- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mr. Zad’s comic book critique

New Brighton Archaeological Society, graphic novel (Image Comics, $17.99) - From the pages of the anthology series PopGun comes a pint-sized band of adventurers out to avenge their parents’ deaths. This all-ages epic mixes Indiana Jones with a bit of Narnia, Kafka and “Moby Dick.”

What’s the story? Cooper and Joss and Becca and Benny, two sets of siblings from different families, find themselves living with kindly custodians at New Brighton Manor after the tragic demise of their parents on an archaeological dig.

The mysteries of the children’s clan are revealed slowly as they find a secret room and re-form the New Brighton Archaeological Society. In search of the mysterious Galomar and the Great Library, the fearsome foursome gets caught up in a goblin-versus-fairy war that could help them on their quest.

Writing strength: Mark Andrew Smith, co-creator of PopGun and the rockin’ Amazing Joy Buzzards, crafts a slightly cliched but totally accessible story about teamwork, friendship, problem solving and respect. It’s great for younger comics fans looking for heroes who aren’t wearing spandex. He also tosses in enough fantasy elements, including dragons, goblins, a giant frog and a magical slug, to pique the imagination.

Artist’s style: Matthew Weldon takes a commercial art style seen in slicker children’s books and mixes a Japanese big-head character design to easily please the tween demographic.

Pop-art moments: I loved the pipe-smoking, butterscotch-mooching goblin named Mitchell (call him Mitch), a splash page with the monstrous Red Cherufe and any panel featuring the white-haired Chinese vampires.

Read it or leave it? This is a somewhat serious but equally whimsical book mostly broken into bite-size, digestible chapters. It’s great for parents to enjoy with the new comic-book reader. A few themes are scary, but my clan heartily devoured the prose.

Also coming soon, Mr. Smith is working on Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors, about an academy for students learning the finer points of becoming a supervillain.

Marvel Apes, Nos. 0 to 4 ($3.99 each, Marvel Publishing) - A brain drizzle born from a fan frenzy at a comic-book convention has turned into major monkey business for the House of Ideas. Anchored by a classic character from the past and a four-issue limited series set in the United Simians of America and Monkhatten, it’s more silliness than I can shake a banana at.

What’s the story? Former villain and now superhero wannabe Marty Blank (aka the Gibbon) needs life to give him a break. When he answers an ad to act as a guinea pig, he gets an interdimensional break from his universe, thanks to researcher Dr. Fiona Fitzhug.

Thrown into a world ruled by talking apes - Charlton Heston is nowhere to be found - and superheroes with appropriate names such as Spider-Monkey, Iron Claw, Bruce Bananner and Sgt. Furry and his Howler Commandos (ugh!), he must learn how to be a hero.

It might be a fun time with his own kind except the Ape-venger team’s brand of brutal justice follows the rules of the jungle rather than the courts, and that does not bode well for the Gibbon.

Also, a backup story turns the Watcher into an alcoholic chimp as he relays some key historical moments in the Marvel Apes universe.

Writing strength: Karl “Harley Quinn” Kesel takes a promising, cute premise and adds a layer of vampirism and violence to completely confuse any fan. His preponderance of primate puns clashes with what could have been a dramatic, almost horrifying story. Instead, I am not sure if I should consider this a black comedy, a case of too many behind-the-scenes chefs trying to appeal to too many segments of comic-book readership, or simply bad writing.

Artist’s style: No matter how ludicrous the story line, artist Ramon Bachs maintains a consistent and solid-looking style as he illustrates this planet of apes. The Watcher backup story, interestingly enough, features plenty of artwork by Mr. Kesel and fares far better than his prose.

Pop-art moments: Mr. Bachs’ panels showing Captain America’s World War II demise and Cap taking down Namor “that son of a she-ape” will impress.

Better yet, issue No. 0 features a reprint of the original Gibbon story from Amazing Spider-Man Nos. 110 and 111, highlighted by pages of classic art from John Romita Sr. Also, a 24-page cover gallery has top illustrators “simian-ize” classic Marvel moments.

Read it or leave it? There are two schools of thought here, folks. Either Marvel Apes is a pathetic marketing ploy to cash in on the “alternate universe” trend demonstrated by the popularity of Marvel Zombies. Or, Joe Quesada and the gang simply are amused by the simian silliness and are willing to take this primate practical joke much further to see who might continue to buy into it.

Either way, a hardcover compilation of the series, along with an Ape-X and Spider-Monkey one-shot are waiting in the wings.

I’ll stick with the Zombies.

* Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times’ Community pages (www.washingtontimes.com/communities/zadzooks).

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