So we haven’t talked current comics in a while, as the dangerously-high stack of unreviewed books here on my desk attests. I was going to launch into a round of quick reviews to catch up, but then I started looking at Brian Michael Bendis’ latest work, and got a bit carried away…
United States vs Murder Inc 1
by Brian Bendis, Michael Gaydos, David Mack, Alex Maleev, and Michael Avon Oeming
The relaunch of Brian Bendis’ Jinxworld books is now complete, and… They’re pretty damn good. I wasn’t sure how they were going to turn out, honestly. The last time I checked in on Bendis’ creator-owned work, I was disappointed. After a very strong start for Scarlet, for instance, it slowly trailed off into formula. United States of Murder Inc. launched with an overly-glib tone that made it hard for me to care about it, much less read it. Even Powers, which I had followed for years, had become mostly unreadable to me. That last one broke my heart a little bit, but that’s when I finally just gave up. Bendis seemed burned out, almost a parody of himself, and I stopped reading his stuff altogether.
But I did give him another shot when he moved to DC Comics, hoping that the change of scenery might spark a creative renaissance for a writer I used to enjoy an awful lot. And so far, that stuff has been pretty good. Though I continue to be annoyed by his big new Superman villain, everything else in the run is compelling and fun, in a way that Superman always should be but often isn’t. I don’t love it, but I’ve never loved Bendis’ work for hire writing. Except maybe Daredevil. That was pretty great. But anyway… I figured that if his Superman was that good, he might really return to form on books he cares about.
And to a large extent, he has.
Pearl and Cover, the new titles, are kind of like two sides of the same coin. Both are about artists being recruited into dangerous work, Pearl being about a tattoo artist becoming an assassin for the mob…
…and Cover starring a comic book artist who’s being scouted to be some kind of spy. Pearl is the better of the two, I think. It plays things a little more straight, anyway, and so far seems to have the potential for greater drama. There’s a whole organized crime habitat to learn, seemingly friendly gang bosses who calmly mete out torture as a lesson to back-talking new employees, the whiff of stupid, dangerous romance… Something in the tone of it puts me in mind of that Bendis Daredevil run I was just gushing about. It’s a bit more laid-back. Feels less like it’s got something to prove. But it’s in that ballpark, and I like it when Bendis works there.
Plus, it’s got some career-best artwork from Michael Gaydos that classes up the joint real good. Seriously, this stuff is beautiful. There’s a delicacy to the quiet character drawings that I haven’t seen from Gaydos before…
…and then the action ramps up into impressionistic layouts and day-glo colors (which are also courtesy of Gaydos).
It’s a little bit jaw-dropping, and definitely enhances the story. So Pearl may be the cream of the new Jinxworld crop. It has competition, mind you, but we’ll get there.
Because that competition doesn’t come from its kissing cousin, Cover.
Cover is a bit more comedic than Pearl, and the first issue doesn’t show me a lot of depth. Maybe it’s just that I’m more than tired of fannish in-jokes (and any comic about a funnybook-artist-turned-spy is bound to be packed full of them), but I don’t think I’m going to find the setting of this one as compelling. Still, there is some good stuff in there about artistic passions vs the reality of making a living, and I think that might ultimately make it something closer to Bendis’ heart. We’ll see where it goes.
United States vs Murder Inc, meanwhile, is the biggest surprise to me out the batch.
It’s an alternate history story in which the mob gained control over part of the US decades ago, and exists in an uneasy almost-truce with the government. As I said above, the original series left me completely cold. The tone was so glib, and the storytelling so haphazard, that I just couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the book. So imagine my surprise when this new volume (which I nearly didn’t even read) opens with a very human, very entertaining flashback story that balances its drama and its comedy with deft hands, delivering on shock moments that pay off because they’ve been set up properly…
…and ending on a cliffhanger that I already kind of know the outcome of, but still care about nonetheless. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of my reaction to the first volume, in other words, and it shows me that Bendis can still put an excellent comic together when he’s really on. Of course, the Mike Oeming artwork doesn’t hurt, either.
(This is Page One.)
It’s not as impressive as his peak Powers work, when he was designing the shit out of every page. But the looser, slightly more cartoony style he’s developed for this series is growing on me, and the odd color palette, though it takes a little getting used to, is working in the story’s favor this time out, as opposed to… just sort of being there in the original run.
So, yeah. This is very nice, very solid stuff. Maybe my expectations were just too low, but as of right now, this one’s in the running to be my favorite of the new books.
And that brings us to Scarlet, which in contrast feels a little shaky to me so far.
Scarlet is sort of a sister book to US vs Murder Inc. Instead of the US government being at war with a rival mob power that it’s co-existed with for decades, it’s about “The Second American Revolution,” which is kicking off right here and right now, and is motivated by a sort of idealism that’s alien to the other book.
I really don’t want to judge this series right away, though, because I loved the early issues of the first volume so very much. What made those so good was how real they felt. The stories of police abusing their power hit home, as did the frustration of dealing with entrenched public corruption. And then there was the subtle but inescapable sense that Our Heroine might be manipulating us, indoctrinating us to her cause with the stories she chose to tell, and how she told them. It was a fascinating portrait of civil disobedience turning into outright rebellion, with each reader as a potential new recruit.
Then the writing slipped a little, and so did the art, and by the end it wasn’t as compelling. And so far, this new series seems to be following more in those later footsteps. It’s made the turn from “real shit happening in our streets” to speculative fiction, and it’s lost something in the transition. It opens a few months or weeks after the last issue. Portland, Oregon, is in open revolt, inspired by Scarlet, her personal story of loss and betrayal pissing off and inspiring a generation. The city’s cut off from the surrounding area, and it’s starting to look like a Middle Eastern urban warzone.
Which is an interesting set-up, don’t get me wrong. I suppose that if Scarlet Series One was the American version of the Arab Spring, then this new series is the long fight that followed that initial burst of naive hope. “The Second American Revolution” ain’t a bad idea at all, and I could see this book going into some really intriguing places as the revolution spreads, and comes up against other ideologies that may not be as forward-thinking. Of course, considering that many think the Arab Spring has now given way to an Arab Winter, I shudder to think where Scarlet may ultimately be heading.
But in the meantime, I miss it feeling real. I miss that sensation that what I was reading could possibly be happening somewhere out there, right now. And I miss that uneasy feeling that I’m being manipulated. If anything, Scarlet seems more earnest now than she did in the beginning, and that’s kind of… disappointing. What’s on the page is well-done. It’s interesting. I enjoyed reading it. But it’s missing a layer. And that layer was probably my favorite thing about the book.
But we’re ending on a low note here, and I don’t really want to do that. This Jinxworld relaunch is quite good, overall. It’s Bendis, working with his favorite artistic collaborators, on stories they seem genuinely invested in. Even the books I’m less sure about are books that I’ll keep reading, because they are at least intriguing, and I want to see where they go. That’s a nice way to feel. Especially when I feel it about a whole line of books written by an old favorite I’d given up on. It’s nice to consider myself a Bendis fan again. Now, let’s just hope he can keep it up…