Northlanders #29 (DC/Vertigo): It’s quickly becoming obvious that the one-shot issues of Northlanders are their own brand of “event” comic. We had issue #17 with Vasilis Lolos, which was probably one of the best single issues of any comic last year, and now another stunning dazzler with Fiona Staples. On the very first page, when I saw that word “tiller” it made me appreciate the research that Brian Wood puts into his creations. Ordinary writers just don’t use such specific words. Visually, I keep finding that Dave McCaig’s coloring is such an integral component of these books. He’s really up there with Dave Stewart in terms of talent. He helps Fiona Staples create a dark and grainy environment, sinewy even, full of harsh conditions. You can really feel the icy cold wet in your bones, and the salty sea water clinging to your skin. And that shot of the Icelandic volcano is dramatic, insane, otherworldly, and utterly breathtaking. Staples becomes another in a long line of phenomenal artists that Brian Wood collaborates with. I used to comment that Brian Wood was a “lucky” guy to get to work with such an incredible roster of sequential artists, but luck really has nothing to do with it. He’s getting what he deserves as one of the best writers working in the medium today. The story is focused on Dag, one man fighting for survival on the Sea Road. His crew are literally fair weather fans of their Captain, acquiescing when times are good, rebelling and extorting when they’re not. I’m sure Wood probably wrote this book months ago, but for some reason I kept thinking of the fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and the retarded calamity that is the BP oil spill, and a dying way of life. Wood’s writing always has a way of mirroring the themes we encounter every day. Instead of sticking to that dying way, Dag is enamored of the idea of “The West” and the possibility of a New World, and the freedom it offered inhabitants of the Old World. Ultimately, Dag meets a miserable end, but it’s hard not to think that he met his goal in being free and probably died happy, with a sense of humor. This is a random story, but it reminded me of an article I read, probably 20 years ago, about a Roman coin that was found in the San Joaquin Valley farmland of California. Scientists couldn’t explain how it got there, the layers of soil it was embedded in did not support the theory that it had been casually dropped in a relatively recent time period. Was it possible that a Roman galley could have been lost, thrown so far off course in an epic storm, that it not only made it to the New World, but to the West Coast, and then the crew survived long enough to trek 100 miles inland? It seems unbelievable, but this brand of historical fiction is fascinating to me, truth being stranger than fiction in the hands of a writer like Brian Wood is endlessly entertaining. Grade A.
Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 (Marvel): Hey, Carmine Di Giandomenico is a find! I really liked his jaggedy lines, which looked like a blend of Scott Kolins (some Avengers stuff with Joe Casey) and Mario Alberti (who recently did that underrated Spider-Man/X-Men book with Christos Gage). Filming the life of The Mandarin is the framing device for this annual, and it worked really well. The Mandarin basically attempts to construct his own Keyser Soze style myth as he Forrest Gumps his way through some significant historical events. He proves to be a master manipulator, an egocentric megalomaniac, that writes his own story to suit his needs, regardless of fact or contradiction. He will alter, embellish, and flat out lie to fabricate the vision he desires. He creates a personal pedigree for himself, with different lineage, experience, and academic background. Taken on its own, that wouldn’t be too terribly interesting, but Fraction relays the tale in dual running narratives, the reality of The Mandarin set side by side with the desired fictional story, and the juxtaposition of the two threads really achieves a high level of entertainment. If Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects taught us anything, it’s that untrustworthy narrators are very clever and very compelling. This book reminded me a bit of Valerie D’Orazio’s Punisher MAX: Butterfly one-shot in that it barely features the titular character, and it’s so good that we don’t even care. When Tony Stark is finally introduced, it only serves as a reminder that The Mandarin is a classic villain because he really is the anti-Tony in almost every aspect of his being. Matt Fraction achieves a nice balance as a writer, because he can bring the sheer fun and imagination that The Mandarin’s “Green Lantern Rings” possess, but also pepper the dialogue with $10 words that challenge readers. I know what Mondrian paintings are, so I caught that reference, but admittedly I had to look up “apotheosis” and “hagiographic.” It’s not often a writer will fly a vocab word past me that I’m unfamiliar with. That’s cool. At the end of it all, despite attempts to use the power of film to “kill the myth of The Mandarin,” we get a heartbreaking end, unfortunately proving that the “truth’s just the story that gets told loudest and last.” I’m not very steeped in classic Marvel continuity or Mandarin lore, but Fraction has probably created a chilling and definitive portrait of the master manipulator. Grade A.
Captain Swing & The Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island #2 (Avatar Press): The simple line “We fly to change the future” has a sense of vision behind it that is instantly intriguing. Everything I doubted in the first issue seems better here. In Charlie Gravel, we have a likable POV character. He’s the proud policeman, differentiating himself from the Bow Street Runners, and capable of delivering “…a pretty piece of talk.” Polly is a nice addition to the cast, and we get more of the Captain’s journal entries, which are quickly becoming my favorite part of the book. Warren Ellis also packs this issue with fun talk and fun ideas, there’s the verbal banter about everything from the killing of chickens to the German lineage of the British Royal Family, and the Moon-Men of 1623. Raulo Caceres and the inks/colors of the book come off as very dark at times, but hey, I guess it is supposed to be Victorian England in the dead of night. I was glad to see that the ultimate motive becomes crystal clear and the narrative device all hinges on the ideological battle between open source power and control of a finite resource. Not only is the analogy to fossil fuel reliant energy an extremely timely topic out here in the real world, but there seems to be a parity of thought occurring in the zeitgeist when you look at the work Ellis’ disciple Matt Fraction is turning in over on Invincible Iron Man, with Tony Stark and his newly created Stark Resilient essentially fighting the same war of free open source energy to revolutionize the world. It’s like Captain Swing is fighting for the same future that Tony Stark wants to usher in. Grade A.
Secret Avengers #2 (Marvel): If you want to see a good crisp recap, check out this one. It’s probably one of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. It seems like an odd little thing to point out, but that should show you how perfect it really was. Anyway. This issue sure made me miss thought balloons. Go back and read that scene with Sharon Carter and notice how ludicrous it is once you realize she’s sitting in the floating HQ just talking out loud to herself for a few pages. My copy of this book seemed to have a printing error, where a few pages had a weird white strip down the first quarter of the page, with no inks or anything. Why did Moon Knight call Steve “Commander?” Does he have some title I’m not aware of? Has he officially been appointed the Commander of SHIELD? Is SHIELD even back? Pushing past those minor gripes, Ed Brubaker delivers a fast-paced adventure set largely on Mars. There’s a good dynamic with the team happening and it’s just… fun. If these are the types of big ol’ stories that Brubaker wants to tell, there really is unlimited potential here. Nothing grabs me as utterly amazing, and it probably won’t win any awards, but this is just competent and fun superhero comics. Mike Deodato seems to be finding his groove as well, with art that doesn’t appear to be as dimly lit as the first issue. This is the kind of book I’d probably hand to a younger reader to get them into comics. It’s perfectly accessible, without a lot of baggage that you have to necessarily be familiar with to understand, with fun stories and neat-o art. Grade B+.
Astonishing X-Men #34 (Marvel): At this point, I have only a faint recollection of the plot since a 6 month delay between issues has essentially sucked all of the dramatic thrust out of this arc. It still begs for comparison with the initial run too. Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s run instantly became an “it” book because of the reputation of the creators and the quality of their output on the title. It was basically an organic “event” book without being branded as one with a bunch of marketing hype. Here, despite an “A” list writer and a “B” list artist (sorry, but it’s true, while Phil Jimenez is a good solid artist, his name alone won’t sell books in the way that John Cassaday, Frank Quitely, or JH Williams III will, just to name a few examples), the end result is that Warren Ellis’ entire tenure on the title has come across as very non-essential reading. There's just nothing special about it, and you'd assume a Warren Ellis helmed X-Book would be pretty damn special. The time lag also renders some things very incongruous. For example, over in Uncanny X-Men, Beast has already quit the team, yet here we see a rift with Scott barely in its initial stages. I think originally, the Astonishing “line” was designed in the vein of the Ultimate line in that it had the flexibility to be independent of shared continuity, but that just isn’t the case anymore. Plotlines with Agent Brand, Colossus, and the Storm/Black Panther relationship have clearly been integrated, so I don’t buy the independent reasoning. Looking past all of that and trying to take in this issue in a vacuum, the results are still varied. For the most part, Jimenez’s art is really strong. In my totally unscientific estimation, he just creates a nice mold for the way an X-Men book “should” look to me. His lines are clean, bold, and emotive, really everything I’d want for my Children of The Atom. On the scripting end, we get 8 pages of Scott and Beast bitching at each other, then the rest is largely an expositional fight with Sauron. At times, the dialogue is a little too winky-winky self-aware, things like the “Dr. Crazy-Pants” speech tend to push me out as too overtly post-modern. There are some things I like about the tone. When Beast says “It impresses no one and disturbs your older friends,” that made me smile. It was in character, it rang true, and it was a good point. Unfortunately, most of the other lines are difficult to swallow, all deep with the density of Beast’s philosophizing about Scott’s personality. Some of the lines are very clunky, such as “And this ‘I’m the big dog who wants to know your name and then kill you twice’ crap?” I mean, huh? Who talks like that? Say that out loud and see if it sounds at all how anyone ever speaks. I thought the underlying ideas about weaponizing scientific research were worthy of examination, but when in the heat of battle you get a line like “Wait, so there’s a transformational trigger in its structure?”, it comes off not like the awe inspiring Ellis creations we yearn for, but just like comic book characters engaging in unnaturally inserted sci-fi exposition. Grade B-.
I also picked up;
Batwoman: Elegy: Deluxe Edition HC (DC): Yeah, I own the single issues, but this premium package DOES NOT contain the sub-par back up feature, and is the entire run of the Greg Rucka and JH Williams III issues in a slightly oversized format, along with some bonus material. It’s probably one of the best mainstream books to see the light of day in the last 5 years, so it belongs in a swanky format standing proud on my shelf.