X-Men #3 [The Wood Pile]
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I started to feel a little guilty that there hadn’t been any new content on the site for a week, so I decided to post these quick capsule reviews, which are essentially just extensions of the micro-reviews I’ve been blasting out on Twitter. This is roughly a third of the floppies that were shoved into my hands at San Diego Comic Con 2013. Enjoy.
The True Lives of The Fabulous Killjoys #2 (Dark Horse): It’s becoming increasingly clear with the Battery City newsfeed that the entire population of the former LA Basin (revealed in the interesting backmatter for those not already in the know) is being systematically brainwashed and stripped of their individuality by Better Life Industries (BLI). Gerard Way and Shaun Simon focus this issue on Killjoy Sharpshooter-cum-DJ Cherri Cola as he tries to find and protect our young messiah protagonist near the ruins of The Nest. During the last issue, The Nest kept visually reminding me of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on; I now think that it reminded me of the head of Zauriel, an angelic Grant Morrison creation (in lieu of being able to use Hawkman) during his old JLA run. Everyone knows antagonist Korse is based on Grant Morrison, so now I guess there’s some sort of ouroboros serpent-eating-it’s-own-tail thing happening. Anyway, I liked the mystery the first issue laid out quite a lot, not insulting the audience with exposition, simply world-building organically and letting the audience catch up and interact in that tertiary way that comics as a medium does so well. I like this issue even more; what it lacks in slightly obtuse mystery, it makes up for with more accessible intrigue, as the narrative intent seems to snap sharply into place and settle into a rich groove. There’s so much to like occurring in this issue, from sex bots attempting to secure new batteries and encountering nothing but the knotted bureaucracy keeping the populace in check, to Korse being demoted for surprisingly twisty reasons, to Killjoy costumes enshrined in a radio station that functions as the voice of the underground, to an uprising about to pop off against Battery City from out in the desert. I said it last time, but I’ll say it again. I believe this is THE art of Becky Cloonan’s career unfolding before our eyes here. She just gets better and better with each successive project. It’s so crisp and polished, capturing the pop iconography style (thanks to vibrant colors from Dan Jackson), as well as bristling with a dangerous energy lurking just below that taut surface. Her variable line weights give characters just the right attitude, whether it’s anemic frailty in the subtle emotional scenes, or a bold sense of power in the more earnest and emphatic sequences. There’s such a robust sense of design to her work, evident in the costumes, the cities, and the arid environments. “The Cloonan Aesthetic” (if such a thing now exists) is about counterpoints. It is thick and substantial, yet light and swift, moving effortlessly between those poles at will, from mean close-ups you can’t escape, to people hidden in the shadows and their own insecurities, she races the camera in and out at with heart-pounding effect. At this point, there’s no doubt in my mind that The True Lives of The Fabulous Killjoys will be cited as one of the year’s best books, inhabiting that elusive position between mainstream appeal and indie credibility. Grade A+.
Star Wars #7 (Dark Horse): I’m betting that Brian Wood could writer a killer Black Widow book if Marvel ever offered up that character to him. This issue of Star Wars, and the run itself to some extent, is filled with increasingly clever espionage and counterintelligence traits. The Star Wars property has a rich tradition of such activity too, whether it’s Luke and Han gallivanting around the Death Star dressed as Stormtroopers, Lando going undercover in Jabba’s Palace to save his friend, or Leia posing as Boushh to do the same, just to name a few top of mind examples. Here, the main thrust of the issue sees Luke and Wedge attempt to infiltrate a Star Destroyer. It’s the latest example of Wood taking cues from the originals and then extending beyond them. It’s a seamless way to stay consistent with the source material thematically, yet world-build with fresh new content in the interstitial space between well consumed episodes. The biggest “news” regarding this issue is that Carlos D’ Anda is taking a break, so frequent collaborator Ryan Kelly joins Brian Wood for this arc. Kelly draws Luke’s face a little flat at times for my taste, but is otherwise able to play with a variety of sets and clothes and craft as Luke and Leia are still reeling from emotional fallout, but must develop a tactical plan to ferret out the spy. The perspective might be just a touch off with the angle of the blasters coming from Slave I, but that’s admittedly being extremely nitpicky (like all annoying Star Wars fans are). For the most part, Kelly excels at depicting this world; his tech is convincing, his Emperor is menacing, and his Leia is confident and beautiful. He might even have edged out D’Anda with my favorite illustration work for her. The crisp colors of Gabe Eltaeb certainly help the aesthetic of the book stay consistent during the artist transition; I especially liked the gorgeous dark shadows he coats some of the Tatooine bits with. No surprise, but I continue to enjoy Wood’s depiction of the various women in this universe. Obviously Leia is front and center, still in charge of the stealth squad as she brings Luke fully into the fold to hatch a new plan, and they attempt to work their problem from Colonel Bircher’s end. It’s an aggressive, high risk plan, but that’s basically what the Rebel Alliance excels at. They rely on daring and skill instead of mass numbers in battle like the Empire does. So many of the key roles are female. Leia is off on a(nother) mission of her own, Mon Mothma is the overall leader of the Alliance, Han’s new friend helping him “float away with the rest of the garbage” is a woman, Prithi is a daring pilot currently in a critical position, and Birrah Seah is caught in the power struggle between the Emperor and Lord Vader. It’s an egalitarian approach to the gender roles that never feels forced; it’s a natural use of the resources that happen to be present at every level of the conflict. Confession: If I saw a Hound’s Tooth toy, I’d probably buy it. Grade A.
The Gettysburg Address (William Morrow): The Gettysburg Address is a deceptively simple title for a complex, but accessible work. It’d be easy to casually dismiss this book at first glance as an artistic interpretation of one of the most famous speeches in US History (JFK and MLK are the only others that really even come to mind). While it does ultimately decipher Lincoln’s words line by line, it’s also much more than that. Writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Aaron McConnell create exceptional context for Abraham Lincoln’s 200 word speech by positioning it relevant to The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The Declaration essentially supported the notion of rebellion and seccession on moral, if not legal, grounds, and is a “small government” document. The Constitution supports the idea of preserving a Federal Union, emphasizing the strengths of big government, and The Gettysburg Address keys off of that tension inherent in our country’s guiding documents with very precise word choices imbued with specific meaning. The creators are careful to tell this tale from the alternate POVs of slaves, soldiers, and statesmen. Hennessey and McConnell’s interpretation takes what could be dry and rote facts and fills them with life. McConnell’s art in particular is somehow dirty and majestic all at once, with lively colors and thick ink, capturing the horrors of the US Civil War, but also the grandeur of the experiment the Founding Fathers must have envisioned. There’s a very painterly two page title spread that is an early cue to McConnell’s artistic ability. Now, I know a lot about the US Civil War. I’ve read tons of books, I’ve seen all the movies, and my father is in the antique business, with a personal passion for military pieces from the Civil War, and he bombarded me with history growing up. I studied the Civil War from a few different angles in college. But, I can safely say that I learned more from this book than I ever did in my K-12 education, so it makes me think that this HarperCollins imprint has unlocked the medium in a way that could be illuminating and entertaining for so many school age children across the country. For example, The Gettysburg Address made me understand The Articles of Confederation as an experiment in small government (that was too small) better than any teacher ever did. It made me understand the “compact theory” and POV of The Confederacy opting out of The Union in a way I never fully appreciated before. I never knew that Vermont declared its independence from New York State. I never knew that Connecticut and Pennsylvania had an armed dispute. As a student of history, I can’t help but feel that several educators failed me! The Gettysburg Address covers lots of ground, from the characteristics of the continent, regional and cultural differences between North and South, the invention of the cotton gin, and how all of that influenced an economy dependent on slavery, to European influence, to Robert E. Lee being such a key figure, to presidential fame, military struggles, demoralized troops, anti-war citizens, and the city of Richmond, Virginia. Imagine today’s equivalent, 5.5 million lives being lost in a US Civil War, and you have some idea of the horror of this conflict, and how poor old Abe Lincoln’s speech was supposed to put everything back together and justify a war on tenuous legal ground, but implicit moral and aspirational grounds for the country. The book’s main theory posits through interpretation of Lincoln’s actions and intent that The Gettysburg Address is a quintessentially American piece of writing. It wrestles with the very idea of what our national character is. The Gettysburg Address was commentary on the war, the war was armed commentary over tension between The Declaration and The Constitution, those two documents largely create the very vision of the country. The Gettysburg Address should be required reading for every citizen of the United States. Grade A.
The Outliers (Alternative Comics): There’s certainly no denying the sheer artistry on display in Erik T. Johnson’s beautiful new project. From the dust jacket and French folds, to the illustrated guide to primal fears on the covers (visages on one side, descriptions on the reverse), to the paper quality, the letterpress printing technique, and so on. For those naysayers decrying “print is dead!” with the rise of digital comics, I say “BAH!” Digital comics will never be able to capture the tactile presence of something like The Outliers, which is a prime example of small press comics transcending the basics of the medium to achieve objet d’art status. The Outliers is a careful exploration of our prejudices and jingoistic attitudes, not to mention the fact that you just never know what’s going on behind the scenes with most people. Too often, we see only the masks they wear for the outside world and base our perceptions on that. There is mystery surrounding The Outliers, which I greatly enjoyed. It’s about a kid, some would say a “freak,” living a sheltered life. The freak kid endures a freak accident during a freak storm and encounters a freak creature with freak professors and freak languages following. It’s freaky, ok? I don’t mean that as a pejorative descriptor, only in the sense that Johnson is able to effectively evoke mood, vibe, and place. It’s easy to imagine the events in Chapter One of The Outliers occurring somewhere in the wet wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. So much of the work is done with minimal dialogue that it’s easy to imagine The Outliers playing like some silent short film, a cross between the sense of wonder and discovery in The Iron Giant and some of the Pixar shorts like La Luna, perhaps revealing Johnson’s career as a designer and illustrator. Color plays an integral role in the success of The Outliers. Johnson initially uses a lush green to emphasize the rain drenched wooded adventure. Later in the story, he switches to soft and contemplative blue hues, which seem thematically appropriate. He uses inky emotive lines for Tsu, a character who rarely speaks conventionally, like some great facial characteristic hybrid of Craig Thompson and Simon Roy. The Outliers seems to be fascinated with the fringes of society, the titular people, places, and events that lie on the outer edge of our daily existence or just on the periphery of our understanding. With great induction to his world and an exciting cliffhanger, all I can say is “more, please.” Spoiler Alert, but we’re probably looking at one of the best books of the year. Grade A+.