Monday, September 25, 2006

Low Blows 09.25.06

“American Virgin” #5
DC/Vertigo Comics
Writer: Steven T. Seagle
Artist: Becky Cloonan

If you’ve never heard of the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Josh Harris, then count yourself lucky. Its author earned himself a fair amount of fame and money, as well as moral authority, in the Evangelical Christian community around 1997 or so with his Bible-twisting and fearful message of a return to the relatively ancient practice of courtship in lieu of the modern dating paradigm.

I’m absolutely certain that Steven T. Seagle had Harris in mind when he created “American Virgin”’s protagonist, Adam Chamberlain. He, too, is hip and in his mid-twenties, and has made millions of dollars after publishing a book about the virtues of preserving your virginity before marriage. But unlike the image Josh Harris has constructed of himself, Adam is not perfect. He swears, gets frustrated easily, and sometimes gives in to lust -- well, in his thoughts, anyway. And most recently, his life has gone to hell.

Now, I’m no stranger to Christian fundamentalism, and I’m also no small critic of the same -- which is probably why I find myself responding so strongly to this book. It is to Steven T. Seagle’s credit that he has, thus far at least, not made fun of the protagonist, but in fact made him someone that I’m rooting for. Adam has real emotions, and makes no attempt to conceal that due to recent developments, he is adrift in a sea of uncertainly regarding where his life is going. All he has left is his faith, but he continues to find himself in contexts which the Bible does not offer pat, easily-digested answers for. It’s one thing to spurn the sexual advances of a groupie after a pro-virginity rally, but what does the Bible say about what to do when a mercenary under your employ provides you with a potential opportunity to confront the terrorist who severed your girlfriend’s head in South Africa?

There’s a lot going on in this book. Adam has just returned from an overseas trip, where he retrieved his deceased girlfriend’s missing head at no small cost to his sanity. His step-sister, the only one who can really trust in his family, is involved with a drug deal gone bad. His manipulative, money-grubbing mother is trying to get him to attend a Christian speaker’s convention in Australia. It appears that his step-father was involved in pornography in his younger years -- and it’s his deadbeat brother and cousins who provide him with rather visceral evidence of this. And Cassie, the aforementioned deceased girlfriend, keeps appearing to him in visions.

Beautiful, charming art by Becky Cloonan and a ghostly cover by Josh Middleton compliment this story well. Cloonan (whom I have only previously heard of from Brian Wood’s “Demo” series) is a master of expressions, and her distinct character work, reminiscent of Paul Pope but more accessible, gives the series a look all its own. I’m not sure if I’d like the series quite as much without her involvement.

I don’t want to give the impression that “American Virgin” is a downer. It’s not deadly serious, and there is some pretty heavy satire at work here. I have absolutely no idea where the series is heading, but my theory is that it’s somewhere dangerous and controversial. And I’ll be reading it every step of the way.

[9 out of a possible 10]

“Ghost Rider” #1
Marvel Comics
Writer: Daniel Way
Artists: Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira

Though I wasn’t crazy about Garth Ennis’ somewhat half-baked miniseries that this new ongoing series picks up from, it laid an interesting foundation. You see, Johnny Blaze, the original Ghost Rider, has died, and is in Hell, stuck in his “flaming skull and magic bike” form. He spends most of this issue trying to escape the Pit, for obvious reasons. And I don’t think it spoils anything for me to say that, when he finally does escape at the end of this first issue, it brings with it a load of complications.

I’ll be upfront about this: it turns out that I do like Daniel Way after all. And, now that I’ve gotten that out, I’ll go ahead and say that his “Ghost Rider” is pretty good, too. Furthermore, with the advances in computer coloring in the last decade, legendary 1990s “Ghost Rider” artists Javier Saltares and Mark Texeira are looking better than ever -- really playing off each other’s strengths, much more so than when they were drawing “Wolverine” together not too long ago. This is the best-looking Ghost Rider I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever. All of which adds up to a really enjoyable book, but also one which I’d be surprised if it breaks any sales records.

It’s not real hard to pinpoint why Daniel Way isn’t exactly Marvel’s most popular writer. I think a lot of it stems from his lackluster “Venom” series from a while back, and perhaps even his middling “Hulk” and “Wolverine” stints last year. His two Bullseye-centric miniseries with Steve Dillon on art were a whole lot of fun, except that he seemed to borrow a bit too much from the atmosphere of Garth Ennis’ “Marvel Knights Punisher” in writing these instead of developing a voice of his own. I was spurred to give this new series a chance on the strength of the first few issues of Way’s “Wolverine: Origins,” though, and I’m glad I did.

“Ghost Rider” is probably never going to be one of Marvel’s top-tier titles, but sometimes, all I really want to read is a comic where the main good guy is a glowing skeleton on a motorcycle, and the main bad guy is the Devil. Way himself has stated in an interview that he’s trying to aim for something fun and middle-of-the-road. Well, with this premiere issue of the new series, I’d say he has definitely succeeded.

[7.5 out of a possible 10]

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