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Comics Panel: January 31, 2008

Much like TV shows, comics series tend to run on and on until the audience dries up, so it's always a particular satisfaction when a series ends deliberately and with thought, implying that there was a plan all along beyond "Keep stringing this out as long as it makes money." In 2002, Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man introduced an irresistible premise, in which every male on Earth spontaneously died, except for one callow kid named Yorick and his capuchin monkey, Ampersand. Over the series' terrific, surprise-filled 60-issue run, Vaughan explored the politics and sociology of a world without men, as Yorick and his protectors traveled the globe, looking for answers about the causes of the "male holocaust," and dodging the various splinter groups looking to kill Yorick, claim him, or use him for their own ends. Having addressed the central mysteries, Vaughan wraps up the series this month with issue 60, which jumps 60 years into the future to suggest how his world will eventually shape up. Flashbacks tie up a few loose ends from the "present," but a good bit of the 48-page issue deals with a conversation between an 80-something, irascible old Yorick and a young Yorick clone who's just reached the age Yorick was when the series started. It's a bizarre coda, deliberately open-ended, yet without the sense that a sequel's on the way. Simultaneously reminiscent of Martha Washington Dies and the end of Dave Sim's Cerebus, it leaves a lot of questions about how the world has changed in the interim and what comes next, but it also suggests that an era has ended, that the future is wide open, and that the story is vaster and deeper than can be summed up in the life of one protagonist. It isn't entirely satisfying, but it's still pretty classy… B+

Vaughan is getting a lot of justifiable attention for that series climax, but there's scarcely a bum entry in his bibliography, even among the lower-profile projects. A recent hardcover collects all six issues of The Escapists (Dark Horse), a project spinning off from Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay. Here, a Cleveland elevator repairman uses his inheritance to purchase the rights to Kavalier and Clay's superhero creation. Working with a pair of friends, he finds unexpected success and the unwanted attention of a major corporation wanting to pick up on a hot property. It's a fun, sweet, sharply funny read that smuggles in a smart study of creativity and innovation in a culture that naturally inclines toward homogenization… A

There's been a lot of hype about issue #34 of the latest Captain America (Marvel) series, since it debuts a new Captain America following the high-profile assassination of Steve Rogers. Cap's old WWII buddy Bucky steps into the role; he's a troubled young man who—and this is going to sound really silly if you haven't been reading the comic, but it honestly does work—spent decades serving as a brainwashed assassin for the Soviet Union, until he was forced into suspended animation between jobs. But Bucky's been on the path to redemption lately, culminating in his assumption of the Captain America role. The smartly action-packed issue isn't all that remarkable, in the context of Ed Brubaker's reinvention of the character. Like the lead-up issues, #34 carefully balances real contemporary anxieties like terrorism and economic instability with over-the-top superhero action. Though the original man may not have survived the transition—though don't count Rogers out yet—Brubaker has gracefully, if noisily, dragged Cap and his supporting cast of sidekicks and villains into the 21st century… A-

The first trade paperback of Gail Simone and Neil Googe’s Welcome To Tranquility (Wildstorm) collects the series’ first six issues, in which the town of Tranquility—a kind of retirement colony for superheroes—witnesses the murder of one of its most upstanding citizens, and an investigation reveals some of the town’s dirtiest secrets. Generally speaking, it’s preferable for writers to come up with their own characters rather than messing around with the continuity and consistency of pre-existing cultural icons, but Simone’s cast and premise are so beholden to series like Watchmen, Astro City, Powers, and The Golden Age that even with all-new names and costumes, nothing about it feels fresh. It’s solid superheroics, but nothing special.… C

Oddly enough, Simone has better luck playing with the big guns in the recently collected JLA: The Hypothetical Woman (DC), in which she and artists José Luis Garcia-López, Klaus Janson, and Sean Phillips pit the DC Universe’s premier super-team against a fascist dictator’s army of newly minted supervillains. The story collapses into mayhem by its final chapters, as these kinds of stories too often do, but Simone balances the personalities of the Justice League well, whether she’s having them debate their political responsibilities, or take a moment to enjoy an Amazonian pastry that Wonder Woman baked. In an inversion of Tranquility, Simone makes familiar heroes seem new… B

Even readers who haven't followed every fine new wrinkle in the ongoing saga of former X-Men leader Storm should find a lot to like about Eric Jerome Dickey's Storm miniseries, now collected in a Marvel Comics trade paperback. A team of artists give an appealingly uncluttered look to Dickey's story of Storm's teenage years, when she was orphaned in Africa, working as a pickpocket, and coming to grips with her emerging mutant powers. In Storm, her weather-controlling abilities largely take a back seat to political intrigue and romance—the former in the form of a group of mercenaries on the hunt for Storm, and the latter in the form of a young T'challa, who grows up to be the hero Black Panther, and Storm's husband. The coincidences between this new Storm backstory and the character's current continuity are a little forced, but taken on its own, Dickey's Storm is a rousing adventure story, expertly told… B+

In the second volume of Fantagraphics' collected Thimble Theater, E.C. Segar's slugging sailor Popeye battles cattle rustlers, gets involved with geopolitics, and meets a strange character named J. Wellington Wimpy, whose dedication to hamburger sandwiches knows no equal. Popeye Vol. 2: “Well, Blow Me Down” is every bit as well-designed as its predecessor, but it's even more entertaining, since by 1931 and '32, Segar had figured out how to use Popeye as a straight man, reacting to the craziness around him—whereas before, he was the craziness. "Well, Blow Me Down" also deepens the relationship between Popeye and Olive Oyl, who take turns breaking up with each other in a storyline that sets aside the frenetic pace of Popeye's usual two-fisted adventures in favor of some hilarious wallowing. Four short years after creating Popeye, Segar was starting to realize the full extent of what his little brawler could do… A

Surely it's only a matter of time before Blondie gets the archival treatment that other legacy strips have enjoyed lately, but until that day, amateur comics historians will have to make do with Blondie: The Bumstead Family History (Thomas Nelson), an era-spanning collection that leans heavily on the last 10 years, and only offers a smattering of strips from the '30s and '90s, and none from the '40s to the '80s. The few pages of '30s material show a strip with storylines as complicated—and comic hijinks as fast-paced—as contemporary strips like Thimble Theater and Gasoline Alley, and that little taste makes the case for future chronological Blondie collections. But even though the current incarnation of Blondie is often held up as an example of the gag-a-day newspaper strip at its most creatively bankrupt, the series still displays a fair amount of visual snap and decent comic timing, even when the jokes are predictable. The recent material may not deserve the glossy presentation of a coffee table book, but it's hardly an embarrassment, either… B

It's no big surprise, but Mark Verheiden's The Evil Dead (Dark Horse) is pretty much only for fans of the original Sam Raimi movie; the first issue expands a wee bit on the lives of Ash (Evil Dead's iconic protagonist, played by Bruce Campbell) before they entered that cabin in the woods, and it adds an Ash "voiceover" to the story for lines like "Scotty had promised us a remote location, beautiful scenery, the perfect place to get laid. And maybe it was, if your girlfriend was deaf, dumb, and blind and if you didn't mind seeing her transformed into some shrieking harpie-bitch from hell!" But mostly, it just plays out the action of the movie, with John Bolton's lovingly detailed paintings of eye-rolling, blood-spurting, gap-toothed zombies replacing Raimi's lo-fi original. It's sort of a visual upgrade, but it lacks the original's spastic energy and camp humor, which doesn't leave much but a herky-jerky rendition of an already-familiar story… C

A more promising Dark Horse series debut comes in the form of issue #1 of The End League, written by Fear Agent's Rick Remender and penciled by Mat Broome, a Valiant vet whose graphic density rivals Gene Ha's. Remender's concept for the series is similarly dense and layered: Over the first 24-page issue, he establishes a complicated world history, introduces 10 superheroes, crams them full of personal and interpersonal issues, and throws them into a big fight. The backstory sounds strangely familiar to that of George R.R. Martin's shared-world series Wild Cards: In 1962, the superhero Astonishman makes an error in judgment that blankets the world in alien radiation, killing billions and granting a small percentage of the survivors extraordinary powers and/or mutated bodies. Eventually, the resulting supervillains band together to destroy most of the resulting superheroes, though a few remain to mount an ongoing, troubled anti-villain guerilla action. The first issue is emotionally dark and narratively cluttered, but so was Fear Agent's first storyline, and that series has evened out considerably over time. Issue #1 of The End League carries echoes of series from Top 10 to X-Men, which might be dubious in less practiced hands, but Remender's earned a few issues' worth of faith that he's going somewhere good. If nothing else, the whole issue is worth it just for Brother Occult's peevish answer to Astonishman's post-apocalyptic morbid wallowing: "Do not force the creation of a hex doll in your likeness that I might command you…" B

How about some more series debuts? Image's latest batch includes 76 #1, a black-and-white issue crowded with era trivia and split into two stories. The first, "Jackie Karma," is a heavily crosshatched-and-shadowed '70s noir set in 1976 New York, where a warning from a new arrival in town ("I been gone a while, but I'm back now, and I'm not taking any shit from you kung fu motherfuckers") sets in motion a low-key series of events with unclear meaning or consequences. It feels a little like the first few pages of a Dashiell Hammett book, moved forward in time several decades, but it cuts off just as it feels like something might actually happen. The second half, "Cool," takes place in 1976 Los Angeles, looks like something out of Mad magazine, and feels like a Quentin Tarantino pastiche. A drug deal goes bad, people die, a girl runs, a dwarf crime boss calls in a heavy. All of this is presumably going somewhere, but neither story gets enough space to develop much, and it all feels more like a teaser-trailer than a story. Also new from Image: Shark-Man #1, from writer-artist-letterer Steve Pugh, who kicks out some terrific color images—particularly of a creepy, fangy villain—but could maybe use some help in the scripting department. The first issue introduces an unmistakably Batman-like figure whose vast wealth founded the canal-ridden, ultra-modern city of New Venice, and whose underwater superheroics help protect the city. Factor in the loyal, protective butler-assistant; the cave hideaway; and the animal-themed costume, vehicles, and paraphernalia, and it all feels a little rote, though it's mighty pretty. Less pretty: all the typos, which make an otherwise slick comic look like amateur hour… Both: C+

After a big pile of superhero comics, the quiet introversion of Ben Towle's Midnight Sun (Slave Labor) is a relief. Much like Nick Abadzis' recent Laika, Midnight Sun takes a removed but compassionate fictionalized look at a historical event, building characters and motivations around known facts. In this case, it's the 1928 disappearance of an Italian airship making an excursion to the North Pole; a faltering, alcoholic American journalist is sent north to follow the story, and winds up aboard a Russian ship, where he irritates his Russian journalist counterpart, a prickly woman engaged to one of the missing fliers. Towle's story could use more focus; he jumps back and forth in time, giving equal lack of weight to his searchers and to the stranded airship survivors, who make camp, squabble among themselves, and split into factions. In the end, he doesn't reach any particular conclusions about any of the events or the characters; no strong protagonist steps forward, and many of the characters seem indistinguishable from each other. The book could be considered a slice of life, if the events in those lives weren't so extraordinary. Still, his simple, dignified art and methodical delivery are lulling and hypnotic, and it's easy to get drawn into the absorbing story. B