BEHOLD THE AWESOME!! Morrison and Irving Channel Their Inner Kirby


Warning: The Funnybook General’s Office has determined that the following review SPOILS THE EVER-LIVING HELL out of a comic that just came out today.

“Seriously,” their statement read, “he just flat-out shows you the three best pages in the thing, completely ruining the surprise and impact of a really great scene. And I mean, sure, the STORY is NOT SPOILED in the main, but… It’s the best pages in the book! He just scanned the damn things in and– Look, that sort of thing is fine if you’re reviewing something that’s a week old, but on day of release? That’s just no good at all. No one should read it.”

So proceed with caution, or not at all…

 

Annihilator 2, by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving

So I’m sitting in the Hibachi place reading along in the latest issue of the new Morrison / Irving joint, when

Irving Annihilator 2 Vada

Holy crap, did I really just read that? I think I did, and

Irving Annihilator 2 Jet Makro

Omigod, seriously? That’s

Irving Annihilator 2 Jet Makro 2

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Ooooh, man. That’s the stuff. Morrison learned the Kirby lessons right, and he just unleashed them full-force. You just don’t get that kind of grand idiocy, that crazy-ass power-poetry, often enough. But this book delivers, and it’s a great surprise.

Or it was, at least. I… just pretty much gave you the bulk of it right up there. Sorry. But I just couldn’t do it justice describing it. “Like a Roger Dean album cover in comics form” kinda didn’t cut it. Neither did “The Mahabharata on steroids … IN SPACE!” So there was no alternative, really. I just had to SHOW YOU THE AWESOME, and let the chips fall where they may.

The whole book’s not like that, of course. I mean, my god, how could it be? So, no. It’s not all JET MAKRO(!) making AMAZING PROCLAMATIONS that CHANGE THE COURSE OF MIGHTY CIVILIZATIONS. It’s mostly, in fact, Ray and Max talking about memory and writing and brain tumors. And bad food. Then there’s a talking teddy bear, and some obscene graffiti. A black mass is mentioned, too. Or, you know… a Black Mass. Like, with Satan Robes and stuff. Not, like, rotting vegetable matter, or… Oh. You got that. Okay. So, yeah. It’s… talky and goth.

You know, more like issue one.

That’s not a bad thing, however, because (if you’ll recall) I thought issue one was pretty ginchy, too. This issue might offer the best expression yet of Morrison’s obsession with the connection between fiction and reality. He gets a bit into the nuts and bolts of the writing process, moving between reality and screenplay (or reality and… OTHER reality) with aplomb…

Irving Annihilator 2 Script

…and delving on some level into the age-old question every writer’s gotten at least once: “Where do your ideas come from?”

In this case, they come from a data bullet fired into Ray’s brain, a memory download from another reality that he has to make sense of in order to save the universe. Which is actually not at all a bad way to describe how it feels when you’re telling a story, and the writing’s going really well. It all just pours out of you, and damn your plans or your intentions, things are happening this way, dammit, because that’s just how they happen. The best stuff always works like that. And the worst… doesn’t.

So! Annihilator Number Two! Amazing prog-rock ridiculousness… gothy trappings… bee-yoo-tee-ful artwork… a meditation on the creative process… a character named JET FREAKING MAKRO… Plus, it’s funny!

If the raucous laughter above didn’t get that across. One of these days, they’re gonna toss me right on outta that Hibachi joint…

Grade: A

(A post-script: if you didn’t click to embiggen the above images, I urge you to do so. I left ‘em at extra-big screen-filling size for you, and man… They reveal detail in Frazer Irving’s art that I simply couldn’t see at printed size. I’m tempted to scan the whole issue in, just to see his work in its full glory. It is GAW-geous!)

Flagship Down: The End of the Fantastic Four


So Rich Johnston’s reporting, over at Bleeding Cool, that Marvel Comics is cancelling The Fantastic Four sometime next year. And they’re cancelling it not because sales are in the crapper, but because Ike Perlmutter’s pissed that they don’t own the movie rights, and so doesn’t want to give “free advertising” to whichever studio does. I don’t remember what studio that is, and don’t care. Because let’s focus on what’s important here: THEY’RE CANCELLING THE FANTASTIC FOUR.

Kirby Fantastic Four 51

Well, shit.

As long-time readers know, I don’t really care about most corporate spandex franchises. Nothing against them. I’ll read them if they’re written and drawn by people I like. And if they’re not rendered unreadable by corporate comics bullshit / crossover nonsense. But my days of being a fan of long-running corporate-owned funnybook characters are long over.

Except…

Except the Fantastic Four.

I mean, Batman, sure. Because Batman.

But the Fantastic Four, man.

Kirby Fantastic Four 1

I mean… The Fantastic Four!

Kirby FF

Seriously. THE FANTASTIC FOUR.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

It’s THE Marvel comic. The flagship. The foundation stone of their funnybook empire. And they’re cancelling it because their CEO’s got his panties in a bunch about a movie contract that his company’s still making millions of dollars on.

Just don’t seem right.

Now, I could go off on a rant about how this is putting the cart before the horse, and how wrong it is that movie business is countermanding funnybook business, and how much I don’t give a rat’s ass about the movies in the first place, and how messed up it is that they’re getting in the way of my reading. But… well… Those are all bullshit arguments.

The Fantastic Four is a corporate franchise like any other (even moreso now that they’ve settled with Jack Kirby’s heirs), and it will be treated according solely to how it will make the corporation the most money. Or, you know… according to the whims of the guy in charge, whether he’s being rational about the bottom line or not. But that’s beside the point. They’re properties, not characters. And feeling attachment to them is silly.

Still, though.

The Fantastic Four, man. It’s my favorite funnybook. Hands down, no competition, my all-time favorite. It’s the one corporate spandex book that I’ll read if it’s even halfway decent. God help me, I love it. I love the mix of characters. The odd super powers. The bad guys. The focus on science and exploration over vigilantism. The ideas. Yeah, the IDEAS. I think that’s what I love most of all. At its best, The Fantastic Four was inventive. Crazy. Weird. Even idiotic at times. But grandly so.

It’s my favorite funnybook. And I will miss it when it’s gone.

Formalist Trickery: Matt Kindt Gets Trippy in Mind MGMT


So… uhm… Remember when I said that so many great funnybooks had come out a couple of weeks back that I was worried about the rest of the month? And then a ton more great funnybooks came out the very next week, so I was worried about nothing? Yeah. Yeah, I think this week’s the payback. I only got one funnybook this week. ONE. Ah, well. At least it’s a doozy…

Mind MGMT 26, by Matt Kindt

Phrases like “one of the best comics on the market today” and “just keeps getting better and better” are over-used (I’m especially fond of that first one). But in this case, they really do apply. I love the style and tone of this series, the personal focus, the epic scope. That scope really comes out this issue, as Meru digs into the history of the Mind Management group, and comes face to face with a character we haven’t seen in a good long while: Sir Francis, the First Immortal.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

It hadn’t occurred to me previously that the Immortals are actually, well, immortal. I figured it just referenced how hard they are to kill. But Sir Francis certainly seems to be literally immortal. He’s been sitting in that subterranean chamber for a while when Meru finds him, anyway, meditating and, uhm…

click to embiggen the ingestion

click to embiggen the ingestion

EATING THE MUSHROOMS GROWING OUT OF HIS OWN HEAD.

That’s right. MUSHROOMS. That GROW OUT OF HIS FUCKING HEAD.

This book’s given us some great grotesqueries in its run. The horribly-scarred Immortals who’ve survived innumerable terrible injuries, the freak show Agents with their brain-derived deformities, even the Magician, who hides her advanced age behind an illusion of youth. But this one… Heh. This one’s the first that’s actually made me pause to drink in how awesome it is. So weird and gross. Kudos, Mr. Kindt! I don’t shock easily, and you got me!

Meru turns down the Head-Shroom when it’s offered to her, and so we don’t get the awesome psychedelic head-trip I was hoping for. But that’s okay. Because what we do get is the Secret Origin ™ of the Management, and of the Field Guide we’ve been getting snippets of in the margins throughout the series.

(click to embiggen two examples from this issue)

(turn your computer sideways, and click to embiggen two examples from this issue)

This is the element that makes Mind MGMT simultaneously so much fun, and so annoying, to read. The Guide excerpts (or whatever else Kindt puts floating in the margins) break the flow of the story, and have you constantly turning the book sideways to read. It’s almost a relief, in fact, when Kindt goes full bleed on the art and you don’t get the things.

But the technique also adds a level of complexity to the series that makes the flow-breaking and the physical difficulties of reading the thing more than worth it. Because he shows you the “rough edges” of the page, actually printing the bleed lines and instructions along with the Guide entries, it gives things extra visual impact when he breaks the rules (something that can be seen in both of the first two images above).

The Guide itself, meanwhile, also serves as counterpoint to the story. Sometimes it’s ironic counterpoint, as seen above, with the Guide offering advice counter to what the characters are doing. But it’s also often revelatory, giving context to a character’s actions, or revealing how ingrained the Guide training is.

And this issue we find out why: the Field Guide is implanted in each agent’s mind subliminally, so the training comes to them automatically, without requiring conscious thought. That adds an even more interesting twist to the thing. It’s not just a weird storytelling device, it’s a glimpse into the minds of the characters. So when it suddenly starts to intrude on the story itself…

click. embiggen. you know the drill.

click. embiggen. you know the drill.

…it feels like a revelation. The kind of revelation that makes me want to go back and re-read the series to date.

(Which, you know, sure. I’ll do that just as soon as I get done re-reading Cerebus and The Silmarillion. Or maybe just finishing the two novels, collection of short stories, and book on early 20th Century Chicago brothels that I’m currently working my way through in addition to all the funnybooks…)

But even if I never do get around to that re-read, it doesn’t change how good Mind MGMT is. You should totally be reading it. WHY AREN’T YOU READING IT?!

Grade: A

ANOTHER Great Week for Funnybooks


So… Did I say that last week saw the release of so many good funnybooks that I was worried about the rest of the month? I did? Yeah. Yeah, just forget about that…

Multiversity: Society of Super-Heroes, by Grant Morrison and Chris Sprouse

I thought the first issue of Multiversity was a bit tired. We’ve seen so many alternate versions of so many characters in the last decade that Morrison was really going to have to pull off something spectacular to make it work. And he didn’t.

This, though…

Sprouse Multiversity SOS

This is more like it! There’s so very much to like here. Morrison’s created a complete world in this issue, fleshed out with a smartly-chosen collection of characters re-invented in pulp fiction style. Chief among these is Doc Fate, a mystical utopian who combines Doctor Fate with Kenneth Robeson’s Doc Savage. We’ve also got Lady Blackhawk (leading a distaff version of the Blackhawk fighter squadron), Green Lantern Abin Sur, and villains Vandal Savage and Felix Faust. All these characters are a great fit for the more grounded heroics of the pulps. Even Doc Fate’s magic is shrouded in the Eastern mysticism so prevalent in stories of the pulp era. But my favorites are the final two members of our cast. First up is Immortal Man…

Sprouse - Multiversity Immortal

click to embiggen

…a Silver Age character that Morrison’s combined with comics’ premiere caveman hero, Anthro the Caveboy. This guy’s awesome for several reasons. First, if you have TOO MUCH COMICS in your head like I do, you know that both Immortal Man and Anthro have been cast as enemies of Vandal Savage before, and Morrison follows suit here. But this character’s perfect for the pulp treatment, too, because he’s got such a great pulpy set-up anyway: a caveman made immortal by a mysterious meteor, he walks the Earth in search of fortune and adventure.

What really makes Immortal Man shine for me here, though, is that he’s essentially been made into a Howard Chaykin character. Seriously. Look at that swagger and smirk Chris Sprouse puts on him in that intro scene above. His super-pulpy narration of the issue also has that fatalistic arrogance that marks all of Chaykin’s heroes, and he flirts with Lady Blackhawk in exactly the way a Chaykin character would. It’s a nice pastiche, and appropriate, considering that Chaykin is pretty much the modern master of period pulp.

The other go-to guy for period funnybooks, of course, is Roy Thomas, and he’s also given a nice nod here in the form of my other favorite member of the SOS: Al Pratt, the Atom. This is the original Golden Age Atom, of course, but here with a great Thomas twist: he’s a devotee of a fitness program created by Iron Munro, one of my favorite late-career Roy Thomas inventions. I like the recasting of Munro here as a Charles Atlas style super-guru, and I especially like Al Pratt’s one deviation from the Munro program:

Sprouse Multiversity Atom

Which brings me to the meat of this issue, its thematic core: principles. What does it take to defeat the forces of the Gentry? Well, in the first issue, we saw that brute force doesn’t work, and noble sacrifice only gets you turned into one of them. And here, we see heroes sacrificing their principles in the name of fighting a war. I won’t go into how, exactly, but (SPOILER!) it doesn’t go well for them. What will finally defeat this newest threat to the multiversal soul? If past Morrison super hero comics are anything to judge by, I’m sure it’ll be something about staying true to heroism and believing in the power of something as awesomely stupid as a cartoon rabbit. But time will tell.

In the meantime, though, we’ve been given a master-class in world-building, a universe of conceptually-interesting heroes brought together with style and flair. This is a world I want to read more about, even as I know that further adventures completely misses the point of the thing. I’ve been engaged here both as an intellectual reader of fictions designed to end, and as the supreme dork who wants his next cool funnybook fix, and thematic integrity be damned. Which I guess means that I’d go down to the Gentry, just like the SOS.

I’ve read the haunted funnybook and failed its test.

Or maybe passed it. Hmm…

Guess we’ll find out down the line.

Grade: A-

 

The Wicked + the Divine 4, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

McKelvie WicDiv 4

I am not remotely ready to discuss this comic on any serious level tonight, especially after dorking out over all the dorky dork stuff in Multiversity. This one engages the other side of my head in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s a story about reborn gods, so… There’s a good bit of dork in it. But it’s smarter than that, and cooler than that, and funnier and more true and…

Oh god. I think I’ve got a crush on it.

But, hey! Maybe that’s the best review I could give it, anyway.

The Wicked + the Divine: a totally crushable funnybook experience.

Grade: Dreamy

 

Trees 5, by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

Trees 5

“Crush” isn’t the right word for my relationship with this book. No, I think I more… admire it. You know, from a craft perspective.

You gotta love Warren Ellis, though. Renowned as one of the masters of intelligent funnybook crassness, he’s now gone and given us a comic so understated that a transgender gang-bang comes off as peaceful and heartwarming rather than titillating or grotesque. Continue reading

A Great Week for Funnybooks


Holy crap last week was a great week for funnybooks! Lots of variety in tone, topic, and aesthetic, with everything from grounded spies and dystopian futures to hyper-kinetic crime and meta-fictional sci-fi horror. AND ALL OF IT SO GOOD! There were so many good books, in fact, that I despair for the rest of the month. But SCREW YOU, FUTURE! Because right now… RIGHT NOW!! …we are rollin’ in the good stuff!

Annihilator 1, by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving

Irving Annihilator 1

Okay, so yeah. As long-time readers know, I’m a pretty easy mark for a Grant Morrison comic. But I’ve been a bit worried about his stuff, of late. His best work seems to have been poured into Batman (a worthy character, to be sure, but come on), while his original works have been a bit wanting (Happy! is probably my least favorite Morrison comic).

This, though… This is nice. Not completely unfamiliar territory for Morrison (we’re still dealing with the connection between imagination and reality), but I’m digging the context. It’s the story of a debauched horror writer, struggling with depression and a lack of inspiration, seeking ideas in his new home, a haunted Beverly Hills mansion with a Satanic history. What develops is an exploration of Void Horror, the crushing existential dread of emptiness, served up with a splash of sci-fi pulp ridiculousness in the adventures of an evil hero with the positively Dickensian name of Max Nomax.

It’s not Morrison at his most subtle.

But that’s okay. Because, despite its somber title and subject matter, Annihilator is a comedy as much as anything else. Our Hero (the writer, not Nomax) is shallow, if not a bit of an idiot, and there’s humor in his problems. The self-negating name of his protagonist captures his situation well. Which is to say, it’s as preposterous as it is horrifying.

The whole thing’s also very meta, of course (did I mention this was written by Grant Morrison?). Nomax may or may not be a real person, an imagined personality who’s attained sufficient weight to impact the real world. The series is also a gentle skewering of Hollywood culture, probably says a thing or three about the relationship genre fans have to their favorite fantasies, and makes explicit commentary on the high power of low fiction:

Irving AnnihilatorPuerile

Heh. That was the best moment in the issue, to me. It’s pretty much exactly the reaction I had when I read Morrison’s Final Crisis a few years back, and his narrative flights of fancy about the machinations of Darkseid both excited me and made me cackle at their excess. Nice to hear that he might have had a similar reaction to writing it.

That artwork up there is by the brilliant Frazer Irving, whose work might best be described as “luminous,” especially here. He’s doing a lot with light on this book, appropriate to the story’s setting (famously sun-drenched Los Angeles), but also appropriate considering its preoccupation with black holes. There may be one of those in Our Hero’s head (or it may be a brain tumor), and Irving’s staging shows us the world as warped by its gravitational pull:

pardon our seam ... and click to embiggen

pardon our seam … and click to embiggen

And that’s all I think I’m gonna say about the book at this point. I’ve got theories (OH, do I have theories), but unlike my usual meanderings about Morrison comics, I think I’ll let him develop his themes a bit more before I go off on public literary analysis.

Suffice it to say that Annihilator is fun comics about depression, with a nasty, black, 2000-AD-ish sense of humor…

Irving Annihilator Bugeyes

…and I dig it.

Grade: A

Lazarus 11, by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Lark Lazarus 11

Moving to the other end of the tonal spectrum, we have the latest installment of Lazarus, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s dystopian political sci-fi drama. Though it’s rather humorless, Lazarus is nonetheless a joy to read. Rucka’s done his homework here, grounding his story in cutting-edge science and current events to make it as convincing a future as possible.

This issue revolves around political machinations between the world’s ruling families, how the powerful use laws and treaties (and even their own flesh and blood) to get the results they want. I won’t delve into the details of the plot here; it would take more time and space than I have to explain it all (though each issue does have a tidy summary of events on the inside front cover to help new readers get up to speed). But suffice it to say that the story moves forward less with lurches of shocking revelation than it does with the inexorable progress of a chess game.

This is not to say that there are no surprises or thrills. It’s quite exciting when another family’s Lazarus shows up at the Carlyle border (though the cover makes her confrontation with Eve look a bit more like a Kurosawa film than it turns out to be). But the real shock of the issue is a far more quiet one that reveals Jacob Carlyle to be even more Machiavellian than I’d suspected. And I’d suspected quite a bit.

So while this book doesn’t soar to the sort of artsy heights that most excite me as a reader, it is rock-solid political intrigue and character drama. And I dig that, too.

Grade: A-

Hawkeye 20, by Matt Fraction and Annie Wu

Aja Hawkeye 20

Swinging back toward comedy, we get the new issue of the best spandex book on the market. That’s right. I said it. Nothing else coming out of mainstream spandex fiction right now really comes close. Maybe Morrison’s Multiversity, but the first issue of that honestly felt a little tired to me. I may come around once it gets wound up good, of course, but in the meantime… Hawkeye is The Book To Beat.

Anyway. Hawkeye. Funny.

This issue wraps up Kate Bishop’s California adventures in preparation for the big series finale that’s coming up all-too-soon, and… you know… much as I’ve bitched about these stories over the last year… now that they’re over, I kind of think they should have gone on a little longer. Not that Fraction doesn’t bring things to a satisfying conclusion. He does. And not that this final Kate story is suddenly as good as the Clint stories. It’s not. But it still feels like a plotline that was originally intended to go on a bit longer.

Or, I don’t know. Maybe it was something that wasn’t planned at all, but became a necessity to keep corporate happy during the long gaps between issues with artist David Aja. Maybe he’d intended to just kind of run with it until it was no longer necessary, then wrap it up quickly. And, with Fraction and Aja (and hopefully their publisher) closing up shop on the book so soon… Maybe it was time.

But, damn. Just when Annie Wu starts turning in art I really like (because this issue looks really nice)…

Wu Hawkeye 20 Mugshot

…it’s over.

Ah well. Such is life. Bring on the finale!

Grade: B+

East of West 15, by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Is this now, officially, Jonathan Hickman’s best work?

East of West 15

I think it is.

Has its promise of apocalypse been met?

Dragotta East of West Apocalypse

I think it has.

And does the book’s weird aesthetic blending of Katsuhiro Otomo and Sergio Leone now embrace Hiyao Miyazaki as well?

click to embiggen the pretty awfulness

click to embiggen the pretty awfulness

I think it does.

Well, alright then.

Grade: A

Prophet: Strikefile, by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and the Whole Prophet Gang

Prophet Strikefile 1

I’ve said before that I don’t ever really want this book to make complete sense. It’s at its best, I think, when it hints at its convoluted past and complicated present, giving you all you need to know but never fully explaining anything. It lends the air of myth to the book, and maintains that sense of the alien, of the other, that is its primary appeal. I mean, I want to know all that stuff, but I’m a smart enough reader to know that I probably shouldn’t get it. Too much explanation, after all, would reduce the series to the level of everyday space opera. And that would be a shame.

So it was with equal amounts of trepidation and gleeful abandon that I tore into Prophet: Strikefile, a handbook to the future world of Prophet, its characters, and its history. The history, in particular, gets covered, in an opening 10-page sequence covering the rise and fall of the Earth Empire, and Old Man John Prophet’s role in the great war that brought it down. This sequence worried me the most going in, but it’s a perfect example of how well the Strikefile walks the line between explaining the series’ background and maintaining its weird-ass appeal. Because, though it does tell us things we didn’t know before, it doesn’t read like exposition written to satisfy reader curiosity. So while I now know that Old Man Prophet actually grew other free-willed Johns to fight the Earth Empire, that information only serves to make the vast Prophet epic more bizarre.

And that’s how most of the Strikefile goes. There are explanations of various and sundry items, like the Dolmantle or the weird bubblegum-colored giant space baby suits, and those do offer clarification of small bits of weirdness that I didn’t entirely understand before. But for every feature like that, we also get something like this:

click to embiggen the WRONGNESS

click to embiggen the WRONGNESS

Which… Holy crap. I might now know more about Earth Empire Prophet birthing methods, but… My god! That process is WAY wronger than anything I might have envisioned for it!

And that is exactly what I want out of this book to start with.

Grade: A

Velvet 7, by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting

Epting Velvet 7

Back to the more grounded stuff here, with the latest installment of Brubaker and Epting’s letter-perfect spy thriller. We have a bit of a departure in this chapter, though: rather than focusing on Velvet herself, this issue turns things around and shows us what her former allies have been up to while she’s been busy giving them the slip.

It’s a nice fleshing-out of the cast, and a needed outside look at Our Heroine. Because Velvet’s her own biggest critic, and it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of how very good she is. But from the perspective of the men who are pursuing her, men who haven’t seen the mistakes Velvet sees herself making, she’s some kind of mystery genius. And that’s a good sort of thing to see.

Also good to see is Steve Epting keeping the quality up on the artwork. I understand that the level of work he’s putting into these pages is making the book run a little less than monthly, but that’s fine by me. He’s turning in what might be the best realist artwork in comics today, and I’m willing to wait for illustration so pretty as this. It makes Velvet feel like a classic, and that’s worth every minute it takes the man to do it.

Grade: A-

Alright. Running out of time here, so these final two reviews will have to be brief…

Powers Bureau 11, by Bendis and Oeming

Oeming Powers Bureau 11

This book’s been on a roll lately, and this issue continues the trend. Action! Excitement! Danger! Revelations! BIG revelations. Revelations of the type that could (and maybe should) bring the series to an end.

I’d be happy with that, in fact. Yeah. Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I think that if Powers ended its run in another issue or two… one more story arc, maybe… wrapping up everything currently in play… which includes all the major themes and plotlines that have been running through it for its entire history… Yeah. Yeah, that wouldn’t be a bad way to go out at all.

There’s something to be said, after all, for going out on a high note.

Grade: A-

United States of Murder Incorporated 5, by Bendis and Oeming

Oeming Murder Inc 5

I want to like this book more than I do. It’s not bad, just very hit or miss. There are things in this issue that I liked, and some things that I thought were kind of inept. But there’s nothing in it that I loved. And that makes it the week’s one disappointment.

Grade: C

Pulpy Thrills and Pathos With Aurora West


The Rise of Aurora West, by JT Petty, David Rubin, and Paul Pope

Considering how long it took Paul Pope to complete Battling Boy (my fuzzy recollection is that he worked on it for three or four years), I was surprised to hear that we were getting a second Battling Boy book this year. But when my local funnybook store (Nostalgia Newsstand, represent!) gave me a chance to check out an advance reader copy for review, I happily jumped at the chance.

Then I discovered that it’s not actually by Pope.

Rubin Aurora West

Sure, his name’s on the cover. And artist David Rubin does such a great Pope imitation on that cover that, if I don’t look at it carefully, I think it IS a Pope illustration. And inside, Pope’s credited as a co-writer behind JT Petty. But… It’s not the sort of singular, idiosyncratic work I’ve come to love from Pope, so…

“Well, hell,” I thought. “What’s the point?”

Seldom have I been happier to have my preconceiving head handed to me by a comic. Because The Rise of Aurora West is a great little all-ages book in its own right that, in some ways, I actually like better than the first one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Paul Pope’s Battling Boy came out last year, and it’s Pope’s answer to the lack of good comics for kids in today’s funnybook market. If you haven’t read it, it’s fun stuff, with a pretty great adventure set-up: a city beleaguered by monsters, its only protector killed in action, and now depending on an adolescent god sent down to prove himself.

This book’s a prequel to all that, starring the series’ other youthful hero: Aurora West, daughter of the monster-fighting juggernaut Haggard West, whose final battle was chronicled in the opening pages of the first Battling Boy book. Aurora’s story is about her training by Haggard, and about her coming of age as a hero in her own right, as she investigates the mystery of her mother’s murder.

It’s not Pope. It plays in his world, and so is lent some of his craziness. But it doesn’t feel much like a book he would write. JT Petty’s script is more conventional in many ways. But it’s also more coherent. Tighter. And, considering the subject matter, that’s probably a good trade-off. The story here is more complex than that of Battling Boy, so the tighter scripting serves it well.

The murder of Aurora’s mother adds a degree of pathos to Rise of Aurora West that was almost entirely absent from Battling Boy. That book had a light, “boy’s adventure” feel that didn’t have time for much in the way of depth and introspection. Here, though, emotional subtext abounds. While Aurora is hardly what I’d call a brooding character, the loss of her mother, and the affect it’s had on her father, looms large. I’m particularly fond of this page, about the three big conversations in Aurora’s young life:

Rubin Aurora West Conversations

It’s a nice summation of her time on Earth, but what really impresses me about it is that glare of sunlight over her mother’s face in the first panel. Aurora was very young when her mother died, and so doesn’t remember what she looked like very well. Though we see her face in other flashbacks later in the book, those aren’t from Aurora’s perspective the way that panel is, and it speaks volumes about the role her mother plays in the story.

(The fact that her name was Rosetta is kind of nice, too. ‘Cause if there’s a Rosetta Stone for the West family, it’s her.)

Aurora’s relationship with her father, on the other hand, should be slightly familiar ground for comics fans. Haggard West is sort of a cross between Batman and Doc Savage, and Aurora’s story isn’t dissimilar to that of Robin. Not the “orphaned circus performer” part, of course. But the training part, and the relationship-to-the-father-figure part, are bound to feel a trifle familiar. This isn’t a criticism, understand. There are enough differences that this isn’t just another “alternate Batman and Robin” story. And even if it were… honestly… it would be a pretty good one.

There’s a classic adventure fiction feel to the proceedings here. The book is thoroughly modern in its way, as I’ll get to in a minute, but also redolent of pulp (and not just because of the cheap paper this advance copy is printed on). The West family explores ancient ruins, trains in esoteric Eastern meditation, and dabbles in super-science. Haggard’s got a jet pack that Aurora’s dying to try. And their one-legged warrior woman retainer Ms. Grately echoes characters as diverse as Orphan Annie’s Punjab and the Asp, and Batman’s butler Alfred.

Ms. Grately is particularly important to Aurora’s path in this book, in fact, not only because she’s one of Our Hero’s combat trainers, but because of the way she wants to protect Haggard from Aurora’s investigation. Haggard was crushed, almost beyond redemption, by his wife’s death…

Rubin Aurora West Death

…and Grately believes that bringing up the spectre of it again might destroy him. So Aurora operates on the sly, applying the things her father teaches her both in the investigation, and in keeping that investigation a secret.

This is all accomplished with a sort of effortless, matter-of-fact feminism that I like a lot. Aurora’s gender never enters into the discussion of whether she’ll succeed or fail. That’s based solely on her youth and inexperience, and how well she can apply her training and native cunning. That’s a nice message to send to both girls and boys who might be reading this thing. And it’s not a bad thing for adults to see, either.

There’s more to discuss, but the book won’t be out til the end of September, so I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible. If I haven’t convinced Battling Boy fans to pick this one up, though, I’ll also say that it gives us some interesting insight into life in Arcopolis, and hints at the society and origins of the monsters, important background that the first book couldn’t slow down long enough to cover. But that’s all I’m going to say for now.

I do have a few things, however, to say about the art. That’s entirely the work of David Rubin, and it’s pretty terrific. He’s obviously been influenced by Pope, but with a cleaner line that lends slightly greater clarity to the action scenes.

Rubin Aurora West Training 1

Pope’s hardly the only influence here, though. I can see a bit of Rafael Grampa in it, as well, along with some manga dynamics, and maybe even a bit of Bruce Timm or J Bone here and there. Rubin’s one heck of a cartoonist in his own right, though, and rises above his influences to create something unique unto himself.

So! Pretty, engaging, mysterious, pulpy, and even just a little bit creepy… That’s The Rise of Aurora West, in a nutshell. Not the greatest funnybook ever made, but good kids’ comics that us poor benighted adults can enjoy, too. It’ll be out on September 30th, and I’d advise you to check it out.

Grade: B+

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE KING!


Today would have been Jack Kirby’s 97th birthday! And though that is, of course, a national holiday here on the nerd farm, we still couldn’t let the day pass without notice.

So HERE’S A LINK TO A NICE LITTLE PIECE ON THE DAY FROM NPR, who open with a tidbit of information that even hardcore funnybook fans seem to forget: Kirby created new move sensation Groot.

(Which, of course, is why I will not see Guardians of the Galaxy. No matter how well they’ve treated Bill Mantlo, creator of Rocket Raccoon, they still repeatedly went out of their way to screw over the man who created the furry bastard’s partner.)

But, hey! It’s the King’s birthday! So let’s not end this on a sour note. Instead, please enjoy this amazing machine-faced robot!

click to embig-- actually, no. Click to make KING-SIZED!!!

click to embig– actually, no.
Click to make KING-SIZED!!!

 

Happy Birthday, King! Wherever you are!