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Yam: Bite-Size Chunks

Yam: Bite-Size Chunks

YAM is a small boy, wearing hooded orange jammies and owning a pet TV set and a hover-pack. But I’ll see you that and raise ya – YAM is a comic book by Corey Barba told entirely without words. For kids.
Knowing these rather extraordinary facts, I expected YAM to be extraordinary. In a a sense, it failed to meet my expectations. In another sense, I am at fault for having these expectations.

To explain:
YAM lives on a small tropical island but often visits the nearby city. Both are populated by bizarre creatures – his good feline/humanoid friend Gato, the scientifically-oriented May, talking cupcakes, edible tortoises, emotional clouds and more.
The exploits of YAM have appeared in Nickelodeon Magazine over the last few years, and YAM: Bite-Size Chunks collects these yarns along with several new tales. This probably explains the variable formats and styles displayed in the book – colors and black & white, inks and pencils – with stories ranging from a single page to 38 pages. To Barba‘s credit, he seems equally at ease in all of these – YAM remains characteristically YAM whatever the length and technique, and the stories never seem to suffer from the limitations I assume the original medium imposed.

YAM being Yam
YAM being Yam

The problem with YAM is that while it is original and often charming, it almost never seems to soar – the characters are neat, but nothing much happens to them, the stories often revolve around a single joke or a simple theme, and they are neither very funny nor profound. Unlike the designation on the back-cover, I am not at all sure that this is an All-Ages comic, but, rather, aimed exclusively at kids.

But this, I shall reiterate, is my undoing more than YAM‘s. Coming from the well-respected Top Shelf Productions and described on the same back-cover as “stirringly fun” and “cartooning at its finest”, I expected something that would appeal to me and not only to my kids. Abandoning expectations, YAM proves to be very well executed, full of the right spirit, and, most of all, much fun for the kids. My five-year-old found YAM’s alternative world charming and intriguing, while my three-year-old laughed at the visual puns and fell in love with the adorable characters. For them, the book was a perfect introduction to comics – the absence of words made it possible for them to enjoy the book without my help, and they took turns telling the short stories to each other.

The story the kids found the most bothersome was, however, my own favorite: the 38 pager that Barba added for this collection tells of how YAM fell in love with the girl of his dreams, and then fell in dreams and forgot about reality. It contains most of the book’s surrealistic scenes, and possesses an eerie, dream-like quality that is the closest YAM comes to meeting my (misguided, I know) expectations.
There’s no doubting Barba’s talent, but if I could be self-centered for a moment, I wish he would write more lengthy stories and use the same talents to let us see YAM – or other denizens of his obviously impressive imagination – reach its full potential. The result, I wager, would be enchanting for adults as well as children.

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Usagi Yojimbo Book One cover

Usagi Yojimbo Book One cover

Usagi Yojimbo is the ongoing saga of a lone ronin (a masterless samurai) by the name of Myamoto Usagi. The story takes place in Edo period Japan, a feudal period of harsh realities: the shogunate has been established, but the lords of several clans undermine it; the land is governed by law but still overrun by brigands; the hard steel and hard training of swordsmen is still much appreciated, but other weapons, easier to master but just as deadly, are entering the scene; and anthropomorphic animals roam the land.

Well, what did you expect? “Usagi Yojimbo” means “Rabbit Bodyguard”, after all, and the protagonist is a, well, a rabbit. But no fuzzy-eared, tame-natured, wide-eyed rabbit is he! Myamoto Usagi may be a rabbit, but his ears are tied in a topknot and his mastership of the katana and wakizashi is legendary.

In Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin we are introduced to Usagi the best possible way: by his actions. The book collects several stories that follow each other in time, and in the first of these Usagi seeks shelter in a cabin that is plagued by hideous goblin, and recounts the tale of how he lost his master. The following stories introduce most of the supporting cast: Tomoe Ame, the beautiful feline vassal and bodyguard of Noriyuki, the young lord of the Geishu clan, both of which Usagi helps in their time of need; The treacherous Lord Hikiji and his snake-like (well, actually, really a snake) counselor Hebi; Murakami Gennosuke, Gen for short, a good-natured if immoral rhino of a bounty hunter; and the blind swordspig Zato Ino, who so wants to live in peace that he’ll kill whoever tries to stop him.
Each character is well defined, most of them revolving around the strict conduct code of bushido, governing every aspect of the samurai’s life. Usagi, in particular, will never break this code – but he doesn’t forget than people, even if they are simple peasants, come first.

The stories are action-packed, but Sakai takes his time to show us the scenery, add reliable dialogue, and slowly demonstrate and develop the characters and their relationships. His attention to detail and meticulous research are a constant source of joy and information – from the vegetation, through the clothing and up to the political plots, everything is inspired by accurate historical information. Sakai’s attention to detail is also showcased in the beautiful black and white art (and everything here is done by Sakai – pencils, inks, layouts and lettering) which uses clean lines and functional paneling to tell the story in the most effective way, paying homage to the characters and the society they live in.

Usagi is alert as ever, but we can enjoy the view
Usagi is alert as ever, but we can enjoy the view

Usagi Yojimbo has been published continuously since 1985, first by Fantagraphic, then by Mirage (where he was published in color) and finally by Dark Horse. In comics, this by itself is no mean feat for a creator-owned character inhabiting an original universe, but there’s more: all of the regularly published Usagi comics have been collected into trade paperbacks, and are still in print and available for purchase. In other words, if you like Usagi all you have to do is buy the books and read them – and not, say, dig through used book stores, hunt for issues online and generally go insane trying to follow the history of an independent character you like.

Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin has already gone through eight editions, and rightly so – it offers a unique and entertaining mix of a straight-forward story with a background of solid research, exquisite art that’s never there just to impress but remains impressive, and wonderful characters than may have large ears but have an even larger heart.

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<i>Boneyard Volume One</i> cover

Boneyard Volume One cover

Michael Paris thought he had a lucky break when he inherited some land from his grandfather. It was located in the remote town of Raven’s Hollow, but that was okay – the municipality was eager to purchase the plot from Paris, and he was just as eager to sell.

However, upon arriving in Raven’s Hollow, Prais finds out a pall hangs over the little town.
Literally.
The townspeople, led by the mayor, are eager to purchase the plot (and by “purchase” I mean “destroy”) – as it turns out the plot houses the town cemetery, which, it turn, houses several, ummm, unusual characters. These include, among others, an animated, cigar-smoking, skeleton called Sid; a shade-totting werewolf; Glumph, a minor demon with a fear of socks; and Abbey, a rather fetching vampire which seems to be leading the lot.

Paris is beset upon by both sides, which need his consent to either get rid of all of this abnormality or, respectively, protect their home. He decides to stay for a while, in order to weigh all positions and options. He soon discovers things are even more sinister than they seem, his time seems to run out, and he’s pressed into action.

Richard Moore does a splendid job – he manages to create a book for the whole family without compromising one bit. Younger readers can enjoy the array of fantastic characters, the bright colors and the action, while older ones can savor the humor, the romantic (and even sexy) touches and even the occasional dash of horror. This is truly a fun read, and while light-hearted, the dedication and talent that has been put into it shines through.
Moore seems to be a versatile artist, at least content-wise: while this is a family-friendly title, he has also released erotically inclined work. The only trace of that here, though, is his excellent treatment of the human (especially the female) form – so there’s nothing to worry about (or expect).

Abbey shows what she's got
Abbey shows what she’s got

Boneyard is an independently published (“indie”) comic that has been ongoing for five years now – a rare achievement in this day and age. The trade paperback collections are published by NBM Publishing – and while the comic appears in black and white, and the trades are first released in b&w as well, they are then re-released in color (done by Jessica Kindzierski). Currently, there are six released paperbacks, the first four of which have been colored.

So far, I have only read Boneyard Volume One, and while it is a short read, it is also a self-contained story-arc, and thus, left me both satisfied and hungry for more.

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The Ultimates Super-human vol. 1 cover
The Ultimates Super-human vol. 1 cover

In 2000, Marvel comics launched their Ultimate Marvel imprint. Basically, the Ultimate version of Marvel’s lead characters attempts to make them more accessible to new readers by creating new origins for the characters, freeing them from decades of long, elaborate, and often illogical histories (this is known in the comics industry as a reboot).

In 2001, Mark Millar – a Scottish comics writer fresh from his big break writing The Authority (a series created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in the WildStorm universe) and several years of working for DC – joined the imprint. He first wrote Ultimate X-Men, which was a huge success, and in 2002 moved on to The Ultimates, a rebooting of The Avengers, which was an even bigger success.
Since then, Millar has become quite the phenomenon – working on several Marvel series and crossovers (the Civil Warevent), he still found time for no less than four new, creator-owned, series. His Wanted has already been adapted into a movie directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy. He is, no doubt, immensely successful.
He is also, and too much to my taste, solidly in the mainstream.

The Ultimates begins in 1945. Captain America, a super-soldier alter-ego of Steve Rogers, leads a team of soldiers bent on stopping Nazi Germany from launching a nuclear attack on the United States. As is his habit, Captain America succeeds. Contrary to his manner, though, he seemingly fails to survive the mission.
Forty-seven years later, meet Nick Fury, new manager of S.H.I.E.L.D., a security agency in charge world security (no less). Fury has just decided to boost the profile and the funding of the Super-Soldier program – the original serum disappearing along with Captain America.

One by one, Fury recruits scientists to help him discover the super-soldier serum. All of them have first hand experience with super-heroics: Bruce Banner, the depressed and insecure alter ego of the Hulk; Janet Pym, nee van Dyne, a.k.a. the Wasp and her husband, Hank, which grows into the costume of Giant-Man; and billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, who dons the Iron Man armor. Their work on the serum is unsuccessful, but then they discover that Captain America is not quite as dead as everybody thought. In an attempt to further bolster their forces, they attempt to recruit the super-powered new age guru Thor, initially failing at that as well.
Soon, though, The Ultimates encounter their first big threat, and have to demonstrate their powers both as a group and as individuals, as well as their ability to overcome personal tensions between various group members.

The Ultimates was, as mentioned, a huge success. This is not reason enough to review it here, as many successful mainstream comics are just not my cup of tea. However, the series was also critically acclaimed, and I was personally assured by several acquaintances that it is an excellent read.
Well, I disagree.

Bryan Hitch and Andre Currie supply impressive, dynamic drawings, that do justice to the sweeping action sequences (I wager that New York inhabitants are fed up with their city monuments getting demolished in popular media by now) and bring to life every explosion and all bulging muscles. The action, in short, is excellent.

An action-charged charge
An action-charged charge

But what of the story? The Ultimates has no pretension of literary quality. That, by itself, is not a problem – but the story failed to engage me. It is, perhaps surprisingly, a character driven story, less concerned with outlining the imaginary world, or describing technological/alien threats and innovations. And the characters are just not that interesting. Why does Captain America believe in his mission? How come Hank and Jan Pym love each other so much but also get along so badly? We’re never told, we just have to take it for granter – and with the action taking so much of the time, developments in character relationships seem sudden, sharp and irrational.
If the story was interesting by itself, flat characters wouldn’t be such of a problem – but nothing important seems to happen, and the climax is an action sequence rather than any kind of plot forwarding resolution. On top of this, Millar’s dialogue is too clean and well-rehearsed, and everyone is pithy and heroic while also being lighthearted and amusing. This makes all of the characters sound identical and fake.

I can see why The Ultimates was such a big success – the rebooted origins of The Avengers is plausible, the action spectacular, and nothing is dumbed down. After decades of implausible plot twists and often mediocre story and art, this must have seen like a breath of fresh air for Marvel fans. But I’m not a Marvel fan, and without previous interest in the characters and their respective stories, The Ultimates: Super-human vol. 1 was not much fun to read on the first go, and I have no intention of returning to it – or to further collections of the series – in the future.

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Top 10 Book 1 cover

Top 10 Book 1 cover

Welcome to Neopolis! If you could hang your cape over here, the local teleportation system will bring you to your destined lair, cave or hideaway. Please avoid using your super-powers during travel. Thank you!

By the time Alan Moore started the America’s Best Comics imprint in WildStorm, he was already a comics legend. With such accomplishments as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and Supreme under his belt, expectations were naturally high. And Moore – whom I suspect is incapable of producing bad work – certainly delivered with four new series (and several spinoffs): The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promothea, Tom Strong and Top 10.

Top 10 is how the local police headquarters, Precinct Ten by official Alter-Earth designation, is known in the city of Neopolis. Police work is never easy, but in Neopolis it’s more complicated than usual: every inhabitant of the city – including the pets and vermin – has super-powers. How do you control such teeming masses of super-people? Robyn Slinger, fresh out of the police academy, is about to find out. Teeming up with Smax, a blue-skinned, pig-headed giant, she goes to work with the rest of the cast – aromr-suited Irma Geddon, colorful and athletic Girl-One, electrically bigotted Shock Headed Peter and his partner with the twelver-shooters, The Dust Devil and many others. Arresting mad Nazi scientists, preventing giant monsters from drowning the city in radioactive puke, a psychokinetic Santa – it’s all in a day’s work in Neopolis.

Moore uses an old trick in order to introduce the readers to the characters and their world: he makes it an initiation story for Slinger – a.k.a. “Toybox” – and things are revealed to us as she learns about them. It works well, and allows Moore to achieve an impressive feat: with all of its wonders, Neopolis feels plausible, even realistic. This is also accomplished by Moore’s trademark characterization: all the characters seem to have back-storys (whether we learn of them or not) and distinct personalities, and interact with each other along reliable lines of personal likes and dislikes. This is not to say that Moore stops at creating a reliable – and fascinating – world: the story involves much tension, detective work and even the occasional action sequence.

Alex Ross' cover for the first Top 10 issue

The two artists behind the series, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon, bring Neopolis to splendid, radiant life, with detailed backgrounds, reliable urban topography and excellent character design which avoid – or exploits – clichés. Fans of comics, science fiction and fantasy can spend hours of fun just location all the tongue-in-cheek references hidden in the panels – without all of the other readers missing out on anything important.

The series won multiple Eisner Awards but ended after issue 12. Two trade paperbacks were released, covering the complete run of the series – and this is book 1, covering issues 1-7. Some cases are solved, but many story-arcs continue into the next trade paperback. The series also spawned three spin-offs, two written by Moore and one by Paul Di Filippo.

Top 10: Book 1 is one of Moore’s most standard books: no post-modern references to the super-human myth (see Supreme for those), no intricate juggling of multiple plots or political debates (see V for Vendetta for the latter and Watchmen for both), nothing too complex. He’s just telling a good story, with interesting characters set in a unique world – and the end result is such a fun read than one can only hope Moore will, one day, come back to mainstream comics.

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Planetary - cover of first issue

Planetary - cover of first issue

In 1991 Warren Ellis first came to the attention of the world of comic readers (albeit a small portion of it) with Lazarus Churchyard, a cyberpunk comic illustrated by D’Israeli. He was 23.
17 years later, Ellis has worked for Marvel, DC, Avatar, WildStorm and Image (among others, if you’d believe it). His most important accomplishment is probably his Transmetropolitan, collected in no less than 10 trade paperbacks. But his most enjoyable work, for me, is Planetary.

Elijah Snow is sitting in a diner the middle of the desert, drinking shitty coffee and hating the world, when in walks Jakita Wagner. Unlike Snow, which is dressed all in white, Wagner is wearing a skin-tight black and red one-piece. But they do seem to share a certain lack of enthusiasm for the human race, and, more importantly, a burning desire to uncover the secret history of the 20th Century. Joined by The Drummer, a smug and unbearable super-geek, the three travel the world in search of the glories behind its scenes. They discover a secret society of super-people from the 1930s, a semi-alien ship that crashed into the planet long ago, and many other wonders just a small shift away from drab, ordinary reality.

Cassaday and Ellis go full throttle on this one, both demonstrating they are masters of their respective trades.
Ellis, renown for his crazy technological innovations, throws a new wonder at the readers every few pages, and yet, manages to keep them from seeming eclectic. The dialogue is effective, if sometimes unrealistic, and the characterization is wonderful – we have few characters, but each one is well defined. In his other works, Ellis’ biggest problem was his inability to create suspense and mystery: things are usually revealed too soon and resolved too quickly. Planetary avoids this nicely by having an ongoing backstory that unfolds slowly, along with shorter self-contained story arcs. Tension towards a final climax is built, but steady doses of adventure, technological innovation and revelations are also supplied.

Jakita tells us why she does what she does

Jakita tells us why she does what she does

John Cassaday, on his part, makes the story come to life with beautiful, detailed art. Exquisite backgrounds serve as the perfect backdrop for the action in the foreground; panel size and allocation changes to serve the story without becoming distractingly experimental; flashback sequences become dark and gritty. This is all impressive enough, but Cassaday also manages to pull off a harder stunt: making realistically drawn characters seem to move and interact. When an artist draws realistic characters – as opposed to more abstract or cartoony ones – they often seem frozen is mid-action, the panels distinct from one another, broken moments in time. Planetary‘s protagonists, on the other hand, are full of life and energy. Laura Depuy’s bright colors certainly help, but it’s mostly Cassaday’s attention to detail and body language that does the trick.

Planetary is a rare treat: solidly mainstream yet intelligent, without literary pretensions but well-crafted, not groundbreaking but demonstrating the full potential of the medium.

[Important note: Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories is the first trade paperback in the series, collection issues 1-6 of the monthly series. It’s an enjoyable read, but doesn’t contain a complete story-arc or stands well on its own. It’s a necessary beginning and a good way to see if you like the series, but if you do, you’ll need to buy the rest of the trade paperbacks (and the last one isn’t out yet) to see how the story develops.]

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Comics, especially superhero comics, are a very popular form of telling stories. They sell well and generate much interest – but, even though Hollywood has recently (re)discovered them, most of this interest is among children and teens. This is certainly okay, but may also be one of the reasons most mainstream comics are, well, not exactly prime examples of good storytelling.

Graphic novels, on the other hand, tend to set higher artistic standards for themselves. They tell a story with drawings and words – sequential art, as Will Eisner called it – but they try and tell a complicated story which has something to contribute to the ongoing discussion of the human condition. However, many graphic novels are, to put it bluntly, no fun at all.

I like graphic novels and comics. A lot. But while the bland clichés and artificial climaxes of many mainstream comics fail to engage my attention, the lugubrious depth and slow pace of most graphic novels fails to engage my enthusiasm, which is just as bad.

Hence – Comics’ By Products. Here I’ll write about graphic novels and trade paperbacks (collections of comics first published in magazine format) which manage to forge the magic amalgam of excitement and intelligence which makes the medium – for me, at least – one of the most rewarding forms of art and entertainment.

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