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This week’s new releases include three more series launching as part of the “All-New Marvel Now” initiative — Magneto, Moon Knight and Wolverine & The X-Men — but of those, I only want to discuss the first two.
That’s because they’re actually new series, rather than an existing series simply relaunching with a new #1 issue and a new creative team. (The previous volume of Wolverine & The X-Men, the one written by Jason Aaron, seems like it just ended. When was that? Let’s see, it was … last week? Marvel’s not even waiting a whole entire month to relaunch titles now?)
Those two books are also solo series featuring lower-tier characters, making them the exact sort of comics Marvel has been allowing creators to pursue riskier, quirkier, more idiosyncratic and interesting approaches on since the success of Mark Waid and company’s Daredevil and Matt Fraction, David Aja and company’s Hawkeye.
And, of course, they also both start with the letter M.
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The golem, an artificial being usually created from mud or clay and endowed with life, has appeared in stories of every media since … well, since about the time people started telling stories, particularly if you consider the biblical first man Adam to be a form of golem (“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” from the second, less poetic of the two creation stories in Genesis).
But there may be no medium better suited to this creature of Jewish folklore than the American comic book, as the most famous of golems, the Golem of Prague, was in many ways a prototypical superhero. That golem was supposedly created in the late 1500s by a Rabbi Loew to defend the Jewish people of his city from pogroms, and there you have a few of the basic components of the American superhero: the bizarre origin, the defense of the oppressed, the home turf in need of protection and, of course, the Jewish nature of the character’s identity (often sublimated or coded in the early American superhero comics).
It is, of course, impossible to tell exactly how present in the backs of the minds of the many, many Jewish men who created the American comic book industry some 100 years or so after the legend of the Golem of Prague started appearing in writing in the third and fourth decades of the 19th century. But looking back, and looking for them, it’s easier to see them, from Superman as a sort of Golem of Metropolis to the stony Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four.
Normally, when we talk about art – which, of course, is different from mere entertainment – we like to phrase it in rarefied terms. We tend to want our art to focus on the examination or discussion of high-minded ideals like truth, beauty, justice, wisdom, or the existence of a sentient spiritual being and subsequent afterlife. Stuff like that. We want our movies, music and books to be concerned with the ethereal world, and not so much with the physical one, especially unpleasant or embarrassing tasks like defecating or sexual congress. Being reminded that only a thin layer of skin holds in all those slimy organs, blood and other icky stuff keeps us from musing on what special snowflakes we all are (not to mention the horror of our own eventual death).
When we do acknowledge that stuff, it tends to be in the form of “low” comedy or horror films, where jokes about going to the bathroom, violence, lustful urges and other aspects of our daily physical lives that make us uncomfortable, can be digested more easily because we often exhibit it in as loud and gross a manner as possible.
But delving knee-deep into viscera and body fluids doesn’t ipso facto mean you have to forego subtlety, nuance or poetry. Take Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit series for example.
In the 1990s, Warner Bros. and Tim Burton secured the rights for both Mars Attacks! and Dinosaurs Attack!, the 1962 and 1988 Topps collectible bubblegum card series, the premises of which is screamed aloud in their titles.
With both the commercial and creative success of Steven Spielberg’s 1993’s Jurassic Park scaring away others from tackling dinosaurs, Warner Bros. and Burton opted instead for Mars Attacks, ironically releasing their alien-invasion movie the same year as Independence Day, which, despite the wildly different tone, is nearly beat for beat the same movie, to the extent that Mars Attacks scans like a parody of ID4.
Dinosaurs Attack! may not have made it to the big screen (yet, he typed, with his fingers crossed), but it did get adapted into an unfinished Eclipse comic series … which was completed, cleaned up and re-released by IDW last year for the 25th anniversary of the card set. And it’s now available in graphic-novel form.
The comic adaptation is written by series creator Gary Gerani, and is an expanded version of the parody of an unlikely B-movie plot: The world’s greatest scientist has invented something called “Timescan,” a process that will bombard the Earth from an orbiting space station with a special ray that will allow he and those aboard to see into planet’s past using a huge view screen.
The world’s second-greatest scientist, who just so happens to be his ex-wife and the mother of his child, doesn’t think the process is safe and is virulently opposed to it.
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The first six pages of Beautiful Darkness comprise one of the more dramatic sequences you’re likely to see in any comics work. On the first, a saucer-eyed young blonde is having hot chocolate and cake with the fancily dressed man she met at the ball, and then something is falling from the ceiling — “But this isn’t how things were supposed to turn out!” — and after a quick, desperate struggle, the reader is treated to maybe the last thing he or she might expect to see. It’s creepy, scary and intriguing, a potent dare to stop reading, and an irresistible lure to turn the page.
The book is a collaboration between writer Fabien Vehlmann, who wrote the quirky, Jason-drawn comedy Isle of 100,000 Graves, and Marie Pommepuy, one-half of the art team known as Kerascoët, who drew the Miss Don’t Touch Me books, and who rather lavishly renders this story. Publisher Drawn and Quarterly bills it as an anti-fairy tale, but adding “anti-” seems a bit much, given how closely elements echo fairy tales and more modern, but still classic, children’s literature: Thumbelina and Tom Thumb, most especially, with at least a touch of Hansel and Gretel near the ending. There’s some Beatrix Potter in here, particularly in the visuals, and anyone who has read or encountered any adaptation of the The Borrowers will find much of that as well.
Batman: The Dark Knight Vol. 3: Mad (DC Comics): Poor Batman. His new continuity is only a few years old, and already he’s suffering from threat inflation, so that now seemingly every crime is one that could level Gotham City and every villain a mass-murderer with a three-figure body count to rival The Joker’s.
In this volume — collecting six issues and an annual from writer Gregg Hurwitz’s run on The Dark Knight — it’s The Mad Hatter’s turn for an upgrade. A villain formerly portrayed as either obsessed with hats or with Lewis Carrol’s Alice books or both, depending on the writer, Jervis Tetch here begins his road to villainy by killing a rabbit, then uses a step-ladder to reach the face of an underling who he proceeds to murder by plunging his thumbs into the victim’s eyes. From there, he murders a housewife by bashing her head in with an iron, he kills hundreds—hundreds!—of Gothamites through his mind-control technology, and he then has Batman’s girlfriend killed…by having her beaten to death in front of him.
In response, Batman tears one of the Tweedles’ jaws off, beats the diminutive Hatter until he’s drenched in his villain’s blood, then tosses him into a pond to drown until Alfred reminds him that he can’t kill the Hatter, or else he’ll be no different from him. I don’t think Batman should ever resort to lethal force, but Alfred’s argument isn’t all that powerful as presented here, given that one side of the scale has a madman murdering scores of innocents, and the other has Batman killing said killer.
That’s not the only surprisingly cliched bit of the story, which invents a new origin full of childhood trauma for Jervis Tetch akin to those Hurwitz previously gave The Scarecrow and The Penguin. Batman also decides he loves his current girlfriend, reluctantly reveals his secret identity to her and then, the very next night, one of his foes murders her while attempting to torture Batman’s secret identity out of her.
It’s a pretty problematic plot, to say the last.
This week DC Comics released four more annuals, three of which are set in the past and one of which is a big, bridging chapter in an ongoing plot line. All are penned by the regular writers of their series, and are $4.99 for 38 pages. What else do you need to know?
Oh, who made them, what they’re about and whether they’re any good? Oh, sure, I can tell you that …
Sixteen months after Marvel NOW! began, bringing with it new creative teams, new directions, new reboots of recently rebooted titles and new titles, the publisher is launching a new initiative. Marvel NOW! has become Marvel then, and the new NOW! is the All-New Marvel NOW!, which brings with it new creative teams, new directions, new reboots of recently rebooted titles, new titles and so on.
Not all of the NOW! titles are making the transition into the All-New NOW!, of course, and many of those that aren’t are instead concluding (rather than being canceled), apparently having been designed from the start to only last a certain length of time, and these conclusions are taking big, pulpy chunks out of my pull-list.
This week Marvel shipped the last issue of my favorite NOW book: FF. Originally written by Matt Fraction, drawn by Mike Allred, colored by Laura Allred and, toward the end of its 15-issue run, scripted by Lee Allred from Fraction’s plotting, it might not have been the best title Marvel is publishing (that’s probably still Hawkeye), but it was certainly the most fun for the entire length of its short, bright life.
Fraction followed Jonathan Hickman on Fantastic Four, and thus inherited the new, Hickman-created two-book status quo: Fantastic Four, featuring the adventures of the original Marvel superhero team, and FF, devoted to the Future Foundation school for young geniuses that Reed Richards established. Under Fraction, Richards took his team and his two biological children on a trip through time and space, seeking a cure for what appeared to be a chronic condition that baffled even him, in the pages of Fantastic Four, drawn in a more modern Marvel style by Mark Bagley.
And in FF, the Four recruited their own replacements for a temporary, stand-in superhero team/faculty — Ant-Man Scott Lang, She-Hulk, Medusa and Johnny Storm’s pop -star girlfriend Darla Deering — to run the school and care for the kids in their stead. (And it was awesome.)
There’s are a number of reasons why Dennis Eichhorn‘s Real Stuff was regarded as one of the better autobiographical comics of the 1990s. One thing, of course, was that he has lived an interesting and varied life – including a stint in jail – and has come across some unique, and at times bizarre, characters.
The other is that Eichhorn was a gifted raconteur, knowing exactly what beats of his story to hit and when, and the perfect point to deliver the punchline, even if it was retelling a funny thing someone said over drinks. Add to that the fact he collaborated with some of the most talented cartoonists in the industry at the time – Mary Fleener, Julie Doucet, Peter Bagge and Chester Brown, to name just a few – and tailored his stories to fit each artist’s unique strengths. I don’t know how the division of labor works with Eichhorn, whether he gives out detailed thumbnails or just a page of uninterrupted text, but he seems to understand the rhythm of comics exceedingly well.
While DC Comics sacrificed some bragging rights in 2011 when it rebooted its superhero line, even the never-before-renumbered Action Comics and Detective Comics, one consequence of relaunching TEC was that it was only a matter of time — 26 months, to be exact — before the company got around to publishing a new Detective Comics #27. And that the second Detective Comics #27 would see release during the 75th year of Batman’s career, well, all the better.
The first Detective Comics #27, published in 1939, was, of course, the first appearance of Batman. The anthology’s cover was surrendered to an arresting image of a spooky man in tights, wearing a bat-mask and sporting huge bat-like wings, scooping up a gangster in a headlock while swinging in front of the yellow field above a city skyline. “Starting this issue,” the cover trumpted, “The Amazing and Unique Adventures of The Batman.” Inside, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s pulp- and film-inspired detective hero cracked the “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and the amazing and unique adventures begun therein have yet to cease.
DC has honored that milestone in various ways over the years, with notable celebrations including Michael Uslan and Peter Snejbjerg’s 2003 Elseworlds one-shot Batman: Detective No. 27, and 1991′s Detective Comics #627, in which the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle and Marv Wolfman/Jim Aparo creative teams did their own takes on “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and both the original story and a 30th-anniversary version by Mike Friedrich and Bob Brown were reprinted.
This week brings Detective Comics (Vol. 2) #27, and another opportunity to celebrate that original issue, and Batman’s 75th anniversary, which DC does in a 90-page, prestige-format special issue — essentially a trade paperback with some ads in it — featuring contributions from the writers of all four of the main Batman books of the moment and about as strong a list of contributing artists as a reader could hope for.
Before Scott Snyder began writing Batman and became the hottest writer at DC Comic and an overall direct market darling, garnering high sales and high praise for his work on the title, he was penning the Vertigo series American Vampire. Sharply written and clever in its conception and execution, it infused a longtime staple of fantasy literature with some fresh ideas, and was also both good and well-received (that Stephen King was writing back-ups in it for a while probably didn’t hurt any, either).
Not long ago, Snyder returned to Vertigo for another series scarily reinventing a legendary creature with The Wake, drawn by fellow Sean Murphy (Joe The Barbarian, Punk Rock Jesus, some Hellblazer), with whom Snyder previously collaborated on American Vampire miniseries (2011′s Survival of the Fittest). This time the jump from ordinary to scary is a lot further, as Snyder’s not reinventing vampires, but mermaids of all things.
Well, mer-people, I guess, as they all look rather androgynous, like sci-fi creatures from the black lagoon from the waist up, rather than pretty naked ladies, and, of course, fish from the waist down. Mer-creatures, then. Or maybe mer-monsters.
It’s been about 10 years since the first ongoing series of popular Batman: The Animated Series export Harley Quinn published its 38th and final issue, so she was due — if not overdue — for another shot, particularly given that DC Comics’ current strategy means publishing a certain number of books each month, and the market seems to be rejecting a lot of those. Looked at in that light, then, this week’s Harley Quinn #1 was something of an inevitability.
The character certainly hasn’t been idle all that time, of course: She was a frequent presence in the Bat-books, shared the 2009-2011 Gotham City Sirens with Catwoman and Poison Ivy, briefly joined the Gail Siomone-written Secret Six and, with the New 52 reboot, she received a new origin story and costume in the pages of Suicide Squad. And, of course, she appeared at least briefly in various Batman cartoons during that time, as well as in the extremely popular Batman: Arkham video games and the more recent Injustice: Gods Among Us.
Certainly the character is popular, and while different fans probably like her for different reasons, the important factors seem to be that 1.) she’s a lady, 2.) she’s a sexy lady, and 3.) she offers the same sense of anarchy and dark humor as her sometimes-boyfriend The Joker, but without the depravity. More often than not — particularly in the comics and cartoons — she’s as much antihero as villain, a safer alternative to The Joker, whose evil serial killer portrayal is no so deeply embedded into the character that it can be difficult for creators to walk him back toward any more lighthearted portrayals.
This isn’t comics per se, but rather a collection of portraits Hornschemeier did of various notable figures as a late-night drawing exercise of sorts. One of the things I like is that Hornschemeier tries to change his style to suit the subject matter, or at least keep things from getting similar, so that Edward Gorey might be portrayed in a traditional stipple/cross-hatch method, J.D. Salinger and John Steinbeck are all made up of severe, angular, slashing lines, while P.G. Wodehouse seems to consist of a collection of basic geometric shapes that threaten to break off into pure abstraction. My favorites are probably the “blind continuous line” drawings, where Hornschemeier attempted to capture a person’s likeness without looking at the drawing or lifting his pen form the paper. These images have a lovely chaos to them that nevertheless manage to coalesce into an identifiable face.
On the downside, Hornschemeier has a tendency to elongate people’s faces, which can result in some rather odd-looking figures (Charles Schulz in particular seems rather off-model). He’s also obviously working off of photos, and part of me wished he took even more of a chance in attempting to draw his figures in different poses or expressions — especially with someone like Tesla, where the original image is so well know. On the upside, I also appreciated Hornschemeir’s notes in the back on each individual. Every so often he comes up with a delightful turn of phrase that captures an artist’s essence, as when he describes Richard Scarry art as, “The aesthetic equivalent of a towel fresh from the dryer.” All in all, it’s a nice little gift book that holiday present-shoppers can give to fans of Mother, Come Home or those who simply share the same sort of admiration Hornschemeier clearly does for these creative people.
I attended a small, perpetually broke Catholic high school that couldn’t afford to employ a guidance counselor. If we could have afforded one, it’s highly unlikely it would’ve been Neil Gaiman, as nice as that might have been.
At the time I was nearing graduation and about to go off to college to earn an expensive degree in pursuit of my lifelong — all 18 years of it — ambition to be a writer, Gaiman was just the writer of The Sandman (and a few other pretty great comics), and was, in fact, nearing the final story arc of that seminal series. At that point in my life, I certainly would’ve liked advice from the writer of one of my favorite comic series.
In the years since, Gaiman’s bona fides have only increased. In addition to writing comics, he’s written novels for adults and kids, he’ s written picture books, he’s written screenplays, he’s seen his works adapted into television and film, and he’s enjoyed the rarefied position of being a writer whose works are not only popular, but acclaimed, as well as being almost universally beloved in the field of comics, an industry with more than its fair share of crooks and cranks, of drawn daggers and venom.
Who better to offer advice to a young person about to embark — or at least attempt to embark — on a life in the arts, particularly a young person who would like to be a successful, professional writer of quality fiction? Someone who might want to grow up to be someone like, say, Neil Gaiman?
A Centaur’s Life, Vol. 1 (Seven Seas): Easily the weirdest comic I read this month, Kei Murayama’s manga is about an alternate world where everything is the exact same as it is in ours, save for the fact that there are multiple races like centaurs, angel folk, goat folk, cat folk, dragon people and so on. Oh, and while human beings apparently still exist, the only one glimpsed is a medieval knight seen in flashback, having enslaved a centaur is some bizarre armor/restraining device in order to ride him.
What makes the manga so weird, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason, at least not in this first volume, for why our heroine Himeno is a centaur, and why her classmates are all various fantasy races living out an otherwise completely mundane existence.
Himeno is a sweet, shy, pretty and popular Japanese schoolgirl (who is also a centaur). She’s afraid of boys, likes hanging out with her friends, and love sweets, although she worries about getting fat. The stories are mostly of the frivolous high-school comedy sort that could easily have been told with human characters.
In the first story, Himeno is self-conscious about her genitals, which she’s never looked at, as she’s afraid they might resemble those of a cow the kids once saw on a field trip (unlike some centaurs, the ones in this comic keep their horse parts covered in elaborate pants that appear difficult to put on and take off). In another, her class puts on a play, and she’s cast as the female lead, while her best friend — a girl with bat wings, a spade-shaped tail and pointy ears — is the male lead. In another, she’s suspected of doing some modeling work, in violation of school policy regarding part-time jobs.