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Comicscape - September 1, 2004

A Gathering of HUMANOIDS

By Tony Whitt     September 01, 2004


THE METABARONS: Immaculate Conception.
© DC Comics/Humanoids

OPINION:



You may have noticed a larger than usual number of graphic novels from Europe on the shelves these last few months. It's not because your comics shop owner has suddenly become more enlightened in his/her thinking and gone all "citizen of the world" on you it's because DC Comics has started the HUMANOIDS line, which republishes some of the best works published by the company Les Humanoides Associés in Switzerland. The company came about when Moebius, Dionnet, and Druillet, three of the leading French graphic novel writers, created METAL HURLANT ("Howling Metal") Magazine in 1975 to publish the best adult-oriented comics fare that European artists had to offer. METAL HURLANT was successful enough to allow the creation of Les Humanoides Associés to publish full-length works.



METAL HURLANT also eventually had a bang-on effect on American comics when NATIONAL LAMPOON's Len Mogel, on a trip to Paris to establish a French edition of his own magazine, picked up a copy and decided to produce an American version, the now-famous HEAVY METAL. The work set a vastly different standard for comics than what had gone before: instead of being solely for children and instead of being the province of superheroes, comics could now be enjoyed by adults who preferred reading violent and often sexually explicit stories that had nothing to do with traditional heroes and villains. Comics for adults hadn't just been produced in Europe, of course, but in America the comics produced for an adult audience up to that point included "underground comics" which were linked in most people's minds, rightly or wrongly, with illustrated porn; and black and white magazine-sized publications like Warren Publishing's CREEPY EERIE, and VAMPIRELLA, all of which began production in the 60's. But once HEAVY METAL hit the stands in 1977, these comics had stronger competition as there was a virtual explosion of magazines aimed at an older audience. Even companies like Marvel got into the act, producing such quality publications as the full-color EPIC ILLUSTRATED and the black and white SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN. Soon, even movie audiences had a chance to see the European influences on illustration and animation as a HEAVY METAL feature film made its début in August of 1981.



Up till now, however, the original graphic novels that inspired this boom in adult-oriented comics were harder to come by. Specialty shops carried them in their import sections, of course, and with the advent of the Internet it became possible to purchase them from comics dealers in other countries such as Canada and England. But imported comic books could be expensive, and the readership was still somewhat limited compared to the slightly larger audience for traditional American superhero comics. The formation of the DC HUMANOIDS imprint might have changed this to some degree the newer editions cost about the same as a standard graphic novel, and there's no longer a need to be fluent in French or Spanish to enjoy the works. But the question is: how well are these books going to play in Peoria?



I know next to nothing about Peoria, actually, but I hope I know something about the tastes of the average American comics reader and these books may be a bit of an acquired taste for many. The ones who will be mostly likely to respond positively to titles such as the ones I'm covering here will be those who have already cut their teeth on ten years' worth of Vertigo titles the sexual and violent content are roughly the same as, say, PREACHER. The concepts, on the other hand, are often far more complex even than the typical Grant Morrison book (if such an animal as a "typical" Grant Morrison book actually exists), and in most there's a current of "Other"-ness that even the best translations by Justin Kelly or Julia Solis can't always shake. To give you an idea of what you might expect from the best Europe has to offer, here's a handful of HUMANOIDS titles produced so far:

THE METABARONS #1: OTHON & HONORATA

Authors:Alexandro Jodrowsky, Juan Gimenez

Price:$14.95

Grade: B



Get used to hearing the name Jodrowsky the work of this prolific Chilean author is probably what you'll encounter most if you're looking for the books that scream "HEAVY METAL" as soon as you see them. They're very similar to Sword and Sorcery works except that in the case of Jodrowsky's work, Sorcery has usually been replaced by Science, especially science dealing with computers, in societies of the far-flung future. Think DUNE with a little more emphasis on the tech, and you'll have a clearer idea of what it all looks and feels like.



METABARONS is actually a prequel to a long-running series of stories about a clan of techno-warriors who are initiated via elaborate rituals of mutilation in which their damaged body parts are replaced by cybernetic implants. In this volume, the robot Tonto tells his larger but less intelligent robotic companion Lothar about the origins of their current Metabaron master's family. Othon Von Salza, an intergalactic pirate, establishes a family on a planet composed primarily of marble which he then sells to the Imperial Merchants Guild. But the way he and his family load the vast cubes of marble onto the ships remains a closely-guarded secret until the day when an accident nearly claims the life of his son-in-law, and Othon must use the antigravitic oil they harvest from the planet's core to lift such a cube off his relative in full sight of his customers. Knowledge of the oil's existence sparks a galactic conflict to take possession of the planet, leading to the deaths of most of Othon's family until he makes a deal with the Emperor and Empress. Even though the deal seems to succeed, tragedy continues to strike at Othon as he loses his remaining son and his groin (!) in an attack. The continuation of the Von Salza line seems impossible, until a mysterious young woman named Honorata, a priestess of the Shabda-Oud, arrives to become his bride, with the promise that she can bear his child despite his lack of...well, parts... And then things get really complicated.



This synopsis barely scratches the surface of the story, believe it or not. Never one to shy away from complex concepts, Jodrowsky throws as many of them as possible at you page after page of them. Some of the ones in this book owe a great deal more to the aforementioned DUNE influence than the next book, but even that slight bit of familiarity doesn't put the reader on any firmer ground. Once you get used to the idea that everything in the plot can change on any given page, however, METABARONS begins to grow on you, and Gimenez's rough artistic style helps rather than hinders that process. The story may not be to everyone's tastes female readers, especially, may have some difficulty with the way that Honorata is portrayed, even when she goes into warrior training mode but it's nonetheless a fascinating volume.



THE TECHNOPRIESTS BOOK ONE: INITIATION

Authors:Alexandro Jodrowsky, Zoran Janjetov, Fred Beltran

Price:$14.95

Grade: B-



Jodrowsky tells the story of another group from the same universe as the Metabarons, but

Cover art to THE TECHNOPRIESTS: Volume One.

while this one may seem a bit more accessible at first, it ends up being far, far more complex than the previous volume and at times maddeningly so. At the beginning of INITIATION, a virgin named Panepha, destined someday to become the Oracle of the Imperial Palace, is disgraced when a group of pirates attack the sacred asteroid on which she lives. She is raped and becomes pregnant. Only one of her three children, the dark-skinned Almagro, earns her favor. Her other two children, the male Albino and the red-skinned four-armed female Onyx, are treated as slaves, especially when she establishes a highly profitable cheese factory (seriously!) in order to make enough money to have her revenge against her rapists. Albino, however, dreams of becoming a Technopriest to create even better videogames than the ones he spends his days playing, his only company being his rodent friend Tinigrifi. When Panepha sells him into an apprenticeship, he discovers that the world of the Technopriests is far more perilous than he ever dreamed. Meanwhile, his mother's appetite for revenge leads her on a journey that brings her and her remaining children on a rollercoaster ride of triumph and defeat.



That's the closest I can come to accurately describing the plot of this book, in which Jodrowsky seems to throw the reader a new plot point every three or four pages. Just when the story seems to settle down, a new plot strand begins, and the frustrating part is trying to keep the pattern of events straight in one's head. It doesn't help that the entire story is told in flashback from the ancient Albino's point of view as he leads his followers to another galaxy to start a new society based in harmony a harmony his past obviously never had! The concepts come even faster and furiously in this volume, and Jodrowsky's penchant for phrases beginning in "proto-" or "techno-" soon gets a tad bit annoying. The real treasure here, though, is the art, as Zoran Janjetov's clear visuals combine with Fred Beltran's color and computer effects to create a startling catalog of images. As much as the complexity of the plot, the treatment of the female characters, and the seeming similarities to THE MATRIX may at times be off-putting, the art will keep you hooked on this one, even as you puzzle over the oddness of it (a cheese factory?).



TOWNSCAPES

Authors:Pierre Christin, Enki Bilal

Price:$17.95

Grade: B



Works like TOWNSCAPES, a collection of Christin and Bilal's shorter graphic novels, show that the French revolutionary spirit didn't die in the 18th century. The stories follow a mysterious drifter who has caught the attention of the French government and military, a drifter who has strange abilities and whose agenda appears to be getting rid of the polluting influences of technology, industry, and progress one battle at a time and one town at a time.



Although the stories were written over the course of two years, the underlying theme of anti-establishment revolution and ordinary towns undergoing extraordinary events runs through them all. "And Thus A Legend Was Born..." (1975) introduces the main character and his methods. In this story, a group of government officials get together to discuss the problem of the man they call "50/22 B" who has crusaded against nuclear power, land mines, and all of their own pet projects but an unusually familiar aide in their midst leads each of them to a Lovecraftian doom. In "The Cruise of Lost Souls" (1975), a village being stripped of its resources by a nearby factory and military base floats up into the air and takes off to sea, while the researchers at the base tracking its progress slowly devolve into hideous mutations and both events are tied to the drifter. "Ship of Stone" (1976) sees him foiling the plans of unscrupulous developers to blow up an ancient castle and build modern buildings in its place by awakening the strange old man who guards the castle and bringing the dead back to life. And "The Town That Didn't Exist" (1977)...well, you'll just have to read that one.



Of all the volumes reviewed here, this one has even more of a European feel, mainly due to their contemporary settings and concerns and their anti-establishment tone. While these concerns might have appeared dated not long after they were first produced, they now fit our times just as well as they do their own. Bilal's artwork will also appeal to fans of LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN - looking at that book and this one side by side, it's hard to believe that Kevin O'Neill could never have seen it. Finally, there's a sense of humor to each of these stories that belies their serious aims. It's a wonder that France didn't change more than it did in the 1970s, with social critics like Christin and Bilal writing stories like this.



I AM LEGION: THE DANCING FAUN

Authors:Fabien Nury, John Cassaday

Price:$6.95

Grade: B+



In 1942, a Nazi General has found something that might change the direction of the war: a

John Cassaday provides the art for I AM LEGION.

little girl who houses a creature that can force itself into the minds of other living beings, both humans and animals. British Intelligence knows nothing of this yet all they know is that an old member of the elite has been found dead under mysterious circumstances, his body drained of blood, his house blown up, and his Rumanian servant missing. These events, plus the aims of a group to assassinate the general, are all tied together somehow, and the only answer lies in the girl who refers to herself as Legion.



Readers who aren't quite ready for the extremes of Bilal, Christin, and Jodrowsky might find LEGION a tad bit easier to sink their teeth into. For one thing, John Cassaday's artwork will already be familiar to them from the pages of PLANETARY and ASTONISHING X-MEN. For another, the plot of this miniseries sounds very similar to something we might see coming out of Vertigo. But even the best written Vertigo miniseries wouldn't require as much sheer attention as this single issue does. Reading LEGION is as involving and demanding a task as reading Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL - the complexities of Nury's plot are just as labyrinthine as anything Jodrowky or Bilal could come up with, and yet they're even more satisfying when everything clicks into place. Also, the sheer clarity of Cassaday's artwork makes it all the more worth the effort.



In short, while the HUMANOIDS line may not be the easiest set of comics to get into, they're markedly fresh and interesting, not to mention being a far cry from the typical superhero stuff, even the darker style of superhero story now being told by the Big Two. I'll be taking a closer look at the darker world being depicted in the so-called "mainstream" books next week, but if you have any comments on the volumes I've reviewed here or on any of the other HUMANOIDS offerings you've read, send them to me via the web site contact address here or to me directly. Also, in the weeks to come, I'll be interviewing the Eisner-winning creator of BLANKETS Craig Thompson, so if you have a burning question you'd like me to ask Mr. Thompson when I talk to him, be my guest! And remember, if you should happen to make reference to a title of a comic series please use CAPS when giving the title. I do the HTML coding on this column every week, and having the titles in caps already makes my life much easier. Finally, as always, don't forget our discussion boards! I don't know quite what's going on next week yet, but in the meantime here's this week's listings:



THIS WEEK:



Are your kids unable to get enough of " Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century"? For that matter, are you? If so, check out LOONEY TUNES #118 ($2.25) this week, which devotes a full issue to the mad mallard's adventures in the future!



Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner team up against the team in MARVEL AGE: FANTASTIC FOUR #6, while in MARVEL AGE: SPIDER-MAN #11, Peter gets unmasked by Doc Ock in front of J. Jonah Jameson! How will it turn out? (Yeah, yeah, you and I know, but your kids don't!) Both are on sale this week for $2.25 each.



I've had only one reader come forward and defend the new ALPHA FLIGHT title, saying it's a worthwhile read, but I don't buy it literally. Issue #7 is out this week, if you want to waste the $2.99 you'd spend on something better for it, though.



Several

AVENGERS #502.

have fallen, and several more may fall, as every Avenger that's ever served on the team appears in AVENGERS #501 (or #86, for you old-skoolers)! It's $2.25's worth of mayhem!



Lots of good stuff for the Bat-Fans this week in spite of the whole crossover fever going on with "War Games". For instance, there's BATMAN/CATWOMAN: TRAIL OF THE GUN #2 (Of 2, $5.95); there's the BATMAN/JUDGE DREDD FILES trade paperback for $14.95; there's the first of two issues of BIRDS OF PREY this month, with issue #73 ($2.50) appearing this week; there's DETECTIVE COMICS #798 ($2.95) which starts "War Games," Act 2, Part 1 (oh, well...); and then there's SCRATCH #4 (Of 5, $2.50). If that's not enough to make up for crossover madness, what is?



Ever wonder how Bullseye became Bullseye? Find out in BULLSEYE: GREATEST HITS #1 (Of 5, $2.99). If Daredevil's cameo in that book's not enough for you, there's also the DAREDEVIL VS BULLSEYE VOL 1 trade paperback for $15.99. Surely you must be satisfied by now!



Cap's coming to grips with his feelings for the Scarlet Witch and haven't we all had to do that at some point, really? in CAPTAIN AMERICA & THE FALCON #7 ($2.99).



The crown princess of assassins learns the origin of the world's most deadly group of assassins in ELEKTRA: THE HAND #1 (Of 5, $2.99). Wow, it's really a time for revelations over at Marvel Knights this week, isn't it? You'd think they were celebrating a birthday or an anniversary or something...



Superman and the Flash guest-star in FIRESTORM #5 ($2.50) as Jason finds out something truly horrible about his powers. Hey, kid, you're in the DCU it's going around.



Two DC Focus titles this week! Ethan escapes from prison but only in one of those astral travel kind of ways in HARD TIME #8, while Tom still can't escape the prison that is high school and his own desire for the best looking girl in class in KINETIC #6 (each $2.50).

Bruce Jones and Jae Lee bring together the two people we most love to see fighting insert your own favorite pop culture couple here and say "No, not them" in HULK AND THING: HARD KNOCKS #1 (Of 4, $3.50).

Oh, dear...could a member of the JUSTICE LEAGUE ELITE have killed the very man they've been tasked to protect? Oh, c'mon, what do you think? Find out in issue #3 (Of 12, $2.50).



"Friendly Fire" concludes in MONOLITH #8 ($2.95) as the eponymous hero and the Batman attempt to stop a bomber. Um, shouldn't Bats be trying to stop that "War Games" thingee going on in his own book, instead? Oh, yeah, I forgot what happens in one book doesn't mean diddly in any others anymore. Silly me.



While

SPIDER-GIRL #78.

May confront Lady Octopus for the last time in SPIDER-GIRL #78 ($2.99), her daddy breaks up a hostage crisis in SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED #5 ($2.99) and yet another version of her daddy gets detention in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #65 ($2.25). So, May, who is your daddy? (Sorry, couldn't resist...)



The Thunder God struggles with the knowledge that Odin knew that Ragnarok was coming and did nothing to prepare for it in THOR #84 ($2.99). Um, couldn't he have looked up any old book of Norse mythology and found out the same thing himself? Geez, get a grip, Blondie!



Vertigo's got two fabulous titles this week, as Will Pfeifer and no less than Richard Corben himself take over SWAMP THING with issue #7 and Yorick's older sister Hero stars in a standalone story in Y: THE LAST MAN #26 (each for $2.95). Why do we need to read anything else, with stuff like this coming out?



We finally find out why Lion-O's been acting so strange in Wildstorm's THUNDERCATS: ENEMY'S PRIDE #4 (Of 5, $2.95), and it's not because Snarf's driven him out of his kitty litter after all.



And finally, we've got the following as part of "X-Men: Reload Another Clip" (and you thought my plays on words were bad...): Ego, the Living Planet (no, not Chris Claremont) appears in EXILES #52 ($2.99); the other living planet with an ego to match is writing UNCANNY X-MEN #448 ($2.25); GAMBIT and JUBILEE both begin this week with issue #1 of ongoing series for each of the eponymous heroes (at $2.99 each); and while I still don't know what the new STARJAMMERS has to do with anything X-Men, I'm still including issue #4 ($2.99) here.



"Reload Another Clip"...Honestly. Next thing you know, we'll be getting "Avengers: No Assembly Required"...



Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think by e-mailing us here!

Comicscape is our weekly Comics column.


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