Thursday, November 25, 2010

Five Comics Worth Reading: November 2010

I actually did not fall in love with Paul Cornell’s Action Comics right away, despite the fact that I was quite fond of Captain Britain and MI:13 and most people whose opinions I respect took a shine to it immediately; I liked it fine and knew I’d be picking it up for awhile because I appreciated the wit if nothing else, but I wasn’t head over heels. It wasn’t the Death issue that turned the corner for me—though it was good—it was the Gorilla Grodd issue, which was among the most delightful comics I’ve read of late featuring the unlikeliest of protagonists for such a tale. Cornell has demonstrated he definitely has a fairly grand vision for Lex Luthor that goes beyond just being the guy who loses to Superman, playing with previously established themes of power lust and whose preservation he’s really after, but in addition to the psychological song and dance, he also doesn’t mind having a giant monkey chase our “hero” with a big spoon with which he hopes to eat his brains. Tipping your hat to the silliness of the Silver Age but not letting the joke overwhelm the deeper commentary you’re attempting to me represents the essence of a really good DC comic, and that’s what Paul Cornell’s doing here. Additionally: Really nice to see Pete Woods finally playing with the big boys. Those Nick Spencer-written Jimmy Olsen back-ups ain't hurtin' either.

It was pretty much a given for me I’d enjoy this book, as it’s a spin-off mini from The Boys, which I love, written by Garth Ennis and featuring that title’s most endearing character, Wee Hughie. However, while Ennis being able to marry ultra-violence to tug-on-the-heartstrings stuff in his sleep is hardly news, he actually opts for less of the former here, just the right amount of the latter, and a good deal of psychological exploration into the main character to split the difference. Much of Hughie’s appeal lies in both his everyman status and that he’s the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, but you really latch onto him because despite all his good qualities, life just seems to be cutting the guy shit breaks at every turn whenever he finds a glimmer of happiness; he’s almost Peter Parker in a mature readers book with a Scottish accent and better manners. He travels home here for a break from his current trials, and in the process we learn not just about his childhood, but see once more how he has experienced so many of the mundane challenges we all do and doesn’t bear them any better than any of us. He bemoans having a surrogate mother who was too over-protective even as he beats himself up for not appreciating her love enough and resenting his dad for subtly and perhaps unknowingly guilt-tripping him about it. As you can tell from most of what I write, I appreciate guys and girls in spandex fighting monsters as much as anybody, but as a pretty normal guy, I must say it’s a weird pleasure to read about a character whose cross to bear is that his parents were too nice (which is of course over-simplifying and ignoring a good chunk of the book, but I digress) when the story is done well.

The author of my beloved childhood Superboy series, Karl Kesel remains one of comics’ most underappreciated writing talents, a fact he’s proving once more with this series filling in the blanks on Jeff Mace, the second guy to serve as a surrogate Captain America while Steve Rogers was on ice following World War II. It’s a well-constructed adventure yarn, with the requisite fight scenes and double crosses as well as an air of mystery surrounding more than one supposed ally of our would-be Cap, but it’s also a hard look at Mace, the guy who had the tough job of filling in for a legend knowing all the while he could never live up to anybody’s expectations, including his own. Kesel certainly does a good job of presenting Mace as an impressive hero who doesn’t flinch (much) at the awesome burden he carries, but also weaves in the question of exactly what drives him, whether it’s patriotism or just a desire for accolades and acceptance (maybe all of the above), which certainly fleshes out this previously blank slate. However, much as I love me some Karl Kesel writing and will take it anywhere, any way I can get it, this book certainly goes over-the-top thanks to what I’d consider some career best work from artist Mitch Breitweiser. The washes of ink and carefully-constructed backgrounds Breitweiser and his colorist/wife Bettie surround the story’s players with create an ominous mood that distinguishes the world of Jeff Mace’s Captain America dramatically from Steve Rogers’ and adds even more gravitas to his struggle with his identity and figuring out who he can trust. It’s a captivating read and a great-looking book that I have a feeling will make a seminal collection; would love to see the occasional Jeff Mace adventure from these guys after the current run wraps.

Nearly 100 issues in, Bill Willingham is still finding ways to invigorate the expansive universe he’s created with Fables. The series has had its peaks and valleys, but I’ve been fairly impressed that after spending over five years building to one gigantic conflict then resolving said saga with a suitably epic climax, Willingham and the brilliant Mark Buckingham didn’t just pitch their tents and call it a day, a luxury they certainly could have laid guiltless claim to. While the book may have stumbled a bit following the Adversary’s big reveal and then again after the massive war, it has bounced back multiple times and now in the incredible creepy Mister Dark, an antagonist worthy of the big triple digit anniversary has emerged. Whereas the Adversary was a lot of show and ultimately not as much go (he was just an old man, after all), Dark tore through Fabletown like a hurricane, demonstrated enormous power from the get-go, and should prove quite the test for our favorite Fables. Notably, Willingham has been able to build Dark even while taking lengthy (like half-year long) excursions from the “main” story to dabble in stuff like Rose Red’s formative years, government politics on the farm, or just Ambrose hosting a baseball game, and I’ve enjoyed it all. I also admire the way he has a popular and still in many ways untapped core cast of characters, yet still dares to introduce new faces into the mix all the time. Supposedly there are now super heroes of all things around the corner, and I eagerly await the newest reinvention of Fables.

Jeff Parker hit some speed bumps when he first took over Thunderbolts, I think; he managed to crank out some solid stories, but he was really just putting the finishing touches on what Andy Diggle had set up, shepherding his predecessor’s characters through Siege and ending their story. Since Jeff kick-started the new status quo with the Heroic Age and put his own cast in place—with nods to the past by including the likes of Moonstone, Songbird, Mach-V and Fixer, not to mention Diggle’s own addition, Ghost—the book has been picking up steam, hitting a nice note during the recent Shadowland tie-in issues and knocking one out of the park with a great issue #150 guest-starring Iron Man, Thor and Steve Rogers. First and foremost, Jeff clearly relishes writing Luke Cage and getting to focus on the side of him that is both a result and proponent of redemption, as well as a guy who can act perpetually gruff and annoyed with those charged to his service, but deep down you know he’s got an internal grin whenever they do something right. I also dig that Parker is getting the book back to its roots though, as a series about how some villains can actually turn themselves around, but he’s upped the ante a little as far as making it more difficult to tell who will and won’t was out. The Warren Ellis/Andy Diggle era of villains getting to run wild as supposed heroes was fun, don’t get me wrong, but not knowing what’s going to happen next is a hallmark of classic T-Bolts, and I like seeing Parker along with ever-improving artist Kev Walker return that feel; it definitely makes the moments where Juggernaut surprises you or Crossbones finally says to hell with it that much more visceral.

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