Saturday, August 7, 2010

Trade Reviews: Zot! and Fables

Welcome back to another installment of New Comics Cavalcade, where we take a look at all the newest... wait, what's that? These comics aren't new, they're in trade paperback reprints? Well, what the hell.

Oh, alright, I'm going to go ahead and review these anyway, mainly because they're pretty interesting even if, technically speaking, they are dirty reprints. usually I recommend that people read the originals, but there may be some merits to reading comics in TPB form -- particularly in the case of the first of our two reviews this time around -- so I'll cede the point and worry about just reviewing the content for the most part and not the sinister and demonic practice of reprinting perfectly fine comics that... ah, caught myself this time.

So, let's get to it, first off with a look at one of the seminal independent titles in comics history:

Zot! The Complete Black and White Series, 1987-1991
by Scott McCloud

Here's a little story. Once upon a time -- 1989 to be exact -- I went to this big comic book show and had a bunch of time to kill because Stan Lee wsn't signing until mid-afternoon. So I wandered around and actually talked to creators I didn't know, which is a parenting no-no of course, but there you go. And one of the bloke I chatted with was Scott McCloud, who nicely gave me autographed copies of Zot! #17 and 18. I read them, thought they were great and proceeded to never read another issue. Now, with the publication of this one volume perfect collection, I've finally had a chance to see whether that was a good idea or not and the answer is: whoops.

On the other hand, it's possible I may not have been able to fully appreciate the series when I was a kid, because there's a lot more going on than what is obvious on the page. One nice feature of this collection is that after each issue or arc, McCloud provides commentary about what he was trying to accomplish, how or why he succeeded or failed and other notes on the issues. This is very interesting, especially for fans of his comic book bible, Understanding Comics. He wasn't just winging things; there was a design and purpose to everything in Zot!, even if it wasn't apparent to the reader.

Most interesting, though, for those who have never read the series, are the final few issues, where Zot! takes a sudden and unexpected turn. McCloud changes the focus of the entire series by removing almost every bit of superheroics and action, stranding the cast of characters on our mundane Earth and instead providing readers with a series of detailed character studies about everyone in the cast, even characters who previously had only appeared in a few panels or backgrounds. It's just about exactly opposite of what you would expect from a mainstream series and frankly, it's fantastically brilliant. The only disappointment, really, is that McCloud didn't produce more issues of Zot!, but he had a good reason for ending the series -- he was itching to start writing Understanding Comics instead.

Fair enough.

My Grades: A++. An excelent story only gets better and better, finally approaching greatness by the end. The packaging of this collection also gets an A+ for the insightful commentary by McCloud, as well as for being both compact and affordable. A great buy for any comics fan.

Here's a closer look at the panel from the cover of the TPB, which is from the first issue of the collection (click to enlarge):

Fables vol. 1: Legends in Exile
by Bill Willingham and Lan Medina

Fables, which has been among the most acclaimed comics since it began back in 2002, has an elegantly simple premise: long ago, in the land of make believe, an evil overlord called The Adversary rose up and began conquering the land. Fleeing his destruction, the fairy tale denizens of the enchanted world -- folks like Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Goldilocks, etc. -- fled to our Earth, where they have secretly been living for centuries. Cool enough.

But does it live up to the hype? Based on the first volume, by guess is probably. Willingham uses the clever device of a murder mystery to introduce readers to the milieu and the cast of characters, as the Fables chief law enforcement officer -- the aforementioned Big Bad Wolf, in his human guise of Bigby Wolf -- investigates the apparent death of Snow White's lesser known sister, Rose Red. Things, as you might expect, are not quite what they seem, but Bigby proves surprisingly effective as a detective and his relationship with Snow White is interesting.

I didn't think the arc as a whole was quite as effective as it might have been; the big reveal takes place at the end of the next to last issue, meaning the entire last issue basically are people just standing around explaining their behavior in the first part of the story. But while the dramatic aspect was just slightly saggy, and the basic premise hinted at cheese on a couple of occasions, overall it was an interesting set up with a number of interesting characters who are familiar from legend but still have surprises up their sleeve.

My Grades: This first arc gets a B+. The second arc, which I also read but am not going to review right now (in your face!) is a little stronger, though it also has the same kind of structure, with the last issue being a tying up rather than an organic part of the story; that arc also gets a solid B+, though it's very, very close to an A-. One big, big drawback of getting these in TPB form is that you miss out on the graphic design elements of the covers; while the images are reproduced, they are shown without the text or logos, which is a shame as design is very important to the renowned covers on Fables. I suggest just buying the original comics if you can spare the storage space for them; once you get past the first two arcs, you can get them for about the same price as the TPBs anyway.