3.20.2014

3.19.14 [Weekly Reviews]

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Wasteland #52 (Oni Press): One of my favorite single issues of all time is called “Eternity In An Hour,” and appeared in The Spectre #13, by JM DeMatteis & Ryan Sook. Wasteland #52 is similar in the way it marries Antony Johnston’s free-floating text with the stark lustrous imagery of Christopher Mitten. Wasteland #52 is many things. It’s the final interlude issue, which are cleverly designed one-shots that appear in between story arcs, typically flashbacks into different periods in The Big Wet Universe. This one flashes forward. There are many moments to latch onto as the team visits several characters and locales. My favorites include the information about Sultan Ameer (which calls back to Wasteland #25, another glorious interlude), or Ruby Stone Claw from the terrific Dog Tribes arc. Sharp readers will also pick up clues about things like the relationship between Newbegin and Wosh-Tun. It’s also the final journal entry from Ankya Ofsteen in the Walking The Dust backmatter. It’s alternately moving, satisfying, and heart-breaking. As this clears the deck for Chris Mitten’s return to the title he helped launch, it’s important to note that Johnston was delivering this type of canonical story-driven backmatter years before it came back en vogue. That said, we’re on the final stretch now, with just eight issues left in the run. It’ll be a little sad to see this series go, one which has been a constant presence in my life for the last eight years, but I’m also very much a fan of creators hitting a planned ending and completing the story they’re telling. The best works tend to have a finite beginning, middle, and end. It’s a little bittersweet, but thank Mother Sun and Father Moon that we now have The Fuse and Umbral in the rotation as some sort of goat-fucking consolation. Grade A.

Lazarus #7 (Image): This was another really good issue, which speaks to the consistency that Greg Rucka and Michael Lark have been able to sustain on this series. There are many good world-builders out there, from Antony Johnston to Brian Wood, but Rucka is certainly one of the best. It’s weird, but I get excited by stupid little stuff, like every time I read “The Macao Accords” it gives me a little jolt knowing the back story that’s gone into the creation of the series. The basic premise of the series is essentially about capitalism running its course to its natural conclusion, the rapid elimination of the middle class, the rise of super-rich ruling families based solely on financial status, and the downwardly mobile lower class, which has been reduced to waste. It’s all of our current social anxiety extrapolated into a bleak future. It’s post-9/11 paranoia about off-grid identities living among us, the contention between security and privacy in the wake of terrorism, and the way status equates to currency and leverage. Rucka and Lark do something spectacular in this arc, something that maybe some readers won’t pick up on right away because they're not very in-your-face about it, but it’s the juxtaposition of Forever being socialized into her upper strata, while we also see the plight of the lower class survival tactics trying desperately to be lifted, essentially winning a social lottery. Unless you’re lucky enough to be someone like the sergeant who gets promoted to captain in the Carlyle Security Forces, these two extremes are essentially the only choices you have in this world. I have one petty gripe, which is that I’m not sure the “KRAK KRAK KRAK” works really well as a sound effect for that type of gunfire after I stared at it long enough and tried to hear it in my brain, but that’s relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Lazarus will be one of the best books of the year, and you could support that statement with any number of justifications from crisp writing, to compelling characters, to brutal action, to tonally significant art, but the brilliant world-building is where I’d make my case. Grade A.

A Voice In The Dark #5 (Image): Larime Taylor’s “Dexter Meets College Radio” is so much more than that elevator pitch sound byte I just used. I was impressed by all of the conversations in this issue, whether it was Ash and Zoey or Zoey and Uncle Zeke, because of the way they flow so naturally. The characters always speak like real people, with the natural starts and stops and parlance that genuinely convinces you. Kids sound like kids, cops sound like cops, and school administrators sound like school administrators. Taylor stages one conversation in particular, about criminal profiling, that is so spot-on it could have been lifted from one of my college textbooks on the subject. He manages to drop a reference in regarding The Red Violin, which is one of my favorite movies, and always hits these little details that show how in sync the writing and art are. In this issue, it’s Zoey raising an eyebrow and saying “Is he… you know?” that lets Uncle Zeke know, in context, that Zoey is asking if there’s a sexual component to the crime scenes. It’s a brilliant display of subtlety that shows Taylor understands the tertiary information delivery system that occurs in comics, one that’s unique to the medium. He understands that when you have art delivering x, and dialogue delivering y, the reader will provide some closure and understand z, which is a third layer typically more than the sum of the parts. If you’re not checking out A Voice In The Dark, you’re missing one of the surprise hits of the year. Grade A.

Sex Criminals #5 (Image): If you wanted to force me into some brevity and I attempted to pick a single word that summed up this book, I think I might go with “disarming.” There’s a sense of balance here that keeps you on your (curled) toes, juggling titillating sex, genuine laughs, and heartfelt drama in equal proportion. It’s like, just when you think the sexuality is getting ludicrous, the humor will knock it back down, when the humor gets too far down a rat hole, something of serious consequence will punch it back up, and just when things get too serious for their own good, there’ll be some wacky sexual sight gag in the background reminding you not to take things too seriously. Love is ludicrous when you think about it, after all. How else do you juggle bank heists, sex cops, paused stutters and stammers for the right realistic reactions? It seems to operate like real life does, without a script, open moments coming right along to disarm our preconceived notions and take the hard edge off. I had a CEO who used to say that when times are good, you get more credit than you deserve, and when times are tough, you also take more blame than you really deserve. I feel that way about Matt Fraction’s writing, so all things being equal, I’d prefer more creator-owned projects like this than another dalliance with Marvel’s IP stable. Chip Zdarsky is probably turning in the work of his career here, adding a “realness” to everything, particularly the depictions of women, that sells the more out there elements of the story, from the facial expressions, to the basic set pieces, to the effects in “The Quiet.” I still maintain that Sex Criminals is a romantic comedy masquerading as action porn, whatever that means. Grade A. 

Letter 44 #5 (Oni Press): I enjoyed this issue from Charles Soule and Alberto Alburquerque, but don’t feel I have much to say about it. It sort of played like all middle, essentially following two action sequences that both should have some startling ramifications. One involves a devastating first contact scenario in space, and the other tracks an FBI raid in a very unlikely place, pitting Federal Agents against a Special Ops security detail. It was a good, if fast, issue that clearly shows the best, most unique work that most creators will deliver is always their creator owned material. Grade A-.

American Vampire: Second Cycle #1 (DC/Vertigo): Speaking of that creator owned dynamic, if you follow Scott Snyder on Twitter, it’s nice to see him basically admit as much. While he’s gone on to much (Bat) success in the industry, American Vampire is basically what put him on the map. You can really see more passionate effort being poured into this project, which sees the return of Skinner and Pearl, promising a second “half” that will bring all of the previous plotlines home. I’ve never really given a crap about vampires, while I understand the dynamic that occurs psychologically and why people are drawn to the tropes, most of the pop culture stories just never did much for me. The thing that kept me reading American Vampire in spite of all that was the “American” part of the title. Snyder is really good at weaving historical Americana into the tapestry of the series, and there’s some rich commentary about the American experience that transcends all of the blood-sucking. In that regard, this issue didn’t disappoint, and I’m excited to see what else Snyder has to say, almost in spite of the presence of the vamps. I will say that sometimes the voiceover narration was a little thick at times and did feel a bit repetitive, but maybe in a set-up/re-introductory issue, that’s to be expected. It also seemed as if Rafael Albuquerque was overly reliant on two-page collage-y spreads, but again, I’ll give benefit of the doubt and suggest that maybe that was done intentionally as a re-immersion tactic(?). Grade B+.

X-Men #12 (Marvel): There are some great moments here for Rachel, Monet, and Psylocke, who are probably my favorite three women in this title. I love the direct swagger of “Hey, you guys wanted a brawler.” It’s a good hint at the level of self-aware humor that Brian Wood is lacing the title with. There are a few moments where the characters make fun of themselves or their own X-tropes, like with regard to their costumes, or lack thereof. At a high level, this issue is basically an aggressive denouement that brings a degree of closure to the Karima-Arkea storyline, which tracks back to the very first issues of the run. It was probably time for this storyline to end before it just devolved into a bunch of women smacking each other around, so that’s a good thing. The biggest liability from my perspective has been the inconsistency of the artists involved. Kris Anka is the main collaborator here and it’s true that there are moments that shine visually, but there are also moments with proportions being off, inconsistent character modeling and expressions, and just a general harshness to the art that doesn’t seem to flow very well to my eye. Clay Mann is on the backup story (and this was an interesting experiment toward the tail end of this arc, running two concurrent story features) and his style seems much more at home in the X-universe, unrestrained enough to capture the high energy, but grounded enough to sell all of the character moments concerning budding relationships and flirtation. Grade B+.

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