Ooh, so many interesting things happening in comics right now, but I want to highlight just three fun things that give me hope for a brighter, better future. If you’re thinking about whether or not you should deign to enter your Friendly Local Comics Shop, let these titles lure you in to seek more of the same!
Barack the Barbarian
(Larry Hama, writer; Christopher Schons, artist)
Ever since our Commander in Chief admitted that he kinda liked comics — and that when he read one, he made it “Conan the Barbarian” — a parody of this sort was probably inevitable. The only subject more ripe for mockery than Robert E. Howard’s muscle-bound barbarian is the entire political arena itself, and this comic from Devil’s Due Press combines them with more wit than I could have hoped.
On one level, it’s as silly as it sounds, though I think many people might have suspected that the joke stops with the front cover. (Click to embiggen that thumbnail image.) Even more outrageous than mega-ripped Obama is the alternate cover with the sultry wolfskin-wrapped “Red Sarah” — the warrior princess of the north lounging about in the snow looking deadly and hawt. But I was surprised to find out that jokes inside those covers went beyond base and obvious, all the way to wry and clever.
For starters there’s the straight up Conan-ization of this story. Like the classic Marvel comics of the ’70s (and the superb Kurt Busiek/ Cary Nord retelling of a few years back), this tale begins as an already-ancient legend being told around a campfire in some primitive, Arctic village. This is funny stuff: the storyteller embellishes his tale with details of old Washington, such as chariots pulled by dead dinosaurs and “enchanted berries” that let men speak across great distances. The quick-witted audience of children are skeptical of this mystic hokum, and warn the old storyteller not to end this tale with divine intervention — a “Malcom X. Machina.” These are not easy jokes slopped out by a lazy writer on a deadline. This is damn clever.
The lore of the original Conan also gives this story a boost: “The Tower of the Elephant” isn’t just one of the most famous Howard-penned tales of the barbarian, but in this story it’s obviously the bastion of Republican power that must be stormed to save the day.
The politcal jibes are fast and furious, of course. Hilaria is the grizzled Amazonian who joins Barack in his quest; evil tyrant “Boosh” and Grand Vizier are joined by a chain at the knee, and John McCain gets the fairest portrayal of a Republican warrior I can imagine coming in an arena like this:
I mean, look at those pythons! Of course, “Red” Sarah Palin (a riff on Conan’s regular she-devil, Red Sonja) gets reduced, in true comic barbarian fashion, to a pair of chainmail distractions and a sword.
The left isn’t safe from parody either, lest mouth-foaming conservatives try to go all Cimmerian on this project. Take this early scene as the barbarian orders a meal at the tavern:
Barack: I’ll have the tamale, kielbasa and schnitzel burger combo with Dijon mustard, and cheese grits on the side. A wonton soup with extra matzo balls to start.
Waitress wench: Wow, stranger! Your order is so inclusive and proletarian — except for the Dijon.
A little later, the domineering Hilaria introduces Barack to her followers, enticing them to join his fight. Her fair-weather feminist friends have none of it:
Amazon 1: Not all of us are so loyal anymore, Hilaria! We signed on to put a woman in the tower, not another set of gonads!
Amazon 2: We are so out of here.
Amazon 3: Let’s go see what Red Sarah is up to!
I can’t wait for more issues in this series. I’m on board for as long as Hama will have me. Just as long as we get to see this match-up some time soon:
Cursed Pirate Girl #1
(Jeremy Bastian, writer & artist)
I’ve carried on at length already about the inaugural issue of this comic, which looked almost like an art exhibit catalog. And now that issue 1 is here, looking a bit more like a traditional comic, my enthusiasm hasn’t waned a bit.
Bastian delivers 34 pages of intricate, craftsmanlike art that looks to be channeled directly from another century. With heavy paper stock, pristine printing and nary an advertisement in sight, this is a visual (and storytelling) treat that can’t be missed.
JUST CLICK ON
Bastian’s story is a fun complement to the art, an inventive fish-out-of-water tale of a Jamaican governor’s daughter fascinated with (but forbidden to acknowledge) pirates, and a mysterious pirate girl haunting the shadows of Port Elisabeth. Bastian adds nice characterization by making the cursed girl in question the loyal daughter of a dark pirate captain whom she’s seen only in dreams. When she proves to be a bad influence on Appollonia, the governor’s impressionable daughter, Cursed Pirate Girl finds herself in the clutches of a right rum customer — with only spooky supernatural providence to look out for her.
Bastian’s art is painstaking, which is why it’ll be months before another issue of this miniseries sees the light of day. Unlike other comics, though, the wait is bearable because one can always crack open the latest installment and find something new to enjoy.
Detective Comics #854
(Greg Rucka, writer; J.H. Williams III, artist)
Mainstream comics always have something interesting going on, but occasionally they’ve got something truly exciting, and this is it. If the first 853 issues of Detective Comics didn’t wow you , I’d suggest giving this one a shot.
Perhaps you’ll find it interesting because Detective regular Batman has been pushed aside — you may know he is both a.) dead, and b.) currently being portrayed by Bruce Wayne’s ward and best chum Dick Grayson in all other Batman titles.
Perhaps you’re intrigued by the new central figure, Katherine Kane, who is famous for being a.) a lesbian and b.) a recent creation meant to gay up the ranks of the DC Comics Universe, and thereby grab all comics-related headlines of 2006.
But what’ll really stick is the art. You’ll want to savor it. Swish it around in your mouth like an aged Grand Cru. Artist J.H. Wiliams III absolutely roars into comics history with some of the most lovingly drawn pages of superheroism I’ve ever seen. Williams switches styles and graphic design effortlessly to fit the flow of the story: when Batwoman is in action, she gets intense red-and-black, all textured and painterly, in lightning-jagged panels; when alter-ego Kate takes over, she garners reserved, flat penwork in orderly, right-angled boxes.
Here’s how he opens:
And here’s how he transitions:
And here’s how he rolls when it’s just regular old Kate Kane, lovelorn lesbian:
At one point in Kane’s out-of-latex segment, Williams pulls back on a two-page spread so we can see a Sims-view floorplan of her entire apartment. At the same time, he overlays eight panels of talky-talk over the spread that follow two characters moving through the environment. The details in the smaller panels, taken at different angles like a moving camera sweeping through the space, match the details of big-picture view with architect’s accuracy. It’s a neat trick of design that can only be accomplished by a guy who knows what he is doing, and who can take the time to get it right.
As for the story? There’s not much I can say. Rucka’s writing is swell, though I have no idea what Kane’s backstory is, who her antagonists are (apparently a literal-minded group of baddies who worship the Religion of Crime; true!), or what her relationship with the Bat family is. So what? I find it simple to slough off such unanswered questions when the art is carrying me along like a dinghy in a riptide. Either further illumination will come in future stories, or the story will simply flow on, and I’ll bob along with it.
Looking at Williams’ Mucha-like covers of what’s to come, I don’t care what the story is about. Keep dropping art like this, Mr. Williams III, and comics will be worth waking up for!