So I’m feeling a bit tuckered out tonight. Not horribly so, but enough that I just don’t have much to say in the way of catchy titles and clever introductions. Let’s just get this show on the road.
Mage: The Hero Denied 0
by Matt Wagner
So wow. Matt Wagner’s finally had enough life experience to write the third volume of Mage.
For anyone not familiar with the series, Mage is Wagner’s mythic auto-biography. He interprets the events of his own life through the lens of his heroic stand-in Kevin Matchstick, the inheritor of the legacy of King Arthur. The first volume, The Hero Discovered, was written in the middle 1980s, and it follows the young Matchstick as he discovers his legacy, powers, and responsibilities. It’s about finding yourself in early adulthood, as filtered through Arthurian myth, reinterpreted for the modern world (instead of a magic sword, he has a baseball bat, and etc.).
The second volume, The Hero Defined, was written in the late 1990s, and it’s about Matchstick establishing his heroic legacy. He meets his Round Table of other mythic avatars, and they learn about the wider supernatural world as Matchstick himself undergoes a crisis of faith that leads to deeper understanding of his role and mystical powers. It’s about learning how to be a real grown-up, with a side of mid-life crisis thrown in for good measure.
And now we’re at The Hero Denied, which is Matchstick late in life. Not at the end, mind you. Since Wagner only writes these things after reflection on his own experiences, I don’t suppose we’ll ever get around to Our Hero facing death by old age. And since this Zero issue is only a quick introduction, I can’t say for sure what this new volume is going to really focus on. But considering the title – and the cover…
…I imagine it’s going to be Matchstick at the end of his heroic career. Matchstick entering retirement. How that translates to Wagner’s own life, I’m not sure. He’s hardly retired from comics. He’s been writing pulpy stuff like the Shadow, and now he’s tackling this new 15-issue Mage comic. That hardly sounds like someone in retirement. But as I said, this is just a quick intro. I’m sure the meat of the thing will be more revealing.
How is it so far, though? Pretty good. This Zero Issue is a 12-page introduction, a quick adventure story to kick things off. Matchstick runs into a younger hero, there’s a frenetic fight with some minor goblins, and then Our Hero tees off against a larger threat. It’s a “day in the life” sort of story, a standard monster-bashing thing with an implication that Matchstick may have withdrawn from the spotlight for a while. It’s solid and fun, with a hint at bigger things to come.
Which is exactly the sort of thing I’d expect from the modern Matt Wagner. He’s spent years sharpening his genre storytelling skills, and these days he can be counted on to turn in reliably well-plotted pulp adventure stuff. His work is often imaginative and fun, but it seldom engages or delights me the way his older work did. Because at one time, he was one of mainstream comics’ most inventive storytellers. Mage was never as formally daring as his work on Grendel, of course, but even still… This preview is pretty straightforward stuff. It’s clever, but it’s definitely the work of a more conservative storyteller. It’s even got kind of a takedown of style buried in it.
Well, okay. That may be more of a takedown of millennials. Either way, that bit disappointed me a little. It felt a little too cliché. I mean, the Steez is an idiot, which is fine. And, hell. That crap might even be quoted from an actual conversation Wagner’s had with whatever young comics creator the Steeze is based on. I still remember his vicious (and probably well-earned) send-up of Dave Sim and Gerhard in The Hero Defined, and this feels a bit like that. But it still felt too pat to me, too much like stuff I’ve seen before, and that’s always a trifle disappointing.
It’s a minor point, though, and overall I really can’t seriously complain. This was a fun prologue to a book I’ve been waiting almost 20 years to read. It’s good to have it back.
The Divided States of Hysteria 2
by Howard Chaykin
The second issue of Howard Chaykin’s controversial new series once again delivers the most striking cover of the week:
But it doesn’t seem to have pissed as many people off as the first issue did, even though I thought it was actually more offensive. That’s by design, of course. Chaykin is writing about an America splintering along racial and cultural lines after a devastating nuclear attack, and as tensions rise, old hatreds flare into new life. So there’s tons of horrific violence and racial slurs getting tossed around this issue, especially among the prison population into which Our Heroes (or maybe “Heroes”) have been tossed.
Chaykin also posits an alliance between white racists, black extremists, and Islamic terrorists to bring down the American government, and implies that a major private security / prison corporation may have had a hand in the attack, as a means of increasing profits. That may just be a cynical joke, but… It’s a Chaykin book, so the most cynical option is often the most likely.
I’m enjoying the ride, though, regardless of how unpleasant it often is. Chaykin is at his best when engaging in this kind of social satire, and this continues to be the sharpest work I’ve read from him in years.
Kill or be Killed 10
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
New issues of Brubaker/Phillips books are often difficult to review. They’re all pretty much equally good, and tend to be good in pretty much the same way. So this is another comic with an interesting modern take on the urban vigilante genre. The characters continue to be complex, and the plot continues to move in directions that, while not entirely surprising, are still engaging and entertaining. This issue had less violence than some, being more of an aftermath sort of issue, following up on the (quite literal) pyrotechnics of the last. But mostly, it’s Ed Brubaker continuing to do the things he does best.
The book also continues to be beautifully drawn, featuring a page that has to be among my very favorite Sean Phillips illustrations.
So, yeah. More good stuff, from one of the better books on the stands today. Read it, if you ain’t. It’s really quite good.
Nick Fury 4
by James Robinson and Aco
This book continues to be big fun and a visual delight, but it’s also increasingly apparent that it’s utterly without substance. But that’s okay. The funnybook equivalent of candy has its place, too. Or at least it does, if the candy in question is as delicious and as varied in flavor as what’s on offer here. This issue finds Our Hero Agent Fury on a mission in Atlantis, using top secret “Second Skin” technology that allows him to breathe underwater, and turns his skin blue.
It only lasts for about an hour, though, so he’s got to move fast, and… Actually, you know what? That’s really all you need to know. It’s pretty, and it’s fun, and it’s utterly devoid of serious content.
Batman / Elmer Fudd
by Tom King and Lee Weeks
This book is utterly silly, and a joy to look at. Tom King does an admirably funny noir send-up, and Lee Weeks makes the comedy work by playing it all completely. One hundred percent. Straight.
I can’t give it my highest recommendation. I’ve read it once, and I’ll probably never read it again. I’m not sure it was really worth five bucks. But, wow. Fun.
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses 25
by David Lapham
So as you might be able to tell from looking closely at that cover, this is a nastier issue of Stray Bullets than usual. And all things considered, that’s really saying something. It’s a flashback story, revealing the secret past of one of this series’ key characters: Kretchmeyer. It jumps back and forth between 1974 and 1979, detailing Kretch’s damaged relationship with his parents, and his subsequent misguided attempts to match-make for Beth and Spanish Scott. We kind of knew Kretch was crazy before this issue, but… I didn’t realize he was “tie a guy to your bed until his romantic advice for your surrogate parents pays off” crazy. ‘Cause that’s a special kind of crazy, and one that I don’t know I’ve ever actually seen before. Good thing he got crippled to death a few issues back, and there’s no chance he’ll ever meet Beth’s mom, because–
Oh. Well, then. I guess things are about to get even more interesting…
The Wicked + The Divine 29
by Gillen & McKelvie
The “Imperial Phase” storyline continues, as the members of the Pantheon become increasingly unstable. Sakhmet slaughtered a room full of worshipers / sex partners last issue, and now everyone’s on her trail. But they’ve all got their own problems to deal with, so that investigation kind of spins its wheels. And you know… In spite of the fact that I really quite enjoyed this issue, I find that I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s a very character-driven issue, and the Gillen/McKelvie team excel at those. So let’s just get to the grade, then, and call it a day.