Comics by committee, “52” launches an interesting and entertaining experiment

By Graig Kent

 The Infinite Crisis is over.  Sure, that statement seems a little oxymoronic, but such is life.  In the wake of the Crisis, all of the DC universe titles have been pushed forward ahead one year, which leaves for 52 weeks worth of story to be told.  What happened in the interim year?  That’s what the new weekly series, 52, is going to find out.

While not the largest limited series ever proposed (that would be Dave Sim’s Cerebus, which he always offered up as a 300-issue finite series), it is one of the most adventurous, projecting to pump out a new issue every week for a full year that fills in the gaps day by day.  Although weekly comic book series’ have and continue to run in other areas of the world, North American comics have rarely tried.  The last effort I can recall is Action Comics Weekly, an anthology comic which ran through issues 601-642 of the series (not even making a full year).

To tackle this enormous chore, DC have turned to four of their biggest continuity buffs to grab the fragmented ideas and put the puzzle together.  Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Greg Rucka and Grant Morrison are writing this bad boy by committee… the lines of who wrote what nearly invisible… at least so far, although guesses can be hazarded at who is taking on which characters, and I’m sure defining writing styles will come through eventually.  

Through its vessels (Steel, Booster Gold, The Question, Det. Renee Montoya, Elongated Man, and Black Adam), 52 will investigate the aftermath of the Crisis, showing a world that is rebuilding and rediscovering itself (since history itself has been changed, once again).  On top of that, the book is intending to explore how the world is fundamentally different without Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman in the picture, as well as filling in the blanks of all the other DCU titles running, and still managing to present its own story, with it’s own plot.  It could easily become the unwieldy beast that Crisis seemed to be, and making the series accessible if you don’t catch on from page one will definitely be an issue, but with the quartet of writers that is on board, and with Keith Giffen breaking it all down and gelling the threads together, it will no doubt be a more balanced and unified process, without the interference of spin-off one-shots, or the necessity of wrapping other monthly series’ into the process. 52 should feel more like serialized television than a standard monthly, or epic mini-series.

The first issue, with art Joe Bennett and Ruy Jose, kicks it all off fairly low-key, introducing the players, setting up the storytelling conventions and pacing of the day-by-day, and threading the needle that will start to sew the larger plotlines together.  Steel is focussing on helping rebuild cities, while Renee Montoya can’t seem to relieve herself of the bottle following her partner’s death (and resurrection as the Spectre).  Elongated Man, having lost his wife in Identity Crisis, and lost his house during the more recent Crisis, is at his end, while the Question … well, who knows what he’s up to.  Booster Gold is armed with knowledge of the future, but when his history doesn’t unfold as planned, there’s something definitely wrong.  Meanwhile, Black Adam, ruler of Kahndaq, has a message he’s going to spread to the world, whether they want to hear it or not.

The character choices are intriguing, the design of the series is unique, and the stories are already full of potential.  I’ve always contended that the meatier story is the aftermath, not the war, and 52 should definitely prove that.

RATING:

No Laughing Matter? No Such Thing for Dan Slott’s She-Hulk

by Jeb D.

 Despite what you may have read, Dan Slott does not write “humor books.” Is the guy funny? Absolutely—he can produce more outright belly laughs in 22 pages than many of his contemporaries could in a year. But the idea of a “humor book” is that it structures itself around getting laughs, and in a Dan Slott book, those are always (highly appreciated) byproducts—the man is, first and foremost, about spinning a good tale. Slott specializes in illuminating those bits and pieces of comic book lore that we take for granted, and showing them to us in a new light. It’s not a matter of trying to anchor the stories in our familiar reality, so much as it is applying the logic of superhero storytelling in unexpected ways. And while the nature of superhero comics allows him to get laughs out of such material, in this current storyline, he’s pulling off something unexpectedly serious, too.

Alien lothario Starfox, nee Eros the Titan, one-time Avenger, is on trial for what amounts to date rape: using his “euphoria power” to make a woman succumb to a sexual encounter. Of course, as the parade of smitten young women on the witness stand makes clear, it’s hard to know how to define such an encounter as non-consensual: under Starfox’s influence, they all “consented” gladly. Slott even gives us a flashback to an Avengers adventure where the use of Starfox’s powers led to highly unexpected consequences for one of his opponents. Jennifer Walters’ defense of Starfox is imaginative, but uncomfortable, and the uncertainties that she’s facing in the She-Hulk side of her persona are cause for concern, too. In the end, when the two stories collide… well, let’s just say that “collide” is a good verb in more ways than one.

This story’s a fascinating take on the dark side inherent all the super-powered characters (magicians, psychics, etc.) who can impose their wills on others. While Slott might have been expected to show us the absurdity of that kind of power (how do you defeat someone who could make you stop fighting because you now believe you’re a carrot?), he’s digging deeper into questions of free will and the abuse of sexual power. Is Starfox the “man” of every woman’s dreams, or a self-centered sexual predator? Can any character truly be “heroic” if they exert an influence that subverts the core of someone’s self?

I don’t wish to give the impression that this comic’s not funny—it’s certainly got its share of humor, and even a Dan Slott comic with, say, 20% fewer jokes than usual is still more entertainment for your money than just about any other spandex book around. And he’s not separating the humor from the darker themes, but using the one to illuminate the other: the scenes where the other Avengers squirm uncomfortably at the idea of being called as character witnesses, or of Starfox blithely trying to escape punishment, are certainly funny, but they’ve got some real sting to them, as well. This is one Dan Slott story that will be remembered less for the jokes, and more for the issues it raises. And his ability to do this so effectively while still under the banner of Marvel’s “all-ages” rating is doubly impressive.

For a series not yet 20 issues old (though the numbering is technically “volume 2”), the art on She-Hulk has been a bit of a strange saga in and of itself, ranging from the quirkiness of Juan Bobillo to the old-school superheroics of Paul Pelletier. This is the second issue illustrated by Will Conrad, and while there’s some nice storytelling here, it feels erratic in places, and things like facial characteristics seem to vary from page to page (I eagerly await Paul Smith’s upcoming debut on the title). And while Greg Horn’s cover is both amusing and attractive, it’s also not just irrelevant to the story at hand, but more than a little uncharacteristic. Still, the art would have to be a lot worse than it is to put a dent in my recommendation.

She-Hulk remains one of the most consistently entertaining superhero books on the stands today. But at its best, as it is here, it’s also a powerful exploration of the ideas and impulses that underly the power fantasies that are at the heart of superhero storytelling. In my opinion, She-Hulk #6-7 has nearly as much to say about our relationship to these fantasy figures as Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Supreme, and while Moore is rightly considered one of the giants of the genre, it’s time to take funny guy Dan Slott a bit more seriously, too.

RATING:

Artfully-Done, Well-Written “Mouse Guard” is a Great Find

By Mark Wheaton

 “Let me tell ye about the guard.  We mice have little chance in this world, considering all the critters that eat us.  We know to build our cities hidden and protected; deep within rock outcroppings, in tangled root, and beneath loamy soil.  We survive.  But how do we live?  Travel in the open between our towns is dangerous.  The Guard has been in existence longer than our history.  They are the trail blazers, the guides, the escorts, and defenders of us.” (from issue #1)

Intelligent fantasy-writing for children was never the easiest thing to find in decades-past, but after the success of “Harry Potter,” “Lemony Snicket” and “The Golden Compass,” certain publishers are learning what Edward Stratemeyer figured out way back at the beginning of the century – talking down to children from the page wouldn’t necessarily sell more books.

Writer/artist David Petersen released the second issue of his “Mouse Guard” comic last month and the beautifully painted, post-“Nimh” tale of heroic, Musketeer-stylized mice is just getting better.  What’s particularly endearing is that you have what are, frankly, the bottom of the food chain struggling to survive against all odds in a “Battlestar Galactica” kind of way with all the charm, gravitas and humanity you would get with any kind of “Lord of the Rings”-style quest, but with just enough of a wink that it never feels too aggrandizing.  Mice getting drunk, mice fighting crabs with fish hooks, mice with peg legs – the fun of “Dungeons & Dragons,” but with mice!

In issue #2, “Shadows Within,” we leave behind the plot of issue #1 – which found the titular Mouse Guard searching for a missing grain merchant – to head to the shoreline as another member of the Mouse Guard, Sadie, is sent to an outpost called Calogero to find missing Guard member Conrad, a peg-legged, grizzled old mouse.  When she gets there and indeed locates Conrad, she hears a terrifying tale – one involving the grain merchant mouse pledging his allegiance to some sort of Dark Mouse who hides in the shadows, using Calogero as a secret meeting place.

Sadie spends the night at Calogero only to find it beset by crabs the next morning.  The two mice do the best they can against the crabs, but Conrad falls in order to send Sadie on her way (she runs away with tears in her eyes, whispering, “Good-bye, brave friend.”).  He does well for awhile, but what is a mouse against crabs?

“Mouse Guard” is pretty unique and the combination of fine writing and gorgeous art makes this a book to catch, though the six-part trade will likely/eventually be the best way to digest this swashbuckling tale.

RATING:


Juror 13 
(Tokyopop)

By Elgin Carver

 Not all manga are created equal. Some, like fantasy and even science fiction, can be very difficult to take, at least for those born and raised on American comic books and newspaper strips.  Often the stylization of faces makes it difficult to read as emoting properly.  On occasion the reactions by the characters seem completely out of proportion to the situation or just improper. The infusion of childlike fantasy sequences or personalities can be distracting and completely out of place to Western sensibilities.

Those manga titles that hew most closely to the best of Japanese cinema genre, samurai and crime, are far more readable and even more understandable. Juror 13 begins as a credible crime story involving an insurance investigator and obvious embezzlement and murder. It is an involving story with sufficient complications to keep interest that towards the culmination takes a sudden turn and becomes a sci-fi story.  There is some depth to this book. The writer leads you to believe you understand what is going on, is quite clever in attracting the readers attention in one direction so as to sucker punch him from an entirely different direction.

There is still the manga look to contend with. It has a certain childlike quality that doesn’t quite match up with the adult storyline, but exposure will doubtless bring an acceptable comfort level. This is a quality book that most fans will enjoy.

RATING:

Superman The Dailies 1939 – 1942 and
Superman Sunday Classic 1939 – 1943 
  

(Sterling Publishing Company)

By Elgin Carver

 Superman was such a phenomenal success in comic book form that within a year of his first appearance a comic strip was sold to newspapers across the country, and rapidly increased in circulation to well over 200 papers within a few years. These were not just re-publications of tales from Action Comics but were entirely new adventures.

These books are not a matched set. However they are both designed with care and artistic skill.  The dust jackets, hard covers, and end papers are all illustrated with attention to detail, attractively, and considering the low price, fairly lavishly. In fact price is a tremendous plus with these volumes. The Sunday volume can be had for less than the cost of a Marvel Essential title and it is in full color on quality paper. The daily title costs less than half of any DC Archives book, printed on quality paper and three times as thick. The over-pricing of most reprint books today is clearly demonstrated here.

 The artwork is of very high quality. Joe Shuster was at the top of his form here, especially in the daily work. Occasionally a panel from the comic book work is reprinted to help fill out a story, but this is excusable when you realize that the daily panel count alone would fill fifty pages of comic books every month. Help from assistants and prior work was needed. The reproduction quality in the daily books is superb, but the Sunday pages fall somewhat short. Still they are quite acceptable.

These books were first printed in paperback form by Kitchen Sink Press in 1998. Even if you have those copies, it is time to double dip. The hardback replacement for the Sunday volume will cost you five dollars less than the paperback did eight years ago. Encourage this kind of quality and pricing by purchasing one of each today. In fact buy two in case you lose one.

RATING:


 Jonah Hex #7 (DC) – Another great, great issue of “Jonah Hex,” featuring a contained, stand-alone western adventure that has Hex at a wedding to collect the bounty on a man who turns out to be innocent – though a rival for his bride kills his before he can clear his name.  Hex decides to make things right by the man by going after those who killed him – including the one who ran off with a prized hunting rifle being given as a wedding present.  Pretty much everyone who shows up in this issue ends up dead in a hail of gunfire and it’s a really well-told story of revenge, even moreso because of its ability to tell a complete, totally engrossing western tale in one issue.  Brilliant writing from Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and, sadly, the last issue – apparently – for artist Luke Ross, who really hit a homerun with this classy-looking issue.  Anybody know if he sells his panels?! – Mark

RATING:

 Rex Libris #4 (Slave Labor Graphics) – On the hunt for a past-due book, the warrior librarian is caught in the thick of an army of snowmen-like aliens on their home planet.  At a severe disadvantage, Rex and his telekinetic bird sidekick, Simon, screw the odds and pick a fight.  Of course, they have no chance of surviving, and so Rex flexes his brains and attempts to, in James T. Kirk-ian fashion, democratize the savage aliens… with unexpected results.  Meanwhile, back at the Library, Circe staves off an invading horde of Barbarians, only to find upon returning to the checkout desk the cookies have vanished.  Yes, it’s more oddball action and hyper-literate adventure from James Turner, whose vector graphics illustrations are becoming more fluid with each issue.  Meeting somewhere between Jack Kirby and Halo, Turner’s visuals involve a lot of fun perspective shifts, which pop from the page in glorious 2-D black and white.  Recommended. –Graig-

RATING:

 X-Men: Deadly Genesis #6 (Marvel). Ed Brubaker’s not kidding around. Since arriving at Marvel last year, he’s revived characters that we thought would stay dead, and killed off at least a couple we thought were here for good.  Now, with the conclusion of this miniseries, he’s completely pulled the rug out from under us: he’s given Scott Summers some cojones. It’s a tough issue to review, because it’s pretty much all spoiler, answering the questions the series has been posing from the beginning: what happened on Krakoa, who was the “other” team of X-Men, why does no one remember, and what’s up with that dang third Summers brother, anyway? We get action, answers, a new foe to keep the X-Men busy till Magneto gets his powers back, and the setup for Brubaker’s upcoming run on Uncanny X-Men (which looks like it should appeal to anyone who grew up with the Wein/Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne era). While I’m not a huge fan of Trevor Hairsine’s art, this issue Scott Hanna’s finishes felt pretty inconsistent compared to last time around, and I was sorry Hairsine couldn’t do the whole thing. I should also mention that, while I’ve pretty much detested Marc Silvestri’s covers for the first five issues of this series, his version of Wolverine on the cover of this one is so wrong, in so many ways, that it’s almost a thing of beauty. That apart, if you like a story that weaves itself in and around bits of Marvel Universe history, this has been an entertaining ride. Sure would have benefited from stronger art, though.- Jeb D.

RATING:  3 out of 5 Vikings

 Wolfskin #1 (Avatar Press) – Warren Ellis’s “Conan”-esque “Wolfskin” arrives coupled with bright, colorful art from Juan Jose Ryp and colorist Andrew Dalhouse that gives the book an almost Saturday morning cartoon feel, which works with the heightened, bloody storytelling.  Basically, the Wolfskin of the title is a wandering, powerful swordsman who stumbles across a village under siege and – when mistakes for an assassin – has to lay waste to the village’s best men, thus leaving them defenseless.  The town’s sort-of slave master, an odd-looking, meant-to-be-Chinese fellow, convinces Wolfskin to take up their cause and he agrees – with an eye towards battles soon to be fought.  Right now, as it ramps up, “Wolfskin” is kind of “just fine,” though with Ellis, one always hopes there are further tricks up his sleeve.  Other than that, the other four-color “Conan” adventures are preferable. – 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.