So in spite of the hatchet job I performed on that new Defenders comic last week, I really do think that, in terms of content, we’re living in a new funnybook Golden Age. The work-for-hire stuff trundles along, solidly average with occasional moments of greatness. But in the ranks of independent comics (which is to say, comics owned by their creators rather than a Faceless Corporate Overlord (TM), things are as exciting as they’ve ever been, with more great books coming out than I have time to review. But these books deserve at least a mention, so on this Independence Day in America, I’m gonna try to get caught up on the Indies, and squeeze in as many as I can. CAPSULEREVIEWSAREGO!!!
The Black Monday Murders 6
by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker
I’ve been having a difficult time figuring out what to say about this book, in short form. The usual clichés, the “action heats up this issue” or “surprising revelations” or “fascinating exposition,” don’t really apply. All those things are true, mind you, but that doesn’t really differentiate it from any other issue in the run. So I guess it’s safest to say that this issue continues the series’ inexorable progress, offering surprises and revelations and exposition that take the reader ever deeper into the cold heart of black magic and international commerce.
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses 24
by David Lapham
I don’t know how long David Lapham plans to continue telling the story of Beth, Orson, and Nina in the days between their escape from Baltimore and their sad end in a small town somewhere out west. But I hope it’s a long, long time. As much as I’ve always loved Stray Bullets, this might be the best it’s ever been. This issue takes Our Heroes to New Orleans, and misadventures of the heart (and other, lower parts in Nina’s case). It questions the attraction between Beth and Orson, driving them apart and then bringing them back together in the wake of some pyrotechnics that mean it’s probably for the best that they have to leave town fast.
Kill or be Killed 9
by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Much like Black Monday Murders, this book rolls along in its usual compelling manner this issue. There’s a set-up with a Russian hitman (named, I think, after an actor from the most recent season of Fargo), as the small-scale vigilante justice plot we’ve been following continues to expand. As it would almost have to in modern America, with its festooning security cameras and instant news. In fact, I think there’s a conscious effort going on here to update the genre (born and mostly practiced in the 1970s) to the internet age. You simply couldn’t keep this sort of activity on the downlow anymore. A guy going around in a mask shooting people is too sensational, too juicy, for the voracious 24-hour news cycle to ignore for very long. And that, alongside the stellar story and art, is why this continues to be one of the best books currently on the stands.
Sex Criminals 19
by Fraction and Zdarsky
The problem with being a critic in a funnybook Golden Age is that you find yourself endlessly repeating superlatives. So I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, but this is another on-going series that continues to do what it does best in its usual entertaining manner. In this case, that’s exploring sex and human relationships with humor, pathos, and sensitivity. And suggestive hot dog cart songs.
Anyway. One of the great tricks of this book is how Matt Fraction is revealing his characters to us as they learn about each other. So, even though we knew Jon was kinda messed up, we didn’t know exactly how messed up, and neither did Suze. It’s putting a strain on their relationship, and (combined with the continuing pressure coming down from the Sex Police) it’s taking that relationship to the breaking point. But this is not a book about dramatic confrontations and exciting action. Rather, it’s so low-key that even major turning points have the feel of slowly dawning realizations. That’s not a complaint, mind you. In a medium filled to bursting with overheated melodrama, that sort of low-key / high-impact storytelling is a welcome change.
by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey
And speaking of books with unusual dramatic pacing, there’s the latest arc of Injection. Much of Warren Ellis’ better recent work has taken this sort of understated approach. Which is interesting, considering that Ellis has, traditionally, been one of the more “yelly” writers in modern comics.
And, hell. It may not be that this book is even particularly understated. It may be that I’ve become so used to heavy-handed dramatics… events and revelations that scream “THIS IS IMPORTANT” as if someone’s afraid the audience is going to miss it… that Ellis’ recent work only seems subtle in comparison. That’s something I really ought to think about, in terms of my critiques and in terms of the stories I choose to read.
But either way, I’m enjoying it in this arc. It’s the story of an ancient sacrificial stone ring being unearthed in modern England, and Ellis’ more even-toned approach goes a long way toward establishing the creeping dread I’m feeling as more and more information is revealed. It reminds me (I assume intentionally) of early 1970s British “rural horror” flicks, where the remnants of pagan Britain rear their heads in the present-day (see: the 1973 version of The Wicker Man). That’s a big part of what I like about Injection in general, though: it’s an updating (like Kill or be Killed) of an older genre to the internet age.
Head Lopper and the Crimson Tower 2 (of 4)
by Andrew Maclean
More straight-up barbarian action-adventure stuff here, unpretentious and fun. Traps are laid, monsters are fought, and heads are lopped off, all rendered in Maclean’s signature stylized art style. It reminds me, as much as anything else, of the early days of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: a comics creator of no small talent doing exactly the book he wants to do in exactly the way he wants to do it, to entertaining results. You really can’t ask for much more than that.
by Donny Cates and Lisandro Estherren
I’m coming to this book, and to the work of writer Donny Cates in general, rather late. I’d heard the buzz surrounding it, but issue one sold out pretty quickly, and there’s no rush in getting around to digital purchases, so… I’m late. And regretful. Because this is some hot shit. A lively and entertaining vampire comic set deep in the heart of Texas, complete with barbecue, dive bars, and snake handlers. All of which makes for a cool take on the genre, with just the right mix of weirdness, cynicism, and heart. It ain’t high art, but it’s fun.
Royal City 4
by Jeff Lemire
In trying to describe Royal City to someone recently, I called it a “haunted family drama,” which may be a good way to think about it. It’s about a family that’s emotionally haunted by the death of its youngest son. But they’re also literally haunted by his spirit, which all of them see in a light that’s most reflective of themselves. This issue, the visions become more alarming, with the mother seeing something impossible, and the burnt-out loser brother devising a really scummy plan that he attributes to the ghost. I suppose the book fits most neatly into the “magic realism” genre, where realistic drama plays out with a supernatural backbeat. I have no idea where Lemire will be taking this down the line, but he evidently has plans, and I look forward to seeing what they are.
Dept H 14 & 15
by Matt and Sharlene Kindt
Matt Kindt’s near-future sci-fi deep sea murder mystery (which may constitute a new genre unto itself) continues to fill in back story not just on the cast members and the reasons they may have had to kill, but on the world this story is taking place in… albeit at an enforced distance. I still have no idea who the killer is, and have frankly given up trying to figure it out. I’m far more interested in the world-building and interpersonal relationships at this point, and in the increasingly splintered narrative we’re getting as Our Hero Mia falls deeper and deeper into the grip of sleep deprivation. When the truth finally comes out, I’ll be as surprised as anybody. But the ride will have been pretty great.
Bulletproof Coffin: The Thousand-Yard Stare
by David Hine and Shaky Kane
One of my favorite comics of recent vintage returns with this one-shot that adds a layer of meta-fiction to its mix of surrealism, curdled nostalgia, and paranoid noir. Well, okay. It was already kind of meta. But now the creators have written stand-ins for themselves into things, and it doesn’t end well for Shaky Kane. Which is a neat trick for writer David Hine to have pulled, if you believe in their fictional backstage rivalry. Which I don’t. But… Ah, hell. Just read the book.
Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign? 2&3
by Geoff Darrow
Geoff Darrow’s latest Shaolin Cowboy romp is also perhaps his most unpleasant. After a few years spent on high concept stuff set in Hell and zombie-filled deserts, he’s taken the action back to civilization, and the forces of Redneck America. The targets are the obvious ones: screen-addicted oblivians and gun-toting assholes. The Giant Talking Ninja Pig, and the Nazi Mind Control Crab, are a bit less obvious, but no less unpleasant to read about. It’s still funny, and still beautiful to look at, which is what keeps me buying. But, man. Reading these two comics back-to-back left me in a pretty foul mood.
The Dying and the Dead 4
by Jonathan Hickman and Ryan Bodenheim
So I guess this book is published annually? I know I was shocked to see a new issue of it on the stands. Though I guess I shouldn’t have been. The last Hickman / Bodenheim production came out on a similar schedule, and suffered just as much for it. Because, while I’m perfectly willing to wait a while for a quality book, it does become difficult to follow the story with breaks this long between issues. Not that The Dying and the Dead is particularly complex or deep. It’s a clichéd “old soldiers” story for the most part, following an aged band of former bad asses on their final mission, one undertaken for personal reasons rather than the strategic ones they often operated under in their active commando days. It’s entertaining, and would probably make a good movie. But the momentum’s lost, and I can’t feel a great deal of excitement for it anymore.
Alien: Dead Orbit 2
by James Stokoe
(Okay, so this book’s not actually an independent comic owned by its creator. It’s a work-for-hire job on a major movie property. But it’s been taken on by one of the more interesting writer-artists in the business today. So I’m including it.)
The thing I like best about this book, other than James Stokoe’s art, is the dual storytelling trick he’s pulling. We’re following our hero, engineer Wascylewski, through both an initial encounter with the alien xenomorphs, and the aftermath of that encounter, as he tries to survive alone on a space station that’s falling apart around him. The flashback story is your typical Alien tale of a space crew dealing with an alien infestation. It captures the spirit of the original film better than most of these things do, especially in the petty rivalries and motivations of the crew, but it’s still just the Alien story being told in a slightly different environment. The survival story, however, is something else altogether, with the environment being as much of a menace as the aliens themselves. Hell, in the first issue, the possibility was still open that there weren’t any aliens left on-board at all. This second issue seems to eliminate that possibility…
…but I’m holding out hope that page turns out to be a dream or hallucination, and that we get back to the idea that Wascylewski’s paranoia is the real enemy.
Aaaannnddd… That’s about all I’ve got time for right now. Damn fireworks, cuttin’ into my writin’ time…