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.]

 

Spotlight

The Manhattan Projects #4

Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s The Manhattan Projects is two different comics fused together. One is a broad, Looney Tunes-style comedy about wacky scientists, all versions of historical figures like Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, and Albert Einstein, and their equally wacky adventures developing sci-fi weapons for the US government; the other is a grim meditation on the potential of our worst selves, and the relationship of the past to the present. Both would be worthwhile on their own, but by bouncing between forms from issue to issue (and sometimes within a single issue) Hickman heightens the best of each story – the capers are all the crazier because of how dangerous each character could be, and the drama is more tense because we’ve seen just how unpredictable and unstable the situation is.

Issue four is one of the darker issues, taking a character I’d pegged as one of the good guys and revealing he’s anything but. Hickman spends most of these pages developing Einstein’s character, who up to this point he’s been primarily window dressing, seen sitting in his lab staring at a tall slab of rock etched with a cruciform design. The “roll call” page that ends each issue implies that he’s an alcoholic, which only heightened the character’s potential. Of all the other “real” characters – Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Harry Daghlian, et al. – Einstein is easily the best known and most celebrated, and therefore the most accessible for most readers. We expect him to be brilliant, to be funny and affable, and to save the day if for no other reason than because he’s on posters and in cartoons, and we like him.  As it turns out, the rock is a portal to infinite alternate realities, and sometime in the past “our” Einstein opened it and met his evil doppelganger, who promptly bashed him over the head with a cobra-shaped scepter and took the good Einstein’s place in our reality. Hickman capitalizes on his audience’s general knowledge of the character by inverting him, erasing the gentle, peaceful Einstein of popular memory and replacing him with a super-genius villain, a Lex Luthor for our world.

That inversion is key to what Hickman seems to be concerned with in The Manhattan Projects. All of the danger so far comes from within, from the unstable Joseph Oppenheimer (a schizophrenic cannibal who killed and ate his twin brother Robert, then assumed his identity), to a rogue general bombing Hiroshima against Truman’s orders, to an evil Einstein treating the multiverse as a laboratory. The distance between good and evil, if those terms are even appropriate, is collapsed. This is not Superman fighting Brainiac or Lex Luthor, not even Batman fighting the Joker – the “heroes” are just as likely to be the ones who destroy the world as any villain, and they’re doing so with the complicity of the government.

But what keeps this from being just another “the government is dangerous!” story is the reality of the Manhattan Project, and its awful consequences. The work of the Los Alamos scientists led to the development of a weapon that killed 200,000 people. No matter your opinion on the use of nuclear weapons or the end of World War II, if you follow that chain of events backwards from that destruction you will always find a group of military officials and scientists working together. Strip away all of the fantastical elements from The Manhattan Projects, like robot arms and irradiated skeletons living in containment suits, and you’ll find the same thing. It’s not speculative history, not a “what if” story – it’s a “what was,” a dark chapter of history filtered through Jack Kirby.

Given that, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s a cynical comic. It’s not, but neither is it particularly optimistic or compassionate or anything like that. The only “message” seems to be “with great power comes the freedom to disregard great responsibility and do whatever you want,” but even that isn’t as interesting as the book’s giddy tone, the imbalance of heavy and light that makes the reading experience so enjoyable. Hickman wants you to contemplate horror, but without the safety and distance of academics. You have to gaze into the computer monitor where FDR’s consciousness is trapped and realize it’s a rare and particularly potent nightmare that can you make you laugh this much.

Artist Nick Pitarra deserves equal credit for the success of that approach. His character designs are just slightly exaggerated so that we recognize the historical figures but are also attuned to their new, comic book-y characteristics. Joseph Oppenheimer is wiry and still, his focus complemented by the manic, everpresent figures that represent his psychosis. General Groves – the one who bombs Hiroshima – is no-necked, massive and unyielding, like a Hulk villain dropped into a laboratory. And the background is filled with little visual gags and details that contribute to a more complete sense of the world this story exists in. And special praise goes to colorist Jordie Bellaire, who makes the most of the red/blue coding in each issue to designate the two realities, not to mention the past from the present, good from evil, and the other binaries that spring up in the text.

Issue four also introduces the first suggestion of a larger arc or ongoing story, in the guise of an extraterrestrial encounter and a devil’s bargain. I’m sure that will be interesting, but I wouldn’t mind if The Manhattan Projects continued in this vein for the rest of its run, telling peculiar stories that explore the characters and events of the projects, collage-like, without an overall plot. Some narrative experimentation seems appropriate, given the subject matter.

Solid Reads

Fatima – the Blood Spinners #1

Fatima – the Blood Spinners #1 is the latest from Gilbert Hernandez, an icon of indie comics best known for collaborating with his brother Jaime on the long-running Love and Rockets, specifically the “Palomar” stories. But where his work in L&R is largely about human relationships with a touch of magical realism, Gilbert’s other comics work is just as likely to veer into genre territory, including dystopian sci-fi and horror movie send-ups. Fatima seems to be another one of those send-ups, this time featuring zombies. Story-wise, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before – Fatima is a no-nonsense ex-cop who massacres “spinners”, victims of a highly addictive drug called Spin that turns users into zombies. After a typical night of bloodletting she recalls the events of a year ago that marked a turning point for her and the spinner plague. Fatima’s meditation on the appeal of Spin is interesting enough, but the real draw here is Hernandez’s stark, simple artwork, and his stylization of horrific violence. Pages two and three are composed of silent panels, almost all of them close-ups of spinner heads being blown apart, eyes popping from sockets like berserk racquet balls, jet black spatters of blood in the background. I hope the story picks up next issue, but even mediocre Gilbert Hernandez is still a must-read.

Speaking of graphic violence, Fatale #6 introduces a new story arc, and moves the plot forward in time to the late 70s, a move that makes me more excited to read this title. I enjoyed writer Ed Brubaker’s 50s noir setting, and the interpolation of Lovecraftian horror with Nazi criminals, but 70s Los Angeles seems like an even more appropriate setting for the seamy, grisly events that populated the previous arc. And unlike those first five issues, Brubaker doesn’t hold back on the viscera with this issue. Miles, a failing actor, stumbles on a murder scene at a party held by the Method Church, a kind of debauched cult that attracts fringe Hollywood types. Josephine, the mystery woman from the previous arc, returns as a recluse who quickly becomes embroiled in Miles’s mess. As before, Brubaker doesn’t hand the reader anything – Fatale is a comic that expect you’ll be intrigued enough to keep reading and gradually put the story together. It can be frustrating in the early going, but in the end it’s a far more satisfying read than a comic that gives you everything you need in the first five panels, and hopes you’ll come back for more of the same. This issue also featured my favorite panel of a month, a sight gag from artist Sean Phillips – Diane Keaton, Paul Simon, and Woody Allen show up in the foreground of a panel depicting the party scene, suggesting that Fatale exists in a shared universe with Annie Hall. It turns out Alvy Singer was right about California.

Saga #4

After a few teasing mentions in previous issues, Saga #4 finally brings us to Sextillion, an entire planet that’s a hybrid of a bordello and a genie’s lamp, promising visitors the realization of all sexual desires, possible and impossible. Fiona Staples clearly had fun filling in the background with all kinds of libidinous behavior (an all-Valkyrie orgy, a human pyramid of naked men wearing marching band helmets being whipped by a clown-dominatrix, etc.) but the story is driven by bounty-hunter The Will’s disappointment with it all. In only a few wordless panels writer Brian K. Vaughan conveys so much about the character – a life that’s led him to seek unreal escape in surreal pleasure, but left him too jaded and pent-up to enjoy it. Eventually The Will confronts his inclinations towards, if not heroism, then at least a moral code and acts in a surprising, but gratifying, way. It’s fitting that he visually echoes Han Solo – the Will is a scoundrel who’ll still do the right thing in the end (the Batman-esque cowl and cape is just a bonus.) Elsewhere in the issue Marko and Alana work through some relationship problems that seem a bit dull in comparison. I’m starting to sense that this title’s weakness is going to be Vaughan’s overindulgence of these kinds of scenes, particularly when there are so many other aspects of the world that could be explored. As far as weaknesses go, though, that one’s pretty minor, and Saga is still an all-around excellent comic.

Brian Wood continues his post-Vertigo productivity with The Massive #1 from Dark Horse. Drawn by Kristian Donaldson, The Massive concerns a band of environmental activists, the Ninth Wave, in a post-cataclysmic future where sea levels have risen, ecological systems are devastated, and societies have unraveled. The crew of the Kapital scours the sea looking for it’s lost sister ship, The Massive, which went missing in a storm. Comparisons to DMZ, Wood’s recently concluded Vertigo series, are inevitable – both take place amid political tumult, involve multiple paramilitary factions, and feature young idealists as protagonists (not to mention Donaldson, my favorite of the few DMZ fill-in artists). The Massive is perhaps a bit less grabbing initially because it lacks the defamiliarized setting of DMZ’s war-torn Manhattan, but there’s clearly a compelling story to be told, and Wood is celebrated for playing the long game in his books. Donaldson’s art is suited to the story, all clean lines and detail, nothing exaggerated. It’s as if Donaldson’s goal with the series is to recreate official photographs of the events, to document what happened to the crew. Wood, Donaldson, and designer Justin Couch encourage that feeling with the issue’s backmatter, a collage of photographs, clipped articles, journal entries, and memoranda that fill in some of the story of the Crash and how the Ninth Wave came to be. That careful distance from the story renders it difficult to be too concerned when one character goes missing, but perhaps Wood is after something besides empathy with this story. I’m on board (zing!) for the initial arc, at the very least.

Batman #10

Scott Snyder’s “Court of Owls” story in Batman has been at times brilliant, but occasionally labored. The set-up, and Batman’s trial in the Court’s maze were well-plotted and tense, but the second act has felt a little dry. As the Talons invaded Wayne Manor I kept hoping something more would happen, something to heighten the stakes a bit. With issue ten, Snyder ushers in the third act, and delivers just the kind of drama I was looking for. The issue features a pretty big reveal that I won’t spoil for you (it’s well worth reading the whole story and enjoying the surprise) but what’s most remarkable about the twist isn’t the identity of the villain, but in how plainly it’s been written across the entire series so far. Snyder’s gift for misdirection kept me (and most other readers, I’d wager) looking for answers in all the wrong places when the answer to the question was practically written on the cover every month, ready to be deciphered by any fan with a more than cursory knowledge of Bat-lore. It’s audacious writing, the kind of thing Snyder does particularly well. I’m eager to see how the writer wraps it all up in next month’s issue.

Meanwhile Batman Incorporated #2, a completely different kind of Bat-book, meets and exceeds the standard set by last month’s excellent first issue (a Spotlight book, naturally). Writer Grant Morrison steps away from last month’s cliffhanger and instead treats this issue as a kind of keystone, connecting all of his recent Bat stories through the story of Talia Al Ghul’s life. Some of the details are familiar from past stories, but much of it is new and reveals exactly how Talia came to head Leviathan, and the motivation for her war with Batman. The entire issue is a tour de force of pacing, as Morrison compresses an entire fictional biography into 20 pages, letting some moments rush past, stopping to meditate on others, all along building the resentment, rejection, and frustration that lead Talia to her present actions. It’s an impressive issue, but more so when you consider that the Leviathan concept came to Morrison when his Batman run was already underway. A lesser writer would stitch the disparate stories together in a more obvious way; Morrison makes it feel organic, as if this had been the plan all along and we’re only just now coming around to it. And equal praise goes to artist Christ Burnham, who has come to define the look of the series. Seeing Burnham pay tribute to artist Neal Adams, who co-created Ra’s Al Ghul, and still maintaining his own approach to the characters and settings cements just how valuable an asset he continues to be for DC.

One-Shots

Action Comics #10 gets a bit knotty, and includes a touching scene of Superman trying to convince the rest of the Justice League to adopt pet hamsters, a perfect distillation of the off-kilter tone of the book.

Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray dive deeper into the history of the Court of Owls in All-Star Western #10, but the real draw is a hilarious Bat Lash backup strip drawn by the always brilliant Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

I find it a bit odd that I don’t read American Vampire, but am compelled to read the spin-off miniseries – I’m obviously a fan of writer Scott Snyder, but I’m more drawn to the art; American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares #1 is drawn by Dustin Nguyen, who wouldn’t be my first pick for a horror book but whose sketchy, painterly style is actually well-suited to a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere.

Animal Man #10 features a somewhat superfluous cameo by Justice League Dark, but the revelation about Buddy’s fate in the Red is compelling and sets up a strong climax for next issue.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Batman and Robin is really a Robin solo title, which is fine by me – issue ten introduces a new storyline that has Damian Wayne initiating a kind of blood rite showdown against all the previous Robins (except Stephanie Brown, as DC continues to conveniently ignore the character.)

Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #5 is probably the weakest issue so far, if only because the concept overshadows the story – writer David Hine and artist Shaky Kane tell the tale of the Hateful Dead, US soldiers fighting in Vietnam who become zombified, through reproductions of collectible cards, with accompanying captions – after a few pages, reading it becomes kind of a slog, which hasn’t been true of any previous Bulletproof installment.

In Captain Atom #10 writer J.T. Krul once again takes a meat and potatoes adventure story and infuses it with surprising pathos, this time following up the ho-hum conclusion of the apocalyptic future storyline with an ending in which Captain Atom literally divorces himself of his remaining humanity by creating a duplicate who can interact with other people and live a normal life, while his god-like self watches.

Catwoman #10 features a major betrayal that validates writer Judd Winick’s somewhat weak characterization of Spark; I’d say the book continues to look gorgeous, but praising Guillem March’s interiors (if not, perhaps, his covers) is starting to get a bit repetitive.

If you’re looking for lots of bloody one-on-one combat culminating in a brutal decapitation, artist James Harren delivers exactly that in Conan the Barbarian #5 – otherwise the story is a little thin, but sometimes in a Conan book a well-executed battle is all you need.

Credit Mark Waid with writing an issue of Daredevil set in Latveria without once mentioning Dr. Doom, and for taking the character out of familiar settings and testing his abilities; furthermore, credit new series artist Chris Samnee for not aping Paolo Rivera’s style and leaving his own mark on the book.

It was inevitable that Demon Knights would at some point take on Arthurian myths more directly, and with issue ten writer Paul Cornell finally makes that leap as the team meets a undead Arthur who seems to have some transformative power.

If you pay attention to light news stories you might’ve already heard about Earth 2 #2, the comic where the Green Lantern of an alternate Earth (who isn’t even Green Lantern) is revealed to be gay – it’s barely a blip in the story, which focuses more on Jay Garrick learning to use super speed.

There was a bit of buzz around Extermination #1 from Boom!, written by Simon Spurrier and drawn by Jeffrey Edwards, but I found the hero/villain buddy-cop story a bit too familiar and the dialogue overcooked.

It’s nice to have the Flash back in Keystone in The Flash #10 and guest artist Marcus To does an admirable job, but this issue was way too talky to work without artist Francis Manapul’s typically gorgeous pencils as a distraction.

Incorruptible #30 concludes that series on a positive note, which is appropriate given the overall arc but still feels like a bit of a let down, especially in comparison to last month’s dynamic end to Irredeemable.

A villain is revealed in Justice League #10 and there’s some in-fighting among the team, but after a few strong issues this book seems to be stalling again, and the small army of inkers doesn’t make the read any smoother.

Jeff Lemire introduces old JLA villains the Demons Three to New 52 continuity in Justice League Dark #10, but chances are I won’t return to see what happens next month – it’s not a bad comic, but I can’t help but feel the characters would be served better elsewhere.

My favorite part of Saucer Country #4 is how angrily Professor Kidd dismisses Michael’s abduction narrative, looking to divorce the truth from layers of pop culture influence, but I’m starting to lose interest in the story and may not be on this title for much longer.

Secret #2 is visually compelling and features a dynamic opening flashback, but the rest of the story still feels a bit flat, and the characters are so reserved it’s difficult for me to engage with their problems.

Frazer Irving is the perfect artist for The Shade, his dark, expressive colors suited to the story of a character literally made from shadows, but aside from a few excellent sequences issue nine is the first in a long time that’s reminded me of how uneven and, at worst, dull the book was in the beginning.

Spaceman returns with issue seven,  which is well-paced and finally brings us a confrontation between Carter and Orson, whose naivete becomes a serious weakness as Carter handily defeats him and kidnaps the children.

I had such fun with Superman Family Adventures last month I picked up issue two, and was delighted to find co-writers Art Baltazar and Franco having fun with Bizarro, not to mention separate gag strips feature the Super Pets and Jimmy Olsen.

Francesco Francavilla joins Scott Snyder, his former Detective Comcis collaborator, on Swamp Thing #10, and suddenly it’s a completely different book – quiet, tense, with sudden moments of horror out of an old EC comic.

In Wonder Woman #10  writer Brian Azzarello asks that you read closely, and if you’re willing to give it time, the ending delivers a perfectly understated gut punch.

Looking Ahead to July

The conclusion of Scott Snyder’s “Court of Owls” storyline in Batman, the final issue of Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred, and the last (or is it?) Tales Designed to Thrizzle!

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