Author Archives: Ryan C. (trashfilmguru)

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Review: The American Way: Those Above and Those Below #1

Ten short (from where I’m sitting, anyway) years ago John Ridley was far from a household name in the entertainment industry, yet alone an Oscar winner. That was well before 12 Years A Slave and American Crime, though, and now it’s a different story. A different world. Or is it?

Certainly Ridley returning to the only-slightly-fictionalized world of The American Way a decade after he and artist Georges Jeanty first created it is both a pleasant surprise as well as something of a coup for DC Comics‘ perpetually-struggling Vertigo label, but 10 years (or thereabouts) have passed in the four-color world, as well, and the opening salvo in the new six-part The American Way: Those Above And Those Below shows that they haven’t necessarily been kind to protagonist Jason Fisher, a.k.a. The New American, or his surviving former Civil Defense Corps teammates. As 1972 dawns, Fisher is cleaning up the Baltimore ghettos by means both direct and decidedly brutal, while Amber (Waves) Eaton has become a Weather Underground/SLA-style revolutionary, and Missy (Ole Miss) Devereaux, now married to the governor of Mississippi, is being maneuvered into political office in the same way George Wallace’s wife was when that miserable old racist bastard was term-limited out of office. We know the paths of these one-time “allies” in an officially-sanctioned US government PR sham operation are bound to converge, but how and why remains to be seen yet. This issue guarantees one thing, though — it will invariably be fascinating to see the chess pieces moved (or fall?) into place.

Tight, intricate plotting is a hallmark of all Ridley’s work, and if you haven’t read the first American Way series, rest easy: the basics of what happened in it are introduced into this one in a naturalistic, almost non-expository way that doesn’t hamper the forward momentum of the plot here in the least (and Vertigo has recently re-issued it in trade, as well, if you find yourself sufficiently motivated to see how it all began). The racial, economic, and social divisions explored with such candor last time out have clearly not improved and are certain to form this series’ thematic background, which should surprise no one, and while it can certainly be argued that Ridley is less than subtle in his proselytizing, it’s nevertheless effective and he at least uses his characters’ life circumstances to illustrate his points rather than taking the lazy and uninspired way out and simply utilizing them as authorial mouthpieces. The one potential “strike” against the relatively large ensemble cast on offer here is that Jason’s paralyzed Panther brother comes off as being more interesting and fully-rounded than does our titular hero himself, but hey — it’s part one, so we’ll see how all that goes.

Jeanty, for his part, absolutely nails it on the art in this book. Action scenes have a crisp and dynamic flow to them, lower-key “talky” segments remain visually interesting and employ inventive-without-being-ostentatious “camera” angles, subtleties of expression and body language are right on the money, and the period setting is evoked smoothly and authentically. Danny Miki‘s inks are faithful to the pencils in the best way, accentuating and enhancing detail without burying them under an extra layer of faux “style,” and Nick Filardi finishes everything off with expertly-chosen and highly atmospheric colors. “Cinematic” is not too shabby a shorthand description for this comic’s overall look, but it probably sells the effort by these firing-on-all-cylinders creators a bit short, truth be told. Maybe we should call it “Oscar-level cinematic” or something?

Still, it’s not a completely flawless effort : the decision (whether called for in the script or “ad-libbed” by the art team I have no idea) to slip a John Constantine doppleganger into the works for a panel threatens to take readers out of the book for a moment, it’s true, but what the hell — it’s high time he migrated back over to Vertigo by any means necessary, and if that’s the only gripe I’ve got, it’s a pretty small one. Almost seems petty to even bring it up. Still, in a comic that’s all about big (and, sadly, eternal) questions about race and class, a cheap (if admittedly fun) little aside like that stands out like a sore thumb and really does disrupt the rhythm of the storytelling, if only briefly.

Apart from that and the drug-pusher villain that Jason is out to take down being a bit too broad of a caricature (he’s also a cold-blooded killer who flat-out enjoys the taking of human life rather than viewing it as unfortunate reality of his chosen “profession”), though, there is very nearly flawless comic-booking going on in the pages of The American Way: Those Above And Those Below #1. Topical and provocative without being preachy, accessible to new readers without resorting to “info-dump” condescension, and smart without feeling the need to call attention to its own intelligence, this is supremely effective, thought-provoking, resonant stuff. I’m down for the whole ride — and I respectfully suggest that you should be, as well.

Story: John Ridley  Art: Georges Jeanty and Danny Miki
Story: 8.0  Art: 9.0  Overall: 8.5  Recommendation: Buy

Review : The Defenders #1

You know that feeling you get reading the final few issues of a book that’s been cancelled? That “these-creators-are-obviously-running-out-the-clock-but-I-guess-I-want-to-see-how-it-all-wraps-up” feeling? Welcome to all of Marvel Comics circa summer 2017 — even the brand-new series.

“Now hold on just a minute,” I hear you say, “this might be a first issue, but there’s nothing ‘brand-new’ about The Defenders. They’ve been kicking around in one form or another since the early ’70s. Whaddaya got to say to that, smart guy?”

Technically speaking that’s true, I suppose — we even get the old-school logo on this one — but who are we kidding? This latest iteration of the franchise bears precisely zero resemblance to Steve Gerber‘s “un-team,” and is in fact yet another example of Marvel’s Hollywood arm yanking its print division around, since we already know that the Defenders name was plunked from semi-obscurity to serve as the catch-all title for the “team-up show” that would mark the end of “phase one” of the MCU’s “street-level” Netflix sub-division. Writer Brian Michael Bendis swears on a stack of Bibles that he actually first pitched the concept of DaredevilIron FistLuke Cage, and Jessica Jones joining forces for a monthly series some time ago, and while that may (or, hell, may not) be true, I bet it was called something different when he first broached the subject with his bosses. Not that I guess it really matters.

Which, to be painfully honest, is sort of how I feel about this comic. Yeah, sure, Bendis does the whole “dark and grimy” corner of Marvel’s corporate universe better than he does its cosmic, Mutant, or cross-over “high-rent districts,” but this whole endeavor has the ring of a rather forced set-up to it — “okay, Diamondback isn’t dead, so let’s pool our resources and take him on together, and let’s hop to it quick because our TV show is rolling out next month.” It all makes logical sense, sure, but it’s about as inspired as a Denny’s breakfast special.

Of, sure, the script in this one hits all the right “character beats,” fair enough, but in much the same way that Bendis’ current Jessica Jones title is a pale shadow of Alias, this reads like the product of a guy going through the motions and only occasionally “nailing it” as successfully as he used to a decade ago. This is unquestionably the kind of comic he knows how to write — but he knows how to write it by heart, without even really trying, and that’s the problem. We already had half this team working together month-in and month-out in David F. Walker and Sanford Greene‘s flat-out superb (when it wasn’t getting needlessly dragged into “blockbuster event” cross-overs, that is) Power Man And Iron Fist, and that was bulldozed out of the way to make room for this? Please.

I can’t be as hard on the artwork of David Marquez, I admit, given that it’s sleek, professional, and stylish, but even with Justin Ponsor‘s shadowy and atmospheric colors, I honestly have to wonder if it’s all a little too “sleek, professional, and stylish” for a book that’s supposed to be aiming for a more gritty and “street-smart” feel. It looks good, sure — but it would look better in the pages of Captain America or X-Men than it does here.

Last on the list of grievances we come to the economic one — I realize that at this point it’s just plain customary to bitch about the $4.99 cover price that Marvel slaps on almost all of their first issues, but what the hell? I guess I’ll avail myself of the opportunity to do just that given that I shelled for it out of pocket and everything. So what does your extra buck get you this time out? Two more pages of story and art than the company’s 20-page standard, and six pages of backmatter in the form of a mock Luke Cage magazine interview ostensibly conducted by Ben Urich. It’s both entirely fine and entirely pointless, not much more to say about it than that.

Still, for all my obvious lack of enthusiasm for this comic, it’s safe to say that its publisher is even less jazzed about it than I am. As I said at the outset, Marvel’s entire print division is running out the clock at this point. They promised that Secret Empire was going to be their last company-wide “event” for at least 18 months, but when it became obvious that even that wasn’t going to get them out of their current sales doldrums, news came down the pike that it would be quickly followed up by the Generations “event,” which would lead directly into Legacy and an across-the-board hitting of the “reset” switch a la DC’s Rebirth. In other words, then, even if you liked The Defenders #1 a hell of a lot more than I did, there’s no point getting too attached to it — or to anything else currently coming out of the so-called “House Of Ideas.” There are, after all, three lead-pipe-cinch guarantees in life at this point — death, taxes, and yearly Marvel re-launches. I give this title eight, maybe ten, months tops.

Story : Brian Michael Bendis Art : David Marquez

Story : 4 Art : 6 Overall : 5 Recommendation : Pass

Review : Babyteeth #1

Quick — what do you get when you cross Juno with The Omen?

I can’t say I know for sure, but the answer could be the new Aftershock Comics series Babyteeth, the latest from the suddenly-quite-busy Donny Cates, cooked up in collaboration with Black Road artist/co-creator Garry Brown, which seems right off the bat to be a mash-up of those two popular films, but who knows? It could prove to be something else entirely as events proceed.

Here’s the run-down : 16-year-old Sadie of Salt Lake City, Utah, is more than just a nerdy social outcast comic book fan — she’s also pregnant. The old man — whoever he may be — isn’t around. She’s managed to keep her condition a secret from everyone barring her dope-dealing sister, Heather, but when her first contraction register a 5.0 on the fucking Richter Scale, well — this isn’t a situation that’s going to remain under wraps for long. And that’s about all we know, apart from the fact that the moment Sadie delivered her baby boy, Clark (named after you-know-who), she thinks she very well may have died. Oh, and for some reason she’s in Palestine now. We’ll see what that’s all about.

Cates takes a more light-hearted and comedic tone with his script than you might expect given its potentially-heavy subject matter, and stylistically this falls somewhere between the absolute play-it-for-laughs tone of his recently-concluded The Paybacks and the more cut-and-dried storytelling of his soon-to-be-wrapped God Country, and on the whole it works. Sadie’s first-person narration is effective in terms of its blunt honesty, and feels pretty well authentic to what a confused pregnant teenager would probably be thinking or feeling. The dialogue draws its characters in fairly broad, one-dimensional strokes, but what the hell? It’s a first issue, and some of these folks’ personalities and motivations are certain to have layers of depth added to them in, I would guess, pretty short order. I certainly can’t quibble with this book’s rapid-fire pacing, that’s for sure, but it’s also nice that things logically hold together here even though the story doesn’t slow down to the point where you really have a chance to examine it in much detail — at least the first time out, at any rate.

Brown, for his part, definitely delivers the goods as far as the art goes — his style is more defined and less “sketchy” than what we saw on Black Road, with a tighter, finer line and greater detail in the characters’ faces and body language, but it’s still fairly ink-heavy and abstract when it needs to be, so if you like what you’ve seen from him before — and I most certainly have — you’re more or less guaranteed to be impressed by the evolution of his overall “look” here. Top it off with some solid, workmanlike colors by Mark Englert, and what you’ve got in your hands is a pretty damn good-looking comic book.

All told, then, I’d have to say that I was reasonably impressed by Babyteeth #1. It didn’t blow me away or anything, but I felt like I got my money’s worth for my $3.99 (which I forked over out of pocket) and it set things up with enough style and panache to hook me for, at the very least, the short term. I’m not going to give it the longest leash in the world, but I have a reasonable amount of confidence that these quite good creators aren’t going to strangle themselves with their own collective umbilical cord.

Story: Donny Cates Art: Garry Brown
Story: 7.0  Art: 8.0  Overall: 7.5  Recommendation: Buy

Review: Paklis #1

In recent weeks/months/years, I’ve bemoaned the lack of “single-creator anthologies” in the contemporary comic-book marketplace, and while I’m not suggesting that Dustin Weaver was actually listening to me — I’m sure he’s got better things to do with his time — I’m happy to see that he is, however inadvertently, determined to prove me wrong with the arrival of his new Image Comics series Paklis, a genre-centric showcase for his many talents that sees him wearing every conceivable “hat” a cartoonist can as he tackles the writing, art, coloring, lettering, and (to the extent any is even being done) editing on a rotating series of sci-fi and horror strips of varying lengths done in varying styles. At first glance the Moebius influence leaps right off the page at readers, but on subsequent pass-throughs, more subtle stylistic forebears — particularly Japanese masters Miyazaki and Otomo — make their presence known, as well, and the end result, while not always completely coherent, is a dizzying mix of artistic approaches that feels like an “international smorgasbord” of sorts and makes me damn happy I forked over my $5.99 for this 56-page introductory volume.

After a pleasingly clever introductory page that plays with meta-fictional conventions in a succinct and light-hearted manner, Weaver — who should bring over a healthy readership with him given his status as a “fan-favorite” artist for Marvel — drops us right in at the deep end with the dreamlike Cronenebergian insectoid body-horror of “Mushroom Bodies,” a stand-alone story that drips with nightmare menace and physically repulsive terror, and then follows that up with the first short installments of “Sagittarius A*,” a black-and-white drama set on a space station that reads very much like the short-form strips that 2000 A.D. readers have become accustomed to over the years, and finally treats us to the first chapter of “Amnia Cycle,” a long-form story about a female star-fighter pilot with a rebellious streak and, perhaps, a tenuous grip on reality. It’s a nice selection of stories that showcases Weaver flexing his artistic muscles in ways that his “Big Two” work never could.

Of the three, “Mushroom Bodies” is certainly the strongest of the bunch — probably to be expected given that it’s apparently been gestating in his mind (as well as on his drawing board) for a number of years — but the other two features offer intriguing set-ups and do a terrific job establishing their characters quickly, so the best is more than likely yet to come from both of them. This is “art-first” storytelling all the way — something else in depressingly short supply these days — but the writing is strong and confident enough to know when to accentuate the visuals and when to just get the hell out of the way, so if you’re concerned that Weaver may have bitten off more than he can chew with this project, rest easy : he seems to know exactly what he’s doing.

That being said, he still has areas where improvement would be welcome : the more limited color palette he employs with “Amnia Cycle,” while stylish, is nowhere near as effective as the wide range of hues on offer in “Mushroom Bodies,” the premise behind “Sagittarius A*” seems to be lifted more or less directly from Battlestar Galactica (not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, just a bit “been there, done that”), and all told a wider variety of subject matter might make for a more varied and interesting reading experience, but hey — it’s Weaver’s book, he can do with it what he wants. That’s the beauty of projects such as this, rare as they’ve become.

How long will it all last? That’s a good question, but as of right now Image has solicited four issues slated to appear over as many months, so hopefully sales will remain strong enough for Weaver to go beyond that point. “Amnia Cycle,” in particular, seems to have the potential to carry on for a good long while, and the inclusion of some more “one-and-done” strips would make for a nice balance with the ongoing narratives. Not knowing exactly what you’re going to get is part of the beauty of these types of comics, and so my earnest hope is that our de facto “emcee” will avail himself of the opportunity he’s got here to follow his muse wherever it takes him.

So, yeah, count me as being among those who are very excited to see what Paklis develops into — and hey, if we end up getting an explanation as to just what the title means somewhere along the way, that’s all the better. It’s your show, Dustin Weaver — make the most of it!

Story and Art: Dustin Weaver
Story: 7.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 8.0 Recommendation: Buy

Review: Purgatory (A Reject’s Story)

A couple of years back, the cartoonist formerly known as Al Frank, new moniker of Casanova Frankenstein in tow, burst back onto the alternative/independent/underground scene with the sixth issue of his long-dormant (how long? Try two decades) series The Adventures Of Tad Martin, and my mind was flat-out blown. A harrowing, brutally honest, emotionally naked, scream-from-the-gut autobiographical tale of the hellishly bad marriage, drug addiction, health problems, and psychological issues that had consumed his life in then-recent years, drawn with anything that was handy on anything that was handy (mostly composition book pages, but restaurant guest checks, napkins, and even the back of prescription labels would do in a pinch), it did considerably more than scratch the itch many of us had been suffering from for years with the absence of new autobio material from masters of the form such as Chester BrownJoe Matt, and others, and effectively raised the stakes (by plumbing the depths) of the “confessional comic” to levels not seen before or, sadly, since. I speak with no hyperbole whatsoever when I say that The Adventures Of Tad Martin #sicksicksix is one of the five or ten best single-issues I’ve ever read in my life, and I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I’ve re-read it since.

It’s fair to say, then, that I was absolutely over the moon a couple of months back when I saw that Frankenstein — now with a conspicuous “Nobody” inserted into his nom de plume — was taking a much shorter break between publications this time around, and that another “comic” written and drawn during his “wilderness years” entitled Purgatory (A Reject’s Story) would soon be in our unworthy hands thanks to the Fantagraphics Undergound (FU? Get it?) imprint of Fantagraphics Books. Pre-publication announcements let it be known that the writer/artist’s tortured high school years were going to be the subject of his latest “visual memoir,” and having seen how he somehow managed to survive what could (hell, perhaps should) have been his own personal “omega” in his last book, the promise of seeing his “alpha” play out on the page sounded like a very enticing one indeed. It wouldn’t be easy reading by any means, I was sure, but necessary? Abso-friggin’-lutely.

Frankenstein again eschews even any nods toward dull conformity in the pages of Purgatory, relating his tale by means more akin to scrawling than actual drawing, and for those of us tuned into his wavelength, I gotta say, we wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the mainstays of his youth, as related in this tale, was a desperate desire to not only learn how to illustrate comics books but to learn how to illustrate them well, but at some point he thankfully threw all that out the window and instead decided to go the “primal scream” route with his artwork — raw, brutal, absolutely honest, and completely unflinching. In short, the only kind of art that can possibly convey the kinds of stories he excels at telling. Some people draw because they can — Frankenstein draws because he has to, conventional (and hopelessly dated) definitions of “ability” notwithstanding. To draw a cinematic parallel, if formally near-flawless works like Watchmen are comics’ Citizen Kane, latter-day Frankenstein works are the funnybook equivalent of Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock — low-budget, ugly, utterly uncompromising “guerrilla” works that force you to meet them at their level and, in doing so, point out the essential soullessness of most corporate, “mainstream” works. Lots of people are better at making comics than Frankenstein is — but very few actually make better comics.

The one thing that most obviously distinguishes Purgatory from Tad Martin SickSickSix is its surprisingly hopeful resolution, wherein our tormented artist-to-be simply splits his hometown of Chicago for presumably greener pastures, but the pages preceding this almost-happy are as challenging to navigate as Tad’s tale of woe was — and every bit as rewarding. Frankenstein leaves it all on the fucking page, playing psychotherapist to himself in full view of the public, refusing to flinch when most of us almost certainly would and shoving our faces in the stew-pot of bullying, racial animus, family alienation, and scaled-down Walter Mitty-esque escapism that defined his formative years. Will you want to close the book up and turn away? Possibly. Will you be able to? Don’t kid yourself. Compelling is an understatement when it comes to describing this work.

I do have one major gripe about this book, though, and it’s both absolutely no fault of the artist’s whatsoever, and points to a much larger problem currently afflicting the independent comix scene — while Purgatory would (and, I would contend, should) make for one hell of a “stand-alone” single-issue “floppy,” the format it’s presented in absolutely sucks and is very poor value for money. 90-ish pages of single-panel illustrations laid out in a small-format publication that could quite literally fit into the palm of a large person’s hand — for twelve bucks? Are you serious, Gary Groth? I know that FU is a self-described “micro-imprint” and that the print run for this thing probably doesn’t even run into the four digits, but at that price, Frankenstein will be lucky if any more than three or four hundred copies of his book are moved, and that ain’t gonna be enough to get him out of the janitorial business anytime soon. I’ve long maintained that the so-called “alternative” publishers are doing both themselves and their artists real harm by moving away from the “floppy” format, but never has that been more apparent than it is here. If this material were published in the traditional format of a cheap B&W newsprint comic (as was the case with Tad Martin sicksicksix), at least a copy or two would be available at every LCS in the country, and it would probably sell through its small print run. This expensive “mini-book” thing they’ve got going here, though, is hardly something that most retailers are going to be willing to take a flier on, given that it can’t really be shelved with either standard comics or graphic novels/trades, and represents too much of a financial risk for today’s cash-strapped store owners to gamble on. In short, this is amazing, daring, thoughtful, and highly memorable work that unquestionably deserves to be seen by as large an audience as possible (even if that’ll still be a pretty damn tiny one), but the book’s very own publisher has essentially guaranteed that isn’t going to happen.

For my own part, though, what can I say? While I wasn’t happy to fork over this much of my hard-earned cash on a product this physically slight, I’d still to it again in a heartbeat, and I heartily recommend that you do the same. Purgatory (A Reject’s Story) may very well prove to be the best comic of the year — presented in the worst format of the year. There may be something poetically “right” about that at the end of the day, even if it proves that rejects, losers, and outcasts really can never catch a break.

Story/Art: Casanova Nobody Frankenstein
Story: 10 Art: 9.5 Overall: 10 Recommendation: Buy

 

Review: Luke Cage #1

Like a good number of folks, I was sorely disappointed when Marvel Comics decided to pull the plug on David F. Walker and Sanford Greene‘s superb Power Man And Iron Fist series after an all-too-brief run, but at today’s “Hollywood First, Comics Second” iteration of the so-called “House Of Ideas,” I guess it was too be expected — after all, Luke and Danny both have “stand-alone” series going on at Netflix, and are apparently only “allowed” to team up as part of the forthcoming The Defenders, so it only stands to reason that the same set-up would would be making its way over to the printed page. On the plus side, Walker is still writing the new solo Luke Cage book, but still — you knew damn well going in that the light-hearted, comedic tone of PMIF would probably go by the wayside in favor of a more sober-minded, tonally-similar-to-the-TV-show iteration of everyone’s favorite bulletproof Hero For Hire, and sure enough, there’s not a single “fiddle-faddle” to be had in this new comic.

That being said, it’s still a fun and engaging read, even if it’s a bit more buttoned-down. Walker makes a surprise move by taking Luke out of his familiar NYC environs and transplanting him to New Orleans (at least for the opening story arc), and that proves to be a smart storytelling choice given that a new (if temporary) locale certainly lends itself to a new approach, and goes some way toward putting his protagonist in the same situation his readers are in — navigating through unfamiliar, perhaps even uneasy, but ultimately exciting territory.

The plot here revolves around Luke heading to The Big Easy to attend the funeral of the borderline-mad doctor who gave him the imitation super-soldier serum that turned him into a hero in the first place only to find that he’d made some less-than-savory contacts as he continued his experimental work in subsequent years, and one of these shady characters may have had a hand his demise, which is being sold to his friends and acquaintances as a suicide. Luke is pretty quick to smell a rat, of course, street-smart guy that he is, but there are those even more powerful than him who don’t take too kindly to his snooping around — isn’t that always the case?

We’re looking at pretty tried and true Chandler-esque stuff here, it’s gotta be said, but hey — it’s executed well, and nobody has a better grasp on Cage than Walker, obviously. He makes the cardinal mistake of telegraphing his cliffhanger halfway through the book (come on, whenever you mention a character who hasn’t been heard from in forever and a day you know they’re bound to turn up at the end), but even that plays out as more of a “yeah, I should have seen that coming” moment rather than a “hey, I saw that coming” moment, so it’s all good in my book. Do you really go into a comic like this looking to have the wheel re-invented before your eyes, anyway?

Unfortunately, I’m a little less enthusiastic about Nelson Blake II‘s art than I am the script. It’s certainly clean, crisp, and reasonably expressive, no question about that, but it all feels a bit too meticulous for a “street-level” hero in my own humble estimation, and he skimps on the background details (when he even bothers to include any) to a degree that I find both irritating and, I’m sorry to say, lazy. Marcio Menyz redeems the visuals somewhat with his cinematic color palette that enhances the storytelling quite nicely (see the above sequence for proof of that which I speak), and Rahzzah‘s powerful, dynamic cover is “Classic Cage” all the way, but the line art in this book just doesn’t give you enough for your $3.99 (which I paid out of my own pocket) to make you feel like it was necessarily money well spent.

Odds are that I’ll stick around to see how the first arc plays, out, though, and go from there. Luke Cage #1 didn’t knock my socks off, by any means, but the story, while predictable, was engrossing enough to pique my curiosity and Walker, in my experience, always delivers a payoff that rewards your continued reading. I don’t see myself loving this comic the way I did PMIF, but I liked it well enough, and there’s no shame in reading comics you like.

Story: David F. Walker Art: Nelson Blake II
Story: 8.0 Art: 5.5 Overall: 7.0 Recommendation: Read

Review : Bug! : The Adventures Of Forager #1

Near as I can tell, Marvel is doing precisely fuck-all to commemorate the 100th birthday of the man who created pretty much their entire corporate universe, but DC , to their credit (not a phrase you’ll hear coming from my mouth very often) seems to think that a century of Jack Kirby is very much worth celebrating indeed : we’re four issues into the year-long Kamandi Challenge as we speak, the superstar creative team of Tom King and Mitch Gerads has just been announced as helming a forthcoming Mister Miracle revival, and Gerard Way‘s still-nascent (and, to date, uniformly interesting) Young Animal line has now gotten in on the act, as well, with the release of the first issue of the six-part Bug!  : The Adventures Of Forager. Chances are there will be even more to come as the year proceeds, but as far as company-wide love letters go, I’d say they’re off to a more than good start so far.

In many respects, the character of Forager is probably the last Kirby creation you’d ever expect to see again — he was a “bit player” (to put it kindly) in the Fourth World saga, making a brief but memorable appearance in the pages of New Gods before disappearing for well over a decade only to re-appear just in time to get himself killed in Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola‘s Cosmic Odyssey, and that was — what? Damn near thirty years ago now?

Still, the Allred family always seems to know a good unused concept when they see one, and so modern-day legend Michael, here confining himself solely to artistic duties, has teamed with wife/colorist Laura and brother/writer Lee to resurrect — in this case quite literally — comics’ most hapless (and, who are we kidding, only) “food-seeker” to see how he fits into the world of 21st-century funnybooks. Are you excited? ‘Cuz I sure as hell am. In fact, the $3.99 I plunked down for this issue had been positively burning a hole in my pocket ever since this project was first announced a few months back.

Choosing to address the elephant in the room right from the start, answering the question of whether or not their protagonist is even alive or dead is the first order of business here, and it appears as though puzzling that out — as well as what it means either way — is going to form the backbone of this series. To that end, there’s no better guide to help Forager along than another under-utilized late-period Kirby creation, the one and only — well, shit, that would be telling, but for long-time fans of “The King” like myself, seeing him and his two sidekicks turn up and assume de facto “co-starring” roles is a genuine “fist-pump” moment, and offers the promise of mind-bending psychedelic adventures galore in the months ahead. Several other products of Jack’s boundless imagination come in for cameo appearances, as well, and the hope here is that they’ll play a more active part in the proceedings in future installments as we go. Forager, therefore, might be the nominal “star” of this title, but all signs seem to point to this comic being a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Allreds work with any number of Kirby characters they’ve always wanted to take a crack at. Now are you excited?

Good, old-fashioned fun is the primary Allred specialty, of course, and at this point I think we’re just flat-out spoiled by the consistent quality of everything they produce. Mike’s been at the game for going on three decades now, yet his art is just as dynamic, fluid, graceful, and “realistically cartoony” as it’s always been, and Laura’s colors are never anything less than vibrant, eye-catching, and expertly-chosen. Lee’s a bit of a lesser-known quantity than his relatives, true, but his style of scripting fits in seamlessly, and with the undeniable “Spirit Of Kirby” that permeates all that goes on here, it almost feels like calling this a “labor of love” is something of a disservice, simply because it doesn’t feel like a “labor” at all.

Thinking about this book, the only knock I can offer against it is that some of the first-person-narrative caption boxes on page one are printed far too faintly and are difficult to read in anything other than an extremely well-lit room, but honestly, that’s it : a  frigging technical glitch. That’s all I got. Otherwise, this is as close to a perfectly-constructed comic as you’re gonna find. Get it. Read it. Love it. And know that Jack himself is surely smiling down on this heartfelt, amazing tribute.

Story : Lee Allred Art : Michael Allred Colors : Laura Allred

Story : 8.5 Art : 9.5 Overall : 9 Recommendation : Buy

 

Review : Secret Empire #0

Do the books themselves even matter anymore — or is the announcement of their forthcoming arrival enough?

I ask that question in all seriousness because it gets to the heart of one the major problems (among many worthy contenders) in Nick SpencerDaniel Acuna, and Rod Reis’ Secret Empire #0, the first chapter (or maybe that should be pre– first chapter) of Marvel Comics‘ latest sure-to-disappoint-most “crossover event” series. Within these pages you’ll find, for instance, a team calling itself “The Defenders” that hasn’t made its “official” debut yet, and  you’ll see Tony Stark back as Iron Man even though, according to “present” continuity, he’s still in a coma. But Marvel knows that you’re already aware of these “future” events because, hey, they’ve all been announced.

Likewise, they know damn well that pretty much everyone reading this book — even those who haven’t been keeping up with Spencer’s various and sundry Captain America titles — are fully aware of the core conceit at the heart of this series, namely Steve Rogers being an undercover Hydra operative — because, hey, that’s all been litigated in the “fan press” over the past X-number of months, as well.

So, again, I ask — do the books themselves even matter anymore? Does this one?

I guess that remains to be seen. From a pure storytelling perspective, everything in this first — sorry, sub-first — issue should  feel totally confusing and alienating to a “newbie” reader, but less than five minutes’ worth of Google searching will bring anyone up to speed on the particulars they need to know going in. Cap’s Hydra, sure, but he’s also been named director of S.H.I.E.L.D. following the richly-deserved ouster of Maria Hill, who had put all her eggs in one basket with her support of a planetary defense screen — a screen that’s probably gonna come in real handy now that there’s a Chitauri invasion fleet bearing down on Earth.

What follows on from this is a fairly bog-standard and predictable series of maneuvers and machinations on Cap’s part to consolidate power on a global scale in his hands and his hands alone, and of course he pulls every aspect of his dastardly plan off, otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a story coming up. That “coming up” part may be debatable, though, I suppose, given that this comic actually plays out much more like a “first issue proper” than it does a typical “zero issue” extended prologue. We’re deposited right into the middle of the foray here and Marvel editorial figures, probably correctly, that we all know enough about what’s come before to swim rather than sink — even if, again, we haven’t been following Spencer’s “long game” Cap-centric strategizing over the last 18 months or so.

If you’re picking up on the fact that any “praise” I’m prepared to offer this title is of a heavily-qualified nature, you’re absolutely right. I’ve blown off pretty much all of Marvel’s “event” books for a long time now, and most of what I don’t like about them is on full display here. I’ll give ’em credit for at least plotting this one out very far in advance rather than dropping it right into our laps more or less out of nowhere, but who are we kidding? If you’ve seen one mega-fight-scene with 20-plus heroes going after at least that many villains, you’ve seen ’em all. And while Secret Empire seems to be promising “game-changing” events that will have “lasting repercussions,” let’s be honest — we’ve heard that line a thousand times (or more) previously, as well, and within a handful of months, it more or less feels like any and all previous “crossover events” never even happened. Spencer’s writing is competent enough, if uninspired, but even the best writers around — and he’s hardly that — can’t make these goddamn things feel “important” anymore. There’s simply too much baggage attached to them.

I don’t have as many major problems with Acuna’s art (and I love Reis’ Sienkiewicz-esque stylings in the book’s pre-credits opening sequence), but there are enough minor gripes to keep that from getting my full-throated endorsement, as well. Many of his facial expressions, for instance, seem borderline-grotesquely exaggerated, and sometimes he seems to have forgotten that this iteration of Steve Rogers is at least physically young again. There’s also a bland “sameness” to some of his female characters that gives things a more rushed feel than we’re used to from him, and his action scenes are starting to belie a little bit too much of a Mike Del Mundo influence. I give him “props” for doing his own colors (as does Reis), but several pages seem overly-saturated in murky, inky blackness. He’s still capable of good work, to be sure — a healthy number of panels in this issue do, in fact, look really nice — but he hits more often than he misses this time out, so let’s hope that whatever issue he’s doing next (yes, this is another “event” series with a rotating team of artists, with Steve McNiven due up in two weeks’ time) is closer to his usual, frankly quite high, standard than is this one.

The only area where I can’t really find too much fault with this comic is in terms of pure economics. Yeah, it’s $4.99 (which I paid out of my own pocket, so hey, this matters to me), but not only is the page count quite a bit lengthier than Marvel’s standard, with 35 pages of story and art rather than 20, but it’s a densely-worded affair that takes a decent amount of time to plow through, so you’re definitely not being cheated on that front. I wish all the dialogue was in service of a better story, absolutely, but at least Spencer worked for his paycheck here.

I’m not sure I’m ready to dump any more of my own hard-earned cash into this series, though. Especially given that any minor and entirely cosmetic “changes” that come out of it will be making their presence felt in other titles before this thing is even over with, as was the case with Civil War IISecret Wars, etc. When it comes to these “summer blockbuster”-type comics, you see, the books themselves really don’t matter — and Secret Empire #0 is no exception.

Story: Nick Spencer Art: Daniel Acuna and Rod Reis
Story: 4.5 Art: 5.5 Overall: 5 Recommendation: Pass

Review : Black Panther & The Crew #1

Unlike many (but very much like many others, I suppose), I have to date been decidedly underwhelmed by Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ take on the Black Panther. I found “A Nation Under Our Feet” to be a dour, navel-gazing, self-important, and frankly confused attempt to “modernize” both T’Challa and his kingdom of Wakanda that pretty much failed miserably at everything it set out to do, reached its apex with a bog-standard fight, and followed that up with an issue-length epilogue that essentially changed nothing about the status quo for its characters and their world apart from stating that they were, in essence, all gonna try to listen to both listen, and be nicer, to each other more. Not exactly the groundbreaking work we’d been hoping for from one of the leading intellectuals of our times.

Still, ya gotta figure, the man is smarter than you and me put together, and eventually he’ll get this whole comic book thing figured out. Maybe a change of scenery will be just what he needs?

To that end, he’s decided to oversee a re-vamp of Marvel’s urban super-hero non-team, The Crew, with Black Panther at the helm. The name of this new(-ish) enterprise? Why, Black Panther & The Crew, of course, and while Coates has essentially nothing to do with the other title spun off from the BP “mothership,” Black Panther : World Of Wakanda (apart from laying an entirely unjust claim to the top spot in the book’s credits as a “consultant”), with this one he’s actually co-writing the series, and flying solo altogether with the scripting on this first issue. And whaddya know? It appears as though going from the actual jungle to the so-called urban jungle wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.

To be sure, this comic has some glaring flaws — no appearance whatsoever from its title character being chief among them — but it’s a reasonably entertaining and engaging romp that manages to be topical without resorting to brow-beating and posits the existence of some hitherto-unseen history for the venerable old “616 Universe” (is it still called that post- Secret Wars?) that might just make Harlem the printed-page equivalent of Netflix’s Hell’s Kitchen . We shall see.

Misty Knight is the primary mover and shaker this time out, and for those of us who feel a solo series for her is long overdue, this book at least seems determined to be an acceptable-enough substitute in the meantime. After a brief introductory flashback segment that hints at some of that “hidden history” I was just talking about, we see Misty take the point in an investigation focused on the death in police of one of the folks whose 1957 iteration we just met, and this allows Coates to touch on things you know he’s probably been dying to ever since signing on with Marvel — BLM, police brutality, the usual suspects. The privatized, mercenary Americops, who have been doing their level best to screw up Sam Wilson’s tenure as Captain America, would appear to be the primary “baddies” here, but pulling their strings are larger forces with very deep pockets, and my best guess based on some of the less-than-subtle hints peppered throughout the dialogue in this issue is that the very real evil of gentrification is going to be revealed as the “big bad” our heroes are tackling sooner rather than later. Coates displays a fairly sharp understanding of what makes Misty tick right off the bat and odds seem good that we won’t be seeing her in any of the “boob window” costumes or latex bodysuits that the always-risible Nick Spencer seems to look for every opportunity to put her in over in the pages of that just-referenced Cap book. Here, by contrast, she’s tough, capable, smart, and a pillar of her community. Things are looking up for her character already.

Storm, Manifold, and Luke Cage make up the rest of the team, and while keeping one of them under wraps (literally) for most of this chapter makes for a “reveal” that has to be considered one of the most anti-climactic cliffhangers in recent memory, on a purely technical level it still works, even if it’s less than surprising. Before we get to that point, though, we have some solidly-scripted police procedural work and some fairly strong fight sequences, as well as some short “establishing scenes” that actually do the job they’re supposed to do rather than just muddying the waters as was too often the case in the pages of “A Nation Under Our Feet.” All in all, then, while this is hardly groundbreaking stuff, it’s a more-than-competent opening segment for a story that seems to bear all the hallmarks of a politically-charged and intriguing little mystery.

Steady, veteran hands handling the art chores definitely help the proceedings here, as well. Butch Guice has always been a reliably good penciller with a strong sense of fluidity and realism to his work, and here he adds a welcome touch of urban grit to his repetoire that’s ably accentuated by the faithful inks of Scott Hanna. The visuals aren’t going to knock your socks off, but they belie a keen understanding of how to move a story along with ease in front of a reader’s eyes that too many people out to “wow” you with their style never seem to understand. Top it off with Dan Brown‘s well-chosen color palette and what you have here is a comic that knows it’s more important to tell you a story than to floor you with it — always appreciated, as far as I’m concerned, and almost a lost art these days.

Capping off the “old school” look and feel is John Cassaday‘s sleek and graceful cover, where he seems to be content to deviate a bit from his usual style and channel his inner Paul Gulacy with a ’70s-style composite-image “jam” that fits the tone of the interior pages to a proverbial “T,” and goes some way toward mitigating the pain always inflicted by Marvel’s outrageous $3.99 cover price (which I shelled for out of my own pocket, by the way, no “freebie” review copy here).

So, yeah — count me as being borderline-impressed by Black Panther & The Crew #1. Low expectations may have played a part in that, but even going in “blind,” so to speak, I probably would have walked away wanting to know what would happen next. With the writing duties being farmed out (at least partially) next month, we’ll see if things suffer at all, but I feel reasonably confident that the groundwork has been laid for a nice little series here that we can probably look forward to at least 12 (or thereabouts) issues from.

Now, about that Misty Knight solo book —

Story : Ta-Nehisi Coates  Art :  Butch Guice & Scott Hanna

Story : 7 Art : 8 Overall : 7.5 Recommendation : Buy

 

Review: Grass Kings #1

I’m not sure what it is about human beings and plots of land, but ever since our species (well, most of us, at any rate) gave up its nomadic ways, the places we’ve chosen to inhabit have become downright sacred to us. On the one hand, that can manifest itself in generally innocuous, perhaps even quaint, ways such as hometown pride. On the other, it can give rise to genuinely ugly impulses such as nationalism and a fear of the other, of those who come from somewhere else.

It remains to be seen how attachment to place will play out in the pages of Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins‘ new series Grass Kings, the first issue of which has just seen print courtesy of BOOM! Studios, but there’s no doubt that this particular patch of dirt near a lake (referred to simply as “the” lake) has been hard-fought for. Kindt and Jenkins show us snippets of its bloody history — dating back to 1200 A.D. — in a masterful bit of stage-setting before dropping us squarely into the present day, where it now serves as the home of something called “The Grass Kingdom,” a “breakaway community” of sorts that seems to answer to no greater national, state, or even local authorities and functions as a safe haven for those who choose — or perhaps are forced by circumstance — to withdraw from society at large in favor of an isolated, self-sufficient existence. I can certainly get behind that idea — like many, the political ascendancy of Donald Trump has already tempted me to head for the hills on numerous (and counting) occasions — but I’m not sure if a sprawling, junked-out trailer court is where I’d choose to go if I ever really did to decide to “get off the grid.” Still, the so-called “Grass Kingdom” is what it is, and there’s probably a pretty good reason it finds itself in the state it’s in today.

Those reasons remain to be expounded upon, of course, first issues being the “appetizers” that they are, but in truth not much more feels like it needs to be done by way of “world-building” here as this opening installment is, in effect, one massive info-dump. A decidedly clever and elegant info-dump, to be sure, but an info-dump just the same.

In fairly short order we come to learn that this ramshackle “kingdom” is overseen by three brothers, the eldest of whom, Bruce, serves as the de facto lawman (most of the “action” here revolves around his apprehension and escorting-off-the-premises of a youth from the nearby town of Cargill, who asks a lot of questions and gets most of the answers he — and we — need in order to limn the “lay of the land,” so to speak), while the youngest, Robert, has somehow risen to and/or inherited the position of leader of the community, despite the fact that he spends most of his time drinking away his considerable sorrows stemming from the tragic loss of his daughter and subsequent departure of his wife. One gets the distinct impression that the “Kingdom” functions despite Robert’s “leadership” rather than because of it, but the late-issue arrival of a mysterious stranger under even more mysterious circumstances may just prove to be the kick in the pants he needs to get him to start taking his responsibilities seriously again. And if that won’t do it, the belief on the part of Cargill’s sheriff that the “Kingdom” might be harboring a serial killer and that he needs to do something about it probably will —

There’s really a lot to like about this first chapter, I must say — from Jenkins’ gorgeously sparse and austere water-color artwork to Kindt’s equally low-key-but-effective characterization and authentic, unforced (which is saying something considering how much backstory he covers with it) dialogue, and truth be told I’m not sure how much more a person can realistically demand from an introductory salvo than what we get here. The proceedings positively drip with intrigue to the point where you’re dying to know more about the makeshift community’s past and its uncertain-to-say-the-least present, and its understated-yet-lavish visual language pulls you in and grips you tight every bit as much as its multi-faceted storyline. A strong undercurrent of tragedy seems to unite everyone who makes this place their home, and more tragedy seems to be looming on the horizon if the Cargill cops have their way. Kindt and Jenkins are both experts at their craft, and it’s a thing of quiet beauty to watch these two masters storytellers reel you in with the kind of seeming effortlessness that only comes when people are putting a hell of a lot of actual work into what they’re doing. Am I in for the duration? You’d better believe it.

Also worthy of (very) special note here is BOOM!’s superb packaging, which really gives you a lot of bang for your buck (and, incidentally, I purchased my copy of this, no digital “freebie” here). 30 pages of story and art on high-quality paper with heavy cardstock covers for $3.99? I’m not sure how they can maintain that standard — or even if they plan to — and still break even on this book, but if they can, then Marvel needs to pay some serious attention to their business model every bit as much as you, dear reader, need to pay attention to this series. Grass Kings #1 is an enchantingly bleak debut for what could very well prove to be one of the most talked-about comics of the year.

Story: Matt Kindt Art: Tyler Jenkins
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.5 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy

BOOM! Studios provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

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