So I’ve been putting this off and putting this off, but now… I’ve got some catching up to do. There’s easily a full month’s worth of unreviewed funnybooks sitting on my desk (maybe more), and I’ve gotta knock that stack down. Don’t know if I’ll get to it all tonight, but we’re gonna give it a shot. So, without further ado… FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!
by Tom King and David Finch
So while I’ve been talking about other things, Tom King’s first Batman story arc has come to a close. In the end, it’s… not great. Not bad. But, ultimately, not much more than pretty good.
The main problem with it, I think, is Gotham. That’s both the city and the character, because I’ve got problems with how King is writing both. But let’s deal with the character first, because that’s simpler. Basically, I don’t care about him. At all. Him or his sidekick Gotham Girl. I was starting to, when their secret origin was revealed in issue three. But I wasn’t quite there yet. I hadn’t gotten over my initial resentment at these two yahoos with the horrible super hero names who thought they could take Batman’s place. I needed a little more. Like, maybe a complete arc to bring closure to their introduction and win me over completely. Something to really get me on their side before King started taking them apart.
But we didn’t get that. So when the story jumps straight from them confronting Hugo Strange and the Psycho Pirate at the end of issue three to the aftermath of that encounter at the beginning of issue four, where they’re suffering psychological damage from something we didn’t see… I don’t really care so much. I might have cared more if we’d seen the psychic assault happen, seen them suffer at the hands of the villains, and been made to understand what’s broken them so badly. But as it is, I don’t really feel their pain. And so I don’t care. Not enough to carry the story, anyway. So the tragedy of Gotham going mad and (no spoilers) what happens to him in issue five… is completely lost on me.
Some of this is down to the storytelling shorthand King’s using here. He’s said in his letter column for the most recent issue of The Vision that he sometimes prefers to skip over a scene when he knows the reader will be able to anticipate everything in it. If things are said and done that are nothing more than what you’d expect to be said and done, he’d rather jump to the aftermath and let the reader fill in the blanks. That’s a technique I would normally admire (and in fact really enjoyed in the Vision scene he was referring to), but here I feel like he skipped too much. Never mind that he missed the opportunity for a cool Steranko-esque head-trip sequence. The bottom line is that we don’t know these characters well enough yet to fill in the blanks, and when we get Batman’s conversation with the maddened Gotham after the fact, it’s all apparently down to the stuff King’s been writing about Gotham City, which I really haven’t cared for.
And that brings us to the problem with the other Gotham. The city. The setting of Batman’s adventures for going on 90 years now. King’s spilled a lot of ink going on about what it means to be from Gotham City, about how it’s a terrible, afflicted place that bends and twists everyone who lives there and yadda yadda yadda. It’s been the thematic hook for this first arc, and I presume will continue to be so for King’s run overall. But it all feels overdone, a bit too on-the-nose for my liking. That sort of thing is okay as a background concept, or as something Batman might believe in the darkest, most noir-tinged of stories. But here, it seems to be an opinion held by everyone from the average man on the street all the way up to officials of the US government. It’s subtext made text, and it doesn’t work for me.
Which makes this a very frustrating read. Because alongside all this stuff I’m not buying into, King’s giving me some really neat stuff, too. I mean… His major villains so far are Hugo Strange and the Psycho Pirate! There was a Solomon Grundy appearance back in issue two! And in the latest issue, we actually get Alfred dressed as Batman!
Seriously, that’s great stuff. Exactly the kind of thing I want to see in a Batman comic. It’s just attached to larger themes and storylines I don’t care for. So we’ll see if I feel like continuing with the book after this. I’ve liked King’s other work so much that I might be willing to give him another shot now that his prologue’s over. But I dunno. I’m given to understand that we’ll soon be hip-deep in a crossover with the other Bat-Books, and I’m definitely not shelling out money for that. Even at this book’s six dollars a month, I think I’m gonna need a more satisfying read.
by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
I couldn’t let this series end without comment. Because Velvet might very well be the best spy comic ever done. I’m having a hard time thinking of a better one, anyway. Jim Steranko’s SHIELD and the Archie Goodwin/Al Williamson run on Secret Agent X-9 are the only things I can come up with that even come close. And while Velvet does lack Steranko’s hyper-kinetic pop art design flair, Steve Epting’s a better illustrator than he ever was. He might very well be on a level with Williamson, in fact. And when he’s embellished by the gorgeous color work of Elizabeth Breitweiser, he may be better. Check out what she does with Velvet’s face here:
And the road beneath Velvet’s bad-ass muscle car here:
It’s beautiful work, different from either Steranko or Williamson, but definitely in their class.
Of course, Ed Brubaker’s Velvet scripts are better than anything done on either of those guy’s key strips. So I’ve got to give this book the nod for best spy comic ever. And that level of quality deserves attention as it passes.
It’s been gripping stuff, equal parts Ian Fleming and John LeCarre, wedding the former’s splashy action grandeur to the latter’s labyrinthine plots and unsentimental paranoia. The story’s involved dozens of players, victims, and pawns, multiple great fight scenes, a smattering of sex (little of it healthy), and a few things that blew up real good, too.
Hell. When I put it that way, Velvet may have been the best adventure comic we’ve seen in a long time, too.
I don’t want to get too deeply into the details of this final issue, so as not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. So suffice it to say that the larger scheme behind all the other schemes is revealed, and that the ending is just as painful as it needs to be. It’s sort of an Ian Fleming solution to a John LeCarre problem, I suppose, and that’s a pretty fitting way for this book to end.
Kill or Be Killed 1
by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
The latest book from the Brubaker / Phillips team is as different from their last (period Hollywood mystery The Fade Out) as it was from the work that had come before it. This time out they’re examining the urban vigilante genre. Something in the spirit of Death Wish, but with a strange twist all its own.
Heh. That… thing. Demon. Whatever it is. Was a real shock to me when I turned the page and found it there. If this book hadn’t come out two or three weeks ago, in fact (and if I hadn’t already seen it in every other review I’ve read), I wouldn’t have spoiled it here. Because the tone of Kill or Be Killed, other than that one element, is very much of the “gritty realism” school. I mean, I might find it hard to believe that skinny dude on the cover could take out the gang of thugs he takes out in the opening scene, but that’s part of the standard suspension of disbelief involved in this kind of story. Weird scratchy shadow demon things… are not. Granted, it could all be in Dylan’s mind. He’s not in the best mental state, after all.
That’s him jumping off a roof to kill himself. Spoilers, but… He doesn’t succeed. That incident is what ostensibly unleashes the demon, in fact. Dylan’s miraculous survival comes at a price. A life for a life. To keep on living, Dylan must kill. And so he becomes the vigilante we see on the cover. But that outlandish premise, as I said, is grounded in some of the most detailed reality Sean Phillips has ever illustrated. I mean, just LOOK at that shot of Dylan jumping off the roof. You almost don’t notice him because the city behind him is so stunningly-rendered. And this first issue is full of illustrations like that. Street scenes with full background and crowds filled with distinctive faces that help establish the oppressive tone crucial to this kind of story.
It’s stunning work, and Phillips is, like Steve Epting on Velvet, greatly aided and abetted by the color work of Elizabeth Breitweiser. Here, she lays in realistic colors where appropriate, but also helps the book take on a sense of heightened reality where needed. You see it a bit in the roof scene above: that sickly green day-glo creeping in. It’s in full force on a later page, after Dylan’s encounter with the demon lands him in the hospital:
And by the time Dylan has his first real encounter with street violence…
…it’s exploding in greens, reds, and yellows, splattering across the page like some kind of spurting pop art blood. It’s an absolutely stunning, bravado performance from both Phillips and Breitweiser, maybe the best work of either artist’s career.
It’s so good, in fact, that Ed Brubaker’s story can’t quite match it. Now, that’s not a massive criticism, understand. Brubaker has turned in really good work here, taking time to develop his characters and situations as well as delivering on more than one surprise along the way. Kill or be Killed is still the best comic I’m reviewing this week. But it would tax any writer to keep up with Phillips and Breitweiser on this one. So this paragraph’s here mostly to explain why I didn’t give the book five stars…
by Jeff Smith
Bone was one of the best comics of the 1990s. A funny animal fantasy adventure strip, it featured excellent cartooning, funny jokes, and an engaging on-going story filled with magic, mystery, and action. It was written for kids, but it didn’t pander or stoop to being cute for the sake of being cute. In the grand tradition of Looney Tunes and The Once and Future King, it was children’s entertainment that adults could enjoy, too.
This is more of the same. Bone creator Jeff Smith has called it a completely unnecessary epilogue, and I find that I must agree with him. This story adds nothing to Bone for anyone who’s read the original, and probably isn’t a great way for someone who hasn’t read the book before to be introduced to it. It serves no useful purpose whatsoever.
But that’s okay. It’s a new story of the Bone cousins, filled with entertaining hijinks enjoyable by young and old alike. And that’s all it really needs to be. I enjoyed reading it, and that’s good enough.
Prophet: Earth War 5
by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Grim Wilkins, and Giannis Milogiannis
As Prophet comes out less and less frequently, I’m finding that I’m having a harder and harder time following the story. It’s never had the most coherent narrative, I’ll grant you, but at this point I’m really having a hard time keeping track of what’s going on. There’s an assault on some kind of tethered satellite, but I don’t remember why it’s important. There’s a journey across a large wasteland, but I don’t remember where they’re going or why. The plot thread involving two of the bad guys ascending into some kind of astral plane (that might be the Bleed?) makes the most sense to me, but that may be primarily because it’s new and so I don’t have anything to forget about it.
Of course, that sequence is drawn by Brandon Graham himself…
…so it also stands out as the best part of this issue. Graham just has a better grasp of the weirdness of this book than any of the other regular artists, so it’s always a treat when he draws an extended sequence as well as writing it. And since that weirdness is still carrying the book, that’s a very good thing. Because, yes. Even when I don’t quite remember why anything is happening, the tone is so entertaining that I don’t mind as much as I otherwise might.
Still, though. I long for the days when the individual issues were more self-contained, and worked in the style of a mosaic to build the larger plot. It was easier to follow, and weirder too.
by Warren Ellis an Jason Howard
This is another book that’s been harmed by delays. Granted, it was unavoidable in this case. Warren Ellis had a major health crisis last year, and something had to give. Trees was the sacrifice. So while I’ve forgotten some of the finer points of the plot since the last issue saw print, I can’t really complain. I remembered the major strokes, at least, so most of the issue flowed fine for me. It was really toward the end, when a couple of characters showed up in quick, one and two-page vignettes that I had to stop and try to remember who I was looking at. And since I think those characters are from the first story arc, and I had assumed one of them was dead… That’s not bad.
So, all that taken into account, this was a pretty good issue of Trees. It’s the end of the second arc, and it does a nice job wrapping up Ellis’ second round of world-building while also continuing the throughline of the black flowers that presage the Trees doing something apocalyptic.
Wow. It occurs to me that my last paragraph probably doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to anyone who hasn’t been reading the series. But, ah well. Under the circumstances (this issue’s lateness, and my desire to burn through the reviews faster)… I’m okay with that.
Alright. That’s all I’ve got time for this week. We’ll try to play a little more catch-up next time.