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McFarlane and Larsen team up for an exhilarating Spawn bloodbath

Also reviewed: Niobe: She Is Life, Chicago: A Comix Memoir, and The End Of A Fence

Image Comics co-founders Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane made names for themselves drawing bombastic superhero action for Marvel Comics, and their new collaboration on Spawn takes full advantage of those specific skills. Spawn #258 (Image) marks McFarlane’s return to writing and inking the character he created, and he gives incoming penciller Larsen a script that plays to his major strength as an artist: his Kirby-esque talent for bold, powerful fight sequences. This isn’t the comic to pick up for nuanced character development or complex plotting, but it’s the perfect book for readers who want exhilarating, non-stop action, detailing one long fight between Spawn and 3,493 demons.

There’s a “previously in Spawn” blurb on the credits page of this issue, but it’s wholly unnecessary. All the information new readers need to jump into this story is in the overblown narration at the very beginning, providing basic backstory information to give the ensuing battle some sort of narrative context. Spawn’s wife was killed. Her soul was stolen and trapped in hell. Now Spawn is angry, and he’s gathered the demon horde in a handy location where he can slaughter all but one. That survivor will deliver Spawn’s final message, “a single, simple sentence that will make Satan shudder upon hearing it,” as McFarlane writes in his charmingly retro script. That’s also the last sentence until the final page, and McFarlane lets his artwork with Larsen and colorist FCO Plascencia tell the story for the next 16 pages.

A hyperviolent bloodbath pitting thousands of monsters against a character that is basically Marvel’s Venom with more chains and spikes, Spawn #258 is a comic tailor-made for fans of extreme ’90s antiheroes. It doesn’t try to interpret Spawn for a modern sensibility, as recent “new directions” for the series have attempted, instead going even further into the genre’s past thanks to the Kirby influence on Larsen’s art. The most modern element of the issue is Plascencia’s coloring, which adds texture to the linework while pumping heat into the action with a dominant palette of reds and oranges.

The design sensibility, gory violence, and McFarlane’s scratchy inks are all rooted in that early Image aesthetic, but Larsen’s layouts and compositions are pure Kirby, breaking down the individual beats of the fight with energy and clarity. And what wonderful beats they are: Spawn jamming his chains down a demon’s throat and shooting them out of its stomach; Spawn using his cape to grab a demon by the neck to use its flailing body as a weapon; the breathtaking two-page spread at the end of the issue sending Spawn’s chains flying toward the reader through a flurry of detached demon body parts. The issue is simple and juvenile with a wafer-thin plot, but it’s also a hell of a lot of a fun, and hopefully future issues of this run will keep the emphasis on big, exciting action. [Oliver Sava]

Any time a celebrity of any stripe starts working on a comic, the first question is if they’ll be able to translate success from one medium into another. When it was announced that Amandla Stenberg, an actor probably best known for her role in the first Hunger Games movie and the strange controversy it garnered, would be writing a comic, of course the question got asked. Stenberg has demonstrated a remarkable understanding of a wide swath of social issues and particularly given her young age, the announcement garnered a certain amount of anticipation. She’s one of the most self-aware and well-spoken teenagers in Hollywood, and the prospect of seeing her do something completely different and very creative is an exciting one.

Niobe: She Is Life #1 (Stranger) is written by Stenberg and Stranger Comics founder Sebastian A. Jones. Jones has written other comics, all for Stranger, and several children’s books as well. Many of his other works have revolved around issues of identity and bigotry, and given Stenberg’s public commentary on both it’s no surprise that they’ve found a good rhythm together. The titular main character is a young woman with an identity that’s tangled up in mystery and judgement, called a half blood and worse by some other characters in the comic. But this is not X-Men or Harry Potter, confronting racism through metaphor alone while leaving actual ethnic violence and prejudice out of the conversation.

Even in just one short issue Niobe is confronted with both racism and sexism, the plot forming quickly and revealing detail at a steady clip. Niobe is fleeing a threat that’s related to parentage, wondering who might be able to help her, or if she’s on her own. Gods are referenced frequently and the question of who is worthy comes up several times. By bringing a great idea to an established but flexible publisher and working with an experienced creator like Jones, Stenberg has avoided the pitfalls that many new-to-comics creators fall into in terms of storytelling and pacing. While the beats and tropes of Niobe might be familiar, the execution is unique. People who like stories like Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series or Mercedes Lackey will recognize some of Niobe’s story, but they’ll appreciate the completely new way it’s being told.

Artist Ashley A. Woods is a Chicago local with years of experience in other comics, but her work garnered a lot of attention when she contributed to a project called Artists Against Police Brutality with a piece featuring several people of color murdered by police. Her art is lush and colorful, fitting for the fantasy setting, and there are some really beautiful details. There’s a slight unevenness on some pages, where there is more shading or a slightly different style, but overall the art is pretty and dynamic. Even a quick glance at her previous work shows improving skills and growing confidence, which will hopefully continue. As long as Woods gets enough time and support to keep cranking out pages, and her recently announced hiring at Marvel doesn’t conflict, Niobe is shaping up to be a strong book. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Glenn Head had the misfortune to be born just a few years too late for his chosen career. He wanted to be an underground cartoonist, but by 1977 the underground was dead. That year, with a head full of Zap and Arcade back issues, he left his home in Madison, New Jersey for art school in Cleveland. A latter-day hippy disinclined to attend classes, he panhandled to buy food for his cat in between not attending classes. Before his first semester was out he had hitchhiked to Chicago to make it as a working cartoonist.

The most remarkable thing about Head’s story is that he managed to succeed, almost despite himself. Chicago: A Comix Memoir (Fantagraphics) tells the story of Head’s formative year as an art-school dropout and aspiring beggar. Head does not scrimp on mortifying detail, and that is where Chicago excels. He was too late to be a hippy, and wasn’t hip enough to be a punk, so mostly he was just a bum. He was lucky enough to be born in an upper-middle-class suburban enclave in New Jersey, to a Wall Street dad who regarded his unkempt son with a mixture of confusion and pity. Head’s estrangement from his family seems less principled than merely apathetic: He doesn’t care enough to get upset one way or another. He mostly just wants to be left alone. As he explains when his dad questions him, “Everything’s trying to fit into some neat little box—where it’s all nice ’n’ safe... runs smoothly. I don’t want that.” But the problem is that he’s not sure what he does want.

Arriving in Chicago without so much as a dollar to his name or a change of clothes, he soon resorts to begging, before being taken in by the first of a few kind strangers. He lands in a predominately black neighborhood on the South Side, a strange place for a white kid to panhandle. (He eventually heads north for more receptive trade.) Remarkably, in between starving and being mistaken for a gigolo, he actually manages to ingratiate himself to Skip Williamson, then art director at Playboy, and himself a veteran underground cartoonist. Head hangs around the office long enough that Williamson eventually passes on some work, before later introducing him to Robert Crumb.

It’s from Crumb that Head hears the news that Arcade has gone kaput: the last of the great underground comix anthologies, done in by the ignominy of low sales. Head had imagined the comix scene to be an idyllic paradise of countercultural expression; in reality, it was long dead. As Crumb puts it, “Anybody wanting to do comix right now oughta get his head examined! The whole thing is just torture!” Head was too late to the party, but in another few years the first generation of post-underground cartoonists began to appear, and he was right on time for that. The last passages of the book skip ahead to 2010: In the intervening years Head has made a career as a cartoonist, hung in the finest galleries, and even had a daughter. He missed the undergrounds, but seems to have done all right for himself regardless. Maybe he’s saving that story for the sequel. [Tim O’Neil]

Roman Muradov is an interesting cartoonist to follow. His work has become increasingly challenging and oblique, and in the last year he’s continued to shift his aesthetic to incorporate increasingly minimalist rendering and increasingly dense compositions. The End Of A Fence (Kuš!) is exemplar of this trend. The book, his second longest work and the inaugural installment in new Kuš! series of monographs, is a sci-fi narrative indebted to the philosophical modes of Jorge Luis Borges and the sociological ones employed by J.G. Ballard. Like those antecedents, the genre trappings—which in this case include glimpses of future technologies and a hinted-at reconfiguration of interpersonal mores—are little more than sci-fi set dressing.

Muradov is more interested in space than in science, and he’s more concerned with intonation than narrative. This is apparent in the elliptical nature of his storytelling, the unnamed characters, the under-defined concepts. There is a total dearth of plot. The End Of A Fence, however, is a comic in which dialogue is overlapped or visually distorted—sometimes to the point where it is difficult to make out one iota of articulable information. There is never any attempt to make things narratively coherent or digestible. And yet, conjured up from clear emotional arcs and powerful affect, it’s an intensely energizing and exciting story.

Each page is taken up by an entire panel, and Muradov juxtaposes these flat, opaque figures against flat, opaque backgrounds. Meaning is entirely derived from the difference between these forms, and he delineates them with colors, blurring and overlaying them (in one instance, he reifies an intellectual commingling by interlocking two figures). When these figures and forms move, they move with the telegraphic staccato of James Ellroy’s prose, not with the gait of human beings but with the obviously manipulated slink of Bunraku puppets. This disorienting flattening distorts space, and it becomes hard for the reader to meaningfully read spatial relationships or spatial continuity. These compositions are effectively Brechtian; instead of immersing the reader, these things purposefully alienate them. You become hyper aware of the artifice, an effect heightened by the uneven amounts of media applied to the page and its resultant textural inconsistency. The aesthetic value of this technique is obvious: The End Of A Fence is a beautiful comic. At points, Muradov’s shapes and colors and textures blend together into this thing—this transcendent thing—this impossible-to-parse mid-point between a Francis Bacon and a Jackson Pollock whose beauty constrains linguistic attempts to approximate its affect. But the utility of this style isn’t purely aesthetic; Muradov sublimates this artistic mode into a storytelling device. His disjointed plot falls away, replaced by juxtapositions, tones, glimmers of ideas and spaces, and a thinking through of relationships, homogeneity, and the mediating-cum-distancing effect of technology. The End Of A Fence becomes an experience, not the tracing of a narrative arc but a giving over of yourself to exultation. [Shea Hennum]