Stale funnybooks! Got some outta-date reviews here! They ain't fresh, but they're cheap!
Joe the Barbarian #6 (of 8)
by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy
So an interesting layer gets added to the story this issue: Joe makes it to Hearth Castle, home of the resistance to King Death, and discovers that it’s not so much the last bastion of hope as it is a comfortable tomb for it. And so we see that the story’s not about Joe rescuing his childhood at all. It’s about how his childhood helps him escape the emotional gravity well that is his father’s death. Which is a truer, if sadder, story, and one that I think I like a little better. It also makes this a thematic sequel to All-Star Superman, perhaps a brother title to Batman and Robin, and another incidence of Morrison mythologizing his own father‘s recent passing. I always like seeing him work through these sort of life-altering changes from all these different angles (how many times did he cover the Katmandu incident?), so I'm happy with this. It'll make the re-reading that much more interesting.
Iron Man Annual #1
by Matt Fraction and Carmine Di Giandomenico
One of the more impressive outings to date for Fraction’s Iron Man run, this annual doesn’t feature Tony Stark at all, but instead updates his traditional arch-enemy, The Mandarin. The story is relatively simple: Mandarin kidnaps a celebrated Hong Kong director, and forces him to make a film based on Mandarin’s life story. But Fraction uses that simple idea to craft a minor epic, a story about art and truth and power that successfully updates this always-fantastic villain for the 21st century.
The origin story the Mandarin told Iron Man in his first appearance is trotted out again, and revealed as a base lie. Though, in one of my favorite understated aspects of the issue, it’s a lie that the Mandarin himself may have been lead to believe by one of his own rings. That speaks volumes about the portrait of villainy Fraction’s painting here: his Mandarin is a grandiose fool. A powerful, barely-civilized coward obsessed with his own image. This makes him no less cunning or dangerous, but it does make him a smidge more interesting beyond his insanely powerful rings.
Speaking of which, Fraction redefines what the rings actually do, tweaking the old pulp sci-fi descriptions ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandarin_(comics) ) with names and explanations that sound like something out of the Chinese zodiac. The Vortex Beam ring, for instance, is recast as “Spectral,” which “winds up and warps the air itself; can appear ghostly; can appear not at all.” It’s a purely cosmetic change, of course, but hey. Super-villainy is all about fashion. Fraction also jettisons the disintegration ring (which is redundant in light of the one that can break down and reshape atomic structure), and replaces it with a ring that distorts time around the wearer and appears to give him super speed. Not that the Mandarin needed any more super powers, but I’m down.
But I’m down with this annual in general. This thing is massive, and, even at five bucks, one hell of a bargain in today‘s comics market. When I picked it up, it was so thick that I assumed it had a Mandarin reprint in the back or something. But, no. It’s all-new material, 68 pages of story and art, with no filler, no pin-ups, and no self-congratulatory text pieces. It’s also one of the best pieces of work-for-hire writing you’ll see from either of the Big Two funnybook companies this year. There are complexities to this story I haven’t even mentioned, and I’m perfectly happy to have shelled out my five bucks for it.
(A post-script: after reading the GQ interview with Fraction about this week's relaunch of Casanova, I think the story here is more than a little informed by Fraction’s experiences directing a music video for Kanye West. Which cracks me up to no freaking end.)
Secret Warriors #17
by Jonathan Hickman and Alessandro Vitti
Rich Johnston has called Jonathan Hickman the new Alan Moore. I can kind of see what he’s getting at: Hickman has a similar talent for intelligent reinvention of older characters, coupled with a zeal for pushing forward with new ideas. But I don’t think Hickman is as good a writer as even the young Alan Moore. This is not to say he’s not good, but his work lacks the thematic complexity of Moore’s, and so that’s higher praise than I’m willing to give him.
Which has nothing to do with the most recent issue of Secret Warriors, of course. I just thought I’d share. I do like the new issue quite a lot, though. It opens with Dum-Dum Dugan and Jasper Sitwell appearing before a secret session of the UN to explain what happened in China. If that makes you feel like you missed an issue, it should. We’re picking up after the big mission Fury’s been preparing everyone for these last few months, and from Dum-Dum and Jasper’s situation here, it doesn’t look like things went very well.
The structure of the issue allows Hickman to play around in the political situations he’s so fond of (see Nightly News and, well, pretty much all of his personal work). It also allows him to make an important point about Fury and Dum-Dum, and maybe by extension the whole of this new “Heroic Age” world Marvel’s pushing right now: these are men (like the new top cop of the world, Steve Rogers) whose world-view was shaped by World War II. Men who lived through the Depression, who went to war to stop genuine evil set loose in the world, and who, more than anything else, believe in the power and importance of the individual in society. After a round of cat-and-mouse questioning, Dum-Dum finally decides he’s had enough, and lets the UN council have an earful of this philosophy. It's a pretty great moment, playing kind of like Jack Nicholson's "you can't handle the truth!" speech, if his character weren't a complete asshole.
We also get a Howling Commandos reunion party, the opening moments of the battle in China where Fury finally puts all his pieces on the board, and that battle’s ominous aftermath. So it’s a mix of philosophy, politics, and action, and some of the most Hickman-like writing I’ve seen Hickman do for Marvel. I ate it up with a spoon.
by Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli, and Stefano Landini
Constantine’s descent into madness continues this issue, with more really ugly hallucinations, the appearance of a likely-looking suspect for the person behind it all, and of course the appearance of the guest-starring Shade the Changing Man. The promise of alchemical shenanigans being behind Constantine’s shit-heel behaviour last issue takes some of the sting out of it, of course, and so I’m a tiny bit disappointed. Even though I kind of figured there was some funny business going on, I was far happier being faced with the moral dilemma of a Constantine who beat a woman bloody in a blind drunken rage, and only had himself to blame. That seems better drama to me. And who knows, maybe Milligan will deliver on that in the end. That sounds like something he’d do, in fact. So we’ll see.
Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island #2 (of 4)
by Warren Ellis and Raulo Caceres
Warren Ellis’ penny dreadful electrical fantasy continues, as the title character is revealed as a slightly-crazed revolutionary with an agenda that will probably sound a bit familiar to regular readers of Mr. Ellis: he believes that electricity = democracy, and is thus willing to become an outlaw to bring it to the people. Otherwise, there’s all the usual running and shouting and kicking, and all the electro-punk coolness you could want. Electrical goggles! A flying electrical ship! A windmill with electricity (somewhat ridiculously) sizzling off the ends of its fans! It’s ultimately an empty fantasy along the usual Ellis lines (there’s even a vicious thug representing the interests of the fascist status quo). But it’s entertaining enough, and if the penny dreadful packaging didn’t clue you in that this wasn’t going to be particularly deep, you were fooling yourself to begin with.
Chimichanga #3 (of 3?)
by Eric Powell
Eric Powell’s anti-corporate social satire wraps up this issue. Or I’m assuming so, anyway. I’m not really sure how many issues this was supposed to run, but this certainly seems like an ending. Bad guys are messily-devoured, morals are delivered with the knowing stupidity of a Bullwinkle cartoon, and the story seems pretty well done. On the artistic side, Powell continues the slightly more cartoony style he’s used on this book, and does some very nice things with what appears to be a combination of ink washes and print-quality pencils. It was fun, it was stupid, it was pretty. Nothin’ wrong with that.