2.26.14 [Weekly Reviews]

"Weekly Reviews" is a column brought to you with generous support from our retail sponsor Yesteryear Comics. Make Yesteryear Comics your first and only destination in San Diego for great customer service and the best discounts possible on a wide selection of mainstream and independent titles. Customers receive an attractive 20% discount on new titles during their first week of release. Yesteryear Comics is located at 9353 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.

Black Science #4 (Image Comics): The cover of this issue is drop dead ridiculous perfection, capturing the attitude, allure, and reclamation of old-school sci-fi. For me, Black Science plays like Fantastic Four x Lost In Space, but done right, in a way that modern incarnations of both properties never seem to get quite right. The front 2/3 or so of this installment is essentially the remnants of the team under siege, making a mad dash back to the pillar in an effort to give Grant a shamanic-save, with high tech Native Americans chasing our banged up protagonists in an old Jeep. For some reason, I kept thinking of George Lucas and his high-adventurization of the old pulp serials he grew up on. It’s a well-balanced issue that offers action, a pause that allows us to catch our breath, and leaves us with an intriguing figure clad in blue, almost a cryptic secret visual language from Matteo Scalera that harkens back to an amalgamation of Star Wars bounty hunters and futuristic Robotech gear. And how about that all-white page with yellow splotches as a demarcation point for the jump!? That’s good stuff. It’s all evidence that this is a rock star creative team. There are a handful of really great colorists working today, but I’ll go on record as saying that Dean White is the best. Period. Remender uses language to great effect, Hemingway-esque brevity like “The world tumbles--” doing in three words what lesser writers would struggle to capture in three full sentences. With Ward’s sense of duty giving way to a resigned sense of fate, Black Science is shaping up to be one of the year’s best books. #WatchOutForBarbedWire Grade A.

Hacktivist #2 (Archaia): Speaking as a 13-year veteran of Silicon Valley here, this is one of the smartest takes I’ve seen on the power of technology in the modern age. It’s about a philosophical debate between Nate and Ed over the interplay between government, the free market, and engineering revolution. I’m not familiar with any previous work from writers Collin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing, but there’s a sharp intellect to the dialogue with quips like “I’m paused” or spinning the tortoise and the hare concept back on itself, or the cultural shorthand of “Fatality.” The way the writers handle the corporate evacuation, accountability, and forensic CCTV investigation (all part of my day job) makes me think these guys have spent some time working at some of these big companies or otherwise have some familiarity with it since it plays fairly authentic. Marcus To and Ian Herring were familiar to me from Archaia’s Cyborg 009 graphic novel, and their work is even more crisp here, depicting friends growing apart due to different ideological worldviews, grounding the proceedings in a believable real-world style. I really enjoyed the wry commentary about things the US has done for years abroad, engineering instability in a region and then arming the oppressors to the opposition, playing both sides against the middle, functionally creating demand and then offering supply. Hacktivist is a book that I fear some might dismiss as a Hollywood vanity project with Alyssa Milano’s name attached, without understanding her own activist/humanitarian/social justice pedigree. It’s a rich book about many things, from technology as a tool of social influence, to the gripping sense of futurism, to being an enjoyable corporate espionage and heist book all at once. I’m highly recommending this! Grade A.

Deadly Class #2 (Image Comics): I liked this issue even more than the first because we’re quickly past the origin/set-up and settling on what the book is going to be about. Rick Remender and Wes Craig offer a solid indoctrination issue as Marcus tries to assimilate into his new school, amid gang subcultures, universal youth struggles, and the precarious social balance between class and power. I really enjoyed the way Lee Loughridge’s colors felt over Craig’s art, the flatness of the effects kind of reminded me of the way the JH3 flashbacks looked in Batwoman. The kids are given their first assignment that us readers see, and along with the fun cast, and an anti-mundane-middle-class sensibility, it all makes for a killer world-build. Pun Intended. Grade A.

The Wake #6 (DC/Vertigo): Part 2 jumps us 200 years into the future, focusing on Leeward, in a visually engrossing civilization. Sean Murphy creates magnificent vistas to sell the ideas, from distorted maps and ship-treehouses, to new cultures and commerce and ways of governing, never forgetting to plant little seeds of humor into the art like he did in Joe The Barbarian. See if you can spot the word “flair” cleverly placed. Scott Snyder is a writer who gets plenty of acclaim, but I’m still convinced that his best ideas aren’t taking place in Gotham City or Metropolis, but in the pages of his creator owned works. He takes what was once a sci-fi summer blockbuster begging to be directed by James Cameron and turns it into a post-apocalyptic treatise about man’s relationship to the natural world that’s more in tune with the direction of Alfonso Cuaron. There's just a palpable sense of, passion or glee I guess, evident in the creator owned work that's woefully missing from the dutiful slog of work-for-hire assignments. Grade A.
Sex #11 (Image Comics): For some reason, I really enjoyed that glossy two-page title sequence, because I think it kind of signaled how Joe Casey is trying to do something different with this title. It’s been frustrating at times, but I keep on enjoying the universe and psychological drama of the characters, despite the slow pace. I mean, it’s taken 11 issues to get to the history of the relationship between lead character Simon and his former sidekick Keenan, for example, despite following Simon in every issue, and Keenan in at least a few of those. Piotr Kowalski is a bit uneven in this issue, sometimes nailing the mood with dull gray rain muting all life and enjoyment from the characters, but sometimes it’s a total misfire. For example, a gray suit and black skirt suddenly becomes all weird and brown in a certain light(?). Overall, this is a rare example of me wanting to stick with a title despite not being 100% sold on it this deep in the run. Grade A-.


Sheltered #7 [Advance Review]

Sheltered #7 (Image Comics): Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas follow two distinct story threads in this issue, one involving a determined Victoria intent on affecting some change to her current status and location, and the other involving the fallout directly following events with “the outsiders” who made contact with Safe Haven in the last issue. Lucas’ attempt to quell the disturbance brought on by the arrival of the outsiders (and of course, trigger-happy Curt!) show how he’s beginning to lose physical control of the group, as well as ideological dominance. People are starting to think and act for themselves in the absence of truly effective leadership. There’s a moment when Lucas utters a quiet “I told them” as a bit of brief recognition that maybe he’s in over his head, or possibly even showing the slightest twinge of remorse about some of his decisions.

On the art front, Johnnie Christmas is able to carry so much emotion in the faces of the characters, or the way hair seems to bounce off of Victoria’s agitated shoulders, continually connecting sharp poses with sharper words. Shari Chankhamma’s lustrous coloring gives Christmas' strong art all the more dynamism. I love how she handles lighting with stuff like the kids’ rosy cheeks, the differentiation of the cast wardrobe, and sudden gun-spatters of blood in the moonlight. Chankhamma’s colors are brilliant, and it’s not often you get to witness the birth of a rock star colorist. The artists depict a gripping sequence of frenzied violence in the woods. It’s an interesting example of how misdirected violence only spins out of control and begets more unpredictable violence. My critic friend Dominic Umile has taken to calling Sheltered “winter noir,” and that’s as intelligently apt an aesthetic description as you’re likely to find of this close-quarters breakdown of humanity. It’s chilling example after chilling example of how poor choices have an uncontrollable ripple effect.

Brisson focuses the majority of the Victoria thread on a heated conversation with Mitch, and you can feel the balance of power begin to shift right here, as Victoria takes command, not only of her holdout ally Hailey, but of a small squad who knows the truth and has slowly come to some of the same conclusions Victoria has. Brisson is so natural and fluid with the language. His dialogue never sounds like the staged monologues you see so often in comics, with contrived flowery writing. Victoria is pissed. It’s done believably. Her anger lends a matter-of-fact truthiness to her words, it focuses her anger, gives her clarity over what’s occurred, and what she wants to do next. In some ways, Victoria is the heart of the book, the emotional center of Sheltered, and as she gets more outspoken and stronger with each issue, the series itself gets stronger and stronger. Ryan K. Lindsay’s backmatter about Near Earth Objects is an interesting stand-in for any foreign object which has an impact on the known world, and caps off an OMFG cliffhanger that’ll leave you fist-pumping until the next issue ships. #TeamVictoria. Grade A+.


Umbral #4 [Advance Review]

Umbral #4 (Image Comics): I’m ready to place a million dollar bet that this will be the only book this week featuring a battle between relatively benevolent pirate ghosts and the dark forces of the Umbral. Now that that’s settled, it’s obvious that artist Christopher Mitten has been unleashed. Antony Johnston has been saying in interviews that if their collaboration on Wasteland was largely Chris drawing what Antony wanted to write, then Umbral is now Antony writing what Chris wants to draw. It’s kinda’ obvious now, innit? Chris has a great sense of visual imagination, seeing in his mind’s eye how varied fantastical genre elements can clash together with more grounded characters, and then translating that right onto the page. Chris is letting loose in Umbral, there isn’t a single page that’s just going through the motions. They all have something special happening, be it a full page spread, or a near-full page spread, functioning as either breathtaking reveals of things we’ve only heard casually referenced, or reveals functioning as cliffhangers, or quirky stylish shots like the forced perspective of the overhead cam after Rascal and Shayim climb a ladder (which allows another type of reveal, one the audience is able to see just as the characters discover it).

All of that said, my favorite thing about Mitten’s art (aside from it’s obvious superficial beauty) really has to do with the way that he works together with colorist Jordan Boyd and letterer Thomas Mauer. One of the things I’m learning to study more closely is not only the style of lettering (which has nice old-timey irregularities and flourishes under Mauer, as if done by hand, like lost passages written as script on parchment, tonally in sync with what we’re seeing), but the placement of the actual word balloons. This dynamic can be more of a technical or functional conceit, like the way Mauer helps pull the reader’s eye diagonally down a page or through a panel, like, say, when Rascal and Shayim are climbing a ladder, and you need to track what they’re saying as they’re on the move. The other thing that the placement of word balloons can do is actually emphasize the right mood or tone. For example, there’s an early shot of Shayim and Rascal fleeing, and as they’re on the run, they carry a conversation. I loved that their word balloons are level on the horizon, because, sure, it gives the shot nice graphic balance, but more because it puts these two on equal footing as people, both capable partners, neither higher than the other, it implies trust, it implies equal skill or capacity for contribution, and that they’re in a situation together.

Jordan Boyd’s colors do the necessary bits perfectly, he nails the glow of amber candlelight, the crimson bursts of blood to hit the horror beats (when a, uh, familiar character shows up in the Umbral), or the moody aquamarine nights, but he also helps highlight something Mitten is doing with the art, which wouldn’t be as easy to appreciate in black and white. Notice how, on so many pages, Chris will basically draw a full page of art, and then have a few panels sitting on top of that, almost inset into the larger piece, so that even the backgrounds are part of the picture. There are no white spaces that the art sits on top of, this is full-bleed comics, the background imagery and colors sometimes even filling in the space in the panel gutters. We’ve been so conditioned as comic book readers to read what’s in the panels and kind of gloss over everything else, but there’s another layer that Chris is using here, giving a lot of depth to already very layered artwork. The full image comes off like beautiful paintings, with little triptych panel sequences adorning them, like something you might find in illustrated manuscripts from the 1500’s (obligatory Fine Art reference), which suggests a classicism to Mitten’s art that he’s emphasizing with each successive project.

Now, any true-blue readers of Thirteen Minutes know that one of my all-time favorite characters in pop fiction is Lando Calrissian (obligatory Star Wars reference). I mean, I quote his lines in social settings, he’s the only toy I have in my office at work that could give me away as a geek, and I pester Brian Wood about including him in his current run of Star Wars. Bear with me for this digressive wind-up. For so long, I’ve wanted comics or movies or TV shows to feature the early adventures of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, smugglers on the run, running jobs, their back alley card games, dodging Imperial forces, bounty hunters, and the Hutts. It’s the same way that I want to see the early smuggling days of Davos Seaworth and Salladhor Saan (obligatory Game of Thrones reference), to see how this lifelong bond was forged. Your fanboy heart wants it, though your critical brain knows it’s probably better as casually alluded-to nostalgia, because actually showing it would probably never live up to what’s in your  imagination. I feel like seeing the adventures of Rascal and Shayim, now – in real time, is scratching this itch a little bit. I love the idea of two strong female leads from different backgrounds partnered up, with that instinct to leap before looking, with no reverence to man-made law other than what their own internal moral compass guides them toward, trusting that skill and luck will see them through.

In the process of the duo fleeing the events of last issue and encountering all the things and people they do (trying to avoid spoilers here!), Johnston does what he’s best at, world-building. Not only do they discuss the disorientation of time and spatial relationships in the Umbral, which helps the audience understand how it’s navigated and the internal “rules” of the book, but they hint at things like “the war” in such an off-the-cuff manner. I’m always fascinated by that kind of back story and how it’s introduced, the kind that suggests larger motivations and old grievances, whether it’s the hatred between Azqar (would it be the “Azqari” or just the “Azqar,” plural like the Umbral?) and Yuilangan, or old shifts of power between the Umbral and the regular human folk(?), reason that magic was probably outlawed in first place, and why the existence of the Oculus is now so important. There’s a vast, rich history here, something Johnston no doubt has mapped out in his notes. As was the case in Wasteland, Johnston seems fascinated with class and belief systems, and how those influence power and control, larger thematic issues used as backdrops in his body of work (traces of this are also apparent in The Fuse).

Lastly, it’s interesting how Johnston walks us right into the cliffhanger and we don’t even realize it until we’re left there like sheep to the slaughter. It’s a testament to the natural writing style he’s developed. There’s an exponential lead-up to this moment, from characterization and throwaway lines, to the lyrics of songs being sung, right to the conversation between Shayim and Rascal just before it’s sprung, but we still never see it coming. It’s the mark of a true organic storyteller, the clues are right there in plain sight all along, but conveyed so effortlessly and non-expository that you don’t even recognize you’re being handed pieces to the puzzle. I had an interesting conversation in the LCS with a bloke who tried telling me that he was hesitant about The Fuse because he heard it was “a hard read,” that Johnston takes his time and "exposits all this information about the world without telling you what’s going on." I furrowed my brow and explained, no, that’s actually the opposite of what he does. There’s no exposition. He establishes his worlds through characterization and dialogue. If you pay attention, it’s all quite clear. (He ended up buying The Fuse #1 and Umbral #1, so I win, obligatory sales anecdote!) There’s no omniscient narration, no characters talking at the audience, the clues are there if you want to interact with them. Why would you want it any other way? It’s the kind of fiction I like to consume. It’s an intelligent writer treating his writing as if intelligent people are going to consume it. Grade A+.

The Massive #20 [Advance Review]

The Massive #20 (Dark Horse): The Massive exists somewhere in the nexus between Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction. It’s been said that “good” sci-fi begins with an intriguing “what if?” proposition. Warren Ellis does this particularly well, asking a singular compelling question which catapults a plethora of ideas into the future, exponentially increasing in intensity and quirk the more time that passes, the further flung into the future the setting is. Speculative Fiction, “spec-fi” as I’m now wont to call it, must take the “what if?” question and predicate it upon selective amplification of the observed present. Brian Wood is a master at Speculative Fiction. This is why critics, myself included, have continually hurled the “prescient” label at him.

When I wrote the introduction to DMZ Volume 12: The Five Nations of New York (shameless self-promotion), I said that Brian began that now-seminal series utilizing what I termed “poli-fi,” or Political Fiction. DMZ was: What if the United States was so busy nation-building abroad, that it all crumbled at home? What if there was a Second American Civil War? What if an in-over-his-head everyman found his way into the middle of this mess in NYC? Brian postulated that in the near-future, the US would be entangled in something like 8 foreign conflicts, deploying 1 million troops abroad, extrapolating from the observed present of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the selective amplification of Syria, Iran, Somalia, maybe even mixing it up in the Balkans, or the ‘stans, or somewhere in the South China Sea, like Taiwan. Brian took logical narrative leaps given what he knew to be available, then Syria was on CNN out here in the real world as we closed our embassy, and thus he appeared prescient. I say this not to denigrate his creative process (he’s said as much in interviews), only to help explain how it happens and how the label can stick once the ideas start to pan out.

This is a long-winded wind-up for one of the best issues to date of The Massive. It’s Speculative Fiction with social relevance, the big picture “what if?” scenario surrounding cataclysmic global environmental disasters, with dramatic hooks concerning flawed protagonists and arcs of strong characterization. Now, before we get rolling, let me caveat this whole thing by saying that I’ve never been the type of critic who only talks about the writing, and ignores the art. I always bring balance to my reviews and give the artists equal footing. Kristian Donaldson’s brief stint was great. Garry Brown’s enduring collaboration is great. The guest artists have (mostly) been great, and I’m super-stoked to see Danijel Zezelj on deck for an upcoming arc. I’ve also been very deliberate in recent years to push beyond that and talk up colorists and letterers, starting with my love for the work of Dean White (Uncanny X-Force, Black Science), and moving onto people like Jordie Bellaire (The Massive, Pretty Deadly), Gabe Eltaeb (Star Wars), Owen Gieni (Manifest Destiny), Shari Chankhamma (Sheltered, The Fuse), Jared K. Fletcher (DV8, DMZ, Ex Machina), and Thomas Mauer (Umbral), so indulge me this one time, as I fill the role of writer discussing writing, won’t you?

The Massive #20 continues this tradition of an unflinching litany of prompts in full force. The Massive has been a series constructed on “what if?” premises as enticing as they are relevant to our modern times. It’s introduced ponderous issues, and in the book’s quest to find answers for our fleeting band of misfit characters, it unapologetically introduces even more questions, a sort of perpetual narrative machine. I mean, yeah, what if it’s just a given that we’re pushing our planet to an irreversible tipping point in terms of environmental sustainability? What if there were a near-future series of global cataclysmic events that signaled a planetary apocalypse? As I’ve been contending for months now, what if Captain Callum Israel, the center of the Ninth Wave Marine Conservationist Direct Action Force, steadily dying of liver cancer mostly from a dose of PCBs and other cocktail carcinogens he was exposed to in the Med (it was in the backmatter, people, the backmatter matters!), does not actually live to see the end of the series?

Brian’s just never been the type of writer to feature characters dependent on high-noon heroism in the third act. His protagonists are conflicted, unapologetically so, positioned on the “precipice of change” as he likes to call it, living in the gray, because real life is gray, and fictional high art should always reflect non-fictional truths to resonate. (Total aside, but maybe this is the cultural consumer explanation as to why some of his books don’t sell as well as they should, perhaps they don’t offer the easily identifiable binary purity of black and white escapism that the typical cape crowd wants? I’m just spit-balling here…) What are the choices in terms of Cal’s succession? Will it be Mag? (the military survivalist option), or Lars? (the pragmatic humanitarian option), or even Ryan? (perhaps the one least likely, but the one I’ve had my eye on for some time, since she’s basically the everyman character through which we, the audience, view events through, Ryan is the one most like any of us, since not all of us are reformed black ops mercenaries, or conflicted Russian Mafiosos, or whatever the hell Mary is).

What if Blackbell PMC was a secret army with no allegiance to any state, but only ever existed to serve the “Nation of Money” controlling global interests and protecting corporate policy? What if men like Callum Israel and Mag Nagendra are hopelessly adrift in this New World Disorder, shadow soldiers without a war to fight, asymmetrical existence at its most nebulous? What if a man like Mag Nagendra really did have the skill to nonchalantly be held at gun point, and then suddenly drop the magazine out of the assault rifle held by his captor, immediately proceeding to then clear the round in the chamber with lighting accuracy, rendering said weapon inert? (I ain’t seen no Navy SEAL do *that* shit before!) What if Mag could then craftily outmaneuver his interrogators with wicked ease, parceling out lies laced with half-truths sandwiched between facts?

What if enigmatic Mary left a coded transponder clue for Cal from a place and time that only he would understand? What if that triggered a gorgeous one-page flashback memory? What if a glorious c-list character like Yusup returned with critical info, stealing the show with conscious effort to make friends rather than enemies? Were there ever more important words uttered than “tell me about Mary.”? What if Mary isn’t really a person at all? What if Cal is being lied to, in order to protect his fragile ego, his failing health, or his would-be legacy? What if The Massive discovered some type of “Fountain of Youth” oceanic wellspring that explains why a woman who should be pushing 50 looks 25? What if, somehow, The Massive caused The Crash, and the crew has been shielding Cal from this secret? Brian Wood has recently reminded us that the series was originally meant to have a sci-fi slant; maybe now we can see that start to rear up and clang against the spec-fi journey? He’s said that the series is all about the end of the series, that everything hinges on it, the pitch was the end, the end might reframe all that’s come before. Dare we venture a guess at where this twisting M. Night Shyamalan style proposition might be destined to go? Is this but a fool’s errand, or are we meant to merely sit back and enjoy the journey? Grade A+.


2.19.14 [Weekly Reviews]

"Weekly Reviews" is a column brought to you with generous support from our retail sponsor Yesteryear Comics. Make Yesteryear Comics your first and only destination in San Diego for great customer service and the best discounts possible on a wide selection of mainstream and independent titles. Customers receive an attractive 20% discount on new titles during their first week of release. Yesteryear Comics is located at 9353 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.

Conan The Barbarian #25 (Dark Horse): I sort of like lists because my brain has been conditioned via my career to make order of chaos. I used to tell people that my three favorite Brian Wood books were DMZ, DV8, and Local, a statement alone which shows his crazy range. I’ve since disqualified DMZ from that list because I’ve been “working” on it in some form or another since about 2011. I’ve worked on this thing I loved for so long, and so thoroughly that I can just no longer see it objectively as a fan. The list of favorites then became The Massive, Local, and DV8, pretty much in that order. Conan sits at number four now. I enjoyed so many parts of it here and there, never being a slave to the source material like some REH purists seemed to be, never understanding the weird affront that was countered with cries of “emo, barista, fag” Conan, never shaken – but impassioned – by the rotating artists, but my affection for this 25-issue run was basically then solidified with The Song of Belit. It’s a love story wrapped inside a high-adventuring Conan story. Leandro Fernandez first caught my eye in a Queen & Country arc years ago, and was someone I followed. His art is so deceptive. At times, you can’t even really detect the line work under the inks and colors. It’s almost like he takes solid blobs of ink that just form images on their own, or seem to suggest familiar shapes in mercurial perception. It’s a good match for the elusive, flowing nature of Conan’s understanding of life, one which he transitions toward in the wake of Belit’s death. This epilogue issue is something of a reflective coda. Conan fights some guys (and one very clever gal) in a tavern and returns Belit to the sea, sure, but Conan is really fighting himself. He’s fighting the sorrow he feels as he shuffles off the last coil of youth. He’s fighting the rising sensation that Belit was his true queen, a good queen, and it’ll never get that good again, pure existential angst. He’s punishing himself in these ways, not because he simply misses Belit or because his life will now be empty per se. It’s not just that. He’s fighting because of the realization that her return to the sea is cyclical. Life gives, and life takes away, he's not invincible in the ways we all think we are when we're younger. Perhaps he thought he had a few years left before he reached the point where life stopped giving, and started taking things away. He’s upset because he realizes he’s just a cog in the great clockwork system of life, and he’s not in control. There’s a randomness that’s unnerving. As he notes, Belit was born of kings, and he is but a low-born warrior, yet he survives while she must perish. There’s no sense to any of it, and he's in inner turmoil about this harsh reality. This was a hell of a run. Thanks, Brian. Grade A+.
A Voice In The Dark #4 (Image): It’s interesting, sometimes you hear about pitches that are really great, and then the execution fails to deliver on the premise, or just seems lackluster by comparison. What Larime Taylor has done with this book is almost the exact opposite of that familiar phenomenon. The hook itself isn’t all that strong or original (stay with me, this will turn complimentary!), I mean, it’s basically “Dexter at University.” But, the execution takes archetypes and upends the stereotypes associated with them, then adds a level of authenticity and smarts that’s seldom seen. For example, yeah, the protagonist is essentially a killer hiding in plain sight, but it’s a “she,” and she is a person of color. That’s not your typical lead. Taylor then steeps it in convincing youth-speak, which is very tricky to pull off, and manages to layer intelligent criminal psychology on top of all that. The death penalty debate packed a lot of ideas into an otherwise boring conversation, giving me flashbacks to all those criminal law classes I had in college. In this issue, we get a fun tour of college life, and things quickly go from genial big sister types looking out for our lead, to a descent into racially charged electric language that could serve as a trigger event for her. It’s smart and enjoyable, and proves that there’s room left to maneuver and innovate in a well-tread genre. It’s sort of an aside, but it saddens me to hear about the ailing sales figures for this book. It’s twice as good and 10 times as relevant as most of the pap that Marvel and DC are regurgitating. Grade A.

X-Men #11 (Marvel): Hrmm, not a lot new to say here. I’m really enjoying the eclectic band of characters that’ve been assembled and continue to evolve in this title. They all have distinct personalities and the way they ricochet off each other and react to various situations they’re confronted with really works in terms of building reader engagement. It’s essentially Lady Deathstrike, Typhoid Mary, Amora, and Arkea assembling a crazy-strong team (now including the Black Queen and Madelyne Pryor!) to take on the X-Men, with characters like Sabra, Karima, John Sublime, and Gabriel Shepherd all caught up in the mix. The structure of the book has also taken an interesting path by splitting two of the sets and teams with two different artists handling each. This leads into my gripe. The art on the series is just so inconsistent, with many artists coming and going in the run, and now even art on single issues feels all over the place. For me, Kris Anka isn’t a style I enjoy. It just looks like a more uneven rendition of Terry Dodson, who isn’t someone I like in the first place. I have trouble differentiating characters, and their looks always seem to be in flux from panel to panel. I do like Clay Mann’s style on the back chunk of the book. I’d be happy with him as regular series artist. I’d have been happy with David Lopez, or Olivier Coipel. At this point, I’d just prefer one artist I could get accustomed to. It’s become a distraction, and it pains me to say that, since I’m otherwise enjoying what the narrative has to offer. Grade B.


2.12.14 [Weekly Reviews]

"Weekly Reviews" is a column brought to you with generous support from our retail sponsor Yesteryear Comics. Make Yesteryear Comics your first and only destination in San Diego for great customer service and the best discounts possible on a wide selection of mainstream and independent titles. Customers receive an attractive 20% discount on new titles during their first week of release. Yesteryear Comics is located at 9353 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.

Manifest Destiny #4 (Image): The Corps of Discovery attempts to work out “the least horrible plan” to extricate themselves from being penned in at La Charrette this issue, and we finally get to meet Sacagawea. If you break down every part of this book into its constituent components, it’s almost as if it was meant for me. I love this time period in history, and Chris Dingess captures the balance of the fabled and the unknown, while Matthew Roberts makes it so visually convincing, with the details of the uniforms and weapons and rustic environs. Owen Gieni’s colors are such a treat too, from the way the fire lights up that first page, to the way he helps Roberts’ pencils be both clear, distinct, and consistent, but maintaining plenty of heterogeneous personality. The guys also really understand how to compose a cliffhanger in every single issue. Grade A.
Death Sentence #5 (Titan Comics): This title is really pushing the idea of what would actually happen if people developed superpowers to its natural conclusion. Monty Nero sort of deconstructs the genre from within, using rich social commentary about the way people work in their constituent components with flawed personalities, greed, and hedonism, all the way up to how organized institutions like the government can operate with duplicitous intentions. When Monty says: “I’m fulfilling myself- experiencing as much cool stuff as I can before I check out. Isn’t that what everyone does?” that’s really what it’s all about. Mike Dowling’s art is terrific, bold and emotional at the larger figure scale, and rough and sketchy at the smaller scale. I love how loose it feels, humming with energy, and his inks and colors are particularly sharp. It seems like this book is still somewhat under the radar, and it’s a shame, as it’s the best book Titan Comics has produced to date, really a standout star. Grade A.

The Bunker #1 (Oni Press): I wasn’t sure what to expect from this title, but I’m glad I picked it up. As loyal Thirteen Minutes readers know, I have a weak spot for well done post-apocalyptic tales and The Bunker positions itself in a way that allows it to show that, and then offer a time-spanning mystery as to how it came to pass. If you’re a fan of Naoki Urasawa’s epic 20th Century Boys, then you should dig this. It’s about a group of young people stumbling into the titular bunker to find notes from their future selves about how they’ll essentially destroy the world. It’s a huge hook that could go south, but Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari really sell it well. It’s grounded in relationship mechanics and Infurnari’s really lush art that has a washed out effect to it. It’s $3.99 for this first big installment, but with 44 pages it’s a dense and satisfying read. This is one of the hot new number ones this week! My only pet peeve was the continued use of “anyways” instead of “anyway,” but that was a relatively little glitch. You’re making a mistake if you don’t pick it up. Grade A.
Letter 44 #4 (Oni Press): The art already seems to be improving in this title, gaining more consistency and assuredness as time goes on. Charles Soule is all over the place in the industry lately, cranking out both Marvel and DC titles, but for my money, there’s nothing like the magic that a writer or artist pours into their creator owned work. I enjoy how many moving parts Soule is able to juggle here, from government cover-ups, to first contact scenarios, to interpersonal dynamics that complicate the mission, it’s a high concept book that never fails to work out the details and deliver in the small moments. It’s one of the books I’m most excited to read every month because I have no clue where it could go next. It’s sort of West Wing meets Independence Day, with the behind the scenes flair of the former and the urgency of the latter. Grade A.

Hawken: Melee #5 (Archaia): So, I guess this is based on a video game or something? I don’t really care about any of that, and I didn’t read any of the preceding issues. If you were going to judge this week’s books strictly by the art inside a vacuum, and no other factors, then this book would be the book of the week for me. I bought it for one reason – Nathan Fox. He’s one of the best artists working in the industry today. I’m basically a completist when it comes to his work, and I think (controversy alert!) he has the ability to eclipse Paul Pope. His style has all the energy and emotion of Pope, but adds in harder angles and more sexy attitude, a certain grounded futurism to it that makes it just right for just about anything. I love it. For the art alone, this is an easy Grade A.
Harbinger #21 (Valiant): Though I enjoy Joshua Dysart’s writing in general, my interest in Harbinger has been ebbing and flowing for the last few months as it pulled out of a crossover and a certain VR arc that I wasn’t fond of, but it’s come back strong recently. As the team picks up the pieces and continues their struggle against Harada, the things I love about Dysart’s writing have returned. It’s nimbly written, there’s a strong LA/West Coast vibe that he writes from a position of personal knowledge, and the young characters feel fresh, contemporary, and relevant, true to the ages and experiences they supposedly stem from. The interpersonal relationship stuff is totally on point in this issue. Clayton Henry is a nice match for Dysart’s style and, short of the coup it would be to have Clayton Crain, it’d be great if he settled into the regular series artist. Grade A-.

Astro City #9 (DC/Vertigo): Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson continue to impress me with this title and hold my attention. I was telling someone at the LCS today that the “old” Astro City never did much for me back in the day, my youthful surface readings had me thinking it was a pretty vanilla and watered down shared universe knock-off, but in my old age now, maybe I’m picking up more of the nuance and poignancy. The end was somehow a little clumsy for me, but right up until then, this storyline with Winged Victory has been a particularly great examination of feminism, fame, power, and perception, and how they all converge. The interlude about Japanese internment camps on the West Coast was also an interesting story-within-a-story, calling to mind the stories my grandfather used to tell me of not only Japanese-Americans, but Italian-Americans also being interred here in California. Grade A-.
Think Tank #12 (Image): I’m still impressed with how willing Matt Hawkins is to push the envelope with tensions. He basically has China and the United States on the brink of World War III here, with Russia and India ready to jump into the fray. It does seem as if things de-escalate quickly and neatly, but it marks the end of the black and white era for this title. Rahsan Ekedal brings out a lot of emotion and dynamism in his black and white art, so I can only imagine that with a new #1 on the horizon, full color art, and hopefully the continuation of the dense backmatter, more people will hop onto this title and ensure it sticks around for a while. Grade A-.

She-Hulk #1 (Marvel): Charles Soule has a successful legal practice as I understand it, so the lawyering shit is all kinds of authentic in this, something I truly enjoyed. It’s also a smart, if transparent, marketing move to essentially “Hawkeye” this title (as they’re doing with a couple other – Winter Soldier, Black Widow, etc.) by the humorous grounding of otherwise larger than life characters. I will say that Pulido’s art didn’t do it for me 100% of the time, with some instances that just looked off, with weird angles, clunky faces, or just awkward inconsistencies. It’s too bad, I wish the art was just a little stronger and stood up to what I feel is Soule’s best work for hire project so far. It’s pretty damn fun, something I will definitely pursue in trade, but am on the fence for in terms of making a rare exception to my Marvel/DC no fly rule for the creators I’m loyal to. Grade B+.
Injustice: Gods Among Us: Year Two #2 (DC): There weren’t as many shocking moments in this issue as I’ve become accustomed to in the previous, because it’s largely dedicated to set-up in order to propel this arc with the introduction of Sinestro and the Guardians, but I still find it more enjoyable than any of that shared universe pap in the New52. The art is clean and clear, and I enjoy how all of the action feels bold and consequential when it’s not conducted under the constraints of continuity. People make understandable decisions, people take sides, and people die. It runs the idea of superheroes out to its likely horrible denouement. For that, it’s important in a way that the rebooted ad infinitum mainline universe can never quite achieve. Grade B.


Star Wars #14 [Advance Review]

Star Wars #14 (Dark Horse): “Obsession.” It ain’t just a cologne by Calvin Klein. Darth Vader is obsessed in this issue, while the other principal protagonist becomes haunted. The fuel for Vader’s galaxy-wide rampage is a slightly revisionist sequence of his duel with Ben Kenobi and what occurred during those final moments with his former teacher. He’s hunting for a kid named “Skywalker” and a certain outspoken Senator from Alderaan named Princess Leia Organa, unbeknownst daughter of the Sith Lord. The contentious nature of the relationship between Lord Vader and Emperor Palpatine is a good example of the logical narrative extensions taking place in this interstitial space from writer Brian Wood. The true nature of their relationship is something we never really saw in the films, but it makes a ton of sense given how their relationship  ultimately ends high above Endor. In short, there’s a lot of conflicted resentment embedded in ol’ Anakin.

The issue ostensibly centers around a milnet kill-or-capture order for the scientist Leia found drifting in the debris a couple issues back, which momentarily disrupts Vader’s secret mission. In the process, we get to see Kel Bircher’s homeworld, talk of the “Tarkin Doctrine,” which dredges up politicized visions of Dubya’s dubious “shock and awe” campaigns, and Vader ends up putting down an attempted mutiny. The dissention in the ranks is over which of these orders, the kill-capture or his own black ops campaign of vengeance, supersedes the other. It’s a procedural guffaw that not only sets off some Crimson Tide style moments full of brinksmanship and intensity, but actually gives the typically nameless/faceless/non-autonomous Stormtroopers of this era some free will personality and decision-making ability that’s usually lacking.

Facundo Percio is on art duty for these “Five Days of The Sith,” and while I find the occasionally awkward pose or facial expression, there’s no doubt that his renditions of all the tech, whether it’s the gleaming corridors of the Death Star, or the profile shots of a CR90 Corellian Corvette, are spot on. If some of the other figure areas are a little lacking, then he seems to focus the might of his art prowess on Ensign Nanda, capturing her pause, her hesitation, or her sheer fright perfectly, right where it needs to be emotionally to sell this story, all the way until that final sorrowful page. Nailed It! Of course, it’s all held together aesthetically by series colorist Gabe Eltaeb.

I will say that if I was the series editor (like that’d ever happen), I would have changed the line to read “Don’t breach the hull,” because “Don’t hole the hull” is an alliterative nightmare that just doesn’t pass the scientifically proven “Read It Out Loud Test” for dialogue. That’s being super nitpicky, but hey, that’s the level of scrutiny you sign up for when you get involved with the property.

Everything I just mentioned aside, the real core of this issue is twofold. One, it’s essentially a character study of Darth Vader. We see his primary motivations as personal – personal vengeance, personal embarrassment, personal family ties, and personal betrayals. Uh, yeah, it’s personal. All aspects of this deep-seeded, intimate anger, are driving him to erase all vestiges of his former life, his failures with the Emperor, his failure to root out Bircher, his failure at staying on the Jedi path and veering to the Dark Side, all of that needs to be erased in a way that justifies his new existence. He emphatically says “There is no Anakin Skywalker” in an effort to convince himself. That said, I don’t think he’s really interested in killing Bircher, subordinates, or even wanting to find Luke or Leia. What he really wants is to kill Anakin Skywalker, to erase him from existence, in order to misguidedly prove he’s found his rightful place in the universe. This is the arc of his character, this is “the conflict within” that Luke senses years later. Anakin Skywalker was bad at being good, but Darth Vader is so good at being bad.

The second piece of this issue revolves around Brian Wood’s creation of Ensign Nanda. Like he did in DMZ with characters like Wilson or Soames or Decade Later, Wood is great at showing the other sides of conflict, or the “Hidden War,” the casualties of war that lurk in these side stories, away from the ostensible series leads. Nanda is the sole witness to this deliberate transformation of Vader’s soul, following the metamorphosis that occurred much quicker with his body. She was an eager soldier conscripted into Lord Vader’s personal service, the atrocities of war disillusioned her regardless of her original intention to serve honorably. It’s only five days of her life, five days of work, which on the surface has been such a boon to her career, and has resulted in considerable financial gain for Ensign Nanda, yet her experiences are something which will likely haunt her for the rest of her days, not unlike the poor scientist from Alderaan, nicely echoing that plot thread. It’s yet another example of the depth of character Wood is willing to imbue his creations with, going so far beyond sci-fi action sequences or tapping fanboy nostalgia buttons. Well, that’s two you owe me, LucasFilm! I demanded a Kel Bircher action figure, and now I demand an Ensign Nanda action figure! Grade A.


The Fuse #1 [Advance Review]

The Fuse #1 (Image Comics): For my money, The Fuse comes charging right out of the gate with a creative pedigree full of modern all-stars. We’ve got one of the best world-builders working in the industry today in writer Antony Johnston (Wasteland, Umbral). His art collaborator Justin Greenwood (Wasteland, Resurrection) is a modern craftsman with an aesthetic that captures a striking balance between realism and escapism. Like Clarence Worley and Lee Donowitz, we also “park our cars in the same garage” when it comes to our love of 90’s cinema, so there’s that. Shari Chankhamma is one of the New Wave Colorists (Dean White, Jordie Bellaire, Gabe Eltaeb, Owen Gieni, et al) whose striking palette I first saw in Sheltered, and continued to track in indie projects, like her great collaboration with my paisan Giulie Speziani (1 Night On Earth). Not many books come with a rock star letterer like Ed Brisson, who’s also a great writer in his own right. I highly recommend his Murder Book, which is like an even more low-fi dirty version of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, and if you’re not reading the aforementioned pre-apocalyptic yarn Sheltered, written by Brisson, with art by Johnnie Christmas, then you’re just making a huge mistake.

Before I even read Johnston’s rollicking explanation letter (nay, “Statement of Intent”) in the backmatter, I was picking up what he was laying down, citing some of the same influences, and writing the following couple of sentences in my notes. Straight Up. The Fuse is for an audience like me, people who were weaned on 1980’s sci-fi (Aliens, Blade Runner, BSG), and then raised on cop show procedurals in the 1990’s (X-Files, NYPD Blue, and hell, my dad didn’t let me watch Michael Mann Miami Vice, he made me watch it). You can feel these two genres being woven together in a great sequential art tapestry (I guess I’ll spare you the corny “CSI: Mos Eisley” sound byte I was crafting… oops…). All at once, it’s like a time capsule of nostalgia, yet it operates with modern sophistication. When you throw in its striking design features, The Fuse is basically built for tech immigrant Gen X’ers like me, but has enough forward motion that it won’t exclude tech native Gen Y’ers either. Demographics are important to consider for marketing purposes, I’ll admit, but I enjoy Johnston’s willingness to not overly concern himself with what he thinks the audience wants (a fool’s errand to be sure), and to just double down on what he loves.

On the first page, I smirked contentedly to myself because of Johnston’s ear for dialogue. I’ll be damned if “Boo ain’t gone tell nobody” isn’t exactly the kind of line Johnston excels at. The degenerative cadence, the lilted accent, the broke-down brogue, it just so sums up his love of language, like we see in the devolving goat-speak of Wasteland, or the worn out high-speech in Umbral. I love it. He continues this effort when introducing us to the world of The Fuse. For example, Dietrich speaks in a slightly formal, deliberately stilted way, sans contractions, that lets anyone paying attention know that English is probably a second language for him. We understand that these language flourishes aren’t just done so for high-calorie empty style points, but they serve a substantive purpose. When we meet the series protagonists, grizzled Klem Ristovych and her new overachieving partner Dietrich, their speech patterns let us know a lot about characterization. We learn about their differences in race, age, gender, and even country of origin (it seems clear that one is Russian and one is German). This pairing makes for instant sparks, embedding some tension right into the mix. Johnston’s introductions are organic, letting us know all of the basic information we need, about quirky cops and bustling spacedocks and a dead cabler’s body that needs investigating, in a way that never feels forced, never sounds staged or contrived, and is never overtly expositional.

Justin Greenwood and Shari Chankhamma illustrate “The Russia Shift” with so much precision. I’m so used to seeing Greenwood’s art in stark black and white, that it was a real treat to see Chankhamma’s colors on top of his lines. They work well together, achieving an effectiveness that is more than the sum of the parts. The piercing white eyes on the very first page evoke a sense of true terror, instantly pulling the audience into this strange new world. This ultimately gives way to a two-page spread that functions as a cinematic reveal to the orbital known at The Fuse. One thing you should notice about the art is that it feels claustrophobic at times. That’s on purpose. There are so many people and so much activity going on in the background that you get this paranoid sense that, at the very least, you’re missing some clues, or at the worst, the damn killer is probably right there looking out at you and taunting you. Johnston has never been the type of writer to spell things out (notice how he doesn’t have the characters talk at the audience and explain the pass that occurs in the CCTV footage), he laces the script with clues that get conveyed either textually or visually. He basically hints at this approach in the backmatter; it makes me think I should go back and really pore over the art to absorb the color choices, to memorize the faces in the crowd, etc.

Well, as Johnston explains in the in-your-face-let’s-defy-the-odds backmatter, here we have a bloody Brit writing an American comic book that should have widespread US and international appeal. It should have you instantly hooked, because of the way it can fuse (heh) two beloved genres and the best medium together to form a sci-fi cop comic, steeped lovingly in the pop culture parlance of those components. I’m thinking about all the books I currently read, and all the books I’m currently aware of, and I think I can honestly say without hyperbole that there’s nothing like The Fuse currently available. Image Comics has another hit on their hands. (This is sort of an off-topic premature aside, but I’ve been so excited since last week’s announcement that SyFy is developing a show based on Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli’s Vertigo series DMZ. You can palpably feel that potential here in The Fuse. Imagine that, DMZ on SyFy, Sunday nights at 8pm, followed by The Fuse at 9pm! It’d be some sort of closed room DS9 piece of entertainment, with Ristovych and Dietrich combing the back alleys of 1st Avenue for clues…) Grade A+.


X-Men #10 @ Fanboy Comics

I wrote an advance review of this week's X-Men #10 by Brian Wood, Kris Anka, and Clay Mann over at Fanboy Comics.


LIVE FROM THE DMZ Goes To Print -> DMZ Book One [Final Reminder]

Here’s your final reminder that DMZ: Book One (Deluxe Edition Hardcover) is in stores this Wednesday, February 5th. You should buy it. This volume collects the first 12 issues of the series, houses over 300 story pages, features an original cover designed by Brian Wood, and is only $29.99, which comes out to just $2.50 per issue. On top of the price point, it’s in a swanky oversized hardcover, and you get about 30 pages of definitive bonus content, including an extended conversation between me and Brian Wood, character designs, early cover and logo mock-ups, etc. There will be 5 hardcover books in total, with an additional book planned every 6 months or so. In fact, the second is already scheduled for release in June of 2014.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware of our LIVE FROM THE DMZ web-site, which was created as a dedicated venue to analyze Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s contemporary classic as it was collected in 12 softcover trades. DMZ ran for an impressive 72 issues from 2005 to 2011 and centered on would-be journalist Matthew Roth and his time in war torn New York City during the Second American Civil War. The site offered extensive behind-the-scenes interviews with the creators, critical analysis, and heaps of never-before-seen concept art. For the last few months, I’ve been freelancing with DC Comics and re-mastering the web content for print, curating the best pieces to accompany each new edition of this cornerstone in the Brian Wood library.

For existing fans, this is the definitive format you’ll want to own the book in. We’re throwing everything we have at it. For curious fans, this is the perfect time to jump in with the benefit of “director’s commentary” and own the ultimate edition.