Friday, 6 June 2014

More for Less - The Best of the Comic Book Miniseries

Comics are an unusual medium, my fellow traveler. I don't imagine that I have to tell you that, as both an art form and an industry, comics do a bunch of things that you just don't get anywhere else. One of those things - and I'm primarily looking at company owned superhero joints here, though you get it in a few creator owned books as well - is the fact that these stories are meant to be indefinite. This gives rise to a lot of strange narrative tics, including the extremely temporary nature of death and the occasional reality warping reboot that only one person remembers (I'm talking about you, Psycho Pirate), most of which we consider pretty much part and parcel of comics. But what happens when you throw that out? What happens when you write comics with a limited run, comics that by their nature get to wrap things up instead of being trapped in the perpetual second act of your Batmans and Uncanny X-Mens and what have you?

That's all a rather convoluted way of saying: there are some really great limited run comics in the world, and I want to talk about them. These aren't reviews as such, but I would certainly encourage to check out all the titles mentioned below. I should point out that some of them are still running, though they're all far enough along that I feel confident in giving you the thumbs up to jump on board.

Before we jump in - I know you're not stupid, reader. If you haven't read Watchmen and 300 and V for Vendetta and all those, I'm sure that they're on your list. You don't need me to tell you that they're essential reading. You're here because you want to find something that you didn't already know about. Lets just assume that we've already talked about those giants, and dig down into the interesting stuff, shall we?

Joe the Barbarian, Morrison and Murphy
First up is a Vertigo miniseries that pretty much vanished right after it came out, which was a real shame because I think it's a corker. Joe the Barbarian, from Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy, typifies a lot of the sort of thing that you see in limited runs. It’s got a unique, original premise that wouldn't really hold up for an ongoing book, but is perfect for a short run like this. In a nutshell, the titular Joe is a kid with very severe diabetes who fails to take his insulin while alone at home and promptly goes into a hypoglycemic shock and begins to hallucinate. He finds himself in an fantastical world populated by his toys and action figures, as well as his pet mouse and all sorts of other things that leak out of the real world and into the dream. The story intercuts his dreaming quest with his real-life struggle to find a source of sugar in his house. Seeing King Death closing in on Joe's dream self, and knowing that this means the end is close for him in the real world, makes for an incredibly powerful tale, and the epic scope of the fantasy world combines brilliantly with the urgency of his real world danger. Morrison has name-checked Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland in terms of inspiration, but the things that made me think of when reading it were the movie The Labyrinth and large portions of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in particular my favourite story arc, A Game of You. The art is simply gorgeous, popping with detail and expression and life - Murphy’s style is a combination of sketchy and detailed that I simply adore, and this isn’t the only time that he’ll be appearing in this list.

The entire run of Joe the Barbarian is available from Comixology in a single bundle.

Hard Boiled, Miller and Darrow
Hard Boiled is easily the oldest miniseries here - it came out from Dark House all the way back in 1990 - but I want to include it to highlight the way that a limited series like this can be a great way to introduce a new talent to the world. Then-up-and-comer Frank Miller brings us an incredibly visceral, violent little work here, a dystopian nightmare that would easily be at home in the pages of something like Heavy Metal. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but it’s a hell of a ride, and Geoff Darrow provides obsessively, lushly detailed images of carnage and mayhem. It's abstract in the most nightmarish sort of way, and that's something else that you can really only get away with in the short form - something that would become wearing and finally if it were to come out week after week stands as a savage, mean-spirited little kick in the guts when it only goes for three issues. The amount of detail on offer in the art is easily the best part, with Darrow making me think of greats like Moebius or Frank Quitely on more than a few occasions. There are more than a few pages that one could become completely lost in, picking out every last piece of twisted metal, shattered glass and torn flesh. Hard Boiled is not for the faint of heart, not by a long shot, but if you've got a strong stomach and don’t mind style coming well before substance, it’s worth seeing where one of today’s biggest stars first made his name.

Hard Boiled hasn't made its way online just yet, but you can pick up an ink-and-tree copy at The Book Depository.

The Private Eye, Vaughn and Martin
One that has been chugging along in between other projects from the creator is Brian K Vaughan’s The Private Eye - he writes a little book called Saga that you might have heard of? Anyhow, it's a direct-to-web series slated for ten issues, with six out so far, on a pay-what-you-want for which the impoverished scribes at Notes From Crime Alley are deeply appreciative. There's a deliciously high concept, "ripped from tomorrow's headlines" setup at the core - the complete death of privacy. A few years before the story kicks off, every private detail for everybody in the world got dumped online. Every embarrassing search, every anonymous message, every secret little purchase. Everything. Now, privacy is the most precious commodity in the world, and people adopt dramatic public personas in order to protect it. The story itself is relatively straight forward - the main character is a paparazzi photographer, one of the foulest criminal occupations in the new world, and he finds himself wanted for the murder of his latest client. Nothing you're not familiar with if you've read any detective story ever, but It’s the wonderful details that go into this thoroughly fleshed out world that make it worth reading - cops are now called journalists, photographing someone without their consent is a federal offence, and the mask and costume businesses are booming. Marcus Martin's art is a touch simple for my taste, but it burns with vibrant colour that’s perfectly appropriate to the technicolor, hyperreal future. Plus, it's all formatted for the screen, in landscape view, something that not enough digital works are doing. It makes a real different to the experience of reading it, not having to scroll up and down a portrait view page just because that's how pen and ink books do it.

The Private Eye is sold directly by Panel Syndicate from their website.

Criminal: Lawless, Brubaker and Phillips
Criminal, from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, doesn’t exactly fit my established model, but I’m going to jam it in here anyway because I love it so dang much. What I mean when I say it doesn't fit is that it's not one miniseries but six, each linked in with the others to one degree or another, but also standing on their own. It's best to read them in publication order, but you could pick up whichever comes to hand and get a complete story. They’re crime books, as you might have guessed from the title, grimy and realistic stories with neither the hysterical, cartoonish pathos of your Sin Citys nor the fantastical elements of Powers - just broken, brutal, lost people going about their lives as best they can. The art is jagged and rough, a snarling mix of muted colour and pitch blackness that perfectly present these savage, beautiful tales. Each of them is based around a standard crime trope, like the drug deal gone wrong or the man who goes back to his hometown to seek revenge, but these well-worn premises are rehabilitated and given fresh like by the expert craftsmanship of Brubaker’s writing. That sort of metanarrative thinking isn't necessary to enjoy Criminal, though, as what really sets it apart from other crime stories is the detailed, compelling characterisation that goes into them. Too many crime stories rely on the lazy archtypes of the genre, especially once you get into the noir end of the spectrum. In Criminal, everyone is vibrant and unique, not to mention broken in their own special ways. My recommended starting point would be Lawless, but you could pick up any of them that you come across and find yourself immersed in this sleazy, provocative world.

All of the Criminal stories, as well as some deluxe collections, are available at Book Depository.

The Wake, Snyder and Murphy
The Wake, by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy (again) is a story with a very unusual bit of trickery involved, that I'm going to do my best to not spoil for you if you haven't read it yet. Suffice to say that it starts out as one thing, and though it gives you hints that there’s something else under the surface, it's not until you hit the the halfway mark that it turns on a dime and transforms into something else entirely. The story starts out very simple and very low key - it’s basically a horror book set on the ocean’s floor, with a ragtag group of scientists trying to survive an encounter with terrifying merpeople - very much something that James Cameron would have done back when he made good films. Just as you think you know what you’re reading, though, EVERYTHING changes, and the the scale expands suddenly expands exponentially, swapping out the tight, claustrophobic setting for a global stage. Snyder is one of the fastest rising stars in comics today, and The Wake is as good an example of any for why this is; he pulls off the transition with aplomb, and while the sudden change in cast and scenery is jarring at first, looking back it’s really the only way that the tale could have played out. It’s also something that could only have been done in this sort of limited series - an ongoing might shake things up, but it has to return to something resembling the status quo sooner or later; when you’ve got an end in sight from the very beginning, you can throw everything out and have it stay that way for the duration.

Comixology has the first five issues - everything up to that big twist I won't talk about - available in a great value bundle right now.

High Crimes, Sebela and Moustafa
One more and then we're done, but this is a good one. I've talked about a few MonkeyBrains books in the past, and in many ways their creator-owned, straight-to-web model is perfect for the miniseries, allowing as it does people who haven’t quite committed to full time comics work to get their stuff out there even if it only lasts a few issues. Written by Cristopher Sebela and drawn by Ibrahim Moustafa, High Crimes is a crime story (I know, another one) with a wonderfully unique setting, taking place as it does in Kathmandu and on the slopes of Mt Everest. The obvious comparison is to The Eiger Sanction - yes, I really am that old - and the similarities are there, but there's a lot of unique stuff going on as well. The main character is a washed out Olympic snowboarder living in a haze of drugs and alcohol and working in an incredibly shady business, locating corpses on Mt Everest and selling them back to their families. The story kicks off when she stumbles across the wrong body, one that comes with a very suspicious diary and the obligatory roll of microfilm, and brings a team of black ops killers down on her head. Most of the story takes the form of a chase, one that rolls through the streets of Kathmandu and eventually, inevitably, up onto the slopes of Everest itself - the one place that she has an advantage. While the tale itself isn't the original thing in the world, the climbing details and Kathmandu setting are well researched and used in such a way to lend the proceedings a great deal of authenticity and originality. The art is sharp and simple, and the layouts do an excellent job of conveying the momentum necessary to keep the chase sequences taut, punchy and easy to follow. Moustafa also has a great knack for faces and facial expressions, which is important in a comic like this, with a large amount of back-and-forth banter between characters.

The first issue is free on Comixology, so what are you even doing still reading this?

So there we have it! As usual, I went on for a little longer than I meant to, but at least there were pretty pictures, right? One of them even had a cow in it. Cows are cool. Have you read any of these? What did you think of them? Are there any great comic book miniseries that I haven't picked up, and if so, what are they? I hunger for your comments, dear reader.

No comments:

Post a Comment