Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/08/2018 – 04/14/2018

Three first issues and a seven hundredth? Yeah, this oughtta be an interesting column —

Crude #1 kicks off a new Skybound/Image six-parter from the creative team of Steve Orlando and Garry Brown revolving around a mix of family drama and Russian oil business shady dealings, with some sort of vague-at-this-point mystery thrown into the mix to — sorry — muddy the waters. Orlando has always been an up-and-down writer in my estimation, but he seems to be more “up” here, serving us a script that’s heavy on the characterization and stage-setting. This may just turn out to be yet another revenge yarn, but those are fun if they kick enough ass, and all indications are that this one’ll do just that — and Brown’s murky, expressionistic art is more than well-suited to the proceedings. At $3.99 a pop for singles this might be one to “trade-wait,” but since I’m already in, what the hell — I’ll stay in. I really dig the intrigue emanating from this comic.

Also from Image this week we have The Dead Hand #1, a modern-day spy thriller with its roots in the Cold War and — hey, is this a theme? — the Soviet Union. Kyle Higgins has cooked up an immediately-absorbing yarn here with a ton of backstory to explore in the months to come, while Stephen Mooney’s art is stylish, sleek, and reminiscent of the best pulp covers, and superstar colorist Jordie Bellaire finishes things off with a polished set of hues that give the pages a very fluid, cinematic look and feel. This one impressed me a lot and felt like four bucks wisely spent — I heartily recommend getting in on the ground floor.

I was pretty underwhelmed by Unholy Grail by the time all was said and done, it has to be said (it started off okay yet ended up just being a kind of “Cliff’s Notes Camelot” with pretty pictures) —  but apparently not so underwhelmed that I was unwilling to give The Brothers Dracul #1 , from the same creative team of writer Cullen Bunn and artist Mirko Colak, a shot. Like their previous series, this one is a mildly revisionist take on ancient legend, is published by Aftershock, and has a lush, atmospheric, “Eurocomics” look to it. Fortunately, the story seems a bit more ambitious here, with an emphasis not only on the future Count Dracula himself but also, as the title plainly states, his less-heralded (and therefore less-notorious) brother. I know, I know, I was a little worried that we would simply be getting another Dracula Untold here, too, but so far that doesn’t seem  to be the case. Things could go south in a hurry with this book — they did before — so I’m keeping it on a short leash, but what the hell? I felt like I got a damn solid read for my $3.99 with this first issue.

Finally, then, we come to Captain America #700, an extra-sized (and extra-priced, at $5.99) anniversary issue that also sees the conclusion to Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s truncated “Lost in Time” pseudo-epic. I liked where this was headed — and, as always, loved the art — until the very end, when Waid takes the dull and predictable step of “retconning” the previous few issues out of existence. Cap’s back in our time like nothing ever happened — because, essentially, nothing did. And that’s kind of a shame, because what did happen (until, of course, it didn’t) was actually pretty interesting and borderline-relevant. Alas, it’s all water under the bridge now, Samnee is off to greener pastures, and I’m all out of cliches. Real quick though — the less said about the backup strip, the better. The art’s great — they dug out an old, unused Jack Kirby inventory story — but the script (and again, this is all on Waid) doesn’t match up convincingly with the visuals at all, and the modern computer coloring just bastardizes The King’s work. For a supposed “milestone” comic, this one should have been a lot better.

Okay, that’s me keeping it short and sweet for this installment, something I should probably try to do more often. I dunno what all we’ll have to talk about next week, but something tells me Action Comics #1000 will at least merit a brief examination, don’t you think? Catch you back here in seven short days!

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 03/25/2018 – 03/31/2018

I dunno why I don’t do this more often with these Weekly Reading Round-Ups — well, actually, now that I think about it, I do: there have just been way too goddamn many first issues to talk about lately — but I figured this week I’d check in on the relative creative health of a handful of series that I’ve talked up previously and see if I feel as generously pre-disposed toward them today as I did when they came charging out of the gate —

Ales Kot and Danijel Zezelj just released the third issue of their 12-part Image series Days Of Hate, and while I desperately want to still like where this thing is going given its timeliness, topicality, and superb art, I find the book hitting the same stumbling block that too many Kot-scripted titles tend to, namely : his story is becoming subsumed under the crushing weight of the points he wants to make with it. Nobody is more dismayed at the rise of “alt-right” nationalism and xenophobia than I am — fuck Trump, fuck everything he stands for, and fuck everyone who voted for him just for good measure — but here in #3, our dystopian premise already firmly established, all we get is a lot of talking heads droning on at length. And truthfully they’re not even talking heads, they’re eulogizing heads, as our dual protagonists blather on about each other — and the problems of the world at large — to either captive, or capturing, audiences, and regardless of whether their monologues veer toward matters personal or political, they essentially have the same lecturing, heavy-handed tone, and read exactly like the clumsy info-dumps they are. Zezelj and colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire do their level best to maintain reader interest with their visuals — no easy task given that this chapter mainly takes place in an interrogation room and a car, and the only “variety” to be found is in subtle facial expression and body language “tics” — but it’s ultimately work done in vain, as Kot’s dreary sermons literally suck the life out of every page. I have all the time in the world for political comics, particularly those of a leftist bent, but I’m giving this book to the halfway point to get something resembling actual narrative momentum going, otherwise I’m out.

Also from Image this week we’ve got The Beef #2, and Ales Kot should take note : if you’re gonna go the “un-subtle diatribe” route, this is the way to do it. Writers Richard Starkings and Tyler Shainline have plenty of points to make, none of them positive, about carnivores, xenophobes, spoiled rich kids, captains of industry, and cops, but they balance their politics with a welcome dose of absurdity, creepiness, and humor. This book’s not for everyone — how many comics featuring a splash page of the title character shitting his guts out on the toilet are? — but to hell with everyone : this is a comic for you, the discerning reader who can find a diamond amidst the degradation, the sublime within the sick. Shaky Kane is brilliant, of course — he always was, is, and shall be — but it’s the overall off-kilter tone of the series that’s really working for me at this point. This is dark, twisted, surreal shit that keeps you deliriously off-balance throughout. Yeah, they’re taking themselves seriously, no matter how whacked-out events get, but they leave it up to you whether you want to feel sympathy or contempt for their characters, whether you want to laugh or cringe at their actions, whether you want to burn your retinas out after reading the comic or go back to page one and start all over again. This is that rarest of books, the kind seldom seen since the heyday of the undergrounds — one that respects the intelligence of its readers while giving them a richly-deserved middle finger at the same time.

Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivela’s Abbott just straight-up rocks, and #3 ranks as the best issue of this Boom! Studios five-parter so far. Our intrepid reporter Elana might just be in over her head with this supernatural stuff, which is saying something because cool customers don’t come much cooler than her, but the revelation of exactly what the force she’s up against can do kicks things into another gear altogether — even if it’s essentially an occult-ish take on one of the weirder powers of the old DC character B’Wana Beast. That doesn’t matter because me, though, because near as I can tell, sheer originality was never what this book was going for anyway. I’m still absolutely digging the socio-political authenticity of the early-’70s Detroit setting, the street-level grittiness of Kivela’s art, and the expertly-crafted, downright meticulous mystery-novel pacing of Ahmed’s script — but who are we kidding? It’s the Pam Grier bad-assness of the protagonist herself that sets this one apart and above almost anything else on the racks right now. I dearly hope this thing is selling, because even though this is barely over half over, I already need a sequel.

And speaking of potential sequels, or lack thereof, I really do wonder whether or not we’re going to be getting more of Peter Milligan and Tess Fowler’s Kid Lobotomy. The ending to #6 definitely sets the stage for further exploration of this surreal world — in fact, it propels things into potentially-quite-exciting new territory — but with the guy who brought Shelly Bond into IDW in the first place, Chris Ryall, now out the door, I get the feeling that the entire Black Crown imprint might be hanging by a thread. I know they’ve got a couple of new mini-series already announced, and good for them, but this is a damn fickle comics marketplace these days, and anything can happen. I’m fairly certain that I’d like to see more of this comic — the story’s been up-and-down, sure, but when it’s worked, it’s come as close to achieving that ephemeral “vintage Milligan” vibe as anything we’ve seen in at least a decade, and Fowler’s art has been consistently up to the task of delineating the unreliable-by-design proceedings at every turn. It feels like there’s plenty more as-yet-untapped “high weirdness” ready to burst forth from these creators, and frankly this reads much better as a stage-setting “story arc” than it does a self-contained narrative. A number of characters were given pretty effing detailed back-stories here, and if this is the end of the road it’s going to feel like a lot of set-up for very little payoff. It’s all down to sales, of course, so hopefully the volume one trade does well enough that whatever fence-sitting may be happening on a corporate level is overcome. No,this wasn’t the smoothest six-issue run by any stretch, but it was fascinating and curious and idiosyncratic enough to make me hope that this issue is just the end of the beginning, rather than “the end” proper.

Aaaaaannnndddd that’s a wrap. Next week we’ve got — new Frank Miller? That could be such a disaster. Unless, of course, it turns out not to be — but the odds really aren’t in its favor, are they?

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/18/2018 – 02/24/2018

I’m utterly lacking in anything resembling a clever (or even a relevant) bit of preamble for this week, so let’s just dispense with the formalities and talk about some comics I read that you may — or may not, I won’t hold it against you — find of interest —

Vertigo founding editor Karen Berger seems to be in “full-steam ahead” mode with her Berger Books line at Dark Horse, with Emma Beeby, Ariela Kristantina, and Pat Masioni’s Mata Hari #1 marking the imprint’s third debut in, if memory serves me correctly, as many weeks (they might have taken a week off, I guess, it’s all a bit foggy at this point), and while this fairly nuts-and-bolts historical re-telling of the trial of the infamous spy/femme fatale presents a more sympathetic view of its subject than you’re likely to find from books authored by any of us goddamn men, it’s far from a pure piece of revisionism — which probably would have made for a more interesting read had Beeby opted to go that route. Not that her script is dull or dry by any stretch, but most of Mata Hari’s not-inconsiderable mystique is left to the artist to convey — which the highly-gifted Kristantina certainly manages to do with a fair amount of aplomb. Her linework is fluid, evocative, even downright alluring when it needs to be, and Masioni’s color palette is absolutely gorgeous. $3.99 isn’t bad for a comic that looks this good, but I’m hoping that the writing catches up to the art in the four issues remaining.

Meanwhile, coming our way courtesy of Berger’s former home we have Death Bed #1, and I was genuinely surprised by how much this one knocked my socks off. I figured Riley Rossmo’s art would be terrific, and it is — he’s got a high-energy, “cartoony,” frenetic style that lends itself best to “balls-out,” unhinged narratives — but writer Joshua Williamson is one of those guys who seems to have okay (enough) ideas that end up being hampered by his clunky, gramatically-deficient prose. Fortunately, he appears to have taken a quantum leap forward here, serving up a tale of a struggling female ghost-writer taking a weird gig chronicling the life story of an old-timer who claims to be the greatest adventurer that ever lived (even though nobody’s ever heard of the guy) that really plays to his artist/co-creator’s strengths and sets a highly agreeable tone of batshit insanity from page one. Ivan Plascencia’s ultra-garish colors provide the semi-psychedelic icing on the cake, and you know what? It’s actually very safe to assume that I’ll be sticking with this six-parter all the way through to the end.

Bet you never thought I’d be talking about even one Marvel book in this column, let alone two, but that’s just the kinda week it’s been. I don’t apologize, either, even if I feel like I should, because the sixth and final issue of Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov’s Punisher Max : The Platoon is seriously one of the best comics I’ve read so far this young year. These two have crafted some terrific Vietnam-based Frank Castle stories in the past, but this one seriously might be the best of the bunch. There were a fair number of plotlines running in this series that demanded conclusions that were not just satisfactory, but respectful, and Ennis deftly pulls it all off, while Parlov’s art, aided and abetted by Jordie Bellaire’s smartly un-flashy color choices, sticks you right in the middle of “the shit.” Ennis-scripted war comics are pretty much always good, but this one has been well over and above from start to finish — and speaking of the finish, the last page here might even leave a lump in your throat. Who saw that coming? Best news of all, though, is that Ennis’ love for this character has apparently been re-kindled, and this team is planning on at least a couple of follow-ups in the near future. Bring ’em on.

Last — and, in this case, least — we come to Black Panther Annual #1, a waste of five bucks if ever there was one. Here’s the thing, though : it probably shouldn’t have been. Certainly the comics-reading public would jump all over a really good, stand-alone Black Panther comic right now, and this anthology collection of three stories written by his most celebrated scribes would, on paper, seem to fit the bill — but one way or another, they all come up short.

The allure of a brief follow-up to the legendary “Panther’s Rage” storyline by that epic’s author, Don McGregor, is what drew me in, but his story here is lackluster and exposition-heavy and is frankly only worth spending some time on for Daniel Acuna’s art. Spoiler alert : T’Challa’s former love interest, Monica Lynne, dies in this one, but all the deliriously purple McGregor prose in the world can’t seem to coax an emotional reaction that should, by all rights, be pretty easy to achieve. Meanwhile, Reginald Hudlin just tosses off a dull recap of his years on the book that’s accompanied by equally-uninspired Ken Lashley illustration, and Christopher Priest does his best (which is actually pretty damn good) with his too-short yarn centered on CIA agent Everett K. Ross, but artist Mike Perkins’ low-rent riff on Lee Bermejo really lets the side down. This story should have been given a lot more room to breathe — hell, give it the whole book — and it should have been drawn by someone else.

One thing worthy of note : McGregor at least has the decency to dedicate his and Acuna’s story to original “Panther’s Rage” artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham — and that’s more recognition than they receive from Marvel in the new Black Panther film, where neither of their names even appear in the long laundry-list of “thanks-you” credits at the end. Let’s hope that this glaring and inexcusable oversight is corrected in time for the home video release.

Okay, that’ll do it for this time around. Next week don’t we have a new Shaky Kane book coming out? I think we do. That alone should make a trip to the comic store worth it. Join me back here in seven days when we take a look at that, as well as whatever else strikes my fancy. Hope to see you then!

A Parable For The Now : “Days Of Hate” #1

Fair enough, Ales Kot and Danijel Zezelj’s new Image Comics 12-parter, Days Of Hate, is set at some unspecified (though we know it’s post-2020) future date, but who the hell are we kidding? The story (or “chapter,” as the back cover would have it) title of this debut issues is “America First,” so that pretty much tells you all you need to know right there. In case you’re unsure as to the (entirely justified) target of these creators’ wrath, though,  some overly-expository dialogue over the course of the opening pages makes it clear, and after that any MAGA douchebag still reading has only themselves to blame if their blood pressure goes up a few points. This is obviously a dystopian, nationalist, fascist future with its roots very firmly in the present day. I like most of Kot’s other work (although his most intriguing project, Material, was abandoned at a frustratingly early juncture), most of Zezelj’s, and I hate Trump’s festering, fat, decrepit old racist guts, so what the hell — I was sold on giving this book a try from the outset. Now — does it give me good reason to stick around?

Comparisons to Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta are sure to flow freely in discussions of this comic, and rightly so, but the premise has certainly been tweaked to make it seem more plausible to contemporary audiences — yeah, the assholes were elected into office in Days just as they were in V, but this is taking place in the US rather than Britain, people seem to have an active “resistance” going already, and there hasn’t been a nuclear war (that we know of yet, at any rate). Kot also seems to be splitting his (and, by extension, our) attention between two protagonists, as well, one of whom is on the side of the angels, one the devils, who share a tragic past and now find themselves on opposite sides of the struggle to either overthrow, or preserve and expand the power of, the state for reasons reasons that are more personal than political — at least on the surface.

You could draw some quick stylistic parallels between Zezelj’s art and Lloyd’s in terms of its darkness, its grittiness, its “lived-in” look and feel, but to be honest I think the illustration in this book has a stylistic lineage that can be more directly traced back to Bernard Krigstein than anyone else with its angularity, its cinematic scope and movement, its inventive and off-kilter “camera” focus. Its stunning to look at — every bit as stunning as Zezelj’s work on the similarly-themed Starve, if not moreso — and suits the script to a proverbial “T,” but again, it does invite almost as much comparison to V as does the script.

But hey, what of it? If you’re gonna draw inspiration from something, it may as well be from the best. I don’t think we’re going to get anything like an equal-parts-intellectual-and-heartfelt anarchist polemic in this comic in issues to come — Kot seems at least as concerned with the “micro” realities of his characters’ daily lives as he is with the “macro” outlines of his world’s socio-political system and potential responses to same — but at some point we’ll hopefully get more than a vague and amorphous struggle for whatever passes for “freedom” from this conflict of philosophical should-be-absolutes.

Another trope I’d love to see Kot crib from Moore to one degree or another would be the inclusion of a critical examination of the motives and methodologies of his ostensible “heroes,” as well. If you’re taking on a well-nigh-insurmountable authoritarian apparatus, it only stands to reason that you’ll need to resort to some desperate measures, and not all of those measures are going to be entirely palatable to the average functioning human conscience. Kot’s fairly wide-open premise leaves the door open for this kind of de facto self-analysis, so there’s no reason not to go down this road, and it would, in fact, be a pretty massive cop-out to avoid it altogether. So I’m curious to see what develops in that regard.

And hey, I’m curious to see where his pair of antagonists goes, as well. They’re drawn in broad-stroke generalities typical of a first issue here, but there’s enough “meat” on their character “skeletons” to establish intrigue, perhaps even a sense of compassion. The victim of the duo being aligned with the bad guys, the aggressor with the good isn’t an entirely original narrative twist, I’ll grant you that, but it’s still a good one, and if the plot is structured in such a manner so as to maximize the impact of  forthcoming revelations and story “beats,” this could shape up to be a page-turning read, as well as one that makes you think. Here’s to hoping, right?

Jordie Bellaire’s colors are also very worthy of both a mention and a nod here, accentuating mood and “coating” various scenes with variations on single hues (most notably reds and browns) to give pages a uniformly, and suitably, post-modern (fuck, nearly post-apocalyptic) look and feel. Zezelj’s stylized, idiosyncratic line art literally demands an equally-unique color palette be applied to it in order to bring out, even multiply, its strengths, and Bellaire — as, let’s face it, she always does — certainly delivers on that score.

All told, then, I felt like I got my four bucks’ worth out of Days Of Hate #1 — it’s tremendously unsubtle, sure, but the threat posed by Trump, his fascist (sorry, “alt-right”) cohorts, and their congressional enablers isn’t exactly nuanced, or even debatable, at this point. Things are gonna get a hell of a lot worse if we don’t get serious about fighting back en masse, and far as cautionary fables as to where things will be headed if we don’t are concerned, it seems Kot and Zezelj may just be cooking up a doozy.