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.

Nowhere Men #6

Nowhere Men #6, by Eric Stephenson & Nate Bellegarde, Image Comics, October 2013

Nowhere Men #6 Nowhere Men is an interesting science fiction title from Image. It seems both the writer and artist have both been working for Image for a while (I’ve probably seen Bellegarde’s work in some of the Invincible titles, but I don’t remember it clearly), but Nowhere Men is different from anything they’ve worked on before.

The core of the book is a quartet of scientists who formed a global corporation, World Corp, back in the 60s. The scenes from that era evokes imagery of the Beatles (the book’s title presumably comes from John Lennon’s similarly-named song), without there being an explicit match of the scientists to the original Fab Four. But most of the book takes place in the present day, where there’s an ongoing theme of the optimism and wonder of the founding of World Corp having rotted through: Emerson Strange, once a dashing man with long hair, is now old, bald, and seems crushed by the weight of running World Corp. Dade Ellis has spent years in a coma. Simon Grimshaw seems not to have aged, and has split from the other two with plenty of hard feelings. And Thomas Walker apparently succumbed to drug addiction and dropped out of society, not having been seen for years.

Worse, experiments on a space station which Strange was overseeing have gone badly wrong, and the crew of the station barely managed to escape, while all being mutated in various ways (some of them grotesque).

This issue features a confrontation among the station crew, Strange, Ellis and Grimshaw, in which all hell breaks loose. The World Corp founders clearly aren’t used to being challenged by people they regard as inferiors (both Strange and Grimshaw have huge egos, though Strange at least has some basic empathy), and whatever plans they’ve had in motion are clearly falling apart in the face of developing events. (There is at least one, perhaps two, loose cannons around, as well.) And what exactly happened to Thomas Walker is an ongoing question.

Nowhere Men contains several text pages in each issue, providing background on World Corp and their accomplishments over the years, often in the form of magazine articles and interviews. It’s surprisingly effective; I recommend reading the one-page piece at the start of this issue from start to finish, as it has a nifty kicker in the final paragraph.

The book sometimes feels a little distant, like the founding members of World Corp are gods (the presumed irony is that Thomas Walker is perceived as having disconnected from the world but that he’s probably closer to it than the other three), and the hapless mutates from the space station are normal(ish) people caught in a situation beyond their control. That the story is largely concerned with the ongoing machinations of the principals, as opposed to smaller escapades of individuals, reinforces that feeling. Overall it works, but it is something of a sprawling epic which keeps barreling forward, rather than a careful character-driven narrative. It feels like the series is about half-done now, but the premise is so far-reaching I could imagine them doing more with it after this story is over.

It helps a lot that Bellegarde’s art is outstanding, capable of both drawing ordinary people (with a diversity of faces and ethnicities!) and fantastic entities and effects. His clean linework and the effective colors by Jordie Bellaire make this one of the sharpest-looking books on the market.

This particular issue isn’t easily read on its own, given the backstory, but the first six issues will soon be collected, with the appropriate title “Fates Worth Than Death”. I recommend it when it comes out.

(Coincidentally, the blog Second Printing also just reported on this issue.)

Rocket Girl #1

Rocket Girl #1, by Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder, Image Comics, October 2013

Rocket Girl #1 I’ve been doing a poor job on my plan to review a comic book per week, but I’ll try to make up for it, starting with the fun comic book Rocket Girl.

Rocket Girl was the subject of a successful Kickstarter over the summer, and is illustrated by Amy Reeder, perhaps best known for the Vertigo series Madame Xanadu, of which I enjoyed the art but felt it was let down by the story. (You can read a few of my comments on that series here.) I’m not familiar with writer Brandon Montclare, however.

The premise of this ongoing series is that Dayoung Johansson (age 15) is a member of the New York Teen Police Department in the near future, and persuades her boss that Quintum Mechanics has managed to change the past so it becomes the dominant corporation. Dayoung – the title character – arrives just as Quintum is kicking off their first big experiment – and promptly passes out. Taken in by a few of the scientists, she has to maintain her equipment with ancient technology, and then responds to an emergency elsewhere in New York City where she captures a criminal, and then escapes the local cops.

The kicker is that Dayoung comes from the year 2013, and has travelled back to the year 1986. And you may have noticed that there’s no Quintum Mechanics, New York Teen Police Department or Rocket Girl in our 2013.

I like the premise, and the first issue is a lot of fun, driven mainly by Dayoung’s enthusiasm (and nifty costume). Reeder’s artwork is excellent – oh how I love when an artist can draw dynamic panels that have backgrounds!

The story is a little shaky; I immediately wondered how Dayoung could show up and threaten to arrest the Quintum scientists, pass out, and not have them do something nefarious to her – like turn her over to the cops – never mind that she actually ends up staying with one of them in her apartment. It looks like the series is setting up a “hero and her team of supporting scientists” scenario, which feels cliche – especially since none of the supporting characters have much personality at this point – but could work out. And to balance out the plotting issues, the dialogue is solid and often witty.

So it’s a bit of a mixed start, but I’m optimistic that the early bumps can be overcome, while still being a fun, energetic series.

Goodbye to the DC Universe

With this week’s publication of Earth 2 #16, I’m dropping the last three comic books I’ve been buying set in the DC Universe [1]. This despite the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger, but with writer James Robinson leaving, it feels like a good point to jump off.

[1] Earth 2, World’s Finest and Batgirl.

Where DC and I have parted ways is that they clearly are interested in pushing their characters, whereas for me it hasn’t been about the characters for years, it’s been about the creators. I follow the creators I’m interested in, and I want to find people with interesting voices and novel stories to tell, and stories that are going to develop their characters and go somewhere.

But it seems like DC treats their creators as fungible, and the stories in the New 52 mostly have a mediocre sameness to them. None of them have truly excited me – the closest is Gail Simone’s Batgirl, clearly the standout voice of the New 52, but the weight of crossovers and events has dampened my enthusiasm for any Batman title. So I’ve gradually dropped them, until September’s “Villains Month” event presented a good opportunity to make a clean break. (I like to say that “a good jumping-on point for new readers is a good jumping-off point for old readers.”)

(Another is “creators, not characters”, though “creators, not properties” would be more accurate.)

I don’t really know what’s going on in DC editorial, but stories like the creators of Batwoman leaving the book after not being able to have their heroine marry her girlfriend reinforces my perception of it being all about the marketable properties for them. Setting them up for movies and TV shows, I guess (that being where the big money is). And, well, I don’t care about that. The recent Batman films were good because of Christopher Nolan, not because they starred Batman.

So this is goodbye. Not necessarily forever – I’m still buying several Vertigo books and creator-owned titles that DC publishes such as Astro City. But the New 52 is clearly the culmination of plans that DC editorial has been brewing for years, and it’s just not resulting in the kinds of comics that I want to read.

Brain Boy #1

Brain Boy #1, by Fred Van Lente, R. B. Silva & Rob Lean, Dark Horse, September 2013

Brain Boy #1 I have three different introductions to this post:

First, it’s been a while since I finished reading the first issue of a comic book and said out loud, “That was fun.” Brain Boy #1 met that exacting standard.

Second, Brain Boy was actually an early-60s comic published by Dell, which Dark Horse has reimagined. Wikipedia has a little info about the title.

And third, Brain Boy got a preview in Dark Horse Presents, Dark Horse’s fine monthly anthology series, and it impressed me. That story will be collected in a future issue, I understand, but it was on the strength of that story that I picked up this first issue. Anthology comics are good for something!

The title character is Matt Price, the world’s most powerful telepath (also a telekinetic). What do you do if you’re the world’s most powerful telepath? Raised by his parents’ employer after their deaths (hmmm), he now is “on loan” (?) to the Secret Service, where he works as part of the security detail on the most sensitive assignments. Oh, and he hates being called “Brain Boy”.

How do you write a story about a man who can know what everyone around him is thinking? Perhaps taking a cue from Alfred Bester’s classic SF novel The Demolished Man (which is also about telepaths), figuring that out seems to be part of the challenge. Price is approached by a man who claims to be able to deliver information about his parents, but he doesn’t actually have it; he “knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy”, and while Price could track that guy down, it would take time and resources. Or, he can do a job he’s being asked to do, even though it goes against his orders, guarding a dictator who’s visiting the United Nations. Before the first issue is out, there’s a turn, followed by a last-page twist, in this first of a three-part story.

Writer Fred Van Lente is perhaps best known for Incredible Hercules and Archer and Armstrong, both of which I would describe as “fun but light”. Brain Boy feels like it has the potential to be more substantive, especially if Price develops as a character (neither Hercules nor Archer are characters with a lot of development potential, albeit a lot of humor potential). Van Lente has a droll sense of humor, though it tends to result in a whimsical atmosphere rather than a lot of direct laughs. But he mixes in some hefty material here, as the story gets more serious throughout the issue, which is what the story will need to work.

R.B. Silva’s art has a very modern look, and the layouts and finishes are both strong (abetted by a complex coloring job by “Ego”). Some of his figures are a little hard to read (especially the ones with any facial hair), so there’s room for improvement there.

Overall it’s a very strong first issue. It takes place in the same universe as Dark Horse’s Captain Midnight revival (which is itself pretty good), but you don’t need to read that book to enjoy this one (and hopefully it will stay that way, as I’m pretty much done with crossovers at this point). While I could imagine the challenge of trying to keep coming up with clever ways to challenge Brain Boy might eventually wear thin, hopefully Van Lente can get at least a year’s worth of neat stories out of it.

Thor, God of Thunder #9

Thor, God of Thunder #9, by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic, Marvel, August 2013

Thor, God of Thunder #9 If you’re not reading Thor, God of Thunder then you’re not reading the best title Marvel’s currently publishing (with apologies to Mark Waid and his excellent Daredevil series). To be sure, Thor sucked me in immediately because it takes place in three different time periods, but it’s got more going for it than that.

The premise is that an alien, Gorr, has decided to kill all the gods in all of the universe, earning the title “The God Butcher”. In the 10th century, Thor encounters him on Earth and manages to fight him off after being tortured by him. In the 21st century, Thor learns of him again and tries to hunt him down by researching other gods throughout the cosmos. And in the far future, Thor is the last survivor – and king – of Asgard, besieged by the God Butcher’s forces.

This issue is the middle of the series’ second 5-issue arc, “Godbomb”, in which Gorr in the future is building a bomb which will kill all gods. Through various machinations, the Thors of the past and present have ended up in the future, and the three Thors launch an assault on Gorr to stop his plan. This issue is essentially a big fight between Gorr and the Thors, and it’s quite well done. As it’s not the conclusion of the story, you can probably guess at the end of the issue, but it’s a good ride.

Jason Aaron (who wrote the great series Scalped for Vertigo) has been writing for Marvel for a while, but I haven’t read any of his titles. He knocks it out of the park in this series, raising questions about what purpose gods serve, the nature of an entity who can kill all gods, and where both sides fall on the moral spectrum. He also does a good (though not terribly nuanced) job of distinguishing between the brash young Thor, the professional modern Thor, and the world-weary future Thor. Artist Esad Ribic does a great job with the figures, but is light on the backgrounds (conveniently, most of this issue takes place in space). No artist that skimps on backgrounds ever achieves top-tier status in my book, but Ribic is good overall.

Thor consistently ends up on top of my to-read stack each week, and will as long as Aaron can maintain this level of storytelling.

Astro City #1

Astro City #1, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross, DC/Vertigo, August 2013

Astro City #1 It’s been two-and-a-half years since the last issue of Astro City (the Silver Agent two-parter), but it’s back with a new ongoing series. While one always wonders if they’ll rattle off another 12 or 14 issues and then go on hiatus for a couple more years, I’m willing to give them plenty of leeway since Astro City is to my mind the best superhero comic of the last 20 years (and it’s not even close).

This first issue of this new series feels like it’s trying to be a new phase in the comic’s history. Not only has the biggest mystery of past issues been solved (what happened to the Silver Agent?), but it kicks off with a mysterious character named the Broken man, a conspiracy theorist with purple skin and white hair, who spends the issue talking directly to the reader (or so it seems). He takes on a brief tour of the city, focusing on a giant door which materializes over the river. He also suggests that a shadow entity he calls the Oubor is behind, well, something going on in the city. The Broken Man is clearly a few guppies short of an aquarium, and who he is, what he’s doing, and how much of the truth he’s telling (if even he knows) is clearly going to be a component of this new series.

One of the neat things about Astro City has been that the “present day” tracks along in real time, so the earliest issues of the series occurred in the mid-to-late 90s, and this issue takes place in 2013. This means that some heroes have dropped off the grid, some have gotten older, and a few – like the Samaritan and Winged Victory – don’t seem to have aged at all. But we’re also reintroduced with Ben Pulliam, who was the main character in an earlier issue of the series, having just moved to the city with his two daughters. He’s older now, and his daughters are adults, and his mid-life crisis is a component of the story.

I’ve always characterized Astro City as basically being about what people living in a world with superheroes think about that, and how they react to it. And “people” in this case includes the heroes and villains. I suspect Busiek feels he’s writing about people living their lives in this world, but at its best I think the book is about how their lives are different from ours because of these changes. Sometimes they’re extraordinarily different, and sometimes they’re not (one could argue that The Samaritan is just an exotic sort of workaholic, for example). Astro City has a quixotic history (in my opinion) with mixing the cosmic and the mundane; the characters’ thoughts and reactions get lost amidst their actions – this was a problem I had with The Dark Age (which I reviewed in depth here). This issue takes a fairly cosmic turn towards the end, so I have a little trepidation regarding where the story is going. But overall Astro City (and Busiek as a writer generally) has such a strong track record that I’m willing to give it a lot of leeway.

Brent Anderson is one of the most underrated artists in comics, able to bring life to Busiek’s world, as well as character and setting designs by Busiek, Alex Ross, and himself. Occasionally his characters are not the most expressive (he does stern and sad expressions better than, say, joy or surprise), but that’s a nitpick.

Overall I’m just delighted that the series is back, and that they have almost a year’s worth of issues in the can. It should be fun.

Deathmatch #6

Deathmatch #6, by Paul Jenkins & Carlos Magno, Boom! Studios, May 2013

Deathmatch #6 I’ve been wanting to get back to writing weekly entries on comics again. This time around I’m going to focus on one comic per week. To start it off I’ll touch on a great comic that came out each of the last two weeks, and luckily for me there were two great comics for me to write about.

There are a couple of behind-the-scenes stories surrounding Deathmatch. First is writer Paul Jenkins’ statement on why he left writing for DC and Marvel – he’s now exclusively at Boom. Second is that Boom, like IDW, seems to be making a play to become one of the larger publishers, though in its case it seems to be angling to become more like Image (superheroes and science fiction), while IDW is taking the Dark Horse avenue (licensed titles and adventure books). One wonders whether what attracted Jenkins to Boom will stay in place as (and if) the company gets bigger and more prominent.

In the foreground, however, we have Deathmatch, which is Jenkins creating a superhero universe out of whole cloth, but then putting all the main characters in a mysterious arena where they’re forced to fight to the death in a single-elimination tournament. It’s Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars taken to the next level, without the preconceptions about who should win a particular bout.

It’s a hell of a hook, which is what made me buy the book in the first place, but the story is the characters trying to figure out who’s capturing them and why they’re being forced to fight (never mind how they’re able to mess with their heads to make even the purest heroes in the arena). With a large cast not every character shines, but many do, especially the unpowered Sable, Mink and Rat, who have been leading the investigation into who’s holding them and why.

This particular issue occurs just after the character had a chance to look behind the curtain as the complex’s power supply temporarily went down. Some scores were settled, and something awful was glimpsed in battle with Meridian, the book’s Superman equivalent. But the Manchurian realized the danger and reactivated the facility and the games went on. This leads to Dragonfly (a young man who’s retired but has been roped in nonetheless – that’s him on the cover) confronting Meridian, learning another piece of the puzzle in the issue’s cliffhanger.

The comics industry in my lifetime is littered with superhero universes created all at once which never panned out. Jenkins has wisely created a whole bunch of characters with sufficient backstories to make them characters, but doesn’t dive into flashbacks or a lot of detailed history. Rather, how the characters interact now is the focus. It’s made it to the top of my to-read pile each week it’s come out, and I’m eager to see where it goes. (And, assuming anyone’s left alive at the end of it, whether Jenkins gives us some insight into what the heroes’ world is like once they get back to it.)

Carlos Magno’s art is terrific. I recall his work as some of the better art in Countdown to Final Crisis (damning with faint praise, since hardly anyone else in that terrible series looked much good at all) He has a Dave Gibbons-like layout style (figures always drawn in freeze frame, with no motion lines) with an inking/rendering style a bit like George PĂ©rez. He draws fully-realized backgrounds, too!

I’m not sure how long Deathmatch is slated to run, but 2 more issues or 6 I’m planning to enjoy it entirely.

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth TPB, by Peter Hogan & Steve Parkhouse, Dark Horse, 2013

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth If you’re looking for a clever little graphic novel that mashes up science fiction and mystery, then check out Resident Alien. I read the first chapter when it was serialized in the anthology Dark Horse Presents a couple of years ago, but somehow I missed the mini-series that finished out the story. So I was happy to find this collection.

I’m mainly familiar with writer Peter Hogan from scripting Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura series from a decade or so ago, and I’m not really sure how much of that was Moore and how much was Hogan. Artist Steve Parkhouse has been around for quite a while and I’ve seen his work here and there dating as far back as Warrior; his art style resembles that of Dave Gibbons, but I think it’s a little more organic.

The premise is that an alien crash-lands on Earth, scuttles his ship, and uses his mental powers to make everyone on Earth see him as a retired doctor, Harry Vanderspeigle, and he moves to a rural town to wait for someone to come rescue him. But when the town’s doctor is killed, he’s recruited by the sheriff to both play coroner and fill in for a while. Harry both gets intrigued by the mystery, and by the opportunity to become part of a community. Of course, he’s risking both his life and his cover, especially if he happens to run into a one-in-a-million person who his mental powers won’t work on.

It’s a simple story, but thoroughly enjoyable. Hogan doesn’t get bogged down in the details of how Harry’s powers work, and keeps his powers well-defined (he doesn’t seem able to pretend to be a shapeshifter, for instance, and though he is unusually perceptive in reading human behavior, he’s not actually telepathic). And the mystery is pretty good, too.

If this is the only volume of Harry’s story we get, then it’s a good one. But I hope there’ll be more.

The End of Comics Buyer’s Guide

I read this morning that the owner of Krause Publications has announced that the venerable comics periodical Comics Buyer’s Guide is ending its long run.

CBG (as it’s commonly known) was a regular part of my life for a long time. I first discovered it back in the mid-80s when voting for the annual CBG awards (which, at one time, were a big thing in comics) was announced in places other than CBG. I believe everyone who voted received a free copy of CBG #600 – I did, at any rate, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay for it. This was an extra-sized issue, the cover sporting a Mike Grell illustration for the upcoming Batman/Jon Sable mini-series (which as far as I know never actually happened). CBG was published in tabloid newspaper format, which was a novel thing for a teenager like me. It contained a huge letter column and was chock-full of comics news not readily available to most teenaged fans in those pre-Internet days.

I subscribed immediately. My first regular issue was #607 (which of course triggered my collector-mania to want to find #601-606, but I never actually tried). As I recall, the front page of that featured an article on the upcoming DC series Hex, which did see print. That first issue of Hex was cover-dated September 1985, which means CBG #600 must have come out sometime in 1984.

CBG was a weekly publication, and was anchored by three things: News, that voluminous letter column, and a large ad section in the back. The letter column saw the publication of several controversial letters over the years, most memorably (for me) that by “Name Withheld” arguing that comics writers were not really needed anymore since comics artists could do the writing side of the job perfectly well. Much hilarity ensued. I believe the identity of “Name Withheld” (one of the rare times a letter-writer’s identity was not published at his request by CBG) was eventually sleuthed to be a fairly notable comics artist, though I was never certain of it myself.

I subscribed to CBG for a little over 15 years – a bit past issue #1600, I think, so over 1000 issues – and I read it promptly and regularly for almost that whole span. I had a few (astonishingly poorly written) letters published in it over the years (my comics letterhacking career is not one I look back on fondly, for the most part), but despite that I enjoyed the hell out of the paper.

One enduring contribution CBG made to my life was the discovery of amateur press associations, and I spent a good chunk of the 1990s participating in a variety of APAs. I made several enduring friends directly or indirectly through membership in APA Centauri (which I discovered directly through CBG because the central mailer of the time ran classified ads to drum up membership in 1987) and Capacity.

CBG was edited by a couple of long-time comics fans, Don and Maggie Thompson, when I first subscribed. They were level-headed and even-handed (in my opinion, anyway), and kept the paper from going off the rails through various instances of tumult in its pages. Don passed away in 1994, which was a Big Deal for readers at the time, even for someone like me who was never really involved in comics fandom. Maggie continued to edit the paper solo afterwards.

I think CBG was ultimately done in by the Internet, as news and conversations drifted off to bulletin boards. It lost me when it converted to a monthly magazine format in 2004, as it was the weekly dose of news and letters which kept me interested in it; a monthly – but larger – publication didn’t interest me, as I liked reading each issue in a single sit-down, and the letter column became much less lively. My subscription happened to run out (a coincidence because I was renewing for multiple years at a time at that point) about a year later, and I decided that 1000 issues was an adequate run.

Some CBG writers have been observed the magazine’s end online:

  • John Jackson Miller outlines the history of CBG in a meaty obituary.
  • Maggie Thompson looks back briefly, and then looks ahead at what’s next for her.
  • Heidi MacDonald of The Beat reminisces.
  • Tony Isabella calls writing for CBG “the longest and one of the most rewarding continuing relationships of my career.”

Peter David regularly runs his old CBG columns on his web site, although it may be a while before we see another one, or a reminiscence of his own, as he recently had a stroke.

Though it’s been nearly 8 years since I stopped subscribing to CBG, its cancellation after over 40 years of publication (hey, it’s almost as old as I am!) still feels like the end of an era.