Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Humor & Adventure: Jackson, Smith, Michel

This batch of minis is humor oriented, by way of superhero/action, horror and sci-fi tropes.

Monkey Squad One Annual #1, by Doug Michel. This comic is an odd duck. It's equal parts Marvel comics homage and kid's adventure, as though the artist was making up stories for his own children or nephews. Even the "annual" concept is straight out of superhero comics, with a number of shorter stories, behind-the-scenes reveals, schematics, Marvel Universe Handbook-style bios, etc. Michel adds weight to the silliness of a book featuring a bunch of young kids as superspy/assassins with sheer density. While he has a simple and cartoony style, he packs every panel with details, eye-pops, hatching, stippling and greys. The balance works, as every page is a breeze to read but fun to look at. There's also a good balance between the action tropes, the depiction of how kids interact and overt parody and winks at genre conventions (there's a villain named "Seven Bricks of Fury" and then a critique by some characters about that name). This is less a fusion comic than a funny superhero adventure; as such, its main appeal will be to those who grew up reading X-Men and have especially fond memories of the interstitial scenes, where the characters bickered in an affectionate, familial manner.

The Gods Must Be Bastards, by Rob Jackson. The latest bit of lunacy from the U.K.'s Jackson may well be his best comic. At 56 pages, it's one of his most sustained narrative efforts. Jackson has really found his niche working within fantasy-as-farce as his genre of choice, playing ridiculous situations completely straight (as opposed to winking to the reader when making a joke, as Michel does). This story concerns a world where a group of scientists must work in secret lest they draw the wrath of the gods and their human servants. Through a convoluted series of events, the scientists travel to what is reputed to be the gods' home, Atlantis, with a sympathetic navy captain and a group of marines. Jackson creates genuine suspense and mystery as he slowly reveals details about this world and its gods and whether or not they actually exist. When he pulls the big reveal, he pulls the rug out from under the reader several times: when the gods are revealed to be the kind of petty, vindictive yobbos that Greek myth makes us familiar with; when the captain acts in an unexpected fashion; and when the true function of the gods is revealed.

Jackson's line is still crude, but he's found ways to really make this work for him. The way he varies his page composition as well as line thickness led to some genuinely attractive art. As always, his character design is hilarious, especially the images of the gods and the bonus "character sheets" he included at the end of the story. Characters like Bolto, god of lightning, required a special kind of inspired silliness. What makes the comic work so well is the way Jackson flips between total weirdness and the driest of deadpan humor. It's a sort of low-fi fusion comic, given his modest draftsmanship skills, but fusion nonetheless. Jackson's point of view and sense of the absurd always takes center stage no matter what kind of story he writes, but he always makes it a point to stay as true to his genre of choice as possible in all other respects. I hope he continues to grow yet more ambitious in his storytelling choices.

SF #1 and SF Supplement #1 by Ryan Cecil Smith. Smith is firmly in the Fusion camp, though he comes at it from a different angle than most cartoonists. Currently living in Japan, Smith filters all of his comics through a Japanese genre lens. His previous effort, Two Eyes Of The Beautiful, was a hilarious and genuinely creepy take on Japanese horror comics. SF is a manic, sprawling and frequently ludicrous attempt at epic science fiction. Smith's character design is delightfully exaggerated, with the leader of the group SF, Ace, sporting a bouffant as tall as his entire body and assorted aliens looking like a cross between manga characters and Vaughn Bode designs. There's a perfectly modulated stilted seriousness to the dialogue that brings to mind sci-fi stories of the past as well as translated manga & anime (I got a Star Blazers/Space Cruiser Yamato vibe from the story, but I'm sure there are other influences in there as well).

The story follows a young orphan whose parents were killed by terrorists who is then adopted by Ace and the S.F.S.F.S.F.--Space Fleet Scientific Foundation Special Forces. That group features anthropomorphic ducks and cats, Aladdin, a kick-ass aerobics instructor, etc. Smith is equally at ease with small, character-based moments and big (if ridiculous) action setpieces--like a scene where Ace is disguised as an anthropomorphic rhinoceros in an effort to bypass security. This comic has a weird timelessness to it that I think is intentional; extensive use of effects like zip-a-tone give it a retro feel, as though this was some kind of lost artifact that's just surfaced. Smith doesn't make this explicit, but it's clear that he's working his way through all sorts of sci-fi adventure tropes, from the overtly intellectual adventurers of Asimov's Foundation series to bits of Total Recall along with the aforementioned manga/anime influence. There's an impressive level of detail here, as the SF Supplemental File reveals. A character who essentially had one line in the first issue of SF, Smith whipped up an extensive backstory for him and how he came to join the S.F.S.F.S.F. Smith here has whipped up a series that's a perfect match of style and content, from the "secret file" envelopes the comics come in to the gleeful silliness of the character design to the minutely planned story & character details.

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