Trouble with Comics
Review: The Discipline #1 and Another Castle #1

The Discipline is the controversial new comic from Peter Milligan, Leandro Fernandez, and Cris Peter. Explicitly dealing with (inhuman) sex, art, and class, on the surface, The Discipline has nothing in common with Another Castle, the debut comic from Comics Alliance editor Andrew Wheeler and up-and-coming artist Paulina Ganucheau. Another Castle is all-ages and deconstructs the trope of the princess in need of rescuing. At their heart though, both comics examine female protagonists trapped by societal convention. Only one of them offers the possibility of a happy ending.

Amusingly, The Discipline opens with that happy ending, as 23 year old Melissa engages in a bout of vigorous lizard-person form sex with Orlando, a mysterious being sent to recruit her into the titular organization. The rest of the comic is a flashback, revealing how Melissa is married to the filthy-rich Andrew, but comes from a lower-class background herself. Now she lives an idle life, not even using her English degree in a job at publishing house any more. She exercises, goes to the museum to look at (apparently fictional) Goya paintings, and gossips with her friends about how her husband is absent from her life. She tries to give some of Andrew’s money to her family, but they rebuff her. Milligan and Fernandez’s last comic, The Names, was ostensibly a critique of the One Percent. It did not quite work, but the pair accomplishes everything it seemed to try to do there in a few pages of The Discipline. Everything about the absent Andrew seems utterly contemptible, and while Melissa complaining about her lifestyle should not endear reader sympathy, there’s no denying the emptiness of that lifestyle at its core. In this scenario, it’s easy to root for Orlando (likely an allusion to the Virginia Woolf novel, which was used by Alan Moore in later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books)in to seduce Melissa, particularly when he actually rebuffs her first attempt to get him into bed. The first issue does not reveal anything about the Discipline itself, but it at least implies to the reader that it’s about more than the mind-blowing, body-altering sex on the opening pages; there’s a spiritual component, and that’s as intriguing as the titillating imagery.

If only things looked so promising for Princess Misty, the protagonist of Another Castle. The only daughter of the king of Beldora, she’s promised to wed the foppish Pete and by her own admission, has no friends only “hair and make-up.” She wants to take a more active role in the kingdom, but that’s prohibited by “Don Diego’s Code of Conduct” (not that she’s read it). The villain of the book, Lord Badlug the Terrible, captures her on page seven, after Misty carelessly heads off when she (and she alone) spots one of his spies, then goes off into the forest to try and find out more. The very nature of this trap depends on Badlug knowing how Misty chafes in her role and wants something more out of life than marriage to Pete and babies. Rather than playing off the knowledge her and trying to seduce her, he imprisons her, intent on holding a forced wedding (Badlug is cursed and cannot leave his own kingdom. Marrying Misty would expand his kingdom, once her father died).  Wheeler and Ganucheau, to their credit, do not portray Misty as being passive in the situation; she actually escapes, but returns to captivity when confronted with the depths of Badlug’s depravity and anger. She vows to do everything in her power to fight him from there, so as to avoid what happened the last time he kidnapped a princess. Unfortunately, from what we see in this first issue, defeating Badlug is the only sort of a happy ending Misty can look forward; the society around her, despite its bright trappings, is too restrained by tradition to allow her to be herself. The book would be far more interesting if Badlug was portrayed as responding to that aspect of Misty, so that she would be torn between her desire for self-actualization and desire to protect her kingdom. Instead, there’s no real conflict here and apparently no way for the heroine to get an ending worth rooting for, either.

by Joe Gualtieri

Review: Secret Six- Friends in Low Places

Secret Six; Friends in Low Places by Gail Simone, Ken Lashley, Dale Eaglesham, Tom Derenick, and Jason Wright

If the story behind your comic seems more interesting than the actual comic, there’s a problem. Gail Simone’s original Secret Six comic (as opposed to the original Secret Six) was one of the better DC Comics of the late 00s up until Flashpoint. It was an obvious heir to John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad (also a revival of a semi-obscure Silver Age title that barely hand anything to do with the original) as it starred c-list characters and made them incredibly interesting by focusing on their moral ambiguities. The cancellation of Secret Six was one of the great losses of DC’s 2011 reboot, so it finally coming back three years later with Simone as the writer again was pretty exciting. Unfortunately, something clearly happened behind the scenes and the comic pretty much spends the length of its first trade trying to course correct.

The first two and a half issues are drawn by Ken Lashley, the next three and half are by some combination of Tom Derenick (essentially a DC house stylist, and I mean that kindly) and Dale Eaglesham (the first artist on Simone’s original Secret Six). Lashley’s work on those two and a half issues is dark and bold, definitely not in the current DC house style. Eaglesham and Derenick deliver solid, but much more conventional work. Jason Wright colors all six issues, but his style over Lashley is completely different than his work over Derenick and Eaglesham. Over the latter two, Wright’s work looks like normal, contemporary superhero comics coloring. Over Lashley, his work is completely different, it looks almost as if instead of using a computer, he used markers, and the results are amazing. I know, I said in the last paragraph that they had to course-correct from Lashley’s issues and I’ve just been praising them. Unfortunately, while Lashley’s period on the book looks great, the story is obscure and unpleasant.

The book opens with Catman (the breakout star of the Simone’s original Secret Six) being kidnapped by Mockingbird’s goons. He wakes up trapped in a submerged construct along with Black Alice (also from the previous version of the book), the New 52 Ventriloquist (created by Simone during her Batgirl run), Strix (a former member of the Court of Owls from Batman), Big Shot (a private investigator), and Porcelain. He wants them to answer the question, “What is the secret?” or he will start killing them. It turns out Mockingbird had previously captured and tortured Catman a eighteen months prior to the series for a year until he escaped. Long story short, the group escapes, Black Alice is injured, and they go hide… in Big Shot’s suburban home. Three of Mockingbird’s goons (a disguised Scandal Savage, Jeanette, and Ragdoll, core members of the pre-Flashpoint Secret Six) pretend to be working against Mockingbird, fight the Secret Six for awhile, and then leave; it doesn’t do much except undercut how silly hiding from Mockingbird in Big Shot’s house is and drive home how underdeveloped the cast is. Catman and Black Alice are both basically coasting on what Simone did with them previously (particularly the latter). Catman only gets to stretch in an issue devoted mainly to sending up suburban mores. The New 52 Black Alice gets treated like a delicate flower by the male team members, especially after her injury, despite being the most powerful member of the team. She may be 16, but they act as if she’s significantly younger. The new Ventriloquist basically replaces Ragdoll in the role of team-member-who-says-outrageous-stuff. Strix is speech-impaired and her personality consists of the contrast between her poorly written, misspelled notes and her fighting prowess. You may have noted I did not write anything above about who Porcelain is; that’s because after six issues, I still have no idea who Porcelain is. Yes, I know what her super power is (she can make things brittle) and she has some decent quips, but Simone reveals nothing of her past or her motives (other than revenge against Mockingbird). Then there’s Big Shot, who it’s impossible to discuss without spoilers and revealing what the book is really about.

At the end of #4, Simone reveals to the reader that Big Shot is working for Mockingbird, who is really classic Batman villain the Riddler. The team finds out the next issue, and while confronting him, it turns out that Big Shot is Ralph Dibny, better known as the Elongated Man, a member of the Justice League and best friend of two Flashes pre-Flashpoint. At some point in the past, all the members of the Six plus Sue Dibny (Ralph’s wife) were on the Riddler’s yacht for various reasons revolving around the India Star Diamond. The Riddler proposed to the very married Sue just before the boat exploded. Ralph could not save Sue, but he’s working for the Riddler with the understanding that he knows what happened to her. Meanwhile, the India Star Diamond went missing and the Riddler had the others kidnapped to try and find out which of them stole the jewel. Oh, and Sue’s alive, with amnesia, and working as the Riddler’s henchperson. She also does not look at all like Sue Dibny, which gets to the problems with the story. Ralph and Sue Dibny mean nothing to anyone who was not reading DC Comics prior to Flashpoint. As I wrote above, it seems like there was a course correction here, and it is because there is no reason to hide any of this. The Riddler is a super-villain who in the New 52 universe, ran Gotham City for a year. He’s a scary guy here, not a joke. Why the Mockingbird disguise? The only reason Sue does not look like Sue is to mess with the reader and save a revelation for the sixth issue (unless making the character Sue Dibny came after she initially appeared). The Riddler keeping his real motives a secret in the first issues, asking “What is the secret?” instead of “Where’s my diamond?” makes no sense. The timeline is terrible. In the present of the book, the India Star Diamond has been gone for at least two years (since Catman was originally kidnapped 18 months ago and escaped six months ago). It took the Riddler that long to bother with anyone other than Catman and Ralph Dibny? Dibny’s whole shtick is that he’s a detective with a nose for a mystery, and he made no progress on what happened to his wife for two years? All that is plausible, I suppose, but superhero comics are not reality and the timeline Simone gives events is weirdly drawn out for the genre. Looking at the art credits, the shipping schedule (#2 was late and there was a big gap for #3 because of DC’s move to Burbank), something happened. Whether it had to do with artist Ken Lashley or editorial, I have no idea, but I’m more interested in that story than this incarnation of the Secret Six, which is a damn shame.

-Joe Gualtieri

Review: Molly Danger

I’ve been a fan of Jamal Igle’s since his short-lived (but revived last year) series Venture with Jay Faeber back in 2003. His work can have the look of the George Perez school, but his design sense always feels cleaner, and a little less noodley. These days, he’s best known for a classic run on Supergirl with Sterling Gates which helped inspire the current TV series.  A few years ago, Igle kickstarted Molly Danger, which he also wrote. The preview was fun; a super-strong alien who perpetually looks like a ten-year old girl takes on a giant mecha piloted by a brain-in-a-robot-body-type villain. It looked fun, and great for an underserved audience (one we’ve heard a lot more about in the years since, as girls want their Black Widow, Gamora, and Rey toys). For whatever reason, I decided to pass on backing it, but ordered a copy when Action Lab picked it up for a mass release. Unfortunately, it stayed in my “to read” pile for, well, a couple of years. I wish I had actually read it sooner, at least so I could have backed the second Kickstarter (more Molly Danger is due this summer).

Molly Danger is  better and more interesting comic than the impression created by the preview. Yes, it is entirely appropriate for all ages and features a protagonist perfect for young female readers. However, it does not shy away from the potentially darker implications of its scenario (but crucially, does not indulge in them). DART, the organization Molly works with, is as concerned about protecting people from Molly as the menaces she fights. As a result, Molly’s kept isolated and alone, without any meaningful interactions. Austin Briggs, who joins DART midway through the comic after helping Molly in the opening sequence, almost immediately starts breaking the group’s rules, eating with her and even bringing her home to meet his stepson, Brian. He’s a huge fan and loves meeting his idol, she loves meeting someone her own “age.” But then Molly comes back and sees him again. The scene is, on the surface, a pleasant one between the characters with Molly expressing how alone she feels, but it also subtly suggests that the DART commander could be right about her, as there’s an implication of menace in Molly being able to completely control her relationship with Brian. It’s really skillfully done, perfectly staying on a line that keeps the book appropriate for younger readers yet interesting for older ones. Obviously, Igle’s working with a Superman-type in Molly, but he alters the formula in unique and interesting ways. I won’t let the next volume lie around for two years.

– Joe Gualtieri

Review: We Can Never Go Home

We Can Never Go Home by Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, Josh Hood, Brian Level, Amanda Scurti, and Tyler Boss is undoubtedly one of the biggest indie comics success stories of 2015. Buoyed in part by coverage of a controversial costume-change sequence in #3, the book burned up the back issue market. The trade paperback debuted just before Christmas and lives up to the hype. The book focuses on two teens, Madison and Duncan. The most popular girl in school, Madison hides her superpowers from the world until her boyfriend hits her during a confrontation with Duncan. In turn, Duncan tells Madison that he can kill people with his mind. The two have brief courtship that’s cut short following a violent incident that causes them to go on the run together.

From there, We Can Never Go Home is, at turns, exciting, funny, and compelling. There’s just one problem. I feel like I’ve already read this comic before. Twice, in fact. It’s called Harbinger. Originally published by Valiant in 1992, Harbinger was created by Jim Shooter and David Lapham. Joshua Dysart revived the series in 2012. I don’t mean to suggest a one-to-one correspondence here, but tonally, We Can Never Go Home clearly owes a huge debt to the two versions of the book. Shooter’s big idea for the title was a grittier version of the X-Men, where the characters were on the run, not living in a luxurious Westchester mansion. Dysart’s version is slower-paced than Shooter’s original and really foregrounds the troubling and dysfunctional relationship between the telepathic Peter Stanchek and normal human Kris Hathaway. Rosenberg and Kindlon switch the genders of which member of the couple possess powers, but they keep the manipulation. Like both versions of Harbinger, it’s about protagonists on the run, living on the margins, and does not center the story on a big city like New  York. The last comparison is the Closed Casket organization Madison and Duncan briefly become involved with, which seems like a very low rent (and probably more realistic) version of Toyo Harada’s Harbinger Foundation.

Despite the familiarity of the story, Rosenberg and Kindlon, who are relative newcomers, do manage to make Madison and Duncan compelling. The real star is Josh Hood. Hood’s been in comics for nearly 20 years and worked on Superman, Spider-Man, and Aquaman, but only sporadically. The turning point for his career seems to have been a stint at Zenescope starting in 2012. We Can Never Go Home is, whatever its other flaws, an amazing showcase for someone who has apparently been overlooked all this time. His figures are clean and gorgeous like those of an but the world around them feels gritty, run down, but not Noir-ish. Really, the only comparison that makes sense to me is Dave Gibbons. Hood’s work isn’t as formally restrained though, and his action sequences are more fluid.

In summation, We Can Never Go Home manages the neat trick of both living up to its hype and disappointing. The story isn’t quite there, but it’s visually spectacular and likely marks the arrival of a major talent.

Joe Gualtieri

The Art of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, reviewed by Aaron Doane

The Art of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a look into the mind of the artists of the new Triple A videogame title Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The Assassins Creed series may seem to be dwindling in the past few years, but that’s not what this review is about. This review is about the amazing work that the artists over at Ubisoft put into the game.

While turning the pages of this book, published by Titan, and seeing all the concept art, you really get a feel for the work that goes into making a work of art. All the time and planning and revisions that they would have to do. All of the work that they put into the game, most likely because they have a passion for gaming and art. It truly shows when you look at these pictures.

When you look at the initial designs and you think to yourself “Well, that doesn’t fit the character at all.” But as you go through the book you see the artists try to amend that issue. Whether it be fine tuning of a character’s coat or the way the character shaves. You get an idea of what was going through the artist’s mind as they try to make this model perfectly fit the character the writers have laid out.

While looking at the early pictures of the city, it’s amazing to me that the games come out on a yearly basis. With all the work that goes into this and the truly breathtaking art within the book, I would think this could take many years to make. But they get it done regularly, thanks to the hard work and the dedication from the artists to put out an amazing product for people everywhere to enjoy.

This work seems like it would probably go unnoticed because it’s such a behind the scenes thing that the artists behind the game might just get no recognition; well, this review is for them. I appreciate all the work they do to help make a game great. If you have a few bucks and are at all interested in game design, pick this book up and give it a look.

– Aaron Doane

A copy was provided by the publisher for review purposes.

Review: The New Deal

Jonathan Case’s The New Deal is a lovely little book with a number of surprising twists. Set in 1936, the book has three main characters. Frank is the first character introduced to the reader; primarily a bellhop at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, we meet him handing out flyers for Orson Welles’s Voodoo Macbeth and soon learn that he has a bit of a gambling problem. Next up is Theresa, a maid at the same hotel where Frank works. She possesses other aspirations though, and is playing a witch in Voodoo Macbeth. Frank’s handing out the flyers because of a not-well-hidden crush on Theresa which seems to be mutual. Finally, the mysterious Nina rounds out the major players. Allegedly coming from old money, Nina tips both Frank and Theresa generously, too much so, which arouses the latter’s suspicions.

From the first couple of chapters, my expectation was that Case was producing a work similar to Richard Linklater’s little-seen film Me and Orson Welles, where Zac Effron plays a young man desperate to be involved in Welles’s 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar. Case goes in quite a different direction, and Welles’s play merely provides a resonant backdrop rather than acting as the center of the story. It’s not a random selection by Case, as the play Macbeth resonates strongly with the plot twists in the book, that it’s this specific production works doubly, as it was funded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Welles’s then-revolutionary decision to move the play to Haiti and cast African-Americans works with Case’s themes regarding race. Similarly, the title of the book is obviously a reference to Roosevelt’s economic program in the 1930s, but it also describes the relationship that evolves between Frank, Theresa, and Nina.

As enjoyable as the plot and characters are in the book, the real star is Case’s artwork. The clothes, furniture, cars, jewelry, buildings all come across as meticulously detailed and utterly gorgeous. Unlike some artists, Case’s figure work does not suffer at all by comparison. They are all beautiful examples of cartooning with a whiff of Stan Drake about them. In the past, I’ve only seen Case’s work on Jeff Parker’s Batman ’66, where his work was good, but not quite this good. The New Deal has me not only eagerly anticipating a sequel, but wanting to pick up his other work, such as Dear Creature and Green River Killer.

– Joe Gualtieri

“Funny. You’re Still You.”– A Review of Archie #4

A couple weeks ago, I posted a picture on Facebook of the gorgeous Archie vs. Predator hardcover published by Dark Horse and jokingly referred to it as the best comic of the year.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic and fun, a perfect blending of two properties that should have nothing do with each other in a way that hasn’t been seen since, well, Archie Meets Punisher came out in 1994. Archie #4 though, by Mark Waid, Annie Wu, Andre Szymanowicz, and Jen Vaughn actually is that good.

The first three issues of the rebooted Archie series, by Waid and Fiona Staples, are all great comics. They feel like Archie stories, but updated for contemporary times, and move away from the short story format where nothing really changes to an on-going story, focusing mainly on the relationship between Archie, Betty, and the new-in-town Veronica. That changes in #4. This isn’t something possible before the reboot because nothing ever changed, because every story was resolved in eight pages. The closest Archie Comics ever got to something like this is probably Life with Archie, the series largely written by Paul Kupperberg which detailed what would have happened if Archie had married Betty or Veronica, with a story for each parallel timeline in every issue. That series was still grounded in the old aesthetic, which kept it from getting too emotionally real, and the fact that up until the botched ending* it was two separate stories made any consequences feel mitigated. Nothing about Archie #4 feels mitigated. This is the most emotionally devastating mainstream comic I’ve read since Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman #6 back in 2007.

* The final issue of Life With Archie, the highly publicized “Death of Archie,” only has one story, and avoids specific reference to either timeline to, in theory, make it work as an ending for both. As a result it feels cheap and gimmicky.

For those who haven’t read the new series up to this point, Archie and Betty were couple and broke up just prior to #1. Waid spent the first three issues building up the mystery of “the Lipstick Incident” and in the-format changing #4, the reader finally learns the details. The issue opens with Archie and Jughead jamming in Archie’s garage. Jughead upsets Archie and offers him part of a candy bar, “the thing he values most” as a peace offering, and this just upsets Archie more. He then begins speaking to the reader, and flashes back to the time when he was still dating Betty. There’s an ominous scene with the two of them discussing how happy they are  and how they don’t want things to change, followed by an idyllic montage of them having fun together, and then the Lipstick Incident starts.

The two share a gooey candy bar, the same brand Jughead offers Archie in the opening sequence, which gets every all over the two of them and attracts ants. They run for a restroom, where Archie overhears two young women making fun of the tomboyish Betty, and asks them to be nicer to her. Such is Archie’s popularity that they sort of befriend Betty, but while spending time with her make subtle digs at her unwillingness to adopt a traditionally female role and try to change her. Betty resists this until the two girls are with her when she makes a date with Archie to go see a horror film. They insist on giving her a makeover, which is hidden at first from the reader. Instead, in a masterful bit of storytelling, we see how other people in the neighborhood, specifically other boys, react to this “new” Betty, and all the reader sees of Betty is a small smile, suggesting that maybe this is a change she likes. Archie and the reader witness the results of the makeover together, and he is clearly unnerved by it.

Still, they go to the movie together, where Archie tries to share a candy bar with Betty (the same brand as earlier) and she declines, fearing it would ruin her dress. He’s more uncomfortable then ever at this point, and the tension is heightened by their choice of film, as the dialogue in the film about the physical change of its werewolf seem to comment on how Archie feels about Betty (and recall the opening of the flashback). It eventually becomes too much for Betty and she runs from the theater. Archie follows, she asks why he’s “acting so weird.” He turns the question back on Betty, which causes her to hit him with her purse, spilling its contents on the ground. Betty tells him, “I know you look at girls dressed like this.” The accusation and Archie’s defensive response implying that Archie likes the tomboyish Betty not because he really loves her, but because she’s easier for him to deal with and he does not really appreciate her. Holding a tub of lipstick, he claims, “This! This is the crap that doesn’t belong on you! Where’s the Betty I know?” Incensed, she grabs the lipstick and smears it across Archie’s face telling him, “Funny. You’re still you.” The rest of the issue is a little more narration from Archie, followed by a little advancement of the soap opera plot (including the reboot debut of Reggie).

The two central pages with Archie’s rant and Betty’s rejoinder are just astounding. On a purely dramatic level, this is just excellent writing on Waid’s part for a teenage couple having a spat about growing up and growing apart. In another way, there’s obvious feminist subtext to the scene (and the story in general); Betty can be whatever and whoever she wants, regardless of Archie’s desires. That the story expresses this by having Betty switch from a more traditionally masculine persona to a stereotypical version of femininity in a comic written by a man does seem problematic at first glance, but Waid and Wu keep a clear focus on Betty’s feelings, which suggests a more open, feminist message of Betty being able to be whatever self she wants rather than just adhering to one version of womanhood. Finally, there’s a metatextual element to the argument, as it’s easy to read Archie as standing in for the traditional fan of Archie comics, questioning why the object of his affection felt the need to change after so long, with the lipstick specifically standing in for a style other than Dan DeCarlo’s. Three issues is, this works better than it would have in the first issue, because the reader has seen that despite the stylistic changes, the new Archie is still, at its core, the old Archie.

When the nominees for the 2016 Eisner awards are announced, expect to see this issue nominated for best single issue. While it lacks the formal daring of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s “Pizza is my Business” from Hawkeye #11 (the last single issue I recall feeling so strongly about), this issue is so masterfully done by Waid, Wu, Szymanowicz, and Vaughn that not getting at least a nomination is inconceivable.

– Joe Gualtieri

Capsule Reviews by Joe Gualtieri

New Avengers #1 by Al Ewing, Gerardo Sandoval, and Dono Sanchez Almara

Sandoval and Almara’s art here is pretty appealing, with a nice blend of traditional superhero art and Manga influences. I have real issues with this comic, but none of that has a thing to do with the art.

Ewing’s script is terrible for quite a few reasons. First off, there’s the characters. None of them are really distinguished from one another, aside from Squirrel Girl. White Tiger’s sole characterization is that she’s hitting on Power Man, despite him not being interested. Songbird, Wiccan, and Hulking are all more interesting than they’re portrayed as being here. Then there’s the odd set-up of this book, where the Avengers are operating out of AIM Island. This is, in a way, the opposite complaint I had about Invincible Iron Man #1, where everything felt like a retread. Here, Ewing does nothing to acclimate the reader into an odd status quo, despite this in theory being a big jumping-on point for new readers after Marvel’s Crisis. Finally, there’s the plot. After all the inter-dimensional shenanigans of Hickman’s Secret Wars, does anyone want more of that? The one positive I can say here is that I’m thrilled to see Songbird finally join the Avengers after Busiek foreshadowing it 17 years ago in Avengers Forever.

Invincible Iron Man #2-3 by Brian Michael Bendis, David Marquez, and Justin Ponsor

These are much better than the bland first issue. Doom is not a character I’d expect to be in Bendis’s wheelhouse, but he made it work in Mighty Avengers years ago and does so again here. Aside from the overly abbreviated and too-vague examination of Stark’s past with Madame Masque, these issues are breezy fun for Bendis fans.

Howard the Duck #1 by Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones, and Joe Rivera & Chris Hastings, Danilo Beyruth, and Tamara Bonvillain

Howard picks up pretty much right where it left off before Secret Wars, but provides ample background material for anyone jumping on—Howard’s a PI, he has a new shape-shifting gal Friday, and Aunt May is working for him part time. Plus, he’s kind of depressed and wants to go home, which leads into a fight with the Wizard and Titania. I cannot imagine anyone jumping on here having an issue following what’s going on. Zdarsky’s writing on Howard continues to be stronger than Jughead, which feels muted and less funny by comparison. Quinones, meanwhile, remains one of the best-kept secrets in comics; why he isn’t a bigger star is a mystery. His Howard isn’t Gene Colan’s Howard, but it works amazingly well. Howard is completely believable within Quinones’s milieu, and there’s this odd, almost Peter Lorre-ish touch around Howard’s eyes that really gives off the world-weary vibe Zdarsky’s script is going for. If not for the book up next, I’d be tempted to call this the best book Marvel’s publishing today.

Before the next title though, I suppose I should touch on the much-hyped Gwenpool back-up. Well, it exists. Normally, I’m a fan of Chris Hastings; Dr. McNinja and Fear Itself: Deadpool are both hilarious comics. Based on this first installment, Gwenpool seems to be little more than Deadpool’s fourth-wall breaking elements ramped up to eleven. It’s a little amusing, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a real reason for this character to exist right now other than as a cash grab. Danilo Beyruth’s pencils are mostly OK, and recall a budding Farel Dalrymple. Unfortunately, the art serves as an example of how hard it can be to integrate an alien presence like Howard into a comic, as Beyruth’s take is less successful than Quinones’s.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Joe Morris, and Rico Renzi

This comic opens with a parody of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s famous opening to All Star Superman, where they turn Superman’s origin into almost a minimalist poem, “Doomed planet./Desperate Scientists./Last hope./Kindly couple.” North and Henderson similarly catch the reader up, “Partially squirrel blood./Talks to rodents./Powers of a squirrel.” It does not have quite the same ring to it, but it’s a lovely re-introduction. Unlike Howard, Squirrel Girl does not just pick up where it left off pre-Secret Wars. Time has passed, and our titular heroine is starting her second semester in a new off-campus apartment. It serves as an excuse for North and Henderson to debut SG’s mother, Maureen Green, who in turn revises her daughter’s origin to be, “medically and legally distinct from being a mutant, and I can never take this back” which is hilarious from both a metatextual standpoint of the issues with film rights for Marvel characters, and a nice callback to Dan Slott’s GLX-Mas special, where the Watcher saw Squirrel Girl defeat absolutely the real versions of Marvel’s most powerful villains.

Essentially, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is exactly what I want from most Marvel comics; it is truly all ages and for all sorts of fans. Obsessives like me will appreciate the references to older comics and the main plot, where Squirrel Girl takes an unusual route to defeat what looks like a menacing Hydra cyborg, is perfect for younger fans and the new generation making the likes of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel such a hit. When the news leaked out that the pre-Secret Wars Squirrel Girl was being forced into oddly sized trades, I was worried it wouldn’t be coming back for the relaunch. I’m thrilled that my fears proved unfounded and that the book picked up right where it left off.

Carnage #1 by Gerry Conway, Mike Perkins, and Andy Troy

Apparently, Conway quietly returned to the Spider-Man franchise a couple years ago and worked extensively on Spider-Verse. Still, it’s a surprise to see him writing this book. Conway’s 1991 exit from Spectacular Spider-Man occurred just before the franchise became all-Symbiotes all the time. I picked this book up incredulous about its prospects as an ongoing series, and I remain that way. The issue is mainly set-up to get Cassaday and a team of soldiers (including John Jameson and former Venom Eddie Brock) into an abandoned mine for Cassaday to pick off the non-named characters one-by-one. Conway’s execution of all this is fine, but it still feels more like a limited series than an ongoing. Perkins and Troy’s art is functional; though I wish they found a way to make the symbiotes feel more disruptive to the setting. This book is the opposite of Howard the Duck, where Howard needs to blend into the Marvel Universe. Carnage is primarily a gritty action book, except for the one fantastic sci-fi element, but Perkins and Troy fail to make it feel fantastic.

Spider-Woman #1 by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, and Alvaro Lopez

This a pretty good comic overall. Hopeless does an excellent job conveying Jessica Drew’s frustration with being on maternity leave and shows a range of reactions to her pregnancy among the superhero community. Still, there’s little here beyond the basic solicitation pitch for the series; Hopeless pretty much just establishes the idea that Drew is now pregnant and that the identity of the father is mystery. That’s fine, but it doesn’t really hook the reader to pick up a second issue. The art by Rodriguez and Lopez falls squarely into the realm of contemporary superhero art aiming for neither gritty realism (Mike Perkins) nor cartoony (Erica Henderson), and it perfectly fits the tone, except for one minor hiccup. If not for the recap page, I’d have no clue that the person helping Drew train the new Porcupine is Ben Urich; Rodriguez’s version looks way too young for the character.

Extraordinary X-Men #1-2 by Jeff Lemire, Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba, and Edgar Delgado

Well, that was wholly inaccessible. I probably sound like a broken record about this with some Marvel books, but how can you make your big debut X-book coming out of Secret Wars so new-reader unfriendly? People love to joke about ‘90s X-Men comics being a mess of crossovers and unresolved plots, but at least two of the protagonists weren’t time displaced from alternate realities (only one of which was mentioned). If you don’t know what the Inhumans and Terrigen Mists are you’ll be completely lost, and that’s to say nothing of little throwaway things like Limbo. That’s without the bold new direction for the X-books apparently being a regurgitation of the post-House of M status, which Marvel undid three years ago. Jeff Lemire’s done a lot of good work elsewhere, so it feels safe to chalk this up to editorial. 

– Joe Gualtieri

Constantine: The Hellblazer #1-4, reviewed by Brian Domingos

Writers: James Tynion IV and Ming Doyle (art in #3)
Artists: Riley Rossmo, Vanessa del Rey (#3-4), Chris Visions (#4)
Colors: iVan Plascencia, Lee Loughridge (#3 & 4)
Letters: Tom Napolitano

I liked the New 52 CONSTANTINE book. Yeah, I was the one. Was it the best version of John? Well, which one are you talking about? Alan Moore’s mysterious interloper? Warren Ellis’s solemn observer? Brian Azzarello’s con man? Peter Milligan’s old married mage? I’ve got all of the trade paperbacks – there are at least a dozen variations of John. The CONSTANTINE book feels like a HELLBLAZER – well, at least one of them. The new book does too.

James Tynion IV and Ming Doyle are giving us the sarcastic Wit that seems two steps ahead but might have actually missed a key detail. He’s prepared for things but can take his lumps when necessary. That’s the key HELLBLAZER connection for me. Additionally, they have reintroduced a level of sexual maturity to the book that we haven’t seen in a long time. John has often been seen as a character with fluid and diverse sexual habits and in a few short issues, they have given John a few different options.

The first issue reestablishes John’s world, where he lives and how reacts to the environment around him. There’s a fantastic scene where John travels to a local club and we see the secret, otherworldly depths. Artist Riley Rossmo stretches the horizontal panels across a two-page spread and uses a stacked tier layout to express the spheres of Hell. Each is unique and well-defined.

This is some of the best art I’ve seen from Rossmo. He has worked in a variety of styles and techniques.  Here, he uses his unique style with detail and zipatone to give the figures depth. Ming Doyle pitched in on some flashback pages, giving the scenes a classic, aged look. It’s an ambiguous time period but it’s clearly not ‘now.’ HIT’s Vanessa del Rey does the ‘current’ pages, fleshing out John’s well-loved counterpart, Georgiana Snow. DEAD LETTERS’ Chris Visions replaces Doyle on flashbacks for issue 4. It’s fantastic work. DEAD LETTERS is filled with muddy colors and clunky digital letters that muddle Visions’ art. Here, he’s assisted by a higher quality of colorist and letterer.

The majority of the color art is by Ivan Plascencia who uses bright pastels and unpolluted colors to give the book a unique feel for a John Constantine project. Lots of pinks and blues take the place of the usual browns and oranges. The soft hued colors give the scenes and airy, ethereal look, even when the material is on the heavier side.

Tom Napolitano uses a striking “house” font for the book. It’s not flashy but it’s distinctive and adds a level of personality to the book.

The Eternal Warrior - An Overview by Joseph Gualtieri

With Wrath of the Eternal Warrior by Robert Vendetti and Raul Allen due out this week from Valiant, it seems like a good time to look back at the extant Eternal Warrior trades from the current Valiant Universe.

Sword of the Wild by Greg Pak, Trevor Hairsine, and others - The chapters in this volume have sections alternating between ancient Mesopotamia and the present day. In the earlier timeline, Gilad and his children have a pivotal encounter with a death cult, while latter has Gilad returning to action after about a break. There’s one other flashback in the book, to 1877, where Gilad loses faith in the Geomancer and puts away his weapons. Okay, this is probably sounding a little complex for those not familiar with Valiant. It really isn’t. Gilad, the titular Eternal Warrior, is one of three immortal brothers; he works for the Geomancer, a rotating position of sort-of-magicians who can communicate with the spirit of the Earth. Think Arthur and Merlin, but Arthur never dies and Merlin’s the Doctor from The Authority, but less powerful.  So Gilad has his crisis of conscience in 1877, but is called into action by his daughter, who’s attracted the attention of the death cult from Ancient Mesopotamia, as she’s filled in for Gilad with the Geomancer. Pak’s script does an excellent job of conveying Giad’s weariness at 8,000 years of life and fighting, and his desire now to find something new. The one problem with the writing is that Gilad retires too early; it is a little hard to buy that he’s an expert in modern munitions if he’s been retired since 1877. Unfortunately, the art is not as strong. Hairsine’s never been the strongest artist, and while he’s advanced here from just being a Bryan Hitch clone, his slowness creates an inconsistent look for the comic. He draws all of the first issue only. The flashbacks in each issue should lighten the load, Hairsine can’t even draw all of the modern day sequences in the middle issues.

Eternal Emperor by Greg Pak and Robert Gill - Pak’s second arc leaps forward to 4001, where Gilad is living in a small, peaceful village with his young granddaughter. The peace is shattered by an attack by a robot which Gilad defeats, but the robot contains a nuclear bomb. Gilad takes his granddaughter with him on a quest, hopeful that they will find anti-radiation medicine, but if not, to avenge his people. What follows has plenty of action, but is largely a mediation on the violent nature of mankind and the cyclical nature of human civilization. Pak is not writing A Cancticle for Liebowitz, exactly, but it’s well done, and he even manages to make the device of the granddaughter pay off. Robert Gill is not the best artist at Valiant, but he’s good, and delivers more consistency than Hairsine did on the prior volume.

Days of Steel by Peter Milligan and Cary Nord - This volume is slight, reprinting three issues, but it feels a little padded even at that length. Millgan’s story is a simple one, but it’s effectively told and well illustrated by Nord. In the 13th century, the Geomancer sends Gilad to protect the savior of the Franks from the Magyars, who is born with a mark on his face. To Gilad’s surprise, the boy’s mother gave birth to twins, both with the mark. Gilad takes one of the brothers, who grows up sickly, but with an aptitude for music while the other stays with his parents and becomes more of a fighter. Most readers will figure out that the sickly brother’s songs will inspire the Franks long before Gilad, but Milligan effectively conveys his angst over whether or not he made the right decision about the twins, which dovetails nicely with the misgivings about the Geomancers from Pak’s first volume. The focus on the song acting the virus makes the story of piece with explorations of media in some of Milligan’s other works, like X-Statix.

Of these three, Eternal Emperor is unquestionably the strongest work, and among the best comics Valiant has put out since its resurrection (which is no small feat). That being said, Sword of the Wild is more strongly connected to the Valiant universe, if you’re looking for an entry point. Days of Steel is skippable, but it’s a fun trifle, especially for Milligan fans.