One of the things that I love about comic books is discovering something new: meeting new characters, exploring new universes and finding new titles. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been scouring for something new to love. That doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied with my current titles. I’ve been having a great time with Green Lantern, I’m excited about the X-Men and The Stand has been outstanding. It’s just that there’s a unique thrill to enjoying something new. So here are some reviews of new comics that I’ve sampled over the last month or three.
Kill Shakespeare (IDW)
by Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger
“Kill Shakespeare” had one of the best high concept pitches I’ve seen in a while. “It’s like ‘Fables’ with the characters from Shakespeare.” What a cool idea. It would be fun to watch Hamlet and Falstaff and Caliban running around in the same world together. Unfortunately, the actual comic doesn’t live up to its promise. And the problem is all in the execution.
There are two major setbacks. First, despite his pedigree, this version of Hamlet is not a compelling protagonist. Hamlet’s most famous line is “To be or not to be”-- debating whether it’s better to be active or to allow things to happen on their own. This Hamlet has firmly come down on the side of allow things to happen. He’s a primarily passive protagonist. He’s banished; he’s shipwrecked; he’s abducted. Things happen to him but he doesn’t do much himself. There’s no inner turmoil. And there’s certainly no activity. It’s hard to cheer for- or even be interested in- this particular Hamlet.
Second, the co-authors, McCreery and Del Col, don’t really know what to include and what to leave out. They give us a three-page recap of Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays and one which least needs a recap, but they don’t bother to introduce us to Richard III other than having the character walk up and tell us his name. They give us several dream sequences, which isn’t entirely out of character for Shakespeare’s Hamlet who has a vision of his dead father. But the time spent on lengthy exposition and dream sequences makes it feel that not much happens in the actual story.
The promotional copy for Kill Shakespeare compared it to Fables. Well, some of Fables’ greatest strengths are its ensemble cast and sense of fun. Those key elements are missing from Kill Shakespeare. This is a wild idea. The authors should have more fun with it and not take themselves so seriously. After all, Shakespeare wrote comedies as well as tragedies. Also, the time spent on dream sequences and long speeches in Kill Shakespeare might have been better spent introducing additional characters in separate stories. Then, part of the fun would be seeing in how these characters come together, as with television’s Lost or the first season of Heroes.
The problem with Kill Shakespeare isn’t that it’s historically or literarily inaccurate, despite the claims of certain Shakespearean scholars. The problem is that it’s neither captivating nor fun.
by Daniel Abraham and Rafa Lopez
I admit that I was tentative about buying “Fevre Dream.” I’m a huge fan of novelist George RR Martin and this is one of my favorite horror stories. It’s a mix of Dracula and Mark Twain as vampires ride the steamboats of the Mississippi River. But it’s being published by Avatar, a company known for filthy language, excessive violence and explicit sex. The actual comic exceeded my expectations of the company, but still failed to live up to my hopes.
There were two major disappointments. The first had to do with the art. Rafa Lopez has a decent style. It’s generally pleasing to look at. And certain pages or panels work well on their own. Lopez could probably draw great pin-ups. But he doesn’t yet have the skills for a whole story. The main character, Captain Marsh, is overweight like John Goodman or John Candy. Unfortunately, Marsh’s shape changes depending on our viewing angle. This is especially apparent in the first few pages as his apparent weight fluctuates wildly. The lack of anatomy and consistency detracts from the story. Another problematic scene has to do with a race between two steamboats. Lopez successfully shows a narrowing of the gap from panel to panel. But he includes little to indicate movement in the individual panels.
I was also disappointed that Avatar couldn’t fully escape its reputation. Admittedly, Fevre Dream is a very vivid story. There are some brutal murders and some scenes that will haunt your dreams. It is a horror novel, after all. However, Lopez took a scene that is supposed to be shocking and turned it into something titillating.
Fevre Dream takes place in the pre-Civil War South and one of its early scenes involves a slave auction. The auction includes a pretty, young girl. The bidders leer at her and tell the auctioneer to strip her so that they can get a good look at the merchandise. The novel tells the scene in such a way that we are sympathetic to the slave woman’s humiliation. The twist is that she isn’t bought to be a bedroom slave. Instead, she’s brought to a plantation where she’s offered up as a meal to a coven of vampires. It’s a shocking sequence that shows you the utter depravity of the villains and fosters the reader’s hatred for them. But Lopez focuses on the slave woman’s nudity, putting her in suggestive poses instead of a posture of embarrassment. It completely undercuts the power of the scene as we feel neither her humiliation nor her relief.
Lopez does a better job with the death scene. There’s a difficulty in translating a written story to a visual medium as some things are better described than depicted. In this case, Lopez focuses on the victim’s face so that we get a greater sense of her horror. And he uses long distance shots to establish what’s happening without having to show it in graphic detail. If only he had shown such restraint with the auction.
by Jeph Loeb, Arthur Adams and Peter Steigerwald
I’ve never been much of a fan of Marvel’s Ultimate line. I tried Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men and Ultimates and dropped them all within the first year. They just weren’t for me for a variety of reasons and I’ve stayed away ever since. However, one thing drew me back: Art Adams’ art. I kept seeing the beautiful covers for the first issue. Wolverine’s son slouching in front of a couple of high school cheerleaders and a school bus. Four characters jumping out at the reader, including Wolverine’s son and what looks like a Gray Hulk. Finally, the temptation was too great. I decided to give an Ultimate title a try for the first time in eight years.
I’m happy I did. Ultimate X #1 is a familiar story. It’s the story of a young man discovering he has powers. It’s the story of a young man coming of age. It’s the story from the first Superman movie and first Spider-Man movie. And, in this case, it’s a classic story well told.
Jeph Loeb gives us an inverted story structure, with a fast-paced opening and a quiet ending, and it works. The story starts with a drag race which Art Adams infuses with a sense of fun, sex and danger that overcomes its status as a cliché. The race ends in a crash which Jimmy miraculously survives.
His survival raises all kinds of questions. There are questions for the characters. But they’re also questions for the theme to explore. The girl Tammy asks, “What are you?” Jimmy puts it more personally, “What’s wrong with me?” And with those few short moments, Loeb captures the appeal of the X-Men. They speak for adolescents (and minorities) who feel out of place in the world. This isn’t the story of Jimmy discovering his powers. This is the story of Jimmy discovering himself.
In the next major scene, Loeb introduces Kitty, another young mutant. She gives him information about who he is and where he comes from. It’s a nice touch, using a young girl as the mentor character instead of a wizened old man like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Loeb deftly- and quickly- handles exposition while Adams does a great job with the facial expressions of curiosity and surprise.
The final scene features Jimmy and his adopted father sitting on a dock. They’re simply talking. About what Jimmy is. About what that means for the family. About what happens next. It’s a quiet sunset. But it’s a masterful scene.