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A Month of Wednesdays: ‘Batman/Superman,’ Spider-Man & more

batman:supermanBatman/Superman, Vol. 1: Cross World (DC Comics): The greatest virtue of the Greg Pak-written World’s Finest team-up title is also its main drawback: There’s really great, flat-out gorgeous artwork by Jae Lee … except when their isn’t. Lee draws the lion’s share of the book — about 70 of its 100-plus story pages — and  it’s some of the artist’s best comics work; his heroic figures pose through a series of complex layouts, their anatomy and features those of real, if exceptionally beautiful, people, rather than musclebound action figures. The too-busy New 52 costume designs are stripped down to their essentials, the various bits of technology all look like mobile art installations, and Lee’s vision of a Gotham City park is appropriately, if amusingly, dark, twisted and exaggerated.

He might not have been the best possible choice for this particular storyline, which involves two different Batmen, Supermen and Catwomen, given his use of silhouettes and sparse panels, and the cacophony of color-coded narration boxes have to do a little more work than they might otherwise. But it’s jarring to the point of shocking when fill-in artists appear to help Lee, with Ben Oliver-drawn climaxes for the first and last issues/chapters, and an extensive Yildiray Cinar flashback in another issue. There’s also a rather tacked-on origin story of Darkseid and the main villain for the story arc, which appeared in September’s Justice League #23.1, drawn by two more artists.

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Our man Megatron: ‘Transformers MTMTE’ #28

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 10.26.06 PMTransformers lore can be hopelessly convoluted. You think the DC Comics and Marvel universes are hard to keep track of? Try being a Transformers fan: There are various comic book universes, Michael Bay’s movie universe, the one from Japanese anime, the all-ages cartoon universe from Cartoon Network, the all-ages cartoon universe from the Hub, the original 1980s cartoon universe, and one where everyone’s an animal, which may or may not be the same universe as the 1980s cartoon.

Making it even more complicated, this canon multiverse is often acknowledged by the characters themselves, and its existence frequently becomes the basis of storylines. In March, the Transformers: Regeneration One series, which boasts a lineage to the very first Transformers comic, came to the end at Issue 100 with the Autobots untethering their universe from the rest of the multiverse. That made the Transformers mortal, ending the original comic book universe continuity permanently.

However, even if you’re not a Transformers fan, chances are you know the basics: Autobots, good; Decepticons, bad. Expanding on that: Optimus Prime is the hero, Megatron is the villain. It’s white hats versus black hats, except the cowboys in this situation can transform into vehicles, cassette tapes and guns.

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Vertigo works blue: ‘Vertigo Quarterly CMYK’ #1

cyanDC Comics’ Vertigo imprint has been releasing one-shot anthologies on a fairly regular basis, using them to dust off old titles like Strange Adventures, The Witching Hour and Mystery in Space, which gives contributors a general theme, and likely helps the publisher maintain trademarks.

Despite once being as common as mutant superheroes are today, anthologies of any kind haven’t been readily embraced in the modern marketplace, and one imagines the ever-increasing costs of comics doesn’t help. These Vertigo titles, featuring short, generally forgettable, riff-like stories from a multitude of creators — which the law of averages suggests will include some stories a reader won’t like — will run you $7.99, just two bucks shy of an ad-free, spine-having trade paperback collection of Image Comics’ Pretty Deadly … or Vertigo’s own FPB: Federal Physics Bureau.

This year the imprint is trying something slightly different: It’s still publishing $8 anthologies, with a variety of creative teams riffing on a theme, but rather than raiding long-faded DC titles (sorry if you were waiting for a revival of More Fun Comics or Adventures of Bob Hope),Vertigo is going with a sort of printing theme. Four anthologies, published on a quarterly basis, each using one of the four basic colors of traditional printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK. If nothing else, this will make repackaging and reselling these stories in a trade format a little easier, as the theme will be consistent between a series of anthologies.

The cyan issue debuted this week; it’s a very strikingly designed comic. The cover by designer Jared K. Fletcher is simple and understated, and it pops off the comics rack and begs for special attention. Even the two-page table of contents, in which each story is given a paint swathe-like panel of cyan/different shades of blue, is lovely (I feel tempted to make a joke about combining the thrill of reading a table of contents with the thrill of picking out a paint color, but I can’t; I genuinely dug those pages on an aesthetic level).

So the idea is rather inspired, as is the design — but how are the stories? Par for the course, I suppose. Some good, some bad, some mediocre; some clever uses of the theme, some that seem to ignore it all together. Let’s take a look, shall we?

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‘The Harlem Hellfighters’: Great subject, not-so-great comic

harlem hellfightersIn the afterword to his new graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters, writer Max Brooks cites two of the most common objections he encountered while shopping his screenplay about a regiment of black soldiers who fought for the United States in World War I: First, most Americans weren’t terribly interested in the first World War, a subject they knew almost nothing about; and, second, most Americans weren’t terribly interested in stories about African-American soldiers fighting in that war they weren’t interested in.

It likely won’t surprise anyone who reads The Harlem Hellfighters that it began as a film script — for a made-for-TV movie for TNT, actually, although the cable channel ultimately passed — as the cliches from virtually any war movie ever made are present, but that afterword does include an impressive example of why Brooks felt so passionate about the project. He recounts a discussion with an African-American professor who argued that one of the ways those in power have oppressed black people is by wiping them out of history books. When Brooks mentioned the Hellfighters, the professor responded that there were no black men fighting in World War I.

This, then, was history obscure even by the standards of academics who care passionately about the subject.

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Bad girls, good comic: Katie Skelly’s ‘Operation Margarine’

AD.OPERATIONMARGARINE.cvrfile_Layout 1Katie Skelly‘s previous comic book Nurse Nurse was a science fiction epic, set in the far-flung future, involving space travel and space pirates, and featuring some kicky fashions. It earned and deserved its comparisons to Barbarella, even if what the two shared was more a spirit and tone than anything else.

Her latest book, Operation Margarine, is also something of a genre work, although the genre is quite literally a more down-to-earth one. Something between a cautionary, youth-gone-wild flick and an exploitative biker picture, it suggests the sort of movies that Roger Corman used to produce for the drive-in, that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would mock and that Quentin Tarantino might enthusiastically praise and make some allusion to in one of his own films.

But, like Nurse Nurse, it’s all unmistakably Katie Skelly. The characters are quiet, mysterious and only barely sketched out symbol-people. The events flow like dominoes, with no grand plan or theme or message apparent. The thrills are visceral, surface thrills, the action and actions all communicated in a straightforward manner that gives every panel an equal amount of import.

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Two #1s: ‘Batman Eternal’ and ‘Lumberjanes’

variant coverI have to imagine there were almost as many forehead-slaps as high-fives in the room at the meeting where someone suggested DC Comics devote their next weekly comic to the Batman franchise. There had to be as many people thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” as there were people saying, “Good thinking!”

“More Batman” has rarely been a bad business decision for the publisher, and not only is the franchise carrying more than its fair share of the 52-ish books that make up the DCU line, the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo flagship title continues to perform at crazy-high numbers.  So why not produce another Batman book, and rather than sticking it in a corner of the franchise, far from the main book, the one that seems to “count” the most, why not tie it closely to Snyder’s book? And hey, why not ship the thing weekly? Again, high fives!

I really love weekly comics, although the format has some pretty unique pressures, which we’ve seen play out various ways as DC has tried different  routes over and over to get to weekly comics, with no two efforts—52, Countdown, Trinity, Wednesday Comics, and the bi-weeklies Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost—really being produced in quite the same way.

The most obvious pressure is that getting these things to ship on time like clockwork often means sub-par art, so as much as I was personally looking forward to Batman Eternal, I was frightened as much as disappointed to see the art starting out bad; this was, after all, the issue that should be the best looking.

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A Month of Wednesdays | Some DC, some manga and ‘All Star’

ALL STARAll Star (NBM): The latest graphic novel from Joe and Azat‘s Jesse Lonergan, All Star gets a lot of mileage out of its setting in both space and time. The space is an extremely small small town of Elizabeth, Vermont, a place with little to do and little chance of escape for the young, caged tiger types who are coming of age there. The time is 1998, and Lonergan returns again and again to the sports, politics and pop culture of the time for knowing gags, commentary on the events of the story or even just color.

Our protagonist is Carl Carter, the cocky, hot-shot all-star of the title, a fantastic baseball player whose skill could take him far from town once he graduates, and has made him one of his school and town’s most popular residents, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering brother (who is also his teammate).

One night, after drinking way too much at a party, he and his best friend make a stupid decision, one that gets his friend expelled from school and sent on a completely different path than Carl, who suspects his baseball skills and the importance of the sport to his school got him off light.

He begins soul-searching from there, and realizes too late how screwed-up his world is, and actually has been for a while,  but it’s too late to do anything about. A tragedy — in the sense that it ends sadly rather than happily — All Star captures small-town adolescence perfectly (perhaps all too perfectly, depending on a reader’s mood and propensity for elegiac nostalgia), and is actually a great deal of fun, despite the down ending and the heavy melodrama.

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What all’s All-New this week? ‘Ghost Rider’ and ‘Silver Surfer’

surfer-ghost-rider

It’s another week, which means a new batch of Marvel series launched as part of the publisher’s “All-New Marvel NOW!” initiative showed up at my local comics shop: Felipe Smith and Tradd Moore’s All-New Ghost Rider, Ales Kott and Garry Brown’s Iron Patriot, and Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s Silver Surfer.

I read two out of the three, as those were the most visually interesting, and seemed to be part of the initiative’s guiding principals: matching striking talents with lower-tier characters for idiosyncratic takes that veer away from the “typical” Marvel comic. Also, those were the two that featured characters who haven’t had a shot at their own book for a longer while. (Sorry, Iron Patriot, it’s not you, it’s me. I’m sure there are plenty of other critics willing to review you).

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Whither Pandora? (Other than in ‘Trinity of Sin: Pandora’)

first appearance

In summer 2011, the Geoff Johns/Andy Kubert event series Flashpoint was reaching its climax, and the fifth issue was devoted to The Flash trying to unscramble the mixed-up, dystopian timeline in a typically Flash way — by running around really fast.

Near the end, there was a strange, two-page spread of an interlude that seemed almost grafted on: The Flash catches a glimpse of a mysterious, hooded woman with glowing eyes and lines all over her face, who says portentously, “Because the history of heroes was shattered into three long ago. Splintered to weaken your world for their impending arrival. You must all stand together. The timelines must become one again.”

The timelines were those of the DC Universe, the WildStorm Universe and a handful of DCU characters who had mainly been appearing in books published by DC’s Vertigo imprint. The result? The New 52, the biggest and most dramatic reboot the oft-rebooted, retconned and otherwise tinkered-with DC Universe had ever experienced in the history of forever; they even relaunched Action Comics and Detective Comics!

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Two from D+Q: ‘On Loving Women’ and ‘White Cube’

white-cube-loving-women

Diane Obomsawin’s On Loving Women and Brecht Vandenbroucke’s White Cube have two things in common: First, they’re both published by Drawn and Quarterly; second, they’re both collections of very short, individual comics stories riffing on a single theme that defines them as books — little pieces contributing to a great, big whole.

Wait, did I say they have two things in common? I meant three they have three things in common: Both are excellent.

Beyond those commonalities, there’s not a whole lot of overlap between the two works. On Loving Women is a series of six- to nine-page, black-and-white short stories about the real-life sexual awakenings of various women who love other women. White Cube is a bunch of one- or two-page, fully painted, full-color, silent strips about modern art and related subject matter. The former is pretty funny, but mostly by virtue of the way Obomsawin tells a joke, as the stories are more conversational anecdotes than gags. The latter is very funny because it’s a collection of comic comic strips (although some of those jokes are pretty dark).

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This is the best comic about a giant chicken you’ll ever read

wicked chicken queen

While I’m wary (to put it mildly) of throwing around trite phrases like “breakout artist” and “hot new cartoonist,” it sure seems like Sam Alden has a certain enthusiasm building around him in indie circles. Reading Wicked Chicken Queen, it’s not hard to see why. Whatever your initial reaction might be on glancing at that title, I can tell you I didn’t expect anything nearly as graceful, thoughtful and moving as this comic turned out to be.

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Brought to you by the letter M: ‘Moon Knight’ and ‘Magneto’

moon-knight-magneto

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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Niles, Wachter and Santoro breathe new life into the golem

breath of bonesThe 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.

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Ew, gross: Scatology and art in ‘Prison Pit’ and ‘Ant Colony’

Ant Colony

Ant Colony

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.

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‘Dinosaurs Attack!’ boasts cartoonish gore, surprising subtext

DinosaursAttack coverIn 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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