Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Here There Be Marsh-kins!

Today I'm doing something I've never done before on this blog. I'm reviewing a comic book. The reason I don't do this more often is very simple: I don't read many of them anymore. I grew up reading comics. I loved them. For much of my childhood, my dream was to draw or write them someday. I have, in fact, done some work writing comics (though not drawing them, as my artistic skills have atrophied to rust-covered clumsiness after many years without practice). I'll always love the medium of comics, but the entertainment form and its industry, once so wonderful, has fallen far in recent years. Readership has shrunk to a portion of what it used to be, the great old characters are often written in mangled, off-model versions that bear little resemblance to what made them great to begin with, and it's almost impossible to get a complete story in one issue anymore so that it often feels like buying a comic book is like paying for a piece of a puzzle instead of a whole experience in story and art. I still think of comics as a great art form, but any time I spend reading them now usually involves reprints of older material that was impossible to find when I was younger. In many ways, it breaks my heart to see what's become of one of my favorite forms of storytelling.

But then, once in a while, something comes along that makes me feel like comics used to make me feel: entertained, thrilled, nostalgic, appreciative of both art and storyline, and happy that I spent the $3.99 it costs for a comic book nowadays (that part of it makes me feel old! They were 65 cents when I got my first one!).

When I heard that IDW Publishing, one of the better of the current comic book companies, had announced MARS ATTACKS POPEYE! I burst out laughing. What an awesome idea for a crossover! Brilliant.

Everyone knows who Popeye is (or should), so I won't explain that here. For those who aren't familiar with Mars Attacks, it was a series of luridly illustrated trading cards, released in 1962, that told the story of Martians invading Earth. The images on the cards were bizarre, violent, often shocking. Mars Attacks was adapted into a movie, directed by Tim Burton, in 1993.

Anyway, hearing of the upcoming MARS ATTACKS POPEYE comic book, I decided right then and there that I'd have to read it when it came out. It was too outrageously ridiculous an idea to ignore. And when I heard who would be creating it, I was even more interested. I was familiar with writer Martin Powell because of his work on many pulp-related characters and concepts. Terry Beatty, the artist, I knew from his 1980s comic book series Ms. Tree, among other things.

So, with the background done with, I can get to the meat of this review. I'll start with one simple statement:

This was as close as you'll ever find to a perfect comic book.

Popeye and his entire cast, including familiar characters like Olive Oyl, Wimpy, Eugene the Jeep, Alice the Goon, The Sea Hag, and Poopdeck Pappy, are portrayed just as you'd expect them to be. These are the classic comic strip and cartoon characters brought back in a way that is a load of fun whether you've been a fan of Popeye for decades or are just discovering him now. This is very much a Popeye story that includes the Mars Attacks martians. The story moves quickly, has a few moments and bits of dialogue that will make you laugh out loud, and contains the action you'd expect to see in a classic Popeye cartoon. Regarding the dialogue I just mentioned, Martin Powell does a wonderful job of making Popeye talk like he always has (Looky what we got! The Marsh-kins is gonna get th' tar whupped outta dem! I sez they is!). My only complaint about the story is that I sincerely wish it was longer. The fun was over too soon.

As for the art, Terry Beatty demonstrates his adaptability as a cartoonist by depicting Popeye and cast perfectly, making them look like they'd just walked out of one of EC Segar's classic comic strips. He also adapts the Mars Attacks martians in such a way that they remain recognizable as the aliens created by Wally Wood, Bob Powell, and Norman Saunders, but also seem to blend seamlessly into the style of Popeye's world. To mesh two very different styles of art into one story and make it work is an impressive accomplishment and Mr. Beatty deserves a lot of credit for that.
To rave about the art some more, not only do the characters look the way I hoped they would, but the panel layouts and pacing of the story tell the tale in basic, old-fashioned comic book style without trying to rely on any unnecessary tricks. These are simple 4 to 5 panels pages until the one glorious and perfectly timed double-page spread that comes out of nowhere and accomplishes just what I assume it was trying
 to do.
I was also impressed by the book's coloring and lettering, both of which are also the work of Terry Beatty. The color, unlike the overly flashy, computer-generated glare you find in many modern comics, is old-fashioned here and looks like it would fit in on any comics-bearing newsstand of the last 70 years. In other words, this comic book looks like a comic book, not like it's trying to masquerade as something else. And the lettering too is appropriate for the nostalgic style of the story.

As I said when I began this review, it's very rare that a newly released comic book can make me feel any of the magic that the comics medium is capable of in its best moments. But there are exceptions. Today I found one of those exceptions. Well blow me down, that was a good read!

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