Weekly Reading Round-Up : 03/01/2020 – 03/07/2020

I’ll be the first to admit that most weeks these Round-Up columns are just my way of keeping up with what’s happening in the comics mainstream, and truth be told my “pull list” is so small compared to that of many of my readers that I often have a difficult time finding four books that I even feel like talking about. This week was a glorious exception, however — one of those weeks where yeah, I maybe spent a little too much, but I was reminded of why I even stick with the ritual of heading down to my LCS on Wednesdays in the first place. Yeah, we all know that small-press comics are cool, but ya know what? The “Big Two” and the major indies still put out some damn good stuff too, and this week they hit us with four first issues that are well worth anyone’s time and money —

I wasn’t necessarily expecting a whole lot from Strange Adventures #1, being one of those crusty holdouts who didn’t find much value in Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ much-hyped Mister Miracle (although I should state, for the record, that I found The Sheriff Of Babylon to be compelling — if gutlessly apolitical — reading), but I dunno : maybe it’s the addition of Evan “Doc” Shaner to the line-up, or maybe this team just has a better handle on Adam Strange as a character, but whatever the reason, this DC Black Label debut hit all the right notes for me. The overly-forced nature of King’s pseudo-“naturalist” dialogue appears to have given way to actual naturalism here, and the decision to split the art chores (Gerads doing the sequences taking place on Earth, Shaner cutting loose with the Silver Age stylings on the pages set on the war-torn world of Rann) is looking, so far, like a stroke of genius. Is Adam Strange a hero, or a war criminal? We have no idea yet, but I think I’m probably gonna be down to spend the next year finding out. Oh, and there’s a pretty solid Earth-bound murder mystery going on in the background, as well. This is how you do super-hero revisionism right.

The team behind the superb relaunch of The Flintstones is back together over at Ahoy with Billionaire Island #1, and not only have Mark Russell and Steve Pugh not lost a step, being unencumbered from corporate licensing considerations seems to be agreeing with them rather nicely. The premise of this near-future tale is that climate change is fast rendering the plant uninhabitable, so the super-rich are doing an “Alternative 3” type of thing (Google it if you want to go down an interesting rabbit hole), only without leaving Earth. Is this heavy-handed? You’d better believe it, but the billionaire class deserves every ounce of scorn that’s heaped upon them and Russell, as always, is a funny as he is topical, while Pugh, for his part, delivers the goods in workmanlike, highly competent fashion. I’m digging the political cover-up at the core of the story, and the reason our hero-in-waiting is out for revenge makes perfectly good sense in the midst of all the absurdity. I thoroughly enjoyed the living hell out of all my Wednesday pick-ups this week, as we’ve already established, but this may have been my favorite of the bunch.

I’ll tell you what, though, it’s got some stiff competition in the form of Boom! Studios’ King Of Nowhere #1, a phantasmagorically “trippy” tale from Ice Cream Man‘s W. Maxwell Prince and Matt Kindt’s frequent artistic collaborator, Tyler Jenkins. I have no idea what the fuck is happening in this comic, and that’s its’ great charm, as we follow the exploits of a drink-and-drug-addled loser who either wakes up a literal “stranger in a strange land,” or else doesn’t wake up at all and is having one hell of a dream. Lots of imagination on offer in terms of both script and art here, with Jenkins’ always-inventive illustration really capturing the look and, crucially, the character of my most enjoyable acid trips, while his wife Hilary’s watercolor hues breathe a bunch of post-psychedelic life into every page. Not only do I not know where this five-part (I think) series is going, I don’t know where we are right now. You may call that whatever you wish, but I call it exciting.

Lastly, Port Of Earth scribe Zack Kaplan joins forces with the criminally-underappreciated Piotr Kowalski at Aftershock for Join The Future #1, a pretty clear-cut and unambiguous sci-fi tale about “wild west”-style survivalist hold-outs trying to make a stand for the old ways in the face of encroaching terraformed cities that provide a life free not only of toil, but of any sort of exertion (physical or mental) whatsoever. The parallels between the Wal-Marts and Amazons of the world are obvious here — as is everything, really — but the characterization is great, the good guys are easy to root for, and Kowalski (who also drew this week’s Wellington #3 from IDW — I swear, we’re spoiled) just plain knocks it out of the park with stylish art and eye-popping futuristic design work. This one’s also slated to go five issues, and I fully expect to be on hand for all of them.

And with that we kick back and hope for another solid week coming up. Until then, though, please consider helping out this jobbing freelancer by subscribing to my Patreon site, where I serve up excusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Here’s the link for you to check it out :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 11/11/2018 – 11/17/2018, Three Beginnings And An Ending

This week, we take a brief side-step away from our usual small-press “turf” to have a quick look at four high-profile mainstream comics now available on your LCS shelves — three are alphas, one’s an omega.

The Green Lantern #1  marks DC’s latest attempt to revive the flagging critical and commercial fortunes of their premier cosmic super-hero, and while the sort of “back-to-basics” approach being undertaken by writer Grant Morrison and artist Liam Sharp may be precisely what the character needs (not having read a contemporary GL story is probably a couple of decades I’m really not in much position to judge), a dose of some sort of ambition would probably go a long way, and this book has precisely zero of that. It’s hard to believe that the same guy responsible for such thought-through and intricate mind-fucks as The InvisiblesThe FilthFlex Mentallo, and Nameless could be so lazy as to write a dull and hackneyed pulp-adventure pastiche such as this, but that’s precisely the case, as Hal Jordan, “space cop,” goes after some meddling aliens intent on using a quasi-mystical device intended to bring its owners good luck — and very little else actually happens. Liam Sharp’s art is flashy and reasonably inventive in terms of his page layouts, panel designs, etc., but if you check out Hal’s weird, elongated neck on the cover, you’ll see that human anatomy is not his strong suit, and the problem is only exacerbated on the interior pages, some of which actively border on the hard to look at. This comic has one huge saving grace in the form of the coloring by industry legend (for good reason) Steve Oliff, who not only hasn’t lost a step but is still a good few paces ahead of most who have followed in his wake, but the hues alone in no way justify this book’s absurd $4.99 cover price (DC having apparently decided to tear a page from the Marvel playbook and charge an extra book for debut issues with maybe 6-10 extra pages). I went in to this one not giving a shit about the title character but hoping for the best given that Morrison is still capable of some thought-provoking, thoroughly engaging high-concept stuff —  and I walked away from it still not giving a shit about the title character, nor what these marquee creators do with him.

Hex Wives #1 marks the debut of the second non-Sadman title in the umpteenth relaunch of DC’s once-venerable “mature readers” Vertigo line (now re-branded, for what it’s worth, as DC/Vertigo), and again, one issue is all it takes to let me know that what’s going on here isn’t likely to be of much interest to me. Writer Ben Blacker is clearly trying to author the next feminist genre hit, and good on him for that, but this story of a group of amnesiac immortal witches held captive in sham suburban marriages by the men who have been tormenting them for centuries seems like it’s doomed to run of gas pretty quickly, as these ladies would have to be pretty stupid indeed to believe that their husbands go to work all day while they stay home and clean, prevented from going anywhere by the fact that none of them drive, and that there are long-running forest fires off in the distance that make the prospects of ever leaving town seem pretty remote indeed. I dug Mirka Andolfo’s clean, smart artwork, but the point of parables is that they’re already obvious enough for a child to understand, and I fail to see how layering a few on top of each other is going to do anything other than leave readers feeling pissed off that their intelligence is being insulted by something this painfully obvious as far as metaphors go. I laid out $3.99 for this comic from may own pocket, and I assure you that I have no intention of making that mistake again.

Bitter Root #1 sees the reunification of the acclaimed Power Man And Iron Fist creative team of scribe David F. Walker and artist Sanford Greene, this time plying their wares at Image Comics,  where both gentlemen ( joined for this project by co-writer Chuck Brown) appear to have not lost their strides at all, as this “Harlem Renaissance
take on the conflict between a likable-but-eccentric family and the vaguely Hoodoo-esque monsters they’re tasked with protecting their city — hell, their world — from” hits the ground running and never lets up. There’s still a veritable fuck-ton of details to be worked out as things progress, mind you, but this is a prime example of how slipping in social and political themes can often elevate a work at least a little bit beyond its genre trappings, given that these characters’ real chief nemesis is bigotry and intolerance. Yeah, it’s about as unsubtle as the just-reviewed Hex Wives, but in the hands of a triumvirate of creators as accomplished as these folks, who are clearly firing on all cylinders, the tried and true can still seem reasonably fresh and exciting — as this comic does. So, that’s $3.99 added to my pull list on a monthly basis — maybe it’s time to balance the scales by dropping one title for each new one I jump on?

Mister Miracle #12 is our “omega” this time out, in that it represents the final installment of writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads’ much-celebrated revival of Jack Kirby’s venerable Fourth World escape artist, and while the comic is (as has always been the case with this series) quite pleasing to have an extended “gander” at, I found the story to be somewhat uninspired and would like to humbly point out that I called this out as “Mulholland Dr., only with super-heroes and the suicide attempt the beginning” way back when I reviewed the first issue — and whaddya know, that’s not a bad description at all when thinking about the series in its totality. I’m also more than willing to bet that this finale will be hard-argued-over in many a fan circle for years to come, and that DC will iron out where this story fits into their corporate continuity long before the question of whether or not it even “really” happened is resolved to the satisfaction of crusty, pedantic funnybook-obsessives the world over. For my part, I thought it worked reasonably well for what it was — but what it was proved to be more or less exactly what I was expecting. I generally found that I felt like readers got their four bucks’ worth out of each issue in this run, but if you weren’t following it monthly you’d d be much better off waiting for the trade collection, which I would imagine is only a short time off, rather than hunting down the back issues. As you’ve no doubt gathered, I was considerably less effusive with my praise for this title than a lot of other critics out there who absolutely (and, frankly, embarrassingly) fawned over it, but it’s not like it was bad or anything, and I’m looking forward to having the time one of these days to sit down and re-read the whole thing in one go with an eye out for anything I may have missed.

And so ends another week of comics reading. Next week’s column will focus on — shit, it’s late, get back to me on that.

 

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Series

Okay, let’s keep our best-of-2017 theme going here with a look at the Top 10 ongoing series of the year. A quick refresher on the rules : both ongoing and limited series are eligible in this category, as long as they meet a three-issue minimum. The idea here is to rank comics that are chained to a regular(-ish) production schedule, as opposed to those that come out whenever a cartoonist or creative team has the time and/or finances (in the case of self-publishers) to release them. Those books were all eligible (and, frankly, dominated) the “Top 10 Single Issues” list that I cranked out a couple days ago — and, as with that, this one won’t feature full reviews of each series, nor even ones that graduate to the “capsule” review level, just short summations of why I like ’em.

Sound good? I’m happy if you agree, and frankly could care less if you don’t. And so, with my “arrogant asshole” credentials out of the way, let’s get into it:

10. Doom Patrol (DC/Young Animal) – This book has seen numerous production delays, but whenever a new issue comes out, it’s worth it. Yeah, writer Gerard Way leans pretty heavily on Grant Morrison’s DP run for influence, but he’s not slavishly beholden to it, and Nick Derington’s art is equal parts classic and forward-thinking. The closest thing to an “art comic” you’re likely to get from either of the “Big Two” publishers.

9. Royal City (Image) – Jeff Lemire’s moody and slow-burning solo book is a little bit examination of a town that has seen better days, but mainly a compelling family drama about a dysfunctional clan that has definitely seen better days. A touch too mired in ’90s nostalgia for my tastes (news flash, that decade sucked — yes, even most of the music), but damn near pitch-perfect apart from that.

8. Dept. H (Dark Horse) – Matt Kindt’s underwater murder mystery is probably the most compulsively page-turning series going right now, and the watercolor-style hues provided by his wife Sharlene complement the atmosphere perfectly. I dunno how a book with a whole ocean to play in ends up being having such a claustrophobic feel, but damn if the walls don’t seem like they’re closing in on every member of the ensemble cast, all the time.

7. Black Magick (Image) – Writer Greg Rucka and artist extraordinaire Nicola Scott took a break from this one to work on Wonder Woman for awhile, but now they’re not only back, but back with a vengeance. Part police procedural, part Wiccan educational text (for the uninitiated, at any rate), this comic is like nothing else out there, and the rich, cinematic art will absolutely knock your socks off.

6. Mister Miracle (DC) – Yeah, this thing has been over-hyped to the hilt, and won’t seem anywhere near as “revolutionary” as advertised to anyone who’s seen a few David Lynch flicks (particularly Mulholland Drive), but Tom King and Mitch Gerads nevertheless deliver a smarter, more confounding, more complex, and more conceptually spot-on take on a Jack Kirby concept than we’ve seen to date — heck, I daresay The King himself would probably be proud of this one.

5. The Wild Storm (DC/WildStorm) – Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt have done the unthinkable with this series : turned Jim Lee’s gone-and-largely-forgotten relic of ’90s comic book excess into a thought-provoking, Philip K. Dick-esque, paranoid sci-fi political thriller. Crisply scripted, lavishly illustrated, and overflowing with key visual information in every panel, this is borderline-brilliant stuff.

4. Violent Love (Image) – Nobody bought this just-wrapped series and even fewer people are talking about it, but fuck it, that’s their loss. Frank J. Barbiere’s Badlands/Natural Born Killers/Bonnie And Clyde -style “criminals on the road” script is as fast and furious as they come, and Victor Santos’ art is the most stylish thing going in any “major independent” book, brimming over with ’70s exploitation grit and film noir cool.

3. The Flintstones (DC) – Truth be told, all of DC’s licensed Hanna-Barbera comics have been far better than any rational reader had probably assumed they would be, but this recently-concluded revisionist take on life in Bedrock from writer Mark Russell and criminally-underappreciated veteran artist Steve Pugh is clearly the best of the bunch — and, obviously, one of the best comics of the year. Spot-on social and political commentary that spares no sacred cows matched with wit and whimsy that’s downright charming, this wasn’t so much a Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty “re-launch” as it was a thematic and spiritual successor to Howie Post’s legendary Anthro. Utterly sublime, and hopefully a second “season” will be in the offing sooner rather than later.

2. Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics) – Los Bros. Hernandez have brought their series back to its original magazine format, and whenever a new issue hits the racks, all is temporarily right with the world again. Beto’s stuff is arguably at its most deeply self-referential right now, but rest assured it’s still great, and Jaime’s strips are aging so gracefully it’s almost painful to take in — seriously, Maggie, Hopey and co. are even more compelling at mid-life than they were in their twenties. By all rights this comic should have devolved into nostalgia and stagnation by now, but not only has that not happened, there are no signs that it ever will. Who are we kidding? This is one of the greatest comics not only of the year, but of all time. Always has been, always will be.

1. Black Hammer (Dark Horse) – Just when you thought super-hero revisionism was finally dead and buried, along comes Jeff Lemire and a majestically resurgent Dean Ormston (who had to re-train himself to draw after suffering a stroke) to show that you can move the most tired sub-genre of the most tired genre in the medium forward while writing a love letter to its past at the same time. This book consistently hits every note that long-time comics readers could possibly ask for, and somehow does so without a hint of either cynicism or irony. Capes and tights haven’t been done this sincerely since Alan Moore’s run on Supreme, and who knows? By the time all is said and done, this just might — I say again, might — prove to be almost as good.

Like my list? Hate it? Somewhere in between? Let me know! Certainly I had to leave a few solid contenders off, but as with the single issues, I’m really comfortable with my rankings — in fact, I had no hesitation about any of them, nor where they should fall. It all came almost disturbingly easy. Which, in theory, means I’m probably missing something really obvious — but I don’t think so.

Up next : the Top 10 Collected Editions (Contemporary) list, which will rank the best books presenting material from the beginning of the so-called “Modern Age” right up to the present day. TPB collections, comic strip collections, anthologies, webcomics collections, and the like are all eligible in this category, as long as their contents appeared somewhere else, either physically or digitally, first. I’ll hope to see you back here in a handful of days for that one!

 

 

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/8/2017 – 10/14/2017

Once again into the breach, as we take a look at various items that caught my interest from the past week, whether at my LCS or in my mailboxes, physical and electronic —

Baking With Kafka is Tom Gauld’s latest collection from Drawn + Quarterly, and I’m sorry to say that the shtick is wearing a bit thin. I gather that Gauld is viewed as something of a national treasure in the UK, and that’s all fine and dandy, but $19.99 for a collection of strips that have all been published elsewhere (most notably The New Yorker and The Guardian) is a bit much, unless said strips pack in quite a few laughs — and I’m sorry to say these don’t. I really rather enjoy Gauld’s minimalist style, but it works better for me in leisurely, longer-form narratives like Mooncop. Here he “reaches” for too many punchlines (most of which come up flat), and strains to be topical when his illustrations really aren’t all that naturally conducive to real-world “grounding.” A few years back his stuff really worked for me, but his earnest refusal to break from formula has strained my last nerve. If he does more original book-length work (notice how I steadfastly avoid using the term “graphic novel” whenever possible) I’ll probably check it out, and just as probably enjoy it, but as far as the collected stuff goes, this is the end of the line for me.

All-Time Comics : Crime Destroyer #2 is the second issue (duh!) featuring this character, but fifth (unless I missed one) overall in the line from Fantagraphics, and while I gather that the somewhat fashionable thing to do is to bag on this comic, taking particular note of its (obvious and apparent) shortcomings  when measured against Michel Fiffe’s Copra, I’m not at all convinced that they’re necessarily trying to do the same thing. Fiffe’s playing by exact self-imposed rules according to an equally exact and equally self-imposed schedule, while the principals behind ATC — most notably Benjamin Marra and Josh Bayer, who uncharacteristically aren’t joined by others on the main story here — seem to be making things up as they go along. Five issues in (again, unless I — ah, fuck it) ATC may have a fairly distinct look, but it still feels very much like a project that’s finding its footing. I can understand why lots of folks find that frustrating, but for me it’s exciting, because you literally never know what the next page holds. Too earnest to be labeled a spoof, yet too tongue-in-cheek to be considered pure homage, maybe we’ve just gotta finally take Bayer, Marra, and Co. at their word here and accept that what they’re doing is a fun, dumb, colorful super-hero line in the vein of late-“Bronze Age” Marvel. It seems to me that too many greater minds than mine are looking under every nook and cranny for signs of intentional irony here and, finding none, walking away a little bit pissed off. Excuse me, but — since when is lack of irony a bad thing? Is it so hard to accept that Bayer and Marra just like this kind of shit and want to try their hand at making some? At the risk of forfeiting every single “cool point” I’ve ever earned, I say this is “must-buy” stuff.

And since I’m busy dragging my reputation into the gutter, I might as well come right out and admit that I’m enjoying the hell out of Howard Chaykin’s latest Image yarn, The Divided States Of Hysteria. I’m sympathetic to every single concern that’s been raised about this book, but I respectfully disagree with all of them. “That cover” for issue number four was never gonna really hit the shelves, and offers no proof whatsoever of racism on Chaykin’s part — but offers plenty of proof that he learned a lot from the “B-“movie hucksters of his youth, most notably William Castle and Herschell Gordon Lewis. And that scene in the first issue? The one that was variously described on twitter by “concerned citizens” who’d never even seen the book as featuring “a trans woman being raped” or even “a trans woman being murdered”? It featured no such thing, and indeed depicted a trans woman (who has since emerged as the only thing even vaguely resembling a “sympathetic” character in this series) fighting off and killing her would-be attackers herself! Other, somewhat less hysterical, complaints said that it was the kind of scene that reinforced the “trap defense” that assailants and/or killers of trans sex workers can apparently (and sadly) still get away with using, but again, these gripes are equally misguided given that Chaykin explicitly takes aim at what an absolute crock of shit the “trap defense” is in his character’s interior monologue during the scene. I’ll absolutely grant you that this comic is every bit as ugly, mean-spirited, amoral, and confrontational as its critics charge — but that’s the whole fucking point! In any case, for my money Chaykin and master letterer/designer Ken Bruzenak are absolutely killing it on this title, and any of my fellow leftists who walked away from it (or, more than likely, never even gave it a shot) are missing a thorough-going critique of the private prison and private security (let’s just call ’em what they are, mercenaries) industries, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, racism, the so-called “War On Terrorism,” macho bullshit in general, and other noxious societal ills. It’s all about as subtle as a kick to the crotch, and it’s incredibly garish to look at, but I love it. The story ran in place a bit last issue, but everything kicks into overdrive here in number five.

On the “Big Two” front, the third issue of Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ much-fawned-over Mister Miracle hit this week, and while I’m on the record as saying I think that a lot of the hype is overblown, it’s still pretty damn good — and “pretty damn good” is worth $3.99 a pop, in my book. Orion’s in full-on “asshole mode” here, Scott Free learns he’s a hero to The Bugs, and Barda is just doing her level best to survive both the biggest goddamn cosmic war ever (this week, at any rate) and her husband’s neuroses. But, of course, the key question remains — how much of this is actually happening, and how much is all in Scott’s head? And speaking of heads, Granny Goodness no longer has one. Apart from Joe Casey and Nathan Fox’s criminally-underappreciated take on Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, this is the best of the Kirby revivals that have become a downright ubiquitous feature at the shops in recent years.

Okay, whew! Lots of heavy-duty opining this time out! Next week we’ve got a couple that showed up too late for me to get around to this time out that I’m really looking forward to, Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Sex Fantasy, and sweet-looking new UK sci-fi anthology Berserker. Plus whatever else strikes my fancy. If this column hasn’t landed me on your “shit list,” then I’ll look forward to seeing you in seven days!