BY AARON BLOCK
In November, things looked grim for comics and me; I was unemployed, and making weekly visits to the comic book store had become an irresponsible expenditure. So I bid comics farewell, promised I’d be back when I’d found work and gotten back on my feet, and walked away.
Now it’s February, two months later, and I…am still unemployed. Well, underemployed. And definitely not making enough to subsidize my monthly reading. But while I may not have a steady job, I do have incredible friends and family. My Christmas and birthday were fraught with gift certificates to Crescent City Comics and invitations to share Comixology accounts, gifts from loved ones who thought a little more Batman in my life might be just the thing I needed. They were, of course, 100% correct because more Batman makes everything better.
And if I’m reading comics, then naturally I also want to write about them. This won’t be a standard Pull List column because I’m not quite there yet. Instead, I want to run through the comics I’ve kept up with, highlight the good, and brush aside the bad (of which there is little – budgeting makes me a savvy reader.)
My favorite comic of last year, Hawkeye, is already shaping up to be my favorite comic of this year, too. Javier Pulido filled in for regular artist David Aja for issues four and five, and the slight change in tone helped highlight exactly what makes this book so special. Pulido’s art is flatter, yet more expressive, than Aja’s, and reading his issues I was reminded of watching Ralph Bakshi’s Spider-Man cartoon from the late 60s. That looseness accentuated the humor beats of the story, while still allowing for exciting action sequences. Pulido, who doesn’t employ Aja’s bravura layouts, still connects us to the heart of the story, Clint and Kate’s relationship and the risks one is willing to take for the other.
Aja returned for issue six, which has Clint attempting to juggle his personal life, his responsibilities as a landlord, and his duties as an Avenger. This is easily writer Matt Fraction’s best issue so far – he fractures the narrative, juxtaposes absurdity with a serious threat, and ends the issue with a panel that’s almost a mission statement for the entire series.
In issue seven Fraction tells two stories, one each for Clint and Kate, about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He and editor Stephen Wacker assembled the story shortly after the storm hit, and tapped two fill-in artists – Steve Lieber and newcomer Jesse Hamm – to complete the issue. It’s sincere and heartfelt, in a way that almost no other mainstream comics even strive for. But this is Hawkeye, which hasn’t been like other mainstream comics since its first issue.
Speaking of heartfelt and sincere, the second volume of Saga is already significantly darker than the first six issues. There’s disease, death, and a naked giant with a horrible pendulous scrotum, the image of which will be forever seared into my retinas. And we’ve seen precious little of Prince Robot IV, who usually gets the best humor beats. But the darkness is welcome, particularly when it accompanies further retracting of the story’s universe as in issue nine, when bounty hunter the Will finally gets a lead on Marko and Alana. I don’t want the series to start wrapping up, but I do like Saga best when writer Brian K. Vaughan builds some momentum rather than unfolding further corners of the story’s universe. That said, even slower issues like seven and eight are still visually compelling, as artist Fiona Staples continues to demonstrate her gift for character design and acting.
Black Kiss 2
Incredibly, Black Kiss 2 turned out to be nastier and more dispiriting than the original series, of which it is both prequel and sequel. Howard Chaykin’s structure – each issue features two stories set in different time periods, leading up to the present and just beyond – became a bit staid towards the end of the series, but the jarring violence and explicit sex never let up. Perversely, six issues of near-constant death and betrayal make the anti-climax in the final pages of issue six the most devastating moment in the series. Because death and betrayal is all there is, Chaykin seems to argue, and we’re lucky if we can escape that for a few untainted moments. Black Kiss 2 is a comic that you confront, rather than read. And I’m glad I confronted it, even if I’m vaguely aware that it was punishing me all along for doing so.
Punk Rock Jesus
Issues five and six of Punk Rock Jesus dig heavily into the punk rock part of the story, as everyone copes with the consequences of Chris’s leaving the compound and joining the Flakjackets. Cartoonist Sean Murphy’s take on punk is sometimes too generic (big tour buses and stadium concerts, the kinds of things television and movies have relied on as shorthand for “rock and roll” for years) but he never flinches from questions about faith that undergird the title. When Chris is revealed to be a normal child rather than a clone of Jesus, Thomas chooses to act the same way he would’ve if Chris had been the second coming. His faith becomes more complex, and in the end he accepts a balance between hope and action. These final issues aren’t always as subtle or intricate as the rest of the series, but Murphy has more than proven himself as a writer, to say nothing of his artistic abilities. Hopefully this won’t be his only creator-owned title.
I left Wonder Woman on the shelf back in October when I severely pared down my reading list, so I was particularly excited to catch up on the four intervening issues. As I’ve noted several times, I was really excited when Orion of the New Gods appeared in a teaser sequence on the last page of Wonder Woman #12. The tease finally pays of in issue fifteen, but before that Wonder Woman spends two issues fighting Siracca, her demigod half-sister. It’s a bit dull, but the B plot of another lost demigod – Hercules, possibly, awakened by a dubious scientific expedition and swearing vengeance – keeps the narrative taut. When Orion finally does appear the story picks up, as writer Brian Azzarello pits his restrained rage against Diana’s calm and their alliance is understandably tense. This book is always best when dealing with the in-fighting and treachery among the Olympian pantheon, so adding Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters to the mix only enhances the intrigue, while also throwing a bone to established readers. The late Wesley Willis’s cameo as Milan, a sewer-dwelling oracle, is icing on the cake.
Being four months behind on Fatale actually improved my reading experience on that title. As good as Ed Brubaker’s cosmic horror-noir comic story is, it moves too gradually for the monthly issue format. Taken individually, the issues can seem to be either treading water, or leaving plot points behind entirely – “seem” being the key word, as reading a chunk of the story all at once reveals how carefully Brubaker moves the story and brings the present and past plots to bear on each other. That isn’t a surprise – Brubaker is a gifted writer, and as his backmatter essays reveal Fatale has evolved significantly from its original form. That said, if it only reads well when collected, is Fatale a successful monthly comic? Is it perhaps better to think of it as a serialized graphic novel? In a year or so when the omnibus collection is out it’ll be a moot point, but for now I think Fatale raises an interesting question about reader expectations, the uses and limitations of the medium, and the comic book market.
Three very different comics; two publishers; one writer. Grant Morrison’s current work is curious, in that it can sometimes feel very unlike a “Grant Morrison” comic. The metanarratives and big concept plotting that defines most of his work are, if not missing, then largely subdued in a title like Happy!, which continues to be a decidedly straight-forward story of a man actively resisting his better nature. Darick Robertson’s intricately detailed suits the street-level (well, apart from the imaginary blue cartoon unicorn) and Morrison tucks a tender message under the layers of grime and cynicism.
Action Comics, on the other hand, is becoming more intricate and dense, as Morrison begins to play with time and multiple dimensions in the narrative. And with the reveal that a villainous fifth-dimensional imp has been driving the plot since the first issue, it’s tempting to look back at the uneven issues, the deep bench of fill-in artists, and the abandonment of the “blue jeans look” Superman from the early issues as intentional, turning the book into an unreliable text due to the fifth-dimensional influence. Even if that isn’t the case, I’m glad to see a year and a half’s worth of stories starting to curl together and present Superman with a seemingly unbeatable challenge. Not to mention, the back-up stories drawn by Chris Sprouse alone are worth the cover price.
Finally, Batman, Incorporated continues steadily toward its climax. Issue five is the darkest yet, finally revealing the vision of the future Bruce experienced while pursued by Darkseid’s Hyper-Adapter, where Damian Wayne inadvertently ushers in the destruction of Gotham, and possibly the entire world. And tragedy strikes the team in issue six, after an important death. Unlike Action Comics, Batman, Inc. has become more streamlined and linear as it reaches its finale, pushing through the constantly shifting identities and time-jumping to bring Batman face to face with Talia. Of course, all of that could change with issue eight. One constant, though, is artist Chris Burnham, who uses space as inventively as David Aja does in Hawkeye, but with a broader, more muscular line.
Scott Snyder’s second major Batman storyline, “Death of the Family”, has been suspenseful and appropriately gruesome. They’re also very talkative, and the dialogue-heavy scenes are at odds with the title’s foreboding tone. Plenty of writers have used an overly verbose Joker in a threatening, unsettling way, but for some reason Snyder’s Joker frequently feels defanged, even when committing horrific crimes. The same indulgence in explaining everything also derailed the conclusion of Snyder’s “Court of Owls” story, which leads me to wonder if some degree of editorial interference is watering the book down. That said, I’m hooked for the conclusion, and genuinely concerned about issue sixteen’s cliffhanger, but I hope the next story arc finds Snyder in a more subtle mood.
I wouldn’t have expected it, but ten issues into his turn as the regular Daredevil artist Chris Samnee has successfully replaced Paolo Rivera, whose look so defined the title’s first year. Samnee is no slouch, obviously, but his style is darker and heavier than Rivera’s and seemed likely to shift the tone somewhat. It turns out that Samnee is even better suited to writer Mark Waid’s humor plots, and the darker art actually complements the lighter tone, particularly in dialogue scenes. Issue twenty-two is the recent highlight, which features Daredevil teaming up with Spider-Man who, as you might’ve read on a slow news day, has recently switched minds with the villain Doctor Octopus. Waid clearly enjoys the juxtaposition of Doc Ock’s slightly operatic personality filtered through his attempt to be a hero, and makes the most of the team-up.
And speaking of the Waid/Samnee team, I finally picked up the final issue of The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom, which was as fun as the previous three issues. Another Rocketeer mini-series is due out soon, this time written by Roger Langridge and drawn by J.Bone, both known for their humor comics which make them a natural choice for the character.
There are four stories happening at once in Mind MGMT #7, two of which only take place in the margins of the pages. Cartoonist Matt Kindt has ramped up the approach he took to the first six issues of the series, layering narratives that simultaneously distract from and clarify the main plot. Issue seven returns us to the reality loop that was revealed in issue six, which means we meet Meru and Harry Lyme again. But a new character, Brinks, is the most compelling aspect of the issue. A man who channels his mind control power through text and goes into advertising seems like an easy concept, but Kindt uses his self-loathing and isolation to emphasize the dark influence of Mind Management. The celebrated interactivity and meta-textual tricks Kindt employs make the book fun to read, but it’s character moments like that, and the splash page of Meru and Lyme walking through a city street filled with crying people, that make Mind MGMT one of the most unusual and exciting books I’m reading.
The Manhattan Projects
The fun is largely over in The Manhattan Projects. With issues seven and eight writer Jonathan Hickman dashes the balance between humor and cynicism, and tilts the title into a decidedly grim place. After declaring their independence from world governments, the U.S.-based Manhattan Projects team with the Russia-based Star City team-up to forward their exploratory aims. Neither government is pleased with this arrangement, which leads to a full-scale assault on both facilities. The battle is bloody, and even though our “heroes” win, issue eight ends with the projects in a precarious situation. It’s also worth nothing that the book’s slightly expanded schedule has allowed artist Nick Pitarra to invest a little more time in each panel, and the result is a return to the precisely detailed look of the title’s early issues.
Some New Things
Even though I’m trying to keep my comic reading in check for these months of austerity, I couldn’t help but try a few new books that looked exciting.
Mara #1, written by Brian Wood and drawn by Somerville, MA’s own Ming Doyle, follows a supernaturally gifted volleyball player in the near (or near-seeming, at least) future. Doyle has a smooth line that gives everything a kind of gleaming, futuristic texture, and her design work makes the world plausible, but still slightly alien. Wood writes complex characters, and the situation Mara finds herself in at the end of the issue certainly tweaks the already strong concept, so I’ll definitely try to pick up subsequent issues when I can.
I probably would’ve picked up The Black Beetle in “No Way Out” #1 for its pulp bonafides alone, even if it weren’t written and drawn by Francesco Francavilla. I first fell in love with Francavilla’s art when he alternated with Jock during Scott Snyder’s celebrated Detective Comics run, but since then he’s seemed to lay low, mostly providing alternate covers for Dynamite. It’s exciting to see him returning to sequential art, particularly drawing his own story. The shadows and drama of pulp action, themselves influenced by German Expressionist cinema, are also hallmarks of Francavilla’s style, which makes the book a perfect marriage. Hopefully the story will pick up in issue two, but regardless it’ll be a treat to look at.
One of the biggest debuts of the month was Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers #1. The Phonogram team bring their affinity for young characters, music, cool clothes, and romantic troubles to Marvel, adding a few new characters like Noh-Varr, Kid Loki, and Miss America to veterans of the Young Avengers roster. McKelvie’s pencils are typically expressive, and only enhanced by Mike Norton’s inking. Gillen’s structures the plot well, dividing the “team” into three pairs, each of which meet a very different challenge that will likely bring them together before too long.