Long-delayed “Atheist” #3 is worth that wait

By Mark Wheaton

 “All systems reflect information the way an object reflects light.  I see this information bloom in front of me – a fractal flower of probability.”

It is hard not to feel for the Asimov fans who waited thirty years between the publication of the first three Foundation novels and the much-belated fourth book, Foundation’s Edge which worked to tie up (but, in effect, expanded) the Foundation universe which then carried on for another sequel and a couple of prequels.  Waiting for something truly compelling is hard to do, the wait between – say – issues #2 and #3 of Ministry of Space or #5 and #6 of Ocean, both from the occasional George-Jones-of-comics, Warren Ellis were interminable, but not altogether uncommon in the world of comics.

That’s been the case, thus far, with Phil Hester’s brilliant, albeit perennially tardy The Atheist.

With a single bit of dialogue from Antoine Sharpe, the titular “atheist” who is actually somewhat autistic in a way that allows him to see the universe with telepathic-type abilities, you can catch up with what’s happening in the somewhat apocalyptic plot currently besieging the title.

“My left (hand) represents my original hypothesis: this is a new pandemic of contagious mental illness that compels its victims to engage in nearly suicidally intense hedonism.  My right represents Dr. Barrow’s fantasy that these pleasure zombies are actually healthy people who have been forcibly possessed by the dead.”

And there you go.  When bad, supernatural mania starts happening, it’s either one or the other.

Something terrible is afoot in North America, illustrated in the first page by a man having spikes nailed in his forehead (“Do it, man.  Before this body croaks!” he says) before going into a club and seeing the kind of suicidal hedonism Sharpe speaks of is rampant within.  It turns out that Antoine’s right-handed theory is proved correct in issue #3 leading to a truly shocking conclusion.  The dead are returning to the earth and possessing the living. 

So what do they want?  Winnipeg.  They will live there and peaceably co-exist with humankind – various spirits of the long dead all possessed with the souls of those long-dead.  Probably the most shocking and darkly humorous piece of the story comes from the revelation of just who is leading this charge back into the mortal plain.

Antoine Sharpe is a fascinating lead character whose full range of powers is only slowly being revealed.  Could he really defeat the spirits with great ease if he was killed on earth?  Will he capitulate to the baddies if they keep possessing and killing his family members?  And what the hell kind of weapon is he referring to at the end of the issue that might work against the armies of the dead?

Phil Hester proves again and again that he’s one of the best science fiction writers around today with this title.  Here’s hoping The Atheist just doesn’t take thirty years to reveal all its compelling secrets.

(On a side note, if The Atheist is your thing, you might pick up the brilliant new novel The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier).

RATING:

Annihilation Prologue delivers much-needed big space action

By Graig Kent

 This is what comics were meant for, grand-scale intergalactic warfare stories.  There was a time where doing this kind of thing on TV or in movies was completely cost prohibitive, and it always seemed odd to me that rarely did comics step up to the plate and provide massive space operas.  For years, Hollywood has slowly been getting these non-Earth centric sci-fi action/dramas right, from Babylon 5 to the Clone Wars cartoon, to, most recently, Battlestar Galactica.  While Annihilation isn’t Battlestar Galactica, it’s certainly an improvement upon the weak and convoluted Rann-Thanagar War that got botched over at DC, with more than a little of the “wow” factor to boot.

In Marvel’s Annihilation Prologue a rather lame-o villain of past is stepping up as a galaxy-wide threat.  The insectoid alien Annihilus is on the warpath, destroying all planetary systems that get in his way.  His goal: the secret to eternal life.  His army consists of countless insect-like cousins, able to swarm a planet and rapidly decimate it.  Hive mentality negates caution, and losses rarely factor into it.  Their first target is the Crunch Energy Cascade, a prison/generation station that powers 200 civilizations across the galaxy.  Next they come across the home world of the NovaCorps, an intergalactic policing agency.  Despite their skill and strength, the Novi are completely outclassed and outnumbered by their attackers.  Battle is fierce but the war isn’t going to end that quickly.  The universe begins to tremble as word of the attacks spread… the Skrulls, the Kree, former heralds of Galactus and warriors from various civilizations all underestimate the danger.

Annihilation seems to be taking a lift from DC’s Infinite Crisis, at least structurally, starting with an extra-sized issue setting all the pins and players up, and from here splintering off into four separate mini-series, before returning to the event proper.  The only difference is, when this divides into its four minis, the scale is going to be much smaller and more manageable since each mini isn’t dealing with completely separate story concept.  As well, it seems like this is spearheaded by a single writer, Keith Giffen, and utilizing characters who are otherwise just minor players in the Marvel Universe, so there’s a very limited cross-over potential here. 

The prologue is an exciting set-up, bringing all the major players in nicely.  Drax, Thanos, Nova, Ronan, Super-skrull, Silver Surfer… they’re all here.  If you’re unfamiliar with any of them, the 48-page ad-free book provides profile pages at the end to give you any and all the background you’ll really need, as well as hints as to where the story is heading.


Giffen’s writing is in peak form, able to exposit naturally, and even inject some of his patented wit into the banter without it feeling out of place.  Art chores are handled this issue primarily by Scott Kolins, and while a capable artist, I would have preferred someone else inking his work.  On his own inks, Kolins seems to use the same thickness of line for everything, giving each page and panel a flat look, with all the depth handled by colorist June Chung.   Overall, though, the book works as a fantastic set-up for a lot of death and destruction in space… and really, who doesn’t want more of that?

RATING:

I’ll Show You Mine If You’ll Show Me Yours: Superman/Shazam #4

by Elgin Carver

 At an astrophysics conference, a speaker said that "there are questions we cannot answer." The astronomer Fred Hoyle whispered to the physicist Philip Morrison that the answers are not important, the questions are; that the scientist who asks the right question reconnoiters a new patch of the unknown, and may, with luck, bring it within the constricted but expanding boundaries of the known.

Some characters have been with us so long, are so much a part of the cultural tapestry, that we no longer look at them introspectively. We accept that this is the way they are, have been, and will be. Then someone  takes a moment to actually analyze them, looks deeply at their background and motivations, and asks a few simple questions. Suddenly we become aware that herein is a persona  we actually  didn’t fully understand or appreciate. This certainly happened with The Dark Knight where one of the most easily recognizable comic characters became something more; different. The Watchmen and Miracleman did the same for the entire oeuvre.

In this short story arc, Judd Winick takes a reflective look at Shazam (the original Captain Marvel) and out of necessity, Superman, upon their first meeting. Captain Marvel is the super-powered form of a young orphan, not a separate persona. What would that mean? How would such a child react? The story is told in a touching manner with graceful artwork colored about as well as this printed form allows. The Superman/Shazam: First Thunder series is eye-opening, graceful in its approach, affectionate in its outlook, professional in its delivery, and enjoyable to read. I wish the covers were a little more iconic but that is nitpicking. Each week we go to the bookstore to gather up a stack of comics. This is a perfect example of why we do it.

RATING:

Infinite Crisis Secret Files & Origins 2006: bad title, good book

By Graig Kent

 I’m wondering how many people have passed on this book thinking it’s just another weak entry into DC’s awkward series of Secret Files & Origins books.  If anyone has picked one up before, they know the format, which is typically a weak filler story or two backed up by a bunch of soon-out-of-date Who’s Who-style pages.  Usually oversized and overpriced, they’re generally, a waste of money… but not this time.

In the Infinite Crisis SF&O, the original Crisis on Infinite Earths writer Marv Wolfman takes the reigns and tells the story of what’s gone on in that pocket dimension in the intervening years since the first Crisis and the latest.  It’s a very humble character piece (as it should be considering there are only four characters involved) divided into three chapters, one told from Alexander Luthor’s perspective, one from Superboy Prime’s and one from Earth 2 Superman’s, although each chapter progresses the story instead of retelling it from a different view.  Wolfman occasionally loses track of who’s narrating the chapter, and in one instance awkwardly descends into thought balloon territory.  These inconsistencies that are minor naggings, but not enough to lose the book’s effect.

Wolfman boldly shows Superboy Prime’s descent into madness, a facet much needed to explain his actions in the core Infinite Crisis books.  At the same time he also writes Alex Luthor like a Luthor should be written, somewhat cold, calculating, and a little bit angry.  Compared to Geoff John’s maniacal Luthor in the core mini, he’s almost sympathetic here, if clouded by delusion.  And then there’s Superman and Lois.  She’s dying, and he can’t save her, and she’s the only thing that he’s alive for.  The question has been asked before, “what’s a world without Superman”, while here it’s asked “what’s Superman without Lois”.  For a silly comic, it’s actually quite touching.

The art is varied, with layouts provided by Dan Jurgens (no, the fact that Jurgens was responsible for the “Crisis fix” Zero Hour isn’t lost on me, nor DC for that matter), with finishes on the first chapter provided by Jerry Ordway, Cam Smith with Art Thibert on the second, and Nelson on the third.  Ordway is a master, and his Alex Luthor looks like a derivative of the traditional Lex, his Superman like an elder Superman, and his Superboy a youthful version thereof.  Smith on the other hand wields a clunky stroke, with seemingly no emphasis put on Jurgen’s layouts.  Nelson, on the other hand, does a lot of scratching and cross-hatching and makes things look pretty.

The book runs 50 pages (not including the ads), and only 5 of those are used up for “Secret Files & Origins”.  I’m not sure if this is going to sell well because of the Infinite Crisis tie-in or poorly because of the “SF&O” aspect.  As a tie-in to the big event, it’s one of the better ones.

RATING:

Showcase Presents: Superman Family Volume 1

(DC Comics)

by Elgin Carver

 Comics used to cost a dime and now you seldom find one for less than two dollars, often three, and, not uncommonly, for five. This, by my rough and unreliable calculation, is an increase of from two to five THOUSAND percent. I am fairly sure the average income has not increased a comparable percentage over that same time frame. I do believe the quality is better, but is it that much better? The answer for many is no. Many top line comics today sell at numbers far lower than what was once a reason for discontinuing the title, yet they are considered successful.  The number of customers drop every year even though the population increases.  Clearly fewer people consider the amount of entertainment contained in a comic  justifies the price. This is a real and present danger to our favorite literature. At least one of the major lines has admitted that the financial success of their movies, toy lines, and adjacent materials are how they actually make money, and consider the comics a loss-leader; an item on which they lose money but use to attract customers to their profitable products. What happens when their money makers cease to deliver income?

The low price of comics in the 60’s was the reason they were taken off newsstands and out of drugstores. The gradual loss of these outlets led to the creation of comic shops. Distribution narrowed, prices soared, and readership dwindled. I believe the readership can be turned around by delivering products that bookstores and newsstands will find attractive. The growing popularity of graphic novels in stores like Barnes and Noble and its kin demonstrates the possibilities. Another great possibilities are the DC Showcase volumes and the Marvel Essential titles.

This month we are treated to volume one of the Superman Family books, a title that takes in the peripheral characters from Superman’s monthly books who also had their own titles. This phone book sized volume has the first 22 issues of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, Showcase # 9 which was Lois Lane ‘s first solo book, and her first solo story from Superman # 28. Over 500 pages for less than $17.  True it is in black and white, and it is on newsprint rather than that expensive glossy paper (which I hate anyway). It is also true that the writing may leave something to be desired compared to some of today’s writing. Jimmy gets into some situation over his head and Superman saves him. This is indeed most of the stories. But how much variety do most of todays titles contain? Even my favorite books become monotonous from time to time, hence my exploration of titles I had not previously read.

It’s nice to get a hunk of material I could otherwise not pick up. It’s nice to get a run of books from the past. It’s nice to get to discover what used to be and see how things have changed. And, it’s nice to get this for an amount of money that does not leave me feeling cheated.  I like this book and the whole line. I can say that about the Marvel Essential titles as well. I plan to buy each and every one that comes out for the reasons stated and to encourage their continuation. I pray they will dip into even older works, Golden Age stuff I will otherwise never have an opportunity to enjoy.My hope is that they will expand into titles not yet released. Imagine getting 500 pages of your favorite character in brand new stories. Then we would be getting somewhere.

RATING:  3 out of 5 Vikings

 The Walking Dead #26 (Image) – The slow-burning Walking Dead kicks up a notch this month following the helicopter sighting at the end of #25 as said helicopter now crashes into the woods beyond the prison and Rick heads out with a small team in body armor to look for survivors.  While yes, there’s some zombie-killing action in this issue (and, interestingly enough, the very pregnant Lori gets propositioned for marriage by Carol, who suggests a sort of Big Love-vision of the future where the two share Rick and raise their kids together), the story is still very much a soap opera with Michonne trying to get Rick to make up with Tyreese, Rick complaining, kids accepting their new parents, and so forth.  Like Lost, Walking Dead feels like it is now almost completely focused on the characters’ inter-personal conflicts rather than a post-apocalyptic world haunted by zombies, which is fine, but it may soon lose its appeal for those seeking a monthly horror fix. – Mark

RATING:  3 out of 5 Vikings

 Painkiller Jane #1 (Dynamite) – A woman wakes up, covered in blood, in a hospital… and takes a swig of Jack. She’s not alright but she is OK. She’s Painkiller Jane. One in the chamber, levels the gun to mouth. She’s not alright but God willing, she won’t be OK. She is Painkiller Jane. Her day starts in a blood soaked bed, winds up in a billionaire’s dungeon with two crooked cops lying dead at her feet. Later, another swig of Jack and Jane knows that the billionaire’s friends will want all loose ends, with Jane being the biggest, taken care of. Five more go in the chamber and this time, none of them have her name on them. It’s a new day and she’s not alright but she has a new reason to live: someone else has to die. Writer Jimmy Palmiotti (Jonah Hex) levels Painkiller Jane #1 right between your eyes and brings along former Legion of Super-Heroes artist Lee Moder to finish the job. Painkiller Jane #1 is one hell of a good way to spend $2.99. – Devon

RATING:

 Hatter M #2 (Image) – As fractured fairy tales go, Hatter M feels a bit Anne Rice and a little Nightwatch, but really serves to make the reader want to read the forthcoming novel, The Looking Glass Wars from author Frank Beddor in its entirety rather than continue with the watered-down comic adventures of the assassin inspired by Carroll’s Mad Hatter.  Perhaps it’s Ben Templesmith’s art that confuses an already confusing tale, but frankly, the story of a Queen’s bodyguard emerging from Wonderland to rescue “Princess Alyss” should be better than this.  So far, the story is living in a Jenny Finn-world without the darkness or horror that made that such an interesting story – replacing it only with an ongoing chase where the Hatter tries to rescue a girl, though we’re given (purposefully) very little clues as to why.  In some cases, this can make for a more interesting, more mysterious narrative.  Here, it just feels slight.  Imagine Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere with 90% less detail/imagination and that, thus far, is Hatter M. – Mark

RATING:

 Flaming Carrot Comics Photo Comic Special #1 (Dark Horse) – Seriously and honestly, this is one buttplug-pug-ugly comic.  Really, it’s a photo comic featuring people in gaudy costumes enhanced with 1997-style Photoshop effects, how pretty could one expect it to be?  But don’t let the fumetti stop you, because as cornball as it looks, the even more cornball events of the book make it worth reading.  Hey, it is the Flaming Carrot after all.  The story takes place at a comic convention where an inept troupe of wannabe superheroes was hired for security detail.  When all of the con-goers pockets disappear (!) the Flaming Carrot joins in the hunt.  As they stroll through the con, they encounter an alien that looks like a testicle, a couple of cosplay babes, Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, a shoe shine boy, and even Jim Steranko (when you have a book which exclaims “OH NO!  They’re with Jim Steranko… We’re ****ed”, well, that’s just good fun).  Everything you’d want out of a Flaming Carrot comic is here, but in photomanipulated form.  Ugly?  Yes.  Fun?  Hell yes!  -Graig-

RATING:

 DMZ #5 (DC – Vertigo) – After last month’s truly great issue of DMZ, the series takes a little breather as Matt gets his place broken into and his press jacket and badge stolen.  We get a little tour of Manhattan as he simply chases the thief across town, getting his ass kicked by various residents and then setting off a number of anti-personnel tripwires that nuke out half a block.  If you haven’t been acquainted with the series before, it gives you a little tour of the area and what’s at stake for Matt livin’-la-vida-Plissken, but it’s not an issue that really advances the plot any.  Oh, well. – Mark

RATING:

So ends this accounting of valiant warriors and high adventure! Return next week to honor still more comics. Praise Odin. 

To discuss this column and all things Nordic, or if you have a comic you want to submit for review, contact Sean at scfahey@yahoo.com.