It’s been a breakout year for Charles Soule, the creator of the Image comic 27 whose career rapidly accelerated after taking over DC’s Swamp Thing, his very first mainstream comic-book gig. Since then, he’s released the sci-fi graphic novel Strange Attractors through Archaia and become the writer of two more ongoing series, Red Lanterns and Thunderbolts, reenergizing those titles just like he did Swamp Thing. As if three ongoing titles weren’t enough, Soule launches two more series this month, including his most high-profile release yet: Superman/Wonder Woman #1 (DC). Following the romantic exploits of DC’s most forced couple, this first issue fails to make readers care about a relationship that has always felt like an editorial contrivance, particularly because the Wonder Woman who is dating Superman is nothing like the one that appears in Brian Azzarello’s outstanding Wonder Woman series.
Azzarello’s interpretation of Diana comes through in this issue when she’s in action, but she’s a completely different character in her downtime. During an expository sparring session between Diana and one of her few remaining Amazon sisters, she laments the fact that she can’t be open about her relationship with Superman; where is the Wonder Woman who has no problem grabbing a guy by the balls? In her regular series, Wonder Woman is the freakin’ god of war, so why is she waiting around for her boyfriend’s approval? The attraction between these characters has been ill defined from the start, with their story focusing more on how the world would react to their pairing rather than the qualities that draw them to each other. Compare the chemistry between Wonder Woman and Superman to her chemistry with Batman in the Justice Leaguecartoonor with Orion in Wonder Woman, and it becomes clear just how rushed their romance is.
One of the artists currently dictating DC’s house style, Tony Daniel’s artwork looks like Jim Lee’s, but cleaner. By using less crosshatching, the art is smoother and gives colorist Tomeu Morey the opportunity to add dimension by using more shades and textures. Like Lee, Daniel excels with action sequences, but has trouble when it comes to more emotional storytelling. His characters are stiff in conversation, and his repetitive angles make the dialogue scenes especially bland.
The complete opposite of Superman/Wonder Woman, Letter 44 #1 (Oni) showcases the skills that have made Soule such a sought-after commodity. A fascinating hybrid of The West Wing and Alien, the series details President Stephen Blades’ first days in office, a period in which he learns about a mysterious construction operation detected seven years ago in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. All the seemingly boneheaded decisions made by his predecessor, who sacrificed the country’s economic security to force the U.S. military into long-term overseas conflicts, were made to prepare the country for a potential alien attack, and now Blades has to shoulder that responsibility. Soule does fantastic work establishing Blades’ idealist character, presenting a man full of hope as he begins a new job full of unforeseen challenges. That optimism contrasts with the overwhelming feeling of dread cultivated over the course of the first issue, beginning with an ominous shot of Earth in the void of space, an open target waiting to be taken.
The story on Earth is captivating on its own, but what makes this issue exceptional is the way it balances the domestic political drama with the sci-fi horror in space. The crewmembers of the Clarke have been in space for three years, and they’re finally about to breach the field around the asteroid construction site and discover what exactly is being built. Nine people went up, but only eight appear in this issue and one is pregnant, setting up plenty of story threads for Soule to explore in future issues. Artist Alberto Jimenez Albuquerque has a slightly exaggerated style that makes his characters great actors, providing a clear distinction between Blades’ aggressive confidence and the somber fear of the Clarke’s senior mission commander Dr. Charlotte Hayden. His attention to environmental details gives the Clarke spaceship a lived-in appearance, and the cliffhanger reveals Albuquerque’s skill for spectacular sci-fi visuals that still feel grounded in reality. Story and art of this caliber are worth full cover price, but Letter 44 #1 is only $1.00, making it one of the most attractive first issues of the year… [OS]
Leave it to Jim Woodring to create a book that’s both the prequel and the sequel to one of his previous works. Fran (Fantagraphics) is exactly such a paradox—a graphic novel that is both “continuing and preceding” his 2011 release, Congress Of The Animals. It’s more than just an intellectual exercise, though; if anything, it’s the opposite, an intuitive unfolding of hidden orders and relationships. It’s a heady formula, but as always, Woodring anthropomorphizes his otherworldliness in the form of Frank—his adorably eerie, cartoon man-beast—and his silent, wordless entanglements in the fabric of reality. Here the title character (Frank’s ostensibly distaff counterpart) is given center stage. That stage is stuffed with breathtaking architecture; eye-gouging menageries of grotesque, archetypal tricksters; anachronistic technology like rocket-planes and memory-projectors; and a dizzying fugue of visual motifs suffused with semiotic power.
Not that it makes any real sense, at least on a logical level. That’s largely beside the point. After Fran and Frank quarrel and split up, their respective quests across land and space convert their alien dreamscapes into psychic manifestations of unease and loss. Woodring imbues the twosome’s meandering journeys with an underlying emotional resonance that sweetens the lushly rendered, oddly meditative tale. Woodring’s artwork has never been stronger: Each panel teems with latent energy. His rendering of gesture is immaculately stylized, and his stark, squiggly graphic sense taps into some secret frequency of the quantum field. And, as promised, the beginning and ending of Fran link to those of Congress in a clever way that braids the two books together—into one, big Möbius strip of haunting, prankish, pataphysical wonder… [JH]
A well-run Kickstarter is great way for independent comic creators to build buzz for their projects, and Ryan Browne’s God Hates Astronauts Volume 1: The Head That Wouldn’t Die! (Image) is one of those crowd-funded success stories, raising five times the amount of its pledge goal for a hardcover collecting the first three issues and a massive amount of extras together. Image Comics releases the paperback collection, and though the series’ future is still uncertain, the world introduced in this first volume demands further exploration. The three issues of Browne’s initial God Hates Astronauts storyline are hilariously absurd, featuring characters like Star Grass, a Superman-like hero driven insane when his head is replaced by that of a vengeful blue cow, and Gnarled Winslow, the police officer patriarch of Family Matters whose arms were pulled off by a gangster owl and replaced with gorilla limbs. Those issues feature delightfully wacky art from Browne, whose off-kilter design sense is complemented by his fluid, expressive linework.
One of the most clever ways Browne fleshes out his characters is by including a suggested voice cast, which includes “John C. Reilly Doing A Cow Impression” as Star Grass, Robert De Niro as Admiral Tiger Eating A Cheeseburger, and Sir Laurence Olivier as hick security guard Paul Blort. The first storyline only composes about half of the collection’s page count, and the rest of the book is filled with significant extras. Browne teams with different artists including Nick Pitarra, Tradd Moore, and Zander Cannon for 18 two-page shorts detailing the backstories of the book’s heroes and villains, which are followed by 21 pinups by creators like Ryan Stegman, Tom Fowler, and Chris Burnham (who also pens the book’s introduction). Two 24-hour comics show how far Browne has come from his initial idea while spotlighting the remarkable work he’s capable of under a tight deadline, and a list of references closes out the extras by providing a guide to all the superhero homages and movie quotes in the preceding issues. With so much to love in this collection, the major downside is that readers will have to wait a while for more… [OS]
The flood of new Vertigo’s ongoing series that began with FBP: Federal Bureau Of Physics #1(originally titled Collider) continues this October with two debuts starring female leads. The first is Ian Edginton and Francesco Trifogli’s Hinterkind, a post-apocalyptic fantasy series starring a heroine in the vein of The Hunger Game’s Katniss Everdeen. Hinterkind #1 is a solid start that isn’t particularly memorable—it has pretty art but a fairly generic story. It lacks the style and immediate hook of Coffin Hill #1 (Vertigo), Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda’s horror series about a wealthy New England heiress turned police officer who returns to her haunted childhood home after getting shot in the head. The first five pages start the book at a breakneck pace, quickly outlining Eve Coffin’s current situation as a hero cop who comes home to receive a bullet in her skull.
From there, the story slows down for a flashback set 10 years earlier, when Eve was a rambunctious little punk rebelling against her family’s wealth and social status. The question of how Eve transformed from pink-haired wannabe witch to police officer is one of many presented in this first issue, which juggles a considerable number of storylines and characters. Luckily, Miranda’s distinct, evocative artwork makes it easy to keep everything straight, with eye-catching character designs and immediately establish personality and environments that set the tone for the scene. The specificity of the costuming and décor immerses the reader in the setting, but Miranda’s smooth, controlled line maintains a sense of motion in the midst of all the detail. With a dark, mysterious story and beautiful artwork, Coffin Hill is a hip, sexy, and scary book that feels like a quintessential Vertigo title… [OS]
Archie Comics has done tremendous work reinventing itself over the last five years, bringing the retro line of titles into contemporary times by introducing characters like the openly gay Kevin Keller and telling stories about Archie and friends as adults. Afterlife With Archie #1 (Archie) may just be the publishers’ boldest move yet, a horror comic about the end of Riverdale that is specifically targeted to older readers. The company has gone so far as to insist this title not be shelved with the other all-ages Archie titles, for fear of terrifying children drawn in by that beautiful Francesco Francavilla cover. The choice of the Eisner Award-winning Francavilla for the book’s art shows how passionate Archie is about making this miniseries more than just a cash-in on the zombie craze, creating a piece of chilling horror fiction that is elevated by the use of the Riverdale characters. With a script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, co-writer of the recent Carrie film remake, Afterlife With Archie begins with Sabrina The Teenage Witch using the Necronomicon to revive Jughead’s dead pet Hot Dog, who comes back to life as a rabid zombie that bites its owner and turns him into one of the living dead just in time for the Riverdale school dance. The plot is a mix of horror clichés that feel classic rather than contrived when interpreted through Francavilla’s haunting artwork, which uses heavy shadows and high-contrast colors to create a portentous atmosphere. This book is just plain gorgeous, illustrating the massive creative potential in Archie’s continuing experimentation… [OS]
Six years after Shaolin Cowboy ended its run at the Wachowskis’ Burlyman Entertainment, Geof Darrow returns to his Eastern-influenced Western series for a new four-issue miniseries at Dark Horse Comics. No longer co-written with the Wachowskis, Shaolin Cowboy #1 (Dark Horse) delivers exactly what readers of the former series will expect: extremely detailed artwork attached to a strange, minimalist story. This first issue includes a “Story Thus Far” segment that is essentially a stream of consciousness narrative composed of endless wordplay, providing 14 paragraphs of tiny text across two pages that take much longer to read than the 27 pages of art that follow. The plot is completely unimportant here, as emphasized by the character’s ludicrous backstory. A single action sequence takes up all but three pages of this first issue, showing Shaolin Cowboy as he’s chased by the undead across a sweeping desert. Armed with two chainsaws attached to a long piece of bamboo, he makes his way across a landscape where Darrow has painstakingly rendered every little rock, weed, and piece of garbage. This book is a master class in scope and detail, a passion project where Darrow can show off his ability to grab a reader’s attention without the use of dialogue and just the barest of plots. In Shaolin Cowboy, the substance is derived entirely from the craftsmanship of Darrow’s art, and all the tiny intricacies ultimately add up to a stunningly visceral reading experience… [OS]
Peter Bagge is best known for making with the funny—be it as the man behind the indie-comics staple Hate or various satirical depictions of Marvel characters, most notably in the latest incarnation of Strange Tales. But Bagge has a serious side; his longtime position as a cartoonist for Reason is a testament to his deeply held libertarian beliefs. It’s those ideals that inform Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly), a graphic-novel biography of the 20th century’s foremost birth-control proponent. Treading on the less controversial side of libertarianism—that is, civil liberties—serves Bagge well. His account of Sanger’s life, struggles, and triumphs (and by extension, generations of women who still fight the same battles) is delivered with clarity and charisma, even if the inherent goofiness and rubbery quality of his art undermines the gravity of the story as much as makes it more accessible. Rounded out by extensive text appendices—plus an insightful introduction by The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon—Woman Rebel is a daring if uneven expression of Bagge’s rarely glimpsed earnest side… [JH]
The one-panel-per-page format isn’t used often in graphic novels, and for good reason. Not only does it eat a lot of paper, it sets up a choppy sequential cadence that unconsciously recalls collections of one-panel, standalone gags. That said, no one will mistake Anna Bongiovanni’s Out Of Hollow Water (2D Cloud) for, say, a Far Side anthology. It’s far darker. Told predominately in one-panel pages that feel strikingly blocky and chalky, the story is a shadow-smeared dream-cycle rife with haunting symbolism, the tender horrors of motherhood, and insidious overtones of sexual violence. Bongiovanni doesn’t stick exclusively to the sequential format; occasionally her bold, full-paged panels will disintegrate into cramped grids or vertical slices. But they only serve to mirror and enhance Out Of Hollow Water’s aura of fleshly shame and confusion—not to mention the subtle nuance of line and allegory that reveals itself as the nightmare unspools. [JH]