Nimona (2015)

Nimona  2015

Nimona started as a webcomic, which explains some of how creator Noelle Stevenson paces it and sets the narrative distance. It often feels very much like a traditional newspaper strip, showing the (admittedly peculiar) domestic lives of its cast. The first book opens with teen Nimona sneaking into supervillain Balister Blackheart’s secret lair, telling him the agency has sent him a sidekick to help his image with the youths. Turns out it’s not true and Nimona just wants to be a protege to the world’s greatest supervillain.

Balister’s not having it… until Nimona shows her shapeshifting powers; then she’s hired.

The first portion of the book introduces Balister and Nimona and a little bit of the world. Stevenson’s mix of medieval designs, futuristic science, and a pinch of magic is fantastic. There’s TV, but jousting. Jousting is presumably covered on TV. There just aren’t cars. There are refrigerators. There’s pizza delivery. Stevenson’s art style is comic strip simple so there’s never any clash with the objects; Nimona whining about Balister’s empty fridge doesn’t take the outdoor food markets into account, there’s just a fridge.

The clashes also lead to some good jokes and excellent moments throughout. Nimona takes place in a world without religion, just science on one side and magic on the other. There’s a monarch, but there’s law enforcement is all through an ostensibly transparent “Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics.” The Institution figures into Balister’s villain origin story, which he recounts to Nimona, and haunts him a decade later. Balister and possibly unrequited but definitely on the way to it lover Ambrosius were the two best knights. When it came time for them to compete (to graduate), Balister won and Ambrosius shot Balister’s arm off to be petty.

Can’t be a single-armed knight for the Institution.

So Balister becomes a villain and works to destroy the Institution while Ambrosius the Insitute’s enforcer and pawn, blindly following orders. But—as we learn once Balister starts taking Nimona into scraps with the Institution and Ambrosius, the two arch-enemies have a code of conduct. Ambrosius isn’t going to kill Balister and Balister isn’t going to kill civilians, a concept it takes Nimona a while to grok. She’s ready to burn the whole place down—literally—assuming Balister wants to rule as the new king.

The philosophical discussions of villainy are where Stevenson does some of the best work—as far as dialogue goes, the second half of the book is a rollercoaster of action—because there’s the disconnect with the sweet girl being a more vicious plotter than the bad guy. Balister’s character development is one of the most intense things in Nimona because you’re not necessarily on his side for his choices. He’s the protagonist of the last quarter of the book, but he’s not really the hero. You wish he was doing other things. He’s got his prejudices and faults. It creates a very complex book, especially given where everything goes as far as the Institution. There are enigmas wrapped in riddles inside mysteries and whatnot. Even when Stevenson makes it clear to the reader the Institution is dangerous, it’s never clear how dangerous. Especially to the… heroes.

As for Nimona’s origin, it’s even more tragic. She saved a witch in a well, the witch giving her the power to save her village from bandits, except the witch turned her into a dragon to do it, which scared the villagers. Running away, Nimona discovered she could shapeshift at will; but once she got back to herself, the village was already destroyed. Great moment in the comic when she tells that story. It rends Balister, which is particularly impressive since Stevenson does it all in the visual pacing. That comic strip pacing she establishes right off and keeps going until the final act.

And even though Nimona is a collection of strips—strips of varying length—it does have a nice epical flow to it. The second act has Nimona discovering it’s better to be Robin Hood than the Joker and Balister realizing his a lot more capable of positive feelings toward other human beings than he thought. Nimona helps him recover from old wounds, physical and emotional, but having her around puts her in increasing danger. The Institution is willing to let Balister do his villainy because it gives them a public enemy; the shapeshifting sidekick is changing the balance of power and she’s got to go, putting Balister and Ambrosius on an all new collision course.

Stevenson maintains a great balance of humor and drama—with a little bit of angst (Ambrosius’s boss at the Institution berates him for his relationship with Balister, which is nowhere near the worst thing she does, but is definitely the cruelest)—and then brings on the action. Sometimes Stevenson follows the biggest action, sometimes she avoids it to track the smaller actions. The biggest action isn’t great art-wise. Stevenson’s style scales up to a certain point but beyond it, some of the details are good but the action itself is cluttered. It’s a little nit to pick because Nimona’s all about the characters and the characters are great.

Even Ambrosius, who’s a complete tool. It’s just how well Stevenson writes this complete tool.

There’s also a great wacky scientist who Balister teams up with on a project; she’s a lot of fun. Even though it’s all deadly serious, there’s always a layer of fun. Except maybe in the climax, which is part of the problem with it. The book changes gears quickly—with a too short transition—and Stevenson has a reveal she doesn’t have time to properly explore.

Third act rushes and action set piece comic strip styling issues aside, Nimona’s excellent, ambitious work from Stevenson.

Flimsy’s Mewsings (2020)

Flimsy s Mewsings  2020

Flimsy’s Mewsings is approximately thirty-seven single page comic strips—there’s one two-pager, a recipe—of adorable kitten Flimsy offering life advance. Gentle stuff like be kind to yourself, remember the lesson and forget the mistake, be genuinely interested in other people, email the friends you haven’t in a while, drink wine, try to remember “guys” is a gender-exclusive term (as in “hey guys”), drink some more wine, take twenty-five minute naps, and be happy for your friends when they succeed and you aren’t currently succeeding.

Artistically, the book is accessible for all—creator Rachael Smith doesn’t do a lot of detail in the strips, but when she’s doing splash pages she’s got some excellent detail. Where she’s really got it down is the coloring. Well, lettering too, but the way the colors give a page emotional weight is fantastic. Mewsings art is of the deceptively simple variety.

But content-wise—and not just because, for a kitten, Flimsy can get her wine on—it’s aimed at a somewhat older readership. At least out of high school. Flimsy’s problems aren’t the problems of someone in constant social situations; in fact, Flimsy’s Mewsings has some great unintentional tips for spring 2020 as it turns out. The kinds of things you forget and need to remember to tell yourself… well, Flimsy’s there to help.

Smith and Flimsy never come across as, well, flimsy. Even the simplest observations are sincerely expressed with a great sense of humor. Flimsy’s recounting of her father’s obvious inspiring one-liners and Flimsy’s obvious reactions come across perfectly thanks to Smith’s sense of timing, as the panel compositions and the color choices convey.

Mewsings gets a smile fast and keeps it going until the end.

The Punisher Presents Barracuda (2007)

The Punisher Presents Barracuda  2007

Barracuda is one of Garth Ennis’s… what shall we call them… NC-17 action comedy limited series. He’s got a bunch of them at Vertigo, a few a handful of other places. The difference with Barracuda is it’s for Marvel (it’s the only Punisher MAX spin-off, which is something since Ennis loved spin-offs for Preacher and The Boys) and it’s maybe a little more… edgy as a pejorative for that thing White guys do edgy. Bad Tarantino and Tarantino knock-offs. Every twentieth word or so from series hero Barracuda is starts with ni- and ends in -ga. I wonder if you counted them you could figure out how many the editors at Marvel let Ennis have each issue….

Then there’s the main villain, Big Chris (as in Christopher Walken—Barracuda works best when you read Chris’s lines in Walken’s voice, which the lettering actually works towards, and Barracuda in JB Smoove’s, though you’d never really want to see Smoove play Barracuda as Barracuda’s a vicious sociopathic cannibal and Smoove’s really likable). Starting with Big Chris’s return to the story—he hires Barracuda in the first part, then Barracuda betrays him in the second, and Big Chris is back in the third issue and calling Barracuda a different racial epithet at the end of every sentence. Because Barracuda buys into brothers in arms—Airborne, crime, etc—over racism. Because it’s funny to have a racist sheriff hang out with Barracuda and call him slurs. It’s the kind of post-racist thing you’d expect to see after Obama was president but Ennis is a trailblazer so it’s a couple years early.

It also doesn’t add up to anything so it’s kind of pointless to look at it so hard.

Ennis fills the five issue series with eclectic, funny but unlikable characters. There’s Barracuda, obviously, who—at least in this series—only sexually assaults men; the women are all willing. He puts together various plans throughout, which keep changing based on his inability to successfully predict how his machinations will play out. We don’t get a lot of the plans. Occasionally Ennis showcases them with a monologue or two, but more often we hear the adjustments when Barracuda’s telling other people about them.

The biggest subplot in the series are these two FBI agents, one old, one young, who are trying to use Barracuda’s plotting to arrest Big Chris. It all takes place in a fictional South American Reagan Republic, where Barracuda and his team of military advisors slaughtered the existing socialist government to put drug-runner Leopoldo in charge. Lots of great real American history stuff here, though it’s just garnish. Oddly, Goran Parlov’s art is best on the FBI guys, just for their expressions. The older one’s in sunglasses but the curve of his lips, you can see what he’s thinking. Great work from Parlov.

So Leopoldo’s the drug-running dictator, Wanda is his ex-porn star wife who’s sleeping with Barracuda, there’s the child molesting priest hiding out with them—I forgot for how long “adult” humor just meant directly targeting Howard Stern listeners. Barracuda’s there because Big Chris has entrusted him with Oswald, his only son. Oswald’s supposed to kill Leopoldo. Barracuda double-crosses Big Chris for Leopoldo, then will try to double-cross Leopoldo to take both him and Big Chris out. Plans within plans.

Oswald’s a hemophiliac and, therefore, can’t be touched or in any way injured.

Fifty is Barracuda’s fellow military advisor from the eighties who went to work at the Pentagon but is a closeted trans woman, which Barracuda somehow knows abut but maybe has never seen Fifty dressed for her gender. It’s unclear. Ennis’s take on it seems to be so transphobic it’s no longer transphobic? He also throws in some homophobia but… again, is it through the looking glass and circular? Doesn’t matter, because there’s no reason to read Barracuda. Not even for Punisher MAX completists. It’s not great or even good really, but it’s not incompetent or bad. Ennis just doesn’t have a story and tries to mug his way through it. Parlov’s art is good but it’s not particularly interesting stuff. It starts in Florida, which is basically just as tropical as the South American city-state; actually, Barracuda’s adventures in Florida seem more interesting than his attempted coup with an eclectic supporting cast.

Can’t wait to see what Disney does with the property.

Dollar Binging

Spider-Boy Team Up #1
Amalgam Comics, June 1997

Hawkman Comics #12
DC Comics, Feb/Mar 1966


Spider Boy Team Up  1997  1Spider-Boy Team Up #1

Probably the last of its ilk, Amalgam Comics will be known as the final example of Marvel and DC co-publishing anything. The 12 one shots that made up this line were all amalgamations of concepts of both companies, complete in single issue stories, and a couple of them stood out.

The story here, penned by “R.K. Sternsel”, is obviously an amalgam, I’m guessing Roger Stern, but thats all the thought I’m going to put into it. While “Stern” does a decent job of hitting all the right notes of this sort of thing, including a horseshoeing in a bit of the Christmas Carol, I’m giving him extra points for the five hundred or so of the Legion of Superheroes look a-likes and their catchy names, keeping it moving yet inventive and fresh for this usually mind wiping of exercises. All the different costumes gave a great new jazz too, but that was up to-

Penciller Ladronn, with some great embellishments by Juan Vlsaco. These two were working themselves up to quite a frenzy previously in Cable, but here they are fully ensconced, full steam ahead, with an inventiveness and attention to minute detail that Geoff Darrow would poop his pants about.

This 20 page pablum, packed with a dense, continuously moving and bright script by “Roger Stern”, and the offspring of Ladronn and Vlasco at the peak of their collaborative powers make this one a steal at a buck. Smoke some weed and read this.


Hawkman  1964  12Hawkman #12

While a lot of the Silver Age hasn’t aged well, Gardner Fox, one of DC’s sci-fi writers itchin’ to write comics in his spare time, lays out the usual paces in this 24 page, 3 chapter melodrama, its once again it’s the work of the visual end, Murphy Anderson, to pull the weight needed here for me to be able to finish this.

Fox has pretty much stretched out your basic superhero plot, complete with holes, not much story development (I don’t think this was a prerequisite in the 60’s), but given just enough characters and action to keep Anderson busy.

And busy he is. Every panel of this eye candy is beautifully rendered with what can only be labeled some of the most graceful human figures to grace a comic book. While backgrounds are not common in action scenes, when an establishing shot is needed, Anderson shows why he is one of the masters of the silver age. We would be so lucky to look like the macho Katar Hol and the gorgeous redheaded Sheyera. In their masterful poses, they make humans dressed like hawk people a normal and wonderful thing to witness.

Call me an old reprobate, but there is so much drawing here that I think most modern comics artists would puke if they knew how much time and effort was spent on this. Hawkman stories are generally a snooze, but our fearsome duo flying around in their wonderfully designed costumes and masks is worth the buck alone.

Weird Melvin (1995) #6

Weird Melvin  1995  6

Weird Melvin #6 gives the series a conclusion, but definitely not the one I’d been hoping for. The story title is something like part five, so—for whatever publishing reason—last issue’s fill-ins were really fill-ins. This issue opens with Melvin and the Kid headed back to base with some stolen diapers. Melvin’s going all in on taking care of the incoming monster infants, which the Kid can’t figure out—isn’t Melvin’s job to crush monsters into goo? Why would he want to care for their babies?

Turns out Melvin does have a plan or two to resolve the world’s monster problems and the Kid is just going to have to get with it.

Back at base, Melvin’s reformed monster sidekick Shag is playing doula to the pregnant lady monsters. This portion of the issue is probably the best, just because it engages with the gross factor. I wasn’t the only one queasy at the idea of two monster babies being born, Shag isn’t really into it either.

As he steels himself for the eventual birthings… Hansen starts zigging and zagging from the forecasted zags and zigs. It’s always quick—the issue feels a little rushed and often seems to be decelerating, whether with the pregnancy resolve or with Melvin not duking it out with the inbred grotesque cop who comes after him for the stolen diapers. It all makes sense in the end, when Hansen works his way to a nicely tied up finish, but just because it makes sense doesn’t make it entertaining or engaging or the right move. Leaving Weird Melvin on a never resolved cliffhanger seems a much better choice than giving him a lackluster finish.

And the issue’s grand finale is most definitely lackluster. I was hoping for more, expecting more, but it’s also competently enough executed it’s not a severe disappointment. It’s a well-executed comic, a solid series, just one without a successful finish, which puts Weird Melvin in very sturdy company.

A clean ending would’ve been nice though, just for recommending the comic.

Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights (2019)

Amazons Abolitions and Activists  2019

There are a sea of faces in Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists. Sea of faces, sea of names, which is the point. The book is a history of women ignored in history books, though not always. Writer Mikki Kendall doesn’t avoid the awkward subjects, like Susan B. Anthony’s White supremacy or the significant racism of her contemporaries. Other problematic figures get their asterisks too, with Kendall never giving the impression she’s avoiding tough subjects. They just get asides. Other topics get asides too. The “plotting” of the book is excellent, especially since it’s 194 very dense pages.

More or less chronologically, the book looks at women in history. The ones whose names and faces aren’t familiar but should be, though—again—Kendall does a great job balancing it out so there are also the folks whose names you might now but not their stories. I’ve been aware of Josephine Baker as a historical figure since I was twelve, but I didn’t learn until Amazons she was a spy during World War II for the Free French. And I did World World II history in undergrad. Like, either I really forgot it or I really missed it. Amazons is probably best kept around and read casually, not so much a summary history text but a sourcebook. Also maybe because the framing device is a necessary chore. I get the need for it, I get why it makes sense given the book’s target audience, but it’s a bit of a drag.

The frame is a future class of girls and their hologram AI teacher going back through historical events, allowing artist A D'Amico some very fun panels amid the very powerful ones. The AI’s expository history lesson is well-written and rather affecting. Kendall’s found a great voice for the history, it just gets interrupted and the narrative makes it feel less like you can pick it up and put it down. Because there’s a lot in the book. It can be read with a search engine nearby to look up women, it can be read with a cat on the lap.

The most important part is it should be read. Kendall does a fantastic job covering the hundreds of subjects, D’Amico does good work visualizing them all. It’s a big success. It just feels like, with the future frame, it’s a very special episode of an animated series where you don’t care about the characters.

Also D’Amico’s panel of a Black woman trying to fight the monster of White racism while the White woman hugs on to it is awesome. Makes you want a whole book of panels like that one. The too political stuff. The stuff Random House gave the thumbs down.

For its target audience, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists is great. For everyone else, it’s still great. Actually, when you think about how ignorant the average person and even the more informed person is about women’s history… it’s more essential for its non-target audience.

Shadow of the Batgirl (2020)

Shadow of the Batgirl  2020

Shadow of the Batgirl is a bit of a bummer, though I’m not exactly sure why. It’d be nice if it were good. It’s not bad… not if you’re getting it from the library versus spending the sticker price. And there’s a big library subplot in the book so it’s appropriate. It just feels stretched out. The chapters are very contained and the break between them messes up the pacing. There’s also a lack of immediate danger in the middle chapters, which is kind of… a lot to accept given the protagonist is a teenage girl experiencing homelessness living in a crime ridden city’s public library while her father the international assassin sends agents out to find her.

The tone writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux is fine but… only if you forget how dang traumatizing being in that situation would be. It wouldn’t be cute and Shadow of the Batgirl is often pretty cute. Cassandra’s a likable protagonist, even if her character development arc is sort of spotty. It never seems like the character is going to realize around other people—because she’s such a loner—but Kuhn and Goux always make it happen. The book’s got its successes and they can be impressive.

They can also be Cassandra’s sidekicks, Barbara Gordon, librarian, and Jackie, tea shop owner, who aren’t particularly impressive. They’re fun. They’re sometimes really fun. But they’re not particularly complex characters. Even if you ignore the nagging questions about how Barbara got in the wheelchair and what happened to the previous, retired Batgirl. The book even has some thoughtful exploration of heroism in the superhero world. It’s just for a bit and it’s not too deep, but you can tell Kuhn’s thought about a lot of it.

But also about how to make it aspirational, which shouldn’t be such a concern. It makes Shadow feel methodical. And, after a certain point, something’s always going wrong with Cassandra to move the plot forward. Just anything to get her to run away, spy on Barbara and Jackie, come back and be forgiven, everyone understands she’s a confused teen assassin. It would actually be a great structure if the comic were at all psychological but… it’s not.

Kuhn’s dialogue is good and she can get to heartfelt scenes, but the plotting always seems forced. Goux’s art is solid. Nice changes in style depending on the distance. No real fighting stuff—it’s not a kung fu comic—but it’s professionally executed.

It just never feels like it isn’t product. It’s competent and inventive, but it’s brand product.

Weird Melvin (1995) #5

Weird Melvin  1995  5

Weird Melvin #5 is a flashback issue. Only, not really.

There’s clearly some publication history trivia to the series; the cover says this issue has the first two Weird Melvin comics in it, previously unpublished. They present a new origin story for both Melvin and the Kid, who have much different histories in the first issue of this series. But we do finally get to see what an in-world Weird Melvin comic book looks like… generic fifties superheroes.

The issue opens with a framing device as Melvin is teaching the Kid to be a monster hunter, so no resolution to the previous issue’s cliffhangers, hard or soft. Just the Kid doing well learning how and why to crush monster heads. He’s even got to write a theme on it; Melvin requires written assignments in addition to the on-the-job training. It’s funny… even if the comic isn’t really what Hansen promised last time.

Then comes the origin story. The Kid goes to a comic shop and finds an old issue of Weird Melvin #1, which the shop owner doesn’t know anything about and just wants the Kid out of his store. Again, funny. Not as funny as the series usually gets, but funny.

See, the Kid has a monster under his bed and his dad doesn’t want to hear about it. Good thing he got the comic because it’s all about a kid in the fifties who’s got a monster under his bed and how Weird Melvin comes along and saves the day. Turns out Weird Melvin—in this original origin story—comes out of in-world Weird Melvin comics to help kids in need. As long as they’re in need of saving from various monsters.

The second part of the origin story has the Kid discovering a haunted house and the cursed creator of the original Weird Melvin comics. Complications ensue.

It’s an okay issue, with some good, creative art, just none of that wonderfully nimble Hansen plotting. Again, no doubt there is some publication trivia to explain it, but it’s still feels like filler.

You CAN Go Home Again: The Collected Mister Miracle

The Collected Mister Miracle
By Tom King and Mitch Gerads

Trade paperback, collects the miniseries #1-12
DC Comics, 300 pages, 24.99

Well, I hope you’re already familiar with the wondrous, yet tough story of Jack Kirby’s lifetime in comics. Filled with a near endless catalog of many of the standards he created that we now take for granted, Kirby’s legacy is that of the ultimate shaper of superhero and adventure comics in general. A lifetimes worth of effort, invention, and aesthetic success made Kirby the “king” of comics, inspiring generations of younger artists to emulate and grow from his example.

The later years weren’t great to him in his chosen career, but still, in his dealings with real life publishers and their relationship to creators, Kirby continued to be a ground breaker, and continued his demonstration of how to be a comic book creator in the modern business world, a beginning primer for those who would come later.

After his decades long experience with Stan Lee and Marvel comics, Kirby decided to jump the fence and work for DC, the “other” company of any size in the comics business. Now while he still hadn’t established any microcosm of ownership over what he created, DC had the sense to let the King of Comics off the leash a bit to fulfill ideas and their gestation in a way he wasn’t able to before.

Hence was born Kirby’s Fourth World. Kirby’s limitless imagination, and his lifelong fascination of gods and mythology were able to manifest themselves in short runs of the titles New Gods, Jimmy Olsen, Forever People, and the most popular, Mister Miracle. Within these works, Kirby created an entire new pantheon of heroes, battling for power, and the extermination of any that got in their way, whether by purpose or accident. The infinite war between the opposite planets New Genesis and Apocalypse gave him a landscape for what would be Kirby’s last great comics invention.

Sadly, this new direction for superhero comics didn’t catch on, and Kirby was later forced to create new series to replace them as the sad fate of cancellation prematurely ended the star spanning tales of the New Gods. A sad fate indeed, as those of us comics readers that were enamored with them were forced to give up our addiction to this tale, and follow the newer exploits of books far less interesting and forced to work within the framework of positive sales potential.

Mister Miracle, perhaps the most likable of all the New Gods, enjoyed a pretty good run, despite its hokier humor that grasped for readers beyond its reach. The main characters, Scott Free and Big Barda, given at least a semblance to an ending with their marriage in its final issue.

Years later, Kirby attempted twice again to capture the essence of what he was seeking, but age and a diminished set of abilities left two attempts lacking, and in my utter disappointment, I decided not to acknowledge their presence within the canon at all.

Recently though, hotshot writer for DC Tom King decided to take a crack at it, along with formal narrative artist Mitch Gerads, bringing a more modern sensibility to the proceedings, yet hoping to provide some sort of conclusion to this winding, truncated saga.

The modern approach King takes here brings on the added baggage of a domesticated and introspective Scott and Barda, continuing the humorous attitude to the entire affair, mimicking Kirby’s as well. Also brought to the fore are the more common depictions of violence, sadly a given these days in modern comics. He still keeps it tight and moving, along with scenes of intense beatings the characters take in their involvement in war. Also noticed here is the constant respect King brings to the characters and their situations. It seems like we haven’t missed a beat here and it seamlessly segues from the last of the Kirby ideas for the strip and bringing them to a sense of logical conclusion that Kirby wasn’t able to.

Kudos also to artist Mitch Gerads, whose formal approach visually here, while drastically differing from Kirbys, accomplishes an entire spectrum of events within the confines of a repeated nine panel per page grid, the polar opposite of Kirby’s bombastic, page filling graphics. But while the approach is different, the absolute respect for his subject and the perfect visual look is in every panel. While I’ve had a lotta beef with the horrendous depictions and manipulations of filler artists doing Kirby characters over the years, few have come close to capturing the likeness and seriousness needed to keep the proceedings convincing here.

It shows off wonderfully all its characters in a manner that just picks you up and takes you along without a doubt or suspicion of anything but love and respect for Kirby’s concepts and bringing them together for a fun final ride. It also gives me hope for current comics. While I don’t quite have the cynicism required for what seems part of the checklist in modern action comics, it didn’t push me away either, and worked well when comparing the goals of the two eras these versions of the New Gods were written in.

So rejoice, ancient comics reader! It seems as if there are actually comics that can be invented with grit, cleverness, and visual craft that not only pushes aesthetic boundaries, but entertains you as well! There indeed is hope for tomorrow. And I think that’s the way the King of Comics would of wanted it.

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