Weekly Reading Round-Up : 03/10/2019 – 03/16/2019

First issues : they’re what we do around here. In fact, it seems like nothing else even comes out anymore. Here are four more from this past Wednesday alone —

Image’s Little Bird #1 kicks off a five-part epic of dystopian sci-fi (one that’s not slated to be collected in trade — which is remarkable given that’s how most Image creators get paid) with some Native American folklore around the edges about a child soldier on a post-apocalyptic Earth fighting on behalf of indigenous peoples vs. an oppressive religious totalitarian state. Screenwriter/director Darcy Van Poelgeest handles the scripting duties with superstar artist Ian Bertram of House Of Penance providing the illustration and colorist extraordinaire Matt Hollingsworth on hues. This opening salvo has terrific “world-building,” breathtaking action sequences, stunningly detailed art, and beautifully evocative colors. It also boasts a higher-than-usual page count, slick paper, and heavy-duty cardstock covers. A superb value at $3.99 — hell, just a superb comic altogether. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Also from Image in general, and Robert Kirkman’s Skybound label in particular, we have Assassin Nation #1, the opening salvo in a new ongoing written by superb-cartoonist-in-his-own-right Kyle Starks and drawn and colored by popular former Unbeatable Squirrel Girl artist Erica Henderson. A smart and fun “piss-take” on the “ultravioelnce” subgenre that focuses on the formerly number-one-ranked assassin in the world hiring as many of his previous competitors as possible to protect his own ass when he comes under threat,  we start out with 20 world-class assassins here (current rankings are displayed on the opening title page), but end up with a lot less after a gloriously over-the-top bloodbath. At first I thought that Starks, specifically, was punching well below his own weight class with this one, as he’s best known for both writing and drawing his own stuff, but I’m happy to say that assumption was entirely off-base as he and Henderson make for a great team and have produced a comic that wrings plenty of entertainment value out of each of the 399 pennies you’ll spend on it. Well worth getting in on this from the jump.

Writer Magdalene Visaggio is a positively ubiquitous presence on LCS new-release racks lately (we just talked about her new Oni Press series Morning In America last week), and while her stuff can be hit-or-miss for me, Calamity Kate #1, the first chapter in a four-parter from Dark Horse, was her most direct “hit” yet, offering a delightful mash-up of banal relationship drama (protagonist has just been through a painful break-up and is overstaying her welcome crashing on a long-suffering friend’s couch) with monster-hunting. This world feels every bit as workaday and bog-standard as our own, only there’s dragons and Kaiju and shit everywhere. The Girl In The Bay (another Dark Horse book I absolutely love) artist Corin Howell turns in more of the supremely confident and highly eye-catching illustration that we’re quickly becoming accustomed to from her in this one, and colorist Valentina Pinto eschews the flashy in favor of the wholly functional, resulting in a comic that looks every bit as good as it reads. Another four dollars very well spent.

Finally, DC brings us a cash-grab (and a $4.99 cash-grab, at that) one-shot called The Batman Who Laughs : The Grim Knight #1, a spin-off of the current The Batman Who Laughs mini-series which is itself a spin-off of Dark Nights : Metal. If you can keep up with all that, you’re doing better than me, as I couldn’t make head or tail of Scott Synder and James Tynion IV’s story about some “alternate universe” Batman who uses guns and spy-camera technology to not just “protect” Gotham City, but basically take the place over and prevent any and all crime by preventing any and all freedom. I wasn’t here for the story, though — I was here for the art, courtesy of the legendary Eduardo Risso and best-in-the-biz colorist Dave Stewart. Lush, cinematic, and gorgeous, this book looks like a million bucks, so I guess it was worth spending five on, but I wish DC would put this first-rate tandem to use on better projects than one-off continuity circle-jerks like this. Which, I guess, is my way of saying that this is a pretty shitty comic, but sure doesn’t dress the part. I can ogle over just about any page in this thing for hours.

And that should about do it for another Weekly Wrap-Up. Just enough time left to, of course, remind you that this column is “brought to you” each and every week by my Patreon page, where I offer exclusive thrice-weekly ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, it’s been a lot of politics. Your support there allows me to keep things going and also ensures a steady stream of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. Check it out and join up today at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 05/06/2018 – 05/12/2018

This past Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, but given that my main goal with these weekly columns is to inform you, the budget-conscious comics consumer, what’s worth spending your money on (or not), it seems counter-productive to waste much time discussing shit that you don’t have to pay for, so we’ll just stick with books that came out that had an actual price tag attached to them, with one (sort of) exception —

Lawrence “RawDog” Hubbard is back,  along with latter-day sidekick/collaborator William Clausen, for Real Deal #8, this time published under Fantagraphics’ auspices, and while the late, great H.P. “R.D. Bone” McElwee will always be missed, this balls-out extravaganza of urban ultra-violence is still pretty much my favorite comic book in the entire goddamn universe. This time out, psychotic hood antihero G.C. meets a Pacino-style version of the devil in Hubbard’s main feature, “Psyops,” while Clausen’s long-running backup strip “Planet Dregs” comes to a suitably nonsensical conclusion at the rear of the book. Yeah, eight bucks is a lot to pay for what you get here — but what you get here can’t be found anywhere else, so there’s that. Still, I notice the old “More Slaughter For Your Dollar” tag-line is missing from this one, probably due to the hefty amount of cash it now costs. The distinctly “low-fi” vibe this book has always had is still here, though, and that’s what counts — this is the sort of thing that looks and reads like the product of truly fevered minds who are only semi-literate and never took an art class, but are still bound and determined to expunge their demons out onto paper nevertheless. As raw, immediate — and, yes, real — as anything you’re gonna find on your LCS shelves this year. Or any other.

Moving on to stuff that’s actually professionally produced, Image released Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s Barrier #1 in two formats this week — as an FCBD offering (yup, this is that “exception” I was talking about), and as a five-dollar book with  heavy cardstock covers, glossy paper, and a few sketchbook “process pages” at the back. Both are designed to be flipped over and read horizontally, as they were originally formatted to fit computer and tablet screens when this series ran on the Panel Syndicate website, and much like this duo’s prior collaboration, The Private Eye, I find it survives the “transition” to an actual, physical format quite well, and that colorist supreme Muntsa Vicente’s work looks a hell of a lot better in the real world than it does the digital one. But enough about the production particulars, how’s the comic?

Vaughan’s script is more timely and topical than ever (this was released online “way back” in 2015), focused as it is on the clash-of-cultures that ensues when a Texas ranch owner and an undocumented Honduran immigrant are forced to trust each other after being abducted by an alien spacecraft, and while a good half the book is presented in Spanish without cop-out translations, Martin’s art is clear and clean and polished enough that you won’t have much doubt as to what’s going on. For a five-part series (that the creators have stated will never be collected in trade, so grab it now if you want it) the pacing is remarkably languid, but that’s by no means a bad thing, as it lends a cinematic sensibility to the proceedings with lots of close-up “establishing shots,” and allows for some supremely solid character development while utilizing very little actual dialogue. No “info-dumps” here, then, but you get a really solid feel for these people and the worlds they come from before they find themselves whisked away toward another one. I liked this book a lot — so much so, in fact, that I sprung for the $4.99 “deluxe” version.

You know what, though? Image wasn’t done with this series this week, and neither are we —

That’s because Wednesday last also saw the release of Barrier #2, this time priced at $3.99 (it’s got the same high-quality covers and paper, but fewer pages), and we’re gonna keep getting an issue a week for the next three weeks, until the whole thing’s wrapped up. This installment was every bit as good as the first (and every bit as bilingual, so get your translator app of choice ready if you must — although, again, I didn’t feel it necessary in the least despite the fact that I know just about no Spanish) and ups the “high-stakes game of survival” vibe considerably. Vaughan’s efficient, economic scripting suits the overall ethos of the series quite well, but who are we kidding? It’s Martin who does all the real heavy storytelling lifting here (with more-than-able assists from Vicente), and that’s reflected in the fact that, with this issue, his name actually appears first on the cover credits, as well it should. And you should — buy it, that is.

Last and least, we come to Sean Murphy’s Batman : White Knight #8, which sees this series — that I was rough on at the outset in my review on this very site — finally, mercifully, come to a conclusion. Most Bat-fans seemed to like this one, but I’m most assuredly not a Bat-fan, so I’m gonna lay out the cold, hard truth for you, which is that this comic sucked from start to finish. Yet another revisionist take on the Dark Knight Detective is probably the last thing the world needs, but this was dull, hackneyed, predictable garbage even by “been there, done that” standards. Yeah, Murphy’s art was nice — as is always the case — and Matt Hollingsworth’s color choices were spot-on if less than adventurous, but the role-reversal that started things off (“psycho” Batman, “good” Joker) is completely undone by the end (as you knew it would be), and what we’re left with is little more than an “alternate universe” version of Gotham City that now has been returned to a status quo very much like the one that prevails in the main “DCU,” barring a few largely cosmetic differences at the margins. So, yeah — all that for nothing, and DC adds insult to injury by having the nerve to charge $4.99 for this final issue simply because it includes a few extra pages at the end entirely devoted to setting the stage for a sequel that no one in their right mind would touch with a ten-foot Batpole. I still like Punk Rock Jesus more than I probably should given that on second reading you can really see everything that Murphy has hidden up his sleeves in order to pull off his various storytelling tricks, but this series was so effing bad that I think it’s going to be a good long while before I trust him in the singular role of writer-artist again.

And with that, we’re done for another week. The last few days have seen pretty full mailboxes at the Carey/Young household, as a number of cartoonists have been sending me their wares for review, so expect a focused column looking at some of the best of what I’ve received next time out. Hope to see you then!

“Batman : White Knight” Could Probably Use One

Since completing his widely-acknowledged masterpiece, Punk Rock Jesus, Sean Murphy (take or leave the Gordon as you please) has divided his time between projects worthy of his talent (The Wake), projects obviously unworthy of it (Chrononauts), and projects that could have been worthy of it had they not descended into onerous and heavy-handed diatribes against techno-societal problems that literally every thinking person is already damn well concerned about (Tokyo Ghost). He’s brought his “A game” to all of these various endeavors — he always does — but even stellar artwork isn’t, at this point, enough to save, say, yet another lackluster developed-with-both-eyes-fixed-on-Hollywood-exploitation Mark Millar “idea.” What we’ve all been hoping to see, of course, is a new book, in whatever format, both drawn and written by Murphy, since we’re fully aware that he can do both, and the moment has finally arrived with the debut of his much-anticipated Batman : White Knight eight-parter from DC. Plenty of reason to be excited, right?

So it would seem — unencumbered by “regular” continuity in these pages, Murphy should, in theory, really be able to cut loose in this comic and tell a hermetically-sealed story that plays by its own rules. What’s past is prologue, sure, but not an anchor here, and so in White Knight The Joker is definitively Jack Napier, Bruce Wayne is considerably more warped in the head both in and out of the cape and cowl, Gotham has gone to hell even by Gotham standards, and the obviously symbiotic relationship between the Dark Knight and his greatest adversary, replete as it is with barely-sublimated love, at the very least, perhaps  even a dose of homoeroticism (okay, forget the “perhaps”), is spelled out in plain language rather than “hinted at” as it has been more or less ever since the days of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum. And therein, somewhat surprisingly, lies the problem.

The basic premise of this “alternate universe” narrative has the potential to be intriguing enough on its own merits — Batman’s locked up in Arkham while The Joker is apparently “cured” and running the city, now how did we get here? — but Murphy is better than the borrowed gimmicks (a Frank Miller-esque “out of control” Batman, a Batmobile chase scene right out of Nolan’s first flick) and, even more crucially, heavy-handed expository dialogue that he leans on so heavily here. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo re-established the “love angle” between Bats and Joker in the “real” DCU both smartly and reasonably daringly in the pages of Death Of The Family a few years back, and four or five more pages of Joker extrapolating on it while Batman viciously beats the shit out of him while, of course, denying it all really doesn’t add much to the equation. Now, Batman admitting that he gets off on brutalizing the true object of his affections (sorry, Catwoman, nobody believes this bullshit that Tom King is spinning in the pages of Batman “proper” right now) actually would be a gutsy thing to put front and center, but we’re probably a good two to three decades away from DC editorial having guts enough to come clean that Bruce Wayne is a BDSM “top,” and so what we’ve got here, in a world where the standard — errrrmmm — standards needn’t necessarily apply, is one that hews depressingly, and for my money gutlessly, close to them anyway. Hell, you could make a solid argument that the various “Dark Multiverse” Batmen that DC is rolling out in all those no-doubt-lousy (I’m reflexively suspicious of all comics with holofoil-or-whatever-the-fuck-it’s-called covers, and therefore haven’t read a one of these and don’t intend to) Dark Nights : Metal one-shots offer more radically revised takes on the character than Murphy does here.

But, hey, a dull cop-out in terms of set-up doesn’t necessarily mean a dull story will follow from it any more than a really inventive and unique one is a guarantee of a great story, right? Unfortunately, when you peel away the Elseworlds-esque layer of this particular onion, there just ain’t much underneath it. Batgirl and Nightwing are alarmed by their mentor’s savage beat-down of the Clown Prince of Crime, sure, and they’re doubly shocked when he starts force-feeding ol’ green-hair a potentially-lethal dose of unknown pharmaceuticals, but they don’t really do much to stop it (nor do the cops), and they’re apparently ready to forgive him pretty quickly when they learn that Alfred has fallen into a coma and Bruce just hasn’t been himself since. Whew, there’s another moral dilemma sidestepped, then, I guess. I think I’m starting to detect a pattern here.

What I will give Murphy all the credit in the world (and maybe even four more bucks of my money since it’s probably good enough to get me to stick around for at least one more issue) for is the art. This is showcase stuff all the way, cinematic in its scope and page layouts, smoothly-flowing and just plain overflowing with energy, hyper-kinetic action, and expressive movement. Matt Hollingsworth’s thick, syrupy, melodramatic colors add the piece de resistance, and the end result is a comic that looks like a multi-million-dollar blockbuster shot by Wally Pfister or Larry Fong or one of the other top-flight contemporary cinematographers.

Sadly, though, at least as far as this first installment goes, the Hollywood blockbuster analogy seems pretty apt in terms of this comic’s thematic depth, as well. There are few pure talents (hell, if any) in mainstream comics as skilled as Murphy, so if anybody can rise out of an early grave that they’ve dug for themselves it’s probably him, but he’s going to have his work cut out for him. Right now, Batman : White Knight looks like nothing so much as a big, snazzy, and expensive version of “What If — Batman and The Joker Traded Places?,” and that’s really about it. Perhaps it’s terribly naive of me (okay, you can strike the “perhaps” here, too),  given the utter creative complacency so readily apparent in more or less all of DC’s publications these days, but I guess that I’d been hoping for — even expecting — a whole lot more.