March 12, 2010

Written by Mark Millar and drawn by John Romita Jr., the Kick-Ass series (Icon/Marvel)—newly collected in hardcover, to coincide with the film version due to hit American theaters in April—is both unapologetically adolescent and pretty smart about what it means to be an adolescent. The series takes a simple premise—What would happen if a teenage comic-book nerd decided to reinvent himself as an actual superhero?—and runs with it in two directions. On one front, it’s a boldly plotted superhero story filled with rampant profanity, sick humor, and brutal, played-for-laughs violence. On the other, it’s a pretty smart depiction of adolescent loneliness, exploring how feelings of powerlessness and sexual frustration get channeled into superhero fantasies. Those elements don’t always work together, but it remains a thoroughly entertaining book, and the deeper elements make the cheap laughs harder to dismiss… B+ 

Stephen King’s N. #1 (Marvel) started off as an online “graphic video series,” created to promote King’s short-story collection Just After Sunset. King’s story “N” appeared in that collection, and it’s now hitting its third life as a four-issue miniseries. The comic puts Marc Guggenheim’s script and Alex Maleev’s art from the original online series onto the page, adding a few beats of new content for those familiar with the earlier version. It’s a little superfluous at this point, and the new content isn’t exactly a revelation, but the basic narrative, about a group of stones in a Maine field that just might be the world’s only protection against destruction, is strong enough that it can withstand a bit of repetition. It’s difficult to imagine that the series will manage to justify its full length, but the first issue is scary enough that we can keep our fingers crossed… A- 

Released sporadically between 1999 and 2009, the 27 issues of Planetary found writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday using a team of “mystery archeologists” to explore the larger-than-life fictional characters ingrained in the popular imagination, from Tarzan to Godzilla. Planetary: Spacetime Archaeology (Wildstorm/DC) collects the series’ final nine issues, bringing to a climax the team’s battle against an alternate-universe Fantastic Four, a team called The Four intent on suppressing the mysteries of the universe. It all ties up neatly—maybe a little too neatly. But while Planetary ultimately may not have been much more than a vehicle for darkly witty, breathtakingly illustrated takes on familiar characters, those takes are no small accomplishment. “It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way,” hero Elijah Snow said throughout the series. Making it hard to look at their subjects the same way again, Ellis and Cassaday helped keep the world a little stranger, even as they made greater sense of it… A-

And speaking of yoking together characters from different universes, Brian Azzarello and Rags Morales’ First Wave (DC) gathers a bunch of pulp-era heroes and imagines what it might be like for them to share space. The first issue follows last fall’s Batman/Doc Savage special, and finds Doc Savage puzzled by his father’s mysterious death, and Will Eisner’s The Spirit setting off on adventures of his own. Putting yesteryear’s all-stars together is a promising idea, and one that could grow more expansive by the month: The Blackhawks make an appearance here, and future issues promise the arrival of The Avenger, Rima The Jungle Girl, and other half-forgotten heroes. But this first issue is an unwieldy pileup of exposition and mismatched tones. Still, Azzarello is unendingly ambitious, and it might be worth sticking with the six-issue series beyond this rough start… C+ 

The first issue of Sparta U.S.A. (Wildstorm) announces itself as a different sort of comic from the start, a paean to a small town that prides itself on its devotion to American values and football, boasting “thirty minor league teams and twelve pro teams.” But beneath the cheery exterior, blood flows freely. Couples compete for government-issued babies. Folks get murdered by business rivals. White picket fences and all, it isn’t that nice a place. Written by Young Liars’ David Lapham and drawn by Johnny Timmons, Sparta offers a vision of Tea Party America taken to its extreme, then weirds it up with talk of yetis and a returning football hero with red skin and a plan to upset the established order. Timmons’ art is unpleasant, but that might be best for a post-apocalyptic (presumably) story that’s off to an intriguing start… B 

It’s stating the obvious to say that the world doesn’t really need another Punisher comic. The character has been dangerous, comic, grim, satirical, and occasionally dead, and it’s hard to imagine a new creator coming up with a new angle on a character who murders most of his potential recurring cast. Punisher Max: Butterfly (Marvel), the one-shot story of a hit-woman who decides to write her memoirs, takes the tack of keeping Frank Castle on the sidelines, presenting the skull-emblazoned sociopath as a force of nature. So, accepting the essential futility of the book’s existence, how does it read? Not bad. Laurence Campbell’s art is murky but mood-appropriate, and Valerie D’Orazio’s script does a good job of hiding Butterfly’s emptiness right up to the end. All the fractured chronology, stray ghosts, and lost love in the world can’t disguise that there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done a dozen times before, which makes it difficult to justify the $4.99 price tag… B- 

Give New Ultimates #1 (Marvel) this much credit: the six-page cover pinup of heroes battling a horde of Loki’s monsters is pretty sweet. It’s no shock when the story inside doesn’t live up to that explosion of ass-whupping, but it’s hard to imagine a more tired collection of Jeph Loeb’s usual writing routines: empty one-liners, petulance in place of character, women who exist to be threatened and/or fucked, and a mess of badly delineated, absurdly grim monologues. Frank Cho’s art is certainly ripe enough, and the fight between the Ultimates and the upstart Defenders has a certain shine, but all the empty-headed cliffhangers aside (Will Thor have sex with Hela? Will Captain America give in to the passion and go up to Varda’s room?), it’s hard to find any reason to care. When The Ultimates first debuted, it at least had the benefit of novelty to make its misanthropy seem clever, but the charm is gone, and all that’s left is joyless soap opera and the occasional splash page… C

Matt Wagner’s Grendel series got incredibly ambitious as the years went on, and it’s hard to fault it for that; moving it from a low-key romantic noir to the story of a world-dominating evil force that spanned centuries opened up the story in unexpected, rewarding ways. But most readers were initially drawn in by the gorgeous art and moody, mysterious storytelling of the initial run, which is what makes Grendel: Behold The Devil (Dark Horse) such a welcome addition to the mythos. Collecting a series Wagner began in 2008, Behold The Devil revisits the “original” Grendel, author and super-criminal Hunter Rose, and sheds new light on some of the shadier aspects of his story only hinted at in those early stories. It also features, unlike almost every other Grendel arc, art entirely by Wagner, who returns to the gorgeous three-color Art Deco style that won him so many fans early on. Whether this is Wagner’s way of expanding the series to new places or closing it out by bringing it full circle, it’s the best Grendel arc in a decade… A 

Part one of a proposed trilogy, King Of The Flies Vol. 1: Hallorave (Fantagraphics) is an extremely promising title from French crime comics artists Pascal “Mezzo” Mesenburg and Michel Pirus. Following the adventures of a disaffected young man named Eric, who bides his time in a decaying suburb by warring with his stepfather and taking drugs with his disreputable friends, King Of The Flies creates a deeply disturbing series of images. Its approach to violence and turmoil is surprisingly fresh, although the story bears obvious debts to David Lynch, and the art just as obvious ones to Charles Burns; it all combines in surprising, powerful ways. Future editions promise to shift the storytelling perspective while sticking with the same stories, which should keep it from becoming merely nihilistic. As it stands, King Of The Flies is a fascinating new take on the nearly exhausted subject of youthful alienation… B+ 

The story-within-a-story is a hard trick to pull off, almost as hard as making the main character in a novel a novelist. Peter Milligan tries both tricks and more in his new crime story The Bronx Kill (Vertigo), and unfortunately, almost all of them fall flat. Martin Keane, a young novelist in love, has to cope not only with bad reviews of his latest book—here, the story runs into the problem of convincing us its main character is a genius when the excerpts from his actual stories don’t make the case—but also the sudden disappearance of his wife while he’s overseas researching a book. This leads him to investigate shadowy doings in his own family history, events mirrored by pages from his new novel. It’s all a bit hokey, and what should be clever meta-reference instead seems like hanging a lampshade on a half-funny gag. The clumsy narrative blunts the story’s power, and James Romberger’s art, while competent enough, sometimes seems half-finished, lacking the visceral power the story needs… C+ 

Re-released in an expanded softcover edition with introductory notes by the author, Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville (Drawn & Quarterly) is hoping to find a new audience 12 years after it was originally published. Horrocks is a singular talent, and Hicksville is his masterpiece. It follows reporter Leonard Batts as he visits a small town in New Zealand to research the life of Dick Burger, the world’s most popular comic-book artist, but while its putative narrative is plenty strong, the hidden layers of the book—one of the most touching, profound meditations on the comics medium ever written—are what make it truly worthwhile. Those who have read it before will find new, overlooked wonders in its complexity and depth, and new readers will be amazed by Horrocks’ ability to ape the style of various eras and artists while still retaining his own sensibility. This is a must-have, and one of the best comics of its time… A 

The latest volume in Lewis Trondheim’s diary-comics collection series, Little Nothings: Uneasy Happiness (NBM), carries on the theme of the last book, The Prisoner Syndrome, as Trondheim travels to new places and experiences new things—always a source of anxiety for a chronic worrier, hypochondriac, and curmudgeon. Yet true to its name, Uneasy Happiness focuses more on bright spots and wry observations than the series’ previous two volumes did. In the process, though, it seems to be developing a smaller and smaller focus, until Trondheim’s pastel-colored pages don’t have punchlines so much as blank-faced full stops. There are some tremendous bright spots—among them, the book’s very first strip, in which Trondheim (drawing himself, as usual, as a sort of anthropomorphized bald eagle) muses over his written schedules from years past, then considers storing them to sell to some collector in a decade or so. The second to last panel has the meticulously drawn background disappearing into a welter of impressionistic splotches as Trondheim emphatically declares himself “SICK IN THE HEAD!”; the last panel shows the agendas, among other office detritus, heaped up in the trash. As ever, the humor is mostly mild and dry, and in this one case, the contrast between that  predictable persona and the spontaneous energy and frustration that boils over as Trondheim becomes aware of his own issues is much of the joke. Pity there isn’t more of that energy in the rest of the book, which largely trundles along with tiny tales in which Trondheim shops for food, eats mashed potatoes, proudly regards his old stapler, deals with a live mouse his cat has brought indoors, and other wee ephemera accurately described by the series’ title… B-

Okay, so who watched 28 Days Later and came out of it thinking that Naomie Harris’ character Selena was a kick-ass action heroine who was essentially Ripley in Aliens, and needed to be cast in an identical story? Apparently Michael Alan Nelson and Declan Shalvey, whose 28 Days Later (Boom! Studios) has her being pushed against her will to return to a London still packed with the infected, essentially highly infectious zombies. With her grim, unflinching demeanor, machete prowess, and tendency to wade in hacking where other folks fear to tread, she’s also too close to a dead ringer for Michonne in The Walking Dead. And the first half or so of volume one of the collected series doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting, as Selena agrees to play guide to a group of journalists trying to penetrate a blockade and get into London to expose what actually happened there. In short order, a bunch of Walking Dead-style attrition and character conflict takes place, but the story doesn’t go anywhere besides the usual zombie action until the end of this book. At least Shalvey’s art is sharp and realistic, giving the story a weight and intensity it’s only beginning to earn. C+