At the time of DC’s Identity Crisis event in 2004, its 10th anniversary, readers were completely unprepared for the ways in which the series would change comics publishing in the early years of the 21st century. Although difficult to imagine now, the first half of the last decade was a fallow period for superhero events. NuMarvel (that is, the editorial regime heralded by Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas) made no secret of their dislike for massive crossovers, and sure enough, the company steered clear for over four years—from 2000’s ill-fated Maximum Security through 2005’s House Of M (2004’s “Avengers Disassembled” being a smaller-scale warm up for the latter). DC never swore them off, but they had experienced successively diminishing returns from sleepy events such as Our Worlds At War and Joker’s Last Laugh. Identity Crisis, however, was different, and it changed the business model not just for DC but for Marvel as well.
Rather than offering up another in a long line of rote crowd scene get-togethers, Identity Crisis was different, promising serious long-term consequences for the line—and then it actually delivered. DC provided an event book that was “significant,” and fans responded in kind. (Whether or not Identity Crisis was any good is a completely different matter—the book was terrible on a number of different levels, but that never stopped people from buying it.) Obviously Marvel could not let this success go unchallenged, so after revamping its stodgy Avengers line in 2004, it used the success of the company’s revitalized Bendis-written flagship New Avengers as a launchpad for subsequent events. House Of M was a success, which led directly into Civil War, Secret Invasion, and every crossover since.
Which brings us to Original Sin #1 (Marvel), and the nagging feeling of déjà vu. Once again, we are presented with the spectacle of a brutal murder of a well-established supporting character. Once again the murder investigation promises to rip apart the superhero community by revealing a number of dangerous secrets. And once again we are faced with the spectacle of superheroes being awkwardly wedged into a genre to which they are especially ill suited: the murder mystery.
Based on the genre’s pulp origins, it doesn’t seem as if superheroes should have any trouble solving mysteries. Isn’t Batman the Dark Knight Detective, after all, and don’t most superheroes have at least a little bit of Sherlock Holmes in their DNA? And yet it’s difficult to remember many truly satisfying superhero mysteries—excepting, of course, Watchmen (which got where it is partly by virtue of some generous borrowing from Chinatown). The problem with most mysteries set in the genre, Identity Crisis being the best example of this, is that mysteries depend on a certain set of presuppositions, among them being that the universe is an orderly, rational place with consistent laws. How can you write a fair-play mystery when the answer can quite literally be something as absurd as there being tiny footprints on Sue Dibney’s brain? Hercule Poirot would have trouble with that one.
Jason Aaron does his best to summon the mood of television procedurals such as The Wire (even down to stealing the term “murder police” straight out of David Simon’s notebook), but there is only so much he can accomplish before the reader’s suspension of disbelief staggers under the strain. Uatu is the most powerful being in the solar system, and yet his murder and the destruction of his house seems not to have drawn any other powerful beings—least of all, no other Watchers—to investigate. (Plus, Watchers have died and been resurrected at will, so there’s that.) The Ultimate Nullifier, contrary to its portrayal in every previous story where it has been shown, is now simply an awesome gun able to blow the brains out of anyone or anything on the receiving end. The first person Captain America calls when he hears of Uatu’s death is Nick Fury (Classic), even though it makes about as much sense to call a superspy to head up a murder investigation as it does to call a haberdasher to lay some drywall. Somehow the idea of pairing up Doctor Strange and the Punisher as a crime-busting duo didn’t strike anyone involved in the making of this comic as a tremendously stupid idea.
These events have their own logic and momentum after all these years—smash the action figures together in new and different ways. They don’t have to make sense or even hang together particularly well, all they really need is to have a strong high concept and sufficient follow through to ensure at least a year’s worth of “lasting changes.” Mike Deodato’s art, expressive and reliable as ever, remains a pleasure throughout the issue, and it’s feasible to imagine that might be the primary attraction for many readers. But if that’s the reason for reading, it might be better simply to eschew the monthly dribble and wait for the collection. In a year, the hardcover of Original Sin will be available for sale at your local bookstore, and then the softcover, and then the clearance sale at Comixology.
Will the series resolve anything? Will these plot holes and open questions be answered with any satisfaction? There’s still seven issues to go, and stranger things have happened. Based on the company’s track record, it doesn’t seem likely, but after all this time surely you know the drill: Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown. [TO]
Identity Crisis changed the way events were executed, and two years later, the weekly series 52 would change the way superhero comics were released. Marvel had been experimenting with certain series publishing 18 issues a year—Mark Bagley’s incredible speed as an artist made this possible on Ultimate Spider-Man with no fill-ins and nearly no shipping hiccups—but the success of DC’s first year-long weekly series showed that readers were interested in getting their superhero comics on a more regular basis. That led to the DC weekly series Countdown and Trinity, and when 52 editor Stephen Wacker moved to Marvel, he used the same writer brain trust strategy to put Amazing Spider-Man on the stands three times a month.
Presently, most of Marvel’s titles double-ship at least a few months of the year, which, combined with a $3.99 price tag for the majority of the books, makes following a monthly title a considerable investment. DC is taking a huge risk by debuting not just one, but three weekly series this year, and The New 52: Futures End #0-#2 (DC) fail to provide readers with strong reasons to drop $12-$15 a month until next March. As evidenced by Original Sin, Marvel and DC have no problem borrowing story ideas from each other, and Futures End is a Days Of Futures Past/Age Of Ultron-style time-travel narrative involving a hero sent to the past to prevent a future catastrophe.
What sets 52 apart from Futures End is the level of ambition. Each issue of 52 covered a week’s worth of time to keep the story moving at a brisk pace, and coordinating holidays and the change of seasons with the real-world calendar was a smart way of pulling the reader into the story. In the first issue of 52, the writers introduce the large ensemble and make readers care about the characters, which isn’t difficult to do when the heroes have years of rich history behind them. The first three issues of Futures End take place over the course of a few days (with a 25-year time-jump at the end of the first issue), and spend most of that time massacring heroes rather than setting up relatable personal stakes for the characters.
DC’s penchant for having its characters lose their limbs has become an ongoing joke in superhero comics, and it appears that the publisher has become aware of this and chosen to troll its readers in Futures End #0, a Free Comic Book Day issue that inevitably landed in the hands of many child readers. In the opening fight sequence, Captain Cold has both of his hands cut off by a spider-robot-Wonder Woman, and because this is the company that ripped the Joker’s face off, Black Canary has had her head sewn into Frankenstein’s chest. Later in the issue, an elderly Batman has his arm cut off by a spider-robot-Knight, which leads to one of the funniest comic book lines of the year when Bruce Wayne’s protégé, Terry McGinnis, tells the dying man to hang on. “With what, Terry?” Bruce asks before sending the Batman Beyond into the past, where he will try to stop Mr. Terrific from sending the Earth plunging into a techno-apocalypse.
It’s dangerous for superhero comics to bet on time travel for stakes, and recent Marvel events like Age Of Ultron and Battle Of The Atom fell apart when they became too reliant on hypothetical future events. DC needs to be working on making its characters work in the present rather than killing them off five years in the future, and the time-jump makes all the character deaths hollow because it’s pretty obvious that someone like Green Arrow isn’t leaving this mortal coil anytime soon. The writing team is split between superhero comic veterans Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens and more esoteric creators like Brian Azzarello and Jeff Lemire, and the more old-fashioned storytelling style of the former pair is the guiding force of this series.
For a series set in the future, Futures End feels very dated. It’s retreading a superhero comic idea that has been worn out at this point, and the art teams are serviceable, but very traditional. Issue #0 is a jumble of five different pencillers and three different inkers, and while the subsequent issues feature single art teams, there’s a general lack of stylistic consistency. The disappointing first issues of this series don’t bode well for this year’s September 3-D cover event at DC, which will have its entire line taking a five-year time-jump, and DC’s reluctance to reveal the creative teams of those September one-shots is another ill omen for the future of the publisher. DC has great creators and characters, but the current editorial regime is struggling to turn out memorable stories, and releasing comics more regularly isn’t going to magically fix that. [OS]
The phrase “larger than life” is usually empty hyperbole, but it was sadly accurate in the case of André Roussimoff, known to the world as André The Giant. His birthright guaranteed that his life would never be normal, and his profession ensured that his life would never be boring. This is the André we meet in Box Brown’s superb Andre The Giant: Life And Legend (First Second): Not just an icon renowned for his size and wrestling ability (to say nothing of his appearance in The Princess Bride, which will ensure his persistence in the collective memory), but a man who lived in the persistent shadow of death. Acromegaly is a condition without a cure, and the result is a human body grown beyond its ability to survive. He was literally too large to live.
André’s story is a sad one, but fascinating. Born in France in 1946, he was raised on a country farm during the country’s long recovery from World War II. The story about him being driven to school in the back of Samuel Beckett’s pickup truck—a story so fantastic it almost has to be apocryphal, except that it isn’t (probably)—is here. So’s the story about him flipping a car with two abusive drunks in it (maybe true). By his nature André attracted fantastic stories in the way that other people collect parking tickets. But it’s not hard to imagine that even the strangest stories have some grounding in truth. The most amazing thing about him, after all, was his size, and that’s a historical fact. Everything else is gravy.
He was in pain for much of his life. André continued to work long past the point where he could easily have retired and spent the rest of his life relaxing on his ranch in North Carolina. But he enjoyed the life of the road and the vices it enabled: buckets of whiskey, 12-egg omelets, and women. He was never happier than playing cards with his retinue. He had a daughter whom he almost never saw.
Brown is smart to bookend the story with appearances by Hulk Hogan—the wrestler who inherited André’s claim to being the public face of the sport. Hogan’s opening words, taken from a 2010 interview, reveal André to have been kind and generous to his friends, and professional to a fault. His reputation for meanness was primarily based on the fact that he lived his life in constant pain, and had little tolerance for fools who upset what precious few moments of peace were allotted him.
The last major incident recounted in the book is the story of André’s 1987 match with Hogan, one of André’s last major fights, and the fight for which he turned heel in order to put over Hogan as the new face of the WWF. André is a perfect gentleman as he cedes the spotlight to the younger man: He really believed in the business, and he took pride in giving the fans their money’s worth. It’s the perfect metaphor for the transformation that took place in pro wrestling in the mid-’80s, with the sport moving past its disreputable history as a pseudo-carnival freakshow and towards something at least moderately less disreputable, the mainstream entertainment phenomenon it has been ever since. Brown does an excellent job of not simply illustrating this transformation, but of showcasing the painful dignity of one of the sport’s most hallowed names. [TO]
After a particularly brutal winter for most of the country, cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki usher in the season of warmth and growth with their beautiful new graphic novel This One Summer (First Second). Following Rose, a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, Mariko’s story is a complex exploration of growing up and how puberty affects personal relationships, told via stunning visuals by Jillian, which exquisitely capture the lush natural environment of Awago Beach. Beginning with a page of white space containing a repeated “crunch” sound effect, the story immediately appeals to the senses, and the economical use of text gives Jillian the opportunity to immerse the reader in this environment with her rich, detailed illustrations.
The crunching builds to a full-page splash of Rose being carried in her father’s arms to their cabin, an image that visualizes both the organic splendor of the setting and the infantile behavior that Rose moves away from over the course of the book’s 319 pages. From the visuals to the character dynamics, this is an astoundingly honest representation of a coming-of-age summer vacation in the wilderness, with consistently breathtaking artwork and an emotional story that resonates with a huge audience. This One Summer has truly universal appeal, depicting that period in every person’s life when you’re too big to be a kid, too small to be an adult, and have no idea what’s coming next.
There’s no overstating just how gorgeous this book is. Jillian Tamaki’s work on Skim with Mariko was impressive, but she’s taken her craft to the next level on this book, capturing a fuller range of character expressions with less lines while bringing loads of texture, depth, and detail to the settings. The hand-lettering is striking, particularly in a two-page splash that shows Rose running back to her cabin in the middle of the night, surrounded by the chirping and hissing sounds that fill the woods at night and take up most of the page with bold white text.
There are a number of landscape shots that could easily be framed and proudly displayed on a wall, and the attention spent on the environments makes Rose’s experience more real because the world around her is so substantial. A highlight of the book is a silent two-page spread showing Rose and her friend Windy swimming, an image that plays with perspective to brilliantly evoke the sensation of being in water. The lake plays a huge part in this story, and it allows Jillian to show off her understanding of how water reflects light and moves around bodies.
Mariko’s story does exceptional work showing adult drama through the eyes of a burgeoning adolescent, and much of the plot deals with Rose trying to understand the strange actions of those older than her. The promiscuous, potty-mouthed teens that frequent the local convenience store have a great impact on Rose’s developing sexuality, and her moody, withdrawn mother makes Rose fearful of what lies ahead for her after she fully matures. This story covers some heavy subject matter for a young adult graphic novel, but it does so in a way that captures the full weight of each situation without becoming overly serious, making it an essential read for teen readers and anyone who wishes to relive that time when each summer day was full of wonder and promise. [OS]
There may not be huge demand for a new ongoing series starring a teenage Scott “Cyclops” Summers and his space pirate father spending quality family time among the stars, but that’s about to change thanks to the work of Greg Rucka, Russell Dauterman, and Chris Sotomayor on Cyclops #1 (Marvel). Rucka, a writer known for hardboiled character-centric stories like Lazarus and Gotham Central, gets the opportunity to indulge a lighter side of his craft with this book, and he scripts a light, fun introduction to the life of an adolescent boy whose every dream has come true. With the sleek, dynamic artwork of Dauterman and colorist Sotomayor, Cyclops is an exceptional all-ages title, packed with sci-fi spectacle that kids go gaga over.
Dealing with a character who has been pulled out of the past and inserted into a future where his adult self is a potentially insane mutant revolutionary, Rucka quickly gets the exposition out of the way so that he can focus on the core relationship between father and son. A combination of Han Solo and the Dread Pirate Roberts with a sexy alien girlfriend, Christopher “Corsair” Summers is living the life that his teenage son always fantasized about, but after living without parental responsibility, Chris doesn’t know if he can be the kind of father his son expects. Highlighting that relationship between the characters helps ground the space-faring story in human emotion, and this first issue lays a strong foundation for future family bonding.
With a style that combines the kinetic action choreography of Olivier Coipel with the character work and clean lines of Jamie McKelvie, Russell Dauterman is one of the most exciting young artists in superhero comics, and this book gives him the opportunity to stretch his creative muscles as he tackles futuristic sci-fi environments, a predominantly alien cast, and intense space action. Taking a cue from Sara Pichelli’s work on Guardians Of The Galaxy, Dauterman redesigns Corsair’s costume with a slick modern aesthetic, and there’s an interesting choice made casting the father figure as this book’s sex symbol, introducing him with a medical bay sequence that has Dauterman serving up a heaping helping of beefcake when Corsair gets a routine check-up wearing nothing but his boxer briefs. Corsair is a hairy stud with broad shoulders, a ripped chest while his son is a beanpole with a side part, a skinny dork who wants nothing more than to grow up to be the man his father is.
Paired with Sotomayor’s vivid color palette, Dauterman’s art is perfect for an all-ages title, capturing the youth of the title character and the thrill of his outer space adventure. Those bright shades contribute to the excitement, and embracing the full spectrum of colors heightens the dreamlike quality of young Scott’s new path in life. Assuming that the time-displaced Original X-Men go back to their native time period at some point in the future, there’s a sense that this ongoing series has an expiration date, but until that time comes, this creative team is making sure that Cyclops has as much as possible while he reconnects with his dad. [OS]
Twelve Gems (Fantagraphics) is a very interesting book, not least for its publisher. It’s hard to imagine whether or not the most esteemed publisher in comics would have published a book like this 10 or even five years ago. But the last few years have been good for fantasy comics, with a number of creators blazing a trail for non-traditional fantasy stories outside the mainstream—books like Orc Stain, Goddess Of War, and Powr Mastrs that approached the genre with a sincere enthusiasm thankfully divorced from the sincere humorlessness of much of the post-Tolkien crowd. It’s okay to love fantasy without needing to spend the rest of ones’ life producing hobbit fan-fiction.
Lane Milburn’s Twelve Gems is a fine addition to this micro-genre, featuring the adventures of the unlikely trio of gorgeous Venus, bloodthirsty Furz, and Dogstar the, um, space-dog, as they seek the titular Twelve Gems Of Power. The book manages to walk the tightrope between refusing to take itself too seriously and succumbing to simple parody—the copiously cross-hatched, endearingly sloppy but never less than captivating pages reflect a clear labor of love on Milburn’s part. It’s funny and absurd and never dull. Each page harbors a plethora of fantastic details over which the reader will linger long after the story is finished.
It would be churlish to point out Milburn’s debt to Jim Starlin, whose influence is apparent on every page. The book carries off a heady mixture of sci-fi space opera and cosmic fantasy with aplomb. It’s not a book genre-shy Fantagraphics would have published in 2004, but the industry has changed sufficiently so that witty, gorgeous fantasy books like these can now find the larger audience they deserve. [TO]
Writer James Tynion IV covers a lot of ground in the first issue of The Woods #1 (Boom), teaming with artist Michael Dialynas and colorist Josan Gonzalez to detail a day in the life of prep school students and faculty who find themselves transported to an alien moon with no explanation as to how or why they’ve been relocated. With heavy shades of Lost and the Lost-influenced Morning Glories, The Woods is a teen ensemble drama with a mystery at its core, but this first issue emphasizes the mystery rather than the drama, delivering plenty of plot, but speeding through the character relationships.
The debut moves at a hectic pace, quickly introducing a cast of eight main characters in the first eight pages, and the rushed storytelling means that Tynion has to rely on relatively broad characterizations at the start. He has an opportunity to more fully flesh out the personalities of his cast members once they’re transported to the alien environment, but Tynion spends minimal time on how these characters react to their horrific new circumstances in favor of advancing the narrative and getting his primary cast into the titular woods.
The title would do well to slow down a bit and ease the audience into the narrative, especially because Dialynas and Gonzalez do exceptional work creating an otherworldly environment and a diverse cast that looks like real teenagers. Gonzalez’s coloring is especially noteworthy, using a combination of pink and purple to establish that wherever these students have ended up, it’s definitely not anywhere on Earth. The book is at its best when Tynion takes the time to show the horror of this new world and how that impacts the characters, and now that he has the basic groundwork out of the way, hopefully the story will spend more time delving into how this new world affects the cast on a personal level. [OS]
Back issues of romance comics are an easy way of learning about antiquated social values, and IDW’s new bimonthly series of romance comic reprints collects especially peculiar stories to offer a fascinating peek into American life following World War II. Edited by Clizia Gussoni and Craig Yoe, Weird Love #1 (IDW) features eight stories published between 1951 and 1971, ranging from a one-page piece by Norman Model showing one woman rejecting her date because of his jealous attitude, to an overstuffed tale by Ogden Whitney about a woman’s descent into mental illness because of her emotionally abusive mother.
The art is the main reason to check out this title, offering a peek into the early years of artists like José-Luis Garcia-López, who would go on to wow readers on superhero titles like New Teen Titans. Whitney does some impressive work depicting the lead character’s mental state in his artwork—putting bright red zigzags through her nightmares is a particularly impressive way of reflecting her internal trauma—but there’s so much text on the page that it can be a chore to read. The pieces with less text are the strongest, like writer Joe Gill and artist Vince Colletta’s story about a woman who tries to change her brutish husband and finds herself laid over his knee for some corporal punishment, and the individual artists do excellent work reflecting the style of the times in their work.
The look of a story published in the early ’50s is dramatically different from one published in the late ’60s, and seeing the evolution of style while the fundamentals of the genre stay relatively unchanged shows how creators brought variation to repetitive ideas. Weird Love is a treat for romance comic aficionados, but it’s also a wonderful entry point into a genre that goes largely unexplored in the current comic-book industry. [OS]