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.]
I started following The Spirit in 2006, when Darwyn Cooke wrote and drew twelve issues of the title for DC, who had recently acquired the rights to the character. I’d known about Will Eisner’sbest-known creation for probably twelve or thirteen years thanks to a special “Who’s Who” edition of Heroes Illustrated. It included superhero mainstays like Superman, Batman, and the X-men, but also the stars of independent books, like Jaime Hernandez’s Maggie and Hopey, Jim Valentino’s normalman, and Will Eisner’s The Spirit. The idea of an undead (but not zombified) crime fighter in the Dick Tracy mold appealed to me, but accessing the stories seemed impossible—there were 50 years worth of Spirit stories, but I was still too young to buy expensive reprint collections, and my local library didn’t carry comics at the time.
Cooke’s take on the character electrified me, but I lost interest when he left the book. The stories didn’t seem as funny or nuanced, even with talent like Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones at the helm. When the title was canceled I shrugged and assumed I’d have to start looking into reprints to get my Spirit fix—thankfully, DC took a second shot at the character in 2010, relaunching the book under the “First Wave” banner with Mark Schultz writing and Moritat penciling. David Hine took over writing on issue four, and the series has been consistently excellent since then. Both Schultz and Hine, like Cooke before them, avoided ossifying the title by being over-reverent to Eisner but put their own spin on the wit, visual and verbal, of the original.
The Spirit #10 capitalizes on that wit, riffing on both Crime and Punishment and, more subtly, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets, in a one-and-done story that barely even features the title character. A thief named Roscoe Kalashnikov (get it?) finds an untraceable gun and uses it to murder the old fence he despises. Moral certainty quickly turns into doubt and paranoia, and Roscoe begins to see the Spirit everywhere, from the shadows to a crossword puzzle. Mortiat’s pencils heighten the terror, making melodrama out of Roscoe’s every grimace and violent revenge fantasy. And when the Spirit finally shows up in a diner where Roscoe is hiding the art softens, juxtaposing the almost mundane reality of the character with the power of his legend. In that way it’s almost an inversion of the typical Batman story, in which the rumors and myths and exaggerations are fulfilled by the hero’s presence. Here, the Spirit is merely a man (albeit a dead one) seemingly unaware of how broadly his shadow is cast over the city.
Also: January marks the beginning of DC’s $2.99 price initiative, and thus the discontinuation of all back-up features, including “The Spirit Black & White”. While I appreciate the dollar drop in price, I’ll miss the short, exquisitely rendered tales that filled out the back end of each issue. Hopefully DC will see fit to collect them in a separate volume, or perhaps even publish a one-shot anthology featuring new stories in the “Black and White” mold.
I started reading House of Mystery because I liked the idea of a bunch of cast-offs telling each other stories as currency, particularly if it meant every month the book would feature a short-story written and/or drawn by some of the field’s top creators, almost like a mini-anthology. If the main story started to flag, at least I would have the “tale” to enjoy. Thirty-three issues later I’ve yet to lose interest in the main story, which continues to twist and reveal layers I hadn’t expected, and writer Matthew Sturges’s mini-tales have become more integral to the plot. This month’s issue focuses entirely on Cain and Fig’s Christmas Carol-like journey through her past and sets up a revelation of the Conception’s identity, the series’ central mystery, in the next issue. In the midst of all that, Cain tells a story of integrity and betrayal, illustrated by V For Vendetta’s David Lloyd. It’s gorgeous and dark, with a Twilight Zone-esque ending that comments on revelations about Fig’s history with the House and its other inhabitants towards the end of the issue.
Detective Comics #873 wraps up the three-part “Black Mirror” storyline with some interesting nightmare imagery and an aerial fight between Batman and a sadistic curiosities dealer. The fight is kinetic and fun and allows Dick a chance to rebut the well-worn theory that the dark, twisted side of Gotham City is a reflection of Batman’s own sinister visage. Then in the last few pages Scott Snyder takes that theme and offers a revision, that Gotham’s madness is an infection, and that the new Batman might not be immune from it. Jock is in fine form in this issue; he nails the vertiginous aspects of the gas-induced nightmares and makes the monsters appropriately gruesome. But special praise goes to colorist David Baron, who uses red and green backgrounds to great effect, highlighting the queasiness of Dick’s nightmares.
Infinite Vacation #1 seems like writer Nick Spencer’s response to last year’s momentary uproar about twentysomethings and their rascally resistance to settling down and growing up, or whatever other generalizations were leveled in the New York Times and other venues. The issue follows Mark, an adept wheeler-dealer in the Infinite Vacation market, where versions of you from parallel time lines offer “vacations” into that reality for the right price, becomes depressed after witnessing the death of one of his other selves. It’s high-concept, but Spencer seems more interested in exploring the ennui of a generation perpetually illuminated by its hand-held devices. Ironically, it’s also the most visually vibrant book I read this month, courtesy of Christian Ward’s soft, watercolor-like washes of red and blue, particularly juxtaposed with his sturdy line work. This book could go in any number of directions, but all of them are worth following.
Paul Cornell pulls back on the anglophile inside jokes and references a bit in Knight and Squire #4, instead turning in a character study that gets into Knight’s mind, while also probing the English “stiff upper lip” mindset. When Cyril’s armor comes to life, believing itself to be the Knight, it isn’t hindered by the social expectations and restrictions of its wearer and begins expressing deep feelings of paranoia and guilt, even love. It’s only partly played for laughs, and Cornell seems far more interested in filling in the connection between Knight and Squire, which is revealed to be significantly more interesting than the typical mentor-apprentice dynamic present in most superhero partnerships. That said, the issue’s biggest laugh is also its brightest spot – we’re finally introduced to Hank, Cyril’s American butler, who’s brush-top hair cut, bolo tie, and gaudy teal vest represent a British notion of Americanism just as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred does the reverse.
Despite the cover tag that reads “suggested for mature readers” The New York Five #1 is clearly intended for a young female audience. The sequel to writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly’s The New York Four, the book follows roommates Riley, Merissa, Lona, and Ren as they navigate their freshman year at NYU, coping with relationship troubles, family secrets, and other pressures. It sounds facile in summary, and the characters are familiar from films, television shows, and young adult novels that tread roughly the same territory, but the story is nuanced and compelling, and even seems to be edging into riskier territory in this new series. And there is certainly value in glamorizing some aspects of college life, particularly the characters’ hyper-friendship, for a certain readership, even if I found it distracting or overly self-aware at times. A major improvement over the original digest-sized series is Kelly’s art, which thrives on the larger pages and is more detailed and expressive this time around.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #3 ups the emotional ante on last month’s moving vision of superheroic sacrifice, this time offering both a shockingly grim back story for the android hero No Man and a revelation of betrayal from within the team.
Zatanna #9 was split into two unrelated stories for some reason, but the back-up depicting the adventures of Young Zatanna as she copes with her new braces was more fun than the main story, which filled in some exposition but only minimally advanced the plot.
James Robinson got to follow-up on a few dangling plot threads from his JLA storyline in Starman/Congorilla #1, a one-shot that gives some spotlight time to the League’s most unusual, and most interesting, members.
Meanwhile Justice League of America #53 concludes the Omega Man arc and makes a persuasive argument for the legitimacy of Robinson’s transformation of the team.
Deadpool MAX #4 isn’t as violent or unhinged as previous issues, but it does introduce David Lapham and Kyle Baker’s paranoid conspiracy theorist version of the X-men character Cable and hints at what might be a larger arc the title is heading towards.
Deadman and the Hawks took center stage in Brightest Day #17 and 18, each giving the characters a taste of happiness and triumph before whisking it immediately away to be replaced with further frustration and tragedy.
Paul Cornell uses his final fill-in issue of Batman and Robin to riff on the 60s “Batman” show, pulling the rug out from under the elaborate death-trap motif and revealing that there might be something besides campy humor lurking in those wonderfully designed machines.
The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold #3 features not one but two Flashes and lots of Lewis Carroll in-jokes, not to mention gorgeous pencils by the under-appreciated Rick Burchett.
Incorruptible #14 finally crosses over with sister book Irredeemable in a major way, pitting Max Damage against what remains of the Paradigm as he tries to figure out how to be a hero in a world without The Plutonian.
But in Irredeemable #21 we learn that The Plutonian’s imprisonment is far from secure, and artist Peter Krause uses a single facial expression in the issue’s final panel to suggest that the hero turned villain has turned yet again into something even more terrifying and unhinged.
Looking Forward to February
February looks quiet in terms of new titles being launched and creative team switch-ups, which usually means its a good time to take a chance on an a few established titles that I haven’t been following. I’ll let you know what happens next month.