Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Five Comics Worth Reading - April 2010

Every now and again I read a comic and am just like “Wow, this book is sick,” but don’t always have more than a few sentences to say about it, let alone a whole post. To that end, with no ambitions whatsoever of any sort of regular schedule, I use this recurring feature babble about books I’m really digging.

Books like these.

From Preacher to Hitman to Punisher, Garth Ennis does his best work when he uses over-the-top violence, gore, and crude trappings to mask the fact that he’s actually telling a story with a lot of heart. Yeah, his stuff is funny and gross and often ridiculous, but his characters are some of the most sincere you’ll find and the guy can write dialogue that will well up your eyes when he wants to.

Back when The Boys first started, I thought it might be Ennis taking a break from the serious stuff to go full-bore in surface mode, telling the nastiest super hero parody he could, and truth be told I would have been ok with that; it was still a good monthly laugh and Darick Robertson’s art is just gorgeous. But over time after some growing pains, The Boys has revealed itself as being—surprise surprise—a book with a lot of heart about characters with tremendous depth and an intriguing world in which everybody is playing everybody…with a healthy dose of super-powered sex jokes padding the panels.

The recent run of one-off “origin” issues for the oft-neglected characters of Mother’s Milk, The Frenchman and The Female was great, ballsy stuff, with Ennis going to the well and coming up with back-stories rooted in classic tropes yet spinning in entirely new directions. The latest arc, in which Butcher has come to suspect something’s up with Hughie—for my money one of comics’ most likable characters with a fantastically Ennis romance—and sends him to do recon on a socially-stunted Legion of Super-Heroes pastiche is shaping up to be more of the goodness.

And seriously: Darick Robertson is amazing.

Rickey and I have talked up House of Mystery quite a bit in private over the past couple years, though I’m not sure how often we’ve plugged it here on the blog—well, better late than never I suppose.

It’s a really cool book for many reasons, not the least of which is that it pays off on the potential for a format I and many of my fellows have often seen in an underexploited genre, that being the anthology book. No, it’s not a traditional multi-story anthology and there’s a pretty heady main plot threading through the series, but the idea that every month you can get a cool short horror-tinged story by the likes of Sam Kieth or Farel Dalrymple (to name a couple recent contributors) is just a neat and special thing. The conceit of these stories coming out of the book’s set-up wherein patrons at the bar around which it’s centered must pay their tab in tales is also quite an ingenious one if I do say so (I do).

But the short story icing aside, Matt Sturges has really weaved a delicious cake of—wait for it—mystery in the main narrative. The recent direction semi-change of rotation in and out of certain cast members really shook things up in the right way, as the old guard are not forgotten nor are their unanswered questions, but we’ve also got new faces and conundrums creeping up, headed up by heroine fig’s creepy and possibly homicidal brother Strawberry. It’s a smart book as you’d expect from its pedigree, but certainly not too dense for any old joe to dive right in.

Like many others, I was a bit concerned when Geoff Johns ended his landmark run on JSA and fearful that whoever took over would not be able to nail that elusive formula that makes a book centered around 70-year old characters and certainly lacking a certain sexiness still work in this age of super hero comics. I think it took Bill Willingham awhile to ease his way in, but he seems to be hitting on the right cylinders now.

Halving the book’s cast was a good move, since fifty percent of the JSA is still bigger than pretty much any other team excepting the Legion, and Willingham wisely assembled a team consisting primarily of characters whose voices he can nail. Whether it’s the stoicism of Alan Scott, the gruffness of Wildcat, the perkiness of Liberty Belle or that in-over-my-head terror Doctor Fate exudes, Willingham knows his players and their quirks and how the group dynamic should work.

The story arc with Mordru was a nice bit of fun, and now the current multi-parter in which the team is fighting across two eras to prevent new age Nazis from taking over the world is shaping up as quite the sizable epic. The peril feels quite real and the action is well-choreographed. With the focus more on Mister Terrific with a dash of folks like Doctor Mid-Nite and Lightning thrown in, Willingham is also moving the camera around nicely, which is a necessity on a book like this.

Jesus Merino has come into his own as well, still clearly influenced by his years of inking Carlos Pacheco but not shackled by it; he draws real pretty.

When Jason Aaron is on his game with Wolverine, I’m not sure I’ve seen more than one or two other writers who make the character more enjoyable to follow.

I was re-reading the recent standalone issue about Logan’s love life a few nights ago and found myself smirking with every page at how fun Aaron makes this guy who has been a perennially put-upon and tortured character for so long and so often. Yeah, the angst is certainly still there in Weapon X, but this Wolverine is more a guy with some crazy war stories to tell but whose charisma and wit draws you to him, as opposed to the depressing guy wallowing in the corner of the bar.

Aaron also helps his case by never taking Wolverine too seriously, or letting the character do so either. Self-conscious sequences of the writer poking fun at how his charge seems to be a dozen places at once or scenes where Logan is getting a sex talk from Jubilee and especially Wolvie asking to hold Luke Cage and Jessica Jones’ baby make the crazy ass battle sequences where this guy is tearing people apart with his claws so much more effective via contrast.

But the current arc with an army of Deathloks coming back from the future to hunt down a master list of super heroes so they can rule their own time period Terminator style is just a whole other step beyond.

It’s hard to really encapsulate what makes this story so darn fantastic, but it illustrates that Jason Aaron is perhaps without peer when it comes to visualizing the craziest big picture concepts ever and then actually following through with them. He did it on Ghost Rider with stuff like Johnny Blaze storming the gates of heaven on a motorcycle and challenging the baddest angel in the land an issue or two after fighting a possessed steam shovel and he does it here with an army of cyborg killing machines coming back in time to kill people we’ve never heard of because their kid will grow up to be a legendary hero. The time jumps, the continuity winks, and the way he handles new and old characters just so darn well in the midst of unparalleled craziness is just a masterful thing and a joy to see unfold.

As somebody who never had any emotional attachment to Louise Simonson’s run on X-Factor from when I was like eight and no particular fondness for the original X-Men outside of a tough-to-quantify fandom for Iceman, this was the last book I was expecting to get into.

But it’s really a good read.

My hat is off (or it would be if I were wearing one) to Ms. Simonson for being able to analyze her work of two decades ago and re-imagine it for a modern day audience without it feeling stagnant or at the other extreme dragging it kicking and screaming on a forced migration into the 21st century just by sticking iPods in the characters’ hands. She has instead pulled off perfectly the act of balancing nostalgia with a knowing awareness of how storytelling conventions have evolved and created a comic that reads like a fun super hero book from a simpler time without coming off stale or pedantic; this I imagine can’t be an easy thing to do.

As an X-Men junkie, I love the feel of the story wherein Apocalypse has grand designs involving destiny and whatnot we’re only getting the tip of, but I’d imagine somebody picking the book up cold could also just appreciate the idea of characters with neat costumes and cool powers fighting a giant robot across New York City. The book has thus far succeeded in both servicing those of us looking for a trip back to the elaborate X-Men mythos of yesteryear while also being new reader-friendly.

Simonson also just writes a great Apocalypse, and her re-imagining his full history in the back-up is a great bonus.

Dan Panosian really brought his A-game as well, and has clearly worked to keep growing his craft from his Image days back in the 90’s. His design skill for the aforementioned costumes is spot-on and the guy can do a fight scene like wow.


demoncat2.0 said...

all nice picks Ben though weapon x never got into it . for liked the original weapon x story better also like the xmen forever books for they let the creators like on the x factor book pick off where they left off without being stuck in current marvel time. house of mystery cool one of the good things about vertigo still being around

demoncat2.0 said...

but on the other hand, there is something to be said for house of mystery to be cut from pull list. i have many expenses to pay, and i can't buy this, all my other comics, and cat fancy monthly magazine. decizions must be made