different creations and books, but it's hard to hide the fact that the sequence ends up being a 10 page conversation in a transport train, no matter how interesting things are from a storytelling or narrative perspective.  This is especially true when compared to the quick pacing of the first half, this portion of the comic could have benefited from something to break the sequence up, whether a stronger flashback sequence, being shortened in favour of another scene, or something else entirely.

That being said, the ending moments of the comic manage to create some excitement and raise some puzzling questions that should be create enough interest to lure readers back for more.  Sebasti├ín Fiumara's presence as the comic's artist is also a boon for the book, as he provides some amazing artwork to hang this story on. While more and more artists are being tapped to work on these books, it's clear that Mignola et al. always works to ensure that new artists fit in with the style of the world, and Fiumara definitely does.  There's a dark grittiness to his lines that really fit in with the tone that Mignola and Scott Allie are going with for this story.  It works especially well considering what a dark place the world is in Mignola's comics, with humanity waging what appears to be a losing battle against the monsters who won't seem to go away.

Verdict - Check It.  The second half of this book definitely drags a bit, but that's mostly in comparison to the first half, which is paced so tightly that when things loosen up it's hard to ignore.  Regardless, there's a lot of good stuff happening in this opening issue.  The title is approachable for new readers, open for those wanting to return to the Mignola-verse, and rewarding for those who have stuck with it all along.  Scott Allie explains in the letters column that they have big plans for Abe Sapien in the coming years.  Abe Sapein: Dark & Terrible #1 shows how serious they are about that.

Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Steve Pugh

Jeff Lemire's first year on Animal Man made for some really special comics.  While Maxine and her connection to and destiny with The Red was a big focus for the book, the true driving force was the Baker family dynamic and the way that Buddy, Ellen, Cliff, Maxine, and Mary did (and didn't) get along in the face of all that superhero mumbo jumbo.  Unfortunately, when the Rotworld tie-in with Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing got underway, that family dynamic took a back seat to what ended up being an overlong and, frankly, kind of boring storyline that didn't end up going anywhere.

Therefore, with Animal Man #19 as the first issue truly separate from that storyline, I was eager to see how things would stand post-Rotworld, whether it would share more in common with that first year or the more recent span of issues.  At this point, I'd have to say it's somewhere in between the two.

The main thrust of this issue is all about breaking down Buddy.  Lemire is setting up a new status quo (at least for the moment) where Buddy, after thriving on the support of his friends and family, is losing these important connections.  Indeed, by issue's end, Buddy is pretty much on his own.  His family won't talk to him.  The Red has partially disowned him.  Things are bleak.  It's clear that Lemire wants to explore Animal Man in isolation, and while there's nothing wrong with that, this issue feels a little hollow because it is so clearly about that, to the detriment of everything else.

The family dynamic and human tension that drove this book in its early days are definitely back, but they don't quite fit here.  While there's a whole lot of frustration and harsh words being exchanged, it just doesn't resonate as strongly as it once did.  The need to drive Buddy away from the world comes at the expense of characterization, so while those familial relations are front and centre for much of the issue, they don't get enough room to breath and develop.  Consequently, it comes off feeling rushed and forced.  Buddy and Ellen are fighting not because of the mistakes they've made, but because it's convenient for the plot.

In a similar way, as the cover indicates Lemire also uses this issue to bring in newspaper paparazzi to pester Buddy and provide another isolating conflict for the character, but this, too, feels forced.  We're at issue #19, and while a third or so of this book took place in an alternate, dystopian future, I don't recall any earlier point in this book where Buddy interacted with the media in any significant way beyond the one page "interview" that opened issue #1 and even that was focused on how he was washed up and old hat.  There are some lines about the reporters wondering if everything has been a stunt to up his profile and so forth, but again, it feels like the issue is moving at the speed of plot instead of moving forward in a natural manner.

Artwise, Steve Pugh does a great job of rendering this story.  He's all over the place, delivering intelligent layouts that are appropriate for the tone and atmosphere of every scene.  His character work is a little stiff at certain points during the funeral, but he nails every moment in the Red.  Indeed, that's where he really stretches his wings, laying down some appropriately epic and wild pages.

Verdict - Check It.  When Buddy confronts the Red towards the end of the issue, they tell him that he is nothing but "a stopgap".  That's precisely how this issue feels.  It is very utilitarian, and its ultimate worth will only become evident in later issues when we see what Lemire does with the new status quo he is establishing.  Lemire is a talented guy, and I imagine that he'll be able to do some interesting things eventually, but that doesn't make this issue any more satisfying.  We're really just moving pieces around, getting them ready for later, which is all well and good, but doesn't do much for the here and now.

Written by Max Bemis
Art by Jorge Coelho

I came into Boom!'s Polarity with little in the way of knowledge or expectation.  I vaguely understood that this was Max Bemis first efforts at writing a comic book, that he was also the lead singer for a band I'd never listened to (Say Anything), and that he suffered from bipolar disorder.  So I came into this comic ready for anything, and found it to be a pretty enjoyable read.

Polarity is a comic that looks at bipolar disorder through the perspective of its protagonist, Tim, a 20-something artist living in Brooklyn who also happens to suffer from bipolar disorder.  The book is rife with captions, spending a lot of time in the head of our bipolar protagonist.  It's abundantly clear that Bemis knows what he's talking about when it comes to bipolar disorder and hip culture, but he gets a little too self-indulgent at times.

This comic is very much a product of today, filled to the brim with pop culture references that might very well feel stale by the time this book gets collected in trade.  There's nothing wrong with writing from the present, but I feel like the comic could have benefited from not being quite so insistent on placing itself in time and cultural space.  It's so omnipresent that it becomes distracting at times and the jokes occasionally come off as forced instead of clever.  This is a shame because in general the writing is actually quite good.  This is especially clear whent he issue is taken as a whole, as the near excessive captions of the first half are paid off by Tim's slow decent in bipolar madness.  There is a two-page spread that acts as a little montage of Tim's tumbling down into the rabbit hole of bipolar hallucinations that works really well in the way that his words become more rushed and manic in comparison to how focused they are at the start.

This sequence also provides Jorge Coelho a great opportunity to show off some of his artistic chops, as he organizes the page in a rather unorthodox manner that would be counter-intuitive to read if he didn't do such a good job with the layout.  As it stands, it just helps to demonstrate how sideways things are going in Tim's head.  These two creators do an excellent job of differentiating between the world that Tim experiences when he is on his medication and when he is not.  This is good because that is one of the central conceits of the book.

The further Tim falls away from reality, the more certain he becomes that he is special in some way, which may or may not include having superpowers.  It's a really interesting idea and it only works because of the care that both Bemis and Coelho show in their crafting of this story.  At this point, it's unclear whether he actually does have superpowers of if he's just off his rocker.  It's a fine line and they walk it well.  Unfortunately, I wonder if they might walk it a little too well, as after one issue, it's still hard to really understand what this book is about.  There's the bipolar / possible superhero elements, a friendship with Adam, and a burgeoning love interest with a girl by the name of Lily, among other things going on, so the whole thing feels a little jumbled.  I figure things will clear themselves up in a couple of issues, but at this tage, it's hard to know what's coming down the line.

Verdict - Check It.  Polarity #1 is a promising start from Max Bemis and Jose Coelho.  There are some missteps, but for Bemis' first comic book writing credit, the good far outweighs the bad.  It looks like things should go up from here, so if you like weird in your reading, you should give Polarity a try.

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