Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Love, Death, and Super Powers: Funnybooks in Review Are Go!!

So I’ve got this pile of week-old funnybooks sitting here on my desk, and I thought I might, like, review ‘em or something…

Highland Laddie #4 (of 6)
by Garth Ennis and John McCrea

Annie and Hughie talk things out a bit this issue, in another example of Garth Ennis turning in some really brilliant character writing. Though he’s primarily famous for extreme transgressive action/comedy, there aren’t many people in the business who write about normal human relationships as well as he does. He’s also making me like Annie January more with each passing issue. Her apparent naiveté has been slowly revealed as just a lack of cynicism, and she’s strong enough to fight for her relationship with Hughie even in the face of the frankly horrible melt-down that happened between them a few issues back. She’s also not going to give Hughie an out on the insanely hurtful things he said to her, which I was afraid she was going to accept as something she deserved. Between this, and her on-going loss of faith, Annie has become refreshingly complex over time, the best female character Ennis has ever written, and maybe the best period, of any gender. Doubly impressive coming from a writer better-known for his “guy” writing.

And she’s made even more interesting this issue, as we discover her “secret origin.” Born with super powers due to one of her parents having been exposed to Compound V, Annie grew up in a Vought-sponsored foster parenting program, and was subjected to the world of (for lack of a better term) “super pageants” as a child. It’s sort of like Jon-Benet Ramsey in tights. Except that, instead of lasting psychological scars, some of these kids wind up with melting eyeballs and such. Ugly. But also a fascinating look into the super-culture, and how Vought prepares and packages their supes pretty much from birth, but gives them zero guidance on how to conduct themselves. It’s no wonder so many of them are messed up. And amazing that Annie turned out as good as she did.

Annie’s also more than a little suspicious about how Hughie got the surveillance tape of the Seven’s HQ, so I suspect that we’ll be getting another round of confessions soon. She also brings up a really good point: Hughie doesn’t have it in him to say some of the things he said to Annie when they broke up. So… What, exactly, is going on here? The answer, for the reader, is obvious: Butcher. He wound Hughie up pretty badly just before the confrontation, putting Annie’s secret-keeping in the worst possible light and making Hughie seem like a gigantic fool for not seeing through her. And though I think Butcher believed every word he said, and that he thought he was doing it for Hughie’s own good… Damn. What a bastard. Hughie’s even seen through what he did, too: before leaving for Scotland, he asked Butcher, point blank, if he’d seen the tapes of Annie before he set Hughie up to find them. He took Butcher at his word then, but if Annie’s gotten through to him as much as I think she has… Butcher’s going to be dealing with a very angry wee man when Hughie gets back to New York.

Actually, in light of some of the things Butcher said in the most recent issue of The Boys series proper, I’m starting to wonder exactly how far he’ll go to keep the Boys functioning as a unit. He’s already stolen MM’s life-sustaining milk supply and lied to him about it, in spite of how much personal embarrassment and anguish it causes him to get more. And that was just to get MM out of headquarters while he fucked with Hughie’s mind. And his referring to the Frenchman and the Female as “the nutters” last issue, while they were standing in the next room, puts those characters in a different perspective as well. Taken as crazy comedy characters, they’re entertaining. But add in the Frenchman’s desire to leave the team behind, and the Female’s need for the outlet the Boys’ life of violence gives her, and suddenly it’s not so funny anymore. Butcher’s enabling the Female’s psychopathic nature, and the Frenchman is the only one who cares enough about her to realize that there’s something wrong with that.

They don’t even have names, for god’s sake!

And Butcher’s a-okay with that, as long as it keeps them willing to fight for him. That may be a bit harsh. There frankly may be no helping the Female, and he’s just turning her problem toward a cause that honestly seems to be a good one. And who knows what kind of downward spiral Hughie may have entered after his girlfriend’s death if Butcher hadn’t recruited him and given him something to live for? Even MM seemed to just be sitting around feeling sorry for himself when Butcher put the team back together. Whatever his personal reasons (or perhaps his obsessions?) for wanting to stick it to the supes so badly, it’s hard to argue that Butcher’s not doing some good in the world by policing them.

As usual with Ennis’ best work, the issues being dealt with in The Boys aren’t simple, and neither are the characters. And god bless ‘em for that.

Grade: A

Hellblazer #273
by Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Landini, and Simon Bisley

You know how I’ve been saying that I run hot and cold with Milligan’s Hellblazer run? Well, this issue was definitely a “hot” one. In the present, Constantine further pisses off both the demon Nergal and the gangster Terry Greaves, while in 1979 Epiphany Greaves cheats on Constantine, repeatedly, with his own younger self in order to get back to 2010. Fun, entertaining Hellblazer front to back, with another half-issue of gorgeous pages by Simon Bisley. It earns Milligan a few more issues, at least, because I can‘t wait to see how ugly Constantine‘s happiness is going to turn out for him in the end.

Grade: B+

Superior #2 (of 6)
by Mark Millar and Leinil Yu

“The Most Important Comic Book Since 1938!” exclaims this issue’s cover. I don’t know about all that, but I do get a kick out of Millar’s ridiculous hyperbole. It’s a pretty swell little comic, too. I like the adolescent fun of it. Millar is a genius at writing kids that feel like real kids, capturing that weird mix of innocence and cynicism you can only muster when you’re 12 years old. He overdid it a bit in Kick-Ass, but here it’s just about perfect. If I’d gotten super powers at 12, I think this is pretty much how I would’ve handled it.

There’s a great “power testing” sequence in this issue, too, maybe the best of its type I’ve ever read. Our Hero and his best friend are in over their heads a little here, and they’re making exactly the kind of mistakes you’d expect. So when Simon accidentally starts a forest fire trying to figure out if he’s got heat vision, that rings pretty true. But it’s the flight test I like best. Simon tries to figure out how to fly, and just starts floating off the ground, rising into the sky with no control whatsoever. “SHIT!” he yells. BAH-ha! Yeah. Yeah, that’s totally what would happen.

Some might complain that not enough happens in this issue. They might say that (Name Your Favorite Funnybook Writer of Yore) could have demonstrated the powers in, like, three pages and then gotten on with the story. To these people I say… Where’s your sense of wonder, you jaded fucks? In Superior, the powers ARE the story. Seeing this kid figure out how to use the power he’s been given, and kind of screwing it up a little, is the entire point. I’m sure that, by issue six, we’ll have gotten a larger plot of some kind, and that’s fine. But spending an issue reminding the audience of just how awe-inspiring it would be to actually get super powers, and doing it by showing them instead of just resorting to mealy-mouthed sentimentality, is time well-spent in my book. Time well-spent, and a damn fine use of my funnybook dollar.

Grade: A

Deadpool MAX #2
by David Lapham and Kyle Baker

And now we go from the sublime to the ridiculous… I still can’t believe that Marvel put out a second Deadpool comic I wanted to read. But here we are again. This issue, Deadpool gets seduced by a sexy psychiatrist who takes him back to her asylum to be the subject of an illegal organ-smuggling racket. Hijinks ensue. It’s funny stuff, with some really gorgeous artwork from Baker. But now I’m sitting here looking at the four-dollar price tag and thinking that maybe I can wait for the trade on this one. Hmm…

Grade: B+

Osborn #1 (of 5)
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Warren Ellis, Emma Rios, and Jamie McKelvie

This Marvel mini-series is a follow-up to the recent “Dark Age” storyline, in which Norman Osborn (aka the Green Goblin) parlayed a job as head of the Thunderbolts (a super-villain rehab team) into being the world’s top cop. Now we find the disgraced Norman behind bars, being held without charges pending the clearing-up of some red tape over what, exactly, his crimes really are. The story follows Norman, the priest at an above-top-secret illegal super-jail, and a reporter who’s investigating Norman’s case for Front Line (the news magazine that Peter Parker works for these days). Which is, frankly, an awful lot of back-story and set-up to ask an audience to digest.

But to the credit of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, all that exposition is handed out in a very natural manner. I never felt like I was being fed information, even when I was, and that’s no mean feat. DeConnick is the wife of Matt Fraction (my current favorite writer at Marvel), but with this book, she seems to have arrived in her own right. I’ve read some of her work before, and thought it was hit and miss. I’ve always been impressed by her ideas, but sometimes her execution has seemed off. She’s gotten a little too cute for her own good, and that always sinks a piece of writing for me. She skirts that in Osborn with the reporter character, Norah, who’s an out-of-control Type A train wreck. There’s a fine line you have to walk when you use a character like that, and while DeConnick doesn‘t quite make it without a stumble or two, I mostly don‘t want to kill Norah, and so I‘ll call that a success.

Partially, that’s because the rest of the book is so very good. DeConnick writes Osborn well, and sets up a neat political conspiracy to get him transferred into the afore-mentioned illegal jail, where they apparently dump super-criminals whose crimes are too difficult to classify. They’ve got a demon in there, and a space alien, and an Aztec spider-god (which, you know, won’t be a problem for Norman’s psychoses at all…).

There’s also an insane geneticist, and though I’m not clear on why she was put in this particular facility, Warren Ellis and Jamie McKelvie do a really nice little back-up strip detailing her history. Ellis brings his usual facile pop sci-fi writing to the character, establishing her quickly and well as an elitist sociopath. And McKelvie, for his part, really outdoes himself capturing that in her face. Always good to see that guy working.

The artwork on the main feature isn’t as good, but I like it. Emma Rios’ style floats somewhere in-between shonen manga and Paul Pope. The Pope influences carry the style, I think, though I like some of the manga elements as well. She does have a distracting habit of drawing pretty shaggy-haired manga boys, however, to the point that I wasn’t entirely sure if one of the Senators was male or female. And when I decided “male,” I suddenly didn’t buy that he could have ever possibly been elected with that look. Other than that, though, I liked her work.

And I liked this comic in general. I almost balked at the four-dollar price tag, but I found it to be an entertaining and dense read. DeConnick’s story had good heft to it, and the Ellis back-up put it right over the top. This was a dense, quality read that took some time to get through. I got my money’s worth from it, I felt, and will almost certainly go back for more.

Grade: B+


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