Thursday, September 23, 2010

Chronic Review: 39 Minutes # 1!

39 Minutes # 1
Image Comics/Top Cow imprint

Script: William Harms
Pencils: Jerry Lando

22 pages + 7 pages of extras for $3.99

I like Top Cow. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not regularly read any of their books - they just don't hit me where I live. But if I were asked: "Who among comics publishers has a solid clue about reaching their target audience?", my answer would be Vertigo at DC and Top Cow at Image.

Of all the outfits and all the imprints, those two seem the most interested at establishing an identity, finding an audience, and then making sure that audience gets some value out of their dollar. Top Cow has built a nice little niche world based on mystical artifacts and a little bit of sex. They were wise I think to lean more supernaturally than superheroey. By all accounts the individual books (Witchblade, Darkness, Magdalena) share space and support each other, but you don't need to read them all to get the full picture on a particular favorite character. They've got legitimate pros doing solid work, and they're very price conscious. It's almost perfect.

If there's a blight on the bum of The Cow it might be the Pilot Season program, of which 39 Minutes is a member. Not a really good track record there. Sales do not seem to indicate that anybody cares enough for the "contest" to matter, and even the "winners" tend not to see the light of day.

One wonders what the point of it might be. Don't get me wrong, I think trying new ideas is a wonderful thing. And I suppose the short answer is that you never know when you might catch lightning in a bottle and launch the next Chew.

If DC can't even complete a Great 10 mini-series because it launched below standard cancellation levels and just kept this the time to be throwing odd things at the wall to see what sticks? Let me ruin the surprise for you - nothing sticks. You're wasting time and resources.

And so, in the midst of all my nihilistic pissing and moaning, Top Cow offers us a taste of something called 39 Minutes. And you know what? It isn't bad. I guess it belongs in the crime/heist category. If you like Brubaker's Criminal, Aaron's Scalped, or Azzarello's 100 Bullets you will almost certainly enjoy this.

The plot is driven by a bank robbery, but there are several layers to the onion. One thing I will credit William Harms for - he understands where the cliches are and makes some deliberate attempts to thwart them.

The robbers turn out to be unusual suspects, and it's hard to know whether to root for them or the convict who used to lead them now coerced into stopping the spree. Given enough time, it looks like 39 Minutes is going to look at veterans in a ballsy way, which I appreciate. The comic book take on military figures is to paint them as saints or bastards. This book seems to promise something a little more complex.

The robbers' modus operandi is definitely unexpected. These are not clever, tricksy people looking to pull a fast one. It's almost an act of war. There are lots of surprises like that in the comic. The book opens with a scene where a character drives past an elderly pedestrian and says "That's it, old timer, get a good look at the strange black man." Just when you think you're about to get yet another dose of good old "White Guilt", he pulls on a mask and reveals himself as part of the heist.

Later on when of the robbers pulls a woman out of her vehicle, throws her on the ground and tells her it's not her money he wants. He doesn't want what you're thinking...he takes her car. I like those little button hooks. Harms has some ideas and some craft.

I'm not really an art guy, but I was not in love with the pencils. Some of it looks all right, but pan the camera back a little and you get panels like this:

Yikes. I understand it's not easy, but if I were the editor that wouldn't have made the grade. It's very rare to find anything interesting or even discernible in the backgrounds. Not everybody is Juan Jose Ryp, but a little detail goes a long way toward establishing a setting you can believe in. This is largely foreground figures floating in oddly colored space.

So now what? We've got a pretty decent hook about bank robbers with a past and a guy who used to give them orders trying to stop them. The action is big and brutal, the plot is clever enough to step on your expectations every page or so. Given time, that onion might bloom into something very worthwhile. Honestly, as a story it's already leagues ahead of Nemesis, which will achieve far greater sales and notoriety.

And that's where we're at in 2010. Quality really isn't enough to secure anything, or Secret Six would rule us all. I'm not sure what Top Cow is hoping to learn or gain with a Pilot Season one-shot like this. Whether it's top sirloin or absolute rubbish, the orders are going to be absolute rubbish. If picked up, the numbers are extraordinarily likely to plummet from there. Unless you can find the same demon Robert Kirkman sold his soul to when he created Walking Dead, attrition is the rule.

As an aside, the extra bits include one really nice page where Harms talks about the origins of the series, and some preview work on another Pilot Season contestant, Asset. I would have preferred more insight from Harms on 39 Minutes, but ah well.

- Ryan

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