THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (7/13/11 – Future Elephant War)

So yeah - last weekend I saw Transformers 3D: Flag on the Moon. PUSH A BUTTON; SOMETHING HAPPENS.

Being a Michael Bay joint, the internet is already alight with dichotomous chit-chat re: knockabout blockbuster movie fun v. intelligence/storytelling/whatever, although I confess to feeling a detached from the discussion; I think the main problem is that I kind of liked parts of the obligatory 85-or-so minutes of non-action content that are always included with these things yet almost never receive any rhetorical attention except as accessory to the action. The same thing happened with Peter Jackson's 19-hour remake of King Kong, where I wound up enjoying the first third the most, like with Adrien Brody typing out his screenplay in a cage or Naomi Watts casting a terrified glance in the direction of a -- *gasp* *choke* -- burlesque house. Similarly, I enjoyed Bay's & script droid Ehren Kruger's faux-Robocop vision of corporate America as populated exclusively by screaming, sneering, sleeves-up type-AAAA personality knuckle-crackers and their doomed, weeping serfs, even though it has remarkably little connection to the rest of the film, beyond dubiously establishing Shia LaBeouf and his full-body stammer as eternally put-upon and... I dunno, addressing the nation's economic worries, I guess?

There's a much more effective (if probably inadvertent) 'current events' bit elsewhere, in which our SEAL Team Six era is commemorated by a segment in which illegal nuclear tests in the Middle East are tactically struck by a luxury automobile commercial that sprouts guns. It's in here that you can see how elements of the Transformers franchise are so readily adaptable to Bay's characteristic approach, in that high-end consumer items are constantly shifting and mutating into loud, living weapons; for auteurial support you need only to look to Bay's very similar presentation of women, and indeed his film's openly mocking, hostile attitude toward anyone that defies his Playboy Video Centerfold conception of femininity, which -- as juxtaposed or verbally compared with cars or dogs or other items of beauty -- is less a biologically messy sexual concern than the pursuit of a perfect design aesthetic.

Certainly such considerations have taken precedence over the franchise's Earth-as-battlefield-for-warring--foreign-entities concept, an American-born but frankly rather Japanese notion, shared by the slightly earlier run of the transforming robot anime Super Dimension Fortress Macross, later localized to America as the initial storyline of the hybrid cartoon show Robotech, a huge-budget blockbuster movie version of which has been long-threatened; I'm still crossing my fingers for the auteur approach to win out and Baz Luhrmann to helm a head-exploding operatic version obsessively keyed to kitsch '80s neon love triangles and the notion of gooey pop music physiologically fucking with alien races.

As for the action, I think there's a distinction that needs to be made between basic, present-sensation action -- which Bay is very good at -- and long-game stakes-building, which proves to be a problem. I've never had as much trouble 'following' Bay's action scenes as some viewers do, and so the somewhat calmed nature of these latest fights (due to the requirements of the 3D process) provide basically perfect clarity for me; I can tell all the robots apart, generally, and even when I can't specifically discern where exactly characters or projectiles are headed, enough directional stimulation is present to accommodate any small confusion. No wonder that the Transformers themselves are over-detailed masses of writhing contours - they seem built to provide an excess of information in flight, which is the heart of Bay's movement design.

The problem, however, lies in scene-building. Pretty much the whole final hour of the movie is a huge battle through a ruined Chicago toward a dangerous item maintained by the Voice of Leonard Nimoy as the picture's sorta-boring villain. (Pondering why on Earth the robot heroes don't attack the same items -- which they apparently know how to use and happen to be glowing and crackling in plain sight atop the city's skyline -- prior to the invasion force beaming in and a million people dying is just one of fun games to play as the credits roll.) While I could easily tell what was going on in any given battle, I had real trouble figuring out exactly where in the city the various insurgent forces were headed, how close they were to their goal and indeed how most of them even wound up interacting in convergence. The result is some really impressive moments of battering information -- a long enclosed struggle in a toppling skyscraper, the environment changing as rooms turn onto their sides, best characterizes the effect -- that exist mainly as disconnected zones, like video game stages you might as well select in any order.

Searching for a comic that provides a similar feel necessitated leaving out any formal Transformers funnies, anonymous as they tend to be, and tracking down a properly individual expression of rending scrap. My quest ended with the 1986 DC Graphic Novel (# 6) Metalzoic, an early American production from 2000 AD stalwarts Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill. Truly it's got one of the great comic book titles -- always pronounce it METALzoic, with extra emphasis -- but it mainly stands in superhero-ish publishing history as a monumental misreading of the situation: it's a loose-limbed, fairly goofy-violent, sickly-colored saga of robot animals clashing in a blasted future, a nasty-whimsical idea that hit the stands at almost exactly the same moment that Batman: The Dark Knight Returns codified the DC readership's interest in dark, bloody 'realism' (as it was; obviously Frank Miller worked in a lot of stylization and not a little grim comedy, but that wasn't how the work was received).

It was not a financial success, according to O'Neill, though it is all the more striking today for its artist's jagged, screaming-yet-often-wordless action pages; even as placid a dialogue bit as seen just above seems to seethe with potential energy from protruding computer banks, while major set pieces seem notably conceptual, as in: how to portray a battle between robot elephants?

Mills' story is also reminiscent of Bay's film, in that it often seems like isolated scenes strung together to reach a conclusion. I know the project was initially conceived as a 2000 AD serial -- and I think was later reprinted as such -- so it might have been cut down from a longer plan. Yet Mills nonetheless offers some thematic rationale for this disconnection, as Metalzoic is primarily about misunderstandings among displaced tribes, each of which think they've got the world figured out, from the scant humans that recall the scientific basis for the Earth going crazy to the buzz saw mohawk-wearing robo-gorilla anti-hero that understands the same thing as religion, though none of them really grasp the secrets of the asteroids about the pound the Earth, until someone finally downloads enlightenment as a metaphor for evolution. Everybody is united in the end, though Mills & O'Neill nonetheless resolved to come up with a more superhero-pertinent project their own way; their next effort in the U.S. would be the notorious, eerily well-aged anti-heroism frustration parable Marshal Law, a movie version of which has yet to appear, though it could be damn welcome.


PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday, or, in the event of a holiday or occurrence necessitating the close of UPS in a manner that would impact deliveries, Thursday, identified in the column title above. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.



Twisted Savage Dragon Funnies: Being a 144-page collection of short color comics set in Image founder Erik Larsen's extended superhero universe, many of them initially presented as 'indie'-type backup features edited by Michel Fiffe. Contributors include Tom Scioli, Benjamin Marra, Zack Soto, Jasen Lex & Jim Rugg and others. Many samples; $18.99.

Hellboy: The Fury #2 (of 3): I don't often list comics I'm planning to buy that happen to be in the middle of a storyline, but from reading issue #1 of this -- creator/writer Mike Mignola's & artist Duncan Fegredo's final collaboration on the 'main' series -- I got the impression that Hellboy is currently doing its own version of a Fear Itself/Flashpoint-type of end-of-days storyline, in an immensely preferable manner to me. This is an illusion, of course - Hellboy doesn't carry the burden of managing the direction of X number of unrelated or tangentially-related series from diverse writers and editors, after all, and it's not even crossing over with its own, comparatively modest suite of spin-off series at the moment. Yet I still think the illustration it provides is helpful, in reinforcing (to me) the appeal of a superhero-type character hustling through the climactic moments of a long-game plot, since superficially this is the 'cover' story superhero Event crossovers intent to provide, and the lack of interest I feel in reading them (when asked to) can transition misleadingly into the impression that I'm just not interested in this kind of action comic anymore. But issue #1 of this series quite pleasantly demonstrated that I can still be interested, and it's not just a matter of Fegredo being a more adept artist than his peers or Mignola having honed his writing down to exactly what serves his concept best; it's the baggage of Marvel/DC stuff that gets to me, proving so weighty on the 'content' of their top-of-the-line culmination series that they take content's place. Old news, I know. Preview; $2.99.



B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth - Monsters #1 (of 2): Nothing written above is to say that the Mignola titles aren't troubled by typical continuing serial comics concerns, of course, such as the departure of a popular lead artist. As such, here's the B.P.R.D. debut of Tyler Crook, replacing series veteran Guy Davis. Written by Mignola and John Arcudi. Preview; $3.50.

Cross Game Vol. 4 (of 8): Certainly the most interesting to me among the various manga releases of this week is the newest installment of Mitsuru Adachi's latest completed baseball drama, redolent of the give and take between polished character cartooning and heavy environmental realism that both fuels the stories' contemplative tone and defines the separation of duties between artist and assistants in contemporary weekly manga production - Adachi collapses these traits into a cohesive aesthetic can can immediately be identified as his 'own,' despite the hands-on-page(/screen) reality, perhaps the mark of an auteur in a comics scene historically given to filmmaking comparisons; $14.99.

RASL #11: Speaking of manga, I've always felt that this Jeff Smith sci-fi thing has kind of a post-Otomo seinen manga feel - something to do with the wide-open desert scenes that tend to crop up, and Smith's haggard human character designs (and the wrinkly little kid). Smith has stated that series should be concluding sometime around issue #15 or 16, and I think this particular issue is the last one to be included in the third oversized softcover collection due later this year. Preview; $3.50.

Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 25: Fox Hunt: And from an earlier time in (more evident) Japanese influence comes this new Dark Horse collection of material by Stan Sakai, for anyone who hasn't been following the individual comics. Collects issues #110-116, plus an online short; $16.99.

Casanova: Gula: From Marvel's creator-owned Icon imprint comes a collected edition for the updated colors/letters version of writer Matt Fraction's & artist Fábio Moon's series. Note that fellow Marvel writer, Jonathan Hickman, also has a creator-owned project out this week - issue #1 of The Red Wing with artist Nick Pitarra and publisher Image; $14.99.

Incognito Vol. 2: Bad Influences: Speaking of Icon, I've fallen off on this particular wing of the Ed Burbaker/Sean Phillips collaboration, a creator-owned dark superhero series, touched by pulp hero and crime comics influences. I do enjoy the team's Criminal, so here's an opportunity to get caught up on all the most recent material; $17.99.

DC Comics Presents: Batman: Gotham Noir: But if it's corporate-owned dark superheroes you demand, DC's got a rather long out-of-print 2001 Elseworlds by the Brubaker/Phillips team, I think their first 'full' collaboration, subsequent to Phillips inking Michael Lark on Brubaker's Vertigo series Scene of the Crime. It's kind of a short piece, so the publisher has also dropped in 2002's Batman #604, a summary-of-the-character 'breather' issue from the contemporaneous Bruce Wayne: Fugitive crossover, drawn by Scott McDaniel & Andy Owens; $7.99.

X-Men: Lifedeath: Despite the title -- though yes, both of those well-regarded issues are collected -- this 152-page project is more of an old-style Marvel Visionaries-type of hardcover, here devoted to penciller Barry Windsor-Smith's various works on Uncanny X-Men, from 1969 through the late '80s. Collects issues #53, 186, 198, 205 and 214; $24.99.

From Bloom County to Mars: The Imagination of Berkeley Breathed: Finally, your book-on-comics for the week - an IDW presentation of a 96-page exhibition catalog pertaining to Breathed's one-man show at the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco, which just concluded last week; $20.00.