Monday, September 30, 2013

Monthly Dose: September 2013

Monthly Dose is a semi-regular column where I reread one issue each month of long-completed series.

100 Bullets #11: A trite story with a predictable ending, this is an issue that I never remember when I think about 100 Bullets, but anytime I start rereading it, I know everything that happens after I finish the first two or three pages. Graves gives his classic attaché full of evidence and bullets to a woman whose husband sexually abused their daughter, causing the young girl to run away from home and end up a prostitute and drug addict who ultimately overdosed. It's the world's dullest Law and Order: SVU plot, with way too much of the issue being Graves relating the daughter's (Tina) tragic story to her mother (Lily) at a diner while eating a piece of pie. He lays out the details coldly and plainly, so there's no real voice to the story, just the facts. He does leave the reveal that Lily's husband is at fault until the very end of the conversation, but it's not a surprise by any means. We've already seen how distant from one another Lily and her husband are, and since he's one of three other characters we even meet in this issue (the other two of whom are Lily's co-workers) he's kind of the only viable option. She goes home and kills him, which he deserves I guess, but there's no sense of relief or satisfaction for me when it happens. It's more of a "Yup...that's what I figured," reaction. This issue is just Brian Azzarello biding his time, really. After setting up Cole Burns and the whole idea of the Minute Men, the series goes back to its format of Graves and the briefcase interacting with different, disconnected people. I'm not sure it needed to do that, and it definitely didn't have any specific reason to tell this particular story full of overused details and bland characters. Eduardo Risso has some good bits, like Tina's bedroom being preserved as an everything-in-its-place shrine to her childhood, or young fry cook Tomas having an intense and intimate conversation with his pregnant girlfriend in the background of the Graves-Lily conversation. But Risso also doesn't have a whole lot to do here, since it's all just chatter in one of two sparse locations from cover to cover. I want to see the larger narrative advance now that it's been introduced, and if that's not going to happen, I want to read something that is at least fresh or has a few good twists or in any way gets me going.

The Intimates #11: I'm not wild about the ways in which this issue mirrors the debut, because it's not the right place to do that. I know Joe Casey may not have known for sure that this issue would be the second-to-last in the series when he wrote it (although there's some stuff in the info scrolls that indicates otherwise) but either way, that ended up being the case, and having the book do a second take of its first issue so close to the end of its life is awkward. Also, the script drags its feet in some scenes, advancing the plot of Punchy and Destra looking into the Devonshire Company only incrementally even though that storyline is theoretically the focus of the issue. The narrative is jumpy, and though in the past this has helped keep the energy up, here it comes across as more of a stalling tactic. The trick of shifting the time and/or place of the action from panel to panel is used to distract from the lack of proper storytelling. Or that's the closest thing to a real purpose I can find for structuring things this way. What happens is good, and builds on things from past issues: Punchy's friendliness with the janitors, his map of the school, the room with no doors, etc. Just seems like more could've gone down on the pages that were used for throwaway character introductions of new teachers that will never matter or even be seen again. I guess the idea is sort of...every year after summer vacation is over, you have to go back to school, and it's different in small ways but the same in every way that matters. You can see that point being made if you hold this issue up next to The Intimates #1, and it's true and a theme that fits with what this series has always been about, but it doesn't make for the best single issue. Alé Garza comes aboard as artist here, and though he brings with him clarity that Scott Iwahashi never had, he's still got a fairly loose style that I don't love for this book. It makes everyone seem wilder, kids and adults alike, like they're caricatures of themselves. The varying thickness of Garza's lines have the same effect. So it's a bit of a muddled comic all over, not what you want to see this late in the game.

X-Force (vol. 1) #11: Mark Pacella is the guest artist, and I'm not sure if I've seen his work before, but this issue he seems to be aiming for as Liefeld a look as he can. It makes sense, because at the time this title was probably sold mostly on the basis of Liefeld, but since I'm not a big admirer of Liefeld's work and this is a less-confident version of it, I didn't love the art here. Bridge's body is ten times too large for his head, Warpath's face is all flat and featureless, and there are other physical malformations that just look uncomfortable. Then again, there were a couple pretty spectacular images, most of all the two-page vertical spread of Weapon P.R.I.M.E. So just like Liefeld will once in a while find something to draw that plays to his strengths, Pacella's got a few choice spots as well. And all the fighting Deadpool does (which is most of the issue) works for me. It's never over-the-top or impossible to believe, though it did bother me a lot when Deadpool said he'd decided to kill Shatterstar and then changed his mind like a page or two later for no discernible reason. Why have him make the death threat at all? Just give him any other line there. Per usual, Liefeld gets plot credit with Fabian Nicieza scripting the actual dialogue, and per usual that means this is a slow-moving slog that has a bunch of forced quips and shitty banter during any fight scenes. The development of Domino as a double agent is something I am eager to see paid off, and it does seem like the whole Brotherhood/Morlocks problem has been fully laid to rest now, so maybe the point of this issue was to get everything in place so the next chapter can move more quickly. But other than the opening scene of X-Force telling off the Morlocks (by which I mean Cable screams some threats and also recaps the last few issues while the rest of the team stand stoically behind him) this issue was made up of Deadpool punching Shatterstar and "Domino" for pages and pages before very rushed reveals of Weapon P.R.I.M.E. and the real Domino as a mysterious villain's prisoner. So the title does appear to be getting somewhere, it just doesn't take the time to arrive there yet, choosing instead to pad out the issue with extended action sequences.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation (Reprise)

From January-March of this year, I took a look at the long, Peter-David-helmed run of what was, at that time, the current volume of X-Factor. Then in April, Marvel announced that the series would be ending with this month's X-Factor #262, and I thought to myself, "Jeez, I could have timed that better." But them's the breaks, I guess, so now that the book's final issue has been published (and there's an impending reboot in the future, I'm sure...please let it be Uncanny X-Factor) I'm going to throw up one last post in my Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation series on the handful of issues I didn't cover the first time around.
     Mostly, this just means the title's closing arc, "The End of X-Factor," since the storyline that preceded it, "Hell on Earth War," was part of my original discussion. It was only like half-completed back then, so I didn't talk about it in depth, but honestly the entire thing was sort of designed to arrive at its shocking final beat: Guido kills Tier, thus becoming King of Hell, and uses his new powers to undo everything else that happened during the story. It was legitimately surprising, and an excellent way to punctuate the slow-burning story of Guido losing his soul, but the journey there lasted for an issue or two too long, and looking back on it, all that really mattered was the ending. Well, that and one or two other character developments that played a role in "The End of X-Factor," so let's move on to that.
     The thing about "The End of X-Factor" is that it's not so much a cohesive six-issue arc as it is six standalone stories that tell us where all the members of the main cast wind up once the Hell on Earth War is over. So rather than examining it as a whole, let's break it down issue-by-issue:

X-Factor #257: A frustrating issue, especially as the first in the "arc," because most if not all of it feels like filler. During "Hell on Earth War," Jamie Madrox was transformed into a speechless, possibly mindless demon, and that change was one of the few things Guido didn't undo. At the top of this issue, Jamie is lost somewhere in Marrakesh, and Layla (his wife) plans to retrieve him. He's being held by a young boy and his uncle who believe Jamie is a djinn and therefore capable of bringing the boy's dead mother back to life. That's an interesting enough set-up, but where it leads is confusing and ultimately pointless. For one thing, Layla knows where Jamie is because apparently the Marrakesh adventure was supposed to happen, and is therefore part of Layla's "I know stuff" knowledge of the future, it's just that Jamie wasn't meant to be in his weird demon form. Except that makes no sense, because if Jamie didn't look the way he did, the little boy would have no reason to think he's a djinn, and the whole affair would never take place. So that's a head-scratching moment that never really gets explained, and is only even brought up as a lame excuse to have Layla already know who's got her husband, instead of having a few pages of her actually looking for him. Once she gets to him, the rest of the issue is filled with the kid's uncle opening a gateway to the afterlife, then the mother from it emerging as a horrible, giant monster of some kind. The boy is thrilled to have his mom back, even as such a terrifying creature, but his excitement is short-lived because she immediately grabs him, melts his flesh, and flings his bones and organs across the room. Layla and Jamie then struggle against the giant evil mom beast for a while, defeat her without much difficulty, and leave Marrakesh together. End of story, end of issue, waste of time. Essentially the only important plot point is that Layla finds Jamie. Everything else that goes down is insignificant to the larger series. The art is by Neil Edwards and Carmen Carnero, two artists similar enough that it's not always clear who is drawing which page, but also different enough that the characters will have occasionally dramatic shifts in their appearance. To be fair, this is something that happens even when Edwards or Carnero are the only penciler (see below), but it's even starker when the two artists work together, because Carnero's lines are a little heavier and straighter than Edwards'. They do have some really stellar moments, like the mother's dramatic and horrific arrival, and the panel of the son's skin falling off his face. Basically they do the ugliest bits well, but the rest of the art is wobbly and unimpressive.

X-Factor #258: First of all, the same art team draws this issue, and basically the same thoughts I had above apply. Although I think this issue may just be Edwards for the first half and Carnero for the second. That (or the opposite) might be true with #257, too, but it's not as evident to me if that's so. This issue, Rahne's hair changes completely when she flashes back to her time in the arctic, and never changes back when we return to the present, which makes me think that's where the division occurs. Her wolf form looks skinnier and furrier starting with the flashback, too. So the separation of labor is more obvious here, but the two artists still go well together, and the consistency of Jay Leisten on inks and Matt Milla on colors must help that tremendously. In terms of where it leaves its central character, this is my favorite chapter in "The End of X-Factor." Rahne becoming a deacon makes sense; she's returning to her religion after the other major cause in her life—superheroism—hurt her one time too many when her son died. And she and Reverend John Maddox have always worked well together, so seeing them get one more chance to interact and connecting them to one another for at least the immediate future are both things I support. I'd quite like to see David write a mini-series focusing on the pair of them, actually. However, there wasn't really that much of Rahne and Maddox, because there was a needless sequence of her lost in the snow and hallucinating that an attacking polar bear was Tier's father Hrim Hari. Then Guido shows up (the guy who sent her to the arctic to begin with) and prattles a bit stiffly about why he can't bring Tier back but also won't kill Rahne before teleporting her to Maddox's church. That's all just as much empty filler as the issue that came before, especially the hallucination scene, which is admittedly only two pages, but that's 10% of the story and the page that follows is just a polar bear knocking Rahne on her ass, so it's not exactly a beefy script. It is a great conclusion for Rahne, and a surprisingly hopeful one considering how hard David's run has always been on her, so I hope she gets to keep this status quo for a while because I think she needs a good rest.

X-Factor #259: At once the thinnest and most complicated plot of all, this could really have been a one- or two-paragraph thing explaining that Shatterstar and Longshot are one another's fathers due to some time travel wackiness. It's predictable and unexpected both, because "Maybe they are father and son," is certainly an option everyone who read this series must have considered of at one point or another, so the real answer was close but still different. If you guessed the exact truth, my hat's off to you, because it really never occurred to me. However, all the Mojoworld stuff is too rushed to get invested in, and too inconsequential. That part of the book is drawn out when it comes to why it's there, which is so that Rictor can learn half of the Shatterstar-Longshot story, yet each individual scene feels too quick. And then Shatterstar's explanation of the other half of his and Longshot's relationship takes just long enough for him to barely get it all out before the issue ends. That makes the last couple pages feel weird, since the issue doesn't hit a natural closing point so much as it manages to get all of the necessary information out under the wire and then calls it a day. Also, it doesn't really give Rictor, Shatterstar, or Longshot solid wrap-up stories. It answers a question that has loomed over this title for a while, yes, but it's old information being revealed to someone who was unaware, not new developments. Rictor and Shatterstar escape Mojoworld and the past, and we know what they're going to do next (drop off baby Shatterstar in the future) but then what? What's next for them? What are their lives going to be like in the present day, whenever they get back there? These are the questions addressed by the rest of "The End of X-Factor," but the goal of this specific issue seems to be different than the others. It's David officially solving an old mystery, but that's where its efforts and accomplishments pretty much end. I suppose that makes it successful, but light. This is also Carmen Carnero's last issue as artist, and she draws the whole thing, but there's not a dramatic difference. People look a little more like themselves, but there are still some moments where their faces shift awkwardly. Again, it's the same inker and colorist, so they help give the title visual uniformity. Leisten's inks never get in the way of the pencils or make things overly dark, but they are firm, marking the borders between things clearly. And the panel borders are very strong, helped in part by Carnero's tendency to leave ample white space between panels. Milla's coloring is smooth, and where they work best here is with the bright screens and sci-fi tech of Mojoworld. He also does fire very well, making it bright white in the middle to display its intensity. Like it has been before (and will be for the rest of the arc) the artwork is good enough to tell the story but not especially powerful, memorable, or steady.

X-Factor #260: Here we have a teaser for the next volume of X-Factor, preceded by Polaris having a drunken nervous breakdown. Polaris has never been my favorite, nor is she someone with whom I'm especially familiar, but I liked her a lot in this issue as the petulant mutant hitting rock bottom. She made me laugh but also made me nervous, and it gave her some depth of character I think she's always lacked (at least the few times I've seen her in the past). Her fight with Quicksilver I could take or leave, but it wasn't bad for a minor superpowered spat between distant siblings. I do loathe this kind of ending, where it's all about the promise of a continuing story in some other book. But we all knew X-Factor wasn't going away for good, and if David is still going to be the writer of whatever new form it takes, I'm excited to see this damaged, self-destructive take on Polaris be further developed. She's the only character who seems to be carrying over into that series (based on this arc, anyway) so having her start from her lowest point could be cool, if it's done well. I'm not sure it's handled expertly by David in this opening gambit, but she's at least consistent in her total disregard for anyone's safety, including her own, and has the forced and depressing sense of humor that often comes with that kind of bottoming out. Her smiles and jokes are all insincere and hollow, which is human and familiar, and definitely the most evocative she's ever been for me as a character. I like X-Factor #260 for giving me that, though it maybe takes too long doing it, and certainly ends obnoxiously. Neil Edwards fully takes over penciling duties, and will be the only penciler from here until the end of the run, inked by Leisten and colored by Milla, and their art is similar for all three of the final issues. Edwards can do big, important moments well. Images that take up most or all of a page are well-chosen in terms of how important they are for the story, and far more detailed than the smaller panels. The characters' emotions are more layered in these places, too, where in the rest of any given issue the acting is flatter. Intense anger or happiness tend to lead to misshapen mouths, stretched uncomfortably far in one direction or another. There is, however, always total readability, with straightforward layouts and bold lines. And some of the large panels really kick ass, so every issue has some bits that really pop. Speaking of pop, Milla's work is classic superhero comics, brash and shiny and fun, which is what this book wants. Even at its saddest, X-Factor is a blast, with space for humor and humanity, so the colors have to be ready to brighten anytime. Really what Milla does well is to carefully choose the right group of colors for every panel. He has a wide-ranging palette, and uses it with intelligence. This is not the best artistic team in the title's long life, but they bring it home respectably.

X-Factor #261: I like Monet a lot as a foil for the rest of the cast, and Darwin had the best powers so I was always glad to have him around, but as whole people neither one of them ever did it for me. So even though this is an ok issue, and their hook-up is a long time coming, I care the least about this story. This is not because David did any less or worse work with Darwin or Monet than other characters, but her cold cooler-than-thou attitude and his jumbled sense of identity didn't resonate for me as strongly as the other characters' quirks and flaws. Monet's death hurt less for me than Guido becoming a villain (and a jerk-off) or Jamie absorbing his and Theresa's son. That's just me, but it's all I've got. From a story standpoint, this issue is well-structured, opening with Darwin so furiously determined to get rid of his death powers that he charges blind into an unknown situation with his giant gun drawn, and ending with him choosing to keep those powers and contentedly snuggling Monet. It's a tight arc for the character, and aligns 100% with what we've seen from him before. As for Monet, her return from death seems to have been as damaging as Guido's, so that does not at all bode well for her future. These ae characters I'd like to see more of, even with David as writer, but in a situation where they aren't as overshadowed by people I connect with more. Actually, they're the strongest candidates to join Polaris is the forthcoming reboot, assuming that reboot is targeted at me, specifically. It's like the three most fucked up members of the old cast, the saddest and most broken. Guido could be their nemesis. But now this is just fanfic. Let me finish by saying that Darwin and Monet have more than earned the tiny bit of pleasure they find in one another's arms, and even if I didn't love them, I never hated them, so I'm glad there was some sweetness mixed in with the bitterness of their final story.

X-Factor #262: My favorite thing about this issue is that Theresa comes back, paying off on the promise she made to Jamie back when she left the book to be a full-time goddess that he could pray to her for help. I'm just glad David got to do that before the series wrapped, because the work he did with her before her departure and the story of her choosing godhood was all excellent stuff. So yay for that. Mr. Tryp showing up one last time didn't seem totally necessary (and speaking of, why didn't the Isolationist ever get to do anything again? He was brought back in the lead up to "Hell on Earth War" and then flat out disappeared. I wasn't eager to see more of him, but it's even worse to have him teased and then dropped entirely). Tryp's conversation with Layla exists only so that we can be told why the cops are showing up a few pages later, and also so David can quickly and fumblingly kill Tryp off. Once he's out of the way, though, the whole issue runs smoothly and works very well. Layla is at the end of her rope, in over her head for the first time in her life, basically, and it's nice to see her hang onto her strength and resolve even when she has no idea what to do. Also her love for Jamie, which is what saves them both in the end, what finally gets through to his demon brain and gets him to pray to Theresa. Layla is pregnant, and that's an important and exciting enough event that even Mephisto's magic can't keep Jamie from getting to be part of it. It's sappy, even saccharine, but Jamie and Layla have always been a romantic comedy couple living in a superhero comic, so this is just right for them. Of all the things that David does to put away all the toys he's been playing with for the last seven years, having Layla and Jamie retire and move to his old family farm to raise a family is the one I'd be most upset to see another writer overturn. Let them be, let them have this. It's what this book has been building to since jump street. "The End of X-Factor" is a rocky ride at best, but this last chapter feels inevitable, and is therefore the perfect way to finish things.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

My Disappointment in Brother Lono Trumps my Completist Tendencies

Most of the money I spend on comics goes to single issues. Even if I am looking for full runs of things published long ago, I'd much rather get a pile of back issues than a collected volume. It's just my preferred way to read, even though it sometimes costs me extra money, and it is slowly taking up more and more space in longboxes, and digital exists now, and lots of other reasons, probably, why it's not the best approach to comicbook collection. I just get such satisfaction from gathering all the pieces of something rather than having someone else do that for me and repackage them as a single entity. It's not a judgement on people who would rather read trades or graphic novels or prose books or the newspaper or whatever—to each his own. I'm a single issue guy, and it works for me (so far).
     Which is why I've always been a little bummed about being turned on to 100 Bullets so close to the end of its life. I was eager to read it based on the little bit I'd seen at the time, as well as the arc Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso did together on Batman, but I knew it was a series to be read from the beginning, and I just didn't have the patience to seek out all 100 issues in order. So I have the whole thing in trade paperback, the largest set of consecutive trades I own. And I adore that series, to the point that I'm reading it (for the first time) at a one-issue-a-month pace, mostly so I can space out the pleasure and examine it in a new light. It has some serious flaws, and perhaps a gradual downward trend in quality from start to finish, but there's more good than bad and some moments of astounding ambition.
     Long story short, I was excited when a sequel/spin-off mini-series was announced. Even though it was going to focus on Lono, possibly my least favorite of the major characters in 100 Bullets, it still meant an opportunity to get some small piece of the larger work in the format I most enjoy.
     As a primarily single issue collector, I loathe gaps in my collection or unfinished runs. If I begin to invest in something I want to do it right, in order until the end without any breaks. It's easier for me to stop buying ongoing series if I don't like them since they are a more long-term commitment, and because neither my time nor money are in infinite supply, I don't like to waste them indefinitely on bad comics. But a mini-series I usually see through, even if I don't like it right away. Anything ten issues or less generally feels worth it to stick with, if only to learn how the story ends. If I've already started it and it'll be done within a year, might as well ride it out.
     But Brother Lono is just not worth it. Even though it's connected to 100 Bullets, and even though I've already spent money on a full half of the issues that are ever coming out, I've got to walk away. I don't feel like I'm missing out on the end of the story because the story is hardly there. Some drug dealers are letting their criminal activities spill over into the orphanage/church where Lono works now, and he's doing his best not to be violent anymore. It's taken four painfully slow issues to introduce and then repeatedly hammer at those two ideas, and then at the very end of last week's Brother Lono #4 there was the tiniest stumble of plot progression when (gasp!) the super-flirtatious nun who dresses like a farm girl in a porno movie indicated she may not be what she seems. No shit.
     That's a very unsatisfying amount of narrative in half of an eight-issue book. And the problem is I can see where this is going, and I've seen it since the debut. Lono and the bad guys are going to have some kind of confrontation, and Lono will either get all crazy violent one last time or he'll rise to the occasion and control himself. Either way, I'm bored. I am so deathly bored by this series, every single issue, and I can't go through that any more.
     Azzarello and Risso both feel off their game. Risso's art is so straightforward, without the background details or silent extra scenes that made 100 Bullets so much fun to study. And what's with the animal cruelty? Is Azzarello calling for a bunch of dead dogs in his scripts? Whoever is responsible, enough already. We get it. It's a vicious, twisted, unforgiving setting. Now do something there. The dialogue comes across as Azzarello aping himself, not as genuinely clever or human as it used to be, but trying its hardest to get there. And Lono without his swagger is not a character. He's a walking scowl.
     I literally spent days weighing this decision, because having four issues of something in a longbox and four out there in the world that I don't own is always going to bug me. Every time I pass Brother Lono on my way to something else I want to read, I'll think, "Ugh, that stupid half-thing." It's a rare occurrence, but I happen to dislike this title more than I dislike incompleteness.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I Didn't Love the Story, but Defenders Looks Amazing

Yesterday, I was all, "Boo! Hiss! Defenders is lame!" Although, really, I was just complaining about Dr. Strange's role in the story. As a whole I think it's so-so from a narrative standpoint, but it's made much better by being a great-looking comicbook. And what makes that even more impressive is how many different artists contributed to the consistently beautiful run. I referred to the book in my previous post's title as "Matt Fraction's Defenders", which is wording I chose because Fraction writes all twelve issues, but in truth this series belongs to its many artists. So let's talk about them team-by-team and see why they're so strong individually and together.
     The first three issues, and also #7, are drawn by Terry and Rachel Dodson (pencils and inks, respectively) with colors from Sonia Oback. This is the group that establishes the tone for the rest of the book, and they set the bar mighty high for the artists who follow. The Dodsons deserve their reputation, and their style is particularly well-suited for superhero comics. I like how the super-people still look like people, slightly grander than normal but not overly distorted. Even Namor looks human in his own way, as does the Hulk to the degree that he can. They stand out in a crowd, but they're not totally disconnected from the rest of us, either. In a story that is particularly larger than life, even for the genre, I liked having the heroes be a little more subdued in their appearance. They still completely kick ass, and their immense power is always evident, so it's not like they aren't clearly superheroes. They're just not as broad in figure as such characters can often be.
     Another reason this aspect of the Dodsons' art works so well is Oback's shimmering colors. You expect it from, say, Silver Surfer, but everybody has their own glow. Red She-Hulk's skin looks stiff and a bit metallic, highlighting her indestructibility. Iron Fist shines most brightly in the gold pieces of his costume, making them the catchy visual flare they should be. Black Cat's suit is oil and her hair somewhere between smoke and silver. It's bright and shiny pop comics art, matching the Dodsons' fluidity and energy measure for measure.
     Not going chronologically but instead by quantity of issues drawn, Defenders #8-10 are drawn by Jamie McKelvie, credited as usual "w/Mike Norton," which I think means they both do pencils and inks but McKelvie does the bulk of the work, based on something Norton once said on Twitter. McKelvie and Norton actually remind me of the Dodsons in a lot of ways, but with slightly crisper lines. Not more detailed, necessarily, just a little more present. The Dodsons tend to get sketchier with background figures or shots from far away. Less so McKelvie and Norton.
     Anyway, these issues are deeper in the series, so there are more moving pieces and giant moments, making them my favorite, visually speaking. The big alternate reality S.H.I.E.L.D.-Hydra-Defenders battle, Silver Surfer being barraged with nothingness when the Omegas contact him, and John Aman's treasure room—these are giant single images burned in my brain, but the overall storytelling from this artistic team is also superb. The pace is lively, making the action feel almost non-stop, but it's always doing new things and a load of fun to look at. Also they draw like the best Ant-Man (Scott Lang, if it matters) ever in issue #10. I can't put my finger on why, but I think it has to do with how disheveled and frantic he looks.
     The first two McKelvie-Norton issues are colored by Dommo Aymara, whose work also reminds me of Oback's but is not quite the same. Aymara's characters do have a certain sheen to them, but the colors are not quite as bright. It's a gloomier time in the narrative than it was at the beginning, and Aymara's hues complement that.
     Jordie Bellaire colors issue #10, as well as #11, acting as the transition between McKelvie and Norton and the artist who brings the series to a close, Mirco Pierfederici. Here's how you know for sure that Bellaire is a grade-A colorist: her palette, texture, and technique changes to fit the penciler(s) of a given issue. So with McKelvie and Norton, Bellaire continues the classic comicbook coloring tradition. Her colors don't have the glimmer of Oback's or Aymara's, but they're just as bold and eye-catching. They're flat, solid tones, especially fitting since this is the issue with the most active use of white space. When Pierfederici takes the helm, Bellaire adds grit and anger to her colors, and uses fewer of them on each page. Other than blacks and white to outline the figures, the first five pages go: 1. dominantly red and orange with a section of green-brown in bottom corner, 2. entirely orange with one spot of blue (Silver Surfer's eyes), 3. washed completely in blue, 4. half washed in blue, half in yellow, 5. all yellow. It's stark and it attacks the senses, but it's in service of Pierfederici's lines. He, too, is rougher and more furious than his predecessors on the book. His cast is still distinct and all believably built, but definitely not as firm as any of the already-discussed artists. This is not because he has less control over his lines, just that he is intentionally going for something a bit more jittery. At least, it seems intentional when paired with Bellaire. It comes across as a hair more sloppy in the final issue of the series, #12, colored by Veronica Gandini.
     Gandini's work isn't inherently worse than Bellaire's. It has more of a painted feel, soft and fuzzy but very deep. That's all well and good, but it clashes with Pierfederici's tone. Where Bellaire leaned into the skid of his shaky lines, Gandini seems like she wants to smooth them over, and instead ends up highlighting their wobbliness. It's not a bad-looking issue, but it might be the worst-looking in this volume of Defenders.
     But I'm not supposed to be negative here, so let's rewind back to issues #4-6, each one handled by its own artistic team. First up is #4 with Michael Lark on pencils, Stefano Gaudino and Brian Thies on inks, and Matt Hollingsworth on colors. Story-wise, this is my least favorite issue (Dr. Strange at his worst from cover to cover), and it's the least active chapter, so the art doesn't have a ton to do. That said, it's appropriately moody and grim for scenes of Strange being super serious, sad, and in love. And it's the most grounded artwork in the book, also tailored to its issue in that way. Everything is drawn and colored realistically, because except for a few brief flashes of magic (which get more psychedelic shades) there's nothing exceptional or super going on here. So the visuals are perfect for the glum chapter they're for, and capturing the precise mood of an issue is a good deal more than many artists seem capable of doing.
     For Defenders #5, hooray! It's the Breitwesiers! Mitch does the pencil-and-ink stuff and some of the colors, with wife Bettie tackling the rest. It's their coloring I really like the most. Very muted, natural, and alive. Mitch is a good artist, too, but a little unfinished for my taste. Nobody looks the same from panel to panel, and there's an overall feeling of impermanence to everything. So the colors totally make it for me. They're soothing, they warm me from inside even though most of the issue is set in the cold dark of the depths of the ocean. I'm comforted by Breitweiser color, calmed by it, which makes me take my time when I'm reading the issue and really absorb every page. Since this issue seeds a lot of really important stuff for what follows, it's the best place for these artists to be.
     Last but not least (or, well, actually tied for least in terms of issues drawn) is issue #6's team of Victor Ibañez and Chris Sotomayor, with Tom Palmer and Terry Pallot credited as "finishers." Not sure how to know who's responsible for what, but regardless, this issue is the one that stands out most from the pack. Not the best, but the one most unlike any other issue. Ibañez's work is a couple of steps closer to the cartoon end of the comicbook spectrum. You see it right in the first panel, where Iron Fist and Misty Knight are looking totally dumbfounded with these giant bug eyes. Nothing is wildly unrealistic, mind, but it's further off the ground than the rest of the series. And I think it's good, especially right here in the middle, and coming after the two issues I just talked about. They were both the most subdued beats of the story and therefore had most restrained art. Swinging as far in the other direction as you plan to go before diving into the second half of the book makes perfect sense. And this issue also introduces John Aman as the villain, and features the Defenders' first tiny taste of combat with him, so it needed to get the energy back.
     Sotomayor's coloring is reliable and actually a bit more true-to-life than Ibañez's stuff. What I like most about it is the way he makes everything looked naturally aged during the flashback scenes. And when John Aman arrives in the present day, everything glows green from him and his crazy billowing smoke, and I always like to see a single color take over for a little while when it's done well. All told, this issue is, like the two before it, a beautiful single installment.
     But wait, before I go, I'd be the worst comicbook blogger on the planet if I spent all this time naming every creator responsible for Defenders without talking about letterer Clayton Cowles. He did all twelve issues just like Fraction, so whatever creative successes or failures this series has are on his shoulders, too.
     And he does marvelous lettering all the way through. There are a lot of places where Fraction will have omniscient third-person narration intercut with one or more characters' internal monologues, and Cowles' choices about how to color and shape each caption box always make it glaringly clear who's saying what. Not that he created that solution, he just gets it spot on every time, and spaces things out in an easy-to-follow way. His best spots are when he gets to introduce a new hero to the cast, though. They always get a full-on, logo-style namecard, and everyone's is designed differently to match their character. It's a fun and funny little running gag, which only works because Cowles puts so much effort into it. He also must have been responsible for placing all the little phrases/ads in the bottom margins of the pages, so it was just a very demanding and detailed lettering job. But he stuck with it from start to finish and never dropped the ball (that I can remember noticing).
     So there you have it. Defenders is an aggravating story with one horrible main character, put together in an extremely attractive package for your reading pleasure.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Dr. Strange is the Villain of Matt Fraction's Defenders (and Silver Surfer is the Only Hero)

As soon as we see Dr. Strange in Defenders, he's being kind of an ass. In his narration, he already regrets the one-night stand he had with a young grad student who isn't even dressed yet. But his regret is full of insincerity and weird, insulting jabs at the young woman. From there, he doesn't stop being a jerk until, at the very end of the series, all of reality is saved through Strange realizing that he shouldn't have been so jerky to the aforementioned grad student in the first place. Which is admittedly a funny and surprising way to wrap up the story, but I'm not sure it's worth the pages and pages of him as an inept, arrogant superhero prick.
     Some amateur magician who tries to bully Strange gets his soul trapped in a jar and left on a random shelf, never to be thought of again. To be fair, he did threaten one of the great loves of Strange's life...but only kind of. The woman in question, Martha, was accidentally brought back to life by Strange, except that he brought her back as she was when he first knew her many years before. Since then, she'd been married and had children before she passed away, but the version Strange summons has no memory of that. When she asks him to tell her the truth, he does, and coming to terms with the idea that she died and came back and lost an entire lifetime of memories in between is almost impossible for her to handle. Before she can fully digest it all, the kid who ends up in a jar arrives and poses a danger to Martha and Strange's secret, impossible relationship, so Strange sends her away. He doesn't want to know where she goes, ostensibly for her own safety, and the poor woman (who can't use her own identity because she should be older and dead) ends up cast out in the world alone with no plan.
     These are small-scale offenses, and not the only ones, but there is a central, enormous dick move Strange makes that is literally the cause of all the rest of the trouble in the story. When he and the rest of the Defenders stumble on a bizarre, well-hidden, well-guarded, and totally inexplicable machine, his first thought is that they should steal it. With his allies' help, he takes it home to be studied, because god forbid there be something in this universe he doesn't understand. He also rather rudely sends the rest of his teammates away, since apparently no one could possibly be of any assistance to a mind as great as his. It's infuriating behavior right away, and the simple act of moving the concordance engine (as we learn the machine is called) from its original home is the mistake upon which the rest of the comic's end-of-the-universe narrative is based.
     It's too frustratingly complicated to get into how the Defenders learn the details of the concordance engine and what it's for, but it boils down to it being one of several that were built and placed on Earth by outside forces so that the planet would be especially full of superpowered people, hypothetically strong enough together to fight off the Death Celestials that travel from one universe to the next unmaking things. Strange's decision to displace one of the engines throws off their mojo in some vague way that leads to a Death Celestial showing up and successfully wiping out life on Earth instead of being stopped by a unified group of heroes like it was supposed to be. By the time Strange finally realizes it's all his fault, the damage has been done. So he goes back in time and uses very simple magic to prevent himself from ever even going on the adventure that would lead him to the engine in the first place. Instead, he takes the grad student he was so cold to the first time around out on a date, and apparently that tiny bit of pseudo-decency was all that had ever been standing between the obliteration of everything and life continuing as normal. Again, that concept makes me laugh, but it doesn't make me like Dr. Strange or look any more fondly on the time I spent with him.
     Because even if he course corrects in the end, for me as a reader, all the horrible shit that Strange's actions brought about still happened, and he was still dense and selfish throughout those events. Also, I'm not wild about the idea of a whole story building up to a final beat that undoes everything which came before it, but that's a different point, I guess. What I'm really saying is that Strange is both a bad guy and the bad guy in this narrative, responsible for the success of a great evil through several smaller evils of his own. The argument might be made that his intentions were good, but I don't buy that. I think his main intention was to figure out a mystery because he's fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of something he can't solve or decipher. He never even asks if there could maybe be consequences to moving the engine, let alone considers what those might be, or thinks that maybe all the awfulness that follows might be because of what he'd done. Someone else has to point it out to him in a painfully direct way. And that someone is the Silver Surfer.
     Separated from the rest of the group by the hyper-powerful beings who originally built the concordance engines, Silver Surfer gets a full explanation handed to him of what's happening with the Death Celestial and how to fix it. What he does with that info is telepathically pass it on to Dr. Strange, showing the sorcerer the error of his past ways, and this ends up being the most important thing any of the Defenders ever do. Which I guess is what I really mean by my claim in this post's title that Surfer is the story's only hero. The other characters genuinely try their best to do good and battle evil, but Surfer has the only actual success. Everyone else manages to delay the game a little at best, and actively (if inadvertently) exacerbate things at worst. Even Surfer only does that much until a big-time deus ex machina plucks him out of time and space to show him the truth. Maybe he's not any more or less heroic than anybody else, just lucky enough to be more effective. But in terms of who puts an end to the primary villain's (Strange's) wickedness, it's Silver Surfer all the way.
     John Aman, the character played as the main antagonist, is also clearly a villain. He's just as self-important, over-confident, and stubborn as Strange, and their mutual tendencies to use violence first and keep everything to themselves is what makes them enemies rather than allies. They basically want the same thing, but fight one another instead of spending the time to figure out that they could be on the same side. Aman is worse insofar as he straight up murders several people, only to discover they weren't even the people he meant to kill. He also commits genocide against his own country, though we don't see that happen, just the aftermath. Yeah, ok, he's way worse. He's aggressively, knowingly evil at a level Strange never reaches. BUT. Though he's completely nuts and morally bankrupt,  Aman's ultimate goal is to undo Strange's original mistake in moving the concordance engine. He goes about it all wrong, but his obviously deep-running insanity makes me understand if not forgive his psychopathic methods. Dr. Strange, on the other hand, ought to know better. That's not objectively as bad, but it irks me more.
     Then there's the Death Celestial, a villain in the mindless beast sense, but on the stage for such a short time compared to either Aman or Strange. The same things apply to Nul, Breaker of Worlds, the enemy of the opening arc who leads the Defenders to the first concordance engine they find. These characters are one-note unstoppable forces, not possessing sentience in the way we understand it. Nul is more animalistic, driven by instinct rather than want. The Celestial presumably operates on a higher mental plane than humans have access to, but certainly doesn't perceive our lives as being significant, nor does it in any way try to communicate. It's an agent of constant devastation, not concerned with the details of the things it destroys. These characters are dangerous, but I hesitate to label them as "evil," and whether I do or not, they're not as responsible for what they do as the human villains who have the ability to look at the consequences of what goes down, and who actually care about them.
     So even if he's not the most forceful, purposeful, or maniacal of the many baddies in Defenders, Dr. Strange is the one who bugs me most. His particular brand of wrong-doing gets under my skin, because it's so easily avoidable, it's immature, and it comes from a guy who claims to be on the side of righteousness.
     Tomorrow: Forget everything I said above! Let's talk about how gorgeous this series is!

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Last week, I made my regular contribution to PopMatters with a quick look at how secret identities seem to matter and exist less than before. This week I was more productive, with a couple reviews for read/RANT on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #2 and Thor: God of Thunder #13, a new "1987 And All That" for The Chemical Box about G.I. Joe Special Missions, and another column at PopMatters discussing the interesting and accurate depictions of teenaged attitudes, morals, and flaws in Young Avengers and Harbinger. I always like it when I get to have stuff come out on all three of the sites I write for outside of Comics Matter in the same week, so that was nice.

Something I Failed to Mention
The column about Harbinger and Young Avengers was more of a character examination, so I sort of intentionally didn't really discuss the real-life creators behind the titles. However, one of the key things that sets those two series apart is the fact that Young Avengers is the collaborative product of a single amazing creative team, while Harbinger is basically just writer Joshua Dysart's project, with many different artists working on it, sometimes even within an issue. As is to be expected, this distinction gives Young Avengers the edge, making it more of a standout, signature piece. Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton, Matthew Wilson, and Clayton Cowles have been the steady hands at the wheel of their book from the start (with the seriously perfect pick of Kate Brown subbing in on art for issue #6), and the clarity of vision they share is evident every month. They get to really play with the comicbook medium, not necessarily breaking the mold but definitely doing some unexpected, experimental bits here and there. To his credit, Dysart is writing well enough that the visual ups and down in Harbinger don't ruin it. The acting isn't always clear, but the characters' voices have the strength to support that. Where the art has the most potential to hurt the book is in the action scenes, but that also tends to be what the various artists do best. So all-in-all they're both series I feel very connected to and invested in, but Young Avengers has the not-insignificant advantage of looking consistently fantastic.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dial E: My Last New 52 Comic for a While

Two years back, I was pretty excited by the New 52. I didn't believe all of the hype, but enough of it to pick up about 1/4 of the original 52 books. I appreciated the bravery of starting everything over again, and at first it seemed like there was a genuine effort on DC's part to have some variety in their titles, which I also liked. Sadly, as time has passed, I've grown ever more disillusioned with the line. Of course all the rumblings of editorial interference and subsequent turnover of creative teams factors into my opinion, but I began dropping DC books even before that kind of news seemed to come out every week. I didn't like the series themselves—they were dry and uninspired, they made decisions about the characters that made no sense and served no purpose, and I just didn't find myself looking forward to reading them. Also they began to feel more homogenous, and it quickly became clear that DC had not actually started everything anew as they claimed—some series got fresh beginnings, while others tried to have their cake and eat it, too, keeping some details of DC's past while ignoring others in sometimes contradictory ways. One by one, these comics were cut from my pull list, and I tried to find replacements (even reading the first few issues of the entire "second wave") but nothing they offered held my interest for long.
     Except for Dial H. I already wrote about it on PopMatters, so I won't delve too deeply into why that book above all others was one I stuck with, but suffice it to say it wasn't like anything else coming out of DC or, to the best of my knowledge, any other publisher. It had the same looming darkness that seems to cover the entirety of the New 52 like a sticky film, but Dial H managed to have a lot of fun, too. It was full of puns, and its main characters were a likably pathetic doofus and an elderly woman who still kicked ass. It felt fresh and daring, and while not all of the art was exceptional, and sometimes the story got hazy (especially toward the end when it had to be wrapped up before its cancellation), it was reliably quirky and silly and stimulating.
     Which brings me to Dial E (technically Justice League #23.3 but I refuse to call it that and I always will). Published as part of the DC's current Villain's Month, Dial E is basically the punctuation mark at the end of the complex 15-issue sentence that was Dial H. And honestly, it's not a very good comicbook. It has a story but no plot, people but no characters, action but no stakes. Every page is drawn by a different artist, so that it functions more as a showcase than an actual narrative. It's incredibly disjointed, as the script amounts to writer China Miéville unloading all of the ideas for new super-people he didn't have room to fit into the main series. Point being, as a single issue, Dial E has very little merit. But taken as the final piece of the whole, it's sort of the perfect conclusion. Crazier and goofier than anything that came before it, this finale is the boldest, loudest example of the guiding spirit of Dial H, even if it's only tangentially connected to the actual narrative of that book.
     As you can see, I didn't exactly love Dial E, but I was still sorry when I reached the final page. It marked the end of an era, not just because one of my favorite books is gone now. It's also the last New 52 comic I plan on buying for the foreseeable future. Having slowly but oh-so-surely let go of every other New 52 series I've tried in the last two years, Dial H was all I had left, and now they've gotten rid of it, and I see no concrete reason to start with anything else. There are a few titles that have solid reputations that I'd like to catch up on someday: Batman & Robin, All-Star Western, The Flash. But they're all minor additions to an enormous list of comics from many eras and publishers that I know I need to track down and read through, and I'm not nearly as interested in contemporary DC material as I am in basically anything else on said list.
     So I'm done with the New 52 for now. Not with all of DC—Batman Black and White had a great first issue, Batman '66 has been wonderful, and I plan on heavily sampling the new stuff coming from Vertigo. But DC's main line of books can take a flying leap, for all I care. I've been so let down by it so consistently, and the pile of information about dissatisfied creators that keeps growing all the time does nothing to entice me back. I didn't make an official decision all at once to abandon the publisher, it happened organically as every series I tried to follow gave me one reason or another to drop it. With Dial E having come out on Wednesday, my pull list is void of New 52 titles. And I have to looks a lot better that way.

Friday, September 13, 2013


For reasons that are too complicated and dull to get into here, today was my first chance in the last two weeks to visit my local comicbook store. That meant a bigger stack of new stuff than I normally get, but there was something else unusual about this particular haul: six different #1 issues from six different publishers. Seems like a statistical improbability, right? So let's quick look at each of them and see who comes out the gate strongest, and who is left limping in the back of the pack.

Batman Black and White #1 (DC): Everyone should buy this, and here's why: it's fun Batman. Black and White was a much-loved anthology series from the 90's, and DC has decided to bring it back, which is a great idea. Especially because the creators who work on the five 8-page stories in this issue take the opportunity to tell Batman tales that are lighter, less serious, and way less depressing than pretty much any of the current in-continuity Bat-Family books. They're not all straight comedy, but neither are they tragic melodrama, which is refreshing and entertaining as all get out. So let's all pick up a copy to let DC know that Batman can be a good time. I won't fully recap or even review each story here for the sake of space, but they're all good on the writing and art fronts both. They examine very different aspects of Batman's character and reality, but never really contradict or clash with one another. The best-looking and best-written was the Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy story by Maris Wcks and Joe Quinones right in the middle. Harley was of the classic yuk-yuk variety that made her a fan favorite in the first place, so that was great. And Quinones had a lot of nice tiny touches, particularly Batman's glowing eyes. Each of these tales did something better than the others, though. Chip Kidd and Michael Cho's opener was retro but original, capturing an old-school superhero feel in a brand new narrative. Neal Adam's piece was intentionally confusing and discomforting for the sake of a solid final page, and though it was a little ham-fisted, it had the most interesting thing to say, a valid point about the Bruce Wayne/Batman relationship that I agree with 100%. Howard Mackie and Chris Samnee did the last story, and get serious points for using the Ventriloquist in a way I haven't seen before, both in terms of Wesker and Scarface's roles and the way the villain relates to Batman. Coming in second overall was John Arcudi and Sean Murphy's tale of Batman fixing the Batmobile after an especially intense car chase. With the best action and ending, this is the creative team I most want to see more from, especially Batman material. So yeah, this is a winner top to bottom, not something I'm used to thinking about current Batman comics.

Brain Boy #1 (Dark Horse): While essentially a character study, this issue struck an excellent balance between introducing its main character and developing its plot. Everything we learn about Matt Price a.k.a. Brain Boy (a nickname he despises) comes from seeing him in action. Having him as the narrator is helpful, too, of course, but it's really getting to watch him utilize his various abilities in the field that makes this comic so strong. And Price's explanations of his mental skills are succinct, perhaps some of the best power description writing I've ever seen. Fred Van Lente has clearly taken his time to figure out the ins and outs of his protagonist, and it pays off throughout this debut. Price's hot-headedness, youth, arrogance, and tremendous power are all clearly and quickly displayed, so that by the time the issue comes to a close he feels familiar. He's got a good sense of humor, too, never taking himself or his work too seriously. It gets him into some trouble, but it's also his most endearing quality. For all of Van Lente's stellar work, though, Brain Boy #1's greatest strength is artist R.B. Silva. Considering how many new characters he had to design, his inventiveness is astounding, as nobody really resembles anyone else in attire or demeanor. Yet the world is still cohesive, because Silva includes enough tiny details to make it look and feel real. The way he does Price's powers is just as good—no, better—than Van Lente's descriptions of them. Each new move have its own imagery, but just like with the cast, they all fit together. Most impressive was Silva's skill at mixing the goofily comedic with the horribly grim, once again managing to make them mesh seamlessly. This book has plenty of both, and that blended tone is a big part of what makes it so good. I believe Brain Boy is an old property being revamped by this team, but if that's true I have no experience with any earlier versions, so I didn't really know what to expect. After reading this issue, my expectations for future chapters are pretty damn high, because there really wasn't a single page I disliked. It's fast-moving but easy to follow, and built around a great hero with an intimidating powerset who's already involved in some terrifying, mystifying shit. More, please.

Eternal Warrior #1 (Valiant): This turned me off on its very first page when the title character punched his daughter in the face to try and stop her from joining him on the battlefield. It never got better. The "story" of most of the issue centers on a huge fight in ancient Mesopotamia. The Eternal Warrior (Gilad Anni-Padda) and his people fight against the forces of the death god Negral, for reasons undefined. It doesn't go well for Gilad's side until Xaran, the daughter he tried to keep out of the battle with physical abuse, shows up riding an elephant and overruns the enemies. For a hot second, everyone's happy, but then Xaran decides to go a step further and trample the women and children on Negral's side. This does not sit well with her father, so they trade blows yet again, and ultimately Xaran throws a spear through his chest and the chest of her brother Mitu. Gilad survives because he's immortal (hence "Eternal Warrior") but Mitu dies, and then we jump to the modern day where Gilad is hiding out in Africa somewhere and trying to lead a life of peaceful solitude. Except, wah wah, Xaran arrives at his doorstep, announcing that she, too, is immortal, and saying she needs his help with...something. Oh, but first her presence makes Gilad's dog go insane, so Gilad has to kill it, which is just disgusting and stupid and pointless. There's SO MUCH death, animal and human, leading up to that point, throwing in a scene of a man snapping his own pet's neck was a step too far for me. I have no idea what Greg Pak is going for with this ultra-violent debut that does almost nothing to establish the characters or a plot or...anything, really. It's just fighting. The first half of the issue is a war we have no reason to care about. Then modern Gilad kills his dinner in the African wilds, there are a couple pages of reflective calm, and finally Xaran shows up and causes the dog death scene before introducing some kind of threat/conflict that I don't understand whatsoever. It's jumpy, rushed, unfocused writing that starts low and goes nowhere. Artist Trevor Hairsine doesn't help much. His work is rough and chaotic, and while that fits the madness of the opening combat, it often makes it hard to tell what's happening or who it's happening to. It's easy to mistake Gilad for either of his children, and none of them look quite the same from one page to the next. I've been really enjoying Archer & Armstrong, the series in which this character was introduced, but Eternal Warrior lacks any of that book's fun or structure. I found myself surprised it had ended because so little had been accomplished.

Kings Watch #1 (Dynamite): I expected this to be the best of the batch, and while Brain Boy gave it a run for it's money, Kings Watch takes the cake when it comes to these six #1 issues. And it is Kings Watch, not King's Watch, even though in the actual story people reference the "King's Watch." I double checked the inside cover where the copyright information is, and I know it makes no sense because it makes it look like the telling is telling a bunch of kings to watch it, or announcing that they do, but what can I tell you? It's Kings Watch for sure. And it's amazing. Jeff Parker not only gives us his versions of main characters The Phantom, Mandrake, and Flash Gordon, but also what is already a surprisingly large supporting cast. There's an incredible fight scene (see below), the beginnings of an impending apocalyptic danger, the expected handful of jokes from Parker, and some stunningly efficient characterization. Each new member of the cast has an immediate presence, and Parker shows us who they are through the simplest actions, words, and choices. I say Parker, but of course Marc Laming deserves equal credit, for the character work especially. When Phantom, Lothar, and an elephant have an 8-page fight with a humungous humanoid dinosaur creature, the sheer awesomeness of it is all Laming. That's pretty much all we get as far as meeting the Phantom, but it's more than enough to see what kind of guy he is. Laming draws spaceships and cityscapes just as well as he does giant lizards and jungles, so it's all beautiful. Most importantly, he gives great depth to every character. For such a fantastical book, it's marvelously realistic, making everything feel a little heavier, scarier, and more believable. A great deal goes on in this issue, because Parker and Laming both pace each scene brilliantly. They jump around the globe, handle a half-dozen or so major characters, have fun, and keep the story moving constantly forward, and do it all with aplomb. This has the potential to round out 2013 as one of the best series of the year, assuming it maintains the high energy and smart structure of this first issue.

Mighty Avengers #1 (Marvel): So I broke a promise to myself and spent money on another comicbook drawn by Greg Land. With Al Ewing writing and a team including two of my favorite characters (Luke Cage and Monica Rambeau) I figured it would be worth the crummy art. And you know what? The art was better than I expected, so all in all I'd say I made the right call. Land still has a hard time making human faces look human, especially Monica, whose hair and facial structure seem to change every panel and who also looks a lot different than she ever has before. But there are some really strong layouts in this comic, and the stiffness that's usually such a pervasive part of Land's action scenes is nowhere to be found. Everyone moves fluidly and naturally, which is a major improvement over his previous work. Ewing does a pretty solid job of introducing his cast, and gives them all their own voices, outlooks, and motives. And the threat that is going to bring the team together shows up in a destructive and impressive way, so all the pieces of a decent debut are here. Theoretically working against the book is the fact that it's an Infinity tie-in, but speaking as someone who hasn't read any of Infinity, I still understood everything that happened here. Well...maybe not the super brief scene with Dr. Strange toward the end. I'm assuming that's something from the event itself, but it only really lasts for a page of this issue, and its purpose is mostly just to let the villain say some creepy-sounding but largely meaningless things, as villains are wont to do. So it pulls that off, anyway. Catching up on the current statuses of a few characters I adore and meeting a couple new ones (new to me, anyway) who I'm eager to see more of is a decent way to start off a new series. Being pleasantly surprised by an artist I usually hate ain't half bad neither. So in the end I think I'm slightly more excited for this title than I was before, which I suppose is the mark of a successful (if not exceptional) opening chapter.

Reality Check #1 (Image): A well-done, straightforward introductory issue. The main character is comicbook writer/artist Willard Penn, who narrates directly to the reader, giving us his full background in the cleanest, clearest possible way. He's struggling to get his career going, has a juvenile and somewhat cowardly approach to romance that doesn't seem to do him much good, and the defining moment in his life was the death of his older brother Timmy. The two of them were best friends, and Timmy was sort of everything Willard wanted to be—an incredible artist, good with women, confident, popular, etc. Losing his brother gave Willard a new drive when it came to creating comics, and he's let every other aspect of his life go neglected in pursuit of that dream. Lucky for him, his latest series, Dark Hour, had a wildly successful debut, so after years of hard work, Willard is finally getting what he wants. Unfortunately, he's having a hell of a time producing the next issue, feeling as if his ideas have been literally pulled out of his head. On the final page, he discovers that is exactly what's happened, when Dark Hour himself shows up in the flesh asking Willard for help. This is purely set-up, but that's all it wants to be, taking its time to lay a foundation sturdy enough to hold up whatever else is coming in future issues. Writer Glen Brunswick makes Willard a well-rounded sad sack, lonely and a little afraid of the world, but still doing his damnedest to achieve his dreams. Brunswick also includes some smart and quirky humor, with the cream of the crop being when Dark Hour's Black-Cat-esque girlfriend Demonica says, "I don't steal retail!" The more lightweight feel of this series is matched by Viktor Bogdanovic's artwork, whose lines have a softer edge. Dark Hour has a good-looking but not-too-flashy design, and his secret identity, Thomas Scott, hits just the right level of Bruce Wayne knock-off. Intentionally so, as Willard himself describes Dark Hour as "libidinal Batman" (another joke I enjoyed). Would it have been even more impressive if Brunswck and Bogdanovic had gotten past the preliminary stages of their premise? Obviously yes. But for a first issue, getting all of the pieces in place, making me care about the cast, and ending on a big reveal that will undoubtedly launch into some kind of awesome superhero adventure is more than enough. I got exactly what I wanted out of Reality Check #1, and I'm anxious to see what else this title has in store.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Comics, TV, and Giving Things a Chance

If you want to recommend a television series to me, the absolute worst thing you can say is, "You have to get through the first season before it really gets good." Fuck that. I already follow too many things to be slogging through a show that doesn't know what it's doing when it starts. It's true that some of my favorite shows got a lot stronger later in their lives (Parks and Recreations and Bob's Burgers spring to mind immediately) but they were still plenty good when they began. They hadn't reached their full potential yet, and maybe they still haven't, but they immediately had a voice and a direction and I liked watching them right away. These days, if the first fifteen minutes (give or take) of the first episode of a show I'm trying out don't do it for me, I abandon ship. It happened earlier this week with Orange is the New Black. I'm sure it gets funny at some point because so many people have told me it does, but it didn't once make me laugh or even smile in the opening half-dozen scenes or so, which means I'm done. Maybe I'm cutting myself off from things I would enjoy. No, not maybe, definitely. But I've got a full enough TV docket as it is, and nobody is ever going to watch every single episode of every single series they could possibly like, so I've got to draw my own lines somewhere. Is my yardstick too short? Probably, but it's suited me just fine for a long time, and I watch tons of excellent stuff all year long.
     With comicbooks, I'm admittedly a bit more patient, though not by much, and when I drop something I drop it just as definitively. Three issues is the standard trial period for a new title, after which if I'm not hooked I walk away as fast as I can, at least until there is a total creative team switch or similarly significant change. I know that, in TV terms, three issues is theoretically three whole episodes, and I'm not totally sure why I'm so much quicker to give up on a show than a comicbook. Part of it is that I love comics more than TV, so I can put up with dreck a little more patiently. There's also the fact that, when reading a comic, I can absorb it at my own pace, whereas shows tell their stories on their own time. I can go back over a given comic scene, page, panel, what have you as many times as needed to see what it's doing, to find the value in it if indeed there is any to be found. Yes, I could rewind a TV show and go through the same process, but they don't naturally lend themselves to that type of consumption. They have a specific rhythm, a deliberate timing that is part of the package, and if I get far enough into an episode and still don't care about it then I can't bring myself to sit through the rest.
     The thing about both TV and comics is that brand new shit is coming out constantly. Just keeping up with the things I'm already following can at times be overwhelming, so I don't think it's unreasonable to be extra picky when it comes to adding anything. In both cases, I already have an ever-growing lists of series I know I need to start, finish, or catch up on so I can begin following them as they come out. There's just not a great deal of room for material that doesn't interest me quickly enough.
     I don't know why I'm writing this, really. I recently decided to drop Larfleeze, and as I mentioned, I had a powerfully negative reaction to Orange is the New Black not long ago, so I guess all of this has just been on my mind for the past few days. Also fall's coming around, which means loads of TV shows have their fresh seasons starting up, so I'm settling back into some old favorites and making decisions about what new things to sample. Finally, several new comicbook titles had their debut issues in the last couple weeks, and I'm planning to do a comparison of them all here on the blog once I finally get back to my local shop. Until then, I suppose this is a sort of unofficial prelude to that post, an excuse to publish online the thoughts that have been bouncing around my brain lately anyway.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Larfleeze is Not a Star

I've never been the world's biggest Larfleeze fan. I know I'm not the first to make the comparison, but he's kind of the Jar Jar Binks of the Green Lantern universe: overly obnoxious, weird speech patterns, naive/immature to the point of often being plain stupid, etc. I don't hate him with the same vehemence many others seem to feel, either. When he was introduced during the Blackest Night lead-up, he was neither the most nor the least annoying new character created as part of Geoff Johns' expansion of the spectrum of light. He was just minor enough not to ruin anything, and interesting enough that I got a decent amount out of pleasure from the pages on which he appeared.
     But he was such a supporting character, greed personified as a grouchy alien, that I was baffled when DC announced he'd be fronting the back-up feature in their Threshold series several months back. Even for ten-page stories, he didn't feel fleshed out enough to be a protagonist. I was so surprised by this decision, and drawn to Keith Giffen as the writer of a goofball spaceman, that I had to buy Threshold #1 out of sheer curiosity. It wasn't something I wanted to read but something I needed to try.
     It was not horrible. Well, the main series was ("The Hunted"), but the Larfleeze story actually had some bits that made me laugh, and it looked way better than it had any right to. Scott Kolins was a great fit for the character, getting both the unbridled anger and complete childishness of Larfleeze just right. Kolins does outer space stuff well, the empty enormity of the setting and inventive designs for new races and planets and such. The art was what I liked most about this initial taste of Larfleeze-centric comics, but Giffen didn't slack off, either. He added Pulsar Stargrave as the wry and under-appreciated butler, a job that suits the character and is the right kind of role for someone meant to be part of the cast of a Larfleeze book. And having the conflict center on Larfleeze trying to figure out who robbed him made a lot more sense than, say, cooking up a complicated new villain or cosmic-level threat. It was a narrative tailored to its hero, but still containing its share of intrigue and surprise.
     So I kept buying Threshold, even though it cost $3.99 I hated the first 2/3 of every issue. This went against everything I believe in when it comes to comicbook shopping, but the Larfleeze material kept being juuuust strong enough to bring me back. Every chapter had a couple of solid jokes, and Giffen tried to explore the Larfleeze concept as much as he could. How do you take a character who's whole deal is "I'm greedy!" and make him into someone worth following for more than a scene or two? It looked like Giffen had some answers, like making Larfleeze's powers more effective when he was trying to prevent theft, having him literally not understand the concept of paying someone for something, or his definition of "fair fight" being one that he wins. It wasn't the most in-depth development work I've ever seen, but it was admittedly more than I thought Larfleeze had to offer, and it was getting done in ten-page chunks that also included splash pages, chaotic fight scenes, additions to the cast, and an ever-evolving mystery. The story may not have left my jaw on the floor, but it always had me grinning, and Kolins' artwork kept up its quality all the way through. It was fun, funny, vibrant, and energetic, good enough that when Larfleeze became a series of its own, I followed.
     That's when things went downhill. The new book is plotted by Giffen with scripts from his long-time collaborator J.M. DeMatteis, and still drawn by Kolins but now off of Giffen's breakdowns. And it STINKS. Three issues in, I'm already completely turned off of the whole experiment, as disappointed by the full-length Larfleeze material as I was pleasantly surprised by the back-ups. Instead of building on the little bit of progress made in the Threshold pages, this book has decided to let its stars flounder in their worst, simplest, most one-dimensional forms so that a bunch of epic sci-fi junk can go down instead. Larfleeze no longer gets to display the many faces of avarice, reduced to a constant string of temper tantrums punctuated by combat he loses. His new foes are big bad space monsters from another dimension, threatening to unmake our existence for simple amusement now that their home world has already been totally destroyed (by them). It's the wrong kind of narrative for Larfleeze, one that calls on him to be a world-saving epic hero instead of the pissed off kid he usually is. Giffen and DeMatteis do their best to give Larfleeze a dog in this race by having the new villains take control of Stargrave, but that's a weak motive, one made even less convincing by Stargrave's own passivity and grating sarcasm. It worked in small doses during the ten-pagers, but in these twenty-page installments Stargrave becomes just as major a character as Larfleeze. That's too much responsibility for someone who uses most of his lines to make fun of and/or undermine what other characters just said.
     Kolins is still Kolins, but the tone of the story has become graver and more significant, which consequently means the art doesn't get to be as uninhibited and silly as it used to be. There's a lot more angry Larfleeze now than the mix of fury, confusion, fear, and hubris he brought to the table before. Of all the characters to darken, this one needed it the very least, and it shows when comparing the Threshold-era visuals to the current ones.
     I'm not going to say Larfleeze could never support his own comic. If nothing else, Giffen and Kolins taught me that the potential exists. Put him in the right setting and handle him with the right approach, and this clown can definitely carry a story. But I wonder if he'll just always operate better in a smaller space. If you asked Larfleeze, of course, he'd demand as many panels and as much dialogue as possible. Yet that extreme personality of his may be what makes him more entertaining in fewer pages. I don't know how much the character is to blame, how much falls on the creators, and (as with all of DC's line these days) how much is editorial nonsense. But I do know that after five months of back-up stories convincing me Larfleeze was worth my attention, it only took three months of stardom to undo all that work and reverse my opinion of him all over again.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Superb Heroes: Enigma

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.

The story of Enigma is the kind where everything that happens leads to a single significant event at the end. I don't mean to suggest that the journey isn't wonderful, just that the destination is really the point. The closing pages of the closing issue of this series see a comicbook character, creator, and fan join forces to battle a superpowered evil together in the real world. That's a fantastic final beat, and all the insane and earth-shattering events that build up to it exist so that the ending can feel earned and real and important. It could have been a comical conclusion, played for laughs, winking at the audience with a "Do you see what we've done here?" attitude. Instead, Peter Milligan, Duncan Fegredo, and Sherilyn van Valkenburgh craft a narrative that, while acknowledging its own outlandishness, also takes itself seriously enough to have significant stakes and a lasting impact.
     Enigma is also a thoughtful look at superheroes as icons, questioning their positions as moral guides, and the very idea of morality at all. Enigma (the titular hero) doesn't just use lethal force against his opponents but, it is revealed later in the series, he's also responsible for their existence. He transformed random people into supervillains using his immense powers, simply so he'd have something to do. He had decided to become a superhero, and that required bad guys to fight. Forcing people to do something evil and then killing them for it is pretty rotten, as protagonist Michael Smith emphatically points out when he learns what Enigma has done. But because of how vast his abilities are, Enigma sees himself (perhaps accurately) as being more than human, and therefore operating outside of our concepts of right and wrong.
     Enigma the book isn't really about Enigma the man anyway, or at least it's not focused on him. Michael is the story's center, the person we follow and relate to the most. He's as everyman as a character can get, a point Milligan's script drives home immediately and in no uncertain terms. The omniscient narrator of Enigma has a fabulous voice, sarcastic and sometimes even bored with the story, yet at other times openly concerned that it's not telling the story well enough. There's also an amazing reveal about the narrator's identity in the last issue (which I won't bother spoiling here) that makes its attitude throughout the series ten times more amusing in hindsight.
     Anyway, the narrator explains right away how commonplace and insubstantial Michael's life is when everything begins. His dead-end relationship with its scheduled sex, his lack of ambition or energy, and similar details of his overall in-a-rutness are laid out clearly. He's shaken loose when he gets attacked by the first of Enigma's villains, The Head, a hideous creature with a cartoonishly swollen cranium from the brains it sucks out of its victims. Enigma kills The Head just in time to save Michael's life, and that encounter is the first major step toward Michael leaving behind his old self and replacing it with a more adventurous, passionate, active version. When he wakes in the hospital and sees on the news that Enigma is battling a new bad guy named The Truth, Michael recognizes both characters from his favorite childhood comicbook, and senses that he is connected to these mysterious events in a significant way. He's not wrong, and his journey leads him to become more than just a fan of Enigma, becoming his closest ally, his confidant, and his lover.
     At first Michael pushes back hard against his homosexuality, but when he and Enigma finally meet face to face, he can no longer resist the feelings that have been bubbling up for so long. He falls rather madly for his childhood hero, and at first it's all he's ever wanted. Eventually their romance is twisted, tainted a little when Michael learns that, just like with all the supervillains, Enigma used his powers to make Michael fall in love with him, as opposed to it being a wholly natural attraction. Yet even in this knowledge, Michael chooses his new life over his old one, preferring to feel excited and self-confident and deeply in love than to return to his previous stagnation, even if it means allowing himself to succumb to a sort of lightweight form of mind control. This decision is the end of the character's personal arc, and pretty much the end of the entire series, because, as I said, this is Michael's story. Once his new life is firmly established, and he officially decides to stick with it rather than allowing Enigma to undo the changes he made to Michael's psyche, there's not much left to tell. Enigma's own story is left open-ended, but the book still reaches a fitting conclusion, and one that satisfies completely.
     As for Enigma, he's not literally a fictional comicbook character come to life. He's a hyper-intelligent and superpowered human being who chooses to model himself after a comicbook hero after the real world almost ruins him for good. Thrown into a well in his infancy by his crazed mother, Enigma never had a name (that we know of) or a childhood or anything resembling a normal life. But he did not die down there on his own in the darkness. Using what were already impressive mental abilities, he was able to sustain himself by psychically asking the world for food and receiving lizards and bugs and other such critters to live on. This was his perfect existence for decades, contentedly living underground with no sense of the world above, not even truly aware that he was human or what that meant (if, indeed, it means anything). Finally, he was discovered and "rescued" from the well, brought to a mental institution that tried to make sense of his condition. Right away, Enigma was overwhelmed and mightily depressed by what he encountered, from the vast openness of this surface world to the ignorant and idiotic efforts of the humans around him. To him, they were no more intelligent or impressive than the lizards he used to eat, and so he used his powers to free himself and return to the only home he'd ever known. Sadly, his well was spoiled now by his knowledge of the reality outside it. Unable to truly get back the life he'd lost, he set out to invent himself a new one. More or less arbitrarily, he chose to transform into a long-forgotten 1970's cape-and-mask crimefighter named Enigma, and began turning other people into his foes and friends.
     What works so well about this idea is that it acts as its own excellent superhero tale and as criticism of superheroes in general. Because Enigma is not a part of regular human society, and his mind does not operate at all the way anyone else's ever has, his interpretation of a typical superhero comic is quite different than the usual one. He does not see in the main character a beacon of righteousness and justice, because those words have no value for him. It's just a collection of costumes and names, people fighting one another as a way to pass the time, less-than-mindless entertainment with no morals to teach or lessons to impart on those who read it. At the same time, Enigma inadvertently becomes a legitimate hero, saving Michael from an existence he hated, bringing a bit of happiness where once there was gloom. And he does everything he does in an attempt to prepare himself to battle his mother, the woman who tossed him down a well all those years ago, and is now a horrible monster, a distorted reflection of her son with the same level of power he possesses but none of the intellect. She's a mindless beast, determined to finish what she started and finally kill her child, and Enigma knows he'll need help to stop her. It's a classic hero-villain dynamic, and not an entirely unusual mother-son relationship either, so while his methods are perhaps not the best available, we still root for Enigma in the end.
     Milligan's writing is a big part of the reader ultimately siding with Enigma is spite of his more unlikable actions. The character has such a matter-of-fact voice, a detached outlook that makes it difficult to be angry with him. He's not coming from the same viewpoint as we are, we're not supposed to understand or even necessarily connect with him. For that we have Michael, and through Michael's choice to love and forgive Enigma we are able to do the same.
     But even if you don't land where Michael does, even if the existential/nihilistic overtones of this series rub you the wrong way throughout and make you angry with the ending, there's some seriously breathtaking art in these issues. Duncan Fegredo brings a dreamlike quality to much of the series. Things move strangely and feel like they are barely held together, but it's not a sketchy or uncertain style at all. Some of the strongest panels are the smallest, tiny moments Fegredo includes to greatly enhance or add to a scene. These are usually quick, close shots of someone's face, a brief flash of emotion that adds a lot to whatever page it's on. It's a carefully composed piece, even if the overall effect is one of out-of-control energy and madness.
     The designs for Enimga and, more than that, his villains are all exceptional. Even in this comicbook, they feel like characters from a comicbook, so much broader and more bizarre than everything else we see. They are less restrained than their actual 1970's comicbook selves, which we also get to occasionally see over the course of the series. Michael still has his old issues, and we get glimpses of pages here and there when the story calls for it, when something happening in real time is a reference to something from the fictional original book. Fegredo switches up his style in these places so the comic-within-the-comic is always distinct and immediately recognizable. It looks and feels like a series from its era, whereas the real-life Enigma is very much a contemporary piece (and I say that now, even though it's twenty years old). Fegredo clearly has a reverence for a well-done superhero story, and brings all of that admiration to this book, taking his time to craft the super-beings as appropriately impressive, terrifying, awe-inspiring figures.
     If Fegredo is responsible for the surreality of Enigma, it is colorist Sherilyn van Valkenburgh who brings things back down to Earth, though not in a way that at all dampens what Fegredo is doing. The coloring is dark and moody, more a reflection of Michael's internal life than Enigma's. It has its bright spots, plenty of harsh oranges and reds that can at times dominate the page. But these tend to come from fire and blood and the like, colors that accompany violence and danger, not necessarily meant to brighten the title's darker general tones. What van Valkenburgh does best is striking a balance between panels with realistic coloring and those that are more exaggerated or drenched in a single hue. When things are ordinary and/or the gravity of a scene brings reality crashing down, her palette reaches further and colors everything more or less as it would be in our world. Then in the most heightened scenes, a single shade will often take over, more starkly disconnecting the images from what the reader knows. So while Fegredo's work as a whole is less interested in realism than van Valkenburgh's, the two artists still collaborate well, playing into one another's strengths and weaknesses in equal turn as needed to deliver a strong final product.
     Besides, the mash-up of things from reality and from someone's imagination is what Enigma's all about. The superhero Michael adored as a child becomes his flesh-and-blood boyfriend as an adult. Enigma takes characters invented by someone else and brings them to life so he can combat the real-life mother who wants to end him. The fictional and actual ram up against one another all throughout this series, until Michael finally picks one over the other and makes them into the same thing.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Why am I Still Reading Sex?

I bought the first issue of Sex because I usually like Joe Casey's writing. I bought the second because I was so impressed with Piotr Kowalski art and Brad Simpson's art. Since then, I've struggled with whether or not to get each of the other issues, because a story that initially seemed like it was gearing up for better things has grown tired, bordering on dull, in only six chapters. So far I've continued to follow the title, but many aspects of it grate my nerves and don't seem to be getting any better. Yet the few redeeming qualities it has are always just good enough to keep me coming back, making Sex a frustrating but thus far effective mix of good, bad, and ugly.
     The primary problem I have with this book is its protagonist, Simon Cooke. He's barely a character. Though his history is the foundation of the supposed premise of the entire series, in the present he is a passive un-man, wallowing in...I don't even know what. Self-pity? Self-loathing? Ennui? Quiet seething rage? Whatever emotion(s) he's feeling, feeling them is all he ever does. He never acts, speaks in vague and foolish terms, and offers no insight or assistance to his fellow cast members or the audience as to what's going on in his mind. Cooke used to be a superhero called the Armored Saint, but has given that up now and is struggling to find meaning in his life without the alter ego to rely on. I can see why giving up the costumed crimefighting lifestyle would be a rocky transition, but to see even a half-step of effort on Cooke's part would go a long way. This isn't the story of him trying and failing to establish a "normal" life. It's him saying he'll try but then refusing to do so, instead ending up in a stagnant state, neither living his old life nor his new one.
     To make matters worse, the only people Cooke ever interacts with are his assistant Larry and his lawyer Warren, neither of whom are especially interesting. Larry is at least good at her job, and is the only person capable of getting Cooke to actually do anything as far as running his company or at all behaving like member of society. Don't get me wrong, I don't give a shit if the heroes of the things I read act like regular members of society, but since that is what Cooke claims is his whole goal, it's nice to see someone who legitimately wants to help him achieve it. Without Larry, the infinitesimal amount of forward progress this narrative has managed to accomplish wouldn't even have happened. What doesn't work about Larry is that she's a one-note character. Because Cooke is so stubbornly unwilling to become the man he says he wants to become, all Larry ever has the time or space for is reminding her boss of his obligations and doing her damnedest to convince him to fulfill them. She gets almost no story of her own, save for being aggressively hit on by a politician in the most recent issue.
     Warren is just a scumbag who I'd rather not spend any more time with. I get that he's a lawyer for rich pricks like Cooke, and therefore a bit of a prick himself necessarily, but that doesn't make him easier to swallow. He's not a villain, but he's a bad guy through and through, and seeing him give half-hearted and self-interested advice to Cooke, which Cooke then refuses to take because he's so boneheaded, is wearing me down.
     There is one person in Cooke's life who I'm interested in and want to see more of, but she's dead and only appears in flashback. Her name is Quinn, and from what we've seen she was essentially Alfred to Cooke's Batman, and her death is the whole reason he gave up being the Armored Saint. The details of their relationship haven't been revealed, but the few scenes she's been in have established Quinn as smart, capable, and self-assured, not qualities that many others possess in this series. A small but significant part of why I haven't dropped Sex yet is my eagerness to get to know Quinn and figure out why she ever teamed up with Cooke, and what exactly motivated her to ask him to retire from her deathbed.
     Even worse than Cooke and his associates is the character being built up as the main villain of this tale, The Old Man. Here's what we know about this guy: he's evil. How do we know that? He murders women he's having sex with in the middle of having sex with them. He has his own Pulp-Fiction-style gimp who tortures people with anal sex so The Old Man can interrogate them. Basically, his role is to combine sex and violence in trite yet highly offensive ways that make no sense and serve no purpose just so the reader can keep being reminded that "THIS IS THE VILLAIN!" Nevermind that we were told right away that the dude was a major crime boss with a long history of wickedness who plans on using the Armored Saint's recent departure to take over the underworld once again. Apparently we need to be shown just how depraved The Old Man can be, more than once, over far too many pages. It's insulting to my intelligence to have to get through these scenes that say nothing new about the character or the story just so the book can justify its title.
     So the lead hero and lead villain both drive me crazy. What could I possibly be reading Sex for? Surely there's more to like about it than the slight chance that I might get some new Quinn scenes (which hasn't actually happened in a few issues).
     First of all, there's the art. I meant what I said up top; the main reason I picked up Sex #2 was because of how impressive the debut's visuals were. The sheer number of lines Piotr Kowalski draws in every issue is astonishing, particularly when he gets to do a cityscape. There is such immense detail in the buildings, rather than having them merely be looming suggestions of skyscrapers. Every window is actually there, and it happens even when all that's visible are glimpses of a few random buildings in the background of a panel. This carries over to all of the various settings—large offices, nightclubs, hospitals, etc. And the characters, too, especially The Old Man, whose face is so wrinkled he looks like a dried up reptile. But everyone has their own look, individualized personalities and fashions that say a lot about them, even the drabbest characters. It's a well-thought-out world Kowalski has built, as varied and full as our own. There's not a ton of violence, but what's there is always done efficiently, not overblown for shock value but still quick and brutal and sometimes hard to look at. There is, naturally, a lot of sex, and even though it rarely adds anything of import to the story, Kowalski at least makes it fittingly realistic. People are proportioned like people, and their whole bodies are involved.
     Brad Simpson's coloring is equally fantastic. He's playful with it, not worried about realism in the same way as Kowalski seems to be, and the combination is what makes Sex look so good. There are a lot of flat colors, figures done in all one color against backgrounds done in a contrasting one. Some whole pages are washed in a single color, while others are done in a more down-to-Earth manner, with everything colored more or less as it would actually be. And these decisions are not made arbitrarily; Simpson is more responsible for establishing mood than any of the other creators. Brash colors flare up momentarily to match characters' emotions doing the same. Flashbacks are marked by their soft grayness, allowing them to appear in the middle of present-tense panels without ever being confusing. There is a mix of neon and muted hues that works surprisingly well, and underlines that Cooke abandoned one world for another but doesn't really operate in either. This series is fun and stimulating to look at, and while not a great deal actually goes on in a given issue in terms of the narrative, the images are always dynamic and gripping.
     Good art alone doesn't make Sex worth the price of admission, at least not six issues deep. There's got to be something in the story that I care about enough to put up with the garbage, and in the case of Sex, it's mostly the stars of the B-plot that are holding my attention. Where Cooke and The Old Man turned me off a long time ago and have never improved one inch, Keenan Wade and The Alpha Brothers continue to be people worth watching.
     The Alpha Brothers are the dual heads of an illegal organization of some kind, and as people they're not all that deep. They might be actual brothers, might be boyfriends, might be both, but their personalities are largely indistinguishable and they're activities aren't any more or less exciting than any other baddy in any other book. What I like about them is their matter-of-fact, businesslike approach to what they do. In the middle of killing a guy who owes them money, the brothers get into a spat over exactly how much he owes them, which leads them to pull out their smartphones and compare the numbers they each have on file. This outlook makes me laugh, talking about crime in terms of clients and reports and data. It makes sense for the modern world, and may well be what current real-world criminals necessarily have to do, but either way it feels different for a superhero comicbook and I always appreciate that. Like Quinn, The Alpha Brothers don't get a massive amount of stage time, but I always look forward to their moments in the spotlight, and rely on them for a bit of comic relief and intelligent conversation in this series.
     Keenan Wade is the real reason to buy Sex, though, far and away a better character than anyone else. He's just a young waiter right now, but has ambitions of being the next great hero, basically seeing himself as a replacement for the Armored Saint, as far as I can tell. But his methods are unorthodox; it's Keenan who fucks with The Alpha Brothers' numbers, and he's currently considering joining a revived street gang called The Breaks so he can battle the baddies from the inside. He's got fighting skills, displayed when he wrecks some dickhead who's abusing his girlfriend in the club where Keenan works. And he's just a downright decent dude, as seen through his honest and caring attitude with his own girlfriend, perhaps the only truly affectionate relationship in the book. He also has some sort of unknown history with Cooke and Quinn, and is just as disgusted and disinterested in the man Cooke is now as I am, making Keenan a uniquely relatable member of the cast. It also gives me the smallest sliver of hope that Cooke might actually turn into someone I want to read about, should his and Keenan's stories ever collide due to whatever connection already exists between them. We've already seen Keenan break into Cooke's house, planning to announce his intentions of becoming the new head vigilante in town. But once he sees what a waste Cooke is these days, Keenan bails, setting off on his own to do things his way.
     I can't yet tell what Sex wants to say, about superheroes or modern life or anything at all. It's getting to its point far too slowly and unsteadily, and it centers on characters that mostly range from the dissatisfying to the despicable. The few people I care about are minor players, and though I adore the artwork, it's not going to keep me around indefinitely. I'm hesitant to drop it because, for all its flaws, it's still different than most of the cape comics on the shelves, and every issue does something to delight and/or surprise me. Also, Cooke still has plenty of potential to grow into a likable leading man. He's flimsy and underdeveloped so far, which is bad, but leaves ample room for details to be revealed or added that would redeem him. So I guess I'm holding out hope, putting maybe a bit too much trust in creators I admire, and crossing my fingers that this is all headed somewhere. My desire to keep spending my time in this world is waning rapidly, though, and if things don't turn around soon, I'm hard-pressed to believe I'll be reading Sex for more than another couple issues.