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Girls: Conception

On the back cover to the first collection of Girls, a quote from Brian Michael Bendis, the bestselling comic book writer of the past decade, exclaims, “The Luna Brothers are the future of comics!”

I really hope they’re not.

Because judging from this first volume – called Conception – the Luna Brothers don’t know how to write or draw a comic book, and they’re probably misogynistic too.

The book opens with a young man named Ethan masturbating. We get a closeup of his sperm, and then a closeup of his face. His lip is slightly upturned, which indicates that he’s enjoying himself. This is the most expressive his face will be for the entire comic book.

Ethan is a lot like other characters, few of them from comic books. Like other fictional characters, he is upset that he has trouble with women. Like other characters, he lives in a hillbilly town, which is a lot like other hillbilly towns in fiction. It is more of a cliché hillbilly town than, say, the one in the silly movie Black Snake Moan. But perhaps Ethan will appeal to stereotypical comic book readers, who stereotypically tend to have trouble with women. Perhaps the mundane hillbilly town will also appear to comic book readers, who are used to reading stories about soaring metropolises with hypersexualized beings in spandex punching each other.

One night, at a bar, Ethan starts drunkenly rambling about how terrible women are. His monologue reads like something a bad writing student might have spouted. (I’d know; I’ve been to writing school, and I’ve been a bad writing student.) His facial expression remains relatively stagnant throughout his dialog. In a self-reflexive moment of irony for the Luna Brothers, Ethan is rightly called out as a misogynist. Soon after, on his drunken drive home, he discovers a mysterious naked woman in the middle of the road. Every man unlucky in love fantasizes about such things.

From there, things get strange. Ethan and the mystery woman fuck, and she lays eggs from which hatch more, identical naked women. These naked women proceed to terrorize the town. Later, there is a giant sperm monster.

Girls thinks it is a clever comic. It thinks it’s an erotic horror tale, but it’s neither erotic nor horrific. This story thinks it has something clever to say about human sexuality, but really it’s a dumb comic book with a giant sperm monster. The Luna Brothers are not great crafters of sequential visual storytelling. They’re just two more guys in the comic book world who like drawing naked women.

And what they have to say about women is awful. These mysterious naked women attack the women in the hillbilly town. This an awful male sexual fantasy, cathartic only for men who see women as sex objects and hate when they talk.

At least the naked women look lovely. Unlike most comic book women, they’re drawn with anatomic realism. Their breasts and butts aren’t impossibly large, and their waists are normal size. They’re drawn with relative simplicity and economy of line. They’re also the only decent bit of art in this comic.

The rest of the art is bad. It’s not just that every character maintains the same facial expression no matter what they’re doing or saying; the sequential art often fails to effectively convey the story. In the scene where the giant sperm monster kills two people, I only realized that it had, in fact, attacked them two pages later when one character said that it had.

The Luna Brothers’ Girls is not the future of comics. It’s only redeeming quality is that it’s unlike any other comic published. But that doesn’t make it worth reading.

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Invincible: Yet Another Superhero Comic Book

Invincible is yet another comic book about superheroes. That it is an independently produced and creator-owned comic book about superheroes does not mean that it is good. Invincible reads like its two creators, Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker, were two comic book fanboys who really wanted to make a superhero comic of their own. But Invincible doesn’t do anything new or groundbreaking for the overtired superhero genre. Maybe it doesn’t have to, but it should at least tell an engaging story.

This is the story of Mark Grayson, whose father Nolan is a superhero named Omni-Man and is a lot like Superman, except with a mustache. Omni-Man is so much like Superman that he even came from an alien planet. Oh yes. And despite Omni-Man not having a secret identity – because he doesn’t, as some superheroes do, wear a mask, or even glasses – the Grayson family lives a middle class lifestyle. Mark’s mother Debbie is boring human and a professional housewife. Her only purpose in the story is to cook.

“Family Matters,” the opening story arc of this comic and the only one I’ll suffer myself to read, deals with Mark realizing that he’s inherited his father’s powers. They’ve begun to manifest themselves now that he’s hit puberty. Cool. This should have made for an engaging if cliche coming of age superhero story. It might, as the title implies, deal with the fallout of his coming of age in the context of his family unit.

But no. None of the characters are fully realized enough for that – in art or characterization. There are no stakes, and none of the characters seem too excited by any of the supernatural things happening to them. When Mark realizes he has super strength, his reaction is, “It’s about time.” When he tells his parents he has superpowers, his mother’s reaction is, “That’s nice. Can you pass the potatoes?”

Characters in these types of stories usually care about the things happening to them. When they don’t care, I don’t care.

Throughout “Family Matters,” Mark – and indeed the entire world in this comic book – seems entirely disinterested in everything. He joins a team of teenage superheroes with about the zeal I approach my morning bowel movement. The world doesn’t seem to mind or notice that there are people in tights flying about; society doesn’t seem to be any different for it. At one point, Mark quits his job at (of course) a hamburger stand and laments at how upset his parents will be. But they’re not. In fact, Omni-Man suggests that very night that Mark should probably quit his job at said hamburg stand, which was a cliche place for a teenager in a story to work anyway.

At one point, Mark actually says, “Dad was sucked into a portal about fifteen minutes ago. I don’t think he’ll be home tonight. It was some aliens we fought earlier today. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

And his mother disinterestedly remarks, “Well, that’s more pork chops for us.”

Maybe this is supposed to be funny. But in any decent story, even if a father figure was literally invincible, his family should at least be mildly concerned when he gets sucked into an alternate dimension by bloodthirsty aliens. They might even try to rescue him. These characters don’t. They don’t care. And because they don’t care, I don’t care.

There’s also some sub-plot about a teacher blowing students up with bomb vests, but I don’t care enough about it to discuss it right now.

Even the art is bad. Cory Walker’s renderings look like the thumbnails of a better artist. His lines are loose and sketchy. He even leaves ink blobs at the end of some of his lines, as if his pen jammed and he didn’t care.

I don’t care either. I won’t be buying another collection of this comic book.

But it’s a shame. Robert Kirkman is capable of telling complex stories with real characters and dramatic stakes. He does this regularly in his zombie comic book The Walking Dead. I don’t know why he thought a pile of ineffectual cliches would suffice here.

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Chew

Chew is a culinary comic. That is to say, it is a comic book about food.

It’s main character is a little fellow named Tony Chu (get it?). Tony Chu is a ciobopathic. That means that he gets a psychic impression of whatever he eats. He can eat a banana and get an impression of the tree the banana grew on, the worker who picked it, what pesticides were used, etc. Or, because Chu is a law enforcement officer, he he can eat the flesh of murder victims to find out who killed them.

Chu exists in a world where the American Food and Drug Administration is the most powerful law enforcement force in the world because not long ago several million people died ostensibly from bird flu. Chu comes to work for the FDA so that his boss, Mike Applebee, can make him eat disgusting things to fight crime. He partners first with Mason Savoy, a ciobopathic, and then with John Colby, a cyborg. He falls in love with Amelia Mintz, a food critic who is a saboscrivner, which means that she can write about food so accurately and so vividly that people get an actual sensation of taste when reading her reviews.

I wish I could do that with my reviews. Chances are you don’t have the actual sensation of reading Chew right now.

Stories ensue. Often they contain biological grossness. Sometimes there is gore, and it’s funny. The book is zany.

Chew is drawn by Rob Guillory, whose drawings are always silly. Guillory keeps the gross parts of book from being too nauseating by using a cartoon caricature style. His style is spicy, piquant, and more detailed than most cartoonists’. He also knows how to make characters act.

Guillory works from scripts written by John Layman, who has an intuitive sense for saporous stories. He seeds elements of story well before they come to fruition. Each chapter’s plot is full-bodied, and structured exactly as it should be. Layman letters every issue of Chew himself, so the dialog boxes are more creative zest than any other comic’s. He even has a sense of humor.

There are two trade paperback collections of Chew that have been released so far. The first, Taster’s Choice, collects five relatively self-contained stories that set up the ongoing saga. They are all clever. The second, International Flavor, sends Tony Chu to a Pacific island nation where a strange fruit that tastes just like chicken has been discovered. Such a fruit is valuable in a world where poultry is illegal.

Both of these collections are affordable, entertaining, and mouth-wateringly good. They may also make you hungry. You should buy them. Partly because John Layman is better at using food-related verbiage than I have been in this review.

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Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth is a comic book, and it ain’t about superheroes.

It’s a comic about a mutant hillbilly child living in a post apocalyptic world. The mutant hillbilly’s name is Gus, and he’s got the ears and antlers of a deer. Gus lives with his pa, who is not a mutant, until his pa catches some kind of plague and dies. Then Gus is discovered by Jepperd, who is also not a mutant. See, in this story most folks got wiped out by the plague, except for these mutant half-animal children who started getting born about seven years ago, or maybe nine.

That don’t matter much. What matters is that this book has few new ideas and the kind of story that doesn’t usually get told in comic books. At the start, Jepperd tells Gus he can take him to a place where there are other mutant hillbilly children, where they’re protected. The two bond along the way. They have adventures. The world is filled with things that are bad and dark. There’s always the question of where they’re going.

Jeff Lumiere writes and draws this comic. His writing is a bit better than his art, which is loose. His lines aren’t perfect; they’re thick and they wander and make mistakes. People’s faces look funny and misshapen. Lumiere’s got a few issues with light. In one part, when Gus and Jepperd sit at a fire and talk, Lumiere drew shadows on both sides of their noses, so they looked like they had mustaches.

But something about how the art ain’t perfect makes sense. It’s wrong in the way Sweet Tooth‘s world is wrong. The mutant hillbilly boy looks sort of warped the way a mutant should. The art shows the world the way Gus would see it.

After all, the whole book comes down to Gus. He’s the guy who tells the story. We watch as he stares wide-eyed and dumbstruck at the terrible world he blunders through. He’s got a sad voice when he narrates. he’s unschooled, but not dumb. Lumiere did a good job imagining Gus, down to the mutant boy’s love of chocolate and the buzzed-out happy look the kid gets whenever he eats the stuff.

During their adventures, Jepperd calls Gus “Sweet Tooth” because of how much he likes chocolate.  Other than that, the title doesn’t have much to do with the story. You have to wonder how long Lumiere will be able to keep his characters talking about sweet tooths.

It’s nice to see a comic book with a new story and real characters. Maybe some of the other folks who make comics will see this book and make up a few of their own.

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Incognito: A Superhero Comic Book

Incognito is another comic book about superheroes.

It’s strange how one genre has defined the entire medium of graphic storytelling. Imagine a world all movies were westerns, or if all novels told Harlequin romance stories. In this world, fewer people would go to the cinema or read books—just like how not many people read comics because most of them tell recycled stories about super-empowered beings in spandex punching each other.

But even in overused genres, stories range from good to bad. Incognito is one of the better superhero stories in recent years. Unlike most of those, this book features new and original characters, and a noirish twist on the tired genre. It’s tightly plotted and well drawn; this book is entertaining. Its creators—writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips—are two masters of their craft who work with synergy.

Incognito tells the story of a man named Zack Overkill, which is a clever name as far as names for superhumans go. Zack, along with his twin brother Xander, used to be a super-strong villain. The brothers were part of a mafia where all the members had superpowers. Their job was to punch people. Then the Overkill twins were double-crossed, Xander was killed, and Zack went into witness protection. His testimony put the Black Death—a superpowered version of Tony Soprano—behind bars.

This story is sheer noir. It examines how a former criminal reflects on the days when rules and laws didn’t apply to his life. That the characters have superpowers is just a convention of the comic book medium. But the plot resembles Raymond Chandler’s stories more than Stan Lee’s.

Before and after they did Incognito, Brubaker and Phillips worked on a book called Criminal, which was a noirish book about criminals. Before that, they worked on a book called Sleeper, which was another superhero noir blend. Incognito plays to their paired strengths.

Phillips does a good job of illustrating this book. His inked art is not breathtaking, but he uses shadows and thick black lines to great moody effect. His renderings have a jagged quality. He is an illustrator of grit and darkness, and an effective storyteller. His strength lies in making his characters emote believably.

This book’s biggest flaw is that all the characters other than Zack Overkill are two-dimensional at best. Brubaker places Zack as the narrator of the story. His hatred of his mundane office job and his yearning for violence are well realized. But other characters like his brother’s former love interest, a mad scientist nemesis, and a Zack’s asshole parole officer all parade through the book like the tropes they are. But Brubaker paces the book fast enough that it’s easy not to notice that not all of the characters are fully realized.

Incognito is one of the few recent superhero comics worth reading. It’s entertaining, well-drawn, well-paced, and it makes for an interesting blend of superhero and noir conventions.

At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder what comic books would be like if every story didn’t have to have super-empowered beings punching each other.

To scratch that itch, I’ll have to read Criminal.

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Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a smart political comic book. Because it is a comic book, the main character has superpowers. It is difficult, apparently, to get comic book stories published unless they are about super-empowered beings.

Fortunately, Ex Machina is not about super-heroics. Its main character, Mitchell Hundred, was given superpowers in a mysterious accident three years before the story starts. The accident remains mysterious so that the origins of Hundred’s superpowers can play a role in the intrigue of the book’s plot. After the accident, Hundred has the ability to talk to complex machines and control them with his mind. He dons a cyberpunk costume and becomes a vigilante. Among other things, he stops the second plane from crashing into the second World Trade Center tower on 9/11.

The story starts with Hundred being elected mayor of New York City in 2002, three years before the book was published. In the year before his election, Hundred had realized that–with the exception of 9/11–him fighting crime with a jet pack attached to his back was causing more property damage than good work. He decided to cash in on the celebrity he earned when he saved the day on 9/11 and become an elected official. In this moment of socio-political commentary, overt references are made to Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The book is heavy-handed when it comes to political commentary. In the two collections I’ve read so far, The First Hundred Days and Tag, Mayor Hundred tackles controversial public-funded art and gay marriage respectively. Sometimes these political topics feel like writer Brian K. Vaughan is politically lambasting, but he always gives all sides to each topic equal consideration. These plot lines run parallel to other sources of intrigue, like murder and references to the origins of Hundred’s superpowers.

The story does not run linearly. The story of Hundred’s mayorship in 2002 is interspersed with flashbacks to his time as a superhero, his mayoral election, and moments earlier in his life. These flashbacks serve to accentuate the plot and provide insight into the nuances of his character. Vaughan is a good enough writer that he makes this complex story work both as an emotional tale and an intriguing plot.

Tony Harris, who draws the series, has a unique, phot0-referenced style. A feature not unlike a DVD extra at the back of the first collection shows various steps of Harris’s style. Harris photographs moments from Vaughan’s script, with family and friends acting as the different characters. He then uses the photos of actual people gesturing and speaking as references for his inked artwork. The result is that in this book, which has more scenes of people talking about politics than explosions, the characters actually look like they’re acting and emoting. Scenes another artist might have rendered as boring have a sense of human energy. And unlike other comic book artists who use photos for reference as part of their style, Harris imbues a sense of motion and violence in the book’s few action scenes.

Harris’s final images, inked by Tom Feister, feature deceptively simple line work and moody shadows. He is assisted by colorist JD Mettler, who uses different color palettes to represent the book’s different time periods, and to underscore the mood of each scene. The final artwork is not incredible or bombastic, but it suits the tone of the book perfectly.

The concept behind Ex Machina is not particularly original, but the idea of a superhuman in political office is an intriguing one. The writer, penciler, inker, and colorist working on Ex Machina are all masters of their craft, and the result is a well-executed story.

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Air (the comic book, not the stuff we breathe)

Air is a whimsical comic book.

It’s about a flight attendant with a fear of heights named Blythe who falls in love with a pretty man named Zayn, who is sort of an international man of mystery. She chases him all over the globe to countries that don’t exist, unearths an international conspiracy, and is told she can fly futuristic machines invented by the Aztecs with her mind. It’s all very metaphysical.

Air is romantic. It has a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. The writer, G. Willow Wilson, is good at defining her characters and giving them time to react to the crazy events of the story. Her plot is slow and often meanders, but the meanderings are enjoyable.

The book is illustrated by M.K. Perker, who draws like a lot of other comic book artists. He starts out with his art looking a lot like a lesser Jim Lee, or Tyler Kirkham. By the second trade paperback, his style is a little more relaxed, his inking a little gentler. His art isn’t very unique, but he does a good job of emoting the characters and telling the story.

There are two trade paperbacks of Air out right now, and both are pretty good. In the first, Blythe goes on an adventure with her motherly landlady and her goth co-worker. In the second, she hangs out with Amelia Earhart. This comic book sure has a motley cast of characters.

I don’t think I’m going to keep reading it, though. I enjoyed reading both collections–Letters From Lost Countries and Flying Machine. I just don’t feel a need to read further. This series is too lighthearted and whimsical for my taste. But it is very well crafted, and it’s a pleasure to read, so it should appeal to some people.

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