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‘Futures End’ Month, Week 4: Did they save the best for last?

Still better than the New 52 costumes.

Still better than the New 52 costumes.

In the fullness of time, all things come to an end: Futures, worlds, even month-long publishing initiatives. And so Wednesday brought with it the final batch of Futures End specials from DC Comics.

Of this week’s 10 releases, I read four, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of those were pretty good … and at least two of them even tied in to the events of The New 52: Futures End, the weekly series that nominally gives the one-shots a reason to exist.

Heck, one of them tied in to the series, which saw the release of its 21st issue this week, strongly and directly enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned up in  one of the eventual trade collections of Futures End.
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‘Futures End’ Month, Week 3: More tie-in adjacent, really

fwoooosh

Hey, I didn’t know vampires could breathe fire! Comics really are educational!

September marches on, Wednesday by Wednesday, which means so too does DC Comics’ theme month. This year the publisher has suspended publication of its New 52 titles, replaced them with Futures End one-shots, and slapped new and improved (i.e. smaller) lenticular 3D covers on them, each bearing a “#1.”

One could certainly question the logic in tying all of the New 52 books, even the extremely popular ones like Batman, to a middling weekly series set in a possible future that will never come to pass and that seems to be a fairly reliable mid-list seller. But this week’s crop of one-shots demonstrates that, despite the fact that each book has the words “Futures End” in the title, many of them have somewhere between nothing and very little to do with the actual plot of the event series.

In the previous two installments of our weekly look at these specials, I recapped the basic plot of Futures End. But this time, I see I need not even bother. DC shipped 11 of the books this week, but I only read five — and the only thing those issues shared in common is that they’re set five years in the future (not that they had much of anything at all to do with Futures End).

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Power couples: ‘Superman/Wonder Woman’ and ‘Astro City: Victory’

superman-ww-astro-city

Superman is the world’s greatest superhero, Wonder Woman is the world’s greatest superheroine. They have so much in common — their superpowers, their costume colors, their hobbies, their social organizations — that they seem perfect for each other … if only it weren’t for that nosy reporter friend, or girlfriend, or wife, or object-of-his-affection that’s kept the Man of Steel more or less spoken for over the course of his 75-year career.

I suppose that’s why Superman and Wonder Woman so often become a couple in various out-of-continuity stories like Kingdom Come and Injustice, and a large part of why DC Comics decided to use its 2011 reboot as an opportunity to make the pair a super-powered power couple, one of the more dramatic, non-sartorial changes in either characters’ milieus the reboot has so far introduced.

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‘Futures End’ Month, Week 2: Introducing the untie-in

You took the agonized scream of rage right out of my mouth, "Futures End" Harley Quinn.

You took the agonized scream of rage right out of my mouth, “Futures End” Harley Quinn.

This month marks the third anniversary of of the New 52, and, as was the case with each September since the 2011 relaunch of DC Comics’ superhero titles, that means the entire line is being unified under an umbrella theme … or gimmick, depending on how charitable you are.

In 2012, it was “Zero Month,” with each book telling a story set in the hero’s first year of rebooted continuity. Last year, it was “Villains Month,” featuring fancy 3D covers, decimal-point issue numbers and stories starring DC’s antagonists. This year, its a little from column A, and a little from column B: There are more of those fancy covers, but all of the stories are set five years into the future.

As I did last week, I’ve grabbed a handful of new Futures End one-shots, more or less at random, for review. This week DC released 10 Futures End one-shots, of which I have five sitting in a little stack next to me as I type. Last time, I tried ordering the reviews from worst to best, but I had trouble doing so this week, as there wasn’t really a stand-out like Grayson. Rather, these five seemed to cluster around a baseline of mediocrity, with a few being slightly better, others slightly worse.

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High marks for Monte Beauchamp’s ‘Masterful Marks’

masterful marksBlab founder and editor Monte Beauchamp’s latest book, Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World, bears a subtitle that begs to be parsed, almost as much as it begs to be read.

He’s gathered a Murderers’ Row of great contributors and collaborators to tell the life’s stories of 16 cartoonists, in the most obvious format to do so — comics, of course.

But what, exactly, constitutes a cartoonist? Some of those included might have worked at one point in the field, but made their greatest marks in other areas: people like Walt Disney, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and Hugh Hefner (whose inclusion will likely be the biggest surprise to more readers; and, make no mistake, the book is made as much for the casual reader as the expert, armchair or otherwise). Others you might not think of as cartoonists at all, like Edward Gorey or Al Hirschfeld.

And changing the world — the whole world?! — is a pretty bold claim, certainly bolder than changing, say, a genre, or a medium or an industry. Certainly Disney and Osamu Tezuka qualify, as do Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who introduced the superhero as we know it, and Jack Kirby, who reimagined the superhero, made countless contributions to the form and who created or co-created characters and concepts that today make billions of dollars.

But what about Harvey Kurtzman, Robert Crumb and the aforementioned Hirschfeld? Are their influences and innovations on equal footing?

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‘Futures End’ Month, Week 1: ‘Grayson’ is great

new 53 fe 1In the near future, some sort of sentient operating system has awoken and taken over the world, transforming its inhabitants into cyborgs that then either kill or assimilate the rest of the population. To try to prevent this apocalyptic nightmare, Batman Bruce Wayne sends Batman Terry McGinnis into the past to stop that operating system from being created.

I know parts of that plot might sound familiar, but notice the presence of Batmen in it, so obviously I am describing The New 52: Futures End, DC Comics’ weekly series set five year in the future, where McGinnis is trying to alter his past to save his future.

I wonder if DC could send someone back in time, whether they would have altered the storyline of Futures End a bit. It’s always difficult to tell exactly how well a particular series is selling — in part because of the insane way the direct market sells comics, in part because publishers don’t typically release numbers — but one expects DC might have had higher hopes for Futures End, given that this year’s theme month of September is devoted entirely to tie-ins to the storyline, as the company has suspended much of its New 52 line and replaced it with 52 42  Futures End one-shots.

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Sensational idea, less-than-wonderful execution: ‘Sensation Comics’ #1

sensationLast week saw the return of Sensation Comics to store racks, as DC Comics repurposed the long-defunct title for a new Wonder Woman anthology series, featuring stories by rotating creative teams that debut online as part of the publisher’s digital-first initiative. It’s a strategy the company previously used for similar anthologies Legends of the Dark Knight and the soon-ending Adventures of Superman.

It’s a great idea, and one well past due. Unlike Batman and the Man of Steel, Wonder Woman has long been confined to a single solo title, with fewer miniseries, specials and one-shots, and is more often subject to drastic new directions, due to a perceived notion the character needs to be “fixed.”

The current Wonder Woman series is a good example of this, with Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and company reintroducing the character with an “Everything you thought you knew was wrong!” origin, accompanied by a weird and dark backstory for the Amazons, and a London setting for the heroine.

Last time I checked in with Wonder Woman, the title character was the demigod daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta and had become the goddess of war, dispatching her foes with magic swords — and when she’s really in a pinch, she takes off her power-dampening Amazon bracelets, which allows her to “power-up” into a sort of glowing Super-Wonder Woman.

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In ‘Sisters,’ Raina Telgemeier captures small details of family life

SISTERS-tease

Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters is about a car trip in the same way that her earlier graphic memoir Smile is about having dental work: It forms an organizing principle for a story about changing relationships, a story built up of small incidents that are all linked to this single narrative thread.

That sounds complicated for a book written for 10-year-olds, but Telgemeier makes it look easy. It’s as if she’s swapping stories about her childhood — remember that time we got a snake, and then we lost it? And although she’s writing about growing up in San Francisco in the 1980s and early 1990s, the story has a timeless feel (the only clues to the setting are teenage Raina’s Walkman and the fact that no one has a cell phone).

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Anxiously ever after: Emily Carroll’s ‘Through the Woods’

through the woodsA few of the short, scary stories in Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods evoke elements of classic fairy tales. Some are quite direct, like the young woman in the conclusion who dons a red hood and cape to walk through the wilderness, avoiding a wolf. Others are more indirect, like the possibly murderous, Bluebeard-like husband in “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” or simply in the patterns of repeating events, like what happens to the three sisters in “Our Neighbor’s House” or  to the pairs of characters in “His Face All Red” and “My Friend Janna.”

However, there are two sharp and immediate differences between Carroll’s stories and the fairy tales they sometimes evoke.

First, Carroll’s stories are told in comics form, although more artfully constructed than what you might expect to find on the new racks each Wednesday (her book comes courtesy of a Simon and Schuster imprint, rather than a traditional comics publisher).

Second, they’re terrifying, some of them more H.P. Lovecraft or August Derleth than August Derleth or Wilhem and Jacob Grimm at their, well, grimmest. For example, the Little Red Riding Hood allusion in the conclusion, part of the set of stories that bookend the five gothic (in the traditional, literary sense) short stories that form the bulk of Carroll’s collection, ends with the wolf, if that’s really what it is, appearing in the dark outside the girl’s window.

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So freaking good: Haspiel and Waid’s ‘The Fox: Freak Magnet’

fox freak magnetIf you asked me for a list of some of the best superhero comics of the past year or so, I’d be sure to mention one that comes not from DC Comics or Marvel, two companies synonymous with the genre, but from Archie Comics, a publisher popularly known for not making superhero comics.

That comic would be the one starring The Fox, a Golden Age superhero from MLJ Comics (which would eventually become Archie Comics) that was recently resurrected in a well-made, well-received miniseries, now available in the collection The Fox: Freak Magnet.

Archie’s approach to the book seems to have been somewhat Marvel-ous, in several respects.

First, the publisher appears to have allowed a talented creator, Dean Haspiel, to do pretty much whatever he liked with the relatively minor character, and he chose to stick with what came before, but to take it in his own, idiosyncratic direction, not unlike Marvel’s post-Hawkeye strategy for its secondary, non-franchise books.

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In a galaxy far, far away, Jeffrey Brown continues his ‘Star Wars’ saga

BobaJeffAmong the bigger announcements to come out of Comic-Con International was that Marvel will resume publishing Star Wars comics after a nearly 30 years, 23 years of which the license called Dark Horse home. We’ve known it was happening for a while, of course, but this was the official unveiling of titles and creative teams.

Completely unaffected by all of this is one particular pocket of Star Wars comics, those made by cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, who’s found a great deal of success in marrying his particular wit and style with the pop-culture icons of the franchise. That’s good news for comics and/or Star Wars fans who prefer  their take on that universe to be ironic and funny, and, of course, for little kids.

This month, the latest installments of Brown’s two ongoing Star Wars-related projects dropped, one from Chronicle Books, the other from Scholastic.

Brown’s professional, published relationship with Star Wars began with 2012’s Darth Vader and Son, a series of full-color cartoons based on the premise that Luke knew who his real father was at a very young age, and Vader was attempting to raise his innately heroic child as a single parent while balancing his home life with a rather demanding day job: that of a Sith Lord helping the Emperor rule the galaxy with an iron fist. That was quickly followed by Vader’s Little Princess, a collection of cartoons with the same premise, only substituting Leia for Luke.

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‘Weapon Brown,’ the ol’ blockhead on steroids

imageMash-ups are pretty easy to come by in the Internet Age. Flash as a Ingmar Bergman movie? Of course that exists. Hello Kitty as Darth Vader? Hello, new cosplay idea. Optimus Prime as a My Little Pony? I’m … I’m pretty sure that’s an official IDW thing. Everything’s a mash-up these days. In fact, you might be a bit sick of it. If I mention, for example, the phrase “Charlie Brown in a post-apocalyptic future,” you cannot be blamed for rolling your eyes so hard that your pupils disappear into your hear, resembling the blank ovals of Li’l Orphan Annie.

But what if I were to tell you it was also rather good? Jason Yungbluth’s Weapon Brown was something of a hit among the snarkier fans of comics strips, i.e. those of the Comics Curmudgeon variety. You know, the kind who enjoy taking a bite out of obsolete zombie comics that populate the funny pages, but deep down have a strong affection for them and an appreciation for the hard-working creators who made them. The comic was originally serialized at whatisdeepfried.com. After “one of the most successful comic book Kickstarter campaigns of 2013,” Weapon Brown was collected into paperback and hardcover earlier this year. On Aug. 13, Yungbluth will be on hand at Forbidden Planet in New York City to sign copies of his book.

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Is Wally Wood’s ‘Witzend’ a lost treasure or a noble failure?

bookcover_witzenIt seems like the stuff of legend: Wally Wood – the Wally Wood, of EC and MAD fame, fed up with being creatively and financially stifled by the oppressive corporate comics business model, discovers the then-nascent world of fanzines, and inspiration strikes. “Maybe I could create one of these fanzines for me and my friends,” Wood thinks. “We could publish any sort of work we wanted, with no editorial restrictions or code to worry about! Best of all, we’d own it!”

Bear in mind, this was 1966, a good two years or so before the first issue of Zap Comix set the still-budding world of underground comics on fire. The mere notion of comics as any sort of medium for self-expression at the time must have been something that drew wide-eyed stares. But while Wood was certainly no hippie, there’s little doubt he saw this as an opportunity to produce work that he and his friends really cared about.

And what a list of friends. Throughout its run, Witzend collected an impressive roster that included creators like Jim Steranko, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Reed Crandall, Art Spiegelman (some of his first published work), Don Martin (yes, that Don Martin), Alex Toth, P. Craig Russell, Mike Zeck and Joe Staton.

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Secret identity issues: Yang and Liew’s ‘The Shadow Hero’

shadow heroIn The Shadow Hero, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang collaborates with artist Sonny Liew to tell the story of Hank Chu, the teenage son of Chinese immigrants who run a small store in Depression-era Chinatown. As with much of Yang’s best-known work, this new original graphic novel deals with themes of cultural, national and racial identity, and the tensions and conflicts that arise when identities and outlooks collide.

Here, Hank finds himself pressured by his mother to become a wholly American invention, a sort of ultimate assimilation success story. She doesn’t want him to grow up to be a doctor or lawyer or politician, but a superhero, a thought put in her head when she’s rescued from a robber by the Superman stand-in The Anchor of Justice.

Their book is an excellent one, a perfect example of a modern superhero comic, masterfully and perfectly balancing comedy, crime, action, drama, melodrama, romance and fantasy into an epic story of a young man coming of age and finding himself.

As good as Yang and Liew’s story is, however, the story of their story may be just as fascinating, in large part because it’s true, and gives the comic they crafted a remarkable level of relevance. That story is told after the conclusion of The Shadow Hero, in the generous back-matter of the First Second book, presented in standard superhero-comic size, rather than the smaller, more square shape of most of the publisher’s offerings.

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Celebrating ’75 Years’ of Batman and The Joker

batman 75Batman is celebrating his 75th birthday this year, which may come as a surprise. I mean, look at that smooth, handsome face, or what little of it is visible beneath his cowl. Look at those ripped muscles, or the way he runs across rooftops and beats up criminals — why, Batman doesn’t look a day over 35!

Now just as it did recently for Superman, DC Comics is releasing a pair of hefty, 400-page hardcover collections that serve as a sort of survey for how the character has been portrayed and functioned in the publisher’s comics line during since his first appearance. Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years and The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years aren’t exactly the comics equivalents of greatest-hits albums, but they are nice starting points for newcomers and/or casual fans, offering quick, compelling overviews of the title characters through the decades.

The Batman volume, featuring Jim Lee’s rendition of the character from the 2003 storyline “Hush” on the dust jacket, must have been particularly challenging to assemble, given the thousands and thousands of pages of Batman comics, featuring dozens of different takes by scores of creators.

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