Monday, March 3, 2014

Catching Up With February (2 of 2)

Continued from yesterday, my thoughts on every new comic I bought in February, which I got all at once at the end of the month after neglecting to visit my local shop before then.

Batman Black and White #6: First of all, I did not know this was a mini-series. It makes perfect sense, of course, that they wouldn't put this out indefinitely, but it's still a bummer to learn only now that this is the last issue. There were a few truly godawful stories here and there, but mostly this was an excellent book, and one of my last connections to DC outside of their Vertigo stuff. Ah, well, at least it went out with a strong issue. Cliff Chiang's opening story was particularly good, about Dick Grayson trying to earn the respect of Batman and the Gotham police as Robin. Chiang writes Dick as confident and smart but still young, new to the game and not 100% sure of himself, until the end when it really matters. Chiang's artwork also may have been my favorite in the issue, though Dave Johnson's was a close second, as was his script. Chiang's work was a little inkier/heavier, which I ultimately preferred to Johnson's grayer style, but they were both excellent, especially in their interpretations of Batman. Slim but strong, realistically fit and scary without seeming larger than life. All the artists in this issue had a good-looking Batman, actually. The Olly Moss/Becky Cloonan story that came second was excellent, because I'm always a fan of stories that examine how horrible and fake Bruce Wayne is as Batman's public persona. Also, Becky Cloonan rules always. And the second-to-last story by Adam Hughes impressed me by first bothering me with its Batman-comes-to-the-rescue-of-a-helpless-Catwoman plot but then turning things around by revealing that Catwoman was the one running the show all along. Her reasons for manipulating Batman didn't wow me, but at least she was played as smart and strong rather than a damsel in distress. Dave Taylor's middle story was my least favorite, though his artwork was great, able to capture the chaos of a mad scientist's lab in a very confined space without cluttering things up too much. But I cringed at his interpretation of Alfred as an outspoken, sarcastic skeptic, totally unsupportive of Batman at every turn. Also, having the villain explain his plan in a long self-congratulatory speech was uninspired and unnecessary, since Batman had pretty much figured things out already anyway. I'm grateful that the weakest narrative came right in the middle, though, because it made this issue open and close with things I liked, as good a way to finish Batman Black and White as I could ask for.

Harbinger #21: This issue is exemplary of what I love most about Harbinger—Joshua Dysart's spot on characterization of teenagers. Here, the Renegades have been hiding underground, literally, for too long, and the close quarters are starting to take their toll. Charlene and Torque are drinking a lot, Monica Jim keeps sneaking out when she thinks no one is looking, and tons of pressure have just been piled on thanks to hacktivist @X leaking all of Project Rising Spirit's information last issue. Now @X is hiding with the Renegades, meaning Harada is searching for them harder than ever, so they decide it's time to act. After all this time planning their next move, Peter and Kris figure if they want to carry out their plans, it's now or never, so things are coming to a head. Meanwhile, Faith and Torque lose their virginities to one another, in a very sweet, touching, funny, awkward, utterly teenaged scene. I've been rooting for Faith and Peter to become a couple all this time, but now that she and Torque have connected, I must say, they make much more sense to me. She's the most put-together member of the team, the most emotionally mature, but also the least self-confident. He's basically the opposite, emotionally still a little boy but with all the bluster and swagger that comes with it. If Faith could calm Torque down and Torque could amp Faith up, they'd be even better versions of themselves, so I'm eager to see how their relationship develops from here. Along the same lines, Monica Jim is revealing herself to be something of a malcontent, so I'm curious about her future role in the series as well. She may end up a villain or, at the very least, a major liability, and that's exciting and a little frightening to consider. Harbinger is really in its groove these days. Dysart has assembled this wonderfully dysfunctional team of young rebels, and as their struggles get crazier and more dangerous, the book becomes more and more arresting. And @X is a perfect addition to the cast, another teen with an ax to grind (get it?) but also an outsider and non-psiot, yet with enough hacker skills to make him an interesting and useful expansion to their collective skill set. With Clayton Henry's smooth, clear, expressive artwork also on board, Harbinger #21 was one of the most rock solid issues of one of the most reliably strong series coming out today. An origin for @X, a new romance, and major steps forward in the series' larger plot. That's a lot to get done, but it doesn't feel wedged in. It moves calmly but with determined purpose, a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders.

Catalyst Comix #8: In its second-to-last issue, Catalyst Comix naturally brings all three of its stories to a head. The Agents of Change finally learn the truth about how Bert has been manipulating and lying to them, and they get appropriately pissed off about it. Bert tries to shut them up by separating them in the simulated environment in which their psyches are currently housed, but the pushback is stronger than anticipated, and it looks like next time they may be busting out and rejoining the real world as a unified group of furious super-people. Frank Wells discovers that it was Grace, not himself, who truly saved the world in December 2012, and coming to grips with his own unimportance in that event is a difficult but necessary step in his path to enlightenment. Now fully in touch with himself, Frank is ready for the final phase of his process of becoming the best superhero he can be. Finally, in her own story, Grace reaches the Reaver Swarm, her true enemy, the real threat to life on Earth. And she finds herself unprepared for its size and power. It destroys her ship and captures her, starting to consume her, so she sends out some kind of psychic distress call to the folks back home. Her survival seems unlikely, but maybe the citizens of her city will save her or, at the very least, succeed where she failed. Hers has always been my favorite narrative, and here in the penultimate chapter, it ends with the most compelling cliffhanger. Joe Casey has done a great job building to these climactic points in all three tales, and hopefully he'll nail the final chapters as well. All of his artistic collaborators continue to produce incredible work, giving the book a single voice while also keeping the different storylines distinct from one another. Catalyst Comix has been a weird, fantastic look at what superheroes can be, and it'll be missed.

Unity #4: The finale to Unity's first arc, and possibly its least interesting issue to date, primarily because all of its major developments were easy to see coming. Aric wasn't going to be separate from his armor for long, because X-O Manowar is still a series. And Harada had to be officially kicked off the team before they could do anything else together, since we'd already seen the rest of them agree he was an enemy. So that's what happens: Ninjak, Gilad, and Livewire steal back Aric's armor, stomp Harada with it, and return it to its original owner while freeing him and his followers from a secret prison. It's inevitable, and though Matt Kindt writes it logically and efficiently, there aren't any real surprises in there. All the characters are used well, the story does what it should, and the ending is tidy but still leaves the road open for the book's future. Also, Doug Braithwaite is still on art duties, and still crushing it. The one new character in this issue, Anchor, was one of my favorites in the whole series so far. He was very simple, like a big ugly thumb with a body, but there's a tenderness to him the undercuts his size and sturdiness nicely. In only a few pages on a single issue, Anchor is given a sad little background, a likable if pathetic personality, and an important but ultimately failed role to play in a key fight. That fight is where Braithwaite really brings in the noise, most of all when Ninjak and Harada face each other. Some intense, expertly-executed violence in those panels. Even the most predictable issue of this series is good comics, but it's too bad Braithwaite is leaving (at least for now) on a somewhat dull note. CAFU's a fine enough artist, but with a less rich style than Braithwaite's, and also, I find, less interesting.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6: This was a very consumable issue, and I'm starting to think that's the main appeal of this book. It's such simple, almost retro superheroics. All the heroes are devoted, hard-working, good. They're not all nice, but they are honest and earnest, they try to do the right thing, they look out for one another, they believe in the cause. The villains, on the other hand, are all mad scientists and cultists and others hellbent on mad levels of power. There have been giant ancient monsters, dinosaur robots, and, this issue, a twelve-year-old evil genius. Even the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents' abilities—speed, strength, invisibility—tend to lean toward the classic, the easy-to-understand. And all of that is refreshing. This is a book that exists outside any continuity or shared universe, where secret agents and superheroes are one-and-the-same, and everything is straightforward and black-and-white. EXCEPT...there's some kind of crazy-old, crazy-secret thing with glyphs on it that holds the secret to deep, mystic power and/or knowledge and/or who the hell knows what else. This one cosmic puzzle that sits at the heart of the series helps it stand out, and is the throughline that keeps the narrative wheels turning. But Phil Hester slow-plays that mystery and uses most of his time to tell awesome, to-the-point superhero adventure tales. That's what this issue is, and what they've all been, and, with any luck, what they'll continue to be in perpetuity. The artist is Roger Robinson, not a name I think I've seen before, but more than earning his keep here. The huge, multi-eyed flying octopus robot emerging from the water was incredible, as was all of the action surrounding its appearance. I also loved the crazy mind-control helmet that got made on the fly out of spare parts assembled by a magnetized robot spider. Rogers managed to show what was happening clearly and quickly, giving the awesome final image of the helmet tuning on enough space for it to come with a great light show. That panel is also a highlight of colorist Rom Fajardo's work on the issue. It's good all over, from both Rogers and Fajardo, smoother in the foregrounds and on the characters, but with subtler details and textures in the backgrounds to give things a bit of depth. This is a blast of a book, always, and this issue is no exception.

Thor: God of Thunder #19.NOW: What is .NOW? There does not seem to be a separate issue #19 of this series coming out, which is what they used to to with .1 issues, right? It'd go 19, 19.1, 20, or at least that's my memory of it. Not sure what the last .1 issue I read was. Probably an X-Factor. Anyway, I guess all the .NOW is supposed to indicate is that this is the start of something fresh for this series, a new arc for the All-New Marvel NOW currently being rolled out across the line. If so...dumb. There's already the biggest, most obnoxious white "#1" imaginable in the right corner of the cover to say exactly the same thing, so the tiny "NOW" sitting underneath the "19." at the bottom is hardly going to draw anyone in. Ok, that's all I had to say about that idiotic thing. As for this actual comic, it was pretty lame as far as Thor stories go. The real star was an environmentally-focused S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Rosalind Solomon, who is funny and brash and cool, but the main reason she's here is because Thor has a crush on her and is trying to impress her by kinda-sorta helping to save the environment. The result is that there's a lot of Solomon arguing with her boss and then with one of the bigwigs at the evil Roxxon Corporation, while Thor operates more in the background, showing up to save Solomon and ask her out awkwardly. It makes both characters look weaker—Solomon because Thor keeps fighting her battles for her, and Thor because he's diverting all of his energy to getting the attention of a woman, which is not a look Jason Aaron manages to make look good on Thor. There's not enough humor, charm, or self-confidence in Thor's approach. I get that he's trying to be respectful, but it comes across as just acting out-of-character, oddly timid. As evidence of how much less exciting this story is than usual, and how stifled Thor is as a hero within it, I submit the incredibly gorgeous splash page of Thor smashing a frost giant in the face. This moment, while visually beautiful, is forced into the middle of the comic as a full-page punchline to a very weak joke Thor makes in the preceding panel about how he got his hands on a large amount of ice. It is also the only classically Thor-like moment in the comic, and one of only two times Esad Ribic truly gets to shine as an artist, the other being the final splash of Galactus showing up on a desolate, far-future Earth. The rest of the issue is too confined, trapped in environmental debate, Roxxon posturing, and Old Man Thor moping in the future. There are no thrills, no big action, nothing worthy of the might of this character, and nothing fit to display how amazingly majestic Ribic's work can be. This series has been all about doing Thor as an epic warrior, so seeing him brought back down to earth feels like deflation. It's not that human, grounded Thor stories can't work, but they are not what Aaron does well in this title, and I was less than enthused by this first chapter. Hopefully things will become a little more intense now that Galactus is involved, and the Roxxon guy is, I think, secretly a minotaur, based on his nickname and the cover image. So things may be amping up soon as far as power levels, but this issue was underwhelming in that regard.

Kings Watch #4: First things first: Marc Laming is dominating with this book. His invading hordes of monsters and beastmen are especially delicious, but even just the establishing shot of Skull Cave or Lothar firing Zarkov's giant sonic weapon are enough to give me chills. There's a lot of fantastical and/or sci-fi stuff going down, and Laming makes it all look real and, when appropriate, terrifying. And there's a lot of personality in every character, even the expendable grunts in Ming's forces. Laming makes them all detailed, unique, fully-realized animal-people. Shout out to colorist Jordan Boyd, too, who makes all the explosions and magic look lifelike in their lighting, matching Laming's realism. As far as hard-hitting action-adventure comics go, I can't imagine there's much coming out right now that looks any better than this. And because this issue had the most chaotic, widespread combat, it was perhaps the best-looking yet. Jeff Parker's script is excellent, too, smartly paced to keep things lively. The shit officially hits the fan, and the heroes step up immediately to deal with it. Kings Watch is not dissimilar to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, in that much of its appeal is how simple things are from a morality standpoint for all the main characters. Ming calls himself merciless, he calmly and plainly explains to the people of Earth that he's there to invade them and turn their way of life upside down. He's so comfortable as a villain, and so unconcerned with being perceived as such, that he lays his cards out on the table right away. The heroes, meanwhile, are free from any of the bickering or strategic debate of many teams, trusting one another already and respecting all the voices of the group equally. It makes them extremely efficient, able to believably assess the threat Ming represents and cook up a response in only 24 hours. They haven't won the war, of course, and I'd argue they lost the first round last issue, but round two goes to the good guys for sure.

Rachel Rising #23: I've praised this series a lot, and so have many others, and it's all well-deserved. This issue didn't stand out to me as especially great, but a lot of important things happened, as they pretty much always do. Rachel and Jet met up with Zoe again and, finally, figured out that she's not the little girl she appears to be. All of the masks are falling off, and this was an important one to finally do away with. Rachel also got ahold of her box of witch stuff at last, and the process to return Aunt Johnny's soul to her body came a few steps closer to being complete. All gripping, significant stuff, but also all relatively mundane. The creepiest part of the issue is when Dr. Siemen considers having sex with Johnny's soulless body, which lasts for a few tiny panels before the power goes out and he has to deal with that instead. Other than that, the events of this issue run fairly smoothly, until the final, haunting panel that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I'm not going to waste time trying to describe it because I could never do it justice, but it's probably the most beautiful, unsettling, horrific thing Terry Moore has done in this series up to now. I don't even really know what it means yet, but it has already left its mark. One unforgettable panel is more than most comics have to offer, so this is still a great comic, but it wasn't as bonkers as Rachel Rising can be. Then again, there's been a pattern of calms before storms, so chances are a major storm is a-comin'. My impression of Moore's plan is that the storyline that's been running through this series from the start is about to wrap up, and certainly it feels that way in-story, with Rachel, Jet, and Zoe all headed for Lilith together for what they hope will be the final confrontation. So this was a quick pause before all the scores get settled, which is a structurally sound way to go, and fits with the general pace of this title.

Daredevil #36: The "last" issue of this series before the same creators relaunch it next month as a new volume with a new, higher price (ugh). Mark Waid, true to form, comes up with a very clever way for Matt Murdock to defeat the Sons of the Serpent, by revealing that he's Daredevil and confessing to all the lies he told and laws he broke over the years to keep that a secret. It gives the Sons no moves, nothing they can use to threaten him, so they make a desperate final attack, and Daredevil beats them gleefully. He gets disbarred, and so does Foggy, but that was always part of the plan, a necessary evil to defeat a far greater evil. In the end, at Kirsten's suggestion (because she, too, is now out of a job) the plan is to relocate to San Francisco, since the only chance they have of practicing law again is in a state where they've done so before. A new setting is a good enough reason to reboot a book's numbering, I guess, but really this is just the end of an arc. Still, Waid does a pretty good job of making it feel like a bigger, more final ending than this book has had in the past. Murdock burning his career to the ground, exposing his true identity, and deciding to move across the country are a lot of big, life-changing things to do in one issue, so there is a special flavor to this, a feeling of added importance. It may be manufactured, but it's effective. I'm glad Waid is sticking around, and extra glad Chris Samnee will still be the artist, because he does the best Daredevil ever at this point. Fun-loving, fit and trim enough for me to buy all of his superhuman acrobatics, and solid as a rock. That's a Daredevil I'll never tire of, and everything and everyone else looks just as good when Samnee's drawing them. The Waid-Samnee-Daredevil mix seems to be evergreen, so do whatever the hell you want with the numbering, I guess, Marvel. As long as the quality keeps up, I'll be reading. I'm more than invested now.

Drumhellar #4: I had actually already read a digital version of this in preparation for my recent PopMatters piece on this title. But I always like a hard copy, and I prefer to read things in that format, so I went ahead and gave this another read. It was still great. This series isn't for everyone, but I love the hell out of Riley Rossmo, and his previous series with Alex Link, Rebel Blood, is an all-time favorite of mine. Drumhellar's not quite as amazing, but it's completely its own thing, bold and bananas in ways I respect a lot. It's also very funny and it always looks so goddamn good, because Rossmo is really cutting loose on this title, playing around with every style he's ever used before and mixing them freely and perfectly. This issue has an ideal example of what I mean in the side-by-side full-page splash panels of Drum's vision of using Doc's dead body to house DJ's spirit so DJ will stop aging backwards. Rossmo brings totally different coloring, linework, and inking styles to the two pages, but then uses repeated imagery in them to show how they connect and to make their message clear. It's trippy and a little hard to decipher, but everything you need is there, which is, actually, a good description of this whole series. It moves weirdly, jumps in time and location happening without warning or transition. Rossmo and writer Alex Link trust their audience to keep up, or, as I usually do, go back and figure everything out once we know more. The opening page of this issue, for instance, actually takes place in the middle of it, chronologically speaking, but there's no way to know that until later on. So at first, you just have to soak up the washed-in-blue panels of a rat sneaking in the dark and chewing on wires. Who he is, where he is, and what he's up to will be explained eventually, as all things always are in Drumhellar if you pay attention and let yourself get swept up in the ride. A lot got resolved this time, but then at the end Drum became a werewolf, so...we'll see where this all ends up. Supposedly the first arc ends next issue, but what does that even mean in a series that moves like this? The plot about DJ only came up in issue #2 or maybe even #3, and it's already been taken care of, so I'm not sure what an "arc" really is for Drumhellar. I also don't really care, because Rossmo is my hero and this is a fabulous and impossible-to-predict comicbook I love to read.

Phew...all caught up. G'night!

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