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

Hawkeye #1

Anyone who isn’t a habitual reader of superhero comics was most likely first exposed to Hawkeye courtesy of this summer’s Avengers movie. And at the risk of further assumption, it probably wasn’t the best impression. Though ably played by Jeremy Renner, Hawkeye was hardly ever referred to by his codename and spent two thirds of the film as a nearly mute villain. Yes, he eventually gets a few cool moments in the climactic battle (including the awesome “hitting target while looking at something else” beat that demonstrates his preternatural marksmanship), but he’s probably the least memorable character. I don’t recall anyone citing Hawkeye as a favorite part of the movie. In fact, Chamber Four’s own Nico Vreeland is skeptical that a non-powered archer belongs on a team with gods, rampaging monsters, and power-suit clad billionaires (he said the same about Captain America, but I attribute that to regrettable temporary psychosis.)

Writer Matt Fraction makes the same point – or at least a variant of it – in Hawkeye #1. The title page (which, brilliantly, follows an opening splash page of Hawkeye falling backwards out a window, firing a grappling hook arrow) states: “Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, became the greatest sharp-shooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.” By situating the book as Hawkeye’s adventures when he isn’t surrounded by superpowered beings, Fraction argues that the character makes the most sense at the street-level, where facility with a bow and arrow might be more of an asset.

And as it turns out, the bow and arrow aren’t even necessary. They only appear in that opening splash page, and the first five panels of page three, in which Hawkeye swings on the line attached to his grappling hook, slams into the side of a building, and falls onto the hood of a car. Those are also the only panels where he appears in costume; for the rest of the issue he’s Clint Barton, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, or in a slightly shabby suit. In case the title page wasn’t enough, that sequence underlines the argument: superheroing leads to pain, this is about something else.

That something else turns out to be rent gouging, and the decency of a man who stands up for his neighbors against Russian mobsters and tries to save a dog’s life. Upon release from the hospital, Hawkeye discovers his landlord, Ivan, evicting one of his neighbors after she couldn’t afford the 300% increase in rent. Since no laws have been broken (a part of the script that gave me pause, but maybe I don’t know as much about renters’ rights as I think I do), Hawkeye tries to reason with Ivan, and eventually concocts a scheme intended to resolve the problem without violence. Naturally it doesn’t turn out that way, and Clint is thrown through yet another window.

Plot-wise, it’s a small comic – there’s no elaborate heist or world-conquering histrionics – but Fraction is more concerned with the emotional beats of the story. Clint’s actions are plainly heroic, but this isn’t a “hero” comic. He’s brittle and sarcastic, and his plan has whiffs of self-aggrandizement. But the voice is seductive, and Fraction is particularly adept at making unlikable characters accessible. And in the end it’s clear that Clint wants to do the right thing, and just has his own way of going about it. We’re drawn to the character because we want to see him succeed despite himself.

The flashback/forward structure of the issue heightens that desire for resolution. Fraction jumps between the story as it develops and scenes from the end, with Clint making a scene at a veterinarian’s office. The uncertain fate of the dog provides immediate stakes, but these flashforwards also tease the changes Clint will go through, just slightly misdirecting the reader so the conclusion still delivers the emotional goods.

All of that character work is abetted by artist David Aja, who previously collaborated with Fraction on the celebrated Immortal Iron Fist. Aja’s clearly draws inspiration from David Mazzucchelli, specifically his work on Batman: Year One. There is a rough realism to his panels, which are richly detailed but feel as if they’re seen through a haze. Instead of using lines and crosshatching, the preferred tools of most post-first wave Image artists, Aja seems to prefer short dabs of ink. Clint’s confrontation with the vet on page nine is a particularly strong example of how that restraint contributes to the scene’s somber tone.

Aja is also a gifted designer, and his layouts are more tightly packed than most mainstream comic pages. That’s not a bad thing; Aja uses small panels set in the typical grid to suggest motion, or emphasize multiple characters reactions to a moment. The scope of the story doesn’t call for many splash pages or bombastic action sequences, so Aja keeps everything low-key, even conventional. By simply telling an effective story, Aja has produced one of the best looking books on the shelf.

Hawkeye almost feels like a sister-title to Daredevil, which was celebrated for the very same traits – grounded adventure stories, strong characterization, and gorgeous art – when it debuted last summer. Both Matt Fraction and Daredevil writer Mark Waid understand that by trusting their artists and developing an idiosyncratic narrative voice they can tell effective small-scale stories that still satisfy a large portion of the readership. Of course, it’s no coincidence that both titles are edited by Stephen Wacker, who has gradually built his own duchy at Marvel based on a preference for exactly that kind of storytelling.

It’s not likely that Hawkeye will star in his own Marvel Studios movie anytime soon. Sure, he’ll show up in Avengers 2 and maybe have a meatier role, but he’ll still probably feel like a gruff soldier, more defined by his choice of weapon than anything else. That version of the character has a place in comics, too, just not this comic.

 

Solid Reads

Black Kiss 2 #1

I can only speculate as to why Howard Chaykin chose now to publish a sequel (really a prequel) to Black Kiss, his paean to obscenity. The original series, published in 1988, received it’s share of criticism and protest but gained a cult following. Dynamite recently published a hardcover edition, which must have sparked something of a Black Kiss revival in the fanbase, and in Chaykin himself. While the original series is certainly explicit, the younger Chaykin still managed some coyness, particularly in the early issues. Black Kiss 2 #1 has no time for coyness – it’s as raw and uncomfortable as it could possibly be, right from the get go. Abandoning the serial narrative of the original, Chaykin chooses instead to divide each issue in half, telling little vignettes that fill in the back story. You don’t need to have read Black Kiss to understand what’s going on, but certainly knowing the ultimate fate of Charles “Bubba” Kenton lends added significance to the scene of his spiritual undoing in the belly of the Titanic. Best of all, Chaykin’s art has only gotten better with age. His pencils are less rigid, and his layouts more imaginative. Black Kiss 2 isn’t for the easily upset, but those willing to venture in will likely find the confrontation rewarding.

As one controversial title ends, another begins. Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker #8 is the final issue of that series, but you’d have to look all the way back to last October for issue seven. The last time I wrote about Butcher Baker for this column was September, so I either intentionally avoided issue seven, or just forgot to pick it up. Either way, I had no trouble picking up with issue eight because the strokes of Joe Casey’s plot are so broad. Surprisingly, Casey gives the hero a happy ending, and the combined evil of Dick Cheney and Jay Leno is repelled. Just like every previous issue of the series, Butcher Baker #8 is gorgeous. Artist Mike Huddleston’s use of texture, permeable panel borders, and color is peerless; when the story wandered in directions that I didn’t entirely want to follow, I was drawn to Huddleston’s art and always willing to give the book a second read. There’s been a bit of “he said, she said” in the comics press about the reasons for the long delay, and the fallout seems to be the dissolution of Casey and Huddleston’s partnership. Which is a shame, as they work well together.

Saucer Country #6

Saucer Country #6is exactly the kind of lift this series needed. After five issues writer Paul Cornell’s story about a Latina presidential candidate trying to discover the truth about her alien abduction experience was starting to become a grind. The premise was more exciting than any activity in the story, and I suspected I wouldn’t be reading the title for much longer. With that first story arc concluded, Cornell takes a step back and reveals, through a clever framing sequence, his research into the UFO phenomenon, in particular the evolution of the idea of extra-normal visitors. Cornell stages the issue (which is really an essay in comic form) as a meeting of Governor Alvarado’s inner circle, in which Professor Kidd brings them up to speed on the phenomenon. His thesis is that UFO and alien encounters are a form of modern mythology, and he tours through a swath of history in presenting his evidence. Jimmy Broxton fills in for series artist Ryan Kelly, which suits the “detour” tone of the issue. And as Cornell movies through UFO lore Broxton employs different textures and art styles, from woodcut to a washed out old comic page look, complete with ben-day dots. Other readers might see this as a jumping off point, but it’s had the opposite effect on me. I’m better informed, and newly enthusiastic about the story still to unfold.

Like it’s fellow Image title Peter Panzerfaust, Saga is taking a brief hiatus with issue six, to allow writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples to catch up on issues and, presumably, allow new readers to get the trade of the first six issues before leaping into the second story arc. Vaughan and Staples end things on a brilliant cliffhanger that I won’t spoil, but this issue’s heft comes from what happens before. Marco and Alana finally find the rocketship-tree that takes them toward Quietus, but before they can get very far tragedy mars their trip. Meanwhile The Will, fresh off his failure to save the young girl on Sextillion, is hit with more bad news that puts him in direct conflict with Prince Robot. Staples draws a brutal silent page as The Will processes the loss, and any expectations or prejudices the reader I’d drawn about his character dissipate into something much more complex. Six issues in, Vaughan has just begun to draw the corners of his universe a little closer together, and with the second arc I expect we’ll see storylines become intertwined and the narrative get much more complicated. And while I am happy that more Saga is on the way, in the backmatter Vaughan reveals a devastating Plan B ending for issue six, in the event that sales were low and it didn’t have a life beyond this story. I almost wish I could read that comic just to experience the emotional gut punch. As it is, I’ll have to wait until (hopefully) years from now, when the title properly ends and whatever catharsis Vaughan has planned will hit that much harder.

Or I could just reread Spaceman #9, the final issue of that series that, as predicted, is devastating. Very quietly Spaceman became a book about friendship and the need for belonging, with all of the eco-disaster sci-fi trappings and pidgin language just window dressing. Compelling window dressing, courtesy of artist Eduardo Risso, but of secondary importance to the emotional arc. Both storylines coalesce – Tara’s abduction and Orson’s somewhat hapless rescue and the flashback to the devil’s bargain Orson and Carter strike while on Mars – though writer Brian Azzarello refuses to walk the reader through exactly what happens. I’ll admit that the second to last page is a bit unclear, and perhaps a text box or some dialogue might have helped clarify exactly what’s going on. But the final page is poignant, and needs only three words to tell the rest of the story. Overall Spaceman does not reach the intricacy and depth of Azzarello and Risso’s more celebrated collaboration, 100 Bullets, but I find it to be more resonant. The haunting, quiet final panel of issue nine will stay with me for far longer than any of the thousands of panels of 100 Bullets.

The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom #1

And finally, after all of that heaviness, a bit of levity. Growing out of the momentum generated by IDW’s reissue of the original Dave Stevens Rocketeer comics and the well-received anthology series, The Rocketeer Adventures, The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom takes the franchise a step further into a brand-new serialized story courtesy of the Daredevil team of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. Waid keeps things firmly in the character’s pulp tradition, complete with a creaky ship, mysterious crates, a love triangle, and a daring rescue. Samnee, with his heavy shadows and expressive cartooning, is a natural for the title, as is Waid, who is at his best when he can wed humor to action. Cargo of Doom isn’t reinventing comics by any measure, but the first issue offers a tightly constructed story and distinct characters, which is more than you get from many mainstream comics. And, like any other Rocketeer fan, I’m simply enjoying the sudden influx of material featuring an icon of my childhood.

 

One-Shots

Action Comcis #12 is one of the better issues of what’s become an uneven series – it helps that the art is a little more stable (thanks in large part to a penciling assist from CAFU, who should really just take over the art chores at this point.)

The Court of Owls/Crime Bible plot comes to a close in All-Star Western #12,  and it’s a bit of a relief because I’d lost the stakes of that story somewhere a few issues back; and the Terrence 13 back-up story, drawn by Scott Kolins, is top notch.

Dustin Nguyen’s glassy pencils are suited to the snowy landscape of American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares #3, which continues writer Scott Snyder’s excellent Dracula in the Cold War story.

I understand the need to bring new readers up to speed on the eve of a major crossover, but both Animal Man #12 and Swamp Thing #12 are punishing for those who have been with each series since the beginning and have no need for extensive recapping (doubly so, considering both books have been stalled for the past five issues or so.)

Following the conclusion of the Court of Owls storyline, Scott Snyder takes a breather in Batman #12 to tell a fun, yet slight, story, drawn by guest artist Becky Cloonan, of a young electrical engineer who cares for her bullied teenage brother during the day and secretly helps out Batman at night.

The best part of Batman and Robin #12 is how Peter Tomasi handles Damian’s “fight” with Dick Grayson – without tipping his hat too much he acknowledges the mutual respect that developed between them when Damian was Robin to Dick’s Batman. Compared to the elegance of that scene the Terminus battle feels like a distraction.

Captain Atom #12 is the final regular issue of the series (next month’s zero issue, like all the other zero issues, is an origin story) and writer J.T. Krul ends it on a sad note, with Captain Atom’s plan to regain his human life falling apart around him, prompting his exile from Earth.

Judd Winick ends his run on Catwoman with issue twelve, which wraps up the various plots that have run over the course of the title, but doesn’t feel particularly final or resolved, but I think that says more about the editorial direction than it does the writer.

The Marvel double shipping curse (or blessing? It’s not always clear) strikes again, as issues sixteen and seventeen of Daredevil both appeared in August. Sixteen continues the main narrative with a typically punchy Waid story that sees Dr. Strange and Hank Pym teaming up to repair the damage done to Daredevil’s brain in the Latveria arc, while seventeen is a flashback story with guest pencils by comics legend (and major Daredevil fan) Mike Allred.

Demon Knights #12 tells a strong, affecting story that puts the team in it’s worst spot so far, with a major cliffhanger that won’t be resolved until October thanks to next month’s zero issue.

Despite a strong start, I think the bloom is officially off the rose with Earth 2 #4; the characters Robinson is introducing are fun takes on the Justice Society, but with each issue it feels more like a generic action book and less like the skewed take on DC history that the first issue hinted at.

The cycle starts all over again in Fatale #7, as Josephine unwittingly draws another partly deluded love interest into the occult nightmare that follows her around the world – there’s something interesting about gender going on in the book, but for the moment I’m just enjoying the yarn.

Fatima the Blood Spinners #3 is full of yet more wonderful panels of zombie mayhem courtesy of Gilbert Hernandez, plus a deeply disturbing sequence that is possibly, though I can’t prove it, a secret gift for voraphiles (if you’re not familiar with vore, well, you’re welcome.)

If the past two months weren’t evidence enough, The Flash Annual #1 proves that co-writers Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato are at their best when drawing their own scripts, rather than writing for other artists, even upcoming talents like Marcio Takara and Wes Craig. Manapul returns to regular art duties with The Flash #12, and the difference in quality is dramatic.

It Girl and the Atomics #1, a spin-off of Mike Allred’s Madman, is the rare superhero title with a female lead character that isn’t embarrassing to read on the subway, thanks in large part to Mike Norton’s gorgeous art.

Justice League #12 attracted a disproportionate amount of media attention due to the Superman-Wonder Woman kiss that ends the issue; I think it’s more newsworthy that no less than nine inkers worked on the 30-page comic.

Another in a series of excellent issues, The Manhattan Projects #5 depicts the aftermath of last month’s alien encounter, takes us into the heads of both Richard Feynman and Oppenheimer, and puts Harry Daghlian’s radioactive body to horrifying use.

Brian Wood brings the first arc of The Massive to a close with issue three, a spooky Twilight Zone inspired ending that establishes a storytelling engine for the rest of the series.

August brought issues three and four of Mind MGMT, both of which answer some of the questions that have driven the story so far. Issue four stands out in particular, as Henry Lyme tells Meru his story, giving cartoonist Matt Kindt an opportunity for pathos in the midst of the title’s usual quirky spy action.

National Comics is the banner for a series of one-shots from DC intended to reintroduce obscure characters to the New 52. Eternity, Jeff Lemire and Cully Hamner’s take on Kid Eternity, works as mystery that’s sort of the DC comics version of The Sixth Sense, but I don’t really see a series in it. By contrast, the best part of Looker, a dreadful vampire story set in the fashion world, is the Guillem March cover.

Following a strong first issue, Punk Rock Jesus #2 gets considerably darker, and more interesting, as Gwen tries to escape from the compound where she lives under constant surveillance with the infant clone of Jesus, and Thomas inadvertently leads her into a bigger mess than the one she’d run from.

Frazer Irving’s apocalyptic art is the star of The Shade #11, the penultimate issue of the series and the final act in the Egyptian gods/aliens story that’s been kind of a drag so far.

Steed and Mrs. Peel #0 is a good attempt from Mark Waid and Steve Bryant, but it’s not weird or exciting enough to do the license justice; the regular series begins next month, and I trust Waid can do better with a longer story arc.

Wonder Woman #12 was a solid issue all around, but the final page that hints at the introduction of Orion and the New Gods to the New 52 is maybe the most thrilling four panel sequence I read all month.

Looking Ahead to September

A whole lot of zero issues from DC, plus the end of James Robinson’s The Shade and the return of Peter Panzerfaust.

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