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June 4, 2010

The first story from the world of Joss Whedon’s Firefly TV series that’s set after the movie Serenity was written by Patton Oswalt, of all people; he says he met Whedon on the set of Dollhouse and raved about his Firefly fandom, so Whedon offered him the chance to pitch stories. The 40-page one-shot Serenity: Float Out (Dark Horse) serves as a much-needed elegy for Alan Tudyk’s character Wash, who (spoiler!) died in Serenity as beloved characters in Whedon shows tend to do—abruptly, for shock value, and with no time for the other characters to consider or cope. So while Float Out doesn’t move the Firefly story along (at least up until the last page, which could be a promising implication of things to come or just a cheap emotional grab at the heartstrings), it captures some of the series’ manic derring-do, while also providing a much-needed moment of clarity, as three new characters mourn Wash and tell stories about him while christening a ship in his honor. Float Out is well-conceived, but it feels cramped at its short length. The choice to use new characters is brave but problematic—Patric Reynolds’ art is slick when it comes to space battles and detailed backgrounds, but his characters are so bloated and purple that readers may spend the whole comic trying to figure out who the hell they are. And since the focus is on Wash, there isn’t time to learn much about the people telling his stories; they’re essentially mystery talking heads. The tales they tell could use expansion as well; it’s hard to fit a proper memorial into just a couple pages. But Float Out is fascinating in its own way, largely because Oswalt takes the time to establish a setting, tone, and possible future for these talking heads, even though it doesn’t wind up mattering. The comic is so rich and leisurely that it ends up feeling more like the pilot of a worthy new series to come than like a celebrity-written afterthought. With luck, Float Out will be popular enough to give Oswalt a mandate to do more work in this world; it’d be really intriguing to see what he makes of a miniseries where he can stretch out properly… B

There’s no way a mere book can fully convey the pleasures of last summer’s Wednesday Comics (DC) experiment, which had A-list writers and artists tackling some of DC’s greatest characters in the form of weekly tabloid-sized newspaper strips. The hardbound Wednesday Comics collection doesn’t have the tactile qualities of newsprint, or the fun of poring over a single page of story while waiting for the next weekly installment. That said, Wednesday Comics has been beautifully packaged, and it does have one major advantage of the serialized WC: each story is presented in full, and sequentially. And readers get a lot for the book’s $50 list price; the 15 12-page stories in Wednesday Comics are the equivalent in page size to 15 24-page stories, and the writers and artists largely eschew decompression and pack their pages with enough story to fill three or four modern comic books. As for the stories themselves, it’d be nice if they were as kid-friendly as the format, but it’s hard to complain too much about the variety on display here: Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook evoking Prince Valiant in a miniature Kamandi epic’ Kurt Busiek and Joe Quiñones giving Green Lantern the full Silver Age treatment’ Neil Gaiman and Michael Allred injecting some formalist goofery into Metamorpho’ Ben Caldwell packing panels with tiny pictures of Wonder Woman’ Kyle Baker running Hawkman through a story that combines spaceships and dinosaurs’ and so on. If only the regular DC superhero titles were as imaginatively designed and plotted… A-

For a look back at the roots of Wednesday Comics, see Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier Of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips Vol. 1, 1933-1935 (Fantagraphics), which collects two years’ worth of one of the first real adventure titles. Spun off from Crane’s more fanciful Wash Tubbs, Captain Easy follows a mysterious agent-for-hire as he travels exotic lands, battling bad guys. The storylines are nothing spectacular—just standard early-20th-century pulp, prizing cliffhangers over character development—but Crane’s art is stunning, combining simple cartoony figures with richly detailed backgrounds in clever, colorful layouts. It isn’t even necessary to read the dialogue or captions to follow the action; just scan Crane’s dynamic lines, which make every panel look like a unique work of pop art… A-

Those who’ve long been confused by Jim Woodring’s surreal, wordless “Frank” stories should appreciate Woodring’s hardbound Frank graphic novel Weathercraft (Fantagraphics), which comes with lengthy explanations on the jacket flaps and back about who each character is and what role they play in Woodring’s densely allegorical universe. With that grounding, maybe Frank neophytes and skeptics will be able to let go and learn what longtime Frank fans already know: It’s better to experience Woodring’s work than to try and understand it. Weathercraft focuses on Frank’s frequent nemesis Manhog—a representative of humanity at its morally weakest—as he goes through multiple stages of degradation on his way to almost achieving a higher consciousness. The humanoid mongrel Frank hangs around the edges of the story with his loyal pets, but Weathercraft is mainly about how Manhog—and by extension the reader—sees how sick, freaky, and beautiful the world can be… A-

Way back in Eightball #5 from 1991, Daniel Clowes drew “Playful Obsession,” a one-off parody of Richie Rich starring a perverted, subversive distortion of the character named Willy Willions. Coincidentally, Clowes was serializing Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron in those same pages—a story that, when later collected, was soundtracked by Victor Banana, a band led by a young Tim Hensley. And that’s the one degree of separation between Clowes and Hensley, whose character Wally Gropius feels like a riff not just on Willy Willions, but on Clowes’ whole quirky aesthetic and absurd sense of humor. Clowes isn’t as zany as he used to be, so there’s a void to be filled here, and Wally Gropius (Fantagraphics) does that ably: The hardcover collects Hensley’s Gropius stories from the anthology series Mome (with a little extra material thrown in), and his immaculate, vaguely ’50s style owes as much to Mort Walker, Archie Comics, and other vintage teen-humor strips as it does to Clowes. Hensley’s draftsmanship and mastery of his visual vocabulary is admittedly superb, but the novelty starts to feel hollow after a few pages. The fact is, superimposing snarky social satire and non sequitur incest/violence/profanity/anachronism over clean retro cartooning just isn’t shocking anymore—in fact, it feels old-hat and oddly out of context today, as opposed to in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when artists like Clowes and Mack White were staking their own claim on that striking graphic irony… B

In the years since Alan Moore’s Miracleman and Watchmen, dark takes on what it might mean to become a superhero have become almost as familiar as the stories that inspired them. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find fresh angles on the notion. Written by John Arcudi and drawn by Peter Snejberg, A God Somewhere (Wildstorm/DC) offers one such approach by focusing on a protagonist who would be the sidekick in other takes on the material. An ordinary guy named Sam watches as one of two brothers who’ve been his longtime best friends acquires superpowers, becomes a hero, and slowly starts losing his mind. Sam is African-American and his friends are white, and he’s long nursed a love for the other brother’s wife, all of which adds extra texture to the story. Not every plot thread gets fully developed, but that seems to be part of the design of a well-told story that’s as much about living in the aftermath of a life-interrupting calamity as the philosophical implications of superhumanity… B

For decades now, DC and Marvel have largely been in three modes with their superhero titles: big, universe-changing crossover events; new-look character reboots; and “untold tales” from classic continuity. The miniseries DC Universe: Legacies (DC) is a decent example of the latter, and one of the company’s periodic efforts to streamline its convoluted history by retelling the grand arc of their heroes’ story. Part one begins at the dawn of the Golden Age, following a couple of slum kids as they come to realize that times are changing, and cops-and-robbers won’t be as it was. Len Wein’s man-on-the-street storytelling device is way too similar to Kurt Busiek’s Astro City and Marvels, but Andy and Joe Kubert’s art in the first issue is as vivid as always, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with a less complicated, more heroic version of the DC stable. It remains to be seen whether Legacies can stay this simple and enjoyable as it moves closer to the messy present day… B

For a book with such a watertight premise (teen romance + superhero action + outer space = awesome), DC’s venerable Legion of Super-Heroes franchise has done more rebooting than a 24-hour cobbler. It’s almost impossible to keep track of the number of times the title has been stopped and restarted, and it seems like every attempt is worse than the one before. Most recently, DC brought in former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter—who, as a teenager, created many of the LSH’s most familiar characters—to kick off the latest reboot, and it was a predictable disaster. The same, fortunately, cannot be said of Legion Of Super-Heroes #1 (DC); in spite of a similar reach back into the title’s glory days—in this case, the return of writer Paul Levitz, who oversaw an excellent run of the LSH during the 1980s—the title genuinely feels fresh and new while still maintaining the soap-opera and space-opera elements of its classic years. Levitz starts things out with a bang, telling a bombastic tale that ties into the recent “Blackest Night” event while maintaining an identity of its own, and new artist Yildray Cinar is a terrific choice to illustrate, bringing in a keen eye for detail and a good grasp of the 31st-century setting. Let’s hope this reboot has more of a future than others… B+

If anyone was doing to decide to try his hand at an ongoing series about backward-talking sorceress Zatanna Zatara—a veteran DC second-stringer who’s never had her own title before—it was bound to be Paul Dini. He’s long expressed his love for the character, and he’s used her frequently in stories he wrote for Batman: The Animated Series and the Justice League cartoon. So it’s no surprise that he’s at the helm of Zatanna #1 (DC). The question is whether he’s the right choice. For one thing, his conception of the character, while pleasant enough, is a tad boring compared to Alan Moore’s depiction of a hotheaded young woman with a dark past, or Grant Morrison’s version of that same young woman as older, more cynical, and a bit bitter. There’s something to be said for making a character your own, but Dini glosses over many of the interesting shadings given to Zatanna in the past in favor of the exposition-free action-mystery style he favors. It remains to be seen whether he’ll abandon his short-arc strength and prove just as adept with long-form character-driven stories. One thing is certain, though: Stephane Roux’s art is a delight. On his first ongoing interior illustrator gig, the Frenchman comes through like gangbusters, making a visual world both unfamiliar and comfortable… B

Neil Young’s Greendale, which is at least in part a satire on and critique of the media, has ironically turned into a media empire all of its own. Starting out as a concept album, it soon turned into a touring stage show/theatrical presentation, then an interactive website with elaborate text pieces, and then a movie, directed by Young himself. And all that has come even though, all things considered, it really doesn’t make a lick of sense. So it’s probably inevitable that it would eventually become a comic book. Neil Young’s Greendale (Vertigo), however, is the least successful of all of the Greendale spin-off projects, for the sole reason that it lacks any way of delivering the best thing about Greendale: Young’s outstanding music. Writer Joshua Dysart tries his best to expand on the murky mythology of the Green family, and Cliff Chiang’s art is reliably excellent, but without Young’s searing guitars and haunting voice (clumsily captured in a handful of captions), there’s just no there there… C+

H.P. Lovecraft stories like “The Rats In The Walls” develop a creeping sense of psychological dread by carefully doling out information and allowing readers to fill in the blanks with whatever images chill them most. It’s a sad fact, then, of Michael Zigerlig’s adaptation of Call Of Cthulhu (Transfuzion) that the best-case scenario is one of minimized disappointment; the Ancient Ones are pan-dimensional beings capable of driving humans insane with a mere glimpse, after all. Videogame and film adaptations have faced the same hurdle, but Zigerlig seems especially ill-equipped, as by his own admission, he spent the last 10 years studying martial arts and only recently returned to drawing comics. A slightly noncommittal introduction by H.R. Giger kicks off some preliminary limb-ripping mayhem (apparently intended to tide readers over until the story’s three narrative threads start to yield some gore) followed by a mishmash of Lovecraft’s prose and Zigerlig’s grim, high-contrast images of “The Thing [that] cannot be described.” The poetic ramblings of Henry Anthony Wilcox are well rendered, and the rites of the esquimaux cult are appropriately difficult to stomach, but on the whole, it’s a slapdash affair, full of typos, odd panel layouts, and characters that are either wide-eyed and screaming, or blankly inexpressive, with no middle ground… C

With the much-ballyhooed role of superhero comics as modern mythology, Marvel Illustrated’s adaptations of the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey feel like natural fits for the medium, especially when they’re helmed by Roy Thomas, whose take on Conan The Barbarian turned Robert E. Howard’s non-seller into a fantasy phenomenon. Trojan War collects Epic Cycle tales both iconic—that famous wooden horse, for one—and rarely told, while fleshing out the back-room dealings of Zeus and Themis that led to the decade-long siege. Many of the stories here can be reduced to a legendary warrior like the Amazonian Penthesileia or Memnon of the Ethiopians appearing to aid King Priam, only to be dispatched with a minimum of fuss by nigh-invulnerable Achilles, but the breathless cycles of death and rebirth (in the form of relatives appearing to avenge fallen family members) are entertaining enough, and certainly aided by Miguel Angel Sepulveda’s vibrant art—even if Helen of Troy looks more like a country-music starlet than a beauty capable of launching a thousand ships… B

Military science fiction has always been an honored niche in the world of genre fiction, but it’s rarely represented well, if at all, in comics. In the ’80s, though, Epic’s Alien Legion was a breakthrough. A creator-owned book that adopted many of the conventions of Star Wars and Star Trek and turned them slightly askew, Legion was created by writers Carl Potts and Alan Zelentez, who probed the everyday lives, loves, and moral struggles of a bunch of stormtroopers or red-shirted ensigns—that is to say, the grunts who hold the front line while the machinery of galactic politics grinds around them. Alien Legion Omnibus Volume 2 (Dark Horse) is the title’s latest collection, comprising issues 12 through 20 of the original series, plus the 1986 graphic novel A Grey Day To Die. In hindsight, the scripts are a bit too technobabbly, and the plots and characterization feel bit forced; still, Larry Stroman and Zelenetz manage to draw some real pathos from their misfit, multispecies band of brothers—with much help, of course, from co-creator Frank Cirocco, whose stylized (though dated) art on Grey Day trumps Stroman’s pedestrian pencils in the rest of the book. These omnibus editions are allegedly buildup to a new Alien Legion series Dark Horse has in the works; if we’re lucky, the reboot will be as much of a minor revolution as the first run was… B

The similarities between Marc Guggenheim’s creator-owned series Resurrection and Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead are so inescapable that Resurrection sometimes reads as a disappointment; David Dumeer’s black-and-white art for the original six-issue series looks much like Walking Dead’s, but with less detail and cartoonier characters, and the story—about frightened, angry people crawling back from an apocalypse, and proving yet again that mankind’s pull-together impulse fades as soon as the danger does—strongly resembles Kirkwood’s as well. The difference here is that the threat is aliens rather than zombies, and as the stories begin, those aliens have mysteriously retreated after a 10-year bombardment of earth. Which makes the story as much about mystery as about agonizing survival. And the fact that the aliens are gone, and not providing a constant lethal threat for the unwary gives the arc a promising upward trend, where Walking Dead tends to shamble in increasingly painful circles. The chunky anthology Resurrection: Volume One (Oni) collects that first six-issue arc, the black-and-white 2008 annual, and the first six issues of the full-color Resurrection: Volume Two series; that makes the nomenclature a little confusing, but feel free to ignore it and just concentrate on the fact that book’s first story arc introduces an intriguing, compelling world, and the second one improves on it, Justin Greenwood’s art is still cartoony, but feels less derivative, and the color helps immensely. And Guggenheim (currently writing Stephen King’s N. for Marvel) has a strong sense for the tensions and needs that affect people in crisis, which at times makes Resurrection breathtaking…

With a team like writer Max Brooks (author of World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War) and artist Howard Chaykin (creator of American Flagg! and American Century), there’s no reason to expect anything but subversion. Accordingly, it was an inspired move to let the pair play around with Hasbro’s G.I. Joe franchise in G.I. Joe: Hearts And Minds (IDW). The first issue of the new ongoing series is split into two self-contained chapters, the first being the Chaykin-drawn “Major Bludd,” a grim look at the Cobra mercenary that, God forbid, humanizes the guy. The story dives into topics like terrorism, fatherhood, and how economic disparity affects not just people’s livelihoods, but their identities and sense of worth. Of course, it also addresses how others exploit those things. (Yes, you’re reading the right review—there are guns and guts and stuff, too.) Chaykin, whose art is as evocatively blocky and textured as ever, makes maximum use of visual cues, segues, and superimposition, elevating Brooks’ sparse script to something bordering on subtle. The second story, “Spirit,” is drawn competently but blandly by Antonio Fuso, but its take on G.I. Joe’s token Native American does just as much to flesh out a caricature as Chaykin’s chapter does. If nothing else, this relatively complex and somber take on the G.I. Joe mythos (are we calling it mythos?) is a bracing antidote to last year’s big-screen jingo-fest… B-

Even though the male-female paranormal-investigation team is the freshest idea since boy wizards and sexy vampires, the first issue of Mystery Society #1 (IDW) doesn’t pop as much as it thinks it does. The latest series from 30 Days Of Night’s Steve Niles stars Nick Mystery and Anastasia Collins, a couple that hunts down esoteric artifacts and poor little psychic children while wisecracking, dropping exposition just for the hell of it, and engaging in a lot of the kind of faux-sexy banter that comics fans who don’t have sex very often seem to find titillating. Making matters worse, the lighthearted framing sequence—an origin story told to reporters during a press conference—robs the urgency from the meat of the story. That said, Fiona Staples’ fluid-yet-angular art is no less than fetching, and the narrative moves along at a brisk pace that almost blurs over the clunky bits. You have to hand it Niles, though: Not only does the man know how to amuse himself (whether you like it or not), he isn’t above poking fun at himself: During one fight sequence against a killer robot ranting about “termination,” Mystery quips, “Really? Terminated? Who wrote your program, a comic-book writer?” B-