It’s Manhattan Projects! The series’ basics now established, Hickman and Pitarra expand their focus beyond the bounds of the American Manhattan Project compound to tell us the story of Helmutt Grottrup, Nazi rocket scientist turned Soviet science slave. It’s one of Hickman’s sharper scripts, exploring themes of power structures, masters and slaves, while introducing us to Star City, the Soviet answer to the Manhattan Project, and simultaneously developing regular cast member Wernher von Braun.
It’s a lot of ground to cover, but Hickman and Pitarra handle it with aplomb. I didn’t even realize how much they were doing until I sat down to write this, in fact, and any time the craft is made that invisible to a process junkie like me, I’m impressed. Most impressive is the unspoken difference between Star City and the Manhattan Project. While the American compound is kept underground, hidden from sight, Star City is open and expansive, all weird towers of reverse-engineered alien technology gleaming out under the sun.
Outward appearances are deceiving, however, and the American scientists are treated far better in their bunker than their Soviet counterparts are in their science city. This speaks to the philosophies on display, of course, and Hickman’s themes; Star City’s commander tells Grottrup that his chains are at least obvious and real, while the Americans’ are invisible. But they work under chains nonetheless.
I like it when Hickman deals in the fiction of ideas, and this issue shows a lot of growth in his writing on that front. There’s been more of a disconnect between philosophy and story in his previous work; in things like Nightly News or Pax Romana, for instance, the story tended to stop while characters discussed ideas. And while I found those books entertaining, the more seamless combination of plot and philosopy here makes for more satisfying reading. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that all the high-falutin’ stuff is wrapped around a hard candy center of pure dork goodness:
Four ½ Stars
Defenders #10, by Matt Fraction and Jamie McKelvie
And speaking of pure dork goodness…
I am deeply saddened by the news of this series’ impending cancellation. It’s been Marvel’s most consistently entertaining funnybook over the last year, full of precisely the kind of wild, joyous creativity I like most in my spandex comics. It may not be writer Matt Fraction’s best work, mind you. It lacks the complexity of his Casanova, and the subtlety of his Iron Man. In point of fact, it’s a bit flip, even when it’s being serious. But Fraction’s channeling Gerber Weird and Kirby Awesome on this book, and tossing in a little bit of Steranko Cool, to boot. And that makes up for a lot. I will miss it when it’s gone.
(Though I suspect– or maybe hope– that we’ll get more of the same when he takes over the Fantastic Four books this fall.)
What’s that? How’s this tenth issue? More big crazy fun, of course! Our Heroes have been shrunk down to insect size and of course (of COURSE!) have to fight off hordes of marauding ants. Then there’s this:
Big scary icky apocalyptic fun! Enjoy it while it lasts.
Action Comics #0, by Grant Morrison and Ben Oliver
One year after the Great DC Reboot, they’re doing zero issues designed to both fill in important early-days background stuff, and lead in to each book’s next story arc. It’s a neat idea that allows their creative teams to engage in a little retroactive continuity, slotting plots and characters backwards into the characters’ origins. Of course, since Action Comics is already set in Superman’s earliest days in Metropolis, giving it a zero issue is kinda pointless. Morrison rises to the occasion as best he can, of course, giving us an entertaining little story about a kid who steals Superman’s cape. The rest of this reads like “Action Comics for Dummies,” though, filling in unnecessary details on various situations and incidents that have been established well enough in the series prior to this. The seeming magic of an indestructible cape in the hands of a ten-year-old makes up for the issue’s shortcomings, though, and is the kind of charming little story I kind of wish Morrison had done more of in his run on the book.
Artwise, this is a very pretty issue. Ben Oliver’s painted work puts me in mind of Esaad Ribic, though Oliver’s stuff is a bit more… ethereal? I guess would be the proper word? Here. Instead of showing you the kind of craptastically boring cover, I’ll show you this image of an all-too-vulnerable child wrapped in an indestructible cape:
See? Nice. Evocative. Fluid in a way that painted funnybook art often isn’t. It has exactly zero in common with the series’ previous art, of course, but at this point the chance of future re-readings of Morrison’s Action having any visual coherence whatsoever is also zero. So, if DC’s determined to cut their own artistic throat that severely, I’ll take one really pretty issue any day of the week.
The Boys Seventy, by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun
Only one more issue to go for one of my favorite books of the last decade. And rather than the sense of impending doom I’ve felt for the last year and a half, this issue feels a bit like Ennis ticking off check-boxes, making sure he answers the lingering small questions he’s never gotten around to before. Why was MM so uptight about his mom, for instance? And what’s up with those puddles of semen under Hughie’s door? Both questions are answered here, in true disgusting Boys fashion, and one of them is among the more horrifyingly… wrong… things in the series’ history.
Still… It felt less organic than it might have, especially in comparison to the issue’s climactic confrontation between Hughie and Butcher, and one of the more perfect cliffhangers Ennis has ever delivered. I’m both dreading and eagerly awaiting the end.
Three ½ Stars
Fashion Beast #1, by Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren, Antony Johnson, and Facundo Percio
So this is an odd one. A Watchmen-era movie script, written by Alan Moore with Sex Pistols mastermind Malcolm McLaren, adapted to comics by Avatar Press’ resident Moore Adapter, Antony Johnson. It’s an updating of Beauty and the Beast, starring a drag queen coat check girl and a hideous Tarot Card reading recluse who runs an influential fashion factory. Could be brilliant, could be a train wreck, bound to be interesting. And interesting it is, though it’s too early yet to say much else.
This first issue is entertaining enough, and I like the basic set-up, but it didn’t knock my socks off. Though I’m sure he’s adhering pretty tightly to Moore’s script, Johnson isn’t as good, and his adaptation from film to funnybook lacks Moore’s verve, his talent for storytelling tricks that bring bring his work to life so well. Instead, we get a pretty straightforward narrative that, thus far, hasn’t demanded much from me as a reader. There’s a sequence where the Beast figure is laying down Tarot cards that I’m sure is significant, and will probably enhance the reading experience quite a bit once I sit down and track what each of the cards means (my grasp of the Tarot not being what it once was).
I can see how the story might go into some very interesting places indeed by the end (Beauty as a drag queen, for instance, is an hysterical idea). Taken on its own merits, however, this first issue rates…
Three ½ Stars
Doctor Strange Season One, by Greg Pak and Emma Rios
I had two hardcover OGNs vying for my attention this week: Walt Simonson’s Judas Coin, and this. I could really only afford one of the two, and though Judas Coin looked like it had some of Simonson’s best artwork in ages, my memories of the last of his writing jobs I sampled (his brief Wonder Woman run) lead me to go with Strange.
It’s possible I made the wrong choice.
Not that Doctor Strange Season One is bad. Greg Pak has delivered a lively modernization of the Doctor Strange origin story that humanizes Strange and makes faithful manservant Wong into a more active character. It’s fast-paced and exciting, with cool mystical threats and a contemporary tone. But that contemporary tone may be the problem: Pak hasn’t just updated the story, he’s dumbed it down. It’s paint-by-numbers Hollywood writing that hits all its expected plot points and character moments in the expected manner, with a light breezy style that keeps things from getting too deep. It’s inoffensively entertaining, a decent little adventure story, competently told. But it never surprises or delights, and never attains the moments of spookiness I think it was shooting for.
Which is a pity, because Emma Rios is obviously busting her ass to deliver on the art side. Between this moody scene of Strange entering the Temple of the Ancient One for the first time…
…scenes of kinetic action pitting Our Heroes against weird demon-birds…
…and even some hella-cool ghosts…
…it’s Rios’ art that really makes this thing worth reading. She has a gift for innovative layout and camera placement, and dizzying perspective shots that a lot of funnybook artists wouldn’t even think of. She’s taken influences from manga and Euro-comics and swallowed them whole, making them her own much like Paul Pope did before her. Pope’s an obvious influence, too, and just as obviously devoured. Things do get a trifle messy as you get deeper into the book, as if she was a bit rushed toward the end. But the same energy’s there, and that’s what’s really important. I’ll buy just about anything she draws, to be honest, though I usually balk at price tags as high as this one.
Which brings us back to my buyer’s remorse. I paid $24.95 for this thing, and I don’t feel like I got 25 bucks’ worth of entertainment out of it. As I said before… the story’s not horrible, and the art’s really good. But I might have been happier with it if I’d waited for paperback. Or even paid the $20 price for the digital version. ‘Cause, much as I like Rios’ artwork here… I don’t think this one’s a keeper.
Story: Two ½ Stars
Art: Four Stars
Combined: Three Stars
(Yes, that’s bad math. But it really is less than the sum of its parts.)