Each week, Paste reviews the most intriguing comic books, graphic novels, graphic memoirs and other illustrated books.
Dark Horse Comics, 2011
Hellboy is, hands down, my favorite closet librarian. Of course he’s also the Beast from Revelations and a brawling supernatural investigator, but those are the least interesting things about him – and I mean that as a gushing compliment. For the better part of two decades, writer Mike Mignola has used his titular demon to explore a living canvas of folklore from all over the world. Want floating Samurai ghost heads? That’s in there. Some Civil War Appalachian yarns? Done and done. Like that brilliant, idiosyncratic literature teacher you had in high school, Mignola repurposes these ageless cultural gems into a new context swimming in angular black ink and epic drama. But like all good things, Hellboy is a finite creature with an ending in sight soon. Fortunately, his final stories have pulsed with a foreboding gravity that has made these stories feel much bigger and badder than ever before. The Fury culls from Arthurian Legend with a dash of the Bible, making for an especially apocalyptic mood. An evil witch has ascended into godhood to stomp over the world with an army of trolls. Meanwhile, Hellboy’s heritage is further explored while he throws a few haymakers with a giant stone fist. If there’s one standout from Mignola and artist Duncan Fegredo’s work, it’s the mood – every panel drips with a timeless melancholy that puts the action into a richer, more artful context. It’s going to be devastating to watch this unique title come to a close, but if this issue is any indication, this could well be one of its finest chapters. (SE)
If daily newspaper comic strips are dying (and they are), then adventure comics have already decayed down to the bone. Sure, The Phantom and Prince Valiant are still slamming evil in Africa and Camelot, but adventure comics haven’t been relevant for decades. Race To Death Valley proves how vital the genre once was. Floyd Gottfredson took over the Mickey Mouse daily strip in 1930 under orders to convert if from a lightly serialized gag-a-day comic into an adventure strip with long-running stories. In the process he created an enduring classic and the most fully-formed depiction of Disney’s most important character. Before he morphed into an amiable but dull nice guy, Mickey was a brave rascal with a fundamentally good nature. That combination of irreverence and decency makes Mickey a great lead for a strip that mixes action and comedy, and Gottfredson wasted no time sending Mickey and his friends on lengthy, cliffhanger-packed adventures through lands far and near. A former animator, Gottfredson sticks closely to the Disney house style of the late 1920s and early 1930s, with every character consisting of rubbery black shapes with white faces. His panels are occasionally cluttered, restricted as they are by the format, but he has an animator’s knack for storytelling, and his layouts remain clear no matter how busy they get. Much of the humor is stilted by modern standards, but you’ll be too enthralled by the exciting plots and likable characters to care. (GM)
Back around the turn of the century, Peter Bagge decided that he wanted to do an all-ages girl-group comic—not one laced with irony or anger, as he says in his preface to Fantgraphics’ reprint of the nine issues of Yeah!, but one with the same sweet heart and sense of fun as Archie Comics. Happily, he recruited Gilbert Hernandez to do the art, and while you could argue that Jaime’s prettier line might have been better suited to the subject than his brother’s slightly rougher renderings, the result is still plenty cute. I’m not sure Yeah! could have lasted much longer than it did, but that may indicate my own taste for more narrative maturity. If anything killed it (although no one brings this up), it’s that it was in black and white. Kids like color, and so do non-indie-oriented comics fans. Nothing here is that much weirder than the exploits of Josie and the Pussycats, despite the eponymous band’s intergalactic travels. In other words, the book hits the right note of bubblegum pop, where you’re so busy enjoying what’s going on that you don’t stop to think the lyrics ain’t Shakespeare. (HB)
BOOM! Studios 2011
Stan Lee’s been busy diluting his brand for about fifteen years—showing up to make cameos in too many terrible movies, designing stuff for the NHL, doing animated series on crummy cable networks—so the news that he has three new superheroes is more likely to be greeted with a sign than exultation. Soldier Zero, however, may prove the old bastard’s still got it. I’m not sure how much Lee’s responsible for beyond the concept, but if that’s all he contributed, it’s good: Afghanistan war-hero Marine loses use of legs, regains it through fusion with alien life form that shares his body/gives him superpowers. The writing, by TV (and Marvel/DC) guy Paul Cornell, is snappy but not showy, moving the plot along with some personality and relying more on human interaction than on pages and pages of punching. Javier Pina’s art is more serviceable than spectacular, and the computer coloring is its usual ugly self, but the layout is clear and readable, even when many characters speak. It’s a good, straightforward book, with a sharp sense of how much to reveal when, and it treats its audience like adults without appealing to their more prurient side. (HB)