Too serious about comics.

Marcos Martin

Best Comics of 2013: The Private Eye

leave a comment

tpeye_01_smallNot content with writing Saga, one of the most universally-acclaimed comics around (and former Alternate Cover “Best Of” inductee), Brian K. Vaughan chose to give the medium another kick up the arse this year when he teamed with Marcos Martin to release The Private Eye, a noirish sci-fi tale set in a world where everyone has a secret identity and the Internet doesn’t exist.

But before we discuss the story, we have to discuss the form. The Private Eye is the first (and thus far only) release from Panel Syndicate, a digital-only publisher selling DRM-free comics. It was revolutionary enough for two of the industry’s top creators to be releasing a new and original work under that model, but the fact that they also went pay-what-you-like on it suggested that this was a serious attempt to find a new model for comics publishing, rather than a gimmick. It was, in no small way, hugely exciting, and may have been the catalyst for Image Comics to make their own store DRM-free, which they did just a few months ago. For committed digital readers like me, it’s been good to see. And with this much emphasis on the sales model, it helps that the actual comic is great too.

Fresh off his work on Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil, Marcos Martin had been blowing readers away with his hugely imaginitive layouts, Ditko-esque figures and fluid linework. On The Private Eye, his layouts are more conventional, but it’s the level of imagination and detail that truly impresses – in a world where everyone is dressing as someone or something else there’s no such thing as a background character, and Martin doesn’t shy away from drawing every character as if they could be the star. Meanwhile, Vaughan has taken a simple theme of personal privacy online and spun it into an original and unfamiliar world that could still somehow be our own, populated with new takes on established archetypes that make it feel like a fresh read rather than yet another detective story.

Not everything about the The Private Eye works straight away – the idea that the press can function as a police force doesn’t really make sense if you try to analyse the execution of it, and the mechanics of the technical collapse that fuelled the series are glossed over a little too conveniently – but you can’t fault its attempt to do something different, both with the form and with the genre. There are too few books around you can say that about, and even if it wasn’t doing that, The Private Eye would still deserve a spot on this list merely for being the first of its kind. Let’s hope it isn’t the last.

Best Comics of 2011: Daredevil

leave a comment

Daredevil is one of those comics where a single definitive run – in this case, Frank Miller’s – becomes so strongly identified with the character that leeaving it behind doesn’t just seem difficult – it seems like poor judgement to even try. Even the Marvel Knights run, which began with Kevin Smith and moved through the likes of Bendis, Brubaker and Diggle, owed much to Miller’s stories. The Catholic imagery and attitudes. The ongoing identity issues. The bleak, downward spiral. For anyone to try and do Daredevil without using that material would just seem like throwing the baby out with the bathwater (something Frank Miller might be inclined to do, if that baby wasn’t pulling its weight economically).

However, that’s also what Waid, Rivera and Martin have attempted. They haven’t just pulled it off: they’ve succeeded on an unexpected scale. Taking Daredevil back to his swashbuckling roots, Waid has come up with a new way to interpret the phrase “man without fear”. Under Miller and Bendis et al, it meant that you couldn’t scare a man who has already lost everything. Under Waid, “without fear” means “without burdens”. He’s carefree and unflappable. A gentle breeze, not a force of nature.

It shouldn’t work. It’s been done before, and it failed. When they made the film, it was Miller’s version they adapted. A run of critical acclaim over a decade long was rooted in the dark, desperate interpretation. And yet here we are. Praising the current comic, which is the opposite of that.

A large part of what makes this Daredevil run so spectacular is the artwork. Rivera and Martin both proved themselves to be some of the best Spider-Man artists under the current management, both deriving their look from Ditko’s style. So when editor Steve Wacker poached them for this project, it was clear we’d end up with a book that looked nice. What we got, though, was something that made full use of the form, from a pair of artists who know how to use everything visual trick, and do.

It was only yesterday that Seb made a point about how it’s great to see comics do things that only comics can. Daredevil does more of that in one issue than some series do in years. Sound effects forming images. Panel borders cutting through images to emphasies Murdock’s blindness. Inventive, imaginitive, impossible in any other medium. Under Rivera and Martin, Murdock’s powers seem so uniquely suited to comics that it’s tough to believe this is a new approach to their depiction. Only a few issues in, Miller’s shadow seems to have disappeared.

Funnily enough, I didn’t even expect to be reading this comic by now. I was so invested in the previous Daredevil run that following its notional conclusion in Shadowland/Daredevil Reborn, I was ready to leave. The character had been ground into dust at the inevitable destination of his long-form arc (which is to say, moral collapse, madness and then death) and the only way to move forward was to rebuild Daredevil from the fragments that were left. 130-ish issues was enough for me. I was almost entirely out – and on the strength of pure technique alone, they pulled me back in. That fact alone gets it onto my best of 2011 list.

James Hunt | 24th December, 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #620

leave a comment

amazing620You know, I’m not sure if this “Gauntlet” branding on the current issues of Amazing is as necessary as Marvel seem to reckon it is. While there’s clearly going to be an eventual storyline in which assorted classic Spidey villains are gathered together to beat the stuffing out of him en masse, it’s not really a story at all at the moment – rather, we’ve got a series of relatively standalone (although the standard continuity plot threads – Carlie, the DB, Harry, Aunt May and so on – that have been running since Brand New Day continue to do so; indeed, Spider-Man hasn’t been so entertainingly “soap”y for a while) stories that just happen to feature classic villains, at the end of which they each seem to be recruited by the Kravenette (as I’m now insisting on calling her, and seeing if it sticks). The thing is, those scenes add little to nothing to the story that’s gone before – and all they do is falsely inflate anticipation of the upcoming climax that it’s going to have to be pretty special to live up to it. If the presence of all of these villains – thought “off the board” after their respective defeats – turned out to be a surprise a few months down the line, then that’d probably have more impact.

Basically, the Spider-team need to have more faith in the quality of their current set of stories without feeling the need to attract attention by constantly branding them under an “event” header. Because at the moment, those stories are generally very good – and this one, in particular, has been excellent. The plotting has perhaps proven a little unnecessarily convoluted – as it often tends to, in just about any story or medium, whenever opposing gangsters are involved – but that’s actually kind of appropriate here, considering the primary villain is the wilfully-obfuscating Mysterio. Regular readers of this site will know already of my affection for Ol’ Fish-Bowl Head, and he’s absolutely the perfect villain for Slott to write – relying as he does on that mixture of humour and seriousness, of gravitas of ambition (his plans do involve murderous mobsters and faking of deaths, after all) and inherent lameness.

The whole thing is helped, too, by the presence of Marcos Martin. I didn’t go wild for Martin the first time he showed up on this book, but he’s gradually worked his way up my important opinion rankings (which are, of course, all important) and gives us a truly stellar turn, here. I think it’s partly that, like Slott, he just works so well with Mysterio – because he mixes that beautifully retro and often slightly simplistic style of his with a quite cool and understated “modernising” design of the classic outfit. And does the bowl-head haircut and nose properly when we see Beck out of costume later, too. While he may not be a bravura storyteller of the same level, he’s still one of a few artists who’ve ever enabled you to squint at the page and think that Ditko might be drawing Spidey again – and that’s no mean feat.

It all adds up to a book that (three) week(s) in, week out, is on the whole pretty consistently delivering a strong mixture of the old-school Spider-Man tone and aesthetic, with pleasingly modern twists here and there. It’d be nice if some of the stories themselves were truly gripping, “Can’t wait for next issue” masterpieces, but that aside, it’s basically giving me a Spidey book that’s almost exactly how I’d want it. The current writers are (generally) people who just get the character – and how he should interact with his surrounding cast, and vice versa – and long may they continue to do so.

Seb Patrick | 16th February, 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #578

leave a comment

It’s been a model of inconsistency, this Amazing Spider-Man run. The rotating creative teams may have helped keep a steady flow of story ideas going – necessarily for the by-now baffling decision to continue putting it out three times a month – but it’s meant that, for all the “Brain Trust”’s best efforts, the book is struggling to get a handle on a firm identity at a time when it arguably really needs it. On the bright side, it means that if you don’t like an issue or story – such as the Guggenheim propaganda-fest or Zeb Wells’ dull “Fat Punisher” tale – there’s another one along shortly afterwards. On the other hand, though, by far the best stretch the series has had so far was when Dan Slott and John Romita Jr were let loose to tell a proper six-issue story, which is pretty telling in itself (not least because those two should clearly be the full-time team).

Still, the arrival this week of Mark Waid, while it swells the number of writers apparently involved in the overall setup to ridiculous proportions, promises to bring a bit of class to proceedings – an inconsistent writer Waid may be, but he knows his stuff. And despite a distinctly unappealing cover (because, you know, going for a retro feel with the whole series is one thing; directly referencing one of the most iconic images in Spidey history is a bit much, though), he pretty much hits the ground running with what might be the best non-Slott issue so far.

It’s well-constructed, as Waid hangs the promise of a fortune cookie across the issue as a whole, and in the sequences in which Peter is either bemoaning or praising his luck, he feels properly “Peter”-ish. Indeed, characterisation is done well throughout, but you’d expect nothing less from someone with Waid’s experience – he doesn’t need time to bed in as regards understanding the character. The story itself is fairly simple, but it’s nice to see a bit more of a claustrophobic, “trapped” kind of affair, as it distinguishes the issue from its recent counterparts a bit. After all, in during the current “Spider-Tracer Killer” storyline, Spidey’s only had to deal with fleeting moments of accusation or distrust before being able to swing away – throwing him in an enclosed environment with a bunch of assorted New Yorkers allows for a closer examination of his current relationship with the public.

I’m impressed, too, by the work of Marcos Martin. I wasn’t hugely enthused by the first arc he did on the title, but he ups his game here. His character work is strong – it reminds me a bit of Bret Blevins at times – but of particular note is his storytelling, reminiscent of Romita Jr in its construction. There’s an especially neat moment where in just a couple of panels he effectively conveys the feel of an out-of-control subway train.

Capped off by an intriguing cliffhanger – I don’t know if this particular character has ever appeared before, but I definitely want to know more – it’s on the whole just a strong, solid Spidey issue, striking the right notes without doing anything too outlandish (or, admittedly, all that exciting). The main villain is a bit of a disappointment – especially with no hint of an update to that wretched costume – but aside from that, in the wake of a pretty poor bunch of issues following New Ways To Die, this is enough to get Amazing back on my reading list. At least until the next stop on the merry-go-round, anyway…

Seb Patrick | 20th November, 2008