Tag Archives: Black Label

Review: Rogues #1

Rogues #1

Rogues #1 is a damn fine crime comic by Joshua Williamson, Leomacs, Mat Lopes, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. It follows Leonard Snart, or the artist formerly known as Captain Cold, ten years after his last big score as he struggles to put his life back together in a rapidly gentrifying Central City. Yes, Rogues has timely commentary on the American healthcare system, city life, and capitalism through the lens of aging B-list supervillains. Also, Leomacs and Lopes’ visuals hit that nice sweet spot between super detailed art and cartooning while using silent montages and shifts in color to shift the mood of the story. For example, Snart’s windows turn blue when he gets back to work on his cold gun.

Rogues is definitely structured like an old school heist movie beginning with an extended flashback sequence set during the good ol’ days that foreshadows the job to separate introductory sequences for each crew member complete with nicknames and different art styles. Even if you’re not familiar with Leonard Snart, Lisa Snart (Golden Glider), James Jesse (Trickster), Ben Turner (Bronze Tiger), Frankie Kane (Magenta), Mick Rory (Heatwave), and the surprise seventh crew member, Williamson and Leomacs have their personalities on lock before their first mini-heist. Probably the most effective is Mick’s intro. Unlike the other Rogues, he hasn’t even tried to be respectable and is introduced wreathed in flames burning down a building for insurance money. On the other hand, Magenta is introduced in a pharmacy where she can’t afford the pills to help suppress her magnetic abilities, and Leomacs uses a loose line plus swatches of color from Mat Lopes to show her losing control. The shittiness of health insurance/pharmaceutical companies is as good enough a villain origin as any.

But before setting up the crew, Joshua Williamson and Leomacs spend a decent chunk of Rogues #1 digging into what Leonard Snart’s post-Captain Cold days are like, and it isn’t a pretty sight. Later, in the story, Snart is super manipulative and let’s say definitely gets into “Black Label” territory instead of the usual Rogues’ code of honor so showing him get jerked around by probation officer and the suits at the warehouse he works at help him score major sympathy points. Williamson and Leomacs nail the tedium and pain of modern existence as Snart gets a promotion at work, but finds out it’s because his bosses know that he’ll do whatever they want because he’s an ex-con. Then, he and Leomacs cut to the overcrowded train (Hey, at least, Central City has public transit unlike some American cities.), his old neighborhood getting torn down, and finally, his disorderly apartment. No wonder, he rages out and returns to a life of crime. Lopes’ palette shift from brown to red and finally blue is a story in and of itself, and Leomacs brings out the goggles and blue jacket to show this change when Snart begins to recruit his crew.

Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is a very underrated part of Rogues #1 from the opening scene where the ridges on the end of his balloons and the little bubbles show that the Ape (Of Angel and the Ape fame) is washed out and just wants to pick a fight at the supervillain bar because his girlfriend is dating Detective Chimp. Later, on in the story, Otsmane-Elhaou uses crooked curlicues when Leonard Snart speaks with his supervisors and waits for the other shoe to drop to symbolize him carefully picking his words so he doesn’t end up on his ass. Finally, to match the bustling city streets that Leomacs draws and Joshua Williamson’s dialogue, the lettering is all over the page when Snart begs and pleads for his sister to help him out on his last job even though she’s found fulfilling work as a social worker. Unlike the all-in Mick Rory or the desperate Magenta, it takes some cajoling for Lisa Snart to even have a conversation with her brother, and Leomacs’ body language for her shows that she doesn’t want any more from this interaction. As I mentioned earlier, each Rogue’s reintroduction is a mini-masterclass in different storytelling techniques culminating in a super tense set piece that isn’t the actual heist just yet.

Rogues #1 is proof of an adage that I like to trot out for Marvel/DC/corporate IP characters that in the right hands that any of these action figures can be compelling. Joshua Williamson, Leomacs, Mat Lopes, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou connect B-list villains to economic insecurity in a fast-paced, character driven act one of a heist story. Before jumping into the action, Williamson and Leomacs provides insight into each crew member’s personality and motivation and make the stakes Mount Everest high. Like seriously, I have no idea how the Rogues are going to pull off this last job even with Leonard Snart in “give no fucks” mode. With one exception, the team is really endearing in their desperation though, and going after one of the richest beings of the world gives the comic a blue collar Robin Hood vibe.

All in all, Rogues #1 is a reminder that superhero and crime stories complement each other nicely, especially with such gorgeous layouts and color palettes from Leomacs and Lopes.

Story: Joshua Williamson Art: Leomacs
Colors: Mat Lopes Letters: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy

DC Comics/Black Label provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Purchase: comiXology/Kindle – Zeus Comics – TFAW

Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes’ ‘Dare’ Does Space Hero Satire Better than ‘Strange Adventures’

While I was reading Strange Adventures #1, or Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Evan Shaner’s latest comic on King’s military service and his regrets and feelings about working for the CIA as well as how much he loves his wife starring a DC Comics B-list character, I had the sneaking suspicion I’d read a better version of this comic. That comic was Dare: The Controversial Memoir of Dan Dare by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes that was serialized in the UK comics magazines Revolver and Crisis in 1990-1991 before being reprinted by both FantagraphicsMonster Comics imprint and Image Comics.

Before going into the whole anything Tom King/Scott Snyder/Geoff Johns has done, a British Invasion writer like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison has done better (And decades before.), I’ll look at the surface similarities between Strange Adventures and Dare. Created in 1958 and 1950 respectively, Adam Strange and Dan Dare have the same Space Age DNA and were influenced by previous sci-fi action heroes, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. In his early stories, Adam Strange was accidentally transported from an archaeology dig to the planet Rann where he protected the planet from invaders and fell in love with their princess, Alanna. Dan Dare’s stories were set in the “future” of the 1990s, and he was a pilot in the Interplanet Space Fleet, who explored other planets and protected Earth from the invasions of the villainous Treen.

Strange Adventures #1

Strange Adventures and Dare show both Adam Strange and Dan Dare as way past their prime with Dare having a little more satirical bite. The framing narrative of Strange Adventures is Adam Strange going on a book tour where he gets asked questions some friendly, some antagonistic about his actions in Rann, and this ramps up when one of his critics is found with a laser blast in his head. In Dare, Dan Dare is disabled, living off a military pension, and struggling writing his memoirs when Gloria Monday (A stand-in for Margaret Thatcher.) asks him to be the symbol of her re-election campaign even as he begins to find out that her government may have been responsible for the death of his old ally, Dr. Jocelyn Peabody.

Strange Adventures and Dare use the Pykkt Empire (Created for the series) and the Treen respectively as stand-in’s for the “other”. Strange Adventures seems to be using the Pykkt as a commentary on American interventionism in the Middle East (Which is where Tom King served.) with Shaner staging the Adam Strange flashbacks on a desert planet with him fighting a solider with a head and face covering. Dare uses the Treen as a general metaphor for the rebirth of British imperialism, but especially the Falklands War with Hughes’ clever parodies of the Sun‘s violent, xenophobic headlines and the connection between that war and Gloria Monday, er, Margaret Thatcher’s reelection in 1983.

Dan Dare

I will throw up a quick disclaimer that Dare is a completed work while Strange Adventures has eleven more issues to tell its story. However, Dare is the stronger work of satire while King seems to be too close to the material he’s writing about to go from his personal experience to something more universal other than a fairly banal “Who is telling the truth?” Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes introducing Dan Dare as a pathetic figure drinking and popping painkillers in front of his fireplace looking more like Morrissey than a “boy’s own comic” hero, who can’t even write his memoirs properly. This desperation and need for money is why he basically sells his soul to the devil and lets Monday use his image for her reelection campaign in the midst of strikes and food shortages that were the reality in the U.K. when Thatcher was prime minister and have not gone away even with fancy things like interplanetary space travel.

In all aspects, Dare is an excellent work of social commentary that uses the iconic British comic strip character to skewer imperialism, racism, and Tory/Conservative policies that have persisted to 2020 with the government of Boris Johnson in the U.K. and Donald Trump in the United States. Towards the end of the second issue, Morrison and Hughes have Dare’s old batman (A military officer’s personal servant aka hooray for class tension.) , Digby with which he has a strained relationship, confront him for killing Treen children in his last space battle. Instead of making Dare contrite or remorseful, he is portrayed as defensive while still having the good point that Digby watched him gun down the Treen children when they revolted after being treated by both their own leader, Mekon, and Earth as a slave labor force. Dare’s disability, his addictions, and money issues make him a sympathetic figure, but Morrison and Hughes aren’t afraid to call him out on his actions and make a character created to inspire young boys to serve God and the British Empire look weak and morally compromised.

On the other hand, Strange Adventures #1 seems less concerned with broader social commentary and more about Tom King using yet another DC character to deal with how he personally feels about being in the CIA, albeit, with better visuals and less line-wide impact than Heroes in Crisis. The dialogue that Strange uses is telling as he implores Batman to “show them I’m innocent” in a dark-draped panel drawn by Mitch Gerads. Unlike Dare, which casts a skeptical eye on British pop iconography, and by extension, politics and foreign policy, Strange Adventures is about vindication.

Adam Strange has to be the exposition spouting hero drawn in a clean pulp style by Evan Shaner, and this tension between him and Mr. Terrific’s investigation looks like the driving force behind the series. He has to be the hero and have the big redeeming moment while Dare is impotent, can barely walk, and his imagery is used to uphold a government that is okay with turning “undesirable” humans into food called Manna in cahoots with the Treen leader, Mekon, that Dare fought so many years ago. For now, King seems content with self-involvement via superheroes instead of looking at larger systems of control like Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes did in Dare.

Dare ends with a bomb that Dare set in his old spaceship, Anastasia, going off and wiping out London, including Mekon, who was there celebrating Gloria Monday’s election as well as the protagonist himself before cutting to a blank drawing board in almost a similar manner to the way the ending of Animal Man showed Grant Morrison meeting his creation. It’s a stark, six panel reminder that Dan Dare’s creator, Frank Hampson, signed away the rights to his creation just like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did with Superman under predatory, work for hire contract.

Dare may have been a cheerful, heroic figure, but his creator, Hampson, did not reap a financial reward commensurate with his fame. Morrison and Hughes are using an iconic British character to basically flip off the comics establishment a couple years before the founding of Image Comics in a kind of metafiction and create a revolutionary story. It is highly unlikely that King, Gerads, and Shaner will do that to DC Comics/Warner Bros/A T and T, and at its best, Strange Adventures will be an attempt at pastiche and a dark deconstruction of a Silver Age space hero.

And the fact that Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes use an iconic figure in British pop culture instead of a character that rarely has his own title to tell their story of heroism being used to serve the predatory establishment instead of fighting for truth, justice, and all that stuff makes Dare a stronger story than Strange Adventures. This is despite the comic not being as well-known as Grant Morrison’s other work during that time period, including Zenith, Arkham Asylum, Animal Man, and Doom Patrol. And along with being a compelling work of satire, Dare has some wonderful flourishes like Rian Hughes’ brutalist approach to future architecture and world-building with a character remarking that Art Deco didn’t leave much room for places to live and shop and a cheeky sense of deadpan humor. (See any photoshoot scene featuring Dan Dare.)

If you’re looking for a story where so-called paragons of heroism are powerless to shake the bonds of systems of control, then Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes’ Dare is a comic worth reading. Instead of gazing at its own navel (Albeit in a visually interesting way by Mitch Gerads and Evan Shaner) like Strange Adventures, Dare offers up a portrait of a society crumbling due to conservative social policies and choosing power over decency through the lens of a spaceman’s salad days.

Review: The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage #1

The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage #1

DC Black Label branches out from Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn in the gritty and trippy The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage #1. With a dedication to both Question’s original creator Steve Ditko and his finest writer (Up to now) Dennis O’Neil, writer Jeff Lemire, artists Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz, and colorist Chris Sotomayor attempt to bridge the character’s portrayals as an Objectivist, who views the world in strict black and white terms and as an Eastern philosophy-influenced fighter of systemic evils, who donned the Question mask to right wrongs that newscaster Vic Sage couldn’t. They also craft the first chapter in one hell of a mystery. It features an art style that is far from the usual capes and tights.

Bringing back artists Cowan and Sienkiewicz from The Question’s original DC Comics series was a stroke of genius. It’s what initially got me interested in this series. Sienkiewicz’s scratchy inks and Cowan’s almost journalistic portrayal of human nature roots the first half of Question in the violent, yet ripped from the headlines crime stories that characterized the original run.

The comic opens up with Question muttering something straight out of a Mr. A strip or an Ayn Rand novel and catching a Hub City councilman in a brothel with underage girls. He knocks the creep about a little bit but is mostly concerned with recording footage for Vic Sage to play on the evening news where he openly accuses Hub City mayor Wesley Fermin of being connected to organized crime that leads to a lawsuit and more trouble. The sequence sets up Sage’s very public persona and role as the gadly, or voice of truth, in Hub City. That makes it necessary for him to wear face-warping masks courtesy of his old chemistry professor, Aristotle “Tot” Rodor.

However, this dual identity isn’t so simple. Lemire and Cowan play with the different sides of Question and Vic Sage’s personalities. They show that Question’s single-minded quest for justice sometimes makes him lose the big picture. An example is the police shooting of an unarmed man while he’s following a lead about a ring that was on both the councilman’s finger and the mayor’s lawyer’s. The Question is a skilled detective but his conspiracy-driven nature can blind him to the everyday issues of his city. Cowan, Sienkiewicz, and Sotomayor show this visually through a wavy line, lots of black ink, and a darker color palette. It culminates in Question’s discovery of a literal abyss and some surreal imagery where you can really see the Sienkiewicz influence shine through.

Thankfully, in the second half of The Question #1, Lemire and Cowan create the context for these images. It’s a departure from the crime fiction of the comic’s first act to something more mystical. Hence, Richard Dragon shows up with insight and potty mouth one-liners. (Think the Bride’s sensei in Kill Bill sans the misogyny and xenophobia.) From a big picture perspective, the conversation between Dragon and Sage also seems like a conversation between O’Neil and Ditko. The former taking Question into more of a zen Buddhism direction while Ditko used him as the avatar of his black and white view of the world. That was passed onto his creation Mr. A and Question’s spiritual offspring, Rorschach. (The nine panel grids and the use of “Hrrm” are a nod to that fellow.)

Richard Dragon believes that souls can travel between bodies while Question just wanted to learn martial arts to kick ass and is talking to his old teacher to solve a mystery steeped in symbolism, but connected to Hub City and its corruption. To take a page out of the German philosopher Hegel‘s book, Dragon is thesis, Question is antithesis, and they are a long way from synthesis. The last few pages introduce another wrinkle in the status quo in a natural non “Oh shit, we need a cliffhanger” way. Cowan makes fantastic use of recurring metronome motif to slip readers into another world. It’s like seeing a hypnotherapist as the story shifts in genre. His solid storytelling and well-placed use of six and nine-panel grids, as well as larger layouts, doesn’t waver.

The debut is steeped in the classic O’Neil and Cowan run as well as the ideology of Ditko. Lemire, Cowan, Sienkiewicz, and Sotomayor make sure The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage #1 isn’t a nostalgia-driven retread. In a current era where political corruption runs rampant, and the said corrupt don’t even try to sweep it under a rug, a character who isn’t afraid to speak truth to power is incredibly relevant. However, the Question also engages in Randian purity policing and has a primal, childish view of the world. He’s far from an inspirational figure. This is why Cowan and Sienkiewicz’s naturalistic, almost dirty art style is a good fit for the book. They and Lemire also aren’t afraid to get a little weird. I’m interested to see how they synthesize the various versions of the Question in both the spiritual and physical realms.

Story: Jeff Lemire Pencils: Denys Cowan  Inks: Bill Sienkiewicz
Colors: Chris Sotomayor Letters: Willie Schubert
Story: 8.9 Art: 9.5 Overall: 9.2 Recommendation: Buy

DC Comics/Black Label provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Preview: Batman: Damned #2

Batman: Damned #2

(W) Brian Azzarello (A/CA) Lee Bermejo
In Shops: Dec 12, 2018
SRP: $6.99

As Batman’s descent into the madness of Gotham City’s decadent underbelly continues, he must try to exorcise some of his demons…and who better to help than the Demon, Etrigan himself. And where there’s demons, there’s also a Deadman, a Spectre, an Enchantress and a host of other supernatural friends and foes-it’s a veritable Grand Guignol!

Review: Batman: Damned #1 Has Gorgeous Visuals, Overwrought Narration

Batman: Damned #1 is 50 pages of glorious and sometimes creepy Lee Bermejo as well as 50 pages of John Constantine yapping about theology, heaven and hell, religious things, and the like and occasionally displaying his snarky wit courtesy of writer Brian Azzarello, who returns to the character almost two decades after being the first American to write Hellblazer in 2000. Batman: Damned has the tailor made for an elevator pitch premise of the Joker mysteriously being wounded, and Batman mysteriously having no idea what happened to him and teaming up with John Constantine to get to the bottom of things. It’s equally parts gritty and Gothic thanks to Bermejo’s art and works best when it’s reveling in its spookiness and disorienting atmosphere instead of trying to be deep or give Bruce Wayne a screwed up childhood before his parents were murdered.

At times, Azzarello and Bermejo seem to be working at counter purposes in Batman: Damned #1. The comic is filled with brilliant and sometimes shocking imagery from Bermejo and then kind of ruined with the overwrought narration from Azzarello. Brian Azzarello definitely is having a fun time writing Constantine narration, and the lettering has a nice storybook flow to it, but it undercuts the art sometimes by describing what is on the page instead of creating an interesting juxtaposition or adding layers to characterization like in Watchmen or Kingdom Come, for example. Azzarello and Bermejo do nail Constantine’s character in a single panel when he’s smoking and refers to himself as “the unreliable narrator”, which fits the non-linear, yet non-confusing nature of Batman: Damned’s plot whose supernatural elements keep it from being a cut and dried “What If Batman killed the Joker” story.

Honestly, the most unsettling part of Batman: Damned #1 are the flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood that go beyond the typical Zorro, pearls, Crime Alley, Waynes getting shot, and I’m not talking about Lee Bermejo’s creepy girl from The Ring take on The Enchantress. There’s a scene where young Bruce is out with his father Thomas and his mistress and entertaining himself by spitting off a tall building and counting, and he almost falls off the building when his dad throws a penny for his spit to “race”. A lot of orphan superhero’s parents were at least some kind of moral paragon, like Uncle Ben or Battlin’ Jack Murdock refusing to take a dive for a mob boss, but despite being super rich, Thomas Wayne doesn’t come across as a great dad or husband. Having a near death experience while your dad is cheating on your mom is definitely traumatic and adds more tragedy to the Batman mythos.

Batman: Damned #1 is at its finest when Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo go away from the theological narration and hurl the reader forward in a story about Batman being on the ropes with a gritty, supernatural tinge to it like Zatanna being a street musician or an eerie, invasive take on the body possessing Deadman. The comic’s opening sequence is a perfect example this beginning with a nine panel grid of an EKG and cutting to a full page image of Batman bleeding out before having him beat up cops, EMTS, and random passerbys while being disoriented and falling into the open arms of Alfred, er, John Constantine. There’s a real feeling of peril like the guy who has extensive notes and solutions for each Justice League member’s weaknesses has finally screwed up and could actually die or fail. It reminds me a lot of the Batman: Arkham video games when your health is dwindling, and the world is all cloudy and blood filled.

As shown in a scene where he’s crouching naked in front of a Batsuit (A page or so after the famous full frontal nudity.), Batman is definitely in pain throughout Batman: Damned #1 as he spends the entire comic trying to retrace his steps and figure out if he’s responsible for killing the Joker. Brian Azzarello’s incessant John Constantine is both parts annoying and hilarious, insightful and overbearing, but Lee Bermejo’s gorgeous image composition and aforementioned Gothic grit make the first DC Black Label book worth a read.

Story: Brian Azzarello Art: Lee Bermejo
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher

Story: 6 Art: 9.5 Overall: 7.8 Recommendation: Read

DC Comics/Black Label provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review