BY AARON BLOCK
[At the end of every 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.]
Very few comic book writers have fallen as far out of critical and popular esteem as James Robinson; certainly no others who have experienced a similar fall are still producing major work. The closest is probably Jeph Loeb, but even his biggest critical hits were nothing compared to Robinson’s run in the mid to late 90s. The Golden Age, Leave It to Chance, Starman, the Legends of the Dark Knight story “Blades” – each of these featured rich, complex stories that made Robinson a critical darling. With his exceptional character sense and predilection for the under-appreciated corners of comic book history, Robinson’s place in history was already secure when he left comics for Hollywood in the early 2000s.
Then he wrote the screenplay for the awful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, wrote and directed the forgettable Comic Book Villains, and stayed away from comics until 2006, when he returned to DC to write an 8-part story crossover story in Batman and Detective Comics. The Robinson of old was largely missing in that story, and seemed to have disappeared entirely by 2009’s Justice League: Cry for Justice mini-series. Critics and fans alike assailed the title, and it seemed that his celebrated earlier work would from now on be slightly tainted, a little asterisk next to each title to signify that the writer had gone to pot shortly afterward.
That said, The Shade #4 is a good indication that Robinson is becoming comfortable with his voice again, and is still capable of telling a nuanced story with recognizable, distinct character work. Reuniting the writer with arguably the most popular character to emerge from his Starman series, The Shade is a 12-issue maxiseries that follows the reformed villain/not-quite hero as he investigates an attempt on his life. That story is told in three-issue arcs, broken up by single-issue “Times Past” stories, which tell tales of the Shade’s adventures in different eras, with guest artists on hand to better evoke the “out of time” feel of the narrative. The first of these, issue four, features pencils by Darwyn Cooke and inks by his regular collaborator J. Bone, an art team ideally suited for a story set during World War II.
Issue 4 begins with the Shade at his desk, quill in hand, writing his memoirs, and through the narration we flash back to 1944, and the story of the character’s first heroic act. While planning a diamond heist, he learns about a Nazi plot to assassinate an American industrialist, Darnell Caldecott, and decides to provide his own variety of protection. Enlisting the aid of two Golden Age heroes, the motorcycle-riding cowboy Vigilante and the mysterious Madame Fatale, whose secret is revealed in the third act. It’s a fairly straightforward, tightly constructed story, but it reads more like a broad serial adventure, due largely to Cooke and Bone’s art.
Darwyn Cooke’s art is so closely associated with the post-World War II era of America – thanks to indelible work like The New Frontier and his adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels – that it’d be tempting to say he was typecast if he wasn’t so clearly content to recreate (or reinterpret, depending on your perspective) that world. His clean, bold line and minimalist design work lends itself to the hard angles of art deco settings and lantern-jawed heroes. And though none of the characters in The Shade #4 fit that hard-boiled Cooke archetype, he conveys the title character’s unsettling urbanity, and Madame Fatale’s restraint, suggesting the character’s secret pages before it even plays into the story. J. Bone’s inks keep Cooke’s pencils a bit more elastic, which suits the fantastic element of the Shade’s shadow powers, particularly in a scene when he confronts the saboteur. And with all of that energetic storytelling fit into the rigid wide-panel grid Cooke is so fond of, the book feels big and busy; it’s cinematic, but the cinema of a bygone era.
Robinson’s best work captures that same feeling of dislocation. He thrives writing misfit characters that populate odd corners of the shared universe – at a very basic level Starman is about the rehabilitation of lost, unloved characters flung across DC’s publishing history. And though he tried to populate books like Superman and Justice League of America with similarly underused characters, it didn’t quite work because those are spotlight titles. Set apart from well-known characters and big storylines, in his own fictive space, Robinson is capable of great depth and clarity. The Shade seems to be providing him that space for now; whether he stays there (or DC lets him) will likely determine the tenor of the writer’s second act.
The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #1 returns writer David Hine and artist Shaky Kane to the psychedelic, self-referential world of the first Bulletproof Coffin series. But where that miniseries followed a single storyline, Disinterred is almost like an anthology title, with each issue telling the story of a different character, some of whom appeared briefly in the original series. Issue one introduces a detective named Johnny P. Sartre who day-dreams (hallucinates?) about becoming the commie-hating crime fighter The Shield of Justice. The stress of investigating a series of brutal, elaborately orchestrated murders leads him to crack up even further, and before long he moves to finally erase the line between fantasy and reality, with horrific consequences. That movement between levels of reality defined the original Bulletproof Coffin, but the dangers of identifying too closely with violent superhero archetypes are made more explicit here. Hine is as sarcastic as ever, but amid the absurdity he still manages to tell an interesting mystery story (even if the mystery is never actually solved). And Kane’s flat, brittle art is perfectly suited to both render the awful details of this world, and call attention to the comic page as object, which seems to be what these books are largely about. The Bulletproof Coffin was one of my favorite titles of 2010; I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about the six issues of Disinterred again come December.
Fatale #1 also features a series of grisly murders, a detective pushed to the breaking point, and a supernatural element, but its tone is about as different from the dark absurdity of Bulletproof Coffin as possible. Writer Ed Brubaker is firmly in hardboiled mode in this title, from the 1940s setting to the beautiful woman with a secret past who seduces a married reporter. That would be a satisfying narrative mode on it’s own, but Brubaker introduces an element of horror into the plot, with a strange cult that has some kind of connection to World War II, and images of creatures introduced in a hallucinatory flashback that suggest there’s something more at stake than the typical heist and doomed romance. Artist Sean Phillips, Brubaker’s longtime collaborator, acquits himself equally well with both noir and horror aspects of the story – the hazy, shadow-heavy panels have a kind of weary, worn-in feel, which makes the sudden introduction of headless corpses at the scene of a ritual murder appropriately disturbing. This issue is dense with story, but so much of it serves as introduction that it feels as if very little actually happened – that’s likely just a storytelling kink that’ll be worked out in subsequent issues. Still, this is a promising start from two creators trying something new in a genre they’ve more or less mastered.
My first immediate re-read experience of 2012 comes courtesy of Batman #5, by writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. Much has been made of the issue’s experimental format – halfway through, the layouts rotate horizontally, so that you have to turn the book around to read it, then rotate again so that it’s upside down, and so on until the final pages when it’s righted once more – and while I agree that the interactivity highlights Batman’s own confusion as he tries and fails to negotiate the Court of Owls’s maze, it’s just one aspect of an overall incredible issue. For the first time in his run Snyder digs into Bruce’s mind, using the Court’s psychological torture (and a helping of drugged water) to reveal both how durable his mind is, and how dangerous it can be once it’s finally broken. Over the past fifteen years it’s rare that we’ve seen Batman presented as anything but confident and ultra-capable, ready for any contingency, always playing the long game with his villains, so it’s particularly thrilling to watch Snyder leave the character vulnerable and alone. Doubly so because we know full well that the third act of the story, Batman’s recovery and revenge, will be all the more exciting for it.
Elsewhere in the Bat-world, Catwoman #5 continues that title’s run of superbly plotted stories. Writer Judd Winick fits four major sequences into these 20 pages without sacrificing nuance. In another writer’s hands this issue could’ve easily been just the big fight sequence with Reach, or the police chase, but Winick is able to move the plot through each turn, mixing humor with action and bringing a subplot that’s been developing over the past few issues to a head. There’s certainly still an argument to be made that artist Guillem March takes the cheesecake to an extreme – witness this issue’s scene of Selina spending some of the money she recovered from Reach on top-dollar spa treatment – but as the series gains depth those moments are increasingly rare, and more often at least somewhat germane to the story and rooted in character. It seems that Winick and March will stay on the title for the foreseeable future, which bodes well not just for the stability of the story, but also the increasing sophistication of the storytelling.
When I learned that Daredevil #8 was the second part of a story that began in Amazing Spider-Man #677 I planned on skipping the first part and just reading Daredevil – I trust that I’m a sophisticated enough reader that I could put the rest of the story together through context, and if not there are numerous online resources that could catch me up. But then I noticed that ASM #677 was written by Daredevil writer Mark Waid and drawn by Emma Rios, so I grabbed them both. And while the story of Daredevil and Spider-Man teaming up with the Black Cat (Marvel’s Catwoman analogue) is fun and light in keeping with Waid’s style, Emma Rios’s art is the real draw. Her line work is heavy and sketchy, and seems to draw quite a bit of influence from Paul Pope. But that influence isn’t derivative, and Rios seems more flexible with action, which suits a story that features three highly acrobatic characters. Fill-in artist Kano delivers effective Paolo Rivera-styled art on Daredevil, but it’s nowhere near as energetic as Rios or as impeccably designed as Rivera. And it’s worth noting that Rios’s Black Cat is lithe and dangerous, whereas Kano’s is more typically exaggerated. Waid uses the team-up of heroes who are not quite friends to showcase his comic dialogue, and it’s all over fairly quickly. I’m looking forward to Rivera’s return to Daredevil next month, and I’m hoping Emma Rios moves from the Spider-books to another title sometime soon.
Back in November in my Spotlight review of Wonder Woman I stated that the redesigned Greek mythological figures were perhaps my favorite aspect of the title. Wonder Woman #5 features the most radical depictions yet, offering a Hades who looks like an eleven year-old boy with melting candles on his head, and wax dripping down over his eyes. Poseidon is a mash-up of every kind of sea-life you can think of: whale, octopus, and catfish, plus a starfish for a crown, a shark’s dorsal fin, and a nautilus shell emerging from his side. Poseidon’s design suggests just how willing Azzarello and Chiang (who is replaced by Tony Akins for January and February’s issues) are to break with Wonder Woman’s past, and play with characters that don’t resemble superhero or supervillain archetypes. Amid the new character introductions and splash pages of gods confronting mortals, Wonder Woman gets to spend some down time talking to Zola, and realizes that the young woman carrying Zeus’s child is her aunt-to-be. It’s a nice moment that suggests Diana’s kindness and generosity of spirit, and far from typical from Azzarello, who is best known for his grim crime stories and characters that refuse to feel anything beyond than anger, jealousy, and greed. His work on Wonder Woman reveals the writer’s more playful side, as did his previous collaboration with Chiang, the excellent Dr. Thirteen: Architecture and Morality. There will always be time for terse private detectives and criminal types who solve problems with fists; for now, it’s nice to read about a hero who leads with her heart instead.
The narrative shift from issue four to issue five of Action Comics is pretty sharp – the previous issues were rather straightforward, but with issue five Morrison becomes more elliptical, telling a more complex story and introducing a few characters to the new DC universe.
All-Star Western #5 links 19th century Gotham City to the mythology established in Grant Morrison’s time-traveling Batman series from 2010, The Return of Bruce Wayne, meshing Jonah Hex with the larger universe in an elegant way.
With issue five writer Jeff Lemire brings the first arc of Animal Man to a close at exactly the right time, just before we’re dulled to the horror and bored by the exposition.
By comparison, Batman and Robin #5 is heavy with exposition, as Bruce flashes back to his first meeting with Morgan Ducard – it’s a bit much, but a brilliantly paced action sequence featuring Damian towards the end of the issue makes up for it.
The new status quo set up at the end of Batwoman #5 is compelling and ensures that I’ll stick around for next month at least, but the conclusion of the Weeping Woman story felt rushed and dull.
As expected, new series artists CAFU and Bit bring some much needed drama to Blackhawks #5, which takes place almost entirely aboard a satellite that’s about to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Captain Atom #5 is perhaps the most beautiful issue of an already unbelievably beautiful title, and the story moves forward just enough that I think I’m on board for next month, but I’m always teetering on the edge of dropping it.
In DeadpoolMAX #4 writer David Lapham takes Agent X, a strange alternate version of Deadpool from when Marvel was trying to avoid paying royalties to creator Rob Liefeld, and turns him into an assassin whose sad life story mirrors Deadpool’s own, making his death a little more poignant than expected.
It’s a testament to the character work writer Paul Cornell is doing in Demon Knights that the big reveal of the team traitor in issue five stung as much as it did.
The Flash #5 delivers a perfect conclusion to the Mob Rule story that only falters in the end – but it’s a big misstep, as co-writers Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato pull a character’s motivation seemingly out of nowhere as an excuse to set up a recurring villain for the Flash.
Geoff Johns wraps up the first story arc in Green Lantern #5 with some strong moments for Sinestro and a happy ending for Hal Jordan, not to mention an intriguing teaser that means I’ll probably be sticking around on this book a bit longer than I’d suspected.
But I think I’m done with I, Vampire as of issue five – the Batman guest appearance read a bit flat, and I just don’t particularly care about what happens to these characters.
Incorruptible and Irredeemable conclude their big origin-telling crossover with issues 26 and 33, respectively – Incorruptible ended on a deeply moving note, perhaps the most overall successful issue of the series yet, while Irredeemable twists the knife one final time with a dark revelation about the Plutonian’s adopted parents.
Too many inkers hurt Justice League #5, which looked uneven and rushed – story-wise, it’s still crawling along, and if I could get the part of my brain that processes nerd OCD thinking to let go of my allegiance to Justice League comics, I would drop it.
Artist Stuart Immonen joins Warren Ellis for the final issue of his celebrated run on Secret Avengers with issue 21, which brings the entire team together for an impossible mission that ends abruptly and proves that Ellis has no room for sentimentalizing superheroes in his black heart. I also read Secret Avengers 21.1, which introduces the upcoming arc by writer Rick Remender, and though it was fun enough I think I’ll pick up the next arc in trade paperback form.
All of the cards are finally on the table with Severed #6, as Jack finally realizes the old man killed Sam, and the reveal that comes when Jack finds his father’s house is possibly the most upsetting plot point in a mini-series that has featured it’s share of awful things.
Steed and Mrs. Peel #1 reprints the first issue of Grant Morrison’s 1990 mini-series for Eclipse Comics featuring characters from the BBC television show “The Avengers” – I’m fond of “The Avengers” and obviously a Morrison fan, but this was only OK and therefore a bit of a let-down. I’ll be back next month, but I’m not necessarily committed to the title.
Paul Cornell is apparently fond of revealing team traitors in fifth issues, as Stormwatch #5 features a lot of chaos wrought by Harry Tanner who blows up the satellite headquarters after learning he won’t be selected as the new team leader.
Yanick Paquette is back on Swamp Thing with issue five, and his gift for precise, horrifying detail is useful in this issue, which features several reanimated animal corpses attacking Alec and Abby, and the first instance of Alec tapping into the power of the Green.
Guest art from Walt Simonson makes T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #3 all the more exciting, but even without the legendary creator’s presence this would be a compelling issue – writer Nick Spencer has picked up the pace from the previous series, delivering more action and pushing the plot along while still exploring the dark corners of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents history.