Sunday, 15 April 2007

Reviews: Mr Stuffins, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Wallace & Gromit

Mr Stuffins issue 1 written by Andrew Cosby and Johanna Stokes, drawn by Lee Carter, coloured by Pablo Quigliotti, lettered by Terri Delgado and Marshall Dillon, Boom! Studios, May 2007, 22 pages of strip, US$3.99

In this, the first of a three-part series, the programme disc intended to control some sort of military/spy robot ends up inside a mechanical teddy bear, which is bought by a small boy. The nasty corporation that created the programme then comes looking for it.

As “high concepts” go, this is rather reminiscent of Small Soldiers, and there are absolutely no surprises in how the narrative unfolds. Having said that, the script is efficient and amusing enough, and maybe there will be some twists in later issues.

The disaster area is the art. Carter’s drawings are OK, if a bit crude, but either Quigliotti has deliberately decided to colour everything with dark brown mud, or there has been an almighty cock-up in the production department. Dead of night in the boy’s bedroom, inside a (presumably) brightly-lit shopping mall, outside a school in the day time: all are plunged into the same stygian gloom.

The effort required to work out what is going on in these over-dark panels brings home one characteristic of the storytelling: there is nothing here that makes use of the unique qualities of comics. The pictures act only to provide information, not to create resonant imagery. There is no byplay between words and pictures, no use of the interaction between panel and page. The cost of an animatronic or CGI Mr Stuffins aside, this could be translated into a script for TV (where Cosby normally works) without much difficulty.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – an entertaining story is an entertaining story in any medium – but it is one less reason for me to be interested. Ultimately, the most amusing thing about this comic – the very idea of a teddy bear James Bond – can be gleaned just by looking at the cover.

Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four issue 1: “The Arrival” by Jeff Parker (writer), Mike Wieringo (penciller), Wade von Grawbadger (inker), Pete Pantazis (colourist), Blambot’s Nate Piekos (letterer) and Stephen Wacker (editor), cover by Mike Wieringo, Karl Kesel and Pete Pantazis, frontispiece by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Marvel Comics, June 2007, 23 pages of strip, US$2.99

Like many in the blogosphere, I am weary of bloated rococo cross-over events; of gore, angst, prurience and – worst of all - literalism attempting to pass as sophistication; and of the gross distortions of established characters that Marvel and DC’s editors believe are necessary to fit their grand designs.

So this four-issue series should be right up my street. It’s written by Jeff Parker, whose Agents of Atlas and Marvel Adventures Avengers titles have emphasised playfulness, and drawn by Mike Wieringo, a skillful cartoonist who understands composition, panel progression, perspective and facial expression, and whose figure work is signally lacking in the postures of body-builders and porn performers. It is set before Civil War, whose shadow has blighted even such light and nimble comics as She-Hulk.

It doesn’t entirely work. There is a lack of tension in the build-up of the alien invasion which seems to be the main threat in the story. The aliens we have seen so far are unimpressive in design, and even a supposedly shocking event a little over half way through lacks impact (perhaps with reason, if the colour of Johnny Storm’s bed-linen on the next page has any significance – read it and you’ll understand what I mean). Since this is just the first part of four, it lacks as yet the complete structure that makes the one-off Marvel Adventures issues satisfying. And the whole thing is even more lacking in originality than Mr Stuffins: it’s just another super-hero story about long-established super-heroes.

And yet, a large part of the appeal of recurring characters in genre fiction derives from their reassuring familiarity. We want Sherlock Holmes to apply his observation and intellect to solve the mystery. We want Captain Kirk to be as passionate a moralist as he is a brawler and womaniser. We want the Doctor to pit spontaneity and compassion and humour against power and regimentation and death.

And we want Spider-Man to make lame quips while fighting bad guys – whether muggers or invaders way out of his league – because he can, and therefore he must. We want Reed and See-Through Sue to be loving parents, and Ben and Johnny to behave like adolescent pranksters, all the while assuming responsibility for the whole world, because the world needs and is worth protecting. And here they do. It is like meeting an old friend restored to health after a long and debilitating mental illness.

So, at heart, this is just a competent but inessential super-hero story. But I am so glad that it exists.

The Wallace and Gromit Comic issue 21, edited by Ned Hartley, Titan Magazines, May 2007, 21 pages of strip (out of 52), £2.60
Features: “Going Postal” by Andrew James (script), Steve Bright (pencils and inks), Samantha Emms (colours) and Jimmy Betancourt/Comicraft (letters)
“Plots in Space” part 4 by Dan Abnett (script), Jimmy Hansen (pencils), Bambos Georgiou (inks), Andrew James (colours) and Jimmy Betancourt/Comicraft (letters)

These strips are pretty much spot-on adaptations of the Aardman Animations films. Obviously, using any medium other than Claymation is going to rob the stories of some of their appeal, especially to those of us reared on Plasticene, Meccano and Airfix, but the writers and artists get the right feel, with mounting chaos, groansome puns and sly references, and an essentially English, Ealing Studios, mix of satire and cosiness. Even the details are well thought out: a nicely designed font, for example, and the way the page numbers are superimposed on pieces of cheese. The editors have not imposed a single style on the artists, but both Bright and Hansen/Georgiou achieve good matches with the look of the original films without being interchangeable with each other.

And Dan Abnett has remembered the old comics adage that everything goes better with a monkey.

As is usual with children’s comics in Britain these days, most pages are given over to miscellaneous filler: a pull-out poster of the cover, readers’ drawings and photos, quizzes and games, and a couple of text pieces supposedly written by Wallace (which aren’t much cop, although I did like the idea of the TV series Battleship Grimsby in which evil robots pursue the last remnants of humanity across Lincolnshire). But, as the magazine’s name suggests, it’s the comic strips that are the star attraction here, and they left me with a big, silly grin on my face.

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