Jessica Jones #3 — Writer: Brian Michael Bendis; Art: Michael Gaydos; Colors: Matt Hollingsworth
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #15 — Writer: Ryan North; Art: Erica Henderson with Zac Gorman
Gwenpool Holiday Special: Merry Mix-Up #1 — Creators: Various
One often-ignored comics story of the last few years is how Marvel has been creating a stable of strong women-centric books; some of them have failed to stick (see: Mockingbird), but others have hung on and developed a following (Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which is practically invisible in regular comics stores, does big business through its Scholastic Books trades to tween middle-school students). They’re not all cut from the same mold, either: look at the variety of personalities in this week’s offerings. Hawkeye stars the Kate Bishop iteration of the character, who was a breakout star in the earlier Fraction/Aja Hawkeye and in Young Avengers; points off for calling her the “adorable archer” on the cover (although, if you squinted, you could see her being played on TV by Zooey Deschanel), but she is a bright, optimistic, strong-willed transplant to the West Coast who’s setting up a private-detective agency in Venice Beach (doesn’t everybody…?), and fighting crime with superhuman archery skills, athleticism, and idealism laced with irony. This first issue establishes the parameters, sets up an initial case that, as in any classic detective story, starts out small and innocuous and then opens up into something bigger, and charms readers with crisp, colorful art and its smart, sassy and self-aware narrator. Jessica Jones is a private-detective book, too, but (as viewers of the Netflix series, or the previous Marvel book it’s based on, Alias, know) its main character is considerably more cynical, scuffed up by tragedy and human failings and disappointment, but somehow with Kate’s same spark of idealism still buried deep in there, too: it’s what makes her so compelling. Bendis and Gaydos treat her like an old friend, fallen on hard times, and watching her navigate family strife and deal with PI cases in a super-powered world is as much — well, not “fun,” exactly,so let’s say “suspenseful and pleasurable” — as always. Squirrel Girl, on the other hand, is all about the fun, and this issue, told from the point of view of Nancy’s cat, Mew (who’s trying to have a normal day as, all around him, a big multi-character fight with the Taskmaster plays out), shows exactly the combination of smart, cute and surprisingly-sophisticated construction that’s made this book another big hit with the tween/Scholastic crowd. It’s not just for them, though — anybody who’s a comics fan should like it, too, because between North’s combination of clever asides and Marvel continuity, and Henderson’s precise, cartoony style (augmented by a couple of cat-dream sequences by stylish indy artist Zac Gorman), it really is unbeatable. Pair it with that Fraction/Aja Hawkeye issue told from the dog’s POV. Gwenpool Holiday Special is actually one of those Christmas anthologies (DC has one out this week, too), with a hook involving the sort-of-sociopathic fangirl from our Earth, somehow transported to the Marvel universe, and her discovery that the holiday traditions of her new home have mysteriously changed (i.e., there’s no Santa, but now Galactus brings gifts to everyone). Her solving that mystery is the framework for a number of other stories — involving the Miles Morales Spider-Man, the Punisher, Fin Fang Foom, the Red Skull, and Deadpool — which gives us the opportunity to see work by a bunch of newer artists and writers: besides Christopher Hastings (Gwenpool’s regular writer) and Ryan North again, there’s Karla Pacheco and Nick Kocher on scripts, and Myisha Haynes, Nathan Stockman, Oscar Bazaldua and Bruno Oliveira doing the drawing. If you don’t mind your comics light-hearted instead of serious (and, in a Christmas book, that’s what you want, right?) then this is worth checking out.
Doctor Strange/Punisher: Magic Bullets #1 (of 4) — Writer: John Barber; Storyboards: Jason Muhr; Art: Andrea Broccardo; Colors: Andres Mossa
Spider-Man #10 — Writer: Brian Michael Bendis; Art: Nico Leon; Colors: Marte Gracia and Rachelle Rosenberg
Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #2 — Writer: Gerry Conway; Art: Ryan Stegman; Colors: Sonia Oback
Guardians of the Galaxy #15 — Writer: Brian Michael Bendis; Art: Valerio Schiti; Colors: Richard Isanove
Inhumans vs X-Men #1 picks up from the #0 a few weeks ago: when Hank McCoy reports that the terrigen cloud will soon stop being a cloud, and disperse throughout the earth’s atmosphere (making the planet uninhabitable for all mutants), Emma Frost and Magneto start putting her long-gestating plan into action, and everything both mutant and inhuman begins to hit the fan. Soule and Lemire combine for lots of twists and turns, and Yu does his usual competent job of delineating all the dozens and dozens of characters involved; this will stretch into early March before it’s done (assuming that it’s all published on time), and since after that Marvel has a bunch of new X-titles launching, I think we can see where it’s going. If you aren’t exhausted by all the recent crossover events, this looks like a pretty good one; Frost, especially, having seen her lover Cyclops die from the mists, is out for blood, and Soule and Lemire make her especially formidable. The other debut this week is also a mini-series, and is one of those books whose title pretty much tells you everything: Doctor Strange/Punisher: Magic Bullets has Frank Castle encountering a hellgate in a mobbed-up restaurant he’s shooting up, so he turns to Doc for help — but, with magic all wonky and subdued, it’s going to be a lot harder for the Sorcerer Supreme than it used to be; fortunately, the Punisher’s guns still work just fine. The art is in the Chris Bachalo/Ben Templesmith neighborhood, at least for the magical creatures and effects, so it’s OK, and fans of either main character should be satisfied with this comic. Spider-Man #10 sees Miles’s friends finding him in the aftermath of Secret Wars II, so it has mild spoilers for the last issue of that comic (out, supposedly, within the next two weeks…), and, despite the cover, which makes it look like there’s lots of chasing and punching, it mostly takes place in Miles’s dorm room as he describes some of what happened (since it’s written by Bendis, the writer on Civil Wars II, at least we know it’s canonical). Bendis is typically strong at the conversational stuff, so as long as you don’t mind a quiet character study, and a coda to a book that hasn’t come out yet, it’s decent. Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows continues the look at the alternate timeline where Peter stayed married to Mary Jane, they have a young-teen daughter (named “Annie May,” not just “May,” like in the old Spider-Girl books), and all three are costumed heroes, thanks to a power-duplicating suit Mary Jane wears. Bronze Age Amazing Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway employs considerable skill and a light touch; whether readers will be put off by stories that aren’t part of the “real” Marvel universe has yet to be determined, although it’s worth noting that the old Spider-Girl title went for over 130 issues, and had a devoted fan base. Old Man Logan sees that title character battling Dracula to save a possessed Jubilee, aided by the Howling Commandoes of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the monster-mash versions). Points added for taking just two issues to do this, instead of trying to stretch it to full-trade size; the condensed page count eliminates any padding, and so it just zips along entertainingly — nice cover, too, up to the left there. Guardians of the Galaxy is almost entirely a Thing solo story, as he readjusts to Earth (the Guardians’s spaceship having gotten all smashed up there, keeping them planetside for awhile), talks to S.H.I.E.L.D., and ends up right about where he is at the end of the second issue of Infamous Iron Man; since Bendis wrote both books (he’s got three out just on this list this week), it all synchs up nicely. It looks from the “next issue” blurbs like each Guardian will be getting a solo spotlight, with Groot on deck, so fans of that language-challenged alien flora should keep watch for GOTG #16.
You can’t accuse DC of scrimping on their holiday special: it’s got 100 pages for $9.99, and the bookend/interspersed material has Harley Quinn written by Paul Dini and drawn by Elsa Charretier; there are ten other stories, most of them ten pages long, so let’s just give the credits and move on: a Superman/Batman team-up by Tim Seeley and Ian Churchill; Superboy and Krypto by Eric Esquivel, Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund; Batman and Detective Chimp by Heath Carson and Gustavo Duarte; Wonder Woman and John Constantine by Mariko Tamaki and Matias Bergara; The Flash by James Tynion IV and Robbi Rodriguez; New Suoer-Man by Gene Luen Yang and Andrea Mutti; Batwoman by K. Perkins and Paola Pantalena; The Titans by James Asmus and Reilly Brown; Batgirl and Nightwing by Bill Freiberger and Thomas Pitilli; and the Green Lanterns by Steve Orlando and Vita Ayala, V. Ken Marion and Mick Gray. That’s a lot of talent, and considering you’re getting five times the story pages for three+ times the price, it’s an effective stocking stuffer.
Rockstars #1 — Writer: Joe Harris; Art: Megan Hutchison; Colors: Kelly Fitzpatrick
Shadows on the Grave #1 — Creator: Richard Corben
Of the new indy titles, the Stephen Universe special, like the DC holiday one, offers a bunch of donut-centric stories involving the Cartoon Network kid and his mostly-gem-derived friends. Here’s the list of creators: Sara Talmadge, Queenie Chan, Katie Jones, Rii Abrego, Ayme Sotuyo, T. Zysk, Nichole Andelfinger and Cara McGee. At $7.99, it’s another effective stocking stuffer, especially for any younger readers on your list, who are sure to have encountered the cartoon. Rockstars is by Joe Harris (Great Pacific, Snowfall), and is a horror book involving rock and roll legends, demonic groupies, a conspiracy theorist and a plucky girl reporter; Hutchison gets off a couple of neat scary panels on the art. Shadows of the Grave is horror, too (if the title wasn’t enough of a tipoff…), but it’s by a considerably more experienced artist: Richard Corben, who offers tales of living mutant puppets, killer trees (the, um, root of that striking cover image) battered wives and barbarians in his patented EC-by-way-of-air-brush style. Red Sonja #0 starts out as a typical barbarian book, too, starring the red-headed Conan sometime-companion, but takes an unexpected twist by the end — one that Sonja’s had happen to her before, but it’s always an intriguing gimmick, and at least one of the sketch pages in the back shows that it might last awhile. That should be enough to bring readers of this 25-cent sampler (although it’s full-size, with 16 pages of story and a couple of those sketch pages, too) back for the real, and more expensive, first issue in a few weeks.
Mayday #2 (of 5) — Writer: Alex de Campi; Art: Tony Parker; Colors: Blond
Moonshine #3 — Writer: Brian Azzarello; Art/Colors: Eduardo Risso
Hillbilly #4 — Creator: Eric Powell
Art and Beauty Magazine #3 — Creator: Robert Crumb
Motor Girl continues Terry Moore’s new serial about a burned-out vet who’s a mechanic at a junkyard in Nevada; she may or may not be hallucinating about the cartoony aliens and their damaged UFOs who keep showing up for help, but she’s definitely imagining the talking-gorilla sidekick. Moore’s previous series are Strangers in Paradise, Echo, and Rachel Rising, so it’s safe to say this one will have a deep backstory, complicated relationships, and a bunch of straight-ahead adventure too, and that this would be a good time to catch it in its infancy. Mayday is Alex de Campi’s early-’70s California thriller involving Russian and US agents chasing some maguffin microfilm; de Campi’s No Mercy has demonstrated her knack for showing appalling behavior with a clear eye, and it’s used to good effect here: the whole comic spans maybe a half hour, and would make an intense (and bloody) ten-minute action sequence in a cool B movie. Moonshine is getting to that point in an Azzarello comic where I have no idea what’s going on, but watching Risso draw werewolves and mobsters in Prohibition-era Appalachia is more than reward enough. Hillbilly is Eric Powell (Goon) working similar backwoods territory to tell a folktale about an enchanted fiddle and the backroads-wandering avenger who has to fight its effects; really nice art, and if you used to love those early Mike Mignola Hellboy stand-alone ghost stories, it will make you happy. War Stories is the third of a four-part Ennis tale about British air force fighters defending the homeland during WWII, with his typical blend of relationship drama, well-researched historical realism, stiff-upper-lip humor and meditations about what makes a good soldier. Finally, Art and Beauty Magazine is comics legend Robert Crumb’s set of meditations on the many varieties of the female form, fully clothed, complete with captions that sometimes sound like they’re parodying one of those ’50s high-art sexploitation journals, and sometimes seem like sincere appreciations of all those visual-cortex-arousing curves and dips. The art itself is fascinating, with expert crosshatching, use of light and shadow and positioning reminding us just how skilled this guy is; his obsessions are our rewards.