Archive for March, 2007

Love in the time of zombies

March 27, 2007

So it turns out that my real work is more important than this blog.

But not to worry, internetters! I still love you–here’s a review to prove it.

Even if it’s only nominally a review of the book it’s supposed to be about.

***

The living and the dead, Jason. Fantagraphics, 2006. $9.95, 48 pages.

Everybody knows the story of how Sigmund Freud was asked about the deep psychological meaning of his (ultimately fatal) smoking habit. The story goes that Freud replied: “sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar”.*

What everybody doesn’t know is what Freud went on to say: “But a zombie is never just a zombie”.

For once, Freud was right. The horror genre as a whole is rife with symbolic subtext, but it’s never rifer than in the disreputable subgenre of zombie fiction. Zombies aren’t just shambling living dead monstrosities in search of the nearest brain to chomp on. They can also, like, mean stuff too.

And they can mean a lot of different stuff. Zombies are symbolic chameleons, able take on any number of meanings, depending on the whims of the creator. Nowhere is this symbolic range on clearer display than in Romero’s “Living Dead” series, the closest thing there is to a zombie canon. In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies represent American xenophobia and racism. In Dawn of the Dead, mindless consumerism. And in the most recent entry in the series, Land of the Dead, they represent an oppressed and vengeful underclass.**

This symbolic range has made the humble zombie a versatile monster, more so than other creatures tied to more specific meanings. Given their range, it was not terribly surprising when, a year or two ago, zombies become the hot new thing in comic books. For a while it seemed like you couldn’t pick up a funnybook without tripping over a zombie. Zombie horror! Zombie comedy! Zombie romance! Zombie yaoi!

Okay, I made that last one up.***

Two things drove this fad: the then-recent appearance of a couple of popular zombie movies; and the growing popularity of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman’s obnoxious right-wing fantasy cunningly disguised as a comic about post-apocalyptic zombie survival horror. But all things come to an end, and the surest sign that this particular trend was on its last, rotten legs was the appearance in early 2006 of the mini-series Marvel Zombies. Hardcore fanservice, this series featured Marvel’s stable of beloved underwearmen (like Spider-Man and Captain America) turned into, you guessed it, ravenous, slavering zombies.

A few things worth noting about this mini-series. Back in the day, “Marvel zombie” was a derogatory term for folks who would only buy comics published by Marvel, no matter how bad they were compared with books from other publishers. No doubt the creators behind Marvel Zombies (including Mr Kirkman again) thought it very “ironic” to turn this term of abuse into the punning premise of a series. As identity theorists might say, they’d reclaimed the term “Marvel zombie” into a badge of pride.

But it’s doubtful the creators saw the deeper irony inherent in the very premise of that series: a stable of once colourful characters, now turned into an undead mockery of their former selves, forced to feed insatiably upon one another in a nihilistic spectacle of violence. They might as well have published a series called Flogging the Dead Horse, featuring unspeakable things done to a horse called Ditkirby.

The second thing to note about the Marvel Zombies series? If perennially late to the party Marvel was doing zombies, then the zombie fad was officially over.****

So what better time than now for Norwegian alternative cartoonist Jason to release a zombie comedy/romance?

But then, Jason has long pursued his creative muse in some unlikely directions. For those unfamiliar with his schtick, all of Jason’s work features anthropomorphic critters drawn like hipster rock kids, i.e. skinny and morose. His short graphic albums, mostly in black and white, put these scrawny creatures through a variety of genre paces: Hey, Wait…, the work that introduced him to English audiences (which many consider his best work), was a poignant slice-of-life look at childhood memory and getting old. The Iron Wagon adapted a mystery novel. The Left Bank Gang was a heist-gone-wrong story featuring James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald (as “funny animals”). You Can’t Get There From Here was a romantic comedy about the cast of Bride of Frankenstein.

Jason’s style is often described as deadpan which is, if anything, a dramatic understatement. His gawky, inhuman characters and prosaic, even mundane framing tend to leech his stories of almost any affect, like an Uncle Scrooge story drawn by an autistic savant. In The Living and the Dead, Jason quite effectively uses these distancing techniques for laughs.

Plot: boy meets girl, girl is street-walker, boy saves enough money to buy a night with her, meanwhile a meteor lands, zombies appear and spread like a plague, boy and girl must fight to survive. In most hands, this would be lurid, pulse-pounding stuff, but Jason plays it as deadpan slapstick visual comedy. Hence we get scenes like the following: the hero fights his zombiefied boss, sticks a knife in his chest, then looks at him still standing there, leaves and comes back with a big machete. Or the Keystone Kops bit with a zombie police officer. Or the throw-away baby-eating joke.

It’s okay, see, because they’re only funny animals! Besides, the protagonists take it all in their stride. In fact, Jason’s characters are uniquely well-placed to survive the apocalypse. The devil himself could appear on the page, rape a thousand schoolchildren and destroy the universe. At most, Jason’s characters might show a few flying sweat beads in alarm; the final panel would matter-of-factly show the earth exploding, seen from outer space. Dealing with a horde of zombies out for their flesh? Child’s play.

Except for a handful of sound effects and half a dozen panels of dialogue (presented as silent film intertitles), the book is completely silent. Luckily, Jason’s clear, minimalist line and straightforward design are more than strong enough to carry a story on their own.

So if a zombie is never just a zombie, what are the zombies in The Living and The Dead? It’s hard to say too much without giving away the (oddly sweet) ending, but I’d say they represent the creeping conformity of middle age.

That, plus an excuse for some flesh-eating gags.

Recommended? Jason’s style is increasingly looking like a limitation, but it works well here. A amusing bit of light entertainment.

IYL: Zombies, silent film comedies, macabre humour/adventure cartoonists like Gorey, Addams or Sala.

* The story is probably apocryphal, which is quite apt for Freud.

** Yeah, I haven’t seen Day of the Dead, but I guess the zombies there symbolise Wall Street brokers and faulty cuisinarts, or something.

*** And a google image search gives me nothing. But the Combinatorial Law of Fetishes predicts that somewhere out there, someone has a jones for zombie yaoi.

**** That said, I would have eaten that shit right up when I was eleven years old. Zombie Spider-Man versus, I don’t know, zombie Hypno-Hustler? Sign me up!

Banya: The explosive deliveryman

March 14, 2007

Spring has left me unsprung. Here’s a short, just-the-facts review. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some high-quality snark, check out Noah Berlatsky’s attacks on Jeffrey Brown, Art Spiegelman and art comics in general (h/t Mssrs Deppey and Mautner). Whether or not you agree (hey, I like Ware, Sacco and Brunetti), Berlatsky writes a fun hatchet-job. It’s schadenfreude for the masses!

***

Banya: The explosive deliveryman, Kim Young-Oh. Dark Horse, 2006. $12.95, 184 pages.

Two sides face one another on a battlefield, poised in a moment of silence. And then they attack, clashing furious and violent. Meanwhile a mysterious figure stands alone on an overlooking hill. Having surveyed the combat zone, he sneaks his way through and into the besieged castle at the centre of the conflict. He reaches the castle’s general just in time to save his life and introduce himself:

“I’m…fast, precise, secure. Someone with a delivery. I’m Banya of the postal service.”

Thus begins Banya, a fantasy adventure about couriers. What Kevin Costner’s The Postman did for the postal service in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Banya does for the postal service in fantasy-land. Ever wondered how Aragorn, son of Arathorn sent his Christmas cards to Bloznor, son of Throgden? Then this is the manhwa for you.

Although this high-concept is fun, it’s hamstrung by the generic fantasy setting here. The world of Banya reads as though cobbled together from a couple of old Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manuals. Giant dogs, sand worms, dragons, vicious orcs…sorry, “torren”…all show up in a vaguely medieval period. At least this fantasyland is oriental, so the soldiers and swordsmen are kitted out a little differently from what English-speakers are used to from fifty years of Lord of the Rings rip-offs.

Where Banya shines, however, is Young-Oh’s kinetic and detailed art. He shows his chops early on with a two-page splash of the battlefield, hundreds of soldiers in bloody combat. Young-Oh draws an especially nice forest, the trees narrow and barren, branches ramifying to infinity. He’s tapping into the same romantic idea of the forest as Gustave Dore or Caspar David Friedrich. Against dreamy gothic landscapes like the forest or desert, Young-Oh places his three young protagonists, Banya and his fellow couriers, wide-eyed and fresh-faced adolescents.

The first third of this volume is basically stage-setting, introducing the basic premise and our plucky young courier heroes. The rest of the volume features one specific delivery, which brings the couriers into conflict with some deadly ninja-assassin-soldier types. This plot is unresolved by the end of the volume (a slight 180 pages), making the overall experience a little unsatisfying.

Still, it’s fun and fast-paced. There are worse ways to spend your time.

Recommended? A visceral bit of genre entertainment well executed, if derivative and frustratingly incomplete.

IYL: Lord of the Rings or the general style it inspired of (I’m embarrassed even to type this phrase) “high fantasy” epics.

Cheesy link-blog post

March 12, 2007

WordPress is misbehaving, and I’ve got spring fever. So no real post today.

To fill the void, check out this in-depth appreciation of Cerebus, which Mr Deppey linked to today. Go read parts 2-7 at least, which discuss the often brilliant covers by Sim and Gerhard. With all the (justified) hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about Sim’s writing and general crackpottery, it’s easy to forget what a talented visual artist he is.

When will Sim release a collection of covers? Most of them aren’t reprinted in the other “phonebooks”, so many of Cerebus‘ readers have never seen them. Surely a collection of covers would sell better than the quixotic collections of letters and diatribes he has been printing since Cerebus finished.

In the meantime, there’s always this.

Don’t buy this book: Monologues for the coming plague

March 11, 2007

Post-script to my last, super-“ironic” post: I swiped the original image from another “parody” online. I didn’t actually buy, or read any of, Civil War.

That’s for those of you keeping track of my credibility. It’s important that you keep track, because I’m about to destroy it anyway by suddenly coming over all philistine.

***

Monologues for the coming plague, Anders Nilsen. Fantagraphics, 2006. $18.95, 260 pages.

In general, art can be evaluated along two dimensions: on the one hand, its purely aesthetic qualities, how it looks, feels or sounds; on the other, its conceptual elements, what it is about or represents, the thoughts it is meant to evoke. One of the most sustained developments throughout the twentieth century, across a range of media, was the detachment of these two dimensions from one another. Take visual art, for instance. In one direction, artists began to abandon traditional “realist” modes of representation and present art as pure visual experience, form without object. Flourishing at various historical moments as cubism, abstract expressionism etc., this trend reached its kitschy apogee in the (now badly-dated) op art movement.

In the other direction, we get conceptual art*, art with little to no aesthetic value whose function is instead to be all object and no form, as it were. The point of conceptual art lies not in experiencing it, but in seeing what it “means”. And often it has meant little more than subverting the very notions of “art” or “meaning”. For mine, conceptual art peaked early–once Duchamp has stuck a bicycle wheel upside-down on a stool, anything else  looks lame and unoriginal–but it’s still going strong in contemporary art galleries around the world.

Both kinds of art, the purely conceptual and purely aesthetic, have tended to evoke a philistine response from the person on the street (typified by Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word).** My favourite example of this reaction, and the art world’s reasoned counter-reaction, occurred on an old TV arts show. A viewer had written to the program complaining, of some artwork or other, that she (the viewer) could have done better with one hand tied behind her back. Having read the letter aloud, the host turned to the camera and deadpanned:

“Imagine what this modern Prometheus could do with both hands free.”

In other words: fuck you too, and ha-ha, ain’t it grand to épater les bourgeois?

Visually speaking, Anders Nilsen’s Monologues for the coming plague is a pure one-hander. There’s nothing to recommend it visually, or formally, as comics. The art is (I assume deliberately) crude, with a range so limited it makes Michael Turner or Rob Liefeld look like Winsor McCay. But Nilsen also treats us with an insight into his process, leaving word balloons with words scratched out, and free-floating dialogue which has also been scratched out because he decided to put the word balloon in a different place. At last, an artist so conceptually outré that he doesn’t use white-out, an artist whose very mistakes have such merit that they are worth our studied attention. Not to mention our $18.95.

Or maybe not.

But it’s pointless to complain about the minimal visual talent on display, when aesthetic pleasure is so clearly not Nilsen’s intent here. No, Nilsen obviously wants us to appreciate Monologues on an entirely conceptual level.

Which is a pity, because the actual content of Monologues is similarly devoid of much interest or worth either. Sequences here include the sophomoric Semiotics, in which two figures (one of them with a smudge for a head) jokingly discuss semiotics; a recurring series of pages with a woman feeding a pigeon, with one or the other speaking sub-New Yorker gags, only they’re not incisive enough to count as ironic commentary on gag panel conventions; a handful of non-figurative doodles; and the aptly named Mediocrity Principle. Some of this stuff is slightly amusing (the story with Buddha is good for a wry chuckle), but it’s ultimately no more insightful or interesting than the typical blog of a fine arts or English major.

There’s a joke academics like to tell about philosophers and mathematicians. Mathematicians are the second cheapest academic for a university to hire, because all they need is paper, pencils and a wastepaper basket. Philosophers are the cheapest because they don’t need the basket. Perhaps in the future, Nilsen could prove himself even cheaper by forgoing the paper and pencils as well. He’s already done away with the basket, and with panels, transitions, visual skill and conceptual interest. The only place to go from there is to abandon the physical comic entirely and create a comic of pure being.

The best part? A comic of pure being wouldn’t cost $18.95.

* I’m using “conceptual art” in a broader sense than would some art historians, I suspect.

** Aesthetic reactionaries are often assumed to be political reactionaries as well. But, apart from some famous figures who were both aesthetic and political reactionaries (like Wolfe himself), I don’t see why. In general, there are better ways of helping the comrades than avant-garde art; so one can dislike the latter while valuing the former.

Recommended? Um, no.

IYL: The worst of conceptual art’s pretentious excess; or if you read that one issue of Eightball with the Dan Pussey story about modern artcomix–each issue with coffee stains, random pages torn out, etc.–and wished the comic actually existed.

On the cutting edge of relevance

March 8, 2007

Dick Hyacinth asked people last week for more hilarious and original parodies of Marvel’s recent cross-over Civil War. One week later, the best entries would win a prize!

Well, I think that’s what he said; I don’t read too good. Anyway, my picture below is all the more relevant now that there’s a new “meme” sweeping the interblogosphere (someone died, I guess?) and everyone’s already forgotten how much they hated/loved Civil War #7.

BTW, you probably can’t tell, but this was created in MS Paint, not Photoshop. I hope it still counts!

LOL!!!

It’s been a week now, Dick, so how about it–do I win a Bloody Shirt? Or at least a No-Prize?

Next week: I post panels from Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen with humorous commentary, and prove that bold text is always funny. Also–did somebody say “Green Goblin ‘o’ face”?*

* NB: I am lying.

I’ll rip off your head and s**t down your neck

March 7, 2007

Hey, it’s still Wednesday in my part of the world.

***

Ultimate Muscle, Vols 14 & 15, Yudetamago. Viz, 2006. Each $7.95, 232 pages.

…and then there’s the really weird contest manga, like Ultimate Muscle. Addicts of Death Note may recognise the title as another part of Viz’ Shonen Jump imprint. That was, frankly, all I knew of it until leafing through these two volumes in a used bookstore. What convinced me to buy them was a scene two-thirds into Volume 15, where, well, I’ll just show you the scene:

hollywood-bowl2.jpg

(Click to embiggen; apologies for my crappy scanning un-skills)

That’s Hollywood Bowl, toilet-themed superhuman, making his grand entrance on the (literal and figurative) throne. Ultimate Muscle protagonist Kid Muscle is in the bottom right corner, freaking out at the Bowl’s bling. The two proceed to have a very silly wrestling match, all part of the “Superhuman Olympics” which are evidently the plot engine for the series right now. These Olympics involve outlandish characters competing with one another to become the “superhuman champion of the world”, sometimes through wrestling matches, and sometimes through three-legged races or giant pachinko machines. These two volumes take us through several of these unlikely qualifying rounds.

Yudetamago is a joint pseudonym for writer Takashi Shimada and artist Yoshinori Nakai. Nakai’s art is nothing to write home about, but its light, cartoonish feel carries Shimada’s goofy scripts. Between them they simultaneously parody and indulge in the conventions of contest manga, such as over-the-top contests, unfair judges with a grudge against the hero, and so on. The result works perfectly well as light, semi-surreal action comedy, with an emphasis on the comedy.

And in grand comedic tradition, most of the laughs come at the expense of the nominal hero. Kid Muscle is the son of former superhuman champion King Muscle (who was himself the hero of a similar series by the same creators in the 80s). Not unusually for a comedic hero, Kid Muscle is sleazy, lazy, cowardly, clumsy and not too bright. On the other hand, he’s got a good heart (or so we’re told), so we’re inclined to root for him. More importantly, he takes a good pratfall.

Kid Muscle’s plain design also makes him an effective straight man against his bizarro competitors, many of whom are based on ideas submitted by readers. Kid Muscle is basically a buff guy in a luchador mask. But his opponents include Hollywood Bowl; Sly Scraper, who is half-man half-skyscraper; and Bobby Wasabi, whose special move is “Sensational Sushi Paper!” It’s the rogue’s gallery from Dick Tracy on LSD.

Ultimate Muscle is much like what you might expect if Garth Ennis wrote manga. Gruesome, bloody violence alternates with occasionally very funny toilet humour, characters who are walking punchlines, and comical nudity (we see Kid Muscle’s pixellated member several times), all of it wrapped up with a general disrespect for guys in silly costumes. If Hitman had been called Wrestler instead, we might have got something like Ultimate Muscle.

Although I doubt even Ennis could have come up with Hollywood Bowl.

Recommended? If you’re in the right sort of mood, it’s a fun diversion (albeit nothing spectacular). Well, it made me laugh, anyway.

IYL: Iron Wok Jan!, Hitman, wrestling

PC Alert: On the one hand: (1) All the superhumans are men, and women appear to be sex objects/love interests, at best; (2) there are several crude or tasteless gags; and (3) there are more than a few gratuitous panty and bent-over shots. On the other hand, (4) most of those shots are of Kid Muscle’s apparent main squeeze Roxanne, who is spunky, tough, independent and doesn’t swoon over “her man”. Above all, she’s drawn realistically. She’s not quite a Crumb girl (or a Little or Hernandez girl, either) but she’s definitely not anorexic. Also, (5) despite the setting of the superhuman olympics, international fans aren’t depicted as stereotypes. On the whole: PC approved.

I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you

March 5, 2007

Death Note, Volume 10, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Viz, 2007. $7.99, 208 pages.

John likes cats. Susie knows that John likes cats. John suspects that Susie knows that he likes cats. Susie thinks that John suspects that she knows that he likes cats. John believes that Susie thinks that he suspects that she knows that he likes cats. Susie suspects that John believes that…

How much more of this nonsense can you take? In principle, I could invent ever more elaborate sentences tracking the relation between John’s and Susie’s mental states, and I could keep doing so ad infinitum. But in practice, most people’s comprehension starts to run out somewhere short of infinity–probably around the third or fourth iteration, in fact. After “Susie thinks that John suspects that she knows etc.”, you start to need a diagram.

By my count Death Note, in this tenth volume of its English translation, is up to approximately one hundred and twenty-seven iterations. That’s one complicated diagram.

The Death Note series tells of role model student Light Yagami, who finds an occult “Death Note” that gives him the power to kill anyone by writing their name in its pages. Being an upstanding and righteous young man, Light decides to use his new found powers for good.

Naturally, he does this by executing criminals he judges to have been treated too lightly by the justice system. Light adopts the secret identity of “Kira” and instigates a wave of vigilante terror that makes the Punisher look like an idealistic defence attorney. The Japanese police freak out and establish a special task force to find the true identity of Kira, and of course the head of this task force is Light’s own father.

Unable to catch Kira, the police soon turn to the mysterious L, a famed sleuth who quickly becomes Light’s nemesis for the rest of the series. Plot twists abound, and we are continually given new revelations about the Death Notes and the occult powers behind them. But the bulk of the series sees Light, as Kira, trying to outwit those, like his own father or L, who would try to keep him from his righteous task. And that’s about as much as I can say; as for the plot of this tenth volume, I can’t even begin to explain it without revealing important plot points from earlier volumes.

Takeshi Obata’s art is as reliable as ever in this volume. There’s no tricks or showing off, the art existing solely to serve the plot. That’s not to say Obata is untalented; on the contrary, his very unostentatious realism has helped keep the series believable. And Obata is well above average at many things, such as rendering the chilly, sterile environments of modern life. He evidently relishes drawing clothes, too, to judge by the loving attention he pays to folds and creases in fabric, even on the slightest background character in a crowd scene. These small bits of realism add up, along with his clean character design and well flowing transitions, to ground the story far better than more cartoony or super-kinetic art could.

And boy, oh, boy, does Obata like drawing pretty boys/young men. At least, I hope he does, because Tsugumi Ohba’s script means he has to draw an awful lot of them. Not only protagonist Light and his nemesis L but also, as the series progresses, Mello, Near and (in this volume) Mikami, each of them physical, moral and intellectual reflections of one another, pretty, skinny young men with moptops and stylish clothes. It’s not yaoi–there’s no overt sexual tension between any of these prettyboys–but it’s certainly the stuff that slashfic is made of.

Through all this, the biggest attraction has remained Light himself, the ruthless, sociopathic mastermind who out-machievels Machievelli. No matter how convoluted his plans become, it’s still a treat to see him coolly hoodwinking his antagonists with bluffs, double-bluffs, triple-bluffs…all the way up to one-hundred-and-twenty-seven-tuple bluffs.

Or maybe it’s more than 127. I lost count myself, somewhere around the middle of the series when its complexity started to grow exponentially like some cancerous Mandelbrot set. Ten volumes in, the series is still mighty entertaining, what with its addictive cliff-hangers and Light’s games of intellectual chess. But Death Note feels increasingly burdened by its own internal logic and continuity. Unlike some other long-running series, the past returns again and again, as Light wonders, for instance, what L can infer from an incident five volumes back. At least the end is now in sight, with only one or two more volumes to go.

And then all the Death Note addicts will have to find a new drug.

Recommended? Definitely, apart from diminishing returns as the series continues. If you start the series, you’ll probably feel compelled to finish it. And, for God’s sake, start with the first volume.

IYL: Brian K. Vaughn’s work, e.g. Runaways, Y the Last Man; serialized dramas like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica; thrillers or mysteries from the perspective of the villain e.g. American Psycho.

No Ito for you, bunny!

March 4, 2007

At Same Hat!, confirmation that Dark Horse will not be printing any more volumes of Junji Ito anthology Museum of Terror. A dark, dark day indeed for the forces of good.

bunny.jpg

The series sold poorly, apparently. There might be a couple of reasons for that: (1) the book didn’t seem well distributed, either in the Direct Market or in bookstores; (2) the book wasn’t well marketed; and/or (3) the rough, early material in the volumes they did publish scared off readers unfamiliar with Ito’s later work.

But for some reason I feel like picking option (4)–blame Joe Quesada.

Are you happy now, Joe? You made bunny cry.

Don’t buy this book: Adventures in the Rifle Brigade

March 2, 2007

Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, Garth Ennis, Carlos Ezquerra, Brian Bolland, Glenn Fabry, Patricia Mulvihill, Kevin Somers and Clem Robins. Vertigo/DC, 2004. $14.95, 144 pages.

Writer Garth Ennis was in the comics news recently, when DC head honcho Pulpin’ Paul Levitz cancelled Ennis’ new ongoing series The Boys over concerns about content. The book’s fans were pleased to learn, however, that it would continue at a different company.

I was not, to put it mildly, one of those fans. To me, The Boys seemed to have been written by some sophisticated computer program that cut and pasted the worst of Ennis’ excesses and writerly tics: among other things, various forms of stereotype and cliché, mean-spirited slapstick, toilet humour and a fundamental discomfort with sex.

Come to think of it, it needn’t have been a computer program. A monkey with a typewriter would have sufficed.

I stopped reading The Boys after two issues, supposing that it represented the lowest point of Ennis’ recent decline into self-parody. After reading Adventures of the Rifle Brigade, however, I am happy to report that I was wrong. The Boys could have been so much worse.

Rifle Brigade reprints two three-issue series published between 2001 and 2003. It is intended as a parody of the boys’ ripping war yarns that Ennis evidently grew up on. Ennis’ dedication in the frontispiece is to British war comics such as Battle Picture Weekly and Commando, but it might as well have been to the gutter-dwelling, scatological humour comic, Viz.*

The Rifle Brigade themselves are a rag-tag team of fightin’ misfits, including: the straight man captain; a mad Scotsman; an American; a lower-class yob; a fat guy; and–get this, it’s the funniest thing ever–a fag. It would be too kind to call these characters one-note. They can barely muster a note between the lot of them.

This goes especially for the fat guy, the yob and the American. The big–all right, the only–joke about them is their catchphrases, the only dialogue they ever speak. It’s funny once, maybe twice, but Ennis uses the catchphrases to fill any lacunae in the otherwise non-stop flow of unfunny business. And never just one catchphrase from one character; we must always get all three in unison. It’s like a Greek chorus, if the chorus was that annoying guy at the office who won’t stop parroting catchphrases from the latest sitcom.

Just as the characters broadly parody stock types from British war comics, so does the plot parody their plots. This stuff might have played a little better in Ennis’ neck of the woods, but even the non-British reader can make do with a general knowledge of common war-story motifs. And by “make do”, I mean “realise how completely unfunny it all is”.

There’s nothing wrong per se with dumb humour or scatological gags. Hell, I read Johhny Ryan’s strips every week. But there’s one cardinal rule of humour. Pay attention, because you’re about to learn something. Humour has to be funny. You can occasionally appreciate a horror movie that isn’t scary, or a romance movie that isn’t romantic, because they can still have other virtues. But a humour comic, a comic whose only intention is to be humorous, such a comic without humour is nothing.

Which is exactly what Ennis has given us. Apart from a few bits that might elicit a brief chuckle, this book is worthless. Carlos Ezquerra’s pencils and inks are decent but, tied as they are to a putrid and unfunny script, hardly to be praised. That would be like praising the sound design on a snuff movie.

It’s particularly frustrating to see an artist of Ennis’ talent producing this putrid tripe, as though Orson Welles had lived to direct one of the Porky’s sequels. In books like Preacher, Punisher, Hitman and War Stories, Ennis has proved himself a master of gross-out comedy and gallows humour while revealing a surprisingly sentimental humanity underneath.

If the black comedy is the baby and Ennis’ humanity is the bathwater, Adventures of the Rifle Brigade throws out the baby with the bathwater.

And then the bathtub and the rest of the plumbing, too.

*NB: nothing to do with the manga publishers.

Recommended? Only if you think a German officer named Venkschaft is the funniest thing ever, or (what is probably redundant) you’re a developmentally arrested eleven year-old boy.

IYL: Preacher or Hitman, but wish that they had any depth or humour removed.

PC Alert: The whole book is pretty offensive. Which would be fine if it weren’t also aesthetically offensive.

The month in review

March 1, 2007

Heads up, true believers! In case you missed any of my pulse-pounding reviews in February, you can read them here:

Lost World

Dragon Head, Volume 5

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming

The Essential Ant-Man

Top 10: Beyond the farthest precinct

Phoenix, Volume 9: Strange Beings/Life

Batman and the Monster Men

Fair Weather

Concrete, Volume 6: Strange Armor

Iron Wok Jan!, Volumes 21 & 22

What better way to spend the few fleeting moments granted to you on this earth than reading the opinions of some stranger on books you’ll never buy?


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