'Archie Firsts,' 'Rat Catcher' are best of recent graphic novels

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service

We’re almost out of year, so let’s buzz through as many recent books as possible:

* Archie Firsts ($24.99), the first of a series of Archie collections from Dark Horse, had me smiling from start to finish. Later volumes will collect the entire Archie catalog in chronological order, but this one is a “Special Edition” that skips around, collecting introductory or significant stories about the five major characters. Ranging from 1941 to 1950, these stories are delightfully silly and slapstick, and remind us why Archie, Betty, Jughead, Reggie and Veronica have entertained for decades – while never leaving high school.

* Dark Shadows was a mildly entertaining soap opera in the 1960s famed for using gothic horror elements. Second-tier publisher Gold Key adapted the show to comics, and as evidenced by Dark Shadows: The Complete Original Series: Volume One (Hermes Press, $49.99), it wasn’t very good. The stories collected here aren’t internally consistent (sometimes lead character Barnabas Collins is a vampire, sometimes not), possibly due to efforts to mirror the TV show. The art is by Joe Certa, a lesser artist from DC Comics whose primary claim to fame was 1950s-‘60s Martian Manhunter stories. Certa was not very versatile, so when Barnabas runs he does so exactly like the Manhunter (which looks really odd), and everybody’s got the exaggerated brow lines Certa used to draw on the bald Martian, but look weird on everyone else. I’ve got my fingers crossed that both art and story will improve in future volumes, but I’m not counting on it. It’s too bad that major players like Marvel or DC didn’t adapt the show, because they’d have done a better job. But it’s one of the oddities of comics that they couldn’t – the Comics Code Authority of America outlawed vampires from 1954 until the early 1970s, so only a non-Code company like Gold Key could show Barnabas at all.

* One of the surprise hits of 2009 was The Hunter, an adaptation by writer/artist Darwyn Cooke from Richard Stark’s series of Parker novels, so I was really looking forward to The Outfit, the second in the series. As evidenced by Justice League: New Frontier, which Cooke also wrote and drew (and was later turned into an animated movie), Cooke has a natural affinity for the fashions, cars, décor and attitudes of the 1950s, in which the Parker series is set. But while The Hunter was a tour de force, The Outfit is a much weaker story and suffers accordingly. Less a novel and more a series of heist how-tos, Outfit sometimes gets repetitive and seems aimed more toward crime-fiction buffs and less to a general audience.

* The Broadcast ($13.99, NBM) suffers from one of my pet peeves – the increasingly common art style that’s so scratchy and sketchy that it’s difficult to tell one character from another. Which is a shame, because this story would otherwise delight any genre fan, as it uses the famous Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast as a springboard for showing the best and worst of the small-town cast who prepare for war against the “Martians.” There’s some terrific characterization here … if you can tell which character is demonstrating it.

* Rat Catcher ($19.99, Vertigo Crime) suffers no such problem, with the clear, clean and cinematic art of Victor Ibanez. It’s also a riveting story by Andy Diggle (The Losers), about law-enforcement agents attempting to protect witnesses testifying against a Texas drug baron, a crook whose “Rat Catcher” keeps executing the witnesses. As bodies pile up, as Diggle inverts every expectation, the attempt to catch the Rat Catcher spirals toward an ending that one dreads and anticipates with equal fervor.

* Awakening Volume 2 (Archaia, $24.95) concludes this zombie tale in a fairly pedestrian manner, despite its off-beat beginning in volume 1. The art mixes photos and various rendering techniques for a dreamlike quality I quite enjoyed – except for the part where it’s difficult to distinguish one character from another (see above). In the first volume, where events seemed non-linear and surreal, that wasn’t as big a problem. This book is much more of a Walking Dead action/apocalypse story, where recognizing the players is necessary for emotional involvement in their trials. Absent that (due to the art), and given the predictable ending, this is disappointing finish to a story that started with great promise.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

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Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on December 11, 2010 at 2:58pm

I'm surprised at your reaction to the second Parker adaptation.  I liked it as well as the first one, if not even a little more.  I enjoyed that section (most of Book Three, if I remember right) detailing all the different heists, each done in a different style.

Comment by Captain Comics on December 11, 2010 at 8:57pm

Well, as I said, it seemed aimed at a particular crowd -- those who would enjoy reading about the details of all the different heists. You liked it, whereas I was bored. All a matter of taste, and I described it for those whose tastes aren't like mine.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on December 13, 2010 at 12:09pm
DARK SHADOWS: In his introduction, Jeff Thompson gave an excellent (if statistic heavy) overview of the lackluster Gold Key comic book series, and even managed to give it a positive spin. You may uncross your fingers regarding future improvements in story and art; Thompson cited #1, 4 and 6 and three of the “ten greatest stories” of the series. I doubt these comics would even have much appeal to fans of the series, unless they also happen to be, like myself, fans of cheesy comics. The package was pretty much what I expected, except my one big disappointment is that after so long of a wait (first to be announced, then to be released), two of the pages of the first story were switched eith each other.

ARCHIE FIRSTS: I have nothing to add to what you said above (or what I have said in the main forum), other than 2010 was a great year for classic Archie product, and 2011 looks to be even better!


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