Time is tight this week, so this’ll have to be quick. So let’s get right down to it. FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!
Deadly Hands of Criminal
by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
This is the second of these magazine-sized Criminal one-shots Brubaker and Phillips have put out, this one in celebration of the book’s 10th anniversary. And like the previous one (Savage Sword of Criminal), this one is also a celebration of the black & white comics magazines of the 1970s. Produced outside the realm of the Comics Code Authority, those mags were really the first “mature readers” comics, dealing in levels of sex and violence publishers couldn’t get away with in regular newsstand comics.
Exactly why they fell outside the purview of the CCA speaks to the arbitrariness the Code had taken on by that point: they were magazine-sized, not comics-sized, and thus not perceived as being aimed at impressionable youngsters. And to be fair, these books were aimed at a more adult audience. Though pioneered by horror mags like Creepy and Eerie, seeking to recapture the feel of pre-Code horror comics, the magazine format offered a freedom that eventually came to include the kind of pulpy sleaze you’d find in men’s adventure novels. Real blood and boobs kind of stuff, with plenty of on-screen murder and an endless supply of half-naked women. There was still a weird kid-appeal to some of these books, though. The Hulk had his own black-and-white magazine, for instance, and that lead to some uncomfortable moments, like that time he hooked up with a drug addict…
That sort of thing is the crux of this story, in which Teeg Lawless (star of the last Criminal magazine special) gives his son Tracy (himself a former Criminal protagonist) an issue of a mag called Deadly Hands. As you can see above, Deadly Hands stars a character called Fang the Kung Fu Werewolf, and Tracy tells us everything we need to know about it:
Like in the previous Criminal special, the comic is a metaphor for what’s happening in the real world. So here we have the 12-year-old Tracy, teetering on the brink of puberty and growing wise beyond his years, reading a comic that’s not quite for kids OR adults.
Also like Fang, Tracy has a secret: his dad’s dragging him cross country as part of his cover on a mission for the mob, leaving a trail of armed robbery and broken bones in their wake. So Tracy goes back and forth from being a normal kid, reading comics and having fun, to being an accomplice to all kinds of dark deeds, the worst of which he’s only vaguely aware of until it’s too late to do anything about it.
So it’s the usual well-crafted depressing noir excellence we’ve come to expect from Brubaker and Phillips. This one’s maybe even more heart-rending than usual, though, because it’s about a kid. Granted, those of us who’ve read Brubaker & Phillips’ The Sinners already know this particular kid turns out pretty messed up. But this story’s before all that. It’s about a formative experience that sends Tracy down the path we saw in that book, and foreknowledge doesn’t make his lot in life any easier to take.
It’s not all dire dreariness, though. The Fang story pages are funny stuff, reminding me more than a little of Seventies Spider-Man. It’s especially like the period when he was rooming with Harry Osborne. If, you know, Mary Jane Watson had been continually coming over to take showers. We even get a second Deadly Hands cover, from another issue Tracy unearths as the story unfolds.
That second cover makes me wonder if Brubaker & Phillips have more of these magazine comic homage stories planned. This issue mentions two other titles from the publisher of Deadly Hands: the biker comic Wheels of Fire, and a blaxploitation book entitled simply BRICK! With those floating around, it strikes me that two more of these extra-length stories would round out a trade nicely, and give it a unifying theme to boot. Just a thought. But just for the record, I’d buy the hell out of both of them.
Dept. H 1
by Matt and Sharlene Kindt
Matt Kindt’s follow-up to the excellent Mind MGMT isn’t as ambitious as much of his previous work. It’s more traditional in structure and tone, and (thus far, anyway) not nearly as experimental. That’s a bit disappointing, honestly. Kindt’s adventures in storytelling have been a big part of his appeal for me, but that doesn’t seem to be what he’s after here.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the comic, though. For all the technical inventiveness and labyrinthine plotting it’s lacking, Dept. H is still a very cool little adventure comic, a sci-fi murder mystery set in a deep-sea exploration lab. It’s got a pulpy tone, and a colorful cast of characters who range from eccentric to sinister to quite possibly mad.
Our main character, in contrast, is a very relatable sort of hero, a woman with strained family loyalties and other recognizable problems who gives the reader an easy entry point into this strange underwater world.
It’s all perfectly well-crafted stuff, straightforward genre fiction of a type that I’m sure is much more commercial than Kindt’s previous work. I could easily see it being adapted for the screen. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It’s a well-done comic, and it hardly feels like Kindt selling out. But it’s less idiosyncratic than his previous work, and that makes it less interesting to me. Your mileage may vary.
by Warren Ellis and Roland Boschi
I want to like this book more than I do. I think Warren Ellis is treading on interesting philosophical ground, and I like the idea of delving into the mind of a man who sees the flaw in everything. But something about it’s just not coming together. I’m sure the long delay between issues isn’t helping, but even taking that into account, the book’s not quite working.
Part of the problem, I think, is the way SHIELD’s been shoehorned into things here. They’re an uncomfortable fit. I don’t buy Karnak working for them the way he does, at least not as Ellis is developing him. Of course, another part of the problem is that our SHIELD representative in this book is Phil Coulson, a character whose appeal I do not understand at all. He’s a bland functionary, a guy whose personality is best described as “man in suit.” It’s a far cry from the half-crazy cigar-chomping eye-patched glory of Nick Fury, and I can’t help but feel like we traded down (WAY down) when Coulson became the face of comics’ greatest spy organization. Even Maria Hill is better; she’s second-rate in comparison to Fury, too, but at least she sometimes achieves “cast-iron bitch” status. Coulson’s just… dull. He bores me, and I resent him for that more and more, every time I see him.
But my personal hatred of Coulson is not the biggest problem with Karnak. No, my biggest issue with this book is that it’s starting to feel like Ellis is phoning it in. While the core concept has potential, he’s gone on auto-pilot, falling back on his familiar pattern of “outrageous character says outrageous things while the people around him react with exaggerated shock.” It’s worked for a great many of Ellis’ leading men in the past, but Karnak’s quiet bleakness just doesn’t carry it off. So I chuckled a bit when, at the end of this issue, some random SHIELD agent asks Our Hero, “Are you Satan?” But it was a weak laugh, one that I didn’t really think Ellis had earned.
I remain hopeful that something will gel here, but I’m not sure it’s going to. And in the meantime, my reaction increasingly becomes a shrug.
Lazarus Sourcebook 01: Carlyle
by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, and a Host of Others
My Local Funnybook Store under-ordered a bit on this book, and I initially didn’t get one. Another customer was leafing through his subscription copy, though, and gave it to me when he decided against buying it, saying something that I think may be the best possible review of the book:
“In an ideal world, I would read every page of this and love it. But I know that’s not going to happen.”
I should explain. This isn’t a new issue of Rucka and Lark’s excellent economic apocalypse comic Lazarus. Instead, it’s what old-school D&D dorks used to call a Gazetteer, a print guide to the territory ruled by the series’ central family, the Carlyles.
It features page after page of text, maps, and graphics, detailing everything about the Carlyles and their territory in exhausting detail. There are sections on government, economic policy, agriculture, military structure, history, art and culture… Pretty much everything except annual rainfall.
And honestly, that might be in there, too. Because I haven’t finished reading it yet, and some of the pages I have read… I kind of skimmed. Don’t get me wrong. This is interesting stuff on the whole. There’s just an awful lot of it.
So I’ve been reading the meaty bits and skimming everything in-between. I admire the book for its thoroughness, even as I know that I neither need nor want to know everything in it. I’m glad Rucka’s figured all this out. It helps inform the stories he tells in this future world he’s created. But I don’t think I need to be quite as steeped in the details as he does.
So, yes. In an ideal world, I would devour every word of this and love it all. But, yeah. Like my friend said…That’s not going to happen.