Trouble with Comics

The New DC 52 - Week One Scorecard

Looking at the late-August release of Justice League #1 as a kind of preseason game, how did the new season of DC Comics pan out for its first real week?

Action Comics was heavily favored, written by Grant Morrison, with art by the solid Rags Morales. It was okay but very restrained, as if Morrison was trying to hold back the usual torrent of ideas to see what the other kids brought, see if this experiment was going to flop. Could be he is less interested in trying to match or top All Star Superman and is instead playing games with himself, trying to come up with a Superman who is pretty much the opposite of the All Star version and see if that can be compelling, too.

Animal Man was the best book of the book, so let us get that out of the way quickly. The Believer bit was clever, and a good way to get exposition out of the way quickly, leaving room for not just good characterization of Buddy Baker and his family, but a done-in-one menace (of sorts), AND a creepy, suprising twist. Add to that that he honors Morrisons star-making run on the book by somehow introducing Moore Swamp Thing elements, and color me impressed. Artist Travel Foreman makes a mistake or two with perspective, but that nightmare sequence is stunning.

Swamp Thing by Scott Snyder and Yannick Paquette is a solid, attractive book, though one of many where it isn’t clear what is still considered canon and what isn’t. Alec Holland used to be Swamp Thing, but isn’t anymore, but clearly he will be again, or somehow bonded with ST. And Superman knows him. Paquette has some nice Nowlan-style art here and while hes always been a bit stuff, dude does work hard and is always consistent. Some interesting, creepy stuff that oddly enough has some parallels with Animal Man, though unintentionally.

Those were really the three books I will definitely continue with. Ones on the fence or securely on the other side of it…?

O.M.A.C. by DiDio and Giffen is better than I thought, a fun remix of the Kirby semiclassic series, although I wanted D&G to bring more of their own ideas to it. Also, O.M.A.C. himself isn’t very cool. I would rather he had that crazy otherworldly swagger and command of all kinds of crazy weapons and gadgets, but here he is kind of a mindless thug.

Batgirl by Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf suffers from an ugly costume design, awkward dialogue and narration and a character reboot that fails to honor Barbara Gordons time as Oracle, which is to say, the past 20+ years. Honestly, it would have been better to completely ditch her paralysis entirely than make it a spinal injury that she was able to utterly overcome, physically, yet causes her to mentally freeze when someone points a gun at her. If she was mentally strong enough to get herself back in superhero shape, she should be mentally ready for anything. And as far as that costume, isn’t the appeal of Batgirl, and most young female superheroes, that they present a contradiction, a litheness and unpadded fragility and abandon that flies in the face of the danger they are in from bigger, stronger opponents? When you give them armored costumes and clunky boots, it takes the fun out of it. The one positive thing I would say about the book is that at least its somewhat lighthearted and is the only one to even attempt to give the lead character a friend, though she (the new roommate) is pretty unrealistic so far. Is there a lamer attempt at activism than painting Fight the Power on your own apartment wall? Another security deposit sacrificed to the Cause.

Men of War is one I am kind of torn on. I think Sgt. Rock meets Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a great tag, but not sure theres enough here to make anyone put down their controllers. Also, for a book that spends so much time on military jargon, one would think it would be a heavily researched war series, but all of a sudden it looks like these guys are up against a supervillain? I will give it another issue or two, but I don’t know quite what this book is supposed to be. Im all for war stories of impossible odds, but when that means regular guys against superpowers, maybe that crosses the line from brave patriot to fool?

Detective Comics by Tony Daniel is…well, I give Daniel credit in that I have studiously avoided his Batman run after the first couple of pretty poor issues. His art has improved since then, and he writes a coherent Batman. And yes, I was very surprised by the gross-out twist at the end, both as a reader and as a guy who wonders who oversees how DC handles their franchise characters. So, it may be a good deal of morbid curiosity, but I will be back for issue #2.

Batwing by Judd Winick and Ben Oliver is one of the better-looking books, but Winick fails to distinguish the character enough from Batman. Well, hes more like Jim Gordon as the only good cop on an African police force, who also puts on Bat-armor at night. The character isn’t interesting enough and the setting isn’t used well enough.

Green Arrow by J.T. Krul, Dan Jurgens and George Perez is a pleasant surprise. Krul doesn’t do anything very impressive here—Ollie Queen is kind of Tony Stark, kind of Bruce Wayne, the corporate superhero playboy—but at least the pace is quick and with the Jurgens/Perez art it looks a lot like the comics I read in the 80s and 90s that were probably crap in retrospect, but at least they were my kind of crap. I would prefer Krul get to work developing one interesting villain, though, instead of unleashing a torrent of codenames and powers who only want to bust stuff up and upload it to YouTube.

Static Shock by John Rozum and Scott McDaniel is too energetic and goodhearted to come down too hard on. I generally like teen heroes who are still recognizably teens in their behavior, and Rozum keeps Statics Peter Parkery science nerd thoughts going along rapidly, humorously and pretty endearingly. I didn’t love the book or felt like there was anything new, but its enjoyable.

Justice League International by Dan Jurgens and Aaron Lopresti is thoroughly average. I don’t have anything against Booster Gold, Fire, Ice or the other lightweights on this team, but either make them real interesting real quick, or treat them as punchlines the way Giffen and DeMatteis did back in the day. Jurgens isn’t sure which way he wants to go here so he never adopts a consistent tone, as if hes trying to please everyone. To be fair, with the heavy hitters on the real Justice League, writing these guys is like managing the Pittsburgh Pirates. You cant beat fun at the old ballpark, but theres a lot more talent on other teams, in other ballparks. Having Batman cameo smacked of desperation, and has anyone said anything about the plot? No, because its dull. Team gets together at the behest of two characters we know nothing about, and after farcical meet and greet, go off to find a missing UN research team. Question: aside from the real world value of making this a Justice League title, why would you name your UN-sanctioned team after the independent superhero team with which youre not associated and don’t control?

Stormwatch by Paul Cornell and Manuel Sepulveda is one of the bigger disappointments of the week, although to be fair, that’s partly because at one time I gave a shit about Stormwatch/The Authority and never cared much about Batgirl, Green Arrow, Static, etc. Having the Moon threaten Earth seems kinda like something Warren Ellis might have come up with, although he would have used some science in there somewhere, right? How is this giant Moon-fist going to break out of its orbit? Its like when you put your hand on a kids head and hold him far enough away from you that he cant punch you. Doesn’t that happen to you? Anyway, Cornell is tasked with restarting Apollo, Midnighter et al pretty much from scratch, except now with 100% more Martian Manhunter, and some new would be badass called Eminence of Blades or something. I think he lives through this but gets his ass kicked. I didn’t mind it overall but it was underwhelming, much of which could be laid at Sepulvedas feet, as he fails to make cool what Cornell gives him, while at the same time, Cornell doesn’t do a very good job of reintroducing these characters by having them do or say interesting things.

Hawk & Dove – I didn’t read it. And yeah, Rob Liefeld had something to do with that, but no more than Sterling Gates did. No thanks.

—Christopher Allen

Flashpoint #1 (and Flash #11 & 12)

Writer - Geoff Johns

Artist - Andy Kubert (Scott Kolins and Francis Manapul on Flash #11 & 12)

Publisher - DC Comics. $3.99 USD.

I try to be fair. I cop to not being a Geoff Johns fan, but I like the Flash and I like alternate reality stories, so I thought I’d give Flashpoint a try. And to be fair, I figured I’d read a couple issues of The Flash, since it leads into the story. So here we go with #11, and it honestly only takes three pages before I flip out. A red-haired kid, who’s witness to somebody aging at an alarming rate, hasn’t given his story yet. Barry Allen, who I always thought was more of a CSI type, is apparently running the investigation, so he tells a bespectacled female coworker to talk to him. She takes the kid, who by the way is wearing a red and yellow shirt, so with the red hair you know he’s probably going to be a new Impulse or something soon, off to the cafeteria. Another detective asks Barry, “You really think it’s smart to hand over this witness to a wallflower like Patty Spivot?”

Now, I let Barry’s “How did someone age eighty-plus years in a matter of seconds…And why would they do it?” slide, even though in the context of the scene the how and why meant exactly the same thing. But this line really threw me. “Wallflower?” Really, Geoff Johns? Just because your story involves unnatural aging doesn’t mean you’re supposed to write like Stan Lee in 1963. If, somehow, this comic was slipped under the white door of Steve Ditko’s apartment, he would read this and go, “Wallflower? Isn’t that expression kind of outdated?” And this is a guy who still thinks men wear fedoras. Does Johns even know what wallflower means? Is Patty’s inability to dance in public going to cause the witness to clam up? (Clam up is also an antiquated phrase, but we actually still have clams in 2011, and they do close up tightly, so living people can figure out what it means)

Of course, what Johns is trying to do is cram two idea-dicks into one vaginal dialogue balloon (known in the comics industry as DP), which is that Patty, this character with a last name that sounds like a plumbing fixture, is 1) a nerd, and 2) as a nerd, not to be trusted with the important child witness. But why? What’s wrong with the plain Jane policewoman? Should only Type A hard-on cops be grilling a scared-to-death kid? It makes absolutely no sense. 

Things get a little better with The Flash #12, although Johns treats Barry Allen’s goodness as a kind of virus that makes not only him but everyone around him earnest and boring. We get an intervention from wife Iris and other speedy types, because Barry’s been working too hard (guys—he was vibrating in another dimension for years, cut him some slack), and then in #12 there’s a lot of touch-feely with Barry admitting he’s still upset about his mother’s death, but Iris is there for him, and then there’s a douchey scene with Barry telling Patty he just wants to be friends, because of course the hero with no testosterone or sex drive is going to be irresistible to his female coworkers, blah blah blah. Johns is certainly not alone in this, but there’s just a very programmed feeling about the whole thing, like he’s just hitting plot points but without bringing any life experience, insight, humor or life to them. Surely someone has had a heart-to-heart with Johns about something, and maybe it wasn’t over coffee and involving lots of hand-holding? Maybe it was in a cab, or while brushing teeth before lights out, or something not so Hallmark/Lifetimey about it. Surely he knows what it’s like to have let someone know he’s not as into them as they are into him? You could have done this with other characters interrupting, to increase the awkwardness, or with both of them trying to work at the same time, or something not so damn pat and flat. 

I’m not saying Johns is without feeling, because clearly he’s a very loyal guy, keeping Scott Kolins around despite the artist’s work deteriorating over the years into a stiffness in his figures he didn’t have a decade ago. If you want an argument against digital pencils, it’s Scott Kolins, and it doesn’t help that the coloring is similar to ads for roast turkey, where the meat is sprayed to look browner and shinier than real life. 

I don’t mean this as a nonstop rip on Johns, because it would be ridiculous to suggest a guy who has reached his level of success can’t write a decent comic now and then, and as it happens, Flashpoint #1 is prettty good. I say this with some qualification, though, as it’s not that hard to make the first issue of an alternate reality superhero comic work. You change the status quo as much as possible, have dead characters now alive and/or living ones dead, and present plenty of different costumes and codenames. Johns does all this, and it’s perfectly fine. As with Johns’ past successes, he’s looking to give some second-tier characters as much attention and chances to shine as the big names, so here we have Cyborg as the leader of the ragtag resistance force against the two threats to civilization, Aquaman and Wonder Woman. Does it really matter why The Question is called The Outsider here, and looks different, or why Thomas Wayne is the Batman? No, because this will all be wrapped up and put right in five issues. Am I interested in finding out the answers? Yeah, kinda. I do think Johns could have bucked convention, and his own dark impulses, and presented an alternate reality as less grim than the regular DCU reality. It might have been fresher for the heroes to be a little more naive, to not have experienced such darkness, so that the Aquaman/Wonder Woman invasions would hit them that much harder. It’s okay, though. Andy Kubert has gotten way too fussy with drapery and other faces, though. It’s like a Greg Capullo issue of Spawn or something.

—Christopher Allen

Action Comics #900

Writers - Paul Cornell, Various

Artists - Pete Woods, Gary Frank, Various

Publisher - DC Comics $4.99 USD

Is “pretty good” really good enough for the longest-running superhero title’s 900th issue? I guess we’ll have to take what we’re served. Cornell and Woods wrap up the Lex Luthor “Black Ring” storyline with Lex gaining ultimate power but losing it because of his fatal flaw—his need to beat Superman. Cornell has done a terrific job the past nine months or so depicting Lex as the complicated genius he’s meant to be, his “evil” due to his intellect overriding personal sentiment. And as this issue emphasizes, he never really had a fair chance to be a nice guy, lacking the parenting Clark Kent had. 

At the same time, Cornell made Lex’s villainy enjoyable; you rooted for the guy to overcome less interesting bad guys like Vandal Savage and Larfleeze, even though you knew a Lex with godlike power would be a very bad thing for the DCU. 

Early in the run, Lex explained that he had created the robot Lois Lane, in part, to provide a different perspective. It was about the first time I can recall Lex essentially admitting he could be wrong about something, or that he could use some help, and it was refreshing. But in this issue, with the robot Lois revealed as a pawn of Brainiac, Lex abandons these ideas, and defaults to his need to best Superman, even though there’s no real need at this point. This would be fine (we all know someone gifted who can’t seem to get over some weakness or other), but Cornell chooses maybe the wrong method: Lex forcing Superman to see the depths of human emotion. It totally backfires, since Lex doesn’t really understand human emotion, even less so now that he’s a god. It doesn’t make any sense. If pale, redheaded chef Bobby Flay achieved godhood, methinks he would take on his nemesis in something cooking-related, right? Not…tanning.

It’s okay, but considerably diluted by a subplot continuing this “Reign of Doomsdays” story that has wound its way through a Steel one-shot, Titans, a Superman/Batman annual and elsewhere. It’s forced into the Lex story as if he had something to do with it, plus it makes Doomsday a less impressive villain, plus nobody likes Cyborg Superman, plus there are too many other artists on deck.

It would have been nice if this 900th issue finished off the Lex story in a stronger, more concise fashion, leaving out the Doomsday story and leaving more room for shorts by some of the biggest talents in comics. Instead, we get a clever, restrained taken on Krypton’s last days written by Lost’s Damon Lindelof, and some other stuff.

Paul Dini is a talented guy but no longer a guarantee of good comics, and his space parable doesn’t work. But comics fans are forgiving and loyal, which may explain the presence of Richard Donner, who is here for directing a good Superman movie over 30 years ago and not much else. Donner has forgotten more about what makes Superman work than most of us will ever know, and in this storyboarded script, he proves it.

David S. Goyer writes the instantly newsworthy story about Superman renouncing his U.S. citizenship so that he will no longer be seen as a symbol of U.S. policy. This results from a hamfisted attempt by Goyer at mixing superheroes with real-world troubles, when Superman shows support for rioters in Tehran by standing still for a long time. Okay? And when did this alien with a fake name ever become a citizen, anyway?

And of course, it couldn’t be a notable DC superhero comic without Geoff Johns showing up. He’s like Snoop Dogg. Do either of them ever turn anything down when they’re not feeling it? Johns’ story isn’t terrible; there’s just nothing to it. Lois invites the Legion of Superheroes over for a party, and they sit or stand around and eat. As nice as Gary Frank draws Lois’ butt, or Timber Wolf eating pizza, it’s not much of a story. As colossal anniversary issues go, it’s okay.

—Christopher Allen

B.P.R.D. - Plague of Frogs, Vol. 1

Writers - Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski, Geoff Johns, Brian Augustyn, Various

Artists - Guy Davis, Ryan Sook, Matt Smith, Cameron Stewart, Michael Avon Oeming, Various

Publisher - Dark Horse Books. $34.99 USD

For those of you for whom this is the first exposure to these comics—I’m envious. Not for you the worry that Hellboy’s supporting cast would falter on their own. Not for you the concern that Mignola would spread himself too thin, or later, that the franchise would be diluted with too many un-Mignola-like creative visions. And not for you the unease that maybe there just wouldn’t be that many good horror stories to tell after a while.

For me, and no doubt many who were Hellboy fans in the ‘90s and onward, these were some real concerns. We’d seen creator-owned genre franchises deteriorate with too many spinoffs, or just too many issues. Mignola had already flirted with selling out with Hellboy team-ups with Batman and Starman (together), as well as the now-forgotten ‘90s Dark Horse hit supernatural heroine, Ghost. Those were fine but forgettable. Was B.P.R.D. going to be the same?

Well, yes and no, though the first effort, Hollow Earth, was decidedly in the Win column. Mignola wrote it just like he was going to be drawing it, instead bringing in Ryan Sook on art. Although Sook takes a different approach to faces, he’s otherwise pretty close to Mignola in style, at least here, as he’s no doubt trying to please his writer and also using Mignola-designed characters and creatures.

Hollow Earth has a good main plot, involving a subterranean “King of Fear” and his trollish minions using Liz Sherman’s pyrokinetic powers to fire up their fearsome, world-conquering machines, but what really makes it work is the amount of effort Mignola puts into fleshing out the B.P.R.D. cast. Hellboy appears in flashback, so that we can see how his warm, welcoming presence helped Liz and Abe Sapien as frightened newcomers to the B.P.R.D., and Hellboy’s example provides the foundation for Abe’s first shot at leading a team in Hollow Earth. We also get to know the delightful Johan Straus, he of the gaseous spirit contained within a clear, humanoid containment suit, and there’s a little more on Roger the Homunculus, who has that great big lock on his genitals that should have started a real world fashion trend.

The question of whether Mignola’s characters would work without a Mignolaesque artist wouldn’t be answered immediately, as the volume includes a couple of short stories (solo Lobster Johnston, a kind of pulp era monster hunter, and a solo Abe story that retroactively introduces Roger) with art by other noted Mignola acolyte Matt Smith. Then, the scales tip a bit from Art towards Commerce, with a raft of one-shots by other creators, as Mignola’s time is taken up with work on and around the Guillermo del Toro Hellboy film. Brian McDonald’s/Derek Thompson’s Drums of the Dead finds Abe fighting a nail-adorned warthog man fighting Abe on a boat, a thin effort not bettered by Geoff Johns’ and Scott Kolins’ workmanlike Lobster Johnston adventure, Night Train. Perhaps the least of the bunch is Joe Harris’ and Adam Pollina’s There’s Something Under My Bed, a generic monster story that has real connection to Mignola’s work and world.

A couple bright spots exist. Brian Augustyn and Guy Davis offer up the entertaining Dark Waters, which is more notable for an impressive Davis art job than a completely cohesive story, although Augustyn at least shares Mignola’s interest in small town secrets, religious fanatics, and the enduring terror of the deep. Mignola also gets partly back into the mix with a script polish on Miles Gunter’s and Michael Avon Oeming’s The Soul of Venice. While some of what made it exciting when first published are no longer such big deals—the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. universe hadn’t at that time done much with vampires, and Oeming was becoming a big deal as an artist on the series Powers—it still holds up as a pretty good B.P.R.D. horror story. It’s also notable for glimpses of sexual depravity that Mignola himself shies away from in his own scripts, plus it establishes Oeming as an artist capable of handling Mignola’s characters extremely well, and with a similarly impressive command of light and shade, even if his style is unlike Mignola’s in most regards. Cameron Stewart also acquits himself well in the Mignola-written, Another Day at the Office, but as the title suggests, it’s a slight, pedestrian effort.

While it might be unfair to call the non-Mignola efforts cynical, they do call into question whether it’s worth doing B.P.R.D. stories without his involvement as writer. Even Dark Waters owes some of its appeal in this volume to what Guy Davis does later, establishing himself as the B.P.R.D. artist for several years. Fortunately, the first fruits of this run are included here, as well they should be if you’re going to use Plague of Frogs in the title.

I haven’t counted pages, but I’d have to guess there’s enough for at least one, probably two more Plague of Frogs omnibuses like this one. It’s in this one where we first see the next direction for B.P.R.D. As with Hellboy, there would be two kinds of B.P.R.D. books—one developing a complex and increasingly horrifying story, with dark gods and destiny and world threats, and the other kind the more self-contained, lighter stories—told by others but perhaps with a more watchful eye by Mignola and editor Scott Allie.

With Plague of Frogs, Mignola gets back to business, taking inspiration from the Bible and mixing it with H.P. Lovecraft in a story involving a kind of intelligent fungus infecting people and turning them into froglike monsters. There are a lot of footnotes in this one, to Mignola’s research as well as past Hellboy stories, indicating he’s put in a good deal of thought into where he’s been and where he’s going. That doesn’t mean the story is dry at all; it’s a lot of fun, and Davis makes an immediate impact, with horrible/cool creatures as well as distinctive takes on the existing cast. His Liz Sherman in particular is unusual, a little harder and not as fragile as Mignola draws her. Longtime colorist Dave Stewart gets to expand his palette much more than the reds and earth tones used on Mignola’s art. As expected in a story with reptiles, there’s plenty of green, but also lots of violet, blue and a wide array of fleshtones. Whereas with Mignola it always seems to be nighttime, with Davis it’s usually dusk.

While this would be a good romp as just a monster story, again Mignola is concerned with character development, and so this is where he finally gets around to an origin story for Abe Sapien, and it’s a strange one best left unspoilt here. Mignola was right not only to invest more effort into planning a long-range payoff with this story, but also to bite the bullet and trust in a talented artist with a very different style than his. Although maybe 20% of this collection is forgettable, by the end of the book we see it start to evolve from agreeable to exceptional, an equal to pure Mignola Hellboy stories. It probably goes without saying that this volume also features a generous sketchbook section from Mignola, Davis and some of the other top-tier artists who drew stories in the book.

—Christopher Allen

Egg Story

By J. Marc Schmidt. SLG Publishing $3.95 USD

Maybe it’s unfair, but until Pixar decides to tell the animated story of a bunch of anthropomorphic egg siblings, I’m just not interested. Look, I just think if you have to give your little eggy characters stick figure limbs, and ninja outfits, then to me, you’ve somehow failed to work within the limits of your concept. It might as well be mice or shrunk-down humans in a big scary world or, you know, any sentient, ambulatory creature with brain function, rather than unfertilized chicken embryos. As the bio page indicates, Schmidt was inspired by Australian artist Norman Lindsay and decided to make a comic, so he sequestered himself and did it. But as far as I know, Slave Labor is under no legal obligation to publish it. I don’t want to be mean, but I just didn’t connect with the comic at all. You know what’s a better use of eggs? Boil some spaghetti, drain the water, and while the pasta is still hot, throw in butter, olive oil, parmesan, salt, pepper and a cracked egg, and stir. The heat will cook the egg that coats the pasta, adding protein and extra flavor. Alternately, make pizza with dough, olive oil, salt, cheese and cured meat on top such as prosciutto or salami and then crack an egg on top of that while it’s still in the oven. These are two good things to do with eggs. Let’s end on a positive.

Christopher Allen

Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali

Writers - Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil

Artist - Neal Adams

DC Comics. $19.99 USD / $39.99 USD (Tabloid Facsimile)

One thing I like about Neal Adams is how much pride he takes in his work. And I don’t just mean that his hard work is evident, but that he publicly takes pride in it. The Introduction to this hardcover reprint makes that clear—he thinks this is a great book that shows everyone how great comics are. You know what? He’s right on both counts.

Although I have no doubt Denny O’Neil made an important contribution to the plotting of this titanic team-up, it’s probably to the better that Adams ended up writing the thing—a superstar depicting the meeting of two superstars. Adams gets Superman fine, but he really understands Ali, because Adams is also a “it’s not bragging if you can do it” kind of guy. Adams takes pleasure in depicting a man who is not only at the top of his game, physically, but who also has a philosophy behind what he does. Adams was never just a showy artist; he served a story, and was constantly trying to move the art form forward.

I don’t mean to just lather up Adams here, but I was honestly really pleased to find how well this book holds up over thirty years later. I remember it coming out and reading my cousin’s copy, but I never had my own. It turns out it’s very well-plotted, with a number of interesting twists and developments, not to mention a great depiction of a respective union of two talented characters of integrity. It’s also a great distillation of Muhammad Ali, a knowing primer on some of the intricacies of boxing, and a celebration of American ingenuity and resilience, and it can’t have been the easiest book to put together, given that it featured a living icon and had to be approved by his religious guru. Somehow, Adams leaps the hurdles, and delivers a fun but well-thought-out story with not just the stuff above, but some pretty good fights, aliens, robots, spaceships and celebrity onlookers.

Adams is pretty corny at times, but that’s the only minor complaint. There’s so much more going on here than most specials of the past couple decades, with their full-page spreads and extended battles. Adams rightly found the common denominator of dignity between Ali and Superman, and even gives some to some of the alien enemies, which raises the tale up a couple notches from your average alien invasion story. And the art, forget about it. Adams is not only inked by his most complementary embellisher, the late Dick Giordano, but a young (but recognizable) Terry Austin inks the backgrounds. It’s great stuff, and unlike some of the Adams reprints of recent years, the recoloring is for the most part an improvement, though noticeably different from the original book. Really one of the most enjoyable single issues of a superhero comic you’ll ever read.

—Christopher Allen

Recappin’ America

It’s been a busy 70th anniversary for Steve Rogers, the once and future Captain America. Between his titular series, every Avengers book, and the new Fear Itself, there’s not a week that goes by where once doesn’t see the star-jumpsuited soldier judging, counseling or beating someone for the good of Earth or the U S of A.

Captain America: Allies and Enemies

Writers - Rob Williams, Kathryn Immonen, William Harms, Kieron Gillen, Kelly Sue Deconnick

Artists - Rebekah Isaacs, Ramon Perez, Declan Shalvey, Renato Arlem, Greg Tocchini

I’m referring to the hardcover collection coming out May 18th, but these were the five Captain America and… one-shots Marvel published the past couple months. There’s no strong theme uniting them other than whoever is in the title besides Cap is actually the star of the book. This is especially true with Captain America and the Falcon, which wastes several pages on the tail-end of an Avengers/Lethal Legion fight just to get Cap in the book. The rest is Falcon, Sam Wilson, going back to Harlem to try to help one of his old prostitutes from his pimp days get her son out of the gang life and back into a promising college football career. It’s a shame that no one can write a Sam Wilson story that isn’t about his criminal past or his feelings of being overshadowed by Captain America, but this one isn’t too bad. At least it doesn’t have the expected happy ending, though again, it might have been better with more space devoted to Sam’s story rather than the labored Avengers stuff, especially if Williams could have used that time to flesh out the complexity’s of the mother character, who’s concerned but mercenary at the same time. I also liked how the little bit about the redwing falcon’s resilience in NYC mirrored The Falcon’s. 

Captain America and the First Thirteen fleshes out a little of the Cap/Peggy Carter romance during a mission she’s leading for the French Resistance. It’s fast-paced and nicely wistful at the end, but while it features Cap more prominently than the other one-shots, that ends up being a negative. Immonen writes him as a violent, gung-ho horndog unlike most of the takes we’ve seen of the character over the past six decades. It’s a shame, because she can be a witty writer and some of that is present in how the other characters are written here, but it’s almost like she has an axe to grind here. It seems like where others have written of Peggy as Steve Rogers’ first love, for Immonen she’s just this nervy chick he liked to fuck during the War, until he didn’t. It really wasn’t necessary to tear Cap down to make Peggy and her female Resistance friend look better.

Captain America and Crossbones by Harms/Shalvey is the best of the lot, a dark espionage mission for the unrepentant killer Crossbones involving trying to clean up a government virus experiment gone awry on a small Balkan island. Shalvey captures a Crossbones who’s badass but thoroughly human in proportion, Harms making him an almost completely bad egg with just a glimmer of compassion that expresses itself in a darkly comic ending. Add Captain America and Batroc, an amusing and surprisingly effective character piece by Gillen and Arlem on the type a man a villain would have to be to keep going up against Captain America with no hope of success, and you’ve got the only two essential one-shots of the five. 

Captain America and The Secret Avengers is the weakest effort, so it’s too bad it’s the last one. It feels a lot like an old Solo Avengers story of some inventory piece for Marvel Fanfare or Marvel Comics Presents, so it’s kind of funny that the one-shot is padded with an old MCP story starring Black Widow and Silver Sable, with art by a young, not-as-bad Rob Liefeld (others have featured Lee/Kirby Cap stories). Greg Tocchini handles the art, and it’s kind of like the series of interlocking covers he did for all the one-shots in that there are some nice moments between some very awkward poses and ugly faces (the women on the covers look stoned to the gills). Deconnick comes up with a serviceable reason to get Black Widow and Agent 13 together on a mission: to save young Russian agent Tatiana from taking revenge on a corrupt girls finishing school that’s really a front for assassin training for various dictators and warlords, called L.A.S.S.E.S. (don’t ask). It struck me during the leader, Lady Ashley’s (that’s the L and A in the name, since you went ahead and asked), speech to the gathered bad dudes at the fundraiser, that Deconnick is willing at any opportunity to sacrifice logic and plausibility for jokes and would-be bright lines. Lady Ashley praises the throng for being, among other things, “soulless,” but as anyone who watches the news can see, every Mubarak and Ghadafi can rationalize their bloody acts as being for the ultimate good of their people. Perhaps unintentionally, this one-shot bookends the Falcon one and they’re both about trying to help a young person from making a terrible mistake with dire consequences, but here Deconnick does go for the pat ending after a suspense-free climax. The lasting memory of this one is the running joke about Sharon Carter being called Natasha’s mom. If you think about it too much, the real joke is why anyone thinks former Avenger Natasha can still do undercover work.

Secret Avengers #11

Writer - Ed Brubaker. Artist - Will Conrad 

"Absolutely not, Gary!" It’s not enough that Brubaker brought Bucky back from the dead in an arc that made him a brainwashed Russian assassin to the newest Captain America, as well as getting Steve Rogers to hang up the shield and start a team of black ops Avengers, but to finally introduce a character into the Marvel Universe named Gary, never mind one who gets Hank McCoy pissed about something non-mutanty, is really something. Bravo, Bru. In the non-MU, most of us don’t know a lot of John Steeles and Natashas and Hanks (and I’ve had a longstanding rule never to trust anyone named Steve that’s 99% effective). But we all know a Gary, and he’s often a stout, stammering fellow like this one. Whether he’s also a scientist with technology that can show a subject’s memories on a monitor with non-POV camera angles is irrelevant.

As far as the other, Garyless stuff in the issue, it’s the first of a two-parter that will wrap up Brubaker’s uneven run on the series. It’s mainly a WWII flashback story with Cap and Steele against not just Nazis but kinda-sorta zombies and maybe even a Lovecraftian tentacled monster, so there’s that. Conrad’s art is fine but unexceptional, and is in keeping with the general stylistic range of past Cap/SA artists like Deodato, Epting, Perkins et al. 

What’s more interesting about this issue is that it really doesn’t fit the general remit of Secret Avengers, and counting next issue and #6, that’s 25% of the series thus far that’s not really about black ops, Defendery team book adventures. It kind of felt from early on that Brubaker’s heart wasn’t really into the concept of the book, and it didn’t seem like he had any real plans in mind for the team members like Ant-Man, Beast or Valkyrie who aren’t currently being served in their own or others’ books the way Rogers, Black Widow and Agent 13 still pretty much are in Captain America, and I think Moon Knight still has a series, right? I think it’s notable that Nova and Shang-Chi amounted to little more than guest stars, and both were there to serve stories about secret societies, a recurring theme of Brubaker’s. Another recurring theme is reclamation projects and redeeming the damaged or brainwashed (Bucky, Sharon, the ’50s Cap, Zack Overkill from Incognito), with the latest project being John Steele. Brubaker explores these themes well, don’t get me wrong; I just think it’s interesting how a creator’s prime directive will take over despite the purported premise of the book. Which leads me to…

Captain America #616

Writers - Ed Brubaker, Cullen Bunn, Frank Tieri, Howard Chaykin, Mike Benson

Artists - Mike Deodato, Ed McGuinness, Jason Latour, Howard Chaykin, Paul Grist, Travis Charest, Paul Azaceta

It’s the 70th Anniversary issue, clocking in at over 90 pages of comics. Don’t get too excited by seeing Charest’s name there, as he just does a one-page distillation of the basic Cap origin/rebirth for Brubaker, but it looks good. Late greats Jim Aparo and Curt Swan have a couple late career Cap commission pieces in here as well. A big chunk of the book is by Brubaker, though. First is the beginning of “Gulag,” a story taking Bucky to a Russian prison for crimes committed while he was the Winter Soldier and for which he was already tried and convicted in absentia. We’ve already seen Bucky in jail in “The Trial of Captain America,” and prison stories are another recurring motif for Brubaker, but this begins ably enough. Although Steve Rogers’ position in the current administration could ensure better treatment of Bucky by the Russians, that wouldn’t be as dramatic as having him face a former Crimson Dynamo who wants to kill him, or having him battle Ursa Major, possibly to the death, would it? Deodato puts in more effort into rendering an angry bear-man than anyone has a right to expect. 

Brubaker accomplishes a couple things in the next story, first taking us through Steve Rogers’ feelings of frustration at not being able to help Bucky at this time, and also setting up the coming Captain America and Bucky series he’s going to write with Marc Andreyko, as the story is largely a flashback Invaders adventure that gives McGuinness a chance to draw some classic Golden Age characters. Some have said it shows that McGuinness is capable of drawing with less bombast, but to me, a story with the Invaders and the Red Skull could have used more of it. Not bad, though, and it will be interesting to see Brubaker explore moral ambiguity and secret societies during the Greatest Generation/Four Color Comics era. 

The rest of the stories are all about Steve Rogers’ Cap during various times, by various creators, most of whom have little experience with writing or drawing him. The Bunn/Latour “Spin” is an interesting story about a farming town so devastated by the economy that they agree to let AIM set up underground weapons facilities there, while Howard Chaykin uses a fanciful premise of a Norman Rockwell painting of Cap and a young woman as the backdrop for a nice story of romance lost, times passed, and oh yeah, there’s Nazis. 

There’s a goofy WWII Baron Blood/Invaders story where Cap briefly becomes a vampire. It’s funny that Grist does the art, because he already covered so much of this material in his own Jack Staff, which is basically his own Union Jack, who has a nemesis very similar to Baron Blood. It’s nice to see him go right to the source here, but Jack Staff is much better.

I wouldn’t call the Tieri/Azaceta story the worst piece here, as the art is nice, and the Union Jack tale never gets going at all, but it does still leave kind of a bad taste. The idea is that there have been several clones made of Hitler over the years, and almost all have been tracked down and destroyed, but Steve Rogers finds one right in Manhattan, an art gallery curator and artist named Edmund Heidler, who apparently doesn’t know who he really is. Tieri has Sharon Carter, a seasoned spy who has seen many weird things and many good people committing horrible acts (like Winter Soldier), go nuts at this news and want to turn the car around and do some sort of drive-by on Heidler, forcing Steve to practically punch her to get her to cut it out. Tieri’s idea is not a bad one, that Heidler is innocent because he has none of Hitler’s memories and is not himself guilty of any crimes. But the execution stinks, with a risible shock ending where Heidler can’t help this urge to paint the swastika into everything, including a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. He’s also named his cat Eva. Oy vey.

Christopher Allen

The Bronx Kill

Writer - Peter Milligan

Artist - James Romberger

Publisher - Vertigo. $12.99 USD

Vertigo took some well-deserved flak last year for its Vertigo Crime imprint, a series of thin hardcover graphic novels that look similar in design to real novels and cost the same, but for much simpler stories and often mediocre art. Heck, I recall at least a couple weren’t even true crime novels but more along the lines of castoff Hellblazer stories.

Peter Milligan, though, he’s usually worth a read, and James Romberger’s online persona has always revealed him to be an individual of taste and intelligence, so one would hope that when he chose to draw something again it was going to be noteworthy. As it is, The Bronx Kill is certainly one of the better of the Vertigo Crime books, but that’s not saying a lot.

The story follows Martin Keane, a writer suffering a block after a successful debut novel. His ex-cop dad is an insensitive asshole, so we want to like Martin, but going off to Ireland to research a book and leaving his wife alone for months doesn’t inspire sympathy, or at least it doesn’t as presented here, because it’s unclear just what is pulling Martin to Ireland. Soon after returning, his wife, who had become fascinated with the stretch of land known as the Bronx Kill in New York, ends up dead there, making Martin a suspect. Martin’s guilt isn’t really presented as a possibility; Milligan has other fish to fry, tying the murder and the Bronx Kill landscape together, along with the prose pieces of Martin’s Irish novel in progress, in a story about history and sins of fathers being visited on sons and on down. 

Romberger does an admirable job of storytelling, as is the case with most of the Vertigo Crime artists. When I used “mediocre” above, what I really mean is that while some, like Romberger, have a more effective style than others, in no case does any of them really let loose with a page of breathtaking beauty or invention. They are subordinate to the scripts, Romberger more than most and with some excuse, because of the prose sections of the book breaking up the flow. It ends up a rather compromised project that probably would have worked better as a prose novel, opened up with more twists, more background and greater attention to the novel-within-the-novel. At 180 pages of comics, Milligan gives short shrift to some promising ideas, and also short changes the character of Martin, as well as giving the story a shock ending that’s more sour than surprising. 

—Christopher Allen - Hello To All That

I wasn’t too worried about the new Dan Nadel/Tim Hodler revamp of, but it’s off to an even better start than expected. Now, I’m not offering anything close to a comprehensive review; one nice thing here is that there’s quite a bit to dig into and most of the articles, columns, interviews and reviews are relatively lengthy. Just a few thoughts on the ones I read first:

Tucker Stone on Johnny Red - Tucker’s a good reviewer, but it seems like he exposed a soft spot here. This sounds like a raft of formulaic, derivative old sub-Enemy Ace bollocks—why not let rip with some anti-aircraft fire? I realize he knows one of the other three people (Grant Goggans) in America who might be getting this book, but still. (Note: I just realized I wrote this after a loving review of a book of Adam Hughes’ T&A covers. My daughter was embarrassed by Power Girl’s cleavage.)

Sean T. Collins interviewing Blaise Larmee. Jaunty Sean T. is a thoughtful interviewer and Larmee is an exciting young talent. But while Larmee isn’t insulting, I wasn’t really into the games he was playing here. Which is fine. Maybe from now on I’ll just focus on his lovely comics. (Note: sometimes we shouldn’t interview artists we like. For me it was Kevin Huizenga, but it didn’t ruin my affection for his comics.)

R. Fiore’s Funnybook Roulette. Hey, Fiore’s one of my favorites and I’m glad he stayed on. The line about Toy Story 3's characters exchanging one god for another is brilliant. Still, call me a dick editor but if I was Nadler I'd want to launch this new webmagazine edition of “Funnybook Roulette” with something about actual funnybooks. Not cartoons. (Note: this kind of attitude may be why nobody lasted very long with me editing them at Comic Book Galaxy.)

Bob Levin on the Frank Frazetta stolen artwork case. This is the best piece I read yesterday, and it’s not even in my top 20 Levin pieces (never mind his full-length books). It was sad/funny to see commenters on the piece ripping him for a) not appreciating Frazetta’s artwork the way they do, and b) practicing an un-tabloid reporterlike restraint by not intruding further into the lives of the hurting, feuding Frazetta kids (Bob could get another good piece about how we consume Art while not really caring about the artists themselves and the pain that results in or from their art). There’s a kindness in his method, and in not pressing too hard on what seems pretty clearly an opinion that Frazetta’s work was simplistic, didn’t evolve, and even suffered some technical failings in the classic sense of believable light sources and the like. He also maybe thought Frazetta was kind of a loudmouth, if only judging by the TCJ Gary Groth interview years earlier. 

While the piece offered no new revelations in the story (and even missed one or two recent developments), I appreciated the psychological insight of it. If your world-famous Pops moved your family out to the boondocks, that might feel a little stifling, might cause some resentment. I liked Levin’s problem-solving here; lacking juicy quotes or an obvious hook for the story (he hitches a ride on the Art of the Steal/Van Barnes story, but it’s not enough of a parallel with Frazetta to get him very far), he turns inward, seeing in the aging lion Frazetta and the void his passing left for his survivors his own struggles and obligations with his elderly, stroke-surviving mother. That’s more of a fiction writer’s technique, feeding off one’s own life when inspiration ebbs. It works nicely here. (Note: I just really like Bob Levin’s writing).

Good luck, Glad to have you back.

—Christopher Allen

Cover Run: The DC Comics Art of Adam Hughes

DC Comics. $39.99 USD

Man, you can really take some folks for granted. 

I’ve been aware of Adam Hughes’ artwork from pretty early on—not his Maze Agency stuff but Justice League and onward. At the time I thought, this guy is a pretty good replacement for Kevin Maguire! Since then, I guess I developed an attitude where guys like Hughes and Brian Bolland—guys who started doing interiors and now only do covers—were somehow not really living up to their potential. It’s like, by not portraying the exploits of our beloved superheroes in sequential form, they weren’t really contributing to their history, weren’t really connected. It’s nonsense, I see that now.

I picked this book up in my local library on a whim. I do get to some comics late in the game but don’t live under a rock, so I’ve known for many years how good Hughes was as a cover artist, even if I was mainly experiencing it in thumbnail-sized solicitation copy or a quick scan at a comic shop shelf of new releases. That he has had a long, venerable run depicting Wonder Woman wasn’t lost on me, but clearly, I didn’t really appreciate how good he is.

This volume is an eye-opener into not just how good Hughes has been and for so long, but how hard he works to keep getting better. With a witty, self-deprecating tone, Hughes walks the reader through cover after cover, including preliminary sketches. We learn where he feels he went wrong, where he picked up a valuable bit of insight into, say, how best to depict the values of metallic clothing, or how Diana’s lasso can be not just an Art Nouveau design element but also one that serves a storytelling function, leading the viewer’s eye along an intended path. With each image, one comes to appreciate the fierce-yet-joyous, vaguely Mediterranean face of Diana, and where Hughes cops to making her too harsh here, too busty there, and boy, those boots are hard to get quite right. It’s amazing; the guy really has a strong opinion about those boots, and he’s sorry but he’s going to keep drawing them that way. Technology like Photoshop has by Hughes’ own admission been a godsend to his work, but the tools and toys are absolutely in service to a real artistic vision, a thoughtful and often humorous journey for beauty. I’ve surprised myself, but I really need to own this book. 

—Christopher Allen