The first issue of Age Of Ultron received a positive review from The A.V. Club for its intense pacing and blockbuster action, but after multiple issues that were variations of that first story with different characters, it became clear that Brian Michael Bendis’ miniseries was going nowhere. Those issues of urban destruction segued into a nonsensical time-travel story about Wolverine and Sue Storm, building to a conclusion that prevented the events of those previous chapters from ever happening but causing damage to the timestream that will be followed up in different, non-Age Of Ultron books. (Timothy O’Neil wrote a brilliant critique of the miniseries event.) Age Of Ultron proved to be a disappointment, but if books like Age Of Ultron #10AI (Marvel) are any indication, the fallout from the crossover has a lot of potential.
Written by Mark Waid with artwork by André Lima Araújo, this one-shot epilogue spotlighting Hank “Ant-Man” Pym has the character development that the main series was lacking, exploring Hank’s past to set up a new future for the long-suffering superhero. Waid’s major strength is the way he uses the psychological foundation of the hero he’s writing to build a narrative that reminds readers why the character has lasted over time. In the pages of Waid’s Daredevil, that means working hard to terrify the man without fear, and his The Indestructible Hulk puts as much emphasis on Bruce Banner the scientist as it does his rampaging alter ego. For Hank Pym, Waid details the upbringing that would drive a man to give himself shrinking powers, and how being small in a team of larger-than-life superheroes would mentally affect a person who always felt out of place.
Waid revitalizes Hank Pym by giving him a newfound sense of purpose, and, with Araújo’s help, he even manages to make the character cool. His manga-influenced art is intricately detailed without losing any energy, and the action sequence in the second half of the book shows just how effective Hank’s size-shifting abilities are in battle. Araújo will be penciling the new Avengers A.I. series that includes Hank Pym as team leader, and his work on this issue shows a talent for drawing machinery that will come in handy on a comic featuring a team of robots. Age Of Ultron may be in the title, but the previous 10 issues aren’t required reading for this standalone story that marks another successful superhero rehabilitation by Mark Waid. [OS]
Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History Of The Universe began life as a comic-book series in 1977, at a time when the market for quirky, informative educational comics was practically non-existent. In fact, Gonick’s series was initially lumped in what remained of the “underground comix” movement (which may be why Gonick peppered the book with detours into the racier side of ancient history), and not until the first volume was collected did Cartoon History become a staple of actual bookstores. Now, decades later, as the medium as a whole has become more respected, educational comics have become a thriving sub-genre—a lot like young-adult comics, but with more variety to the subject matter and approaches.
Cartoonist Grady Klein follows directly in Gonick’s footsteps with The Cartoon Introduction To Statistics (Hill & Wang). Working with Dr. Alan Dabney, Klein runs his agreeable little scientist characters through examples of mathematicians using numbers to quantify, analyze, and make decisions. The goal of the book is to demystify a subject that many find stupefying, or even dishonest—even though almost everybody who sneers at statisticians uses stats every day, without realizing it. The study of statistics is an ideal subject for comics, since the representation of data as graphs and symbols is akin to what cartoonists do: reducing ideas to pictures, for clarity’s sake. Klein goes one step further, turning graphs into a collection of tiny drawings: of dragons, of sacks, of boxes, etc. It’s unlikely that anyone will get to the last page of the book and be able to map out complex probability matrices, but readers should at least be able to understand what probability actually is, and stop assuming that a prediction is the same as a prophecy.
Writer Jim Ottaviani takes a different way in to penning comics about science, choosing to humanize scientists rather than delving deeply into their disciplines. On the heels of Ottaviani’s excellent bestseller Feynman, he teams up with cartoonist Maris Wicks for Primates: The Fearless Science Of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas (First Second), a book about three woman who’ve helped advance human understanding of the simian world. The subjects’ observations about chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans all make it into Primates in passing, but the book is more about the personal challenges Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas faced from skeptical colleagues and the academic patriarchy—not to mention the challenges they all faced out in the field, at the mercy of nature and their beloved animals. Wicks’ art is clear and colorful, with solid lines and flat, contrasting hues to set the characters apart from their surroundings; and Ottaviani’s storytelling also has an unfussy this-follows-that drive, moving from one scientist to the next organically. The book is more an overview of Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas than a rich biography, but Primates does what all the best educational comics have done: make the complicated more explicable. [NM]
100 Bullets ended with a Tarantino-style bloodbath that was the perfect ending to a story about personal revenge and a nation built on murder, so it’s a bit puzzling why writer Brian Azzarello, artist Eduardo Risso, and the rest of the old creative team have chosen to return to their Vertigo crime series. Is there a reason to return to this world when nearly all the former characters aren’t a part of it anymore? 100 Bullets: Brother Lono #1 (Vertigo) doesn’t give a definitive answer, but like all opening chapters of 100 Bullets story arcs, this first issue is just one small piece of a much larger puzzle. Azzarello’s time writing the less violent Wonder Woman hasn’t softened him at all, and this story has him returning to brutally graphic violence with a man getting his fingers cut off and a particularly gruesome scene involving an incision in the back of a hostage’s head.
The plot of Brother Lono is split between homicidal brute Lono, who has been released from prison to protect a beautiful young nun, and Mexican drug lords torturing people for information. Judging by past 100 Bullets stories, these two narratives will collide in an explosion of bloodshed. Risso is a master at creating a sense of foreboding in his artwork, using negative space to emphasize the horrors that are lurking in every shadow. One of Risso’s signature shots is a close-up of two eyes staring out from darkness regardless of the light source in the scene, immediately turning the subject into an ominous, hostile figure. There’s a creeping feeling through Brother Lono #1 that this is just the start of the carnage, but 100 Bullets was always at its best when its characters were in the worst possible situations. [OS]
Greg Rucka and Michael Lark won an Eisner Award in 2004 for their work together on DC’s Gotham Central, creating a complex character study of Gotham City Detective Renee Montoya that spotlighted how the two creators maintain a sense of realism in fantastic circumstances. Lazarus #1 (Image) reunites the two creators to show what they can do without any content restrictions, turning their eye once again to a morally conflicted female lead but considerably amping up the violence quotient. The book is set in a dystopian future where the world is run by a select group of families that have brought back a feudal system and use genetically engineered, immortal bodyguards to keep their territory safe. Forever Carlyle is the “Lazarus” tasked with protecting her family, even if that means dying in a particularly grisly fashion.
The violence in a Greg Rucka book is never gratuitous or glamorized, and few writers examine the mental consequences of the brutality quite as thoroughly. The emotional core of the story is Forever’s growing unease with her occupation, and seeing the full force of the violence committed by and to her establishes the status quo that she is starting to internally rebel against. Lark has always brought an intense realism to his artwork, and his ability to create a world that is instantly recognizable makes the future of Rucka’s story more believable. He gives Forever an imposing physical presence that sets her apart from most comic-book females, bulking up her torso without boosting her cup size. Lazarus is a psychological action thriller with a heavy dose of politics, making it the perfect book for readers looking for something more substantial than the blockbuster events over at Marvel and DC. [OS]
Who investigates the death of a god? What kind of police officer is equipped to catch an invisible serial molester? One of Alan Moore’s last works in the superhero genre, Top 10 follows the cops of Neopolis’ 10th District as they police the streets of a superhuman city, breaking up street fights between gangs of monsters and protecting citizens from battles fought by costumed Ultramice. The story is more Homicide: Life On The Street than Justice League, retaining the edge and dramatic weight of Moore’s other work while using the crime-procedural angle to poke fun at other superhero comics. Moore and artists Gene Ha and Zander Cannon fill each page with in-jokes via billboards and background cameos, and it’s even easier to spot all the references now that Vertigo has published the oversized Absolute Top 10 (Vertigo).
If there’s a superhero comic of the past 20 years that demands a reprint in oversized Absolute format, it’s Top 10. Gene Ha’s finishes are meticulously detailed, and not only does the larger size show the intensity of his linework, it captures the full splendor of Neopolis’ massive scope. As detailed as Ha’s art is, it has a tendency to be a bit stiff, but teaming with Zander Cannon on layouts brings added motion and expression to Ha’s work. Cannon’s streamlined, cartoonish style takes the spotlight in the spinoff miniseries Smax, collected here along with the complete 12 issues of the first Top 10 series and the original graphic novel The Forty-Niners, which details the early days of Neopolis. Also included are character designs, promotional materials, rough page layouts by Cannon, and uncolored finishes by Ha, providing a fascinating glimpse into the creative process behind a modern masterpiece of superhero comics. [OS]
Rob Harrell’s too-short-lived comic strip Big Top was one of the funniest the medium has produced in recent years, so it’s good to know that Harrell hasn’t been sitting idle since Big Top wrapped. The kid-friendly Monster On The Hill (Top Shelf) is Harrell’s first graphic novel, and it’s a delight, telling the story of a mid-19th-century English town that wishes its local monster was more monstrous, because scary beasts boost tourism. When the town calls in a “man of science,” Dr. Charles Wilkie, to help get the creature’s confidence back up, complications ensue, all rendered by Harrell with the same deadpan cuteness he brought to Big Top. Monster On The Hill is a funny, exciting tale of melancholy monsters and eminent Victorians—like How To Train Your Dragon with a twist of Bloom County and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Harrell makes the jump from the newspaper page to the graphic novel with his sense of humor intact… [NM]
Taking a break from setting up housekeeping in the world’s trouble spots, cartoonist Guy Delisle turns his attention to A User’s Guide To Neglectful Parenting (D&Q), a collection of short, funny stories about how a preoccupied man fakes his way through being a dad. Since almost every father (and mother) has experienced the feeling of gross parental inadequacy, just about everyone with kids should be able to identify with Delisle’s anecdotes about forgetting to play tooth fairy for his son, or ducking out of his daughter’s swimming practice without telling her, or hauling off and just yelling and swearing for no legitimate reason. But even childless fans of Delisle’s books Jerusalem: Chronicles From The Holy City, Burma Chronicles, Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea, and Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China should appreciate that he brings the same observant eye, crack timing, and honest self-deprecation that he’s brought to his more serious work. This book is both hilarious and true, as has always been Delisle’s strength… [NM]
“That’s the problem with children today… not enough nightmares.” Batman says as he crashes into the home of a WayneTech executive being terrorized by Catwoman, and the line concisely sums up the tone of Batman/Superman #1 (DC). Teaming with artists Jae Lee and Ben Oliver, writer Greg Pak tells the story of the first meeting of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent in The New 52, focusing on the titular pair’s ability to induce fear over any other characteristics. Unlike the last series spotlighting the “World’s Finest,” Batman gets top billing here, and his dark, moody world dictates the look and feel of this book. Jae Lee’s chilling visuals make Gotham City look like a haunted castle compared to the more traditional city environment of Metropolis, filling the Gotham scenes with tendrils of shadow that threaten to engulf even Clark Kent’s noble spirit. The book is gorgeous, but Pak and Lee go a bit heavy on the splash pages once the superhero action begins. Ben Oliver pencils the last six pages, and while he doesn’t match Lee’s level of detail and atmosphere, Pak finds a way to make the artistic shift work for the story. The writer’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne may be a bit extreme (why exactly is he hanging out in a park watching kids beat each other up?), but he creates a nice contrast to the idealistic Clark. Batman/Superman would benefit from exploring those conflicting mindsets to better balance the light and dark elements of the story… [OS]
Originally published in 1999, the slim comic-book memoir Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale Of New York (Fantagraphics) is a wondrous yet brief love story, remarkable both for when it originated and how current it still feels. Written by noted fantasy author and essayist Samuel R. Delany and drawn by Mia Wolff, Bread & Wine recounts the strange tale of Delany’s first encounters with Dennis Rickett, a man he found selling books on the street in 1991 and has been in a romantic relationship with ever since. Twenty-five years ago, there weren’t a lot of autobiographical comics that dealt as bluntly as Bread & Wine with homosexual desire, let alone ones that described in such vivid detail what it’s like to take a homeless man back to a hotel and wash years’ worth of filth from his body before having several days of hot sex. But that “not hiding anything” approach is what makes Bread & Wine seem so timeless. Wolff’s sketchy, inky art and Delany’s openness to the sexual possibilities waiting around every corner of New York City fill the book’s 45 pages with a rare kind of suggestive magic. A new afterword explains a little more about Delany and Rickett’s story, but most of what readers need to know is contained within that first sexual encounter, depicted here as both tender and lusty… [NM]
In 2004, DC tried one of its occasional experiments into unconventional superhero comics by giving writer Dan Jolley and artist Leonard Kirk the freedom to create Bloodhound, a hard-boiled crime saga about a super-strong former policeman named Travis Clevenger who’s let out of prison by the FBI to use his special skills at tracking meta-human villains. The series didn’t last long, perhaps because its violence and jagged edges would’ve been better suited to DC’s Vertigo imprint, but the main character has been recently revived by Dark Horse, and the bulk of the complete 10-issue original run (minus one DC-universe-focused crossover issue) has now been collected as Bloodhound Vol. 1: Brass Knuckle Psychology (Dark Horse). It’s an odd, not entirely successful book, similar to a cleaned-up version of 100 Bullets, or a softer spin on one of Ed Brubaker or Darwyn Cooke’s crime comics. But the combination of Kirk’s conventionally heroic art and Jolley’s tough-guy dialogue is entertaining regardless, and deserves its second crack at finding an audience, if only so Jolley and Kirk will get to continue the story with fewer content restrictions… [NM]
Kickstarter and Netflix might be gaining some traction with Veronica Mars and Arrested Development, but comic books remain the go-to place for creators of canceled TV shows to continue exploring their properties. The X-Files creator Chris Carter becomes the latest figure to hop on the comics bandwagon as he “executive produces” IDW’s new The X-Files Season 10, returning to Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully to throw them back into the world of paranormal investigation. Written by Joe Harris with art by Michael Walsh and colorist Jordie Bellaire, The X-Files Season 10 #1 (IDW) finds Fox and Mulder living happily together after the events of the 2008 theatrical flop The X-Files: I Want To Believe, but their quaint, anonymous post-Bureau life is interrupted when their old boss shows up at their front door. Harris provides X-Files newcomers with all the necessary information to jump right in to the story, and he displays a firm handle on the characters’ voices, particularly Mulder’s snarky sense of humor. Walsh showed a talent for creating a tense, ominous atmosphere with his artwork in Image’s Comeback, and Bellaire’s stark color palette helps dictate the changes in tone from scene to scene. Even without the X-Files connection, there’s a captivating supernatural mystery at the core of this title that proves these fan-favorite characters are in good hands with this creative team. [OS]