Romance, Westerns, Superheros – DC Comics’ SOLO Collection

I can safely say that, as of late, DC Comics has been a bit disappointing.  Sure, they’ve got Sandman: Overture starting up in October and some Vertigo titles are still pretty great (I’m looking at you Unwritten!), but as a whole… The company seems to be, creatively, headed for a valley.

The New 52 is sputtering like an octogenarian gumming his way through breakfast, Before Watchmen was a horrendous misfire that didn’t stir up sales as much as controversy, and their new plan of having a Frank Miller-style battle between Batman and Superman is… distressing to say the least.

But, after nearly seven years, DC Comics has finally collected their bi-monthly series Solo into a very nice Deluxe hardcover.  How does this collection fare?  Read on, read on…

Solo
Written and Illustrated by Tim Sale, Richard Corben, Paul Pope, Howard Chaykin, Darwyn Cooke, Jordi Bernet, Michael Allred, Teddy Kristiansen, Scott Hampton, Damion Scott, Sergio Aragones, and Brendan McCarthy
DC Comics
June 5, 2013
568 Pages

Solo The Deluxe Edition Cover

Solo, when originally released, was published bi-monthly and done as a sort of artist’s showcase with some of the finest illustrators working in comics.  Just check out the list above and you’ll be hard pressed not to find something to enjoy in this volume.  And the best part?

It isn’t all DC continuity!  In fact, probably less than half of the stories had anything to do with DC Comics characters.  Batman shows up quite a bit, as to be expected, but that’s about it.

The biggest surprise was a brief story written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen and starring Boston Brand, the Deadman (proving once again that the Brits will invariably go ass over elbow for the Silver Age of comics), but Darwyn Cooke’s entire issue was top-to-bottom fantastic, Tim Sale’s issue is pretty great (even with the terribly uneven Jeph Loeb), and Sergio Aragones is (expectedly) fantastic.

But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, at least for me.

Despite how cool it was to see some Western comics, many of those kind of blend together for me and are, at the end of the day, forgettable.  The same goes for the adventure comics as well.

Similarly, some of the art just didn’t do it for me.  Artists like Brendan McCarthy, whose cover art I loved in the Vertigo Shade, The Changing Man series, was too weird.  Much of looked to me like Grant Morrison fucked R. Crumb in a psychedelic love-nest.  But it didn’t work for me.  I’m sure someone who actually knows anything about art would have found more to enjoy.

But if I were to whip out my biggest complaint, it would be that there’s a very small amount of female creators involved in the project.  None of the twelve issues focuses completely on any female artists.  Thankfully, Laura Allred shows up to assist in the writing and coloring of her husband Michael’s issue… But we couldn’t get Jill Thompson in there?  Amanda Conner, or Pia Guerra?  I know that much of comic books is (unfortunately) a man’s world, but certainly there could have been at least one female artist brought on board for this project.

Couldn’t there?

Despite this painful oversight, this still warrants a buy vote from me.  Michael Allred’s issue reads like a bizarre love-letter to the Silver Age of comics (and his story “Batman A-Go-Go!” is by far the best deconstruction of the character as it exists in a post-Miller world) and Darywn Cooke’s issue shows why he’s one of the best working in the business today.

Even with several of forgettable stories, this is a strong collection with a good mixture of serious, funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking comics that show that comic books are more than just muscular dudes in tights.

Sometimes, it’s also Batman doing the batusi.

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Teenage Wasteland – Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon

The Panopticon
Jenni Fagan
Hogarth Publishing
July 23, 2013
306 Pages

At first blush, this book is odd.  For me, even getting the title correct was difficult.  Panopticon.  I kept wanting to insert an extra syllable or two in there.  I don’t know why.  I’m familiar with the idea of a panopticon… mainly because of Grant Morrison’s supremely weird take on an alternate-reality Justice League in JLA: Earth-2 (lavishly illustrated by the interminably fantastic Frank Quitely), where the Earth-2 version of the Justice League, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, live in a lunar fortress known as The Panopticon.

The comic led me to dig a little bit into what a panopticon was… mainly because I feel that a certain amount of research is necessary for a fuller enjoyment of Morrison’s work.  And having read a big chunk of Grant Morrison’s work had adequately prepared me for the other difficult part of this novel: the use of Scottish dialect throughout.

Be warned going in, every page (and almost every character) speaks in a thick Scottish dialect.  This makes sense as the novel takes place in the UK, but some people may be turned easily by the numerous instances of cannaes, dinnaes, and umnays that appear throughout the novel.

While I’m on the subject, the dialect and language within the novel work very well to create the full character of Anais Hendricks.  Anais herself is a fantastic, well written character.  I’d compare her to Dora, from the novel Dora: A Headcasebut a lot more tolerable… and much sadder.

The preface for the book is a brief passage directly from Anais wherein she states that she is part of a great experiment that is always watching, “They watch me, I know it, and I can’t find anywhere, anymore, where they can’t see.”  And this paranoia over being watched is a major theme of the novel… and the paranoia seems more and more justified as the novel goes on.

A Panopticon

The Panopticon of the book’s title is a sort of halfway house where Anais is sent after an unknown incident with a police officer named PC Dawn Craig.  The police believe, however, that Anais attacked PC Craig and put her into a coma.

The shape of the center (an example is pictured to the left… thanks Wikipedia!) allows a guard, or security person to be centered in the building and look out on all the people they have locked up, without ever having been seen themselves.  Anais is never certain when someone is actually watching her, but she’s her paranoia leads her to believe that someone is watching with regularity.

On top of this, there are constant references to CCTV… and Britain is well-known to be under heavy CCTV monitoring, so once again… Anais’s paranoia is actually quite justified.

As the story goes on, we get more of Anais’s background and the chapters skip around quite a bit… in one, she’s still in the panopticon, in the next she’s flashing back to being arrested, in another, she flashes back to the moments immediately before she Even so, Fagan is a deft author and able to juggle these changes in time with ease.

At first, Anais is a bit of a cipher and it is difficult to feel much pity for her.  But as Fagan tells us more of her backstory, she becomes more empathetic and real.  One of Anais’s favorite things to do is to imagine her real family.  She constantly comes back around to the dream that her real mother lives in Paris and one day, they’ll be reunited in the City of Light.  Anais’s dreams of a quiet life, dashing in and out of art galleries and snacking at French Cafes is heart-rendingly sad…

My final word on The Panopticon is that this is the best book of the year, bar none.  The writing is superb, especially because Fagan keeps the reader guessing at what is real and what is paranoid delusion on Anais’s part.  In fact, there’s no definite resolution on most of it… which is the true purpose of a panopticon.  They could be watching you… or maybe not… But is it worth the risk if they are?

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