Sunday, July 18, 2010


So I’ve fallen behind on my comics reviews of late. My apologies. After a ferocious week of new books for the week of July 4th, I became totally obsessed with Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin, and have spent most of my “blog” time re-reading and making notes on that amazingly complex series. An in-depth write-up will be coming soon. But in the meantime, I really feel like I should play a little catch-up. And what better place to start than the two books that made that July 4th comics week so very spectacular…

Scarlet #1
by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev

As I’ve said (though perhaps less politely) many times before, Brian Bendis is at his best when he’s writing his own work, free from the constraints of mainstream work-for-hire funnybooks. He’s looser, deeper, and more experimental. He’s willing to do and try things from both a narrative and story perspective that aren’t deemed appropriate on Big Corporate Funnybooks. Which is why Big Corporate Funnybooks seldom get a grade higher than a B+ from me, and why my heart really lies with my favorite writers’ more personal creations. That’s what Scarlet is, and holy shit Bendis really knocked this one out of the park.

Scarlet is the title character of the series, a young woman who gets pushed just a little too far and winds up sparking a new American Revolution. That’s still down the road a ways, though, and we pick up with her choking a cop to death. Right all up in your face and stuff. It’s a great transgressive opener, and offers Bendis a chance to pull his first narrative trick of the series: after killing the cop and taking his money, Scarlet turns to the camera and addresses the reader directly. This isn’t your usual “after the fact” narration, either. She’s talking to us in the moment, as she works out how she feels about having killed a man. It’s a neat thing for Bendis to have done, and it also serves as indoctrination for the reader. If we hear her story, and think that what she did was okay, then we’re actually just a tiny bit culpable, aren’t we? Morally or emotionally, at least?

Next we get to Scarlet’s life story, told in a bravura three-page sequence that relates her life as a series of firsts. First shit, first kiss, first disappointment, on and on, in a nine-panel grid, the story of each individual moment captured in a single panel. It’s an astonishingly effective sequence, rendering the character’s very mundane life entertaining while still getting across the point that, right up to the moment that she went over the edge, Scarlet was a perfectly normal young woman. She could be anyone. Even you, dear reader.

This is as good a moment as any to praise artist Alex Maleev. It’s not easy to bring the kind of story flow he does to a series of small moments like the ones on these pages. A specific toy plays into a couple of Scarlet’s earlier firsts, her first two boyfriends look alike, certain poses call back to others, things like that. Small details that add up and enrich the sequence. Maleev’s really on fire in general on this book, though; I enjoyed his Spider-Woman stuff, but this is really a step beyond. His figures have somehow managed to become both more realistic and more expressive at the same time, and I am impressed.

Anyway. After the “firsts” pages, the story seems to enter a more traditional flashback storytelling format, with Scarlet narrating the story through caption boxes. Except… Every once in a while? Past-Scarlet? Happy-Normal-Everywoman Scarlet? Turns to the camera to talk to the reader again, stepping into the flashback to deliver some exposition, and then out again, switching back to more traditional narrative boxes. It’s another nice, playful narrative moment from Bendis, and I like it quite a lot. Didn’t even notice it happening on the first read, either. I’d gotten so used to the technique that it seemed natural, rather than a break in the narrative.

I also have a crazy half-baked theory about it that I will now share with you because I am Mr. Paranoid Literary Conspiracy Theorist Man. When Scarlet’s done with the flashback, after she’s explained her philosophy, she climbs up on a roof decked out in some badass black street clothes, carrying an assault rifle and seeming a lot more advanced in her struggle than the girl who was having to explore her emotions over killing a cop at the beginning of the issue. It also looks like she’s got a tattoo on her arm that she didn’t have in the opening scene. Which would mean that she didn’t begin by telling us about killing the cop “in the moment,” but is narrating the issue from much later in her career, and only pretended to be in the moment because it would better-serve her in indoctrinating the reader to her cause. And she’s all about that. It comes up once or twice along the way, but on the last page it’s overt. “I’m going to stop it,” she tells us (again looking straight into the camera). “But the thing of it is… You’re going to help me.”

Now, I don‘t think my crazy theory is correct; the book‘s most likely a bit more straightforward than that (though Scarlet‘s definitely manipulating her audience a bit). I’m sure I‘ve just gone insane from spending a week trying to unlock the mysteries of the last year‘s worth of Grant Morrison Batman comics. But, man, I hope I‘m right. Because there’s no fictional conceit I love more than an unreliable narrator, and that would fascinate me to no end here. Even if I’m wrong, though, this was great comics. Well-worth the four dollar price tag.

Grade: A

Casanova #1
by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon

And speaking of unreliable narrators… Casanova is back! I can’t begin to express how happy this book’s return made me. I really do think it’s the best new series of the century to date, and it’s a wonderful thing indeed to have it back.

The book’s going to be reprinting the original run for the rest of the year, which leaves me still jonesing for new stories (an appetite that‘s only teased by the new short piece that‘s in the back of this new first issue). But I can’t really blame them. The original was done before Fraction’s star had risen. Many readers who are fans of his now weren’t then, and the book hasn‘t been the easiest thing to find in the interim. The second series, in fact, was never even collected. Which is too bad, to my way of thinking. The original run of the book was done in a single-color printing process, but they’re now “remastering” the series in full color. So the chances of getting a book full of that insane cobalt blue they used on the second series are slim to none. Ah well.

At least the new full color looks nice. They used a muted green as their single tone on the first series, and it’s still the base color here. The flesh tones blend with it well, but that green makes the brighter colors pop right off the page. This works especially well with the blood, and with the hot pink they shift to for certain scenes. The orange hair they put on the dental nurse Cass rather cruelly seduces also makes her stand out, which is a nice touch since the new story is all about her.

Ah yes, the story. It’s all old hat to me, of course, but it’s also still great stuff, holding up well to multiple readings and the test of time. I’d forgotten how complex the scripts are, and how dense a read it is, especially this first issue. We’re introduced to Casanova Quinn, super-spy master thief, and his crazy-ass world of sexy robots, flying casinos, and triple-brained Buddhist super villains. Then he’s ripped away from that world and into an alternate version of it where he becomes (to steal my favorite line from a comic full of good lines) his own evil twin. Everything we’ve come to know up to that point gets turned on its head, as do Cas’ multiple weird hang-ups involving his father and sister. Along the way, we get batshit string-theory-based pseudo-science, multiple mysteries, and some very nice “learn from your mistakes” alternate universe writing. It pays to read this book slowly and carefully, and more than once. This is not to say that it’s confusing. It’s just not the empty escapism it might appear to be on the surface.

And the new back-up story adds (or perhaps clarifies) a story element I’d completely missed first time round: Cas’ cross-over into Dimension 919 was a bit more… cosmically traumatic than I’d first realized. [SPOILER] He uses a strange “teleportation” device he’d picked up to jump to the nurse’s bedroom, and wakes up in Paris. Now, I had no idea where she lived, and since she worked on a top-secret flying military base, she could have lived anywhere really. But it should have been pretty obvious she wasn’t French. In the new back-up, we discover that she lived in Manhattan, but woke up in Rio. And that she woke up alone. So Cas’ crossover not only moved himself, the nurse, and the entire room they slept in to Dimension 919, it also moved them around geographically. Which is kind of scary.

It also made me pay more attention to something Newman Xeno (the bandage-swathed head of evil spy organization WASTE) said when he explained the cross-over to Cas: “Casanova Quinn versus Timeline 909! Only one can survive!” Uhm… 909 is the timeline Cas is from, so… It appears that his crossover will actually destroy his home dimension. No wonder the nurse says of Cas “Surely this was the man who would burn the world.” We knew some of this from the second series, but I hadn’t twigged til now that it was put in place right in the first issue. [/SPOILER]

That really puts the arc of Cas learning to become a better man in Dimension 919 in a different perspective, and makes me even more anxious for the new stories to begin. For now, though, I’ll content myself with the reprints. I obviously needed to re-read the book anyway.

Grade: A+

The Boys #44
by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun

You know it’s a good week for comics when a new issue of The Boys isn’t one of the two or three best things to come out. But that was the case for the week of the Fourth. Not that this wasn’t a great issue. Because it was, even though it was the first issue without the promise of Darick Robertson coming back onto the art anytime soon (He will be back eventually, I hear, but not for a good long while. Maybe not til the series’ conclusion). In the meantime, they’ve signed Russ Braun as regular artist, and I have to say that he turned in a damn fine job this issue. The character likenesses are closer than any other fill-in art the book’s seen to date, especially on Butcher, and I like Braun’s talent for cartooning. It makes his faces a bit more expressive than what Robertson usually delivers. There are rough spots, and he handles characters whose features lend themselves to caricature better than he does normal or attractive features. But this is still nice work, and I’ll be happy to take him until Robertson’s eventual return.

The issue also begins the “Believe” arc, and it starts with a fantastic Robertson cover image of a crucified super-Jesus. The story will obviously be dealing with issues of faith, but if this first part is any indication, not just religious faith. There’s a bit of that, as we open with a truly terrifying TV spot that has the Homelander interacting with children on behalf of a super hero ministry (never noticed that he‘s got a sort of priest‘s collar built into his costume, but it‘s right there, and always has been). There’s also a big annual religious gathering that the newly-atheist Annie is forced to appear at by Vought, much to her discomfort.

But the real issues of faith being dealt with in this first issue are matters of interpersonal faith. Mother’s Milk is losing his faith in Butcher’s leadership after the way he handled his suspicions of Hughie, and the Homelander’s faith in the way of life Vought-American has shaped for him hangs by a thread. But the biggest issue of faith comes, as has been obvious for months now, between Hughie and Annie. Their secrets have been threatening them for some time, and it all finally comes to head when Hughie finally tells her about his last girlfriend’s death at the hands of A-Train, and [SPOILER] she tells him she’s a super hero. [/SPOILER]

That’s a better cliffhanger than any physical peril could have been, and I once again both admire and hate Garth Ennis for it. The suspense, it’s killing me! Another great issue, and one that makes me want the next issue sooner than now.

Grade: A

Thor: The Mighty Avenger #1
by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee

This one’s really interesting to me. It’s a new all-ages Thor comic from Marvel that re-launches the character in the present day, with a new origin story, outside the bounds of the Marvel Universe. It’s appropriate for children, but told with sufficient intelligence to appeal to an adult audience, and has a touch of romance about it that may also give it appeal to (gasp!) women. In other words, it’s a Thor comic that might very well appeal to the general audiences super hero comics have notoriously limited appeal for these days. I’d be tempted to support it for that reason alone, but it’s also pretty damn good.

Writer Roger Langridge (best-known for the excellent Muppet Show comic) delivers a story filled with mystery, whimsy, and an almost effortless charm. He opens on museum curator (and expert on Norse history) Jane Foster, a happy-but-lonely woman who keeps running across a strange long-haired homeless man who of course turns out to be Thor. This is the detail I picked up on when I flipped through the book in the store, and it’s half the reason I bought it. That’s a pretty ballsy way to intro the god of thunder, and I figured the book deserved a read for that alone. But as it turns out, it’s full of great little moments and cool ideas that will definitely bring me back for more.

The other half of the reason I picked the book up was the art. Chris Samnee’s work here sits somewhere in-between Paul Smith and Alex Toth, and it’s just really nice to look at. He renders the real world well in this issue, but the glimpses of Asgard we get on the cover show that he’ll be just as adept at the fantasy elements once they show up. Not that this first issue’s 100% realism. There’s a sequence here in which Thor gets continually tossed out of a bar by some asshole that’s accosting women inside, and that asshole turns out to be Mr. Hyde! Samnee draws him with verve, as an ape-like giant armed with a skull-headed walking stick. Awesomeness.

(Oh, and don’t worry if it sounds like Thor’s a bit of a pussy here. He is, but that’s only because he’s newly-arrived on Earth, and separated from his magic hammer. I suspect that he’ll fare a bit better against Hyde in round two…)

Grade: B+

Continuing on, I think I’ll drop down to capsule reviews. I’ve covered the really stand-out books at this point, and I’ve gotta get on with my day…

The Weird World of Jack Staff #3
by Paul Grist

Another amazingly fun and complex funnybook. The secret origin of Jack Staff continues, interwoven with a present-day conflict that’s now brought Tom Tom the Robot Man into the fray. We also see Professor Fate visit Morlan the Mystic (who’s now even more obviously based on Alan Moore), and Jack Staff’s final battle with the devil draws ever nearer as well. So neat, so fun, such an agonizingly long wait between issues…

Grade: A

Sparta USA #5
by David Lapham and Johnny Timmons

So it looks like another of my favorite David Lapham comics is coming to a premature end. That’s what I’m assuming, anyway, because this issue is so rushed that it basically ruins the story. I got something of that feeling last issue, but this time… Whew. It’s like we’ve gotten something on the order of a year’s worth of story in two issues. Lapham does his best, turning the Spartans’ struggle against the Nazis into the stuff of legend rather than a story told in detail. But it’s not enough. Events come too fast to have much in the way of drama or meaning, the characters flatten out, and (worst of all) the revelation of the Maestro’s true identity falls completely flat. [SPOILER] He’s the Pied Piper, if you really wanna know. Which might have been really cool if we’d been given hints over time. But just handed to us like it is here, it just seems silly. [/SPOILER] Next issue is the last, and I’ll pick it up just to see what happens. But, man. Very disappointing.

Grade: D+

iZombie #3
by Chris Roberson and Mike Allred

A slight misstep this issue, I thought. It wasn’t bad, really, but some of the charm of the series dropped out, and everything felt a little less cool and a little more contrived. Looking it back over now, though, I couldn’t tell you why I felt that way. I suspect it might have been because I read it immediately after that issue of Sparta, and the suck carried over in my head. A second read might change my mind. But for right now, this issue just felt a bit off. That might not be a fair review, but it’s an honest one.

Grade: B-

Demo #6 (of 6)
by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan

A sad but uplifting finale to the series. This one’s about a couple who can’t bear each other‘s company anymore, but who fall ill if they get too far apart. Becky Cloonan turns in her usual excellent artwork, and Brian Wood’s script indulges in the sort of soul-destroying introspection he specializes in. A fitting wrap-up to a book that’s so indie it hurts.

Grade: B+

Sweet Tooth #11
by Jeff Lemire

The conclusion of the “In Captivity” arc reveals that the title’s been referring to Jepperd just as much as it has Gus all along. Gus doesn’t even appear here, in fact, since the issue’s dedicated to wrapping up the flashback story of Jepperd and his wife, and how the Science Camp came to have her corpse. He’s been as much a captive of the camp mentally as Gus currently is physically, but it seems that’s over now. And I think things are gonna get pretty ugly because of it. A really fine issue of a series that continues to fascinate me more as time goes on.

Grade: A-

The Atom #1
by Jeff Lemire, Mahmud Asrar, and John Dell

It’s a Jeff Lemire two-fer, as we get our first taste of his mainstream super hero writing. This Atom special is just a one-shot, a full-length story to launch Lemire’s Atom backup strip in Adventure Comics. And it ain’t bad. As you’d expect from Lemire, he puts the focus squarely on Ray Palmer as a character, expanding his origin story by starting it in Ray’s childhood. Little Ray was a stereotypical “nerd” in a house full of “jocks,” complete with a big brother who picked on him and a dad who loved him but wasn‘t a very good parent to him.

But just because the story’s a typical one doesn’t mean it lacks power. Lemire does his usual good work bringing the commonplace to life, and his Ray Palmer already has more depth than the character’s been given in his (yikes!) nearly 50 years of existence. All in all, it’s Lemire’s typical melancholy slice of life writing applied to the sort of science fiction mystery that’s probably the Atom’s most natural story mode. If this were the first issue of a Lemire-written Atom on-going, I might buy it. But I’m not paying four bucks a month for 8 pages of this, backing up a series (Paul Levitz’s Legion of Superheroes) that I have less than zero interest in reading. Ah well. Maybe Lemire’s upcoming Superboy will be good, too…

Grade: B


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