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. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]

Spotlight:

Strange Tales II #2

Gathering top-level writers and artists for an anthology title doesn’t always guarantee positive results. DC’s 2009 experiment Wednesday Comics was always interesting, but proved that even veteran creators sometimes struggle in an unfamiliar format. It’s doubly satisfying, then, that the all-star lineup behind Marvel’s Strange Tales II #2 delivers nine excellent stories, some funny and some touching, all evidence of a strong connection to the history of these characters.

This issue kicks off with Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, playing to their respective strengths with off-beat retro tales. Gilbert’s story features an odd Silver Age team-up of Iron Man and Toro, the original Human Torch’s kid sidekick, while Jaime (who also drew this month’s cover) delivers a beach movie pastiche that combines his love of clever, confident female characters, rock and roll, and sight gags. Jeffrey Brown refigures the psychodrama of the Claremont/Smith-era X-men as contemporary roommate politics, and Tony Millionaire’s trademark surreal humor sees the Mighty Thor as a pickled herring salesman who faces off against Mud-O and Can-Man in an amusement park. My favorite story of the issue, however, is Farel Dalrymple’s take on the first encounter between Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer, which features a page that should resonate with anyone (like me) who pored over How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way as a kid.

It’s no coincidence that the only sour note, Sheldon Vella’s incoherent heavy metal action short, is also the only story that isn’t embedded in a specific corner of Marvel history (as far as I can tell). Collections like this succeed when the creators have some genuine affection for the material, and aren’t just slumming it in the mainstream.

Quality Reads:

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1

Nick Spencer and CAFU’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 re-launches the classic DC Comics property with an espionage flavor that owes at least a little debt to The Wire. Spencer introduces the core concept (a secret agency turns desperate people into superheroes, with the caveat that their new-found powers will eventually kill them) quickly, and covers a lot of ground by introducing only bits and pieces of the various plots and subplots that drive the story. CAFU delivers an affecting action sequence in the middle of the book that also features one of the issue’s two big twists. This isn’t the kind of book I would usually expect to last long, but the buzz around this issue gives me hope that we’ll get at least a full year of it.

Last month I wrote about the depressive appeal of Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, a quality evident even in the action-heavy parts of the story. This month’s issue offers a victory for the book’s heroes, but in Irredeemable even victory is twisted and unsettling. For eighteen issues former hero The Plutonian has torn apart his adopted planet, terrorized the innocent and guilty alike, killed friends and former teammates, and set himself up as humanity’s judge. But Waid makes a bold move in issue nineteen, offering a twist ending that completely changes the focus of the book and defies all the standard rules of superhero storytelling. Irredeemable had a solid first year, but the second year is shaping up the be the arc that really defines the book’s “nothing sacred” approach.

The Spirit #8 begins a new story arc, with the Spirit investigating the death of ne’er-do-well Jimmy Bauhaus and his widow’s lurking around the cemetary at night. There are shades of Romeo and Juliet-esque warring families and misunderstood lover plots, but writer David Hine filters them through a noir lens that heightens the sex and violence and promises twists along the way. By now Hine has good feel for the dark humor and grit that characterize the best Spirit stories, as does artist Moritat, who balances both in his detailed but somewhat cartoonish pencils. This book has also made the best use of its Second Feature, offering a “Spirit Black & White” tale featuring high profile talent every month. Unfortunately, DC’s impending price change from $3.99 to $2.99 also means the cancellation of the Second Features, so enjoy these short, punchy Spirit tales while they last.

Nightmaster: Monsters of Rock

I don’t have any particular history with Nightmaster, but I was looking forward to the Monsters of Rock one-shot ever since it was solicited, due in no small part to the striking Bernie Wrightson cover. The story finds Nightmaster in the midst of a quest to rescue his friends when he is surprised by Eddie, an aging hippie who recognizes the hero as Jim Rook, psychedelic rocker from the ’60s who disappeared into another dimension and became it’s defender. Eddie inadvertently helps Jim defeat monsters and bring down the perfectly named Lord Meh, all the while rambling about his deep connection to music, his ideas for a Jim Rook comeback, and his thoughts on selling out. It’s a slight story, but fun in a way that most mainstream comics aren’t—no ironic posturing, no meme-saturation, just jokes and a light-hearted tone. Give writer Adam Beechen credit for turning what could’ve been an over-long anthology piece into a clever take on nostalgia and the pleasures and perils of fandom (themes that, no doubt, resonate with many long-time Nightmaster fans).

November was a banner month for Batman fans, as nine Bat-related books came out, concluding some storylines and starting others, and showcasing top-flight talent all around. Batman and Robin #16 and Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 wrapped up Grant Morrison’s years-long epic. The former features Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and Damian Wayne’s showdown against Dr. Hurt, and the latter covers the logistics of Bruce’s return to the present while also exploring Morrison’s treatise on the metaphysics of Bat-heroism.

Batman Incorporated #1

But this month’s Batman titles also offer multiple entry points for new readers. Batman Incorporated #1 (and its accompanying one-shot, Batman: The Return) establishes Morrison’s new status-quo for the character, an international crime fighter establishing a syndicate of like-minded heroes around the globe, while writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock’s Detective Comics #871 gives Dick Grayson, Gotham’s new Batman, his own grim mystery to solve. Finally, Batwoman #0 reintroduces readers to the character in preparation for her new series, written and drawn by J.H. Williams III (with assists from W. Haden Blackman and Amy Reeder). Williams III’s run on the character with writer Greg Rucka in Detective Comics set a high bar, but the art is still gorgeous and the story elements Rucka established are still in place. Even if it can’t quite live up to it’s predecessor, Batwoman is shaping up to be an inventive, challenging title.

One-Shots

I’m not sure I’ll keep reading Batman and Robin after writer Peter J. Tomasi and arist Patrick Gleason take over in a few months, but for now I am enjoying the fill-in arc (starting with issue seventeen) from Paul Cornell, who has a good feel for both Dick Grayson’s and Damian Wayne’s voices, and the always-welcome Scott McDaniel.

Knight and Squire #2 highlights the differences between being a superhero in America, where your identity is closely guarded, and England, where everyone prefers not to make a fuss and simply pretends you’re not a vigilante who lives in a nearby castle.

Anyone who likes the Big Ideas of superhero comics but doesn’t want to deal with years of continuity should check out The All New Batman: the Brave and the Bold #1, the second title to spin-off from the excellent Cartoon Network show.

Brightest Day #13 focused exclusively on the Hawks and perpetuated the “Hawkman as blood-thirsty warrior” trope that I’ve never been fond of, while #14 spent some time unpacking Deadman’s neuroses and introduced a new romantic dimension to the story.

Mark Waid concluded the first year of Incorruptible on a positive note, giving some closure to Max Damage’s transition from hero to villain, and proving that humor can exist in a title that shares characters and story elements with the ever-grim Irredeemable.

In DC Universe Legacies #7 Len Wein, Dan Jurgens, and Jerry Ordaway remember the 90s, reenacting Superman’s death and the breaking of Batman in context of the gradual darkening of the industry, and Brian Bolland contributes rare interior art to a back-up story that folds all of DC’s sword-and-sorcery characters into one epic battle.

House of Mystery #31 is a good starting point for new readers, complete with overview of the cast and major story points on the first page, and a new character to serve as surrogate for anyone unfamiliar with the title’s history.

Deadpool Max #2 is darker and funnier than the previous issue, but writer David Lapham manages to work some characteristic depressing trauma into the character’s back story that makes every laugh a little uneasy.

Geoff Johns and Francis Manapaul’s The Flash has experienced more than its share of delays, but the extra wait is worth it when Manapaul delivers moments like issue six’s high speed chase across the sides of Central City’s skyscrapers.

James Robinson has been working with his new Justice League line-up for several months, but it wasn’t until Justice League of America #51 that I finally started appreciating the new team, probably because this is easily the title’s most coherent storyline in a year or two.

Superior #2 reads like a comics adaptation of a film that hasn’t been made yet – not a bad thing, necessarily, but it feels like this book could do so much more if Millar broke out of the movie treatment mode.

Looking Ahead to December:

Bulletproof Coffin concludes, Cliff Chiang returns to interiors with Zatanna #8, and Joe the Barbarian #8 might actually ship before year’s end if we’re lucky.

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