[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow "The State of My Pull List" here.]
There is a class divide in the comics community, and there has been for decades. But it’s not between haves and have nots, or red states and blue states; rather, it’s all about “mainstream” versus “ art” comics. Mainstream generally refers to superhero/adventure/fantasy comics published monthly in the 22-page format by one of the major companies (DC and Marvel, obviously, but also Image, Dynamite, Boom!, etc.), while art comics are graphic novels or otherwise whole collections published by Fantagraphics and Top Shelf, or serialized in journals like Mome, Taddle Creek, and McSweeney’s. Art comics are discussed and reviewed on The Comics Journal, mainstream comics are discussed and reviewed on Newsarama. Mainstream comics are produced by a group of writers and artists and are therefore sloppy, while art comics tend to be product of a single creator’s careful attention and concern for the story and art.
Those distinctions are tenuous and permeable – there are comics produced by Marvel and DC that are every bit as exquisitely rendered as something published by Drawn and Quarterly, and there are independent, creator-driven art comics that tell tedious stories with uninspired art. Talking this way doesn’t do much good for anyone who wishes to take comics seriously (another class distinction!). But that doesn’t stop fans, critics, and even industry professionals from ensconcing themselves in one camp or the other. I’m certainly not immune – I strive to be honest with my reading habits and taste in this column, and even a casual browse through each entry reveals that I read a lot of superhero comics every month. I’m not at all embarrassed or ashamed to enjoy superhero comics, but I acknowledge that my choice in reading (and, more importantly, buying) habits says something about what I value.
This division is a self-inflicted wound, and I didn’t think there was much to be done about it until I read Ted McKeever’s Mondo #1. The first of a three-part mini-series published by Image Comics, Mondo #1 is an oversized issue both in page count (40 versus the typical 20) and size (the pages are an inch wider than the standard format), and features a cardstock cover. In presentation it more closely resembles the heft and substance of the European album format, but priced and distributed like a typical issue of a monthly book (in fact, $5 for 40 pages is a better deal than the usual $3 or $4 for 20 pages.) I knew nothing about Mondo before I saw it on the shelf, and picked it up solely because of it stood out on the shelf, but didn’t seem out of place among other titles.
The story and art between the covers lives up to the promise of the format – Mondo was easily the best-looking book I read in February, if not the year so far (and probably 2011 as well). McKeever draws with an intense flexibility – it moves from scratchy and sketchy to intensely specific and detailed, sometimes in the same panel. “Cartoony” is an apt description of his art, but his line isn’t clean and elegant like Darwyn Cooke’s, or Cliff Chiang’s, or other artists who get categorized in the same way. One point of comparison would be Kevin Eastman and the early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, which had the same darkness and rich detail; another is “Liquid Television”, MTV’s animation anthology from the 90s that featured similarly intense, bizarre worlds and loose caricatures (and it’s worth pointing out that several “Liquid Television” segments were derived from the indie comics scene).
And like those “Liquid Television” shorts, Mondo is aggressively bleak, and a bit juvenile. The story follows Catfish Mandu, a meek, harried employee of a nightmarish chicken processing facility, who only communicates through chicken-like clucking. He’s haunted by visions of a demonic chicken, and when one of those visions leads to an accident at the plant he is transformed into a muscled, violent monstrosity, venting his rage at his tormentors by mutilating them. There’s also a subplot about developments on Venice Beach, and one featuring a psychotic young woman named Kitten Kaboodle, but they’re still just surrealistic tangents at this point.
Juvenile doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though, particularly when it’s executed this well. Take the introduction of Kitten Kaboodle – when harassed by a lecherous gas station attendant, she flips and rips his arm off at the elbow. It’s a grotesque moment of ultraviolence, but the gore is expressive, and is reflected in the lettering of the attendant’s scream. And the action is made more effective by the transition from the previous panel, a staggeringly detailed close-up of Kitten’s face, with pursed lips, jagged bangs, and giant, terrifying owl eyes prefiguring the violence of the next page.
I’m not naïve enough to think that Mondo is the model for the future of the medium – not every mainstream superhero comic will look this good, and I don’t expect Chris Ware to begin publishing monthly issues anytime soon. And I don’t know how other readers reacted to it – be they dedicated genre fans, “literary” readers, or those who seek out and enjoy comics of all stripes. But Mondo #1 has the potential to change a reader’s mind, no matter how it’s set, and encourage experimentation in taste. And if risk and experimentation become the norm, for readers and creators alike, then the comics community will be a lot healthier in the years to come.
Peter Panzerfaust #1
Continuing a month of solid debuts for Image Comics is Peter Panzerfaust #1, by writer Kurtis Wiebe and artist Tyler Jenkins. The two previous collaborated on Snow Angel, which recently appearedin short story format in a few issues of Dark Horse Presents, and which I rather enjoyed (though I admit I haven’t read the graphic novel.) Wiebe also wrote The Intrepids, which I felt didn’t quite live up to its clever premise. That’s certainly not the case with Panzerfaust – a re-telling of “Peter Pan” set in Calais during World War II could very easily become precious and enamored with it’s own conceit, but Wiebe and Jenkins manage to keep the issue breezy and exciting. Wiebe in particularly is coy with the magical element of the story, leaving it up to the reader to determine whether or not the narrator is simply embellishing an ordinary man’s actions. And Jenkins figure work is limber, just expressive enough to convey the unpredictability of the situation, but still grounded in the reality of the war. Like Snow Angel the whole issue feels minimal, though it’s packed with big moments and features steady narration. If subsequent issues can strike the same balance, then this could fast become my favorite monthly title.
And while we’re visiting Image’s February releases, we should bit farewell to Severed, which concludes with issue seven. When I first wrote about Severed back in August I noted how the first issue was a bit slow, and that co-writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft seemed more interested in creeping up on the reader than in shocking them outright. Having come to the final issue, though, there is no more creeping, no more teasing, just outright horror. Jack’s confrontation with “Fisher” in the basement of the derelict house is suitably gory, and artist Attila Futaki uses light and shadow to great effect, emphasizing Fisher’s monstrousness and Jack’s desperation. I do think the writers let Jack get away with a few too many “badass” moments, considering how young and naïve they’d made him out to be in previous issues, but it’s a minor complaint. And the final scene is chilling, suggesting (similarly to how Snyder ended his celebrated Detective Comics run) that awful things don’t go away, even when the good guy thinks he’s won.
Captain Atom #6
Regular readers of this column will recall that I’ve had a troubled relationship with Captain Atom, ever since the title launched in September with the rest of DC’s New 52. Freddie Williams II’s art has been gorgeous throughout, and I’ve sung colorist Jose Villarubia’s praises several times, as I think the otherworldly, luminous blue of Captain Atom’s body juxtaposed with the comparatively grim surroundings is a large part of the book’s appeal. But J.T. Krul’s scripts have been uneven, and mostly somewhat clunky, until this month’s issue six. Krul uses the hero’s infinite power to explore his capacity for empathy, as he taps into the mind of the mutated lab rat that’s taking over an entire city. And rather than flinch from that feeling, or have the hero justify his actions, Krul instead lets Captain Atom feel remorse and regret for what he has to do, and learns a lesson about being alone in the world. It’s a resigned, unexpectedly melancholy ending for a story arc that I’ve nearly dropped three or four times. As long as Krul continues to plumb the character’s emotional core, developing an irregular concept of heroism, I’ll be reading.
I haven’t written much about Animal Man since the relaunch, but it’s been a solid, compelling read from the first issue onward. Writer Jeff Lemire treats every member of the Baker family with equal dignity and concern, and uses them as mechanisms in the plot in such a way that Animal Man himself often feels like a bit player in his own book. It’s a refreshing take on the superhero dynamic, and one of a handful of New 52 titles that have lived up to the promise of a strong first issue. With issue six Lemire takes a break from the main story to follow-up on a bit of backstory from the first issue, namely Buddy’s short-lived film career. The issue is essentially the one movie he made, a gritty superhero drama called Tights in which Buddy plays Chas Grant, a washed up hero formerly known as The Red Thunder. Artist John Paul Leon fills in for series regular Travel Foreman, and the contrast between Leon’s thick, heavy line and Foreman’s lighter, sketchier approach heightens the meta-reality of the “movie”, as do the occasional on-panel graphics that tell us these scenes are taking place on someone’s screen (in the final three pages, penciled by Foreman, it’s revealed that Buddy’s son Cliff was watching it on his iPhone, which runs out of battery before the movie is over.) On one level it’s a fun story, but on a deeper level it’s the story of the divorced, out-of-touch Chas who clings to his superhero identity, a neurosis which defines Buddy by comparison, and lets us to better appreciate his devotion to his own family and reticence to be a superhero full-time.
Demo collaborators Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan join forces again with this month’s Conan the Barbarian #1 from Dark Horse Comics. Wood, who is currently wrapping up his long-running Viking series Northlanders with Vertigo, would seem a natural fit for the character, but would seem a bit of a wild card. Her expressive cartooning is perfectly suited to contained, personal dramas, but wouldn’t be my first thought for a barbarian adventure tale. However, it’s that atypical take on Conan that makes this issue so successful – this is a younger version of the character, befitting the leaner, kinetic approach Cloonan brings to the visuals. Wood is in fine form, too, writing a brash, headstrong Conan and making effective use of a dream sequence. While not a mind-blowing, or shocking issue, Conan the Barbarian #1 is nevertheless a strong, new-reader friendly portal to an iconic character.
Adventure Time #1
I picked up Adventure Time #1 because I love the Cartoon Network show, and because it’s written by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics fame and drawn by Boston-area artists Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. And while it doesn’t quite avoid the typical pitfalls of comic adaptations of animated programs – the dialogue doesn’t quite match the rhythm of the voice acting, and the rapidity of the jokes doesn’t always translate to the page – it’s a fun read nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed the first page, which uses a nine panel grid for a clever joke about the show’s opening credits that establishes the tone, setting, and characters of the story in elegant gesture. Paroline and Lamb’s art hews close to the look of the show, but it still feels expressive and free, and the backgrounds are packed with visual gags. This probably won’t be a monthly read for me, but with a slate of heavy-hitting indie creators doing backup stories it’ll definitely be a title to revisit whenever I need a jolt of sugary fun.
Action Comics #6 is a classic Grant Morrison mind-bender, complete with time travel and goofy sci-fi death trap, that’s very unlike the relatively straightforward stories he’s been telling so far with this title.
Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray bring the first major arc of All-Star Western to a close with issue six, as series artist Moritat returns to top form after a few issues that felt a bit lacking.
Batman escapes from the Court of Owls’ maze in Batman #6, as we knew he would, but this is far from a typical “good guy defeats bad guy” issue – in fact, Batman’s escape looks more like a retreat, and sets up this summer’s big Bat-crossover event.
I wasn’t a die-hard fan of “Batman Beyond” when it aired in the late 90s, but I picked up Batman Beyond Unlimited #1 because it features excellent art from Norm Breyfogle, one of only a few iconic Bat-artists of the 90s, and I like to see industry vets getting work from major publishers.
Although I’m enjoying the story of Damian’s dalliance with his dark side in Batman and Robin #6, it’s starting to feel a bit labored – hopefully writer Peter J. Tomasi will bring it to an end next month, and subsequent arcs won’t be quite so drawn out.
Given the thankless task of following the brilliant J.H. Williams III on art duties, Amy Reeder more than proves her mettle with Batwoman #6, with a clean, kinetic line and layouts that are possibly more readable (if a bit less elegant) than her predecessor’s.
Writer Mike Costa seems to be hitting his stride with Blackhawks #6, which makes it’s quick cancellation (with April’s issue eight) even more of a bummer.
The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #2 is even weirder and more satisfying than the first issue, parodying old EC anthology horror titles with three gruesome, ironic tales, one of which features a man who vomits a bunch of hair.
Judd Winick’s script gets a little melodramatic towards the end of Catwoman #6, but regardless I like how the conclusion of this arc echoes the infamous first issue, and brings some resolution to story threads that could’ve just as easily been dropped.
Daredevil #9 sends the blind hero underground on an Orphean journey to stop a grave-robbing ring run by the Mole Man, and ends with a disturbing sequence that’s also quite poignant.
After several months away I decided to check in on Dark Horse Presents with issue eight, in larger part for the preview of Brian Wood’s new series, The Massive, which is compelling but mostly a tease. The rest of the issue is uneven, a few really good stories and several that were terrible, particularly “The Once and Future Tarzan” by Alan Gordon and Thomas Yeates.
DC Universe Presents #6 is a mess from beginning to end – a new story arc featuring a re-imagined Challengers of the Unknown drawn by Jerry Ordway should be entertaining at the least, but the script, by Ordway and DC co-publisher Dan DiDio is over complicated and hacky.
DeadpoolMAX II #5 had none of the wit or interesting storytelling of the past year and half worth of this series (and its predecessor) – with the title’s final issue coming next month it feels like writer David Lapham is rushing to get all the pieces in place so the finale isn’t a cop out.
Following last month’s tour of individual character moments, Demon Knights #6 coalesces all of those stories as the broken heroes prepare for a final stand against the invasion force and make a few last ditch plans that give this title some needed momentum.
I liked the first issue of Fatalebut it felt a bit rote, as if something was missing – issue two clears all of that up, as writer Ed Brubaker introduces the occult/horror elements to the story and reveals a bit more of how this fictional world works.
Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato play with time and perspective in The Flash #6, and introduce iconic Flash villain Captain Cold to the new DCU – but it’s to their credit that the budding love triangle between Barry, Patty, and Iris is the most exciting aspect of the issue.
I almost left Green Lantern #6 on the shelf, and clearly should have – I’m a fan of artist Mike Choi but his work here is far from his best, and Geoff Johns’s script seems to be recycling concepts from the first issue of the relaunch. Dropped.
Moving on from the crossover-origin event of the past two months, both Incorruptible #27 and Irredeemable #34 move forward into grim territory, with Lt. Armadale making a drastic decision about his future in Incorruptible, and a few established characters die in Irredeemable.
There are some nice moments in Justice League #6, but nothing happened in this entire story arc that couldn’t have been handled in a single issue, with far more impact and consequence.
Javier Pullido is a welcome addition to The Shade, taking over art duties with issue five and bringing a thin, elegant line that suits the vampire-pirate action and the Barcelona backdrop of this arc.
With Spaceman #4 writer Brian Azzarello offers the first hints that whatever happened to Orson on Mars might be his fault, which makes his concern for and rescue of Tara more complicated, but also more touching.
The games and puzzle theme of the mystery in Steed and Mrs. Peel #2 is a Morrison touchstone, but the story is dull and nowhere near the writer’s better work so I won’t be returning next month.
Swamp Thing #6 gets quite horrific after last month’s breather, as Abby is taken over by the Rot and turned into a horrible fleshy cocoon thing, rendered exquisitely by fill-in artist Marco Rudy.
Paul Cornell exits Stormwatch with issue six, establishing a new status quo for upcoming writers (Paul Jenkins for two issues, then Peter Milligan) to play with, but having finished the first story arc I think this title will be a month-to-month decision for me.
Another member of the team meets his inevitable, heroic death in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4, and indie comics legend Sam Kieth pencils a chilling flashback sequence that explains the stakes of the war between humans and Subterraneans.
Tony Akins’s pencils in Wonder Woman #6 obscure a crucial plot point and make the ending a bit difficult to decipher, but the issue overall is quite satisfying as Wonder Woman manipulates Hades and Poseidon, and makes a bold stand against Hera.
Looking Ahead to March
The Manhattan Projects #1 from Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra, Brian K. Vaughan joins Fiona Staples on Saga, and Paul Cornell launches his X-Files meets West Wing Vertigo title, Saucer Country.