Batman: Gotham Underground (DC Comics) I passed on this when it was originally serialized, as I wasn’t reading Countdown, and it was a tie-in to a Countdown tie-in (Salvation Run), but I’ve found I’m much less picky about the comics I read when I borrow their trade collections from a library as opposed to paying for them out-of-pocket 22 pages at a time over the course of several months. The work of writer Frank Tieri and pencil artist Jim Calafiore, the book is an ambitious attempt at what seems like a pretty good idea for a comic.
Despite the title, the main character is actually The Penguin, and the book deals with his attempt to fend off rival criminal empires encroaching on Gotham City. Tieri seems to be trying to give at least one scene to every single villain and vigilante in Gotham City, and manages to pretty successfully work almost all of them in, sometimes successfully (the unavailable Joker, for example, via flashback) sometimes less so (Vigilante IX, or whatever version they’re up to now, enters and exits via left field).
The main problem with the book (beyond Calafiore’s art, which brings a jagged, edgy weirdness to the proceedings, but little else of value) is that the trade collection isolates the story from whatever else DC had on the shelves at the time, but the story doesn’t quite stand on its own once isolated. Plot lines from other books are picked up on and left to finish elsewhere, with no indication within the story itself that this is so. The result is that certain swathes of the narrative seem to come out of nowhere and then be forgotten.
And even if you are a reader of the DC Universe in general, and are thus aware of things like Countdown and Salvation Run, there’s still something unsatisfying about the book. It is, after all, the story of the struggle for criminal control of Gotham City. So was War Games (2005), Face The Face (2006) and Battle For the Cowl (collection due in November). It’s hard to care much about the consequences of these stories when their results are so short-lived, and/or contradicted by the other Batman books.
Beasts of Burden #1 (Dark Horse Comics) Well this is awkward. I was pretty disappointed in this book, which comes from my own incredibly high expectations for it (I don’t think I’ve ever read a bad comic by either Evan Dorkin, who wrote this issue, or Jill Thompson, who provides the painted art) and the simple fact that I was completely unprepared to read this story. The cast of characters, all house pets that can talk to one another and apparently have some experience facing supernatural threats, was surprisingly large, and this issue is constructed not so much to introduce them as it is to tell readers about what’s currently happening in their lives—it’s assumed that you already know them and what their various deals are.
It’s not an unfair assumption, given that the characters have appeared in several stories in Dark Horse’s various Book Of… horror anthologies over the years, but I expected a more entry-level story from a #1 issue in a new miniseries. If you didn’t read the Book Of… books, Dark Horse is making it easy to do so, by putting them all online here, but I wanted to evaluate the book as it stands on its own.
And it doesn’t stand on its own all that well. Sure, Thompson’s art is gorgeous—the character designs are all extremely strong, to the point where the various animals all look like representational versions of real animals, but can still emote in a way real pets can’t quite manage. A few of them have strong, likable personalities, and there’s a neat conflict involving an imaginatively conceived monster that gets around by pulling a Charles Forte strange fall maneuver. But joining the story in progress like this felt a little like picking up a random X-Men comic. I didn’t know who was who or what was what, and was compelled to go to the Internet to find out.
I realize this doesn’t exactly sound terribly positive, but I don’t mean to warn readers away. Instead, I just want to warn you that if you haven’t read the Book of… books, to start here, and then pick up Beasts of Burden #1. It’ll make all the difference in the world. I didn’t think much of this issue, but I have a hard time blaming anyone but myself, which doesn’t happen very often. (For another opinion, check out my colleague Sarah’s review here).
The Color of Water, The Color of Heaven (First Second) The second and third volumes of Kim Dong Hwa “Color of Earth” trilogy follow young Ehwa into adolescence, into her first serious relationship and ultimately into marriage. While the first volume concentrated mainly on Ehwa’s gradual discovery about her body, the bodies of others and the world of love and relationships from the outsider’s perspective of a child, in the second and third book she begins to experience the same grown-up emotions from the inside for herself.
In Water, which I guess you could call the puberty volume, she meets a wrestler/farmhand from a nearby village named Duksam and falls in love, experiencing longing and frustration. In Heaven, she becomes an adult, experiencing marriage and sex. All of the characters continue to speak to one another almost constantly in poetic nature metaphors, which makes for a formal, literate read, but, looked at from a different angle, can also be pretty funny.
In Water, for example, everything in nature seems to be suggesting sex, like, constantly. Similarly, the wedding night consummation scene in Heaven, told in visual metaphors, is rather elegant in context, but also sort of hilarious, particularly read out of context.
Taken all together, Kim Dong Hwa’s epic is surprisingly emotionally effective. By the end, I found myself feeling proud of Ehwa and sad for her mother, who was about to lose her closest friend and confidant after so many years. That comes from watching Ehwa grow-up over the course of hundreds of pages, I suppose. The cast is tiny (there can’t be more than a dozen characters total) and the setting small almost to the point of being claustrophobic (most of the action set at Ehwa and her mother’s small house), but because the subject matter is that of the two principal characters’ lives, and so much attention is devoted to it (about 900 pages total), that it’s a grand, sweeping epic of the small, intimate elements of two women’s lives.
Johnny Boo Book 3: Happy Apples (Top Shelf Productions) Now on its third book, James Kochalka’s series about a little ghost and his even more little ghost friend has reached the point where I ask myself, “Is there any point of still reviewing this, other than to point out when a new one arrives?” After all, if you’ve read the first two books, Best Little Ghost in the World and Twinkle Power, you should know what to expect by now: An all-ages comic featuring Kochalka’s ultra-cute art, coloring so bright it’s electric and gags aimed at both kids (in their silliness) and adults (in their absurdity). In this volume, Johnny learns what kind of food makes your muscles big and strong (hint: it’s in the title) and what kind of food makes your muscles floopy and funny. I can’t recommend this series highly enough to Kochalka fans and comics fan parents who happen to have little kids.