Sunday, September 11, 2011

Five Comics Worth Reading - September 2011

There were points in issue #1 and the first part of issue #2 where I thought this might be the first installment of The Boys/its various spinoffs I might not really get into, not because it wasn’t any good, but because it seemed like it was set up largely to be a war story, and while Garth Ennis writes those well and Darick Robertson can draw anything, war stories just generally aren’t my jam. However, the war portions, while critical, are not the whole thing, and as noted, they’re done quite well so they contribute nicely to the bigger picture. This is really the origin story of Billy Butcher, an intriguing character in the classic Ennis mold who seems to walk the line between being an oddly endearing antihero and a straight up jerk in pretty much every one of his appearances. This story focuses on the roots of why Billy is the way he is, particularly on his relationship with his father and discovery of being able to lose himself in violence, but it doesn’t do so in a “this excuses his actions” way; it’s very shades of grey in presenting the potential motivators for Billy’s personality, but leaving it up to you to decide whether he was shaped against his will by external circumstances or just uses those as a cop out. It’s Ennis doing a great combination of action with psycho-analysis—which makes for the best Boys story—and Robertson returning to full art duties, where I have missed him sorely as he’s one of my all-time favorites. Very much looking forward to the third issue, where Billy’s slated to be “saved” by the love of a wife we know from The Boys he eventually loses.

It’s kinda crazy to think that a decade ago Bucky was more or less a cipher, a long-forgotten Golden Age sidekick stereotype more useful to stories in death than in life, given the depth Ed Brubaker has managed to give him since he rolled the dice and brought him back in 2004 (Roger Stern, among others, got some great stories in as well). During his comeback tour, Bucky Barnes went from grinning boy mascot to a character possessed of a pronounced dark side born from growing up literally in the midst of war but also a stubborn heroic spirit that propelled him forward through his trials and made him inspirational as well as easy to root for. Now Brubaker and co-writer Marc Andreyko are taking the time to fill in the gaps of Bucky’s formative years, showing where both the tortured soul and grim resolve to carry on came from in this series. The first two issues have been dynamite, presenting a charismatic and boisterous young kid who makes you chuckle only pages before he’s forced to plunge a knife through a man’s throat for the greater good. Though ostensibly headlining the title as well, Captain America fits better as the co-star here, reversing the traditional dynamic, acting as a concerned father figure who warns his charge about the tough times to come as well as the player coach reminding why these things must be done. Chris Samnee’s art is just terrific, his versatility impressive as ever and used to full effect by his collaborators. The juxtaposition of Samnee’s go-lucky depiction of Steve and Bucky goofing off while watching actors portray them in propaganda films against his wrenching actions scenes give both greater weight. Everybody working on this title seems to recognize they’re sitting on a wealth of potential and their determination to make it count shines through.

Frank Castle can be a tough nut to crack when it comes to casting him in an ongoing series. He’s got a great premise, but as has been noted time and again, a vigilante who kills everybody he comes up against can be hard to sustain over lengthy period and not fall into the trap of telling the same story over and over. The best writers can find ways to rise to the challenge and utilize the Punisher’s strengths as a character while writing around the barriers to longevity. Garth Ennis veered far away from the idea of a super hero universe and got nearly a decade out of writing the stories he wanted to tell with Frank as the anchor. Most recently, Rick Remender went 180, dumping Frank in the midst of the Marvel Universe and playing the contrast, then going in a totally unexpectedly delightful direction by turning him into a Frankenstein monster. From the first three issues of his new series, I’m intrigued by Greg Rucka’s approach of using The Punisher as almost a supporting character in his own story, focusing on the world around him and how it’s affected by this gun-toting boogeyman and introducing a strong supporting cast to speak for him (Frank didn’t speak at all through #3). It’s the idea of Batman-as-urban legend taken a step further and utilizes Rucka’s potent skills writing straight crime drama while holding his familiarity with super hero comics in reserve for when it’s needed. Marco Checchetto brings a welcome fresh approach to the book that sets it apart from past Punisher stories, his European style creating an eerie sort of urban ghost story that fits the elusive, larger-than-life nature of the protagonist; he also brings a beauty to the violence that haunts you.

On Captain Britain and MI: 13, Paul Cornell demonstrated tremendous skill when it came to taking the fringe elements of a shared universe and using them to world build a fascinating place just off to the side of the main action where characters not always given the chance to shine got spotlight and characterization while also being able to provide a compelling side commentary to a larger narrative. In this regard, Stormwatch is the perfect comic for Cornell, as he gets to integrate cherry-picked elements of Wildstorm’s remains into the new DC status quo, pull in players like Martian Manhunter to act as a bridge, and then move the camera around as he creates a framework exploration of the emerging landscape. In the first issue, we get introduced to the latest incarnation of Stormwatch, mostly helmed by Authority alums such as Jack Hawksmoor and The Engineer, but also joined by the aforementioned J’onn J’onzz as well as new Cornell creations (I believe) like Projectionist and Harry Tanner. All of these characters plus would-be recruit Apollo and late-coming Midnighter gets a nice moment to show off their powers, something that perhaps seems trivial but is crucial in first issues, especially one like this where a good deal of the audience may be unfamiliar with these folks. The positioning of Stormwatch as an alternative to the Justice League and the threads laid down here in regards to there being a bigger picture guys like Superman might not be privy to made me glad I picked this up and eager to see more. Cornell made the most out of the real estate he had to work with, really packing this debut; he seems to have found a nice sweet spot creatively.

There are probably few assignments in comics more simultaneously daunting right now than The Ultimates. It’s not like being asked to write an icon like Superman or Spider-Man where there have been decades of history and plenty of subpar runs and it’s not like creating your own stuff from scratch where you create the expectations; despite being around nearly a decade now, Ultimates is still mostly remembered for a handful of comics that set the tone for the last 10 years of comics and a lot of the stuff you’re seeing in the blockbuster movies hitting the screen each summer. What I like about Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s first issue of their Ultimates book is that it pays homage to the original stuff but strikes a different tone to let you know that the story has progressed and everything that’s taken place since the end of Ultimates 2 counted and weighs on this cast. The best example I can think of is how Nick Fury still possesses the scowl and swagger Mark Millar initially instilled in him, seeming up to literally any challenge, but as the problems mount, he blinks ever so slightly, until by the issue’s close he’s almost paralyzed by indecision; this is still the guy who took down an alien invasion, but he also saw a teenage hero die on his watch, and he has been affected. Likewise, Iron Man is still the puffed up spin on his traditional template, but he too shows human moments of weakness, like when he insists his new butler answer to Jarvis even though it’s not his name. The Ultimates has always been a popcorn flick with balls-to-the-wall action and huge heroes who have a quip in response to any sign of danger; Hickman’s Ultimates are those same people with the weight of the world and tremendous personal loss on their shoulders and I’m really taken in by getting this three-dimensional examination of where they’re at now. And Esad Ribic’s art is just gorgeous; it always is, but the care he takes here with not just the tech or the fighting but just Thor’s glaring face is remarkably beautiful. Simply put: Nobody today does it like Ribic and Dean White. Heck, I love the way Clayton Cowles letters the word balloons and how the story title is laid out. This is a very good comic. Will it pave the way for the next decade? I’m looking forward to finding out.


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