So I’ve often said that we’re currently in a new Golden Age of Funnybooks. Not in terms of sales, sadly. But very much in terms of content. We still have a ways to go, of course. There are significant holes in the range of stories being told in comics form. We need more romance, more kids’ comics, more… I dunno. More of anything that would attract a mass audience. But there’s a wider variety of quality material out there now than there’s been at any point in my lifetime.
Just last week, for instance, I picked up comics in the genres of philosophical eco-mystery, psychedelic sci-fi adventure, psychological revenge fantasy, and epic small-time crime drama. It’s crazy out there, folks! A grand time to be a funnybook fan…
Dept H 24
by Matt and Sharlene Kindt
Matt Kindt’s deep sea murder mystery comes to a close with this issue, and like all good mysteries, it turns out to be as much about character and idea as it is the murder. Even moreso, in this case. The actual murder was, in fact, solved in issue 23. And it wasn’t “solved” in the strictest sense. Mia (Our Hero) didn’t find the proof she needed to pin the crime on the culprit or anything like that. It was more that she just figured it out. Put the pieces together from all the disparate conversations she’s had with all the parties involved, and realized, finally, who the killer really was.
SPOILER, but it wasn’t anyone she’d been actively investigating. Everyone in the deep sea base, flawed and conflicted as they might have been, was loyal to her father Hari and his dream of a better world. No, the real culprits were Hari’s backers and business partners on the surface, and their motivations were largely philosophical. There’s a disease raging across the surface world, a sickness that’s killing millions, and one of the series’ underlying debates has been whether that’s necessarily a bad thing.
I mean, on the surface, of course it’s bad. People are dying. But on the other hand, this is an over-populated near-future world nearing ecological collapse. A thinning of the herd might keep the world functional for future generations. It’s a question of big picture thinking vs immediate humanitarian impulse, and when Dept. H found a cure beneath the waves, the surface team came down on the side of the big picture. Using remote drone subs and leveraging their control of communications, they caused a breach and drowned Hari in his own lab.
I was almost disappointed in that solution, I must admit. I had twigged to it myself a few issues back, in much the same way that Mia did: considering all the personalities and conflicts involved, it’s the only thing that makes sense. But there wasn’t much in the way of real proof, so I set the theory aside. Even after she figured it out last issue, I still wasn’t sure that was the answer. I was expecting a confrontation this issue, after Mia fought her way out of the water. I half-expected her to surface and make her accusations, only to find out that Hari, coming down on the big picture side himself, had committed suicide rather than let the cure out into the world.
Mia makes it to the surface, and nobody’s there. Assuming (hoping, most likely) that everyone died down below, they left. So it’s just Mia, and the ocean, and the cure. And the decision. Does she share it? Or does she let the herd be thinned? In the end, that really comes down to Mia’s relationship with her parents. Does she follow her father’s pragmatism? Or her mother’s humanitarianism?
Kindt (wisely, but maddeningly) doesn’t say. He leaves Mia on the verge of decision, but doesn’t share that decision with the reader. But, you know, he may not need to. These characters and situations have been drawn so well that, much like the solution to the mystery… There’s really only one way it could go.
Which is to say… Whichever way each individual reader thinks it’s going to. If there’s one thing this book has taught me, it’s that everyone should find their own truths.
Cave Carson Has an Interstellar Eye 1
by Jon Rivera and Michael Avon Oeming
My favorite of the “Young Animal” titles is back!
With a new name!
And a new storyline!
But the same creative team!
And even more insanity!
This time around (as the title implies), Cave and crew are leaving the underground world behind in favor of outer space. The story starts with a visit to Cave’s old friend Star Adam, an extraterrestrial rock star who’s got a problem: his body is expanding to giant size, which means he’s soon to die. He needs to be taken off-planet, because when the time comes, he will implode, creating a dangerous, destructive vacuum that…
Okay, yeah. I know. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
GIANT. EXTRATERRESTRIAL. ROCK STAR.
Star Adam is like Prince and David Bowie rolled up into one! And Mike Oeming’s visuals are so psychedelic that I could sample just about any page, and it would look like a drug trip.
And Jon Rivera does such a nice job establishing Star as a character that his death is genuinely affecting, even though he was only introduced ten pages earlier.
By all of which I mean to say that this is a book that gets by on big ideas and visual impact. It FEELS right, even when the story runs off the rails. In fact, that wild, I-Don’t-Know-What’s-Going-On-But-I-Like-It thing is a big part of its appeal. So sit back, relax, and don’t try to make sense of it. Just enjoy the ride.
Kill or be Killed 17
by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
And at the opposite end of the fictional spectrum, we have this.
Which is not to say that Kill or be Killed can’t get kind of trippy from time to time, or that the artwork of Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser can’t be enjoyed purely on its own merits.
But Brubaker and Phillips work in (ironically) far more earthy material than the Cave Carson crew. Even though their lead character is a schizophrenic mass-murdering vigilante who sees demons made of shadow that make him kill people, his life and the murders he commits are grounded solidly in reality. And, as the cover above may tell you, the reality is that people with those kinds of problems often wind up in mental institutions.
And that’s the setting of our current story arc. It’s about Dylan (Our “Hero”) coming to grips with the idea that he might be crazy, and deciding that it maybe doesn’t matter. Because there’s this orderly, see, who’s abusing the patients…
…and Dylan just can’t let that stand.
And that, right there, is this book’s unique appeal. While Dylan is clearly insane (unless he’s not), and what he’s doing is clearly wrong (most of the time), you still have to pull for him, just a little bit. We’re inside his head. We know him. We like him. And the people he’s going after are sufficiently vile that it’s easy to think they deserve it. But that’s not how society works. And we know that. We know it. When we’re safely outside the situation, between issues, it’s easier to condemn him. But in the heat of the action, when we’re reading along beside him… The morality blurs. And every time we’re not horrified by him, we become, to some extent, complicit in his actions.
That’s messed up. But that’s the genius of this thing. Ed Brubaker is the king of Feel-Bad comics, and in that realm, this may turn out to be his masterpiece. For now, though, this issue just rates…
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses 33
by David Lapham
But speaking of Feel-Bad comics…
This is one of the more squirm-inducing Stray Bullets issues to date. And, if you follow the book at all, you know that’s really saying something. The story follows Kretch as he heads back to Baltimore to get the lay of the land following the havoc Beth and Orson have unwittingly wrought on Harry’s criminal empire. It works as a bleak mirror image of last issue, when Orson did the same thing and ultimately realized that he had to go back to Beth, in the name of love. That was about as heartwarming as this book gets. But there’s nothing heartwarming about this story at all. Because Kretch (being Kretch) meets the same people and does the same stuff, but he decides that Baltimore’s the place for him. In spite of the fact that half the town wants him dead.
We already know (from thirty-some-odd issues back, in the Killers arc, which takes place a few years later) that Kretch ultimately sets himself up as a rival gang leader. And this issue, we finally get to see the beginning of that.
But first, he’s got a problem to deal with. He’s got a bad arm. A REALLY bad arm. Monster pretty much shattered it a few issues back, and now it’s dead. He can’t feel it, or move it below the shoulder, and when he breaks the wrist trying to shoot a rifle (as pictured above), it’s pretty obvious that it’s not going to heal. So there’s nothing to be done about it now. It’s going to have to come off.
So that’s another issue in the fine Stray Bullets tradition, then. Insane sensationalism, coupled with deep character study and some of the finest long-range plotting in comics history. I know I say this every time, but… If you like crime comics, and you’re not reading Stray Bullets… You’re missing out.