Summer reading

I spent a very pleasant day out in a sunny garden reading comics trade paperbacks. Ah, that’s the life! None of the comics in question are typical superhero fare, and all are a good deal more interesting for it. So, other than the beginnings of a tan, here are the fruits of my labours:

Ex Machina (Volume 2): Tag

Ex Machina coverFrom the writer of the pulpy Y: The Last Man this Eisner Award-winning series is a departure into realistic modern day politics – with a twist. This above all is the comics series I think non-comics fans would enjoy. The premise is part West Wing, part alternate history, and part SF/superhero. Central character Mitchell Hundred is the new Mayor of New York; neither Republican nor Democrat he tackles a range of provocative issues with a kind of bemused decisiveness that makes him both likeable and controversial. In a lot of ways this aspect of the comic is reminiscent of the short-lived TV series Mister Sterling. The twist comes through flashbacks, in which we learn that in his past he was a jet-pack wearing superhero with the power to control machines with his voice. And on one fateful day he saved the second of the World Trade Centre towers from falling. It’s a ballsy premise in a comic which doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter while never getting bogged down in it. The superhero elements are merely backstory, while for SF fans there’s also a running plotline about the apparently alien artefact that granted Hundred his powers, and it’s that storyline which comes to the fore in this second collection. This is a really engaging, interesting comic with great writing and sharp, realistic art from Tony Harris. It feels like the TV show you should be watching.

Fables (Volume 6): Homelands

Fables coverDespite its many Eisner Awards I have no idea why I’m still reading this one and I probably won’t be reading much longer. The basic premise is quirky and solid – fairy tale characters from all mythologies have fled their homeworlds to live, in secret, in modern day Los Angeles. There’s a lot of fun to be had in juxtaposing these ancient creatures with modern day roles and situations, while in the backgorund bubbles a running story arc about the great Adversary who drove them from their home. What’s lacking is lightness of touch. Writer Bill Willingham is one of a number of people who’ve occasionally turned their hands to spin-offs from Neil Gaiman’s literate Sandman, with almost uniformly leaden results. This series is not one of those spin offs but it may as well be, feeling both Gaimanesque and leaden. The problem is Willingham’s prose style, which is flat and expository. Even his attempts at humour stop at a mildly arch tone which irritates more than it amuses. In plotting there are some clever conceits, but they unfold in such a linear fashion as to be robbed of all surprise. It’s obvious where the story is headed from the start, and the journey from A to B to C is seldom witty or inventive enough to sustain my interest. Given its multiple awards there are obviously others who disagree.

The art, principally by Mark Buckingham, is generally superior to the script, with some inventive page layouts and crisp characterisation, but to me the fairy tale subject matter would benefit from a more ornate and detailed approach. I must however give a nod to James Jean’s covers, which without exception are classy and beautiful, and exhibit a striking eye for design.

Lucifer (Volume 9): Crux

Lucifer coverLucifer is one of the few successful Sandman spin-offs. I initially avoided it, feeling that Gaiman’s take on Lucifer was insufficient to sustain a monthly series, and that the character would inevitably be diminished into some kind of charismatic bounder. I was more than pleasantly surprised: Mike Carey writes with a complexity and literate quality which is worthy of Gaiman’s original. His approach is similar too – telling a single long story with a pre-determined end point, which revolves around but doesn’t always feature its central character. Like Sandman the tale is broken into shorter arcs punctuated by standalone stories, but if anything Carey’s story is more labyrinthine and continuous than Gaiman’s, with the stories bleeding into one another. He’s aided by a remarkably stable line-up of artists, particularly Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly.

The story concerns ousted ruler of hell, Lucifer Morningstar, and his Machiavellian plot to prove that he is the master of his own fate and the equal of his Almighty creator. The tone ranges wildly from fantasy to urban horror to magic realism, from Christian mythology to more or less every other kind of mythology. The real reason this series works is the vim and vigour of the writing. Unlike Fables the prose is smart, poetic and surprising. While the stories are seldom linear and often tackle big, bold concepts, Carey has the talent to make even a linear tale interesting. He populates his story with countless interwoven characters who are by turns sympathetic, vicious, loving and despairing. Most importantly he resists the temptation to humanise Lucifer, while at the same time making his self-serving schemes comprehensible and meaningful.

If anything the tale is too convoluted, and I have a problem with the typical comics depictions of Heaven and Hell – overly-literal places of towers, plains and scheming humanoid characters. Nontheless, the series is a compelling read. It may be no Sandman, but it’s head and shoulders above most other comics.

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