New comics releases include a trio of great graphic novels and the rebirth of Constantine

New comics releases include a trio of great graphic novels and the rebirth of Constantine

Every two weeks, Comics Panel covers recent notable releases along the entire comics spectrum, from superhero/mainstream comics to graphic novels/art comics.

French cartoonist David Beauchard (a.k.a. “David B.”) first rose to international prominence with his serialized autobiographical graphic novel Epileptic, in which the artist applied his dense, often surreal art to the story of how his childhood was affected by his brother’s neurological condition. In Epilectic, a disorder inspires art. In David B.’s Black Paths (SelfMadeHero/Abrams), art is the disorder. Set in the short-lived city-state of Fiume—seized and ruled by the visionary poet and novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio from September 1919 to December 1920—the book tells the story of a soldier and a singer who fight to stay alive and stay together in a lawless town. As with Epileptic, the art in Black Paths is twisted but the writing is straight, charting a clear narrative path through the insanity of Italy in the year following World War I, when control of the country still seemed very much up for grabs. Black Paths isn’t a conventional love story; David B. is more interested in conveying a sense of this place, led by a self-proclaimed “Pirate King,” and exploring how ordinary people find ways to adjust to a world seemingly governed by whim.

Black Paths is one of three books being released this month by Abrams that the publisher imported from the increasingly vital British imprint SelfMadeHero, which itself has been acquiring titles from around the world. The other two are Hair Shirt, a moody college romance from Canadian Patrick McEown, and When David Lost His Voice, a poignant cancer drama from Belgian Judith Vanistendael. In its broad strokes, Hair Shirt is familiar fare, all about two childhood friends whose attempts to get closer as young adults are stymied by some shared, dark memories. While the material’s too maudlin, McEown is refreshingly unafraid to pluck at raw nerves, dealing frankly and at times feverishly with his characters’ sexual desires and hang-ups. Nothing about McEown’s dark-hued, scratchy art or his intense exploration of guilt and shame is generic.

As for When David Lost His Voice, it’s just as unstinting as Hair Shirt and Black Paths, but it’s a much longer book, and thus less intense, since Vanistendael allows her story to stretch out, with long wordless expanses. Vanistendael’s art resembles that of Jules Feiffer, with its thin lines and limber poses. Her storytelling relies on a series of impressionistic moments in one family’s life, as they prepare for their patriarch’s approaching death, clinging hopefully to the few remaining good moments they get to share. Cancer has become a well-worn subject for graphic novels and comic book memoirs, but When David Lost His Voice takes a more poetic approach than most, celebrating life as it slips away, day by day.

It’s not that unusual these days for three graphic novels as accomplished as Black Paths, Hair Shirt, and When David Lost His Voice to come out in the same month, but it is unusual for them to come out from the same publisher (and for that publisher not to be Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, or Top Shelf). And even though these books bear no intended relation to each other, they work well when read together, in that all three put distinctive, expressive art in service of stories about regular folk in irregular circumstances. Nearly every comics fan knows the pleasure of sitting down with a stack of new issues, jumping from one serialized adventure to another. Reading these three SelfMadeHero books is a different kind of pleasure, akin to spending a day at a prestigious international film festival… [NM]

Initially, the cancellation of Vertigo’s longest running series, Hellblazer, seemed like the death knell for DC’s mature-readers imprint. Vertigo is hanging on thanks to Fables, Unwritten, and upcoming books based on established properties like 100 Bullets and The Sandman, but Constantine #1 (DC) doesn’t bode well for the future of everyone’s favorite chain-smoking warlock in a trench coat. Ivan Reis’ cover makes it clear that this title is going to place an emphasis on superhero adventure rather than urban horror, and Constantine has lost a lot of his bite in the transition. As is the case with the majority of DC’s current output, the script by Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes puts plot before character, setting up a conflict between Constantine and established DC magic users but forgetting to create a fully realized portrayal of the central character. 

John Constantine is a snarky, morally ambiguous antihero, but those are a dime a dozen nowadays. The thing that made Constantine stand out at Vertigo was that he wound up in the kinds of grisly situations that can only happen in a mature-readers title. He would react to these horrible circumstances with wit that was as much a defense mechanism as comic relief, but the New 52 version of the character lacks that distinct voice. Renato Guedes provides detailed artwork that can get stiff at times, but he’s a strong choice of artist to render Constantine’s more realistic view of the DC universe. It would be interesting to see what Guedes could do with a story that has more of a horror edge, and ideally future issues will give him the opportunity to create more atmospheric visuals. This first issue may not be the standout debut that merits the cancellation of Hellblazer, but Lemire and Fawkes are a solid writing team that will hopefully bring some of the old Constantine back as their run continues… [OS]

And…

Since the creation of Hellboy in 1993, Mike Mignola has built a rich history around the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and the supernatural threats it has encountered over time. Two new miniseries co-written by Mignola delve into the past of this world, revealing the diverse storytelling opportunities it presents. Sledgehammer ’44 #1 (Dark Horse) picks up on a plot thread left dangling at the end of 2007’s Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus, catching up with the Vril Energy Suit as it helps American forces fight Nazis in World War II. Joined by longtime B.P.R.D. writer John Arcudi and artist Jason Latour (who is currently showing off his writing chops on the outstanding Winter Soldier), Mignola crafts a hard-hitting story about a battalion facing a nearly unstoppable opponent. The day is saved by their mechanical secret weapon, but the soldiers’ situation only gets worse after the energy suit does its job. Like a lot of Mignolaverse stories, the story is primarily a vehicle for incredible visuals, and Latour’s artwork has the crisp storytelling of a high-budget animated movie combined with the visceral grit of a war film. [OS]

The first issue of Sledgehammer ’44 is light on plot but heavy on atmosphere, and the same can be said of B.P.R.D.: Vampire #1 (Dark Horse), which teams Mignola with Daytripper creators Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá for the next chapter in the ongoing story of Agent Simon Anders. Possessed by vampire sisters at the end of B.P.R.D.: 1947, Anders is haunted by nightmares that are captured in chilling detail by Moon, beginning with a silent five-page flashback sequence that’s a master class in building suspense and terror. The opening splash page shows a close-up of a bloody hand floating in pitch-black water, an ominous teaser to the double-page reveal of a river filled with the bodies of dead women leaving streaks of red across the inky surface. The subsequent pages follow the crimson trail to the beast responsible for the carnage, and it’s easy to see why Anders wakes up from his dream so shaken after seeing what he sees. The rest of the issue follows Anders as he leaves the B.P.R.D. to track down and kill a nest of vampires. While Bá evocatively illustrates the setup, it’s a bit of a comedown after an opening that grabs the reader by the throat... [OS]

Miriam Katin’s 2006 memoir We Are On Our Own covered her and her mother’s escape from the Nazis, and how the experience affected Katin’s faith in God. It’s a powerful book—especially given that it was Katin’s first-ever graphic novel, completed in her early 60s—but the follow-up, Letting It Go (D&Q), is even better, documenting Katin’s anxiety when she learns that her son wants to reclaim his Hungarian citizenship and then settle in Berlin. Katin, who still bears a grudge against both her home country and Germany, travels back to Europe with her husband, and isn’t sure what to make of how these countries choose to remember the horrors of the past. Katin’s colored pencils have a grounded quality, enhanced by her focus on the everyday details of her life at its best and worst, from the splendor of her New York City home to a graphic, untimely bout of diarrhea. Letting It Go is a moving, funny look inside the artist’s thought processes as she reckons with her past and decides whether she’s going to live out her golden years in a spirit of resentment or forgiveness… [NM]

Two Brits with a strong connection to the Marvel Universe’s U.K., Paul Cornell and Alan Davis are the perfect team to work on a Marvel Now! Excalibur title, so why are they saddled to a completely redundant and forgettable Wolverine book? Wolverine #1 (Marvel) aims to provide a street-level view of Marvel’s ubiquitous mutant, putting Logan in the middle of a hostage situation with no explanation of how he got there or whom he’s fighting. It reads like the middle chapter of a storyline already in progress, complete with the plodding momentum that those installments tend to have. Frank Cho’s Savage Wolverine may be silly, but at least it gives an idea of how Wolverine thinks; Cornell’s script has Wolverine getting incinerated a lot and not much else. Cornell is trying to set up a Lone Wolf And Cub dynamic between Wolverine and the child son of this issue’s antagonist, but the lack of backstory makes it difficult to care for any of the random characters. Alan Davis is a legendary artist whose craft has only improved with age, but not even his sleek pencils can save this book. If Marvel is going to give a character two ongoing series over the course of three months, the quality needs to be better than this to justify the existence of both books... [OS]

Subtitled “A Memory,” Will Eisner’s short-story collection Last Day In Vietnam (Dark Horse) was originally published in 2000, five years before Eisner’s death, and is culled from anecdotes Eisner jotted down while on research trips for the Army manuals he illustrated. Aside from the title story, most of the pieces here only run a couple of pages, and many of them are in the form of a direct address from a soldier to an unseen person, presumed to be Eisner. By the time Last Day In Vietnam was released, comics had achieved a maturity beyond what even Eisner had conceived when he released his first self-described “graphic novel,” A Contract With God, in 1978. Like a lot of Eisner’s later work, the Last Day In Vietnam stories use the kind of daring storytelling gimmicks that Eisner pioneered in the ’40s with his superhero comic The Spirit, applying them to more adult themes—grappling with frustration, cowardice, horniness, and loneliness. And while depth-wise the Last Day In Vietnam pieces are about at the level of EC’s better war comics (which is to say they’re punchily ironic, not incredibly rich), Eisner’s decades of experience with drawing military vignettes really shows, as does his pleasure in being able to get closer to depicting war as it really is, rather than having to toe the Army line… [NM]

As far as buddy comedies go, the concept of Buddy Cops #1 (Dark Horse) is a big winner. Starring a boozehound intergalactic space cop who partners up with an anal-retentive police robot from the ’70s, the three short stories in this issue first appeared in the pages of Dark Horse Presents, but with luck, writer Nate Cosby and artist Evan Shaner will get the chance to return to this delightfully oddball sci-fi comedy. The dialogue is hilarious and the scenarios are ridiculous, both exemplified by this great line: “You’re reading Miranda rights to a 90-foot-tall monster dressed like a monk holding a nuclear slingshot. It’s time. To hit. A thing.” The monster in question is a giant orangutan whose dialogue includes “Da lord iss my sligshot” and “Fullow gudd!” It’s absurd, but not without substance as Cosby shows that he has a great handle on the voices of his two leads, and Shaner provides crisp artwork in the vein of Daredevil’s Chris Samnee. Make sure to follow the book’s suggestion and listen to Lionel Richie’s “Hello” during the two-page montage where Dennis and T.A.Z.E.R. get new partners, because there’s nothing like the sweet sounds of ’80s R&B to really milk an image of a bear getting electrocuted for all its comedic potential… [OS]

There are few comics projects more quintessentially of their time than Charlton’s early-’60s series Gorgo, an adaptation of a British B-movie that was itself a rip-off of Godzilla. The comic comes from an era when even the ancillary product of a here-and-gone exploitation picture could run for 23 issues (reportedly selling more than 200,000 copies at its peak); and it comes from an era when a project like this could be illustrated by Steve Ditko, at the same time that he was revolutionizing superhero comics with Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-Man and Strange Tales. The 200-plus pages of Ditko Monsters: Gorgo (IDW) aren’t sophisticated in terms of their plotting (mostly handled by Charlton stalwart Joe Gill). The stories mostly repeat the original premise of the movie, with the giant prehistoric beast terrorizing a city or an army, not out of malice but out of fear—because, as it turns out, the creature is only a child. But Ditko cut loose on Gorgo, drawing the enormous lizard with the same dynamic poses and tortured grimace as his best Marvel super-villains. These Gorgo comics are pure pulp sensation, meaning they’re mostly just monsters smashing stuff, drawn by one of the medium’s true originals. [NM]

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