Since it’s the Halloween season, each edition of Thor’s Comic Column in October will feature at least one comic with a horror theme.  Enjoy!

First Look: Niles Gives Good Zombie in “Batman: Gotham County Line

By Russell Paulette

 I hope the headline didn’t spoil the first issue ending, here—but let’s be honest.  You heard Steve Niles, of “30 Days of Night and every other vampire and zombie comic in existence in the last three years” fame, was writing a Batman comic called Gotham County Line set in the ‘burbs, and it almost wrote itself, right?  He goes out to investigate some crime, and there’s frickin’ zombies everywhere.  Sure, there might have been some variation—take out the word “zombie” and replace it with “vampire” or any other supernatural creature your little heart desires (my personal favorite is “knife-weilding schoolgirl with a possessed incisor”) and the result’s likely the same as reading the actual book.

Only, it’s quite good.  Yeah, that’s the difference.

One reason it’s better than any expectations is found in Niles’ writing.  I’ve often undersold him a little in my head—I liked 30 Days of Night well enough but, and let’s be honest here, it was really just a kick-ass hook with an okay script.  Since then, I’ve drifted to and from his work with nothing really compelling me to study it.  So, I’m a Batman geek—that certainly helps in this case. 

Story wise, it is like I summarized above.  A retired Jim Gordon convinces Batman to rough-it in the Gotham suburbs, since there’s a rash of serial-killings going on out there.  The bulk of this first issue is Batman swiftly solving the crimes while still trying to give the County Bumpkin…er, Sheriffs their due respect.  That zombie stuff just comes in during the last few pages, but the first-person narration from Batman presages all of it, so it’s not all that big of a deal.  The tone Niles takes, particularly in that narration and during the investigation, is perfectly on-point with Batman, and feels fresh and carefully considered.  Nothing else, I have to give him credit for not feeding us those b.s. soliloquies about how “criminals are scum, blah blah blah” that most Bat-writers feel compelled to trot out. Instead, just simple, straightforward pulp-noir narration and for that, I salute you, Sir Niles.

Not to be outdone by his writer, artist Scott Hampton (joined by colorist Jose Villarrubia) turns out some excellent rendering, particularly for the fact that he’s known as a painter.  Refusing to be chumped by the brush, Hampton works the pen and nib effectively but, most importantly, graphically as his characters and linework are bold, striking and adorned with just the right kind of texture and grit.  His storytelling is clear and readable, and he handles the quiet calm of the investigation scenes just as well as the kinetic, wild energy of the fight scenes.  Most importantly, however, is the fact that he draws Batman flying around the suburbs in a jetpack.

That’s right—rather than have Batman tool around in a conspicuous Batmobile, Niles and Hampton embrace the sublime and let it act out as the ridiculous, and they choose to have him fly from location to location in a jetpack. Reading through this first issue, there was something so ridiculously full of brash bravado, that I couldn’t help but smile and accept it all.  He even has a special cape with a special switch so it doesn’t get burned by the exhaust fumes—jetpack, people!  Jetpack.

If that’s not enough to compel you to read the book, rest assured there’s a nice tooth to the story,  so I’ll definitely be back for a second helping.



The Giffen drops even more entertaining goodness with “Drax the Destroyer”

By Graig Kent

 At this stage I’m ready to declare 2005 the year of the Giffen, and profess my undying love and gratitude to this man who brings me so much joy.  If you’ve been reading this column regularly, or even sporadically, you’ve no doubt come across one of my plentiful reviews of Keith Giffens’ works for DC (Justice League Classified), Marvel (The Defenders), Boom Studios (Hero Squared) and Image (Common Foe).  Each of them have failed to disappoint, big-time, so you’d think the guy was due for a stunning a cataclysmic bomb.  Well, Drax The Destroyer isn’t it.

Here’s the thing about Giffen, he’s not just the “Bwahaha” guy.  Yes, he likes doing “the funny”.  Just look at his repertoire of Ambush Bug, The Heckler and Trencher, amongst others, and you can tell the man likes to be goofy, but he’s also a craftsman at character building and establishing relationship dynamics in his books, this is how he succeeded with Justice League, Legion of Super Heroes, and even Lobo.  He makes you give a damn about the people he writes about, and he does interesting things with them.  Drax is yet another fine example.

I grew up a DC Comics boy, I have no idea who the hell Drax is, or what his history is all about.  But it doesn’t matter, because this first issue gives you all you need to know.  Drax is a bio-engineered weapon, making him near-indestructible and super strong, but he’s also kind of dense.  I get the sense that he’s a reverse-Hulk in a way, in that the madder he gets, the smarter he becomes.  His legendary status as a warrior makes him a constant target for aggression, thus marking him an outcast.

The set-up for the story is simple enough, it’s like in the movies when the prisoners’ bus has engine trouble (except in this case is a prison transport spaceship), breaking down in the middle of nowhere (here, the ship crashes into the Earth) and a few prisoners (nasty aliens) make a break for the small town nearby, you just know that one of these prisoners (Drax) isn’t going to be as bad as the others, and that one prisoner will befriend the townsfolk (a smartass pre-teen girl) and help stop the really bad guys (twin thugs The Blood Brothers; and a changeling Skrull with evil plans on his brain).

Giffen quickly establishes his characters and their dynamic, and uses the familiar scenario to base what’s sure to be a highly entertaining mini-series.  There are injections of humor in Drax, but it’s not the over-the-top silliness some associate with him (that’s as much JM DeMattis as it is Giffen) – it’s a more grounded funny, character oriented and dialogue centric… Whedon-esque, if you please.  And I like the touch of one alien calling this Marvel Earth a “planet full’a genetic time bombs just waitin’ t’ go off.”  Earth has a frightening reputation in the galaxy, that’s pretty funny.  

The art by Mitch Breitweiser is superfine, similar in execution as Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates work.   The book reads good, the book looks good, and next issue: Thanos!  I’m in!


Jones and Oliver Stalk the Streets in “Vigilante”

By Russell Paulette

 Right off the bat, I’m going to say that I have no reference point for the old character, so “classic fan-favorite” certainly doesn’t apply to this fan.  From what I’ve gathered online and in other places, Vigilante was another one of those early-80s creations attempting to achieve a gritty-reality with a no-holds barred super-hero who wasn’t afraid of dispensing the ultimate justice the way he saw fit.  Judge, jury, blah blah blah—you get the picture.  With this latest revamp, in the form of a six-issue mini-series from writer Bruce “I screwed the pooch on The Hulk” Jones and Ben “nobody bought my Authority hardcover” Oliver, DC seems to be embracing the idea that this guy is probably just an effed-up serial killer who dresses in spandex because, well, he lives in Metropolis and that’s what you’d do to legitimize yourself.

Rather than sinking us into the mind of a deranged killer, Jones takes a different tack—one you might expect from one of those fall thrillers starring Morgan Freeman and Angelina Joile.  He focuses on the serial-killer angle of the setup, introducing us to a host of characters, all of whom are involved in the Vigilante’s killings.  One’s a psychologist to the victims, one’s a consultant to the police, one’s a photographer for the newspaper, one’s the detective handling the case.  The central questions of the first issue then are introduced as a) is there a serial killer (it’s a mini with a costume as the focus, so yes), and b) who is the killer?  Cleverly, the creators shroud the faces of each of the central characters in heavy shadow at some significant point throughout the comic, subtly suggesting their complicity in the events going on.

Admittedly, Jones has me hooked with the first issue.  His script shows a robust readiness to hit the right notes that one expects from the generic requirements.  Though not airtight, the story seems well constructed and considered—a change from the sprawling mess that was his last effort at Marvel—as each detail feels important enough to ponder and remember.  The characters are interesting enough—again, fulfilling the generic requirements but not going much further—and the dialogue is on par with what you’d expect.  Simply put, it’s not an amazing script, but it’s a yeoman’s job.

Artwise, Ben Oliver delivers a fantastically stripped, reductive style that is open and inviting.  It’s terribly clean linework that delivers on the promise of the story, offering unique, differentiated characters.  His acting and expression is important to the story, since it’s focused largely on investigation and vocal posturing, but his storytelling and atmosphere provide the right kind of tone for the book.  Overall, his work is the main attraction for me—he amplifies Jones’s script where it needs it, compliments it where appropriate, and most importantly serves the story in an even-handed way.

Overall, it was a good first issue—it got the job done, and had some fun while doing it.  It’s not going to change the face of comics, but if you’ve a jones for a procedural that involves a smidgen of spandex, you’d do worse than checking this out. 



“Mister Miracle” will make your head spin as New Gods become new New Gods

by Graig Kent

 At this stage in the game, there’s so much more going on in Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle than just what’s actually going on in Mister Miracle.  We’re more than half-way through the seven mini-series’ of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers project, two of them fully wrapped up with rather unsatisfying endings, and a big question mark still looming about what this whole thing is really leading towards.  Clues and details permeate each book – some obvious, some obtuse –making a satisfyingly rich structure and great repeated reading, but also challenging light reading.  Each issue can be pretty simple to digest on their own, but the abundance of “bigger-picture” material floating throughout every story is equally intriguing and dizzying.

And then, even though it really doesn’t really matter, one has to wonder how the whole Infinite Crisis thing plays into all this.  I mean, there’s Zatanna without the powers she so prominently used in recent JLA, and the Newsboy Legion has become the Newsboy Army, Mister Miracle is no longer Scott Free, Granny Goodness looks like Missy Elliott toting a gaggle of Apokalypse prostitutes around with her and Darkseid is now “Dark Side”. What the hell is going on?

So you see, it’s hard to just say, “Mister Miracle is neat book”, because it’s not that simple.  I’m not sure anyone can just pick it up and not wonder why the New Gods are urbanized all of a sudden… is Morrison determined on redefining everything Jack Kirby created?  Is Jimmy Olson: Turtle Boy getting his own genre-busting series soon?

So what happens in Mister Miracle #1?  Well, Shilo Norman – who, in continuity, was the human who replaced Scott Free as Mister Miracle a number of times – has now taken on the role as world’s greatest escape artist full time.  Using a suit made out of Mother Box technology, Shilo performs daring Houdini-esque public displays of escapery involving space, time, and theories which require a physics degree or a sampling of Morrison’s ‘shroom stash to really understand.  While performing one of his more daring tricks, Shiloh has a run in with the New God Metron, who informs him the Gods of New Genesis were finally beaten and enslaved by “Dark Side” and only Shilo can help them escape.  But it’s not going to be easy.

As I noted, the New Gods have been… modified.  Through flashbacks we can see them as they were, but they’re no longer that way now.  They’ve taken on contemporary appearances, mannerisms and have infiltrated Earth, the insinuation that they’re influencing man’s existence from the shadows. 

The set up is not that simple to grasp on a single or even second reading (perhaps because of all the other things I was thinking about while doing so), but at the very least Mister Miracle is intriguing.  The art team of Pasqual Ferry and colorist Dave McCaig (from Adam Strange earlier this year) does impeccably well with both the fantastical elements of the story and the more grounded talking head bits.  It’s flashy, but not distractingly so (but don’t get used to it, as the art team changes next issue since Ferry signed exclusive with Marvel).

Overall, a bizarre, kind of confusing start but Mister Miracle has definite potential for weirdness (in a good way).


3 and a half

“Peng” takes kickball to the next logical level: super crazy action comic

by Graig Kent

 A search on Google for “sports comics” didn’t yield much of interest.  There are a number of different titles from decades past that are more biographies of sporting legends like Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson rather than comic book adaptations/interpretations of sporting events. There was also the short-lived and highly underrated NFL Superpro (okay, I doubt it was underrated), who was “Comicdom’s Favorite Football Superhero”, which translates to clichéd superheroics in a football uniform.  Oh and then there were the numerous wrestling-related comic books in the later ‘90’s, which I’ve never read, and if I did I wouldn’t admit to it anyway.  This half-assed, unrefined internet search confirmed my suspicion that, historically at least, North American comic books depicting sporting events just aren’t viable.  But it also seems like no one’s ever really tried.

“Sports Manga” on the other hand, returned a wealth of articles and reviews on the subject.  Tennis, volleyball, baseball, basketball, football, racing are all represented in current titles, and are just part of a long legacy of sports inspired manga.  You could even say that the grade-school popular books (and cartoons) like Beyblade, Yu Gi Oh, or even Pokemon are sports inspired, as the crux of those books are based in competition, battling as much for honour as good versus evil. 

Without getting into the debate about Manga (aka Japanese comic books) vs. Nissei Comi (aka Original English Language/Second generation/”fake” Manga), Corey “the Rey” Lewis, has taken the sensibilities of Japanese sports comics (with all the exaggerated movements and valiant good team vs. menacing bad team in tact) and brought it to the North American stage by way of grade 5 gym class.   Peng is, quite literally, a book about the non-sport of kickball, a playground game combining all the aggressive fun of dodgeball with all the passive tediousness of baseball.  But in Peng (which accurately describes the sound the game ball makes when it makes contact with foot, or body, or head), “Advanced Kickball” has become an international (intergalactic?) sport.  The book enters a kickball tournament at the final four, introducing the teams, the sport, and the Rey’s frenetic style. 

I would be remiss to say that Peng didn’t remind me largely of Shaolin Soccer, and though I know not, I’d wager heavily that it was inspiration in this books’ creation.  The idea is absurdly fun and the execution is energizing much in the same way Stephen Chow’s movie was, sharing a similar juvenile enthusiasm and slapstick comedic attitude.  In my review for the Rey’s Sharknife (RIGHT HERE), I took issue with some of the mania of the artist’s work, which is sometimes too busy to be intelligible.  Peng’s standard format size, as opposed to the condensed digest-size of Sharknife, helps to reduce the confusion of the action, and the Rey has tightened his rendering to help with clarity.  Yet, the grand finale of the championship match still feels like the comics equivalent to Ridley Scott’s opening battle in Gladiator, where there’s lots of action going on but the angles won’t let you make sense of it. 

Published by Oni Press, Peng is a 72 page one-shot, full of fun, has cameos from Sharknife and Scott Pilgrim, and coins the term “butt bunt” which alone should have you intrigued.


3 and a half

Super-Crazy TNT Blast: The title is deceptive but the innards are good

By Graig Kent

 Occasionally I feel like I’m at saturation point with the super-hero genre.  I by no means think it’s exhausted, but it is exhausting to try and keep up on it all, what with two major universes and dozens, if not hundreds, of secluded heroic universes in individual, creator-owned titles.  Thousands upon thousands of spandex-clad people running around hundreds of thousands of pages of comics, it’s hard to really see what’s fresh and exciting when it all looks done before.

Take Super-Crazy TNT Blast for instance.  It’s got a kitschy title with a Green Arrow-esque archer and Batman-esque toughie posing on the cover… nothing terribly innovative in either’s design, and the picture itself isn’t really inspiring.  I picked the book up off the rack flipped through it, and put it down again.  I looked through a few other books, picked this one up again, flipped through it again and put it back.  A third time I picked it up and just stared, thinking, “It is super-crazy, it says so on the cover, but how super-crazy is it?”  Let me tell you, dear reader, that I found it to not be “super-crazy” at all.  In my mind, if you’re tagging “super-crazy” onto the title or name of a product, you better have something in there that will blow my friggin’ mind, something I’ve never seen before, or something that I wouldn’t expect ever.  I would expect sheer and utter mania, with story and art by craftsmen who can’t think logically.

Alas, that’s not this book.  Instead, this book is relatively straight forward, biff-pow, pulse-pounding super-heroics.  If Super-Crazy TNT Blast were part of a larger universe, this would be an Event Comic… a Crisis or Secret War if you will.  In it’s first four pages, writers George T. Singley and Jim Mitchel kill off almost all of this universe’s major superheroes as they battle the invading demon hordes from an alternate dimension.  All that are left are seven minor, non-powered heroes and villains to battle the unstoppable mass of evil.  There’s no way they can do it, and yet they must try. 

This book obviously sports the theme of triumph in the face of adversity, and it’s narration by one of the heroes who feels responsible for opening the portal between worlds has a clear, unique voice.  Singley and Mitchel have at the very least an intriguing story ahead of them, and the characters seem something more that Big Two clones.  The art by Tim Kane reminds me much of Mike Oeming’s work, utilizing that Batman Animated look but fusing it with some Asian influences so that he’s not a mere clone.

I’m still not entirely sure how the title is meant to represent the series.  It seems like there was a mix-up at the Speakeasy cover generation plant and the wrong title got slapped onto the wrong book.  As much as I want to knock it for that, the insides are too good to disparage it.   It’s not a fully original story but the book is sharp and feels bigger than itself, which is impressive.  It may look generic on the stands but it’s a cut above most.


R. Kikuo Johnson Hooks the Big One with “Night Fisher”

By Russell Paulette

 In English classes we learn that a novella is a weird middle ground between a short story and a novel—it exists in this perpetual flux of not-quite one and not-quite the other.  With a good short story, often we get the experience of character over plot, and the effect of it grows with your appreciation of the mood and the moment.  With a novel, there’s a sprawling effect—often, it’s a journey from one place to another, a becoming.  Films can often stand in a middle distance, as well, and if artist R. Kikuo Johnson’s debut graphic novel is any indication, so too can graphic novels.

Night Fisher focuses on the senior year of Loren Foster, a quiet, subdued kid attending a prep school in Hawaii.  As the pressures of balancing school and pleasing his unassuming, guilt-ridden single father weigh on him, Loren finds himself with his running buddy, Shane, getting mixed up in the island’s drug culture.  The conflict between Loren and Shane, then, is one of an awkward, unassuming teen seeking actualization from his experience-hungry, bacchanalian companion.  Together, this seems it would lead to explosive consequences, but Johnson plays it subtly, wearing away at the seams between the two boys until, finally, one of them breaks.

The real joy here, then, isn’t catching Johnson in some display of raw originality—on the surface, this reads much like most coming-of-ages stories.  Instead, what becomes compelling about the book is its nuance and careful attention to detail.  Rather than shooting for melodrama, Johnson employs a subtler tone—one that is full of much more pathos and, quite-frankly, heartbreak.  There’s an aversion to superficial emotion here, as every character plays unrequited subtext.  It’s a tough tightrope to walk, and Johnson does it ably and with astonishing flourish.

Even better than the writing—which is quite good, if you couldn’t tell—is his artwork, which is sumptuous in its balance between white and black, and its loose, easy expressionism.  Looking like a middle-ground between the anal-retentive, delicate linework of Adrian Tomine and the wild, breathy brushwork of David Mazzucchelli, Johnson delivers a unique look to the book’s straightforward page design and easy readability.  Also, refreshingly, it’s a unique look at Hawaii—one we don’t often see in popular media—as the state is usually associated with garish colors and a sumptuous, evocative palate.  Instead, Johnson chooses the stark language of noir, draining the book of any and all hue—even as far as the color, which only has a stripe of blue for the water—and giving it a demonstrative, universal appeal.  In short, this isn’t the world of Magnum P.I. and Lilo & Stitch but, rather, your hometown.

As a stunning debut, what Johnson offers between these covers is the best of what a novella or a good film can provide—a deeply involving, moving experience that compels one to pour over again and again, looking for the subtlety and the nuance; for the brushwork and the feathered inklines; for the places to breathe in the Pacific salt air and feel the island sun on your face. 


 Helios: In With The New #1 (Speakeasy) – Moving from the indie publishing to Speakeasy is a positive step forward for the “Helios” title, unfortunately the first issue of the relaunched series has the new reader already behind in the game.  A four paragraph “Previously” is included – along with brief character bios in the front cover – but it overwhelms with too much info. On the opening page, the existing Neo Force trio is saddled with a quartet of new recruits, and immediately they enter a “Danger Room” training sequence that segues into the team’s first mission (stopping a bank robbery).  It’s pedestrian storytelling from Jason Rand with a few interesting seeds planted, but the characters are undefined and generic.  The art by Gabe Pena is reminds me of Chris Sprouse except everyone has a really long nose. –Graig


 Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her # 1 of 6 (Marvel) – This is the return of novelist Richard K. Morgan to the sordid Marvel-cum-spy world of backstabbing, shifting allegiances and hidden agendas.  Joined this time by artists Sean Phillips and Bill Sienkiewicz, the three men ably handle the subject matter, following up on last year’s mini-series with this sequel, which positions Natasha on the Cuban shore, running from the target the US Government placed on her head after the last go-round.  Here, she gets roped into a plot involving smuggling health-care drugs into Cuba for the good of the many.  Meanwhile, Morgan puts other pieces into play, all of them gunning for her head for various reasons.  A lot of fun, and a book that’ll scratch that Le Carre/Alias (TV not comics) itch for everyone out there.  Russell


 Rocketo #2 (Speakeasy) – A few columns back, our own Sean Fahey said, “Rocketo is going to be the next great comic book series.”  Well, the second issue has arrived (and if you’re lucky, you found the “0 Issue” as well), thus officially making it a “series”, and I hereby declare that Rocketo has indeed become the next great comic book series.  Utilizing the “widescreen” format (books are stapled at the top, not the side), Rocketo is not so much sequential art as it is illustrated storytelling.  There’s not so much panel-by-panel progression as images enhancing words.  Each issue highlights a journey in the life of Rocketo Garrison, and is ostensibly stand-alone, however, read together the world of Rocketo as it differs from our own is explored in more and more detail, and the legend of the titular hero grows.  This issue features a giant alien robot invasion and Rocketo’s education as a mapper.  The art by animator Frank Espinosa is freshly retro, harkening back to a time that never really existed.  It’s outright brilliant all-ages work that keeps getting better. – Graig


 The Sentry # 1 of 8 (Marvel) – As a big fan of the first mini-series—its strange, psychological tale wrapped up in Marvel continuity—I was of a mixed opinion about bringing the character firmly into the Marvel U. proper.  On the one hand, it’s a fun notion to give the Universe its own Superman, but on the other there was something special about that first mini-series that struck me as interesting, but also particular—namely, I’m not sure the character has legs.  With this first issue, writer Paul Jenkins is back—accompanied this time by Marvel’s stable artist, John Romita, Jr.—to effectively lay the groundwork for what looks like a standard super-hero book with a winking eye towards the strange psychology from the first book.  Namely, it’s a compromise and one that, surprisingly, works just fine.  Sure, it’s not stellar or ground-breaking, but it’s just good fun—and Romita, Jr. does seem to be excelling at books that aren’t Spider-Man these days, so perhaps it’s for the better welfare of all concerned.    Russell


 Ultimate Secret #3 (Marvel) – It’s finally out.  Months delayed and a new artistic team on hand, Warren Ellis’ Ultimate Secret continues.  Was it worth the wait?  Not really.  There’s a definite step down in quality with issue 3, and it’s nothing to do with the art, but rather it’s the introduction of the Ultimate Fantastic Four and the Ultimates.  Sure, Nick Fury and his crew seem like the logical step especially since they have to tie this up with the events of Ultimate Nightmare, but the Ultimate Fantastic Four (having not read any of their series) seem like an annoying group of hyperactive college kids.   The bulk of the issue is setting up the dynamics as the teams merge, which involves Iron Man hitting on Invisible Woman, Hawkeye hitting on Black Widow, Thor arranging up a kegger with Thing and Human Torch, and Mr. Fantastic and Tony Stark getting their geek on.  The threat of Gah Lak Tus is ever looming, and we find out more about what’s about to happen but with the focus away from Captain Mahr-Vehl it’s all pretty dull compared to the first two issues.  Graig


 Legion of Super-Heroes #10 (DC) – Things are not going well in the future.  The United Planets are dissolving, the Legion has divided into two arguing factions, a strike force narrowly avoided defeat battling Terror Firma, Dream Girl’s precog powers aren’t working properly, and Invisible Kid has been branded a traitor.  Things only get worse when Terror Firma sleeper agents reveal themselves… with bombs strapped to their chests.  Then the Legion’s captive Elysion escapes and begins to wreak havoc on Earth, killing a Legionnaire in the process.  The war escalates.  Writer Mark Waid with co-plotter and artist Barry Kitson keep upping the amperage with each 30-page issue… The power(s), the intrigue, the excitement, the romance, the death, Legion of Super Heroes has it all, and if it doesn’t it will, just you wait. – Graig


Wolverine # 32 (Marvel) – It’s weird to be able to say that this is the issue of Wolverine that Will Eisner had a direct say in its inception.  But say it I can, as Mark Millar details in his explanation/tribute on the final page of the comic.  This is Millar’s swansong on the book and, compared to the preceding twelve issues, it could be contributing evidence of Millar’s schizophrenia.  Where the last two arcs were large, loud, Bruckheimer-esque testicle-fests, this issue’s of a quieter, creepier sort.  Focusing on