Mainstream Comics Worth Paying Attention To : “Billionaire Island”

Count me among those who were more than a bit unimpressed with Second Coming, the highly-touted series from writer Mark Russell and artists Richard Pace and Leonard Kirk that was scuttled at Vertigo due to its purported “sacrilegious” content before finding a new home at Ahoy Comics. Far from taking any sort of pot-shots at organized religion, the “Jesus-meets-Superman-analogue” premise actually reinforced tired Christian dogma at the end of the day and Russell’s usually-sharp satirical wit was uncharacteristically blunted by a chickenshit desire to play it safe and offend as few people as possible. Hell, by the time all was said and done, this was such a milquetoast offering that even the most fervent evangelical nutcase wouldn’t find much worth objecting to in it apart from some vaguely liberal “be kind to one another” politics. And let’s remember — evangelicals claim to believe in that sort of thing themselves, even though their actions frequently indicate otherwise.

So, yeah, when I heard Russell was doing another project with Ahoy I was kinda “ho-hum” about the whole thing. But when I heard he was going to once again be teaming up with his collaborator on the brilliant DC re-launch of Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintsones, versatile veteran artist Steve Pugh, and that their new four-issue series, Billionaire Island, was going to be wearing its “class war” politics on its sleeve — well, suddenly I became very interested. And to date, that interest has been handsomely rewarded.

So, our setting is the near future, where one asshole billionaire (is there any other kind?) has set up an offshore “tax haven” island for other asshole billionaires to live out their lives in even more ease and luxury than they enjoy today, while the rest of the world effectively toils away at cleaning up the mess this wealth disparity has created. Fortunately for us, there’s an undercover hero looking to bring the island down — but unforuntely for her, others have tried to expose the evil and corruption afoot on the island before, and they’re still trapped there. And she’s about to get to know them all very well.

Russell is back in prime form with this one, balancing his razor-barbed class critique with a light, humanizing touch of humor, and throwing nifty ideas (like a net-worth screening device at the island’s airport) at readers at a mile-a-minute pace. There’s a lot to keep up with conceptually, but the story is about as straightforward as it gets, and quite a bit of fun, to boot, sending up any number of “reality” TV tropes as it goes. If you don’t like this, then you don’t like having a good time, plain and simple.

Either that, of you’re a right-winger, and odds are that if you fit that unfortunate description, you already gave up on this site a long time ago. But honestly, I think that anybody of any political leaning would find something in here worth both chuckling at and thinking about, given that it’s all presented without any sort of preachiness or sanctimony, with Russell opting instead to confidently just work his point of view into the metaphorical “DNA” of his premise and take it from there. That’s how you craft a good story and blunt any criticism of it all in one fell swoop.

As for Pugh, he plays it fairly straight and it works — his lines are clean, his facial expressions and body language are exaggerated just enough, and his “slick” illustrations do a great job of both conveying and parodying OTT excess. This is the whole package, and with two issues down and two left to go I can already tell we’re looking at something both timely and memorable here.

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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 : 12/31/2017 – 01/06/2018

Happy New Year everyone, hope your 2018 got off to a rousing start, certainly the comic-book world seems primed to have a good year if the way things have started off is any indication —

It’s no secret to anyone following my writing, here or elsewhere, that DC’s line of licensed Hanna-Barbera comics has been something I’ve been singing the praises of pretty much since they made their debut nearly two years back, and trust me when I say that no one’s more surprised about that than I am given that most of these cartoons hold precisely zero nostalgic value for me and the overwhelming majority of DC’s publishing output is creatively worthless. Still, the free reign they’ve been giving to some of their best freelancers to “re-imagine” these moribund properties has paid off big time, and to date the absolute cream of the crop has been Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s The Flintstones, a 12-issue examination of decidedly modern social, economic, and political challenges filtered through a disarmingly charming pre-historic lens that offered some of the most smart, hilarious, and heartwarming stuff we’ve seen in any “Big Two” comic in, quite literally, years. In my “Top 10” ongoing series column of last year (okay, that still only means last month) I said that more than a simple Bedrock redux the book was actually a spiritual heir to Howie Post’s sublime Anthro, and I stand by that claim 100%. I was genuinely sad to see it come to an end. And yet —

Russell quickly transitioned over to another Hanna-Barbera book, and if anything, Exit Stage Left : The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1 is an even stronger debut than The Flintstones #1 was. The set-up here is as obvious as it is genius : Snagglepuss is essentially Tennessee Williams, a celebrated gay playwright in the repressive early 1950s, and draping his exploits against the backdrop of HUAC and the “Red Scare” both grounds events in historical reality (even if a few liberties are taken) and offers the chance for cameos from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman to actually work within the context of the story rather than being mere attention-grabbers. The scene at the start of a couple out for a big night on the town ends up having a decidedly “gallows humor” punch-line to it at the end when it turns out that they’re dressed to the nines to witness the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, so yeah, as always, Russell is pulling no punches here and wearing his politics right on his sleeve — and I say good for him, and fuck the small handful of square right-wing “critics” who have been trashing this book online. This is a comic with a heart as big as its brain and if you don’t like stories that present an actual point of view, shoot — there are roughly a hundred other DC books for you to choose from this month that are cowed, derivative, completely vapid slug-fests. Go read any of them. Hell, go read all of them. Let those of us who actually value relevance enjoy this rare foray into it from a major publisher. And hey, icing on the cake — the book looks great, too. Penciller Mike Feehan draws with a clean line that’s a nice blend of “cartoony” and realistic, inker Mark Morales does a faithful job on embellishments, and superstar colorist Paul Mounts utilizes a lavish, multi-toned palette that makes every panel look like a million bucks. Not only is it a fairly safe bet that DC won’t put out a better book this year, it’s a fairly safe bet that very few comics, period, will be this good. I’m bummed it’s only scheduled for a six-issue run, but heck — I’m ecstatic that it even exists at all. Proof positive that great things can still emerge from highly unlikely sources, and the best four bucks you’ll spend this week, if not this month. Shit, maybe even this year.

And yeah, it just occurred to me that I may end up eating those words, but you know what? I kind of doubt it. I know I’m probably losing a ton of credibility in the eyes of a lot of people I respect by saying this, but I have to call ’em like I see ’em, and Exit Stage Left : The Snagglepuss Chronicles is straight-up brilliant. And that’s a term I never use lightly.

Keeping our “Big Two” theme going, we also got the second issue of Ed Piskor’s X-Men : Grand Design this past Wednesday, and for my money (specifically, for my $5.99) it’s every bit as good as the first, maybe even moreso, as we dive pretty deeply into the some of the weirdest areas of X-history (Lucifer and all that) this time out. The story here is way more involving than a historical re-hash should be, the art’s terrific, the colors are eye-popping, the book’s production values are first-rate, and it’s more than fair to say this big experiment from Marvel has absolutely paid off. Piskor will be back this summer for his second go-’round (likewise comprised of two over-sized — and no doubt jam-packed — issues), and you’d better believe I’m counting down the days already.

Alright, let’s get to the small press since that’s still, in theory, what this site’s all (okay, mostly) about : I got a copy of Simon Hanselmann’s 16-page newsprint broadsheet Performance this past week, and this thing is absolutely gorgeous. Clocking in at a whopping 15″x 22.75″, this selection of exquisite full-color gallery paintings of Megg, Mogg, Owl, Werewolf Jones, Booger and the gang showcases Hanselmann at his best, and couldn’t come at a better time considering that I number myself among those who think that his shtick has gotten more than a bit stale as the years have gone on. Maybe the fact that this is an “all-art” publication that features none of his repetitious, dead-end “stories” is just what I needed to remind me of why I initially loved his stuff so much seven or eight (or whatever) years ago? I dunno, but whatever the case may be, this is as pleased as I’ve been with a Hanselmann project at any point since Megahex first came out. Yeah, I still think it’s well past time that he tried his hand at something new, but unless and until that day comes, this is $8.00 very well spent. Get it from the publisher, Floating World Comics, at http://floatingworldcomics.com/shop/comic-books/performance-by-simon-hanselmann

I got on the Eric Kostiuk Williams train late, first encountering his work in his late-2016 Retrofit/Big Planet release Babybel Wax Bodysuit, and I’m getting to his newest offering — the Koyama Press-published Condo Heartbreak Disco — late as well, given that I guess it actually came out a few months ago. Well, sorry, but I didn’t buy a copy until the other day — but fortunately, it was worth the wait, even if I didn’t know I was waiting for it. At 48 pages of story and art it’s probably not fair to call this a “graphic novel” per se, but it’s nevertheless a dense (visually and narratively) story, centered around “purveyors of socially-motivated revenge and personal guidance” Komio and The Willendorf’s Braid as they attempt to save Toronto from an onslaught of high-end “luxury” housing that is, quite literally, decimating once-vibrant neighborhoods and communities. A decidedly camp-infused and “snarky” anti-gentrification fable/superhero parody mix, this book is illustrated in Williams’ highly fluid (hell, borderline anarchic), richly-detailed style, and his page layouts are as incredibly inventive and free-flowing as his plot — or, for that matter, his protagonists’ identities. Things happen at full-throttle speed here, but the eye is guided through the pages in such a graceful, naturalistic manner that you won’t even know that you’re not being given time to catch your breath, and for a book centered around buildings and structures, it sure feels — and looks — incredibly organic. Yeah, I lament the fact that Williams is working is black and white here since he’s one of the strongest cartoonists out there when it comes to his use of color, but that’s a small gripe in the scheme of things when art and story both are this unique and confidently-realized. Cover price is ten bucks, but I wouldn’t feel bad about paying twice that, truth be told, and it’s not too hard to find it from unnamed major online retailers for even less.

Okay, that’s the first week of 2018 down! See you all in seven short days as we go over whatever week two has — or, by then, had — in store!

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!