3.26.14 [Weekly Reviews]

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Umbral #5 (Image): Whoa, last week it was Wasteland and The Fuse, and this week it’s Umbral. Anyway, I’ll try not to bury the lead and say that this is the best issue to date. There are many small moments you could probably call out to justify this, because Umbral has so much going on, the humor around the reappearance of Prince Arthir, the gorgeous way that panels sit on top of full bleed art pages, or the killer world-build from writer Antony Johnston, evidenced in the mutual distrust of the Azqari and the Yuilanguan, that’s Shayim the “sand-swine” vs. Munty the “baby-eater.” There’s Chris Mitten’s slick art flourishes, the guys always seem to be experimenting a bit with new ways to convey information (for example, I was blown away by the spellspeak symbolettering a couple issues back), such as the emotive “spikes” coming out of the heads of some characters, almost a manga affectation, to express surprise or recognition. There’s the colors of Jordan Boyd, which just seem to glow like candlelight at all the right times, to illuminate the pages with a sense of light cascading from one source across the page. It’s really well done. But, all of that said, the piece de resistance that this issue showcases is the aesthetic nostalgia of the alt creation myth that fuels the world of Umbral. It’s almost like it’s the “final” world-building issue and, from a structural standpoint, Johnston had to get it into the initial arc for inclusion in the first trade. Bathed in some desaturated colors, we finally meet Tenebros and Luxan, along with Umbrith, and of course, there must be jealousy, envy, and unnatural manipulation in a story that feels like equal parts Greek Tragedy, Norse Mythology, and Shakespearean Machinations. We see (get ready for it all, topical spoiler alert, I guess?) the rise of the Shadow Creatures, The Shadow War, an early sorcerer named Culin (looking like a Ruin Runner when we first meet him, yeah, about 7 of my readers will get that reference), The Peak sublimated into The Pit, the rise of a hero named Strakan, and the reason magic and religion were finally outlawed, one of the most intriguing premises of Umbral for me back when I heard Johnston speak of “the new book” in interviews long before it debuted. Aside from the creative pedigree of Johnston and Mitten, that was the line that got me, magic happenings in a world that had outlawed magic and religion. There was something deliciously G.R.R. Martin about that, the return of a thing long thought relegated to history that signaled paradigm shift. We’re just five issues in, and already the creative team has shown a fantastic willingness to offer something so rich and realized. Individual comics are sometimes treated as throwaway items by even the people who create them, but Johnston, Mitten, Boyd, and Mauer treat them as lost artifacts of some depth, as a tactile objet d’art which can be pored over, line, verse, and panel, inviting the audience to linger for the enveloping experience. Grade A+.

Deadly Class #3 (Image): This was a really strong issue that momentarily moves away from the high concept of the book in favor of some great characterization from Rick Remender. Marcus and his new pal are off on their first task and as they run this gauntlet, it becomes apparent that it’s really just Marcus looking to belong somewhere, looking for a place he fits, which he’s never really had before, and literally trying to find a cool person to hang with. There’s a lot of emotional honesty created in this issue, not so much that it makes the kids seem too precocious, as is often the case in pop culture, but just like smart kids talking honestly. The interpersonal dynamics have these two guys truly seeing other’s motivations, what they have to offer each other, and what the school could offer them, a budding friendship or an interesting partnership at the least. This is all contrasted with Marcus’ need to overanalyze his actions obsessively. I maybe have a quibble or two with things like the dropped gun discharging accidentally, but the quick bout of process stuff makes up for that. Wes Craig is basically one of the best artists out there right now, and I don’t even know where this guy came from! Did I miss him? Was he working on something else prior to this, or is Deadly Class his big coming out party? With Lee Loughridge’s colors over him, it’s all about stylish layouts and askew inset panels, and these small scale silhouettes, they’re pulling all kinds of vintage Frank Miller moves, and there’s even some Caniff and Gould callbacks in the corners of the smiles. There’s an understanding of the history of the craft present in Craig’s art, yet it hums with enough energy to run with all of his modern contemporaries that are currently killing it at Image Comics. Grade A.

Sex #12 (Image): Well, if you ever wanted to see Joe Casey writing Batman back when he was toiling away on work-for-hire projects at Marvel and DC, then here he is subverting nearly everything about that standard fare, totally turning it inside out and upside down. He takes the common genre tropes of superhero, sidekick, and femme fatale, and puts them in some interesting predicaments, essentially just to see what will happen. He’s confessed in the backmatter that it’s a grand experiment, that he’s more concerned with seeing what happens post-event, the “event” here being superhero origin followed by superhero-fights-villain. Most stories end there, Casey picks things up years after that, in the same way that Robert Kirkman postulated all those years ago, “what happens after the zombie movie is over?” As we see from Joe Casey and artist Piotr Kowalski, both Simon (as the Bruce Wayne CEO stand-in) and Annabelle (as the Catwoman femme fatale analogue) are typically inundated with mundane business problems instead of any superheroics, Keenan (the sidekick, the characters who usually flit in and out of the role) is the only one really interested in the life any more, for all the good it does him. In this world, we see sexuality instead of the typical vigilantism as the prime psychological driver for the majority of the characters. It’s fairly brilliant, pervasive, yet still subtle somehow, and you’re got to marvel at Casey’s willingness to stick to the pattern despite the slow burn it creates narratively. Kowalski’s flat glossy finish is interesting, because it sort of belies the complex topsy-turvy universe that Saturn City has become in the wake of its post-trope heyday. Sex may ultimately be a flawed experiment in terms of the typical narrative engagement that most readers anticipate, but it’s deeply engaging thematically. It’s something that Casey always does in his projects, deliberately tinkering with something specific, and it gets more interesting the more time that goes on and you can start to see these thematic patterns emerging. Grade A-.

Real Heroes #1 (Image): Real Heroes isn’t really the type of book I’d normally investigate, but a man is sent a PDF so a man reads the PDF. Bryan Hitch attempts the full monty here, writing, art, and all, and that’s cool, follow your heart, if you’re primarily known as an artist and you want to try your hand at writing, then have at it, I say. Go. Do that thing. Be that thing. It’s just, I don’t know, there was this book called The Authority. You may have heard of it? So, you take a little bit of your deep familiarity with that (which is already sort of a send-up of a thing or two) and then you use that to send up clueless celeb culture, which sort of makes for a thing already sending up a thing, now sending up another thing, and then you try to wring some high concept tongue-in-cheek premise out of that, and the indictment goes too far to be believable and just strains plausibility. It feels like Hitch bounced these ideas off of his buddy Mark Millar a time or two, so it’s derivative and a tortured belabored premise, and a bunch of other mean words, that you can just see coming 10 miles out, then you sort of watch it play out rather unimaginatively, as it careens off the shock porn intro of 9/11, bonks into Nightwing’s costume, pinballs through all the stock swipe-y superhero archetypes at Marvel and DC, and jabs at their Hollywoodization, and by the time you meet a guy named Chris Reynolds, you realize they could have also called him Ryan Evans and gotten the same flat joke, and then the book is over and you wonder what to do with the PDF since if people really wanted to read Mark Millar, they’d just read Mark Millar, so why would you need Mark Millar Lite? The art is perfectly serviceable if you wanted something better than the generic DC house style in a way that latter period 90’s WildStorm comics were, yet it never hits the majesty of someone like Brent Anderson, or the pristine clarity of someone like John Cassaday, just kind of going through the motions as middling art for a middling premise, never really rising above the spandex muddy inks and two-dimensional superhero trappings that spawned it. Umm. Your mileage may vary? Grade C+.


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