“When you deal with crowds, nothing’s predictable.” (Don DeLillo, from Pafko at the Wall)
Sixpack and Dogwelder: Hard Travelin’ Heroz #1-6 by Garth Ennis (writer), Russ Braun (artist), John Kalisz (colorist), Pat Brosseau (letterer), Brittany Holzherr (assistant editor), and Marie Javins (group editor). $23.94, 120 pgs, FC, DC.
Ennis’s second mini-series about Section 8 isn’t quite as good as the first one, which was superb, but it’s still pretty darned good. I’m sure the sales are shit, so who knows if we’ll get another one, but that’s okay, because he’s really milked a lot out of this concept of a super-team made up of the worst “heroes” you can think of, and while Ennis’s disdain of superheroes is well known, he has a lot of affection for these losers, so he writes them beautifully. This is a story about Dogwelder and who he really is and his place in the universe, so it’s a ridiculous “hero’s quest” that manages to make fun of the very concept of such things while being a pretty interesting one in itself. Ennis comes up with a millennia-spanning origin of Dogwelder, going back to ancient Egypt, and while it’s goofy, it adds even more tragic tones to the story of a guy who can’t talk and, well, welds dogs to faces. We already knew this Dogwelder was a more tragic figure than the one in Hitman, because Ennis took some time to show that this one had a family, something that comes more to the fore in this series. But he can communicate now (in typically cringe-worthy Ennis fashion), so we know a bit more about what he thinks. His plot is the main one, and Ennis does a nice job foreshadowing it even though it still hits us hard when it resolves.
Meanwhile, John Constantine is on hand to assist Dogwelder a bit (he tells him how to communicate) but also to provide commentary on DC’s current state of publishing, and it’s hilarious, especially when he drags out his goofy sci-fi gun called, you guessed it, the Hellblazer. Ennis has never been shy about poking fun at a superhero universe (usually DC’s), and he’s not here, even though it’s slightly less toxic than he’s done in the past. He’s still a humorous writer, and his characterization of the Spectre in issue #2 is superb, as he’s looking for Baytor so he can drag him back to Hell and everyone at Noonan’s pulls an “I’m Spartacus” because Baytor is such a good bartender. But Ennis is also always a humanist, so he always gets to the core of characters, and it makes the less-than-funny stuff all the more effective. Sixpack has always had an unusual idea about Section 8 and their importance in the superhero world, but what he really wants is friends, so when he thinks that’s falling apart, he reacts angrily, and it’s a powerful moment that leads to the final issue very well. Ennis does the weird well (Power Girl’s, Catwoman’s, and Starfire’s night out at Noonan’s a good example of that, with the ladies comforting Guts because Bueno is cheating on “her” and Starfire going all Lovecraftian on us), but it’s the way he slowly takes the weird and makes it emotionally powerful is why these comics resonate so much. Baytor’s memorial at Noonan’s to everyone who’s died, for instance, is tragic because unlike so many other heroes, we know the people he honors aren’t coming back. Ennis is very good at being sentimental without being mawkish, and he does a great job here.
Braun is a good artist for the series, too, because he’s like Steve Dillon (Dogwelder’s creator, even if it was supposed to be a joke) in that he’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of artist, so his drawings of these characters grounds them and makes Sixpack, for instance, even more pathetic, which makes his sentiments all the more noble. He makes the Egyptian gods, for instance, look like regular people, which makes their horrible behavior all the more contemptible, because we can’t even believe there’s some mysterious reason behind it – they’re just assholes. He’s not great at the sense of majesty that the final issue needs in certain places, but that’s okay, because Ennis doesn’t linger too long on the big weird plot that Section 8 needs to fix, so Braun can concentrate more on the small, human moments that make the series. Ennis writes stuff that artists like Braun work well on, and that’s the case here. It’s not flashy art, but it gets the job done.
As I noted, this isn’t quite as good as All Star Section 8, the previous mini-series starring these characters, but it’s still quite good and worth a look. Ennis might not be able to write another series with these characters, but I’d read it if he does!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Nightwing volume 1: Better Than Batman by Tim Seeley (writer), Javier Fernández (artist), Yanick Paquette (artist), Chris Sotomayor (colorist), Nathan Fairbairn (colorist), Carlos M. Mangual (letterer), and Jeb Woodard (collected editions editor). $16.99, 140 pgs, FC, DC.
I picked up the first trade of Nightwing on a whim, partly because I liked the “Rebirth” issue and partly because Fernández’s art looked pretty keen. And it turns out it was pretty keen. After the events of Grayson, the international cabal that oversees the Court of Owls, the Parliament of Owls, thinks that Dick is working for them. He lets them so he can take them apart from the inside. The Owls give him a partner, Raptor, and like Tiger from Grayson, Raptor becomes Dick’s frenemy, as Dick soon realizes that Raptor is also interested in taking down the Owls, but he has far more complicated and devious reasons for doing so. Dick and Raptor do their thing, and Raptor lets it slip that he knew Dick’s mother, who of course gets a heroic history because no one in comics can be a hero unless they’re rebelling against absolutely evil parents or following in the footsteps of absolutely heroic parents. Batgirl joins them for a bit, and she’s there to show how far Dick is willing to go to destroy the Parliament and how he might alienate his friends to do so. Seeley’s script isn’t bad – he keeps things moving, uses the term “Hansen’s disease” correctly, and does a good job showing what Dick is going through and why he goes down this route. As much as I loathe the Court/Parliament of Owls, they come off a bit as paper tigers here, but as with all superhero stories, the point isn’t really beating the bad guys – we know Dick will beat the bad guys, so the story becomes more about what it does to him and his relationships. I was a tiny bit disappointed that Raptor didn’t turn out to be Batman in disguise, which I kept thinking would be kind of cool, but – spoilers – he’s not. But Batman does play a part in the book, and it’s well done, as Dick is able to carve out his own legacy and get out from Batman’s shadow a bit. Of course, this is not a new story – Dick always seems to want to come out of Batman’s shadow – but it’s done well here.
Fernández, as I noted, is good on the book. He draws Batman with stubble at one point, which I will never not hate, but later on, Bruce is clean-shaven, so all’s right in the world again. He has a good, scratchy line that helps him create dynamic action scenes, and he choreographs them very well. The issue in which Dick, Batgirl, and Raptor head into a maze is laid out nicely, with panels superimposed on the drawing of the house to show where they are in the building but also to add some confusion. Fernández draws the creepy stuff well, as when a large woman … well, something happens to her, and it’s icky, or when one of the Owls turns into something a bit different. Fernández uses spot blacks really well, especially when Raptor’s mask is broken, keeping his face in the shadows so he remains mysterious. DC writers seem to have adjusted a bit better to the 20-page format than Marvel writers, so each issue feels packed, and the artists working for DC seem to be able to translate that into crowded but easily readable pages. So while DC and Marvel both have the same page counts, with a few exceptions, it seems like DC comics are a bit meatier. But maybe that’s just an illusion!!!!
Anyway, I’m not sure if I’ll get the next trade. This was good, sure, but it was still just a decent superhero story. I’ll think about it. But this was entertaining, and that’s not a bad thing, is it?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
America’s Wars and Military Excursions by Edwin P. Hoyt. 539 pgs, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987.
Hoyt was 63/64 when this book was published (he died in 2005 at 81), and he had lived a fascinating life that gave him great insight into American military adventures, especially those in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. In this fairly exhaustive survey, he spends more time with Korea and Vietnam than he does even in World War II or the Civil War, probably because those two wars had and would be comprehensively covered elsewhere (including by Hoyt; the man was prolific). Hoyt was a foreign correspondent in Asia in the 1940s and 1950s before turning to writing full-time in 1958, so it’s not surprising he would be more inclined to write about those military actions. But he’s no slouch when it comes to the rest of the United States’ wars, either.
Hoyt begins with King Philip’s War of 1675 and ends with the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and Reagan’s “surgical strike” against Libya in 1986. The chapters are very short – he has a lot of ground to cover, and 500 pages still feels short – but he’s very thorough, getting into the Barbary Pirates, America’s “claim” on the Marquesas Islands during the War of 1812, the many Indian wars, the Boxer Rebellion, America’s involvement in the Russian Civil War, the “banana wars” in Latin America – all the fun stuff that we don’t learn about in high school history class, in other words. As we get closer to the present day, Hoyt becomes more opinionated, perhaps not surprisingly, and this is where he’s most interesting. He’s a difficult guy to pin down – he doesn’t unilaterally condemn or condone military intervention, but he does think the government has, more often than not, screwed up the way they intervene and on whose side. He correctly notes that our adventurism during the Spanish-American War and in subsequent decades has colored the way we view Latin America and, perhaps more importantly, the way Latin America views us. He is very critical of the U.S.’s role in destroying the Indians, although he doesn’t really think about what else either side could have done (American expansion was, it seems no matter how often you look at it, inevitable). He’s also, interestingly, critical of the military during World War II, pointing out how unprepared the Americans were, how the British and French used to refer to them as “our Italians,” which the Germans understood perfectly, and how Patton, for instance, was useful as a force of nature but for nothing else. It’s interesting because he praises Reagan’s strike against Libya, claiming that it’s the kind of military action that gets results without getting us bogged down in foreign entanglements (perhaps not surprisingly, he has nothing nice to say about the United Nations or even NATO). One wonders what he would think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (he specifically mentions the Soviet involvement there, so we can assume he would have nothing nice to say about our involvement).
But, as I noted, he’s most critical when writing about Korea and Vietnam. He makes cogent points about them – he usually reserves his opprobrium for politicians, but he notes that MacArthur’s “caesarism” was a huge factor in the morass that Korea became. He has nothing good to say about Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon – his disdain crosses political lines! – and their efforts in Vietnam, which turned a potential ally into an enemy – Ho Chi Minh almost begged the United States to help him after World War II, but the anti-Communist mania that gripped the country led America to betray its ideals and try to prop up the French in Indochina. He gets riled up about America’s failure to understand what was happening in China and how the Communists in different countries were not necessarily aligned with the Soviets. It was, I suppose, an easy mistake to make, but while Hoyt often points out the failure of Americans to understand their enemies, with the escalation of military hardware, it becomes even more crucial, and Hoyt is probably rolling over in his grave thinking about how we’re misunderstanding our enemies again.
It’s fascinating to me to read history books written at a certain time that encompass contemporary history. Hoyt is writing before the fall of the Soviet Union, and it’s clear he can’t even conceive of a world without it, even though it collapsed very soon after this book was written. He still views the world through a prism of Communism, so when he writes about a conflict that is almost solely about religion, not economics – such as the war in Lebanon – he downplays that aspect of it, which, as we know now, is probably a mistake. His lauding of Reagan’s “surgical strike” against Libya is almost quaint in a world where surgical strikes might kill a terrorist but, since there’s no state backing them, they have limited effectiveness. It’s also interesting because in the 1980s, even as Hollywood began creating a myth of Vietnam POWs and people began “honoring the troops” again, Hoyt is pointing out how poorly trained and maintained the armed forces really are. I don’t know when (or if, I suppose) it changed, but it’s interesting reading how dismissive he is of an all-volunteer force and how he wants a universal and “fair” draft (meaning rich white kids can’t buy their way out of it). I don’t necessarily disagree (I think everyone – men and women – should enter the military after high school for at least two years), but it’s interesting reading a 30-year-old perspective on it, now that the attitudes have changed and soldiers are deified to an extreme degree after being vilified to the same degree. I haven’t read much about the state of American troops over the past two decades, but I wonder if Hoyt was simply ahead of his time. Either way, it’s a fascinating look at the mindset of many during the waning days of the 1980s.
I’m sure this book is long out of print, and it’s probably been supplanted by other books that take advantage of new information (Hoyt makes no mention of the CIA’s involvement in the Iranian coup of 1953 or the Chilean coup of 1973, possibly because he doesn’t consider those actual “military” excursions or, also possibly, because the information about them hadn’t been declassified yet), but it’s still pretty entertaining. It’s always good to read a solid survey of an aspect of American history just so you know basic facts about things. I knew about most of what was in this book, but it’s still kind of interesting to read it in stark military terms and nothing else. I have no idea if anyone out there who is interested in military history and would like to read this could even find it, but it exists!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
IDW seems to be doing more 4-issue mini-series recently, which isn’t a bad or a good thing, just a thing. On the one hand, it makes it easier to justify buying them in single issues, because the 16 dollars I spent (minus the 20% discount my retailer offers but adding tax) on these issues is, I believe, a dollar less than the collected edition (unless the trade is also 16 dollars, which it might be). If this were 6 issues, IDW would probably charge 20 dollars or so for it, which would mean waiting for the trade would be a better idea. So if you like single issues, like I do (despite my knowledge and even attempts to shift over to trades more exclusively), this works. On the other hand … 4 issues isn’t very long. Prince’s story seems to just be getting going when it ends, and even though it ends with “The End?” instead of definitively, that’s no way to do a mini-series, especially if we’re not guaranteed another one. Heck, maybe we are guaranteed another one, and I just don’t know it yet. But the end of this series, even with the open-ended final scene, still feels a bit rushed. Five issues might take care of that, but it seems like IDW doesn’t do many of those (as we’ll see below, with another IDW mini-series!). It’s frustrating.
Because The Electric Sublime is pretty keen. The director of the Bureau of Artistic Integrity, Margot Breslin, has a crime to solve – the Mona Lisa is winking, and people are going insane. To counter this, she finds Arthur Brut, who is able to enter works of art and figure out what’s going on. Into the equation comes a dude who looks like Andy Warhol, who along with his gang of thugs is trying to destroy art from the inside out, and a young boy named Dylan who has some artistic talent but also appears to suffer from autism, so his mother sends him to a special institute where they use art to help children. Dylan has some odd power, too, and he becomes crucial in figuring out what’s going on with art.
It’s a fascinating story, because Prince is interested in the limits of art and what it does to the mind, even in seemingly “healthy” individuals. Margot goes into the Mona Lisa with Arthur and a wooden mannequin that comes alive inside the art, and when she comes out, “real” life seems less vibrant to her, even though she’s in a good relationship with, of all people, a painter. Prince only hints at the divide between the world of art and the world of the mundane and what it could do to people (perhaps that will get explored in a theoretical second mini-series?), as Margot recovers quickly and gets down to work, but with someone like Dylan, who can only express himself through art, it’s a bit more of a concern, especially as the people who are destroying art hunt him down. Prince’s overall plot – that these people want to destroy art because they want to wipe out “imperfections” in the world – isn’t new, but the last-page reveal makes it more intriguing, which is why I hope there’s another series, as it promises a more nuanced look at what art can do to people and whether it’s worth it. There’s a lot going on in the series, in other words, and it’s frustrating, again, that Prince seems to be bringing in a lot of ideas that he can’t possibly deal with in four issues. We have Arthur himself, who has gone mad from, presumably, his involvement in art; Dylan, who seems to be a kid much like Arthur but just beginning on his route to madness; Margot, who tries to “regulate” art in a good way, even though that seems to be an oxymoron; and Inny, Margot’s girlfriend, who gets manic and furious during her artistic process, which seems to imply she’s also heading toward insanity. It’s too much to get through, so while there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the series, the plot takes precedence, and so the subplots and psychology of the story gets left behind a bit.
One place that book doesn’t leave us behind is artistically, because Morazzo’s art and Lopes’s colors are amazing. Morazzo has a nice thin line that reminds of someone, but I can’t put my finger on it (and it’s really bugging me). His line work makes the real world more solid, which makes the blending of the “real” with the “art” world more distinctive, showing the contrast between the two. Even in the “art” world, he still uses a thin, clean line, but because Lopes is coloring with a more vibrant palette, we get a good contrast. In issue #4, he does a nice job aping the world of Magritte, Seurat, and Picasso, three very different styles that Morazzo handles very nicely. He changes page layouts well to show the chaos of the “art” world, and even his panel borders reflect the distinction. Lopes, meanwhile, mimics the paint style of the various artists nicely, using his digital palette beautifully, especially in the Seurat Pointillist world. The “real” world isn’t colorless, and it’s often even bright, but the world inside the paintings still looks just slightly more “alive,” which makes it just that much more alluring and dangerous. It’s not too subtle, but it’s subtle enough so that we can understand why someone like Arthur has gone insane and why someone like Inny would be so devoid of humanity while she’s creating. Prince can’t get into that too much in a four-issue series, but Lopes can show it well with the colors, and it adds nice nuance to the comic.
I don’t know if these creators have a sequel planned or if it will even come out if they do, but it’d be nice. In the meantime, The Electric Sublime is a fascinating, clever comic that does a lot of good things before leaving you feeling unfulfilled. Oh well!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Speaking of four-issue IDW mini-series, next we have Yakuza Demon Killers, which is almost awesome except, you guessed it, it’s a bit rushed. Chauhan’s story is a bit generic but zips along nicely, as he introduces the star, Ochita, who happens to be a heroin addict but also the best lock-picker in Tokyo, as she’s recruited by an old friend, Rizzo, to break into something. That something is a glass case with a sword inside, but before they can steal it, they’re accosted by ugly demons who, it seems, enjoy eating people. Ochita grabs the sword, which then bonds to her arm, and then a bunch of super-powered Yakuza show up to save them. It turns out that some warlock opened a portal to another dimension in the late 1980s and the Yakuza families bonded together to fight the threat. The group that rescued Ochita finds mystical weapons to fight the demons, and they want the sword, but they can’t get it off Ochita’s arm, so they decide to train her and use her (with the inevitable double-cross to follow, as we learn fairly soon). But, of course, it turns out the demons have plans for Ochita, too. Isn’t that always the way?
Chauhan doesn’t waste time throwing us into the deep end of the pool, and that’s appreciated. Any character development we get (and we do get some) we get on the fly, through the way the characters talk to each other. Chauhan takes a bit of a shortcut with regards to Ochita and Rizzo’s relationship, which isn’t exactly a friendship but isn’t anything else, either. The weirdness of the story is neat, too – sure, there’s not a lot new about a paradimensional demon invasion, especially in comics, but setting it in Tokyo is not bad, making the heroes gangsters is pretty cool, and making the main character a heroin addict is interesting. The Yakuza even have odd powers that you don’t normally find in a superhero book, so that’s cool, too. Chauhan is not interested in twisting the story to make it all work out, either – this is a fairly bleak story, as lots of people die, and it’s clever how he subverts some tropes along the way. The big problem, again, is that it feels a bit too quick, especially in the last issue. In issue #3, something happens to Ochita, and we see the consequences in issue #4. But those consequences ought to feel more important, but Chauhan has only the one issue to work with, so the way the book ends feels like a cheat, as if Chauhan had the ending he wanted (which is probable) and just wanted to get there as soon as possible. The impact of what happens is lessened because we get to the point so quickly. We do get the inevitable “The End, for now” on the final page, but like The Electric Sublime, who knows if the creators will get together again. It’s kind of frustrating, because Chauhan actually does some thoughtful things in the series, and it ends with a question of how much freedom we have over our actions, what we will do to gain that freedom, and whether it’s better to be secure than free, all of which are fundamental questions about life. But it’s such a fast series that the characters never do anything except hint at their deeper conundrums, so it feels a bit empty, ultimately.
Powell’s art, however, is amazing. He has a tremendous scratchy line that recalls Sean Murphy, but with a bit more thickness to his inks. He creates some really beautiful impressionistic panels, like the first appearance of the mammoth (oh, yeah, there’s a mammoth), but he’s also able to use a solid line to make the characters more real. Powell doesn’t use detailed line work on the faces of his characters, but the way he manipulates the smudges of their eyes helps us read their feelings very well, and Ochita’s body language as she slowly becomes more formidable is impressive. His demon designs – especially the one with really long, sharp fingernails and a reflective welder’s mask – are very cool and creepy, while Russell uses a nice palette – “realistic” colors when the demons aren’t around, more lurid hues when they are – to create a fascinating sense of mood. I don’t think I’ve seen Powell’s work before, but I look forward to seeing more of it!
Just like our previous mini-series, it’s tough to grade this. It’s a neat idea and there are some cool plots running through it, but ultimately, it feels too truncated. Much like The Electric Sublime, if the creators are able to come back for a second series, it might make this look better in hindsight. But right now, it’s a solid but frustrating story. I appreciate that Chauhan takes it to its logical extreme, and unlike The Electric Sublime, this could honestly be the end of the comic, but the journey is too rushed. Come on, IDW, just one more issue for these mini-series, you can do it!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Detective Comics volume 1: Rise of the Batmen by James Tynion IV (writer), Eddy Barrows (penciller), Alvaro Martinez (penciller), Al Barrionuevo (artist), Eber Ferreira (inker), Raul Fernandez (inker), Adriano Lucas (colorist), Brad Anderson (colorist), Marilyn Patrizio (letterer), and Robin Wildman (collected edition editor). $16.99, 140 pgs, FC, DC.
I’ve never been a huge fan of James Tynion IV, but I was curious about this arc on Detective Comics because I’d heard good things about it. Writers who aren’t great can do solid superhero work because they’re not expected to do anything great on these characters, just tell a solid story. So I figured I’d give this a look. It’s okay, mostly because Eddy Barrows has sneakily become a terrific artist and his replacement, Martinez, is pretty good, too (Barrows draws the first two and last two issues in this collection, Martinez draws the middle three, and Barrionuevo contributes four pages). Barrows gives us interesting and not-too-clever-but-still-pretty-clever page layouts (using a bat symbol as a panel border isn’t original, but it’s still neat), and his (or Lucas’s) use of “watercolors” in some scenes give them a haunting feel, especially in the church when Young Kate Kane comforts Young Bruce Wayne after his parents’ death. It’s a good way to mix things up and provide some contrast, and the fact that he uses the technique on some of the quieter moments makes the big scene in the book (I’m not going to spoil it, but you probably already know what it is) hit harder … plus, that page is just a superb drawing. Martinez has a slightly thinner and weaker line than Barrows does, so his work is less nuanced than Barrows’s is, but it’s still good, and he does nice work with shadows and silhouettes in his issues, which is fairly crucial when you’re doing a Batman comic. The art is not the problem in this trade.
Tynion’s story is, but it’s not terrible. Batman gathers some people – Batwoman, Tim Drake, Spoiler, Cassandra Cain, and Clayface for some inexplicable reason (back when I reviewed this as part of the “Rebirth thing, I wrote a little about the convoluted Clayface mess, so I won’t get into it now) – because he realizes that they’re being tracked by someone with technology even beyond his own! Duh-duh-dummmmmm! It turns out that, well, I’m going to have to spoil things here, so I hope you’re ready.
Okay, now that I’ve warned you, it turns out that Kate’s dad is the bad guy. Yes, really. Big Daddy Kane, army dude, is part of a military operation that takes all of Batman’s ideas and tactics and applies them militarily to fight crime on a nation-wide (and even global) scale. He’s in Gotham because he says the “League of Shadows” is in the city and he has to stop it. Batman doesn’t believe that the League of Shadows exists (it’s a myth created by Ra’s al Ghul, says he), and so he’s going to fight back. Cue lots of head-bashing.
It’s a dumb plot on several levels, beginning with the fact that Batman comes across shadowy conspiracy groups all the freakin’ time but this is the one he chooses not to believe in (he also didn’t believe in the Court of Owls, if memory serves, and how’d that work out for him?). I mean, come on, Bats, there’d be no crime at all in Gotham if it weren’t for shadowy conspiracies! Turning Big Daddy Kane into a bad guy is dumb, too. I get that writers love to drop shockers into their comics (not this shocker, you pervs!), but this is just idiotic. First of all, this is a vast operation, and apparently it’s kind of gone rogue. I know that conspiracies in comics work far, far better than conspiracies in the real world, but you’d think someone would have stopped him a long time ago. Second, his big idea is killing everyone in a section of Gotham because some of them might be League of Shadows people? Really, Colonel? That’s stupid on an epic level. It’s just a way for Tynion to make someone who could, conceivably, not be a villain (if the colonel is working for the government and using Batman stuff for government-sanctioned missions, Batman might not like it but there’s nothing inherently evil about it) and send him beyond the Pale, and it’s idiotic. Worst of all, like almost all heel turns, it takes a good character and basically wrecks him. Big Daddy Kane’s support of Kate even though he wasn’t completely on board with her made him interesting. Now he’s just a boring megalomaniac.
This is a dumb superhero book that’s mildly entertaining but hamstrung by the bad villain and even worse endgame. The twist at the end is fine, because at least Tynion doesn’t keep us in suspense, but you’d think that a great detective like Batman would have been able to figure some things out. The idea of Batman creating a team isn’t new, but it’s never a bad idea, it’s just that Tynion didn’t do a great job with the plot of their first mission. I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next trade, but maybe I’ll give it one more chance?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Rogues! volume 3: Hearts and Tombs by El Torres (writer), Juan José Ryp (artist), Rubén Rojas (artist), Roger Bonet (inker), Miguel Angel Castillo (colorist), Abel Cicero Hermo (artist), Diego Galindo (artist), Sonia Murano (colorist), Verónica R. López (colorist), Janine van Gessel (assistant editor), and Jennifer van Gessel (editor). $19.99, 114 pgs, FC, Amigo Comics.
I’ve always been a fan of Rogues!, El Torres’s quasi-parody of Conan and that ilk, in which two thieves – the barbarian-like Bram and the super-sexy Weasel – have adventures in the city of Gerada. I want to get the single issues, and I did for this mini-series (which is really two separate stories), until something happened and I never got the last three issues (or maybe two? – I’d have to check). Did Amigo Comics stop printing single issues, or did my retailer just not get them because Diamond is terrible at their job but doesn’t care because they’re a monopoly? I don’t know, but when the trade was offered, naturally I picked it up!
Torres knows these characters very well, and he writes adventures for them that are very fun. Only one – The Cold Ship – delves a bit into their psychologies, as Torres is perfectly content to turn them loose and enjoy their lives, even as they get into death-traps and escape them with stunning regularity. They’re thieves, after all, and in Gerada (and its environs), thieves often find themselves in horribly dangerous situations, especially because they’re always stealing things from gods and other supernatural creatures. So in the first story in this trade (the first three issues), they steal a gem that turns out to be the actual heart of an old god, and when a dude accidentally “activates” it, the god possesses his body and things go pear-shaped. In the second series (the final two issues), we get the “secret origin” of Bram and the Weasel while also getting a story about a dude trying to resurrect some old and not particularly friendly god. So gods in both of them, neither of them nice, but Torres manages to make them distinct even as their plots are vaguely similar. In the first story, no one is trying to bring the god back, and some of the so-called bad guys are actually desperate to get the gem back so the god doesn’t escape. In the second story, the dude uses an elaborate scheme to lure people into the catacombs beneath the city, where the old gods are trapped, so he can sacrifice them and release the god. In both cases, Bram and the Weasel get in way over their heads. In the first story, they steal the gem without knowing what it is, and in the second story they’re hired to retrieve a stolen object that’s just a small part of the elaborate ruse. What’s fun about the stories is that they never really want to save the day, but they always end up doing it because it’s the only way they can get out alive. They’re selfish, loyal only to each other, and very good at saving the day reluctantly. It makes the series a lot of fun to read because Torres does such a good job making them grumpy, either at their situations or with each other. They might both be grumpy, but Torres also manages to write them as distinct individuals, so they’re grumpy in their own unique ways. It makes the jokes funnier and makes the characters much more interesting. They’re always seemingly in control of the situation, even when things appear too crazy, like when they’re hanging over a pool filled with crocodiles or a giant man-spider is attacking them or even when they’re lured into compromising positions by a sex goddess. Torres has a lot of fun putting them in these crazy places and then have them fight their way out, usually with many quips and a whole lot of blood.
Torres always gets good artists to work on Rogues!, and this trade is no exception. “The Burning Heart” is, I’m fairly certain, the first story of Bram and the Weasel, so it was done several years ago, but I guess some new pages were added (the ones at the end of issue #3, with Roger Bonet inking Ryp’s pencils, perhaps?). Ryp’s art is always fun to see, and he established a good aesthetic for the series, as his crazy attention to detail helps establish what Gerada looks like in all its wretched splendor. Yes, his characters are exaggerated – Bram has muscles on muscles, Weasel is impossibly pneumatic (and, at least in this trade, more naked than she usually is), and the “geratrix” of the city wears an outfit that could exist only in comic books, but Ryp makes it work, partly because he’s so good at drawing and partly because everyone and everything is exaggerated in his Gerada, so Bram and the Weasel don’t look too out of place. He gives every character – even the ones in the deep backgrounds – a ton of personality (why is the naked dancing girl licking a sword?), and it makes the comic just fun to look at. Cicero gives us eight terrific pages to start issue #4 – I’m not sure why he couldn’t do more – before Galindo steps in, and while Galindo is not as detailed as even Cicero and definitely not Ryp, he’s a good artist who has gotten better every time I see his art. Here he does nice work with the action scenes, which weren’t his strong suit the last time he drew Rogues!, and he draws Bram and the Weasel with excellent looks on their faces – when Ryp draws them, it looks like they’re actually angry about having to suffer so many fools, but when Galindo draws them, it appears they’re more wryly amused by the idiocy around them. Galindo has also softened his line a bit so he characters are a bit less angular, which makes the ruler of the underworld look a bit more sultry and therefore terrifying and makes the pages with Bram and Weasel running around buck naked more … fun, I guess. Yes, I like naked women. Sue me.
Amigo usually puts out good comics, but it seems like they’ve been putting out fewer over the past year or so. I don’t know how they’re doing, business-wise, but their books continue to be quite good, and this trade is no exception. It’s a good introduction to the characters if you haven’t read about them yet, and it’s a nice few stories if you have. Check it out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Scooby Apocalypse volume 1 by Keith Giffen (plotter/breakdowner), J. M. DeMatteis (dialoguer), Howard Porter (artist), Dale Eaglesham (artist), Wellinton Alves (penciller), Scott Hanna (inker), Hi-Fi (colorist), Nick Napolitano (letterer), Travis Lanham (letterer), and Erika Rothberg (collected edition editor). $16.99, 138 pgs, FC, DC.
Back when DC started the Hanna-Barbera stuff, I picked up issue #1 of Scooby Apocalypse. Unlike the other comics in the series, it didn’t leap out and grab me – it was fine, but it worked more as a set-up issue than a single issue dazzler, so I figured the trade would be more of a good idea, especially as DC is charging 4 bucks an issue (which makes this six-issue trade a great value). Giffen and DeMatteis can write excellent single-issue stories (and they have a few short stories in here that work well), but it seemed that they were going for the slow burn, so I figured I’d wait on it.
The idea they come up with isn’t new, but it does tie in nicely with the “Scooby-Doo aesthetic” – instead of coming across monsters that aren’t real, the gang comes across monsters that are real. In this new world, Velma is a doctor at a top-secret research facility that is creating nanites to make the world’s population more docile. That, naturally, doesn’t work too well, and she discovers that the plan isn’t about making the world safer, but more easily controllable. She alerts Daphne, a one-time high-caliber journalist who now makes documentaries about strange things that nobody believes in, and Daphne brings her cameraman, Fred, along when she goes on her whistle-blowing meeting with Velma. Shaggy is a dog trainer who’s working with Scooby, who has enhancements that make him smarter, even though he’s one of the first dogs in that particular experiment and the others are much more advanced than he is. They all end up in a hermetically sealed room just as the nanites are activated, which turns almost everyone in the world into actual monsters. Hence, the “apocalypse” of the title.
Giffen and DeMatteis bring their trademark humor to the book, as none of the characters get along that well throughout the arc (although they do get more friendly as they’re forced to work with each other), so there’s opportunity for the insult jokes that the two writers do so well. Velma is hiding something, and Daphne knows it, so that relationship is tense, while Fred is in love with Daphne, and Daphne knows it but doesn’t reciprocate, so that’s a source of humor as well (I’m not going to get into the whole “Fred-should-leave-her-alone” thing, as Shaggy does notice it at one point, and even so, it’s more humorous than anything, as Daphne doesn’t seem bothered by Fred’s attempts at affection). Everyone puts down Shaggy because he’s “just” a dog trainer, but he shows that he’s much smarter than they think and much more compassionate than the rest of them. We get some nice bonding between Daphne and Velma (even though the former doesn’t trust the latter) and between Fred and Shaggy, which is fun. We also get some nice nods to the fact that these people have been put in an impossible situation – Daphne knows how to fire a gun, but she’s using it on monsters that she thinks of as people (because they were people, not too long before), while the others learn on the job and don’t always do the best they can. Shaggy and Scooby are still obsessed with food, but it makes more sense in this context because who knows where they might get food again, and Scooby, in this scenario, is not a coward, which is not a bad change. In the final issue of the trade, the writers focus on Velma, and it’s a clever place to put it, because we already suspect some things about her and are kind of on Daphne’s side, so the issue confirms some things but also shows the context for them, and it becomes a tragic tale of someone desperate to fit into the world and not knowing how to. Plus, we do get Scrappy-Doo in this arc, so that’s something, right?
I’ve always been a fan of Porter’s, even after he left the industry for a while (he sustained an injury to his hand) and came back with a different style. I like the old Porter slightly more, but not significantly. Right now, he has an interesting, angular style that is reminiscent of Kenneth Rocafort without the cool sharpness or the crazed layouts of Rocafort’s work. His designs of the characters, based on Jim Lee’s kind-of half-assed drawings, bring them more to life and make them less stereotypically “cool” (Jim Lee was born in 1964; I very much doubt he knows what’s “cool” among young people any longer) – they each have their own personalities, and it’s not based on something “cool,” but something a bit more real. Giffen is credited with layouts for at least the first two issues (after that, the credits become less clear), and Giffen has never been the most inventive of page designers, so Porter’s pages aren’t going to shock anyone with their compositions, but he does manage to cram a lot onto each page, which helps when Giffen and DeMatteis start getting verbose, and he does get to draw some cool monsters, so there’s that. Eaglesham has a rounder line that doesn’t quite fit the subject matter as well, but he’s still a fine artist, so there’s no reason to dislike his work here. Alves draws the “secret origin of Velma” story, and it’s fine. He doesn’t bring too much to the table in terms of style, but he’s a solid draftsman, and the issue doesn’t really call for him to be too wild. The unifying factor in the art is Hi-Fi, the colorist, as the colors have that strange glowy but still muted thing that we see a lot in digital coloring. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the book is nice and bright for the most part, but the colors do make the transition between art styles a bit easier. It’s interesting looking at it, as the rendering adds nuance to Eaglesham’s smoother work that, it seems, Porter gets from heavier line work. But I could be completely wrong, of course. It just seems that way. Either way, it’s a nice-looking book – my old eyes always appreciate when I can actually see what’s happening in the comic!
Scooby Apocalypse isn’t a great comic – it’s not as good as The Flintstones, for instance – but it’s a bit less convoluted than Future Quest, and it’s pretty funny, too. It’s enjoyable, even if Giffen and DeMatteis aren’t breaking new ground. The idea that the gang actually has to fight real monsters is interesting, and there’s still a bit of a mystery, so that’s still applicable. I liked this, and I’ll get the next trade, which I guess is as good a recommendation as any!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Sheriff of Babylon volumes 1 and 2 by Tom King (writer), Mitch Gerads (artist/colorist), Joseph Frazzetta (color flatter), Nick J. Napolitano (letterer), Travis Lanham (letterer), and Scott Nybakken (collected edition editor). $31.98, 264 pgs, FC, DC/Vertigo.
I recently reviewed Tom King’s Vision series, which was one of the best comics of last year, but The Sheriff of Babylon is no slouch, either. I think I like The Vision a bit more simply because of my tastes – I tend to like things that delve into the human condition (yes, even in a series starring a bunch of androids) rather than deal in geopolitics, but only by a little, so King’s story of post-invasion Iraq (the book takes place in February and March 2004) is extremely gripping. King’s background in the CIA, which may or may not be true (hey, if the CIA can spread disinformation, why can’t King about his involvement in the agency?), gives the book some verisimilitude, as King gets into the mess that Iraq became once Saddam Hussein was no longer a unifying force (either with him or against him). Christopher Henry, who works for one of the military contractors that became prominent during the invasion and its aftermath, is tasked with training an Iraqi police force. The inciting event is when one of his trainees turns up dead and he has to investigate the murder. He’s having a casual affair with Saffiya (Americanized to “Sofia”), whose family was a long-standing Saddam ally and who is now on the Iraqi governing council. She puts him in touch with Nassir, a policeman with some dark secrets, both in the past and more recent, and they begin to unravel the murder. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and the three characters discover far more than they bargained for and lots of horrible things happen in the course of the series. That’s not surprising, is it?
King creates a depressing portrait of post-invasion Iraq, as there are no good guys and plenty of … well, if not bad guys, morally ambiguous guys. Everyone has an agenda and everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing, even if their actions lead to disaster. Chris is the closest the book has to a hero, but he’s a largely ineffective one until the very end, when he and the other two seize some agency to do something that will change absolutely nothing. The labyrinthine plotting of the book is fun to puzzle out – it’s not too complex, but King jumps around in time quite a bit and uses the old narrative trick of placing word balloons about something over action that’s showing something else, which is always a neat conceit in comics. He stretches time out in this way – Saffiya and Nassir’s confrontation with a terrorist takes probably less than thirty minutes in the “real time” of the comic, but it lasts an excruciatingly tense 2+ issues, as King keeps cutting away to what Chris is doing at the same time, and we get a few flashbacks sprinkled in, so the tension keeps mounting throughout those issues, and it’s done really well. Chris keeps learning new things about the way life works in Iraq, and the more he learns, the less he understands, it seems. If that’s not a metaphor for our experience in the Middle East over the past 15 years, I don’t know what is.
Gerads is a good choice for artist because, as he notes in the back matter of volume 1, he takes a lot of photographs, tweaks them in Photoshop, turns them into “drawings” digitally, then inks over that. It’s not a traditional way of drawing comics, but it’s not an unpopular one these days, and while I don’t love Gerads’s artwork, for a book like this that relies on realism, using photo references and research materials to make sure this looks like Baghdad in 2004 is important. This style makes Gerads’s action scenes a bit stiff and it destroys the illusion when he uses digital flames in an explosion, which looks particularly unreal, but for the most part, the art works nicely with the story. A lot of King’s story relies on the way the characters stand and react to things – there’s a lot of non-verbal communication in this book – and Gerads does a good job with that. His photographs and whatever tweaking he does on his computer make the characters, at least, look like actual people reacting to actual situations. He also does a nice job scuffing the art to give it a gritty, worn-out look, which both fits a desert setting (believe me, things get gritty in the desert) and the setting of a post-war city. It’s not really the kind of art I would prefer to see, but it gets the job done.
The Sheriff of Babylon works as a 12-issue murder mystery/action thriller, and I wonder if King could have continued it if he had wanted to, or if sales just weren’t there. It’s one of those Vertigo titles from the latter half of 2015 that flooded the market, some of which were pretty darned good but none of which seemed to make much of a dent, sales-wise. It’s too bad – as I noted, some of them were pretty darned good, and I’ve always liked Vertigo titles, so I’d like to see the imprint do well. You can do your part by checking this out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Bastille’s Bad Blood is one of my favorite albums of recent vintage, and “Flaws” one of my favorite recent songs, so I was looking forward to the band’s new release, Wild World, which came out in September. It’s not quite as good as Bad Blood, but it’s still a fine album, especially the first six songs (of 14 on the album), which are superb. Weirdly, the two weakest songs are the two slowest songs, which bring the momentum of the album to a screeching halt, once after the first six songs and then after the album’s ninth track, before recovering for the final four songs, which are also pretty good. “Good Grief” kicks off the album with a kicky, groovy beat that plays under Dan Smith’s sad lyrics – he’s singing about someone being excised from his life and how it affects him. It’s followed by the moody, fuzzy “The Currents,” which, like the first song, has a double meaning – the lyrics are about getting sucked up into someone’s drama, but the grungy music puts us in mind of electricity, too. “An Act of Kindness,” the third song on the album, is terrific, because Smith takes what we think will be an uplifting song (and it is, in its way) and twists it, pointing out the guilt that accrues when someone is unconditional in their love. It’s a fascinating, psychologically penetrating song, which makes it one of the best on the album.
Smith and Bastille are all about that kind of pop music, though – Smith’s lyrics are all about double meanings or unexpected depth, while the band plays danceable music with a dark edge to it. “Warmth,” for instance, features a somewhat convoluted couplet that Smith makes work: “‘Cause in your warmth I forget how cold it can be and in your heat I feel how cold it can get” – there’s a lot to unpack in those brief words. “Power” is another song with clever lyrics about a person controlling another that always feels like it’s off-register somehow – the music seems to stumble a bit, the lyrics don’t seem to match the rhythm, but the band pulls it all together. Smith is quite good at showing one vision and then twisting it or commenting upon it, as in “Fake It,” which seems to be an ode to a loveless life but is really about moving forward in a relationship and not reminiscing or regretting what’s happened in the past – Smith makes it clear that the relationship has been rocky, but the blame seems to be on both participants. This leads to “Winter of Our Youth,” in which Smith (who’s 30) sings wryly about his obsession with nostalgia and how strange it is, and while it doesn’t end the album on a completely happy note, it’s still a fascinating song about our pathology as we age, even if (as in Smith’s case), we’re not that old yet.
Bastille is a good band that has released two good albums. They play electronically-influence pop music, but when you sit down and listen to the music and the lyrics, they’re much more complex than you might expect on a casual take. Wild World doesn’t quite have the highs of Bad Blood, which has at least 7 genuinely superb songs on it, but it’s still very good. Go check them out – they’re fun!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love #1-3 by Sarah Vaughn (writer), Lan Medina (artist), Phil Hester (breakdowner, issues #2-3), José Villarrubia (colorist), Janice Chiang (letterer), Brittany Holzherr (assistant editor), and Alex Antone (editor). $17.97, 144 pgs, FC, DC.
I love the “Prestige Format” that DC pioneered lo those many years ago, about the time I started buying comics in 1988. Cosmic Odyssey came out in that year, after all, and that was an early book in the format. Usually, the creative team was high-end, the format allowed for epics, and the price wasn’t too bad considering the amount of story you got. DC let the format die in the early part of the century, though, as I guess it wasn’t selling as well as it used to and I suppose the higher quality of trades and even of regular issues (in terms of the glossy paper and such) made them a bit redundant. But they’re making a small comeback, as this book is in the glorious Prestige Format and the new Supergirl book is, too, so maybe we can expect more of them! Plus, this is good value. Each comic is 48 pages, with no ads, and it costs 6 dollars. So you get slightly over a 7-issue story for 18 bucks, which ain’t bad. All hail the Prestige Format!
This format and Deadman’s publication schedule (once every three months) should help the artist, and Medina’s art in this is stunning. He and Villarrubia pull out all the stops, as Medina’s line work is detailed and sumptuous and Villarrubia’s coloring runs the gamut from worldly and somewhat dour (there’s a lot of bad weather in the book) to luminous and ghostly. Medina gives us Glencourt Manor, a haunted house that looks old and still has much of the original decoration but has also been updated, so parts of it are modern. It’s a beautiful looking house, and we can believe that it’s haunted and that horrible things happened there but we can also believe that the owners have kept it up and made it fit a bit more in the modern world. Medina’s people are terrific, too – Berenice is an attractive but somewhat dowdy young lady, so we can both see why someone would love her but also remain a bit skeptical that a dreamy dude like Nathan (who’s more of a himbo) would fall for her, and that tension drives the story. Sam, meanwhile, is non-binary, and Medina does a superb job with that difficult assignment – Sam, like Deadman and Adelia, is liminal, but they’re a living human being, so Medina carefully cultivates a non-specificity for Sam that is very clever. Medina doesn’t do too much with interesting layouts until issue #3, when the action picks up, and then he (and Hester, I suppose, who is credited with breakdowns for the second half of issue #2 and all of #3) starts breaking more panel borders and using more and more jagged panels to show the destruction and terror being loosed. Berenice, oddly enough, is fairly passive throughout this comic, and her face reflects that, but Medina makes up for it with excellent expressions on the other characters, especially Nathan and Adelia, as she learns why she is a ghost in the house and what it means both for her past and present. Villarrubia, as I mentioned, does wonderful work with the tones, particularly as he shows us the interior of the house, with its darker browns and blues, which then become contrasted with the terror that explodes in issue #3, when the book lights up as well. It appears that Villarrubia is responsible for the blacks, too (they look painted like the rest of the book), and he does a very good job with shadows slowly creeping over faces as events in the book take dark turns. The smoky monster that threatens Berenice and later Nathan is also beautifully done, and a lot of that, it seems, is due to Villarrubia.
Vaughn’s story is where things fall apart a bit, unfortunately. She updates the Gothic romance story for modern times, but doesn’t do much with the formula, so everything is easy to see coming. There are five main characters – Deadman and Adelia are the ghosts, and we know Boston Brand is a good guy and we figure out pretty quickly that Adelia is a tragic figure, so she’s not the bad guy; Berenice, Sam, and Nathan are the living characters, and Berenice is our point-of-view character, so she’s obviously not the bad guy. That leaves Sam and Nathan, and Sam is a darker-skinned, gender-unspecific antiques dealer, while Nathan is a buff, blond, straight white guy, and if you think in this day and age that a writer would dare create a minority character like Sam just to make them the bad guy, you haven’t been reading enough fiction recently. So Nathan stands out like a sore thumb from the moment we meet him, and even though Vaughn works hard to make him something different, we know the book needs a bad guy and we know Nathan fits the bill. After we learn only one thing about Adelia, we can easily figure out the rest of the story, and it’s not terribly unique or all that interesting, unfortunately. Berenice, who can see and hear dead people, is a pretty good character, and her chemistry with Sam is both good and bad – good in that their relationship is well-written, but bad because Vaughn makes it clear that Berenice has had at least one female lover in the past, and her obvious chemistry with Sam begs the question of what the heck she’s doing with Nathan. Vaughn is trying to go for psychological horror and explore the “forbidden love” of the title, but she doesn’t do it very subtly or cleverly. By the time our suspicions about the characters are confirmed, the book simply becomes a standard thriller, and there’s not much to do except look at the gorgeous art. It’s too bad – Vaughn had, as we can see, a lot of room to deal with these characters, and she took the absolute path of least resistance. It makes the barest flickers of ideas that roam the book that much more annoying, because there’s no reason Vaughn couldn’t have delved more deeply into them and made the book something special.
Still, the book is beautiful and I will defend the Prestige Format against anyone, even if I have to engage in fisticuffs to do it. I just hope the new Supergirl book is better than this is!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Weird Detective: The Stars Are Wrong by Fred van Lente (writer), Guiu Vilanova (artist), Maurício Wallace (colorist), Josan Gonzalez (colorist), Nate Piekos (letterer), Kevin Burkhalter (assistant editor), and Spencer Cushing (editor). $17.99, 134 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.
Weird Detective is just that – a story of a detective who’s, well, weird. It turns out he’s an alien who has swapped bodies with a New York detective, which is why he’s so weird, but it’s a fun story – that he’s Canadian is used as the excuse for his weirdness, and everyone just accepts it. Detective Greene, as we have to call him, investigates weird crimes, and at the beginning of the book he gets a new partner, Sana Fayez, who we quickly discover is spying on him. Fayez has a mysterious transgression in her past, so she can’t really say no to the assignment, but she’s also not a bad cop, so she’s very conflicted about her job. Plus, there’s a corpse that has been completely drained of, well, everything, with only the skin left behind. So that’s weird.
Van Lente is a good writer, so he knows how to unspool this mystery quite effectively. He hits us with horror early on, as not only do we see the one corpse, but there’s soon another murder, which he and Vilanova show us to highlight the creepiness of what’s going on. He lets us know that Greene is an alien early on, and we also learn that the murders have something to do with his alien nature, but it takes a while to figure out exactly what is happening. Fayez, meanwhile, is a good cop, so she uncovers far more than Greene would like, and we also discover things about the human Greene and why Fayez was put on his case. The alien Greene, of course, is ignorant of a lot of human behavior, so he comes off as humorous, but part of his problem is that his ignorance of human nature means that the reason he chose Greene is also the reason why Greene might have been a bad choice. It’s a good noir kind of story, with gangsters in bed with cops, a successful author who is much more than he appears, and creepy-crawly things lurking in the shadows. The biggest problem with it is that it ends a bit disjointedly – it feels like van Lente was running out of pages and he needed to wrap things up. So Greene discovers the bad guy, fails to stop him, but then the final issue, with Fayez getting kidnapped and Greene fighting the bad guy again, feels like too much. It’s not that the plot is bad, per se, but there’s a lot going on, and van Lente seems to jump around a bit. Still, for the most part, van Lente does a nice job linking noir with horror, and it would be nice if he could explore some more of Greene’s character and what’s happening to the human Greene in subsequent mini-series. Who knows.
Vilanova does a decent job with the art – there’s not a lot to say about it, because it’s just fine, but he manages, like van Lente, to do a good job with the more hard-boiled, “realistic” aspects of the book and the horror parts. He does a very good job with Greene, making him look human but giving him just enough of an “uncanny valley” effect to make it easy to see why people would be put off by him. He uses a lot of nice blacks to create a dark, sinister world, but he and Wallace are also good at the daytime scenes, which is crucial because it makes the darkness stand out more. He’s not great at action scenes as his figures are a bit stiff, but he makes up for it by shattering the page layouts when Greene goes up against the bad guy, implying that the threat is something that can destroy reality as well as kill people, and that’s pretty cool. It’s solid art, which is what van Lente needs, so it works well for the story.
I like van Lente’s writing, so I tend to like the way he constructs a story. I do think this gets a bit wonky at the end, but the story is still a solid, clever one, and Greene’s potential is fairly vast, so who knows if van Lente is interested or able to do more of these stories. We shall see. But it’s a pretty nifty horror/sci-fi/crime comic, and we all love those, right?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Ted Naifeh wanted to do a Justice League comic set in a fantasy world, and Night’s Dominion is pretty much that. In this first arc, he gathers the team – a Bard gets an Assassin, a Magus, an Acolyte, and a Thief together to pull off a heist, which goes terribly wrong but turns out to simply be a precursor to a much more horrifying event, and the group – only some of whom have names at this point – teams up with a mysterious vigilante and a very strong dude to protect the city of Umber, where all this action takes place. There’s a lot going on in this arc, and I do hope that Naifeh will be able to do a lot more of it – he’s scheduled to be at Emerald City this week, so I’ll have to ask him – because even though he wraps up the story, he leaves a lot of plot threads dangling. It’s a pretty interesting superhero story, because we can recognize the archetypes but because they’re in a wildly different setting, Naifeh can play with them a bit. The identity of the vigilante, the Furie, is not known yet, but we know he’s a Batman analog so we can figure it out pretty easily … unless Naifeh is toying with our expectations and is stringing us along (which I doubt, but it’s possible). The big bad guys aren’t supervillains, but a weird cult that fits right into the milieu. The principals don’t get along with each other all that well, but Naifeh does a good job slowly making them realize their heroic potential, even as they do so for a variety of reasons, not all of them noble. He brings in local politics, which are of course fairly bloodthirsty, and while the identity of the big bad isn’t too surprising given the tropes we’re all used to, it’s still a good way to show how our past influences our present and what has broken these people to make them exist on the margins. The thief, a young woman named Emerane, can’t let go of her past, which drives her to where she is at the beginning of the book. The assassin failed in a task and feels the need to redeem himself. The Magus, Wikan, is an arrogant dude who has to be humbled before he can become a hero. It’s all very standard stuff, of course, but Naifeh is a good enough writer that everything feels organic, and while reading these issue-by-issue is kind of a messy experience (as Naifeh seems to veer all over the place and juggle too many characters), when read all at once, everything clicks nicely into place (so the trade will be a good read). He gives us a good adventure but makes it clear that there’s far more to the story.
Naifeh’s art is always interesting to see, and he makes Umber a fully realized place with a lot of weird buildings and alleys and squares. The Tower of Uhlume is a gigantic structure, and its scale is impressive, even as Naifeh keeps it creepy because the cult is housed there. We get a very good sense of the city, from the beautiful Moorish style of the government buildings to the ragged tenements of the slums, and it helps keep the book grounded so when the dragons show up, it’s not too silly. Naifeh has gotten better over the years at showing action, as he uses a lot of long, curved lines to simulate motion better than he has in the past, and he’s always done a good job making each character look unique, from the way he draws their faces to the way he dresses them. Occasionally, it seems that he goes a bit too minimalistic with the details, but it’s clearly a choice and not because he was rushed (at least I don’t think it’s because he was rushed), and while I don’t love it, he does a good job with most of the details. His Oni stuff was often colored by Warren Wucinich, but it appears that Naifeh is doing the coloring on his own here, and he uses a lot of earth tones to show the scruffy, somewhat ramshackle nature of Umber, which is an ancient city whose best days, it seems, are behind it. The big showdown in issue #6 is colored cool blue, as magic enters the picture and, of course, the bad guy is aloof from the grubby nature of the earthy city, so it’s a good choice. Naifeh has evolved quite a bit since he began working in comics, and it’s neat to see him doing some interesting kinds of books that seem to be outside his “comfort zone,” and Night’s Dominion is one of those.
Anyway, it’s a neat book. I hope it continues, because it’s clear Naifeh has a lot of stories to tell set in this universe, but if it doesn’t, the arc does contain a pretty interesting story. “Gathering the team” stories can be hit or miss, but Naifeh’s skill as a writer and the genre in which he chooses to set this make this one of the more fascinating ones I’ve read recently. The trade comes out in June, if you’re interested.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Second Sight volume 1: The Evil That Men Do … by David Hine (writer), Alberto Ponticelli (artist), John Kalisz (colorist), Jimmy Betancourt (letterer), and Mike Marts (editor). $17.99, 120 pgs, FC, AfterShock Comics.
David Hine is one of the best horror writers in comics, so any time he jumps into that pool (which is often), it’s something to check out. Second Sight is a pretty cool book, partly because Hine bases it on reality – the Jimmy Savile case in England brought a lot of horrible ghosts to the surface, and Hine decides to run with that. So we meet Ray Pilgrim, who once had some strange psychic ability that allowed him to find murderers until he was disgraced but is now involved in a new investigation with his daughter, Toni. She’s been trying to uncover the Wednesday Club, a group of rich folk – politicians, celebrities, those sorts – who run a child sex ring. She wants his help, but he’s reluctant because of the problems in his past (which led to his ex-wife taking out a restraining order against him), until she finds an actual victim of the “club” who wants to talk. Of course, people begin ending up murdered, so Ray decides he needs to help. Things, as they do, spiral quickly out of control.
As this is less of a fantastical horror story than Hine usually does (he digs him some Gothic shit) and because of Ponticelli’s style, which is more realistic than Hine’s own style or Shaky Kane’s (with whom Hine has worked closely), the book isn’t quite as creepy and shudder-inducing as some of Hine’s work (well, if you get past the “child sex ring” part, which is horrific but, sadly, all too believable in today’s world), but it’s still very good. Ray is not the greatest dude, and as we learn more about him, his difficulties with his wife and daughter become more awful but also more tragic, as he did things not because he was bad but because his world was falling apart. Ray is intimately linked to the killers he tracks, which is not good for his mental health and was a reason he stopped doing it, so when Toni asks him to resume his “practice,” we slowly learn the toll that takes on him. Because the book is set in as realistic a world as possible (I mean, if you can accept the psychic abilities and all), Hine’s ending is painful, too, because there’s not a lot of justice to go around or even ironic punishments that we get in some horror stories. There’s just messy, brutal reality, and the characters have to get through it as well as they can. Hine does a very good job making Ray and Toni’s relationship the center of the book, both so that Ray can gain some measure of redemption and also so that Ray cares about something, which makes him vulnerable. So even through all the terrible stuff that’s happening, it becomes a family drama, as Ray is trying to reconnect with Toni but his ex-wife, Tess, is trying to keep her out of his life. Toni is not 18 yet, so that adds some tension to things because she’s not completely free to do what she wants. It’s a nice story within the horrific killing and cover-ups that make up the main plot.
Ponticelli, as I noted above, is much more “realistic” than many of Hine’s collaborators, which is perfectly fine because the story is more realistic than a lot of Hine’s work. Ponticelli even seems a bit more toned down than he’s been in the past – he’s positively Steve Dillon-esque in some places in this book, even though he has a much scratchier line than Dillon had. He does a fine job making Toni look like a teenaged, female version of Ray, so it’s clear they’re father and daughter, and he does a very good job showing how Tess has changed in 20 years. He also comes up with a truly creepy design for the Reaper – yes, it’s a variation on leather S & M gear, but Ponticelli changes it just enough to make it frightening, and he uses it to very good effect. Ponticelli manages to make the few trippy sequences look both freaky and a bit grounded, so that we’re still aware that it’s happening in the characters’ heads and isn’t “real.” The book is only gory in a few places, but Ponticelli sells that very well, too, so that it hits a bit harder. Kalisz keeps the colors relatively bright, which creates a weird but effective contrast with the horrific stuff that’s happening, as it makes it even clearer that these terrible things aren’t occurring in the dark corners of the world, but right under our noses. It’s chilling.
I’ve been reading a lot of these AfterShock comics, and I think Second Sight is the best one so far. It’s a horror comic, sure, but it’s not as bleak as some and it’s a fairly interesting story combined with unfortunate real-world shading. The creative team is quite good, and I have no idea if they’re going to go for another arc or not, but I’d definitely be interested in reading more about Ray and Toni as they battle the horrific crap of the world. We shall see!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Wonder Woman volume 1: The Lies by Greg Rucka (writer), Liam Sharp (artist), Matthew Clark (penciller), Sean Parsons (inker), Laura Martin (colorist), Jeremy Colwell (colorist), Jodi Wynne (letterer), and Robin Wildman (collected edition editor). $16.99, 140 pgs, FC, DC.
When I read the “Rebirth” issue of Wonder Woman, I chuckled about how Wonder Woman, who really ought to have a fairly simple origin, has had her origin retconned so much it’s become idiotic, and I guess it’s okay that Rucka is trying to make sense of it all, not only because Rucka is a good writer but because he’s written Wonder Woman before so he knows a bit more about the character. That didn’t make Wonder Woman: Rebirth any good, mind you, which I’m reminded of in this trade, as it’s reprinted here. But then Rucka gets into the regular story, which, as we know, alternated issues with the other story he’s telling, which is not a bad thing to do but makes trade-waiting seem like the most logical thing in the world. I guess in the “Year One” section of the book we find out more about Diana’s connection to Barbara Ann Minerva and why she treats her so nicely in this story, but other than that, why wouldn’t you wait for the trade? Anyway, Rucka wants to tell a story about Diana trying to get back to Themyscira because she finds out that she can’t do it on her own. She goes into the African jungle to find Minerva, who’s all Cheetah-ed up, and it turns out that Cheetah is involved with an ancient god who demands horrific sacrifices and a megalomaniacal general who worships the god. It just so happens that Steve Trevor and Etta Candy, who work for one of the very many shadowy government organizations that litter the DCU, are also trying to track down the general. Mayhem ensues.
Rucka follows the standard Wonder Woman template of the past decade or so, whereby Diana tries to solve problems peaceably and resorts to violence only as a last resort (writers seem to be doing this more and more in superhero books, but it’s vaguely insulting that it’s only female heroes who try this), and he writes a pretty good story about creepy jungle gods and crazy soldiers. There’s a “subjugation-of-women” vibe running through the story, but Rucka wisely doesn’t bring it too far to the forefront, so it makes the theme more effective – if someone as powerful as Cheetah can fall under the jungle god’s sway, what hope to the villagers have? So that’s clever. But then Diana and Steve get to Themyscira, and the books goes off the rails slightly. I mentioned above about the constant retcons and how that weakens a character, even if the character has as strong a foundation as Wonder Woman, and Rucka pulls off … another retcon. Blech. There’s also the usual Rucka skullduggery behind the scenes – Rucka loves him some espionage – with Candy figuring some things out about Sasha Bordeaux (it’s a Rucka comic, of course Sasha shows up!) and tracking down the mastermind behind … something. I love espionage, too, so I don’t mind these parts of the comic, even if Sasha is a total Mary Sue. Rucka always writes good characters, so even with some of the more questionable story beats, Diana and the others feel like real people, which always makes a superhero book go down a bit easier. Diana’s relationship with Cheetah is a good one, and I imagine it’s a good one in the “Year One” story arc, too. We shall see.
I’ve always been a fan of Sharp’s work, so I’m glad he’s working on a high-profile comic like this. His work has become a bit more … restrained, I guess, over the years, so his angular work from years past has been softened a bit, but he still retains that unusual style that gives us an exotic Diana, for instance. His Cheetah is very cool-looking, too, which is neat, and his jungle god is terrifically creepy. Sharp has always been good with eeriness, so his jungle is disturbingly alive, with branches dripping with vegetation and strange creatures lurking in the shadows. He creates some nice page layouts, using the bamboo stakes of a prison cell as panel borders on one page and cramming profiles of Sasha and Etta together into small panels on a particularly wordy page. Martin, who’s a great colorist, does a nice job shifting from the spooky green of the jungle to the soft oranges and blues of Diana’s and Steve’s sojourn on the beach and then back to the harsher reds of Themyscira, indicating that all is not well there. Martin is adept at rendering digitally, but as usual, it helps when the line artist is so strong, and Sharp is that, so her colors don’t overwhelm his lines. It’s a good combination, and the book looks very nice.
Despite some reservations about yet another origin for Diana, I liked this trade quite a bit. I’m curious to read the alternating arc and also to see where Rucka is going with both these stories, so I’m looking forward to more trades. These really do read well in this format!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Well, that was a chunk of stuff, wasn’t it? I skipped a few things, but that’s just from time constraints – these posts take me a while, and sometimes, I just don’t feel like writing about some of the things I read! Oh well. I don’t have much to say about the real world right now – things are still very weird here in the States, thanks to our president and our Congress, and while the Orange-Faced Baboon hasn’t done very much permanent damage (if any), I fear he’s just gearing up for awful things. But we’ll deal with that when it comes!
This weekend is the Emerald City Comic-Con, which I will be attending. It’s my fourth ECCC, and I really dig the scene in Seattle. First of all, it’s a wonderful city. Second of all, the con is solely focused on comics, so it doesn’t feel like San Diego does, where the comics part is still pretty large but a bit overwhelmed by the movies, television, video games, and other pop culture sections. A lot of cool pros go to ECCC, so it’s fun to catch up with them. I know a few people in Seattle, so it’s good to see them. I’m staying with my cousin (who used to live in town but moved to Redmond, so we have to rent a car like a sucker), which will be fun because we’re taking my daughter, and she’s never met my cousin’s kids (who are about her age), and I think they’ll get along famously. Plus, the real world has been somewhat extraordinarily shitty recently, so I could use a break from Arizona, even if for a few days. Yes, Seattle in early March is not exactly the best place to be, but it’s out of town, and that’s good right now. Finally, whenever I get to Seattle I get to hang out with Greg Hatcher, which we’ll do on Saturday. Other Greg is quite the raconteur, so it’s always excellent to say hello to him and his wife. I’ll have a report about the con up next week – I get a press pass, so I always feel like I need to justify it by writing a con report!
In the world of “I’m too old for this shit,” my 11-year-old daughter told me today that her best friend stopped liking her videos on Musical.ly because, this girl said, my daughter isn’t famous enough. Her friend can be a very nice girl, but she’s also, as you might be able to tell simply from that statement, a bit vain and shallow. My daughter told her that was a dumb reason, but there it is. Is it any wonder old fogies like me worry about kids and their darned social media?
Let’s check out the money I spent on comics this month!
Yep, two months into the year, and I’m already over a thousand dollars. That sounds about right.
I hope everyone has a nice week! And hey, look, it’s a link to Amazon in case you’re interested in any of this stuff! How handy!