San Diego convention week brings a number of first issues — eight from indy publishers, and three from DC, but none from Marvel. Let’s start with the indy stuff first, since it’s the most wide-ranging:
Betty and Veronica #1 — Writer/Artist: Adam Hughes; Colors: Jose Villarrubia
Faith #1 — Writer: Jody Houser; Art: Pere Perez with Margaurite Sauvage and Colleen Duran; Colors: Andrew Dalhouse
Black Hammer #1 — Writer: Jeff Lemire; Art: Dean Ormston; Colors: Dave Stewart
Red Team II #1 (of 9) — Writer: Garth Ennis; Art: Craig Cermak; Colors: Vinicius Andrade
The Hunt #1 — Writer/Artist: Colin Lorimer; Colors: Joana LaFuente
Snotgirl is about a young fashion blogger who has allergies and self-esteem issues; writer O’Malley, of Scott Pilgrim and Seconds, and artist Hung make it a brightly-colored, social-media-savvy, high-gloss-manga take on modern fame and relationships, one that takes a darker turn at the end of this first issue, and it’s the most interesting book of the week. Betty and Veronica is those two Archie comics stalwarts written and drawn by Adam Hughes; it’s good-looking and smart, with a decent handle on the characters –– although the closing-Pop-Tate’s-diner bit was just used over in Chip Zdarsky’s Jughead, too, indicating that Archie’s editorial teams need to coordinate their storylines more carefully. Otherwise, as long as you aren’t a Dan Decarlo purist, preferring only the cartoony-model versions of the Riverdale gang, it’s worth a read — but good luck trying to collect all the variant covers, because there are something like 25 of them; at least the book itself offers a two-page spread of all the possibilities, so you can decide which version is best. Faith #1 features the Valiant character from Harbingers, a fangirl who gets the power of flight; its earlier mini-series was enough of an unexpected hit to justify this new ongoing title. It’s appealing for its geeky, determinedly-heroic character, for its subtle acceptance of diversity (Faith is plus-sized, but her body type isn’t commented on any more than, say, Kamala Khan’s Muslim background is over in Ms. Marvel), and for its art (Perez has a clear, open style that fits the character, and guest artists Sauvage and Doran contribute to a couple of her fantasy sequences — hopefully, a pattern that will continue in later issues). Black Hammer is a new Jeff Lemire book about a superhero team who vanished during a battle ten years ago, and ended up trapped, in different bodies, in a small town; it’s notable for its intriguing setup (for example, the woman in the group ended up in the body of a six-year-old girl) and for the art by Dean Ormston, whose Vertigo work (especially on the first volume of Lucifer) and angular, deadpan style make him a good choice for the weird goings-on here. Avaterex is Grant Morrison in full cosmic-hero-battle mode, with gods of light and darkness using Earth as a battleground for universal upheaval, and sweeping humans up in their conflict; it’s the kind of thing he could probably knock out over a weekend (much of the tone is reminiscent of the Indian super-warrior stuff over in 18 Days, and the “avatar” in the title is a little too on the nose), but there’s an infectious, Kirby-like energy that translates over to Kang’s art (he’s clearly having fun drawing it), and even minor Morrison is better than most other creators on their best days, so at worst this is a pleasurable diversion. Red Team II is kind of the same thing, only with Garth Ennis (he can do hard-boiled crime stuff in his sleep, in the same way that Morrison can knock out elder-god cosmic capers), and is a sequel to his vigilante-cops book from a year or two ago; the two N.Y.P.D. partners who survived that story are back on the streets here, and a traffic stop of a reckless driver quickly turns into something much bigger and badder. Solid police-procedural stuff, with only a little of the trademark Ennis gross-outs so far (although there are sure to be plenty of them in later issues); Cermak’s good at adding all the little NYC street details to help make the visuals realistic and compelling, and this is another decent-diversion comic. The Hunt is a new horror book from Colin Lorimer (probably best known for Harvest and Burning Fields), one of those “kid sees mom murdered by monster/kid gets bullied by peers for being crazy” set-ups, enlivened by its Irish setting (with lots of dialect involving “wee” this and “oul'” that and “yeh” whomever) and a couple of creepy splash pages with the bug-like monsters; Lorimer’s done a lot of storyboard work for movies, and there’s enough cinematic sweep and suspense here to bring readers back for the next installment, at least. That leaves the first issue of the latest Groo mini-series, and it’s just as much a pleasure as always — this one has the big-nosed, brain-challenged barbarian getting involved with a ruler who wants to become a god, and the way Aragones renders all the cosmic deities (along with his trademark crowded, funny bits on Earth) make it more than worth your $3.99.
Velvet #15 — Writer: Ed Brubaker; Art: Steve Epting; Colors: Elizabeth Breitweiser
Dept.H #4 — Writer/Artist: Matt Kindt; Colors: Sharlene Kindt
Casanova: Acedia #6 — Writer: Matt Fraction; Art/Colors: Fabio Moon; (Second Story): Writer: Michael Chabon; Art: Gabrial Ba
Usagi Yojimbo #156 — Creator: Stan Sakai
Island #9 — Creators: Various
Of the other indy books, She-Wolf is definitely the most interesting, a gonzo tale about a young woman turning into a werewolf; Tommaso’s got an impressionistic style that combines some of the formal solidness of a woodcut with some very fluid action and transformation scenes, and the result’s a candy-colored horror book that doesn’t look like anything else on the stands. Velvet is the opposite: a traditional suspense/spy story, but constructed so solidly and skillfully, and with such good-looking and well-staged art, that readers can’t help but be drawn into its high-action, globe-trotting milieu. This comic concludes the book’s first long arc (15 issues!) in classic style, with revelations made, questions answered and just desserts passed out; it’s definitely not the place to start if you’ve never read the comic (unless you’re the type who has to read the last page of a mystery at the beginning…), but get the trade collections, start from the top, and you’ll be buying into a smooth, deep and very-well-told action tale. Dept.H continues Matt Kindt’s underwater mystery (the cover tagline, “murder six miles deep,” sums it up nicely), with all the expressive, watercolored weirdness we’ve come to expect of him; the dreamlike underwater setting, the complicated inter-relationships among the characters, and the strange-looking deep-sea equipment combine to create a surreal and suspenseful series. Matt Fraction’s latest Casanova series is deeply into the middle of its complicated, multidimensional plot, so new readers should probably start elsewhere here, too, although the Fabian Moon art (not to mention the backup story by Pulitzer-winning writer Chabon and Moon’s brother, Gabriel Ba) is pretty and awe-inspiring even if you can’t tell what’s going on, and the small character bits still resonate. Check out the previous trades if you’re interested, though; this sideways take on Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories is worth the effort, and will get you hooked on it. Lumberjanes and Usagi Yojimbo are both, in their own ways, expertly-plotted high-octane adventures drawn in a cartoony style; the former is about a group of sharply-sketched kind-of Girl Scouts at a summer camp in a mysterious woods, while the latter involves anthropomorphic animals and is set in feudal Japan, with its title character a wandering, masterless samurai. Both repay close reading, and have plenty of earlier offerings if you like the current books — particularly Usagi, which has thirty years of publishing by its sole creator, Stan Sakai, behind it, all well-researched and done in his spare, perfect style, every line placed precisely to create maximum impact and clarity. Island, usually an anthology of newer talent, features a reprint this issue: Fil Barlow’s Zooniverse, originally published by Eclipse in 1986; it’s a surreal anthropomorphic sf/fantasy mini-series, told in six parts, with the first remastered and recolored for this issue. There’s also Baist, a dungeons/dragons/medieval tale by Lin Visel and Joseph Bergin III, and an untitled one-shot story involving a new roommate and a garbage disposal that gets more and more quietly creepy and hallucinatory as it develops. As with every issue of this anthology, each entry gets plenty of room to breathe and tell its tale, and very high production values to help enhance the art. Every issue of Island so far has introduced me to at least one new and interesting creator, and sometimes more; that makes it more than worth its $7.99 cover price.
Hellblazer: Rebirth #1 — Writer: Simon Oliver; Art: Moritat; Colors: Andre Szymanowicz and Moritat
Justice League #1 — Writer: Bryan Hitch; Pencils: Tony S. Daniel; Inks: Sandu Florea; Colors: Tomeu Morey
Batman #3 — Writer: Tom King; Pencils: David Finch; Inks: Danny Miki; Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Astro City #37 — Writer: Kurt Busiek; Art: Brent E. Anderson; Colors: Peter Pantazis
Three DC debuts this week: the “Rebirth” intros for Batgirl and Hellblazer, and the first issue of the new ongoing Justice League series. Batgirl does something the New-52 volume never quite made clear: it specifically anchors Barbara’s history with The Killing Joke and her career as Oracle — but, in this version, up until now she’s never met Helena Bertinelli, and Bertinelli only becomes the Huntress in this issue, so all those Birds of Prey back issues are still out of continuity. Fans of those old books should like this, though — there are a couple of callbacks to the original, and the Barbara/Dinah Lance/Helena dynamics are set up smoothly, and with affection for those characters. Hellblazer does a similar job of setting up its title character and his familiar elements in this introductory issue: in London, fighting a demon with bluff, trickery and magic (and in that order), and generally being the semi-tragic rogue we all know so well. The Moritat art helps considerably; he takes some of the same pleasure in drawing demons, women and Constantine himself that Simon Bisley used to, and that comes through in the graphics. Justice League starts its ongoing series after its “Rebirth” intro two weeks ago, and the Hitch script is still broad and basic: introducing each of the major players, focusing on Wonder Woman, then the Green Lanterns and Aquaman, and then a little on Batman, Cyborg and the Flash. Daniels does his usually dependable job on the art, but, oddly for an artist, Hitch’s script gives him few chances to shine; when the only splash pages belong to that Snickers ad in the middle of the book, you know that someone’s missing a bet to attract readers. Batman sees writer King continuing to set up his new characters (whom, given King’s history, you just know something horrible is going to happen to eventually), with Finch even more solid at the classic-superhero stuff than Daniels; this issue lacks any of the wtf? moments of the first two, but so far has done a good job filling the shoes of its hard-act-to-follow predecessor. Superman‘s been topping it, by doing even better than its New-52 counterparts (except for the Grant Morrison Action run, and the first few issues of last year’s “depowered/identity exposed” arc), with its married-to-Lois and father-to-a-super-son Clark adding an unpredictable freshness to what might otherwise be just another battle of wits with Luthor, or punchout with some other old foe. Astro City, always a thoughtful and beautifully-rendered comic, uses those skills to present a story about an almost-minstrel-show hero defending the African-American section of town in the very early 1900s, and do it without being patronizing or wince-worthy: a neat trick, that, and a tribute to Busiek and Anderson’s storytelling chops.
Hellcat #8 — Writer: Kate Leth; Art: Britney L. Williams; Colors: Rachelle Rosenberg
Ultimates #9 — Writer: Al Ewing; Art: Kenneth Rocafort and Ojibail Morissette; Colors: Dan Brown
Spider-Man/Deadpool #7 — Writer: Gerry Duggan; Art: Scott Koblish; Colors: Val Staples
Not many Marvels this week, but a couple of good ones: Black Widow is rounding out its first arc in high style, as Waid and Samnee have Natasha trying to prevent some unspecified dark secret from getting out; next issue, if it’s the conclusion, should help show whether this book will have some of the hearty optimism of their previous Daredevil, or will go more toward dark, espionage-weary cynicism. Hellcat’s a Civil War II tie-in, meaning that book’s own normal optimism gets overshadowed by Jen/She-Hulk being in a coma, due to events in that series. There’s not much action except in flashbacks, but it’s an affecting we’re-all-family moment for the supporting cast, one of those single-issue pauses that enhances everybody’s character, and Williams’s art makes even the talking heads dynamic and fun to watch. Ultimates is another Civil War II tie-in, post-Banner-death, but it’s more a regular Ultimates than a crossover, mostly about the team using the Inhumans’ future-casting abilities to corral a possible Earth-threatening cosmic menace. This has been a brainy, character-oriented comic with big ideas all along, and this issue continues those elements. Spider-Man, another tie-in, is mostly talking: Miles with his friends, and then a big conversation between him and Tony Stark. Since writer Bendis is also scripting Civil War II, it offers an in-depth look at Stark’s conflicts and concerns about the whole future-viewing thing, as he tries to get a fresh perspective on it from the younger Miles. Otherwise, it advances the book’s soap-opera subplots and relationships OK, with another Bendis-oriented guest star — Jessica Jones — livening things up too. Guest artist Leon does a decent job making everyone look on-model, although the book’s regular artist, Sara Pichelli, is so good that she’s, inevitably, missed. Finally, Spider-Man/Deadpool says that it’s a fill-in issue, but it’s lying — the conceit is that they had to throw in a “lost” Spider-Man inventory issue shelved in the ’60s, but that’s just an excuse for the regular creative team to imagine Spidey and Deadpool as done by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko fifty years ago, with weird ’60s political satire reflecting back on today’s election chaos. Pretty funny, all told, and Koblish does a suitably-weird Ditko impersonation, so it’s a typical Deadpool project: offbeat and entertaining.