Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Marvel circa 2001 was a house in transition. New editor-in-chief Joe Quesada vomited out every stagnant creative team and title, leaving room for boundary-stretching content that saved the publisher from impending bankruptcy. Quesada’s best trick was simple and successful: stealing British Vertigo writers to tackle mainstream superheroes. Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis and Neil Gaiman all brought their cerebral cache to the imprint under Quesada’s inspired strategy. Though his name doesn’t carry the same buzz, Peter Milligan was also an integral convert. The man behind Enigma, Shade the Changing Man and The Human Target promptly created an insufferable group of mutant celebrity assholes and then nonchalantly massacred them… all in the first issue. The book was a relaunch of X-Force and it was downright electric. Milligan would rebuild the team, eventually rename it X-Statix and string it through thirty-nine more issues of cynical, hilarious, riveting social satire. The premise reimagined mutants (the same species of hero as the X-Men) as vacuous poseurs who indulged in product placement and front-page vice as an excuse to fight crime. Mike Allred’s gorgeous retro pencils graced most of the run, complemented by fill ins by Darwyn Cooke and Nick Dragotta. At 1,200 pages (and a mere $75 on Amazon), the X-Statix Omnibus collects the entire epic as well as every miniseries and anthology story in the shared universe. Averaging around $1.50 an issue, this tomb is completionist porn and highway robbery. Even better, it features the first Marvel issue to reject the archaic Comics Code Authority stamp, setting an incendiary precedent for mainstream comics to tackle adult themes from mature creators. (SE)
Dark Horse, 2011
How well does one joke hold up over 22 years and 240-plus pages? Does Evan Dorkin’s intermittent Milk and Cheese strip exemplify the rake principle of humor (see The Simpsons’ “Cape Feare”), in which something initially mildly amusing first has all the humor drained from it through repetition, then becomes funny again, partially due to the absurdity of its continuing unchanged? Maybe? The strip is mostly sophomoric, but its consciousness of its dumb joke and its frequent allusions to its medium (jokes about panels come up a lot) make it occasionally actually funny. What it really exemplifies is the time in which it originated, the late 80s/early 90s, when pure, simple violence was everywhere in popular culture, both subversive and mass. Running amok doesn’t carry the same appeal now. Much of our cult material, like this past year’s Drive, instead focuses on being tightly controlled, so the anarchy of Milk and Cheese feels dated or, depending on your take, awakens nostalgia for a different era. It’s nice, I suppose, to have the complete works compiled, but it’s exhausting to read in a short time. (HB)
Whoever picked the title for this slim volume that collects all of famed illustrator Joost Swarte’s comics work believed in truth in advertising. The Dutch artist has created steadily for decades, but not a ton of that work has been in sequential storytelling. You’ll discover that his dearth of output in the field is a bit disappointing, as nearly all these short comics are a real pleasure to read. Swarte’s visuals are always gorgeous and distinctive, with a strong influence from Hergé but an even more rigidly mapped out structure. The more you look at them, especially the large ones, the more you see, as in a one-panel, one-pager that lays out a parodic vision of comics production as if it resulted from a Roger Corman-esque movie studio. His eye is careful and his line even more so. Sometimes the writing can be a little unclear, although that could result from difficulties in translation (which has to overcome not only linguistic and cultural differences but also transcend time—many of these comics are several decades old). Still, the book is a real pleasure to read and to look at, and it makes a case for Swarte as a real comics guy, not just an illustrator. (HB)
Rating: 3.5 for this collection; 7.0 for the original comics
You were excited when Absolute Sandman Vol. 5 came out in November, but also a little sad. That hardbound volume went straight up on your bookcase, capping off the shelf that begins with the complete soft-cover Sandman library. Somewhere in your basement or storage space is a longbox filled with bagged and boarded originals. Now that you’ve finished collecting Neil Gaiman’s popular series for the third time over, where do you go from here? Be thankful that you can stave off that creeping emptiness once again with the brand new Annotated Sandman Volume One, a big oversized hardcover that is the definition of inessential. It reprints the first twenty issues of Sandman in black and white with scattered notes running alongside in thick black margins. Sandman didn’t really become Sandman until around issue eight, so that means almost half of this volume contains the worst issues of the series. Also you can go for pages without seeing a single annotation, and although references to Gaiman’s original script notes can be slightly interesting, most of this information is easily (and freely) found online. If you haven’t read Sandman, don’t start here; if you have, you’re all set. (GM)