Underground Reading: The Treasure of Atlantis by J. Allan Dunn
Underground Reading: The Cold Cash War by Robert Asprin

Graphic Novel Round-up: Panzers and Wish Fulfillment

War Stories

The last round-up of January's graphic novels: Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, Andi Watson's Slow News Day, Judd Winick's The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius and Garth Ennis' War Stories.

War Stories (Ennis / Various): The first volume of War Stories collects four unrelated tales of World War 2. They are intentionally reminiscent of 'old time' war comics. As brutal as many the episodes in War Stories are, Ennis still returns to the basic values of heroism, patriotism and valor. Essentially, these folks sure swear a lot, but they're all heroes at the end of the day.

The first story - "Johann's Tiger" - is the weakest of the lot. It is the only story to have Axis protagonists, and it is difficult to feel any empathy for the crew of a Panzer tank. The other three stories - "D-Day Dodgers", "Screaming Eagles" and "Nightingale" - are slightly more conventional. American or British soldiers, put in awkward situations, betrayed by the bureaucracy of command, achieving brilliance (often Pyrrhic).

"D-Day Dodgers" - about the invasion of Italy - is the most philosophical. "Screaming Eagles" - about paratroopers on an unofficial leave - is the most pedestrian (and black comedic). And "Nightingale" - about a British destroyer - is the most haunting.

All of the artists are well-matched with their material, with David Lloyd's contribution to "Nightingale" perhaps being the most spectacular of the lot. An interesting, faintly-experimental read, War Stories feels like a Garth Ennis vanity piece. And with the resulting product this good, I can only hope there are more to follow.

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (O'Malley): The first volume of this hit, independent series about the life of a Canadian slacker. A fifth volume is hitting the shelf soon, and a movie is in the works. After reading this, I'm less baffled about Scott Pilgrim's success than I am disappointed.

Scott Pilgrim is essentially the indy Wanted: basic wish-fulfillment fantasy. In this case, the comic book is fulfilling the ill-considered, pop-culture-inspired wishes of the gamer generation's squishy emo side. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is in the lackluster aspirations of the title character. The despicable lead in Wanted fulfilled his fanboy dreams with loot, rape and murder, but at least said were somewhat more grandiose than 'shag underage girlfriend' and 'play lead guitar for an ironically-named indy band'.

The end of this volume moved Scott Pilgrim from dull (and slightly despicable) to annoying (and slightly bizarre). Even when shoe-horned into an irrational super-hero universe, Scott Pilgrim is still a chronicle of sadly pedestrian fantasies. 

Slow News Day (Watson): Meanwhile, Slow News Day is similarly about routine escapism, but does so in an infinitely more graceful way. Katherine is a San Francisco native, doing an internship in Wheatstone, England (as rural and remote as it may sound). Ostensibly there to learn a bit about small-town journalism, Katherine is also doing some sneaky research for a sitcom she's writing.

Like Scott Pilgrim, Slow News Day smells of romantic wish-fulfillment: Katherine manages to be successful at everything she does (journalism, television writing, a weekly column for the Times...) except for romance. And even that comes eventually. Slow News Day, however, does this in a less painfully jarring way. Andi Watson is telling a good, self-contained story with amusing, empathetic characters. The art - although not packed with detail - is an interesting, indicative style that helps keep things moving at a good pace. 

The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius (Winick): Barry Ween is a very disturbed, very intelligent ten year old, with a penchant for experimentation and a secret desire to rule the world. Unsurprisingly, this particular stereotype feels a little bit exhausted.

Still, as a story-telling device, there's surprisingly little you can't fit into the set-up. And, even in the first three issues, Winick shows off his ability to think (very) creatively using the Boy Genius as his foundation.

Barry Ween also shows off a talent for comic-strip comedic timing - panels without dialog or action are a common occurrence as Winick sets up a punchline. The art supports this neatly, although, to be fair - it does little else.