The Manhattan Transfer, and Other Funnybook News

So the funnybook world has been abuzz the last few days with shocking revelations and their accompanying outrage (because nothing ever happens in comics without somebody getting their panties in a bunch about it).

The biggest story, I guess, is Geoff Johns’ declaration that Dr. Manhattan is responsible for all the dirty, bad, awful, unhappy things that have happened to the DC Comics stable of characters since the “New 52” relaunch of a few years ago.

Rebirth Batman Smiley Face

That’s right. Dr. Manhattan. Not Jim Lee or Dan Didio or Bob Harras or Johns himself. You know. The guys in charge of deciding that all those dirty, bad, awful, unhappy things were going to happen. Nope. They are, as it turns out, completely free of blame for… whatever it is that Johns thinks shouldn’t have happened with the DC characters.

Which… I’m not entirely clear on what that is. I mean, I was under the impression that what shouldn’t have happened to them was bad redesigns and slipshod editorial practices that lead to the company not being able to hire the better talent anymore. And I don’t see how a fictional character could be responsible for any of that.

Unless… Hmm… Maybe Johns was speaking metaphorically. He IS a writer of some note, after all, and writers of note have been known to use metaphors. So maybe he meant that Dr. Manhattan is responsible for the ills of DC’s corporate-owned characters because of what he represents. And what Dr. Manhattan represents, of course, is the way DC Comics screwed Alan Moore over on the Watchmen deal.

Yes. Yes, of course. That must be what he meant. Because if they hadn’t stuck to the letter of that contract while betraying the intent of it, Moore might have kept working with them. And if Moore had kept working with them, their comics over the last 30 years would have undoubtedly been a whole lot better than they were. And if they’d been producing better comics, they might not have needed this continual string of relaunch gimmicks to spark sales. And if sales had been better, they wouldn’t have been so desperate as to think that hiring the people who presided over one of the most creatively-bankrupt periods in comics history was a good idea. None of those bad redesigns would have happened, and they might have been able to continue employing editors who worked well with the talent. So they’d still be able to attract top-shelf creative teams to perpetuate their copyrights, and everything would be right with the DC world.

Yes. That must be what he meant. Because, I mean… The only other possibility would be that he thinks Watchmen is a cynical work that infected the company and its characters with its vile and insidious lack of heart.

Rebirth Pandora

And he couldn’t possibly think that. I mean… That would indicate that he completely missed the point of one of the cornerstones of the super hero genre. And a writer with as many super hero books to his credit as Johns would have to understand such a major work! He wouldn’t be very good at his job if he didn’t!

Of course, if he did mean that whole thing about Watchmen being an inherently nihilistic work that’s the evil antithesis of everything wholesome old DC Comics stood for prior to 1986…

Rebirth Batman Hope and Despair

…that might also imply that he was somehow taking a metaphorical potshot at Alan Moore in the story. Bear with me as I puzzle this out. If I understand this right, it’s implied that the New 52 Universe is what Dr. Manhattan made when he went off at the end of Watchmen to create life. But it’s also revealed that the New 52 was not in fact new life, but some weird hybrid thing that took the old DC heroes and changed them, stealing ten years of their lives that they’ve since forgotten. Which would imply that Dr. Manhattan can’t create anything of his own, but instead has to warp previously-existing life for his “creations.”

Which might be construed as some kind of jab at Alan Moore’s penchant for using pre-existing characters in books like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls. But that can’t be right. It would mean that Johns is ignoring Moore’s rather large body of wholly original works like V for Vendetta, From Hell, Tom Strong, Promethea, Top Ten, Voice of the Fire, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting. It would also be a supreme irony, considering Moore’s (admittedly unfair but not entirely inaccurate) suggestion that DC Comics can’t seem to stop strip-mining the work he did for them, and has failed to inspire their talent to come up with much original work of their own in a very long time. A failure that includes, now that I think of it, this “Rebirth” comic in which all this Dr. Manhattan business is happening.

So, no. No, Johns couldn’t possibly have been going there. That would be stupid and self-defeating. He obviously meant the “keep the talent happy so your comics don’t suck” thing.

It’s the only reading that makes sense.

I’m glad that’s settled.

But in other news…

Saiz Captain America 1

Fanboys have been issuing death threats to writer Nick Spencer over his new Captain America comic, in which Steve Rogers is revealed to have been a Hydra sleeper agent since childhood.

And well they should! Because of course we all know that the first chapter of any story reveals everything we need to know about it. And that such obvious retcons never, ever get undone. And that Marvel Comics is stupid enough to turn one of their most popular characters into a murderous villain for ever and ever, staining his heroic legacy so deeply that no one can ever write him as a paragon of virtue ever again. Just like when he died! They never undid that, either!

So you keep right on with those anonymous, cowardly internet death threats, gentlemen. Nothing like good old-fashioned terrorism to get things done! It’s what Cap would want. Especially Hydra-Cap. From what I’ve heard, he would particularly like it.

Saiz Captain America Hail Hydra

This has been the news.

Thank you, Funnybook America.

And good night.

Preacher on the TeeVee

So this weekend saw the debut of the long-awaited, long-in-development-hell television series based on Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher.

Preacher Steeple

It ain’t bad.

It ain’t Preacher.

But it ain’t bad.

I guess I should explain what I mean by that. Taken in its own right, as its own thing, Preacher on the TeeVee (which is what I’m going to call it for the purposes of this review) is pretty good television. It’s over-the-top and funny, with a debut episode that features a couple of well-executed and humorously brutal action sequences. If it were an original work, appearing for the first time on my TV screen, I might like it quite a bit. But it’s not appearing for the first time on my TV screen. It’s an adaptation of a funnybook series that I like quite a bit. And as an adaptation, it’s lacking in some pretty fundamental ways.

All of which leaves me in a bit of a quandary. Do I try to be fair to the show, and let it stand on its own? Or do I compare it to the book it’s ostensibly adapting, and point out its shortcomings as an adaptation? Neither approach seems entirely satisfying to me, so of course (being nothing if not fair.. and stubborn… and over-complicated…) I’m going to do both.

It might be best, I think, if I start off critiquing it as an adaptation. That’ll let me get a few things off my chest, so maybe I’ll be more charitable later…

First things first, for those not familiar: Preacher is the story of Jesse Custer, a man imbued with the Word of God, the power to compel others to do what he says. It’s also the story of how he comes by that power, and why the forces of Heaven aren’t real happy about it. I won’t spoil that reason for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but let’s just say that, once Jesse learns what’s really going on, he decides to go looking for God, and make that sumbitch face up to his crimes. The story that comes out of that decision is an epic, a modern-day Western filled to bursting (often literally) with sex, violence, myth, memorable characters, and through it all a pitch-black sense of humor balanced against an unwavering sense of love, friendship, and, yes, morality.

The makers of Preacher on the TeeVee, while following that basic story, have chosen to tell it in a different way. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I don’t expect all adaptations to be as loyal to the source as, say, the Sin City movie. And, honestly… The early issues of Preacher are a little clumsy in places. There are, frankly, better ways to get into the story, and the show’s decision to start while Jesse Custer is still trying to be a preacher, rather than Garth Ennis’ decision to start on his very last day in that job, isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Some of what comes of that change, however, ripples out to change other things. And it’s those things that give me pause.

Jesse himself may be the best example of that. In Preacher, Jesse Custer represents a very specific, and kind of old-fashioned, type of masculinity. While he’s hardly without conflict, he is comfortable in his own skin. He keeps himself to himself. He’s possessed of an essential decency, but he’s not a jerk about it. And while he’s not the type to start a fight, you probably don’t want to cross him, either. In Preacher on the TeeVee, meanwhile, Jesse a much more modern type of man. He’s heavily conflicted and not at all comfortable with himself. He doesn’t strike me as essentially decent. Instead, he’s a bad man trying to be good. Or maybe a good man with a mean streak. It’s too soon to say for sure. But either way, he’s different. Softer. Weaker. Doesn’t have as much starch in him. And that mean streak… It cuts against the whole point of the character. And that’s not good adaptation.

The same can be said for his love interest, Tulip O’Hare. In Preacher, Tulip has turned to a life of crime since Jesse last saw her, but she’s still refreshingly normal. She’s distinguished, in fact, by being written like a real flesh and blood person in a sea of increasingly bizarre caricatures. But Preacher on the TeeVee Tulip is a caricature herself. She is, essentially, a very friendly psychopath, broadly-played and reveling in violence. I’ve seen this change lauded as empowering for the character, but I don’t think Tulip really needed any empowering. She’s already a strong character. I don’t think making her more obvious and incredibly violent really improves anything. And much like TeeVee Jesse, her attitude cuts against the book’s core themes. Preacher is driven by a strong sense of right and wrong, and getting off on violence generally puts you on the side of wrong. Or at least means you’re a crazy bastard, and not to be trusted.

But speaking of crazy bastards who aren’t to be trusted… Our third core cast member, the vampire Cassidy, has thus far been translated pretty much directly. Of course, he’s the simplest, broadest character of the bunch (at least at first), and the one who’s the most recognizable as a standard character type: the reprobate friend. And this points out a problem with Preacher on the TeeVee: they’ve taken characters with complex moral and psychological make-ups, and turned them into types. Jesse’s the hero wrestling with his demons, Tulip’s the crazy girlfriend, and Cassidy, as I already said, is the hero’s reprobate buddy. They’ve dumbed things down a bit, is what I’m saying. The characters and the themes are more formulaic, more familiar. More like a dozen other things we’ve seen before.

They’ve also changed the tone. Because, in spite of giving Jesse a mean streak and making Tulip a psycho, Preacher on the TeeVee feels a good bit more tame than Preacher. I mean, even Garth Ennis doesn’t get to the really crazy shit right off the bat, so I’m not upset that nobody got their testicles eaten off by a dog in the first episode. But the show still feels entirely too safe. Too normal. When Tulip shoots a guy in her first appearance, it’s not some clean hyper-kinetic fight scene with blood spatters on the window. It’s guy-with-his-jaw-shot-off disturbing:

Dillon Preacher Tulip

Such a simple image, but brutally effective. Now, that may be a makeup effect that would be hard to pull off on a TV budget. Even film effects don’t often look very convincing on that sort of thing. So I can understand why they might not have done that specific thing. But couldn’t they have done something just a little more in your face? Something that’s just the teeniest bit disturbing and transgressive? Something a little more like Preacher?

And as long as we’re talking makeup effects that don’t live up to the source material, we might as well discuss the effect that disappointed me the most: Arseface. Here’s Preacher Arseface:

DIllon Arseface

Hilariously disgusting. Now here’s Preacher on the TeeVee Arseface:

Arseface TV

In the same ballpark, but… It just doesn’t push things far enough. It’s too clean. Too safe. Almost boring in comparison.

But the tonal problems go beyond the series’ infamous what-the-fuck moments. The town of Anvil, Texas (where the show is set), is recognizably venal, but not mean-spirited to the point that it feels threatening or weird. And to really capture the Preacher tone, you need threatening and weird. You need crazy racist bastard Sheriff Root talking about how “Martian niggers” are ruining America. And instead, you get plain ol’ redneck Sheriff Root saying he can’t take action on a report of domestic violence unless the victim files a complaint.

Kinda lame in comparison.

So lame, in fact, that it causes a problem: other than an abusive scumbag, the worst people in the first episode of Preacher on the TeeVee are Our Heroes. Seriously. Tulip kills a car full of men, then shoots down a helicopter by enlisting the aid of children to build a homemade bazooka! Cassidy kills an entire plane full of people (people who were trying to kill him, but still)! And Jesse? Jesse gives some kind of stereotypical “scary bad ass” speech to the aforementioned abusive scumbag before beating him (and five or six of his friends) senseless, and breaking the guy’s arm after he’s down! This, I think, is how they’re trying to compensate for the lack of that weird and threatening atmosphere. But if they keep doing that… When the Saint of Killers shows up, I’m wondering if he’s not going to be outclassed.

And that is what I mean when I say that Preacher on the TeeVee just ain’t Preacher. It’s telling a similar story, but to different ends. The characters have the same names, but they’re different people. And the really hard edge, the demented crazy edge that made the book so much fun, has been replaced with cartoon violence. And that’s not a good substitute.

Adaptation Grade: D

But all that said…

Preacher on the TeeVee, taken as its own thing, completely separate from its source material, isn’t bad at all. It’s funny, the actors are charming, and, though they may have dumbed down some of the core concepts, the writing itself is often quite smart. The dialogue never falls flat, and (most importantly for me) they seem content to let the story tell itself at its own pace, trusting the audience to follow along without explaining every little detail every step of the way. Even if I didn’t know Cassidy was a vampire going in, for instance, I’d have figured it out by the end of his first scene. And I don’t think anyone actually says the word “vampire” in the whole episode. I like that.

The humor is also pretty sharp, with the action sequences in particular playing out as pitch-black farce. It’s a different type of black humor than what you get in the book. More broad. Less painful. Which, again, takes away from the edge a proper adaptation would have gone for. But it probably still seems plenty edgy to anyone who isn’t familiar with the source material. And (again, taken as their own thing) it’s hard to complain about the action sequences themselves. They’re stylish and well-choreographed. Tulip’s fight inside the speeding car is even inventive. Good stuff.

Then there’s the thematic elements. This idea of Jesse wrestling with his demons, while more stereotypical than what we get in the book, does play to the larger religious themes inherent in the concept. We see the entity that gives Jesse the Word seek out a man of God first, then a Satanic priest, neither of whom survive the experience. Then, in Jesse, it finds someone with a little bit of both Heaven and Hell in him. Fitting, for entirely spoilery reasons I won’t go into here. But it’s an interesting avenue to explore.

So there’s plenty to like in Preacher on the TeeVee, in spite of my complaints about it as an adaptation. It’s far from perfect, but it is entertaining when taken as its own thing. It’s charmingly demented, and I want to like it. But it ain’t Preacher.

TeeVee Show Called Preacher That Ain’t Preacher Grade: B

Stylish Interpretations: Saying Goodbye to Darwyn Cooke

So comics lost one of its best over the weekend: artist and writer Darwyn Cooke.

(Seen here in self-portrait form.)

(Seen here in self-portrait form.)

If you’re reading this at all, you probably know the details already. It was announced late last week that Cooke was entering palliative care to treat what was termed an “aggressive” cancer. Then, what seemed like only 24 hours later, he was dead. Shocking, and sad. A lot of tributes have already been published, and because I didn’t have time to write my own this weekend, I almost didn’t do it. But he was too important an artist, and too much a personal favorite, for me not to celebrate him. And so here we are.

Cooke was, I will admit, kind of an odd person for me to like so much. He was never an innovator, exactly. He didn’t come up with new storytelling tools like Will Eisner, nor was he a creative powerhouse like Jack Kirby, constantly inventing new characters and concepts. No, Cooke was more in the mold of Alex Toth: a master draftsman who brought distinctive style and a great deal of talent to already-existing properties, often transforming them through his work.

Cooke’s biggest contribution on that front is probably the costume he came up with for Catwoman:

Cooke Catwoman

It’s a great design, simultaneously retro and modern, hinting at the kink that’s always been a part of the character, but in a way that’s also sleek and cool and appropriate for all ages (the goggles are what really pull it together). Cooke’s always shown a great understanding of Catwoman, too. Though he’s only written her once, as far as I know (in his OGN Selena’s Big Score), his drawings of her always capture an attitude of devil-may-care amorality appropriate for the master cat burglar:

Cooke Catwoman Wide

Click to embiggen. In fact, click to embiggen every image in this post. They’re all pretty impressive, and deserve to be seen in all their full-size glory.

I only wish Cooke’s Wonder Woman had taken hold as strongly. His portrayal of her as a boisterous warrior woman first appeared in his book New Frontier, where he presented her as smart, strong, and noticeably… sturdier than she’s generally drawn:

Cooke New Frontier Wonder Woman

I’ve always really loved that take. There’s a boldness to her in New Frontier that you seldom see elsewhere. The bigger build is great, too. Still feminine, still attractive, but without resorting to drawing her like some willowy super model. That’s a woman who looks like she could kick your ass. Cooke stuck with that look in his later drawings of her, too, as seen in this recent “widescreen” cover:

Cooke Wonder Woman

But New Frontier gave Cooke the opportunity to put his own spin on a lot of characters, though. Set in the late 50s/early 60s period in which DC’s Silver Age characters were born, that book plays to Cooke’s strengths, and his favorite design aesthetics. So it gave us a sleek Flash…

Cooke Flash

…a cool-as-hell take on the original Suicide Squad that makes me wish they still told stories about them…

Cooke Suicide Squad

…a funny look at how the Martian Manhunter learned to be human…

Cooke Martian Manhunter

…Cooke’s own version of Batman vs Superman…

Cooke Batman vs Superman

…and the rarity of an original Darwyn Cooke creation: John Henry, a black super hero who fought the Ku Klux Klan at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

Cooke New Frontier John Henry

John Henry’s a pretty cool character, and there’s a part of me that wishes somebody would do more with him. But then there’s another part of me that knows how bad that could go in the wrong hands, so maybe it’s for the best that his creator is the only person who’s written and drawn him so far.

Of course, if everyone interpreted super heroes as well as Darwyn Cooke did, I would be one broke bastard. That was proven true to me when DC did a whole month of alternate covers by him, one for just about every book in the DC line. Looking at those covers was a real highlight of my weekly visits to the funnybook store, and they often made me want to buy the comics for those images alone. Unfortunately, I knew that the interiors weren’t going to live up to the covers in most cases, so I passed. Plus, you know… If I ever wanted to look at any of them again, I was pretty sure I could find them through the magic of the interwebs…

Cooke Batgirl

Cooke Teen Titans

Cooke Batman Villains

Cooke Batman and Robin

Yeah. That’s good stuff. Iconic takes, quiet moments, great action scenes, things that never happened but should have… Cooke even made books I kinda hate look good:

Cooke Justice League Dark

That’s from Justice League Dark. Though you might have to embiggen the image to see them. They’re not really important here. It’s those gigantic Easter Island heads that make this one awesome.

That cover also illustrates one of the things that makes Darwyn Cooke an artist worth remembering the way we’re doing here tonight. These widescreen alternate covers weren’t exactly a passion project for the guy. They were the equivalent of commercial art projects, the kind of work people take on to pay the bills. Though I’m sure Cooke was very well-paid to draw these things, he could have phoned them in. Faced with the prospect of that many covers, in fact, I’m sure most artists would have gotten slack on at least a few of them. But not Cooke. Always the consummate professional, he turned in great work on every single one.

The same was true of his work for Marvel Comics, who brought him into the artistic stable of the infamous Pete Milligan / Mike Allred X-Force run. His work there produced one of the most memorable covers that book ever had…

Cooke X-Force

…and (with J Bone on inks) the fantastically strange Wolverine and Doop limited series:

Cooke Wolverine Doop

So what did Cooke’s work look like when he really gave a damn?

Cooke Spirit

Though I compared him unfavorably to the man earlier, Cooke was one of the only people in the comics industry I would have trusted to do an updating of Will Eisner’s signature creation, The Spirit. And while his version was maybe not quite as good as the original, it was still damn fine. This cover, especially. It takes balls to follow Eisner on anything, but to follow him on drawing rain… Well, hell. Cooke’s must have been solid brass.

But Cooke had a habit of associating himself with comics legends. Because he also recently worked with Gilbert Hernandez, of all people, on a sci-fi / magic realist romp called Twilight Children. The story of a Mexican village haunted by UFOs, it definitely has the horrific, mysterious feel of a Gilbert piece…

Cooke Twilight Children 2

…but Cooke’s fingerprints are all over it, too.

Cooke Twilight Children

None of this is my favorite work from Darwyn Cooke, however. For that, you have to look to his adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. In those, we get to see Cooke making keen storytelling decisions, deciding what to cut and what to emphasize, and when he needed to just lay in Stark’s narration to get the point across. He was able to really cut loose artistically, too, his angular style and love of early-60s design suiting the hard-edged crime stories (all set in that era) like a glove.

Darwyn Cooke ScoreCooke experimented a bit more in these books, too, showing off his ability to define objects with light and shadow…

Cooke Parker Outfit

…and making bold design choices that fairly leap off the page.

Cooke Parker Score

He let his line get rougher when working on Parker, too, trusting in a more minimalist style with heavy, scratchy blacks and looser lines that just look tremendous, especially when seen at full size:

Cooke Parker Hunter

He was able to work a bit in the abstract at times, as well, as with the cover for the “Martini Edition,” collecting his first two adaptations:

Cooke Parker Martini Edition

The covers for the actual books are quite nice, too, though. I especially like his cover for Slayground, in which Parker has to fight off a gang of killers in an abandoned amusement park.

Cooke Parker Slayground

After his adaptations sort of ran their course, Cooke also provided illustrations for reprints of the original Parker novels. I’m particularly fond of the cover below. I didn’t get to see Cooke work in paints very often, and this is really nice work.

Cooke Parker Hardcover

A bit dismal, perhaps. That sky looks like a rainy bruise. But that’s Parker for you.

One last thing before I bring this tribute to a close. While I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a Darwyn Cooke completist, I do pride myself on at least being familiar with his body of work. But in digging up images for this piece, I ran across a “Batman Black & White” story I didn’t know existed. It’s called “Here Be Monsters,” and not knowing about it hurts double bad for me, because it was written by another favorite of mine, Paul Grist. But Cooke was the artist, and he did something in it I love, something I’ve never quite seen him do anywhere else: he was working in pencil.

Cooke Here Be Monsters

I thought I was looking at gray washes at first, but once I found a sufficiently large image, I realized my mistake. That’s some beautiful, delicate shading there, and I admire the hell out of it.

But I admire Darwyn Cooke’s work in general. As I said at the outset, he wasn’t an innovator. Not really. But he was our finest interpreter. A skilled artist who always saw how to get the best out of any assignment he took on. He made an awful lot of comics I love, and I am sad that I’ll never get to read another. Rest in peace, sir. You will be missed.

Gods and Monsters. And a Bunch of Dead Rich People.

A little pressed for time this week… Or, no. Not time. Energy. A little pressed for energy. So… FUNNYBOOKS… IN REView… are… gooooo…

Renato Jones: The One % 1
by Kaare Andrews

Kaare Andrews’ first entry into the field of Comics That Belong To His Own Damn Self is pretty bold.

Bold in its cover design…

Andrews Renato Jones 1

click to embiggen

…bold in its Frank-Miller-Meets-Bill-Watterson graphics…

Andrews Renato Jones 1 Flashback

…and bold in its dramatics:

Andrews Renato Jones 1 Spread 1

Andrews Renato Jones 1 Spread 2

That’s two consecutive double-page spreads. Think about that. Four. Full. Pages. Devoted to one horrifyingly cinematic effect. Sure, he could have done that as the top and bottom halves of a single spread, or as a single page. Half a single page, even. But the size of it, and the shock of the page turn, truly magnifies its effectiveness (go on ahead and embiggen them sumbitches to see what I mean). I really admire the balls it took to make that storytelling decision. It is, again, bold.

Of course, the whole premise of this book is pretty bold: it’s about a guy who hunts the super-rich (as one of the series’ many tag lines has it, “The Super-Rich are Super-Fucked”). But he’s not some random maniac. No, he’s out to punish the crimes of people whose vast fortunes make them untouchable by normal authorities. In this first issue, for instance, he’s after a guy who hires pretty illegal immigrants in various service positions aboard his super-giant personal cruise liner (the biggest in the world!), where they disappear into his secret ship-board torture dungeon, never to be seen again.

Which is completely insane. Cartoonishly ghoulish. If you wanted to paint the worst possible picture of the proverbial One Percent… That would pretty much be it. It’s a screed. A polemic. A political cartoon as ridiculous as it is brutal. But it’s also funny. And satisfying. A great way to blow off some steam for those who see income inequality as one of our greatest social ills. Like Frank Miller’s Holy Terror, but for the Occupy set.

Andrews Renato Jones 1 Choke

It’s not perfect. It works best as farce, and I’m not sure Andrews is always playing it that way. There’s an earnestness to the proceedings that makes me think he’s not 100% joking. That has a punk rock charm all its own, though, and lord knows I love me some punk rock attitude. So while I can’t give it a perfect grade… I did get a real kick out of it.

Grade: B+

Cinema Purgatorio 1
by Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, Garth Ennis, Max Brooks, Kieron Gillen, Christos Gage, and Others

O'Neill Cinema Purgatorio 1

Next up is another fun book that’s maybe not perfect, but that I really enjoyed in the reading. This one’s an anthology series spearheaded/inspired/curated by Alan Moore. Moore and Kevin O’Neill (perhaps by now Moore’s longest-standing collaborator) start things off with an introduction to the Cinema Purgatorio itself, a run-down old movie house showing films of dubious pedigree. Films that seem familiar, but that somehow go off the rails.

Their example this issue is “Fatal Officers,” a comedic silent movie short subject, seemingly in the style of the Keystone Cops:

O'Neill Fatal Officers

But as events escalate, the expected incompetent police mayhem has resulted in multiple careless deaths and, by the end, cold-blooded murder. The conceit is that the rest of the book represents the evening’s feature presentations, implying that it will all be recognizable genre fare that deviates from expectations. And that’s kind of true. More or less. If you squint. And maybe cock your head to one side at just the right angle…

The anthology’s central conceit is loosely adhered to at best, is what I’m saying. But that doesn’t necessarily detract from my enjoyment of it, because the rest of the strips are dandy little first chapters in what I presume will be long-running serials. Kieron Gillen and Ignacio Calero’s Modded probably sticks to the Cinema Purgatorio premise best. It’s essentially Pokemon, except set in what appears to be some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape. And instead of cute cartoon critters, the Pokemon are actually weird and terrifying demons. Fun!

Max Brooks and Michael Dipascale’s A More Perfect Union also kind of sticks to the conceit. It’s an alternate history Civil War tale, except that the actual Civil War never happens because we’re too busy fighting off an alien invasion to fight each other. I can’t say I liked this one all that much, which is to be expected: you’re never going to like everything in an anthology. It’s written well enough, mind you, and it’s evidently quite well-researched. But the art is… Less than great. Not quite awful, exactly, but… It looks like everybody’s wearing a fake beard. And in a story in which just just about every single character has some kind of outrageous period-authentic facial hair…

Bad Beards

…that’s not good.

The opposite is true of Christos Gage and Gabriel Andrade’s The Vast, which, though I dig its premise of “fighter pilots vs giant monsters,” honestly kind of bored me. But it’s got a monster drawing in it that’s so awesome I don’t want to spoil it by sharing it here. It’s the best thing in the story, by far. So it’s a hard call to say whether this or A More Perfect Union is the weak link of this first issue.

The stand-out strip is an easier pick: Garth Ennis and Raulo Caceres’ Code Pru. It’s about a paramedic who gets called out on emergency cases involving monsters. This first chapter is quite well-done, introducing the series’ conceit in an interesting, funny, and altogether human way. It’s nice to be reminded every so often that Ennis has this sort of thing in him. He’s often so busy being outrageous that it’s easy to forget why I like his best work as much as I do.

So that’s Cinema Purgatorio. A mixed bag, but fun overall. The heights are pretty high, and the lows (except for the beards) aren’t all that low. Which is a pretty good track record for an anthology. Future issues, I think, will live or die by how good the Moore, Ennis, and Gillen strips become as they develop. For now, though, I’m happy with the six bucks I spent on this thing. For 40 or 50 square-bound pages, that’s a bargain in the current funnybook market, and I feel like I should support it.

Grade: B

The Wicked + The Divine 19
by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

McKelvie WicDiv 19

My recently-renewed enthusiasm for this series continues this issue, as the Gillen & McKelvie team deliver more super hero style action…

McKelvie WicDiv 19 Baal

…and thicken the plot a bit, too:

McKelvie WicDiv 19 Ananke

That’s Ananke, the apparently evil bitch behind all the gods’ woes, talking to… we don’t know who… through a contraption built for her by Woden… who doesn’t know what it’s for. Considering that Ananke was called “Necessitas” by the Romans, I found that passage pretty damned interesting.

Of course, it’s possible that she’s only talking to Minerva’s owl, who’s recording the whole thing. And considering that she then sends that owl out to lead her loyal gods to the hiding place of the rebel gods… And considering that the owl winds up in her enemy’s possession… It’s possible that whole speech is just a trap, designed to pull the rebels out where she can get to them more easily. But we don’t know. And that… is pretty great.

Grade: A-

Sex, Lies, and Batman

Last week was a damn fine week for funnybooks, with three of my current favorites hitting the stands all on the same day. So of course, I’m going to start this week by talking about a book I didn’t actually read at all…

by Frank Miller and… Not-Frank-Miller

So, yeah. I’m not really reading this book. I gave it a shot briefly when it started, but it has the feel of someone trying to make sense of the glorious nonsense that is Frank Miller’s Bat-Future. It’s tame when it needs to be wild, utterly sane when it needs to be utterly insane. It is entirely too much NOT a glorious mess, in other words, and its very normalcy, its entirely competent mediocrity, bothers me far more than stuff like this:

Miller DKIII 4 Cover

That’s Frank Miller’s alternate cover to this issue, which is apparently causing a bit of a stir on-line. Many think that’s an awful drawing, and while I personally kinda dig it, even I will admit that it’s rough. Wonder Woman’s legs are a little too small in comparison to her torso. Or, actually, I suppose that should be LEG, singular, since he doesn’t seem to have bothered drawing her left leg (or arm, for that matter). And the baby, while I appreciate the little nod to Lone Wolf and Cub, looks a bit too much like a miniature Jonathan Winters for comfort.

But it captures a mood. An attitude. It might help to think of Miller’s work here as cartooning instead of illustration. It’s a drawing meant to express something about Wonder Woman as a character, and in that it succeeds rather well. I know exactly who this Wonder Woman is at a glance, and I know that she’s nobody to mess with. It’s all in the face, the pose. The taut crouch and the stare and the wild blowing hair. As a cartoon, it’s dynamite.

I’ll also say that the cover’s colorist (whose name I’m afraid I don’t know) did Miller no favors here, applying tones and gradients to a drawing that I would have told you was intended to be flat. It’s a poor choice, and does nothing to accentuate the heavy design elements in Miller’s current art. This feeling was cemented for me when I stumbled across this re-colored version of the piece at Comics Beat:

Miller Harvey DKIII 4 Variant

That’s the work of James Harvey (who can be found on the Twitter Machine here:, and it’s exactly the sort of treatment that drawing needs. The bright, flat colors really bring out everything good in it, putting realism aside in favor of emotion and pop-art flair, the collage of old Wonder Woman art in the background capping the whole thing off with a perfect finishing touch. If DKIII looked like THIS all the way through, I might be reading it.

I did read the mini-comic Miller contributed to this issue, and it’s pretty great. It’s a Carrie Kelly Batgirl story, pitting her against some thugs while wearing an awesomely wrong dayglo-green costume with pink cape and cowl. Miller’s art here has some of the same anatomical problems as the cover, and doesn’t always deliver on the powerful cartooning. But it’s got this great drawing of Aquaman…

Miller DKIII 4 Aquaman

(click to embiggen that sumbitch)

and that makes up for a lot. Awesomeness. Again… If the whole book looked like this, I’d be reading every issue with a smile on my face. As it is, though, I’ll just have to look at whatever crazy-ass pictures Frank Miller draws for it and be content with that.

Comic: Dunno, Didn’t Read It
Frank Miller Contributions: A

Sex Criminals 15
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Zdarsky Sex Criminals 15

So this was a packed issue. And, having just finished reading its letter page as I write this, the word “packed” makes me want to make some kind of lurid sex joke. But I’m going to resist that temptation (primarily because I can’t think of anything clever enough).

But, anyway. Yes. Packed. Lots of stuff happening here. Confessions. Realizations. Confrontations. After several issues of entertaining side trips, stories that fleshed out the world of the book, we’re getting back to the series’ core storyline in a big way. And, man, I don’t want to spoil any of this stuff, even a week out from the book’s initial release. But it starts with this…

Zdarsky Sex Criminals 15 Love

…and moves on from there, dealing with all sorts of difficult relationship stuff, on several fronts, and handles it all with its usual aplomb.

It also serves to humanize the previously-inscrutable Myrtle Spurge. Myrtle, whose name is such a perfect combination of “frontier granny” and “13-year-old-boy sex joke” that I both hate and admire Fraction for coming up with it, has seemed somewhat… emotionless? …in previous issues. Or, if not emotionless, then perhaps emotionally detached, a sort of hyper-organized suburban mom with a light air of dominatrix about her. And I do think that’s a role she’s very good at playing. But now she’s gotten herself into something she can’t detach herself from so easily, and we’re starting to see that façade of perfection crack a bit around the edges.

That’s only appropriate for this most human of funnybooks, though: even the villains are understandable as people. Of course, it could be argued that Myrtle isn’t really the villain here. She’s trying to stop Our Heroes from robbing banks, after all, and by most lights, that would make her the hero.

So it’s also appropriate, I suppose, that this issue calls into the question the morality of the series’ premise: bank-robbing sex people. It’s always been a weird element of the book, more an aspect of the impulse control problems Jon suffers when he’s not on his meds than something that makes sense for these otherwise very normal people we’ve been reading about for the last 15 issues. There’s a part of me that wishes the book were actually about a couple of morally ambiguous libertines, fucking their way from robbery to robbery and having a grand old time doing it. That would be an awful lot of fun to read, I think, though to really click it would probably have to be written by somebody like Invisibles-era Grant Morrison. Or, I dunno. Howard Chaykin, maybe.

At any rate. That ain’t the book we’ve got, and much as I might enjoy it if it was, the series is probably stronger for not being done that way. As I said above, Fraction and Zdarsky have managed to put together something very human here. Very funny and very real. It walks a fine line, evoking an emotional response without being mawkish, and maintaining an edge of knowing cynicism without becoming a bummer. Fraction cites Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez as inspirations in this issue’s letter column, and I can see that. He’s not as good either of them, mind you (he’s a little too self-conscious), but I can see Jaime in him in particular. And that’s pretty high praise.

Grade: A-

Velvet 14
by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting

Epting Velvet 14

The frequency with which this book comes out is frustrating for many. I‘m willing to wait for something with artwork as pretty as the stuff Steve Epting’s turning in, mind you. But it does sometimes make the intricacies of the series’ plot a bit difficult to follow. There are plots, counter-plots, secret conspiracies, and a large international cast of characters who don’t always have any connection to each other. So when Velvet suddenly kidnapped Richard Nixon this issue…

Epting Velvet 14 Nixon

I must admit to throwing my hands in the air and giving up on trying to make sense of it all.

That’s probably not fair. If I went back and re-read the whole thing, I’m sure the trail, leading from London to Moscow to Paris to Washington, would all line up and make perfect sense. I wasn’t expecting Watergate to be part of the plot, but I suspect that’s supposed to be a cool, entertaining surprise instead of the event that caused me to give up in despair. And I was entertained by it, make no mistake. It’s a fun and audacious sort of thing to do, the book’s “James Bond” side taking momentary precedence over its “John Le Carré” side. But it’s been long enough since the first issue (hell, since the last issue) that I’m having serious trouble keeping everything straight.

I don’t mean to sound so negative here. I very much enjoyed the read, and Epting’s artwork is its usual triumph of illustration.

(Even if his Gerald Ford IS a more convincing likeness than his Dick Nixon.)

(Even if his Gerald Ford IS a more convincing likeness than his Dick Nixon.)

I normally count re-reads as a positive thing, too, so I don’t really know what I’m complaining about. I think it’s just the sheer sensationalism of the Nixon kidnapping that made me give up. It’s SO over-the-top that all I could do was laugh and go along for the ride. And assume that it’ll all make sense when I sit down with the inevitable trade collection…

Grade: B+

Injection 9
by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey

Shalvey Injection 9

I believe I mentioned last week that Warren Ellis’ Karnak is starting to feel a bit like it’s on auto-pilot. The current arc of Injection has suffered from a similar feel, its lead character Headland (a sort of modern-day Sherlock Holmes type) offering his creator too much temptation to write in “outrageous lead saying outrageous things” mode. Granted, being a Sherlock Holmes type means that’s exactly how he should be written. But, still. I’ve been reading Ellis for more than 20 years now, and a little of that schtick goes a long way for me.

Fortunately, then, the arrival this issue of two other members of the Injection cast (all of them geniuses of one stripe or another) means that Headland isn’t quite as superior to everyone around him as usual. So it’s more a matter of three very smart people one-upping each other, which is fresher. Plot-wise, it’s still a bit thin. But the character interactions, though perhaps a touch too glib for their own good, are entertaining enough that I don’t mind so much.

This issue also finally ties Headland’s current case (involving cannibalism, a ghost, and a group of occult assassins) into the series’ larger plot. Like much (most? all?) of the series’ previous supernatural happenings, the ghost is the work of the Injection, the spooky living AI Our Heroes created before the series began. I’m still not clear on how much of what the Injection gets up to is actually supernatural, and how much of it is explainable with pseudo-science. But that’s all to the good, I think, and really sort of the point. If we can’t tell the difference, is there a difference?

Well, okay. Probably, there is. But is it a difference that matters? Not for us, I don’t think, in the current moment. The Injection has been imbued with all manner of capabilities, all the genius of a cabal of geniuses, and something – the thing that makes it alive – from the distant past, too. And it’s doing precisely what it was designed to do: advance human knowledge. It’s just advancing that knowledge faster, and in more areas, than actual humans know what to do with.

There’s a case to be made, in fact, that the Injection itself is a commentary on the too-glib nature of Injection’s heroes. There’s some evidence, in the way it interacts with Brigid, the Injection cast’s computer expert…

Shalvey Injection 9 AI

…that it’s picked up some of its creators’ penchant for copping a superior attitude. Suddenly, they’re no longer the smartest thing in the room, and the actual smartest thing in the room is being all mysterious and smart-mouthed to them. And they find it just as annoying as everyone else does.

One final bit of praise before I go: Declan Shalvey is turning in his usual good work on this issue, but his cover this time out is especially nice. Seriously. Scroll back up there and look at that thing. It’s purty.

Grade: B+

Kung Fu and Other Delights: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!

Time is tight this week, so this’ll have to be quick. So let’s get right down to it. FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!

Deadly Hands of Criminal
by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

Phillips Deadly Hands of Criminal

This is the second of these magazine-sized Criminal one-shots Brubaker and Phillips have put out, this one in celebration of the book’s 10th anniversary. And like the previous one (Savage Sword of Criminal), this one is also a celebration of the black & white comics magazines of the 1970s. Produced outside the realm of the Comics Code Authority, those mags were really the first “mature readers” comics, dealing in levels of sex and violence publishers couldn’t get away with in regular newsstand comics.

Exactly why they fell outside the purview of the CCA speaks to the arbitrariness the Code had taken on by that point: they were magazine-sized, not comics-sized, and thus not perceived as being aimed at impressionable youngsters. And to be fair, these books were aimed at a more adult audience. Though pioneered by horror mags like Creepy and Eerie, seeking to recapture the feel of pre-Code horror comics, the magazine format offered a freedom that eventually came to include the kind of pulpy sleaze you’d find in men’s adventure novels. Real blood and boobs kind of stuff, with plenty of on-screen murder and an endless supply of half-naked women. There was still a weird kid-appeal to some of these books, though. The Hulk had his own black-and-white magazine, for instance, and that lead to some uncomfortable moments, like that time he hooked up with a drug addict…

Rampaging Hulk

That sort of thing is the crux of this story, in which Teeg Lawless (star of the last Criminal magazine special) gives his son Tracy (himself a former Criminal protagonist) an issue of a mag called Deadly Hands. As you can see above, Deadly Hands stars a character called Fang the Kung Fu Werewolf, and Tracy tells us everything we need to know about it:

Phillips Criminal 10th Tracy

Like in the previous Criminal special, the comic is a metaphor for what’s happening in the real world. So here we have the 12-year-old Tracy, teetering on the brink of puberty and growing wise beyond his years, reading a comic that’s not quite for kids OR adults.

Phillips Criminal Fang

Also like Fang, Tracy has a secret: his dad’s dragging him cross country as part of his cover on a mission for the mob, leaving a trail of armed robbery and broken bones in their wake. So Tracy goes back and forth from being a normal kid, reading comics and having fun, to being an accomplice to all kinds of dark deeds, the worst of which he’s only vaguely aware of until it’s too late to do anything about it.

So it’s the usual well-crafted depressing noir excellence we’ve come to expect from Brubaker and Phillips. This one’s maybe even more heart-rending than usual, though, because it’s about a kid. Granted, those of us who’ve read Brubaker & Phillips’ The Sinners already know this particular kid turns out pretty messed up. But this story’s before all that. It’s about a formative experience that sends Tracy down the path we saw in that book, and foreknowledge doesn’t make his lot in life any easier to take.

It’s not all dire dreariness, though. The Fang story pages are funny stuff, reminding me more than a little of Seventies Spider-Man. It’s especially like the period when he was rooming with Harry Osborne. If, you know, Mary Jane Watson had been continually coming over to take showers. We even get a second Deadly Hands cover, from another issue Tracy unearths as the story unfolds.

Phillips Criminal Blind Fury
That second cover makes me wonder if Brubaker & Phillips have more of these magazine comic homage stories planned. This issue mentions two other titles from the publisher of Deadly Hands: the biker comic Wheels of Fire, and a blaxploitation book entitled simply BRICK! With those floating around, it strikes me that two more of these extra-length stories would round out a trade nicely, and give it a unifying theme to boot. Just a thought. But just for the record, I’d buy the hell out of both of them.

Grade: A-

Dept. H 1
by Matt and Sharlene Kindt

Kindt Dept H

Matt Kindt’s follow-up to the excellent Mind MGMT isn’t as ambitious as much of his previous work. It’s more traditional in structure and tone, and (thus far, anyway) not nearly as experimental. That’s a bit disappointing, honestly. Kindt’s adventures in storytelling have been a big part of his appeal for me, but that doesn’t seem to be what he’s after here.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the comic, though. For all the technical inventiveness and labyrinthine plotting it’s lacking, Dept. H is still a very cool little adventure comic, a sci-fi murder mystery set in a deep-sea exploration lab. It’s got a pulpy tone, and a colorful cast of characters who range from eccentric to sinister to quite possibly mad.

Kindt Dept H Scientist

Our main character, in contrast, is a very relatable sort of hero, a woman with strained family loyalties and other recognizable problems who gives the reader an easy entry point into this strange underwater world.

It’s all perfectly well-crafted stuff, straightforward genre fiction of a type that I’m sure is much more commercial than Kindt’s previous work. I could easily see it being adapted for the screen. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It’s a well-done comic, and it hardly feels like Kindt selling out. But it’s less idiosyncratic than his previous work, and that makes it less interesting to me. Your mileage may vary.

Grade: B+

Karnak 3
by Warren Ellis and Roland Boschi

Karnak 3

I want to like this book more than I do. I think Warren Ellis is treading on interesting philosophical ground, and I like the idea of delving into the mind of a man who sees the flaw in everything. But something about it’s just not coming together. I’m sure the long delay between issues isn’t helping, but even taking that into account, the book’s not quite working.

Part of the problem, I think, is the way SHIELD’s been shoehorned into things here. They’re an uncomfortable fit. I don’t buy Karnak working for them the way he does, at least not as Ellis is developing him. Of course, another part of the problem is that our SHIELD representative in this book is Phil Coulson, a character whose appeal I do not understand at all. He’s a bland functionary, a guy whose personality is best described as “man in suit.” It’s a far cry from the half-crazy cigar-chomping eye-patched glory of Nick Fury, and I can’t help but feel like we traded down (WAY down) when Coulson became the face of comics’ greatest spy organization. Even Maria Hill is better; she’s second-rate in comparison to Fury, too, but at least she sometimes achieves “cast-iron bitch” status. Coulson’s just… dull. He bores me, and I resent him for that more and more, every time I see him.

But my personal hatred of Coulson is not the biggest problem with Karnak. No, my biggest issue with this book is that it’s starting to feel like Ellis is phoning it in. While the core concept has potential, he’s gone on auto-pilot, falling back on his familiar pattern of “outrageous character says outrageous things while the people around him react with exaggerated shock.” It’s worked for a great many of Ellis’ leading men in the past, but Karnak’s quiet bleakness just doesn’t carry it off. So I chuckled a bit when, at the end of this issue, some random SHIELD agent asks Our Hero, “Are you Satan?” But it was a weak laugh, one that I didn’t really think Ellis had earned.

I remain hopeful that something will gel here, but I’m not sure it’s going to. And in the meantime, my reaction increasingly becomes a shrug.

Grade: B-

Lazarus Sourcebook 01: Carlyle
by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, and a Host of Others

Lazarus Sourcebook

My Local Funnybook Store under-ordered a bit on this book, and I initially didn’t get one. Another customer was leafing through his subscription copy, though, and gave it to me when he decided against buying it, saying something that I think may be the best possible review of the book:

“In an ideal world, I would read every page of this and love it. But I know that’s not going to happen.”

I should explain. This isn’t a new issue of Rucka and Lark’s excellent economic apocalypse comic Lazarus. Instead, it’s what old-school D&D dorks used to call a Gazetteer, a print guide to the territory ruled by the series’ central family, the Carlyles.

Lazarus Sourcebook Map

It features page after page of text, maps, and graphics, detailing everything about the Carlyles and their territory in exhausting detail. There are sections on government, economic policy, agriculture, military structure, history, art and culture… Pretty much everything except annual rainfall.

And honestly, that might be in there, too. Because I haven’t finished reading it yet, and some of the pages I have read… I kind of skimmed. Don’t get me wrong. This is interesting stuff on the whole. There’s just an awful lot of it.

Lazarus Sourcebook Commerce

So I’ve been reading the meaty bits and skimming everything in-between. I admire the book for its thoroughness, even as I know that I neither need nor want to know everything in it. I’m glad Rucka’s figured all this out. It helps inform the stories he tells in this future world he’s created. But I don’t think I need to be quite as steeped in the details as he does.

So, yes. In an ideal world, I would devour every word of this and love it all. But, yeah. Like my friend said…That’s not going to happen.

Grade: B+

Tales of Gods and Madness: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!

So there’ve been more good funnybooks out these past couple of weeks than I’ve really discussed. Too much time caught up in Amazons and Panthers and movie talk. Time to play a bit of catch-up, then, I suppose…

Moon Knight 1
by Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood

Moon Knight 1

The last time Moon Knight got a new #1 issue, it was…

Well, honestly, it wasn’t that long ago. A couple of years, maybe. That was when the book got relaunched with a cool new setup by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey, who gave us Moon Knight as a high-functioning super hero lunatic with slightly different personalities and costumes depending on what kind of case he was on. They did six issues of that marvelous craziness before moving on to the even-better Injection, and I pretty much followed them on their way out the door. The storylines that followed seemed less interested in taking advantage of Ellis’ new status quo than they did in dismantling it, which struck me as kind of a shame.

This new relaunch continues in that vein, with Marc Specter waking up in (as the cover might suggest) an insane asylum, where he’s routinely beaten by evil orderlies and is being told by his psychiatrist that he was never Moon Knight. So it’s an “everything you know is a lie” kind of story, an elaborate super hero gaslighting handled with aplomb by Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood.

It’s kind of a relief to me to see Lemire writing a work-for-hire book that’s actually good. I’ve long been a fan of his work on books like Essex County and Sweet Tooth, but every licensed comic I’ve ever picked up by him has been beyond horrible. Of course, all of those were done under the Bob Harras editorial regime at DC, which might say more about the creative direction of that company than it does about Lemire’s talent.

Not that this issue set my world on fire or anything. It’s well-done, but I’ve seen these tricks before. In movies, in comics, on TV… It’s an unusual, but still well-worn, story idea. Lemire and Smallwood’s take is still engaging, though. Cast members dating back to the original Doug Moench/Bill Sienkiewicz run make appearances, and Specter’s having some pretty great hallucinations along the way, too.

Greg Smallwood’s art is a nice draw, as well. His work strikes me as sort of a cross between Lee Weeks and Alex Maleev: solid realistic illustration chops paired with a penchant for photo-realist detail.

Smallwood Moon Knight

It was Smallwood’s art, in fact, that convinced me to shell out my five bucks to read this thing. It’s an extra-length story, too, so that didn’t hurt. But I was on the fence about it, and the pretty pretty pictures are what pushed me over the top.

So that’s the new Moon Knight: not the best funnybook ever, but interesting and entertaining enough that I didn’t feel like I’d completely wasted my money. I don’t know that I’ll be back for issue two, mind you. But while I was reading, I was reasonably entertained.

Grade: B

The Wicked + The Divine 18
by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

McKelvie Wicked Divine 18

I think I may have been selling this book a bit short.

I mean, recent issues encouraged that. The “Commercial Suicide” arc, despite some nice guest art from the likes of Tula Lotay and Brandon Graham, mostly just served to prove once again something I’ve long thought: the team of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie is far greater than the sum of its parts. Put them together on a book, and magic happens. Take McKelvie out of the equation, and things go into decline. They declined so much on Commercial Suicide, in fact, that I’d started wondering if Wicked + Divine wasn’t just empty pop posturing posing as a story of greater depth.

Not that this issue is some kind of revelatory work of genius or anything. I mean, McKelvie’s back on art, so the series takes an immediate quantum leap in quality. But in point of fact, this issue reads like a super hero comic. Even more so than Gillen & McKelvie’s actual super hero comics. There’s more shouting and jumping and blowing things up in this issue than we got in maybe the entire run of Young Avengers. I mean, just look how exciting the montage is:

McKelvie WicDiv 18 Montage

Seriously, this thing is like an old Roy Thomas comic, just with less clear-cut heroes and villains, and better fashion sense.

McKelvie WicDiv Super Hero

So what makes me think I’ve been selling the book short? Well… It’s mostly because I improved myself as a reader. Which is to say, I finally got around to doing the research I’ve been meaning to do forever, and actually read up a bit on all the various gods and goddesses serving as archetypes for our cast here.

(I should probably mention that The Wicked + The Divine, if you’re not familiar, is about gods being reborn in human form. Every century gets a pantheon, who inspire and shape that century before dying off in just a few short years. It’s a metaphor, with this 21st Century pantheon, for pop stars and the influence they wield. Earlier centuries, presumably, got metaphors for different, more interesting, things. But anyway…)

We didn’t know who all the gods were at first, and I was familiar enough with enough of them that I was able to fake it as they were revealed one by one. I kept meaning to look deeper into things once we had the full pantheon in place, but I just didn’t.

This issue opens with a new rundown of the cast, though, a “JLA Roll Call” sort of page with everyone’s head shot in a little circle next to their name and a brief description.

WicDiv 18 Roll Call

And I thought, “Well, that’s convenient,” and went galloping off to Wikipedia. And that, specifically, is what’s got me thinking that I’ve sold the book short.

Like I said before, I knew enough to fake it. Most of the Western gods, I had at least a passing familiarity with, even if I wasn’t 100% clear on the exact roles of them all. I also knew who Amaterasu was (Japanese sun goddess), and that Sakhmet was Egyptian. But Inanna? I’d heard the name before, but didn’t know the first thing about her. And Baal? Wasn’t he a demon or something? Tara? No clue. And, embarrassingly, I thought that Ananke was another Japanese figure, when actually she’s Greek. About as Greek as they come, too, being one of the Protogenoi, the primordial deities who gave birth to the universe before even the Titans were born.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to things I didn’t know about the gods Gillen’s chosen to play with in this book. Getting it all straight makes better sense of the characters and their actions, and adds layers to the series that I didn’t realize were there. Baal, for instance, was indeed a name given to a demon. But before that, it was a name associated with the Semitic storm god Hadad. “Baal” just meant “lord,” though, and early Hebrew writings also use it in reference to Yahweh (the god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims). The confusion over the name caused later scholars to identify Baal as some kind of false god, and eventually (like so many other pre-Christian deities) another name for the Devil.

Which is really interesting, because another member of the pantheon is Baphomet, another pagan deity turned demon by the Christians. And he’s even more messed up, because he is, in all likelihood, fictional, a figure created to frame the Knights Templar for heresy. Later, he was popularized as an inspirational demon in the writings of Aleister Crowley (which might explain by he’s such a cunty poseur asshole sometimes). But however he got there, he’s another name for the Devil, too. So when Baal and Baphomet fight…

McKelvie Baal vs Baphomet

…it’s kind of like one guy punching himself in the face. Or head-butting. Whatever.

Of course, Wicked + Divine also prominently featured Lucifer in its early issues, making that three different stand-ins for the Christian Devil. That idea of threes plays out again and again here, with three goddesses of fate, three gods of war, three sun gods, three gods of love and fertility, three gods of knowledge and wisdom, three lords of the underworld, and etc.

There are only 14 gods in the cast, I should add. But many of them have multiple aspects, so the crossover gets… complicated. Persephone, for example, was a goddess of plants and fertility, but she was also queen of the underworld. Which makes sense of her early affinity for Lucifer, as well as her flings with Baal and (as revealed in this issue) Baphomet. But I’m still making sense of some of these connections, as the pantheon breaks up into rival camps. I don’t quite get Dionysus’ loyalty to the Morrigan, for instance, and Gillen’s characterization of Woden as an abusive poseur…

McKelvie WicDiv Woden

…still strikes me as a singularly poor reading of that particular god.

Sounds like it’s time for a re-read, then. Going back, armed with my new knowledge of the gods, should prove interesting. Can’t wait to see what I’ve been missing. And considering how much I’ve doubted the book, it seems like the least I can do.

I suppose an argument could be made that Gillen should have spelled all this stuff out a bit more, so his readers didn’t have to do research to appreciate the finer points of the story. But that’s not an argument that holds much weight with me. I understood the story well enough before I spent an hour on Wikipedia (an hour, I might add, that I really enjoyed). And once I spent that hour, doing the work necessary to understand the book better, it started living up to my (admittedly high) expectations. That’s not a flaw to my way of thinking. It’s a bonus.

Grade: A-

House of Penance 1
by Peter J Tomasi and Ian Bertram

This one was a surprise. I honestly might not have bought it if I’d had more funnybooks to read. But it was a slow week, so I was poking around for stuff, and the art caught my eye.

Bertram House of Penance 1

I wouldn’t call Ian Bertram’s work “pretty,” exactly, but it is captivating. Weird. Fun to look at. And very much appropriate for this book.

Because this is a comic about one of my favorite historical edifices: the Winchester Mystery House. The story goes that, after the tragic deaths of her husband and daughter, Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, went a bit mad. She imagined that she was haunted by the spirits of all those who were killed with her family’s guns. The only way to ward them off, she believed, was to confound them with endless passageways, and by keeping the hammers of her builders going, round the clock. So for 38 years the house slowly grew, filled with twisting halls, stairs leading only to blank walls, and doorways to nowhere. It’s a genuine curiosity, still standing today and open to tourists, a monument to one woman’s madness.

House of Penance is about the building of the Winchester House, about Sarah Winchester’s peculiar habits…

Bertram House of Penance Sarah

…and the men she hired to do the work. Peter Tomasi’s story is highly fictionalized, I’m sure, but he’s woven a compelling tale. This first issue is mostly set-up, introducing the situation as I’ve explained it above, and bringing a bad man into the mix: Warren Peck, fresh off the slaughter of a small Native American tribe and nursing a near-mortal wound of his own.

I have no idea where it’s going next, but I’ll definitely be back for more. The art, the madness, and the overall spooky tone are more than enough to guarantee that.

Grade: B+