Comic Book Review – Clean Room Vol. 1 – by Gail Simone

Clean Room Vol. 1: Immaculate Conception
Writer: Gail Simone  | Artist: Jon Davis-Hunt

cleanroom 02Two women marked by death attempting to understand the evil that lives in the shadows. This pretty much sums up the basic concept of Gail Simone’s first venture into Vertigo Comics territory. Chloe Pierce’s fiance killed himself and she miscarried their child. Now she wants to know what a Scientology-like cult run by Astrid Mueller. Astrid is a German woman who was brutally run down by a madman in a car when she was a child. After that experience she began to see what we might call “demons”. However, the series makes an effort to challenge our preconceptions about the nature of these monsters. In this first volume, we follow parallel stories of Astrid confronting a literal demon from her past while Chloe must decide if she trusts Astrid’s cult while attempting to figure out why her fiance killed himself.

I can’t say that I have ever intentionally followed the work of Gail Simone. Birds of Prey and Batgirl sort of passed me by. I have always loved her Secret Six titles, spotlighting a rotating cast of villains and anti-heroes who are less than happy to be working together. I’d had tremendously high hopes for her Wonder Woman run around 7-8 years ago and was really disappointed. Her Red Sonja work has been on my Must Read list for awhile. I think I entered into Clean Room with a pretty open mind, interested to see what Simone would do in the less prohibitive environment of Vertigo Comics.

Clean Room throws us right in the middle of things very fast. I had to re-read the first five pages a couple times due to how quickly the stakes are set up. The entire first issues feels paced way too fast in a effort to pit Chloe and Astrid against each other. It takes awhile for the character development to come out and even by the conclusion of this first volume it feels like a two hour pilot for a larger tv series. As you would expect with most Vertigo work, there is a lot of sex and violence. The gore is pretty much an essential element in this type of story and it goes to just the right places to make you uneasy and creeped out. One scene of a demon possessed man digging into cheeks and twisting the skin of his face upside down comes to memory. The series really gets interesting when it is slowly unraveling the world around the Mueller cult and their work with celebrities. We get to see the inner workings of the organization and how they cleverly and efficiently deal with problems.

cleanroom06The artwork is very uneven. Artist, Jon Davis-Hunt draws an awesome demon, and brings a lot of interesting variety to their designs. Elements of insects and sea life are interwoven into his monster work and this adds to a sense of the larger than our perception Lovecraft style of horror. However, his normal humans often look like mannequins. His figures are very posed and there is a lack of sense of movement through the panels. It improves as the series goes on, but still retains a stiffness. His linework is very smooth and detailed though.

Clean Room has a very promising concept and I will definitely continue reading through the next couple arcs. The mystery behind the “demons” is intriguing and if written cleverly could end up being a great longform horror story. There’s room for improvement on the art, but the overall series is one of the best offerings I’ve seen from Vertigo lately.

Back Issue Bin: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing #20-53, 60-61, 63-64
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch

Before Watchmen, Alan Moore was simply known as the guy who saved Swamp Thing from cancellation. The series was born out one story in the horror anthology House of Secrets in the 1970s. The unnamed Swamp Monster proved so popular that creator Len Wein recast the story in the present day and gave the character an origin. He was Dr. Alec Holland, a scientists working in the bayous of Lousiana on a “bio-restorative” formula. Its end purpose would be to turn arid environments into lush forests. His lab is attacked and a fire is started, engulfing Holland. The poor man runs into the waters of the swamp where he dies from the burns, blood loss, and trauma. However, he was coated with the formula during the attack and his essences mixes with the swamps. He is reborn as a plant humanoid, with the memories of Alec Holland. All in all, it wasn’t too spectacular of a series and sales reflected it. That is until the British comics writer Alan Moore said he would taking over writing the series. He was given a handful of issues to turn sales around and that’s just what he did.

Moore’s first issue (Saga of Swamp Thing #21) is very reader inaccesible, but he had tie up the plot point left by the previous writer and he did so fairly well in one issue, ending with the death of the main character. Odd way to start a run on a series. The next issue is where he really kicks into gear. In this single issue, Moore completely resets the status quo of the series, with Swamp Thing learning he isn’t Alec Holland, but merely a mass of vegetation given sentience by the dying Holland’s consciousness and the formula. Now that Swamp Thing realizes he isn’t human, his behavior becomes increasingly alien. The series itself switches from a standard superhero comic into some mish mash of that and a horror series. Artist Steve Bissette is incredibly effective with his macabre, otherworldly illustrations. The enemies the creature fights from this point are not one who can be defeated through brute force alone, and stories take on a very philosophical bent.

One of the standout issues deals with Swamp Thing’s long running relationship with Abby Cable. Even upon discovering he is not the man she thought he was, Abby refuses to abandon him, seeing goodness in the human nature of his soul. They have sex which is one of the strangest love scenes I guarantee you have ever seen. It involves Swamp Thing growing strange fruit on himself, and Abby eating some. The fruit secretes hallucinogens and cause Abby’s consciousness to leave her body temporarily and merge with the plant life. Its a very clear example of how Moore writes comics in a more intelligent and mature way than most writers. He acknowledges the superhero tropes but he also doesn’t feel constrained by them. On the other hand, he doesn’t see spandex outfits and extraordinary powers as “cheesy” or “lame”. He is a great appreciator of the depth and breadth of comic books.

While Saga of Swamp Thing was on the verge of cancellation around issue 30, it went on to run until issue 171, a feat that would have been impossible without Alan Moore’s writing. Moore didn’t change or reinvent comics, he simply wrote them better than they had ever been written before. All the melodrama and soap opera are there, they’re just done in a skilled and crafty way. I particularly remember the inclusion of Golden Age villain Solomon Grundy (familiar if you grew up watching Super Friends). Despite being created forty years apart, Swamp Thing and Grundy had suspiciously similar origins. Moore, being a comic book fan, knew this and made it part of the story. It is such a smart little note of continuity for him to have picked up on and its something that continues to resonate with the Grundy character today. If you are looking for an amazingly literary comic you’ll find no better than Moore’s work on this series.

Mature Reading: Fables

Fables #1-96
Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Mark Buckingham, Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, and Craig Hamilton

Once upon a time, there was a land where all the fairy tales you grew up reading were real. All your favorite characters lived side by side and everything was happy. That is until The Adversary appeared, a shadowy figure who gathered the aberrant armies of these realms and effectively took over. Those storybook characters afraid of what he would do now that he was in power migrated to the world of the Mundies, or our world. On a couple blocks in New York City, cloaked with expert magicks, is Fabletown, the home of the exiles. Here they plot a way to take back their homeland while dealing with discovery at the hands of the Mundies and their own evil fable brethren. This is the setting that kicks off Bill Willingham’s magnum opus (still being published today).

While the series is an ensemble piece, the main characters would be Snow White and Bigby Wolf (Big Bad Wolf). Snow is Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, the mayor is Old King Cole. Snow is in charge of settling disputes between the Fables and dealing with security issues in the neighborhood. The first arc of the series finds Snow believing her sister, Rose Red to have been murdered. She enlists the help of Bigby Wolf, who has taken a human form and is the acting sheriff of Fabletown. They go after suspects Jack Horner (Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack Frost, Jack Be Nimble) and the murderous Bluebeard. Its revealed in the end that Rose Red has been faking the whole thing, which drives a wedge between she and Snow.

Also amongst the cast are Boy Blue; Snow’s personal assistant, Flycatcher; the janitor in the mayor’s office and the former Frog Prince, Pinocchio; permanently stuck as a little boy due to the Blue Fairy’s spell, and Cinderella; a shoe store owner by day and super spy by night. Snow will come into conflict with her, and many of the other fable princesses’ ex-husband Prince Charming. In upstate New York, there is a farm dedicated to the talking animal fables, the ones who couldn’t blend in in the city. The Farm is the site of an animal revolution in the second arc, with Goldilocks leading them in revolt against Snow and her forces.

The first 75 issues of the series are focused around telling the story of how the Fables came to be in the Mundie world and how they fight to return to the homeland. Willingham showcases a deep breadth of knowledge by incorporating fairy tale characters who are probably unfamiliar to most but are actually found in old folktales and amongst the Brothers Grimm collections. I’ve always enjoyed the darker aspects of all those stories and characters, and that’s what we definitely get in this series. Fables has proven so popular its garnered an ongoing spin-off (Jack of Fables) and two mini-series (Cinderella, The Literals). The Jack of Fables series further expanded the Fables universe by bringing in characters like Humpty Dumpty, The Oz and Wonderland characters, as well as introducing a family of beings who can rewrite history. There’s even the Genres, the embodiment of genres of writing. If you are looking for a clever, funny, and many times exciting series written for mature audiences, I think Fables will definitely satisfy you.

Back Issue Bin: Y The Last Man #1-60

Here’s an entry from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. Y the Last Man ran from 2002 to 2008 and was written by Brian K. Vaughn, with art Pia Guerra. The covers were provided by the insanely talented J.G. Jones. If you’re a fan of Lost then you’re familiar wit Vaughn’s writing, he was a writer on staff for seasons 3, 4, and 5. He even received a Writer’s Guild nomination for his Season 4 work on the show. Y the Last Man is one of the comic book series that feels like a perfect framework for a television series as well. We have a regular cast of characters involved in one large arching story, with small six issues arcs along the way. The series looks at some issues of gender in global culture and is one of those great philosophical science fiction stories.

It’s present day, and Yorick Brown is an amateur escape artist practicing a classic Houdini trick while on the phone with his long distance girlfriend, Beth. In the middle of the conversation the world falls apart. It seems a virus has swept the globe in a freakishly quick amount of time killing every male animal on the planet, except for Yorick and his pet capuchin monkey Ampersand. The duo quickly find that the world is both different and depressingly familiar now that it is female dominated. The same sort of tribal mentality that ran patriarchal society is at work in the matriarchy. Some women believe this was an act of god to curse man for his millenia of foolishness. Some women are willing to kill any man they might see alive. Some women see this as biological catastrophe and are working to developing cloning technology to keep the human race alive. Into the mix is thrown Agent 355, a female member of a secret society dating back to the presidency of George Washington. Agent 355 is sent to protect Yorick as he journies from the States to Australia to find Beth.

The series has some wonderfully exciting moments. I’m reminded of a subplot that involves the belief that a group of male astronauts in the international space station might still be alive. Teaming up with scientists hiding out in a secret laboratory in the Midwest, Yorick and crew attempt to aid in the crew’s return to Earth. At the same time, a militant force of Israeli soldiers are closing in on Yorick whom they plan on using to reproduce. The Israeli angle is one of many interesting elements in the series. In real life, Israeli is the only military on Earth that have women as an integral part of defense. This means in Yorick’s world, the dominant military force are the Israelis. They are the only ones with battleships and air force pilots. There’s also some interest threads involving the Muslim world and what happens to it in a culture without men. If gender studies is something of interest to you, then Y will definitely leave you with some clever ideas to ponder.

Mature Reading: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth #1-11
Written and Illustrated by Jeff Lemire

This blog is intended to be mostly for people unfamiliar with comic books and what’s out there. I know some friends who read Watchmen for a college English class or people who may not be up to date on the newer series out. For those of you not too up to date, DC Comics has an imprint called Vertigo which specializes in non-superhero fare aimed at adults or adolescents with literary maturity. Most of the time the series their present are great, a few seem to fall flat. Sweet Tooth is very much the former. It’s a post-apocalyptic story about mutants and survival and humanity becoming incredibly tribal. The art style increases the uneasy feeling you’re meant to have reading that this scary and violent world. And its all the work of Jeff Lemire, recently signed as an exclusive creator for DC Comics.

Gus is 9 years old and lives with Pa in the middle of the forest. He’s never left the forest and Pa has warned him that outside of it is all the evils in the world, and if Gus doesn’t want to go to Hell he’ll stay put. Then Pa dies and Gus is left alone in the world, slowly running out of food in their desolate cabin. Then one day some men enter the woods carrying guns, and when they see Gus they know they have found something special. You see, Gus has a pair of deer antler growing from his head. His mother died in childbirth and Pa ran away with Gus to keep him safe. The hunter surround the little boy but he is saved by Tommy, a lone mercenary who becomes Gus’ protector. The duo set off to a place Tommy says will be safe for Gus. Along the way they encounter roving bands of killers and thieves that populate the now devastated American Midwest.

Sweet Tooth is a slow burn, and its perfect that way. Almost one year in and we still know very little of the mystery behind Gus. We know that his mutation is one of many that occurred as a result of a virus that killed millions. All the children born in the wake of the virus had animal mutations. There’s even a brothel they run across where a few women dress in animal masks to satisfy the cravings of some of the more perverted clientèle. The environments in the comic are very wide and very open, because its the Midwest it was already like that, but the apocalyptic air increases it a million times.

The artwork in Sweet Tooth is incredibly aesthetically inventive. In one of the more recent issues, Gus is put under hypnosis to pull out his memories of his life in the woods. The way Lemire stages is this is by miniature versions of Gus and the hypnotist walking along the full size Gus’ head, crawling into and out of his ears. It runs through the entire issue and is just one example of the creativity and interesting storytelling at work. This is a very easy one to get caught up on. Only two collections out right now so you could be ready to follow it month to month by catching up in day. A series that I am looking forward to seeing where it goes.