Monday, January 15, 2007

Low Blows 01.15.07

"Sandman Mystery Theatre:
The Sleep of Reason" #1 (of 5)
DC/Vertigo Comics
Writer: John Ney Rieber
Artist: Eric Nguyen

A couple of years ago, when I was just getting back into comics and trying to catch up on all that I had missed in the last seven or eight years, I spent quite a bit of time on Ebay chasing low prices on full runs of comics. One of sets I won was a near-complete set of Matt Wagner and Steven T. Seagle's "Sandman Mystery Theatre" series for around $30 -- an incredible steal. This is the series that made me a huge fan of artists John Watkiss and Guy Davis, and also tied into another favorite series of mine, James Robinson's "Starman," in some really cool and rather shocking ways. I was hooked, and over 70 issues, even after the departure of Wagner, "SMT" maintained its strong characterization, rich 1920s "period piece" setting, slight mystical undertones, and subtle yet thought-provoking and often violent storylines all the way through. What was perhaps most appealing was the relationship between Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, and Dian Belmont, his girlfriend and sometime sidekick.

It's a relief, then, that this new miniseries, which ostensibly introduces a new Sandman, begins with Wesley and Dian in the twilight of their life, once again getting into trouble in the Afghanistan of 1997, of all places. John Ney Rieber, whom I know from his long tenure on Vertigo's "Books of Magic" years ago, does a good job maintaining the established characterization of the pair, and providing a clear connection between this and the previous title.

Flash forward a few years, and embedded photojournalist Kieran Marshall is abducted while attempting to secure an interview with a terrorist leader. A subsequent meeting with the aforementioned terrorist goes sour, but also results in an encounter with a certain gas mask and sleeping-gas gun of interest to readers of the 1990s "Sandman Mystery Theatre" book. A compulsion takes control of Kieran, and he retaliates upon the terrorists who have captured him while bellowing the familiar command "SLEEP." (It's actually a lot cooler than it sounds.) Now, the present-tense story is compelling enough, but I assume the story of how Wesley Dodds' equipment came to rest in a madman's tent in Afghanistan for ten years' time will be told over the course of the miniseries, and I, for one, can't wait to read it and find out.

I found that Eric Nguyen's pencils and inks in this book were an acquired taste, but not entirely unlike that of Guy Davis when I first encountered his art -- and that is intended as a compliment. I ended up really enjoying Nguyen's quirky linework and slightly askew perspective in combination with Lee Loughridge's muted colors. There were a few times when I found myself a little less than positive about what was going on in a panel, but upon reading the book a second time, I found the fault lay more in too-quick reading on my part than any artistic inadequacy on-panel.

I'm not entirely sold on this new character yet, but the promise of seeing more of Wesley and Dian, and the potential that the strange dreams experienced by Kieran before even encountering the mask are evidence that Dream of the Endless (whose story is told in that one other "Sandman" series you may have heard of) may have a hand in this, as with Wesley Dodds before him, definitely intrigues me. The first issue of "The Sleep of Reason" certainly merits checking out the next issue, if not the entirety of the miniseries.

[7.75 out of a possible 10]

"Loveless" #14
DC/Vertigo Comics
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Danijel Zezelj

I'm a fan of Brian Azzarello's work, and I buy pretty much everything he puts out. But I'll be the first to admit that he can be pretty inscrutable at times. Most of his comics require two reads, minimum, to fully appreciate. His characters speak in a profanely poetic street verse, puns wrap themselves around page transitions, and callbacks to events in the series that go way back can be a real barrier to the casual reader.

And while Azzarello's other Vertigo book, "100 Bullets," has a healthy life on the graphic novel market, I'm a little worried about "Loveless." I was pretty shocked when the character which the book had been focusing upon for the majority of the previous issues was killed in issue #12. I was even more shocked that this was barely even touched upon until the very end of this issue, #14. It's brave, nearly crazy, choices like this that make me love this book. I just hope other people feel that way, because I can see how this would be a challenging read, to say the least.

For one, "Loveless" lacks the playful humor which humanizes and endears the bloodthirsty criminals of "100 Bullets" to the reader. In this issue, for example, the recently-deceased Wes Cutter's wife Ruth spends most of this issue cruelly killing members of the town who stood by while she was raped by Federal troops when the Southern town of Blackwater was taken over after the Civil War. She holds literally everyone responsible for this, and her husband's apparent death seems to have pushed her to take some very final action against those who have wronged her.

Artwise, I will say that series co-creator Marcelo Frusin is missed, but only because I love his artwork so much. I'm not sure what's happened, but he hasn't done anything but "Loveless" covers for quite a few issues now. The very talented Werther Dell'Edera and Danijel Zezelj have been trading spots every couple of issues providing the art, and I have no complaints about their work except that it is sometimes difficult to keep their individual representations of Frusin's characters straight. For instance, I'm pretty sure that's Wes' body which appears on the last page, not quite dead yet after all, but I'm not 100% sure.

If you're into "Deadwood" or hardcore western movies like "Unforgiven," this series is for you. There is a racial element brewing that is also fascinating, but which I don't completely understand yet -- and that's fine. There's plenty of time for Azzarello to bring those characters into play later. This series is slated to run about 36 issues long, assuming Vertigo is good enough to provide us with them. I have heard that many readers gave up on this series in earlier issues due to the difficulty in keeping the complex story and characters straight. I don't blame them, but this series is rewarding to the reader who is, frankly, willing to be confused for a bit and just go along for the ride. I have a feeling that the second half of this series is where everything will fall into place, and I'm impatient to see what is in store.

[8.5 out of a possible 10]

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