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

Secret Avengers #20

In his 2011 mini-series The Red Wing, one of my favorite comics of last year, Jonathan Hickman uses time travel as more than just a plot device meant to complicate the narrative and give readers a fun puzzle to solve by the final issue. That isn’t to say that the plot isn’t so tangled that it can’t be untied, but simply that Hickman describes his concept of time travel in more poetic terms (aided, it’s worth nothing, by diagrams drawn into the scene by series artist Nick Pittara) and seems less interested in the mechanics of time travel than in its effects on the story’s emotional arc. By playing with our expectations of what time travel means Hickman brings some of the danger and volatility to that sci-fi trope. Warren Ellis does the same thing in Secret Avengers #20, but from the opposite direction – rather than eschewing the paradoxes and details of time travel, Ellis luxuriates in them, creating an elaborate puzzlebox of a story that doubles as a character study of Black Widow.

The issue begins with a large panel of Captain America being shot in the chest – a shocking image, but not entirely surprising given Ellis’s very public (and likely exaggerated) dislike of superheroes – and the next few pages continue along the same lines. All of the Secret Avengers except for Black Widow are dead or dying, having received some bad intel and run a mission at the wrong moment. As he dies, War Machine gives Black Widow an emergency “escape hatch” device, which she uses to get help. As it happens, the “escape hatch” sends her back in time five years to an Italian villa, giving her enough time to figure out how to save her teammates.

Her plan is ingenious, but it’s how Ellis gradually introduces and shapes each gear in the works that makes the story such a delightful read. The device bounces her around in time as she gathers vital information about how time travel works (she can’t undo something that’s already been done, and she can’t be in the same place as her past self) then meets with an illegal superweapons manufacturer and a mad scientist, thus setting the plan in motion. These encounters are drenched in Ellis’s trademark wit, particularly Black Widow’s back and forth with eccentric scientist Count Khronus, but still convey the tedium and frustration of having to wait for time to catch up with your ideas. To busy herself Natasha befriends the Count and his assistant/husband Kongo, and visits deceased colleagues.

As the time-shifting continues these scenes get shorter and punchier, and gradually we begin to see how every seemingly disparate encounter clicks together. By the time Natasha returns to the present all that’s left to do, for both hero and reader, is to stand back and enjoy the inevitable result. And the final bits of dialogue, as the revived Avengers attribute their survival to luck and coincidence, reveals that Widow’s machinations parallel Ellis’s own storytelling goals – the most skilled practitioners of their craft can make impossible complicated acts seem like happenstance.

All along this run Ellis has been matched with high-caliber artists, and Alex Maleev is no exception. He’s equally adept at both aspects of the story, from a stunning two-page spread of the opening battle scene that suggests the scale of just how poorly the mission has gone to the slight smirk Natasha wears when consulting with Khronus and her nonchalant posture in the issue’s final panel. The subtlety of those expressions makes Ellis’s wit feel germane to the story, more than just a writer’s attempt to seem clever.

And though colorist Nick Filardi is no slouch, I think Maleev’s pencils work even better in a bizarre two-page sequence that suddenly turns the action into a Steve Canyon-esque black and white newspaper strip. The sketchy, spare line work suits that format really well, no matter that I can’t see any good reason why it’s necessary for that sequence.

Ellis’s Secret Avengers run concludes in January, and when all is said and done it should make for a perfect trade paperback collection of tightly constructed stories. What’s ironic, then, is that these issues are ideally suited for the burgeoning digital market. As the big publishers push further into digital comics and the format gets new legs, I think we’ll see readers abandoning the trade collections that dominated publishing and sales models in the 2000s in favor of the kind of single-issue, “one and done” stories of the Silver and Bronze ages. New digital readers, who won’t be trained in the weekly or monthly buying habits of the fan who came up pre-tablet, might be less inclined to wait 30 days for the next installment of story that stretches out over six or seven issues. Instead, they might prefer issues like Secret Avengers #20, which can be read without any prior knowledge of the characters or universe, and which implies no lingering connections to subsequent stories. This wouldn’t be the first time Warren Ellis laid the groundwork for a trend the rest of the industry caught up with in three or four years.

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Solid Reads

 

Deadpool MAX-Mas #1 rolls two things I love, David Lapham and Kyle Baker’s work on Deadpool and special Christmas-themed comics, into one extra-sized package. A twist on It’s A WonderfulLife, this issue has Hydra Bob lamenting that he wished he’d never been born (understandable, considering he’s been framed by the CIA as the worst terrorist in history.) Deadpool plays the “Clarence” role, but instead of going on an invisible journey through an alternate timeline, he simply fakes Bob’s death and lets his friend see what would actually happen if he’d died. The tour is split into three parts, each drawn by a different artist – Baker takes the second story, regular fill-in artist Shawn Crystal, who also drew Deadpool MAX II #3 this month, takes the third. But best of all is the first story, illustrated by Lapham himself. Since the conclusion of Young Liars we’ve had a lot of writing from David Lapham, but precious little art (a guest issue of DMZ, I think, is the only thing I recall) so it’s nice to see that clean, bold linework again. And while Lapham’s art isn’t as madcap or cartoony as Baker’s, he still manages the light yet deeply disturbing tone through precise detailing. Crystal’s art doesn’t quite hit those right notes of absurdity, but he’s no slouch, and you could ask for far less from a regular fill-in artist. Deadpool MAX II #3 takes a detour from the story of Bob and Wade’s run from the law and brings back a few characters from last year’s bachelor party issue. It’s fun, but this series always suffers when Lapham’s sense of humor gets the better of the plot. And having seen the highs this book is capable of (issue three, in particular) it’s easy to gloss over the lesser chapters.

Daredevil #7

While not exactly a “holiday special” Daredevil #7 does take place during a winter storm and includes a flashback to a Christmas party. The story finds Matt Murdoch chaperoning school trip for a dozen blind children, and having to rely on his radar senses when a bus crash strands the group in the woods during the aforementioned storm. In another writer’s hands this could easily come off as a cheesy, sentimental story about the hero being rescued by children. But Mark Waid’s script keeps the tone just dark and uncertain enough that the expected ending feels like relief rather than cliché. Daredevil’s internal narrative suggests the precariousness of both the physical situation, and the hero’s state of mind as he struggles to keep the children safe while every plan he makes fails. And artist Paolo Rivera contributes to that sense of danger in his layouts. Tight, small panels cramped with close-ups of faces and trees move suddenly into large, panoramic views of the grey and white nothingness that surrounds the troop. Coupled with the persistent snow effect from colorist Javier Rodriguez, the art gives this book a palpable, ominous chill.

I remember reading about the Elseworlds 100-Page Spectacular back when it was only an 80-Page Giant, at least a decade ago, if not longer – DC published the collection of alternate timeline stories, then immediately pulped it over concerns that an image of a baby Superman getting zapped in a microwave (and crawling away unscathed, mind you) from the Kyle Baker story, “Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter” was inappropriate. The few copies that leaked out became collector’s items, and even though the Baker story was eventually published in a different collection it still retained that “forbidden tale” appeal. Now DC have reversed their position and quietly released the original issue, with an extra story of a Jewish Batman fighting the SS in Berlin by Paul Pope that’s predictably gorgeous and thoughtful. Pope’s story is far from the only highlight in this collection, however – Baker’s “Tom and Jerry”-inspired story of baby Superman and his babysitter is chaotic fun with a great punchline in the final panel, and Tom Peyer and Ariel Olivetti’s satire of the acclaimed mini-series Kingdom Come is full of sharp inside jokes for fans (or critics) of the original. Some of the other stories don’t quite hit, particularly an MTV-style documentary about Lex Luthor’s career as a rock producer, but for pure laughs nothing beats Mark Waid and Ty Templeton’s series of mock Silver Age covers, lightly parodying the “shocking twist” nature of many Elseworlds stories. I’m sure everything would’ve read better in the context of when it was written – when was the last time DC actually released an Elseworlds story – but it’s still worth checking out to see some peerless creators enjoying a rare bit of anarchic fun with classic characters.

Batman, Inc. – Leviathan Strikes! #1

My most anticipated December release was Batman, Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes! #1, the conclusion of the first volume of Grant Morrison’s Batman, Incorporated story that was beset by scheduling delays last year and put aside during the New 52 relaunch. Though the story’s momentum dissipated slightly over the four months since the last issue of Batman, Inc. was released I was still eager to return to Morrison’s dense, complicated Bat-world and read the payoff to the title’s central mystery. This extra-sized issue (that was kind of a theme this month) includes the story of Batgirl undercover in a prep school for girl assassins, drawn by Cameron Stewart, and Batman’s final confrontation with Doctor Daedalus, drawn by Chris Burnham. Both artists are in top form, but Burnham in particular shows off some effective layouts that translate a script dense with timeloops and dimension shifting into rational visuals. Throughout the finale Morrison ties together small bits of story from the previous eight issues, leading to a reveal of Leviathan’s identity that’s been effectively hidden in plain sight all along. As with the rest of Morrison’s Batman run, Leviathan Strikes! rewards subsequent readings, particularly after a refresher course of the previous issues of Batman, Inc. Unfortunately, we have to wait until May for the Morrison and Burnham’s next volume.

One fundamental rule of superhero comics is if there’s a single universe shared among two or more books, a crossover is inevitable, if for no other reason than to boost the sales of whichever book sells the least. It’s a testament to both Mark Waid’s storytelling instincts and Boom! Studios’s editorial stance, that Irredeemable and Incorruptible have gone this long (nearly three years for the former, two for the latter) without a major crossover (granted, Incorruptible began as a response to events in Irredeemable, and some characters have bled from one book into the other, but before this month’s “Redemption” arc, you never needed to read both titles to understand the basic story.) Waid uses the occasion to explore the origins of both evil Superman-analogue The Plutonian and his archenemy, the recently reformed ex-villain Max Damage. It turns out the characters share more than just mutual animosity, and Waid deftly embeds small, seemingly insignificant moments in Irredeemable that he then extrapolates into major plot points in Incorruptible. And because the issues alternate between the two characters Waid is able to maintain each book’s particular tone – dark, discomfiting irony in Irredeemable #32, and bittersweet sincerity in Incorruptible #25. Plus, in Incorruptible #25 we also get the secret origin of Charlie Hustle, which leads me to believe that either Waid knows other readers love the character as much as I do, or he’s reading this column and tailoring the story to suit my specific interests. Either way, I’m happy.

Tales Designed to Thrizzle #7

I typically reserve the space to talk about books I like, and express any negative critiques succinctly in the “One-Shots” section. But this month I must write at length about a book that’s fallen from rather lofty heights. I wish I could say otherwise, but Tales Designed to Thrizzle #7 was nowhere near as funny or inventive as the first five issues. New issues of Thrizzle have become a once-a-year event, so anticipation is always high for fans of the early issues and Kupperman’s webstrip for Fantagraphics.com, Up All Night. Issue #6 was uneven, but I hoped it was just a temporary setback and that Kupperman would be back in top form the following year. But outside of a strip about McArf the Crime Dog, who is forever on the lookout for scum, and some good gags in the “Quincy, M.D.” story, Thrizzle #7 feels, and looks, rushed. In the early issues Kupperman’s jokes defied you to figure out what was funny about, say, a character named Uncle Grandpa, or the ongoing culture war between Sex Blimps and Sex Holes. The humor was obscure but never random, and the gags didn’t build to punchlines so much as develop into bizarre worlds that then crashed into the orbits of other worlds. But now the jokes seem to stay at one level, substituting randomness for absurdity and leaning on cultural references to do the heavy lifting. Hopefully another year will find Kupperman inspired and engaged with comics as he once was.

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One-Shots

Action Comics #4 features the first big fight of the series, between Superman and what might be the new Metallo, but a lot of the action is shunted to the back-up feature, which makes for an odd but exciting reading experience.

I thought for sure the ending of last month’s All-Star Western was a kind of in medias res fade to black thing, but this month we get to see the gruesome results of Hex’s stand-off and the beginning of a new mystery that finds the bounty hunter teamed once again with Jeremiah Arkham.

In Animal Man#4 Jeff Lemire delves deeper into the background and mythology of the Red, and artist Travel Foreman tops himself with a chase sequence towards the end of the issue that somehow combines everything disturbing and horrible into one final image.

Aquaman #4 is a showcase for Ivan Reis, particularly the two or three splash panels set during Aquaman and Mera’s final confrontation with the trench dwellers, and the story ends on a sweet note – I’ll likely not return to Aquaman next month, and this is a good a stopping point as they come.

Coming off last month’s revelations, Scott Snyder takes us into the past in Batman #4, telling a poignant story about young Bruce Wayne’s first case that helps explain why he’s so blinded to the threat posed by the Court of Owls that he ends up walking right into a trap in the final panel.

Damian’s dalliance with the dark side of Batman’s mission grows deeper and more upsetting in Batman and Robin #4, and is made all the more convincing by the stoic, numb expression he wears, courtesy of artist Patrick Gleason (who is doing career-best work on this title.)

The first nine pages of Batwoman #4 is an object lesson in the immense potential of comics as a storytelling medium – in four elegantly structured double-page spreads (plus the first page, all by itself) J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman tell two different stories, one of passion and love, the other of naïvete and violence, that comment and enrich each other – the rest of the issue continues the sequence double-page spreads, and grapples with the aftermath of the opening scenes.

I quite enjoyed Blackhawks #4 – the first story arc resolves well, and the characters feel more defined and unique four issues in – but I can’t imagine how much better this book will be next month when CAFU takes over art duties.

The bubbly mullet that Captain Atom grows after his meeting with the military goes awry in Captain Atom #4 is sort of odd, but otherwise the art was gorgeous as ever, and the story continues to meander.

Anyone still avoiding Catwoman because of the furor about the first issue should pick up issue four, as writer Judd Winick has eased back from the sensationalism and turned in an affecting character study of Selina Kyle – however, the new villain introduced in this issue is pretty lame.

Demon Knights #4 explores the origin of the Shining Knight, with lush art for the flashback/dream sequence provided by Michael Choi, and drops two very interesting hints about the future of the series, one of which I might be overanalyzing – if I’m not, then the eventual reveal will be mind-blowing.

The Flash #4 was the first mediocre issue of the series – Francis Manapul’s art is gorgeous as usual, but the story stalls almost completely in favor of exposition that doesn’t feel entirely necessary.

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E #4 ended big and crazy, as I hoped it would, with more giant monsters and a last minute escape, plus a nice character moment to conclude the arc and present me with a nice jumping off point.

Geoff Johns uses separate imprisonment as an occasion for strong character moments in Green Lantern #4, giving Hal a chance to prove to himself that he loves Carol, and forcing Sinestro to literally confront his past and justify his actions.

John Constantine’s guest appearance in I, Vampire #4 feels like a ploy for readers, and it’s certainly a detour from a story that was just beginning to move in an interesting direction.

The team finally comes together in Justice League #4, and the first appearance of Darkseid in the new DC universe is suitably destructive and intense, but as the months roll on it seems like writer Geoff Johns is attempting to fuse the epic scale of Grant Morrison’s JLA with the humor and levity of the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League title – what’s more, he’s actually pulling it off.

Severed #5 takes a step back from the visceral scares of last month’s issue, but maintains an edge-of-your-seat tension the entire time as Jack begins to understand just how strange and dangerous Mr. Fisher really is.

James Robinson dips into the mythology of the Arrerente, indigenous peoples of central Australia, in The Shade #3, and uses it to spin an elaborate puzzle that the Shade must solve with his head and heart, rather than his fists.

Writer Brian Azzarello negotiates the needs of four different plotlines in Spaceman #3, helping put Orson’s plan, or lack thereof, into context and fleshing out characters that he’s likely to come in conflict with in the next few issues.

Stormwatch #4 ties the story together neatly, and showcases each member of the team as they put the alien threat down, and the cliffhanger ending raises the hope that next month’s issue will delve into the broader purpose of Stormwatch and it’s place in the DCU.

Our own Nico Vreeland was not fond of Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Torro’s vampire novel The Strain, and I wasn’t dazzled by the first issue of its comic book adaptation – Mike Huddleston is one of my new favorite artists, but his work here feels muted compared to Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker or even The Homeland Directive.

Marco Rudy fills in for regular artist Yanick Paquette on Swamp Thing #4, but proves to be just as adept at unique layouts and horrific imagery; particularly impressive is one full-page panel that highlights the difference in Alec and Abby’s natures.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #2 is packed with exposition, but it’s executed well by both guest artist Jerry Ordway and series artist Wes Craig, whose heavily shaded, dramatic inking sells the tragedy of the cliffhanger ending.

I had high hopes for Dynamite’s Voltron #1, but even the haze of nostalgia for my youth isn’t enough to make this issue a satisfying read – I’m all for altering the concept to suit modern storytelling needs (and god knows the cartoon’s major weakness was story) but Brandon Thomas’s script discards all the bits that made Voltron fun in the first place.

Much of the action in Wonder Woman #4 takes place at a metal concert as Wonder Woman enjoys the music and processes the recent revelations about her parentage – I’m fairly certain that’s a first in the character’s published history, and a further indication of just unique vision writer Brian Azzarrello has for this title.

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Looking Ahead to January

The conclusion of Warren Ellis’s Secret Avengers, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Fatale, and the long-awaited return of Bulletproof Coffin!

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