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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

When I wrote about the first issue of Mind MGMT back in June I focused almost entirely on the form of the comic, suggesting that “[cartoonist Matt] Kindt is clearly playing a formal game with his readers, asking us to digest the entire text, including the conventions we’re accustomed to ignoring.” By this month’s issue five, however, those gestures towards form have become fully integrated into the reading experience. The black and white strips on the inside covers, the “instructions” written in blue text along the left gutter that are increasingly intruded upon by another voice pleading for help; they’ve all lost the novelty factor, and have become simply another storytelling tactic.

Which raises an interesting question: are those tactics necessary to tell the story, or is the gradually unraveling plot strong enough on its own? Do we need to read those cryptic instructions and wait until October’s issue six to decipher the code inserted in the back cover advertisements in order to appreciate what’s going on?

Earlier in the run I might’ve thought differently, but with issue five my answer is a firm no. In fact, it’s the other way around: as the world of Mind MGMT grows more complex and involving the formal inventiveness becomes more resonant. Issue five makes that relationship more apparent, as the second chapter of Henry Lyme’s backstory brings the horror of Mind Management’s psychic espionage back to the foreground and reveals how fragile the status quo can be. Reading the unidentified voice’s pleas for help embedded in the comic alongside the brutality that surrounds Lyme’s meltdown, it’s suddenly much easier to understand why someone trapped in that world would seek any outlet, even violating the expectations of the medium, through which to read out.

Both issues four and five have benefited from moving away from Maru’s point of view. Not that the character isn’t interesting, but Lyme’s confidence and willingness to fill in some of the holes is a satisfying contrast to Maru’s confusion. Last month we learned how Lyme got started in Mind Management and became it’s top agent, and met his wife; in issue five Kindt reveals how that success quickly soured, resulting in the deterioration of Lyme’s sanity that reaches a brutal climax when he slaps his wife, convinced her love and affection are only side-effects of his intimidating psychic abilities. They aren’t – she is also a Mind Management agent, and the only one able to resist Lyme’s control – and the resulting fallout claims both his wife and their child, as the population of a town inZanzibardescend into chaos, killing everyone and destroying everything in less than a day.

Those eight pages are disorienting, as Kindt takes a typical lovers spat and distorts it, literalizing the “world is ending” feelings that accompany the shame of realizing you’ve hurt someone who cares about you. The plot of Mind MGMT might concern the mind control, hidden messages, and a conspiracy to silence anyone who would speak out about such things, but the larger story Kindt is developing is more about alienation, and the struggle to connect with other people. If that intent was subtler in the beginning of the series, issue five lays it bare.

Issue five’s other big reveal is just as important, if not quite as emotionally satisfying. Through Lyme’s flashback we also learn how Maru fits into the conspiracy, which propels the story into next month’s conclusion. Any empathy the reader might’ve felt for Lyme, which Kindt worked assiduously to build in issue four and the majority of issue five, is quickly poisoned by the truth of how he met Maru. With the mystery seemingly solved, the threat of violence that ends the issue feels inevitable, an awful but necessary corrective to all of the ugliness that’s taken place in the previous 21 pages.

All of this is rendered in Kindt’s loose, almost naïve art, which paradoxically works to raise the emotional stakes. His figure work can resemble the exaggerated simplicity of a child’s drawing, but the degree of detail and expressiveness are more sophisticated than any number of cartoonists who employ a “mature” style. Kindt’s people don’t look real, but neither do they look like cartoons. And the washes of muted color are even hazier on newsprint, so the entire book feels like it’s being seen through layers of curtains. The look of Mind MGMT is as confounding and prone to distortion and manipulation as the world Kindt has imagined.

With issue six will come not only the conclusion to Mind MGMT’s first act, but also the final piece of the code needed to unlock mattkindt.com/mind, which as of this writing doesn’t seem to be active. The back cover of each issue promises that entering the code at that site will do…something. It’s not clear exactly what, and the current status of the site makes me wonder if maybe those plans didn’t come to pass. Kindt might still launch the site with the publication of issue six and I could be entirely wrong, but it feels like this is further proof of my earlier assessment, that the experimentation with the medium and the interactivity are interesting, but not necessary to the story. I’ll be back for act two, even if the code never materializes.

Solid Reads

Everything I liked about Hawkeye #1 is amplified in Hawkeye #2. The pace is quicker, but writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja still pack every page with story, so the reading isn’t rushed. That said, the issue’s best moment slows time to a crawl, as Hawkeye takes target practice with his protégé Kate Bishop (who took up the Hawkeye moniker as part of the Young Avengers while Clint Barton was “dead”). Aja and Fraction use small, repeated panels of Kate’s face as she says “well that’s cool” interpolated with Clint’s care and precision in taking aim, to showcase his deftness and skill. It’s a breathtaking sequence, the kind of thing you read about in Understanding Comics and Comics and Sequential Art. These are perfectly pop comics – flashy, moody, endlessly re-readable, and with a gorgeous purple palette courtesy of colorist Matt Hollingsworth.

On the whole, DC’s “Zero” month didn’t really break much new ground. It promised to tell the New 52 origins of characters we’d been reading about for the past year, which should be a big deal. But too often the zero issues felt like retreads of information that had already been doled out in the early issues, less origin stories than recaps to bring new readers up to speed. Batman and Robin #0 was the best of the lot, as it concerned the story of Damian Wayne’s early life. Admittedly, much of this was already referenced or inferred from previous issues of the series, not to mention the past four years of Grant Morrison’s Batman run. And I don’t know that it’s any more effective to see Damian trained by the League of Assassins than to have it referenced in passing, and evident in his current characterization. But Tomasi employs an exciting frame narrative – Damian must best his mother in combat before she will tell him the name of his father – that gives those scenes of training and combat needed urgency. By the final battle you’re rooting for Damian, even as his violence reaches an operatic state.

 

The black humor that has run throughout The Manhattan Projects becomes oppressively sad in issue six, which tells the story of former Nazi scientist Helmutt Gröttrup, who ends up working for the Russians during the Cold War. His struggle for recognition and freedom plays out on both ends of World War II, as his present slavery under the Soviets is juxtaposed with flashbacks to his toil in Germany as one of Wernher von Braun’s underlings. In my experience, Jonathan Hickman’s work isn’t usually this nihilistic, and certainly the series so far has felt almost gleeful in its icon-rending, and on the first read I was certain this was the weakest issue yet. But a slower re-read and an appreciation for the final punchline, cruel though it is, have convinced me of the opposite – The Manhattan Projects #6 is the most sophisticated issue yet, and a sign that the book might be beginning to shift into something new.

The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom #2, like Hawkeye #2, improves on the first issue by delivering more of what worked. Issue two has longer and more impressively choreographed action sequences, plus a sinister plot involving rocketpack-wearing dinosaurs that is also tied into King Kong continuity, and a new cast member who serves as a foil for Cliff. Writer Mark Waid has always excelled in individualizing his characters, and it only takes he and artist Chris Samnee ten panels and a handful of lines to introduce Earl Garland and turn him into an essential piece of the story. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for nuance, but broad strokes suit the pulp storytelling that comes part and parcel with The Rocketeer. Samnee’s art is gorgeous, as ever, and his heavy shadow work is complemented by Jordie Bellaire’s earthy palette. On the surface The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom might seem to support the popular notion that Mark Waid can only write retro comics. Yet the craft underneath the vintage veneer is as contemporary and rewarding as anything on the shelf.

The punk finally rears its head in Punk Rock Jesus #3, which sees Chris reaching puberty and acting out against the media conglomerate that’s been controlling his existence since conception. Early criticism of the title tended to praise Sean Murphy’s art but dismiss his writing – I didn’t agree with that assessment at the time, and issue three is further evidence that Murphy knows how to pace a story and can command voice and tone. That’s impressive enough for a seasoned writer, let alone a first script. Granted, Murphy has been gestating the story for years, but the careful effort and patience is evident in the book’s construction. As Chris begins to rebel and his mother, Gwen, is kicked out of the compound, Murphy’s own frustration and dissatisfaction are becoming more evident, and the book as a whole feels more personal. The twist ending threw me for a loop, though. I hope the rest of the series avoids overt supernatural elements, as the book’s grounded, ambiguous approach to the cloning of Jesus is a big part of its appeal.

Happy! #1 is Grant Morrison’s first work for Image Comics, and also the opening move of his announced transition away from regular monthly superhero comics. Speaking about the book at MorrisonCon, the writer described the book as a response to the tailored cynicism of reality television, specifically the sneering jibes of “talent” judges like Simon Cowell. Morrison’s work has been positioned against cynicism for a long time now, but perhaps what makes Happy! different is how relatively grounded it is. The plot follows Nick Sax, a hit-man who steps into a criminal empire’s power struggle, gets shot, and becomes acquainted with a tiny, blue cartoon unicorn named Happy who recruits him in a quest to help a young girl. I know, I said it was grounded – everything leading up to Happy’s appearance is straight out of Crime 101, albeit with a twist of Morrison’s brand of absurd humor. Artist Darrick Robertson is in fine form, and his deeply detailed art recalls noted Morrison collaborator Chris Weston. Issue one is pretty light, so it’s hard to say much about the story, but I am naturally intrigued. If nothing else, Happy! should pacify readers who complain about “not getting” the writer’s other work.

One-Shots

In Action Comics #0 Grant Morrison and guest artist Ben Oliver (who isn’t as dynamic as the title demands, but is a worth replacement for Rags Morales and the squad of fill-ins) tell a quiet, thoughtful story about the power of Superman’s iconography and briefly return to the “hero of the people” premise from the early issues of the series.

All-Star Western #0 is possibly the best issue of the series so far, largely because it moves away from the conceit of keeping Jonah Hex in Gotham City, which was fun at first but by now feels artificial and editorially mandated.

There’s a lot of conversation and argument in American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares #4, bookended by a strong opening chase scene, and gorgeous panoramic panels of the bloody aftermath of a vampire attack in Siberia and a truss bridge explosion courtesy of artist Dustin Nguyen.There’s nothing wrong with Animal Man #0, but it’s a perfect example of an origin story that I enjoyed more as a passing reference in the title (plus the excellent movie/flashback issue midway through the run) than rushed through in twenty pages like this.The Red Hood plot in Batman #0 is interesting in the way it plays on the expectations of long-time readers – we know in the old continuity that the Red Hood was the Joker pre-chemical accident, but is that still true in the New DCU? Writer Scott Snyder offers no clues, which makes for an intriguing if slight stem of a later story.Artist Chris Burnham stretches his writing legs with Batman Incorporated #0, which he co-wrote with Grant Morrison, and delivers a brisk, funny cast profile of the Batman Inc. team, beautifully illustrated by Frazer Irving.

Black Kiss #2 is darker, funnier, and more explicit than the first issue, which makes it easily the most entertaining book I read all month.

Captain Atom #0 is a tease for fans of the now-canceled title – the last issue of the series is wasted on a needless retelling of the character’s origin, when it could’ve dealt with the issues of immortality and humanity that writer J.T. Krul was beginning to hint at in issue twelve.

With issue zero the once-controversial but frequently excellent Catwoman moved to irrelevance, as in-coming writer Ann Nocenti offers a tone-deaf origin for Selina Kyle that doubles back on the character work Judd Winick achieved in the first twelve issues.

I’m a little shocked that we only got one issue of Daredevil this month, as that book has been on regular double-shipping duty – no matter, issue eighteen is in keeping with the high quality of the rest of the run as writer Mark Waid introduces a plot twist that will have longtime Daredevil fans scratching their heads.

Demon Knights #0 is full of hints and easter eggs for fans waiting for writer Paul Cornell to begin drawing the connections between that ti

tle, Stormwatch, and the rest of the DCU more clearly, all wrapped up in a clever reimagining of the Demon’s origin.

Earth 2 #0 was significantly better than the most recent issues of the series, largely due to how writer James Robinson approaches the alternate versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – still, it’s not enough to convince me to come back next month.

I suspect Fatima: the Blood Spinners #4 might’ve been the result of someone daring Gilbert Hernandez to see how far he could push Dark Horse – it’s full of weird, grotesque characters and hilariously exaggerated violence and makes almost no sense, so naturally it was an excellent read.

My favorite part of The Flash #0 is the full-page sequence that explains the Jim Lee redesign of the classic Flash costume – I think it’s the only reasonable rationalization for all the lines and panel and armor offered for any of the characters so far.

There’s a lot to like about It Girl and the Atomics #2 but most of all I like that it’s about a team of superheroes who all seem to be friends and have genuine affection for each other, in contrast to the jockish, sarcastic one-upmanship and infighting that plagues other team books.

Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Captain Marvel back-up story takes center stage in Justice League #0, and while the new selfish, bratty version of Billy Batson takes some getting used to I enjoyed this story much more than I’d expected.

Kurtis Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins’s Peter Panzerfaust is back with issue six, and a shift in the narrator also leads to a slight shift to a slightly darker, more serious tone.

The Phantom Stranger is one of my favorite DC characters, so I’m doubly sad that The Phantom Stranger #0, written by Dan DiDio and drawn by Brent Anderson, was so disappointing – Anderson’s art is perfect for the character, but DiDio doesn’t quite have the knack for the elliptical dialogue and suspense plotting that make Phantom Stranger stories fun in the first place.

Saucer Country #7 balances last month’s lecture on the psychological origins of the UFO phenomenon by paying equal attention to conspi
James Robinson’s fruitful return to his pet character comes to an end with The Shade #12, which details the Shade’s origin and, in a move only James Robinson could pull off, features an extended cameo by a young Charles Dickens.racy lore with guest art from Pull List favorite, David Lapham.

After last months’ disappointing Steed and Mrs. Peel #0 I was hoping the first issue of the series would change things up a bit, but it wasn’t to be – also, it turns out Mark Waid is only plotting the series with a script by Caleb Monroe, which means I was double duped.

There are some gruesome moments in Swamp Thing #0, but nothing prepared me for the horrible brain-head-hand thing that’s so awful I can’t even describe it properly. Look for a link in the comments if you never want to sleep again.

I enjoyed writer James Tynion IV’s back-up stories in Batman, and I’m an avowed fan of artist Guillem March, so Talon #0 was a natural pick, and turned out to be a satisfying read, though not something I’m compelled to return to on a monthly basis.

It’s not really a surprise that Ming Doyle’s contribution to Womanthology: Space #1 is the standout, as the other stories are mostly contributed by up and comers who don’t’ yet have a handle on the fundamentals of the form.

Brian Azzarello takes an interesting approach in Wonder Woman #0, positioning the first third of the issue as a callback to Silver Age storytelling, and keeps the overblown narration even as the story shifts into a more modern vein. The issue’s highlight comes when young Diana defies Ares and shows mercy to the Minotaur, who she bested in combat.

Looking Ahead to October

Economic circumstances have caused me to drastically dial back my comic consumption, so October’s column will take a decidedly different form. I’m not yet sure what that form will be, except that I will continue to explore what it means to read comics in these times, even when that means doing without.