Sunday, 3 June 2007

Reviews: Action Comics, Gutsville, Spider-Man Fairy Tales

Action Comics issue 850 “Superman: Family” by Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza and Geoff Johns (writers), Renato Guedes (pencils and colours), José Wilson Magalhães (inks), Rob Leigh (letters) and Matt Idelson (editor), cover by Renato Guedes, DC Comics, Late July 2007, 38 pages of strip, US$3.99

This is a disjointed story, as Brainiac 5 helps Supergirl, still trapped in the 31st century, use a gizmo to peer into the past, specifically picking up key moments in Superman’s life (after a few attempts showing other versions of Superman throughout the multiverse), including some previews of forthcoming attractions in the Superman comics, in the manner of issue 1 of the latest run of Justice Society of America. These fragments are used unsubtly to hammer home how lonely Superman has been until he learns that he has an actual living relative. The story doesn’t really hang together well, and the dialogue is clunky and full of forced exposition.

But that’s not the selling point here. What makes this comic worth looking at is Renato Guedes’ artwork, which combines a figurative approach as realistic as any you’ll find in comics with an almost ligne claire approach to linework and an abstinence from black shading. The unusual distribution of work on the art, with Guedes handling colour as well as pencils (but not inks), is crucial, as all the weight of the pictures comes from the colour modelling.

Guedes is taking over as the regular artist on Supergirl later this year. Numerous bloggers have already praised his advance sketches for showing a Supergirl who looks like a real person in real (if odd) clothes rather than the half-naked distended sex object who has populated the title’s pages since its revival. This issue of Action Comics suggests that there are more reasons than that to keep an eye on his work.

Gutsville issue 1 “Part One: Ingestion” by Simon Spurrier (story) and Frazer Irving (art and letters), plus appendices “A List of Oddities and Curiosities” by Ray Fawkes (text) and Fiona Staples (illustrations), “Gutsville Map” by Simon Spurrier, “The Butler and the Bolt: A Gutsville Mystery” by Simon Spurrier (story) and Simon Gurr (illustrations), Image Comics, May 2007, 22 pages of strip plus 9 pages of appendices, US$2.99

Gutsville tells the story of a community living in the belly of a colossal sea creature, which swallowed their ship 157 years earlier (or so the prologue tells us: the clothes worn by the characters mix influences from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth). There is class conflict and a killer on the loose.

Spurrier sets up his story nicely, limning in the main characters neatly, and creating convincing details of how his community would talk and act after generations in the belly of a beast. Irving’s art is clear and precise yet dark and foreboding, with one brief interlude making good use of his psychedelic style from Storming Heaven. An occasional experiment, such as using semi-transparent word balloons to indicate whispering, fails to come off, and it is still a puzzle how an isolated ship-load of people manage to obtain enough food, let alone clothing and furniture and even art materials, but on the whole this is a confident and well-realised comic.

However, I think it would have come across better if I had not recently read the collected edition of Leviathan, a 2000AD series by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli, the story of a community living on a giant ocean liner that was possessed by a demon twenty years earlier, where there is class conflict and a killer on the loose; and also Seven Soldiers: Klarion the Witchboy by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving, in part the story of a community living underground, having been dragged there hundreds of years earlier by the fairy-like Sheeda, and whose inhabitants could wander around Gutsville without anyone remarking on the oddity of their clothes. The prologue to Gutsville even concludes with the phrase “Gutsville endures”, a clear echo of the chant “Croatoan abides” which peals through Klarion.

Still, there’s enough that’s good about this opening for me to hope that future issues escape from what at the moment seems like a high concept pitch of “Leviathan meets Klarion”, and tell a story of their own.

Spider-Man Fairy Tales issue 1 “Off the Beaten Path” by C B Cebulski (writer), Ricardo Tercio (artist), Artmonkeys Studios (letters) and Molly Lazer (editor), Marvel Comics, July 2007, 23 pages of strip, US$2.99

This is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, with a version of Mary-Jane Watson as the heroine, a Peter Parker as the Woodcutter, and an Aunt May as a substitute for Grandmother. J Jonah Jameson also appears as a grumpy and distrustful village elder. But really, the Spider-Man elements here are at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction. The setting is classic mitteleuropan forest, not New York, and no superheroics occur. Spider-Man is used only as an external heroic ideal, which the heroine must replace with her own courage and initiative and that of her fiancé.

There are two variations from the classic story. Mary-Jane plays as active a part in killing the wolf as Peter (fair enough, though the way it is done is not terribly plausible), and Aunt May is not eaten, which I am sure would have disappointed me terribly as a bloodthirsty toddler. Still, at least Peter doesn’t have to put on his black woodcutter costume and become all vengeful. (And Mary-Jane doesn’t do any laundry in this story, either.)

The style of writing is clearly pitched at children, which is refreshing, though it makes it hard for this middle-aged man to judge its success. The art is bright and exuberantly cartoony, with computer colours allowing Tercio to miss out black lines altogether for anything other than black objects, creating a Matisse-styled cut-out effect.

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