March 3rd, 2011

Mortal wound

Alternative, Indie, Mainstream

I had been wanting to read Black Hole, by Charles Burns, for a while. Like Blankets, it's a critically acclaimed, long, black-and-white graphic novel with focuses on teen angst and romance whose title begins with BLA. So when Mission: Comic Book Club chose it for the monthly book, I had a good excuse to check it out.

Black Hole follows the lives of Seattle teenagers in the late seventies. There's a strange plague going around—the bug, they call it—and it's transmitted by sexual contact. And it manifests in horrible ways like deformed faces and extra mouths and weird rashes. Some of the infected live in the forest, freaks and monsters. Others can pass enough to stay in school.

It's a great premise, but the execution was not my cup of tea. There are numerous surreal dream sequences/hallucinations that aren't very clear, the characters aren't very likable, and there isn't very much narrative momentum. The people who liked the book thought it did a great job of capturing what it's like to be a teenager and that sense of isolation and loneliness, but I was mostly bored and confused and not caring what happened to anyone because all they did was do drugs and get drunk and then have sex.

The art is great, however, so detailed with meticulous line work, and Burns does some cool things with perspective and panels at times. But by the end of the book—and I was ready for the book to be over long before the end—I was left wondering what the point of it all was.

I'd had my eye on Dead@17, by Josh Howard, for some time, as I liked Howard's art style, which I'd gotten a taste of in Clubbing. It looked like a cool series, and then one Javier Grillo-Marxuach was tapped to adapt it for television, which put it back on my radar, so when my comic book store had a sale, I picked up everything that had been released in trade so far.

Nara Kilday is a seventeen-year-old girl. Spoiler warning: she dies. Spoiler warning: she comes back to life. Turns out she's caught in the battle between good and evil, heaven and hell, muffins and Armageddon. The first couple books are fun but clichéd, hitting most of the usual story points for apocalyptic tales about Chosen Ones. Secret societies, demons, the usual. Each new book, however, expanded the scope of the story and added new elements until Howard had built a fairly complex, decently original mythology that still pulled from a lot of familiar sources.

Nara's relationship with her best friend, Hazy, is one of the highlights of the book, and it's fun to watch them kick ass together. There are also plot twists galore. The art really pops off the page.

I wish Dead@17 were better than it is. The dialogue is nothing to write home about. The characters don't have time to develop enough because Howard moves the plot forward so quickly to get through each story in four or five issues. The fast pace is somewhat refreshing, but in the later books, he has so little time to do what he needs to do that he sometimes has entire pages that are just characters explaining some new aspect of the mythology. It's telling and not showing at its worst. Also, sometimes I felt like the book was an excuse for Howard to draw scantily clad teenage girls, and it made me uncomfortable. Even if they were hot. Or especially because they were hot.

I'm still not sure whether I'll continue reading the series. The story does take fun turns here and there, and I'd like to know where it's going, but the book is just so unexceptional! I'm used to reading really good comics, you guys. It's disappointing when things aren't awesome.

After the Mission: Comic Book Club meeting where we discussed Black Hole, I was talking to Leef, the owner of Mission: Comics and Art, about having read Batman: Evolution and Batman: Officer Down, and he recommended Batman: Turning Points, a miniseries focused on the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon. Written by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Chuck Dixon. That sounded relevant to my interests!!

And, indeed, it was. It follows Bats and Gordon through the course of their evolving friendship by showing us the aftermath of key Batman storylines like Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, Knightfall, and No Man's Land. Although it surely helps to be familiar with the storylines to put the issues in context, it's not entirely necessary, since the dynamic is obvious. Why does Gordon need Batman? Why does Batman need Gordon? How do they relate to each other when the other isn't around? It's not that Turning Points has any real epiphanies to offer; I'm pretty sure much of what's contained here has been said before. But it's interesting and lovely to shine a spotlight on their relationship in this way and watch how it's changed over the years and why.