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

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #2

The comic book cover fake-out—where the action or mystery revelation on the cover never actually takes place in the book’s pages—is about as old as the medium itself, but the disparity is particularly noteworthy when it comes to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #2. The gorgeous Gary Frank cover (itself an homage to creator Wally Wood’s cover for issue eight of the original series) depicts the team battling big robots and uniformed goons while a hooded skull watches—but not only does the issue feature neither the team fighting together nor any big robots, the most action it offers is the speedster character, Lightning, disabling the enemy base’s defenses in less than a second. Some might accuse writer Nick Spencer of extreme decompression, taking several issues to do what other writers might cover in a single page, but the character work in this issue raises the stakes for the eventual action and proves that this is more than just a team-up-and-fight book.

A few more details of the espionage/secret war plot are doled out, but the centerpiece of the issue is our introduction to Lightning, a.k.a Henry Cosegi, a former Olympic runner who accepts T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s offer to become the superfast hero after he’s disgraced by allegations of steroid use (allegations likely fabricated by T.H.U.N.D.E.R. itself). Cosegi’s story is drawn by guest artist ChrisCross, whose work has always been expressive and rich, but looks particularly good here. When Lightning goes into action, we see the consequences of his bargain—the powers allow him to run with purpose once more, but his running complicates the time stream and so he is confronted by successive visions of his own death, occurring at younger and younger ages. It’s a clever take on a well-worn power, but more than that it hits a chord of sadness that isn’t often explored in the genre. By the time this first arc wraps up the plot might not have progressed too much, but we’ll know these characters intimately, and feel the pain of their sacrifices more clearly.

Fans of the book should also pick up this month’s DC Comics Presents T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents 100-Page Spectacular, which reprints issues one, two, and seven of the original Tower Comics series. Last month I mentioned that Spencer seemed to owe a debt to The Wire given its focus on bureaucracy and ideas about work-a-day superheroics, but I was wrong—all of that is embedded in the title’s history. The original issues are excitedly dry, like Jack Kirby writing an episode of “Dragnet.” There’s plenty of adventure and lots of characters, but we don’t really get to know them before the narration whisks us away to another meeting of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. council, or some office politics. Reading this gave me a better perspective on what Spencer is up to in the new series; he’s not simply modernizing an old-fashioned story, but rather building on ideas that were ahead of their time.


Quality Reads

Deadpool MAX #3

The first two issues of Deadpool MAX brim with cartoon violence and psychosis, but in issue three writer David Lapham and artist Kyle Baker hone that over-the-top approach into a rhetorical weapon, taking on not only hate groups and racists, but appeasers as well. The first half of the issue presents the backstory of the most recent incarnation of the classic Captain America villain Baron Zemo, this time an American Neo-Nazi who founds the country of “Whiteland” in Wyoming and engineers a plan to “purify” the world. Lapham pulls no punches here, joining frothing racist tirades with horrific violence to develop a truly vile, disgusting villain. That immersion in hate pays off in the second half, when our hero Deadpool wades into Whiteland disguised as a rabbi and slaughters the entire army. There’s a discussion to be had about Deadpool’s insistence that studying an enemy is a dead-end, and that studying the opposite of the enemy is more productive, particularly the implications of that attitude for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether you agree with the issue’s philosophy or not, comics this bold and uncompromising are rare and always worth checking out.

The Bulletproof Coffin #6, one of my favorite books of 2010, ended the mini-series by upping the meta content considerably. In fact, the last page is a photograph of the last page of writer David Hine’s script, which explains that the last page should be a photograph of the last page of the script. This issue is also far more explicitly critical of modern comic book hegemony, particularly the publishing practices of Marvel and DC. The villainous Shadow Men are revealed to be corporate lawyers, eliminating oddball characters and anyone who knew of their existence to make way for an edgy reboot. And while that criticism has merit, I think the book succeeds even more as a carefully constructed artifact of an ugly alternate reality where superhero comics could actually save the world.

Knight and Squire #3

Paul Cornell hits the right balance of action and jokes about British culture with Knight and Squire #3. In this issue the Richard III Society (a real organization that strives to reclaim the monarch’s reputation from Shakespeare’s villainous portrayal) succeed in cloning the late king, hoping he will lead the country into a new era. Unfortunately he really is a murderous fiend who immediately begins cloning other notorious rulers (his minions carry around industrial drums labeled “Human DNA”) and equipping them with ludicrous weaponry in a bid to take over the world. Cornell gets quite a bit of comedic mileage out of the juxtaposition of the Shakespearean Richard (complete with iambic pentameter and asides) with the modern world, particularly Richard’s embrace of social networking and the media. And within all the humor we get a more complete sense of the Knight as a person, the kind of characterization that, until now, has been a bit sparse in this series.

Teen Titans: Cold Case #1 is sort of an oddball release—it appears to be two fill-in issues of Teen Titans from maybe two years ago that were never used, and stuck together in a one-shot at the end of the year (the first page even retains the “Part 1” tag under the story’s title, despite no other parts or chapter breaks in the rest of the book.) But as a fill-in story it’s quite good, and showcases the superhero chops of artist Sean Murphy, well-known for his recent work on Joe the Barbarian and Hellblazer: City of Demons. His work isn’t quite as sharp or exquisitely detailed here as it is in those books, but it’s still gorgeous. The pacing of the action sequences is just right, and Murphy even delivers some interesting framing decisions, like a letterboxed splash page of the Titans confronting a gang of Flash villains. Writer Mark Sable’s story is fun and touches on the familial legacy of the Titans, but like any fill-in arc it takes the characters in a loop, setting them down exactly where the book picked up so there’s no interruption to the main plot. Still, I appreciate the chance to see these pages get their due, and its nice to read a story that isn’t burdened by continuity.

An unofficial follow-up to Final Crisis: Requiem (writer Peter Tomasi’s elegy for the Martian Manhunter), Brightest Day #15 moves in the opposite direction, riffing on Alan Moore’s classic “final” Superman story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”  by depicting a possible future for J’onn J’onzz. All is not what it seems, though, as the Manhunter’s celebration with his now aged Justice League teammates turns into a gruesome murder mystery. The mystery itself is barbed, playing on J’onn’s insecurities about his allegiance to both Mars and Earth, further proving that Tomasi (who co-writes the book with Geoff Johns) has a natural feeling for the character’s inherent contradictions and sadness. The ending doesn’t really give a sense of where his story will go from here, but this is still the most satisfying issue of Brightest Day to date.

Batman Incorporated #2

Batman Incorporated #2 wraps up Bruce Wayne’s adventures in Japan and presents the first officially sanctioned international Batman. Morrison has mastered this kind of lean, quick-paced storytelling that nonetheless builds into a larger narrative, and this book’s globetrotting theme is perfectly suited to demonstrate that strength. The standout moment of this issue is Lord Death Man’s creepy monologue about the rigid stability of death, shortly before being thrown off a building, locked in a safe, and launched into space by Batman and Catwoman. Yanick Paquette’s pencils are robust, but particular praise goes to colorist Nathan Fairbairn, who somehow makes the book feel like a particularly disturbing Quinn-Martin TV show. And the last page depicts the Japanese Batman fighting a gorilla dressed like Zorro in mid-air.


One-Shots

James Robinson continues to showcase the strengths of his “sidekicks grown up” team in Justice League of America #52, and quietly subverts years of comic book hegemony by making Batman the team’s only heterosexual white male character.

Perhaps to make up for tardiness in previous months, DC published two issues of The Flash in December, each focusing on the backstory of a Rogue (Captain Boomerang in issue seven, the Reverse-Flash in issue eight) and dropping hints about the upcoming “Flashpoint” event.

Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #4 doesn’t add too much to the story of cross-dimensional invaders and radiation-induced mutation, but it does showcase artist Kaare Andrews’ talent for horrific violence.

And in Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine #4 writer Jason Aaron finally reveals the story’s villains, and gets some laughs by giving the Wolverine and Spider-Man cameo appearances in each others origin stories.

Superior #3 features impressive wide-screen visuals from Leinil Yu, but I think introducing retrospective narration from an entirely new character is an odd storytelling decision.

Cliff Chiang’s stunning pencils brought me back to Zatanna after last month’s hiatus—just in time for a creepy story about an evil enchanted ventriloquist dummy.

Strange Tales II #3 concludes the series with strong, funny stories from Terry Moore, Kate Beaton, Toby Cypress, and what might be the late Harvey Pekar’s final work.

The new Aqualad makes his in-costume debut in Brightest Day #16, but the issue itself is a bit dry.

As before, the main story in DC Universe: Legacies #8 is just fine as a brief history of DC Comics in the 90s, but the real treat is the back-up, this time featuring Len Wein and Frank Quitely retelling Jack Kirby’s first New Gods stories in condensed form.

Detective Comics #872 is a full-on horror story, and artist Jock makes the most of it, amping up the eerie atmosphere of a ghoulish high-society auction with off-kilter framing and several close-ups of gas-mask-clad faces.

Batman and Robin #18 tells the origin of new villain Una Nemo and teaches about Dandy Walker Syndrome, which is a real condition but sounds like something Gardner Fox would’ve come up with in the 50s.

The details of the Plutonian’s imprisonment in Irredeemable #20 should be cathartic for anyone who’s been following the series, but the concept of a perpetual dream-state that offers the character a chance to repent for his atrocities while in real-life being beaten by his monstrous fellow inmates is just as upsetting as anything else in the series.

Meanwhile, Incorruptible #13 depicts the world population’s reaction to the new status quo, and questions how Max Damage can function in a world without the Plutonian.

House of Mystery #32 is a bit slow, but the murder mystery dinner party sequence that starts the issue, illustrated by Enrique Breccia, is a fun take on the camaraderie of the house’s former occupants.

First Wave #5 brings the story to a head before next month’s conclusion, but I think this book will read better as a collection rather than in issues.


Looking Ahead to January:

Nick Spencer’s Infinite Vacation, Howard Chaykin’s guest spot in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #3, and Brian Wood’s and Ryan Kelly’s The New York Five #1!

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