BY AARON BLOCK

[At the end of each month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Read the explanation of this column’s name here. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]

Spotlight:

Superhero mysteries post-Watchmen (or maybe more specifically post-Long Halloween) tend to drag the central question of the plot over a dozen or so issues, doling out a clue or two every issue to string the reader along until the big reveal. These stories are fun, but the structure often feels artificial. By contrast, every issue in Grant Morrison’s five-year, multi-title Bat epic reveals scads of details about its central mystery without sacrificing tension. If anything, it’s the desire to put all of that information into context that propels the reader into each subsequent issue, and makes both Batman and Robin and Batman: the Return of Bruce Wayne the best comics on the rack every month.

This month’s issues (#15 and #5 respectively) offer the penultimate moments of their stories, each contributing further details to the story of Bruce Wayne’s “death” and time-travel trek back to the present, Dick Grayson’s battle against Dr. Hurt, the Joker, and the Bat-god Barbatos.Ryan Sook’s pencils for RoBW are gorgeous, but Frazer Irving’s muted colors and shadows really capture the midnight-in-the-graveyard quality of Batman and Robin. And the two-page spread where Robin single-handedly takes on the 99 Fiends nearly surpasses Frank Quitely’s work on this title in sheer adrenaline and fluidity.

Quality Reads:

Elsewhere in the Bat-world, Batman: Hidden Treasurespresents a stand-alone Batman story written by Ron Marz and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson in the late 90s, but never released. Why it was shelved is unclear – the story is slight but compelling, and Wrightson and inker Kevin Nowlan’s interiors are detailed but clear, and suitably gruesome. I imagine the market for an illustrated prose story about Batman investigating sewer murders is small, but I’d rather have this book available than mouldering in DC’s archives. Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton’s Knight and Squire #1features the British Batman and Robin analogues in a done-in-one story that’s funny, but doesn’t do much beyond introduce an entire cosmology of British superheroes and villains. Clever as those characters are (including Jarvis Poker, the British Joker) I hope the story kicks in next issue. Knight and Squire have too much potential to sit in the background of their own mini-series.

“Incorruptible” #10

Boom! Studios released two issues of Mark Waid’s Incorruptiblethis month, with art by Horacio Domingues in #10, and Marcio Takara in #11.Reformed villain Max Damage’s developing battle against a white supremacist cult is an interesting way to round out this title’s first year, which has been somewhat shaky, particularly in comparison to its sister series, Irredeemable. That book is certainly the most consistently depressing mainstream comic currently published, and this month’s issue (#18) isn’t stingy on the sadness. Waid reveals the story of one now-deceased hero’s massive betrayal of not only his teammates but the entire universe, and how it might also be the key to stopping the Plutonian’s rampage. Swallowing bitter pills like that month after month should be unbearable, but Waid’s guided tour of the worst humanity has to offer is artful, and populated with rich characters. And now that artist Peter Krause seems to be back on the book full-time, it feels appropriately weighty.

“Deadpool MAX” #1

I don’t really care for Deadpool, Marvel’s smart-mouth mutant assassin, but I picked up Deadpool MAX #1 because the creative team of writer David Lapham and artist Kyle Baker seemed irresistible. Baker’s exaggerated and detailed art is so perfectly suited to Lapham’s knack for violent and perverse but hilarious storytelling, I’m shocked this is their first work together. I wasn’t disappointed by this issue, which features several disembowelments and decapitations (as well as some strange gay panic jokes, which felt a bit tacky), but I wasn’t exactly won over by the characters, either. I’ll continue to read, if only to see how far Lapham and Baker can push the limits of the book’s “explicit content” label.

“Strange Tales II” #1

Marvel’s Strange Tales II #1 is the sequel to last year’s anthology of superhero stories written and drawn by “indie” creators. I’m fond of anthology titles (as in short fiction, the stories tend to pack an emotional punch, and its fun to read different storytelling and art styles in the same book) and I enjoyed the first volume, so I was eager to read this issue. Rafael Grampa’s brutal, heartbreaking vision of an aging Wolverine’s life as a kind of hyper-violent ultimate fighter is the clear standout (as is his gorgeous cover). A few of the other stories are fun, particularly Jhonen Vasquez’s tale of fandom gone wrong, Kate Beaton’s absurdist take on Kraven the Hunter, and Jeff Lemire’s creepy Man-Thing two-pager. But the rest are somewhat boring, or too abstract for my taste. Even the usually reliable Nicholas Gurewitch’s Galactus/Magneto gag feels uninspired. But it’s worth it for the Grampa story alone, I promise.

The other anthology title out this month, Vertigo’s House of Mystery Halloween Annualis somewhat more successful. The main story, by series regulars Matthew Sturges and Luca Rossi, introduces four particularly grim-looking young trick-or-treaters who stop by the House of Mystery and share their tale of woe—years ago a Halloween prank backfired, and now they’re doomed to wander through time, living in a perpetual Halloween. When an attempt to lift the curse backfires the quartet disappears, and the book becomes a mini-crossover event as they reappear in vignettes from four other Vertigo books. The talent assembled is impressive (Matt Wagner, Mike Carey, Mike Allred, Peter Milligan, Brandon Graham, etc.) and the stories are varyingly interesting (the Madame Xanadu tale is almost comically dark, while the iZombie story offers an interesting take on that book’s main character in her teenage years) but it starts to feel too much like an advertisement for the line. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does hinder the storytelling a bit.

House of Mystery#30closed out the latest story arc by showcasing Fig’s new reality-bending abilities and giving perpetually-bullied orc Tursig his moment in the sun. This issue suffered a bit from the absence of regular artist Luca Rossi, but Werther Dell’Edera (who happens to have the best name in comics) is a suitable fill-in. Writer Matthew Sturges continues to add to the mythology behind the House and its inhabitants, but has ironed out much of the confusion and meandering plot that plagued the first year or so. If Batman and Robin is consistently the best comic on the racks each month, then House of Mystery is the most underrated.

One-Shots:

Superior #1 was pleasant and fun, and proves that Mark Millar is capable of subtlety.

Brightest Day #11 and 12 succeeded by focusing on the most interesting character arcs and avoiding the dull Hawkworld story.

Untold Tales of Blackest Night #1 is what happens when you take the “deleted scenes” out of a collected edition and sell them as a separate product.

Jesus Saiz’s art is enough to recommend Zatanna #6, but this book can’t decide if it’s meant for all ages, or a mature audience.

Justice League of America #50 is James Robinson’s best issue in a while, and thankfully avoided his new predilection for awkward sexual innuendo.

The main story in DC Universe Legacies #6 is fine, but the back-up offers a genuinely funny spin on the archetypal Superboy/Legion of Superheroes story.

The Spirit #7 concludes David Hine’s excellent first story arc for the book, which has proven to be a worthy successor to Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed run.

Image Comics released issue #5 of Hine and artist Shaky Kane’s Bulletproof Coffin, which I’ll review at length when the series concludes next month.

Looking Ahead to November:

The epic return of Bruce Wayne, more Astonishing Spider-man & Wolverine, JH Williams III’s Batwoman, and the holy grail of modern comics, Absolute All-Star Superman.

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