The Clever Ones

Shaolin Cowboy #2
Art and Writing by Geof Darrow
Published by Dark Horse

Reading through Shaolin Cowboy #2 gives a single impression: Geof Darrow read the most widely-cited complaints of modern, mainstream comics and took up a challenge to do precisely those things, but in a way which would inspire awe rather than contempt.

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Zombies? They’re here. Decompression? Darrow draws 33 (actually 34, since the cover is functionally the first page) of a man cutting through a horde of the living dead with two chainsaws on a pole. No plot? Describes the plot of this comic. Non-existent resolution? The comic starts with the Shaolin Cowboy fighting the horde, which is still going by the time the issue hits its arbitrary stopping point. This issue basically encapsulates The Walking Dead. Darrow relishes in all these cardinal sins as an 18th century French libertine would, committed to the base pleasure of a comic consisting entirely of violence against undead monsters. And it’s this commitment, the obsessive detail of each panel, the repetition of form (after the first interior page, Darrow uses two-page spreads, two panels apiece, to depict the fight), the way Peter Doherty’s lettering for the chainsaw sound effects (the only text in the comic) runs on one consistent line across the top of the page, punctuating the rhythm of the minimal story like a drummer bashing his cymbals (an abrasive “GGGGAAAAN” marking where the blades meet zombie flesh), and the life Darrow imbues his drawings with–tattoos, bugs, rotting genitalia, the Shaolin Cowboy’s hand gestures in mid-fight (done as a religious practice) all giving the sense of a living, breathing, decaying world rather than a hodgepodge of tropes lifted from George Romero movies (minus intelligence)–which makes this a fine read.

Coffin Hill #2
Art by Inaki Miranda
Writing by Caitlin Kittredge
Published by Vertigo

If Shaolin Cowboy is the audacious work of an assured craftsman, bringing his technical skills to bear on an actual challenge, Coffin Hill is timid and inconsistent. Much of its second issue reads like a fragment of a chapter in a novel, even without the knowledge this is author Caitlin Kittredge’s first step into comic books: the way pages meander from witch Eve reminiscing about her days as a rebellious heiress–initially jarring when Inaki Miranda draws the past and present as a single image, as if Eve is walking in on a party–to pushing her way into a missing person’s case in the modern day being investigated by an old friend/lover, Kittredge engages in a slow process of world-building exposition paired with the occasional visual moment (the use of raven’s feathers to symbolize Eve performing a supernatural feat, foreshadowed in her carrying one of the birds through her old estate). Yet the ideas Kittredge offers are brought up piecemeal and quietly forgotten (Eve muses on how she and missing hick/witch Lacey are alike, despite being on opposite sides of the class divide). Mood, what fellow novelist Caitlin Kiernan built in the wonderful, Steve Lieber illustrated Alabaster: Wolves, is kept at one even tempo, sacrificed in the process of serialization despite Kittredge’s genre roots.

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Inaki Miranda and colorist Eva de la Cruz are used to this sort of television-storytelling, having illustrated a number of issues in Bill Willingham’s Fables franchise, yet haven’t quite worked out how to render seamless the gears of plot. Coffin Hill‘s visual language is all over the place, going from showoffy semi-circular layouts to widescreen panels to inset shots for depicting movement, Miranda revealing himself as competent-yet-clunky as the script he draws. The  peak and nadir of this approach is a flashback to a ritual gone bad, the sequence a two-page spread horizontally flipped, dazzling as an isolated piece of horror sequential art (communicated mostly in de la Cruz’s crimsons and inky blacks) yet abrasive to the flow of the comic itself. It leaves with the impression Coffin Hill should be stronger work than it is.

Rocket Girl #2
Art by Amy Reeder
Writing by Brandon Montclare
Published by Image

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The partnership of Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare is one content with being merely clever. Much of Rocket Girl is taken up by this goal, particularly the great observation its time-traveling heroine experiences 1986 as “the present” and the alternate, sci-fi 2013 she hails from as “the past,” or the use of teenagers to comment on our increasingly juvenile culture (the Rocket Girl 2013 is one practically owned by corporations and policed by teens under the pretense of being “trusted,” implying some degree of compliance). Yet that cleverness, and Reeder’s lush aesthetic, ends up being a crutch for Montclare’s deficiencies as a writer. The way his script hops back and forth between past/present and future/past becomes arbitrary in the final few pages, dropping Dayoung (the Rocket Girl) into a convenience store robbery, then whipping back to her partner in 2013 to set up a split-page cliffhanger comparing their predicaments. Fine enough, except Montclare fails to establish anything happening with Dayoung’s partner to put him in this position. Rather than shocking, it’s merely confusing. Despite ditching the regressive witch/bitch gender politics of his last collaboration with Reeder (the noxious, “Every girl wants a prince” one-shot Halloween Eve), Montclare has actually gotten worse as a storyteller. And Reeder, game as she is for these adventure comics, enables him: a gag involving Dayoung’s ’86 caretakers, Annie and Ryder, showering with her to avoid her sneaking off is as cloying as anything in Matt Fraction’s Marvel comics Hawkeye and FF (Annie wears her glasses in the shower), yet shows even less sense (why do all three have to be in the shower at the same time?). They undo their own cleverness by indulging it.

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