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New releases include Archie’s death, The Shadow Hero, and Storm #1

It has been a very interesting few years for the once-staid Archie Comics. For decades Archie had been the “sick old man” of the comics industry, surviving within a definite niche largely abandoned by the Big Two, but for good or ill seemingly impervious to any larger industry trends. The company had its audience to itself: as spinner racks and newsstands gradually disappeared over the last few decades, no one else but Archie Comics sold all-ages comics primarily through non-specialty retailers. The ubiquitous digests can still be found at checkout stands across the nation, and at only $6.99 for 320 color pages, the Double Double Digest is still the best bargain in comics.

But it’s nonetheless fair to say that if Archie Comics was a consistent performer in the context of a tempestuous market, they were no more impervious to market attrition than any other magazine publisher in the 21st century. At some point in the last few years, the powers-that-be at Archie made a conscious decision to change their publishing philosophy and reenergized their brand. While conventional humor and romance books would always remain the company’s bread and butter (along with the indefatigable and inexplicable ongoing success of its Sonic The Hedgehog licensed books), other types of stories and characters began to pop up around the margins.

Perhaps the first sign of these changes was the debut in 2007 of an ill-fated “new look” line, featuring less cartoony versions of the characters, an experiment that appeared sporadically for four years before being shuttered in 2010. But the same year Archie Comics abandoned the “new look,” it also debuted another new character, openly gay teen Kevin Keller, and this addition would have far more substantial consequences.

Readers at the time could have been forgiven for thinking that Keller was no more than the latest in a long line of topical token characters created to take advantage of pop culture trends—the practice of which remains one of the most enduring gimmicks in long running serial comics. (In its most banal form one can still see this phenomenon in newspaper strips like Beetle Bailey, where new characters appear for a week’s or a month’s worth of jokes related to some kind of fashionable topic, only to vanish completely after said topic has disappeared from the headlines.)

But Keller represented more than a trend: The company put its back into the promotion and broadcast a genuine desire to turn Keller into an evergreen member of the Riverdale gang. Although we heard the usual grumbling from the political right, the move failed to evoke any sustained protest from “concerned” readers, a sure sign of the utterly uncontroversial fact that there exist openly gay teenagers in contemporary America, and Archie’s move to reflect this reality was itself utterly uncontroversial.

All of which serves as necessary preamble to discussion of Life With Archie #36 (Archie Comics), the climax of three years of stories devoted to the adventures of a married Archie. As you may already know, the gimmick behind this “What If?” scenario was that Archie Comics presented both potential solutions to the immortal dilemma—Betty or Veronica. The magazine established two coequal alternate futures wherein Archie made the decision to marry one of his two sweethearts. (These alternate realities even crossed over, bringing an unexpected sci-fi flourish to what could otherwise have been standard “imaginary story” fare.) But all good things must end—literally, in this case—and so the conclusion to the saga of Archie’s married lives ends with the titular teenager’s early, heroic demise.

The success of Life With Archie points to the vigor with which the company has approached progressive change over the last few years. Archie doesn’t usually do extended storylines, preferring to set the vast majority of stories in an eternal, mostly static present—and this was not just an extended storyline, but essentially a three-year maxi-series representing a complete tonal shift away from light comedy and into adult drama with sci-fi and fantasy overtones. The whole thing will fit nicely into a giant Omnibus one day, probably sooner rather than later.

Whereas Archie had previously presented a very slight profile to the direct market, Life With Archie started shipping with variant covers from the likes of Adam Hughes and Mike Allred. The news media picked up on Archie’s marriages just as they had ran with Kevin Keller. Archie somehow made its inconceivably square books cool again, to the extent that when they announced a new ongoing title devoted to the adventures of the Riverdale gang in a the midst of a zombie apocalypse—Afterlife With Archie (what else could they call it?)—it seemed less unusual than merely inevitable. Returning to the previous Ottoman Empire analogy, the sick old man had thrown off his shawl and rejoined the ranks of the living.

Life With Archie #36 is the perfect capsule of everything that makes Archie Comics such an interesting company in the year 2014. The issue itself is powered by a unique conceit: instead of presenting the same event from the perspective of the two different universes, the book wisely chooses to remain ambiguous as to which universe is shown. If that sounds cloying or precious when described, it comes off as anything but on the page: essentially, in the last moments of his life, Archie reflects back on his experience with his “one true love,” and the reader is left to decide for him or herself just who is being discussed.

The real answer is, of course, both and neither: there’s no real choice. The eternal triangle persists in a moment of eternal possibility, the limbo of high school, a place where the permanent decisions of adulthood are perpetually delayed, and being unable to choose between a brunette and a blonde (to say nothing of red hair or an afro), is no great hassle, but an enviable quandary. Making Archie choose one over the other, definitively, even in the moment of his death, would be a sin worse than murder.

Writer Paul Kupperberg and artist team Pat and Tim Kennedy have given us a comic book death with uncharacteristic gravitas. Because we know this is an “imaginary” story, there is none of the faux-mawkishness that accompanies easily reversed superhero deaths. This Archie dies and will stay dead, barring the zombie apocalypse. The death itself is both noble and mundane: noble because he dies saving his friend from an assassin’s bullet, throwing himself in front of Kevin Keller’s would-be murderer, but also mundane in that it represents the best kind of death we could possibly imagine for Archie Andrews. He’s no superhero or globetrotting adventurer. He’s America’s most average teenager. He doesn’t die saving the world in a grand cosmic crisis, he dies saving his friend from being gunned down in the neighborhood malt shop, which is precisely what most of us would like to believe we are capable of doing if forced by circumstances. That’s just the kind of guy Archie is.

And that is just the kind of company Archie Comics is now. It has long built an image predicated on its status as a bulwark of traditional Americana: mom, apple pie, baseball, and all that. Its breakthrough these past few years is realizing that, rather than being stuck in a mid-20th century time warp, that meant that they had the opportunity to reflect circumstances of American life in the here and now. There’s a line in this issue that reflects the seeming paradox at the heart of Archie’s improbably revival: Riverdale is still the place that Archie’s great-grandpa would recognize. But it’s not, not really. It’s become a diverse town that has no problem mirroring the changes of the real world around it.

Twenty years ago this kind of romanticized small town, small-“c” conservatism might have seemed positively reactionary, but in the context of current intractable political schisms it reads as far more enlightened than not. That Archie dies in preventing an act of gun violence against a gay United States senator who ran for office on a platform of gun control is especially telling: As strange as it may seem, merely positioning a story like this within the mainstream of political discourse in the year 2014 can itself be seen as an act of bravery. There is no attempt at false equivalency: Violence and homophobia are bad things, and acknowledging diversity as a source of communal strength is a virtue for which we should all strive. How very American. [TO]

Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to mythology, tackling Chinese legend in his creator-owned works as well as the more modern mythology of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender in Dark Horse’s graphic novel continuations of the cartoon series. For The Shadow Hero (First Second), his new graphic novel with artist Sonny Liew, Yang turns his eye to a corner of American folklore that has primarily thrived in comic books, creating an origin story for the very first Asian-American superhero: The Green Turtle.

Created by Chinese-American artist Chu Hing for the lead feature in 1944’s Blazing Comics #1, the Green Turtle’s background was never made explicitly clear, but industry rumors suggested that Hing’s publisher didn’t think a Chinese character would sell, hence his unknown origin and concealed face. The character’s skin was supposedly colored an unnatural pink to make him appear more Caucasian, a trait that Yang explains in The Shadow Hero as a side effect of the experiments Hank Chu’s mother forces him to partake in so that he can become the superhero she wants. Family is a huge theme in Yang’s work, so it’s no surprise that Hank’s story is heavily focused on his relationship with his mother and father. Hank’s mother is basically his sidekick, sewing him his first costume and driving him around the city to find criminals.

Following in the grand superhero tradition, a major tragedy hits Hank’s family that drives him to truly embrace his costumed identity, one that is inspired by the tortoise spirit that lives in Hank’s shadow and grants him the power to never be hit by a bullet. That combination of Chinese mythology with the conventions of superhero origin stories makes for a fascinating read, giving the first Asian-American superhero a strong connection to his cultural heritage while he forges his own legend in the United States.

Sonny Liew does exceptional work capturing the early 20th century time period, pulling the reader into the story with his spot-on character designs and settings. The exaggerated facial expressions and body language of Liew’s characters heighten the emotions of Yang’s script, along with his expressive coloring that smoothly adjusts to changes in mood.

Action is an integral part of the superhero narrative, and Liew stages tense fight sequences that switch up the layouts to create more fluid motion on the page. In one particularly clever layout, panels of people shooting at Hank are placed around him in a pattern mimicking a turtle’s shell, a very smart way of visually depicting his superpower. There’s a wonderful balance of emotional maturity, cultural reverence, and energetic fun in the writing and artwork of The Shadow Hero, giving the first Asian-American superhero a strong foundation that years of new stories could be built on. [OS]

Ororo “Storm” Monroe is arguably Marvel’s most popular female character in terms of exposure outside of comics, starring in cartoons and films that have made her a household name. Yet she’s never had her own ongoing comic series. As more and more female heroes received solo series at Marvel, it was only a matter of time before the publisher realized that a title starring an African woman with a huge fan base was a no-brainer move, and she’s finally soaring solo this summer. Storm #1 (Marvel) teams writer Greg Pak, artist Victor Ibáñez, and colorist Ruth Redmond to tell the monthly adventures of the X-Men’s resident weather witch, and they deliver an outstanding first issue by returning to the hero’s roots in Africa and exploring multiple sides of her character.

Ororo is a teacher, leader, and fighter, but she’s also an emotionally volatile mutant trying to establish her identity after years of different directions. Pak’s script contrasts the strength of Storm in superhero mode with the vulnerability of Ororo when she comes back down to Earth, and although she presents a powerful image of herself to the world, Ororo has her own internal struggles that she’s dealing with. Small touches like Storm unwillingly heating the air molecules in a room when she’s angry show Pak’s understanding of how superpowers reflect emotion, and that quality also shines through in his handling of Marisol “Creep” Guerra, a Jean Grey School student with plant-based abilities.

Victor Ibáñez has a realistic art style that brings a lot of gravity to the opening scenes of Storm defending a coastal African city from a tsunami, capturing both the grace and power of Ororo in action. Because of the detail in Ibáñez’s linework, Ruth Redmond takes a more figurative approach her coloring, accentuating the emotional beats in the script through her work. An unfortunate incident at the Jean Grey School is colored with sickly greens and deep blues, but when Storm lets her emotional whirlwind carry her to where she wants to be, the coloring shifts to warmer, more inviting hues, starting with a beautiful shot of Storm flying through pink and purple clouds.

Even when she’s at her most intense, Storm is aware of how others are being influenced by her behavior and keeps her spirits high, inspiring those around her to be strong. That inspirational figure angle is a big part of the appeal of this first issue, and it’s great to see a superhero smile while she helps with disaster relief before lifting her hands to fight social injustice in an area of the world that is largely ignored by other comics. [OS]

Jim Starlin’s newest graphic novel, Thanos: The Infinity Revelation (Marvel), is satisfying and frustrating in equal measure. It’s satisfying for the reason that the book offers 112 new pages of Starlin playing with both his signature characters, the Mad Titan as well as his off-and-on frenemy Adam Warlock. But it’s frustrating for the reason that, about halfway through the book, the reader figures out that this is not quite the self-contained statement it’s existence as a “stand-alone” graphic novel would appear to indicate. This is obviously the first chapter of something much larger.

Starlin’s recent Thanos Annual offered glimpses of the current storyline in the form of flash-forwards seen by past incarnations of Thanos. This is merely the first act in the story sketched out in that prologue, to be continued in the pages of an upcoming arc of Savage Hulk as well as, presumably, further OGNs. While this writer should stress that he feels no regret whatsoever at the prospect of future Thanos projects from Starlin, it nevertheless should be noted that the book doesn’t even try to offer an adequate conclusion to the story, a shaggy dog tale featuring Thanos and Warlock in pursuit of another in a long line of cosmic MacGuffins destined to bestow unmeasured power. There’s a scene at the end of the book where Eternity and Infinity address the Living Tribunal regarding the events of the book, essentially asking, “that was it?” To which the Tribunal replies: “I’m as much in the dark as you guys on this one.”

Still: Even though it’s the first salvo in a larger work, the scope of which is still unclear, it is not without copious charms for long-time fans of Starlin’s work with these characters. After having been chumped at the end of the last volume of Guardians Of The Galaxy, Adam Warlock is back again, with a new status quo. Thanos himself remains as mordant as ever, and his ongoing interior monologue is at times sublimely funny—he refrains from killing the Silver Surfer because he regards the Surfer as dumb enough to be useful; he dismisses his recent misadventures on Earth in Infinity as the result of feeling out of sorts; and he devotes two whole pages to insulting Ronan The Accuser, to whom he boasts, “the pleasure of inflicting this kind of punishment is nearly orgasmic!” [TO]

After turning Moon Knight into a bonafide hit for Marvel Comics, Warren Ellis turns his attention to a hero that has been even harder to sell in recent years: Rob Liefeld's Supreme. Erik Larsen's revival of the character as part of 2011's Extreme Comics relaunch failed to take off, but Ellis' take makes a big impression thanks to Tula Lotay's ethereal artwork and an enigmatic plot that is easily accessible to newcomers. Supreme: Blue Rose #1 (Image) requires no former knowledge of titular character; in fact, Supreme only makes a brief appearance in this first issue, which instead spotlights unemployed reporter Diana Dane as she's offered the job of a lifetime.

Diana experiences cryptic dreams and strange visions that hint at a fantastic world trying to break through the barriers of her bleak urban reality, and that plot point is reflected in Lotay's artwork with its hectic scribbles of colors overlaid on gritty environments and grounded character designs. The scribbles visualize Diana's mental instability, becoming more chaotic as Diana's perception becomes further detached from reality. Those scribbles are a big part of this book's distinct aesthetic, creating a sense of windy motion across the page while also heightening the character's emotional state.

There’s a heavy Planetary influence on this first issue, specifically with the character of Darius Dax, a wealthy investigator of “blue roses,” which are cases that do not occur in nature. It’s not far removed from the idea of Elijah Snow’s “Planetary Journals,” which similarly documented strange phenomena. Planetary was a series that explored different pop culture movements of the 20th century through the lens of a super-powered anthropological adventure, and the skills Ellis honed on that title make him a strong fit for Supreme, a character that became a Superman analogue under Alan Moore’s pen so that the writer could explore the cultural significance of DC’s hero.

Ellis keeps the Superman influence around with the basic elements of a female reporter, a wealthy genius of questionable moral character, and a handsome stranger with extraordinary powers, but that’s where the similarities end. Almost nothing about this first issue indicates that it’s a superhero comic, and taking Supreme in a sci-fi mystery direction is another strong example of Ellis arriving on a title and retooling the concept to make it a more engaging read. [OS]

Nick Bertozzi’s Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey (First Second) tells the story of English explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 South Pole expedition. Although Shackleton had served on two previous Antarctic expeditions—and been knighted in 1909 for having reached the then record of longitude 88° 23’—the first group to reach the pole was Norwegian, led by Roald Amundsen. His earlier failures galled Shackleton, and even as war erupted across Europe he continued to plot a new expedition, this one with the objective of crossing the continent on foot, from the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound. The expedition sailed from England on August 1, 1914—100 years ago this last week.

The 1914 expedition ultimately failed in its objective. It became icelocked in the Weddell Sea before coming within 70 miles of the Antarctic shore, where the crew waited patiently for almost a year before being forced to abandon ship and set out on a dangerous trek across the drifting ice. What followed was a protracted journey of survival, six months of marching, pulling, sailing, and climbing across the most dangerous and unyielding territory on the planet. But even though the voyage was doomed from the moment it entered the Weddell Sea, Shackleton nevertheless succeeded in saving every member of his 32-man crew. The story of their survival is more interesting than the story of their success could ever have been. (Of course, after the expedition’s rescue in 1916 many of his crew would go on to perish in the Great War after returning to England.)

There is a purity to Bertozzi’s portrayal of Shackleton: although great white male heroes of the imperial age can make for unsettling protagonists in the year 2014, the romance of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions lies at least partially in their simplicity of concept. Rather than voyaging into unexplored territory for the sole purpose of colonization or economic expansion, men voyaged into the inhospitable arctic wastes for reasons of science, national pride, and personal honor. Bertozzi captures the loneliness and determination of the crew, adrift for years but surviving by virtue of their wits and their discipline. He manages the neat trick of making 125 pages of featureless white Antarctic terrain interesting, which is no mean feat. Rather than a predigested easy-reader version of history, this volume uses all the advantages of comics to tell a complex tale in a ruthlessly efficient yet effective manner—much like Shackleton himself. [TO]

Each week in July, Marvel is releasing a one-shot imagining what different properties could potentially look like on their 100th anniversaries. Only one of those issues is written and drawn by a single creator, and giving James Stokoe complete control over Marvel 100th Anniversary: Avengers #1 (Marvel) is one of the publisher’s most brilliant moves of the year. The creator behind Orc Stain and Godzilla: The Half-Century War (a shining pinnacle of the potential in licensed comics), Stokoe’s boundless imagination is matched by his astounding draftsmanship, creating stories that stimulate the mind while bombarding the eyes with heavily detailed spectacle. His meticulous rendering is put on full display in this issue, which pits Rogue, Dr. Strange, and Beta Ray Bill against Mole Man III and his army of Moloids in a setting full of intricately drawn rubble.

Stokoe goes wild with the design, beginning with a recap page featuring an obituary for the creator (who died after being clipped by a rogue sky-bike) and an advertisement for Quiblets, a customizable toy that is also a “sentient being with hopes and ambitions.” Editron 3030 provides editor’s notes that call back to comics that only exist in Stokoe’s mind, fleshing out this future world by hinting at books like X-Men Wedding Special #47 and Under-Hulk Adventures #33. It really feels like an issue that fell back in time from a future era, and ending on a cliffhanger accentuates that sensation, suggesting that readers can catch the next chapter if they find a way to 2063.

The story is primarily an outlet for Stokoe to show off his world building skills and spectacular action staging, but he also provides some fascinating insights into the nature of superhero comics through the experiences of the three Avengers. As they make their way across Kuala Lumpur, a disaster zone following the recent Badoon invasion of Earth, the heroes ponder the nature of their existence as beings that have been largely unaffected by time as the world around them constantly changes, briefly delving into philosophical territory before they start beating up Moloids. A hilarious, ambitious, visually mesmerizing tribute to the legacy of the Avengers, Marvel 100th Anniversary: Avengers #1 is a sterling example of the future potential for these characters when they’re put in the right hands, and editor Jon Moisan deserves major kudos for seeking out Stokoe’s talent for this one-shot. [OS]

“Harry Potter, Bruce Wayne, Annie, and Oliver Twist can go #&©% themselves! There's a new orphan in town.” Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s Street Angel (AdHouse) has one of the best tag lines in comics, perfectly reflecting the irreverent attitude that makes their title such a delightful read. Collecting all the issues of the original Slave Labor Graphics series in one arresting fuchsia hardcover, this is a book that grabs attention and holds on tight, delivering page after page of dynamic action, masterful lettering, and hilarious takes on traditional pulp concepts.

Jesse “Street Angel” Sanchez is the toughest orphan in Wilkesborough—Angel City’s worst ghetto—taking out ninjas, time-traveling conquistadors, demon sorcerers, and trigger-happy rednecks armed with just her wits and her skateboard. (If she gets her hands on a weapon, you want to run away fast.) The main attraction here is the insane action by artist and co-writer Rugg, who puts Jesse in increasingly daunting situations that test her resilience and push her to new levels of ass-kickery in each chapter. Rugg’s lettering plays an integral part in landing the impact of the fight sequences, providing sound effects that accentuate the action through their shape, size, and positioning.

With an art style that combines the unbridled energy of Jack Kirby with the evocative black-and-white imagery of Los Bros Hernandez, Rugg’s artwork is both classic and contemporary, a contrast that carries through to the script by Rugg and Maruca. After three issues of Jesse charging through waves of enemies, the story takes a dramatic left turn for an issue showing the homeless lead character as she scrounges for food on the streets and tries to hide from one of her classmates. The chapter puts Jesse’s character in a more grounded, emotionally relatable context, showing the very real problems she’s struggling with when she’s not engaged in absurd action. [OS]