This Week’s Haul

Once again, just in time for this week’s comics, it’s last week’s comics!

  • Booster Gold #28, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Secret Six #17, by Gail Simone, John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • The Unwritten #9, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • The Marvels Project #5 of 8, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Absolution #6 of 6, by Christos Gage & Roberto Viacava (Avatar)
  • Age of Reptiles: The Journey #2 of 4, by Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
  • Rex Mundi: Gate of God vol 6 TPB, by Arvid Nelson, Juan Ferreyra, Guy Davis & Brian Churilla (Dark Horse)
Absolution #6 Christos Gage’s Absolution wraps up this week, and it’s one of the better series I’ve read from Avatar. Avatar’s comics often seem geared towards fairly extreme violence (is this better or worse than the companies geared towards cheesecake and sex?), and mostly they’re not my cup of tea, but Absolution is “only” about as violent as a noir detective story. In a world where superheroes are part of law enforcement agencies, John Dusk is a lower-powered Green Lantern-like character who, after fighting one too many psychopaths and realizing they’re often getting off with light sentences, decides to start executing the worst of the criminals he encounters.

Gage doesn’t spend a lot of time working through Dusk’s mindset after making this decision, mainly because Dusk embraces it fully and actually feels better once he started offing the bad guys than he did before, so there’s not much internal conflict. The conflict is mainly external, as one criminal mastermind realizes what Dusk is doing and blackmails him into taking out some of the mastermind’s rivals. And of course Dusk can’t hide his actions from his policewoman girlfriend or his superhero comrades forever, and eventually they figure out what he’s doing, after his actions lead to a tragedy for one of his friends. The series closes this issue with the nationwide debate regarding whether he’s been doing right or doing wrong by playing executioner, the main argument for the ‘doing right’ side being that he scrupulously stuck to only killing the worst of the worst.

While not the most nuanced story, Absolution is pretty effective at presenting its issues in the form of the fairly likable Dusk, and contrasting him with some of the scum he faces off with. That it doesn’t come to any concrete conclusions is a point in its favor, as that’s howshort stories (which, frankly, is what a 6-issue comic series is) often work. This isn’t a series for fans of traditional superheroes, but it’s another interesting component of considering how superheroes might operate in the real world, so it’s worth checking out if that’s your cup of tea.

Rex Mundi vol 6: The Gate of God The final collection of Rex Mundi came out this week. It’s one of Greg Burgas’ favorites (so naturally made his best of 2009 list), but I never quite warmed to it, although it had many intriguing ingredients.

It takes place in an alternate history Europe where the Protestant Reformation failed, and where magic has been (quietly) a part of history. Set in France in 1933, Doctor Julien Sauniere finds that one of his friends has been murdered, and this sets him on a path to find the Holy Grail. Opposing him is the Duke of Lorraine, a powerful member of the aristocracy who is working to create a new Frankish empire under his dominion. The two men also have a woman between them, whom they each love: An old colleague of Sauniere’s who’s gone on to become Lorraine’s physician. Sauniere is also pursued by a member of the Catholic Church’s inquisition, but helped by a mysterious robed figure. So the story is a little bit murder mystery, but a big part conspiracy story, set against the backdrop of a burgeoning war, one which at first resembles World War I, but as Lorraine’s plans come to greater fruition comes more to resemble World War II, with France playing the role of Nazi Germany.

It’s difficult to put my finger on what it is about Rex Mundi that didn’t quite work for me. The story isn’t really character-driven, since the characters are all pretty thin. Lorraine is an outright villain, although his conquest is in many ways the most interesting piece of the story. However, it’s really just a backdrop, providing evidence for Lorraine being the villain, and indeed the war continues after the story’s end. I found it difficult to relate to the motivations of the lead character, Sauniere. Sure, he was initially motivated to find the killer of his friend, but I never quite bought that he’d keep getting in deeper and deeper rather than just return to his life (eventually of course he gets in so deep that the life he had no longer exists, but it takes a long time to get to that point). That he’s the hero opposing the villain Lorraine is almost incident, it’s not why Sauniere is involved. Sauniere has a few dimensions to him at the beginning (a doctor who treats Jews in violation of the law, and who seems to be an alcoholic), but his journey strips his distinguishing characteristics from him and he becomes a fairly generic hero figure.

Ultimately the story is plot-driven, partly by Sauniere’s quest and partly by the need to oppose Lorraine (the latter only really comes to the fore in the last third of the story). While writer Nelson had clearly planned the story arc from the beginning, it still felt like it contained too many digressions and diversions, manipulating the characters rather than building the story in a natural way. There are some memorable scenes, but the story as a whole is not very memorable.

The final volume feels more cohesive than the earlier ones, as it all builds to the final conflict between the good guys and the bad guys. Unfortunately although he climax is handled pretty well, there’s not nearly enough of a denouement: Sauniere’s story ends rather abruptly and disappointingly, and the last page provides an unsatisfying end to the story, leaving me with the feeling that there’s another 10 pages or so which somehow got chopped off by accident.

I’ll have to read the whole thing again to see if it holds up better, since there’s a lot of time for nuances to get lost between reading individual volumes. But Rex Mundi never wowed me enough to consider it one of the best comics of the decade. I appreciated it for being something different in the comics market, but that’s not enough to make it a great book. I’d put it about on a par with James A. Owen’s Starchild, but behind, say, Teri Wood’s Wandering Star or Mark Oakley’s Thieves & Kings (even though it looks like T&K might never be completed).

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 5 December 2007.

Okay, last week’s haul. I’ve gotta stop being so busy on Thursdays-through-Sundays…

  • The Brave and the Bold: The Lords of Luck vol 1 HC, by Mark Waid, George Pérez & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • Countdown to Final Crisis #21 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Keith Giffen, Jamal Igle & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #11, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham, Ruy Jose & Drew Geraci (DC)
  • Annihilation Conquest #2 of 6, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Tom Raney & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Marvel Masterworks: Spider-Man vol 86 HC, collecting Amazing Spider-Man #78-87, by Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema & Jim Mooney (Marvel)
  • Invincible #47, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
  • Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus #4 of 5, by Mike Mignola & Jason Armstrong (Dark Horse)
  • Rex Mundi: Crown and Sword vol 4 TPB, by Arvid Nelson & Juan Ferreyra (Dark Horse)
  • Atomic Robo #3 of 6, by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener & Joshua Ross (Red 5)
The Brave and the Bold vol 1: The Lords of Luck HC Although I’ve been down on the two most recent issues of The Brave and the Bold, the first 6-issue story arc was killer: Batman and Green Lantern in Las Vegas, Green Lantern, Supergirl and Lobo in space, the Book of Destiny, the Lords of Luck, the Fatal Five, and Batman outsmarting the whole Legion of Super-Heroes. And of course that gorgeous George Pérez artwork. Now you can own the whole story in a spiffy hardcover collection with a few pages of annotations by writer Mark Waid.

Or you can wait for the inevitable paperback edition. But I didn’t.

Rex Mundi vol 4: Crown and Sword TPB Rex Mundi seems to be coming together – at last – with this latest volume. Juan Ferreyra’s a good artist, although maybe not detail-oriented enough for my tastes (lots of panels relying more on coloring than linework for their backgrounds, for instance), but the range of facial expressions he draws is impressive. Mainly, though, Arvid Nelson’s story is finally really moving. To recap, the story takes place in an alternate Europe in 1933 in which the Protestant Revolution failed, and sorcery works. Our hero, Dr. Julien Saunière, is seeking the answers to a centuries-old mystery about the Catholic Church and the kings of France. With both the Church and the Duke Lorraine following his every move, he seems to be getting closer, even as the fecal matter hits the fan in the form of war breaking out across Europe. Nelson turns the Axis/Allies alliances on their heads, although the Axis in this setting bears little relationship to the one from our World War II.

So my interest has been revived in the story. I think it would wear a bit better if the story were more character-oriented, although if Nelson has a bang-up ending in mind for the overall story then it could be just fine. I tend to be rather cynical when it comes to ongoing comic books, since it seems like nothing ever gets resolved (I have this problem in spades with TV shows, too), and it’s hard to see the current story going on for more than 2 or 3 more volumes. Nelson could throw a wrench in the works and send the story off in some substantially different direction, but that would be odd since so far the story has tracked steadily in a single direction. But it could happen.

Atomic Robo #3 There’s something about Atomic Robo that I don’t get.

The problem might be that it’s just one of several books being published today with the general theme of “adventurers with nonhuman backgrounds who tackle scientific/supernatural threats”. The best-known of these is the burgeoning Hellboy franchise at Dark Horse, of course. But Burlyman’s Doc Frankenstein is right in there, as are The Perhapanauts and The Umbrella Academy. All of these books have more of a pulp-magazine adventure feel than a superhero feel, and the characters often act on their own or outside of the public eye. I think Hellboy is the most popular mainly because he predates the rest of the current generation by a decade or so (plus he’s been in a feature film).

But Atomic Robo doesn’t really stand out. It seems to focus on the outright mayhem part of the adventures more than the other titles, but that doesn’t leave a lot of room for characterization, and the plots are very simplistic.

Robo himself is a smartass, and a little melancholy about some elements in his past, but that’s about all I’ve gleaned about the long-lived protagonist of the series, who was constructed by Nikola Tesla in the early 20th century. The stories don’t have much of a period feel, and this issue – about a mobile pyramid threatening Egypt – takes place in the present day. (It also ends with a big explosion, so abruptly I wondered there were pages missing.) We’re getting very brief vignettes about Robo, but not much depth. I think the creators have greater plans for the character, but I don’t think they’ve led with their best foot forward in this mini-series.

Still, with three issues to go there’s still time for that to change.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 24 October 2007.

Somehow I’ve failed to post a single entry since last week’s comics reviews. I’ve gotta get it in gear!

  • Countdown #27 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Keith Giffen, Carlos Magno & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Fables #66, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Annihilation Conquest: Wraith #4 of 4, by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Kyle Holz (Marvel)
  • Avengers Assemble HC vol 5 by Kurt Busiek, Alan Davis & Mark Farmer, Ivan Reis, Keiron Dwyer, Brent Anderson, Patrick Zircher, Yanick Paquette & others (Marvel)
  • Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. vol 83 HC, collecting Strange Tales #135-153, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Severin, Don Heck, Jim Steranko & others (Marvel)
  • What If? Featuring Planet Hulk #1, by Greg Pak, Leonard Kirk, Rafa Sandoval, Gary Erskine & Fred Hembeck (Marvel)
  It’s too easy to keep piling the criticism onto Countdown, but I will make the following observation: Paul Dini‘s track record as a comics writer isn’t too great. His tabloid-sized graphic novels with Alex Ross were pretty weak (Superman: Peace on Earth was probably the best), and apparently his other current series, Madame Mirage isn’t too great either – The Invincible Super-Blog makes this point concisely. Does this make Dini’s best comic work Jingle Belle? Erk.
Avengers Assemble vol 5 HC Avengers Assemble volume 5 finishes off Kurt Busiek’s run on The Avengers from a few years back. It’s surely one of the best runs the long-running series has ever seen (though I think Roy Thomas’ run in the late 60s edges it out). What made it work was that Busiek was able to work with the characters and develop them, and he also had a fundamental respect for what made the Avengers feel like they did at their best. Within this framework he told some terrific stories and had a run of excellent artists, lead of course by George Pérez, but the artists here are also quite good. Basically he successfully updated the team for 21st-century sensibilities without destroying what made it fun. Contrast with Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the title, which has been, well, destructive and depressing.

Anyway, the centerpiece of this volume is a long story in which Kang the Conquerer comes back to conquer the 21st century. While you might say “What, again?!?”, like the earlier confrontation with Ultron, Busiek takes Kang to the next level: He uses his time-travelling ability to outwit the people of Earth and set them against each other, and manages to bring the planet to its knees. There are some lovely character moments in the series, including the resolution of several long-running plot threads involving Triathlon and Goliath, complete with a fairly brutal depiction of what a world war against (effectively) an alien invader might to do the planet, somehow all without getting too depressing. It’s a classic adventure yarn, which means it’s fun to read, suggesting the darker elements rather than getting bogged down in them.

It wraps up with a short story titled “Lo, There Shall Come… An Accounting!”, which is both an amusing glimpse behind-the-scenes of how the Avengers do their jobs, and a nifty little way for Busiek to bring his run to a definitive close.

Every fan of mainstream superhero comics should read these stories, because this sort of thing has rarely been done any better, by anyone.

Marvel Masterworks vol 83: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Speaking of reprints, I’m delighted to see Nick Fury getting the Marvel Masterworks treatment. The Steranko stuff was reprinted in paperback a few years ago, but it’s good enough that I’d like to own it in hardcover. This volume starts at the beginning of Fury’s run, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used the character as their own super-spy, back when super-spies were the hot thing.

S.H.I.E.L.D. was an international law-enforcement agency (although it was always portrayed as a U.S. agency) of which Fury becomes director. Fury is a no-nonsense World War II veteran with an eye patch who bring a certain rough-and-tumble attitude to the stiff-necked agency, with lots of high technology bridging the gap between them. Lee and Kirby of course play it for action and play up the gizmos, while Steranko – when he came on board – both emphasized the spy element, and used it as a venue to deploy his cinematic approach to storytelling, something which was as revolutionary at the time as Neil Adams’ commercial art sensibility was. This volume has a lot more of the former than the latter, but hopefully they’ll do a second volume. In any event, if you’re a fan of Lee/Kirby Marvel, then this one’s for you, True Believer!

What If? Featuring Planet Hulk Planet Hulk gets the What If? treatment, in an issue with a trio of stories written by regular HulkWorld War Hulk. In the second, the Hulk ends up on the peaceful planet he’d originally been sent to, resulting in a continuation of the Hulk/Banner conflict without anyone else around to bother. The third is a one-pager in which Bruce Banner lands on Sakaar instead of the Hulk, with predictable results, played for yuks with art by Fred Hembeck.

It’s not a bad issue, and all three artists are quite good, but I was disappointed that it was so predictable. Either Pak was phoning it in, or else this was an issue mandated by editorial, with all the imagination we should expect from such a thing.

In addition to the usual haul, Lee’s Comics had their annual Black October sale. These days I don’t have a lot I’m looking for that I can’t just get through my usual store, Comics Conspiracy, but I still like to go by nearby sales to check them out. It turns out I was pretty lucky at this one:

  I was pretty happy to pick up this issue of X-Men at a very reasonable price. It falls short of pristine, it’s still bright and shiny and in great condition. It’s a piece of my childhood that I’m happy to have on my bookshelf, even if it has been reprinted several times.
Rex Mundi: The Lost Kings vol 3 Rex Mundi seems to be getting a positive review every time I turn around. In the introduction to this volume, J.H. Williams III (who is an excellent artist, BTW) writes: “I feel when all is said and done this series will be looked upon by future readers as one of the more truly important pieces of comics work to make it to the published arena.”

It’s a pretty good book, but it’s not that good. It’s a fairly convoluted and slow-moving conspiracy story in an alternate 1933 in which the Protestant Reformation failed and Catholicism prevails in Europe. France is a world power and is bidding to become more of one. Our hero, Master Physician Julien Sauniére, uncovers a secret society and starts to peel back the layers of a two-thousand-year-old secret involving Jesus Christ and the lineage of the Kings of France. Characterization is not very strong, and it’s often difficult to work up the enthusiasm to follow the twists and turns of the conspiracies and secrets being revealed. And there’s rarely any substantial threat to the lives and well-being of the characters, so there’s rarely much urgency in the story. Just a lot of ambling around learning things. So it’s not a bad series, but I don’t think it’s a terrific adventure story, nor does it (so far) have anything profound to say about the human condition.

That said, it is a pretty good historical conspiracy story, so if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, I certainly recommend it.

This particular volume is a transition between the first artist (EricJ) and the current artist (Ferreyra). Ironically, I think the interim artist (Di Bartolo) is better than either of them, having the polish of Ferreyra while showing a wider range of expression than either of them. Funny that.

Scarlet Traces: The Great Game vol 2 HC The last issue of this second series of Scarlet Traces came out when I started reviewing comics weekly in this space, and I’d very much enjoyed the first series. This one isn’t quite as good, but it’s still enjoyable.

The premise is that after humans defeated the Martians in The War of The Worlds, we appropriated their technology and substantially ramped up our own. By “we” I mean “Britain”, which became the dominant world power, and in 1898 took the war to Mars. 40 years later, when this series opens, the war has not been going well, and photojournalist Charlotte Hemming embarks on a quest to find out exactly what’s going on. Backed by quirky-and-inventive artwork by D’Israeli, Edginton’s script evokes Alan Moore’s second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, while telling a more focused story, and one with more than a little relationship to America’s current adventures in Iraq. It moves right along and has a satisfying ending.

I’m hoping there will be more Scarlet Traces in the future, as it feels like there’s plenty of space for further extrapolation. Time will tell.

This Week’s Haul

Fables presents a scenario where the humans would totally conquer the homelands – if only they knew about them, which they would, if the Emperor decided to invade Earth. Pretty neat point-counterpoint stuff.

Eternals is Neil Gaiman’s latest project for Marvel, illustrated by John Romita Jr. It’s a pretty straightforward riff on some obscure Jack Kirby characters: Immortal godlike beings who were left on Earth by even more powerful beings to safeguard it for their return. The Dreaming Celestial is about to awaken, and that might mean Bad Things for Earth.

Rex Mundi takes place in an alternate France in 1933 where the Inquisition holds sway, Islamic nations control the Middle East and North Africa, and magic-using secret societies are real. Julien Sauniére is a doctor in Paris who gets mixed up in a conspiracy when a priest friend of his is killed. The story is on the slow side and the art is a little stiff (if nicely-rendered), but it’s not bad. Good enough for me to try the next volume.

The new volume of Luba continues the stories of Gilbert ‘Beto’ Hernandez’ heroine and her sisters and daughters. Beto’s work peaked in the middle of the first run of Love and Rockets, and has meandered too far into magical realism for my tastes. I do wish he’d tighten up his storytelling and focus on the characters more, in particular not wandering off into the earlier lives of the sisters. The series was more fun when it was more grounded in present-day concerns, with a more linear narrative.

(For those familiar with the series, no, I’m not really a fan of Jaime Hernandez’ work.)