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.]

Spotlight

Wonder Woman #3

It’s relatively easy to point curious new readers to quintessential Batman and Superman stories, but far less so with Wonder Woman. I’ve always found this odd, considering the character’s rather high cultural profile—she’s appeared in her own television show, Saturday morning cartoons, the requisite lunch boxes and Halloween costumes. Wonder Woman is everywhere, her popularity easily equal to that of Superman or Batman. So why the dearth of quality Wonder Woman stories?

There are several competing theories. Some argue that the underpinning of light fetishism and sexuality was crucial to the success of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston’s original stories, and even the conception of the character. Some say that attempts to “clean up” Wonder Woman in the 50s and 60s altered the storytelling engine for the worse. Others claim that Wonder Woman is too remote, or too perfect, and trying to tell human stories about a goddess doesn’t work. And we can’t ignore the reality of gender bias—the men who write and draw the majority of mainstream superhero comics are probably more likely to have a must-tell story about Batman or Superman than Wonder Woman, and DC is more likely to let them tell those stories because the predominantly male readership tends to ignore titles with a female lead (I’m not arguing that female characters can only be written by women, and male characters by men, but I’d wager there are other female creators eager for the chance to tell interesting Wonder Woman stories besides Gail Simone, who recently ended a compelling three-year run on the character. More Wonder Woman stories means a greater likelihood that at least one will be to that character what Batman: Year One and All-Star Superman are to Batman and Superman.)

All of those arguments have merit, and the recently relaunched Wonder Woman title, written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Cliff Chiang, addresses them head-on, with November’s issue three serving as a line in the sand for readers (and, implicitly, other creators.) Revising Wonder Woman’s origin, Azzarello reveals that Diana was not a clay figure molded by her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and given life by the gods, but rather the biological child of Hippolyta and Zeus. Azzarello solves the relatability problem right away by introducing notes of confusion, anger, and sadness to Wonder Woman’s story – she’s no longer just a goddess sent from a utopian society to perfect our world, but rather a person who has been lied to, and who acts out as a result.

That Wonder Woman’s familiar drama is Olympian in nature could be distracting, or worse, boring, if the gods and goddesses were depicted in the ossified, visually inert “toga and beard” style. The reliance on those tropes brought always brought Simone’s stories to a screeching halt, and keeps me from enjoying George Perez’s celebrated post-Crisis run—no matter how poorly or outrageously the gods are behaving, scenes of them standing among marbles columns and arguing read like dull boardroom conversation. Instead Chiang, one of the most inventive and exciting artists working in comics, has redesigned the Greek gods through a Pop Art lens. Hermes, for instance, is tall and thin, with the thick black eyes of a bird and chicken-like legs, while Strife is a glamour girl with lavender skin and a Sinead O’Connor buzz, wearing a shredded black party dress. In their new guises the gods feel volatile and relevant, and Wonder Woman’s place among them and is thus more interesting by extension. In fact, in three issues we’ve seen and heard more from the gods than the title character, who stays mostly quiet and absorbs her surroundings, waiting for the right moment to act.

That moment, as it turns out, is the final pages of issue three when Wonder Woman, having learned of her true parentage, storms through the jungle of Paradise Island and interrupts the beginning of an insurrection led by an Amazon who blames Diana for their heavy battle losses. In a nearly silent sequence Diana slugs the leader and asserts her independence from the island and her heritage. Chiang’s storytelling instincts sell the significance of the moment, particularly the scene spread when she address the crowd—it’s a complex layout, with close-up panels set over a double-page shot of the entire beach scene. It’s grand and moving, and lends a note of finality to the story. If this were the end of a mini-series it’d feel fully developed and satisfying; thankfully, there’s more to look forward to next month.

It’s impossible to say whether this will become the Wonder Woman story, the one that’s collected and continuously reprinted, that shows up on “best of” lists and so on. But Azzarello, a writer I never would’ve pegged for this title, clearly isn’t afraid to restructure the characters foundations, which is a good first step towards crafting an iconic book. It’s that approach that makes Wonder Woman one of the most satisfying reads of DC’s New 52.

Solid Reads

The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold #13

I don’t usually read The All-New Batman: the Brave and the Bold, DC’s all-ages comic spin-off of the brilliant (and sadly, canceled) cartoon, but I picked up November’s issue thirteen because it promised anunusual team-up—the Phantom Stranger gathers every Robin from the past and present, alternate timelines and realities included, to work together to save Batman’s life. The story is light, but never insults the reader. In fact, writer Sholly Fisch manages nice character moments for every Robin, using the adult Dick Grayson’s narration to highlight what makes each character unique, how they have contributed to Batman’s mission. And Rick Burchett’s art is gorgeous as ever—it’s animated, both in its clear relationship to the art style of the cartoon, and in the expressiveness of his linework. Batman fans can argue for hours about their favorite Robin, so it’s fun to see that argument given narrative form (even if Fisch is too cagey a writer to pick a favorite.) I’ll continue to drop in on this book from time to time for a frothy adventure fix.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Brave and the Bold is Spaceman #2, from writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso, the team responsible for 100 Bullets and the recent Batman: Knight of Vengence Flashpoint tie-in. With this series they trade in the noir trappings of their previous work in favor of a sci-fi flecked dystopian future that, naturally, isn’t so dissimilar from our present—news programs report almost exclusively on the exploits of reality television stars, nearly all communication and transaction takes places through handheld digital devices, and the environment has turned toxic. It’s admittedly a hair’s breadth from sounding exactly like any of a few hundred variations on the same theme that you’ve read or seen, but Azzarello tweaks the narrative by selecting as his main character Orson, one of a group of ape-like humans grown in a laboratory for the express purpose of surviving space travel to Mars. Orson now lives as a scrap salvager on a barge. In flashbacks (or possibly hallucinations) we learn that Orson and the other Spacemen made it to Mars, but something went wrong—what exactly isn’t clear yet, but presumably it’s the key to why Orson is in his present lowly state, a forgotten relic of a more ambitious time, the unfortunate freak no one really wants to associate with. Azzarello can’t completely let go of crime stories, however, and so Orson quickly gets involved in a kidnapping case, drive to heroism through a possibly misguided sense of connection to the victim. Risso’s moody art suits the story, particularly the coloring, which relies heavily on browns and muddy oranges and reds to suggest the grime of the world. For such a high concept, Spaceman is rather quiet, and often tender, or even sad—a welcome change of pace for Azzarello, who’s made a career on hard-bitten cynicism.

 

 

Secret Avengers #19

Secret Avengers #19 continues Warren Ellis’s streak of perfect single-issue espionage comics, this time paired with artist Michael Lark. Unfortunately Lark only provides breakdowns, and the finishes are handled by Stefano Gaudiano and Brian Thies, no slouches themselves but certainly not quite at Lark’s level. Still, the story is pitched just right—Captain America leads Sharon Carter, Black Widow, and Moon Knight undercover in an Eastern European (“Symkaria”—right) to take down a drug kingpin. The highlight of the issue is Moon Knight posing as a businessman seeking an escort, particularly when he uses the girl and the private room as a cover to put on his white facemask, which actually looks really cool set against his white pinstripe suit. Ellis plays comedy bits like that just right—light enough that it adds flavor but doesn’t mitigate the stakes of the adventure. The “drugs as super-power formula” plot recalls Grant Morrison, and it’s tempting to read the explosive conclusion as Ellis’s sly dig at his peer—all the talk and noise about ancient gods living inside you is so easily undone with a bottle of vodka and a lighter.

Comic Book Comics #6

Comic Book Comics #6, the final issue of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s graphic history of the comic book medium, concludes the project with the secret origin of the term “graphic novel,” a compressed bio of the father of manga, Osamu Tezuka, and a history of the booms and crashes of the 90s. In the final segment the creators ponder the future of comics and argue eloquently against digital piracy. This issue hits close to home for me because I detest the use of “graphic novel” as a blanket term for all graphic literature, but even if this issue didn’t provide fodder for my personal crusade it would still come highly recommended. No history of the field is as fun, and few are as informative as Comic Book Comics.

After a brief hiatus to make way for the DC relaunch, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is back with a #1 issue, though it continues exactly where issue ten of the previous series left off, so it might as well be T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #11. Writer Nick Spencer returns, this time with Wes Craig replacing CAFU as regular artist. Craig’s loose, shadow-heavy style is a good fit for the title—it recalls Chris Samnee, maybe with a dash of Ryan Sook, both excellent touchpoints for a espionage-adventure story with an emotional undercurrent. For his part Spencer paces this issue better than the last several issues of the previous volume, moving effortlessly between Toby and Colleen’s date, an uprising of subterranean people that the Agents fail to stop, and the backstory of the Menthor helmet. Spencer is sometimes knocked, fairly I think, as a writer who drags his stories out to unnecessary lengths, but this issue finds the writer at his best, moving the pieces on the board and setting up the mechanics for all of the bad stuff that’s about to happen.

Swamp Thing #3 picks up the slack from issue two, which was a bit flat and overburdened by exposition, introducing a new villain and further complicating Alec Holland’s relationship with Abby Arcane. Writer Scott Snyder makes the most of his horror roots in this issue, crafting two terrifying scenes set in a children’s hospital, one which ratchets the tension and uncertain, and the other which releases it all in an awful, gory catharsis. Woven among those scenes is Alec and Abby’s conversation, which again heads deep into backstory and exposition, but manages not to become bogged down by it. Yanick Paquette illustrates the Alec and Abby sequences, while Victor Ibáñez does fill-ins for the hospital scenes. The two styles mesh pretty well, but its too bad Paquette can’t complete the whole issue, as the few pages he does have are beautifully laid out. He pays close attention to details in the background, populating the scenes with animals, and especially plants, that contribute to the murky mood of the story. Paquette is off the book for the foreseeable future, though I recall Snyder mentioning in an interview that his Detective Comics artist, Francesco Francavilla, was on-hand for fill-in work on the title, so fingers-crossed that we’ll see that team again soon.

Batman #3

Snyder’s other DC relaunch title this month, Batman #3, was a strong candidate for the Spotlight pick, if for no other reason than the eight-page bravura sequence in which Batman uncovers the secret of the Court of Owls, the secret society he’d previously dismissed as superstition. It’s a masterful bit of storytelling, with nearly every panel revealing some nuance of the mystery. Series artist Greg Capullo frames each page in such a way that we learn everything just as Batman does, and our uncertainty and fear grows with every subtle change in his expression, the narrowed eyes and set jaw, that suggest the hero has been thrown off his game just a bit. I still can’t stand how Capullo draws faces, particularly Bruce Wayne’s, but I can tolerate that minor annoyance when the action and detective sequences look this good. And Snyder is proving to have just as firm a command of Bruce’s voice as he did Dick Grayson’s in his Detective Comics run, using narrative captions only when necessary, never letting the reader too far inside Batman’s head. At this point he’s only been writing in the Bat-world for a full year, but the characters are so spot-on and the plots so tightly paced that it feels like several years.

One-Shots

Artist Gene Ha joins Action Comics with issue three, illustrating scenes set on Krypton just before it’s destruction, a nice contrast to the more naturalistic direction regular artist Rags Morales and writer Grant Morrison have taken with this title.

Mortiat continues to draw a perfectly dreary and violent 19th-century Gotham City in All Star Western #3, particularly the final two-page spread, one of the best endings to a single issue I’ve read in a while.

Animal Man #3 is filled with creepy moments, like the awful intestine-monster-thing hiding itself in the body of Buddy Baker’s detective friend, made all the creepier through Travel Foreman’s rough but impeccably detailed art.

I’m still waffling on Aquamanwriter Geoff Johns overcomes his usual third-issue slump and adds some knots to the story, including back matter on the creatures Aquaman and Mera have been battling and a human antagonist to complicate the hero’s life, and Ivan Reis’ art is beautiful as always, but if the pace doesn’t pick up a bit I might drop it and revisit sometime next year.

My initial worries that Batman and Robin would be a redundant title in the New 52 have been completely allayed by issue three—Peter J. Tomasi ratches up the tension considerably, playing on Damian’s hyper-aggressive tendencies for a disturbing fight scene and crafting a cliffhanger ending that brings to mind the Batman television show of the 60s as directed by David Lynch.

Batwoman #3 takes a break from the Weeping Woman plot to spotlight a few quieter character moments and introduce a new costumed hero, though co-writer and artist J.H. Williams III’s layouts are no less acrobatic and breathtaking, even when the action slows a bit.

Mike Costa handles the large cast and multiple storylines of Blackhawks #3 quite well, but I bet this title will improve dramatically when CAFU joins as regular artist with January’s issue five.

At this point I have to admit that I’m still reading Captain Atom because of Freddie Williams II’s art and Jose Villarubia’s other-worldly coloring—which isn’t to say that J.T. Krul’s plots have been bad, quite the opposite as issue three’s guest appearance by the Flash proves, but just that the story beats feel almost incidental to the visual feast.

Catwoman #3 features almost no cheesecake or titillation (what there is is only one page, and doesn’t involve Catwoman at all), but does contain one of my favorite single panels of 2011 courtesy of artist Guillem March, a low-angle shot of Selina breaking free from her captors in a flip-kick move that’s packed with movement and energy.

Mark Waid wraps up his first arc on Daredevil with issue six, showcasing exactly what makes this one of the best superhero titles on the shelves by proving that Matt Murdoch’s most remarkable ability isn’t his radar sense, or acrobatics, but his analytical mind.

For all the sex jokes and camel spider gags, DeadpoolMAX II #2 is actually a rather poignant story of self-sabotage and self-hatred, as Hydra Bob throws away a chance to reunite with his only love.

Each member of the loosely-bound team gets a character moment in Demon Knights #3, but the best is Vandal Savage’s interaction with the townspeople, which recalls The Magnificent Seven and makes me wonder if that wasn’t writer Paul Cornell’s intention with this series from the first issue.

Co-writers Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul begin gradually introducing the Flash’s classic rogues gallery in The Flash #3, and Manapul yet again proves that he’s one of the most exciting visual storytellers in comics with inventive layouts that find new ways to convey the character’s physical and mental speed.

There’s a lot of fun (and funny) action in Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E #3 but I think I’m going to drop this book at the conclusion of this arc—it’s not really a reflection on the quality of the book, but I’m just not as excited about month-to-month as I am other titles and I have to make some cuts to trim the pull list a bit. Sorry, Frank.

Green Lantern #3 left a bad taste in my mouth (not the only Geoff Johns-scripted comic to do so this month—see Justice League #3) thanks to a scene in which Hal Jordan kills an enemy in the thoughtless, emotionless manner of a bad action movie—I understand that these are superhero comics and there’s bound to be a level of violence, but it’s a characterization that doesn’t jibe with Johns’s previous work on the character, to say nothing of Green Lantern’s decades-long history.

Writer Joshua Hale Fialkov introduces two new characters to the mix in I, Vampire #3 and provides a plot element that will hopefully make this title a little less sleepy—unfortunately it also means the setting is shifting from Boston to Gotham City, which means no more scenes of vampire massacres set in a post-apocalyptic Downtown Crossing, one of my favorite things about this series.

For the first time in its two year publishing history Incorruptible is a stronger comic than its sister series Irredeemable, as Mark Waid ramps both titles up for December’s big cross-over. The political maneuvering of the former cap the reconstruction of Coalville story in a satisfying way, while the “long lost brother” plot of the latter feels like a stalling tactic (though the reveal of the Faustian bargain the interim President of the United States made with the only remaining superpowers was a jaw-dropper.)

Geoff Johns and Jim Lee continue to build the team one member at a time with Justice League #3, this time around introducing a fresh, open-hearted Wonder Woman to the gang, but the otherwise fun story is somewhat soured by either Johns’s or Lee’s decision to have Superman dismember and murder parademons in the big fight scene – it’s not just that Superman shouldn’t kill, it’s that he can’t, it’s contrary to the very nature of the character, and makes for a few off-putting action sequences.

Severed #4 broke my heart, as co-writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft exploit the central relationship of the book for a terrifying, and inevitable, confrontation with the title’s razor-toothed child murderer.

The James Robinson we used to know and love seems back to full strength in The Shade #2, no doubt because he’s back to writing a pet character, particularly one he happens to see as a lightly disguised version of himself.

In Stormwatch #3 Paul Cornell sets the team’s gears into motion, letting each character’s concerns and abilities work in concert with the others to address the massive, world-ending threat while also developing a B-plot about levels of distrust among teammates that will almost certainly come to fruition in the next arc.

Looking Ahead to December

Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham return to their Batman story with giant-sized Batman, Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes, David Lapham and Mike Huddleston’s comic adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain, and a new issue of Tales Designed to Thrizzle!

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