Childhood Comics

As far as I know, I started buying comic books in 1975. The 70s were a weird time for the comic book industry: In the 1950s the industry (such as it was) had a fair bit of genre diversity, with superhero, western, horror, and humor books all being published. The 60s saw superhero books move towards ascendency, and by the mid-1970s superhero books were clearly the dominant genre, with the other genres in decline. Other than Jonah Hex I’m not sure I saw another western title outside of a comic book store in the 70s. (In my lifetime, the arrival of a well-made western film seems to underscore just how dead the genre is.) There were a few horror books, and a smattering of other titles.

Uncle Scrooge #114 (1974)

We’ve been watching the new DuckTales cartoon (recommended!), and it reminded me of one of the few non-superhero books of that era that’s stuck in my memory. I’ve never been a big fan of the Disney characters, but I picked up a few of their comics when I was a kid, and the one I remember is “The Phantom of Notre Duck”, which I probably read when it was reprinted in Uncle Scrooge #114 (Sept 1974), and which I likely picked up as part of some supermarket bundle of books rather than through a newsstand or comics shop. These bundles were often 3-5 comics packaged together in a sealed plastic bag, usually with no connection to each other, and you usually couldn’t see what was inside other than the front and back issues. If this is how I acquired it, I probably bought it because it was in a bundle with some superhero book on the outside that I wanted.

I really have no insight into how these bundles were created, whether they were national or local, or what. I just bought ’em (or, well, my parents did). It looks like this issue was published by Gold Key and also printed with the “Whitman” logo: Whitman says the two were the same publisher, and that the Whitman logo was used for bagged comics, so maybe that was it. I have no memory of which version I owned.

The story (written & illustrated by Carl Barks) I mainly remember involved Scrooge and his nephews pursuing the Phantom throughout the Cathedral, with hidden doors & passageways, old rooms and ornaments, and the heroes eventually managing to corner the Phantom and figure out what it’s up to, and that it wasn’t all that sinister after all. But I haven’t actually read it in probably 40 years, as I likely purged it – perhaps long missing its cover – at some point in the 80s or 90s. But I recall it fondly as a spooky story, which I might want to track down and read again – it seems it’s been reprinted at least twice more since then, so it ought to be possible.

The Addams Family #1 (1974)

Recalling that book reminded me of another non-superhero book I read as a kid, coincidentally (maybe?) also from 1974, The Addams Family #1. Maybe this date is a sign that I actually read a few comics before the earliest ones I remember from 1975, I don’t know. I’ve long thought the first comic I read was Wonder Woman #220 (Nov 1975 – which means it was probably on the newsstands over the summer).

In any event, I am a huge fan of Charles Addams‘ cartoons, and I own a copy of almost every collection of his cartoons that have been published. But I didn’t become a fan until my dad bought me a copy of his last original collection, Creature Comforts (1981), so I had no attachment to this comic when I read it. It was just weird. It seems it was probably spun out of a 1973 cartoon series, which frankly I’d never even heard of until now. (I mean, maybe I watched it when I was a kid, but I have no memory of it!) I also didn’t watch the famous 1960s TV series, so I have no attachment to it, either. I do kinda dimly remember them showing up in Scooby-Doo.

I have almost very little memory of the comic itself. As you can see, the cover was sparsely drawn with no background, which stuck out to me at the time. My recollection is that it involved the family going on vacation in the spooky camper seen on the cover, and elevating the chassis on stilts several dozen feet in the air in order to drive over a traffic jam, but that’s about it. It seems it was a little different from that, and was directly adapted from one of the animated episodes. It appears to have been written and illustrated by Bill Ziegler, about whom I know nothing except for what’s written at that link. I bet it was pretty weak, though I also bet if I’d been a few years older I would have enjoyed the animated show.

Interpretations of the Addams Family are interesting to track, as a long-time fan. The ones I’ve seen do reflect Addams’ originals in general, especially their sense of family and mutual support in this group of oddball characters living in their own space within larger, “normal” society. But the details are often curious, especially the reversal of Pugsley and Wednesday’s characters in the 1990s films (although one can hardly object to them spotlighting Christina Ricci in her breakout role by giving Wednesday a more vivid and active characterization). I don’t know what this year’s film is like, although I’m not a fan of the character designs.

I’m not going anywhere with all this, except that we all have vague memories of our childhoods, some of them stick persistently in our minds for a long time, to the point that we no longer recall why they made us remember them at all. But at least with these I can go out and find copies of these two books and read them again and see if they stir anything up in me.

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Now that I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame and I’m all caught up on them, I thought I’d survey all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Endgame marks the end of the 22 films which Marvel claims are collectively titled “The Infinity Saga”, though I think that’s meant to sound more impressive than it is: The films are linked, to be sure, but the link is for some films pretty tenuous, and the overall story certainly could have been condensed down to no more than six movies as there’s a lot of material superfluous to what one might call the main story.

Still, despite this posturing, it’s been an enjoyable run, albeit with its ups and downs..

To start with, I put together a ranking of all of the films, with letter grades. There are some I might move up a little or down a little depending on my mood – especially the ones in the C range which are all very similar in quality – but in the large here’s where I put them:

And now I’ll briefly – and chronologically – run through all of the films with some expanded thoughts on them.

Spoilers ahoy!

Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010)

I didn’t see these when they first came out – I didn’t see them until after The Avengers – and I wrote a joint review of them. It’s hard not to think of them as linked, since they’re very similar films. Iron Man has better character bits but a disappointing finale (“hero runs out of power but triumphs anyway” is never a satisfying finish), while Iron Man 2 has a lot of dead air leading up to a much more satisfying climax. Both films hold up pretty well today, and it’s really hard to say which one I like more. Their biggest weakness is that Tony’s friends can’t convincingly stand up to him (Nick Fury’s appearance in Iron Man 2 is a breath of fresh air in this regard), and so the story often feels like it’s a man’s internal struggles made external, but kind of ham-fistedly so. Unfortunately, the MCU never did learn to apply nuance to Tony’s character or struggles.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Not a sequel to the 2003 film Hulk (which I haven’t seen), this one is only tenuously connected to the rest of the series. Edward Norton does a terrific version of Bill Bixby’s Bruce (David) Banner from the 1970s TV series, reinforced by the opening credits which seems to recreate the origin from that series. (Apparently they filmed 70 minutes worth of origin footage! Then wisely decided to just use it as credits visuals.) The movie plays more like a horror film than a superhero film, and its best scene is the army facing the Hulk on a college campus, which is perhaps the single most effective scene for showing what a completely terrifying experience the Hulk would really be. The film is majorly let down by its special effects, which would have seemed dated 5 years earlier when The Lord of the Rings finished its trilogy. The story is kind of dumb and since there never was a sequel one of the major loose ends never gets resolved, but there is lots of smashing.

Thor (2011)

Somehow directed by Kenneth Branagh and featuring a fantastic cast, Thor is unfortunately a rather tedious film due to a by-the-numbers story of Thor learning responsibility and how to (sometimes) see through his brother Loki’s machinations. Chris Hemsworth made the role of Thor his own, but is overshadowed by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. The film only has one truly great scene, where Thor gets his hammer back and faces the Destroyer.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The first MCU film I saw in the theater, you can read my full review from that time. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and it holds up wonderfully. Chris Evans is picture-perfect as Cap, making him more than a naive do-gooder, convincing us that he has deep-seated beliefs motivating his actions. His conversations with Erskine are both amusing and moving. The moment when Cap and Bucky and the soldiers walk back into camp after Cap rescues them is the single best scene in any film in this list. Even the ending works perfectly – although it maybe works a little better after seeing the later films since it makes it not quite so bittersweet.

The Avengers (2012)

I saw this one in the theater too, and here’s my review. The Avengers holds up better than I would have guessed at the time: The wheel-spinning plot of act two works a bit better as character-building now that we have a better idea of what characters were built. Joss Whedon’s cutesy dialogue hasn’t aged as well, nor has his ham-handed scripting of the Black Widow. And then the whole point of the invasion is questionable given what we know from Infinity War and Endgame (why does Thanos bother with all of this?). But there are several great scenes, and the whole final battle is the gold standard for staging a complex superhero fight. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is very different from Edward Norton’s, but it works well for how his character develops. But the film really belongs to Cap and Iron Man as the big two of the MCU.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Many people hate this film. I’m not going to die on a hill defending it, but I think it’s better than some think. The film works with an interesting premise: What can Tony Stark do if he can’t be Iron Man? And there are some fun scenes built around that, (very) loosely inspired by a few similar moments from some comic books. The rescue of the President’s aides is pretty great, too. But the story overall is a mess, the Mandarin is a tremendous disappointment (they got Ben Kingsley and wasted him on this?), and the final battle is a lot of flash but is basically kind of silly.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Award winner in the category of “most criminal underuse of Christopher Eccleston” right here. The Dark World is incomprehensible nonsense almost from start to finish, punctuated by cringeworthy scenes that I guess are supposed to be funny (especially those involving Erik Selvig). The scene where Thor and Loki put one over on Malekith is pretty good, but otherwise this one has nothing to contribute to the series except another Infinity Stone.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The first two Captain America films are neck-and-neck as my favorite superhero films, but when pressed I think the first one is just a little bit better. Still, I loved The Winter Soldier, as I wrote in my original review. While the high-level story involving “the algorithm” and the plot device “we must put our chip in all three carriers or it’s all for naught” is basically ridiculous, the story works very well the rest of the way, especially the sense of paranoia Hydra engenders, and the sheer hopelessness Cap feels when confronting Bucky. Black Widow gets her best characterization here, and it feels like the directors brought a great performance out of Scarlett Johansson where Joss Whedon couldn’t. Anthony Mackie is immediately terrific as the Falcon. Finally, the action scenes are amazing, like The Matrix on caffeine and speed.

My biggest regret in this film is that they planted several seeds of future Cap movies (Bucky, Sharon Carter, Nick Fury going walkabout) which got sacrificed on the altar of Age of Ultron and Civil War, and frankly it just wasn’t worth it.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Some people love this film, thinking it’s in the upper echelon of the series. I think it’s practically the epitome of an average action film, with a cardboard villain, a lot of fine action scenes, heavy on the humor, and a pretty standard story arc. The emotional center of the film – Quill and Gamora – suffers a lot in that I think Zoe Saldana is a pretty wooden actress. By contrast Bradley Cooper’s Rocket – despite being a voice actor over a CGI raccoon – is the most sympathetic and engaging of the characters. I’m reasonably happy to watch this when it comes on TV and I want something on in the background, but it’s not going to displace a Red Sox game.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Things start to go wrong here, and I’m not sure whether it’s because of Joss Whedon’s script and direction, or if it’s instructions from higher up about where the characters should go which gets in the way. Ultron is an embarrassingly dumb villain – quite a change from his comics persona where he’s one of the five scariest villains in the Marvel Universe – and there are just too many characters here with too much running around, complete with a second-act fight which is even more pointless than in the first movie, as much fun as it might be to see the Hulk run crazy. The Vision is tragically underused in this film and in later ones. At best this film is moving the chess pieces around for later films, but it’s not a fun experience. It also suffers from not having Alan Silvestri score the music as he did for the other Avengers films.

Ant-Man (2015)

A charming little caper film, Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are both at the top of their games in this film about a retired hero (a contemporary of Howard Stark) recruiting a small-time thief to help take back his company. For comics fans it’s a fun re-mixing of comics elements into the MCU, but it works fine on its own too. The best scenes involve Scott and his daughter Cassie, as Rudd completely sells Scott’s love for his daughter and how that relationship guides him when it really matters.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

And here’s where the wheels fall off on the overall story. First of all, this should have been the third Avengers film because it’s not really a Cap film. Second, it cements Tony Stark’s place as the greatest villain of the MCU (well okay, maybe Thanos passes him later on, in results if nothing else). It’s a nice introduction for the Black Panther, who’s the only character who comes out of this having gone anywhere, but they could have accomplished that in a much narrowed Cap film which also developed his relationship with Bucky reasonably. Turning Tony into a man-child and basically undoing all of his earlier character development was just awful. It’s always fun to see Chris Evans as Cap, but he deserved a lot better than this.

Doctor Strange (2016)

It’s decidedly weird to see Benedict Cumberbatch with an American accent, but that aside he was quite well cast as Doctor Strange, who has his own personal hubris and downfall to overcome, not entirely unlike that of Tony Stark, albeit with a more transformational result. I didn’t completely buy that Strange had truly become the “master of the mystic arts” by the end of the film, but it was close enough. I also appreciated that they didn’t go “the full Ditko” with the CGI dreamscapes. There are a lot of directions they can take Doc in future films, and I hope they choose the “sorcerer supreme” direction rather than the “loses his powers and has to soldier on somehow” direction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 (2017)

It seems like big fans of the first Guardians film felt this was a disappointment, but I think it’s only a small step down. I’m not sure whether they could have come up with a truly satisfying reveal for Quill’s father, and this was a pretty good try. It’s his relationship with Yondu which works best, though. Nebula and Gamora’s reconciliation works pretty well too.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

I’m probably in the minority here, but I did not like this film. I thought Tom Holland was fine as Peter Parker and great as Spider-Man, and the fight scenes were excellent. But the high school scenes were painfully awkward, Tony Stark’s patronizing lack of trust in Peter is another big strike against his character, and Peter’s desperate attempts to make a difference early in the film are both cringeworthy and feel very out-of-character for him. Spider-Man’s character works best as a young man who’s responsible beyond his years, and while they’re trying to make him a more fallible hero, I don’t think they thread that needle. I haven’t seen most of the earlier Spider-Man films, but I’d take the first Tobey Maguire one over this one.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Another film that some people adore and which I think is just okay. I appreciated the opening sequence where we see how far Thor has come since his first film, yet we see later that he’s learned some of the wrong lessons, that he’s still a little too full of himself even though he’s much more wise and capable than he once was. The scenes on Sakaar are fairly entertaining, but most of the stuff on Asgard is dull, and the final battle feels pretty disappointing, like there wasn’t really a victory there, yet not much processing of what was lost either. I guess Chris Hemsworth has been enjoying the comic side of his later MCU movies, but I think it’s consistently some of the weakest stuff in them. Kudos to the writers and director for trying some off-the-wall stuff, but it was pretty hit-or-miss overall.

Black Panther (2018)

I don’t think it’s possible for me to like this film as much as some people do, but I do think it’s a good film. The acting is great across-the-board (honestly Martin Freeman is probably the weak link here and he’s still fine), and it represents a new step forward in staging complex battle scenes. That said, T’challa’s character arc straight out of Rocky is a little meh, and the big fight at the end feels a bit too manufactured. I preferred the first half where it was a sort of superhero James Bond film.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

A two-and-a-half hour set-up for Endgame, I didn’t see this in the theater and once I saw it I didn’t feel like I missed much. It really has only two great scenes – when Cap and company show up to rescue Vision and the Scarlet Witch, and when Thor arrives to fight Thanos. The film otherwise was just overstuffed with characters, none of whom displayed any real character. The directors have said that Thanos is the film’s protagonist, which explains a lot about why it doesn’t work: His motivations make no sense, he doesn’t grow or change as a character, he’s utterly unsympathetic and is in a way the ultimate generic villain. Not quite as big a flub as Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but up there. The film sort of tried to pay off the tragedy of the Avengers being broken up and unable to work together after Civil War, but it’s a subtheme at best. The best part of the film is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, who fills the “everyman” role in the story, just kind of amazed at everything going on around him. He gets the single best line in the film, too: “You guys are so screwed!”

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Another fine caper film, maybe a little better than the original: The villain was more interesting, and the spectacle was more entertaining. The Ant-Man films are not tremendously ambitious, but I don’t think they’re meant to be. If you liked the first one, you should enjoy this one.

Captain Marvel (2019)

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this film – which I did see on the big screen, and it was worth it – since the comic book version of Captain Marvel has a long and complex backstory which I didn’t see them translating to the MCU. Quite sensibly they kept the bare bones of her origin and jettisoned almost everything else in favor of a new story about a woman on a journey of self-discovery. The film is quite clever with some fun twists and turns and entertaining fight scenes at the end. Brie Larson plays Cap with a mood that switches between intense and ethereal, and though she’s cut from similar cloth as Captain America she comes across very differently from Chris Evans’ aw-shucks Brooklyn demeanor. I’m a little sorry we (probably) won’t get to see them appear together in a significant way.

Anyway, after thinking about it I realized that I enjoyed this film more than any in the series except the first two Captain America films, and I’m eager to see more. I rather hope the next film explores what she’s been doing in space for 25 years before returning to Earth, and why it seems none of the other space-based characters (Thanos, the Guardians) have heard of her, since she’s able to take down a star destroyer without working up a sweat. Figuring out how to challenge a character with that level of power is also going to be a good trick for her future writers.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Probably easier for you to just read my full review, since it was just a couple of weeks ago. But in brief it was a much more enjoyable film than Infinity War, with stronger characterization. It would have been nice if the whole third act hadn’t only been an extended fight scene, and I think the ending could have been a bit better, but as a farewell to Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in their superhero roles it was enjoyable enough.

Looking Forward and Backward

What made these movies enjoyable for me is that the core characters were true to their comic book versions, and the stories effectively remixed many comic book elements to create engaging new versions. Sometimes this worked better than other times: Winter Soldier pulled together several disparate comics plots into an enjoyable whole, while Iron Man 3 didn’t really get it. But in the end when we saw the Avengers fighting Loki and his alien army, they were the characters we wanted to see. This isn’t the way superhero movies have to be done – Christopher Nolan demonstrated that in his Batman trilogy – but it was made this series work.

The question is where the series goes from here with Captain America and Iron Man being written out, and Thor probably moving into more of a supporting role (Chris Hemsworth is apparently willing to do more Thor films, but with a more comedic bent). It sure looks like Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Doctor Strange are likely to be the core characters for the next decade or so of films, which is a mix we haven’t really seen in the comics, so we’ll see whether the studio forms them into a new team (the Defenders would be the logical choice if they decide to jettison or merge the Netflix characters into the MCU). But with Disney buying Fox it sounds like the X-Men will be arriving in the MCU soon, and perhaps the Fantastic Four after that. And then there are the rumored TV series (Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Falcon & Winter Soldier) – but I have a hard time seeing them tightly integrate those with the movies, much as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has largely been its own thing separate from the films.

Honestly I hope they move away from trying together all of the movies and instead focus on developing story arcs for each of the major characters, the sort of thing that Captain America was denied.

My guess is that the MCU as currently constructed will probably start to break down when the main stars of the next 5 years start to leave, and then we’ll see Marvel reboot the franchise in new films. That’s not the worst thing – either through hard or soft reboots most of these characters have been changing for new generations over the decades anyway, so a new Cap, Iron Man and Thor for a new generation would make sense.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame poster
(click for larger image)

Last weekend we finally saw Avengers: Endgame, which wraps up the Avengers series of movies as they’ve been set up since Iron Man back in 2008, and is basically the second half of the movie started in last year’s Infinity War.

Before I get to the spoilers I’ll say this: Infinity War was basically 2-1/2 hours of set-up, was way overstuffed with too many characters, and Thanos was a pretty limp villain, not strong enough to carry the movie, and with basically unbelievable motivations. Endgame benefits from a much smaller cast (for most of the movie) and more room to breathe, but at 3 hours long also contains a lot of material that could have just been cut, or replaced with better material. Still, it’s a fairly satisfying wrap-up to the story, and has a number of great scenes (which were sorely lacking in Infinity War).

Now, on to the spoilers:

Continue reading “Avengers: Endgame”

Outer Darkness

Many years ago when I was still into role-playing games, and in particular into Call of Cthulhu, I came across a magazine (remember those?) with a short adventure investigating a spaceship which crashed on a planetoid and – of course – eldritch horrors were involved. Someone had even created an image for the adventure involving an old Space: 1999 Eagle – an inspired choice since that show had great visual design and was at its (modest) best working the horror genre. I wondered at the time while no one had really mined the potential of Lovecraft and space opera. Of course, lots of people have combined horror and science fiction; even before I saw that magazine we’d already had Alien and George R. R. Martin’s novella “Nightflyers” (which has itself been adapted as a film and a recent TV series on SyFy), and they’re hardly the only examples. But I hadn’t seen instances combining specifically Lovecraft horror with SF.

I’m sure there have been plenty of instances by now of that combination – Lovecraftian fiction is bigger than ever and there has been a lot of it written in the last 35 years – but now we have something resembling it in comic book form: Outer Darkness, by John Layman and Afu Chan. It’s working a more overt form of horror (with large doses of terror), but it is, if you will, a second cousin to that role-playing adventure I came across decades ago. And it’s one of the comics I most look forward to each month.

The comic is on a slow burn to reveal its story, but the basic idea is this: Humanity has reached the stars, and there are horrible nightmarish things out there. Joshua Rigg is a former ship captain in a dead-end career when he’s asked by a fleet admiral to take command of his old ship, the Charon, to head into the outer darkness to retrieve – something. The ship now had a god engine, a ravenous being to which sentient lives have to be sacrificed to make the ship go. This is no Star Trek crew: The officers include an oracle, an exorcist, a mathematician, a mortician (!), and various others of various species. And apparently there’s a war on.

In the second issue, Rigg puts his crew through a brutal exercise to see what they’re capable of. And in the third we meet a couple of junior crew who come to a bad end – or so it seems. But this seems like the kind of universe where if something doesn’t get you in one issue, something else might in the next. The stage is still being set three issues in – we barely know anything about the characters’ pasts, or what’s going on in the universe, or what the Charon is heading out to retrieve. But it’s engaging stuff so far.

I was not a big fan of Layman’s previous long-form comic, Chew – I burned out on the shtick after about 30 issues – but Outer Darkness has a very different tone and is a solid read so far. It’s also got some fine and distinctive artwork by Afu Chan, whom I thought I hadn’t seen before, but it turns out I did buy HaloGen, though I don’t really remember it.

Honestly besides the space opera/horror mash-up, the slow burn resemblance to Babylon 5 is also a draw for me. If Layman wants to make this fan really happy, this series will have the sorts of revelations and changes in direction that were the keynote of that series, so that by the end we’ll be looking back impressed by how the story got from these simple beginnings to wherever it ends up. Here’s hoping!

The Wicked + The Divine #1

The Wicked + The Divine #1, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie, Image Comics, June 2014

The Wicked + The Divine #1 Like most of the comics-reading world, I discovered Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie through their two Phonogram mini-series. I quite enjoyed the first one, although McKelvie’s art was still very raw (plus it was in black-and-white, and I prefer color). But I couldn’t get into the second one, The Singles Club, which was a set of short stories with thin characterization and minimal plot. McKelvie’s art had reached A-list quality by that time, so I’ve kept an eye on each of their work. That wasn’t hard to do, since the comics blogosphere loves them. Also, I’ve been quite enjoying Gillen’s run on Iron Man (though I bailed on his Avatar comic Über after about five issues).

Their new collaboration, The Wicked + The Divine came out a couple of weeks ago to rave reviews. I enjoyed it, but I think it’s far too early to get tremendously enthusiastic about it. Well, except for the art – the art is fantastic.

The premise is that there are a set of gods (at least 4, perhaps 12) who manifest in human form – apparently by taking over the bodies of actual humans – every 90 years, stick around for 2 years, and then die. We see their last incarnations’ final moments in the 1920s in the prologue, and then we jump forward to the present day where a girl named Laura is at a dance trying to become the host for the goddess Amaterasu. She’s not chosen, but afterwards she meets Luci, one of the other gods (bet you can’t guess which one). After an assassination attempt on the gods during an interview, Luci is put on trial, and everything goes to hell.

The story has its ups and downs. The big issue I had with Phonogram is that I can’t relate to Gillen’s perspective on pop culture, especially in music, so the scene where Laura goes to Amaterasu’s concert was, for me – just short of literally – sound and fury, signifying nothing. But what happens afterwards is quite interesting: Luci’s interest in Laura, and her friction with her fellow gods, and her seemingly erratic nature. Which characters are in play, and what games they’re playing. That’s the stuff I’m interested in, and what the gods plan to do with their brief time on Earth. (What would make someone apparently give up their life to be a host to a god is another interesting question, though after this issue it’s far less interesting than what led to the issue’s cliffhanger.)

Oh, and the art is fantastic, as I said. McKelvie still sports the clean line that’s characterized his art all along, but the 1920s sequence also shows a sense of form and shading reminiscent of John Cassaday – which isn’t necessarily better than McKelvie’s usual style, but shows a lot of flexibility.

So color me cautiously optimistic. So there’s a lot of promise here. But if the series ends up being built around Gillen & McKelvie’s musical interests, or being clever in its pop culture references, then I expect it will lose my interest. It’s the gods and the game they’re playing that I’m here for.

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers, by Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson, Dark Horse Comics, March 2014

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers Reviewers often talk about “the best comic you’re not reading”, but I would bet that the very best comic you’re not reading is Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden.

The reason you’re not reading it is that it’s published sporadically. The original mini-series has been collected in a handsome hardcover, but otherwise the team has appeared in three issues of Dark Horse Presents, and now this one-shot. Despite the relatively high-profile creators – Dorkin having come to prominence with Milk and Cheese, Thompson probably best known for her Scary Godmother books – this series has been flying under the radar.

The other reason you might not have been reading it is that it’s about a squad of animals who fight supernatural menaces, and you might not be interested in reading a comic about animals. But that’s underselling the premise, because what it’s really about is the culture of dogs and cats that Dorkin and Thompson have crafted, with a mix of characters from wise, almost shamanistic older dogs, to upstart, tough-talking younger pups, and the cat, Orphan, who hangs out with them. These animals live in suburban Burden Hill, and while we see several of them going him to their owners, and other pets who are domesticated and don’t get out much, the humans are part of the setting, not part of the story.

The story in this one-shot involves the pack of dogs luring out an invisible monster, which is par for the series, although there’s been some character development along the way, too. The story does a great job of portraying the characters, some of who are deeply scared by their mission, while others are, well, not quite fearless, but certainly bolder. The best parts of the book is the end, though, where the pack makes the rounds of their neighborhood after finishing their adventure, which really shows the attitudes of some of the different animals in contrast to each other. The last page is a little ominous, and may or may not be setting up a longer-term story.

Thompson’s art is brilliant, drawing realistic-looking animals who have expressions understandable by her human readers, without making them look cartoonish. The colors look like watercolors (see the cover to the left for a good example) and give the art additional depth and texture without overwhelming the layouts.

This one-shot may not be the best jumping-on point for the series, but it’s worth a look if you can’t find the earlier collection. It might not quite be all-ages fare, but it’s pretty close. Certainly it’d be great if sales could get a boost so Dorkin & Thompson could afford to produce more issues more regularly.

Five Weapons #7

Five Weapons #7, by Jimmie Robinson, Image Comics, February 2014

Five Weapons #7 Five Weapons is the latest project by writer/artist Jimmie Robinson, who’s best known for the superhero satire Bomb Queen (which wasn’t my thing), and earlier for his science fiction adventure Amanda and Gunn (which I love and highly recommend). Five Weapons falls somewhere between those two series in tone, being a cleverly-plotted cliffhanger-driven drama, but with a quirky setting and regular doses of humor (some of which deliberately clashes with the more serious material). There’s not much quite like it on the market today.

Five Weapons began life as a 5-issue limited series (collected), which I’ll now summarize – though since it ends with a plot twist, I’ll talk around that as best I can: Tyler Shainline is admitted to a private academy for aspiring assassins, on the strength of being the son of a famous assassin. The school focuses on skills with five different weapons, and the students are grouped into clubs around the weapons; Tyler is pressured into choosing to join a club. You’d expect that the series would show Tyler gaining mastery of all five weapons, but in fact he is a pacifist and refuses to fight with any weapon. The series’ formula is one of showdowns with the five club leaders, each issue ending on a cliffhanger where one wonders how Tyler is going to win this fight without actually fighting. Tyler is in fact at the school on a mission, which he completes at the end of the series, earning the respect of some of the other students. But, since he doesn’t actually plan to become an assassin, he leaves the school.

The ongoing series starts with issue #6, where our hero returns to the school, this time as a medic training under the school’s doctor. However, one of the other students has a grudge against him and sets out to destroy his reputation and get him expelled. The two issues since still end on a “how’s he going to get out of this one cliffhanger”, but we no longer have confidence that he’s going to overcome his enemy, who’s about as clever as he is. This issue has him working out of one fix, learning some surprising things about a few of the adults, and then getting into another jam on the last page.

While written in a straightforward, grounded manner, the setting of Five Weapons is bizarre, sometimes even surreal. There are several characters whom one might characterize as stereotypes, for example the teacher who heads the archery club, who is an American Indian (“Ms. Featherwind”). But for me, the weird thing – as you can see from the cover I’ve reproduced here, is that she has an arrow through her head, and a big target covering the left side of her head. It’s like something from a Batman or Avengers episode from the 60s, an affectation that doesn’t make much sense but sure looks weird. Characters in the series are full of this kind of thing, some of which are explained (the doctor is missing her nose and wears a bandage around her head to cover where it would be), some not.

Additionally, for a school for assassins there isn’t a whole lot of assassinating going on, and there are a lot of students attending. The story alludes to missions that some of the adults have run, but there’s a general feel of “don’t look too closely at how this place fits into the world at large”. You’d think it would take a special kind of sociopath (or psychopath) to become an aspiring assassin as a teenager, but these kids don’t really show it.

Indeed, I find the book enjoyable because the main character and his closer friends are all pretty easy to relate to. And because the cliffhangers in the story are enjoyable brain-teasers. Robinson’s artwork is also quite strong, especially in his characters’ distinctive faces and expressions; it’s a long way from superhero comics. Yet the colors are bright and cheerful, also cutting against what would seem to be grim subject matter.

It’s hard to tell whether Robinson has a long-term plan for the series, as the initial arc – presumably intended to stand on its own – felt complete in itself. Some notional 50-issue storyline would also seem out of place for this series, but we’ll see. Its internal artistic conflicts are part of what appeals to me about it; it’s got such a strong identity, yet that identity seems almost self-consciously fragile. Probably I’m overanalyzing it, as the overall feel is one of narrow escapes from danger in the most fun, adventuresque ways.

Rat Queens #4

Rat Queens #4, by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch, Image Comics, January 2014

Rat Queens #4 Rat Queens is one of a smattering of (seemingly) Dungeons & Dragons inspired comics I’ve read recently. It bears some similarity to Guilded Age in that both of them focus on what happens when a band of adventurers who make their living off of fighting and plundering tries to integrate into civilized society.

In this story, the four women who make up the Rat Queens are one of several groups who draw the ire of the town’s leaders due to their drinking, carousing, and property damage. After being thrown in jail the groups are assigned “community service” in the form of being sent to clear out some nasty folks in the vicinity. But the groups find they’ve been set up to fail (and die); some groups don’t make it, but the Queens do and set out to find out who’s behind it.

The story’s told with a modern sensibility, including modern language and cursing, and a lot of it is also told with tongue firmly in cheek. But it’s still a lot of fun, and often laugh-out-loud funny, so it hooked me from the start. This issue features Betty the Hobbit thief (did I mention it’s D&D inspired?) finding out who set them up, leading to a showdown, and then another showdown as the ramifications of their adventures come home to roost. It’s a lot of fighting, much of it pretty bloody, but if you can deal with that stuff it’s also entertaining and humorous.

Writer Kurtis J. Wiebe is probably best known for Peter Panzerfaust, a World War II era tale that takes its cues from Peter Pan, but so far I think Rat Queens is the better book of the two, with more humor, better-defined characters, and more structure to its story. I also prefer the art of Roc Upchurch here to that of Tyler Jenkins on Panzerfaust; Upchurch’s style reminds me a lot of that of Fiona Staples (currently getting rave reviews for Saga), but I like Upchurch’s art better than hers, too, although both of them suffer from a paucity of backgrounds. I think Upchurch also does the colors, and I think his lines would be better served by brighter colors.

So the series has gotten off to a strong start, but I’m hoping Wiebe and Upchurch have plans to develop it beyond the humor and fighting. For example, we don’t have a strong sense of the main characters beyond Betty, and a series of escapades is going to get repetitive quickly. There’s a lot of potential in the characters and the set-up here, and I hope they’ll develop it, because that will be the difference between being an enduring series and being just an amusing diversion.

The Sandman: Overture #1

The Sandman: Overture #1 of 6, by Neil Gaiman & J.H. Williams III, DC Comics, December 2013

The Sandman: Overture #1 There’s surely no comic less in need of my recommendation than this new installment (“Back After Fifteen Years!”) of Neil Gaiman’s keynote fantasy series. But The Sandman: Overture #1 was the standout comic this week.

I was generally a big fan of the original series (I only say “generally” because I actually dropped it about six issues in, after the death-in-the-diner issue, and picked it up again with “Dream of a Thousand Cats”; also, I felt that “The Kindly Ones” was hecka padded. But it had many truly excellent stories, and worked superbly as a grand arc), so I was a bit skeptical of Overture being a prequel to the series, explaining what led to Dream being captured in the first issue of the original series. Indeed, we see many elements in this first issue which were revealed only over time in the original series (and, thus, Overture is a poor starting point for people who haven’t read the original), some of which are portents of plot threads which would be resolved in the original (a lengthy sequence with The Corinthian, for example).

But there’s also an undercurrent of mystery, as Dream senses something wrong in the universe, and then in the final scene Gaiman throws a curve, showing that Overture isn’t just going to walk through territory we’ve been through before, but that there are new things to discover – big things – back here in The Sandman‘s past. It was exactly where this story needed to go, as trying to extend a “complete unto itself” magnum opus is a tough feat. (And recall that the few Sandman stories published since the series’ conclusion have been asides, pieces filling out the universe as it were, and not ones that tackled the main character’s story head-on.)

Joining Gaiman is artist J.H. Williams III, who is certainly one of the best renderers in comics today. Where his work often falls down, for me, is in layouts and storytelling, which I often find hard to follow. (His Batwoman had this problem in spades.) While I’m a fan of innovative layouts, they should never compromise telling a coherent story. Fortunately, he adopts a much more straightforward approach here (possibly prompted by Gaiman’s script, I don’t know), and consequently we can happily enjoy the pretty pictures. Williams also supplies the lovely primary cover (an alternate cover is by original series regular cover artist Dave McKean, whose work I’ve never warmed to).

Overall it’s a winning combination, and looks to be an excellent series. So if you had some of the same reservations about it that I did, I would say that you should put them aside and check it out.

Velvet #1

Velvet #6, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting, Image Comics, October 2013

Velvet @1

I can’t remember the last comic book I’ve been looking forward to as much as the first issue of Velvet.

Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting worked together on the terrific Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the source material for next year’s Cap movie), where they successfully resurrected the long-untouchable dead character Bucky Barnes. Brubaker writes a lot of nourish comics, but Cap was more in the style of espionage thrillers, much like my hitherto-favorite work of his, Sleeper. Epting, meanwhile, has grown from an artist doing work that felt a little out-of-place following George Perez’ run on The Avengers to an outstanding artist who mixed in with Butch Guice and Michael Lark on Cap.

So the creative team is great, and I was completely sold on the premise of Velvet as soon as a read a preview: Velvet Templeton is the secretary to the director of ARC-7, a top-secret British intelligence agency. But it’s not giving much away to say that she’s much more than what she appears, since we learn in the first page of the issue that she’s romanced several of the agency’s top agents without any of them knowing she was playing the field. When one of their agents is killed, she ends up in the middle of the investigation, and we see that she’s really not what she appears to be.

It’s a wonderful set-up issue. It takes place in 1973, perhaps coincidentally the year that Roger Moore took over as James Bond in the film series, and a few years after The Prisoner. But I suspect Brubaker is mainly going for the period atmosphere and is working from a wider assortment of source material. (The afterword by Jess Nevins cover the history of spy fiction, almost none of which I’ve read, so I can happily enjoy the series without worrying about most hidden references that have been dropped in.) The time period is also one in which there were very few woman agents (the ones from The Avengers and…?), which could lead to some exploration of gender issues, if Brubaker decides to play it that way.

I’m more interested in how Velvet managed to end up in her position given her obvious qualifications for other lines of work, and presumably that will be at least the subject of the first arc, if not of the whole series. But this being a Brubaker series, there are surely plenty of other characters who have interesting dirty laundry to be aired.

It looks great. I can’t wait.