Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
What I bought, read, otherwise consumed – December 2016

What I bought, read, otherwise consumed – December 2016

I buy a lot of comics, and I like reviewing them. So, um, strap yourself in? This is quite lengthy. Let’s get to it!

Moon Knight volume 1: Lunatic by Jeff Lemire (writer), Greg Smallwood (artist), Francesco Francavilla (artist/colorist), James Stokoe (artist/colorist), Wilfredo Torres (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colorist), Michael Garland (colorist), Cory Petit (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collection editor). $15.99, 110 pgs, FC, Marvel.

Moon Knight is, of course, one of my favorite comic book characters, so I’m kind of biased, but I’ve often been amazed by the high percentage of really good Moon Knight stories. His series never sell really well, I guess, because they never last long, but it’s kind of difficult to find that many bad Moon Knight stories. The previous volume Marvel put out, which began with Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey giving us a superb six-issue arc, was quite good (it was also colored by Bellaire, and she did her usual amazing work), and now it’s been relaunched yet again, with Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood taking their turn. Smallwood couldn’t get it all done, of course (the increased attention to comics art means that artists take longer to do a comic, so Smallwood manages to do about 4½ issues of this arc, and I know going forward, he takes some issues completely off), but Lemire handles that really well, and it’s nice when a writer takes into consideration that his artist won’t be able to finish certain parts of the story. But I’ll get to that!

Lemire, as writers for about the past decade have done, leans heavily into Moon Knight’s mental problems, beginning the story with Marc Spector in an asylum, getting treated roughly by orderlies and having therapy sessions with a sexy red-headed doctor (Doug Moench, Moonie’s creator, hinted around at Spector’s mental problems, and in his longest-running series from the late 1980s/early 1990s, the writers occasionally brought it up, but it’s only been since Charlie Huston’s and Mike Benson’s 30-issue series in 2006-2009 that it became more of a central feature to the character). Lemire begins by making Khonshu a delusion of Marc’s, but as this is a Marvel comic book, he quickly introduces the idea that the asylum itself isn’t real, and strange evil forces are keeping Marc from being the hero he’s supposed to be. Lemire places people from Marc’s life in the asylum – Frenchie, Crawley, and Gena show up, while Marlene is in a coma – and he plots to escape so he can fight the weird invaders that only he can see. Meanwhile, he sees on the news that “Moon Knight” is out doing hero work in New York, which confuses him even more. We can be reasonably sure that he’s not actually insane and that there really is an invasion he needs to thwart, simply because he’s a character in the Marvel Universe, but Lemire still manages to toy with our expectations quite a bit. Even after we think Marc has finally escaped the “asylum” and his head is clear, Lemire reminds us that it’s still very possible that he is still inside his own head and nothing that he’s experienced has actually happened. This becomes even more obvious in issue #5, when it appears his personality splits even more and we get three different artists drawing his realities, which is very clever by Lemire. Stokoe gets the “Moon Knight on the moon” section, which allows him to draw cool monsters (he’s very good at monsters), Torres gets the Steven Grant section, as his fine lines work well for that more genteel vision, and Francavilla draws the Jake Lockley section, which allows him to indulge in his love for lurid, pulpy stuff, and he nails it. I get that artists simply can’t draw everything these days (despite the shorter page counts in issues), and while it’s frustrating, at least Lemire is able to make it work.

Smallwood does a good job on the art, as well. He uses a rougher line for Marc’s conversations with Khonshu, because they’re in Marc’s “head” (supposedly) and therefore are divorced from reality, while his work in the asylum features more solid lines, even though his smudgy spot blacks keep it from being too crisp. He does some really nice page layouts, using, for instance, panels that form an exclamation point for the electro-shock Marc goes through, and he also uses some nice circular panels to telescope action occasionally. Shalvey started the trend of leaving chunks of the page white, and other artists have followed his lead, but it’s still effective (even if it means some pages look barer than they should – that’s part of its effectiveness!). For this particular series, Smallwood uses them to isolate Marc and show the so-called “white noise” around him, blurring his perceptions and keeping him from the purity of his mission for Khonshu. Obviously, Stokoe, Torres, and Francavilla all have their own styles, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they use the entire page and their gutters are much thinner than Smallwood’s. It changes our perception of what’s going on, fairly subtly, and it’s a neat device.

Lemire is playing the long game here, so we end on a bit of a cliffhanger (the trend recently, it seems, has been away from five- or six-issue arcs and more to longer-form storytelling, which I heartily approve of, but it makes trades frustrating because the story is nowhere near over), but it’s a fascinating one – we find out what’s going on with the Moon Knight who’s running around the city, and Marc makes a fateful decision that will certainly not hold long-term but provides good opportunities in the short term. Lemire has always been a good writer, and Moon Knight is the kind of character he seems to write well, and this trade makes that case. Marvel’s trades are getting shorter and more expensive (this is actually a decent deal – 5 issues for 16 bucks, and issue #1 is 30 pages instead of 20), so it’s frustrating even consuming them that way, but that doesn’t take away the quality of the comics. This would be one of my favorite Marvel comics of the year if it weren’t for the next entry, but it’s still a very intriguing comic!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

The Vision volume 2: Little Better Than a Beast by Tom King (writer), Gabriel Hernandez Walta (artist), Michael Walsh (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colorist), Clayton Cowles (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collection editor). $17.99, 120 pgs, FC, Marvel.

King is the flavor of the month (year?) in comics, as he’s parlayed his success into writing Batman, which is one of those comics you write when you’ve “arrived.” There’s no judgment in that statement at all, I’m just pointing it out. We get these kinds of writers all the time, and King is just the latest one. It does help, of course, if you have talent, and so far, King is killing it. His Omega Men was pretty good, his Sheriff of Babylon (at least the first volume) was very intriguing, and The Vision is one of the best comics of the year and one of the best Marvel books from the past, what, five years? Maybe longer? It’s absolutely brilliant.

I’m focusing on the second volume here, but the entire 12 issues are amazing, and I didn’t get a chance to write about volume 1, so I figured I’d put the cover to that trade here too, because the 12 issues form a complete and gripping story (as I noted above, writers for the Big Two these days seem to moving away from self-contained stories that fit in a trade for longer stories, and I’m very much in favor of that). In volume 2, all the bad choices the Visions made in volume 1 – beginning with Virginia, the Vision’s wife, killing the Grim Reaper because he almost killed their daughter, Viv – come home to roost. King brings in Victor Mancha, the future “Victorious,” who is destined to destroy the Avengers (according to time travelers, who would know, I suppose). In this volume, Victor is spying on the Visions for the Avengers, because they think something fishy happened to the Grim Reaper and they don’t believe the Vision is being totally honest with them. So there’s a spy, and that can’t lead to anything good. And guess what? It so doesn’t. This is a tragedy through and through, but King is good enough that it’s not simply gloom-and-doom. The plot itself isn’t anything fancy and we’ve seen it before – the person defending their family commits a crime and then covers it up, which leads to all sorts of bad things – but the way King presents it is terrific, because the Visions – even the patriarch himself, who’s been around for a long time – is not quite sure how to be human, and when they try, it’s either quite funny or painfully frightening, and it turns the choices they make – which, in a story with “real” humans, we’d shake our heads at and think how stupid they’re being – into far more tragic ones because they literally don’t know how to react to the circumstances. Just that small change is enough. King, like all good writers, can take something far removed from our experience – none of us, I would imagine, know what it’s like to be a synthezoid – and make it a human story, and as Vin discovers Victor spying on them and as Vision tries to hide what his wife did and then determines a course of action that will “solve” his problems and as Viv comes to terms with the death of the only classmate who tried to be friends with her and as the Avengers realize that they may not be able to stop the Vision, we spiral down to the inevitable, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t rip us up emotionally. The Visions tried to be as human as possible, and tragically, they succeeded.

I’m still not convinced that Walta is a great superhero artist, even though he’s been working for Marvel for a while. The Vision, however, is a great book for him, because he doesn’t have to do a lot of superheroics – Michael Walsh, who does issue #7, draws almost as much action in his one issue as Walta does in his 11 issues – but he does get to draw a lot of atmospheric stuff, which he’s very good at. He’s very good at characters’ expressions and body language, which is crucial in a comic like this, where the Visions say exactly what they mean (usually) and their faces and bodies betray those words more than they think. Vision and Virginia’s conversation in issue #12 is gripping not only because of King’s words, but because Walta shows us how close the two of them have become, and when Vin discovers Victor’s spying, Walta draws his sense of betrayal and the immediate aftermath brilliantly, making the scene that much more powerful. Bellaire is terrific, too, which isn’t surprising – she uses almost painfully bright hot colors in the flashbacks, as they’re all yellow and red and orange, but she switches that up when we get to Victor’s flashbacks, which are eerie green and blue, highlighting the little yellow she uses and making Victor’s story that much more troubling. Bellaire is a great colorist, and it’s nice that she doesn’t simply stick to “realistic” colors, because those can be boring. She uses the colors well to create moods, which is what a great colorist does.

I can’t stress enough how good this comic is. I don’t know if King pitched it as a 12-issue series or if the sales cut it short, but it feels like a perfect length for the story, and we know Marvel doesn’t like to let their series get too high in numbering these days, so maybe they told King they’d give him 12 issues, no more, no less. Whatever the back-room machinations, the book is a perfect length, as King doesn’t waste any space but he also allows the story to play out slowly. The use of old-school third-person narrative helps, as the issues take a bit longer to read because of all the words, but that means we have to slow down and pay attention, both to what King is writing and what Walta (and Walsh) are drawing. That’s not a bad thing, as it means we appreciate all the nuances King brings to the book. The Vision is a brilliant comic, and it’s one of the best things Marvel has published in some time. Go get both trades and enjoy!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

The Disciples by Steve Niles (writer), Christopher Mitten (artist), Jay Fotos (colorist), and Thomas Mauer (letterer). $12.99, 89 pgs, FC, Black Mask Studios.

I keep getting suckered by Steve Niles. Okay, Steve Niles doesn’t actually con me, but I keep thinking that I’ll really like something he’s written, mainly because he’s such a great idea man. A lot of writers are great idea men who don’t follow through, but Niles might be their king. He has, I must admit, brilliant ideas for comics, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever truly loved something he’s written. Maybe 30 Days of Night, but I didn’t love that, just liked it, and I’d have to read it again to be sure. In The Disciples, we get another great idea – a crazy rich man becomes a religious fanatic and goes to Ganymede – the moon of Jupiter – to set up his own cult. Three bounty hunters – Rick, Jules, and Dagmar – are hired by a family to bring their daughter back from the cult, so they head out to Ganymede. Of course, weird things happen! This is not a completely unique plot, but it’s a pretty good one – hard-boiled hunters taking their job just a bit lightly, only to find out the job is lot more difficult and stranger than they could have guessed – except that Niles paints by the numbers so much it’s hard to get into it. He does pull a Marion Crane in the book, which is kind of neat, but other than that, he gives us very little to be excited about. I don’t want to spoil too much, but he gives us this intriguing set-up and then does nothing with it. Part of this is that the book is only four issues long – even a fifth might have been enough to add some depth. Part of it, though, is that it seems Niles isn’t interested in “boring” stuff, so he sets up these intriguing situations but doesn’t do the heavy lifting to make them real. So if you create a cult on Ganymede and send bounty hunters in to “rescue” one of the cultists, perhaps you should give us some background on, I don’t know, the girl? Niles doesn’t, even possibly forgetting her name at the end (I say “possibly” because it’s unclear if she changed it). We don’t know anything about the cult leader except what we get in a short info-dump in issue #1, and we get even less about the cult he’s set up and why it might be evil. Given that this is Niles, of course there’s a supernatural element, which always works well in space (space is freaky, yo), but we don’t really find out much about the supernatural elements. Niles hints around at what might be happening, but there’s no rhyme nor reason to it, and it might not even be relevant. Basically, he wants to get to strange things ripping humans apart and the humans fighting back, and that’s what he gets to. But who cares? We don’t care about any of the characters, even Dagmar, who gets the barest minimum of development. It’s very frustrating, because there’s a lot here that we can read into the book – the objectification of women, the fetishization of mothers, the whole cult of personality thing, the existence of alien life and what form it might take, the questions of religion when confronted with alien life, the tragedy of machismo – but Niles doesn’t do anything with it. He seems content to put the idea in place, take the path of least resistance to the end, and let Mitten draw the hell out of it all.

Because, naturally, Mitten draws the hell out of it. Mitten is an acquired taste, as I’ve said for years, because his art isn’t traditionally “beautiful,” with its scratchy, wild lines and angular bodies, but if you do “acquire” it, it’s wonderful to see. Mitten turns the future into a junky, beat-up place, fitting well into the by-now traditional view of the future that began back in the cyberpunk days of Blade Runner – his art is perfect for that milieu. His hard lines make his spaceships and colonies look brutal and imposing yet worn all the same, as if the entire galaxy is using repurposed parts that they cobbled together. This makes the environment of the colony have a sense of dread, which is what Niles is going for, and the scenes where the crew explores the colony is very effective. Mitten draws terrifically weird monsters, too, which is nice. Mitten tends to use a lot of chunky blacks, which also helps for a horror comic, even as Fotos makes sure the book isn’t too dark, so we can still see what’s going on. Any redeeming value the book has is due to the art, but if you’re not a fan of Mitten, you might not even think that.

It drives me crazy that Niles isn’t a better writer, because he has such good ideas. I know he doesn’t care if some schmuck reviewer on a pop culture blog thinks this way, but it really does bum me out, because so many writers recycle ideas but Niles really does come up with some cool ones. They might not be completely original, but they’re still cool ideas. That he can’t follow through with them bothers me, and I wish that he could. Unlike some writers I’ll avoid because they’re just not that good, Niles is more frustrating because of what he actually does bring to the table – fascinating ideas with just enough to make the stories entertaining. But they’re empty calories, and that’s too bad. I live in hope, though!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Doctor Strange volume 1: The Way of the Weird by Jason Aaron (writer), Chris Bachalo (penciler/colorist), Kevin Nowlan (artist/colorist), Tim Townsend (inker), Al Vey (inker), Mark Irwin (inker), John Livesay (inker), Wayne Faucher (inker), Victor Olazaba (inker), Jaime Mendoza (inker), Cory Petit (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collection editor). $19.99, 111 pgs, FC, Marvel.

Marvel has been releasing a lot of Doctor Strange material recently for some bizarre reason, including this trade of the new series, so I thought I’d check it out. It’s 20 dollars for five issues, but the first is ten pages longer than standard, and I think cost $4.99, so it’s still a slightly better deal than getting the single issues, but Marvel is getting closer to charging the same amount for single issues as for trades, and that sucks. Anyway, I kind of like Jason Aaron, and I very much like Chris Bachalo, so I figured I’d give this a chance.

It’s fine, I guess, but nothing great. Aaron gives a mix of Morrison-era Doom Patrol (normalcy agents are trying to kill magic!) and Doctor Strange as guy who diagnoses and heals magical illnesses (if I were Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner, I’d be wondering who I could sue), and while it’s fine to read, but there’s nothing in it that’s really fantastic, except perhaps the idea that Strange pays a price whenever he uses magic, but Wong has figured out how to bypass any effects to him. I don’t know if it’s a new idea, but if it is, it’s pretty keen. Other than that, the story is fairly blah, with Bachalo’s hallucinogenic artwork more than distracting us from the blah-ness of the story. Love him or hate him (and I love him), Bachalo always goes whole hog, and his art on these issues is superb. Yes, his art is as busy as ever, but he’s usually brilliant at storytelling (with the Steampunk Caveat always in the back of our mind), and it is here, too. Just the beginning battle, with Strange facing down demons while standing in front of a giant teddy bear (it makes sense, I promise!) is a wonderful image, and Bachalo does wonders from then on, making the magical world that Strange sees a funky, messy, organic place (he draws toadstools on random things and giant bacteria everywhere). His character work is great, with Zelma standing in for the reader as she navigates Strange’s house and reacts pretty much the way we would, and Bachalo’s creatures – both the magic ones and the faceless baddies trying to destroy magic – are very neat. Bachalo is a terrific colorist, too, and the book pops off the page thanks to his brilliant and bizarre choices. The best one he makes is showing the “mundane” world in black and white when Strange looks at it through his third eye, because then all the magical creatures that attach themselves to humanity shine even more brightly. Bachalo’s crowded, messy, glorious art is the kind of thing that works perfectly on a Doctor Strange comic, and the only reason I can think of for why Marvel didn’t put him on a Strange comic earlier is because they weren’t publishing one. Despite the fact that Aaron’s story is just serviceable, at least they finally got Bachalo on a Doctor Strange comic!

I’m not sure if I’m going to keep getting the trades – this one doesn’t tell a complete story, as Aaron simply sets up the big bads in this one and, presumably, Strange will fight them in the next arc – because I didn’t love it, even though it was fun to look at. I guess I’ll decide when it’s actually offered!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Legend of Wonder Woman volume 1: Origins by Renae de Liz (writer/penciler), Ray Dillon (inker/colorist/letterer), and Liz Erickson (collected edition editor). $29.99, 270 pgs, FC, DC.

Well, before I even write about this, I should point out that today (16 December, that is, when I’m typing this), I saw this: DC has canceled this comic. Yep. I guess sales were good, according to De Liz, and it seemed to come as a surprise to De Liz and Dillon, so who the hell knows what’s going on at DC? Maybe it wasn’t dark enough? I mean, it’s not the “real” Wonder Woman, because this was a digital-first series and we know that DC doesn’t consider those the “real” version, so what’s the harm? Anyway, I was pretty happy with DC this year, and this won’t ruin their other good efforts, but it would be nice to know why they pulled the plug on this. If it was sales, it would be nice to know what they’re looking at. This collection is selling well, according to De Liz, so what’s the deal, DC?

Because let’s take a look at this sucker. Regular DC comics are 20 pages for $3.99. Nine issues of that would be 180 pages for $35.91 (let’s assume DC charges us $34.99). This collection is the equivalent of 13½ issues for 30 dollars. Each of these issues is 30 pages, which DC would probably charge $4.99 for if they were “regular” comics. So a hardcover collection (yes, I got the hardcover, simply because it was cheaper than the single issues, so a softcover – if it comes out – will probably be even less) of those comics would cost $43.99, if we round down. Even buying these as single issues would have cost 6 dollars more than buying this very nice hardcover. It’s a freaking bargain, is what I’m saying, so I’m not surprised that sales are okay … if indeed they are (I’m not doubting De Liz, just that sales figures are fairly arcane in the comics business, so who knows if she even knows the right numbers). So yeah, I’m very curious why this got canceled, especially as the Absolute Doom-‘N’-Gloom Era at DC seems to have ended – now it’s only the Somewhat Doom-‘N’-Gloom Era!

(Okay, since I typed this, more has come out about the cancellation. Bleeding Cool and The Guardian note that DC killed the book because De Liz and Dillon criticized DC and other creators, specifically the fact that they pitched an Amazon story years ago and now DC is publishing one by someone else. De Liz addresses this on Facebook, while Comics Alliance gets grumpy about it. I’m kind of torn – De Liz and Dillon aren’t employees of DC, which would make their “firing” more understandable, because employers don’t like being criticized by their workers, but I think Comics Alliance goes a bit too far by comparing it to silencing people speaking out about harassment. That’s something illegal, and DC shouldn’t shut that down, but it seems like De Liz and Dillon were just being, you know, jerks. It seems like an overreaction by DC, but De Liz and Dillon should have known better, especially because it looks like they were dissing another creator, not the company. That’s just bad form. Anyway, back to the review!)

De Liz does some very nice work with Diana and her origin – I still haven’t read the other two (2!?!?!) origin stories of Wonder Woman that came out this year (it’s almost like they were celebrating an anniversary or something!), but this is a good one. Because De Liz takes so long to get Diana off the damned island – Diana hits Boston Harbor on page 90, after three issues on Themyscira growing up and learning some mysterious things about her mother, the history of the Amazons, and the island itself (plus she thinks she should learn some things about hunky Steve Trevor, but this isn’t the damned Blue Lagoon, consarnit!). De Liz gives us a complex but not complicated backstory for the Amazons, and shows why factions within the society would resent Diana and Hippolyta, even if Diana is not to blame for their anger. The rationale for having the “Wonder Woman” competition is a bit forced, but no more so than the original version, so there’s no big deal there. What De Liz does differently is exile Diana from Themyscira, not because she’s being punished, but because it’s somewhat removed from the world and she can’t figure out how to get back. So there’s the element of tragedy in the story, as most Wonder Woman stories I’ve read allow Diana to return to the island, even if occasionally it’s cut off from the “real world.” I don’t know in the original Marston stories if Diana was cut off from Paradise Island, but this feels like an interesting new scenario, one that forces Diana into an uncomfortable situation from which she has no easy escape.

Once Diana gets to Boston, she has to learn how to live in the world and also how to fight against the dark force helping the Nazis, which has begun to affect Themyscira itself. The middle section of the book, issues #4-5 (Diana first goes all “Wonder Woman” in issue #6) are very nice, as De Liz gives us Etta Candy, the best character in the book, who rescues Diana from having to reveal herself as an outsider and takes her under her wing. Etta is terrific, a singer in a swing group and the scion of a Texas family who made their money in somewhat embarrassing (to Etta) fashion. She helps Diana adjust to the world and then goes to Europe with her (she even gets to be reunited with her group, who follow along later). One of the nice things about Etta is De Liz makes sure she has a life outside of Diana – she has a rivalry with another singer, she crushes on a soldier who’s not Steve Trevor (although she thinks he’s yummy and encourages Diana to respond to him), she learns how to fly an airplane and takes great pleasure in firing a turret gun at Nazi pilots (only to disable their planes, though, at Diana’s insistence). She and Diana make a great pair – De Liz doesn’t make Etta jealous of the attention Diana gets, while Diana knows that Etta is a great friend. Eventually, of course, they have to fight the big bad guy (which De Liz oddly ties into DC continuity – not because it’s a bad idea, but because it comes almost from out of nowhere), but De Liz still does some nice things with it – Etta and her group help out (somewhat unbelievably, but it’s a comic, so let’s let it go), one bad guy isn’t as bad as he seems (although, without giving too much away, I thought the bait-and-switch with the bad guys was a bit too cliché, but such is life), and Diana gets to show both her compassion and her awesome strength. De Liz does end it with the possibility of more stories, as she planned, but it works very well as a complete saga, too.

De Liz does the art, and she’s very good at some things. Her characters are terrific – we can glean a lot about their personalities just by the way De Liz draws them, which is not a bad trick. Diana, of course, is the star, and she’s drawn very well – beautiful but not obnoxiously so, taller than everyone, powerful but still naïve. Etta is more zaftig, obviously, but she’s still very sexy, and De Liz draws her like she acts – fearless, confident, and ridiculously cheery. She gives us a good sense of place, whether it’s Themyscira, Boston, or the European theater, and we get a good idea of Themyscira’s lushness, Boston’s industriousness, France’s ravaged countryside, and the chill of Svalbard. She does a nice job with the hand-to-hand fight scenes – the evil spirits, digitally rendered, are very creepy – and Diana’s final fight with the Titan is very nicely done. De Liz also has a good sense of grandeur, which makes Diana’s battle even more epic when she learns the origins of it all. The art falters just a little during some of the plane scenes, as De Liz draws them a bit too simplistically, and while Dillon’s digital coloring is very good for the most part, occasionally he uses that coloring that simply lies flat instead of showing the texture of, say, clothing. It doesn’t happen that often, but it’s a bit distracting when it does.

But that’s a minor point. For the most part, The Legend of Wonder Woman is a very nice comic, one that gives us an in-depth origin for Wonder Woman and a cool bad guy to fight, one that ties into her origin and the world war, where Wonder Woman feels at home. It’s too bad that DC canceled this, especially for the reasons floating around, but this hardcover is a nice standalone book, so even though we’re not getting anymore of it, it’s still worth a look.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Atomic Robo and the Temple of Od #1-5 by Brian Clevinger (writer), Scott Wegener (artist), Anthony Clark (colorist), Jeff Powell (letterer), and Lee Black (editor). $19.95, 110 pgs, FC, IDW.

If you’re not on board with Atomic Robo yet … well, it’s been several years and several mini-series, and the creators went from a tiny publisher to one that’s in the front section of Previews (whether or not that means they’re “big” is something I choose to avoid, but they’re in the front!), and I don’t know what else to tell you. Atomic Robo is such a great comic, and the fact that not everyone reads it is depressing, because I suppose people would rather read depressing comics starring characters they know than brilliant comics starring a robot created by Nikola Tesla. But that’s fine. I will continue to enjoy the mini-series!

Clevinger and Wegener tend to flip back and forth between the present day and the past, and this one takes place in 1938 in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet-state in northeast China during the war. It’s a typical Robo adventure, which means that there’s so-close-to-real science (Clevinger admits that he takes liberties, but he tries to ground it as much as he can), lots of very funny lines, lots of derring-do, and almost non-stop action. Robo teams up with the Chinese resistance, where, it turns out, he finds his old friend Helen McAllister (with whom he had an adventure in the 1920s), who is involved in a romance with Chen Zhen, the leader of the resistance. Chen and Helen tell him that a Chinese professor has been kidnapped by the Japanese, who are using his theories to create humans who can draw zero-point energy to become super-powerful. Obviously, none of this can really happen, but as usual, Clevinger does a good job making it sound plausible. There’s a lot of fighting, escapes, captures, poor communication (Robo doesn’t know Mandarin, which hampers him a bit when he’s separated from Chen and Helen), and all sorts of people interested in the technology. Some Robo stories make bigger points about certain things, but this one really doesn’t. The technology can be weaponized, therefore the doctor who cracked it thinks it should be destroyed. Many others disagree!

Despite the relative slightness of the story, it’s still wildly entertaining. Wegener is always a treat, too, so it’s fun to just look at the pretty pictures. They’ve gone through a few colorists during the life of the series, and Clark uses a slightly more muted palette than the previous colorist, Nick Filardi (I think he was the colorist right before Clark, although I haven’t checked to make sure), which suits Wegener’s art well. As always, Wegener is terrific at giving Robo “human” emotions simply by the way he draws his large, pupil-less eyes and the way he moves his head and body, so we always know what Robo is thinking even if he’s not saying it. Wegener gives us a bunch of interesting character, none of whom are completely evil (even Matsuda, the main bad guy, isn’t completely evil), which makes them work much better. He has the most fun with the Ghost Bandits, mercenary outlaws who help Robo and the resistance, but only because they think they will get paid handsomely for their efforts. Clevinger has fun with them, and Wegener does a very good job making them goofy but also dangerous, as they’re relatively good at causing mayhem and being treacherous in general. Wegener also does a marvelous job when Matsuda goes too far, turning him into a horrifying figure even if he’s spouting nonsense (which, naturally, Robo comments upon, because he likes to puncture the deadly seriousness of would-be world conquerors). The final battle also allows Clark to cut loose a bit, and he does so with aplomb. It’s not surprising that an Atomic Robo series looks good, because it’s never surprising that an Atomic Robo series is one of the better comics you can find!

Anyway, you should buy Atomic Robo. It has everything people say they want in comics, and nobody gets an arm amputated or has sex with a creepy old man. Clevinger and Wegener seem to get one mini-series out per year, so I’m hoping we get another in 2017!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Birthright volume 4: Family History by Joshua Williamson (writer), Andrei Bressan (artist), Adriano Lucas (colorist), Pat Brosseau (letterer), Arielle Basich (assistant editor), and Sean Mackiewicz (editor). $12.99, 100 pgs, FC, Image/Skybound.

Joshua Williamson continues to toil away in the DC Salt Mines – he’s writing the Justice League/Suicide Squad fight thing, because DC needed a human to write it, I guess, when the three-toed sloth they had hired demanded more money – but if that means he can keep writing his two Image books, good for him! Nailbiter is a good comic, but Birthright is better, and Williamson continues to do nice work on it in this fourth volume. Everyone knows now that Mikey is working for the bad guy, but his family isn’t ready to give up on him, so his brother, Brennan, and his dad, Aaron, are trying to get rid of the “infection” in his brain with the help of his grandfather, Aaron’s dad, who is one of the great mages who originally fled to Earth when the bad guy took over Terrenos. Got all that? It’s not that difficult to understand, and Williamson does a nice job showing why the mages made the decision to abandon Terrenos and come to Earth and what it cost them. Meanwhile, Mikey’s lover is about to give birth, and that ain’t good. As the trend with dual creator-owned books these days (Birthright is co-created by Williamson and Bressan) is for the artists to draw everything and have breaks between arcs, Williamson structures everything to be five issues, so he stretches things out just a bit – this could have easily been three or possibly four issues given the plot, but Williamson pads it a bit with lots and lots of “family bond” talk and action. I imagine it might get annoying reading this in single issues, but in a trade, it’s a bit more forgivable, and Williamson does make sure to pace the book so that there’s some good action every few pages, so there’s that. The story is he telling is fascinating – it’s a variation on the old “sacrifice one for the good of the many” trope, but that’s a good story, and Williamson adds some nice wrinkles to it. Brennan, for instance, might turn out to be more important than Mikey, and that’s keen. The revelation at the end of this arc isn’t necessarily a stunning bombshell, but it’s pretty good, and it opens up some good plot possibilities. This is an exciting fantasy series, and it’s moving along nicely.

Bressan continues to do amazing work on the art, too. His creatures are superb, as they look like things dredged up from hell, and his Nevermind is tremendous, diseased and creepy yet very powerful. He gets to draw a dragon, too, and he nails it. There’s a great sense of the brutality of warfare in the art, as nobody gets out of it unscarred. Bressan grounds the book, too, making sure that the places look real even as fantastic stuff occurs in them, so Sameal’s lair looks like an actual place, despite the amazing weapons he has stored everywhere and the physics-defying space it occupies. In a book with a lot of magic, Lucas has to be on point, as well, and he does a great job, making the magical aspects glow eerily but making sure that the more mundane stuff is plain to contrast well with the fantastical stuff. It adds a sheen of unreality to the book, which is necessary given the clash in the comic between this bizarre world and our “real” one. The book’s art has always been a strong selling point, and Bressan and Lucas do nothing here to change that.

Williamson is adding nice layers to this comic, which seemed to be going one way in the first arc but has expanded nicely in later ones. I don’t know how long he plans on doing the book, but it’s a pretty cool series, and I look forward to more!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Martian Manhunter volume 2: The Red Rising by Rob Williams (writer), Matt Kindt (writer), Eddy Barrows (penciller), Ronan Cliquet (penciller), RB Silva (penciller), Ben Oliver (artist), Philip Tan (penciller), Eber Ferreira (inker), Marc Deering (inker), Andy Owens (inker), Jason Paz (inker), Gabe Eltaeb (colorist), Jeromy Cox (colorist), Tom Napolitano (letterer), and Paul Santos (collected edition editor). $14.99, 143 pgs, FC, DC.

The first volume of Rob Williams’s Martian Manhunter series was very cool – a weird, surreal mystery that couldn’t possibly live up to its premise, although in this volume, Williams gives it the old college try. It began to break apart when Williams went macro, as Ma’alefa’ak brought a big, Mars-centered plot to its fruition, and it became clear that this volume would be about J’onn trying to undo what the evil Martian had done. There’s nothing wrong with world-threatening plots, but they’ve become kind of dull, because everyone knows that the Earth isn’t going to be destroyed, so it becomes about how it gets stopped, not whether it will be. Williams tries his hardest to upend our expectations, but in doing so, he goes a bit too far the other way, so the book becomes almost a book with no stakes whatsoever. It’s a fine line for Williams to walk, and he’s a good writer, so he almost succeeds, but the ending of the book leaves us empty, because we’re wondering if any of it mattered. Perhaps Ma’alefa’ak’s plot really would have done what he said it would, but because of the way Williams writes it, it’s tough to be sure. I don’t want to give too much away, because Williams does a decent job getting us to the end of the book, so I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a weirdly enervating ending, partly because of what actually happens and partly because, despite a somewhat tragic end point, there’s no way DC will allow it to continue. I always mention this with regard to corporate superhero characters – they always revert to as close to their original incarnations as possible, but it’s even more true with regard to J’onn, because he’s become such a mainstay in the DCU. Marvel can let writers mess around with Moon Knight because he’s not that terribly important in the grand scheme of their universe, but DC has decided that J’onn is important, so whatever interesting things Williams does with him in this series (and it’s not a terrible ending, just a bit disappointing), DC won’t allow other writers to build upon it. J’onn is too necessary to be the rock of the Justice League whenever they need him to be, so he can’t go through the wringer too often like he does here.

Williams isn’t helped by the rotating artists, either. Barrows drew most (all?) of the first volume (I’d look it up, but I don’t feel like it), and I noted at the time that it was a revelation, because Barrows was always kind of a low-rent Image-y clone, but he’s evolved into a terrific superhero artist, and the first volume looked terrific. In this volume, Barrows doesn’t do as much, and things suffer. He draws issues #8 and 10 and a few pages of #9, and he’s definitely missed. Cliquet is adequate, Silva only draws part of issue #9, and Ben Oliver’s sterile lines are all wrong for this kind of story (to be fair, I don’t like Oliver’s work, so I probably wouldn’t like his work on much, but he’s definitely not a good fit here), because he just doesn’t have the looseness to deal with the shape-shifting (although Oliver’s mecha-Manhunter is pretty good, so he’d probably be good on Iron Man, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go). The cartooniness of Cliquet’s works against Williams’s tone, which is too bad – Barrows’s line is a bit rougher, so while he was comfortable drawing the silly Mr. Biscuits but still gave him a dark edge, Cliquet just makes him look goofy. It’s a shame that DC does this with artists – Marvel does it, too, but as I noted above, Lemire is able to use his artist’s speed to his advantage, while DC doesn’t seem to care about visual consistency. And this is before they decided to ship some titles twice a month – I shudder to think about what the art looks in some of the DC Rebirth trades (some of which I’m ordering, so I guess I’ll see!). I’m not saying that Williams’s somewhat convoluted plot would work better if Barrows drew it all, but it would have helped a bit!

Martian Manhunter is still a pretty cool comic, so I would encourage you to check out the two trades. Williams is a fascinating writer, so even his messier stories are still worth reading. He tries to do something weird and different with J’onn, and he does not a bad job with it. Give it a look!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Ms. Marvel volume 6: Civil War II by G. Willow Wilson (writer), Adrian Alphona (artist), Takeshi Miyazawa (artist), Mirka Andolfo (artist), Ian Herring (colorist), Irma Kniivila (colorist), Joe Caramagna (letterer), and Jennifer Grünwald (collection editor). $17.99, 120 pgs, FC, Marvel.

Ms. Marvel has always been a good comic, so it’s unfortunate that Wilson had to get it caught up in Civil War II, even though, as Captain Marvel was the leader of one faction, it was probably impossible to avoid it. Wilson does what she can with it, and she finds a good thing amongst the stupidity – Bruno gets seriously injured and realizes that Kamala has been unbelievably selfish throughout her career as Ms. Marvel, so he leaves town to focus on himself. It’s a good idea, because it points out the selfishness of superheroes in general, and Wilson has always been able to give the ancillary characters some lives outside of how they reflect on Kamala, so Bruno’s departure hits very hard (although Wilson drops the ball by not showing how it affects his girlfriend, so maybe Bruno is being a bit selfish himself, eh?). Because, let’s face it, Civil War II is a spectacularly bad idea, and Carol Danvers is so very wrong I can’t believe there hasn’t been more charges of misogyny leveled at Brian Michael Bendis because he made a woman take such a disturbingly wrong-headed idea. In this case, it blows up almost immediately, as Kamala and her team of quasi-fascists take one of Kamala’s friends into custody and Kamala makes a stupid decision to show Carol the wrongness of her plan. Not that anyone should have had to come up with a stupid plan to convince Carol – they just could have shown her Minority Report and what happened to poor douchey Colin Ferrell and she would have abandoned her insipid idea right quick. I can’t even deal with Civil War II, and it’s a testament to Wilson’s talent that she makes the storyline here work even as well as it does.

The first issue of the collection, a standalone story in which Kamala and her cronies take on Miles Morales and his cronies in a science fair, is the best one of the trade. It’s funny, dramatic without being overly obnoxious about it, shows the problems with being a superhero who has a secret identity, and taps into all sorts of teenage angst without, again, being too obnoxious about it. Wilson, whether deliberately or accidentally, scorns sports while making the kids engage in the worst of athletic behavior, and a basketball game won’t lead to the destruction of the city, as the kids’ science experiments could easily do. It’s the only issue completely drawn by Alphona, too, and while I really like Miyazawa’s art, Alphona’s has that eccentric style that works so well for an off-beat book like Ms. Marvel (although Miyazawa draws great giant fists, so there’s that). The final story of the trade, also a standalone one, takes Kamala to Pakistan, where she doesn’t fit in (a common refrain in fiction is that immigrants don’t fit in in their new countries because they’re too foreign but they don’t fit in at “home” for the same reason, and Kamala experiences that) and doesn’t understand the complexities of life there when she tries to be a superhero. It’s another clever and fairly subtle story, which means it sticks out like the second sore thumb (the first thumb is the science fair story!) in this trade, where the Civil War II story is about as subtle as a hammer to the head.

I’m glad Ms. Marvel weathered the idiocy of Civil War II, and it’s still going, so I’m sure Wilson recovered and the next trade will be a good one. This isn’t a bad trade, just a bit disappointing because it had to tie into such a stupid crossover. Oh well. Let’s move on!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz. 445 pgs, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008.

Tony Horwitz, who wrote Confederates in the Attic (which is probably his most famous book), decided to track down the “missing history” of America – he muses early on in the book that American students are taught about Columbus landing in the Caribbean in 1492 and then, usually, the texts skip ahead to Plymouth Rock, which was, after all, 128 years later. A lot can happen in 128 years, and Horwitz decides to spend some time tracking down the explorers who trekked through what we would call the United States long before the Pilgrims were kicked out of England for being so very, very dour (that’s totally why they left, people!). He’s a pretty good writer, alternating between the history of whatever he’s writing about at the time and his own journeys following in their footsteps. He begins in Newfoundland, where he traces the Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, which is a charming mangle of the original French, Anse à la Médée, Medea’s Bay – it’s named after the Greek sorceress, scorned woman, and eventual murderer. Horwitz gets to know the people living in L’Anse, which will be the template of the book – he talks to the people along the way (he’s a journalist by trade) and digs deep into their stories and how the explorers who wandered over the land have an impact in the 21st century. Obviously, the Vikings didn’t have much of an impact on Newfoundland, because they were there 1000 years ago and didn’t stay, but in other places, he finds more immediate effects of the explorations.

He spends a good portion of the early part of the book in the Dominican Republic, as that’s where Columbus had the biggest impact. He has a tough time in the D.R., as it’s a country wracked with poverty and corruption. He also introduces his theme of the problems people still have thanks to the introduction of “foreign” – in this case, Spanish – blood into the local ecosystem. Many Dominicans are racist, partly due to a rivalry with Haiti, and they deny their African heritage and play up their Indian heritage, even though the Spanish did their best to exterminate the Indians. This become a trope throughout the book, as the people Horwitz talks to try to build a history of themselves that might not be completely accurate but which reflects their current biases and stereotypes. In New Mexico, he comes across the Zuni, one of the very few Indian tribes who were never moved off their land by the invaders. The Zuni are very protective of their history, to the point where they don’t trust anyone to even write about their religion. In Virginia, Horwitz meets Indians who refuse to associate with members of their family who have more African blood in their family tree, due in some part to racial laws that allowed whites and Indians to marry but not whites and blacks. This drove a wedge between Indians and blacks, a wedge that is still there, even among family members. He meets many wonderful people in the present, from the Swedes of Lindsborg, Kansas to the dude who takes him out onto the Mississippi, but the toxic legacy of the invaders is something he can’t really escape.

His history is interesting, too. I knew a little about the Spanish explorers, but I didn’t know about Alvar Núñez Cabaza de Vaca (or if I learned about him, I forgot), who trekked along the Gulf Coast in 1528-1536 and became an advocate for the Indians, begging his superiors to treat them as equals, advice that was summarily ignored. I did remember Coronado and De Soto, but not the details of their amazing voyages – Coronado went through Arizona (where, in Tempe, there’s a Marcos de Niza High School, named after the friar who lied almost incessantly during the journey about the riches that lay ahead), New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and into Kansas, while De Soto went from Florida, through Georgia, South and North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, before dying by the river he “discovered” in 1542. These two men were exploring almost simultaneously, and Horwitz points out that some people may have met both parties while Coronado was in Kansas and De Soto was in Arkansas. De Soto was a horrible person, apparently, fully embodying the stereotype of the Spanish conquistador, but Horwitz discovers that many of the explorers don’t fit into a box that easily (and, given the prevalence of “De Soto” in American life, many people don’t think of him as the butcher that he was). He digs into the meetings between the explorers and the natives, and does a good job showing the Indian society into which these men were traveling, which isn’t easy given the paucity of sources from the Indian side (and even the lack of sources from the Spanish side). He also tells the fascinating story of the Huguenot attempt to settle near where Jacksonville is today in 1564-1574 and their vicious rivalry with the Spanish, who founded St. Augustine simply to battle the French. It’s a part of American history that is almost completely unknown, but it’s very interesting.

Horwitz delves into the Roanoke mystery, but not excessively, as he’s not too concerned with it – he’s much more interested in John Smith, a prototypical “American” – self-made man, shameless self-promoter – who has been romanticized in American fiction into, well, the cartoon Mel Gibson. Most people, I think, know that Smith and Pocahontas didn’t have a romance, and that she was probably 10 years old when they met, but Disney is powerful propaganda, so who knows. The real Smith was much more interesting, however, and Horwitz wonders why he and Jamestown doesn’t have a more prominent place in American history (he’s not surprised about the suppression of the Spanish role, because of course that would be suppressed by Anglo-Saxon Protestants). When he finally does go to Massachusetts, one of the residents tells him the Pilgrims have better PR, which might be true, but there’s also the Victorian idea of indolent Southerners, living off of slave labor, who aren’t “real” Americans. Of course, Horwitz shows how ridiculous that is – anyone settling in the New World in the 16th or 17th centuries had to work extremely hard to simply survive, if not thrive – but it gets back to his examination of the legacy of the exploration. The Pilgrims “won” the future, and therefore “won” the past, and America’s founding myth skipped the hundreds of people who arrived ling before the Pilgrims. Horwitz admits he’s guilty of selective history, skimming over explorers like John Cabot and Henry Hudson because there aren’t a lot of documents relating to them and skipping Samuel de Champlain because he wasn’t trying to write a comprehensive survey. But he does admit his selection, something many people in the past haven’t.

At the end of the book, Horwitz is speaking to a member of a club in Plymouth dedicated to honoring the traditions of the Pilgrims. The man says he was in a televised debate with someone from Virginia who argued that Jamestown not only preceded Plymouth, but there’s evidence that the settlers there celebrated a “thanksgiving” in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims even landed in Massachusetts. The man agreed with the Virginian, but said it didn’t matter, because Americans love the Pilgrims. Here’s the exchange:

I wasn’t sure I followed his argument. “So you’re saying we should honor myth rather than fact?” I asked.
“Precisely.” The reverend smiled benignly, as I imagine he might at a bewildered parishioner. “Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate.”
He spooned up the last of his succotash. “The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth. It’s like religion – beyond facts. Myth trumps facts, always does, always has, always will.”

Horwitz wrote this book in 2008. Who knew it would describe Trump’s America so concisely?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Fuse #19-24: Constant Orbital Revolutions by Antony Johnston (writer), Justin Greenwood (artist), Shari Chankhamma (colorist), and Ryan Ferrier (letterer). $23.94, 132 pgs, FC, Image.

The Fuse comes to an end with its fourth big arc, which is fine because Johnston notes in the back that he wanted to write the entire mystery of Ralph Dietrich’s presence on the Fuse, and he did so. Obviously, the book is creator-owned, so Johnston leaves open the possibility of a return, but if the book doesn’t come back, we get a pretty satisfying 24-issue arc. In this arc, we get the requisite murder, which leads Klem – who’s about to retire (dum-dum-DUMMMMMM!) – to the Fuse Liberation Front, the terrorist organization that wants autonomy for the satellite. So the mayor gets involved, and Ralph’s nocturnal activities come to light, and it’s a typical Fuse story – lots of twists and turns, but all making sense by the end. The Fuse was never a great comic, but it was a pretty good one, as the procedural aspects were perfectly fine and allowed Johnston to touch on topics such as self-rule for colonies and if there’s ever a “right” time to become autonomous, immigration – illegal or otherwise, sexual politics, and even some ageism. Greenwood’s meat-and-potatoes artwork helped ground the series, making Midway City a typical city – grimy and run-down in some place, beautiful in others – and making the characters interesting even though he’s not quite great at character development. All in all, The Fuse is a neat series that’s worth a look, but nothing that is screaming out to be read. It’s a decent sci-fi series, a decent police procedural series, and it’s better than a lot of crap that’s out there. I didn’t love it, but I did like it. So there.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

Brighter Than You Think: Ten Short Works by Alan Moore, with Essays by Marc Sobel by Beardo McMagicman (writer), Rick Veitch (artist), Don Simpson (artist), Pete Poplaski (artist), Mike Kazaleh (artist), Stan Woch (artist), John Totleben (artist), Stephen Bissette (artist), Bill Wray (artist), Mark Beyer (artist), Oscar Zárate (artist), Peter Bagge (artist), Melinda Gebbie (artist), Sam Parsons (colorist), Mindy Eisman (letterer), and Marc Sobel (editor/essayist). $22.95, 168 pgs, FC/BW, Uncivilized Books.

Alan Moore claims he’s done with comics after he finishes up some projects, so it’s not a bad time to consider all the shit he’s written over the years, because he’s written a lot of shit, and far too much of it remains uncollected. Marc Sobel and the folk at Uncivilized Books have made a dent in that with this book, which features stories from 1986 through 2003, and is eclectic as all get-out. We get “Love Doesn’t Last Forever,” a terrific sci-fi horror story from the final issue of Epic Illustrated; “In Pictopia,” Moore’s scathing satire of superheroes from a 1986 Fantagraphics anthology (and which is probably the most famous story in this book); “Tapestries,” an anti-war story based on a soldier’s books about Vietnam; “The Mirror of Love,” a history of homosexuality from AARGH!, which José Villarrubia got reprinted from Top Shelf in 2004 (omitting the artwork, which I would think is vaguely insulting to Veitch and Bissette, but whatever); “Come on Down,” a savage satire of American materialism from Taboo #1; “The Bowing Machine,” a critique of American cultural imperialism (of course) that first appeared in Raw (vol. 2) #3, “one the best comics anthologies ever published”; “I Keep Coming Back,” a creepy coda to From Hell; “The Hasty Smear of My Smile,” a critique of American materialism (of course) that first appeared in Hate #30; “This Is Information,” which is one of Moore’s responses to 9/11; and “Brighter Than You Think,” a biography of an American rocket scientist/occultist that was supposed to appear in Tomorrow Stories but supposedly got quashed by DC’s legal department and which led to Moore severing his connection to DC once again. Because these stories are by Moore, even the ones where he’s full of shit are well worth checking out, and this is a terrific book that every comics fan should read. The best ones are the ones where Moore doesn’t allow his moralizing to overwhelm his storytelling, as in the first two, “Come on Down,” “I Keep Coming Back,” and even “The Hasty Smear of My Smile,” which features Bagge’s humorous style and is, you know, about the sentient Kool-Aid Man. Whenever Moore starts sermonizing, he comes closer and closer to being full of shit, so even though “The Mirror of Love” is a beautiful tale of overcoming oppression, the fact that Moore talks out of his ass when it comes to pre-human existence and even early human existence makes it tough to take his “history” seriously. When he gets to the “free love” of John Whiteside Parsons (in “Brighter Than You Think”), who decided banging his wife’s 16-year-old sister was a good way to spend his time, it’s tough to take Moore’s love of “magick” seriously.

The really good stories, as I noted, are when Moore just writes a plot. “Love Doesn’t Last Forever” is in the style of his 2000AD “Future Shock” stories, dazzlingly drawn by Veitch and colored like a current, overly rendered digital comic, which works perfectly for the story. “In Pictopia,” which proves that even Moore can be improved upon (Simpson came up with the title after Moore called it Fictopia), we get the satirizing of “mature” superheroes that Moore helped create and which he seems to have almost instantly regretted, and while Moore bashes us over the head with his message, he still manages to stay on the good side of sermonizing, and Simpson’s impressive cartooning (with help from Poplaski and Kazaleh) makes the story’s tragedy resonate well. “Tapestries” is a good story, taken from W.D. Ehrhart’s books about his experiences in Vietnam, and the way Moore structures the story, with each page split between Ehrhart’s idyllic childhood in Perkasie (which is less than 30 minutes from where I grew up) and his war-time troubles, is well done. It’s a harrowing anti-war story, which Moore does well with, partly because, I suspect, he’s adapting a book. “Come on Down,” in which a sad city-dweller discovers a game show where contestants choose the method by which they are killed, is terrifying and gripping, mainly because Moore doesn’t do what we expect with the ending. Wray’s violently jagged cartooning (complete with a wildly offensive “black woman” stereotype!) is really good for the story. Finally, Moore’s examination of his own psyche and how it was affected by researching Jack the Ripper for so long is the central idea of “I Keep Coming Back,” in which he returns to some of the places associated with the Ripper for a BBC documentary and discovers some horrible things about himself.

These stories are tremendous, and the others are certainly worth reading, mainly because average Moore is still better than almost every other writer’s best stuff. I grew weary of Moore’s sermons years ago, so when he shifts to that mode, it’s annoying even as the prose remains beautiful and harrowing and unique. So while I don’t love “Brighter Than You Think” or “The Bowing Machine” or “The Mirror of Love,” it’s very hard for Moore to write a bad story, and in the latter story, at least, we get wonderful artwork from Veitch and Bissette (I’m not a huge fan of Beyer’s infantile work in “The Bowing Machine” nor Gebbie’s workmanlike style, although her use of symbols in both “This Is Information” and “Brighter Than You Think” is excellent). Plus, Sobel’s essays and endnotes, while occasionally a bit fawning (heck, I’m not exactly criticizing – I know I can be a bit fawning with my favorite works, too!), are a terrific source of information about the stories, their publication history, and Moore’s influences. This is a nice, scholarly book about a comic great, and we all know we could use more of those.

If you like Alan Moore even a little bit, you should check this out. It doesn’t contain his greatest works or even his greatest short stories (I mean, have you read D.R. and Quinch, for crying out loud?!?!?), but it’s a terrific book. I’m glad Sobel was able to put it together!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

Kim & Kim volume 1: This Glamorous, High-Flying Rock Star Life by Magdalene Visaggio (writer), Eva Cabrera (artist), Claudia Aguirre (colorist), Zakk Saam (letterer), and Katy Rex (editor). $12.99, 98 pgs, FC, Black Mask Studios.

A lot of people in comics talk about representation, and how characters other than white males need to be in comics, which I agree with. However, they’re just fictional characters, and I always wonder why people are more concerned about, say, female Thor rather than the fact that Marvel and DC don’t let women write a Thor comic or a Batman comic. I’d much rather support female or other non-white male creators rather than non-white male characters, which is why it’s pretty cool that Kim & Kim, for instance, is by a transgender woman writer and two female artists. If we support the creators, we’ll get more interesting characters, right?

Which is what we get here – two intergalactic bounty hunters, both named Kim, who zip around causing mayhem and not making a lot of money. Kim Q. is a trans woman, and Kim D. is her best friend, but they don’t seem to be very good at, you know, bounty hunting. This makes the book a comedy, to a large degree, but Visaggio makes sure there’s a bunch of action and also some very nice character development – the book works to the degree that it does because Kim and Kim have a great friendship, and the best parts of the book are when they’re riffing off of each other. In a lot of ways, they’re typical comic book characters – too cool for words, angry far often than people in the real world, and very quippy – but they also have a deep and wonderful relationship, and it gets the book over its many rough spots. Visaggio does a very nice job not making the book about Kim Q. being trans – it’s mentioned a few times, but she doesn’t harp on it, so it feels like a real thing, rather than a gimmick. One of the most devastating moments in the book, in fact, is simply from one panel of when Kim’s father tries to call her, and Visaggio and Cabrera show the real-world consequences of transitioning better than any story about “being trans” could.

The actual plot is, unfortunately, a bit of a mess. Kim and Kim get a bounty to put themselves back in the black, but they screw it up in many ways, which is a fun part of the book. However, about three-quarters of the way through issue #3 (the book is four issues long, but they’re all 24 pages or more, so they read a bit longer than your standard DC or Marvel book), Visaggio completely abandons the plot. It’s really bizarre – she jumps ahead in time from a crucial point to after everything has been resolved, with Kim and Kim telling two of their friends that everything got resolved. Incredibly, this happens again in issue #4, after she introduces a brand new plot that has only the vaguest of connections to the original plot (they both have robot gorillas). I get not caring too much about action scenes, and I get that Visaggio is writing more about Kim Q.’s relationship to her father and his band of bounty hunters, so their bounties aren’t really the point, but it’s still a poor way to get out of plots. I don’t know why she does it, but it’s quite jarring. The other big annoying thing in the book is that this takes place in space, with absolutely no mention of Earth, but everyone speaks in millennial slang. Old-time readers might recall that I had a problem with Saga because Vaughan isn’t even trying to create new societies in space, he’s just transplanting Earth people into his story and giving them horns or wings to make them seem alien, and that’s what Visaggio does. Characters actually say “OMG” and “NBD” and such, and they reference Earth pop culture all the time. It’s not particularly great writing when the people doing it are actual Earth twenty-year-olds, but for it to be supposedly alien beings is even more annoying. I might be in the minority on this, but it will never not bug me. It’s a shame, too, because when Visaggio eases back on that, it’s clear she has a real talent for writing good dialogue between characters.

The art is perfectly decent – Cabrera has a good, cartoony style that helps with the humor and keeps things light. The characters are all so hipster they make my teeth hurt, but Cabrera makes sure they’re individuals with their own tastes – even the way she dresses Kim and Kim makes it clear that they’re different people. Cabrera seems pretty good at the action scenes, too, which why it’s strange that Visaggio would work so hard to skip some of them. Cabrera does nice work with mundane stuff, like Kim and Kim eating, which is why it’s neat that Visaggio focuses on those parts of their lives. Still, it’s bizarre that we don’t get to see some of the fights. Meanwhile, Aguirre uses a bright, vibrant palette, which matches the tone of the artwork well. It’s a neat-looking book, as Cabrera creates entire worlds for Kim and Kim to move around in, which helps with the way Visaggio brings them to life through their more everyday activities.

Ultimately, Kim & Kim is a pretty good book that has more potential than actuality. It’s structured strangely and it occasionally tries to hard to be cool, but it also has a very nice friendship at its heart that is fascinating to read, and the art is neat. Visaggio is writing another Black Mask book, Quantum Teens Are Go, and I’m certainly interested in that. I just wish this hadn’t been quite so herky-jerky. Such is life.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Tabatha by Neil Gibson (writer), “The Artist” (artist/colorist), Anja Poland (colorist), and Jimmy Betancourt (letterer). $17.99, 115 pgs, FC, TPub Ltd.

I’m unclear why the printed version of this book lists “The Artist” as, well, the artist. I know I read too many comics, but I recognized Caspar Wijngaard’s pencils immediately, and the on-line version clearly lists him as the artist (it also credits Jim Campbell as the letterer and Naila Scargill and Eric Irving with layouts, so I’m not sure what’s what here). Anyway, the pencils are by Caspar Wijngaard, who’s a good artist, so let’s move on.

Gibson publishes books by himself under the TPub name, and they’re usually pretty good comics, whether he’s writing them or not. I haven’t gotten around to reviewing his six-volume Twisted Dark yet (I hope to soon!), but it’s pretty keen, and so is Tabatha, which could easily be a story from that anthology series, just expanded to four issues. Tabatha gives us a creepy antagonist, one far too common to nerd culture – the nerd who can’t relate to women but thinks they owe him something, which drives him to commit disturbing acts, in this case thinking that he can transfer the personality of a woman into the plastic sex doll he ordered on-line. Gustav, the nerd, is a prop master on movies, so of course his house is weird, full of fake monsters and other props, and he believes that Tabatha is actually talking to him, which Wijngaard and Poland show by coloring the panels where Tabatha “talks” in eerie pink, as Gustav is wearing actual rose-colored glasses and we’re seeing the way he sees the world in those scenes (it’s a bit on-the-nose, true, but it still works well). Man, that was a long sentence. Anyway!

Gibson begins the story with Luke, a mailman, who uses his job to figure out which houses he and his friends – his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and his brother’s girlfriend’s brother – should rob. They’re doing it for a noble reason, and they’re not really bad people, but they choose the absolute wrong house when they stumble upon Gustav’s place. Gibson is good at grim humor, so the crew isn’t too bright, screwing around a bit too much in Gustav’s house before Luke finds something awful. The crew isn’t too bright (I may have mentioned that), so instead of calling the police, they decide to leave it alone, but Luke can’t, so he goes back to the house, and that’s when the trouble really begins. Gibson manages to make everything that happen feel logical even though the people involved are being really stupid about it, so even though we feel bad for Luke, Fin, Baily, and Ty, we also recognize that they’re kind of dumb. Eventually, of course, everyone is inside the house, and Gibson ratchets up the horror nicely. Because it’s a horror story, it ends with a nifty twist, plus Gibson keeps us on our toes throughout with the question of what’s really going on with Tabatha and if Gustav is in as much control as he thinks. In many ways, it’s a standard horror story, but Gibson does some nice work making the character sympathetic and adding enough mystery to it that it’s more interesting than if Gustav had just been pure evil. There’s plenty of humor, too, which is always nice when horrible things happen. Wijngaard is a good artist, and he does good work with the characters and their idiosyncrasies, making the humor stand out more. There’s a lot of gross stuff, of course, but Wijngaard is good at that, too, especially when Luke discovers the awful thing in Gustav’s house (which is really the only uncomfortable moment in the book, because it’s a blatant example of fridging, but it’s also something that needs to be done to kickstart the plot, unfortunately) or when Luke figures out to escape from handcuffs, which is a terrifically brutal moment. One thing that keeps this from being a drudging, depressing horror story is Gibson’s script, but Wijngaard’s art and the coloring (whether by Wijngaard or Poland) keep is from spiraling, too, as even when the art becomes dark, it never becomes murky – it remains crisp and clear, and there’s always Gustav’s gleeful insanity to, well, not exactly brighten the mood, but keep it lively. It’s nice to read a horror story that’s not overwhelmed by muddiness, because while what Gustav is doing is horrifying, our four protagonists keep trying to overcome him, and they fight against despair nicely.

Tabatha is a neat horror comic. Gibson is doing nice work with his publishing company, and it would be nice if he can keep doing it. So give this a look!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Black Hammer #1-6 by Jeff Lemire (writer), Dean Ormston (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), Todd Klein (letterer), Ian Tucker (assistant editor), Cardner Clark (assistant editor), Brendan Wright (editor), and Daniel Chabon (editor). $23.94, 137 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.

Dean Ormston’s health problems delayed Black Hammer a year ago, which was probably a good thing, as Ormston’s weird, spidery artwork is perfect for Lemire’s off-beat tale of six superheroes who were deleted from their world in a “Crisis”-like event a decade ago and now live on a farm in small town, which obviously is much more than that (even if we don’t know what that is yet). Obviously, it would have been nice if Ormston hadn’t had health problems in the first place, but it was very cool of Lemire and Dark Horse to delay the book, because the tone really does fit Ormston’s style.

In these six issues, Lemire introduces the cast, giving them each a spotlight issue (well, except for Talky-Walky, the robot, because presumably she’s just, you know, a robot), leaning heavily into standard superhero tropes (the Shazam! story, the Captain America story, the J’onn J’onzz story, even the Swamp Thing story) to show how these heroes came to be, with some nifty twists on them. He also introduces the daughter of Black Hammer, the great hero who saved the world ten years ago, as she tries to figure out what happened to the heroes. It’s a clever book, as Lemire uses the superhero tropes to show us the burdens these people carry, especially as they’re exiled from their city and their father figure, Abraham Slam (the Captain America analog), wants them to keep a low profile. So Gail, who gained powers by saying a magic word, is a 55-year-old woman whose magic word (“Zafram”) doesn’t work in the town, so she’s trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl, which is slowly driving her insane. Mark Markz, the Martian Manhunter analog, is gay, putting even more of a distance between him and the Earthlings he has decided to protect. Abraham begins a romance with a local woman, but her ex-husband is the sheriff, and he is filled with jealous hatred over her new relationship, and he plots to figure out what’s going on at the farm. Colonel Weird, meanwhile, ventured into the “Para-Zone” in 1956 and changed into a wanderer who can traverse through time and space, but whose mind has been broken by his experiences. The idea of showing the bad side of superheroing isn’t a new idea, of course, but Lemire is a talented writer, and he does a fine job showing the toll it’s taking on these people. The mystery of where they are is ever-present, too, which makes their personal problems a bit more pressing, because everyone except Abraham is convinced they don’t belong in the town, so what might they do to get away from it?

Ormston isn’t exactly what you think of when you think “great superhero artist,” so his characters are a bit oddball and out-of-place, even when he shows them fighting bad guys in primary-colored flashbacks (Stewart does his usual excellent job on the book). Ormston uses his twitchy lines and deep shadows to very good effect, turning the sheriff into almost a homunculus as he contemplates doing evil to Abraham, and his no-frills character work makes the beatific priest almost too good to be true, which may or may not be what Lemire is going for (the priest hasn’t been involved too much with the story yet, but presumably his role will grow as the series goes along). Ormston and Stewart do a very nice job on the Colonel Weird-centric issue #5, where Ormston softens his pencils to show flashbacks, making Weird’s initial foray into the Para-Zone something of a marvel before it turns horrific. Ormston has been working in comics for 25 years, but he’s never been a big name in the States (maybe he is in England?), so it’s nice he’s doing regular work on a nifty series.

Black Hammer‘s first arc is intriguing, even if Lemire is still unspooling the mystery. It’s a keen, weird superhero book, and the creators are all doing fine work on it. I don’t know how long Lemire plans to do it, but it’s off to a good start.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Britannia #1-4 by Peter Milligan (writer), Juan José Ryp (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colorist), Dave Sharpe (letterer), Lauren Hitzhusen (assistant editor), and Warren Simons (editor-in-chief). $15.96, 115 pgs, FC, Valiant.

Given my love of history and my enjoyment of both Milligan and Ryp, putting them on a book together about the Romans in Britain and the weird things that happen there is kind of a no-brainer, and Britannia turns out to be a pretty cool comic. The book is set, I think, in 60 CE, but that’s unclear, as I’ll get to. It features something else I like, which is a a detective character during a time when detectives weren’t a thing. Antonius Axia is a “detectioner” in this book, and he’s sent by Nero (r. 54-68) and, more significantly, by the head Vestal Virgian, Rubria, to Britain to figure why soldiers are dying horribly and other soldiers are talking of evil creatures. Antonius is an agent of the Vestals, as six years earlier, he had performed a task for them by rescuing one of their own from Estruscans who are planning to sacrifice her to one of their icky gods. So off he goes to Britain, which is a shithole compared to Rome. And there he finds a creepy mystery, of course!

Before I delve into the story, there are some problems with the history. First, the date. The beginning of the book tells us we’re in 60 CE, but even after six years pass, we’re still in 60 for the remainder of the book. This wouldn’t be too big a deal except for the fact that something of import happened in Britain in 60 or 61 – Boudica’s revolt. This was an apocalyptic event in Roman Britain, and if Antonius were mucking about in Britain in 60, it’s strange that Milligan wouldn’t have incorporated it into the story. The main story kind of has to take place in 60, because if the first part does and the rest takes place six years later – i.e., in 66 – then that’s after the fire of Rome, and it’s heavily implied that this is not the case. Plus, Nero in this comic is not quite as crazy as we expect, and sources tell us it was only in his later years that he became truly paranoid. So Antonius’s trip to Britain probably occurs in 60, with the first few pages taking place in 54. That makes more sense, but then it’s curious that Milligan doesn’t at least hint at the Iceni rebellion. The natives are certainly restless in this comic, but there’s no indication that they’re going to rise in full-scale revolt very soon. Furthermore, Antonius is a legend in the army because he fought so bravely at the battle of Tigranocerta. A quick Google search tells me that the battle of Tigranocerta was fought in 69 BCE. Antonius is a veteran, but he’s not 130 years old. Now, during the Roman-Parthian War of 58-63, the Romans occupied Tigranocerta (which was a city in Armenia). So Antonius could have been on that campaign, but then he wouldn’t have already been a hero of the war in 54 CE, when the book begins. Again, neither of these things ruins the story, but in a comic that Milligan wants to be as historically accurate as possible (and which includes text pieces by several professors about actual Roman history), they’re weird missteps.

Other than that, however, this is a solid historical mystery. Milligan does a nice job mixing Antonius’s detecting skills with some supernatural elements. The motive behind the crimes – if calling up a demon can be considered a “crime” – is a bit too prosaic, but Milligan is far more interested in the culture clash between the Romans and the Celts, the way they worship and what they worship, and even the similarities that aren’t evident at first but become more pronounced as the series moves on. Despite the presence of gods, Milligan remains cynical about human nature, so the best parts of the book are the way people interact with each other. Antonius has a slave, Bran, who is British, so he knows a bit of what’s going on when they arrive, and he also provides the wry comic relief in the book. The conversations between Rubria and Nero, back in Rome, are wonderfully done – two people who know what power is, jockeying for position in a world where prestige means everything. Millian writes Nero not as a paranoid wreck, but as a sniveling yet conniving wretch, and it’s well done because we know that Nero, for all his faults, could be a shrewd politician. Antonius is the noblest person in the book, but even he views the world through a jaundiced eye, and his interactions with a British witch are also quite well done, as she is closer to the devious Rubria than anyone – two women who have to navigate a man’s world – and so she has both advantage and disadvantages that Antonius can never understand. This isn’t just a story about how the imperialists are evil and the Celts are nature-lovers who were brutally exterminated – real life isn’t that simple, and despite the supernatural element of the book, Milligan tries to make it as realistic as possible.

Ryp’s art is terrific, as usual. He’s manically obsessed with detail, which is probably why he never draws too many issues in a row, but four issues seems like a decent fit for him, and the art on the book is stunning. Ryp made his name, at least in the States, with brutal violence, and he does some of that in this book, with the viscera bringing home how horrific the Roman world could be, but he also takes pains to make the trappings of Rome and Britain as real as possible, so the contrast between the two worlds is heightened. Ryp actually makes Nero look like a pimply-faced douchebag (Nero would have been 22 in 60 CE, when this series takes place) who is comfortable with power but uncomfortable with his own body, and Ryp also shows the effects of violence on the Roman soldiers, as many of them carry ugly scars from their years of warfare. He’s terrific at drawing the demon, which is hideous and strangely unthreatening even as its grotesqueness makes it scary, and Ryp is also quite good at contrasting the pomp of Rome with the crudeness of rural Britain. Bellaire helps with that, too, using warm tones for the Roman scenes – even the ones that take place inside a tent in Britain – while sticking to cooler hues when she is dealing with the Celtic scenes. Ryp takes some artistic licenses – I have a feeling the Celtic witch, Bodmall, would be a good deal hairier than Ryp draws her – but for the most part, this feels like something from the time period. Ryp shows both the splendor and horror of the Roman world, and it’s a nice mix. Ryp is a terrific artist, and it’s always nice to see him getting work on cool comics.

Britannia will be out in trade soon, and Valiant is charging only 10 dollars for it. That’s a great price, and it’s a fine comic (and I hope they include the text pieces, because they’re pretty informative), so if you happen to see it, pick it up. It’s neat.

(And yes, that is the cat variant cover of issue #4. It’s quite awesome.)

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Lake of Fire #1-5 by Nathan Fairbairn (writer/colorist/letterer), Jason Kapalka (co-storier), and Matt Smith (artist). $19.95, 140 pgs, FC, Image.

Another book that’s even more in my wheelhouse than Britannia is Lake of Fire, which takes place during the Albigensian Crusades, one of my “favorite” crusades (all the crusades are brutal and fairly stupid, but certain ones are far more interesting than others). The Albigensian Crusades are fascinating because they were the first wars by Christians targeting other Christians, and the Catholic Church liked them so much they created the Inquisition just to deal with the other Christians and continued to preach crusades against other Christians for centuries afterward. The “other Christians” in this case were the Cathars, a sect that was centered in Languedoc, or southern France, which was technically part of France in the early 13th century but was far more Mediterranean in its outlook on life as opposed to the dreary northerners, who looked with envy upon the southerners and their rich lands. Philip II, the king of France, wanted to “conquer” the south – meaning bring it more under his control – so he connived with Innocent III, the most powerful pope in history, to declare a crusade against the Cathars, who were just too weird to be allowed to continue with their heresy (we don’t know a lot about Cathar beliefs, because they were, you know, wiped out, but they believed that the world was evil and the purpose of life was to become and remain as pure of earthly corruption as possible – they even thought Jesus was shady because he was Earth-born). So the French invaded, wiped out a heresy and a fairly cosmopolitan culture (the southerners didn’t have too big of a problem with Jews and Muslims or, you know, book learning), and Philip got rich. Good times! The crusade made the fortunes of several nobles, most famously Simon de Montfort, who was the great military commander of the crusade (and who defeated the king of Aragon in 1213 at the battle or Muret). His son, Amaury, appears briefly in Lake of Fire (the book takes place in 1220, after Simon was killed in a siege), and his other son, also named Simon (the 6th Earl of Leicester), is one of the most interesting figures in the Middle Ages, if not all of post-Roman European history. The Albigensian Crusdes are some of the most brutal, tragic, and fascinating wars of the Middle Ages, so of course I would enjoy a comic set during them!

Fairbairn’s (and Kaplaka’s, but I’m not sure how much input he had) story isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. A few years ago, FotB Rob Schmidt (well, FotOB – I don’t know how often he reads us here) recommended I read Eifelheim, which is a novel about aliens landing in Germany right as the bubonic plague hits. The idea of aliens landing during a time period other than the modern one is not new, but it’s always pretty good, and Fairbairn does a fine job with it. It’s clear that his aliens are parasites of some sort, as when the knights of the story get to the spaceship, we see that there are dead, more human-ish aliens scattered around, while the creature-like things thrive. So we get a ship crash-landing on Earth, the savage aliens leaving the ship and terrorizing the surrounding countryside, and the humans fighting back. There’s nothing incredibly unique about that, but of course, placing it during a time when people didn’t know very much about the universe is a nice move, as well as making sure no one has advanced weaponry. Luckily for the knights, the aliens are able to be killed by pointy things, but they’re still very tough. Fairbairn introduces some standard tropes as characters, including the grizzled old veteran who knows the price of war and who appears like a total jerk but still lives his life by an honorable code; the villain who is so focused on his own agenda that he can’t see anything else; the girl, who’s, well, a girl (she’s a bit more than that, I suppose, but I’ll get to that); and the neophyte hero who needs to grow up fast. Theobald of Champagne and Hugh of Blois are the two main characters, as they have headed south to fight in the crusade and Amaury de Montfort sends them on what he thinks is a fool’s errand – he picks out a town on the map and sends Theo and Hugh there with the old warrior, Raymond, and a Dominican friar, Arnaud (Dominicans – for when being a regular monk is too carefree for you!), to seek out heretics, but he’s just hoping they stay out of the way. Of course, they find demons. And things go pear-shaped very quickly.

Fairbairn does a good job with the interactions between the characters. Arnaud is a craven fool, seeing heresy no matter where he looks, so he of course blames the alien attacks on he presence of the one Cathar in the area, a young woman named Bernadette. Raymond is a cynic, so he doesn’t see demons, just enemies to smite. As the aliens continue to attack and the death toll rises, Arnaud tries to impose his will on the survivors and burn Bernadette at the stake, which Hugh takes exception to. They finally figure out that the aliens are capturing some people and dragging them away, which inspires them to ride out and find the spaceship, which leads to an apocalyptic finale. Fairbairn manages to examine the differences between Catholicism and Catharism without being too harsh on the ruling doctrine – Arnaud is the villain, true, but everyone else is Catholic, too, and they aren’t bad guys, while Hugh does try to understand Bernadette’s worldview (which may be because he’s sweet on her, but Fairbairn wisely doesn’t do anything with that hint). Meanwhile, Raymond is there to explain how much war sucks, which is not a new point, but he does it with the crass eye of a seasoned Crusader, which means he’s no stranger to slaughtering women and children (he was at the massacre at Béziers in 1209, which gives us a quote that’s the only thing many people know about the Albigensian Crusades – “Kill them all, God will know his own” – which is probably apocryphal and wasn’t put into print until years after this comic takes place). Raymond is thinking like a military leader in this comic, but it reaches a point where he has to think like a hero, which means he has to act like an actual Christian rather than someone who acts like it when it’s convenient. Fairbairn doesn’t take sides in an 800-year-old conflict that doesn’t have much relevance in today’s world, but he subtly looks at what it means to be Christian and how people can act that way in the worst possible circumstances. Among all the slaughter (and there’s a lot of slaughter!), Fairbairn gives us an interesting comic about 13th-century society and how people navigated within it.

Smith is a pretty good artist, and this might be career-best work from him. Early on, Fairbairn gives him a lot of dialogue, but he uses small panels with large heads in them to make us remember the characters fairly well, and it’s a nice contrast to the wide-open spaces of the wild, as this is long before the advent of big cities, so much of Europe was forest or farmland. His use of larger panels when we get to the open spaces makes the characters seem even more isolated, and his use of the smaller panels is slightly claustrophobic, which hems the characters in even though they’re in open spaces. It’s a clever trick, and it creates a good tone for the book – in the Middle Ages, with small towns predominant and the lack of electricity, people had to come together closely for warmth and companionship, which made the large world seem even larger and scarier. His aliens are hideous – they look like ticks with giant teeth and hind legs that look like dogs’, allowing them to leap great distances. Smith doesn’t hold back on the violence – swords and spears make a mess when used in warfare, and Smith shows the destruction they can wreak, as well as, you know, the giant teeth – and his work is terrifically kinetic. He does a nice job with the characters – Arnaud and his wine-fueled obesity and Raymond and his craggy, war-town face especially – and that helps when they get into the spaceship, because it makes the horror more real. The final issue, which relies on him more than ever (the time for dialogue has passed!), is a masterwork of violence, but Smith makes each tragic moment work beautifully, and once again he contrasts the hot, cramped confines of the spaceship with the vast expanse of the forest, while Fairbairn’s gorgeous colors makes the pristine snow seemingly cleanse away the evil from the stars. It’s a beautiful issue, paced perfectly (as this post points out very well), and while I wanted maybe one or two more pages to find out what happened to some of the survivors, it’s still a gripping ending.

This is the equivalent of seven DC/Marvel issues for the price of five (only issues #2 and 3 are the standard 22 pages), and Fairbairn and Smith make every page count. The trade will be out in February, and it’s priced to move at 17 dollars, which is a fine deal. This is a very cool comic that appears to be something relatively simple but turns out to be more complex than you think, and it’s well worth a look. Would I lie to you?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Red Riding Hood: Red Agent by Joe Brusha (story), Ralph Tedesco (story), Lou Iovino (story/writer), Diego Galindo (artist), Vincenzo Acunzo (artist), Grostieta (colorist), Fabio Amelia (letterer), and Jessica Rossana (editor). $15.99, 110 pgs, FC, Zenescope.

Yes, good readers, I bought a Zenescope comic. I must admit, it’s not the first Zenescope comic I’ve ever bought. Some years ago, Zenescope inexplicably decided to publish an adapatation of The Straw Men, a crime thriller by Michael Marshall. I got it because it sounded neat and because Brett Weldele was drawing it, so it was completely unlike anything Zenescope had published before that or since. Naturally, it got canceled after 5 of the 12 issues came out. So this is the second Zenescope comic I’ve ever gotten. If the pattern holds, I’ll buy another one in 2024!

I bought this because I liked the creative team. Lou Iovino hasn’t done too much in comics, but The Last West, his alternate-history tale of the death of technological advancement, was really good, so I thought I’d check this out. Similarly, Diego Galindo did some nice work for Amigo Comics, so I thought his work here would be good, too. Unfortunately, he only draws 3 of the 5 issues, and Acunzo isn’t quite as good. It’s a shame – Galindo has a Terry Dodson vibe going on, his characters aren’t completely unrealistic-looking (his Red Riding Hood – Britney – actually has a more practical bust line than the one on that cover, while the other girl – Avril – is zipped up completely), and his action scenes are nice and fluid. He does a good job with the character beats – this is a total action-movie kind of book, but Iovino makes sure there are moments for character development – as Britney and Avril have a minor rivalry going on (they’re allies and they become friends, but Britney has the whole mentor thing going for her, while Avril acts like the petulant student) and Ditto, the hacker, has a nice smug attitude even when he’s getting beaten up. Acunzo isn’t quite as good – he’s not bad, but his action scenes are a bit stiffer and he doesn’t quite get the body language down as well as Galindo does. He doesn’t use quite as much hatching, so his characters look a bit more plastic – both artists are used to working with the over-rendered coloring techniques that smaller publishers use, so their work with Grostieta’s colors are fine, but Galindo uses a slightly thicker line, which adds some humanity to his characters. Galindo is a fairly decent artist, and it would be nice to see him get higher-profile work.

As for the story … it’s not bad. It’s an action movie starring an established character in Zenescope’s universe, and the parts of it that are connected to the greater universe don’t make a ton of sense. The “Highborn” are referenced, and I assume that means people who have special powers, like Britney, who has some lupine characteristics. Iovino does his best, but it’s still a bit confusing, especially because the story actually involves the U.S. government trying to create an unstoppable army of, well, golem to take down the “Highborn.” Iovino doesn’t get into the relationship between the U.S. government and the Highborn, especially as it seems Britney is working for the government – so maybe it’s the always-trustworthy “rogue element” inside the government? Anyway, once we get past that, it’s basically a heist comic, as Britney, Avril, and Ditto have to break into the top-secret lab to rescue a little girl who’s a lot more than she seems. We get to see all the characters in action, there’s an “inside man,” there’s sacrifice, there are things blowing up, and we’re left with an ambiguous ending, because of course we are. It’s a bit paint-by-numbers, but it’s entertaining, so there’s that.

Here’s the interesting thing, something not unusual with comics. There’s almost nothing to distinguish this from a run-of-the-mill Marvel or DC comic, yet those outsell this by the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Brand recognition is so important in pop culture, and DC and Marvel have it. If Marvel had published this exact same comic and put a C-lister like Mockingbird in it, it would sell many more thousands of copies. That’s not to say this is a better comic than it is, just that there’s a lot of mildly entertaining yet ultimately mediocre comics coming out from the Big Two. Does Zenescope deserve more people reading this comic? Not necessarily. But maybe Marvel and DC deserve fewer people reading theirs.

Anyway, Iovino is better than this, and I hope, like Galindo, he gets a chance to do bigger and better things. As far as Red Agent … well, you can do a lot worse.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Rough Riders volume 1: Give Them Hell by Adam Glass (writer), Patrick Olliffe (artist), Gabe Eltaeb (colorist), Sal Cipriano (letterer), and Mike Marts (editor). $19.99, 140 pgs, AfterShock Comics.

AfterShock is making a decent name for themselves, as their comics tend to be pretty good, and their trades, at least, have really nice production values. This is a 7-issue collection for 20 bucks, which is a good value, and it’s a well-put-together book, which isn’t always the case. I’ve gotten a few AfterShock trades, and while none of them have been absolutely superb comics, they’re all pretty good so far.

Glass wants to create a real-life League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, so he gives us a Teddy Roosevelt who is a social campaigner during the day and a, well, superhero at night – he’s basically Batman. He was 39 when this book takes place, so we have to take his physical prowess with a grain of salt, but it’s the first of many grains we’ll have to take to accept this story. I mean, Glass decides to tie in several events from late 19th-century American history with an alien invasion, so we can deal with Teddy leaping onto a burning building to rescue a group of workers trapped there, right?

We have to accept the ridiculousness of Roosevelt gathering a group of “rough riders” to head to Cuba with him and stop the aliens, which he does. He picks up 24-year-old Harry Houdini (whom Roosevelt knows even though Houdini wasn’t really famous yet); 20-year-old Jack Johnson, who hadn’t yet made his professional boxing debut and spent most of his time in Texas even though Roosevelt finds him in New York; 51-year-old Thomas Edison, who apparently had some kind of relationship with Annie Oakley in the past; and 37-year-old Annie Oakley, who was probably accessible to Roosevelt in New York in 1898 but who was married at the time, which is never mentioned in the comic. One of the bad guys is, inexplicably, Grigori Rasputin, who had no connection to Russia’s tsar in 1898 yet claims he’s acting on the tsar’s behalf. Oh well. Rasputin is always a good villain, because he’s just so creepy. Anyway, Roosevelt gathers the team, tells them that they’re up against aliens (they all seem very blasé about learning they’re fighting aliens; the idea of extra-terrestrial life might have been posited by this time, as War of the Worlds had been serialized the year before, but it still seems like they’re all very comfortable with the concept), and they head off to Cuba, where the aliens, who possess people by worming their way into their heads via the ear canals, are trying to get the U.S. to declare war on Spain (why the aliens want to create a global conflagration by having the U.S. fight such a weak power like Spain is beyond me, but let’s go with it).

As goofy as this all is, the only problem I really have with the ahistoricality of it all is Glass’s attempts to rehabilitate Custer (who’s still dead, but due to slightly different circumstances). Other than that, Glass has fun with the concept, briefly touching on the discrimination Johnson and Houdini face as a black man and a Jew, respectively, making Edison a douchebag but not the villain that pro-Tesla people would have you believe, and having some fun with stuff like Houdini’s famous “punch-in-the-gut” schtick that got him killed and Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. The biggest problem with the book is that Glass doesn’t take enough chances – this is just a standard alien invasion story with the historical setting masking the commonality of the story. It takes a bad turn in issue #6, which makes no sense whatsoever, but other than that, it’s a solid if forgettable action comic. Even the end, with Roosevelt getting angry at the plutocrats who initially recruited him – Andrew Carnegie (who resembles the actual Carnegie), John D. Rockefeller (who is clean-shaven, which he probably wasn’t in real life), J.P. Morgan (who looks exactly like his real-world counterpart), and George Vanderbilt (who looks too old in the first issue, but by issue #7 has grown younger to match his age – 37 – at the time of the book) – is well in line with this kind of book, with the rogue standing up to his bosses (“You’re off the case, McGarnagle!”), and the final page sets up the rest of the series, but is kind of silly. But it’s largely inoffensive and kind of fun.

Olliffe has had a long career, and it’s always cool to see his work. Glass packs the book with a lot, and Olliffe is up to the task, as his characters look great and he does a lot of interesting things with the action scenes – he shifts perspective, he uses some unusual effects when Roosevelt is having flashbacks, and he uses motion lines very well. He shows the brutality of war when he has to, but he doesn’t overdo it, and he adds some nice humorous touches. One thing that’s pretty cool is his use of hatching. Artists tend not to use too much hatching anymore, relying on the colorist to add nuance and shadows to the art, but Olliffe is old-school, and he uses hatching to very good effect. Eltaeb, who’s perfectly capable of doing the new-school kind of coloring, helps him out by not over-rendering the colors. It looks flatter, and while you can still see some of the shaded nuances of digital coloring, Eltaeb makes it as “old-school” as he can, which fits the art style. This looks like an olde-tymey comic, and even though I think colorists have become even more vital to a comic’s success in the past few decades, it’s nice to see a colorist understand what is necessary and not try to overwhelm the pencils. It’s a neat-looking comic.

While I don’t love Rough Riders, it’s pretty good and downright fun, mainly because Glass utterly embraces the goofiness. I don’t know how long Glass plans to write the series, but I’ll probably give the second arc a chance, because I enjoy the concept so much. Next time, it looks like they’re dealing with McKinley’s assassination, so we’ll see how Glass bends over backward to fit as many historical characters as he can into that one!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

Well, dang, that was a long post. I buy way too many comics, people! I have probably 50-70 collections/graphic novels in my room right now, all from this year, that I haven’t read. I’m going to try to catch up in January, so I might not to a post like this for next month. We’ll see. As this is the end of the year, I thought I’d add up the money I spent on comics this year. I have no idea what the total is, so let’s find out together. Are you ready? Here we go:


Yeah. If we assume 52 weeks in year (I have 54 receipts, but I know I went back a few times because they didn’t have everything I wanted that week), that’s an average of $140.14 every week. I haven’t spent less than $100 since the first week of September. I went over $100 27 times, over $200 eight times, and over $300 twice. I spent more than $300 on my weekly comics twice this year. Man, that’s a lot of comics. But you know what? I never feel like I’m wasting my money. Sure, I get some bad comics, but even the bad ones often have something redeeming about them. One of the dudes at my comics shoppe bought a giant Darkseid statue a few weeks ago. He spent 80 bucks on it. It’s cool as hell, but what utility is he going to get out of it? I re-read comics all the time! So I’m perfectly happy spending money on comics. I do wish they were a little cheaper, though …

Anyway, it’s the end of the a shitty year – I don’t care about all the celebrity deaths, but I do care that the American people care so little about democracy – so I hope against hope that 2017 will be a bit better. I mean, it’s the year from which Billy Joel looked back on the destruction of New York from the comfort of Miami, so it can’t all be bad, right? I hope everyone has a good rest of the weekend, and if you’re interested in any of these many, many comics in this post, you can use the Amazon link below to find them. I just linked The Vision because it’s so good, but if you want any of them, you can use the link and I’ll get a tiny bit of money. And that’s really what counts, isn’t it?


  1. tomfitz1

    A bit wordy there, Mr. Burgas, but that’s ok: we all need to vent our spleen – now and then.

    Thanks for the MOON KNIGHT reminder – I’d been meaning to read Ellis’ treatment of MK.

    I’ve been reading Aaron’s treatment of DOCTOR STRANGE, not because of JA, but because of Chris Bachalo. I’ve always enjoyed his art since SHADE THE CHANGING MAN.

    That story about why THE LEGEND OF WONDER WOMAN was cancelled reminds me of that saying about biting the hand that feeds you. I hope that the persons involved will be able to find other work.

    Do you follow Joshua Williamson’s other work, NAILBITER? That one’s slated to end in a few months. I keep wondering if Kevin Williamson (SCREAM films, The FOLLOWING, STALKER) are related? Brothers? Alter-egos?

    Anyway, you’ve given me a few things to add to my to-read list. Thanks.

    May you and your family have a happy new year and stay outta trouble!

  2. Hal

    Greg, I’m going to enjoy devouring this rich meal of opinion (don’t apologize for it being long!).
    I wish you, Krys and the girls the Happiest (rest of) Christmas and the New Year to come!
    Best Regards, Hal

  3. Eric van Schaik

    Hi Greg,

    There must be a lot of love, that your wife doesn’t get mad if you buy that amount of comics. Mine would get really mad. 🙂

    I was wondering, do you still have time to read older comics, and if so which ones are your favorites? Mine are the black and white Titan Books of the Judge Dress Cronicles, and the deluxe edition of Marshall Law.

    Best wishes for 2017 and I hope that the people of Holland will not make the same mistakes as America has done and not vote for crazy Wilders who wants us to hate muslims and other minorities.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Eric: Ha! Well, it’s the only thing I spend money on, so I think she doesn’t care as long as I don’t start getting a lot of video games or movies or other stuff. I also don’t think she really realizes how much I spend, but she could ask, if she wanted to know! 🙂

      Man, I read a lot of old comics, and I’m not sure which are my favorite. That’s a tough one. My two favorite comics ever are Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Garth Ennis’s Hitman, but I like a lot of others, too!

      Thanks for the well wishes. I hope you have a good year, and yes, I do hope you resist Wilders. I just read a bit about him, and man – he’s something.

  4. jdfitz


    Just wanted to say how happy I was to find this site after everything changed at cbr/csbg. I started getting back into comics about five years ago, and your columns were a big part of that. After I bought a pile of nostalgic comics at a thrift store, I decided to get back into the hobby, but really had no idea what separated ‘good’ comics from ‘bad’ comics (being that I grew up during the 90’s, I’m sure you can understand my confusion). So, I went about analyzing the medium as the completely new form of art/entertainment that is was. However, did you know that there are literally tons of comics released each week? Tons of tons…so, I needed some guidelines and, as luck would have it, I stumbled upon your ‘What I Bought’ column at csbg. You helped me to understand how to critically evaluate the comic world. You led me to some of my favorites (Parker’s Thunderbolts, Chew, X-Factor) and, though I didn’t always agree with your opinion, your column always made me laugh and helped me to appreciate my weekly purchases more than I otherwise would have.

    So, I just wanted to say how glad I am that you found a new venue for your -what should be unapologetically – long winded posts. Thanks for all the work that you put into your column for little/no benefit to yourself.

    1. Greg Burgas

      jdfitz: Thanks a lot – that’s very nice of you to say. I always hope that I can help others find cool comics, because often they’re hard to dig up! I’m just joking a little with my apologies – I know I tend to go on a bit, but I appreciate that people don’t mind it! 🙂

  5. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    First off, I’m so happy that I googled “Greg Burgas” after the new ownership destroyed CBR (and CSBG), and found this site. You may genuinely be my favorite critic in this medium, and the rest of this sites’ writers are no small potatoes, either.

    Secondly, I thought I’d mention that Marvel cancelled The Vision because King signed an exclusivity deal with DC, and Alonso didn’t want to risk another creative team diluting the legacy of King, Walta and Bellaire’s volume.

    Also…wow, what a story. If the third volume of March hadn’t come out this summer (and if I’d gotten around to Ennis’s Dreaming Eagles yet), it would be my prohibitive favorite for the best book of the year.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Carlos: Very cool. I’m glad you found us, and thanks for the kind words.

      Interesting about The Vision. I thought exclusive contracts had gone the way of the dodo, but I guess not, and I’m certainly glad that Marvel didn’t just turn the book over to a different and possibly lesser creative team. And I agree with you, that it’s up there for my favorite comic of the year.

  6. Simon

    Well, I guess it wasn’t your intent, but what you reveal about MOON KNIGHT, THE VISION, or DR. STRANGE reinforces my staying away from Marvel. $20 for incomplete 100-pagers of convoluted continuity? I may sample some for free someday, but self-contained quality abounds elsewhere and time’s short.

    (More generally, there seem to be a widening chiasm between mainstream GNs at 5-to-10 cents a page of real storytelling vs. Disney-Warner serials at 15-to-20 cents a page of 3-panel padding.)

    – “so many writers recycle ideas but Niles really does come up with some cool ones”

    Seems to me Niles often recycles with some spin, ala “It’s X but with vampires, baby!” Doesn’t THE DISCIPLES sound it came from, “It’s LOCKOUT ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK but on Ganymede”?

    – “which proves that even Moore can be improved upon”

    Wasn’t that already proved time and again from his interviews? Moore seems quite open to his collaborators’ ideas, and is on the record crediting many improvements to his scripts. (From Lloyd on V FOR VENDETTA, Gibbons on WATCHMEN, Gebbie on PROMETHEA, Steve Moore, too many to remember.)

    I think he’s kinda like Stanley Kubrick in that regard. (Didja know that Kubrick credited one of his astronaut actors for Hal’s lip-reading scene in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?)

    – “Tabatha”

    As usual, Diamond is late with my copy, so I’ll take it out on you… How does it feel to review TABATHA one year after other-Greg Hatcher? Haw!

    More seriously, its December 21 release seems unfortunate, making it one of a crop of comics unlikely to be even considered for most best-of-year lists, now coming out from early November to mid-December!

    – “It’s an action movie starring an established character in Zenescope’s universe, and the parts of it that are connected to the greater universe don’t make a ton of sense.”

    Welcome that what normal people feel about Disney-Warner’s impenetrable pap, heh.

    – “If Marvel had published this exact same comic and put a C-lister like Mockingbird in it, it would sell many more thousands of copies. That’s not to say this is a better comic than it is, just that there’s a lot of mildly entertaining yet ultimately mediocre comics coming out from the Big Two. Does Zenescope deserve more people reading this comic? Not necessarily. But maybe Marvel and DC deserve fewer people reading theirs.”

    Hear, hear! (That was one of my resolutions for 2017.)

    1. Greg Burgas

      Simon: Well, I wouldn’t call the Marvel books “convoluted continuity,” but if that’s how you feel, that’s how you feel! I do agree that Marvel and DC, for the most part, feel a bit padded. It’s annoying.

      I agree with you about Niles, but he does put some interesting things together, and that’s more than a lot of mash-up stuff.

      Ah, let me make fun of Moore, come on! 🙂

      Hey, if we get two Tabatha reviews, that’s cool. This is the collected version, and I never saw the issues, so it’s new to me!

      I know that most people feel that way about Marvel and DC. That doesn’t mean Zenescope needs to do it, too!

      1. Simon

        So, now I’ve read TABATHA!

        – “I’m unclear why the printed version of this book lists “The Artist” ”

        I wondered if that could be like “The Original Writer” for Alan Moore — but considering how they wrote each other’s bio in the back, I guess not. Maybe Wijngaard grew tired of being misspelled or mispronounced? It does look like a puzzling pen name for TAFKACW. But should he change again, he’d become “the artist formerly known as The Artist”!

        – “Gibson begins the story with Luke, a mailman, who uses his job to figure out which houses he and his friends – his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and his brother’s girlfriend’s brother – should rob.”

        Man, that was a long sentence. Anyway!

        – “Gibson manages to make everything that happen feel logical”

        Including some glaring plot holes that turn out to be plot points, which was a nice twist. And considering it’s set in Hollywood, I suspect a sly dig!

        – “There’s plenty of humor, too”

        Some of it quite understated, such as with Luke (and the story of his hand) or his sibling (hanging like a sky-walker). It’s indeed as much a black comedy as it is a horror thriller!

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