Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Graphic Novels You Would Like If You Weren’t Too Chicken To Read Them: The Best Of Image Comics – Chew/Fatale/Manhattan Projects

Image Comics were formed in the early 1990s when seven (super)star comic book artists left Marvel Comics at the peak of their popularity. A main part of their reason for leaving Marvel was so that they could gain complete control over their creations – at Marvel, any character they created was automatically owned by that company and the artists were subject to the whims of editorial interference. It might be tempting then to see the formation of Image as analogous to the rise of ‘alternative’ rock at around the same period. Apart from heightened violence though, many of the early Image titles were quite similar to the type of fare that the artists had churned out at Marvel, and since the artists often took over the writing chores themselves, often with weaker stories. Twenty years later however, subsequent creators have taken the opportunities that those artists opened up for them to create comic books that are better than just about anything being produced by Marvel or DC Comics at the moment.

‘Chew’ by writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory was a success that took many people by surprise, including me who had to go back and read the first thirty issues through trade paperbacks. It follows the cases of detective Tony Chu, who is cibopathic, meaning he can pick up information from chowing down on any edible object – yes, any edible object. Tony works for the Food and Drug Administration, which came to prominence after a deadly chicken flu outbreak. Chicken is now outlawed, although that does not necessarily stop citizens (including Tony’s chef brother) from endeavouring to cook up some poultry. ‘Chew’ is a winner because there is no other series quite like it – it has cibopaths, a cyborg policeman, a killer chicken called Poyo, a vampire, and more food-related powers than you can shake a drumstick at. Despite its cartoonish art, it can be a bit of a discomforting read from time to time, as the creators don’t shy away from showing all of the gory details. But most of the main characters are engaging, and there’s plenty of humour in the book to keep you turning over the pages.     


‘Fatale’ by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips is a tougher read than ‘Chew’, and I often have to work myself up to tackle my way through the issues. Brubaker and Phillips’ books have always been more about their noir-style to me than anything else, and ‘Fatale’ carries on in that vein, except this time with supernatural monsters thrown in. The fatale is Josephine, who has survived since at least the 1930s with nary a wrinkle in sight. This book was meant to be a mini-series, but Brubaker kept growing and growing the story, and it now has ongoing status. By contrast to ‘Chew’, the characters are often cold and unlikable, and that can make it a harder series to get into, but it has all the noir tropes down pat.

‘The Manhattan Projects’ by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra, which is based around a bunch of scientists, including Oppenhemier and Einstein, seems like it might be the safest of the three series, if only for its nerdliness. Turns out though, it’s actually the darkest of the lot. The Oppenheimer is not Robert, but his brother Joseph, a psychotic killer who has eaten up Robert’s body and soul. The Einstein is not Albert, but Albrecht, an alternate reality version of ‘our’ Einstein who he pummelled over the head and took the place of on ‘our’ Earth. Add to that things like FDR being a malicious artificial intelligence, and you get the picture. These characters aren’t just cold and unlikable, they’re downright evil. Or at least some of them are, and watching the power struggles between the villainous and the merely odious makes for some entertaining comics.

So there you have it – three pretty good ‘creator-owned’ titles going around in 2013 that are worth a read. I haven’t mentioned the greatest Image title of them all – Brian K. Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’ ‘Saga’, but I’ve covered that before in a previous blog post. DC’s ‘Vertigo’ imprint, which gave us classics like Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’, has generally been considered the ‘HBO of comics’, but with that imprint currently low on quality titles – or at least successful ones – Image might have that covered now. It’s a far cry from the days of ‘Youngblood’ and the original ‘WildC.A.T.S’ (neither of which you need ever know about).

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