Monday, May 25, 2009

Belated Comics Reviews: Astro City: The Dark Age: Book 3: Volume One

Or, "Attack of the colons!"

(A brief note here: I write reviews for Thor's Comic Column at; out of neccessity, those are where any current, up-to-the-moment comic reviews are going to be. That particular link features my review of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, for instance. I'm going to use this blog to post later reviews of comics that have been kicking around for a while, ones that are hopefully a little more thought out. Fat chance.)

It seems kind of petty to make a books' release schedule a factor in judging it, but the fact is, it's unavoidable when reviewing Astro City, which is currently one of the most frustrating books on the stands for reasons owing almost entirely to the publication aspects.

Here's the thing: Kurt Busiek is a weirdly schizophrenic writer, quality-wise. Like a lot of comic scribes with indie series, he cranks out mainstream stuff for DC and Marvel on the side, and said mainstream stuff often comes off as kind of perfunctory. Which isn't all that surprising, given the state of the superhero market these days--it's not exactly an environment in which creativity and individuality are nurtured. But unlike a lot of those writers, Busiek probably isn't writing superhero comics just to pay the bills; he seems to genuinely love Big Two superheroics. I base this on the fact that when he has free rein to create his own (semi-)independent work of heartfelt truth, he basically uses it as an excuse to retell stories from the Marvel and DC comics he loved as a kid.

I snark. Astro City is, of course, a lot more than that--it's an attempt to take a new look at superheroes, one that, rather surprisingly, succeeds handily. The grand, epic superhero pastiches work brilliantly when they're not the focus of the narrative but are instead pushed to the background, presented in only the broadest strokes, with the details left to our imaginations; it's the classic Princess Bride "Good Parts" version of a story that would probably be a lot less interesting if it was presented more straightforwardly. (It's also one of the rare superhero books that has a chance to present superheroes whose identities are just as mysterious to us, the readers, as to the other characters, a simple trick that really does make them a lot more compelling.) The real stories of Astro City are those of the fifth business: the regular inhabitants, the low-level thugs and sidekicks, and occasionally the superheroes--but only in dealing with the more mundane or casual aspects of their lives. The superheroics are marginal, presented as backdrop, as metaphor, as furniture--and this grants a whole new perspective on them.

So Busiek's got himself a great little comic going here, one with a devoted following, critical respect, and financial success.

And, mystifyingly, he's flushing it down the toilet.

Well, mostly. It does need to be said that Astro City lay fallow for years due partly to Busiek's health problems. But the momentum seemed to resume pretty effectively where it left off when the book returned with "Local Heroes". And yet, no sooner had Busiek gotten our attention again then the book was once again hit with delays. And this is particularly frustrating for a couple of reasons.

One is that, when Astro City first launched, it was meant to have a constantly-revolving art team, but all the artists dropped out except for Brent Anderson, who has ever since been the sole artist on the book (aside from Alex Ross on covers and character designs). One problem: Mr. Anderson is...well, he's not really very good. Serviceable, sure, and with a satisfying level of detail, but his characters often appear to be melting or spastic, and the character designs he comes up without Ross's help are incredibly bland. Marc Singer (who wants you to know that he's not the Beastmaster) summarizes it nicely: if the art is what's causing the delays, then it's simply not worth it. Getting a new artist or new artists might not just help the book be on time, it would likely improve the book, period.

The other problem is that, since 2007, Astro City has been retelling an epic, 16-issue story whose events span the 70s and 80s: that would be the titular Dark Age. The problem here is that Busiek has mentioned that events in Astro City happen in "real time"--so all these months spent on the 70s are months in which the "regular" cast of Astro City (inasmuch as there is one) is aging and having adventures which we just aren't privy to. Busiek's mentioned that we are going to get a story about Astra Furst, scion of the First Family, going to college...this being the same character who was ten years old back in the third issue of the regular series. A series which hasn't broken 50 issues in the nearly 15 years it's been around.

So you see what I'm saying.

Of course, all this could be forgiven if The Dark Age really kicked ass, but...well, if you've read Mr. Singer's post above, you probably get a sense that it doesn't. I don't agree with Singer entirely, but it's hard to ignore most of his points, especially the fact that this storyline seems built around a lot of crazy happenings that we simply don't get enough time to explore, and the fact that there's an incredibly interesting parallel between the politics and the pop culture of the 70s, as viewed through the comics, which are summarily shoved aside so that we can have more of the story of Charles and Royal Williams.

Ah, Charles and Royal. They're the protagonists of The Dark Age, a pair of brothers, the former a cop, the latter a criminal, who have spent years searching for the man who killed their father. This story is meant to recall a 70s-era crime epic, somewhat in the Martin Scorsese mode, but set in a superhero universe. The fact that, so far, it hasn't been anywhere near as awesome as that summary suggests is one of the key reasons myself and a lot of fans are getting frustrated with the story's lethargic pacing. If the 8 issues so far had come out over the course of year or a year and a half, it would all be a lot more digestible; the narrative threads would be easier to follow, too.

Which is why, after nine paragraphs of kvetching, I'm going to give a tentative thumbs up to this latest issue. And for a very simple reason: the plot has finally kicked into gear. Royal has gone undercover at a training facility for Pyramid, the Astro City equivalent of HYDRA, and is gleaning the information to bring them closer to their nemesis (along with a few hints of larger plot threads which, as always, will probably pay off in the final pages of issue 4). The base is raided by E.A.G.L.E. (a mashup of S.H.I.E.L.D. and various other superhero-oriented government agencies) which, in an amusing twist, we find has also been infiltrated by Charles. So now the Williams brothers have gone beyond being on opposite sides of the law; they've crossed over into the world of the capes and cowls, if only peripherally (as redshirts, you might say). On the one hand, this has the potential to distance them from us, becoming less real people and more part of the comic book landscape. But for now, it's a welcome acceleration of the story. Ironic that a series that focuses on the little people gains traction and interest by nudging them more towards superhero-dom.

Busiek also claims that the book is going to be moving forward on a consistent schedule from here on out. Yeah...let's just see how THAT works out...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

And Sometimes I Even Finish My Strips Before Posting!

Of course, as some famous painter or another said, "A work of art is never finished, only abandoned," and I certainly could tweak these strips forever without being satisfied.

Nevertheless, I'm going back and tweaking the past weeks' worth of Lemuria strips so as to trim the white space. This allows me to keep the strips the same size whilst "zooming in" on them a little to make the details clearer. I wasn't happy with the text, in particular.

More blogging to come this week. I know you're on tenterhooks.

Monday, May 11, 2009

And Then There Was the Time I Failed to Recognize Oprah.

And now, a true story from TCAF, the Toronto Comics Arts Festival:

Early Sunday, the Toronto Reference Library. A cold wind blows.

Volunteers like myself are trickling in through the side door. Other potential patrons have noticed this and followed us, but the library isn't open yet, so the security guards are busily preventing non-volunteers from entering. Unfortunately, a lot of the exhibitors left their passes inside, so some of them are getting held up at the door. I notice a tall Asian guy getting stopped. I am fairly certain this is Jason Shiga, who obviously belongs inside.

I tell the grumpy security guard, "No, that guy's OK. He's one of the exhibitors." Turning to the guy, I say, "You're Jason Shiga, right?"

"No," he says, "I'm Brian Lee O'Malley."

At which point my head implodes from pure suck.

Bad enough I didn't recognize the guy on his own, since he's probably the biggest guest of the TCAF. He's only the author of this obscure, little-regarded work. But I was managing his table the day before, so I can't claim I didn't get a good look at him. Plus, you know, I apparently believe that ALL ASIAN CARTOONISTS LOOK ALIKE.

I am dumb.

But I apologized to him profusely afterwards, and he didn't seem angry about it. I got off lightly with a few roundhouse kicks and being thrown into the sun. My face got sooty.

Otherwise, TCAF was fun, despite me, y'know, working the whole time. That is, I was so busy working I didn't have much time to actually enjoy the show. There is a further paradox, I'm discovering, with this stuff: sometimes, you do something like the TCAF for promotion, and you end up so busy that you have little time to actually do the comic that you're promoting, so there's the danger that all the new people you've presumably driven to your site will see nothing new and be angry at you. But hey, this is the new, workaholic me. I did, in fact, manage to keep Lemuria going.

Speaking of which, the third page (not including cover) went up today! And so, belatedly, did the first of a new round of Night Shift! And my traffic spirals downwards! Whoo?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Hey, I’ve Always Wondered: If Spock is Half-Human, Shouldn’t He Only Have, Like, One Pointed Ear?

So, like everyone else on the web, I am legally obligated to review the new Star Trek movie. FACT ONE: This is being written mere moments after seeing the thing, in the flush of post-coital passions and whatnot. FACT TWO: Spoilers herein.

Oddly enough, the people who summed this movie up best are The Onion. Not the A.V. Club, but this already-classic clip, which says so much about the last twenty years of Star Trek…and yet, captures the flipside as well.

Star Trek is, let’s face it, ridiculous. Dopey. Cheesy. Campy. All that good stuff. It’s been ridiculous for so long that it’s almost become the emotional core of the show.

Bear with me on this.

I maintain that a biggish part of the charm of the show, at this point in time and possibly even back when it was on the air, is the immense, unbelievable gap between its intentions and its execution. I don’t think any pop culture property has had such a bold, immense, inspiring vision coupled with such hilarious ineptitude. I’m not just talking about Styrofoam rocks and rubber costumes here, I’m talking about what an unbelievable struggle it tended to be for the writers to convey their basic themes in a coherent manner. Almost every episode, Spock would say something utterly insane and irrational and then claim he was just being logical. Almost every episode, Kirk would honour the Prime Directive by fucking up a planet for their own good.* Almost every episode, the show would celebrate science and reason with a stream of unremitting gobbledegook passed off as technical know-how. Almost every episode, this most ideal of crews in this most ideal of societies would act like total dicks to each other and to everyone else.

And yet they had such grand dreams. It was almost like watching a retarded child who was unswervingly devoted to becoming a fighter pilot. It goes past “pathetic” and “adorable” into “tragic nobility on the scale of Don Quixote”.

Take that away from Trek fans, and what have they got left?

In all seriousness**, I bring this up because I feel funny insisting that Star Trek 11 (as no one but me is calling it) somehow violates the spirit of Star Trek. The spirit of Star Trek is to be stupid, and this movie is fairly stupid. But it’s stupid in a cheerfully unapologetic action-movie way. The Star Trek way is to be stupid while pretending to be smart.

Do I sound like I disliked the movie? I did not. It gets an awful lot of stuff right. The premise, as you may have heard, involves time travel, so that this isn’t a straightforward reboot but an in-continuity timeline change a la Crisis on Infinite Earths. In doing this, director J. J. Abrams does a terrific job of balancing references to the classic show with a storyline that will bring in the new viewer. Sulu’s action scene is fun (if maybe a little random) even if you don’t know that he was a fencer on the original show, but if you do, it’s a nice little bit of gravy. There are, naturally, tons of callbacks and classic lines. There’s just enough of a swingin’ sixties vibe to the sets and costumes that your mind mentally transposes it onto the classic show.

And the cast is fantastic. I don’t think there’s a single one I can seriously complain about, though Winona Rider—yes, Winona Rider—seems kind of random, especially given how little she’s given to do. I’ve been chuckling at the badness of “Heroes” ever since it started, but Zachary Quinto is a decent actor, and he’s got an uncanny resemblance to a young Nimoy. Simon Pegg, when I’d learned he’d been cast as Scotty, made me do a double take, but he really does fit the character (even if, as you’d expect, his is a more comedic take***). Keith Urban comes closest to doing an impression of the original cast member as McCoy, but he absolutely NAILS it. Zoe Saldana brings much-needed personality to Uhura, a landmark character who has always, always been treated shabbily.**** Anton Yelchin as Chekov and John Cho as Sulu get less to do, but they still make a mark.

And then there’s Chris Pine. Every photo I’d seen of him before the film made me think of a kid playing dress-up in his father’s clothes, but the guy is much, much better in action. He’s still a pretty-boy, but he has a certain Brando-esque quality about him that works, and together with Abrams and the writers they’ve managed to pull off that trick of turning Kirk’s trademark dickishness and cockiness into something charming instead of punchable. Although, again, a lot of that charm originally came from bizarrely, iconically bad acting. Part of me secretly hoped that Pine would do a Shatner impersonation, but I knew that wasn’t too likely.

The movie’s main problem is the plot. There are a lot of very good ideas here, and again, Abrams knows when to draw from the original show and when to take something in a new direction. What’s more, he’s got a premise that allows him to do this. In fact, I kinda wish he’d gone further down this road. The bad guy, Nero, is a little underdeveloped, but the basic elements of his character are intriguing. He’s not some powerful Sith Lord, he’s actually just the Romulan equivalent of a construction worker…who happens to have been given the motive and the resources to become a tragic archvillain. It’s kind of like if Arthur Dent was handed a superpowerful weapon and decided he was going to avenge himself against the Vogons for blowing up Earth.

…Well, no, OK, I guess it’s not much like that, but you get my drift.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the plot. The movie throws out all these ideas in a somewhat incoherent fashion, meaning the storyline has to rely on coincidence and even arbitrariness to get its ducks in a row. I would have liked to have seen Nero driving the plot more, literally monkeying with the lives of Kirk and his crew; it would have made everything seem more desperate, and Kirk’s ascension to the bridge more necessary (they’re trying to fix the timeline, after all). But the single thing that bugged me was how unbelievably accelerated it all was—Kirk, in this movie, goes from cadet to captain in the course of a few days, and on the Enterprise’s maiden voyage yet! I get the idea of Kirk jumping to his “destined” position under duress, but I really don’t see any reason this couldn’t have happened after he and the others had been serving on the Enterprise for a few years. It makes your head spin a little.

But that’s modern Hollywood for you. There’s some really jaw-dropping stuff early on, I mean the kind of stuff that seems like a bad parody of what a Hollywood exec would insist on putting into a movie to get the youth dollar. I can buy the Beastie Boys existing in the world of Futurama, but on Star Trek? By the end of this completely random, pointless car chase sequence, you know THIS ISN’T YOUR FATHER’S STAR TREK!!!! Largely because my father tends to enjoy logic and coherence in his movies. Which is why he didn’t watch a lot of Star Trek.

Classic Star Trek sometimes seemed like two shows at war with each other: now an attempt to do serious SF, now a show about a bunch of martini-swillin’ swingers warping through space attended by hot chicks in miniskirts, looking for aliens to punch. Starting with the first movie, the latter aspect of Trek has fallen by the wayside, but this movie seems to finally attempt to resurrect it. Classic Trek’s unique brand of stupidity is back, in the form of an action movie, and it’s about time!

But don’t start knocking Next Generation. That show is perfect.

*Though I guess you could argue that the Prime Directive existed as something to generate conflict rather than something that the writers themselves agreed with, but I personally doubt it. Roddenberry seems to have been pretty insistent that Starfleet and the Federation were supposed to have been flawless and Utopian, and in general the show wasn’t big on being anti-authoritarian.

**Not really.

***People tend to think of Scotty as comic relief for some reason, but in fact the show always treated him respectfully. If it weren’t for his wacky accent, Scotty would be that guy who comes into work every day and just does his job consistently well, without ever really being noticed. That always made me prefer him over the showboating leads.

****I just watched “Wrath of Khan” a few days ago, and it’s absolutely disgraceful what an afterthought Uhura is in that movie. Sulu too. Uhura’s big moments are a couple of harpsichord performances and a fucking fan dance. Let us never speak of it again.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Folding Maps

As I figured might possibly happen, today's Lemuria was cropped too big to fit comfortably on the page. I've added a link so that you can go to the enlarged image, though it seems that it's still coming out a bit smaller than I'd like, probably thanks to photobucket. Oh well, it's still legible if you look closely.

As I mentioned, this story was printed in black and white in The Blitz Comics Anthology, but this page wasn't included; I crammed most of that expository text onto the preceding page. I felt it needed a little something to ease us into the world of Lemuria, especially since the next page or two doesn't scream "fantasy comic". Also, I've always had a weird thing for drawing maps of make-believe places, ever since I was a kid. Ask my parents. They still have sheaves of doodles of Fantalandia and Dragonia stuffed away somewhere. A walking fire hazard generator, I was.

Many of the names on this map are significant, but I'll leave it to you to figure it out. Just know that I didn't create the concept of "Lemuria", and that there's a wealth of dopey new age literature on lost continents for me to draw on.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Standing at the Gate, my Sandals on the Wrong Feet

And a big hearty welcome to anyone who may have come here as a result of my Free Comic Book Day giveaway! I'm Adam Prosser, cartoonist, writer and improvident lackwit, who's been casually wasting his time doing cartoons on the internet for the past seven years, and has recently decided to get really serious about wasting his time doing cartoons on the internet.

To that end, I've launched Lemuria, my all-new webcomic, which, if you are here as a result of the FCBD giveaway, you've already had a chance to have a look at in black and white. This story was already drawn as my contribution to The Blitz, an anthology comic published by The Durham Comics Guild, to which I belong. I'm revamping the art and colouring it, but otherwise it's ready to roll out, as you can see. This strip will be appearing thrice-weekly, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for the next two weeks; then it'll drop to twice-weekly, Mondays and Fridays, until the end of the storyline. I'm thinking I'll take brief hiatuses between stores, of a week or two, just so that I don't fall too far behind.

But if you're new here, you should know that I've got a lot of other stuff, too! Check out my ongoing daily strip, Night Shift, which I've been doing on and off since 2001 (and which is also returning on Monday, May 11th). Then there's Freak U., my...let's call it an online series of graphic novels, which are a comic-booky nod to all those zany frat/college hijinks movies of the past--not so much Animal House and Porky's as Encino Man, Weird Science, Teen Wolf, Zapped, Frankenstein Goes to know, the ones with random SF and fantasy elements tacked on. I've already completed one OGN's worth of story, and even put it to print--you can buy the book right here. The second book is actually approaching completion, though at the time of this writing it's taking a hiatus to let me catch up with various things, and will be returning in mid-June. On top of that, I've got another comic, Critterville, which has one story so far and which I plan to produce more of by the end of the summer. It's a kid-friendly pastiche of those old funny animal cartoons, particularly the Disney comics of Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson.

If all this still isn't enough, I also have another blog called Fourth World Fridays...and Beyond. It began as a chance for me to muse on Kirby's Fourth World comics, which I am fascinated by, but I plan to return to it and do some other comics commentary. And on top of that, I do reviews for Thor's Comic Column at (the column used to be Rack Raids, where you can still read the updates every thursday).

So, now that you're thoroughly overwhelmed, come on in and make yourself comfortable. Hang out on the Forum or post comments on the main site or even on this very blog! The wonders of technology never cease, do they?

Friday, May 1, 2009

FCBD Shenanigans

I may not have the resources of a major comic book company, but I'm pushy and persistent! As a result I've managed to take advantage of Free Comic Book Day to a small degree to promote my new comic, Lemuria, as well as Phantasmic Tales in general.

If you happen to be out in the Oshawa/Whitby area (that's in Ontario...if you didn't know that, you're, uh, probably too far away to swing by anyway) tomorrow, you can pick it up at any of the following stores:

Worlds Collide--80 Simcoe Street North, Oshawa

Klyd's--600 Grandview St. S. #2, Oshawa

Comic Book Addiction--1032 Brock St S, Whitby

And I'll be at World's Collide in person...signing autographs...or something.

I'm also going to be sneaking this little sampler onto the freebies table at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival next weekend--that's at the Toronto Reference Library. So swing by. (I'm sure I'm reeeeeally doing the TCAF a favour by throwing my mighty promotional muscle behind the event.)

I Don't Know Why You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

OK then. Let's get this show on the road.

Technically speaking, I did have a blog way back when--right here--but there were two problems. One, it was on Livejournal, and thus (aside from all the problems that developed later) I could never get it to look like something that wasn't a moldering pile of wombat barf; and two, as you can probably see by perusing it, it wasn't updated often enough to make it worthwhile.

Which makes a nice segue to this.

I've decided it's time to really get serious about Phantasmic Tales, and comics in general. I've been developing a few projects, and a couple of them are really starting to take off now, but what's really changed is that I've finally decided webcomics are the future of the medium. Or *A* future, anyway. Not in a John Connor we-have-to-make-sure-this-happens kind of way, but in the sense that it will be a legitimate form of comics delivery and profit in the years to come, and it's time I stopped treating it like a hobby.

This might seem like a weird thing to say after the last few months, in which updates have been sporadic and sometimes half-finished, and everything except Freak U. has sunk without a trace. In my defense, there's a couple of legitimate reasons for this, including a work contract that's stretched out to three times longer than originally planned and doesn't leave me anywhere near the amount of time I'd like to work on stuff, and the aforementioned "other projects" I've been developing. But really, what it boils down to is that I've had trouble believing in webcomics as a medium.

That changes now. I've got a huge summer planned for Phantasmic Tales, one which includes the return of Night Shift, and the launch of a new, extremely slick-looking-if-I-do-say-so-myself comic called Lemuria. I also plan to have more Critterville up by the end of the summer, culminating in the big Toronto FanExpo show, where I'll hopefully have print editions of lots of this stuff.

"But Adam", I hear you saying, "You keep sort of fading in and out. You update patchily and unreliably. You keep taking hiatuses. How do I know you're going to follow through on this?"

Well, you don't. I must shamefacedly admit that I've broken rule #1 of webcomics creation, which is: ALWAYS UPDATE ON TIME. So I won't ask you to trust me on this, but the fact is that I've had an attitude adjustment. I think I "get it" now, and I hope to make a living with these comics. And the only way to do that is to update consistantly. Since the main person I'm hurting by not doing so is ME, I can only ask you to sit back and watch. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Enough flaggellation. Phantasmic Tales Phase 2 starts tomorrow, with Free Comic Book Day, which will hopefully drive a boatload of new customers to this site via a comics sampler being distributed throughout the Durham Region. Yes, I've gotten all promotion-y. I'll be blogging regularly, and keeping you up to date on the forum.

Meanwhile, Night Shift will be back on Monday, and Lemuria will be going live that day as well. (Link to Follow.) Freak U. will return in mid-June, as mentioned, and Critterville will be featuring a new story sometime by the end of the summer.

And, um, the blog posts will be more entertaining. I never know how to do these Portentious New Beginning things.