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New comics releases include an X-Men debut and a Joe Sacco experiment

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the X-Men, Marvel.com made a list of the top 50 characters that served on the team, with Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner taking the second spot, trailing only Kitty Pryde. A god/man who looks like a demon, Kurt Wagner exemplifies the X-theme of rising above his appearance and circumstances to live a full life, refusing to let the negativity and fear of the world around him destroy his smiling, swashbuckling personality. Unfortunately, Nightcrawler has been dead for three years, but like most superhero deaths, it’s only temporary. Amazing X-Men #1 (Marvel) marks the return of everyone’s favorite fuzzy blue elf, teaming Wolverine And The X-Men writer Jason Aaron with artist Ed McGuinness for a title that is pure mutant fun, even if it is wholly unnecessary to add yet another X-book to Marvel’s publishing lineup.

Amazing X-Men could have easily been a story arc in Aaron’s WATX, especially considering how close the two books are in tone. Where they differ is the focus; WATX splits time between the faculty and the student body of the Jean Grey Institute, whereas Amazing pulls the teachers out of the school for a more traditional superhero adventure. Traditional isn’t necessarily a detriment, though, especially when it’s crafted this well. McGuinness and colorist Marte Gracia beautifully capture the serenity and majesty of Kurt’s new heavenly surroundings during the opening sequence, creating a sense of calm that is broken when Kurt is attacked by the demonic henchmen of his crimson-colored father Azazel. The manga influence in McGuinness’ art is perfect for the swordfight that follows, evoking that classic Nightcrawler spirit as Kurt goes wild with a blade in each hand. The cover for this issue is an homage to Dave Cockrum’s Nightcrawler #1 cover, and the Cockrum influence applies to McGuinness’ art throughout the entire issue, which is crisp, dynamic, and brimming with energy. 

This first issue splits the spotlight between Nightcrawler and the Jean Grey Institute’s newest faculty member, the former Hellion/New Warrior/Avenger Angelica “Firestar” Jones, who is joining the staff after the resignation of Kitty Pryde. Firestar provides a great entry point into the madcap world of Wolverine’s school, giving new readers someone who is as in over her head as they are. Exhibiting a firm handle on the voices of these characters, Aaron’s script is heavy on the soap opera elements that have defined the X-Men for most of their history, particularly in the romance department. The flirtatious bickering between Storm and Wolverine, as well as Warbird’s aggressive courtship of the currently taken Iceman, is a nice change of pace from the last couple months dominated by the dreary “Battle Of The Atom” crossover. When coupled with the exciting Nightcrawler action, this book is a refreshing new entry in Marvel’s busy mutant lineup. [OS]

For all his accomplishments over the past three decades, Joe Sacco has never been known as an experimentalist. That’s not to say his work hasn’t broken new ground; in 1996, Palestine set a standard for embedded, first-person graphic journalism, and it earned an American Book Award for it. Since then, Sacco has continued to report on the phenomenon of war in graphic-novel form—from 2003’s The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo to 2005’s War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia to 2009’s Footnotes In Gaza. Throughout these various projects, his storytelling has been predominantly unfussy and straightforward, and his cartooning has yielded rich detail as it did its best not to draw too much attention away from its subject and onto itself.

That said, it’s impossible for a journalist in any medium to prevent the medium from becoming at least part of the message. Sacco’s work has relied on the immediacy and, yes, the novelty of the comics format to raise its visibility. Which makes his new project, The Great War (Norton), both a monumental triumph and an abject flop. It’s not a graphic novel in even the broadest definition of the term; instead, it’s a single, wordless illustration that unfolds to a staggering 24 feet in order to depict the events of the first day of The Battle Of The Somme on July 1, 1916. Visually, it’s breathtaking. Intricate yet wrought with a teeming clarity, the illustration flows like a panoramic shot of the French countryside as one of the most horrific scars of World War I is about to be carved across it. Britain alone lost 20,000 soldiers that day, and the enormity of that massacre is conveyed with exquisite candidness by Sacco’s dizzying rendition.

But that’s where the experiment begins to falter. Without text or context, the illustration moves from sensitive to desensitizing. Men march, bombs fall, death comes. By the time the final few inches of the picture—a mass grave that eerily mirrors the trenches from which the casualties rose mere hours before—comes into view, it all feels like a numb, deaf exercise in centerfold voyeurism, akin to PG-13 war porn. The Great War does come with a slim booklet that contains an illuminating essay by author Adam Hochschild as well as brief annotation by Sacco himself that provides the barest explanation of what’s going on throughout the story. But that’s where the project’s inherent impracticality comes in; it’s just too cumbersome and self-conscious to fully engage the viewer, and its grand experiment in rendering the horrors of war as spacetime-on-paper feels hollow. Sacco deserves accolades for his stunning ambition—but it’s a shame The Great War isn’t able to come anywhere close to achieving the depth and poignancy of his more conventional work. He may be bored of creating more standard, Palestine-style narratives, but the world could better use them. [JH]

For children, superheroes have far more power than what is shown on the page or the screen. These costumed characters speak to fundamental human emotions and help kids develop a moral compass, and in the case of cartoonist Dean Trippe, they can even save a life. Trippe’s self-published Something Terrible looks at how the artist overcame horrific childhood trauma by putting his faith in Batman, another traumatized young boy who rose above his despair to become something more. Raped at gunpoint for three days as a child, Trippe found hope years later when the 1989 Batman film was screened in his fifth-grade class, igniting an obsession that helped him cope with those awful events. This 14-page short story (available as a 99-cent digital download) looks at that healing process from childhood to adulthood, beginning with a haunting depiction of a young boy struggling to understand the injustice committed against him and ending with an adult man who has learned to let go of his demons in order to become a better father. 

Trippe’s two-tone artwork evokes the loneliness and despair of those early years with stark simplicity; when young Trippe learns about the “cycle of abuse” theory of the ’90s, a faded third arm grows out of his body and holds a gun to his head, symbolizing his fear that he will grow to become another predator. The climax is a full-page color splash revealing all the fictional characters Trippe has turned to for comfort in his life, showcasing the keen design sense that Trippe regularly displays on Project: Rooftop, a blog devoted to superhero costume redesigns that he co-created with journalist Chris Arrant. While the message gets a bit heavy-handed toward the end as Trippe details how he came to create the book, the emotion is sincere, making Something Terrible a poignant exploration of the healing power of fantasy. [OS]


Alternative comics and horror comics don’t intersect as often as they should. A strong argument for the continued renewal of their acquaintance is Black Is The Color (Fantagraphics). Julia Gfrörer’s graphic novel imagines a 17th-century sailing ship whose captain decides one day to set two of his crew adrift for no other reason than to potentially conserve provisions—and it’s this cold, weird logic, plus the sublime Romanticism of being isolated on the open sea, that underpins a far richer story. When the castoff sailor Warren meets a mermaid and suckles black milk from her breast, his loyalties as well as his sanity are tested; meanwhile, there’s a glimpse of an eerily anachronistic mermaid society, complete with rock bands, jars, and disquiets. And Gfrörer’s bold, noble, vaguely Dame Darcy-esque linework turns the book’s sex scenes into formulae of erotic alchemy. Symbolically vivid and shot through with morbid humor, Black Is The Color isn’t strictly horrifying; it’s a fundamental reassessment of what can be done with genre comics when the blinkers come off… [JH]

At one point in The Fox #1 (Red Circle), the title character snaps the neck of a demonic villain by the name of Madame Satan and says, “Learned that move from a superhero movie. Man, they don’t make any of that stuff for kids anymore, do they?” That dig at Man Of Steel from The Fox’s script writer Mark Waid (whose feelings on the film are well documented) is just one of the delightful moments in this all-ages comic introducing new readers to the Fox, the costumed alter ego of photojournalist Paul Patton. With a plot and art by Dean Haspiel, an Emmy Award winner for his work on HBO’s Bored To Death, The Fox #1 is an exhilarating debut with bright, dynamic artwork and a hero with a complicated personal life, making it a great read for both kids and adults. A newly remarried divorced man who is worried about reconnecting with his daughter is a rarity in an industry where concepts like marriage and divorce are thought of as alienating to readers (see: Marvel’s Brand New Day and DC’s recent comments on superhero marriage), and it’s refreshing to see that complex family dynamic depicted on the page. Haspiel’s smooth, animated art style and Waid’s witty script make this an ideal title for fans of Batman: The Animated Series and the other DCAU cartoons, balancing superhero action, slapstick comedy, and intimate personal drama for a well-rounded first issue. With a top-notch creative team and variant covers by high-profile talents like Darwyn Cooke and Fiona Staples, The Fox is Red Circle’s strongest entry in the crowded superhero market, and a title deserving of attention… [OS]

Monkeybrain has some great female characters in Bandette, Amelia Cole, and the Subatomic Party Girls, but none of these women are superheroes in the traditional sense (although Bandette does wear a mask). The publisher debuts its first superheroine in the pages of The Double Life Of Miranda Turner #1 (Monkeybrain), but there’s more than one female behind the mask of the Cat. After the murder of her sister Lindy, Miranda Turner took on her sibling’s costumed identity despite a lack of training, but she has her sister’s ghost to help her learn the ropes. This first issue by writer Jamie S. Rich and artist George Kambadais is one of the digital publisher’s strongest, most confident debuts to date, an effervescent introduction to Miranda’s situation told via an extended action sequence between the Cat and Lego-themed supervillains who call themselves Blockheads. Rich’s script nails the banter between the two sisters, and folding the exposition into the action keeps the issue moving at a breakneck pace. This first issue is relatively light on story, but the world of these characters is fully fleshed out by Kambadais’ artwork, which inhabits a middle ground between Bandette’s Colleen Coover and Daytripper’s Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. The action is incredibly fluid and energetic, and his designs have just the right amount of goofiness without going over the top. The Blockhead’s Devo-inspired look and the Zebra’s silly animal hood immediately distinguish those characters from Miranda, who is dressed in a sleek, sensible black ensemble that suggests she’s still exploring her identity. Comic books can always use more female superheroes, and this first issue solidifies Miranda and Lindy Turner’s position as a pair to keep an eye on… [OS]

Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree comic strip is one of the many regular delights at Boing Boing—but viewing the strip’s first collected volume from Fantagraphics has the cumulative effect of a gradual revelation. This makes sense, considering that’s how hip-hop itself unfolded in the ’70s and ’80s, an organic evolution that Piskor captures with wit, energy, and passion. With artwork that’s a loving homage to ’70s Marvel superhero comics—right down to the faux-faded-newsprint tint to the paper and the oversized “Treasury Edition” format—the book traces the history of rap music from a personal, sociopolitical, musical, and at times mythic perspective. It’s a lot to absorb, and times Piskor’s layouts are cluttered with a little too much text and information, both textual and visual. That may fit the hip-hop aesthetic like a glove, but it does occasionally hamper the flow of an otherwise breakneck, kinetic, and vital piece of graphic cultural history… [JH]

Comic books based on Cartoon Network series have become all the rage recently, with Boom Studios tackling the network’s current output (Adventure Time, Regular Show) while IDW digs into former shows like The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack. That latter series never properly concluded on television, making it the perfect choice for a comic-book adaptation, and Samurai Jack #1 (IDW) showcases the sharp action and imaginative design sense that made Genndy Tartakovsky’s creation a modern animated classic. IDW has picked the ideal creative team for the book in writer Jim Zub and artist Andy Suriano, a character designer for the original cartoon. Jim Zub’s work on Skullkickers is some of the most clever action writing in comic books (particularly because of his hilarious sound effects), and that voice translates perfectly to the world of Tartakovsky’s time-displaced samurai hero. This first issue finds Jack entering a gladiator arena of monsters to retrieve a Thread Of Time that will help him return to his original era, and it’s an outstanding introduction to the character and his mission. It also looks gorgeous under Suriano’s pen, with stylized widescreen visuals that flow gracefully on the page. It’s one of the strongest cartoon adaptations available, giving Samurai Jack fans the story they’ve been yearning for with visuals that maintain all the beauty of the TV show. [OS]