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. ]
Remember July? I do. It was hot, and I spent a lot of the time reading comics; that’s pretty much what I want out of July. And in a typical August I would’ve written about those comics in my regular State of My Pull List column. But this past August was far from typical. A cross-country move followed by a hurricane put the Pull List on the backburner, and before I knew it we were well into September. The August issue of the Pull List will be out later this week, but in the spirit of Unofficial Comics Week on Chamber Four, I thought I would look back at July and touch on some of the highlights, weird spots, frustrations, etc., in a somewhat different form. No Spotlight pick, no One-Shots; rather, a narrative of the month that was.
Batman #11 brought Scott Snyder’s “Court of Owls” story to a close, and thus was the issue I was most excited to read. While I’ve enjoyed much of “Court of Owls,” I think it’s been less successful overall than “The Black Mirror,” Snyder’s 2010-2011 Detective Comics arc. The mystery at the heart of that story seemed more personal to the characters, and so the gradual development and final reveal generated real suspense. By contrast, Batman’s war with the Court of Owls has been more about dynamic action sequences (all beautifully illustrated by Greg Capullo) and it’s fitting that the final issue is one big fight scene between Batman and (HERE COMES A SPOILER – THOUGH IT’S TWO MONTHS LATER AND YOU REALLY SHOULD’VE CAUGHT UP BY NOW) Lincoln March, a.k.a Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s abandoned brother. Thomas spends the entire fight explaining to Bruce the exact nature of the plot against him, in such detail that it begins to feel like Thomas is instead speaking to the reader, making sure we didn’t miss anything. Snyder leaves Thomas’s identity in question – probably the only way a contemporary writer could get away with such a severe retcon of Bat-history – and Bruce moves on, but it somehow doesn’t feel consequential. By the end of “The Black Mirror” it was clear Dick Grayson had been changed by his confrontation with the past. I’m not as convinced that the Court will have a lasting effect on future Batman stories.
Rounding up the remaining Bat-books: Batman and Robin #11 featured Damian’s fight with former Robin Jason Todd, plus some grisly action courtesy of artist Patrick Gleason. By Catwoman #11, the current storyline has become a bit tedious, and fill-in art by Adriana Melo doesn’t make it any more compelling. And Batman Incorporated #3 was a pleasant surprise, as it was meant to be delayed a month in light of the Colorado shooting, but it found its way into my stack on its normal schedule. I can understand why DC wanted to delay it, but the panels in question are pretty tame compared to 90% of what’s published by DC and every other publisher on a monthly basis.
Scott Snyder had two more titles in July, the tense, beautiful American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares #2 with art by Dustin Nguyen, and Swamp Thing #11, with art by Marco Rudy. I almost wish DC hadn’t brought Francesco Francavilla in to draw June’s Swamp Thing #10, because the contrast is stark. Rudy is a fine artist, but Francavilla does more with tone and atmosphere, which suits Snyder’s fondness for creepy scripts. Issue eleven is more of a superhero punch-up that leads directly into the “Rotworld” crossover with Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man. Speaking of, issue eleven of that title also featured fill-in art, this time from Lemire’s former Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. collaborator Alberto Ponticelli. The return of the yellow aliens from Grant Morrison’s celebrated run on the character is welcome, and horror movie fans will enjoy the Thing reference in the story’s conclusion. This one also leads into the “Rotworld” crossover, and hopefully some renewed story momentum.
What of Superman? Alternating pencilers made Action Comics #11 an uneven read, but I liked Clark Kent’s adventures as a fireman and Grant Morrison’s take on Metalek. And Superman Family Adventures #3 is more goofy fun from Art and Franco. Among the rest of DC’s superhero output, there weren’t many standouts. Writers Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato introduced some fan-favorite characters into the new continuity in The Flash #11, King Arthur joins the team in Demon Knights #11, and infighting plagues the heroes in Justice League #11. Earth 2 #3 suffered from overexposition but introduced an intriguing connection to the Green-Red-Rot backstory that’s been running through Swamp Thing and Animal Man, and The Shade #10 was better than last month’s issue, but still a bit dull. And All-Star Western #11 ties the Court of Owls into Greg Rucka’s Crime Bible story from a few years back. I’m on the fence with each of these titles (except Shade because it ends in September). I’ll need to trim my list in the coming months, and these titles are just too inconsistent for the expense.
Wonder Woman #11 was the best of the lot, as writer Brian Azzarello takes story threads from the first issue of the title and brings them to bear on the current plot. We’ve known Apollo was going to be a villain since those first pages, but now the nature of his threat is clearer. Perhaps villain isn’t the right term, as there’s nothing (at least, not yet) that makes him any more or less dangerous than the rest of the pantheon of gods. Speaking of the pantheon, artist Cliff Chiang’s designs of Demter and Artemis are not his most complex, but still capture the essence of those characters and make this a more visually compelling version of Olympus. If this title were only about immortal beings and their infighting I would still enjoy it, but Wonder Woman’s complicating presence makes it all the more fun.
The only other superhero title I read in July is Daredevil #15. While Chris Samnee’s layouts are a bit more conventional than Paolo Rivera’s, he is no less inventive when it comes to depicting Daredevil’s powers. This issue is the best showcase of that creativity yet – robbed of all his senses by nanobots, Daredevil fights to regain rudimentary perception and escape from Latveria. Samnee and writer Mark Waid find different ways to depict those flashes of information, visual and otherwise, and keep the reader trapped in Matt Murdock’s head for most of the issue. Some debt is also owed to colorist Javier Rodriguez, who uses a limited palette with jabs of color here and there to emphasize Daredevil’s disorientation.
In a quirk of scheduling, July saw the end of several of my favorite titles. Mondo #3 is the final issue of that series, and was just as inexplicable and striking as the rest of the series. Ted McKeever’s art is maybe a bit less abstract in this issue, but it still looks like nothing else on the shelf. And if you’re going to depict a giant squid attacking Venice Beach, maybe it’s better to aim for realism.
Meanwhile Rocketeer Adventures 2 #4 brings the second volume of the anthology to a close, and features one of the best stories of the entire run, J.Bone’s absurdist tribute to Adam Strange and the John Carter of Mars stories. The other two stories, by Louise and Walter Simonson and John Byrne, are fine, but feel similar to stories we’ve read before in this series. Bone’s take is a little less reverent, and thus more memorable.
And if his Twitter feed is any indication, Michael Kupperman is done with Tales Designed to Thrizzle with issue eight, which is the best since issue five. Some of the gags still fall as bit flat, and Kupperman’s art is nowhere near as detailed as it used to be, but “Red Warner’s Train & Bus Coloring Book” captures some of the madness that made the early issues of Thrizzle so fun. I wonder, though, if my love of those first five issues is keeping me from enjoying the latter half. Am I biased to that kind of strip, and just haven’t acclimated to Kupperman’s newer approach? Or has Kupperman really lost a step in the intervening years? I’ll have to reread, and reevaluate.
The most notable final issue (for this reader, at least) is The Bulletproof Coffin; Disinterred #6. It probably would’ve been my Spotlight read, though I don’t know if my review could do it justice. The entire Disinterred series has been about dissolving genre expectations, both in content and in form, to see what comics really look like under decades of accumulation. As a result they’ve all been darkly funny. Whether writing about a psychotic detective who kills his partner because he believes she’s conspiring to undermine him, or soldiers in Vietnam who become zombified by radiation from space, David Hine keeps his distance from the material and is therefore able to render it absurd, just another part of the weirdness (and sometimes the banality) of comics. But there’s no ironic wink in issue six. It isn’t even an approach on comic genres, at least not that I can deduce. In fact, it more closely resembles films by Larry Clark or Todd Solondz in its emotionless scanning of a character’s isolation and self-destructive behavior. There’s also a clown who may or may not be a murderer, which is a surefire way to keep anyone from wanting to read your comic. But it’s brutally effective, and probably the most complex comic I read all month.
Speaking of unsettling, I picked up issue nine of Dark Horse’s relaunch of the classic horror anthology, Creepy, out of the blue and was pleased to find several sharp, genuinely scary stories. The original Creepy was a Tales From the Crypt clone, but the modern stories are somewhat darker than their predecessors. The best of this batch is Emily Carroll’s “The Red Knife,” which is a kind of horrific spin on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Highly recommended for readers looking for a little morbidity in their comics.
Also from Dark Horse, Fatima the Blood Spinners #2 sees Gilbert Hernandez’s zombie apocalypse story take on the inevitable romance comic angle. But it’s Gilbert Hernandez, so it’s charming and folded effortlessly into the main plot. And Mind MGMT #2 follows up the concept heavy first issue of Matt Kindt’s paranoid spy/conspiracy adventure with a more action oriented issue that introduces invulnerable assassins and dolphins into the mix. My last Dark Horse title of the month is The Massive #2, from Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson. I’m still lukewarm on this title – I’m sticking with it for now because Wood has a talent for setting up story elements that pay off further down the line, and the post-eco disaster world is an interesting setting, but I hope subsequent issues reveal a character as compelling as DMZˆ’s Matty Roth; otherwise, The Massive will probably not survive the upcoming pull list purge.
I had a lot of difficult with Wild Children, a one-shot from Image by writer Ales Kot and artist Riley Rossmo. Kot and I share an affinity for Grant Morrison – if it wasn’t apparent from the text, he includes footnotes pointing the reader in that direction – but this felt more like a comic about Morrison’s work than one inspired by it. And maybe that’s the intention. But the characters and their message came off as smug and condescending, which didn’t make me want to return to the book for deeper rewards. I wish more comics had Wild Children’s ambition, but not its attitude.
Saga and Saucer Country both hit issue five in July, and are in very different places. In Saga, writer Brian K. Vaughan has reached the point where the issues are reliably good, and the story is progressing at the right pace. It’s not the revolutionary craft of Wild Children, but it’s a satisfying read month to month. Saucer Country, meanwhile, remains unsteady. The conspiracy promised in issue five’s final panels should give it some needed urgency. I suppose an abundance of scenes where characters sit and talk is one of the pitfalls of setting a comic in the political sphere. Writer Paul Cornell can get away with some of that, but the meetings need to lead somewhere, soon.
Finally, Vertigo has the month’s strongest debut in Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus #1. Murphy’s art on Grant Morrison’s Joe the Barbarian and Scott Snyder’s American Vampire; Survival of the Fittest brought him to mainstream attention, but this is clearly his passion project. Writing for the first time, Murphy gives each character a unique voice, even while unloading a lot of exposition in long dialogue passages. A story about the clone of Jesus starring in a reality show could easily be overheated satire, but Murphy is smart enough to avoid most of the obvious targets. And any clunky storytelling is glossed over by his gorgeous art, which looks even better in black and white. Right now the title is a bit of a misnomer, but it presages something fun down the line. I’ll stick around to see what it is.
That’s it for July. Keep reading Chamber Four this week for more comics conversation, and the return of The State of My Pull List on Friday!