'Tumor' and 'Elegy' show how good comics can be; 1950s 'Strange Tales' not so much

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

July 13, 2010 -- Archaia Press is a small indie publisher, but they’ve put out a big graphic novel in Tumor (by Joshua Fialkov and Noel Tuazon, $14.95).

Tumor is noir in its purest form: An authentic, painful slice of life where small people with small dreams reach for the big time. In this case, the “big time” is one last, good act for a not very good man, a jaded, washed-up private detective named Frank Armstrong. It’s a last act because he has an inoperable brain tumor – a death sentence. But a case falls in his lap, where Frank can save a not-so-innocent girl from a bad end, and he races the clock to help her before the tumor takes him.

I’m a jaded, washed-up critic, which make me hard to impress. So I won’t say Tumor is perfect. The gumshoe’s current case happens to mirror the most important one in his life, and that’s an obvious literary device – you can glimpse the little man behind the curtain. Plus, it gets increasingly implausible that the girl would continue to stick around this sick man. And Tuazon’s sketchy, scratchy art is perfect for the scenes where Frank is hallucinating or otherwise debilitated by the tumor, but in the “normal” scenes it’s sometimes hard to follow and on occasion looks amateurish.

But the “mirror” mechanism does add depth and emotional resonance to the story, however obvious. And, while the usual noir elements are present – dirty cops, double crosses, etc. – they are more than just writer tools; they function seamlessly in the story. Plus, the city in which Tumor takes place – Los Angeles, where dreams go to die – is as much a character as the people. In other words, it’s classic noir: A story we feel as much as read, because it rings true at some level below our awareness.

Tumor is a page turner, but one where you dread getting to the end. That’s good noir, but it’s also just plain good.

Elsewhere:

* DC’s rollout of the new Batwoman was clumsy and dopey, but the character’s star turn in Batwoman: Elegy ($24.99) is anything but.

Yes, when the new lesbian Batwoman debuted, DC Comics did everything to spotlight her sexuality short of throwing a rainbow parade. And wow, is that wrong-headed. The question should never be “what’s this character’s sexuality?” It should be “Is this character any good?”

And in the hands of Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III, the answer to the second question is a resounding huzzah. “Elegy” – which first appeared in Detective Comics #854-860 – slips in the missing whys and hows of Batwoman’s mission, as well as a slam-bang adventure, and a shocking arch-foe. Her sexuality does play a part in her decision to don the mask, and it’s pertinent and plausible – and thoroughly human, which is as it should be. Plus, the scene where she comes out to her father is one of the most powerful, sensitive and understated I’ve ever read in a medium not noted for its subtlety, which gives you an idea just how good this Rucka fellow is.

But perhaps the true star is Williams, whose art is a visually stunning mix of design deco, gorgeous rendering and impeccable storytelling. Usually clever design is out of place in a comic book, because it saps the headlong energy of the medium, plus it complicates the unfolding of the story – the eye doesn’t know where to go next. But Williams manages to incorporate design into the storytelling, giving us the best of both. In addition, he’s just flat-out good – figures are beautiful without exaggeration; objects have texture that isn’t distracting.

Elegy has a foreword by MSNBC star Rachel Maddow, which surprised me – who knew she was a comics fan? But she raves about Elegy, too.

* Maybe I’m getting jaded with all the great reprints available today, but I didn’t much enjoy the pre-Comics Code horror stories in Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Strange Tales Vol. 3 ($59.99). While the occasional tale drawn by Joe Maneely or John Buscema was welcome, most seemed drawn by also-rans. And the stories were fairly predictable and sedate, despite all the hoopla about how over the top pre-1954 stories were.

Or maybe I just like the post-Code Atlas stories better, where Stan Lee and company had to work harder to be interesting despite the restrictions. Regardless, I found this tome pretty pedestrian.

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

Views: 118

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on July 18, 2010 at 5:34pm
I agree with you about the initial rollout of DC's new Batwoman. I really wanted to like that character but they blew it. FWIW, I agree with you, too, about the post-Code Atlas stories being better and more interesting, for the very reason you cite.
Comment by Doc Beechler (mod-MD) on July 23, 2010 at 8:51am
If you read interviews with Maddow, she often talks about the comics she enjoys reading...so this intro didn't surprise me.

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