Wednesday, December 27, 2017

I Die At Midnight

New Year’s Eve 2017
I Die At Midnight

Hitchcock thriller meets Loony Tunes as Y2K approaches

Story and Art – Kyle Baker
Editors – Cliff Chaing and Joan Hilty
December 1999

I’ve already extolled the greatness of Kyle Baker when I covered Web of Spider-Man #18. I went over his ability to create expressive faces and capture emotion in the little details.
Sometime in the late 90’s, Baker’s style took a turn down Loony Tunes lane. I mean that in a good way. Baker’s style of doing bodies either as “thick stick-figures” or as realistic human physiques morphed into something else. He developed an odd melding of Will Eisner and a Roger Rabbit cartoon. The character models conveyed action and motion but in an exaggerated fashion.

Around this same time Baker was given permission to do a single story in an expanded, square-bound prestige format book as part DC’s Vertigo end of 1999 celebration. Dubbed V2K, the event featured five titles that were used to usher in the millennium. Three of the titles were spread out into 3-to-4 issue miniseries to cover the fifth week holes. The other two titles were one-shots released around the end of year.

Baker’s was the only title that was given completely over to one man to work as both writer and artist (not to mention letterer and colorist). That’s a lot of faith in what he was bringing to the table.

What erupted from that wild crazy head of his was the contents of “I Die at Midnight,” a 63 page tale of Larry’s attempt at suicide on New Year’s Eve, 1999. I’m going to truncate much of the tale and just give you brief tastes of Baker’s style instead of my usual meticulous running commentary. I don’t think tearing it down to that level would do the story justice, nor will my commentary. I Die at Midnight, while having a few flaws, is decent fun and deserves the slow unfolding that only a full read-thru of Baker’s book can give it.

We begin with newscasters running down a gamut of Y2K predictions of power outages and bad things that will occur on the last second of 1999. While Larry prints out a suicide note and takes some prescriptions pills. Far too many to be safe.

Story-wise, Larry is torn up over losing Muriel, his girlfriend. So torn up, in fact that he has decided to end it all. He downs the rest of the bottle of pills and reprints the letter when a knock comes from his door.

It’s Muriel.

And with this one panel, I’m on board for whatever and wherever this goes. I love that character stance for the pure personality it radiates. So many tells. From the out-thrust hip and the slight upward tilt of the head as well as the crossed arms we get the impression that Muriel is a strong, confident, spunky woman. Just an amazing job by Baker of packing so much information into one panel.

As for what this means for Larry, it means he jumped the gun on trying to kill himself. And given what we know about Muriel from that brief picture and a few scattered word balloons, we know she will leave him again if she finds out.

So Larry is in a pinch here and Baker takes the route of making his getting rid of the evidence and trying to throw up the pills a bit of physical comedy. He has to cover up the empty pill bottle and the suicide note.

Magnificent work on the “bokeh” (blurry background) in those top two panels. It is easy to see why Vertigo would entrust so much of this project to just one guy. This is top caliber work artistically.

As for Larry, he next has to turn off the computer, so Muriel doesn’t see the electronic copy of the note. However, Larry is unable to get past Muriel into the bathroom and in the end, she locks herself in.

We get this lovely, exquisite bit where Larry tries to find a place to “toss his cookies,” but finds that some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb…

…including this amazing scene…

…and this bit with him trying to do it down the stairwell.

Larry gives up on trying to get the poisons out of his system and decides to call in a favor after checking to see if Muriel is close to coming out of the john. 

The book is full of these bits of physical character comedy that are just charming and witty as all get-out.

Larry calls his friend Charlie, who factors into the story in a big way. First, Charlie knows a female doctor (named Gigi) that Larry seeks discrete help from so he can avoid the inquires a hospital would make into why he ended up with so many pills in his system. More importantly in story context, Charlie is meeting up with said female doctor friend later this evening for a friendly night on the town. Even MORE importantly is that Charlie just broke up with Muriel, who was living with him after she left Larry. Even Mostest importantly, Charlie is an amoral killer who will let nothing stand in his way of getting Muriel back.

Improbable setup? Certainly, but no more than any Hitchcockian mystery. In fact, all the story really needs is a macguffin to complete the feel of one of his films.

And we get one in the form of a “special” pill that the doctor has that will prevent Larry from dying if he can take one before midnight. But first she implores him to call 911, throw up the pills, and not to eat anything.

Except Larry doesn’t, spending the better part of the next hour in bed with Muriel.

Which brings up the miracle pill that she has that will stop Larry from expiring. She agrees to meet Larry at the party she and Charlie are scheduled to attend. 

And that is all the puzzle pieces lined up nicely in rows according to shape and color. Let’s see a bit of how Baker puts this one together, shall we? He starts with showing running clock numbers every page or so in red, counting down possibly the last half-hour Larry has on this Earth.

Larry wakes Muriel to take her to the party with him because he can’t just leave her in his apartment alone.

While they get dressed to leave for the party, Charlie and GiGi meet at the subway. Charlie is dressed as a cop so people will buy him free drinks. Gigi comments that she knows he’s sad about his girlfriend leaving him. Unfortunately, she goes a bit too far in describing Larry’s predicament, sending Charlie off the rails. 

And Gigi off the subway platform into the path of an oncoming train. 

She ends up alive, but is chased by Charlie as she slips between cars and trainlines to get to Larry. She gets as far as Times Square before he catches up with her.

Meanwhile Larry is forced to make a detour to Muriel’s grandmother’s apartment for a brief visit because her house is on the way. Muriel won’t take no for an answer. While there she tries to get him to eat some pie, a definite no-no for his poisoned condition. 

He sees Gigi getting choked by Charlie in Times Square and makes his way out of the apartment fast. Gigi uses a scalpel from her purse to injure Charlie badly enough that he lets her go and we now have a three-way chase. 

From here on out the book is a series of mostly wordless panels as Charlie chases Gigi, Larry chases Gigi and Muriel chases Larry. Baker works a wizard-level amount of magic in making effortless scenes like the one below that show action and emotion while eating up tons of page space. 

I’ll admit the book becomes a page turner at this point and in no way could I convey the level of ramped-up thrills it provides. And humor, too. Like this bit where Larry gets in an elevator to rush to the right floor of the building only to find the schoolgirl exiting it has hit ALL the floor buttons.

The finale takes place as the two combatants wrestle for the pill bottle on the ledges and rooftops of some of New York’s skyscrapers as the clock counts down to the final seconds of midnight. There are harrowing escapes and drops and so much good stuff…

Does Larry make it to the pills in time? Does Charlie prevent him from seeing the new year? Does Gigi survive her fall? And does Muriel end up finding out the reason for Larry’s odd behavior this evening?

I’m not telling.

This is a book that I can’t bring myself to spoil. Baker has done an exceptional job of putting it together and Comixology has if for a very reasonable price (given today’s elevated price-points $6 for 63 pages of story complete in one issue is a steal.) Go pick up a copy.

It’s as good as you think it should be.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Last Christmas #1

Christmas 2017
The Last Christmas #1

Pretty much that WHAM! Song in comic book form

"Twas the Fight Before Christmas”
Writer – Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn
Penciler – Rick Remender
Inker – Hilary Barta
Letterer – Ed Dukeshire
Colors – Michelle Madsen
Background Assistant – Chris Carman
May 2006

There are covers that beg to jump into the Crapbox, and Geof Darrow’s cover to The Last Christmas is one of those. Yes, this looks like that movie spoof The Night the Reindeer Died" from Scrooged. And in a way…it sort of is.
Only with less Lee Majors.

And less humor.

Our first page looks like what one of those Rankin-Bass animated specials would come out if you put Ralph Bakshi in charge of the production, and I’m not saying this snowman looks a bit boozy…but, yeah, he does. 

And when he breaks into song…

… we get the vibe I had hoped for the book. Something that said: take none of this stuff seriously, folks. It is going for over-the-top action parody in a good way. Or at least it starts out like that. Gary leads us through the utter destruction of civilization…

…and possibly humankind’s as well. Seems our nuclear strategy made us more than just prey for the more violent, criminal elements in society, but also created a race of mutant-zombie humans.

Of course, the story won’t have much point if there aren’t some survivors left somewhere…

And apparently Saint Nick is still making toy runs to them.

Only the toy’s uses might be slightly…modified.

All this is just backdrop though, as Santa’s little jaunts aren’t our real story. Oh, no. The story takes a much darker turn. Gary turns back to Santa’s workshop only to receive some startling news.

Terrible indeed! Appears the marauders have shown up to sack the place. Maybe make that past tense, as in they HAVE sacked the place.

Some have even paid the ultimate price for protecting Santa’s workshop. (which, when you think about death vs being forced to make toys every day for the rest of eternity, may be a kind of blessing).

Everywhere Santa turns lay the injured and dying. This is all supposed to fill the audience with a need for revenge on Santa’s behalf, but to be honest, it doesn’t get me there. 

Not even this next bit.

Where we find Mrs. Claus has been shot in the head. Just like Santa himself will be.

…in the next second. And we don’t get to see the perp’s face, which is either a reveal they are saving for a later issue or they are setting this up to be a faceless crime committed by an unkind world. I’m going with the latter as that allows the audience can feel any acts of violence Santa chooses to perform to avenge it will have complete and utter justification.

Speaking of acts of violence, it isn’t quite over just yet. On the way out, our square-jawed marauder decides to take out an elf.

But he has to settle for doing in the top name in Santa’s reindeer order instead. 

Okay, by this time I’ve had enough of this bleak part of the storyline. I need something funny or happy or angry. I need Santa to burst out of that cottage, alive and full of fire. Instead we get…more Debbie downer stuff. Santa awakes stuffed into Dasher’s carcass for…what reason again? Oh, yeah – the lame joke that one of the elves saw it in a movie once. I think that is some kind of slight on Empire Strikes Back.

The worst part of all of this is that Santa has just given up. The destruction of humanity and now the loss of friends and his spouse have broken his will to live. See how this isn’t where you want this book to go?

Santa then proclaims this was THE LAST CHRISTMAS! (emphasis is the book’s) and then goes back into his cottage. And he hides out there for months to come naked, drinking rum, and eating the pancakes the elves bring him. While bathing in the maple syrup, apparently.

Not sure what is making me root for a crazy and sticky hobo at this point, but the elves at least have the right idea of where the story needs to head…

…but instead, Santa decides to give up completely. And if you thought that’s what he had done already…

 … it will only take a brief sleigh-ride …

…to show that a suicidal Santa really is the basement you didn’t think was there.

I have to agree with the elf here. But try as he might, what Santa soon discovers is that no amount of killing himself will actually cause his death. 

After going this far along, it appears this bit of the story is on its last foot of rope.

Or final string of holiday lights. Whichever. 

I admit to having high hopes for this one. One way or the other, I looked to be entertained. I could have taken Santa Claus vs the Martians inept goofiness. I would have rejoiced at Die Hard-levels of Christmas vengeance.

But depressing and unfunny just don’t cut it, in my book. Sadly this high concept of Santa-Terminator verses a world of Mad Max, punk rock mutant zombies while saving the last vestiges of human society looks like the single present under the tree you can’t wait to open, only to find it is nothing but ugly holiday socks two sizes too small.

Better luck next year.