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. 

A quick note: Due to the complications and demands of May, I didn’t have time to dig into and dissect my pull list in the usual fashion, which is unfortunate because some excellent books (Nonplayer #1, Detective Comics #876, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6) came out in April. But, I did write a Spotlight on my favorite book from April. Full May column follows.]


Spotlight: April

Dark Horse Presents #1

In previous months I’ve written about my love of anthology comics and short-form storytelling in general—I like the quick pace and the inclination toward bittersweet endings, I like meeting and leaving a character all in one sitting, and I especially like the juxtaposition of different voices. Even beyond my idiosyncracies, it’s clear that anthologies allow us to broaden our reading horizons by giving us a comfortable place to try out new material—if a writer or artist or story doesn’t suit you, it’s over in eight pages and you’ll be onto something with greater potential.

But appreciating anthology comics is more than just a personal preference, it’s a part of the medium’s history. Anthologies have been a staple of comic storytelling from the very beginning—Golden and Silver Age titles like Detective Comics, Action  Comics, Amazing Fantasy and several others featured four or five different stories, often positioning the superheroic adventures of characters like Batman and Superman against more grounded detective stories, or mystical/supernatural adventures. And even as the market changed and those books became solo vehicles for the most popular characters there always seemed room, particularly in the underground comix movement, for anthology storytelling.

But that seemed to change in the past decade, as reader preferences shifted towards decompressed storytelling and publishers began catering to the trade paperback market, telling stories over five or six issues that could then be collected and sold in bookstores, theoretically reaching a wider audience. There are still holdouts, like 2000 AD in the UK, Heavy Metal, and Image Comics’ Popgun collections, and one-time experiments like DC’s Wednesday Comics, but those collections can be expensive, or hard to find in certain markets. What’s needed is an affordable, regular anthology title that is widely available. Thus, the return of Dark Horse Presents.

This is the third incarnation of DHP; the first volume ran from 1986 to 2000, while the second had a three-year run as a digital comic (later collected in paperback) through MySpace. The original run introduced readers to iconic titles like Concrete and Sin City, so it’s fitting that the two big selling points for DHP #1 are a new Concrete story by Paul Chadwick, and a preview of Frank Miller’s Xerxes, a follow-up to 300. And somehow it’s equally fitting that those two features represent end points on the storytelling spectrum, highlighting, for better or worse, exactly what this book is capable of.

“Concrete: Intersection” is the standout. The eight page story features Concrete helping the police with a break in and ends up uncovering a much more gruesome crime. As usual, Chadwick hides the larger story under the plot details, letting a meditation of relationships and anger play out through Concrete’s thoughts and interactions with the criminals and victims, continuing the story that’s been building over 25 years and still managing to be accessible to first-time readers. And Chadwick’s art is as clear and expressive as ever, perhaps even more so in full-color instead of black and white.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge an excerpt from a larger work against a story that’s meant to fit into eight pages, but the four page sneak peek of Frank Miller’s Xerxes (plus a two-page interview) is everything “Concrete: Intersection” isn’t—detached, stark, and loud. Everything here is classic Miller, from the bitten-off narration to the high contrast visuals; that’s not necessarily a bad thing in the right context, but the pages feel more like posters, and therefore out of place in a story-focused format. We can judge Xerxes on its own merits when it’s eventually released, but as a part of the anthology it doesn’t really hold up.

Other highlights include Carla Speed McNeil’s “Finder: Third World, Chapter 1” David Chelsea’s “Snow Angel,” an almost entirely silent piece about a young girl who literally becomes a snow angel to right wrongs, and Patrick Alexander’s gag strips “Aaaaaah” and “Personality Quiz,” all of which are scheduled to continue in June’s DHP #2. I was less taken with the two stories from top-flight creators Howard Chaykin and Neal Adams. Chaykin’s “Marked Man, Chapter 1” feels a little too familiar so far, but the art is gorgeous and there’s definitely room to grow. But Neal Adams’s “Blood, Chapter 1” is running in place, using a flood of word balloons and splash pages to say very little about the characters, the setting, or the story. Its principle achievement is a tone-deaf representation of a developmental disability. And though Adams’s pencils are without peer, I think his art suffers when he self-inks. He needs someone to reign in his outsized talent a bit, but it doesn’t seem like DHP editor Mark Richardson wants to interfere.

Regardless of varying story quality, what I like most about DHP #1 is that I could read it over the course of a few weeks, or even a whole month if I’d felt like it. Once you crack the cover, there’s no compunction to finish it immediately, as with nearly all the other comics I read. DHP is designed to be consumed bit by bit, a functional comic for a reading environment that is often fragmented and wedged between stops on the subway, or right before bed. I like that this book can sit on my desk.

DC’s Vertigo imprint has just released its own 80-page anthology title, Strange Adventures (see below), so perhaps I was wrong about short comics being out of fashion. Maybe a taste for short, provocative stories is a side effect of becoming accustomed to reading online with four or five other tabs open at the same time. If so, then I embrace it; in the end, stories are stories, and if the first issue of Dark Horse Presents is any indication there are plenty of good ones ahead.


Spotlight: May

Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine #6

When Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine launched last May, nothing about the title suggested it was going to end quite like this. The first issue was funny and fast-paced—maybe a little confusing, but superhero comics are sometimes confusing early on so that the pay-off a few months later is all the more satisfying. The humor and energy has increased exponentially with each subsequent issue; writer Jason Aaron was clearly making the most of the sandbox he was offered, coming up with concepts like Doom, the Living Planet and the Phoenix Gun, remixing the title characters’ origin stories, even indulging in a little satire of reality television, all the while knotting and reknotting the time-travel story. Aaron and artist Adam Kubert, were obviously gearing up for a madcap finale that would tie up all the loose ends with humor and a bit of heart.

Make that a lot of heart.  Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine is more about friendship and loss than spandex-clad heroes punching theatrically evil villains (in fact, there’s only one page of typical superhero action in the whole issue, and it’s really just a device to return our heroes to the present). Through flashback we learn that Spider-Man managed to defuse the Wolverine/Phoenix cliffhanger from issue five by talking him down, and thanks to one final leap through time he and Wolverine have been stuck in the Old West for five years, and have just about given up on ever returning to their own time. The two heroes have grown through their irritation with one another and have bonded as friends and brothers, and Spider-Man is about to propose to the mystery woman he’s been pining after throughout the series, when they’re confronted by time-police and propelled forward to the bank robbery scene where this whole adventure began in issue one.

The second half of the issue finally explains how the whole time-travel plot came together, but more important is Spider-Man’s narration in which he tries to cope with what happened to him and, more importantly, why it happened the way it did. It’s Aaron’s subtle jab at those particular modern readers (and publishers, let’s face it) who fixate on continuity and judge books not on the merit of the story or art but on how important they are to the overarching narrative. But even more than that, the final pages reveal the truth at the heart of these characters. The panels are quiet and meditative, and Kubert gets the mood just right, capturing the wistful, confused expressions the heroes wear as they weather this existential crisis. The parallel layouts of the last two pages crystallize those feelings and highlight exactly how sensitive and subtle an artist Adam Kubert can be.

A lot of the positive critical response to the first issue of ASM&W focused on the light tone and explained that breezy adventures stories are what superhero comics do best, complaining that too much mainstream work is dour and overcomplicated. And while I agree with both of those claims, I also think that exploring the essential humanity at the heart of these characters is what superhero comics can do best, too. Jason Aaron understands that superheroes endure because they tell us something about ourselves, and that its possible to let them do that while they fight dinosaurs and fly and travel through time.


Solid Reads

The Rocketeer Adventures #1

IDW’s The Rocketeer Adventures #1 may not have been my favorite book of the month, but it was certainly the one I most looked forward to reading. I fell in love with the Rocketeer in 1991 whenI saw the Disney film three times in the theater—the gleaming silver rocketpack, the plumes of flame that shot out as Cliff took to the air, and especially that golden art deco-inspired helmet were to my eight year-old eyes like chum to a shark. It took me more than a decade to realize that the film was based on comics from the early 80s, written and drawn by Dave Stevens, as homage to old pulp and radio serial heroes. Yet I’ve still never gotten around to reading the original comics, though I’ve read plenty about them (and the oversized hardcore IDW released last year sits atop my wish list.) Still, I was eager to see how top-flight industry talent would interpret the character, and hoped the stories in this anthology mini-series would serve as a kind of mini-primer for a Rocketeer neophyte. For the most part they succeed, particularly Kurt Busiek and Michael Kaluta’s “Dear Betty,” which focuses on Cliff Secord’s girlfriend Betty as she receives his letters from the front, worried that he won’t make it home while fending off the unwanted advances of a co-worker. Kaluta’s richly detailed art recalls Stevens’s, particularly the glamour shots of Betty as she reads, and Busiek nails the tone, keeping things light while still underscoring the depth of Betty and Cliff’s relationship. John Cassaday writes and draws a brief adventure story that’s fun if a bit forgettable, and Mike Allred delivers a fantasia on Cliff flying through the New York City skyline that would be great if it weren’t for the odd frame story, which makes some dust about duplicate rockets and secret agents and is just feels a bit half-formed. Pin-ups by Jim Silke and Mike Mignola round out this issue, completing an altogether solid package.

Strange Adventures #1

Another new entry in the anthology genre (it’s a trend I tell ya) is DC/Vertigo’s Strange Adventures #1, a sci-fi adventure collection featuring work by Jeff Lemire, Paul Cornell, Peter Milligan, Denys Cowan, Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, and more. This is a no-brainer for Vertigo, which already has working relationships with a lot of talented creators and is known for giving them some space to experiment a bit. The first chapter of Azzarello and Risso’s “Spaceman” is the marquee entry in this issue, as it marks that team’s follow-up to 100 Bullets (at Vertigo, at least—they’ve done work together for DC proper on Wednesday Comics and in next month’s Flashpoint: Batman—Knight of Vengence.) It’s a slow start, for sure, but they accomplish a lot in just eight pages, setting up a rotten future world that practically reeks on the page, establish some backstory, and even hint at a melancholy undercurrent for the story. The real standout of this issue, though, is Jeff Lemire’s “Ultra the Multi-Alien,” which offers a heart-wrenching interpretation of the weirdo Silver Age DC character, emphasizing the lost connection to a previous life that lies just in the background of all those strange stories of transformation. Other highlights include Ross Campbell’s “Refuse,” which actually made me exclaim out loud while I read it alone in my apartment, and Peter Milligan and Sylvain Savoia’s “Partners.” Tonally, everything is spot on—the book feels of a piece, which is a good qualify for an anthology title. There’s no future issues of Strange Adventures scheduled through August, but there’s also nothing to indicate that it’s only a one-shot, so who can say when we’ll see another. And given the upcoming changes at DC (more about that later) who can say how long we’ll be getting books from Vertigo, period?

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 launches the title’s second arc and continues the trend of calling on legendary creators to help fill in a character’s backstory. This time Colleen is the focus, and Mike Grell is on hand to illustrate the origin sequence that explains how she was separated from her parents. The flashback is gorgeous—Grell’s pencils are as clean as ever, and he manages to convey motion and activity while still putting the characters in striking poses. Most of the issue’s action is spent in that flashback, as writer Nick Spencer continues to draw on the title’s history and meld it into his own story, proving that this book was never a reboot, but rather a continuation and examination of the existing story threads. In fact, the final five pages are a second flashback that returns to those early Wally Wood issues and rewrites a scene to explain what happened between panels, drastically changing the dynamic of the story. I won’t spoil the reveal, except to say that anyone who has read the original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents stories, particularly those featuring villainess Iron Maiden, will find the twist very apropos. Whether we get to see the full extent of what it means for the team is unclear, though, as this might be the last T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents arc we get.

Over in the Bat-world, Detective Comics scribe Scott Snyder branches out from that book with Batman: Gates of Gotham #1, a mini-series co-written by Kyle Higgins with art by Trevor McCarthy. Though it’s not part of his Detective run, per se, this issue runs with Snyder’s notion that Gotham itself is a kind of diseased city and traces the genesis of that disease to the 1880s and the actions of Gotham’s richest families, including the Waynes. Backstory and exposition take up much of the story-time in this issue, but Snyder and Higgins establish a grim tone for the book, particularly in a scene where Batman comes face to face with a river-full of drowned bodies following a bridge explosion. McCarthy’s art is maybe a tad too cartoonish for the dark horror/mystery vibe the writers aim for, but I like his characterization of Batman, Red Robin, Damian Wayne, and Cassandra Cain—they look and move like a group of young heroes should, instead of like shorter, less muscular adults. McCarthy’s Gotham is suitably dark and crowded, it’s skyline lurching upward, and his character design for the villain who shows up towards the end is inspired, and certainly a new flavor of Bat-villain. I’m excited to see where this book goes, and confident that Snyder and crew have something larger at work that will tie into the Bat-mythos…for as long as they last.

Batman, Incorporated #6

Six issues into the title, Grant Morrison makes his big Harold Hill pitch for the Batman, Incorporated concept in a beautifully structured, one-off story that makes the most of his “channel surfing” approach to comics writing. Rather than buoying a story on three or four long, fleshed out plot points Morrison moves quickly through nearly a dozen of them, beginning and ending the scene in the middle, where the most relevant information is contained, and trusting the reader to fill in the gaps, almost as if the book is one big Gestalt exercise. It’s a technique that’s particularly suited to exploring how Bruce Wayne is maintaining his network of international Bat-men and women while still allowing Morrison to focus on small, almost throw-away bits like gang leader Joe Average and his Average Joes. It’s true that Morrison always has an eye on the over-all story, but he never sacrifices nuance to nudge it forward, and Batman, Inc. #6 is as good an example of that subtlety as any. And new series artist Chris Burnham makes good use of his somewhat cartoon-like style and creative use of perspective, particularly in the final double-page spread that folds eight completely separate scenes into one large, sprawling panel. Together he and Morrison are regularly producing the most inventive comics on the shelf; I can only hope this title, or at least this time, emerges from the big DC relaunch relatively unscathed.


One-Shots

Writer Judd Winick returns to the Bat-titles and his adopted character, Jason Todd, with Batman and Robin #23, and though the story didn’t grab me I do like how he’s captured Dick and Damian’s voices.

Series artist Jock is the star of Detective Comics #877; the action sequence in the car lot is kinetic and well-choreographed, but he really shines in a double-page layout in which Dick Grayson’s Batman finally comes face to face with the daughter of the man who killed his parents.

Joe Casey turns down the existential inquiry a notch in Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker #3 and instead gives artist Mike Huddleston room to craft a hyperactive chase scene that ends with just a touch of pathos.

In DeadpoolMAX #8 writer David Lapham takes us into Hydra Bob’s past and reveals quite a bit about the conspiracy story that’s been running in the background of the title since the first issue; Kyle Baker’s art takes a rare turn for the worse in the last half of this issue, though, losing the exaggeration and expressiveness that’s typical of his work.

The Flash closes up shop with issue twelve, concluding a weak story that feels all the lesser in comparison to the stellar six-issue arc that opened this series.

Flash #12, of course, leads into Flashpoint #1, the first issue of DC’s big summer event that is, unfortunately, weighed by too much exposition and universe-establishing to tell an interesting story.

I particularly enjoyed the Shadow-pastiche character The Conjurer, who appears in House of Mystery #37, and the chaos he caused for Lotus Blossom, but I’m eager for a bit more information about what happened in the gap between this arc and the last.

Mark Waid apparently heard my silent wish because Incorruptible #18 features more of Charlie Hustle, a diminutive speedster villain who wears a football uniform and is one of my favorite new characters of 2011. Things are a bit more serious in Irredeemable #25, as the Plutonian gathers allies on this prison planet and the leader of the Paradigm becomes murderously unhinged.

Eclipso puts his ultimate plan into motion in Justice League of America #57 as the team gathers more allies and writer James Robinson uses a brief pause in the action to set-up a future storyline that we will probably not get to read anytime soon.

The art change-up in Ruse #3 is a bit jarring, but I’m still enjoying the gradually unfolding mystery and writer Mark Waid’s obvious delight in writing characters who love and hate each other all at once.

House of Mystery writer Matthew Sturges has become DC’s go-to fill-in writer of late, and he turns in a cute story in Spirit #14 that both pays tribute to and tweaks Spirit-creator Will Eisner’s fixation on beautiful, dangerous women by teaming the hero up with a femme fatale hipster.

Artist Tom Fowler takes over for Tony Moore in Venom #3 and succeeds in leaving his own mark on the story without changing the mood from the previous two issues, particularly in his depiction of Jack O’Lantern hovering over Betty Brant’s bed.

I picked up X-Men Giant-Size #1 because, while I don’t follow the current X-books, I’ve always loved the original incarnation, and hoped this would be a fun, nostalgia-drenched one-shot; it was, kind-of, but not enough for me to follow the story to the regular titles.

Xombi #3 concludes that title’s first arc with some excellent fight scenes, briefly interrupted by a ghost’s meditation on the value of living in the moment and the sadness of wishing you were someone you aren’t.

Jamal Igle is a good fit for Zatanna, and issue thirteen gives him plenty of sinister, creepy magic to play with, and the story offers a twist that could be interesting, but might not matter in a few months anyway.


Looking Ahead to Next Month:

In a few of this month’s entries I referred to recent news that DC is undertaking a line-wide relaunch of its superhero universe in September, effectively canceling every book and starting over with 52 #1 issues. It’s a bold move, one that has me excited and, to be honest, a bit apprehensive regarding the future of some of my favorite books. Information is still forthcoming so I won’t say much here, but in the next few months I hope to explore more of what this move means for my pull list, and my feelings as a long-time reader of DC comics who hasn’t ever experienced a shift of these proportions.

Book-wise, next month look for the first Flashpoint minis, including Azzarello and Risso’s Batman: Dark Knight of Vengeance and Peter Milligan and George Perez’s Secret Seven, plus the conclusion of Ruse!

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