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New releases include Bad Machinery, Black Canary And Zatanna, and C.O.W.L.

Plus: Trees, Roz Chast, and more

There are few more unforgivable sins in art than consistency. Do something great for a short time and you will be lauded forever. Do something great day after day, year after year, for decades on end, and you will be forgotten. People took Peanuts for granted until the very end, didn’t they?

John Allison has been in the webcomics business for 16 years now. Bobbins ran from 1998 to 2002 and focused primarily on the workplace high jinks of a group of directionless twentysomethings. After Bobbins ran its course, a few of the characters graduated to Scary Go Round, which ran from 2002 to 2009. This strip featured supernatural and sci-fi elements seemingly placed in a bag and jumbled together like Lincoln Logs: A long-running gag involved series mainstay Shelley Winters (not the woman from The Poseidon Adventure) dying and being resurrected numerous times.

Over the strip’s seven-year run, Allison introduced a world’s worth of incidental characters and exotic locales. Long-term fans have laundry lists of favorite ideas that Allison never got around to exploring in full, or that were only ever supposed to be background gags, but still implied a whole world full of intricately weird details just off the edge of the panel. (For example, Allison could easily have done an entire year just on the machine nation Robotania, and the absence of Desmond Fish-Man in the post-Scary Go Round world is keenly felt.)

In 2009 Allison shuttered Scary Go Round and began Bad Machinery. Just as many of the characters from Scary Go Round were inherited from Bobbins, Bad Machinery focuses on young teens occasionally glimpsed around the edges of past adventures. Moving the setting to a school gave the strip a renewed focus and enabled Allison to move past his self-described rut of having to write ever more absurd situations for his older characters to stumble through. Those older characters are still around, but are permanently placed in the background. Ryan Chilton, one of the protagonists of Scary Go Round, is now a teacher living a contented life with his wife, Amy Beckwith-Chilton—once the most impulsive and reckless members of Allison’s cast, now the responsible owner of an antiques store and, as of just a few weeks ago, a mother.

As these descriptions should make abundantly clear, Bad Machinery has a lot of baggage, but it’s not all required knowledge for new readers. One reason behind Allison’s decision to switch out strips was the fact that for all its success, Scary Go Round was also a victim of the same readership attrition all too familiar to superhero comics: Even the best and most consistent book will struggle to maintain a feasible readership long-term. Bad Machinery takes place in the same universe, but the strip is mainly about the young protagonists, a group of precocious (but not in a “cute” way, more in the Charles Schulz way) school kids on the verge of adulthood but still preoccupied with the mysteries of girls, boys, and mods. They occasionally solve supernatural mysteries, but that’s only incidental to the main event, which is watching the kids grow up. (It’s also worth noting that Allison has bowed to popular demand and brought back the older cast of Scary Go Round on a more-or-less permanent basis by interjecting brief runs of a resurrected Bobbins on off days and weeks.)

It took Bad Machinery a while to find its feet. The first storyline (involving the intricate politics of British minor-league football) represented a conscious attempt to differentiate the strip from Scary Go Round as explicitly as possible, and the results overshot too far in the direction of bone dry. But as the strip continued and Allison got the feel for his younger cast, the stories became looser and richer. Neither Bad Machinery nor Scary Go Round are gag-a-day strips, exactly, but the strip is always funny. Allison has managed to hit and colonize the sweet spot of character-driven comedy where, in the absence of explicit jokes, the humor arises naturally and consistently from the characters’ own words. All the players in Allison’s universe have their own voice, and enjoyment of the strip expands in direct proportion to familiarity with the cast’s eccentricities.

Allison personally printed and distributed previous book collections of Scary Go Round, but he’s found a new publisher for Bad Machinery: U.S.-based Oni Press. Two collections have been released so far: 2013’s The Case Of The Team Spirit and this year’s The Case Of The Good Boy. The pleasures of Allison’s continuing universe are many and deep. Although it might seem tendentious or premature to offer any strip as the “best” ongoing, Bad Machinery faces few peers in that category. Anyone not reading it is missing out on one of the great achievements in contemporary comics. [TO]

Any fans longing for DC’s pre-New 52 continuity will want to immediately seek out Black Canary And Zatanna: Bloodspell (DC), an original graphic novel by writer Paul Dini, artist Joe Quinones, and colorist Dave McCaig, that teams DC’s premier fishnet-wearing superheroines for a mystical adventure overflowing with fun and personality. Mining the characters’ history together as Justice League members in the ’70s and ’80s, the story wouldn’t be possible with the New 52 versions of these heroes, making a strong case for maintaining continuity by showing how Dinah and Zatanna have changed over the years.

Dini doesn’t shy away from exploring the sexuality of superhero characters, especially women (see: his work with Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy on Batman: The Animated Series), and he realizes that delving into intimate relationships helps ground these extraordinary figures. After an action-packed flashback showing Black Canary stopping a casino robbery, the narrative switches to Dinah and her boyfriend, Oliver Queen, in bed, a scene that begins with a climactic sonic scream that shatters a vase in the other room.

Dini’s female characters aren’t defined by their sexuality—Zatanna has no romantic entanglements in this story at all—but it’s refreshing to see a superhero comic spend time depicting a healthy intimate relationship between two consenting adults that love each other. Relationships are where superhero comics find most of their substance, and showing key moments in Black Canary’s and Zatanna’s timelines allow the creative team to build a fully formed, well-rounded dynamic between the two heroines. The main plot involving a ghost killing off people that wronged her in life is engaging enough, but the bond between Dinah and Zatanna is what brings depth to Bloodspell.

With a smoothly animated yet highly detailed style, Quinones’ work inhabits the middle ground between the cartoonish expression of Dini’s frequent collaborator Bruce Timm and the heightened realism of Adam Hughes. McCaig’s vibrant coloring enhances the animation aspect, sticking primarily to saturated blocks of color that are accented with shadows and reflections to add dimension. Quinones’ character designs spotlight his thorough understanding of reflecting character through facial expressions and body language, allowing him to make very clear distinctions between different time periods.

A huge part of this book’s appeal is seeing Quinones draw characters like the New Gods and the Justice League Satellite-era lineup, and it’s unfortunate that those scenes are so short. (DC should take a cue from its recent Superman and Batman digital anthology series and have a new continuity-free Justice League digital series that allows creators to tell stories using whatever version of the team they like.) Quinones stages dynamic action sequences with a retro flair that is perfect for Dini’s story—his hand-lettered sound effects help considerably in that regard—and the weight he gives his characters accentuates the speed and force of his fights.

Dini understands the importance of balancing drama with humor, and he takes advantage of Quinones’ cartooning skills to incorporate comedy into Dinah and Zatanna’s mission to find a spectral killer. A trip to the mall to buy new fishnets leads to a hilarious scene involving superhero branding, along with a background gag turning the book’s creative team into goldfish when they make inappropriate comments about the women’s appearance. When Dinah needs a disguise, Zatanna uses a spell that transforms her into a bombshell redhead with a hairstyle heavily reminiscent of Spider-Man’s ex-flame Mary Jane Watson, an intentional connection, judging by a shot of the redhead Dinah standing in a doorway in a pose and outfit recalling Mary Jane’s legendary debut in The Amazing Spider-Man #42.

Louis Prandi does exceptional work with the publication design of this attractive hardcover. An ingenious design element is the use of fishnet patterns for the inside covers, with the condition of the fishnets reflecting the hero that wears them: The front fishnets are in perfect condition, used by Zatanna during her magic show performances, but the back fishnets are battle-worn, used by Black Canary when she patrols the streets. Female superheroes wearing fishnets is impractical and representative of the male gaze that has dominated the superhero comics industry since its creation, but fishnets are such an integral part of Black Canary and Zatanna’s classic designs that it’s nice to see them put front and center.

In addition to the 94 pages of story, Bloodspell includes an impressive amount of bonus material, including concept designs and page roughs by Quinones and Dini’s original pitch and full script for the issue. Not only does this graphic novel provide an entertaining, visually lush story, it dives deep into the process of how the product was created, making it a great purchase for readers eager to learn about how a comic comes together. [OS]

Roz Chast’s work is familiar to most readers, even if her name isn’t. She’s been a mainstay of The New Yorker for three decades; she drew the cover for this month’s May 12th issue. Despite its longstanding reputation as one of the last and sturdiest outposts of cartooning in magazine publishing (it is said that the last two great cartoon magazines are The New Yorker and Playboy), the cartoons are often less notable for their jokes than for being the butt of jokes themselves. Everyone remembers “The Cartoon” from season nine of Seinfeld, and anyone who has spent time with the magazine soon recognizes that there is much truth in Elaine’s critique.

With that said, it’s easy to overlook Chast’s career, because there just aren’t a lot of good cartoonists in the magazine anymore. (Occasional contributor Robert Crumb finally swore off the magazine after being stymied by repeated and arbitrary editorial fiat.) At the risk of damning with faint praise, it isn’t particularly controversial to assert that Chast is easily the best cartoonist still working for the magazine. But it isn’t meant to be faint praise: she’s a fantastic cartoonist, and The New Yorker certainly needs her work a lot more than she needs its patronage at this point in her career.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury) is, amazingly, Chast’s first original graphic novel. Perhaps, if one were feeling particularly pedantic, it might be called an “illustrated memoir”: Pages of cartoons followed by handwritten text and the occasional photograph alternate throughout the book. Whatever it’s called, this is a fine book by any estimation.

Anyone who’s seen Chast’s work knows her distinctive, easily underestimated style. Her universe is filled with shaky, perpetually baffled people, usually middle-age or older, fully adrift in a world defined by uncertainty. Reading this book offers a window into Chast’s style through the revelation that the archetypes for her shivering and bewildered stock character are actually her parents. This book is the story of their long decline and eventual deaths. Although that doesn’t sound like the most appealing topic, Chast elevates the story beyond stock mawkishness or maudlin clichés through her use of humor as a means to leaven what is, for most, an unbearable sadness.

Chast is an only child who realizes one day that her parents, far from being the invincible and irascible pillars of her childhood, have become frail. They need taking care of, and in the absence of any other close relatives, the responsibility falls solely on her shoulders. The reader follows her through every step of the process—from premature grieving through remorse, to despair, and to the grim irony at the heart of every intimate encounter with death. If this sounds gloomy, well, it’s not. It’s consistently funny as well as perfectly heartbreaking. Chast knows how to talk about the things we don’t want to talk about through a keen understanding of alternating tone.

The book culminates in a series of sketches of Chast’s mother on her deathbed. They serve as a bare, annihilating climax to a book equal measures harrowing and humorous—but the section right after her mother’s death features an explanation as to why she keeps her parents’ ashes stacked next to a pile of shoes in her walk-in closet. In a crowded field of graphic memoirs, Chast’s story is a high point due to its candor and its craftsmanship. [TO] 

When it comes to standing out in a packed superhero comic marketplace, style is key. Compare Kyle Higgins’ recent work on Nightwing with C.O.W.L. #1—his new ongoing series with co-writer Alec F. Siegel and artist Rod Reis—and it’s clear how much a distinct aesthetic brings to a superhero title. Primarily known for his work as a colorist, Reis combines the digital painting of Phil Noto with the more figurative linework of Bill Sienkiewicz in his art, offering a gritty take on early-’60s superheroes that could easily have been published in the late-’80s. He does exceptional work depicting the book’s Chicago setting—there’s clearly a lot of research done to accurately capture the feel of each neighborhood—and his costuming further accentuates the time period. It’s a gorgeous book, and the story is just as captivating as the art.

Top 10 by way of Mad Men, C.O.W.L. looks at what would happen if superheroes became government employees paid to patrol the streets. Chicago cops have a reputation for being less than accommodating, and just because an officer wears a costume doesn’t mean he’s not going to empty his bladder on a peeping Tom who hasn’t been heeding his warnings. This first issue splits time between high-flying superhero adventure and street-level detective work. The story draws the reader in with a gripping opening sequence showing the takedown of Skylancer—the last remaining member of a supervillain team that has been terrorizing the Windy City for 10 years—then segueing into how the elimination of that threat impacts the Chicago Organized Workers League.

That opening sequence is an incredible introduction to the world of this series, spotlighting the detail in Reis’ environments, his sleek fight choreography, and the more abstract linework that makes the title especially unconventional. Troy Peteri’s expressive lettering is another integral design element, depicting Skylancer’s speech in red, Russian-inspired lettering on a black background to show the character’s political affiliation, and altering the color of text boxes to show which heroes are talking at any given moment. The more grounded scenes are given equal attention, with Reis emphasizing atmosphere to highlight the shifting moods of the story. C.O.W.L. #1 does all the things a first issue is supposed to do, introducing engaging characters while pulling the reader into a well-defined environment. The groundwork laid in this opening chapter proves that this is a superhero comic worth following every month. [OS]

Six volumes into the exhaustive compilation of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck stories (Fantagraphics), readers may have become spoiled by the convenience of receiving a new volume of some of the best comics ever made at tidy six-month intervals. These stories are now being presented in, arguably, their finest editions ever (at least in English), and they deserve the appreciation of every reader.

Trail Of The Unicorn, like previous volumes, alternates Donald’s longer adventures with many of the shorter 10-page stories that originally ran in Walt Disney’s Comics And Stories. The adventure stories are some of the best ever created, forming the model for how to pace a “book length” narrative in comic book form. Included here is one of Barks’ greatest Christmas stories, Letter To Santa, as well as the epic Luck Of The North, featuring one of Donald’s great duels with his insufferable cousin Gladstone Gander, who also appears in the volume’s title story. (One of the other longer stories, Land Of The Totem Pole, is a bad example of the regrettable racial politics of the era, for reasons which should be apparent from the title. But even this story is redeemed somewhat by a subplot where Donald sells a steam calliope to a crazy hermit.)   

But the heart of Barks’ appeal lies firmly in the realm of his short stories. Barks was consistently able to pack more into his 10-pagers than most cartoonists can cram into 60. The shorter pieces are usually domestic in scope, often focusing on Donald’s attempt to outsmart his precocious nephews (Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and shame on you if you don’t remember). But neither side is ever quite as smart as they believe themselves, and the stories often end in frustration for one or both parties. Barks uses irony as a scalpel, using a more deft touch than most EC writers to satisfyingly hoist his characters by their own petards. Although it may simply be personal nostalgia, the standout for this collection is Dowsing Ducks, a tale in which Donald fools the boys into thinking they’ve found an underground soda pop stream with their dowsing rods, only to be later proven a fool himself when the dowsing rod successfully diagnoses his water on the knee.

Thankfully, unlike many more abstruse cartoonists, the critic hardly needs to give Barks the hard sell. Even if Disney Ducks have only been previously encountered in watered-down animated form, the quality of the work speaks for itself in every case. Rather than this writer spending the effort to harangue, just open the book at random and read to be convinced of Barks’ singular indispensability. [TO]

Mark Waid’s Thrillbent has undergone considerable changes since debuting two years ago, currently operating with a subscription-based model that offers the digital publisher’s entire library for $3.99 a month. To build interest in this latest stage of the company’s growth, Waid has revived his dystopian sci-fi series Empire with artist Barry Kitson and colorist Chris Sotomayor, making new chapters available exclusively to subscribers. Empire, Vol. 2 #1 (Thrillbent) is a short read, consisting of 15 frames total. Waid, however, packs a remarkable amount of story and world-building in that minimal space, giving new readers the requisite exposition while jogging the memories of fans who followed the original series over a decade ago.

The supervillain Golgotha remains in power following the death of his revolutionary daughter, and he’s tightened his iron grip after facing resistance from his own flesh and blood. The action in this issue unfolds on the first anniversary of Princess Delfi’s death, a holiday that involves a mandatory three minutes of global silence. “The Empire has eyes everywhere and is watching us all,” an elementary school teacher tells her class before they cover their mouths for fear of execution if they speak, and Waid builds the story’s tension by showing how the rest of the world honors the moment of silence. A couple is shot dead in the street by a police officer for failing to “comply with compulsory silence.” An elderly woman watches in fear with her hand over her mouth as her husband moans in his sleep, and the nurses in a maternity ward hold their hands over babies’ mouths as well as their own.

This world is far from the utopia that Golgotha’s propaganda would have people believe, and while everything may look bright and shiny on the surface, it’s built on a foundation of suffering. Kitson does strong work contrasting the cheery classroom scenes with the depressing reality of Golgotha’s reign, and Sotomayor’s palette contributes considerably to the shifts in tone. It would be nice to see Kitson take advantage of the digital format to experiment with panel structure and transitions like other Thrillbent titles, but he’s easily providing some of the sleekest artwork currently available at the publisher. At $3.99 a month, Thrillbent’s entire library is available for the price of one Avengers issue, and that offer only becomes sweeter as higher-profile titles like Empire join Thrillbent’s stable. [OS]  

It’s safe to say that if Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming are collaborating on a comic together, it’s worth checking out. The creative team behind the ever-evolving superhero police drama Powers and all-ages Takio has one of the most consistently strong partnerships in the industry, and The United States Of Murder Inc. #1 (Icon) is another success for the pair. Set in an alternate reality where the mafia won its war with the government in the ’60s and has assumed control of the East Coast, this new ongoing series follows Valentine Gallo, a newly made man who finds himself entering a world much more dangerous than what he expected.

Bendis’ ambition is allowed to run wild when he’s working on his creator-owned titles, and Murder Inc. has Bendis rewriting American history to put a new spin on the gangster drama. The dialogue has that signature Bendis cadence, keeping this double-sized issue moving at a rapid pace, and the script lulls the reader into a false sense of security before turning everything upside down in the final pages. The other half of this book’s dynamic duo is Jagger Rose, a badass female enforcer with two-toned hair and no tolerance for bullshit, and much like Powers’ Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, Bendis uses their relationship to introduce humor into the high-stakes narrative. 

A back matter interview with Bendis, Oeming, and colorist Taki Soma, reveals the influence of the work of neo-noir director Wong Kar-Wai, and the art team replicates the style of his films through intensely saturated colors. Oeming increases the contrast in his linework even more than usual, and his heavy blacks mesh beautifully with Soma’s vibrant palette, which is limited to two shades per scene. This story could easily work as a feature film, but unless it was animated, it would lose a lot of the character brought by Oeming and Soma’s idiosyncratic art. Bendis grabs attention with his story, but it’s the aggressive artistic choices of Murder Inc. that create an immersive reading experience. [OS]

What if extraterrestrial life made its presence known on Earth, and then did nothing? How would that affect the world? Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s new sci-fi ongoing series Trees #1 asks those questions by dropping giant black pillars all over the planet and starting the story 10 years after they landed, exploring how those structures have changed aspects of society. Like C.O.W.L., Trees begins with a white-knuckle sequence that throws the reader into this environment, following a group of young rebels as they flee from police officers on the streets of Rio De Janeiro. The rebels succeed in their escape before coming across the huge pillars stretching past the clouds, which proceed to light up with a sickly green hue before dumping toxic waste that floods the streets and strips flesh from bone.

What are these structures? Who put them there? Why do they occasionally dump waste on everyone? Ellis asks a load of questions in this issue, and the events are even scarier because the reader, like everyone in the story, has no idea what is going on. After that horrific opening, the pacing slows as Ellis provides more background detail and delves into characters, revealing the international scope of a narrative that moves from Brazil to New York, China, and Norway.

Each of these locales is impeccably realized by Howard, who also shows off his immense talent as a colorist in this issue. His linework calls to mind the work of B.P.R.D. artist Guy Davis in texture and detail. The more animated expression of Howard’s Super Dinosaur work is still evident in his characters, but he pushes the realism of his environments to match Ellis’ grounded story. His interpretation of the walled city of Shu is especially intriguing, a dirty, busy urban environment that gives way to more hallucinatory visuals as young Tian makes his way to the psychedelically-painted building that is his new home. Howard’s color palette uses specific hues to dictate the mood of each scene (starting the opening scene with a bright blue sky sets up a nice contrast with the devastation at the end of the sequence), and tackling both the linework and colors gives Howard’s work even more specificity. The scope of both the story and the artwork is huge, and based on Ellis’ past work, Trees is only going to grow bigger as it continues. [OS]

Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives From Black History (Fulcrum) can be called many things: The paneled graphic storytelling suggests “comic book”; the real-life characters and subjects say “history text”; the simplified facial expressions and boxy drawing technique imply “children’s book” or “educational tool.” And it does qualify as all those things. But what Gill has done in this first volume of his collected Strange Fruit mini-comics is pretty remarkable. He’s infused each of these stories with a huge amount of information, humor for kid readers (“Slavery stinks”), humor for adults (when a child is born it appears to be launched out of the mother by jet propulsion, making the umbilical cord not unlike a bungee cord), and a full spectrum of comics storytelling devices. For example, Jim Crow is actually embodied by a huge black crow that shows up to wreak havoc in these characters’ lives. And whenever a situation arises in which it’s clear one of most unacceptable of racial epithets is being uttered, the word is implied by a speech balloon with a caricatured black face in it. This is a savvy bit of narrative on Gill’s part, as it allows adult readers to draw their own conclusions, yet avoids introducing that word to children. But just because he isn’t using that particular one, doesn’t mean Gill is shying away from the difficult words—“miscegenation,” “eugenics,” and “commodity” all make an appearance here, often with author-supplied definitions. He’s careful to keep the details of “lynching” and “castration” out, though. As there are so few places to learn about the Malaga Island travesty, or the Noyes Academy, or the Spottswood Rice letters, this new collection is not only welcome; it’s necessary. [AB]