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New comics releases include an attention-seeking Justice League and a wine-comics exchange

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

The American government doesn’t trust the Justice League, so it’s making its own in Justice League Of America #1 (DC), the new ongoing by Geoff Johns and David Finch featuring a team of the world’s deadliest heroes. Johns assembles an attention-grabbing lineup for the group, mixing high-profile characters like Catwoman and Green Arrow with lesser-known heroes like Vibe and Stargirl, but this first issue fails to give a solid reason for them coming together. As lackluster as Johns’ first issue of Justice League was, at least it was active; Justice League Of America utilizes that time-honored team-building conceit of people sitting around a table with folders full of superhero headshots. This leads to lots of expository narration as Amanda Waller tells Steve Trevor about her candidates, with Johns checking in with the heroes to show scenes of them in action. 

Back in December, Big Issues addressed how Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers provided a template for putting together a superhero team. That book introduced a threat that required the team’s expansion and spent time showing why the new members would be interested in joining, two things that Justice League Of America doesn’t accomplish. When Justice League Unlimited did a storyline about the American government plotting against the Justice League, the behavior of the superhero team justified the suspicion. Thus far, the New 52 Justice League is a hypothetical threat only, and it’s hard to get behind Waller’s rationale when it’s obvious that Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman aren’t going to go bad anytime soon. 

This new Justice League title is intended as the lead-in to the upcoming “Trinity War” event, but the team’s formation is a contrived way of setting up the future conflict, complete with a corkboard that explicitly outlines future matches. Readers learn why Waller wants these heroes, but not why they personally want to be there, making the lineup feel like a gathering of superpowers and skill sets without any character underneath. With an absurd cliffhanger featuring the maybe-death of a hero whose title was just completely re-hauled and a 50 states variant cover initiative that has the heroes lifting 1 of 50 different state flags, this book is starting right off with cheap tactics to generate sales. 

David Finch is one of DC’s superstar artists, yet while his pencils are meticulously detailed and he knows how to create a striking splash page, his characters tend to look overly posed. This cuts into the pages’ sense of motion, and no matter how intricate the linework gets, it can’t compensate for that stiffness. Like the classic Image artists that influenced him, Finch struggles with faces, and he uses stock faces for males and females that are only slightly altered via skin tone, hair, and eye color. (The big exception is Amanda Waller, who has more masculine features than the rest of the women in the book.) That said, Finch is by no means a bad artist. His art has a darker edge that’s appropriate for a storyline titled “World’s Most Dangerous,” but it’s not enough to make up for the title’s shaky concept… [OS]

The subtitle to Étienne Davodeau’s engrossing piece of comics reportage, The Initiates (NBM/Comics Lit), describes the contents of the book as “A Comic Artist And A Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs.” But that’s a little misleading. Vintner Richard Leroy didn’t really become a cartoonist for The Initiates, nor did cartoonist Davodeau became a vintner. Instead, Davodeau spent a year following his friend Leroy as he pruned his vines, fertilized his land, harvested his grapes, bottled his yield, and dealt with critics, vendors, and oenophiles. In return, Davodeau gave Leroy a stack of books to read, and showed him what a publisher’s office, a printing press, and a comics festival are all like. Davodeau did some of the actual winemaking grunt work; Leroy mainly drank occasionally with some of Davodeau’s fellow cartoonists and talked about art.

But while The Initiates is tilted far more heavily to the vineyard than the drafting board, that’s not really to its detriment. This is Davodeau’s book, ultimately—with his script and his accomplished mix of clear-line cartooning and evocative sketches—and so it’s naturally going to deal more with what fascinates its author. Besides, Leroy’s life alone offers plenty to support a 250-page book, as the former banker fusses with the details of vine placement and fermentation while producing some of the most internationally acclaimed dry French wines of this era. The sheer amount of foresight and raw faith that goes into making wine as a commercial proposition is a wonder to behold, and Davodeau does his best to capture every step and draw every esoteric piece of equipment that Leroy deploys. And if the reader draws some conclusions along the way about how making art requires a similar combination of discipline and mad passion? Well, there’s always a little sediment left behind in the process… [NM]

The Bard’s expansive stock of characters makes his library a perfect candidate for the Fables treatment. After producing a thrilling debut miniseries two years ago, the team behind Kill Shakespeare is back for more stories starring the ragtag group of Hamlet, Juliet, Romeo, and Othello. For Kill Shakespeare: Tide Of Blood #1 (IDW), writers Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery switch the setting to Prospero’s island, using this first issue to fill readers in on the events of the last series before heading off to a new locale. Hamlet was the central figure of the initial miniseries, but Romeo takes the lead in Tide Of Blood, struggling with abandonment issues as he watches the Prince of Denmark get cozy with his old Capulet lover. He dreams of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and when she appears in reality, Romeo is given the opportunity to stop wallowing in drink and despair and start being a hero again. 

Andy Belanger’s artwork has become tighter in his time away from this world, and his characters are now as expressive as his backgrounds are detailed. The downside to the visuals is that Shari Chankhamma’s colors are a bit too subdued and end up washing out the linework. However, that could be intentional to emphasize the dullness of the world outside of Prospero’s island; hopefully she’ll utilize a more vibrant color palette once the book moves into the fantastic location. Perfect for everyone from Shakespeare fans to readers who are just looking for a riveting fantasy adventure, Tide Of Blood is a strong continuation of a franchise that will ideally be around for a while… [OS]

Even the most talented men and women who became comic-book artists in the mid-20th century tended to think of themselves as commercial illustrators first and foremost, often dismissing claims by fans and critics that they were producing anything like capital-A “Art.” Bernard Krigstein, though, always thought like a fine artist, even when he was drawing stories about cowboys, soldiers, or gangsters. That’s why after almost 20 years in the business, Krigstein left comics to become a painter and a teacher, sharing some of the analytical approach that he brought to the pulps. Krigstein’s comics work has long been prized by collectors, and Krigstein biographer Greg Sadowski assembles a lot of it under one cover in Messages In A Bottle (Fantagraphics), an expansion of the Sadowski-edited 2004 anthology B. Krigstein: Comics

The collection is anchored by Krigstein’s most famous story: the Al Feldstein-written “Master Race,” a post-Holocaust thriller that ran in EC Comics’ non-horror title Impact after sitting around the company’s offices for nearly half a year, stumping the editors. But “Master Race” is surrounded by almost-as-stunning stories that show how Krigstein’s style evolved quickly, from his more conventionally rendered pre-EC pieces to work that almost doesn’t resemble comics. Later in his stint as a comic-book artist, Krigstein filled pages with elaborate abstract-art exercises, with some panels containing gorgeously detailed line drawings, some containing large amounts of negative space, and some subdivided into three or four narrower panels. Krigstein treated each assignment as a chance to put theory into practice, and even among EC’s formidable roster of stylists, Krigstein stands out as one for whom the words around the pictures almost don’t matter, because the art’s so mesmerizing that it’s hard to pay attention to anything else… [NM]

Brian Michael Bendis has been criticized for his decompressed storytelling, and Powers: Bureau #1 (Icon) reads like a direct response to his detractors as it rockets through a year in the life of fan-favorite character Deena Pilgrim. The fourth volume of Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s long-running creator-owned cop comic finds Deena reunited with her old partner, Christian Walker, now working for the FBI, since all powers-related cases now fall under federal jurisdiction. This first issue begins with the partners watching a coworker get blown up by a fetus growing in his abdomen thanks to some super-powered sperm, then backtracks to a year previous to reveal how Deena got to that point. The last volume of Powers sadly pushed the series’ breakout sassy blonde to the background, and it’s great to see one of Bendis’ greatest creations back in the spotlight. 

Bendis and Oeming have developed a chemistry that brings out the best in each creator when they work together. Oeming has become adept at bringing energy and variety to Bendis’ many talking-heads scenes, but this issue also gives him the opportunity to show off his storytelling strengths without Bendis’ words. A silent three-page sequence of Deena searching for a missing child in Belgium is a master class in tension, stretching out the moments of quiet suspense before taking off when the violence breaks out. Nick Filardi’s colors are similarly fine-tuned, utilizing a muted color palette for low-key scenes of characters chatting at the office or relaxing at home, which makes the flashes of bright red, blue, and green even more impactful when powers come into play. After 13 years, Powers remains one of the best superhero crime comics on the stand, and the shift to the FBI has turned it in a captivating new direction… [OS]

Compared to other comics memoirists, Geneviève Castrée hasn’t led the most dramatic life. Judging by her book Susceptible (D&Q)—reportedly a mostly autobiographical account of her youth, from birth to age 18, condensed into 80 pages—Castrée had a stressful but not too unusual childhood, raised in Québec by her permissive-but-fretful divorcée mother and the mother’s pissy live-in boyfriend. Castrée’s surrogate in Susceptible—a smart, rebellious young artist named Goglu—gets into comics and punk rock. She takes drugs and fools around with boys. And periodically, she travels across Canada to British Columbia to spend time with her English-speaking hippie father, who allows her even more slack. The heroine’s home life isn’t ideal, but neither is it all that uncommon in the age of the dysfunctional family.

But there’s that old saying, that it’s not what a story’s about, but how it’s about it. From its opening images of Goglu becoming inextricably tangled in a plant’s roots, Susceptible is locked into its main idea: how personal failings get passed down through generations. And Castrée considers this idea not in a self-pitying, “Woe is me” way, but in a more objective, “Here’s what I remember and here’s what I think it means” way. Susceptible divides Goglu’s life into a series of intense anecdotes, some filling only a page, but each as vivid as if Castrée had drawn them immediately after they happened. She doesn’t strike a reflective tone here; instead she recalls her fights with her mom and her adventures with her juvenile-delinquent friends in more of a present tense, lending them more immediacy. Castrée makes her larger points in her art, drawing Goglu as a small figure either dwarfed by blankness or drawn into her mother’s life of drinking, carousing, and making excuses. This book is about an artist trying to understand where she came from, and it’s at times astonishing in both its compactness and clarity… [NM]


One thing that makes Geneviève Castrée’s Susceptible even more special is that while the graphic-novel shelf isn’t exactly lacking in stories about the troubles of teenage girls, most of them are couched in “Young Adult”/Scholastic Books-friendly tameness, with none of Castrée’s artistry or fierce honesty. Writer Ayun Halliday and artist Paul Hoppe’s Peanut (Schwartz & Wade) is a prime example of the best and worst of this YA graphic-novel trend, in that it’s at once enjoyably slick and essentially phony. The premise of Peanut is a good one, following a new high-school student named Sadie as she fakes a peanut allergy in order to stand out from the crowd. Hoppe’s art is uncluttered and easy to scan, with a single splash of color on Sadie that effectively reinforces the character’s master plan of becoming noticeable; and Halliday diligently thinks through all it would take for her heroine to fake a serious medical condition, building real suspense into scenes where it seems Sadie is about to be caught. But while Peanut is a fun read, it’s frustratingly unchallenging, focusing on the usual high-school fiction business of cliques, boyfriends, and learning to “be yourself.” Juvenile comics readers could do a lot worse, sure; but juvenile comics creators need to start doing a little better… [NM]

DC has put a lot of faith in writer Ann Nocenti, but her work on Green Arrow and Catwoman has been plagued by tedious narration and stiff dialogue. These problems reappear in Nocenti’s Katana #1 (DC), one of two ongoing series spotlighting members of the new Justice League Of America. (The other is Geoff Johns and Andrew Kreisberg’s Justice League Of America’s Vibe.) Tatsu Toro is one of the most dangerous assassins on the planet, killing her adversaries with the sword that she believes contains the soul of her dead husband. She’s a warrior that’s literally in love with her weapon, and the issue is strongest when Nocenti focuses on that bizarre relationship. Where the book falters is in establishing a mission statement for Katana, who’s trying to uncover the secrets of her weapon in San Francisco’s Japantown. Nocenti spends more time on her purple prose than she does giving this book a clear objective, and the series lacks a hook that will keep readers coming back every month. The main draw of this title is Alex Sanchez’s artwork, which utilizes unconventional angles and Art Nouveau flourishes to give the book a distinct visual flair. It’s a shame that Nocenti cuts into the momentum of Sanchez’s fight sequences with all those unnecessary words; Katana is at its best when it’s silent… [OS]

NBM’s “Papercutz” line of children’s graphic novels has been a success both commercially and creatively, as the company has been supplementing its licensed properties like Power Rangers and Lego Ninjago with high-quality European kids’ comics, such as Emmanuel Guibert and Marc Boutavant’s delightful Ariol stories. Ariol: Just A Donkey Like You And Me (NBM/Papercutz) is part funny-animal book and part elementary-school Archie comic, all about a young donkey who pals around with his classmates—including a pig, a dog, a goat, and a fly—while wishing he could be more like his favorite superhero, Thunder Horse. Guibert and Boutavant don’t have any grand narrative ambitions here, and they aren’t aiming to be wacky, either; each Ariol story runs for just a few pages, and involves the hero either playing make-believe or dealing with fairly common little-kid drama, with just a bit of gross-out humor mixed in. The tone’s light and the art’s outstanding, reminiscent of Richard Scarry, but with a rougher edge. If Ariol were a Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon series, it’d be one of the best on cable; as a book series (with more volumes already in the process of being imported and translated), Ariol’s mix of silly and slice-of-life is more than good enough… [NM]

The last of seven Avengers books released as part of Marvel Now!, Secret Avengers #1 (Marvel) takes inspiration from its title for its concept. Hawkeye and Black Widow are S.H.I.E.L.D.’s newest covert operatives, taking on missions so classified that they have their memories altered in order to do their work. Writer Nick Spencer delivers a solid action-espionage story for a comic that’s essentially built to incorporate the Marvel movie-verse into the comic, with the S.H.I.E.L.D. cast of The Avengers playing prominent roles. Agent Coulson is the group’s S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison and the black Nick Fury has a spot on the team, and later issues look to introduce both Hulk and Iron Man 3’s Iron Patriot to the fray. Spencer is partnered with Luke Ross, who isn’t the flashiest artist but has efficient storytelling skills, and the visuals serve the script well. This title may not be necessary, especially with most of its cast appearing regularly in other books, but for those looking for a superhero spy title, this first issue doesn’t disappoint… [OS] 

Nick Cardy was one of the most innovative superhero comics artists of the ’60s and ’70s, up there with Neal Adams and Jim Steranko in terms of his creative approaches to layouts and figure drawing. But long before he helped define the look of DC’s silver age, Cardy served in a tank division in the European theater of WWII, where he passed the time by sketching. Nick Cardy: The Artist At War (Titan) reprints pages from Cardy’s wartime sketchbook, with reminiscences by the artist. Cardy’s notes are often more technical than personal, as he talks about what kind of pens he used, and how he smudged the ink with his own saliva to create shading. But this art would be beautiful even if it weren’t created under such difficult circumstances; and as assembled, it does tell a story, documenting Cardy’s impressions of Army life from basic training to German rubble to V-E day in France. The Artist At War is like a companion piece to Fantagraphics’ essential collections of Bill Mauldin’s war cartoons; but where Mauldin filters the indignities of being a frontline grunt through the sensibility of a humorist, Cardy had more of the soul of a scared kid, trying to keep his fear contained by throwing a frame around it.

Comic books can always use more strong female leads, and the title character of Steve Horton and Michael Dialynas’ Amala’s Blade #0 (Dark Horse) is an ass-kicking young assassin who doesn’t let her past define her future. That’s difficult when Amala’s past is actually haunting her; she’s visited by the ghosts of past victims as she makes her way to her next target aboard a pirate ship. Originally published as three parts in Dark Horse Presents, this one-shot lays the groundwork for this spring’s upcoming miniseries, introducing a new character who is as flawed as she is enthralling. Dialynas’ artwork is an evocative mix of Becky Cloonan and Guy Davis, deftly combining elements of manga and European comics to create fluid visuals in a beautifully detailed environment. A steampunk pirate adventure with a supernatural twist, Amala’s Blade has a lot of potential, and its creators deliver on the promise of their concept… [OS]