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.]
Had last month’s column not been waylaid by end of semester chaos and other roadblocks to productivity it would’ve featured Saga #1, from Image Comics, as my Spotlight read. That I’ve selected Saga #2 as my Spotlight book for April shouldn’t be read as a consolation prize, or a way to make up for last month; I would’ve happily celebrated the first ever back-to-back Spotlight pick for the Pull List, had last month gone according to plan. It’s a brilliant title, unlike anything else on the shelves and well worth discussing at length. And if it’s brilliant again next month and I have to rename this column “Saga and Some Other Comics” then so be it.
What Saga does best is open up the science fiction adventure story, filling it with ideas and trusting to reader to follow along. Whereas a lot of sci-fi comics follow the Blade Runner model, where the entire fictional world seems to grow out of a single design choice, Saga feels more like Star Wars, filled with weird creatures and technologies that don’t necessarily make sense together but we accept them as a whole because the story never stops to let us figure out how the giant gangster slug fits with the admiral who looks like a prawn. The characters in Saga (and Star Wars and Blade Runner, for that matter) are rich and complex enough that I don’t really care about the how – I only want to know what they’ll do next, and what the consequences of their actions will be.
Saga’s main story concerns Marko and Alana, alien soldiers from opposite sides of a war who have fallen in love and deserted. Saga #1 opens with Alana giving birth in hiding, just before the pair are tracked down by Alana’s former confederates. They escape, and begin searching for something called the Rocketship Forest that they hope will take them far away from the war where they can raise their daughter in peace. Along the way we meet Coalition officers with humanoid bodies and televisions for heads, giant turtles with laser eyes, and bounty hunters with names like The Will and The Stalk, the latter of which is the principle threat in issue two. Alana and Marko are also humanoid, but are distinguished by a pair of wings and a set of ram’s horns, respectively, which are the unique characteristics of their particular races. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples understand that a well-constructed story will sweep that quantity of detail along and use it to set-up even more sophisticated plot points, and that readers are more likely to appreciate the richness of everything than to complain that everything and everyone looks too weird.
All of that oddity would mean nothing if the characters weren’t relatable and interesting, though. Marko is an awkward new parent, nervously optimistic about their chances of escaping the war but also slightly a bit of a bumbler, while Alana is more collected and pessimistic. When The Stalk (a bounty hunter with a forked, weaponized tongue) stabs Marko and tells Fiona to hand over the child, Alana points a stun gun not at the monster, but at her own daughter, deadpanning that she’ll do anything to keep her away from the powers that are hunting her family. Even The Stalk is shocked, and as a reader I found myself in the strange situation of relating to the ruthless professional killer. So far, Saga is made up almost entirely of quiet character moments like that, with a smattering of action sequences mixed in. When the action does inevitably pick up, the stakes will be even greater because we’ve come to care about Marko, Alana, and even baby Hazel, who narrates the story from some point in the future.
Outside of the clever plotting and rich character work, Saga is notable in that it represents Vaughan’s return to comics. A critical darling of the 2000s, who built a loyal fan following around titles like Y: the Last Man, Runaways, and Ex Machina, Vaughan was celebrated for his deep plotting and dynamic characters, which made him a natural to make the transition to screenwriting, most notably three seasons writing for Lost. It’s too early to speculate about how that time away might’ve changed his writing, but nevertheless it’s good to have a gifted writer, especially one capable of drawing a non-traditional comics audience, working in the medium.
That said, the star of this series is clearly Staples. She broke through with Mystery Society (written by Steve Niles) in 2010, but Saga is the first in hopefully a string of high-profile gigs for the artist. Her linework is a bit sketchy but still clear, and suited to rendering all of the detail necessary for the kind of world-building she and Vaughan are up to. Staples particularly excels in acting – her characters are expressive, not only in their faces but in postures and gestures. When Prince Robot IV enters in issue two he is upright, striding as his position would dictate, but as soon as he learns something new about Alana his confidence is shaken and he takes this stance, somewhere between petulant defiance and a slouch, that tells us everything about Prince Robot in a single panel.
Staples’s backgrounds don’t quite grab me, though. They’re rendered digitally, and appear hazy and soft, whereas the foreground figures (also, I suspect, rendered digitally) are clear and defined, outlined in black lines. The result is a cel-animation feel, which is interesting in some ways but seems to rob the story of some of its depth and richness.
I never would’ve suspected this would happen, but Image Comics has been slowly taking over my pull list in the past few months. I’m reading more Image titles than ever, and gradually dropping Marvel and DC books. I still enjoy superhero titles, but I’m finding that books like Saga are making me all the more excited to visit my local store (Boston’s Comicopia) every Wednesday.
Speaking of Image’s ascendance, The Manhattan Projects #2 by the Red Wing team of writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra, was very nearly the Spotlight pick. Hickman seems to be throwing all of his Big Science ideas into this title, which is a “what if” story about the real Manhattan Project, but peopled with comic-ified versions of historical figures. For instance, the man posing as Robert Oppenheimer is actually his schizophrenic evil twin, who murdered and cannibalized the original Oppenheimer and is now tormented constantly by the good and evil sides of himself. Harry Daghlian, a physicist who was accidentally irradiated in an accident at Los Alamos, appears as a radioactive skeleton contained in a yellow body suit with a glass dome head, his skull peering through. Issue two introduces Richard Feynman as the everyman, reader-access character, relatively normal (outside of being a super genius physicist) and tossed in with a lot of other brilliant mad men, all working with the military to develop super-science weapons. Hickman has a good feeling for comedy, and is able to play Feynman’s discovery of a roomful of dead Nazi scientists for both fright and laughter. Artist Nick Pitarra’s craft has grown from his work on The Red Wing, with even stronger, more expressive characters and framing techniques. This book could easily be very heavy and dense, but Hickman’s casual attitude towards the mad concepts makes it a lot of fun, well worth picking up.
Yet another Hickman/Image Comics collaboration, Secret launched this month. Where The Manhattan Projects is anarchic, Silver Age madness, Secret is much more of the moment. Its protagonists are high-dollar security contractors who do business with Goldman, Sachs types, and who are apparently gaming them by playing both sides of the threat/solution equation. This first issue features well-structured storytelling with a nice final-act reveal, and Ryan Bodenheim’s pencils are solid, but it feels just a little flat. I was more interested in Michael Garland’s color scheme than in the story – he color-codes the entire issue, so that distinct plot elements are rendered in green, or yellow, or purple. I haven’t put it together yet, and perhaps it’ll turn out that it’s more about feeling than encoding, but it’s still a provocative choice. I’ll give Secret #2 a shot next month, but if I had to choose between them Manhattan Projects is the obvious winner.
Dynamite Entertainment is something of a licensed-property warehouse, so it’s no surprise that The Shadow found a comic book home there. The pairing of the character with writer Garth Ennis, best known for titles like Preacher, Hitman, and Punisher, is inspired. I wouldn’t necessarily have pegged Lamont Cranston as a typical hyper-violent Ennis hero, but the cruel wit certainly fits. And Ennis is more than capable of dialing down his id to craft slow-burn stories that make the ensuing violence more meaningful. The opening scene of The Shadow #1 is pitch perfect – The Shadow interrupts a gang and explains that he is only concerned with two men he has some connection with, but ends up slaughtering the entire lot when they resist. It begins with the feeling of a radio drama, lots of speech making and dramatic framing courtesy of artist Aaron Campbell, but quickly descends into grindhouse territory. The rest of the issue is plot set-up and features Cranston in his gadabout disguise, aloof with acquaintances, and downright remote with a loved one. I find Campbell’s inking too heavy for the quieter scenes, but they give the nighttime action sequence a proper theatrical feel. I’m on this for at least the first arc, hopefully more if the quality stays this high.
Grant Morrison brings his first Action Comics arc to a close with issue eight. Scheduling hurt the pacing of this title – the two previous issues told an excellent Morrisonian time-travel story but didn’t seem to directly impact the story of Superman saving Metropolis from the Collector (a.k.a. Brainiac) – but Morrision still brings the story of Clark Kent becoming Superman to a satisfying end. He even manages a somewhat reasonable explanation for the terrible new costume design (though if you squint you can almost pretend it’s the classic design – you know, the one that was perfect and didn’t need to be updated). What I’ve always liked best about Morrison’s Superman is how he saves the day not by punching his way through swarms of enemies, though there is sometimes a bit of that, but rather by being smarter and more humane than his opponent. It’s all over All-Star Superman, and shows up again in Action when Superman defeats Brainiac by using the rocket that delivered him from Krypton to Earth, miniaturized in the villain’s plot, as a micro-bullet. Where the issue falls down is the art – there’s a platoon of pencilers and inkers on this title, and from page to page the character designs are erratic. This is no one’s best work, not even Morrison’s, but it delivers on the promise of the initial issues and, better still, puts pieces on a game board for Morrison to play with in the months to come.
Finally, we say goodbye to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents with issue six of the second volume. Issue two of the first volume was one of my first Spotlight picks, and I’ve enjoyed this book every step of the way. Writer Nick Spencer takes a lot of deserved criticism for excessively slow pacing, but the second volume was largely free of that issue. He built a conspiracy plot about the Underworld war and used it to reveal the weaknesses in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. concept, thereby allowing his government-agent characters to effectively rebel against their masters. Following Toby’s death in last month’s issue, Colleen goes rogue, first taking revenge by killing the SPIDER agents who set them up, and then allowing No-Man to destroy T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s central computer in a suicide mission. Spencer closes everyone’s story, and even allows Toby a final say via a “final letter from the dead” scene that could’ve been obvious and cliché but, instead, turns the story on its head and offers a moving final line. Both CAFU and Wes Craig, series artists for the first and second volumes, respectively, are on hand to usher the story out, and both do typically excellent work. Michael Uslan and Trevor McCarthy’s Undersea Agent back-up story is tonally on a different planet than the main story, and I wish DC had let that be a digital offering, or a bonus for the trade. But ignore those pages, and this is a perfect ending.
Saying that All-Star Western #8 is paced extraordinarily well seems like faint praise, but it’s a feat that writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are able to weave three storylines together so well, pushing the story along without giving any of the plots short shrift.
Buddy Baker finally gets angry in the emotionally draining Animal Man #8 and which features a violent scene that’s only slightly less disturbing than young Maxine’s brutal death and resurrection – this is one of very few comics not afraid to overwhelm the reader from time to time.
The Court of Owls brings the fight to Wayne Manor in Batman #8, and though writer Scott Snyder gives Bruce plenty of action in the main story, he saves the best moments of the issue for the back-up featuring art by his American Vampire partner, Rafael Albuquerque.
Writer Peter Tomasi brings the slightly long-in-the-tooth Nobody arc to a close in Batman and Robin #8, and while I think it was somewhat unnecessary to pour yet more blood on Damian’s hands, I did appreciate the father/son moments at the end, and particularly the last panel of Damian and Bruce running after the bat-signal.
Amy Reeder’s art in Batwoman #8 is as good as ever, but the story is slowing down, and the gimmick of following six plots at once and weaving back and forth in the timeline that seemed fun in the first issue of this arc has become a bit dull – Reeder’s impending departure from the title makes it even easier to drop this title next month.
I bid a fond farewell to Blackhawks with issue eight – not a perfect comic, but writer Mike Costa was developing interesting characters and had finally found a sympathetic art partner in CAFU just as the title was canceled. It’s a credit to both creators that they eased the story to a conclusion rather than burning through a few meaningless issues just to be done with it.
Captain Atom continues to cover surprisingly emotional territory with issue eight, which sends the Captain into the future and raises questions about morality, responsibility, and identity.
Catwoman #8 is a fine story with fill-in art by Adriana Melo, but the title suffers without series artist Guillem March and writer Judd Winick doesn’t do much to hide the fact that he’s just marking time before the big Batman crossover begins next month.
Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan wrap up their adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast” story with issue 3 of Conan the Barbarian, which matches the previous issue’s savagery with a bit of introspection as Conan finally gives in to Belit’s unique charms.
Daredevil shipped twice this month, but neither issue demonstrates the title’s usual strength – issue 10.1 is one of Marvel’s infamous “catch-up” issues that are meant to draw in new readers, and issue 11 is the third part of a crossover with The Punisher and Avenging Spider-Man. Mark Waid writes both issues, and both are good stories but 10.1 gets the upper hand on 11 thanks to guest art from Koi Pham, who does a remarkable Paolo Rivera impression in these pages.
I dove once more into the Dark Horse Presents pool in April, picking up issue 11 because I wanted to sample Francesco Francavilla “Black Beetle”, which was excellent. I also enjoyed Evan Dorkin’s “Milk and Cheese” strips, another installment of Carla Speed McNeil’s “Finder,” and John Arcudi and Jonathan Cases’s “The Creep.” And yes, Neal Adams’s “Blood” remains a regular feature, and yes, it’s still awful.
Demon Knights #8 is another catch-your-breath character-focus issue, this time exploring Madame Xanadu and her convoluted relationship with Jason Blood and his alter-ego, the demon Etrigan – writer Paul Cornell makes it into a game, telling the “truth” one way, then doubling back to tell the exact opposite, leaving us no closer to an understand of what Xanadu is up to, but a greater appreciation for the complexity of her character.
It’s getting a bit redundant to comment on the horrific elements of an issue of Fatale, since they’re all grisly and terrifying, but it’s worth singling out how artist Sean Phillips frames the murder that closes issue four, and how the victim’s expression is more upsetting than any of the blood spilled in this series so far.
The Flash #8 gets deeper into the mechanics of the Speed Force, but I was more impressed with how the story cuts back to reality to explore how Barry’s social life falls apart when he’s stuck in the other dimension; it’s a rare superhero comic that acknowledges the passing of time that way.
Irredeemable #36 is the penultimate issue of the series, and while it focuses on a last showdown between the Plutonian and Quibit, there are still other plots in the works that writer Mark Waid will have to bleed into next month’s finale in order for the story to pay off. Meanwhile, Incorruptible #28 is the second to last issue, but offers a much clearer sense of how the story will end – in each case Waid is being a bit coy, but that’s been his inclination in these books to begin with.
Justice League #8 is easily the most entertaining issue of the series so far, as writer Geoff Johns plays with reader expectations by telling a jokey story about Green Arrow’s attempts to join the league; the real treat, however, is the short epilogue about the Martian Manhunter drawn by Ivan Reis that demonstrates how provocative and surprising the New 52 reboot can be, even eight issues in.
The action sequences in Peter Panzerfaust #3 are briskly paced and effective, and, if the introductions of Captain Hook (a Nazi officer, naturally) and Wendy into the story are a little too on-the-nose, it’s a minor complaint for a consistently fun title.
Tom Taylor and Colin Wilson’s wartime story in Rocketeer Adventures 2 #2 is the highlight of the issue, and probably of this volume so far, but there’s also fun to be had in Paul Dini’s story about Betty’s acting career, and Walt Simonson’s Judy Garland fanfic.
Saucer Country #2 is a little less elliptical than the first issue, and is structured more like a soap opera than I’d anticipated – I think that’s in the story’s favor.
The Shade #7 wraps up the second major arc with a big action sequence that takes a turn towards the melancholy in the middle, as Shade’s feelings of regret and guilt and loss allow him to fully utilize his powers in a stunning sequence made all the more affecting courtesy of Javier Pulido’s art.
The details of exactly what happened on Mars that led Orson to his current state become clearer in Spaceman #6, which also includes a heartbreaking moment when Orson and the orphans he’s befriended craft a plan not to become rich and famous, but just to be part of a loving family.
I decided not to drop Stormwatch after Paul Cornell left the book because I wanted to see what other writers could do with the characters – Paul Jenkins’ brief fill-in run, which concludes this month with issue eight, was fine but not extraordinary, and I suppose I’ll give incoming writer Peter Milligan a shot before I let it go.
Artist Yanick Paquette revels in the chaos and violence of Swamp Thing #8, which follows up on last month’s promise that the transformed Alec Holland would bring war to the Rot.
Brian Azzarello’s and Cliff Chiang’s vision of Hell in Wonder Woman #8 is a psychological-horror take on London that genuinely gave me the creeps – I would never have imagined Wonder Woman as the ideal character for a horror book, but Azzarello makes it work by placing her in this realm of gods that’s ruled by emotion and impulse, and therefore difficult to process.
Looking Ahead to May
Night of the Owls begins in earnest, the return of Obama-Superman in Action Comics, and the sure to be stirring conclusion of Irredeemable!