Monday, March 14, 2016

Best comics in 2015

The last year I spent largely away from the blog and the wider blogosphere, mostly concentrated on reading the actual comics and news sites. In an effort to maintain the blog, I've returned with a review and this yearly survey. Hopefully, the site will continue with more regular updates.

Best Event Series

In a feat that surprised all but the biggest fans of Marvel and Jonathan Hickman, the company's 2015 line wide event has managed to live up to the hype. "Secret Wars" supplanted most of the company's titles for the duration of the summer and has in turn managed to produce some fairly interesting books. More importantly, the main series has provided a very strong spine to the entire event. Serving as a coda to the writer's runs on both "Fantastic Four" and "the Avengers", the event series has maintained a strong level of craft throughout. With the exception of the first issue that should have been relegated to a prologue special, both Hickman and Ribić have provided what may well be the best superhero work of their careers. "Secret Wars" will likely remain an event to be remembered far longer than Marvel's typical summer offering and certainly longer than the company wide relaunch that succeeded it.

Best Storyline

It's hard to set aside a single storyline in an industry that is slowly orienting toward complete runs as definite artistic statements on company owned characters. In terms of storylines definitely marketed as something new and largely separate from the preceding issues, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's latest Batman arc comes to mind. "Superheavy" features a complete overhaul of the Batman mythos in an as of yet unprecedented move that has seen commissioner Gordon become a mecha Batman following Bruce Wayne's apparent death in the previous arc.

The ludicrous premise strayed far from the typical Batman storyline, being on the surface more akin to "Robocop" than the Bob Kane/Bill Finger co-creation. Inheriting more than just the Powers corporation from the cyberpunk "Batman Beyond" animated series, "Superheavy" has seen Gordon trying to rise up to the pressure of being a police sanctioned Batman in the city that faces new and terrible threats. That the new crime boss specifically targets Gordon and starts becoming a uniquely weird new creation only adds to the uniqueness of the setup. Also of note is the subplot involving a version of Bruce Wayne which has been increasingly relevant as the story inches towards the inevitable ending.

The end of "Superheavy" is also billed as the finale of Snyder and Cappulo's run on "Batman". Whether the two reunite on "Detective comics" following Capullo's collaboration with Mark Millar, "Superheavy" will likely remain a definite highpoint of their run of the title, following the "Court of owls" arc which stands as their best realized traditional Batman story.

Best Ongoing Title

In a market dominated by a large number of solid ongoing series, 2015 was a year preceding the full scope of the relaunches at both Marvel and DC, with the competing companies likewise more concentrated on branching out with new titles than maintaining the solid pace of existing books. Yet, there are still titles like "the Humans" which has started out with a very clear idea that has logically progressed in the most interesting direction.

Written by Keenan Marshall Keller and drawn by Tom Neely, best known for "Henry and Glenn Forever", "the Humans" is a comic that finds its creators eager to enjoy the atmosphere of true freedom filled with a dangerous mix of sex and death.

Presenting the reader with a motorcycle gang of anthropomorphized apes in a full on late 60-ies period piece certainly seems fresh and entertaining. The counter culture bent is never as realized as in "Easy rider", the controversy is never as pointed as authentic undergrounds, yet this Image entry really believes in its version of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll ape gangs warring with each other.

In a field riddled with high concepts trying their best to capture the attention of readers jaded by a deluge of all kinds of genre fiction, a book with a simple premise and believable characters who manage to be both silly and dangerous feels like a breath of fresh air and certainly ranks with the most solid titles every time it comes out. Hopefully, the creators will find it in their interest to continue working on a series that has yet to find its audience.

Best Mini-Series

When Ed Brubaker and his longtime creative partner Sean Philips were winding down their post-modern noir "Fatale" series, Image issued an announcement heralding their next project. The writer and artist were to be reunited in "the Fade out", a more traditional noir story set in the seedy post-war Hollywood scene.

Featuring a hard drinking writer harboring a secret involving a blacklisted colleague, the series started with the murder of an actress and grew to become a cynical look at the studio system. "The Fade out" draws most of its energy from its protagonist's status as an amateur detective driven to find redemption by solving the mystery.

Foregoing the over the top genre tropes associated with this kind of a detective story, the book maintains an air of style and intelligence, while never letting up the pace. A stellar effort in the duo's distinguished latter day collaborations, "the Fade out" is a triumph of first person narration and well realized modernist comic book storytelling.

Best Single Issue

It's safe to say that "Airboy" was certainly not a book that many fans expected to read once they heard of James Robinson's involvement. A longtime comic scribe best remembered for his "Starman" run, he has since been associated with a string of books that failed to equal the acclaim garnered by his most famous series.

Image marketed "Airboy" as a surreal comedy in the vein of "Fear and loathing in Las Vegas". Once "Airboy"#1 finally debuted, it immediately put a stop to any claim about false advertising.

In many ways, the series was a spiritual successor to "Auteur", in that it involved a frantic look into the creative process. Robinson and Hinkle's story went one step further, by presenting their work as autobiography, as it in some way featured a warped look at the writer's "lost weekend". Greg Hinkle, a relative newcomer to the field had provided a tour de force artistic presentation aimed at maximizing the comedic impact in a way that was both fresh and stylish.

And while the subsequent issues drew ire from the controversy surrounding transsexual representation, their one major flaw was the failure to continue the superb form witnessed in the debut. Seeing the fictionalized versions of Robinson and Hinkle trying to revive the Golden Age hero but getting sidetracked in a self-loathing drug bender ending with a delightful cliffhanger remains a as good a #1 as James Robinson has had in many years. With "Airboy", the venerable writer has earned a new set of eyes regarding his next creative endeavor, while providing the newcomer Hinkle with a high profile debut for his impressive artistic skill.

Best Graphic Novel

Working on the heels of "An age of license", Lucy Knisley has returned with an even more focused travelogue. This time, her efforts go to depict an ocean cruise she took with her elderly grandparents. Dispensing with the diary aesthetic that characterized her previous effort, "Displacement" is divided in chapters summarizing each day on the cruise ship, filled with equal times drama and comedy.

The graphic novel is a challenging read as its real world inspiration leads to a neurotic dash across the details that make for a very memorable vacation. Eventually, the well cartooned pages of "Displacement" build up to a very strong ending that stays with the reader.

The book's greatest quality is that it goes beyond the particulars of the writer/artist's relationship with her grandparents and becomes an artistic look at the process of aging, and the love tying the generations together.

Best Writer

Working in the capacity of a co-writer on "Grayson", Tom King has enjoyed high acclaim which he has aspired to build upon by lending his talents on books at both DC and Marvel. And while "Omega Men" has met with lukewarm sales despite the creative acclaim it accumulated, "the Vision" has grown to symbolize the company's current benchmark for quality storytelling.

The key to King's success lies in his ability to execute ambitious and fresh takes on some of the companies' most well worn characters. Recasting the original Robin as the superspy with conscience has finally enabled the character to grow from his role of the well adjusted junior Batman. The character's stealth takeover of the Batman line as symbolized by his central role in the "Batman and Robin Eternal" weekly series cements the popularity of King's makeover.

On the other hand, "Vision" serves as a finite story with a narration that is both grim and playful. Coupled with Gabriel Hernandez Walta, the writer has set out to tell a morbidly curious tale about the drastic fallout of the robot superhero's decision to start a family. As stylish as it's pretentious, the title has set out to complete its story without the crossover interruptions that have took so much away from the artist's previous run on "Magneto".

It remains to be seen how the industry's focus on King will impact on his work, but judging by the acclaim his first entries in the market have garnered him, the former CIA operative can look forward to a very successful second career as comic book writer.

Best Artist

Oliver Schrauwen was brought forward from relative obscurity thanks to his late 2014 graphic novel debut. Ostensibly adapting his grandfather's colonial adventures, the writer/artist uses the canvas of a lengthy biography as a showcase for his command of comics as a visual language. Working in faux-travelogue mode, "Arsene Schrauwen" allows the author complete control of the narrative, revealing him as a master of the form.

A formalist masterpiece posing as a narrative, Schrauwen's graphic novel delights in challenging and infuriating the readers. Ostensibly a love story and a jungle survival pulp, "Arsene Schrauwen" is delightfully sincere in staying true to itself and its author.

The fact that the writer/artist has decided to stay in comics despite the meager financial rewards associated with experimental books, and has gone on to publish a new comic in 2015 speaks to the fact that he truly enjoys working in the medium.

Project Superpowers: Blackcross #1-6

Long hailed as a genre innovator, Warren Ellis has recently been chosen to spearhead another superhero universe relaunch, this time concerning Dynamite's "Project Superpowers". The Golden Age characters, long since in public domain, have already enjoyed a revival, having been chosen by Diamond for a more conventional return in the previous decade. "Blackcross" comes on the heels of the writer's rejiggering of the "Supreme" mythos and in many ways acts as a companion piece to this earlier effort.

Finding a way to recast an odd assortment of characters in a setting that is decidedly not a major metropolitan city once again leads to a small-town mystery concerning ordinary citizens coming into contact with existing superhero lore. Their subsequent transformation is threatened by a serial killer trying to dispose of the group before they form a rag tag superhero unit.

Tasked with bringing Ellis' scripts to life is Colton Worley, a Dynamite mainstay that has yet to make a name for himself in the broader superhero industry. The relative novice has been fitted with the unenviable task of redesigning the characters placed in a gloomy forest setting, as well as animating a decompressed script that asks a lot of its artist.

Foregoing the captions, Ellis has crafted a fast paced story with frequent wordless action scenes followed by long conversations featuring the bedazzled characters trying to come to grips with a mystery involving a parallel universe and a hidden superhero community. Coupled with colorist Morgan Hickman's earthy crayon colors, the artist mostly succeeds in arriving at a view of Blackcross as a dark and hostile place, brimming with secrets and deep seated aggression. His work is raw and powerful, presenting an atmospheric tone that sometimes comes at the cost of clarity. 

The art certainly fits the story, whose ever expanding cast could have threatened to overwhelm the plot. Ellis wisely presupposes that the reader is unaware about much of anything regarding these old superheroes, past maybe the nicknames and assorted visuals. Instead, he focuses on bringing their weird characteristics to the fore, crafting a horror story more in the vein of Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" than "The Avengers". 

The mystery regarding the transference of superhero personas past the boundaries of space and time is quickly subsumed within the conflict involving the superhero serial killer. In this way, the startled characters are dragged, snarking and bickering, into the fight with the antagonist before really getting to known each other. Their impromptu team-up presents a desperate skirmish where the cast gets to demonstrate the powers hinted at throughout the story.

The focus stays stays firm throughout, with Black Terror and Lady Satana providing a strong core for the series. It's hard to say that the other characters leave much of an impression, having largely been represented by their special abilities. Even then, they are designed realistically with only the barest hint of their original costumes.

If the company chooses to use the mini-series as a new start of their Project Superpowers universe, the hypothetical individual titles will still be tasked with having to provide character development and major world-building. Taken on its own, "Blackcross" is a professional work that tries to provide a compelling origin story for the disparate Golden Age superheroes that have yet to endure a complete overhaul which would enable them to be presentable for a potential TV series adaptation.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Batgirl #35-40 "The Batgirl of Burnside"

Last month saw the completion of the first storyarc of the "Batgirl" revamp, which has since been lauded as both a commercial and critical success. The revamp has attracted significant attention from the debut of the character's costume redesign and was eagerly anticipated by an audience looking for something new in DC's output. The publisher has repeatedly faced criticism for failing to bring enough innovation in its line wide 2011 makeover. When contacted to follow up Gail Simone's "Batgirl" run, the new creative team was finally given a chance to do just that, create a modern superhero title that tried to reach out to current urban audience, consisting mainly of younger people.

By specifically targeting teenage girls, the publisher has seemingly given an unprecedented amount of freedom to artist Cameron Stewart and writer Branden Fletcher. And while Stewart's other commitments relegated him to a role of breakdown penciller and co-writer, they also allowed Babs Tarr to add her own touch on the pencils. The colorist Maris Wick's completes the creative team that has cemented the image of Batgirl for a new generation of fans.

The first issue starts slowly, asking the reader to trust the creative team as it exposes them to a new cast of characters and a change in the setting. Batgirl has moved to Burnside, a Gotham suburbia that for all intents and purposes functions as an extension to a college campus. Thus, most of the characters that populate the book tend to be young, trendy people, obsessing over self image and social media. This perfectly compliments the creative team's vision of Barbara Gordon as an overachieving post graduate that is trying to find a new place in the world for herself and her crime-fighting alter ego.

The creative team's debut calls back to the character's superhero past but in a way that provides a clear break from who she was. The in-story explanation goes on to add her longtime ally Black Canary to the supporting cast and introduces the conflict between the two that they try to resolve over these six issues. It naturally deals with the changes Barbara has been going through and the new ways she uses to battle the fashion conscious, off the moment threats that begin plaguing the lives of herself and her new circle of friends.

These pages show that everyone in Burnside is taken with the Internet culture and are thus easily manipulated by dating websites, tech savvy multimedia artists and reality TV stars, which are certainly a far cry from the serial killers and Batman rogues that the character has been dealing with in the past. Nevertheless, the creative team is careful to maintain a through-line between the episodic stories, dealing with a genuine threat behind the seemingly unconnected attacks at Burnside. It strikes right at the heart of Batgirl and once again calls into question her new way of life.

Every chapter of the wider story is similarly paced, starting dense with a wide variety of characters all feeding into the eventual conflict that resolves in well staged fights and ending on a cliffhanger that maintains the reader's interest in this new creative direction. There is a variety of well dressed, wispy new characters, but Stewart and Fletcher wisely choose to spotlight the few key people in Barbara's life, while purposefully leaving out return appearances from her father and Batman.

Both are repeatedly referenced, but it seems that the creative team has deemed their presence as something that would only distract from the story they were telling. It was imperative to make sure that the new tone of the book had more to do with "Scott Pilgrim" than Scott Snyder's "Batman" and in this respect, the book completely succeeds. Yet, the Bryan Lee O'Malley's young adult sensation already feels outdated when compared to the lifestyle trends depicted on these pages.

There's no doubt that "Batgirl"'s modern hipsters will feel dated in a decade or two, but as of now, they are presented in such a way that the new, and more importantly, teen audience can sympathize with them. Thereby, it makes sense that the larger threat uniting the individual enemies would come from the character's past. The creative team themselves seem to be confronting their own vision of Batgirl with the conservative past of the well trod Batman spin-off story model.

On one side, there is Black Canary questioning Barbara's every move and criticizing her media friendly new role as the Burnside's protector. Dinah is presented as a slightly older version of the female superhero that nevertheless ultimately embraces a new role for herself. What's preventing Batgirl from doing the same is Burnside itself, which continually reshapes to fit the latest social trends, the locale's relationship to its new suburban protector as fickle as the latest Internet sensation and easily manipulated by the unseen mastermind.

That the protagonist nevertheless manages to triumph and in every way that counts leaves her past behind is inspiring in all the right ways. Despite the hardships, Barbara Gordon still manages to establish new friendships, starts her academic career and finds herself entering a romantic relationship. None of these start off perfectly for the slim, long-haired heroine, and at one point near the end she seems like she will break from the outside pressure, but with the help of her friends, she find a new strength in herself to overcome the adversities and continues on with her life, stronger for the experience.

It's strange that such a female positive, life affirming story with a diverse cast was at one point painted as ignorant to the issues dealing with the transgender experience. The creative team had clearly contrasted the problematic depiction of a villain with a positive image of a well adapted cast member carried over from Simone's run, but it was apparently deemed too subtle by some of the more sensitive audience members.

Despite the controversy, the revamp can be deemed a success in every aspect, and has already lead to the establishment of the Black Canary spinoff. In fact, it will debut as part of the company's line wide makeover, inspired chiefly by "Batgirl"'s success. It has been announced that the series will continue with Babs Tarr providing full art, sans Cameron Stewart's breakdowns and there is every reason to think that it will grow even stronger. Now that the title has successfully established itself as an entity distinct from its dark roots, and has in fact crafted the narrative around the protagonist embracing her newfound freedom, the creative team should be set to likewise continue forward with their storyline. Their audience will only grow as books like "Batgirl" and "Ms Marvel" stop being exceptions and the industry starts providing entertainment for fans of all backgrounds, having finally found a way to market beyond their existing demographic.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Best of comics in 2014

Due to some other commitments, I have been unable to properly focus on the blog for the past two years. Hence the lack of posting, which also lead to me skipping this feature last year. I have tried to keep up with the reading which shapes the following, using the categories for my previous list.

Best Event Series

With both Secret Wars and Converge looming over their respective superhero universes, their 2014 event series already feel distant and fading into insignificance. This is particularly true when it comes to Marvel, who have managed to produce back to back two large event stories, the latter of which has by all means under-performed. Yet, despite its many faults, "Original Sin" felt like the better structured of the two.

Billed as a murder mystery pairing unlikely groups of heroes investigating the death of the Watcher, the series quickly dissolved into a prolonged treatise meant to excise Nick Fury from the Marvel universe in spite of his movie-like namesake. Jason Aaron has nevertheless found a way to make it reasonably entertaining, along with setting up a series of interesting tie-in stories in the company's superhero titles, based around a theme of secrets uncovered.

Mike Deodato Jr., on the other hand, used the series as a platform to experiment with interesting layouts, all while providing a solid foundation for the events taking place. Whether it was dealing with a large cast of Marvel's heroes or obscure Grant Morrison creations, the penciller never wavered and has produced a body of work that has brought him back to favor with readers who have since dismissed him as a solid house style professional. The company has seen its share of better executed events, but there have also been so many lackluster ones that a solid, if not unspectacular series certainly deserves to be praised.

Best Weekly Series

DC's increased focus on weekly series has made it logical to spotlight one of the company's efforts in that vein. Compared to "New 52: Future's End" and "Earth 2: World's End", "Batman Eternal" seemed the most logical choice. Spotlighting a rich corner of DC's line and exploiting it to the fullest makes the weekly stand out from its continuity heavy contenders.

Choosing just the right mysteries to spotlight and utilizing the Bat-Family to its fullest, the creative team has managed to maintain suspension for the entirety of the series. And while utilizing dozens of pencillers was always going to make for some jarring issues, the editorial has maintained a strong grip on the story department, effectively transforming the weekly to a main Batman title.

While the core "Batman" series has spent much of the year detailing the hero's new origin, "Batman Eternal" has used the central mystery of a multipronged attack on Gotham and Batman himself to introduce new characters into this corner of the DC universe, setting up the remainder of the line for the future. It remains to be seen if the editorial will be able to make the follow-up as exciting as this major entry in their line.

Best Storyline

Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples' "Saga" has spent most of 2014 trying to live up to the challenge set up by bringing the series into its second larger chapter. Following the conclusion of the introductory storyline contained in the first 18 issues (since collected in the hardcover), the creators have advanced the timeline to start again with a much slower paced affair.

The fourth volume of Saga mainly concerned itself with the growing strife between Marko and Alana as the relative calm has threatened to bring the new parents apart by introducing large challenges to their marriage. The added focus on the protagonists has meant the lack of space for many of the book's interesting supporting characters, at least until Dengo of the Robot Kingdom arrives to spin the series in a new orbit.

Fiona Staples' art remains the center that holds the colorful elements together, as her character designs and strong characterization continue to define "Saga". The creative team's decision to interrupt the publication between storylines to give the artist time to complete the digital artwork on her own schedule has prevented the title from digressions and one-offs and has since become a model that many of Images' series have tried to emulate.

Best Ongoing Title

Matt ("Hawkeye") Fraction and Chip ("Howard the Duck") Zdarsky's "Sex Criminals" has debuted in late 2013 and has since produced two storylines worth of character based comics, concerned with the topics of relationships and sexuality. Both Suzie and John are made into compelling multifaceted characters by the creative team that has managed to find a way to keep a test heavy comic well paced and informative.

Keeping the focus on indie flavored storytelling and away from the high concept premise of sexual superpowers, Fraction and Zdarsky have built an online community around the series, which speaks to the honesty of their work. Despite Zdarsky using models for his characters, the series seems vibrant and playful and open to explore such difficult questions as depression and anxiety, all the while portraying the couple as adults in a real relationship.

It remains to be seen if the genre trappings and the growing mythology will take the series away from its strengths, but as of now, it presents a completely accessible comic book title ready to be embraced by a wide audience.

Best Mini-Series

"Auteuer" was a high energy postmodern romp that presented a surreal look into a Holywood producer's nervous breakdown. Rick ("Black Metal") Spears writes a delightfully offensive series of events designed to keep the reader interested in the protagonist as he tries his best to restore his reputation and produce a horror movie in line with his aspirations. James Callahan produces highly original psychedelic artwork filled to the brim with homages and excellent cartooning.

What starts out as a gonzo comedy ends up turning into an over the top love story, with the promise of more to come. Judging by the quality of this debut mini-series, Spears and Callahan are welcome to continue to work with Oni press on any and all follow ups.

Best Webcomic

2014 was a year that Simon Hanselmann's "Megg, Mogg and the Owl" strip has found a home on the Vice website. The stoner comedy has been brought to a wider attention with last year's Fantagraphics edition of "Megahex" and for most of the fans, the weekly installments have been a way to continue following the characters.

The webstrip started with sketches and one offs before embarking on a longer narrative, involving the witch Megg and her cat Mogg flying off to Amsterdam. Following an encounter with the insatiable Werewolf Jones, their roommate the Owl follows suite and joins them in Netherlands. So far, this is not Hanselmann's best work, but the strips are uniformly well paced and diverting, allowing the reader to stay with the writer/artist as he prepares to work on "Megg's coven", the long form follow up to "Megahex".

Best Single Issue

2014 was also the year that finally debuted Grant Morrison's long awaited "Multiversity" project, consisting of a series of specials illustrated by different artists and bookended by oneshots featuring the current threat to the multiverse. And while a strange sense of nostalgia has found its way through most of the project, the "Pax Americana" special has remained a definite highlight.

Announced almost as soon as the end of "Final Crisis", the project has promised a Morrison/Quitely collaboration. The creative team bring the best out of each other, as evidenced repeatably through projects like "New X-Men" and "All-Star Superman" and their decision to produce a tribute to landmark "Watchmen" seemed like an interesting goal to aspire to.

Grant Morrison has maintained a controversial relationship with Alan Moore, the writer who has inspired his earlier works. It's interesting then to note that his take on Moore and Gibbons' classic is a success by all merits. In "Pax Americana", the creators produce a very ambitious work that boils down "Watchmen" and updates them to comment upon the new political realities and superhero stylings. Quitely patiently brings to life complicated layouts and character designs echoing both "Watchmen" and the Charlton superheroes that inspire them, making for what is without doubt the genre highpoint in 2014, a dense story that merits rereading and serious consideration.

Best Graphic Novel

For the five years, Farel ("Omega the Unknown") Dalrymple has been working on a strange story involving gangs of kid superheroes facing an apocalyptic dystopia. With a highly personal style, the writer/artist turns his first mainstream success into a teenage version of "Invisibles".

The story is told in several different time zones, featuring a large cast of characters and utilizing both science and magic to make sense of the many twists and turns. Yet, where Grant Morrison stepped away from giving concrete answers, Dalrymple is adamant to provide the readers with everything they need to understand the strange journey his characters take.

It would be easy to dismiss the book as well designed and masterfully rendered genre exercise, but the writer/artist injects so much of his own hopes and fears, that "The Wrenchies" becomes a truly singular experience. It's easy to spot a number of flaws inside such a sprawling story, but none of them keep it from being less than a sum of its parts. The graphic novel deserves all the accolades it is getting and hopefully it will find a way to a large audience prepared to fall under its spell.

Best Writer

2014 was also a year where Charles Soule begun working in earnest for Marvel. The prolific scribe has written the "Death of Wolverine" event for the company and has continued to be involved with its followup weekly series, but it was his work on "She-Hulk" that did the most to endear him to fans.

As a practicing lawyer, Soule 's job was to marry his own legal experience with a take on She-Hulk most recently seen in Dan Slott's run. Debuting as one of the books inspired by the success of "Hawkeye", "She-Hulk" paired Soule with Javier Pullido who has even worked as a replacement artist on the Fraction and Aja's quirky hit.

And while the creative team never managed to secure similar attention, they nevertheless produced a strong book. Compared to Soule's work on "Inhuman", She-Hulk never had the same editorial attention but it also provided for a much more authentic reading experience.

For those who have kept up with the book, it was apparent that the creative team had a high command of the form and approached it as a true labor of love. Pullido was adept in bringing the most out of the wordy dialogues and brought a definite retro flavor to the proceedings. The readers can only hope that Marvel will be able to re-team the two, or at least to try to pair him with another artists with such fluid layouts and a strong sense of character design, which bring out the best in his scripts.

Best Artist

A longtime webcomic author, Emily Carrol has collected some of her previous work, which was paired with new stories and published last year as "Through the woods". Working in Edgar Allan Poe, the writer/artist presents her dark fairy tales with minimal dialogue, perfectly integrating the prose captions into artwork that is fully realized in blacks, blues, browns and reds.

And while all of the stories present capable examples of strong storytelling, "A Lady's hands are cold" stands out as particularly effective. The reworking of the tale of Bluebeard is a very strong piece of comics, working assuredly to its grisly end by utilizing a series of techniques that could easily have confounded a lesser artist.

The inventive compositions, coupled with repetitive poetic narration are by no means relegated just to this story. The book opens with "Our neighbor's house", a chilling gothic fairy tale, while "His face all red" works with same potency even when reformatted from its original webcomics format. The two longer pieces that make up the latter part of the book feel slightly less accomplished, with "The nesting place" particularly seeming overlong and unnecessarily cruel. Yet, it's hard to complain about a short story collection that is concludes with an epilogue as strong as Carroll's.

Seeing the writer/artist's take on Red riding hood work so splendidly in such a short space alloted for it, serves as one final reminder of Carroll's superior command of the comics form and bodes well for her career in her chosen field, as well as the readers who can expect much from her in the years ahead.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Men of wrath #1-5

2014 saw the debut of long-time Marvel exclusive creator Jason ("Scalped", "Wolverine and the X-Men") Aaron's first creator owned project. Released by the publisher's Icon imprint, reserved for the rare few talents that have previously produced a large body of work for the company, "Men of Wrath" reunites the writer with his frequent collaborator, artist Ron ("Captain America") Garney. The mini-series is the veteran artist's first creator owned project, while Aaron is concurrently publishing "Southern bastards" for Image.

"Men of wrath" is reportedly the first project the writer has begun following his long run on Vertigo's "Scalped", drawing somewhat on his own family history. A murder at the dawn of the 20th century introduces a bloody and pessimistic generational saga of a family of killers. The readers are introduced to Ira Rath as he dispatches his latest targets in a way that makes it challenging to sympathize with him. Yet, by beginning each issue with a flashback to a member of the family, the writer nevertheless tries to inform the reader of the events that have lead to the creation of the seemingly unrepentant murderer. The plot involves the terminally ill man deciding to take one last job - a hit on his own estranged son.

In many ways, this is not the book the readers could have expected from Jason Aaron. The writer has presented a much more nuanced way in his neo-noir offerings and even his escapades into mainstream superheroes have been over the top in their grindhouse influences. "Men of wrath" hues much closer to the excess of Frank Miller's "Sin City", cutting a large swathe of blood all over its five short issues.

Most interestingly, the reader is denied the filter that usually accompanies stories starring anti heroes. In Aaron and Garney's hands, the violence is not in the least sanitized, nor is it restrained to the typical dramatic moments. Both the protagonist and the antagonists are quick to eliminate anyone who inconveniences them, even when it comes to police officers and the clergy. Human lives are very cheap on these pages, but the book still retains something of a moral center in the form of Ira's son.

At first, Ruben seems like a small time criminal, but his care for his pregnant wife quickly provides the impetus for the central conflict. Contrasting with his father's towering physique, the young Rath is depicted in regular clothes, sweaty and always on the run. Unfortunately, their final confrontation is one of the book's weaker scenes, even as it covers the necessary narrative beats.

Despite this, the book maintains a frantic pacing and succeeds in most of the longer set pieces, providing several interesting twists and turns and ultimately manages to wring a modicum of sympathy for its lead character. Garney's layouts are always clear and staged well, yet the second part of a story adds to the rushed feeling of the proceedings. The pages gain a more kinetic tone, but when read together, they provide a noticeable shift, no doubt due to the scheduling limitations.

The final issue calls back to Frank Miller once again in featuring several black pages punctuated only by narrative captions. In many ways, "Men of wrath" seems an outlier in the current comic book landscape, harkening back to a style that has never left action cinema.

Taken as a whole, the book is a thematically sound, yet very aggressive work that sternly pushes the reader through a hideously bleak moral landscape before making its point. While not wholly successful, it is still an interesting mini-series that provides a different sort of story contrasted to its creators usual offerings. It may lack the style of "Sin city", yet it is likely that the readers would enjoy what it has to say about family and the manner in which it is told more than some of Miller's latter works in the series.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Hulk #5-10 "The Omega Hulk"

"The Hulk" has been having a weird time lately at Marvel. Following a successful run featuring the "Planet Hulk" storyline, the character had a sustained period of growth during the previous decade, bringing the company to expanding the franchise into several sister books. Despite the efforts of the editorial, the last few years have seen a bevy of takes and relaunches, with the acclaimed writer Mark ("Daredevil") Waid leaving the series shortly after the launch of his second successive take on the character.

Following the crossover with "Iron Man", capitalizing on the two characters' appearance in "The Avengers" movie, the company had decided to allow Gerry ("Deadpool") Duggan to take over as the writer, while Mark ("Ultimate Spider-Man") Bagley stayed on as the penciller. The new writer debuted with a clear statement of intent, albeit one that harkens back to a previous era in superhero storytelling.

Using Waid's set-up involving a bullet wound in the brain of the Hulk's alter ego Bruce Banner, and Iron Man's subsequent cure, the creative team have paved the way for Doc Green. Debuting as a supremely confident mad genius in the mold of Doc Savage, this Hulk has gotten ready to cut a swathe through the Marvel universe, effectively undoing a series of creative decisions made in the last ten years. The character's immediate plan seems to consist of depowering various other characters that have been imbued with Hulk-like abilities. Considering that most of the book's original cast has recently been remade into monsters, the decision has to do with the character bringing back his status as unique in the Marvel universe. On the dramatic level, Doc Green's confrontations with close friends and family members carry the additional charge requisite to making the scenes interesting.

Yet, most interestingly, the book itself seems transported back into yet another superhero era, that of the post "Authority" mature take on superhero power fantasies. Following Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch's groundbreaking superhero epic, a number of then-current mainstream books have tried to embrace the darker elements and the more nuanced portrayal. Most pertinently, Dan Jurgen's "Thor" was transformed from a modern day Kirby pastiche into a graphic novel detailing the character's descent into megalomania.

What makes "Omega Hulk" a call back to different era starts with the titular character's personality makeup. Presented as a calculating super genius, the character nevertheless maintains a sharp focus that coupled with a dark sense of humor makes reading his adventures interesting. Just like the unrepentant protagonists of books like "Planetary" and "Wildcats v3", Doc Green acts above the ordinary tropes of superhero comics, to enact his own mark on the world. The book truly feels like anything could happen in it, leaving the reader at the mercy of the Machiavellian monster that has taken over the body of the Marvel universe mainstay.

Doc Green feels no obligation to rationalize his actions to anybody, with the character's strength allowing him to simply go where his pleases and let his intelligence take control of the situation. In the most direct nod to "The Authority", the character even uses the same teleporting technology of the Ellis/Hitch superhero team, which is at one point identified by name by one of the supporting characters. Mirroring the Wildstorm flagship's debut, Duggan's story begins with the character's retaliation against a North Korea stand in. Yet, for the remainder of this opening arc, the Hulk seems poised to clean his own corner of the Marvel universe, before returning to take an active role in the Earth's politics.

All this is realized by Mark Bagley's clear and energetic layouts which bring a welcome sense of consistency that is rarely seen in superhero books of today. In a book filled with a large cast of characters meant to emulate the Hulk, there is never a sense of confusion when it comes to the inevitable fights. Following Duggan's debut, the creators structure each issue to have a strong fight sequence with a different member of the extended Hulk family. Aided by the inks of Andy Hennessy, the penciller manages to instill a sense of danger in each of these sequences, while never relying on gore or shock tactics. At this point in his career, the veteran artist is a consummate professional managing to bring a strong sense of storytelling to his pages and except for some Doc Green's attire, succeeds in realizing the story.

The reader is lead to see the awe in bystanders' reactions to the mohawk-wearing protagonist, but by the end of the first of the promised two storylines, the reader is lead to discover that even the haircut foreshadows future events. Redefining the invulnerable anti-hero as the "smartest one there is" has brought back a measured approach that makes the conflicts in the book that much more interesting. Doc Green engages all the other characters as inferior and delights in cruel taunts, but his central conflict is that with himself. Following Waid's cue, this Hulk's relationship with Bruce Banner is another of the many reversals that the readers have been treated to previously, much like the character's previous smarter incarnations the writers have made him exhibit.

Yet, with the upcoming "Secret Wars" wholesale redefinition of the Marvel Universe, the creative team genuinely seems to have their hands free to produce a year's worth of stories that are free to severely alter the status quo. At this point, it doesn't matter in what way the company will reconfigure one of their perennial favorites following the event, as long as they leave Duggan and Bagley to complete their story on their own terms. On the face of it, "The Omega Hulk" seems to be yet another in a long line of divergent takes on the character, but with the adequate follow through, the creative team could well leave the readers with the story on par with "Planet Hulk", but with a sophistication and charm all of its own.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Terrible Pope 1-3

As he was finishing the 2004-2011 "Borgia" series with Milo Manara, Alejandro Jodorowsky was already preparing the follow-up. It's probably due to scheduling that the first volume of "Terrible Pope" actually came out two years before the Italian artist finished drawing the preceding series, but the two  books can still be read separately.

"Della Rovere", published in 2009 by Delcourt pairs Jodorowsky with Theo Caneschi to present the papacy of Borgia's successor on the throne of Saint Peter. Gulliano della Rovere was a character in the Manara-drawn historical epic, but the writer goes to great lengths to make the new series accessible.

This is paramount considering the early 16th century setting could easily lead to the reader getting lost in the historical facts. Just like with "Borgia", Jodorowsky is careful to treat the material as a genre work full of intrigues and sexual debauchery. The protagonist's homosexuality quickly comes to define the work, coupled with his blood lust.

To put it kindly, the creative team present the major historical figure as a depraved raving lunatic and compel the reader to follow his machinations in a late Renaissance setting. The first volume starts with a story relating the events leading to della Rovere becoming the pope and follows it up with his revenge on the Borgia family that kept him from achieving the position at an earlier age.

Once again, the reader is given a primer regarding the events from the previous series and is in no way penalized from not reading the Manara illustrated story. Della Rovere is given a lover that helps humanize him and gives the protagonist someone to confere his thoughts to. The many sex scenes and intrigues prevents beautiful Aldosi from being a mere plot device. Instead, by pairing him with a black slave not only completes the menage a trois, but gives della Rovere a pair of servants devoted to carrying out his schemes.

All of this is very graphically illustrated by Theo, who lacks the precision of Manara's ethereal work, but instills a vulgarity and passion to the sinful Vatican depicted in the series. His work is gorgeously colored in browns and reds and helps to instill the series with its own identity. Par for the course of the historical fiction, the artist is burdened with historical references missing from his previous fantasy work, but the external details do support the unique balance of the work.

"The Terrible Pope" is at once a comic book biography that deftly manages to cohere the complicated political landscape of sixteenth century Italy and crafts it into a narrative about power similar to "Borgia". It is in the succeeding two volumes that Jodorowky's collaboration with Theo further crystallizes into a work with its own identity.

Ironically it does it by calling attention to one of the previous' work's major themes, that of the family. By bringing together a bevy of his own cousins, Gulliano at first seems to follow in his predecessor's footsteps, but his megalomania quickly spins out of control and the bizarre combination of freaks is quickly and unceremoniously dispatched.

Thus "Julius II" follows the first volume by essentially splitting into two stories, that feed into one another, and more importantly, continue fanning the political flames of della Rovere's insanity. The readers are instructed not to attach themselves to the supporting cast, as the major historical figures seem to be the only ones to escape the grisly treatment.

This is not to say that the creative team treats them with any kind of dignity, but that as the series goes on della Rovere's interest in lovers turns to the famous artist that he patronized. This is especially true when it comes to Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Theo struggles somewhat when it comes to the famous artist's character design, but his role in the story is much more controversial. Simply put, the antics that go in the relationship he has with the pope, and later on Raphael are sure to prove divisive to a portion of the audience. Yet, it's difficult to think that any of the purists would have remained with the work long enough to witness the plot twists.

The second are third volumes are framed in Machiavelli's narration, with the philosopher's treatment stylistically in keeping with the rest of "The Terrible Pope". Thus, the writer of "The Prince" relates the story a quarter of obese prostitutes, with whom he enacts his fantasies of unified Italy.

Yet the the third volume is not completely devoted to the artistic legacy of Gulliano's time in the papal seat. The intrigues, always laced with depravity keep up as the ailing Holy Father fights fever and his usurpers. It's clear that his rule will not last much longer but the series leaves room for one final installment, even if it hasn't been formally announced. The last year's volume is otherwise just as brutal as the previous ones and maintains some of their flaws.

It's easy to see the series as simply a way for the venerable writer to amuse himself and imbue the facts with a sinister reading, which robs the series from some of its impact. Theo's work likewise maintains the visual identity and dedicates itself to the storytelling in such manner that it's difficult to look at it as something more than competent European-styled genre work.

Due to its over the top imagery "The Terrible Pope" is unlikely to find the success of "Borgia" and will likely be remembered as a spin-off that is no more than a footnote in Jodorowsky's bibliography. Nevertheless, the series has its own identity and presents Gulliano della Rovere's tale in a very compelling manner. Hopefully, the creators and Delcourt will find it feasible to finish their story with the fourth and final volume, that closes the door on their retelling of a particularly bloody time in Italian history and the rise and fall of the controversial man that was in front of it.