So while I kept going off and talking about other stuff, funnybooks kept coming out. Weird how they do that. But that means the review stack’s gotten tall. There’s a whole month of Wednesdays sitting there, waiting for my attention. And THAT means it’s time for a quick round-up of all the stuff I’ve read in the last month (or at least everything that’s given me something to talk about). CAPSULEREVIEWSAREGO!!!
by Frank Miller
Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: this is far from Frank Miller’s best work. Frankly, I don’t see how it could be. 300 (to which this book is a sequel) came out 20 years ago (!), and Miller was a mature talent even then. Now, he’s 61 years old, and just coming out of a decade of heavy alcohol and drug abuse that shattered his health, warped his mind, and destroyed his personal life. And though by all reports he’s recovered… feeling better, thinking clearly, and energized about doing comics again… His dark days have taken their toll.
So this is late Miller. Diminished Miller. The writing’s not as sharp, and the art is so sketchy in some of the big crowd scenes that I can’t believe he considered those pages ready for publication. His obsession with the hard-man hero, the tough guy who sees what needs to be done and does it, is in full bloom, as is his penchant for horrible bloody violence. It is exactly what people have come to expect from Frank Miller, in other words, but more crudely-made.
Except, of course, for the small moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout. Parts of this thing look like Miller at his mid-90s peak…
…and other parts, especially in issue two, are downright beautiful.
There’s a general improvement from the first issue to the second, in fact. The artwork gets better. The writing gets smarter. The hard-man hero is still the right man for the situation, but a sly comment from the unidentified narrator undercuts his gruff leadership a bit, suggesting that maybe he’s a bit TOO eager to take charge.
Mind you, There are still ugly drawings throughout, even in the second issue. And even the good parts have a rough, art brut quality about them that is not going to appeal to everyone. But that visible improvement is still there, and… It’s almost like we’re seeing Frank Miller learn how to do comics all over again, page by bloody page.
And for me, as a fan of even his craziest and most vilified work, that’s really exciting.
But, hey! Speaking of creators who’ve not been doing such great work lately…
DC Nation 0
by Brian Michael Bendis, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and Dexter Vines
This was the best Brian Bendis comic I’ve read in a long time. The dialogue is fast-paced and funny, without feeling forced or too glib. He lets the reader fill in the gaps on the plot, and that work is rewarded with story and character moments that actually make sense. Unlike just about every other comic I’ve read from the guy in the last five or ten years, it doesn’t feel half-assed, or too cute for its own good, or any of the dozen other complaints I’ve had about Bendis’ work in the current decade. This was a good little Superman story, centered on the Daily Planet newsroom, and I enjoyed it a lot. Here’s to hoping he can keep it up.
(Oh, and yeah… There were two other stories in this comic. And they were fine, I guess. Well, the Tom King Joker story was, anyway. I didn’t read the Scott Snyder JLA thing, and probably won’t. I just don’t care enough. But I do care about the Bendis Superman, so… That’s what you get.)
Sex Criminals 23 & 24
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
As much as this is a comic about people who have sex and do crimes, it’s also a relationship comic. An honest-to-god, no-shit ROMANCE comic. For grown-ups. SEXY grown-ups. Who sex. Or at least find sex interesting to read about. But mostly, it’s about the relationships that happen around the sex. The relationships, and all the messy emotional stuff that surrounds them. And that, sometimes, makes it a brutal read. Much as Fraction and Zdarsky joke around (and they ceaselessly joke around), they’ve also made this a painfully honest book, one that doesn’t flinch away from its characters’ foibles, hang-ups, and pain. And because it’s so honest, and so well-written, sometimes reading about that pain… hurts a little. Especially in stories like the current one, which is about break-ups and rebounds and difficult realizations.
Note: THIS IS NOT A CRITICISM. This kind of writing is not easy. It’s especially not easy when you’re juggling it against science fiction and comedy. But that weird alchemy is what makes it work so very well, and I admire the hell out of that. Casanova remains my favorite Matt Fraction comic, I think, but Sex Criminals is almost certainly his best.
by Brendan Fletcher and Karl Kerschl
I desperately want to like this book more than I do. It is brutal and beautiful…
…and well-imagined, with an entire fantasy world in place around the story we’re being told. And I greatly appreciate the way they’re letting their audience figure out that world and its situations as they go. That’s my favorite kind of storytelling, and I usually react really well to it. But there’s something missing here, some small bits of connective tissue that would make the book read better along the way, and the lack of those hurts it a little.
It is gorgeous, though, and the story reminds me of something you might get from manga and anime genius Hiyao Miyazaki. So I will definitely be sticking around to see where it goes. It’s just… Man, I hope the basic storytelling pulls together. Just a tiny tweak would be enough to make this book sing. And I really want it to sing.
Doctor Star and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows 3
by Jeff Lemire and Max Fiumara
Holy crap but this book is sad. I mean really, seriously, count-your-regrets-before-it’s-too-late kinda sad. If Sex Criminals hurts a little sometimes, this book is a full-on bear trap to the testicles kinda sad. It’s also kind of awesome, though, in the truest sense of that word. Because alongside all the regret, we also get a full taste of heroic inspiration, as Doctor Star discovers that the outer space heroics that cost him his family’s love have inspired a whole legion (or perhaps some kind of CORPS, if you will) of space aliens who have followed his example and taken up his weapon in the name of justice. It’s awe-inspiring, and would be a real feel-good moment… if Our Hero’s personal life wasn’t so damned sad.
In one really interesting side note, however, the aliens tell Doctor Star that they’ve gained full access to the Para-Zone, and don’t seem unduly messed up by it. Which is fascinating in light of how very messed up that place has always seemed in the core Black Hammer series. Speaking of which…
Black Hammer: Age of Doom 1
by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston
Black Hammer is back! Much as I’ve enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) the side mini-series that expand on the wider universe, it’s good to have the main book back on the shelves. And it picks up right where the previous series left off, with Lucy (the new Black Hammer) telling Our Heroes that she knows how to get them all home. Then… she disappears, waking up in a dingy, run-down room above a dingy, run-down bar that I’m pretty sure is part of Madame Dragonfly’s house. But, hey! The Ramones play there…
…so it’s not all bad.
And, as long as we’re talking Jeff Lemire comics…
The Terrifics 3
by Jeff Lemire and Joe Bennett
I said I would give this book another shot once Ivan Reis was off the art chores. I didn’t realize that would happen so soon, but hey! It did, so I came back to give it another look. Joe Bennett’s our penciller this time around, and it’s immediately a better read. Suddenly the book isn’t choppy and nonsensical anymore. The action mostly makes sense, scenes flow naturally into each other, and it doesn’t feel like Lemire’s having to script around things that aren’t in the artwork anymore. All in all, this was a competent professional funnybook.
But it was far from great. Our Heroes fight a War Wheel, which is admittedly pretty cool, but the fight comes out of nowhere and goes right back to nowhere with little fanfare. It’s obvious that Simon Stagg let the thing loose on them (either to test their abilities, or in a failed attempt to kill Mr. Terrific), and I trust that Lemire will eventually pay off on that. But for now, it feels very much like an obligatory fight scene, tacked on to satisfy editorial fiat, and it distracts from the story rather than enhancing it. Which I suppose is my problem with the book as a whole: it’s not telling an exciting adventure story so much as it’s trying to tell a sci-fi mystery story that’s continually derailed by a series of brief distractions. Which I suppose could work, handled properly, but this feels pretty slap-dash, and that makes it an incredibly frustrating read.
by Eric Powell
In another welcome return to the racks, Eric Powell’s Hillbilly continues its Appalachian sword and sorcery adventures. This time out, we’ve got a horrific take on Hansel and Gretel, and some kind of magical Afro-Norse mythology being layered in to the wider world Powell’s creating.
As usual, I don’t have much to say about it, except that it’s right purty, and a lot of fun to read. And now, I’m starting to get the sense that there’s a larger story being told here than we knew. That happened in The Goon, too, and lead to some of my favorite Eric Powell comics. Here’s to hoping he pulls it off again.
by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark
And yet another favorite of mine returns from hiatus, this time having clearly been refreshed by the time off. Michael Lark turned in what might be the best artwork of his career on this issue, bringing an impressive new level of illustrative realism to his work.
Because you know what’s hard to draw? WATER. And holy crap, that’s some of the most real-looking water I’ve ever seen in a funnybook. I’ve always liked Lark, dating back to the first time I saw him, working with Dean Motter on Terminal City. But this is something else again. An evolution of an already-talented artist on a level with what Steve Epting did on Velvet. Beautiful.
The story’s good, too, of course, though it’s primarily filling in a gap, bringing a long-lost cast member up to the present-day of the rest of the series. But it’s also a nice tale of redemption, bringing a shit-heel of a character around to basic decency, and a perhaps-undeserved happiness. I’m sure that’ll all get shot to hell next issue, though. This is Lazarus, after all, and there’s a war on out there. Nobody’s safe.
Mister Miracle 8
by Tom King and Mitch Gerads
Another issue, another round of things becoming increasingly absurd. This time, Scott and Barda take turns staying home with the baby while the other leads the armies of New Genesis in the war with Apokalips. There’s also THIS telling moment:
No escape?! Scott Free is the GOD of escape! The god of freedom! So this convinces me even more that none of this is real. This is Scott, caught in Anti-Life… caught in the Omega Sanction… the Life Trap of Darkseid. He’s trying to escape, because escape is what he does. But he’s coming dangerously close to succumbing.
The real question now, for me, is… What happens when he does escape? Or, worse, what happens if he doesn’t?
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses 34
by David Lapham
Another fun-filled and utterly wrong issue of what may be my favorite current on-going series. This time out, Beth’s mom and Kretchmeyer’s junkie kid brother hit Baltimore in search of the missing Kretch. Then Rose and Joey get involved, which is always a train wreck waiting to happen, and Kretch’s brother faces temptation, and Lapham pulls another one of his fantasy double-blinds, and…
This review doesn’t make a lick of sense to anyone who’s not already a fan, does it?
But, man, do I ever love this comic.
by Donny Cates and Lisandro Estherren
While this book isn’t really my favorite thing on the stands, one thing you can’t accuse it of is stagnation. The second arc ends in this issue with shocking deaths and changes of allegiance, as well as what looks like the end of a threat that I thought would loom over the book for a long time to come. That’s good serial storytelling, then, applied to a fun (if ugly) vampire adventure that takes no prisoners.
Kill or be Killed 18
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
So I learned this issue that Kill or be Killed will be ending with issue 20. Which is shocking to me. Brubaker had indicated in the fairly recent past that this book would be continuing for a long time yet, and the pacing seemed to back that idea up. But we get a rather sudden escalation toward a finale in this issue, so I guess it’s really happening. Not that it feels forced, really. The police investigation into Our Hero’s vigilante activities just takes a sudden turn, as these kinds of cases often do, and that leads events more quickly toward an ending.
It’s still a good read with great artwork, in other words, so I really can’t complain.
I’m just… having to adjust a bit, that’s all.
I’ll get over it.
And, hoo boy! I’m swiftly running out of time, but not running out of comics. So let’s just drop into overview mode for the rest…
I greatly enjoyed the psychedelic prog-rock ridiculousness of Cave Carson Has an Interstellar Eye #2…
…in which Michael Avon Oeming brings awesome pop-comics design work to a story that might have become a too-obvious Star Wars parody in lesser artistic hands.
Likewise, I enjoyed watching East of West continue its long slouch toward armageddon with issue 37, which is about a futuristic super-cowboy, seekin’ revenge on them what killed his dog.
Issue 35 of The Wicked and The Divine, meanwhile, continued the series’ long tradition of shock and surprise, giving more tantalizing hints to the true nature of its core mythology, and revealing one long-standing lie that I suspect might have been more obvious if I’d been paying better attention.
Eternity Girl #2 continued to wallow in the existential angst of reboots and continuity porn, and I continued to like it.
I was impressed by the first issue of The Dead Hand, a new series from Kyle Higgens and Stephen Mooney. It’s about a military super hero of the late Cold War era, and the strangely isolated little town he now serves as its sheriff. It’s not great, but it’s good, and Stephen Mooney’s artwork has a nice illustrative edge that remind me a little of Tommy Lee Edwards.
In issue 8 of Mage: The Hero Denied, the story continued its slow forward motion toward what I thought the comic was supposed to be about all along. For a book that’s just past the halfway point, it sure feels an awful lot like it’s just getting started. But it’s a fun read, so I think I’ll just sit back and take it as it comes.
The seventh issue of Sean Gordon Murphy’s Batman: White Knight is primarily a shifting of the chess pieces, bringing everything together in the lead-up to the endgame, which we’ll see next issue. I’ve enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, though, and rumor has it that Murphy may follow it up with another story set in this same reality next year. Which I’m sure I’ll also buy, if it comes to pass.
The second issue of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s Gideon Falls finds it in a similarly in-between moment, with few new revelations, but some entertaining follow-up on the events of the first issue. There is one rather big moment late in the game, though…
…and it’s real scary.
Not at all scary is the tenth issue of Donny Cates and Garry Brown’s Babyteeth. And, I mean, you’d think about book about the newborn Anti-Christ would be a little scary. But it’s not, really. At this point, it’s turned into a glib sort of action-adventure thing, and that’s kind of disappointing. It’s not a bad comic or anything, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not at all sure I care about it anymore. I dropped it from my pull list at my local funnybook store a few months ago. And yet I still find myself buying the new issues when they come out. It just seems wrong, somehow, to leave it on the shelf. I dunno. Maybe, now that the initial story arc is over, I can see my way clear to jump off. Or at least just buy it digital, so the damn thing’s not cluttering up my house anymore. But I guess we’ll see.
Well. That’s a bummer of a down note to end on, ain’t it? But I’m afraid I’m out of comics, and…
Oh, wait! There was one more thing I read this month that’s probably worth a mention:
Mad Magazine 1
by The Usual Gang of Idiots
It’s a fresh start for Mad, under the editorial leadership of Bill Morrison (the man who steered the Bongo Comics ship for so very long). And while Morrison is bringing some fresh life to the series, it’s not all that different from what you may remember from your adolescence. The movie parodies are still being done in the same style, for instance, and they’re no funnier than you remember (though this issue’s Riverdale parody starts with a pretty great sequel to the classic Mad strip “Starchie,” so that’s something, at least). Sergio Aragones is also on-hand, returning to his old “Marginal Thinking Dept” gags, as well as a full four-page strip on harassment that succeeds in making light of a very serious subject. Peter Kuper, now in his 21st year (!) on Spy vs Spy, is here, too, and the strip’s just as darkly funny as ever.
But there’s also new work from Peter Bagge and Bob Fingerman, and Kerry Callen contributes one of his always-funny “Super Antics” strips with the Justice League. So this is a strong relaunch for one of America’s most venerable adolescent institutions. If I was 13 again, this might be my favorite thing. As it is, I’m just happy that it made me laugh. I’ll be picking up more of these, I think…