BY NICO VREELAND

[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.]


Spotlight

Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #5

I don’t know if he’s ever come out and said it publicly, but conventional knowledge has it that Warren Ellis hates superheroes. The closest I have to an actual admission comes from a blurb for David Yurkovich’s bent take on the genre, Less Than Heroes: “if there have to be super-hero comics, then I want them to be David Yurkovich’s…”  The criticism is more apparent in his mainstream comics work, which often depicts superheroes as amoral, fascistic, or ineffectual. So maybe it’s not that he hates superheroes, but rather that he hates the absolute power they represent. That would explain why he continues to take superhero work with Marvel and DC—he wants comic readers to question the structures that surround them, and is using the very comics they read to make sure the lesson is heard, if not understood.

There’s no shortage of didacticism in Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #5, the final issue of Ellis and artist Kaare Andrews miniseries. As the streamlined Astonishing X-team (Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Beast, Armor, and Emma Frost) faces off against heavily armed cyborgs in pursuit of a dimension-hopping traveler whose radiation trail resulted in a spate of devastating mutant births in the African village of Karere, Ellis grapples with what it means for a group of heroes to wade unsanctioned into the middle of another country’s affairs. Not surprisingly, Ellis sides against the X-Men, offering an ending that critiques not only interventionist politics, but also the gnat-like attention span of the West when it comes to humanitarian crises. The final pages are devastating, as the country’s president explains the cost of being a leader to the team.

None of the commentary would be as effective without Kaare Andrews’ gorgeous art. His characters look like caricatures come to life; either hulking and impossibly muscular, or comically tiny, but always rendered in exquisite detail. This issue’s highlight is an extended sequence where Emma conducts telepathic surgery on the last remaining cyborg, culminating in a gleefully grisly splash page.

Somewhat confusingly, Marvel also released Astonishing X-Men #36 this month, beginning a new arc unrelated to Xenogenesis, written by Daniel Way and drawn by Jason Pearson. I can’t quite figure out why Ellis and Andrews were put on a mini instead of the main Astonishing title, particularly when the two only overlapped one month (and not even the same week, either), but hey, that’s comics. In any case, Way and Pearson’s issue is fun, but slight. It promises lots of giant monsters, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but after the insight and intrigue of Xenogenesis I’m left wanting more than a big pile-on fight.


Solid Reads

Batman & Robin #20

With issue 20 writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Patrick Gleason take the reins of Batman and Robin, continuing the adventures of Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne as Gotham City’s protectors. I wasn’t thrilled with Tomasi’s depiction of Damian in the Blackest Night: Batman mini-series—he seemed less aristocratic and snobbish, as Grant Morrison writes him, and more bratty and annoying. But in the year since those issues came out Tomasi has mostly locked in on the new Robin’s attitude, particularly in the issue’s action set piece when Damian chides Batman to “stop messing around” with their adversary. Gleason’s art particularly shines in that sequence, especially the sudden swarm of eerily bioluminescent bats that surround the duo and go careening into the ground. He has a clean, kinetic style that doesn’t sacrifice character work, and still feels appropriate in quiet moments in Commissioner Gordon’s office, or at Wayne Manor. Balancing the two is crucial, as the evolution of the title characters’ older-younger brother relationship is just as integral to the book’s success as the superhero action plots.

Detective Comics #874

Speaking of relationships, this month’s other Bat-book, Detective Comics #874, focuses largely on a significantly more dysfunctional relationship, that between Commissioner Gordon and his estranged son, James Jr., who has returned to Gotham City hoping to put his violent past behind him. This story began as a back-up in Detective before the price drop eliminated those extra pages from all DC books. Rather than drop the story, writer Scott Snyder instead integrates it into his ongoing arc, using James and his insanity to parallel Dick Grayson’s concern about his own mental health in the wake of his run-in with The Black Mirror. Artist Francesco Francavilla, who drew the first two back-up stories, takes over the entire issue and heightens the tension of the Gordon’s late-night encounter with some complex layouts and a red-purple wash over the whole scene. He also highlights the physical similarity between Gordon and James Jr., making the revelation of the latter’s violent past all the more unsettling. And the haunted look on Gordon’s face in the final panel, framed in James. Jr’s silhouette, highlights exactly what’s at stake, not just for this issue but for the entire story to come.

Tangential Bat-book Knight and Squire took a sharp turn in this month’s issue five, moving the charming, light-hearted action feel of the book into a decidedly darker place in one genuinely surprising moment. It’s as if this is the first time real, threatening violence has made its way into the relatively isolated world of Knight and Squire (at least in this mini-series) which gives writer Paul Cornell the opportunity to comment on blood-soaked modern American comics. That’s somewhat ironic considering that the “grim and gritty” trend could arguably be traced back to Watchmen, a DC comic written and drawn by two Englishmen, In any case, I’m curious to see what will happen in issue six (the last issue of the mini-series)—this promises to be the rare story that actually delivers on the promise that “nothing will be the same!”

Deadpool MAX #5

It’s rare that any form of popular entertainment outside of porn can lay claim to two fake-out incest plotlines, but Deadpool MAX has managed two in just under half a year. This month Deadpool and Hydra Bob confront a female version of the Taskmaster, who Deadpool believes to be his mother. We learn that she trained him to become an assassin after kidnapping his Boy Scout troop and, in a hysterical sequence, winnowing them down through merit badge challenges like Crossing a Piranha-Filled Stream and Surviving the Hot Box. He never passed her final test of his “manhood” though, which distracts the hero when Taskmaster shows up to kill the Senator he’s meant to protect. David Lapham is once again hitting the psychosexual comedy button but it doesn’t get old, particularly as artist Kyle Baker is more than able to match the timing and set up visual gags, like the splash page of a bruised Wade showing off his merit badge-covered sash. Their approach is in stark contrast to the excesses of other “adult” comics that treat their weird sex and violence with all the control and complexity of a schoolyard prank. For all its pitch-black comedy, Deadpool MAX always feels like it’s creators are getting one over on the reader, not the publisher, and is all the more subversive for it.

Marvel’s recent spate of “.1” issues are meant to be jumping on points for new readers, bringing the uninitiated up to speed on who the characters are, what’s led to their current storyline, and so on. However, Amazing Spider-Man #654.1 barely features Spider-Man at all, choosing instead to introduce the new concept for Venom and thereby preview the new series, which debuts in March. The pitch is brilliant – former jock/Peter Parker bully turned paraplegic war hero Flash Thompson is recruited by the military to become a black ops agent using the Venom symbiote, which gives him legs and new spider-powers. But the symbiote is unstable, so the agent is only permitted forty-eight hours before it’s forcibly removed—any longer and it bonds to them and distorts their minds. In this issue we see Flash on two missions, one of which pushes him too far and unleashes the hulking, murderous, many-fanged incarnation of that character that was popular in the 80s and 90s. The intersection of spy action with superheroics isn’t new territory, but if nothing else this is an intriguing take on a well-worn character, reason enough to be curious. Even though I won’t be returning to Amazing Spider-Man, I’ll be sure to pick up Venom #1 next month.


One-Shots

The Superman 80-Page Giant 2011 provided my anthology fix for the month, offering short, fun stories from the Super-family characters by such talent as CAFU (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents) Eddy Barrows (Superman) and Dean Haspiel (The Alcoholic).

Brightest Day #19 and 20 put a temporary bow on Aquaman’s story, as the hero defeats Siryn and Black Manta but loses his hand his hand in the process, recalling Peter David’s classic Aquaman run from the mid 90s.

DC’s upcoming company-wide crossover, “Flashpoint,” kicks off in The Flash #9 which features characteristically gorgeous art by Francis Manapul and a dimension-crossing speedster character unbelievably named “Hot Pursuit”.

Bill Sienkiewicz makes a rare penciling contribution to the back-up story in DC Universe Legacies #9, while the main story recaps DC’s big events from the late 90s and prepares for next month’s finale, which I can only imagine will end on the tragic note this entire series has been building towards.

Writer James Robinson kicks off a new storyline and returns to an old haunt in Justice League of America #54 as the villain Eclipso (with a new “Lord of the Rings” aesthetic) hypnotizes/recruits the Shade and other shadow-themed characters for his new army.

The Paradigm’s attempts to recruit former villains to the side of good give Irredeemable #22 its lighter moments, but Waid balances the humor with the increasingly complex and disturbing journey through the Plutonian’s psyche as his alien captors scramble for a means to kill the indestructible hero. Meanwhile, there are two major betrayals in Incorruptible #15, one of which should have major ramifications for sister-title.

I don’t think a single issue of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents has gone by without revealing a double-agent or some other betrayal, and issue four is no exception, revealing last month’s tease to be a red herring and offering an even more compelling twist in it’s place.

House of Mystery #34 finally explains who or what the Conception really is, but the explanation is couched in further complications and questions that will, hopefully, be addressed in this story arc’s conclusion next month.

After last month’s done-in-one story, The Spirit #11 kicks off a new storyline that might just be the book’s swan song, as rumor has it DC has canceled the title. If and when this is confirmed I will mourn at length, but for now I encourage you to pick up the current issue, any back issues you can track down, or the first paperback collection coming in April. Maybe we can keep this book afloat.


Looking Forward to March

Joe the Barbarian #8 – finally! Also, Rick Remender and Tony Moore on Venom #1, the return of Batman, Inc., and Nick Spencer’s Jimmy Olsen one-shot!

Advertisements