Sunday, February 18, 2007

Low Blows 02.18.07

“Crossing Midnight” #1-3
DC/Vertigo Comics
Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Jim Fern

Over the last year or so, I’ve become more and more aware of writer Mike Carey’s work. He’s probably best known for his work for Vertigo Comics’ “Lucifer” series, which was both a spin-off from and based upon Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” mythology. He’s now writing “X-Men” and “Ultimate Fantastic Four” for Marvel Comics, but with his new series “Crossing Midnight,” Carey has been granted the chance to create a mythology of his own, and explore a world solely of his own creation.

This book is set in modern Japan, though story elements tie back to the latter days of World War II at the bombing of Nagasaki, and even further into the past, with the dealings of the Hara family in feudal times with entities and powers beyond their reckoning. More specifically, though, it deals with twin brother and sister Kai and Toshi Hara, who were born on either side of midnight on a very important day. Now teenagers, they are confronted with the deadly consequences of a bargain which their father was not even aware he made before they were born. As Kai sees his sister plunge headfirst into an unknown mystical world to which she (to his horror) seems completely suited, he is himself confronted by powers which seek to control him as well.

These three issues are very much the beginning of the story. By design, I’m sure, they offer very little in the way of resolution, but they make up for this in that they lay the foundation for all sorts of interesting storylines -- who exactly was it that visited the Hara family so long ago? Where is this new world which they have only been given glimpses over the years, and what has happened to their long-lost playmate that they left behind? To what faction does this dragon entity who has enlisted Kai into his service truly belong? And perhaps most importantly, what will be the end result of the sacrifice that Toshi makes in the end?

The atmosphere of this story is comparable to that of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series or Hayao Miyazaki’s film “Spirited Away,” but with a greater sense of dread and horror underneath. Not going along with the wishes of these mystical beings has grave results, which is made viscerally evident at the end of the first issue. Imagine if “Spirited Away” had had a much darker ending -- say, in which Chihiro had failed to save her parents, and then you might have a little better idea of where this series seems to be heading.

Penciller Jim Fern did a great job a little while back on a two-issue “Fables” arc, and I was very happy to see him assigned as the regular artist on this book as well. His art carries a strong line which I really like, and really shines in its depiction of the otherworldly creatures which Kai and Toshi encounter, as well as the more mundane aspects of their life. I should also mention that J.H. Williams III has been contributing beautiful covers to this series that look like ancient Japanese woodcuttings and watercolors, which really sweeten the deal every month.

It’s a great feeling to stumble upon a new book with such promise. I missed out on the first issues of “Y, the Last Man,” “100 Bullets” and “Fables,” and had to scramble to find back issues. Not so with “Crossing Midnight” -- I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor with this one. It receives my highest recommendation, and future issues can’t possibly come out soon enough.

[9.5 out of a possible 10]

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Longbox: Essential Moon Knight

Much like the groundhog of Puxny, Pa., "Graphic Novel Grab Bag" returns to Low Brow Media from nearly a year of slumber. Even though Phil did not see his shadow this year (meaning a shorter winter), it's still going to be cold outside. So what better to keep you warm than picking up a good collection of comics?

Essential Moon Knight vol. 1
writers: Doug Moench, Bill Mantlo, Steven Grant
artists: Don Perlin, Mike Zeck, Jim Mooney, Jim Craig, Gene Colan, Keith Pollard, Bill Sienkiewicz
Marvel Comics, released 2-15-06
Having greatly enjoyed the first few issues of Charlie Huston and David Finch's latest incarnation of Moon Knight, I decided to pick up the first volume in his Essential line in order to find out more about him. There was too much going on in those pages to be left to a quick scan on the Moon Knight Wikipedia page. I needed to know the real story about this character that was completely foreign to me.
For those of you unfamiliar with Marvel's Essential collections (as well as DC's similarly produced Showcase series), they consist of many classic issues reprinted in black and white on lower quality paper. Because of this, they are priced around $17, probably half of the price that colored, high-quality paper editions would run you. This may bother you; it doesn't bother me. I love a good, cheap comic. Sure, color would be nice, but as you know from reading this site, story is king in my book.
Though I've only read a handful of the Essential books that are available, I suspect that this assemblage is different than most of the others. For one, this only collects the first 10 issues of the original Moon Knight series. The majority of the books offer closer to 25 issues of a particular title. But Moon Knight's ascension to his own title took a different path than many other players in the Marvel Universe. He began as a guest character in a handful of issues of Werewolf By Night, followed by a few other similarly short appearances in other books, all of which are collected here. The first third of the book containing these stories was a little hard for me to get through. I am just used to the modern sensibilities of graphic storytelling and stories from the mid-70s seem a big quaint. While entertaining to a degree, the predictable and simplistic nature of these comics are one of the chief reasons why comics are still looked down upon by many people, which bothers me. On the other hand, I do have to remind myself that this was a different era, and the standards were very different then. Plus, Spidey and the Thing show up, so it's not a total loss.
Despite my criticisms of these early Moon Knight stories, I have to salute the talent of the pencilers, particularly Don Perlin, whose initial design for the character has only been altered over time, never completely overhauled as so many others have been -- even the Ultimate version of MK is very similar to that first panel in Werewolf By Night. I suspect the look of Moon Knight is one of the reasons he developed the cult he has around him.
Then came the stories from the Hulk Magazine. These are fantastic; probably the best stories of any kind that I've read from this era. The art is rich, even in the Essential format. I didn't know these reprints could look so good. At first, I was sure they had originally been painted panels, but I think the quality of art must have simply been better for the magazine than it had been for the standard comic back then. Regardless, it is an extraordinary effort by the reprint team and shows us that today's comics will be well-served in the black-and-white format someday. In addition to the great artwork is the grittier, racier, and more adult-themed storylines from Doug Moench. Moon Knight really came into his own character at this time, moving beyond the knock-off, Batman-in-white character he had largely been beforehand. Of particular interest of these stories is the three-part Randall Spector arc, in which MK is set up against his brother. I really did not think comics had reached this level of depth until the 80s, and this came a bit before that time.
Finally, the book closes with the initial 10 issues of Moon Knight's first solo series. All written by Moench and drawn by Sienkiewicz, these stories delved into MK's past and began to address the four personas in one man: Marc Spector, veteran marine and international mercenary; Steven Grant, the handsome, billionaire playboy; Jake Lockley, the common cabbie; and Moon Knight, the cloaked crime fighter. While the dabbling into multiple personality disorder is quaint at best, at least the creative team actually acknowledged it. Plus, it does set the stage for more in-depth analysis in later incarnations of the character.
These first 10 issues are pretty strong overall, if not perfect. The roles of MK's girlfriend and his sidekicks are all expanded during this period. No longer is Marlene just waiting around for Steven Grant to take her to a party. Frenchie actually has opinions while flying the Mooncopter. Crawley does more than merely divulge the word on the street to Jake Lockley. Gina and her kids do more than serve food and yell at Crawley. It's a fascinating group of characters and a more diverse supporting cast than most other heroes have.
As I've stated in various ways before now in this review, Essential Moon Knight vol. 1 is a solid collection. What really should propel you to take a look at this book, however, is how it ties so directly into Charlie Huston and David Finch's current run on Moon Knight. They've woven almost all of the characters mentioned here into that first arc. While you don't need to read this to enjoy the current adventures of MK, you will benefit from knowing both the history of what these characters mean to him and appreciate just how great a writer Huston is by successfully intertwining the past with the present for a cult character revered by many but unknown by most. If you're a Moon Knight fan, this truly is essential reading material.
8 out of 10

*** Now that LBM has expanded beyond comics, I've retooled some of the columns for the sake of simplicity. This was originally part of a feature I did called "Graphic Novel Grab Bag." I only ever wrote five, so I've re-tagged them as Longbox entries. Enjoy the early days of LBM that I've somehow resisted the urge to purge. -- JA, 1/20/10 ***