Monday, July 03, 2006

Graphic Lit: All-Star Superman & More

Before we move on to last Friday's column, two quick items of note:

1) In last month's Esquire, bon vivant Chuck Klosterman wondered why there was no Lester Bangs of the Video Game World. Over at Collision Detection, Clive Thompson explains why (courtesy of Kotaku).

2) Also at Kotaku is
the news that the folks behind the upcoming Bob Ross game will be hosting an art contest. The contest starts tomorrow and entries must adhere to the patented Bob Ross Rules of Paintings. Hit the link for details.

"Superman Returns" opened Wednesday, and naturally, DC Comics is pulling out all the merchandising stops to celebrate the big-screen return of what is easily its most iconic franchise.
There are the inevitable movie adaptations, of course, as well as countless graphic novel retrospectives and collections. "Superman: Cover to Cover," for example, is a coffee-table tome that collects more than 270 classic covers from various comics.

"The Superman Chronicles" meanwhile, is an ongoing trade paperback series designed to reprint every Superman story in chronological order. Or you could get a cheap fix with the phone book-size "Showcase" collections, which reprint classic, sometimes downright goofy stories from the 1950s and ’60s.

For my money, though, you can’t do any better than "All-Star Superman," a new ongoing series from the creative team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely ("New X-Men," "We3")

Like Frank Miller’s "All-Star Batman," this is a slightly revisionist take on the character, though it’s much more invigorating and thoughtful than Miller’s depressing, one-note effort.

The series begins with Superman pulling off an outer-space rescue near the heart of the sun. Unfortunately, the proximity gives Kal-El an overdose of solar radiation, increasing his powers but also condemning him to a slow death.

Faced with an untimely demise, the Man of Steel decides to come clean and reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane. Naturally, of course, she doesn’t believe him. Why should she, when, as she notes, "that would mean you’ve been lying to me for years, wouldn’t it?"

Lest this sounds like some dreary, overly sincere soap opera, I should note that the series practically fizzes over the top with half-crazed notions and throw-away gags.

Superman, for example, not only has the original Titanic in his Fortress of Solitude, he’s got a pet baby Sun Eater! That eats tiny suns! Samson and Atlas compete with Superman for Lois’ affections! Jimmy Olson must turn into a monster to battle a Superman turned evil thanks to black kryptonite!

In many ways, the series is an affectionate mash note to those goofy Superman stories collected in those "Showcase" volumes. Said tales always bordered on the surreal, with Superman or one of his friends turning into some odd creature or worse.

All of this heady mix of the thoroughly absurd and utterly sincere is perfectly suited to Quitely’s artwork. His obsessively detailed characters seem to border on caricature at first glance (just look at that chin Superman’s sporting) but Quitely is able to wring a surprisingly wide range of subtle emotions out of the characters.

As with the best of Morrison’s work, "All-Star Superman" combines far-out sci-fi and fantasy concepts with a grounded humanism, a concern for its characters and their emotions that you don’t usually get in superhero funny books.

As a result, "All-Star Superman" isn’t just one of the best superhero comics this year. It’s one of the best comics of the year, period.

And now for something completely different

Still, if you’re looking for a funny book that’s more, say, mature, you couldn’t do much better than two new, excellent books from the French team of Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian.

Dupuy and Berberian are a rather unique team in the field of comics. Rather than divvy up their chores, with one solely doing art, say, and another writing, they work on the whole thing together. After hashing out a plot, for example, they’ll take turns drawing different pages and switch them around when it’s time to do the inking.

Their best-known work, at least on these shores, is probably the M. Jean series. Now Drawn and Quarterly has collected the first three M. Jean books in one handsome hardcover titled "Get A Life" (144 pages, $19.95).

The M. Jean of the title is a semifamous Parisian author, nearing 30 and being dragged into maturity kicking and screaming. The book deals with the minor calamities of his life such as bumping into an ex-girlfriend, staring down a deadline or dealing with a troublesome old friend.

Far from mundane, Dupuy and Berberian use such moments to convey how the passage of time can change and shape our attitudes, thus achieving an elegance and visual poetry that few "adult" comics can match.

The other book, "Maybe Later" (120 pages, $19.95), is even better, perhaps because it peers into the authors’ working relationship. Here, the pair separately recount the trials of putting out an M. Jean book, as well as their family troubles and anxieties about their artistic abilities.

Dupuy and Berberian hold little back and their honesty is at times as shocking at times as it is invigorating. In it’s own way, it’s even more powerful than "Get A Life," though it helps to be familiar with the first book in order to fully appreciate the second.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


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