Sunday, June 24, 2012

Five Comics Worth Reading: June 2012

I’ve been really getting into “world building” series lately, i.e. books that may focus on a set cast but really are telling the story of an entire society and moving the camera around a lot to do so; I feel like Paul Levitz’ first Legion of Super-Heroes run was the template for these in modern super hero comics and some really good ones have cropped up lately, from Age of Apocalypse to the current volume of Ultimates to Earth 2 by James Robinson and Nicola Scott. It’s not surprising that this type of storytelling falls in Robinson’s wheelhouse, as his Starman featured a vast array of characters beyond Jack Knight who could easily carry their own stories at any given moment (and the setting itself was as much a star as any of them). The idea of alternate realities featuring familiar characters is a tried and true one I’m a big fan of, and with the New 52 basically making the entire DC Universe one of these to begin with, I somehow find the concept of Earth 2 almost refreshing and particularly palatable for an older fan like me; this is another new take, but one rooted in a tradition dating back decades (if that makes sense). Really it’s the characters that sell it, though, in particular Robinson’s new version of Jay Garrick as The Flash, an everyman dreamer who stumbles across destiny he never figured within his grasp and now has to cope with a battle way over his head; that’s my favorite kind of hero. There’s also coolness to seeing guys like Garrick or Alan Scott not as the grizzled warhorses we’ve come to know them as, but fresh faced rookies who still possess the intangibles of the characters I’ve dug. So between the cross-reality scope, the likable protagonists, the “you know them but you don’t” twists with guys like Mr. Terrific and Nicola Scott’s classic, colorful, oh-so comic book art, this new series has become a quick favorite of mine.

Speaking of world building, Fables is another title that typifies that expression, as Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham and company have spent over a decade now creating and letting flourish their vast storytelling tapestry across genres and through dozens of stories. While they still do a nice job over in that book of putting the characters first and foremost, there’s no denying they have to top the last arc a lot—and that’s a tall order—so Fairest is a nice spin-off in that it goes somewhat “old school” with more self-contained stories set across Fables continuity but specific focus on smaller adventures. I’m loving the first arc, where Willingham has gone back to the well on one of the things that has helped Fables endure and taken an “origin story”—in this case Sleeping Beauty’s—and found a quirky ground that’s more hardcore than the cartoons we’ve seen, more lighthearted than the gory original “fairy tales,” and with the kind of wit and high adventure that makes a comic book. It’s an escapist delight to follow familiar characters like Ali Baba with a thoroughly modern edge plus get more insight into established Fables folk like the Snow Queen. If I may toot a pal’s horn though, my friend Phil Jimenez’s art on this book is gorgeous on a jaw-dropping scale; he was born to draw the lush landscapes, intricate palaces and beautiful people of Fables. It’s a visual feast nicely abetted by the inks of another amigo, Andy Lanning, plus knockout colors by Andrew Dalhouse.

When I was growing up reading Incredible Hulk, it was in the midst of Peter David’s reign as writer, and while it was also action-packed, psychological and often pretty dark, it was a funny book, with The Hulk as a witty lead operating a monstrous physical entity. Jason Aaron’s current run on Hulk is also very action-packed, also fairly psychological and quite dark, but while it’s not always funny—it frequently is—it’s damn sure demonstrating that some stuff I don’t typically think of as “fun” quite well can be. The current “Stay Angry” arc has at its core a clever premise that both subverts the “typical” Hulk hierarchy and provides brilliant set-ups for any number of stories: Bruce Banner is now the deranged side of the equation and is up to some crazy—and as yet unrevealed—scheme that has him spending his time “at the wheel” positioning himself into crazy situations then getting pissed off enough to become The Hulk, who has to deal with said situation, hoping not to inadvertently do exactly what Banner wanted, and thus far failing each and every time. Hulk also has to (wait for it) stay angry or else he’ll revert to Banner, who will either screw him over further or get them both killed. It’s an elaborate yet elegant framework that Aaron jumps off and then kicks to 11 by cramming the craziest things he can think of into the stories; so far we’ve had Hulk teaming up with The Punisher to take down a Mexican drug lord who was either a dog mutated into a man or a man who mutated himself to be part dog—to put the cherry on top, Hulk has Punished shoot him in the face several times when he’s in danger of calming down—and Hulk under the sea fending off a horde of Atlanteans and sea monsters inebriated by seaweed juice and thinking they’re pirates. It’s the kind of off-the-wall stuff you’d expect to find in a book like, say, Preacher or something, but that perhaps works even better here because The Hulk is such a resilient force you can throw into nearly anything and have him believably survive as well as make a bigger mess of things. I applaud Aaron for thinking big on this story and for creating a new take on Hulk himself: an astutely rational but annoyed monster that has to clean up the messes he himself created for years being perpetrated by the unfettered alter ego who has had to endure the brunt of that action. Inspired art choices like Steve Dillon and Pasqual Ferry only make things better. And this week, Tom Raney draws Hulk fighting Russian bears in outer space!

Speaking of that Lanning guy—and I was back in the Fairest write-up—he also writes, and along with Dan Abnett, he’s penning one of our consistent favorites on the This Week in Marvel podcast, New Mutants. This series occupies a very unique place in not just the Marvel Universe, but really all of comics, there has always been the problem of what to do with teenage characters when they kind of grow up—or rather are replaced by a younger generation—but can’t fully because they’re not going to supplant the adult characters already in place. The peak members of the New Teen Titans cast were—and really still are for the most part—victims of this grey area and the original New Mutants seemed doomed to a similar fate after their X-Force run came to an end and teams like Generation X or the young students of New X-Men and Generation Hope took their place, but Zeb Wells started up a new series that played on their connection to one another being what made them truly compelling, and now DnA have carved their niche out even further. Beyond having a very specific mission statement of mopping up the X-Men’s “unfinished business” (locating mutants who have fallen through the cracks or hunting down bad guys that eluded capture), the New Mutants are comics’ quintessential twenty-somethings: no longer in school, but still unsure of their long-term goals and therefore clinging to one another for support and safety. They fight Asgardian death maidens—as seen in the excellent “Exiled” crossover with Journey Into Mystery—but they also live in an apartment together, trying to get jobs at the local diner so they don’t have to ask Cyclops for cash. Two of the very best recent issues of New Mutants have been ones with little to no action—namely Magma’s date with Mephisto and when Blink dragged the team out for a night on the town—but then you’ve also got creepy horror stories like the Ani-Mator trilogy or their Fear Itself sojourn into the depths of Hel; New Mutants can do it all. The cast is endearing, relatable and quirky; the soap opera is suitably complex without being overwhelming; the humor is both dry and cute. Also, the art on the book fits its one-of-a-kind nature well, whether it’s David Lopez depicting evil death metal bands or Leandro Fernandez imagining a techno-organic freakshow. I love Dani, Roberto, Amara, Doug, Warlock and Nate like they’re my pals, and this book is among the best anywhere right now.

Yep, Brian K. Vaughan’s new comic book is awesome—I’m as shocked as anybody else. Seriously, BKV has a near flawless track record, and Saga has done nothing to harm that reputation. Going back one more time to that old world building theme that seems to have encompassed this post, I love that just as with Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and even Runaways (though obviously that last one wasn’t as self-contained as the first two), Vaughan began demonstrating immediately via newborn baby Hazel being the narrator that he has the long game in mind for this one, and I really enjoy the little teases in that narration when we meet a new character hinting at events far down the line, as a creator being in for the long haul certainly encourages me to feel the same way. It’s not hard to invest in this series right from the start, as every character from foulmouthed star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko to bounty hunter The Will already have hidden depths I’m keen to discover, and the mash-up of romance and humor against a big ol’ sci-fi background is a tasty genre smorgasbord. Only a few issues in there have already been eye-grabbing visuals like people with television heads having sex and pre-pubescent ghosts missing their lower halves that Fiona Staples absolutely nails; she can do the beautiful and the epic as well as she does the gross and the laugh out loud, so that’s pretty darn swell. As a bonus, BKV is hilarious on the letters page which featured in one instance thus far fan art from none other than Rickey Purdin himself!


Anonymous said...

What's with the huge gaps in the Five Comics Worth Reading column (there's nothing between October 2011 / February 2012 & February 2012 / June 2012).

Ben Morse said...

Busy, man, just busy. Still lots of good comics out there.