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Master Keaton, Shaft, an X-Force finale, and a haunting graphic memoir

Compelling anti-heroes take the spotlight

The earliest of Naoki Urasawa’s works to be translated to English (pre-Monster, 20th Century Boys, and Pluto), Master Keaton (Viz) is a 12-volume series co-written by Hokusei Katsushika and Takashi Nagasaki, originally published between 1988 and 1994. It follows the “adventures” of Taichi Hiraga-Keaton, a half-English, half-Japanese archaeology professor, who sidelines in specialized insurance investigations, usually relating to his area of expertise: art forgeries, excavation sites encroaching into disputed territories, diplomatic liaison, and so forth. While that proviso may set him up as a worldly Indiana Jones type, Keaton is a curious character; leaning more toward the unassuming, quiet academic—with inner steel and gumption, of course.

“Intelligent/academic man befuddled by emotions” is too much a cliché for Urasawa et al. to capitulate to; previous heroes—Dr. Tenma, Kenji, even the robot Gesicht—are all traditional, essentially “good” figures thrown asunder by various situations that slowly unpeel and test their characters. Keaton, however, chooses to put himself into these situations, and he’s as in control of what happens as anyone can be. To the reader and people he encounters, Keaton appears bland, almost naive. He (fake) nods off at one point while being briefed by a client and regularly feigns benign disinterest. This somewhat natural demeanor is also something he cultivates and plays up; as an investigator, being perceived as nonthreatening and naive is helpful, as is portraying himself as something of an approachable blank canvas onto which people can reflect and reveal themselves.

Unlike Urasawa’s later work, Master Keaton isn’t immediately gripping, and Keaton’s emotionally removed façade characterization is partly responsible, a facet extending to the way in which Urasawa draws him, stoic at first and then unfurling more emotion and expression as the book continues. That initial reservation lends an uneven pace and tone to what would otherwise be exciting, dramatic proceedings. The deliberation in the absence of overt charm, wit, something, takes a while to ferment into the “adventure” mold; the absence, the determined guilelessness is the quirky eccentricity. Even Tintin was rather fond of a gun, but Keaton uses sellotape, a ladle, rocks, even a slingshot against such weapons, which stretches credulity, exemplary military survival training or not.

However, Urasawa is not anointed a master of the medium lightly, and his two major strengths come into force soon enough. The first is his ability to micro-manage plot beats and transitions, often marked by impactful, interpolating shorter stories that feed into the main narrative. The second is his introduction of various deft, empathetic characters: most notably Yuriko, Keaton’s 15-year old smart and kind gem of a daughter, the only really sorted person in the book, complete with awed, adoring boyfriend. She’s drawn neat, poised, unblinkingly sweet and serious, funny and idealistic, and easily the best thing about this volume as it grows increasingly assured and enjoyable, particularly in the downtime Keaton spends with his daughter and father. It’s an initially wobbly start, but there’s plenty here to hold interest and allow a second installment to be the real arbiter. [Zainab Akhtar]

Translating iconic characters between different media is a difficult task under the best of circumstances. For a character that’s been handled by the likes of Richard Roundtree and Samuel L. Jackson—to say nothing of Ernest Tidyman’s novels and countless homages—a new comic book series based on John Shaft had some very large shoes to fill. But Shaft #3 (Dynamite) proves that in the right hands anything is possible. Writer David Walker is an immense talent, well-served by his experiences working with Quentin Tarantino and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks). (Walker also constructs killer playlists for every issue that you can access on the Dynamite Comics Spotify page.) Unlike the 2000 movie that brought Shaft up to modern speed, this comic is set where Tidyman originally put it. Shaft is a Vietnam veteran recently returned to New York City, but despite the difference between his time and ours, his predicament offers many possible parallels to modern-day America.

Arrested for the deaths of at least two people, Shaft is battling not only the racism of the NYPD convinced he’s to blame for all of the violence around him, but also organized crime that’s committing blatant violations, apparently without ramification. This is definitely not an all-ages book: Walker builds a reality that feels robust and genuine by not pulling punches. Slurs and violence appear with what looks like casual frequency, but with careful enough implementation that they do not lose their impact. More than the first two issues, Shaft #3 offers insight into the way John sees the world after a life framed by racial discrimination and a recent past that can’t escape the heavy weight of a difficult war. The interaction between John and Rudy Gomez, a building super who has to clean up one of the crime scenes Shaft is supposedly to blame for, is particularly potent. It’s the only scene where two people of color interact in the whole book, barring flashbacks, and the contrast between it and the surrounding panels is stark.

Bilquis Evely’s stunning artwork lends even more heft to Walker’s world, delivering pages that look vintage and retro without feeling stale. The clothing and haircuts are clearly not of this time, the cars are heavy and chromed, but somehow the art doesn’t look dated. Colorist Daniela Miwa has a deft, soft touch that makes every scene distinct and turns panels cinematic. The resulting Shaft is a welcome confrontation of racial politics in modern America. It’s just frightening that, four decades later, we still need John Shaft to do that kind of work for us. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Another month, another good series cut down in its prime. The latest iteration of X-Force (Marvel) may have seemed an unlikely candidate for critical reevaluation, and yet here we are, 15 months in, toasting the demise of a book that should never have worked and yet, amazingly, did.

So why did the title get canceled? There are a few reasons. One, the X-Force brand—never the strongest performer—has suffered from overexposure and diminishing returns, with relaunch after relaunch diluting an already dubious brand. Skepticism existed for Simon Spurrier and Rock-He Kim’s re-re-relaunched adjective-less X-Force before the first issue even shipped. (Reason Number Two: Kim’s solid but video-game-influenced art may have been an acquired taste.)

Spurrier made a name for himself with his low-selling but highly-regarded run on X-Men Legacy, playing around in the backwaters of X-continuity to endearingly quirky results. Thus, the third reason the book may have had trouble: it was something of a bait-and-switch. The promotional art promised a “traditional” X-Force: squinty badasses with guns proactively blowing up bad guys all around the world.

Which brings us to the fourth, and possibly deciding factor: The book was too clever for its own good. Sure, it started out the way you might expect an X-Force book to start. Cable assembled a group of rugged macho types (Marrow, Psylocke, Fantomex, and Dr. Nemesis) to take on the kinds of missions the rest of the X-Men can’t—or won’t—tackle. But early on, a few signs hinted that the book was headed in a different direction than initially advertised.

Cable’s “plan,” which involved international arms dealers, weaponized mutants, and terrorism, didn’t make sense. So readers got a team book where the team began to fall apart roughly after the first mission. With amorphous goals and private agendas all around, this X-Force was immensely dysfunctional. Psylocke joined because previous incarnations of X-Force had given her a taste for killing. Marrow wanted to avoid dealing with guilt over a lost child. Cable’s motivation was simple: His daughter was sick and he didn’t know what to do, so he put together a team to track down a cure and run through the motions of an elaborate scheme—but really, just to keep himself busy.

With every team member at odds and unable to cooperate, Spurrier made it explicit that X-Force was nothing more than a consortium of mentally ill, self-loathing killers, cleverly disassembling the book’s premise. The members were all fighting for bad reasons, and it became obvious that Cable putting together a team of loose cannons with borderline personality disorder was a terrible idea from the beginning, leaving readers with a tribute to the good old-fashioned virtues of teamwork and trust. Not coincidentally, the book ends with a rejuvenated team saying goodbye to Cable, put in a time-out until he learns to play well with others. [Tim O’Neil]

From the burning streets of World War II Portsmouth to the Paris riots of 1968, The Late Child And Other Animals (Fantagraphics) takes readers on a heart-wrenching journey as it explores major moments in the lives of a mother and daughter. Written and colored by Marguerite Van Cook with art by her husband James Romberger, this graphic memoir immediately grabs the reader with a haunting opening sequence showing Van Cook’s mother and sister as they survey the wreckage of their freshly bombed town. The book never loosens its grip as the years pass and the story moves away from that devastated urban environment.

The title starts by focusing on Van Cook’s mother, Hetty, dealing with the loss of her husband and fighting for custody of the child she conceived with a married man: two life events presented with dramatically different tones in their respective chapters. The first is a naturalistic look at the effect of the war on the daily lives of civilians, offering a stark depiction of the overwhelming feelings of pain, fear, and loss that defined the period, but also the hope and community that were born as a necessary reaction to those negative sentiments. The second chapter moves in a very different direction, embracing a surrealist perspective to highlight Hetty’s disorientation during her custody hearing. The size of the room expands and contracts, and the men before her appear as demonic crows, pecking away at the woman in hopes that she’ll cave.

That second chapter is where the creative teams starts to make bolder, stranger storytelling choices, and the rest of the book occupies a tonal middle ground between those opening chapters as Hetty’s daughter Marguerite moves into the spotlight. Marguerite’s story is grounded in reality, but it’s heightened by her childish mind, which makes everything a bit more vivid and larger in scope. This book has incredible psychological depth; Van Cook uses dense (but never heavy) narration to thoroughly mine the mental and emotional workings of the main characters, and Romberger’s layouts do phenomenal work reflecting Hetty and Marguerite’s mindset and perception.

Romberger provides lush visuals, and that imagery is enhanced by the narration, with one particularly striking example involving a glittering bed headboard that gains its dazzling appearance from shards of glass in a bombing. As the writer, Van Cook knows exactly what type of atmosphere and mood each panel should convey, and that greatly informs her coloring. She uses a rich palette of blues, greens, oranges, and yellows for most of the book, so when there’s a surge of red during a particularly suspenseful scene with Marguerite and a strange man following her on the street, the girl’s panic is immediately felt. Van Cook’s coloring adds her personal touch to the book’s visuals, which elevates the entire piece because of her unique insight into the story. [Oliver Sava]