Let’s start with a pair of DC books this week — very different, but tied for the top of the reading list:
American Vampire Anthology — Creators: Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque; Jason Aaron and Declan Shalvey; Rafael Albuquerque and Ivo Milazzo; Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes; Becky Cloonan; Francesco Francavilla; Gail Simone and Tula Lotay; Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon; Greg Rucka and JP Leon
As with most anthologies, this rises or falls based on its creator credits — and look at them: that’s an all-star lineup. Snyder and Albuquerque, the book’s regular team, contribute a bookend story around eight short pieces by the others, all involving either the former cowboy Skinner Sweet (the title vampire), or bloodsucking members of the supporting cast. I liked the Simone/Lotay effort best, with the Cloonan and Ba/Moon ones close behind, but all the creators seem to be having fun, and there’s 70 pages of decent horror comics here, more than enough to satisfy any fan (and more than enough to make the $7.99 price a relative bargain).
This ends the six-part “Trilogy War” story, but it’s not actually an ending; it’s all been a prologue to the next crossover event, “Forever Evil.” Since that involves the villains taking over the DC universe (and leading to 3-D bad-guy covers on all of the company’s books for the next four weeks), it’s probably not a spoiler to say that things don’t go well for the heroes here. This would all be hopelessly cynical if the comic itself weren’t actually pretty good — Johns showed way back in Blackest Night that he knows how to craft twisty, fan-friendly plots for events like this, and how to play a long game with continuity — here, plot threads from the first two years of the “New 52″ books come together nicely, and a lot of questions get answered (just not in the good guys’ favor). Johns also knows how to show off his artists, and Reis has become very good at the kind of standard superhero-realistic art that’s required here, and at delivering on big action scenes with lots of characters; that’s fortunate, since Johns gives him five splash pages and four double-page splashes to work with. The result is that, much as my adult self would like to slam this as a soulless money-grab, the 12-year-old fan in me is too awestruck and happy at all the slam-bang action and cool events to let that happen.
On to the Marvel books… and, as usual, this one heads the list: Kieron and McKelvie just keep getting stronger in their storytelling, as the art continues to combine crisp lines, detail and imaginative layouts (the dimension-hopping plot lends itself to this), and Gillen’s made the seven lead characters into three-dimensional people — funny, heartbreaking, devious and heroic by turns — whom we’ve already come to care about. It’s clearer than ever, too, that this book is a continuation of Gillen’s earlier Loki stories in Journey Into Mystery, with a major supporting member of that cast appearing to be settling in for a long stay. Young Avengers is both one of the lowest-selling and the best books of the Marvel Now! relaunches (it, Hawkeye and Daredevil all manage to breathe new life into old superhero cliches, and make them compelling and fun again), so everyone go out there and buy it: it deserves a long and fruitful life.
This is another book that takes a fun, weirdly off-kilter look at superhero stories — but, despite its surface kookiness, in this issue a lot of threads come together and show that Fraction and Allred have been planning it very carefully. For one thing, the Impossible Man is a perfect character for Allred, whose retro style dovetails neatly with IM’s ’60s origins (and the fact that the character appeared first in the original FF #11 is a sly Easter egg for fans). Mix in the Man’s kid, as powerful as his father but full of adolescent angst, and look at the way a character like Medusa becomes just the right counterbalance to him; throw in some foreshadowing of events for the book’s sister title, and then look at the way two other characters hook up at the end of the issue, and the result is a clever, appealing romp: sometimes funny, sometimes spooky and sinister, and always entertaining.
This concludes the first arc of the Marvel Now! relaunch, which involved Steve Rogers being trapped for more than ten years in Arnim Zola’s Dimension Z (although only a day went by in Marvel Earth — and, hey, where else but in a comic book review could you read a sentence like this?). Ten issues were probably a few more than needed, but Remender has provided a lot of emotional plot twists along the way (and set up Cap for many psychological aftereffects), and of course the remarkable John Romita Jr., who drew the whole thing, delivered some of the best art of his career, grounded and gritty and other-worldly and wonderful-looking all at once. After the affecting conclusion, there’s a four-page coda that adds a note of hope: just the right way to stick the landing; quietly and gradually, first with Uncanny X-Force and now with this title, Remender has become one of the most dependable of the newer Marvel creators.
This concludes a five-part story involving the new Hellfire Club, now made up of youngish teenagers — about the same as the ones in Wolverine’s Jean Grey Academy, but considerably more psychotic. With an X-books crossover (“Battle of the Atom”) looming in the next few issues, it’s also a chance for Aaron and Bradshaw to clear the decks by tidying up a number of running subplots. Amazingly, they do this without being depressing, giving a number of characters a happy-for-now ending. Aaron’s good at playing to his artists — in Thor, his tone is dark and barbaric, matching Esad Ribic’s art, but here he’s a lot more cheery, mimicking Bradshaw’s lighter, more cartoony style, and it’s nice to see some upbeat resolutions.
This is a very close tie-in to the Infinity mini-series (practically a stand-alone episode of it), as, with the core Avengers battling out in space, the Illuminati (Dr. Strange, Namor, Mr. Fantastic, Black Panther, Black Bolt, Iron Man and the Beast), fight a new set of super-powered minions of Thanos, who are advance troops of an alien invasion. Hickman’s at the stage in this story where, instead of seeding new plots and foreshadowing distant events, he’s harvesting older crops that have already blossomed, and it’s nice to start to get some payoffs and clarity as things come together; as always , Deodato is dependably dramatic, even when covering almost two dozen characters scattered across most of the Earth (and some of outer space, too). Further review is almost beside the point: if you’ve been reading Infinity and the Avengers books, you’ll buy this too, and be happy; if you’re new to the characters…. well, actually, this has enough good art and intriguing plot that it might get you hooked anyway, although you won’t be completely sure what’s going on.
Be warned: although the cover has a big red “Guardians of the Galaxy” logo on the bottom, this has nothing to do with them; it’s a reprint of the stand-alone Rocket Raccoon mini-series from the ’80s. Since that’s hard to find, though (and the four original issues are running around $10 each), springing $7.99 for a 100-page collection (with the original stories fleshed out with a couple of “Who’s Who”-type entries and some pinups) isn’t such a bad deal — especially since all the pencils are by future Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. Sadly, for an artist now known for his atmospheric inking, he didn’t wield a brush on his own work here, but his quirky sensibility still comes through, and Bill Mantlo’s script is manic, if slightly childish, fun.
And now, for the smaller-publisher books. This one, by the novelist of World War Z, is about vampires dealing with a zombie apocalypse: the walkers don’t bother the vamps (in fact, they shuffle right past them, since they don’t register them as being “alive”), but the do, by killing all the humans, threaten the bloodsuckers’ food supply. Nice idea; the problem is that, even after two issues, the vampires haven’t quite figured this out yet, so the plot is moving very slowly. Too, Brooks makes the mistake common to many prose writers who tackle comics: he’s not that experienced at combining words and pictures into a seamless whole, and so depends too much on voice-over narration, while leaving Caceres to draw random pictures of humans being either (a) mobbed by the undead, or (b) menaced by the vampires. Horror fans will probably still like this (the script, just by virtue of being literate, is miles above other Avatar stuff like all their Night of the Living Dead books), but mainstream comics fans will keep waiting for the pictures and the words to gel, and be disappointed.
This concludes “Season Nine,” and the title itself, although there will likely be a “Season Ten,” with or without Faith. Anyway, it’s been running parallel with Buffy The Vampire Slayer (both dealing with different world-threatening events), without actually crossing over, and this last issue sets up some resurrected-but-changed characters (*cough* Giles *cough*) who will likely have an impact over in that title’s next season too (Buffy itself has only one issue to go before its “Season Nine” is finished). As with most of the Buffyverse comics, this has Whedon’s touch on it as producer but not writer, although Gage has done a good job getting everyone’s voices and actions in character, and Isaacs’s grounded, expressive art (she manages to make Faith’s emotions over the last few pages clear without any captions or specific words of dialogue needed) adds to the quality considerably.
This book is about a near-future society where the world is ruled, not by political governments, but by the super-rich. Each “family” controls a certain amount of territory, and they each have a “Lazarus,” a genetically-engineered enforcer who can be resurrected and put back together if necessary. This comic is about one of them, a young woman named “Forever”; in this third issue, now that some world-building by Rucka is out of the way, she travels to Mexico to parlay with a family there, meeting their “Lazarus,” and then has to deal with treachery from her own side. There’s a lot of imagination on display here, mixed with the street-level realism that’s Rucks’s trademark, and Lark and Gaudiano are very good at pulling us into this world and making us care about the people in it. It’s gotten stronger with every issue, and looks like it might turn into another Image creator-owned hit, like Saga or Fatale; with only three issues published, this is a good time to give it a try.
This book, on the other hand, seems to have petered (I’m sorry…) out; six issues in, very little has happened, and it’s mostly just a tired “What if Bruce Wayne retired from being Batman?” riff with explicit sex scenes added. It’s not bad (Casey’s too good a writer for that), but it’s nowhere near as groundbreaking as it seems to think it is, either, and, even at $2.99, leafing through the book just to look at the dirty parts isn’t enough. Points off, too, for the annoying use of different colors in the dialogue balloons to give certain words emphasis; all it does it make them harder to read, and that substitution of affectation for clear storytelling pretty much sums up this book’s problems.
Kindt, on the other hand, keeps getting more clear and powerful in his storytelling with each issue (that a book as different-looking as this, with its pastel palette and watercolor art style, has made it to 14 issues is a tribute to its stubborn ability to attract readers). He’s been doing more and more writing for DC lately, but here’s hoping he never abandons this weirdly off-center take on the modern world; its cast of characters with various mind-manipulating powers, and its quietly competent and awesome heroine.