Giant-Size Holiday Grab Bag

Concrete Volume 1: Depths: written and illustrated by Paul Chadwick (1986-1999; collected 2005): Concrete became a critical and commercial success in the 1980’s in part because of the comic-book world’s ‘Black-and-White boom,’ in which a rising tide of speculation floated all boats and then a declining tide nearly grounded all boats, forever. It also got the always understated Harlan Ellison to declare it the best comic book of its time.

It wasn’t.

What it was, though, was a refreshing change for the superhero-dominated time: a low-key story about a guy stuck in a super-powered body and what he tries to do with that body. That the body looks like a Golem made of concrete and has an extremely limited sense of touch makes things tougher. Concrete has super-strength, but it’s bear-level super-strength, not Superman-level super-strength. He can be hurt by explosive shells, long falls, or oxygen deprivation lasting more than an hour. Oh, and he has terrific eyesight, which allows Chadwick the artist to depict some pretty interesting undersea vistas during Concrete’s periodic forays underwater.

Re-reading (most) of these stories 24 years later, I’m struck by how soothing the world of Concrete is. The adventures are low-key in tone even when they verge on the epic (Concrete saves miners from a collapsed mine; Concrete tries to swim the Atlantic Ocean); Chadwick’s skills as both an artist and a writer lie in the depiction and accumulation of small, telling details.

Schmaltz and over-sentimentality always lurk at the threshold, but for the most part they’re kept at bay with lovely little details (the look on Concrete’s face when he accidentally steps on someone’s foot, for example). And one of the early central conceits of the series — that the best way to get people to stop talking about something is to over-expose it in the media — remains fresh. Recommended.


Next Men: Aftermath: written and illustrated by John Byrne (2012): John Byrne’s time-twisting superhero book finally comes to what may or may not be an end, 17 years after he started the project. It’s been a mostly enjoyable ride.

Here, the reality-bending shenanigans come thick and fast, reminding me of one of Byrne’s better efforts, the OMAC miniseries. Byrne’s one of only a handful of creators of his era who seems truly comfortable with science fiction as a thought process and not as a series of symbolic markers deployed in the service of allegory.

This volume is probably a necessity if you’ve followed Next Men and completely pointless if you haven’t. Byrne’s art is very sharp, and his inking of himself has finally reached the status of some of the great inkers — Terry Austin, Karl Kesel — he had in the past. Recommended.

Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct: written by Paul DiFillipo; illustrated by Jerry Ordway (2005): Science-fiction writer DiFillipo and long-time DC artist Ordway do nice work picking up the story of the super-powered precinct five years after the events chronicled by creators Alan Moore, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon in the original Top Ten series from 1999-2000.

Ordway luxuriates in the chance to do hyper-detailed panels in the backgrounds of which lurk pulp and comic-book and comic-strip characters highly reminiscent of every such character ever created. The city of Neopolis houses virtually all the super-powered, supernatural, and just plain weird people of America. And Precinct Ten (‘Top Ten’) tries to keep the peace.

This time around, we catch up with old friends, especially Toybox, Smax, King Peacock, Peregrine, Shock-headed Peter, and Sergeant Kemlo, as they deal with an irritating new mayor, an even-more irritating new precinct Captain, and a bizarre apparition which swiftly goes from scary nuisance to potentially universe-destroying threat. The geography of Neopolis remains an odd delight and a commentary — we again see the robot ghetto, but we’re also introduced to Bugtown, in which reside insect-based characters, and insects, of all types. Don’t ask me what it all means. Recommended.

The Five-Year Engagement: written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller; directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Jason Segel (Tom Solomon), Emily Blunt (Violet Barnes), Chris Pratt (Alex Eilhauer), Alison Brie (Suzie Barnes-Eilhauer), David Paymer (Pete Solomon), Mimi Kennedy (Carol Solomon), Jacki Weaver (Sylvia Dickerson-Bauer), Rhys Ifans (Professor Winston Childs), and Mindy Kaling (Vaneetha) (2012): Advertised as another Judd-Apatow-produced romp, this movie is indeed that — but also a surprisingly nuanced and accurate portrayal of life in academia. Now wonder it wasn’t a hit!

The trials and tribulations of Emily Blunt’s post-doctoral-fellowship-holding psychology Ph.D. and her hapless fiance Jason Segel, transplanted from his dream job as a sous-chef in San Francisco to life as the lightly regarded non-academic partner in Michigan, ring amazingly true.

Segel gradually goes crazy while Blunt putters along in her mostly laughable academic career, the romantic target of a lecherous supervisor played to unctuous, faux-sensitive perfection by Rhys Ifans. The stellar supporting cast has lots to do, with Community‘s Alison Brie doing a decent British accent and the Sarah Silverman Show’s Brian Posein making good use of his giant beard and drunken Sasquatch charm as one of Segel’s Michigan drinking buddies. And the leads are funny and charming.

This isn’t a great movie — like almost every Apatow-associated project, it’s a bit too shaggy and a bit too long. But it certainly provides more laughs than almost anything else you’re going to see this week. Recommended.

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