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July 10, 2009

Weekly comics have been a hit-and-miss proposition for DC since they were reintroduced a few years ago; 52 was largely a success, but it was followed up by the abysmal Countdown. Now comes the simply titled Wednesday Comics (DC), and if the first issue is any indication, it could be just what the industry needs. A series of (so far) unrelated episodic stories by a number of big-shot artists and writers, Wednesday Comics has a fascinating fold-out design that, along with the outstanding graphics (and terrific layout by editor Mark Chiarello), makes it one of the best-looking mainstream titles on the market. The stories are also solid so far; the Batman story by 100 Bullets team Brian Azarrello and Eduardo Risso is dark and appealing, Kyle Baker’s work on the Hawkman story is gorgeous and inventive, and Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook’s Kamandi tale is a fun throwback to the comic-strip-adventure era. All in all, it’s an excellent read, and while a weekly schedule is bound to take its toll even on the best work, Wednesday Comics is one of the best debuts in a long while… A

Image has also coughed up yet another thoroughly intriguing debut: John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew, a five-issue series about a cop who’s a “cibopath,” which is to say he gets impressions about the origins and nature of anything he eats. Which leads to him ingesting horrible bits of evidence, like severed rotting human fingers, in order to solve crimes. The first two issues walk a profoundly colorful line between comedy, caricature, and grim police drama, establishing a weirdo world where chicken has been outlawed (bird flu, supposedly), the FDA is “the most powerful law enforcement agency on the face of the planet,” and everyone’s behavior is pointedly loud and strident, yet the cases are deadly serious. These first issues are also terrifically dense, with packed panels and pages where Guillory’s cartoony character designs and richly layered coloring compress a ton of incident into a small space without seeming crowded or choked. Even the premise is oddball but appealingly fresh… A-

Hey, looks like Captain America isn’t dead after all. Or at least he’s a little less dead than before. In the recent, oversized Captain America #600 (Marvel), writer Ed Brubaker—with backup from writers Mark Waid and Roger Stern and a talented array of artists—surveys the state of the Marvel Universe and those close to Steve Rogers a year (in Marvel time) after his assassination. It’s a melancholy place filled with shifting alliances, and friends, associates, and those inspired by Cap struggling to carry on. The new miniseries Captain America Reborn—written by Brubaker and drawn by Bryan Hitch and Butch Guice—suggests the status quo may change, revealing that Rogers might actually be unstuck in time, Billy Pilgrim-style. Both continue the expected virtues of Brubaker’s run, playing out some only-in-comics ideas with somberness, depth, and political savvy. Anyone waiting for the quality to flag on one of the decade’s best superhero runs will have to wait a while longer… A

Cap isn’t the only hero getting reborn, sort of. Bruce Wayne is still dead as far as Gotham’s concerned—he’s actually a little unstuck in time himself—so former Robin Dick Grayson has taken over Batman duties. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s terrific Batman And Robin, previously covered in this column, remains the flagship, but it’s far from the only Batman game in town, or bearing the “Batman: Reborn” branding. Over in Detective Comics #854 (DC), writer Greg Rucka and artist J.H. Williams have taken over the title with a long-delayed Batwoman storyline. The first issue makes it look like it’s going to be worth the wait. For starters, it looks incredible, with Williams bringing a lush, dark look to the superhero action and a sharp, flat, almost clean-line style to Batwoman’s civilian activities. Rucka’s story barely gets a chance to start, but it’s at least an intriguing start, balancing the impact of a supernatural conspiracy on the heroine’s private life. A Rucka and Cully Hamner backup feature starring The Question fills out the book well, even though they have a too-similar setup, with a lesbian heroine aided by an older, male assistant… A-

Then there’s the rest of the Gotham Universe. Writer Judd Winick and the always-welcome artist Mark Bagley take over Batman (DC) with issue 688. It looks good and makes for a satisfying enough read, but its Two-Face-vs.-Penguin machinations make it feel a bit too much like business as usual compared to what Morrison and Quitely are up to. Writer Paul Dini gets the rest of Gotham to himself: Gotham City Sirens teams up Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman in what so far looks like a more morally ambiguous variation on the Birds Of Prey team. Guillem March’s art is a bit cheesecakey, but the first issue makes for an intriguing, albeit not overwhelmingly involving, kickoff. Ditto Batman: Streets Of Gotham, which is, as its name suggests, a street-level series somewhat in the mold of Gotham Central. Trouble is—and it’s the trouble plaguing all three of these books—it doesn’t really seem to be going for anything beyond the familiar beats of the Batman world… All: B-

And speaking of not really going for anything, Terry Moore’s run on Runaways has been a disappointing time of wheel-spinning and running gags. The collected trade Runaways: Rock Zombies (Marvel) collects Moore’s second (and final) story arc, in which the Runaways fight magically created zombies and play a lot of videogames. On his own series, Stranger Than Paradise and the ongoing Echo, Moore is a master of characterization, nuance, and pacing; here, he has the kids saying the same shallow things over and over to no particular effect, and he slams through choppy, semi-coherent strings of events with no real sense of a plan. The rest of the Marvel world fares no better: In Moore’s hands, the X-Men are too whiny, incompetent, and hapless to deal with one cranky mutant child for a day. Moore re-teams with Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane art partner Takeshi Miyazawa for this arc, but Miyazawa’s ultra-glossy, cutesy-manga style just ups the bubblegum factor further. The book isn’t terrible, it’s just lightweight and not particularly interesting. It’s pretty clear a superhero book has problems when the most compelling bit is a game of Truth Or Dare… C

J. Michael Straczynski didn’t have the devotion to Supreme Power, his reboot of the convoluted Marvel alternate-universe take on the Justice League, that might have been expected from a creator of his stature. The original title suffered endless delays, and he literally left the book in the middle of a fight scene. But anyone who had high hopes for the title when it reverted to the Squadron Supreme title, with comics legend Howard Chaykin in charge of writing, was in for a big disappointment. The 12-issue Squadron Supreme (Marvel) just wrapped with one of the most confusing, incoherent, and incompetent pieces of writing to ever bear Chaykin’s name; a universe-hopping Nick Fury, the pointless destruction of the White House at the hands of Hyperion, and the inexplicable transformation of Dr. Emil Burbank, the series’ most interesting character, into a second-rate Dr. Doom knockoff were only the most obvious of its flaws. A storyline that drifted from weak homage to baffling satire; incredibly sloppy pacing; and mediocre artwork by Marco Checchetto were others, and whether this can all be laid at Chaykin’s feet or we can blame whoever failed to edit this book, the end result was that one of Marvel’s few remaining interesting properties became a disaster… D

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy gets all the ink, but truth be told, the best stories he’s produced in the last few years have come in the intermittent B.P.R.D. series, and B.P.R.D.: 1947 (Dark Horse) is no exception. A sequel to last year’s excellent B.P.R.D.: 1946 title, it examines the early days of the Bureau Of Paranormal Research And Development as it branches out from battling Nazi holdovers to coming in contact with eldritch forces more hideous than anything they had to deal with during the war. They’re also in contention with an ancient vampire hunting down survivors of the Reich. The story is superb, moody and evocative with nice touches of humor and atmosphere; Mignola has improved as a writer, and collaborating with Josh Dysart suits him. The art is another matter; the cartoony, sketchy style of Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon is very much en vogue right now, but they inspire as many critics as devotees, and their distinctive look, so divergent from the Mignola/Fegredo style that Hellboy fans are used to, may take some getting used to… B

There’s an odd lack of information out there about another recent Dark Horse book, Dragonero, a seriously old-school fantasy standalone that hearkens back to ’70s comics and the ’80s Conan movies. Authors Luca Enoch and Stefano Vietti and artist Giuseppe Matteoni are all Italian, and Dragonero is clearly a translated import, but little further explanation is forthcoming. Which is odd for a book so packed with internal explanation, from maps to a glossary of “the Ancient Tongue” to an opening history to character bios with extra background and world-building details. It’s all in service of a fairly standard fantasy-quest story, in which the return of an evil sorcerer sends a mismatched crowd of player-character types (an ogre, an elf, a human dragonslayer, a techno-priest, a trained killer, and an aged magician) off to pursue various MacGuffins. Much of the book is spent traversing a big, overfull world somewhat reminiscent, visually and creatively, of the one from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa Of The Valley Of Wind, though fans of George R.R. Martin may also raise an eye at the giant wall and its dedicated band of color-coded guardians who defend the civilized world against the vast army of evil in the wastes on the other side. Then again, the book draws as much from Tolkien as his modern antecedents. And while there’s little in it that’s truly original, the actual storytelling style is fairly admirable, with enough flashbacks and background fill-ins to give the characters some depth, but an emphasis on creating a ridiculously rich and complex world. Matteoni’s sharply detailed black-and-white art uses thin, fine lines to separate vast swaths of ink from equally large blank areas; the contrast lets him pack stunning amounts of detail into each panel. Savage Sword Of Conan fans might want to check this out; in a way, it’s pretty generic fantasy, but it’s carefully wrought and highly detailed by people who seem to know and love the genre… B-

Jeff Lemire’s “Essex County Trilogy” represents one of the most remarkable recent achievements in indie comics: three interlocking graphic novels about the mysteries and melancholy of a small Canadian farming community, rendered in a distinctive style and turned out surprisingly quickly. Lemire continues his prolific ways with The Nobody (Vertigo), another graphic novel about a small town, but one with a more overtly fantastical air. The Nobody starts as a riff on The Invisible Man, following a bandaged stranger who arrives in the middle of nowhere and immediately raises suspicion among the locals. But then the stranger befriends the teenage daughter of an anxious diner owner, and The Nobody becomes a story about feeling trapped far away from where the action is. For as long as Lemire is just spinning a mood, The Nobody works well, grounding classic pulp conceits in the mundane. But the metaphor becomes strained after a while, and when the plot suddenly kicks in at the end, it becomes apparent how thin this material really is. Lemire’s talent and promise remains impressive, but it might serve him well to slow down a little, and take the time to develop good ideas into great ones… B

Since writer James Robinson put his Starman series to bed in 2001, his comics work has been fitful at best, with little of the intricate storytelling and personal quirks that made his 80-plus issues of Starman one of the best sustained superhero comics runs of all time. Robinson and artist Mauro Cascioli don’t seem bound to break the trend with their seven-part miniseries Justice League: Cry For Justice (DC), though based on its first issue, it does look a little more offbeat and deeply felt than the average DC mini. The premise has a group of JLA members and outliers—Green Lantern, Green Arrow, two Atoms, Supergirl, Batgirl, Congorilla, and the Bronze Age Starman—coming together to launch a preemptive strike on the villains who’ve been wreaking havoc across the DC Universe over the past half-decade. Like most recent DC event comics, Cry For Justice is overly invested in continuity and takes forever to get started. (Robinson hasn’t even introduced everyone on the first issue’s cover by the final page.) But the character interactions are more finely shaded than the bulk of contemporary DC fare, and Robinson is committed enough the notion of soul-shaken superheroes to pen a scene of Congorilla weeping over the corpse of perennial DC also-ran B’wana Beast. Corny? No doubt. But also closer to the complicated heroic ideal espoused in Robinson’s seminal 1993 miniseries The Golden Age than the “Who can we murder this month?” mentality that’s become so prevalent at DC. Of course, this is only issue #1. Still six to go… B-

The Bridge Project (Scraped Knee) seems like the kind of thing that’s probably far more relevant and rewarding for the participants than for the after-the-fact readers. Creators from two cities partnered to assemble and draw the stories, with part of the focus being on solving the technical issues of working at a distance, and the only requirement being that each story had to reference one of those cities in some way, however small. In The Bridge Project Volume One: Portland & Seattle, those stories vary from a prosaic retelling of a piece of local history to a dreamlike narrative that shifts between artists and only tenuously hangs onto the threads between shifts. Perhaps it’s telling, though, that the most entertaining piece is Peter Conrad’s sad, hilarious little fillip about how his writing partner stood him up, leaving him with no story except the story of how his writing partner stood him up. Like the rest of the black-and-white book, it’s ’ziney and small-scale, but it’s appealingly personal and wryly funny nonetheless. Other standouts include Josh Frankel and Greg Means’ “The MVPs,” in which two star basketball players decide to draw some crazy comics, and Tessa Bruton and Vanessa Grunton’s lo-fi, Lynda Barry-esque take on what to do if you meet your dopplegänger. Nothing in this sincere, playful little book is likely to knock comic readers’ socks off, but it might make them want to get in on the action of future Bridge Projects… B-

Like so many Doug TenNapel books, Power Up (Image) is all over the place. There’s a solid, intriguing concept behind this stand-alone book: A timid game designer gets his hands on a jury-rigged videogame that produces real-life power-ups, which grant him actual access to wacky powers like extra lives, shields, and fire-breathing powers. And yet the cartoony characters and goofy, loose story take the idea just about nowhere, except a series of sight gags and chases. And then the whole thing rockets to a fairly satisfying conclusion, albeit one with a hefty dose of real-world referential humor. The whole thing is kind of like one of those hot-pepper candy bars: It has a weird, unexpected kick that prevents it from being just a bunch of empty sugar, but in the end it still isn’t very satisfying… C+

Okay, it took us way too long to get a copy of the I Kill Giants trade from Image, and now it seems a little dated, but we don’t care, because it’s just that good. Joe Kelly’s story about a belligerent young troublemaker neatly straddles the line between fantasy and psychological horror: As the girl protagonist dodges problems at home and at school, and struggles willfully with a therapist, a bully, and a girl who wants to be her friend, Kelly remains coy about whether her fantasy-world concerns about giants and other denizens of the fantasy world actually exist, or are just in her head. Is she trying to save the world from a hidden threat, or is she as disturbed as she often appears to be? Kelly keeps raising the stakes as the story builds up to a heartbreaking climax. The wild, black/white/greyscale art by JM Ken Niimura gives the story a sloppy, impressionistic feel, with the lines and the characters sometimes feeling so light and sketchy, they threaten to float off the page, where at other times, they’re dense black blobs. The technique effectively helps set the mood and provides hints as to the seriousness of each scene, since they tend to veer between schoolyard trials and cosmic life-or-death battles. Sadly, the trade collection eliminates the scrawly back-of-issue mini-comics where avatars of Kelly and Niimura face off against each other about the book’s creation, but it does include behind-the-scene sketches and back-and-forths between the creators about the book’s writing and design. A