[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.]

Usually it isn’t too difficult for me to pick this column’s spotlight book. I read a healthy stack of books every month, and while I enjoy a lot of them, one always stands above the rest.

But March… March was different. Just about every week presented at least one brand-new title that sounded too intriguing to pass up, and most of those books delivered. On top of that, several of the titles I’d already started delivered high quality stories that explored and, in some cases, expanded the medium. At the end of each week’s reading, I picked what I assumed would be the spotlight book, and the next week, I’d pick another one.

Faced with this rhetorical Gordian Knot, I choose to take up Alexander’s sword and slice clear through it—if four books deserve the spotlight treatment, then so be it. And because this was such a hefty month, we’ve split the column into two posts: the first focuses on the four Spotlight books, the second (coming soon) covers March’s Solid Reads and One-Shots. Dear reader, welcome to The State of My Pull List: Deluxe Edition!

Spotlight 1

Jimmy Olsen #1

Nick Spencer and R.B. Silva’s “Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week” story was heavily hyped when it launched as a second feature in Action Comics last summer. I wasn’t reading the title at the time (I’m still not, but plan to pick up Paul Cornell’s run in trade in the near future) but I downloaded the free preview through the Comixology app and was impressed. I trusted that DC would get around to collecting the second features in some way, put it on my future wish list, and moved on.

Then DC took a side in the price wars and dropped all their second features, cutting every issue down to twenty pages, and lowering their prices line-wide to $2.99. Some of those features, like my beloved “Spirit Black & White”, dissolved into nothingness. But a few had a high enough profile that DC marked them for future publication as oversized one-shots (that, at $5.99, are probably cheaper than the eventual trade I was hoping for.) “Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week” was spared, thanks almost entirely to Nick Spencer’s status as one of the busiest and most critically acclaimed creators working.

Much of that claim is due to his versatility. On T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Spencer showcases his gift for knotty, convoluted plotting and crafting rich characters; Infinite Vacation showcases his “weird science” proclivities. “Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week” (on the cover it’s just Jimmy Olsen), is Nick Spencer at his comedic best. Which isn’t to say that his other books don’t have their light moments, but Jimmy Olsen feels like a comic book version of What’s Up, Doc, all screwball comedy mixed with alien invasions, fifth-dimensional princesses, and a warm romantic subplot.

The book itself is broken up into seven segments, each depicting one day in the titular Big Week. The story begins with Jimmy’s girlfriend, Chloe Sullivan (a character imported from TV’s Smallville) breaking up with him, citing his lack of ambition and excitement as the reasons. When he sees her out at a club with sleazy LexCorp executive Sebastien Mallory, he resolves to win her back and return to a life more befitting Superman’s pal. That leads to all the aforementioned adventures, all of which Jimmy copes with using his wit and creativity (though those ideas frequently come from the smarter and more agile Chloe) never resorting to brawn, or whatever amounts to brawn for a skinny twenty-something photojournalist. And that’s where Spencer gets most of his laughs—the clever solutions to impossible situations have a Looney Tunes charm to them, scoring a series of punchlines off an elaborate setup. And those punchlines are expertly executed by R.B. Silva, whose pencils are light and shapely, like a less-exaggerated Terry Dodson. His character work is especially strong, capturing Jimmy’s wise-ass yet affable nature with just the right kind of smirk.

With Spencer now exclusive at Marvel, we’re unlikely to get more Jimmy Olsen adventures anytime soon, but this one-shot’s 80 pages go a long way towards satisfying that itch for comic mayhem.

Spotlight 2

Xombi #1

Fraser Irving’s cover for Xombi #1, for which he is also the artist, features the book’s protagonist David Kim, the titular “xombi,” opening a spooky looking door in an action pose, his gaze stern,ready for whatever might come. It’s more than appropriate, given the book’s history: part of the Milestone imprint’s second wave of titles, Xombi #0 launched in 1994 and ran for twenty-two issues. David Kim popped up here and there, but was mostly kept in storage at DC along with the rest of the Milestone characters. Now its 2011 and a new Xombi title launches, seemingly out of nowhere, in a publishing environment that’s several degrees more hostile than it was in 1994—I’d be braced for whatever is behind the door, too.

That DC is taking a chance on an oddball genre title like Xombi would make me happy even if it weren’t any good—the more varied the stories a mainstream publisher offers, the more likely new readers will latch onto something and get lost in a medium they’d previous written off. All the better, then, that it’s also wickedly smart and absolutely gorgeous.

This issue quietly and efficiently brings any uninitiated readers up to speed on the concept: David Kim was a medical researcher when nanomachines infested his body, bringing his body to its physical peak. He can transform matter as a result, but he will never age, never get sick, and never die. All that is established in a beautiful two page spread where David leaves the living room of his friend Chet, grabs two beers, and returns; it’s the most mundane of actions, but Irving gives it an eerie symmetry, highlighted by the contrast between the yellow light of the kitchen and the dark blue of the rest of the house. And while the exposition is helpful, the visual storytelling says even more about David’s feelings of isolation, and the uncertainty of the world he finds himself in.

Of course, the world becomes even more uncertain as the plot kicks in, and David teams up with a squad of paranormal investigators from the Catholic church—Nun the Less (who shrinks), Nun of the Above (who has limited telepathy), and Catholic Girl (who has weird energy-based powers)—to investigate a break-out from a dollhouse-sized prison for the supernaturally afflicted. Writer John Rozum plays much of this for laughs, particularly David’s banter with the nuns, but there’s also plenty of grisly business, including an attack by flesh-melting snow angels. Irving’s coloring really sells these scenes, washing entire pages in bright pink or dull blue and using shadows to accentuate the action.

Xombi is brimming with Big Ideas, but that isn’t exactly a rarity in comics. What is rare, though, is when Big Ideas are treated with such a steady, nimble hand, as if Rozum and Irving are little more than bemused by their own fantastic imaginations. Fair enough, I’m awed enough for both of them.

Spotlight 3

Batman, Inc. #4

Speaking of Big Ideas, Grant Morrison returned to the shelves this month, after a several month gap, with not one but two issues of Batman, Inc. (not to mention the conclusion of Joe the Barbarian, appearing in Friday’s conclusion to this column). In issues 1 and 2 of the series, Morrison established what appeared to be the book’s modus operandi: Bruce Wayne lands in another country to offer another hero membership in Batman, Inc., and has a two-issue long adventure while subtly building up the Leviathan plot introduced in Batman: The Return #1.

Issue 3 brings Bruce to Argentina for a team up with El Gaucho, and features a fictional writer’s fictional murder, nonfictional fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges, and a cliffhanger ending pitting the two heroes against each other in order to save orphans from a deathtrap. It also features three pages of Bruce Wayne dancing the “Tango of Death” with an Argentine woman who, it turns out, is also the supervillain Scorpiana.

All of that makes for exciting comics, but here’s the thing: Batman, Inc. is the kind of comic where Bruce Wayne dancing the tango is a charming beat in one issue, but becomes a fundamental plot point in the next. Issue 4 ups the ante on the series’s storytelling considerably, weaving three separate narratives into one comic, and ensuring that each feels detailed and complex enough that it could support the full twenty pages. As Batman and El Gaucho fight, Kate Kane, the current Batwoman, pursues a small-time hood at a carnival. And between both plots we learn the story of the original Batwoman, who was not only Batman’s first love but also a spy who once worked alongside El Gaucho and had ties to Doctor Dedalus, the villain whose shadow haunts this entire storyline. There’s more plot packed into this one issue than in some titles’ entire runs, and Morrison manages to make it all coherent and, best of all, fun to read without holding the reader’s hand and underlining the important information.

Much of the credit for issue 4’s success is owed to penciler Chris Burnham, filling in for Yanick Paquette. As the plot jumps between storylines Burnham art shifts, moving from Frank Quitely-like action in the Batwoman plot to a more bold line in the Batman/Gaucho sequences and, best of all, a lighter, more iconic touch in the flashback sequences. That last approach is particularly effective at rendering the emotional impact of the original Batwoman’s story, most notably a two-page spread in which she breaks Batman’s heart. Special notice also goes to colorist Nathan Fairbairn for selecting palettes for each storyline that emphasize the stark differences between past and present.

I didn’t mention it the previous two times I wrote about Batman, Inc., but I can’t get enough of Morrison’s new rhetorical trick, the second-to-last page title cards that bring to mind the classic closing narration from cliffhanger episodes of the 60s “Batman” television show. Three horizontal panels, broken up by black boxes bearing cryptic statements or questions about the story in bold, white text – it’s a new approach to meta, calling attention to the nature of the text but in such a way that your pace quickens just a bit as you realize what’s happening. It’s the playfulness and joy of little touches like that which make reading Grant Morrison’s comics worth reading over and over.

Which of March’s comics will Aaron deem “solid reads”? What pithy remarks will he make about lesser books? And will the Countess return from her trip to Portugal in time to stop Shelia’s wedding to Sheriff Smith? Tune in Friday morning for the thrilling conclusion of this month’s The State Of My Pull List!