Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Monthly Dose: June 2015

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

100 Bullets #32: Kind of a slow issue, but it works because of the lovely pulpy tension Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso are infusing into this arc. Milo is such an over-the-top hard-boiled guy that it's fun to watch him work, constantly smoking, being aggressively sexual, threatening to shoot people in the genitals if they don't tell him what he wants to know. He's hilarious, practically a caricature, his internal darkness spilling all over the page even when he's getting laid. There's not a ton of new info, but the little bit we get is super valuable. Milo figures out that Lono, who caught only a glimpse of last issue, is responsible for killing Karl Reynolds. The why of it all is still a total mystery, except that it is in some way connected to a painting Karl was trying to get his hands on. So Milo's got a solid start, a lead that led to another lead that hopefully will help him put all the pieces together. Things are progressing, however slowly, and through it all he's a fantastic character to watch, especially with the bandages all over his face. It gives him a baseline look of intimidation and meanness that helps him in his work and makes him all the more entertaining. It does feel like it's about time for something to break, though, for a major reveal instead of more tiny odds and ends. After two full issues of him as the star and narrator, I have a pretty solid handle on Milo, so now it's time to really put him through the ringer and see if he makes it out. Luckily, his last line is one of intense foreboding, so next month we ought to some some shit connect with some fans. If so, it'll come at just the right time, and might help push this arc officially into my favorite so far in this book.

Automatic Kafka #8: After playing a bit of a back-up role for a few issues in a row, Kafka himself becomes central again here, which was nice. The issue is basically spit into two halves, the first centering on Kafka's new show as well as the suicide of Diesel Quake, his drug dealer/assistant. The second half deals with Kafka confronting the Warning about the latter's various shady dealings, with a splash of the Constitution's adventures in professional pornography thrown in as well. I much prefer the opening, where we see Kafka going through the motions of his continued celebrity while reading in captions the body of Diesel's suicide note. The note provides a nice bit of insight into the psychology of a character who's been two-dimensional at best up to now, and it's a nice reminder that everyone thinks they are the good guys, even the supervillains. Diesel doesn't necessarily try to take the moral high ground or present himself as a misunderstood do-gooder, but he does point out that the $tranger$ operated in less-than-righteous ways, that Kafka in particular seemed to take a weird joy in causing his enemies pain, and that he and all of his former teammates ultimately took fairly significant falls from grace, ending up with lives that reflect their biggest flaws rather than their greatest deeds. All of that is compelling to read, and Joe Casey writes it well. He also takes away Kafka's source of nanotecheroin, meaning we get to see what it looks like when a robot suffers from withdrawal. It's not all that dramatic, but it does lead Kafka to question the Warning, though as with most people who try to challenge the Warning, things don't go very far. In the end, we see Kafka approached by some kind of magical/hallucinatory/who-knows-what caterpillar that turns into a gorgeous bright butterfly and offers to save Kafka from yet another "story arc." So things get crazy meta as we prepare to head into the final issue. The butterfly is probably my favorite single visual from Ash Wood in this series so far. It stands out starkly and fits in perfectly at once, a tough trick to pull off, but Wood does it no sweat.

The Maximortal #2: While less directly tied to Superman's history than the debut issue, this is still a pretty spot-on imagining of how a superpowered child might act and influence the world. After finally killed his adoptive father, little Wesley Winston sets to work on his "farming," meaning pulling people's heads clean off their bodies and dumping them into a silo. While there's no specific reason given for why he chooses human heads as the thing to farm, it works quite well in the context of this gleefully morbid book. Rick Veitch seems to have a lot of fun in making the decapitated bodies as cartoonishly gruesome as he can. They're not excessively gory but they are effectively unnerving. As for Wesley, he's innocently and amusingly content with his labors, even proud of himself for how efficiently he's getting his farming done. Ultimately, his activities lead the citizens of Simpltown to try and attack him, blowing up his silo full of heads while Wesley is inside. The child, of course, survives the blast, and then proceeds to throw a tantrum, as children are wont to do when you ruin their games. Only Wesley's tantrums are intensely destructive and fatal. All of this death and devastation leads to the U.S. military showing up at the very end of the issue to claim Wesley as their own, a terrifying proposition than can't lead anywhere good. Meanwhile, at the beginning and in the background of this issue, we meet El Guano, a mysterious figure who seems to have some magical insight into the world. The narration refers to him as a warrior and also as a man-of-knowledge, and we see him have a startling premonition of Wesley as a full-grown superhero, cape, spandex, and all. Exactly what El Guano's role will be in the narrative is still unclear, but he does show up at the end to fight with the "angel" who we saw give birth to Wesley last time, so it's clear El Guano plays a significant part in these proceedings. Similarly, we're introduced to Sidney Wallace, a young, brash, self-important jerk with dreams of making it big in the movies. These dreams appear to be purely financially motivated, though, as Wallace tries to steal Wesley himself once he realizes the money-making potential such a powerful creature might possess. Everyone wants a piece of Wesley, is the point, from his mother to Wallace to the government to El Guano. Their interests in Wesley and approaches to dealing with him vary, but everybody's invested. What will all of this attention mean for Wesley in the long run? That's the central question, but based on what we've seen so far, there will no doubt be more terrible things in Wesley's future.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Two weeks ago, I wrapped up my three-part series on The Names over at PopMatters. This week, my newest 1987 And All That column went up on Comics Should Be Good, covering Fantastic Four #304-307. I liked those comics quite a bit, but evidently they and the rest of Englehart's run on the book don't have the best reputation, as you can see in the comments. I totally understand the criticisms, but for me, those issues touched on my favorite part of the Fantastic Four, examining the drama and dysfunction that comes with them being a family as well as a superhero team.

Something I Failed to Mention
In my Names pieces, I was focusing on the stuff I liked about that series, what it did best and why it left an impression on me. And I touched on, in at least one of the posts, the fact that the whole series centers on Katya Walker trying to find her husband's killer, and that she does not accomplish that goal by the time the book comes to a close. I don't really have a problem with that ending, because I think the entire creative team handled it quite well, but I will say that it's a bit frustrating to have nine issues worth of a mystery that never gets solved, that was never going to be solved. It's not a bad ending, but it's a drag of an ending, because the reader wants to know who murdered Kevin Walker and why just as much as Katya does. Like her, we have to learn to live with not knowing, and there's value in that to be sure. All the same, I'm still curious, and as much as I enjoyed The Names from start to finish, it's hard not to wonder if I might've enjoyed it even more had the central question been answered.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #625

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week (sort of) for 42 weeks. This is the twenty-fifth of those reviews.
Spoiler alert: Deadman does not wrap it all up.
A very weak ending to what was already a not-so-strong Green Lantern story arc. We suddenly cut to a peace talk between the two warring alien races who Hal Jordan is supposed to help out, even though, to the best of my memory, there was no mention of any peace talk before this issue. Predictably, thing devolve into violence pretty fast, so Hal powers up his ring and joins the fray, only to get his ass pretty well handed to him. As chaos ensues around him, he decides to put an end to the madness all at once by letting loose a huge blast from his ring that all but demolishes the building he and the aliens are in. He then strong-arms them into making peace, which is about as obnoxious and ineffective a tactic as I can imagine. Want proof? The story ends with the two alien races agreeing to combine their technology to build a super-advanced weapon, which they will then use to kill Green Lantern. So he united them only their hatred for him, which is a shallow victory at best. I did love Mark Bright's art, which began with a Kirby-esque, New Gods kind of feel while Hal was disguising himself (see above) and then the moment when he flies into the fight in full GL glory is maybe the best panel Bright has drawn in this title so far. It's a drag this narrative is so boring and gets wrapped so quickly, because Bright did a great job with the designs of the aliens, and he seems to just get better and better at drawing Hal with each new issue. So I would've liked to see more from him before this concluded. I'm guessing I will eventually, though, since it seems like the strategy is to always have Green Lantern be part of Action Comics Weekly, but with James Owsley and Bright only doing every other arc. I suppose I'll get a confirmation or denial of that assumption next week.
Still loving this Shazam story all over. It's fairly simple but with just enough complexity to remain compelling, like the unexpected arrival this time of the real Duane McCullers who shows up to out Billy Batson as an impostor. This ends with Billy bound and gagged in a burning gas station, a solid cliffhanger but, again, a straightforward one. And that's true of every detail here. Captain Nazi could not be a more easily understandable villain; it's all right there in his name. But it's precisely because he is played so straight that he works as a bad guy. He's scarier because of his simplicity and single-mindedness, basically just a walking, talking tool for the rest of the baddies to use. If he had a detailed backstory and a full mind of his own, who knows where the story might lead, but when he's just a weapon in the shape of a man, it's easy to imagine the damage he'll cause. I will say that I didn't love the exposition dump that happens in the middle of everything, where one of the white supremacist group's leaders reveals to Billy (as Duane) all the organization's secret plans, past and future. It was a little hard to believe they'd tell all that to one of their kids, especially the one whose father died because of the lies they told, but it was important info for the reader to have and I'm not sure where else it could've been included. At any rate, that wasn't enough to ruin all the good material that surrounded it. There's nothing brain-melting about what's going on in this Shazam tale, on either a story or art level, but it is all very clear, fun, classic superhero fare that I can really sink my teeth into. It's just hitting all the right notes from my perspective, and I look forward to seeing how it ends next week.
This Secret Six section was middle-of-the-line, but that's still better than a lot of what you get from this series. The Secret Six are probably the most reliably good of all the characters featured in the comic, but they rarely ever wow me, either. It's just solid, enjoyable, good-looking espionage action and suspense, and I appreciate that tremendously. This week, there are a lot of moving pieces as the Secret Six and their enemies both prepare to engage with one another. It all feels like it's building to something pretty explosive, and I'm eager to see that, but I'm also enjoying the slow burn as we get there. Martin Pasko does a good job of reminding us of the previously established facts and introducing new ones at the same time and in a very natural way, so that every line of dialogue is believable even if it's just recapping old info. He also juggles the large cast skillfully, as do artists Frank Springer and Frank McLaughlin. Everybody has something to do this week, and they all look good doing it, and even with all the location changes and the numerous characters involved, it's all easy to follow. Again, there's nothing here that's truly amazing, but it's all better than average for Action Comics Weekly, and that fact is kind of amazing in its own right. I always enjoy the Secret Six, and this is no exception.
Sometimes this Superman story gets too mundane, too hung up on showing us every tiny bit of narrative progress. This is definitely one of those times, with Superman and Bob Galt still traveling, having left point A last time and not even making it to point B this time. They do land their plane and rent a car for the rest of their journey, and that is significant because the car rental company employees are members of the villains' group so they plant a tracking device on the vehicle Supes and Galt rent, meaning all of this is still clearly leading to some kind of significant confrontation between Superman and the baddies. But for an entire chapter to just be that they rent a car from their enemies seems weak at best, and pointlessly wasteful at worst. Also, it is so much like last week's chapter, where we saw them get onto a plane and take off while one of the bad guy henchman reported it back to base. The last two weeks worth of Superman have had their final panels be a low-level villain calling into the higher-ups to give them an update on Superman and Galt's location, and I can't help but feel like all of this could've been condensed into one two-page section rather than two. But hey, at least things are moving forward and not just standing still, meaning that, as exceedingly dull and uneventful as this was, we are technically that much closer to seeing something truly exciting happen when Superman and the villains finally collide.
At long last, Kelley Jones gets to actually draw a whole lot of Deadman is his natural form, and boy was it (just barely) worth the wait. Jones nails it, stretching out Deadman's body so it is eerily long and gaunt, and there's a nice fluidity to his movements that really captures the undead spirit walking through the living world aspect of it all. Plus there are a few panels where Deadman is legitimately terrifying, which fits in with this horror narrative perfectly. I still find it difficult to give one single damn about what's actually happening in this story, although I did enjoy watching two zombies get snippy and violent with each other over their egos. I always prefer a zombie with a personality over the mindless, shambling monsters you usually see, so that got a smile out of me. But the Brogden twins and their slow-moving plan to take over New Orleans with an undead army are extra super boring, especially since the twins themselves don't seem all that invested in it. They're just, like, having fun being semi-annoying ghosts inhabiting the bodies of two young sisters, and the rest of their scheme seems secondary to the fun they're having being alive again. Still, if Kelley Jones is going to draw Deadman like this, the rest of what happens barely matters. I would read eight pages of Deadman learning how to dance if he looked this amazing. That might actually be better than what's on the page. With the Brogden's moving into new host bodies at the end, and nobody else around for Deadman to possess, I am really crossing my fingers that he spends the entire next chapter in his true form, looking awesome in Jones' hands and, with any luck, being a badass horror hero to boot. Even without caring about the plot, I am excited to see more Deadman in this book for the first time in a long time, all thanks to Jones' fucking perfect depiction.
While I still have almost no sense of what the Black Canary narrative is about, I could at least follow each individual scene this time around, and it all looked fantastic. Randy DuBurke has been a great fit for this character and her world all along, but he added a dash of a certain dreamlike quality to his visuals this time that really struck a chord for me. It added a lot of atmosphere, be it the quiet calm of Black Canary resting after falling through a wooden floor, or the creeping dread as the reader realizes that the unnamed woman in the hotel bar is going to murder the unnamed man from the same bar she's been flirting with the whole time. We still don't understand the reasons for this killing, or how it relates to the guy sitting alone getting drunk and reading a letter composed of cut up magazines that promises he will soon be dead. Nor do we know how any of this ties into Black Canary. But unlike the character's first arc in this title, or even the first chapter of this arc from last issue, here I find I don't mind the mystery and, in fact, that it adds to my enjoyment. I think, again, this is mostly do to DuBurke's drawing. He makes everything so beautiful, detailed, and moody that I can get pulled into each moment even without seeing how they're tied together. We'll need answers and context eventually, of course, but for now it's more than enough to simply steep in these dark, heavy, isolated moments and let them be just what they are and no more.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Superman/"Out of the Frying Pan..."
5. Green Lantern/"The Law"
4. Secret Six/"For Whom the Toll Builds"
3. Deadman/"Tickle, Tickle"
2. Black Canary/"Knock 'em Dead Part 2"
1. Shazam/Untitled

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #624

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week (sort of) for 42 weeks. This is the twenty-fourth of those reviews.
And we're back! Took me a little while to get myself resettled after we returned from Florida, but hopefully now I can do this on a regular weekly basis again, at least for a while.
I read this comic last night, and when I looked at the above title page for this Green Lantern story just now, it took me a second to even remember any of what happened. Mostly, Priest lies to Hal Jordan in an attempt to prove a point about Hal not needing a power battery to charge his ring, but Hal, in his childish, stubborn anger, refuses to learn the lesson. It makes them both seem like jerks, with the most sympathetic characters this issue being the "dreadnaughts," the forces against whom Priest is fighting and whom Hal is training to fight as well. They try to stop Hal from messing with their property, something he only does because of Priest's manipulations, and then he blasts them about with his ring anyway. It does seem like Hal himself is starting to wonder about the morality and honesty of his new ally/coach/captor (Priest), but he doesn't do very much about it yet, so most of this story has them both behaving frustratingly. At least Mark Bright's pencils are extra sharp, with Hal looking particularly strong and bold and consistent, as well as subtly expressive in a few key moments. The page where Hal thinks he's lost his power and is on the brink of suffocating in space is very nicely laid out, Bright including a total of 15 panels (though two of them are all-black and extra skinny) to really hammer out each beat of Hal's struggle.
I am loving this Shazam story, and more specifically Billy Batson's personal brand of heroism. He really goes for it, he uses the full range of his skills as both Billy and Shazam, and he's super wry and funny and sharply observant about the whole thing. Roy and Dann Thomas have made me a huge fan in only two chapters. This week, Batson infiltrates the Aryan Acres camp, pretending to be Duane McCullers, the son of the guy Shazam accidentally killed last time. We get to see how intense this racist organization really is, and just when it seems like they couldn't be any more despicable or brainwashy, at the end we get our first glimpse of Captain Nazi, their homegrown supervillain. I could not be more excited to see Captain Nazi and Shazam go toe-to-toe, because it's bound to be a pretty gloves-off kind of fight, both men truly, deeply hating what the other stands for. I don't know what else to say, really...I'm totally hooked, I can't wait to see what happens next, and I love this protagonist. For a character I've always fairly actively ignored in the past, Shazam is turning out to be exceptionally entertaining in this comic.
This installment of the Secret Six is all built around its final reveal, so there's not a ton of forward progress, but what's here is handled very well. We see Tony reject Shelley's advances for all the right reasons, and then he tells her the story of how he became deaf. As a reporter, he was investigating possible corruption within a Pennsylvania coal miners' union, and he went into one of the mines along with photographer Tom Pearson. Tony says that he and Pearson had "certain tensions" that distracted him, so when they came across a live explosive device, Tony missed it. Tom saw it just in time to push Tony out of the way and save his life, but not his hearing. As for Tom, he died, sacrificing himself to keep Tony alive. That's a rough enough story to hear when Tony tells it, but then at the end, Tony stops by a graveyard to leave flowers on Tom's grave, and the groundskeeper tells a passerby that he comes and does so every month because Tom was his lover. It's a nice little surprise at the end, because the assumption earlier (or at least the one I made) was that Tom and Tony didn't get along, and that this was the source of their tension. To have them be a couple makes their tale all the more tragic, and that detail is delivered in a smart and heartbreaking way. This is the most I've cared personally for a member of the Secret Six so far, and I'd like to see more of their backgrounds down the line if there's room for it.
Because we only get two pages at a time, these Superman section are occasionally boring in the name of getting from point A to point B. This is one of those times, where all that happens is Clark Kent and Bob Galt get on a plane together, and the still-mysterious bad guys see them do it. It's not all that exciting, we don't get any new information about what's happening, and Superman never appears as himself, just as Clark. (Ok, we do get a glimpse of the S-symbol as Clark gets dressed, but I'm not counting that for what I think are obvious reasons). Honestly, my favorite part of this was that in one panel, Clark and Bob pass by a Fresh Juice stand in the airport that seems like a random background detail, but then in the last panel it is the Fresh Juice vendor who is reporting their flight back to the villains, so it turns out he was an enemy agent all along. It's subtle and funny, and I kind of hope it comes back later, though I doubt if it will. Anyway, even when they're dull, these Superman installments are pretty solid, Stern and Swan both very comfortable and on point when working with this character. It's unremarkable, but not at all bad.
A confusing and mostly pointless Deadman chapter, fitting in perfectly with the general aimlessness of this narrative and my subsequent lack of interest. Suddenly, after several issues of zombies, this time the problem is ghosts, but weird ghosts that don't make sense, or do anything, or matter to the larger plot. I feel like Mike Baron is writing this stream-of-consciousness style, just throwing out whatever idea tickles his fancy from moment to moment without worrying about everything having a purpose. The main point here seems to be that Madame Waxahachie figures out how to convince the Brogden Twins' dad that he's dead, but that doesn't do anything to the Twins' power or plans as far as I can tell, nor does it held Deadman and Waxahachie in any obvious way, so who cares? Why include it? That's where I stand on most of the Deadman material this week. It all smacks of randomness and meaninglessness and it pretty much amounts to nothing. At the end, we're back to an army of zombies, so all this ghost stuff is a total waste, filler thrown in inexplicably and frustratingly.
Black Canary is back and as hard to follow as ever. Just like last time, Sharon Wright does this thing where she shows us glimpses of characters we don't know doing things we don't understand, yet still tries to give those moments weight. Maybe there will be more payoff this time around; it's only the first chapter so it's too soon to tell. But I'm admittedly nervous based on how baffling the initial Action Comics Weekly Black Canary narrative ended up being. Plus this opening chapter doesn't even try to explain itself. No matter how much I want to, I could not possible tell you what this story is about yet. The only thing that happened that I fully understood was that at the very end, Black Canary is in some big empty building to do some practice/training, and she accidentally falls through a wooden floor. That's alright as far as cliffhangers go, because our hero is suddenly in unexpected danger, but it's not as good a hook as, say, a proper introduction to an interesting plot would've been. It's not that I hated this, it's that it made me feel nothing, not even boredom. It was basically just a collection of ok-looking comic pages that didn't even connect to each other in any obvious way, a few of which featured a character I like getting herself into trouble, and the rest of which I can't judge yet because I just haven't seen enough. Hopefully some insight will be offered next issue.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Deadman/"Wildwood"
5. Black Canary/"Knock 'em Dead Part 1"
4. Green Lantern/"Faith!"
3. Superman/"Pin the Tail..."
2. Secret Six/"The Sound of a Silent Heart"
1. Shazam/"Chapter 2"

Sunday, June 7, 2015


This past Thursday my latest 1987 And All That column came out, looking at Wild Dog. I just keep writing about that character even though he drives me crazy. I am thinking I may do one final, glorious reread of everything Wild Dog-related, once I am done reviewing all of Action Comics Weekly, and put up one last thing about it somewhere. Anyway, I have also had two out of three planned pieces on The Names published over on PopMatters, one looking at the various tribes that form throughout the series, and another focusing on the artwork. I expect the final installment of that group of posts to be up in the next week or two.

Something I Failed to Mention
I've mentioned on this blog before about how I sometimes get extra wrapped up in D&D and it makes me neglect my comics, and vice versa. Right now is a big-time D&D period for me, which is part of why the blog has been so slow to update lately, and also why I'm going to continue to fail to produce new material for it right now, by not putting anything other than this explanation here. I'm in the middle of working hard on some D&D stuff and writing this post was basically just a quick break from that, but it's been long enough that I am itching to get back to it (meaning all of 10 minutes), so that's all for now.