Saturday, December 14, 2013

Some Things That Stood Out in This Week's Comics

I got a whole bunch of new comicbooks this week, partly because nothing is being released on Christmas day so there's more earlier in the month, and partly just because it happened to be one of those weeks were a lot of stuff came out that I follow. I've written a couple of reviews of some of those issues already, but there were a handful of other more specific things that caught my eye or stuck in my mind from this week's reading, so below are the four that seemed most notable, in the order in which I read them. These aren't meant as full reviews, just some comments on the details that stood out to me.

Lazarus #5
We begin with the only negative case in the group. I'm not the world's biggest Lazarus fan, but it's a pretty solid series with a great central character, and this issue made her seem even greater through one or two key scenes. Overall, then, it was more good than bad, although there were a few pages that felt pretty wasted, most of all the whole first scene.

Whatever, the thing I really want to talk about is the inconsistency in the voice of the captions that identify the location and population of each new setting. Basically, in the world of Lazarus, there are three different classes: Family, meaning members of the five families who own all of America; Serf, meaning the middle class people who work for the families; and Waste, meaning the poor nobodys who make up most of the population but have the least power or importance in society. Every time a scene begins in a place we haven't seen before, the first panel includes a caption naming the location and breaking down how many members of each class live there. Kinda. Here's the first one from this issue:
So the "Population [Family]: 2 [1 permanent]" is there to express that while protagonist Forever lives at Compound Sequoia all the time, her father (the first speaker in the above panels) is only there for a temporary visit. Which is somewhat useful info for us to have, but it's also quickly reiterated by the dialogue. So the caption is extraneous, telling the reader something the story was already going to explain. On the other hand, there's nothing the least bit useful about "Population [Serf]: 32." That's a random number that gives only a vague sense of how big the mysterious compound might be, because only 2 of the 32 are seen in the issue. This would all be less irksome if every one of these captions had the exact same format, but they don't at all. Check these two non-consecutive examples:

The first one bothers me for several reasons. Number one, it begins with a summary of the entire population (or lack thereof) of the setting, not broken down by class, which I never remember seeing in this book before. Secondly, it fails to mention that, in addition to the 16 serfs currently deployed, Forever is there, too, meaning there's also 1 family member present. Lastly, the caption actually identifies who the 16 serfs are, which is more info than these captions pretty much ever provide. It doesn't give their names, but even calling them Dagger Team A is more than usual. And it's redundant anyway, since Forever asks for this team in the previous scene, so we already know who they are. I'm confused as to why this caption is so unlike the others, because it doesn't add anything to the scene it opens, and it totally distracted and confused me. When Forever was there without having been identified by the caption, I actually went back to the top of the page and read it again to see if I'd missed something. Why this didn't say, "Population [Family]: 1 (0 permanent)/Population [Serf]: 16 (0 permanent)" is beyond me. It would've told us everything it tells us anyway, but in a way that lined up with all the other captions of this type more logically.

The second of the two above examples bugs me pretty much because it has the opposite problem as the preceding one. It actually does point out that no family- or serf-level people are currently there, instead of just telling us the total waste-level population, which is all we actually need to know. If these captions were more reliable or uniform, then saying "Population [Waste]: 17" would've been enough. But because not mentioning one of the classes doesn't necessarily mean nobody from that class is present, and I guess Greg Rucka really wanted to drive home that it's all waste at Musselshell, we once again get too much data for no real reason.

I feel like these captions change arbitrarily based on...I don't even know what. Somebody's whims? I know it's a little silly to complain that these non-character captions don't have, like, a consistent personality, but I'd seriously prefer it if they did, dammit! I want them to be legitimately informative, helpful, what have you, rather than feeling like tacked-on stylistic flourishes that serve no practical storytelling purpose.

Unity #2
I rather enjoy Matt Kindt's approach to battle dialogue. In some ways, I guess that's a compliment for the entire issue, since pretty much all of Unity #2 is devoted to a single fight between Aric (X-O Manowar) and the rest of the cast. But I'm not going to get into all the ins and outs of what did and didn't work with that or any other scene in the comic. I just want to zero in on the way Kindt writes the in-fight smack talk as an intelligent tactical debate between the two sides of the battle. It's sort of a classic case of characters explaining what they are doing as they do it, but there's a certain aggressiveness and vocabulary Kindt gives to his characters that makes it better than usual.
It still hits a lot of the typical beats, like having Livewire explain out loud—well, technically it's telepathically, but whatever, it happens in the text is what matters—how her superpowers work and what she's using them for. But she has a real reason for it in this case because she's fighting Aric in his mind while the rest of her team battles him physically, so she needs to update her allies on her progress as a means of keeping them in the loop and encouraging them to keep up their end of the fight. Meanwhile, Aric is super cocky about the trap he's set, but the group he's fighting knows they're much smarter and more experienced than he is, so they explain with their own arrogance about how they're going to beat him. And I just love the way Kindt scripts all of that. Everyone is very logical even as they're crowing, and the very concept of barbed strategic arguments appeals to me unexpectedly. I guess because this isn't a bunch of people bragging about their powers or power levels, which is the more common thing to see in a superhero fight scene. This is slightly more elevated conversation, a heated discussion of technique and position and planning, with the ultimate point being that sheer power is never enough. Aric arguably has the most of that, even more than the others combined, but he isn't able to control it completely or use it in the best possible way, and his enemies can do that with their own abilities, so he loses definitively. It really worked for me, a minor adjustment to a genre trope that made a world of difference.

Batman Black and White #4
This is a quick one. The above panel, drawn by Kenneth Rocafort, is the best-looking Batman I've seen in a few years. And I tend to like Greg Capullo's tale on the character, not to mention Jock and Francavilla and Tomasi and so on. But Rocafort does an exceptional job all over, and that close-up image is the cream of the crop. From basic design elements like the length of the bat-ears to more subtle aspects like the blend of rigidity and mobility in the mask, it's a near-perfect rendition of the Dark Knight. Plus the look on Batman's face is a fantastic mix of curiosity, anger, and surprise. He's more expressive in this panel than many artists are able to make him in an entire issue. It's not all brooding, even when, like here, he is brooding. There's more nuance than that, because Batman is a smart and complicated dude with a lot going on in his over-active mind at any moment. You can see the mental wheels turning under the cowl in this panel. Finally, I like how Batman looks strong and intimidating without needing to do anything but look straight at me. There's no billowing cape or crouching in the shadows or any of the other theatrics the hero often employs. He's just so stern and confident and physically firm that I'm a little frightened of him when he's standing stone still in the middle of an open space.

Harbinger #19
Riley Rossmo returns for the second issue in a row to draw a few short dream sequences, and there are some stellar results. Between Rossmo's distinct style for the events in Peter's mind, and Barry Kitson's convincing made-up cartoon characters brought to life by newish character Monica, we end up with a few pages that are a bizarre mash-up of bright-and-shiny childlike visuals and grim-and-gritty horrors.

These images capture visually one of the major underlying themes of this book as a whole, the idea of superpowered kids trying to operate and fight at an adult level, but only half-succeeding at best because, like it or not, they're still children. So even though Monica's mental constructs prove quite helpful, they still stand out as ill-fitting in such a serious setting. Ditto Peter's mental world; he uses it to contact Monica so she can free him and the rest of his team, but its aesthetic is glaringly different than that of reality, displaying that Peter may not be all that down-to-Earth, despite his power level and budding leadership skills.

I also like how the total chaos of this issue's events are expressed so efficiently by having all these different art styles sharing page space. Often, having different artists on a single page, particularly when their work looks so different, is confusing or discomforting, if not downright ugly. Here, it's done sparingly and thoughtfully enough that it actively enhances the issue. And it only really happens at the beginning, and then Peter and Monica are both freed from captivity so the need for her cartoon friends and his dreamscape go away. They're well-used early on, but not held onto too tightly, intelligently abandoned once they've served their purpose.

So that's a summary of the bits and bobs that got me going this week. YAY comics!

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