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JH Williams III

Best Comics of 2013: Sandman Overture

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sandmanovertureEven by our usual standards, it’s especially strange to include in our comics of the year a series that has only managed to put out one issue in 2013. But then, Sandman: Overture is hardly a usual comic – in fact, it’s downright exceptional.

Here, for example, was a comic that had to live up to some outrageously lofty expectations – the first issue of The Sandman since the series ended in 1996 (notwithstanding the Endless Nights hardcover or P. Craig Russell’s adaptation of The Dream Hunters), and one that has to break into the almost hermetically-sealed perfection of that original run. Anything less than utter genius from a new comic with this title by Neil Gaiman and JH Williams would be a huge disappointment.

And yet there were lingering doubts that the old magic could be recaptured. Gaiman has written some fantastic work in recent years, but not very much of it has been in comics, and Sandman was of such a distinct time in comics history that it wasn’t clear whether it could translate to the style of an era twenty-five years after its first issues.

So it’s largely because of the fact that it both lived up to those huge expectations, and dispelled those nagging doubts, that the first issue of Overture immediately stood out as one of the best comics of the year. Effortlessly sliding back into the familiar and comfortable setting and characters, it read like Gaiman was picking up where he left off with issue #75 (aside from the plot being set a little while prior to issue #1, of course) – but by the same token was a dazzling example of confident, high-class modern-day comic book storytelling.

Much of this, it’s clear, is down to the presence of Williams – one of arguably a handful of artists currently working who could possibly live up to the ideal of working on Sandman. Indeed, some of that first issue’s most inspired moments feel more the work of the artist than the writer – bringing his signature style to double-page spreads like the astonishing Corinthian sequence, and even managing to convey the somewhat abstract notion of Destiny’s book in a way that made arguably more sense than any of the original series’ artists had managed to.

And if it felt a little bit like a greatest hits tour – with gratuitous cameos from characters like Merv Pumpkinhead – the nostalgia was at least earned by the occasion. And what’s more, this feels (so far at least) like a missing story that was waiting to be told, rather than simply a cheap cash-grab – with some genuinely startling revelations about a mythology that previously we felt we’d learned all we could about.

Simply put, it feels incredibly good to have The Sandman back in the year 2013, and back at a level of quality we all remember it for. And that’s why, in only twenty-odd pages, it was comfortably one of the best comics of the year. The fact that 2014 actually promises several instalments of this is almost too joyous to contemplate.

Seb Patrick | 28th December, 2013

Comics Daily Awards 2009: Best Artist

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batwoman1This week, we’re handing out the Second Annual Comics Daily awards – one per day – between Christmas and New Year. Each award has been written up by a member of the Comics Daily team after a consensus was reached, and highlights what we feel have been the best of superhero comics this year.

Best Artist: J.H. Williams III

If there’s a major flaw in the majority of online criticism, it’s in the discussion of artists. Comics is a unique medium in which the two major creative halves (let’s not get into nitpicking over the equally significant crafts of lettering, design, colouring and so on) are entirely equal in terms of importance to the overall quality of a work. And yet if you read written reviews – or even simple message board discussion – about comics, it’s clear that the writing (whether plot, character, dialogue, basic narrative construction or anything else) is what people tend to focus on. It’s not hard to see why. Anyone can pick up a keyboard and type – and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that a significant proportion of people writing about comics online are basically frustrated writers themselves. We all think we know how to write a good comic, and we think this gives us the critical faculties to discuss other peoples’ attempts. Far fewer of us, however, are artists. And when we don’t draw ourselves – or if we haven’t deeply studied the craft – then we don’t necessarily have the vocabulary with which to truly engage with comics artwork on a critical level. We can talk about whether we like something, and if we see some clever storytelling or good character work or just clearly lovely draftsmanship – but on the whole, artists will usually get done the disservice of a couple of perfunctory lines at the end of a review.

So it’s therefore incredibly telling to look up just about any piece of writing concerning the current run of Detective Comics, and find that in just about every case, it will lead off by talking about J.H. Williams’ art – with those perfunctory lines or paragraphs generally given over to Greg Rucka’s (actually pretty darned decent) story instead. (And I’m not saying, obviously, that the comics world revolves around online reviewers and forum posters, but I think they’re a pretty decent barometer of general opinion.) There have been plenty of spectacularly good artists turning in often-career-best work throughout 2009, but there’s no doubt that it’s been Williams’ year to capture the comics reading public’s collective imagination.

The spectacular work he’s turned in has been twofold in its merits – firstly, the simple matter of his figurework and style has been nothing short of phenomenal, a progression of work we’d seen before on the likes of Seven Soldiers and the “Club of Heroes” arc of Batman. His pages are simply, on their own merit, gorgeous to look at, as works of art – it’s perfectly possible to skim through an issue of Detective, drinking in the art like a fine wine without even tasting the meat of the story. But there’s something else about this work, too, that elevates it beyond many other lovely-looking books you might find. The page layout work (as seen above, click to see it big like) is generally phenomenal – it’s a different kind of storytelling from that which we tend to see in current superhero books, with action often suggestive rather than outright explicit. And it’s not as if many of the individual elements – disjointed chronology, large single images that still seem to dance chronologically from left-to-right, unique and symbolic panel shapes – have never been seen before, but the way that they’re all brought together makes it feel like something entirely new. Colorist Dave Stewart, meanwhile, deserves an enormous amount of credit for the use of a superb black-and-red colour scheme that slices through the page whenever Kate is in costume (although how much of that can be put down to stylistic edict from Williams, I’m not sure).

And then, when Williams has already been getting spectacular plaudits for the style of his work, he goes and turns in the “flashback” pages of Kate’s origin story, the book’s most recent arc. Here, the present-day scenes – using the style already seen – are intercut with scenes that use a beautiful, softer style, reminiscent of Mazzuchelli’s work on Batman: Year One. And the absolute tour de force came with last month’s issue #859, when the two styles were employed within the same panel, as the world of the Bat came crashing into Kate’s life for the first time. It’s rare that such experimental work is also so immediately accessible to the everyday reader, but when it does happen, it’s sheer delight to witness.

Runners-up: Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram: The Singles Club, SWORD, Cable), Frank Quitely (Batman & Robin), Gabriel Ba (The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, Daytripper), Jill Thompson (Beasts of  Burden)
Previous winners: 2008 – Jamie McKelvie

Seb Patrick | 26th December, 2009

Detective Comics #858

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detective858And so, some – what – three years or so after first making a media-hyped debut, Kate “OMG She’s Batwoman And Also A Lesbian” Kane gets an origin story. I’m tempted to wonder why it’s taken so long (then again, it’s taken long enough for her to actually start properly appearing, following those vaguely mysterious but not altogether interesting cameo introductions in 52), but on the other hand, it’s hard to say whether I’d have been that bothered had the story been told back then; as opposed to now, when it’s in the pages of a title that I’m buying and enjoying every month.

The reason for that latter fact, of course, is the thing it’s hard to avoid spending all one’s time discussing when reviewing Detective Comics (strange, though, that we reviewers never seem to agonise over disproportionately covering writing in comparison to art – perhaps because we’re usually frustrated writers rather than frustrated artists). But since Rucka usually gets short shrift on this title, let’s look at the story first – hopping as it does back to Kate’s childhood for the first chapter of her Who She Is And How She Came To Be in largely effective fashion. That there’s a shared trauma in the lives of Kate and her father that set them on their present path is hardly a surprise – what is, though, is that there’s not one, but two significant figures waiting to be lost. The existence of a perfect mother and wife – not to mention a downright nice relationship between the parents even among the difficulties of continual absence – isn’t exactly unpredictable, but it’s a genuine shock to see that Kate has essentially lost the umbilical cord of a desperately close twin. Throwing such a tragedy – especially one so senseless at the same time as feeling almost painfully inevitable – into a character’s backstory is a cheap way of eliciting sympathy, but an effective one – and I’m interested enough to see the dots joined between that childhood trauma and the woman that Kate becomes.

Really, though, as solid and engaging as Rucka’s stories have generally been, there’s no denying that what makes this series worth $3.99 a month is the art of JH Williams III. Clearly recognising that enough’s been said about his work in the preceding issues as to make the discussion boring and predictable, he quite deliberately employs a specific and wildly different style for the flashback scenes that make up the bulk of the issue. It’s evocative of David Mazzuchelli – thus immediately appropriate for a Bat-family “origin” story, naturally – while at the same time, in its simpler lines and colour tones, reflecting the more innocent time of Kate’s childhood. Yet he also finds the time to draw two pages of war story flashback in a more detailed, “realistic” action comic style; and of course, we’re given a few pages of present-day framing narrative (although they’re actually at the centre of the comic) in the book’s usual, effortlessly and breathtakingly magnificent style. It just sort of feels like he’s showing off, now.

Backed up by a Question story that – while it hasn’t gripped me as much as some – comes to a nice conclusion here and features the visual stylings of Cully Hamner (no great slouch himself), Detective Comics stands at the moment as an effective and very modern comics package. The Batwoman stories still feel slightly more like mood pieces than the most exciting and layered story I’ve ever read – but hey, I’m actually interested in following the character, and that’s no mean feat in itself.

Seb Patrick | 2nd November, 2009

Detective Comics #854

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detective854You know, I’d have been minded to open this review with a grumble about the lead character of the world’s longest-running continuously-published comic being unceremoniously booted out of the pages he made his own just so that DC could shift a few more copies of a story that they chickened out of giving its own series and effectively sat on for a couple of years. But it turns out that them doing that is actually a bloody good idea, if it means getting more people to read this – because it’s actually kind of excellent.

Primarily, as I’m about the millionth person online to say, that’s because of the way it looks. No two ways about it, this is a beautiful, incredible-looking comic. If JH Williams III showed with his “Club of Heroes” collaboration with Morrison (not to mention the all-too-brief stint on this very book back at the start of Dini’s run) that he had the potential to tell dazzlingly atmospheric noirish Bat-stories, then it’s here that he opens up and fulfils that potential. It’s not even one particular element that does it – it’s the entire package. Naturally the character work and draftsmanship are as classy as you’d expect, making for a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and one for which colourist Dave Stewart deserves just as much credit – but his storytelling is magnificent also.

This isn’t so much in a Quitely-esque, moment-to-moment kind of way, though, as it is the way he uses the composition of panels to trigger mood in the reader’s mind. The gorgeous, dark epics that stretch across the pages whenever Kate is Batwoman – layered blacks and greys broken up by evocative slashes of her white skin and the brash, orange-red elements of her outfit – use unconventional panel layouts, but strung along a theme that deliberately causes a “flash” in the reader’s mind: you can’t help but think “bat” as your eye scans across the jagged lines. All of a sudden you can almost see what Simone Bianchi’s been trying to do in Astonishing X-Men, only… you know, done properly. Even better, though, is the contrast between these scenes and those featuring her out of costume. The colours get sunnier and brighter, the panels go back to conventional boxes – and not even with the jarring effect of a turn of the page, but instead in a left-to-right progression across a double spread. It’s bravura stuff, it really is.

Still, even as the issue is entirely worth buying for the art alone (and it’s not often I say that), it’s lucky that the story is pretty decent as well. It’s a bit difficult to figure out exactly where it’s supposed to take place – Batman and Detective should never take place in entirely different timeframes, and there’s “Batman Reborn” branding on the cover; yet the Batman who appears feels more Bruce than Dick, and references to the precise time that’s supposed to have elapsed since we first saw Kate are vague at best. That said, despite the fact that she’s only made fleeting appearances since her overhyped debut in 2006, Rucka does a good job of leading us into this as a new setup – it’s a well-played “issue one”. We learn as much as we need to about her character (and come to that, her experiences in 52 seem to have lent her a welcome sense of humility), personal life and “hero” setup – right down to her “Alfred” figure, an apparent father with whom she shares her masked life in an interesting, militaristic way. As far as I’m aware, this character is entirely new – but again, we’re given all we really need.

That said, for all the decent character setup, I can’t say that the opening “case” has much of a hook – the “Religion of Crime” idea isn’t desperately interesting (and I honestly can’t recall where they spring from originally – are we going back to 52, and the people who stabbed her, here? A bit more of a refresher would have been nice), and “Alice” is well designed but drawn almost entirely from a combination of existing cliches. Even so, this is a mightily impressive start to the run (to say nothing of the fact that, hey! Detective is (sort of) an anthology book again! And the backup story is a Proper Detective Story about ReneeQuestion! And it’s drawn by Cully Hamner! And it’s quite good as well!), and in tandem with Batman & Robin (not to mention an acceptable if unspectacular range of peripheral books), you have to say the Batbooks are looking in splendid condition. Bruce who?

Seb Patrick | 26th June, 2009