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August 21, 2009

A former college football star with a busted knee works as a salesman at a car lot. He’s no good at his job; the boss keeps him around because the last flickers of his fame are still enough to draw in the rubes, but as far as selling goes, the guy is better at screwing the customers’ wives than closing deals. The boss gives him one last chance—help keep the boss’ hot, scandal-hungry daughter out of the papers. It’s a steady paycheck, and if the looks the daughter keeps throwing him are any indication, there’ll be on-the-job benefits. Filthy Rich (Vertigo) is the kind of graphic novel Brian Azzarello could do in his sleep: sleazy, steamy, and full of familiar noir touchstones. But when the results are this solid, who’d want it any other way? Noirs are essentially tragedies with cigarettes and neckties, and knowing it’ll all go to hell before the end just makes the ride downward more gripping. Azzarello’s script is clever and nasty, and Victor Santos’ art captures every lingering stare and wicked smile. It all builds to an ending that surprises without upsetting the mold. Sometimes falling from grace puts a guy just a few inches left from where he started… A-

It’s hard to talk about Ian Rankin’s Dark Entries (Vertigo) without spoiling its central twist, if only because the book’s initial premise isn’t all that promising. Perpetual bastard John Constantine gets a visit from a television producer with a special pitch: He’s working on a new reality show that’s designed to terrify its sequestered contestants, but something about the current group of pretty young things has attracted a real live haunting. The producer wants Constantine to come by and figure out the problem—for a fee, of course. Never one to pass up a buck, Constantine goes along, eventually getting inside the house of horrors itself. Then things get interesting. Trying to integrate popular trends into comics is a tough gig, and the reality-show gimmick has been old since Richard Hatch stopped making the cover of Entertainment Weekly, but Rankin, a crime novelist, has a few tricks up his sleeve. Entries lacks the wit of Constantine’s best stories, and the deeper moments are more like covers of old hits, but it’s still a decent, gory yarn. The only trick is going in knowing there’s more to it than Big Brother Meets Scooby DooB+ 

A small town gets an unexpected visitation of evil when a pair of locals open a book of unfathomable power in North 40 (Wildstorm), a new ongoing series from writer Aaron Willams (Nodwick) and artist Fiona Staples. Two issues in, the setups seem to be little more than an excuse to set a lot of monsters loose in the middle of nowhere, as a bunch of locals try to deal with forces beyond their ability to comprehend. It’s a thin premise, but hardly a bad one, and Staples’ icky/sketchy art makes the pages fly by… B

Any relationship between the new miniseries The Marvels Project (Marvel) and Marvels, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ popular from-the-ground look at the Marvel Universe, is pretty superficial. “Marvels” now seems to be a catch-all name the company uses for series that look at familiar bits of the Marvel story from a different angle. It doesn’t matter, though: The first episode of this eight-issue series revisiting Marvel’s World War II era would be worth reading under any name. Ed Brubaker (Captain America) scripts and Steve Epting provides moody art for a story that grounds characters like Sub Mariner and the original Human Torch in a concrete historical context. The former rages against a Nazi-on-sea-people atrocity, while the latter becomes an object of international intrigue. It’s a strong start for what has every sign of developing into a great series… A-

Is it a slight against Geoff Johns’ skills as a writer to say he can make an issue in which virtually nothing happens compelling on its own terms? Johns pens the revived Adventure Comics (DC), which returns either as a first issue or as issue #504, depending on how you look at it. A resurrected Superboy, Connor Kent spends the issue getting readjusted to life in Smallville as he attends class and tries to carry on Superman’s legacy. Only the final page suggests there may be a greater drama going on beneath the surface. Johns seems comfortable letting the story play out at its own pace, and any slack gets picked up by Francis Manapul, whose gorgeous pencils help make this revival as welcome as it is unsurprising… B+

Any series with art from Philip Bond (The Invisibles, Kill Your Boyfriend) deserves a look, but Red Herring (Wildstorm) would be off to an intriguing start even without it. Written by David Tischman (American Century), the first issue doesn’t get much beyond a starting point, but it looks to be a knowing, if not yet distinctive, take on science-fiction and conspiracy-thriller clichés. The debut lays out elements like a UFO cover-up and some questionable politicians without really explaining what it’s all about. But the fact that it features a character named “The Red Herring” and another one named Maggie MacGuffin makes for a pretty strong clue as to where the plot’s heading… B-

Speaking of intriguing starts, Marvel has made its first foray into motion comics with the downloadable-at-the-iTunes-store Spider-Woman. A not-always-satisfying mix of static figures, shifting backgrounds, and changing perspectives, the format still seems a little half-baked. Still, it looks good, thanks to art from Alex Maleev. But then it would probably look just as good on the page. The presence of Brian Michael Bendis promises a decent story, but—and this is a considerable problem—the voice talent seems to have been cobbled together from whoever wandered into the studio. Nicolette Reed’s affectless delivery gets the words right, but little else. Maybe someday somebody will adapt this into a comic book. That might work… C

The first story arc of Matt Wagner’s Madame Xanadu wound up being pretty disappointing. The opening issues, filled with Amy Reeder Hadley’s fine-boned, rich art and an unusual Arthurian fantasy setting, promised something unusual for the Vertigo imprint, something rich and strange and entirely its own. And then the series settled down into a sadly predictable sort of star-crossed DC-magic-realm romance, as the name-changing, long-lived titular character pursued The Phantom Stranger across time and through familiar historical events and periods. Projecting her own fantasies onto him, she stalks him like a crazed admirer while getting ever more frustrated with his goals, and remaining completely unwilling to listen to anything he says. The same dynamic played out across the first 10 issues, like a bad rom-com that just happened to feature magic and an old DC stalwart as the romantic lead. The trade Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted (Vertigo) collects the whole thing in one place and brings it to a seeming end. But the series continues, and the follow-up plotline at least so far seems more willing to stand alone instead of depending on familiar DC characters to give it form and a somewhat embarrassing purpose. There’s still time for it to develop into its own thing, with a protagonist whose goals reach beyond an irritating, ain’t-women-silly schoolyard crush… C+

Speaking of silly women, there are few sillier than the titular (huh huh huh) character in Adam Warren’s Empowered, and yet she manages to maintain her charm no matter how exploitive Warren’s just-this-side-of-porn books get. Empowered Volume 5 (Dark Horse) continues to advance the series’ overall plot, with more revelations about the nature of Empowered’s easily damaged super-suit and the powers it gives her. It also contains more revelations about her sexual kinks. Warren continually skips back and forth across the line between sheer exploitation, superhero parody, and a solid, gripping story, and it’s generally worth tuning into the book just for that balancing act. One minute, Empowered’s getting tied up and spanked by a saucy cat-themed villainette; the next, an authentically terrifying supervillain is slaughtering her compatriots and threatening her entire superhero community. It’s impossible to know what to expect from these books on a minute-to-minute basis, except guilty, guilty fun… B+

Anyone lucky enough to own the Howard Cruse anthology Dancin’ Nekkid With The Angels won’t have much use for Cruse’s new collection From Headrack To Claude: Collected Gay Comix (Nifty Kitsch), since the best pieces in the latter book previously appeared in the former. But since Dancin’ Nekkid is out of print, From Headrack To Claude might be the best chance comics fans have to catch up on some of the finest stories of the ’80s. Cruse is an underground cartoonist best known for his contributions to Heavy Metal and for the lightly philosophical series Barefootz before he took on the editorship of the new anthology Gay Comix in 1980. Having recently come out of the closet himself, Cruse had a lifetime’s worth of experiences and emotions he was eager to share, and in stories like “Jerry Mack” (about a furtive fling between a young divinity student and his artist buddy), “I Always Cry At Movies” (about the pain of a breakup), “Billy Goes Out” (about what goes through one man’s mind while cruising the bars) and “Dirty Old Lovers” (about the alternately endearing and embarrassing spectacle of aging queens), Cruse provided a window into gay life that was largely missing from all media at the time, let alone comics. Throughout the decade, Cruse documented the devastation of AIDS and his frustrations with an American society turning increasingly conservative. From Headrack To Claude includes context-setting introductions by Cruse, and even though most of this material has been reprinted before (several times, in some cases), what’s most frustrating about the book is that it serves as a reminder of how little we’ve seen from Cruse since his masterful graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby. A cartoonist, storyteller, and essayist this good shouldn’t be so idle… A-

Brother Mario is the forgotten hermano of the Hernandez clan. Although he played a prominent role in the early days of Love & Rockets, and he’s appeared sporadically in the book since then, his un-ironic love of genre fiction and his less-than-stellar art haven’t made him the best fit with his brothers. That said, Citizen Rex (Dark Horse) may be just the venue for him. With brother Beto handling the bulk of the art chores (and engaging in some throwback sci-fi cheesecake we haven’t seen from him in decades), Mario is freed up to work some straightforward but nonetheless compelling narrative magic. The story involves gossip columnist Sergio Bauntin, whose scribblings have earned him the unwanted attention of the secret police and the crime boss Tango Bangaree. Bauntin begins to investigate the ultimate fate of a long-vanished robot celebrity, which opens up tangible and philosophical enigmas. The art is superb—it’s some of Gilberto’s best work in years, and branching out past his usual material has obviously inspired him—but the story, while intriguing, bears very little reward in the early going. Still, it’s got enough hooks to keep readers tuned in through the next issue, and there’s nothing wrong with seeing Los Bros stretching a bit… B

One of the most anticipated superhero title debuts of the year, the new incarnation of Doom Patrol (DC) has finally arrived, and so far, it’s worth the wait. Keith Giffen, by his own admission, has been lobbying for a shot at the title for years, and in the first issue, he seems to find a solid balance between the bizarre surrealism of Grant Morrison’s take on the team and the maudlin, fatalistic feel of the original series. Matt Clark’s artwork is far better than expected, and while the storytelling is hampered early on by some heavy-handed exposition, that’s likely a necessary evil that will disappear by the second issue. Neither excessively goofy nor unnecessarily grim, Giffen’s take on the DP is worthy of the group’s reputation. Best of all, there’s a full-size Metal Men backup in each issue, also written by Giffen (and a bit heavier on the laughs, for fans of his humorous take on the genre) and drawn by Kevin Maguire, his collaborator on the late, great Justice League International. That makes Doom Patrol a bargain as well as a good read… B+

Every writer and every artist approaches familiar characters in a new way; part of the fun of communally written properties like Superman and Batman is seeing how a new writer will tackle the bare bones of their mythos. That said, sometimes a new vision crosses the line into ridiculous and/or creepy. Which is indubitably the case with X-Men Misfits Volume 1 (Del Rey), a manga re-envisioning of the X-Men that reads like self-insertion fanfic by an irony-challenged teenage girl. In this kickoff volume, angsty 15-year-old mutant Kitty Pryde finds herself the only girl at Professor Xavier’s mutant school, where the best and the brightest of the bishonen boys invite her into their elitist “Hellfire Club,” a group of big-eyed, spike-haired teen asswipes (among them, Pyro, Havok, Longshot, Quicksilver, and Angel) who lounge around in illusory beachfront cabanas in the Danger Room, admiring themselves and each other. Natch, they all want to date her (Angel: “Are you ready to be my girlfriend? One kiss, and you’ll be soaring…”), but golly gosh, they aren’t very nice, and Kitty kind of feels like an accessory. The whole book reads like a Japanese dating sim with familiar X-Men names and trappings, as Kitty learns a bit about her powers, but mostly watches all the boys preen and pick on the other teenage X-Men, and tries to deal with her feelings for Iceman, the one boy at the school who seems immune to her charms. This is eye-rolling, hilarious stuff, packed with familiar manga tropes (the characters go into super-deformed chibi mode on every other page, while Kitty sprouts cat ears and a tail every time she feels remotely curious, playful, or mischievous), and a general attempt at young-girl appeal. Take Vision Of Escaflowne, add 10 more male romantic interests, and cover it all with X-Men character skins, and this is exactly what it’d look like… D+

Sophia Wiedeman’s strange little Xeric-winning indie The Deformitory (Heart Monster Press) feels like a girlish fantasy in a very different way. The simple but achingly strange black-and-white book links a series of stories about the sad, creepy residents of a tower-house called the Deformitory, home to creatures that don’t fit in anywhere else, like the mermaid whose lower half is a giant sea-slug rather than a fish. The most poignant story involves a lonely woman whose hands mysteriously morph into snakelike companions, who keep her company and enrich her life, until they start to gang up on her. Wiedeman’s sketchy line art is basic but tremendously evocative, especially in her heartbreakingly expressive faces. And the dreamlike flow of the book, as it moves from character to character, suggests a far broader continuum of a world, something on the order of Castle Waiting with a deeper melancholy streak. Here’s hoping for more work from her in the future… B+

Last year, it looked like Marvel might be ready to launch a revival of its Western titles, with the campy Rawhide Kid series and a few one-shots of varying quality. It never happened, to the chagrin of those who miss the company’s occasional dabbling in non-superhero fare, and the new Kid Colt (Marvel) one-shot isn’t likely to satisfy them either. Its authenticity isn’t in question; as written by veteran editor Tom DeFalco, Kid Colt reads like it’s straight out of the 1970s. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing; a total lack of innovation or interpretation means that it comes across not as pleasingly familiar, but as boringly rote. It’s a standard story of bounty hunters and betrayal that Western fans have seen a million times. The format is partly to blame (it was originally developed as an online property and clumsily transferred to the now-cancelled Astonishing Tales), but the lack of inspiration has to rest on DeFalco. The usually reliable Rick Burchett handles the art chores, but he seems a bit distracted throughout, as if he’s in a hurry to finish up and move on to a more interesting book. And it’s hard to blame him… C

Though they weren’t comics themselves, the old Doc Savage and The Shadow pulp novels were an important precursor to the era of superhero comics. Their masterful, sometimes-lurid covers were a major influence on comic art (and often shared the same artists). Although they contained no art, their prose style was tight, action-packed, and economical. They portrayed individuals of superhuman power engaged in titanic struggles against larger-than-life villains. And the Shadow was a major component of the body of works that influenced Batman, just as Doc Savage would influence Superman, and his crew of colorful sidekicks would form a template for future super-teams. For several years now, the Doc Savage Double Novels and Shadow Double Novels (Nostalgia Ventures/Sanctum Productions), under the guidance of veteran comic-book colorist Tony Tollin, have been re-releasing the pulp adventures of these legendary heroes in slim, affordable volumes designed to get stories back into circulation after they’ve been out of print for decades. (This month saw the release of #28 and #29 of the series, respectively, but they don’t need to be read in sequential order.) The individual quality of the stories varies—some are pretty overwrought, while others are surprisingly fine-tuned suspense-action stories—but the collections themselves are rewarding. They contain tons of bonus material in addition to the two Lester Dent/Walter Gibson stories in each; there’s usually some historical background by Tollin, a guest essay by one of various writers or artists, original cover and interior art, vintage ads, and even oddities like scripts for the Shadow’s radio show. A must for collectors, these books should also appeal to anyone interested in the immediate predecessors to the superhero comics of the ’30s and ’40s… Shadow: B+; Doc Savage: B

Every one of Rick Geary’s Treasuries Of Murder (in both the “Victorian” series and the new “XXth Century” line) has been entertaining, enlightening, and a little unnerving, but Famous Players: The Mysterious Death Of William Desmond Taylor (NBM/ComicsLit) is one of the best, making good use of the double meaning in its title. The murder in question is the still-unsolved death of a respected Hollywood director who was under contract to the prestigious Famous Players Studio in the early ’20s. Like a lot of people who come to Hollywood—then and now—Taylor had a shady past, and when he was found dead in his parlor in 1922, the police came up with a long list of suspects among Taylor’s famous friends and his past low-life associates. Though none of the theories advanced for the crime were ever proven, the scandal of Taylor’s murder helped nudge Hollywood closer to self-censorship, in an effort to deflect complaints from Middle America about sexual immorality and other crimes against nature. But between the lines of Geary’s typically meticulous, wry dissection of the case, he subtly argues that to some extent, scandal is Hollywood’s main export, and the public prefers it that way. This is a true story filled with famous folk who play-act just as much when they’re off the clock, and whose private lives were as much a part of the day’s entertainment as a matinee or a radio play. Even now, more than 80 years later, Taylor’s untimely end is arguably more involving than any of the 60-odd movies he helmed… A-

It’s not really fair to cartoonist Brian Fies to compare his new book, Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow? (Abrams Comicarts) to David Mazzucchelli’s recent masterpiece Asterios Polyp, but the two have some key elements in common, and the brilliance of the latter illuminates what the former gets wrong. Like Mazzucchelli, Fies purposefully mixes styles, using charts, photographs, and reproductions of old comics to vary up his story of a father and son living through the technological leaps of the mid-20th century. And like Asterios Polyp, Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow? is practically an essay in graphic-novel form. Fies begins with the 1939 New York World’s Fair and then proceeds through the eras of post-war expansion and space exploration, all while pondering how and why the United States citizenry lost its taste for shared sacrifice in the cause of securing a brighter future. Fies builds the answer into the structure of his book, showing how anti-communist paranoia drove Americans to distrust the idea of sharing, even at the Cold War was simultaneously leading us to band together and build rockets. He makes a fascinating, nuanced argument, stumping for optimism while seeking to understand—without heavy-handed judgment—why optimism burns out so quickly. The problem is that Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow? posits all this without grounding it in much of a plot. Unlike Asterios Polyp’s memorable characters and sprawling narrative, Fies’ book sticks with two sketchy figures—a true-blue patriot and his wide-eyed little boy—and has them conform to stereotype over the course of four decades. During those four decades, the boy only ages from about 8 to 18, though that isn’t not an error, per se, because Fies isn’t drawing actual people; he’s drawing the idea of a father and son from 1939 to 1975. But even though the use of blank slates is intentional, that doesn’t make them any less blank. Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow? is useful and enjoyable for the way it reminds readers of bygone strands of progressive pop culture—from Disney’s “Tomorrowland” specials to the socially relevant superhero comics of the ’70s—but Fies’ work is too schematic to stand up to its influences… B

The five lengthy stories in Jason’s new hardback collection Low Moon (Fantagraphics) don’t have a lot in common, outside of the different ways each explores the comic and dramatic potential of the unexplained. In “Emily Says Hello,” Jason lets one woman’s murderous rage pass without comment; in “&,” two unrelated people move heaven and earth to get what they want, then fail for no clear reason; in “Proto Film Noir,” caveman-on-caveman violence takes a turn for the absurd; in “You Are Here,” a bickering couple travels to the stars and still can’t find happiness; and the title story, re-imagines the Western with old-timey bicycles and games of chess taking the place of horses and gunfights. As always with Jason’s work, Low Moon’s stories contain their share of deadpan comic moments, as expressionless characters swap mundane chatter during times of inordinate stress. And as always, these stories hinge on sudden acts of violence and desperation, exploring the way life keeps dragging on in their wake. Though Low Moon doesn’t have the slow-building impact of Jason’s longer works, he’s still one of comics’ best storytellers, and it’s always a treat to spend time in his world of off-brand pulp clichés and not-always-so-funny animals… B+

Once again, the latest collection of Stan Sakai’s always-stellar Usagi Yojimbo isn’t the greatest place for newbies to start, though it’s better than most, with an extended standalone story and a few little ones. But for the faithful fans, Usagi Yojimbo: Bridge Of Tears (Dark Horse) has a couple of particularly nifty bonuses: It also extends the ongoing saga of the demon Jei, setting up more of the story to come, and it incorporates the 100th issue, in which artists and pals like Rick Geary, Frank Miller, Sergio Aragonés, Matt Wagner, Mark Evanier, and more subject Sakai to an old-school comic roast. The whole thing is fairly cheesy, but it’s sweet, too, and the little peeks into his real life provided by their stories are a lot of fun. After so much time spent with the character, it’s kind of a little thrill to spend time with his creator and his creator’s industry buddies as well. A-