So last week, my attempt to answer a reader question turned into a discussion of my reading preferences, and why I generally prefer indie comics over work-for-hire stuff. This week, I thought I’d continue along the same lines, and take a look at every new comic I’ve read in the last two weeks. Not because it’s been a particularly great time for funnybooks. In fact, it’s been anything but. Few of my real favorites came out in the last two weeks, and in their absence I tried out some things I might not have otherwise spent money on.
Granted, I’m sampling new books all the time. But usually, I don’t write about the duds. Life’s too short to dwell on the negative. But as long as I’m discussing the things I like and why I like them, I figure it might be worth examining. So I’ll do it just this once… FOR SCIENCE!
In fact, to make this even more scientific, I’ll sort my reviews the same way I sort my comics: Alphabetical by Author. Which brings us to…
The Silencer 1
by Dan Abnett and John Romita Jr.
Technically, I suppose I should file this one under “R.” Romita’s got first billing in the credit box, after all, and he’s a large part of why I bought it to begin with. Because on a quick flip-through, it struck me that this was some of the best-looking John Romita Jr art I’ve seen in a long time. And that piqued my interest. Anything that could excite a work-for-hire veteran like him to better-than-usual work is worth looking at. Plus, you know, it was only three bucks, so I figured, why not?
But this book’s part of that “New Age of Heroes” line from DC, and something about those books just kind of rubs me wrong. It’s marketed as DC doing what critics keep telling them they need to do: introduce new characters and concepts. But in practice, it seems to be mostly revamps, retreads, and re-mixes of existing DC-owned ideas. It’s also a rather transparent (and even kind of cynical) attempt to appeal to readers who think Marvel Comics isn’t currently giving them their preferred versions of their favorite Marvel characters. The Terrifics, for instance, is Fantastic Four. Damage is the Hulk. Sideways is a teen hero who looks so much like Spider-Man that I initially thought I was looking at a bad re-design of Miles Morales. Immortal Men plays with the trappings of the classic X-Men school set-up, with Vandal Savage standing in as either Magneto or Xavier (from the preview, it’s not clear which).
Which I suppose really just makes “New Age of Heroes” a retread of the original Image Comics line-up, which featured a ton of thinly-veiled retreads of the characters the Image founders became famous doing. Also like the early days of Image, the New Age of Heroes books are marketed as being artist-driven, with the various pencillers being given top billing over the writers. I’ve got nothing against that idea, in principle. Writers and artists work as a close-knit team in comics, and if the artist is the driving creative force behind the comic, coming up with plot and concept and character design while the writer is basically just a hired hand doing dialogue… Then, sure! Give the artist top billing! The Stan Lee / Steve Ditko Dr. Strange, for instance, is on my bookshelf under D rather than L. Even Stan himself admits that book was 90% Ditko, and if Stan’s willing to give up credit for something, his input must have been minuscule indeed.
But I don’t get the feeling that’s the case with all of these books. Terrifics, for instance, seems to be an editorially-driven patchwork team that Doc Shaner was hired to redesign around the look of Mister Terrific’s already-existing costume.
But Shaner’s not the artist on that book, at least not initially. Ivan Reis is drawing the first story arc, with Shaner (I hear) coming on for the second.
So I’m a bit dubious about the New Age of Heroes credits. And therefore, I’m stubbornly giving Dan Abnett top billing here. Which may not be fair – especially since it’s entirely possible that Romita has the kind of creative input here that would make me shelve it in the Rs. But I don’t know that for sure, and remember… SCIENCE!
Dubious as I am about the marketing, Silencer still caught my eye. Romita looks energized on it, at least…
…and that’s nice to see. I’ve been a Romita fan for a long time. I have fond memories of his Spider-Man, Daredevil, and X-Men runs, and I’ve often admired the way he channels Kirby through his father, while still maintaining his own personal style. When he started doing work for DC a while back, I was really hoping that they’d turn him loose on a Kirby book. Paired with the right writer, a Romita run on New Gods, OMAC, or even the Demon could be classic stuff. Instead, he got a Superman run that felt kind of half-hearted to me.
But Silencer looked tighter than his recent work, and that made me hope for something good. Also, like I said, it only cost three bucks, and I figured I could give it a shot at that price.
Was I disappointed? Mmm… Kind of? It’s far from awful, but I don’t know that I got three dollars’ worth of entertainment out of it, either. The story’s about a former assassin with ties to Talia al Ghul’s Leviathan organization. Introduced in Grant Morrison’s Batman run, Leviathan is a neo-religious group of terrorists devoted to Talia’s rule. Here, it comes off more secular, like the League of Assassins, which is disappointing. But that’s just how it rolls with work-for-hire concepts, I guess. Anyway, Silencer. Since she left the Leviathan fold, she’s gotten married, had a kid, and is living a blissfully normal life in the suburbs. But Talia’s enemies have found her, and now she’s going to have to start fighting again to survive, with her three-year-old son in tow.
We’ve seen stuff like it before, and this is not a particularly inspired take on the premise. It’s perfectly competent, with a straightforward and fast-moving plot, no major dialogue missteps and, as I said, some the best artwork Romita’s produced in ages. The character has an interesting power (she can completely dampen sound), and comes off as a bad-ass without falling into “bad girl” cliché nonsense. It’s a fine, unpretentious little action comic that I have no major complaints about.
It’s just not great. And, though I bear it no ill will, I also won’t be buying any more.
Hungry Ghosts 1
by Anthony Bordain, Joel Rose, Alberto Ponticelli, and Vanesa Del Rey
Switching gears entirely, we have a horror anthology conceived and co-written by celebrity chef Anthony Bordain. Though “celebrity chef” might sell the man a bit short. He’s hardly an empty-headed television presenter or blustering kitchen bully. He’s a world traveler, something of an intellectual, and an author as well, with several books to his name (not all of them about food). He’s done comics before, too, with two series of the adventurous Get Jiro under his belt.
This one’s a bit different, though. A horror anthology, with tales in the tradition of Japanese ghost stories, which are some seriously weird stuff. So, being a rather big fan of the weird, and someone who’s usually appreciative of Bordain’s work, I decided to give Hungry Ghosts a shot. The results were, honestly, a bit uneven. I do like the set-up, though. A circle of cooks, brought together by a mysterious Russian businessman, gather after a meal to play the Game of 100 Candles, which… Well, here:
The stories told around that framing device, though, are a bit tame for my tastes. Or maybe “predictable” is a better word. Though I’d never heard these particular stories before, I know ghost story traditions well enough that they didn’t surprise me. And, being necessarily short to fit the anthology format, they’re not given enough development or style to be effective. They’re not told well enough, in other words, to transcend themselves. That’s a cardinal sin for genre, I think. Dazzle me with diamonds. Baffle me with bullshit. Give me some real meat to sink my teeth into. Or go home.
So, yeah. That’s another book that I don’t hate, but that I also won’t be returning to.
But speaking of handling familiar genres with skill…
by Donny Cates and Lisandro Estherren
Donny Cates is, generally, not a writer of great depth. But he approaches his stories with fresh perspectives that I appreciate, and he sometimes has a deft touch with character. Also, his work is an awful lot of fun. So with this series, I’m enamored of the conceit (redneck vampires), and I like the way he’s developing his central character (the vampire Bartlett). And as the series continues, I’m also enjoying his take on vampire folklore. The current story arc’s mostly about the dangers of making new vampires, and deciding what you should and shouldn’t tell them about their new condition. Mistakes have been made on both sides of that equation here, and the consequences are predictably ugly.
Punisher: The Platoon 5
by Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov
Garth Ennis is a long-time favorite of mine. Not everything he does is a classic, but when he’s on, he’s hard to beat. And on this book, I do believe he’s on. Artist Goran Parlov seems to bring out the best in him. With Parlov, he tends to keep things more grounded, and that leads to better work. Their Cold War era Nick Fury book from a couple of years back was solid political adventure fiction, and while this tale of Frank Castle’s first days in Vietnam isn’t quite as good… It’s still an enjoyable read.
Told from the perspective of the men Lieutenant Castle lead in his first command, it’s reads a bit like a war procedural, detailing the life of a fighting platoon in Vietnam. That’s the aspect of the book I like the best, I think. The book’s antagonist, a revenge-obsessed Vietcong guerrilla fighter fixated on Castle, feels more like a distraction to me. She works as a foreshadowing of what Castle himself will become after the war, but otherwise she comes off like some kind of crazed super woman, and that doesn’t jibe very well with the more realistic stuff.
That’s not enough to kill the book for me, though. It’s solid war comics, from one of the best writers ever to tackle the genre, aided and abetted by one of his best artistic collaborators. And I’ll take that, happily.
Dept. H 22
by Matt and Sharlene Kindt
This book has been a tough sell for me, for most of its run. I picked it up, initially, because I’d loved Matt Kindt’s previous book, Mind MGMT, so very much. And that love kept me going through the early issues, which didn’t really grab me. The premise, a murder mystery set in the world of deep-sea adventure science, didn’t push my nerd buttons in quite the same way as the previous book’s psychic spy adventure and meditation on the nature of memory. I almost dropped it more than once, and actually did stop reading for months at a time. But then, something clicked. As Kindt filled in the back stories of his cast, slowly submerging us in their interwoven lives, I finally became engaged. This story was about the nature of memory, too, I realized, and how the way we remember events shapes us every bit as much as the events themselves.
All that’s over now, though. We’re only two issues from the end. The time for remembering is past, and a story that was about murder is now more about survival. The survival of the human race, and whether or not that’s a worthy goal. I have a feeling that solving the mystery will help answer that question. But time’s running out, and we’re running out of good suspects.
We’re also running out of options. And that leads Kindt to engage in my other favorite thing about his work: a bit of formalist play. As the chances of survival narrow, the panels get smaller. Bit by bit, incrementally across the issue, so subtly that I didn’t even realize it was happening until the final pages. And then, as Our Heroine is forced to abandon the mini-sub that was her only hope of reaching the surface alive…
He opens back up to full bleed.
Now, THAT’S how you make a comic!
Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil 4
by Jeff Lemire and David Rubin
I came to Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer comics late. I had meant to pick it up, but I missed the first issue, and never got around to tracking it down. And so it lingered unread. Until the first issue of Sherlock Frankenstein hit the stands, that is. I loved the title, and maybe more importantly I loved the art.
David Rubin has been a favorite of mine for a while now, since I first saw his stuff on the Aurora West prequel to Paul Pope’s Battling Boy. From there, I tracked down a translation of Rubin’s own European book Hero, and followed him onto Matt Kindt’s Ether (which I discussed in some detail last week). I like his work because of its powerful imagination, and his sense of design, but also because of its cartoon realism, which distorts forms carefully, making them more emotive than strict realism is able to accomplish. There aren’t many artists whose work will make me buy a book (Steve Rude, Jack Kirby, Paul Pope), but David Rubin is swiftly joining that camp.
And in this case, it really paid off. I loved the world Lemire and Rubin were building so much that I finally went back and picked up the Black Hammer parent series in its entirety, reading it between issues three and four. And I love the whole thing. It’s a celebration of super heroes and their pulp roots, which are two things I’m awfully fond of. It has the elegiac tone of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, but with a tighter, earthier story that appeals to me more. Lemire’s heroes feel more convincingly human than Busiek’s, and the whole thing has a darker, nastier sense of humor that also appeals to me.
Which is not to say that Black Hammer, and by extension Sherlock Frankenstein, are lacking in heroism, nobility, and hope. They’re very much not, as evidenced by this very issue, in which we discover that the title character, the greatest super villain of all time, has reformed. He was a hero once, himself, who turned to villainy because of love. And love has now brought him back around to the other side. It’s a touching story, but not in a mawkish way. It retains its edge, and that is the real secret to pulling off sentimentality without making me want to puke.
Lemire’s good at that, and Rubins is a fine partner in crime. These books are worth seeking out, if you haven’t. If you’re a super hero fan, I might even go so far as to say, you owe it to yourself to read them.
Milk Wars, Part One: Justice League / Doom Patrol
by Steve Orlando, Gerard Way, and Aco
I’ve really wanted to like Gerard Way’s Doom Patrol revival. But, man, does that book ever make it difficult. It has moments of brilliance. Absurdist concepts that resonate, a cheerfully anarchic spirit, a general sense of naivety that can be quite charming at times… But the execution is disjointed. Each individual issue doesn’t seem to quite connect to the others. Hell, truth be told, each individual PAGE sometimes doesn’t connect to the rest. It all makes a sort of general sense, in a loose, dream-logic kind of way. And while I’m all down for that if you’re David Lynch… This book’s not as good as Twin Peaks.
And all of that is true, in spades, for this book. On the one hand, it features an alternate reality Superman clone who’s been (quite literally) whitewashed to become the representative of a bland 1950s sit-com sort of status quo:
He should be called Milkman, which would be funny and brilliant, and he almost is. But instead, they went with Milkman Man, which I guess is supposed to be even funnier because it’s clunky and sounds even less cool. The problem is that it’s, well… clunky. And even less cool. It takes the gag a bit too far, in other words. It feels less true and more like somebody trying to be clever, and failing rather miserably.
Which, sad to say, is how I feel about this issue’s critique of “square” culture in general. It’s too obvious, and too much like things we’ve seen dozens of times before. Not that I’m any big fan of conformity. Orlando and Way are right: conformity is a trap in which you wind up conforming for the sake of conforming. Being weird is a lot more interesting, and etc etc. No argument. But I don’t need to be hit over the head with it. Plus, in the age of Mad Men, is this particular image of American conformist culture even a good critique anymore? The standard-issue suit, tie, lawn, haircut and dress combo were plenty weird all on their own, and not at all bland when approached from the correct angle.
So the social statement falls flat, and the storytelling’s just as out of whack as ever. Maybe moreso, under the artwork of Aco, who’s a great stylist, but not a great storyteller. His splashes and double-page spreads LOOK amazing.
But they take a story that’s already disjointed and render it almost Dadaist in the way it leaps and lurches from scene to scene. And not in a good way, either. Not in a way that makes me sit back and appreciate the chaos. Because, trust me, I would LOVE to appreciate the chaos here. I really like the ideas and imagery. But they don’t come together the way they need to, and in the end I’m just left feeling like the whole thing’s a mess. It’s frustrating. I’ve given this book far more second chances than it deserves. This may not even be the last. But I also can’t give it a ringing endorsement.
Marvel Two In One 2
by Chip Zdarsky and Jim Cheung
I’ve always said that, if I’m given an even halfway decent take on the Fantastic Four, I’ll read it. And this is living proof. Because this is not a great comic. It IS a pretty good comic. But it’s probably not good enough to keep me reading it, if it were dealing with any other characters. But, god help me, I love the Fantastic Four. And this is the Fantastic Fouriest book I’m likely to get right now. So I’ll take it.
And luckily, I do think Chip Zdarsky has a good handle on the two FF members he’s allowed to use. The Thing feels like the Thing. He wants to do the right thing, but there’s something inside him that won’t quite let him get it right. So he lies to Johnny about Reed and Sue being alive, to get the kid out of the downward spiral he’s on. And Johnny feels like Johnny, too. He’s emotionally volatile and given to over-reaction, two characteristics that pretty much defined the character for the first 20 years of his existence. Together, they’re a happy train wreck. Two best buds who periodically beat the shit out of each other. For brotherhood!
Zdarsky also handles Dr. Doom rather well. He’s arrogant and manipulative, and though he claims to have reformed from his villainous ways… He’s still an asshole. And I don’t trust him. Not one little bit. The minute Reed actually returns, he’s gonna turn like the rat he is.
(And that’s the great cosmic joke of it all: Ben might have lied about knowing it, but Reed and Sue actually ARE alive, somewhere out there. They’re just going to be really hard to reach. And may not want to be found in the first place.)
This issue has one other thing going for it, too: a joke I laughed at FAR harder than I should have. Back in college (when Reed, Ben, and Doom all knew each other, let’s not forget), Doom glad-handed his way into winning a science prize that should have gone to Reed. And then (being Doom), he was a total prick about it. In revenge, Reed and Ben snuck into wherever the school kept the trophies for such things, and made a little alteration:
That’s not remotely funny.
I realize that.
But, my GOD I laughed my ass off at it.
Such is the lot of the fanboy.
Grade for Me:
Grade for Normal Humans:
And that is that. I must admit, it was kinda fun slagging off on a few things. But the negativity of dwelling on it has had its psychic cost. It put me in kind of a sour mood the last couple of days. And my dreams have not been as peaceful as usual. Call me a hippy if you will, but I think I’ll go back to just talking about the good stuff from now on. I need my sleep, dammit…