Scooby Apocalypse 2 (August 2016)

Scooby Apocalypse #2

It’s Aliens. Giffen and DeMatteis are doing “Serious Scooby-Doo Meets Aliens.” And it’s pretty good.

This issue has the gang trapped in an underground bunker where they have to crawl through the ceilings but avoid the monsters crawling through the ceilings. There’s a lot of emphasis on the humanity of the situation, but then there’s Porter’s art doing these exaggerated hero poses for the characters. What’s so strange is how little it has to do with Scooby-Doo. Giffen and DeMatteis have almost no interest in the dog (or his interactions with Shaggy). It’s not pop culture fulfillment, it’s a brand relaunch.

Hence the lack of Doo in the title?

It’s strongly plotted, great dialogue, excellent visual style. Scooby Apocalypse is great corporate product. It’s not sublime, but it’s great at what it’s trying to do. I just wonder how long Jim Lee, who’s credited with the concept, worked at it and whether or not he had help (or was filling a request from corporate).

CREDITS

Apocalypse Right Now!; writers, Keith Griffen and J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Howard Porter; colorist, Hi-Fi; letterer, Nick J. Napolitano; editors, Brittany Holzherr and Marie Javins; publisher, DC Comics.

Detective Comics 934 (August 2016)

Detective Comics #934

What a nice pilot for a new Detective Comics. Batman and Batwoman are partners–their mission is to train the vigilantes of Gotham to fight some new threat. This threat follows them around with little bat-drones, but Batman can’t figure out they’re still being followed. It’s a team book, but with familiar Bat-family members and a decidedly modern approach. Heavy on the one-liners, heavy on implied action, light on actual content.

Is the problem the art or the story? Well, Eddy Barrows’s art isn’t there but it might be with a better inker. Eber Ferreira doesn’t have a feel for the art. He rounds it, reduces it, instead of emboldening it. Would better art make a significant difference? No. Would great art make a significant difference? Sure. But it’s a monthly superhero book and Barrows delivers it.

So is it the writing? Yeah, sure? Sorry to be so noncommittal but Detective Comics feels pretty noncommittal. Writer James Tynion IV mostly gives everyone sound bites instead of dialogue. Spoiler and Robin have a conversation, Batman and Batwoman, Batman and Clayface, but these are quippy, fast conversations. It’s meant to entertain not tell a story, because Tynion doesn’t have a story to tell.

I suppose Detective Comics is better than I was expecting (though nowhere near what I was hoping for). But it’s just a mediocre superhero book (in desperate need of better editing).

CREDITS

Rise of the Batmen, Part One: The Young and the Brave; writer, James Tynion IV; penciller, Eddy Barrows; inker, Eber Ferreira; colorist, Adriano Honorato Lucas; letterer, Marilyn Patrizio; editors, Dave Wielgosz and Chris Conroy; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 4 (June 2016)

STK699760Once again Miller and Azzarello punish me for getting my hopes up with this series. Once again, too, I notice myself praising Miller alone for every good chapter and the two of them for every bad one. As the series lurches onward, the finality of The Dark Knight Returns and its pitch perfect “good enough” grace note of a conclusion to Batman’s adventures are only further diluted. The Master Race is in an alternating holding pattern, as I recall issue #2 was similarly lethargic. The plot progresses predictably with zero surprises to the reader. The spoilers are two sentences long. $5.99 for two sentences worth of plot development, stretched out by endless splash panels and another mini-comic of wonky Frank Miller art, which is sadly the only memorable part of the experience. For DC, not Detective Comics but the asset of Time Warner’s media empire, to charge $5.99 for this while an indy outfit like Avatar Press charges a buck less per new installment of Providence is utterly pitiful. On the plus side Miller does retain a consistently pessimistic, contemporary point of view – Obama and Trump are again invoked and this time disparaged as equally cowardly appeasers to the eponymous Master Race. He and Azzarello do know how to plot out their simple, cynical story. The insult to the reader, which ruins these positives, is how blatantly he’s elongating a four issue story across eight issues for what can only be a contractual obligation. Per Miller’s worst habits, they haven’t even been published in a timely manner.

Being a member of that tiny hipster elite who can find some value in The Dark Knight Strikes Back, it saddens me to realize every time I reach Miller’s mini-comic midway through a new Master Race that his late-period derangement, which Big Two fanboys consider his weakness, isn’t even present here. His art is still big and crazy, he just didn’t care about this project enough to contribute more than a few pages every couple months, leaving Andy Kubert to carry that load with competence that feels reliably adequate to the point of blandness. The new series has been dishearteningly lacking in any big or crazy ideas; the storyline is neither as jarringly off-kilter as Dark Knight 2 nor as fresh and original as Dark Knight 1. This is a book that goes out of its way not to take chances. Dark Knight 3 simply exists, as Dark Knight 4 could someday exist and make all thast came before just a little less special. Something like All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder was at least a beautiful disaster; a joyously irreverent prank. Master Race reads as though Azzarello came up with the uninspired story purely as a mechanical continuation of what is now a franchise (there’s a prequel coming) and Miller peppered in his stylized dialogue afterward.

Has anything really innovative actually been done with Bats or Supes since 1986 when Miller and Moore wrote their imaginary final adventures? Every other week DC relaunches their “universe” hoping someone will figure out how to make them relevant again, and it seems increasingly apparent that The Dark Knight Returns and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow really were the ultimate showstoppers. If Batman is doomed like all superheroes of the current era to be merely an amorphous multimedia IP rather than a comics character, the best entertainment anyone can hope for are occasionally some good cartoons. Maybe when The Lego Batman Movie is the highest profiting Batman movie of all time DC will finally give up on self-serious, pointless cash grab comics for nostalgic manboy fanboys and grow a new comics readership where the real money is: actual children.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Four; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 3 (February 2016)

dk3After Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Dark Knight III: The Master Race suddenly seems a lot better. The film wasn’t as bad as everyone histrionically made it out to be – Zach Snyder at least understands how to use these characters to compose compelling imagery, unlike Christopher Nolan. What the film reconfirmed to me is how irrevocably superheroes are tied to the comics page. This is their medium, and ironically only the relentless march of superhero movies can make me appreciate the value of a superhero comic. Frank Miller and Zach Snyder do have several things in common: an unpopular public image, a uncomfortable fixation on rape as a dramatic device, and an ambivalence bordering on contempt for Superman. As many reviews have pointed out, Ben Affleck’s Batman is essentially Frank Miller’s Dark Knight brought to life; an older and surlier abstraction of grimly righteous vigilantism who, yes, will pull the trigger of a gun if it means saving a life because that’s a decision a so-called “realistic” superhero would have to make, you liberal fanboy wimps. It’s really too bad Snyder didn’t do The Dark Knight Returns instead of Watchmen or BvS, not that BvS didn’t just swipe DKR sequences left and right throughout. Miller is a simpleton but Snyder does a simpleton’s adaptation of a simpleton. All the hammering on about gods and man and superman feels like it has a bit more of a point in Miller’s hands.

Issue 3 finally brings Bruce Wayne and Batman out of the shadows and as I’d hoped, Frank Miller still writes those cranky internal monologues better than anyone. If anything he’s writing them better than ever, now that he’s aged within five years of his old-man-Batman. He also incorporates topical problems better than any Marvel superhero screenwriters, who tend to namecheck “the issues” while studiously avoiding alienating any potential section of their audience, or David S. Goyer’s various Batman scripts from the past decade which use a ponderous tone to mask their dull lack of imagination. Miller’s deftly sardonic usage of text message balloons and Tweets are as relevant and witty as his usage of cable news in the previous two volumes of the Dark Knight saga, and even pay off in a funny scene when various Gotham-ites are too busy with their phones to pay attention to the super-apocalypse. Miller actually puts some pretty harsh anti-consumerist stuff in the mouths of his characters, reminding that though the medium has been generally dumbed down by the death of print, it’s still beneath the mainstream radar enough to function as a gutter platform against sacred technophilia.

The story is dumb as can be, but the writing has a lot of wicked satirical flourishes besides making fun of these kids today and their social media addiction. There’s a Trump cameo that probably wasn’t originally planned when the series started back in November 2015, so it’s nice to know the series is alive and malleable. Thematically Miller seems to be developing a redemption of Superman – something Snyder insincerely made overtures towards. Having been a government stooge until now, Supes is at last poised to fight in the right alongside Carrie Kelly and Bats. All it took was betrayal of the titular Master Race to which he belongs, and to which the Earth’s governments have collectively surrendered. Unbound by Hollywood squeamishness, Miller is allowed the full effects of his cynicism towards both the genre and modern society: his superheroes obliterate millions of people and millions more respond with media-saturated apathy. The unfairly maligned The Dark Knight Strikes Again felt like a true reflection of recent post-9/11 discord compared to the moment-of-silence-now-back-to-tights-and-fights business acumen from the rest of DC and Marvel. Dark Knight III‘s story reads like Frank Miller screaming in your ear that things have only gotten worse, as the slicker Andy Kubert art suggests a world painted over with a shinier gloss of distraction in the interim.

Kubert’s art is growing on me though, aping Miller’s staging and character designs at the right moments, and well complimented by Klaus Janson’s inks. Brad Anderson’s coloring continues to impress, especially his use of muted colors in the Antarctic and underground locales. Miller indulges in a splash page or reveal practically every two pages, but Kubert’s art justifies them and his command of visual language is solid. Unfortunately it’s used as a crutch throughout the otherwise forgettable Miller-drawn mini-comic of this issue starring Green Lantern. Apparently DC has been printing some of these issues with the mini-comic scaled to full size at the issue’s end, which is a mistake because having a comic-within-a-comic is an artistic choice unique only to comics, and comics need the boosterism.

Against better taste, Miller’s misanthropic idiosyncrasies continue to intrigue as to what he’ll do in the DC toybox. The serial installments may not be worth the cover price but as a whole, the whole experience is improbably shaping into something worthwhile.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Three; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

Scooby Apocalypse 1 (July 2016)

Scooby: Apocalypse #1

I wouldn’t call Scooby: Apocalypse so much good as successful. It’s Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis doing a “grown-up” version of Scooby Doo, which isn’t something I would’ve thought there’d be an audience for but now I’m not so sure. All of Giffen and DeMatteis’s instincts when it comes to the characters are spot on. They’re “grown-up” and modernized but still annoying in the same ways.

And Howard Porter’s art is an interesting choice. Velma and Scooby are the most successful, with Daphne and Fred being somewhere in the more obvious realm and Shaggy being a riff on eighties Mike Grell Green Arrow for whatever reason. In look, not characterization. As far as characterization, it remains to be seen if Giffen and DeMatteis have arcs for the characters or just a lot of solid banter.

The story’s fine–it’s the team’s origin story, Scooby is a failed Army super-dog experiment, Daphne and Fred are lame TV journalists, Shaggy is Scooby’s hopefully stoned handler. I didn’t notice any bud though. If Giffen and DeMatteis can get away making Shaggy and Scooby actual stoners… well, it’d be funny.

Even though Porter’s visualizations of characters are sometimes weird, his art’s totally competent. He puts work into it and he does get how to pace out the script’s jokes.

It’s not a great comic, but it’s not a bad one at all.

CREDITS

Waiting for the End of the World; writers, Keith Griffen and J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Howard Porter; colorist, Hi-Fi; letterer, Nick J. Napolitano; editors, Brittany Holzherr and Marie Javins; publisher, DC Comics.

Ganges 5 (February 2016)

Ganges #5

Huizenga. Ganges. It’s been ages. I don’t even think I’ve read the previous issue.

An issue of Ganges operates on many levels. There’s what Huizenga is doing as a cartoonist, what he’s doing with the art. But then there’s why he’s doing it. This issue has a history lesson and a science lesson. Huizenga should probably just do a bunch of science books. They would catch on. He’s great at presenting these complex ideas in welcoming, understanding artwork.

Still, it’s not just information for the reader, it’s information for the protagonist, Glenn (Ganges). Glenn is reading some of this history book to his girlfriend, he’s also just reading some of it to himself. Huizenga takes those distinctions seriously. The story whirls the reader around, even during the longer sequences. Glenn has a busy mind (the premise is he can’t sleep because he can’t stop thinking) so the comic itself has to be busy. It also has to be methodical and reasonable because Glenn’s mind is reasonable to itself. Presumably.

It’s a wonderful comic. Huizenga always delivers. Whether it’s the history lesson, the science lesson, the physics lesson, Glenn and his girlfriend almost fighting, a funeral, whatever–Huizenga delivers magnificent scenes and sequences. Ganges. Huizenga. Phenomenal.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Kevin Huizenga; publisher, Fantagraphics.

Pretty Deadly 9 (April 2016)

Pretty Deadly #9

Pretty Deadly is such a strange book. Rios’s art is perfect. She’s got a fable to do, the World War I battlefield, the mystical stuff. It’s all perfect. She’s controlled in showing the horrific nature of combat, very precise. The comic is visually unsettling, which is an ideal match for DeConnick’s approach to the script. It’s meticulous while still being confusing.

With Deadly, I always wonder if reading it three times an issue, then again in the trade, would be the best way to get all of it. DeConnick has so much going on–and toggles between things (you’ve got to love how she basically is doing traditional, juxtaposed comic book action), plus there’s the fable to figure in.

It’s serious work. I think I love that aspect of Pretty Deadly the most. It’s very, very serious. Rios and DeConnick aren’t messing around. If there’s a smile in the issue (and I don’t think there is one this issue), it’s because DeConnick is letting the reader have it. Mystical embodiments of war and death aren’t funny. The First World War isn’t funny. It’s not a gag. It’s a backdrop for DeConnick and Rios’s explorations.

I’ll read all again someday, once it’s finished. I want that experience.

CREDITS

Writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick; artist, Emma Rios; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Sigrid Ellis; publisher, Image Comics.

Criminal: Tenth Anniversary Special (April 2016)

Criminal: 10th Anniversary Special

Wow.

On its own, Criminal: Tenth Anniversary Special is objectively excellent. Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips do the touching story of a boy and his jerk criminal dad. Set in 1978. And there’s a juxtaposing of an old Marvel-esque kung fu comic. It’s scary, it’s funny, it’s sad. It’s a great story.

But there’s so much texture to it all, as the special ties into the old Criminal books. It’s not a haphazard anniversary issue by a couple excellent creators; it’s an excellent anniversary issue, its creators taking it all very seriously. Brubaker and Phillips aren’t congratulating themselves with this Special, they’re awarding the reader with it. It’s this perfectly paced, perfectly conceived gem of a book. It’s got beautiful art from Phillips. He has this way of protecting the son whenever his father is around, implying it through the composition and the panel layouts. It’s such a smart comic.

It’s also fun. The kid meets a girl. She’s precocious. Brubaker hinges the whole comic on her–it’s a pre-teen romance of sorts–and he does a great job on her character. He presents the readers two views into the story, one through the kid’s, one through the girl’s. He does it with this wonderfully prompt pacing–Brubaker and Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser (who’s become an essential part of the team) take advantage of every page, every panel. It’s flawlessly executed.

The Criminal: Tenth Anniversary Special is a class act and a great comic.

CREDITS

Writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Patience (March 2016)

patienceThe past is far behind us / the future doesn’t exist sing the puppets of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. But eventually everyone runs out of time. Never truer than in Patience, which longtime Daniel Clowes fans may not find to be his best work, but is nonetheless unlike anything he’s ever done before – and first time readers will find it an excellent introduction to his talents. Clowes has never created a book of this length or focused upon a protagonist so intense as Jack Barlow, a haunted man whose surname references the vampire of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot. Like an ageless ghoul, Jack lurks outside of time, referring to himself at one point as a ghost. The story begins with the murder of his pregnant wife, the eponymous Patience, so he’s already dead inside – at least until the discovery of time travel gives him the opportunity to somehow prevent that murder.

The story begins by establishing Jack’s total adoration for Patience and his hopes for their future family are a breathtaking refutation of the divorce-trauma cynicism about traditional family life which characterized Clowes’ generation. Strong stuff from an artist whose name was so synonymous with Gen-X in the 90s that Coca-Cola hired him to design packaging for ironically, intentionally mediocre soda pop. His Fantagraphics contemporary Peter Bagge eventually got married with children too, but even Buddy Bradley’s embrace of fatherhood over any hedonistic autumn years as an aging ink stud (or even Robert Crumb’s for that matter) was never celebrated so sincerely as in these first few opening pages before the bottom drops out. Clowes has also never written a protagonist so obsessively focused on one singular life-or-death matter as Jack’s quest to recover the new beginning his new family symbolized. Personally, Clowes’ The Death-Ray speaks to me more but maybe that’s because I’m not yet a husband or father. There’s palpable excitement for the reader upon realizing how ruthlessly driven Jack Barlow is about what may be an impossible effort, and knowing he has the rest of the heavy tome to see that one objective through.

Except for a few pointed scenes of internal narration by Patience herself, Barlow constantly narrates directly to the reader, alternately terse and conversational. Clowes has done similar character narration before, but never with the film-noirish tone of a furious and potentially doomed man as his star. His anger is far removed from the outbursts of frustrated, semi-passive loners to whom Clowes usually gives center stage. Barlow may be angst-ridden but he’s no nerd; he’ll cave your face in if you get in the way of his mission. He’s also scarily funny, when sometimes indulging the one typically Clowesian trait bestowed upon him; his lack of patience (ahem) for any oblivious idiots blocking his path. The absurdity of these remarks within an otherwise extremely grim story compounds the occasional comic relief into an unexpected shotgun blast; Enid Coleslaw with a laser rifle. Fuck you, asshole – I’m from the future! Even on top of the havoc played with the metaphysics of time-space, Barlow makes the book exciting and unpredictable by sheer force of his personality, and with a menace previously unexplored by the author.

A brief look into the future and some striking double-page spreads of Jack’s body traversing the fourth dimension are the only scenes in Patience as colorful as the front cover and endpapers. They seem like bait to lure in sci-fi fans, because the vast majority of the book’s settings are the fascinatingly banal suburban vistas which Clowes is now a practiced master at rendering. Every scene is deliberately staged for the simplest, most naturalistic compositions, so as not to distract from the long-form character drama. In terms of exploiting the comics medium’s unique qualities, his longest work is also his least ambitious. It’s a far cry from his previous book Wilson, which changed art styles drastically on every page. Patience probably would have worked better as a limited 5 or 6 issue mini-series but Clowes and Fantagraphics know that no one reads comics “issues” and you can’t count on super-creeps noticing your new, capeless title one rack over from the Harley Quinn jack-off material and Deadpool: Crisis On Infinite OMGWTFLOLs. The book’s length actually made it the first time I’ve had to read anything of his in two sittings, which is a new experience. Fortunately there are basically chapter demarcations every time Jack Barlow travels to a new year, so you often have good points to pause and digest at your own pace.

Until this book, I’d never noticed Clowes’ simultaneous disgust for both the upper and lower classes that reoccurs throughout all his work. The plot of Patience hinges on both the privileged amorality of rich overprivileged jerks and the alcoholic violence of underprivileged rednecks, with white trash as almost constant white noise in the background. The always impeccable character designs put as much vivid detail into the stony sidelong glance of an overpriced boutique baby clothes saleswoman, or the condescending smirks of fey urban hipsters, as the glazed bovine misery of midwestern housewives, or the rodent giddiness of their skanky daughters. One great scene finds Jack in a trendy city bar full of pretentious sophisticates who love how “futuristic” his clothes from the future look. Clowes grew up in Chicago and has previously expressed in Eightball his unease with that city’s overly self-conscious compromise between wealthy and working class cultures. He also knows well the spiritual wasteland of the small towns beyond; Jack stalks Patience’s past through her entirely hateful hometown which bears the generically Midwestern name of “White Oak.” The crux of his future wife’s life is escape from this dead-end place, but even as a married couple living together in the (generic, but probably Chicago) big city, they can’t help feeling cheated that there’s so much wealth all around them when all they want is enough to get by and raise their child.

The question of what will happen to our antihero if he’s successful in changing history is deftly sidestepped because Jack isn’t the type of guy to think that aspect through – explicitly, he twice shrugs off any such theorizing as “sci-fi bullshit.” Somewhat disingenuously with the book’s packaging, including the cheekily hyperbolic (but not inaccurate) back cover tagline “A cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love” – the story is at its core a murder mystery with time travel used as a sleuthing method rather than a “time travel” or “sci-fi” adventure. Clowes seems to have only slightly less disdain for genre trappings than Jack Barlow. Only a few pages are spent in a Sixties-ish retro-future for providing him a time travel device, and late in the story when another visitor from the future makes an appearance, he come clad in a ludicrously stupid looking costume. Towards the end I found myself guessing a predictable paradox and sure enough, Jack/Clowes mentions that possibility as an obvious pitfall he’ll have to avoid. Our protagonist’s contempt for “sci-fi bullshit” allows him to see a Twilight Zone twist ending coming just as well as the reader. The actual conclusion cleverly ties together every story thread in a logical way while cohering with the plot’s depiction of time travel; it’s emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Recommended for everyone, but especially husbands and fathers.

CREDITS

Writer, artist & colorist, Daniel Clowes; production and technological assistance; Alvin Buenaventura; editor and associate publisher, Eric Reynolds; publisher, Gary Groth & Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt (October-November 1987)

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I remember when Kraven’s Last Hunt came out. I was eight or nine. Marvel advertised it something fantastic. I was a regular Spider-Man reader, but mostly from collections and it wasn’t like there were a lot of collections in the late eighties. Almost thirty years later and I still can’t think of a better Spider-Man story, not an eighties or later one.

J.M. DeMatteis writes Hunt for new and regular readers, which is in itself a little strange. When I think about eighties comics, Marvel and DC alike, it was always very hard to jump on. But in Hunt, Spider-Man had just gone through a lot of unusual publicity–he’d gotten married–and the story immediately follows the wedding. It was also a cross-over between the three Spider-Man books, which might have been a new thing? I can’t remember.

So, in other words, DeMatteis is working a lot on character. He’s introducing not just the guest stars–Vermin and Kraven–he’s also introducing the regular cast, as he needs them for this story. Peter and Mary Jane are going to have a very rough six issues and DeMatteis forecasts it. When it seems like he’s hit the limit on foreshadowing, he pushes further because he’s trying to make sure the reader knows what’s coming.

And the relationship with the reader is important. DeMatteis wants a lot of trust–he wants to jump around in place, he wants to use a whole bunch of narration–Kraven, Spider-Man, Mary Jane, Vermin–Last Hunt is ambitious. For an eighties Marvel comic, it’s through the roof ambitious, but it’s ambitious in general because DeMatteis is treating Spider-Man as the icon.

Even in the black costume, he’s an icon. I think he was just still wearing the black costume (and might eighty-six it as a direct result of this storyline), but DeMatteis uses it to establish what makes the character. It’s not hard to do a good Spider-Man story and it’s sometimes not even hard to do a better than good one, but it is hard to do an ambitious one.

DeMatteis succeeds in no small part thanks to Mike Zeck’s art. Last Hunt isn’t fantastical, it’s realistic, it’s depressing, it’s scary. DeMatteis and Zeck have a story about four people who are afraid, all the time, all to varying degrees. They’re afraid of themselves, of each other, of the world. It’s awesome.

I haven’t read the comic in ages; it holds up really well.

CREDITS

Writer, J.M. DeMatteis; penciller, Mike Zeck; inker, Bob McLeod; colorist, Janet Jackson; letterer, Rick Palmer; editors, Jim Salicrup and Tom DeFalco; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Pretty Deadly 8 (February 2016)

Pretty Deadly #8

Pretty Deadly has become a book I savor. DeConnick and Rios have lost their Western setting–though it does still play a part visually and thematically–and gotten into World War I. The trenches. Deadly has become a war comic.

Except the magic is different. It’s still evil, bad magic, but it doesn’t affect the war comic’s protagonist in the same way it did in the series’s first arc. He’s far more the subject of the plot than an actor in it. That narrative distance works because of both DeConnick and Rios’s individual contributions.

When the comic moves between subplots, Rios has subtle changes in style. Sometimes in the level of detail, sometimes in figures’ fluidity. There’s a flow to Deadly, weaving between the subplots.

Pretty Deadly is a confusing, dense read. DeConnick relies on Rios to help make it easier to read while also contributing to the density. DeConnick doesn’t want any grounding to the supernatural. It’s not science, it’s not quantum physics, it’s supernatural. Accepting it–and not dwelling on it–is one of the series’s agreements with the reader. DeConnick doesn’t allow any alternatives.

And, yet, she isn’t hostile about it. Pretty Deadly goes out of its way to be welcoming. It’s endearing–and even makes the really disturbing villains endearing.

It’s really good. This issue isn’t one of the best either. And it’s still really good.

CREDITS

Writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick; artist, Emma Rios; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Sigrid Ellis; publisher, Image Comics.

Cry Havoc 1 (January 2016)

Cry Havoc #1

Yeah, wrong Simon Spurrier. How common a name is Simon Spurrier? It seems somewhat specific. I suppose one could do some cross referencing via Google but whatever. I read this comic, Cry Havoc, because I thought it was the other Simon Spurrier writing with Ryan Kelly on art.

I’m pretty sure it’s the regular Ryan Kelly, though his colorists do a lot of work. He has three, one for each setting. The comic is the story of a punk violinist who gets bitten by a werewolf and goes to work for the American government. I think she might be British.

I think I’m going to keep reading it, even though none of the colorists complement Kelly’s art particularly well. The pop London stuff gets tired, the war stuff doesn’t look right. I suppose the “Red Place”–I can’t believe I’m going to try reading a werewolf comic. Good grief.

It’s almost okay. Spurrier takes himself way too seriously, but Cry Havoc is almost okay. What’s strange is how impersonal Kelly’s art comes across.

CREDITS

Dog Days; writer, Simon Spurrier; artist, Ryan Kelly; colorists, Nick Filardi, Lee Loughridge and Matt Wilson; letterer, Simon Bowland; publisher, Image Comics.

The Rook 1 (October 2015)

The Rook #1

Seventies and eighties comic book sci-fi is some solid stuff. The Rook tries to tap into the genre to get some nostalgia points and it isn’t hard–artist Paul Gulacy drew a lot of good seventies and eighties sci-fi. The classics, if you would. And I’ll bet Steven Grant even wrote some of them.

Not sure if ROM counts.

Sci-fi in comics has gotten a whole lot more mainstream–especially in indie books–so what do returning giants Grant and Gulacy bring to the genre? It’s nearly camp. It nearly feels like a sci-fi comic from the early nineties because of all the references (“Quantum Leap,” “Back to the Future,” Time Machine actually playing a part of the plot), only the style is from a different era.

But then, The Rook is set in 2015, so Grant’s doing this nineties look at college life. You expect someone to call another kid a square for not drinking the spiked punch. And it doesn’t feel like camp in those moments, because Grant’s just not caring about his cast. They’re not as important as the gimmick. Only the gimmick’s not particularly good.

The Gulacy art carries it all, even after Gulacy starts rushing (somewhere in the second half of the issue). Gulacy has the chops to make the characters likable and sympathetic, even if their dialogue doesn’t give them any personality.

The plot’s amusing, the dialogue’s weak, the art’s good. The Rook isn’t the project Gulacy deserves, but he excels with what he’s got.

CREDITS

Writer, Steven Grant; artist, Paul Gulacy; colorist, Jesus Aburto; letterer, Nate Piekos; editors, Ian Tucker and Daniel Chabon; publisher, Dark Horse Comics.

Crossed + One Hundred 12 (November 2015)

crossedonehundred12Six issues into the Simon Spurrier run, Future Taylor is undergoing unexpected adaptions to life that echo what Alan Moore put her through at the conclusion of his initial arc. The difference is that small surprises of this busy installment aren’t as shattering as the gradually revealed unknown unknown of Bosol’s prophecy, they’re the logical tipping points of every development since then. The most gripping turns are within Future herself. Her exhaustion is forcing some radical choices and it’s some of her most significant character development in the entire series. All her decisions feel like the natural results of who we’ve know her to be, combining with where the story has taken her. It’s incredibly satisfying and occasionally startling.

There’s a combat scene towards the end which echoes, perhaps unintentionally, a very similar sequence at the climax of Garth Ennis’ original Crossed wherein the protagonists are, at least momentarily, relieved of all their pain through the simple satisfaction of killing their hated enemies. The war may go on forever, but if battles can still be decisively won then the struggle has not been in vain. Spurrier and Rafael Ortiz convey all that in a few panels where Ennis and Jacen Burrows took a page of internal narration, which isn’t to say that they did it better, rather that they’ve successfully harkened back to a very Ennis-esque emotional peak within the context of Alan Moore’s spinoff from his original concept.

Ortiz is maybe the best artist for Crossed + One Hundred since Gabriel Andrade, for all the opposite reasons. Andrade illustrated the post-apocalypse with technical skill that made you believe in the world’s details, Ortiz goes for the rickety chaos of life post-sacking-of-Chooga. You feel the desperation and turbulence in everyone’s faces. He can also stage elaborate action scenes. Both are heavily required at this point in the story and he absolutely delivers. It’s thrilling how Spurrier and Moore constructed all the drama that’s transpired to build up into these simultaneous interpersonal and external conflicts. I would never recommend jumping into this series from anywhere except the very start, but you could do worse than here.

If I recall correctly, this is the first issue not to identify, via Future, the wishful fiction novel from whose title each issue is borrowed. “Behold The Man” is – according to our own pre-surprise Wi-Fi Encyclopedia, Wikipedia – a 1966 novella by Michael Moorcock, in which a time traveller with a messiah complex meets Jesus of Nazareth and it turns out he’s not the messiah, just a very naughty boy. So the time traveller takes his place, effectively becoming the legend. Beyond the classic sci-fi trope of a predestination paradox, it’s a very Alan Moorish kind of story, speaking to the idea that the meaning of life is storytelling. I don’t skull the connection to the events of this particular Crossed + One Hundred chapter but it’s worth noting that Moorcock was an avowed anarchist and the tactical limits of pacifist religion have very much become a focus in this comic. The loss of blind faith and forging of a more pragmatic one may have something to do with it. Or it may all hinge on the last-page cliffhanger revelation of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.

CREDITS

Writer, Simon Spurrier; series outline, Alan Moore; artist, Rafa Ortiz; colorist, Digikore Studios; lettering, Jaymes Reed; publisher, Avatar Press.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 2 (December 2016)

4960053-dktmr_cv2_ds-1The only unpredictable turn of this comic is that DC actually does allow Miller & Azzarello to acknowledge the existence of The Dark Knight Strikes Again – which is looking better every day compared to The Master Race’s cowardly underwhelmingness. Issue two rehashes virtually everything from the previous one. The only addition is the introduction of a villain behind the bottled city of Kandor’s titular Übermenschen, in a twist everyone should have seen coming. What’s more disappointing is how Miller’s greatest hits are still being dusted off for what’s shaping up to be more of a soft reboot of the “Dark Knight” brand than anything singular. Ellen Yindel interrogates Carrie Kelly in a jail cell copied straight out of Sin City, and then the Bat-tank returns for an action scene. Bruce Wayne is revealed to still be alive, spoiler alert, though this revelation might be the only hope the series has for entertainment value as nobody writes Batman as batshit as Frank. But to tease Batman as being truly dead and then back away from the idea is fake boldness, as seeing Kelly carry on without Bruce would be intriguing. Alas.

Time is weirdly out of joint in the DKU. Bruce Wayne and Ellen Yindel look exactly the same as we saw them in ’86, which wouldn’t necessarily be distracting except for dialogue when she actually points to her face and calls herself old, despite Andy Kubert obviously not having aged her a day. His art is still nothing if not professional; the 1989-style Gotham City looks terrific and the double-page reveal of Kandor’s formerly teensy, newly enlarged inhabitants is worth a pause. Where he falters is character work. There’s not an iota of humanity in anyone’s closeups. In particular, an extreme closeup of The Atom’s face (how ironic) is unpleasantly mannequin-like. Again, one wishes for the raw muscle of Miller’s pencils over Kubert’s cold slickness. Maybe the worst thing about the second chapter of The Master Race is how Miller didn’t even pencil the inset comic, the conceptual highlight of issue one. Artist Eduardo Risso’s action scene between Wonder Woman and daughter Lara is adequately staged but stiffly posed, with flat detailing worsened by Trish Mulvihill’s flat colors.

I’m neither a fanboy of, nor a hater on Frank Miller. His contributions to Batman’s history are invaluable. But he and Azzarello need to justify this series, quick, because if someone as open-minded to the venture as me is already frustrated, I can only imagine how unimpressed the average young reader must be so far. Miller’s sentimentally terse flavor of writing barely registers, and with the broken promise of at least getting new art from him once per issue in a mini-comic, there may be no compelling reasons to ride this cash-in all the way through.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Two; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert and Eduardo Risso; inks, Klaus Janson; colorists, Brad Anderson and Trish Mulvihill; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

Swamp Thing 1 (March 2016)

Swamp Thing #1

Len Wein. Creator, with Bernie Wrightson, of Swamp Thing in the seventies. Len Wein. Editor of various other Swamp Thing projects in the eighties. Relaunching the book forty-four years later. Wow, right?

He writes Swamp Thing as a pro-wrestler. A bad, eighties pro-wrestler who talks trash and sells beef jerky. It’s startling. Because the rest of the comic isn’t a gag, it’s a very straightforward–if bright–callback to the mainstream chiller comics of the seventies. Only with Kelley Jones art and out of sync Kelley Jones art. Jones has done Swamp Thing before, to great effect (I think), but… here? No. The colors are wrong, but no. Still no. Jones and Wein are out of sync.

The comic isn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting much better, not Swampy talking trash to an alligator named Albert, not cruddy narration, not too cheap exploitative cliffhangers. Swamp Thing is dumb.

Plus, Wein’s got very limited imagination for what he can do in the book. Swamp Thing on a case. Who cares?

It’s a complete and utter misfire, which is simultaneously comforting and distressing.

CREDITS

The Dead Don’t Sleep; writer, Len Wein; artist, Kelley Jones; colorist, Michelle Madsen; letterer, Rob Leigh; editor, Rebecca Taylor; publisher, DC Comics.

The Fade Out 12 (January 2016)

The Fade Out #12

Well, it’s definitely great. The last issue of Fade Out is a great comic. And it’s a great close to the series. But does it elevate Brubaker and Phillips to that superior level of comic book creators, the ones only mentioned with hushed tones and reverence? I don’t know.

I don’t know yet.

I’ll have to reread The Fade Out someday, in one sitting, and decide. Because the pacing of this issue is key and I’m reading it in a single dose, but it was clearly broken out in plotting as part of a bigger whole. As a single serving, it’s that great success I just said. Brubaker and Phillips wrap things up and then wrap them up again. In doing so, they take readers through not just a recap of the story, but a recap of the experience of the comic, making them reexamine their own interpretations of the comic.

It’s really good writing. Brubaker’s comfortable with the cast, comfortable readers will get their sometimes abbreviated appearances. There’s a lot going on this issue, with Brubaker dropping two revelations (both make a reread seem like a good idea).

Phillips excels through all those complications. He even has this wonderful “Is that Clark Gable? I know that’s George Sanders” forties Hollywood visual in-joke element. He and Brubaker are doing a film noir as a comic, but stepped back, but still using film noir visual queues.

I don’t know what a perfectly finished Brubaker comic feels like (or, if I do, I can’t remember), but The Fade Out comes the closest.

CREDITS

Tomorrow, When the World is Free; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Judge Dredd 1 (December 2015)

JudgeDredd_MC001_cvrJudge Dredd is a venerable British pop culture icon who’s only recently grabbed a toehold in American pop cultural consciousness. Doctor Who, another sci-fi icon as British as The East India Tea Company, has made far more progress towards American popularity. The two couldn’t be further apart in terms of personality, although the stewards behind both franchises have made worthy efforts over the decades to use the sci-fi genre as an exploratory tool for ideas and satire, in addition to being a platform for fantastical adventure. One entirely valid explanation for the disparity in popularity is that Dredd is an inimitable archetype while The Doctor is, superficially, more relatable to an audience despite his not being human. Dredd is both a hypermasculine power fantasy and self-reflexive critique of that fantasy’s fascist authoritarianism – not unlike the American film he inspired, Robocop, whose darkly humorous irony is also often lost on audiences taking the premise at face value.

Doctor Who, despite hefty volumes of back story across decades of adventures, is nonetheless what he appears to be: a nerd in a scarf. His cosplay won’t deplete your bank account, and his esoteric, extraterrestrial lack of communication skills are a gentle reassuring nod to the socially withdrawn. He is a genteel aspirational role model of science and justice, whereas Dredd is a living setup to rude and irreverent punchlines about how life in a dystopic future metropolis isn’t all that different from the present day.

The most significant cause of Doctor Who surpassing Judge Dredd in an American popularity contest, of course, is that today’s nerds have never been less likely to read a comic book. The BBC continues to produce Doctor Who shows. Dredd 3D tanked because 1995’s Judge Dredd was so bad that the stench lingered for almost 20 years. Word of mouth gave it enough of an American cult following that the character was no longer a joke, but short attention spans still dictate the consumption habits of geeks. If it’s not a TV series or movie franchise in 2015, it doesn’t exist. Witness the multitudes who’ve never read The Killing Joke blowing Heath Ledger’s mummified member, or the middle management drone who couldn’t tell you Judge Death from Judge Judy informing me that Dredd 3D “finally got it right.” I don’t expect people to pass some bullshit nerd test designed by the Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Role-Playing Club before being allowed to have an opinion – but could everyone please stop pretending to be an informed longtime fan just to state that they enjoyed some recent movie or Netflix original series?

IDW, admirably, grabbed the post-Dredd surge of interest in the character with both fists, publishing Dredd artist collections, colorized reprints of classic stories like The Dark Judges and The Apocalpyse War, and most excitingly, a new regular title and various mini-series for the new American audience. The range of success has been inconsistent – Anderson, Psi-Division and Judge Dredd: Year One were forgettable, while Mega-City Two and Mars Attacks Judge Dredd were fun romps. The flagship series was a platform for selectively incorporating pieces of favorite storylines and characters, like Marvel’s “Ultimate” reboot, and maintained a fairy consistent level of quality across 30 issues from writer Duane Swierczynski and Nelson Daniel. Its only real shortcoming was the absence of variety in artists or writers that 2000 AD enjoyed; an unavoidable production difference between a weekly-produced strip and a monthly book.

When a series is relaunched, it’s sometimes hard to tell if the move is an act of desperation in the face of sluggish sales or affirmation in good faith of continued success – number one issues tend to sell well either way.

The all-new Judge Dredd 1 is a competently made, narratively risky point of entry for any new reader not already following IDW’s revival. It’s unclear if there’s meant to be continuity from the previous regular series (probably not) but it wouldn’t matter at the offset of this initial storyline anyways: Ulises Fariñas, the excellent illustrator of Mega-City Two and his co-writer Erick Freitas have gone all Crossed +100 on Dredd and flung him into the post-post-Apocalpse, a storyline entitled Mega-City Zero, where he finds himself at the moss covered remains of what might be the last Mega-Block on Earth. The concept is certainly intriguing, as is the business calculation that a casual fan of Dredd 3D will feel familiar enough with the character to begin investment in a story where he’s out of his element.

Or rather, it’s a refutation of what had to be a really underwhelming response to 2000 AD‘s own attempt to appeal to Dredd 3D fans directly.

The proposal is thoughtful insofar as Dredd 3D also stranded him without support from the Justice Department, though it also stands to reason that anyone picking up this comic in lieu of a Dredd 2 would want to see more of Mega-City One, rather than Dredd again bringing The Law to another block under control by a despotic ruler. Granted, the issue ends before any major antagonist is revealed, so it would be nice if the storyline isn’t as predictable as it seems. Anderson makes a pointless cameo at the beginning of the story, hopefully this tossed-off introduction isn’t solely so she can later save Dredd’s hash as she’s often done when Old Stony Face gets stranded in another time or dimension.

Plot aside, Fariñas & Freitas’ script has some nice contrast between Dredd’s by-the-book proceduralisms and the slang of the kid hoodlums he first encounters outside the perimeter of the lone Year Zero block. There are some world-building details in spite of the usual rules not applying – robot judges guard the block, humanoid animals are seen outside (the Mutant/mutie slur goes unuttered) and Dredd reviews the ammunition of his Lawgiver – as did Dredd 3D. I’m a little irritated that the trio of ragamuffin savages who are arrested by Dredd and thereby taken under his protection get almost as much of the spotlight as he does, in this new debut.

Dan McDaid’s art is less clean and precise than Nelson Daniel’s, which at least fits the grunginess of this particular story. The lack of detailing only really hurts peoples’ faces – it feels even sparser than Mega-City Two. His figure composition has a nice Mike McMahon-esque dynamism, including during the action sequences. Ryan Hill’s colors bring an appropriately lush earthiness to the outdoor meadows – I’d just like to know what their Mega-City One will look like.

The new Judge Dredd’s opening arc might not turn out to be the best initiation for new fans, but as Dredd adventures go, this one seems to have serviceable talent behind it.

CREDITS

Mega-City Zero: Part One, writers, Ulises Fariñas and Erick Freitas; artist, Dan McDaid; colorist, Ryan Hill, letterer, Chris Mowry; editor, Denton J. Tipton; publisher, IDW.

The New Deal (2015)

The New Deal

If it were still the nineties (or even the early 2000s), The New Deal would be the hot Vertigo book with TV or movie buzz. How could there not be? It’s perfect. It’s got two strong female protagonists and one lovable, but not dismissive, male protagonist. Creator Jonathan Case goes a little overboard with the celebrity name dropping, but he’s doing it affectionately.

And the idea of someone not caring about being directed by Orson Welles in 1936 is kind of awesome.

There’s a peculiar pace to the comic too. Dark Horse didn’t go with a limited series, even though the comic is split into four thirty-two page chapters, and it’s hard to say if Deal would read as well in multiple sittings. The art would still be fantastic, but Case employs a few too many red herrings. They’d get annoying stretched out over four months. Over forty minutes or so, however, the red herrings just become part of the comic’s texture.

The format also allows Case’s art room to breathe. He’s got a lot of detail in the setting, but he’s more interested in the characters and how they interact with one another. He paces out conversations beautifully. He never quite goes long enough to call it “talking heads,” either. And he manages a lot of visual expression humor in a realistic style.

Maybe I just want it to be a Vertigo series from twenty years ago because then it would definitely get another series. Case sets it up beautifully; it’s a complete change from the beginning of the comic, but an entirely reasonable resolution.

It’s an awesome book.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Jonathan Case; editors, Spencer Cushing and Sierra Hahn; publisher, Dark Horse Comics.

Rocket Girl 7 (November 2015)

Rocket Girl #7

It’s probably too soon to say Rocket Girl is back. A lot of it seems back, whether it’s Reeder’s artwork (amazing as always, like Blade Runner meets The Rocketeer for kids), or just how much Montclare gives Dayoung to do. She’s the hero and she needs to be treated as such.

Once again, the comic toggles between past and future. Well, present (1985) and past (2025 or something). The future stuff really isn’t interesting. Montclare doesn’t give the teen detectives any character beyond playing with cop and young adult stereotypes. It feels like a lame cartoon.

But the past? The past is just amazing, at least this issue. One of the nicest textures of it is how Dayoung isn’t just stuck in a time before teen detectives, but she’s in a culture different from the reader as well. I’m not sure how well Montclare does with it (I wasn’t a teen of the eighties), but it reads fine. Though who knows how much Reeder’s art affects it. The comic wouldn’t work without her.

Rocket Girl needs her.

CREDITS

Now What?!; writer, Brandon Montclare; artist, Amy Reeder; publisher, Image Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 1 (November 2016)

1500x1500_f7053631fab02ddb09c3e5e2680f91c2a783acc3d0f517464c4f38b4In December 2001, a follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns was a momentous occasion. Batman fandom was in hibernation. The character had been in the mainstream spotlight for a solid ten year epoch, starting with The Dark Knight Returns, continuing through the Burton movies, the animated series and finally flaming out with Batman & Robin. In hindsight it was a time of limbo between disinterest from the general public and the oncoming renewal of interest from an unholy collusion of bros and manboys in the form of sadistic video games and Christopher Nolan movies: Batman reinvented for the torture porn set.

At the time, it had been two years since Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and three months since September 11th. We not only needed the reassurance of our pop cultural icons, we needed reassurance that our pop cultural icons would not let us down again. Into this maelstrom returned Frank Miller, who’d made Batman grimdarknight forevermore in the pseudo-cyber, pseudo-punk decade of the 80s, that time which in 2001 hadn’t even yet been consummated (along with the 90s) as consumer pop culture’s halcyon era. Surely Frank would not, could not let us down. He would make – or rather, re-make (again) Bats and deliver the gut punch to the brain that The Dark Knight Returns had been to any young reader in 1986, or 1996, or even 2001.

Instead, The Dark Knight Strikes Again was a colorful, hyperkinetic pinball ride around the DCU. It’s “about” post-9/11 stuff, sure. The police state, terrorism, media schizophrenia – but in the abstract and without the specific real world references Miller used to address similar topics in 1986. Reagan, for example, was in The Dark Knight Returns, but Bush 2 was not in Dark Knight 2. The story was barely even about Batman: he and Carrie Kelly go around gathering up an all-star team-up of every retired superhero from The Atom to Plastic Man in a crusade against Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson pretends to be the Joker to take revenge on Batman, a twist DC and Judd Winick obviously liked enough to rip off a few years later in Under the Red Hood. Caught up in the middle somewhere are Superman, Wonder Woman and their daughter Lara.

The story was a mess, but the art was pretty cool in a completely loose and crazy way, so jarringly different from The Dark Knight Returns that it was extremely difficult to appreciate at the time. Miller going wild with DC iconography, instead of telling a focused Batman story, was frustrating.

Another 15 years later we now have Dark Knight III. The phrase that became a franchise unto itself. The Dark Knight. The first Batman movie about something, for smart people. “‘The Dark Knight Returns’?” she asked me. “Don’t you mean ‘The Dark Knight Rises’?”. No, I began to explain, it’s a new animated movie based on a graphic novel from 1986…

Dark Knight III is still, at least, an event. An event for whomever so loves characters-appearing-in-publications-by-DC Comics enough to buy some of those publications, and perhaps be persuaded to shell out a little extra for some many dozens of variant covers. Really, it’s all a promotional expense to drum up enthusiasm for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Per that unspoken edict, the comic already feels like Dark Knight 2 redesigned by committee. Gone is the unhinged Frank Miller art and Lynne Varley colors, replaced with the clean modern pencils of Andy Kubert, and colors by Brad Anderson which resemble Dark Knight ’86. Gotham City’s skyline resembles the 80s near-future of Anton Furst, and on the very next page is the return of Commissioner Ellen Yindel. Ellen Yindel!! She wasn’t even in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. While Superman and Wonder Woman’s daughter Lara is back from Strikes Again, the otherwise total lack of continuity from The Master Race’s predecessor strongly suggests that Miller and co-writer Brian Azzarello were instructed by DC to work from the supposition that Strikes Again never happened. I’m shocked they even titled it numerically.

While Wonder Woman and Superman (who, not coincidentally, are both in Batman v. Superman) show up along with their daughter and even The Atom, Miller & Azzarello are already making it clear that this is a Batman story. The opening, narrated with text messages, shows him save a black kid from murderous cops (ooh, topical!) and by the end of the issue he is revealed as a she (ditto) – Carrie Kelly taking over as Batman for an apparently dead Bruce Wayne is the paint-by-numbers sequel people wanted in 2001.

The provocative subtitle was seemingly chosen to troll liberal-progressive fanboys still sore about Miller’s “Islamaphobic” Holy Terror graphic novel (which originally starred Batman) and anti-Occupy Wall Street comments of recent years. The Black Lives Matter theme is something of a curveball for everyone, but considering Lara wants The Atom’s help to big-ify the bottled city of Kandor it’s not hard to predict that “The Master Race” probably refers to how the Kandor-ites will regard themselves upon attaining human size, in yet another humdrum routine of the essential Batman vs. Superman conflict about human/superhuman power/responsibility. But we’ll see.

The only really intriguing and positive aspect of The Dark Knight III’s debut is that 15 pages of it are a mini-comic-within-a-comic, drawn by Miller himself, covering the scene wherein Lara brings Kandor to The Atom. Playing with the medium’s format is always good. Miller reigns in his art style to a conventional look compatible with Kubert’s, and he must really love The Atom because Strikes Again opened with a near-identical sequence of Carrie Kelly rescuing him from prison. It’s his own little nod to his own private Dark Knight Universe, and anyone who’s kept up with it.

Which isn’t easy. And only intermittently rewarding. Topical or not, “Book One” doesn’t immediately grab you the way The Dark Knight Returns does to this day, or even the way The Dark Knight Strikes Again did with its expectation-defying audaciousness. But he’s still got seven more issues to do something with old Bats even as inadvertently iconic as “I’m the Goddamn Batman.”

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book One; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert and Frank Miller; inks, Klaus Janson; colorists, Brad Anderson and Alex Sinclair; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

Pretty Deadly 6 (November 2015)

Pretty Deadly #6

I missed Pretty Deadly. I forgot what it was like to read a comic aware of its genre possibilities, acknowledging of them to some degree, but entirely disinterested in taking part. As a result, the comic is its own thing, something strange and ethereal and beautiful from DeConnick and Rios.

This issue definitely starts off a new arc, dealing with the descendants of the previous characters (set in World War I, at home and in France). DeConnick doesn’t introduce or reintroduce anyone (the text prologue has very little to do with the majority of the issue). Instead, it’s just time to read Pretty Deadly again.

The amount of work Rios and DeConnick put into the visual construction of the comic is reason alone to read it. It’s cohesive, yet full of little visual sequences–not subplots as much as narrative tangents–all with a mildly different approach.

DeConnick’s thoughtful, deliberate characterizations keep it from ever getting too hostile to distracted readers. Even though there’s a fantastical, dreary, magical world, because the characters are able to navigate it, so is the reader.

It’s great to have it back.

CREDITS

Writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick; artist, Emma Rios; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Sigrid Ellis; publisher, Image Comics.

The Fade Out 11 (November 2015)

The Fade Out #11

Ed Brubaker is about to deliver. He and Sean Phillips are break the skylight and get onto the roof. The Fade Out, an entirely grounded detective story set in Hollywood, is about to be where Brubaker joins the very small group of comics writers who I will buy regardless. Because what they do will be something special, even if its mainstream, because their styles may not reflect how comics are progressing as a narrative art form right now, but they will in a few years.

It’s like if Sleeper: Season Two had actually been as good as the first series. It’s like if Captain America really were as good as Catwoman. Brubaker jumps between projects with impatience. He gets excited for the new shiny. Only Fade Out doesn’t have the shiny, it just has the skills. It has the writing and the art and the writer’s understanding of what the art is going to do to this story. Brubaker understands how the comic book is going to read and he lets it inform how he’s writing.

It’s entirely commercial, entirely artistic and sublimely elegant.

He could screw it all up next issue, of course.

That would be very sad.

As for the comic itself, Brubaker gets around to revealing some things Gil should have known about from Charlie. Not to mention the reader. The reader should have known too. Except it works better here defining Charlie as a person, making him more understandable. It’s a genre standard and Brubaker pulls it off.

Then it’s Gil and Charlie on an adventure. It’s amazing. And Charlie’s narration of it, with how the plot progresses and then how Phillips illustrates it, that adventure is where Brubaker and Phillips do something extraordinary. They show how comics noir is its own genre. They prove the argument of their last ten years of work.

Even if The Fade Out flops next issue, Brubaker and Phillips have done something extraordinary with it.

CREDITS

Anyone Else But Me; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Crossed + One Hundred 11 (October 2015)

crossed100-11reg-600x928‘Slims, churchface surprises, a refugee crisis with possible in-filled-traitors. Crossed +100 is the most satirically relevant dystopic sci-fi of modern times that no-one is reading because it’s a comic book. A lot more will read Frank Miller’s oncoming Dark Knight III: The Master Race (myself included) which will doubtlessly contain a lot of heavy handed, big-fisted references to the state of world affairs. Alan Moore’s funhouse mirror to our clash of civilizations leads the reader to reconsider recent events – chiefly the proliferation of barbarism and resulting struggle to defend ourselves without losing human decency – through the disarmingly pulpy prism of the Crossed franchise. The clever conceit of Garth Ennis’ original story was to make the zombie apocalypse subgenre more human and therefore scarier. This spinoff’s logical next step of evolving the Crossed as an organized force of religious terrorism is so uncannily relatable and disturbing as to not only render the old George Romero films kind of quaint by comparison (which Ennis’ original run did a pretty good job of anyways) but to also dissipate any suspense within the flagship series Crossed: Badlands. No wonder Kieron Gillen’s recent arc Homo Tortor was set set in the ancient past, essentially Crossed Minus Seventy-Five Thousand.

Actually talking about issue 11 now; life amongst the survivalers has hit the tipping point where Future’s warnings can’t be ignored any longer. There’s been a back and forth between installments in seeing her go out to learn more about the Salt-Crossed’s moves, then fruitlessly reporting back her findings to Murfreesboro. This is the chapter when the situation finds its way back with her, and it’s not the attackers but the wounded who are banging at the doors. Rafa Ortiz’s sketchy, thin-lined art is wholly suited to depicting the poor and tired huddled masses, while consternation grows amongst the settled. What’s slightly off is that sometimes his character’s faces will appear rushed or haphazardly constructed in some panels, and then become amazingly, painstakingly detailed on the very next page. Halfway through the comic Si Spurrier writes a terrific dialogue between Future and Mustaqba, wherein Ortiz gives Fewch kind of a goofy “angry” face at the start. By the scene’s climax she has one of the most startlingly withered looks of desperation in the entire series so far. Despite that occasional unevenness, Ortiz turns in great work throughout on a challenging variety of scenes: refugee crowds, flashbacks to battle, another heated argument between Future and Ima’am Fajr. There’s also a mysterious and imposing new character who may or may not be another Robbie Greer / Jokemercy.

If we’re still allowed to read comic books a hundred years from now we might be studying Crossed + One Hundred, not necessarily for storytelling technique but as a record of how contemporary fears are more honestly dramatized under the mainstream radar by less genteel entertainments – horror movies, sure, but now also horror comics.

CREDITS

Writer, Simon Spurrier; Series Outline, Alan Moore; artist, Rafa Ortiz; colorist, Digikore Studios; lettering, Jaymes Reed; publisher, Avatar Press.

Crossed + One Hundred 10 (September 2015)

crossed one hundred 10It took me two readings of this issue to realize why it feels like the shortest in the series thus far: terse dialogue between two peoples, the Crossed and the non, is made twice as terse by the rules of Alan Moore’s debilitated future English. Nearly half the pages are an excruciatingly tense standoff between Future and the camp she and her exploratory party stumbled upon, and new info gleaned about the Salt-Crossed is kept in line with Moore & Spurrier’s highly disciplined rationing of revelations across the second arc. Spurrier’s ear for dialogue might actually be better amongst the Salt-Crossed and their sickly lower-tier classes than Future and her fellow survivalers. The introduction of uncrossed humans indoctrinated as servants to the empire of Bosol is a harrowing, barely fictionalized snapshot of how slave mentality continues to function when the slave masters are away.

The only downside to this excellent scene is that it takes so little time to read, there’s barely any story left in the remaining pages. I actually went back and counted them, thinking I’d been short-changed from the usual 22. A heavy firefight action bit in the middle section also sped up the pacing. Since it’s all in greater service of the plot rather than gratuitous pandering, however, you can’t really complain.

Of equal weight to new developments in Future’s adventures, Crossed +One Hundred now has a third artist in the fold: Rafa Ortiz, who’s apparently done prior work elsewhere in the CCU (Crossed Comics Universe.) The changeover from Fernando Heinz is a mixed bag. Though his skills aren’t equal to Gabriel Andrade’s, his character acting still strives towards a comparable level of realism rather than manga-inspired rendering. The grit is back. But man-oh-man, there are two panels that are just BLATANTLY re-used near the beginning of that confrontation sequence, abruptly jerking you right out of the moment. They actually almost mirror each other across the two-page spread, it’s kind of impossible to ignore. Not sure if that’s Avatar’s fault or his – both this and the previous issue are dated for September, what was the big rush?

Hopefully we don’t see that kind of sloppiness again. Especially since Ortiz proves himself otherwise capable throughout his debut installment, both at staging action and depicting complicated outdoor crowd scenes, as he does on the final page. Those two aspects will doubtless become more critical as the saga continues simmering to a boil.

CREDITS

Writer, Simon Spurrier; Series Outline, Alan Moore; artist, Rafa Ortiz; colorist, Digikore Studios; lettering, Jaymes Reed; publisher, Avatar Press.

Back to the Future 1 (October 2015)

BttF01_cvrIt’s been less than a month since Back to the Future Day and now we are all, like David Byrne sang in “The Book I Read,” living in the future. The Back to the Future book I read marks a personal point of no return for Back to the Future fandom which I didn’t know I had; the moment the train finally jumps the holographic Jaws 19 shark right into Clayton Ravine. This isn’t a terrible comic, merely “meh”, but that mediocrity forces the question to even the most strident BTTF fan: when is it all enough?

With “(x) years until hoverboards” jokes stale forevermore and the first film’s 30th anniversary also in the DeLorean rearview, subsequent Back to the Future revivals are going to feel pretty redundant when fans have already been treated so well by the nostalgia factory of modern pop culture. In the immediate and intervening years after Part III  there was the cartoon spinoff, the Universal Studios ride, exhaustively spiffed-up DVD and Blu-Ray re-releases, frequent parodies and homages, and new official merchandise virtually every year since 1991. Fans who waited for some type of Back to the Future Part IV more or less got their wish with a very well designed adventure game by Telltale Games in 2010, for which Christopher Lloyd voiced Doc Brown and Thomas F. Wilson recently recorded Biff’s dialogue for the re-release. At some point, insisting on yet more celebrations and revivals of these characters starts to come off as obsessive and greedy. Ultimately there’s just not all that much depth to be plumbed with these characters. Marty McFly isn’t exactly Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Oedipal complexities notwithstanding.

The trilogy’s co-writer Bob Gale has been the guiding hand behind BTTF’s continued vitality, serving as story consultant on the cartoon, the adventure game and now (unsurprisingly) this four-part mini-series comic, all the while giving interviews to anyone who’s ever asked about the continued vitality of BTTF. On the last page before the ads he writes an editorial about his goals for the book, basically stating that since the franchise has already spun out maximum mileage on alternate timeline tomfoolery, this comic could best be utilized to tell new backstories about our beloved Doc and Marty. Prequels! They’re like sequels, only more unnecessary! He’s mostly right to acknowledge that people loved the movies because of the characters, but let’s get real, there’s only two types of Back to the Future fans. There’s people who like the quirky, magical love story of the first one and also have some affection for the sweet, sincere love story of the third, and then there’s people who like screaming UNLESS YOU’VE GOT POW-AHHH!!! and seeing Thomas F. Wilson play seven different versions of the same hilarious asshole. Everything Back to the Future related since the third movie has catered to the latter, partially because it’s the bigger audience but pragmatically because Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson are more expendable. Just ask Jeffrey Weissman.

Issue one of Back to the Future: The IDW Comic launches two storylines. One is Doc telling Clara, Jules and Verne flashback stories about stuff that happened back in the future – in this installment, how he met Marty. In the other, we join Doc circa 1943 apparently being recruited for The Manhattan Project by Robert Oppenheimer. They both read like middling fan fiction, which is really, really bad for stories conceived and partially co-scripted by the series’ original co-author. The biggest problem may be that the trilogy’s appeal is so intractable from its great filmmaking; the excellent cast well directed in a clockwork story seamlessly rendered with expert photography, editing and music. I turn the pages of this book trying to hear the actor’s voices speaking the lines with Alan Silvestri’s music cues behind them, but it just isn’t happening. Like licensed-property video games, comic books have come a long way, but the less spectacle in the franchise the harder the translation. Not that Back to the Future isn’t closer to Star Wars than Crimes and Misdemeanors, but without any time travel in the story, it quickly becomes obvious that we had already had all the facts we needed about Doc and Marty before they started their adventures.

The art on the second story is by Dan Schoening, one of IDW’s top talents who does routinely high quality work on some of their other licensed books like Ghostbusters. His character’s faces are cartoonish but solidly constructed, and set atop realistically proportioned bodies, which is an odd mix when Oppenheimer shows up. His backgrounds are well detailed, which makes the 1940s period setting convincing – Doc’s messy apartment, the Caltech campus, it all looks terrific, as do Luis Antonio Delgado’s colors. But it’s only 6 pages long. The 14 page opening feature story about young Marty breaking into Doc’s garage to steal something for Needles, and then getting offered a job…eh, the art by Brent Schoonover is just as underwhelming as the plot, and next to Schoening’s it’s kind of embarrassing. Kelly Fitzpatrick’s colors aren’t great either, everything is unnaturally primary or fluorescent. It manages to be garish and boring at the same time.

The back cover of Back to the Future is an ad for Back to the Future: The Card Game. An equally superfluous product, it may still be more inspired than this comic. At this point, Bob Gale should hang up the Flux Capacitor and instead redirect his efforts towards raising some long-overdue attention for his and Zemeckis’ abandoned children, Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

 

CREDITS

When Marty Met Emmett; story, Bob Gale; script, Bob Gale & John Barber; artist, Brent Schoonover; Inks, David Witt; Colors, Kelly Fitzpatrick; Looking For a Few Good Scientists; story, Bob Gale; script, Erik Burnham; artist, David Schoening; publisher, IDW.

Howard the Human (October 2015)

Howard the Human (2015) 001-000This one-shot, like so many, is a thought experiment. Howard’s creator Steve Gerber already did the titular gimmick back in Howard 19 of making him human for an entire issue, demonstrating it’s not the vessel, but the person inside who matters. He also turned Howard into a mouse during his 2001 Marvel Max mini-series official return to the character, just to prove this point after his own creation had been wrested away and humiliated by the likes of George Lucas and Disney. Given Chip Zdarsky’s utterly lackadaisical Howard reboot that Marvel squeezed out earlier this year, could another, better writer restore him to some kind of Steve Gerber-esque integrity?

Well, no. In Howard the Human, Marvel’s new “Howard” is stripped of the superficial resemblance to his avian self (and by corollary, stupid duck-related puns) and becomes solely what the company ultimately regards him as: a cipher for the Marvel Universe all-star parade of cameos by characters who’ve proven profitable in live-action. Skottie Young’s story isn’t even poorly constructed; he’s apparently a good writer as evinced by I Hate Fairyland, of which surely no coincidence is another stranger-in-a-strange land tale. The issue opens with some corporate diarrhea about this particular story’s connection to the new “Secret Wars” / “Battleworld” “event” which presumably explains why Howard is still a private detective but now a human being in a city full of talking animals (“New Quack City” – is Marvel’s target audience supposed to get a blaxploitation movie reference from 1991?) This world also hosts talking animal versions of the Black Cat, Daredevil and the Kingpin, and Howard is entangled in a blackmail/murder frame-up between them. Because what are you going to do, make a Howard story about Howard? If Zdarsky didn’t, why should Young?

I hadn’t even realized until reading this comic that Howard’s recent reboot doesn’t allow him to smoke his beloved cigars anymore. Because CHILDREN might be reading these things, and it would jeopardize all of Marvel’s anti-tobacco advertising dollars. Yet in the opening scene he’s pounding down shots in a bar. Zap! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!

Jim Mahfood, who presumably emerged out of the same cryogenic stasis capsule from the 90s that released Jhonen Vasquez, does his Jim Mahfood-y thing on the art and does it well. Justin Stewart’s coloring compliments him perfectly. They’re actually really good choices for the funky 70s vibe the story is aiming towards.

Still, waaagh.

CREDITS

Howard the Human; writer, Skottie Young; artist, Jim Mahfood; colorist, Justin Stewart; letterer, Travis Lanham; editor, Jon Moisan; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Fade Out 10 (October 2015)

The Fade Out #10

Brubaker’s winding up. This issue of The Fade Out is the part of the detective novel where the detective–in this case Charlie, who’s not particularly good at it–is collecting all the final details to have his breakthrough. In fact, the narration hints Charlie’s confident in his conclusions, which means Brubaker’s got next issue to stir it up more and then the last issue to let it all settle. Not a bad structure, but it does mean there isn’t much to this issue.

There’s exposition and some revelation, but there’s no character development. Brubaker sets the issue during the wrap party for the movie, which should be a big thing. It’s not. It’s a logical narrative progression–Charlie using the party for cover on his investigating–as the story wraps up.

The last few issues of The Fade Out have been breathtaking. This issue’s good, narratively important, but it’s not breathtaking. It’s a necessity and it coasts on existing momentum. Fingers crossed Brubaker is able to stir up some speed in the next issue.

Phillips’s art, of course, is breathtaking. One never has to worry about him.

CREDITS

Where Angels Fear to Tread; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Crossed + One Hundred 9 (September 2015)

Crossed One Hundred 9Like Alan Moore, Spurrier respects the value of a single issue. There’s a substantial amount of plot development in this one, with reading time expanded by the process of deciphering future-speak, at which Spurrier is gradually getting better and more clever. Fernando Heinz’s art still occasionally does the characters a disservice with distractingly cartoonish facial expressions during tough, emotional scenes, but his panel compositions are rock solid, as are his crowd scenes and backgrounds. There’s a flashy two-page splash reveal near the beginning, which is really nice to pause on and explore. Spurrier is also working in conjunction with Heinz in more creative ways; using flashbacks, panel breaks within static angles, internal thought balloon counterpoints and other cool tricks.

What Spurrier and Moore achieve with Crossed+One Hundred number 9 is that like the previous issue’s unsettling new angle on the strategies of the Salt-Crossed, this one raises unpleasant questions about the limitations of religious leadership in the post-apocalypse. Moore’s introduction of the ‘Slims as the last surviving faith after The Surprise in his original arc was one of the more brilliant details, and now this second arc is addressing the implications. The casual homosexuality and female leadership have already been touched upon as plusses for a formerly repressive religion made pluralistic by necessity, but now Future is hitting the glass ceiling when she needs Murfreesboro’s help the most: her hair’s in a scarf, not a full hijab. They’re only going to listen to and respect someone so much who isn’t a member of the faith, ditto Cautious. There’s an arrogant trust in God’s benevolence that everything will work out, keeping them from heeding their warnings. Meanwhile, that other faith-based organization of the post-Surprise world – who have no qualms about reproducing images of their prophet – are employing Dark Ages tactics of proselytization, Taqiyya and Jizya with expert efficacy.

The thought-provoking satirical details of this theocratic in-fighting are unfortunately at a slight cost to the logic of the story: Future finally has evidence, VIDEO evidence of the Salt-Crossed working their unholy plans, and she still can’t rally everyone together yet? It was already a stretch to accept that Murfreesboro wouldn’t listen to her about what REALLY happened to Chooga, and write it off as some freak incident of unpreparedness against a breakout from within, or attack from outside, by run-of-the-mill churchface illbillies. Chooga wasn’t just some two-bit settle, you’d think they’d afford Future and Cautious some credit as the only surviving witnesses. But they’re women – and infidel women at that – so perhaps that’s the point.

It’s totally forgivable for the overall quality of the package, including a disturbing new revelation about the Salt-Crossed’s social castes, which leads into a great cliffhanger.

Crossed + 100 continues to impress.

CREDITS

Writer, Simon Spurrier; Series Outline, Alan Moore; artist, Fernando Heinz; colorist, Digikore Studios; letterer, Jaymes Reed; publisher, Avatar Press.

From Under Mountains 1 (September 2015)

From Under Mountains #1

I like Sloane Leong’s art. I really do. She’s got a great way of doing movement, whether characters or environmental. And her expressions are fantastic.

But I’m not sure about From Under Mountains. It’s fantasy, or at least full of fantasy gobbledygook names–the comic comes to life when it’s actual fantasy, something about a maleficent spirit (gorgeous movement from Leong on those parts)–but the rest of it is boring.

The protagonist is a princess who has no rights, no power. Her brother gets to do all these exciting things, she just has to get married off. Her dad’s a jerk. Her brother’s sympathetic but he’s deceiving the father too for something else so he doesn’t get involved. And besides the spirit, there are enemies attacking their palace.

The “story” is okay. It’s Claire Gibson’s script. It’s way too obvious, all of the time. Leong’s art helps Mountains get through, but there’s just nothing there. It’s too slight.

CREDITS

Writers, Marian Churchland and Claire Gibson; artist, Sloane Leong; letterer, Ariana Maher; publisher, Image Comics.

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