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October 22, 2010

The cover of the first installment of Charles Burns’ new serialized graphic novel, X’ed Out (Pantheon), shows an injured boy inspecting a red-and-white-splotched object in the ruins of a city. The object resembles the mutated mushroom on the cover of The Shooting Star, the 10th volume of Hergé’s famed The Adventures Of Tintin, and that resemblance is clearly no accident. X’ed Out’s main character, a teenage punk performance artist named Doug, goes by the stage name Nitnit—Tintin backward—and the creepy mask he wears while reciting Burroughsian cut-ups makes him look uncannily like Hergé’s intrepid young hero. And as in the Tintin books, there’s a mystery to be solved here; it’s just not a puzzle that mere logic or bravery can overcome. Burns—who, on a strictly graphic level, is at the top of his game with his stark contrasts and moments of frozen awe—switches the story back and forth between the real world and a dystopian realm populated by lizard-like humanoids who scrape together meager livings in a depressed economy based on cigarettes and protein. Motifs and images resurface, among them eggs, fetuses, and a crack in a brick wall that seems to somehow link Doug’s realities. Of course, his unexplained head wound may be the real portal—but knowing Burns, there’s no way the answer is going to be as obvious as “It was all a dream.” Burns’ previous masterpiece, Black Hole, wallows in surreal horror and deadpan angst, but X’ed Out already threatens to best it. And his appropriation of beloved icons like Tintin opens the door to a fantastic meta-reality where Burns’ spastic yet tightly reined imagination is allowed to feed on itself deliciously… A

Mark Millar is not a man of subtlety. In Superior #1 (Marvel), teenager Simon Pooni transforms into the titular hero for the first time via a full-page splash of the Captain Marvel/Superman variety, shouting “Fuck!” as he does so. The page can be read as a big middle finger to DC, which hasn’t allowed Millar to write a major Superman title despite his very public desire to do so. Yet compared to Millar’s other creator-owned works, the first installment of this six-issue miniseries is an exercise in restraint. Rather than relying on gratuitous sex and violence, Millar uses mystery and emotion to move the plot forward, rooting the story in the relationship between wheelchair-bound Simon, who has multiple sclerosis, and his best friend Chris. It’s refreshing to see the usually grim and gritty Millar incorporate goofy Silver-Age elements like a wish-granting space monkey into his story, and the combination of his widescreen style with these fantastic elements helps evoke the “Spielberg 1981” feeling he’s aiming for with this series. The contrast between the insanity of Superior’s world and the bleakness of Simon’s comes through in Leinil Yu’s art, which reserves dynamic panel angles and page layouts for Superior while relying on realistic environments and body language for Simon’s scenes. It’s unclear where the series will go from here, and there’s still plenty of time for Millar’s bad habits to come creeping back, but this first issue shows a different side of the controversial writer... B

Cartoonist Vanessa Davis works in the cluttered, autobiographical mode of Lynda Barry and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, filling her pages with observations about culture, relationships, and the obsessions of youth. But Davis is very much her own person and her own artist, and Make Me A Woman (Drawn And Quarterly) is one smartly designed collection, combining Davis’ short stories—mostly three-pagers about being young and Jewish in Florida, New York, and California—with pages from her sketchbook. The result is a book that’s more casually revealing than typical autobio comics, recording both Davis’ fully formed insights into her own life and the tossed-off anecdotes and incidents of her average day. Davis is bright and funny and doesn’t take herself too seriously, but she does honestly grapple with her faith and her family in ways that keep Make Me A Woman from being just page after page of self-absorbed scribbling. Whether Davis can sustain this style and tone for more than just short pieces remains to be seen, but she doesn’t necessarily need to go long when she can pack so much humor and insight into a single drawing… B+ 

Ice Cream & Sadness: More Comics From Cyanide & Happiness (It Books) collects strips from the popular webcomic, written and drawn by Kris Wilson, Rob DenBleyker, Matt Melvin, and Dave McElfatrick. Similar to The Perry Bible Fellowship (although much less well-drawn) Cyanide & Happiness specializes in sly, sick jokes, rendered simply and designed to be forwarded by people who are bored at work. The jokes land about 50 percent of the time, which is a higher percentage than most webcomics—or most newspaper comics, for that matter. The C&H crew relies too much on dumb puns and dismemberment, but it has a good grasp of comics grammar, and knows how and when to deploy the silent final panel so that characters (and readers) can take a moment to absorb the implications of a superhero named Ass Rape. Or a stripper with a cake inside. Or a giraffe fucking a duck… B 

Following up on last year’s gorgeous hardcover The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist, the much smaller softcover Nipper: 1963-1964 (Drawn And Quarterly) assembles strips from the weekly Doug Wright’s Family, which ran in Canadian newspapers for decades. The prestige format is a better match for Wright’s Nipper cartoons: The beautifully detailed, wordless commentaries on the minor frustrations of suburban family life are a little too subtle when presented in such a tiny, unassuming package. But the strips themselves remain masterful, capturing the flavor of their place and time, along with the wild mood swings of children who live intense lives of dark imagination and violent grudges—and then become wonderfully sweet and kind in an instant… B+

Following the mega-crossover Siege, Marvel has been lying low on the company-wide events, instead producing (and hyping) miniseries that focus on specific groups of characters: street fighters in Shadowland, cosmic heroes in The Thanos Imperative, and now Hercules and his God Squad in Chaos War #1 (Marvel).Chaos War has all the elements of a blockbuster—a gathering of high-profile heroes, an unbeatable enemy, the death of a minor character—but this is largely the final act of writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente’s Hercules and Amadeus Cho saga that began more than two years ago. They’re reunited with artist Khoi Pham, who has improved the consistency and clarity of his facial expressions considerably since his Incredible Hercules days while maintaining the dynamic pencils that made the over-the-top action so spectacular. The oversized first issue of Chaos War has enough action to balance the heavy amount of exposition, but the end of the main story comes abruptly, with the cliffhanger lacking any real suspense. Pak and Van Lente still manage to bring their signature humor to the dire proceedings, but they aren’t writing the quirky adventures of a demigod and his boy-genius best friend anymore; they’re tackling the biggest heroes of the Marvel Universe versus entropy incarnate. If Chaos War wants to be remembered as anything more than the conclusion of a critically acclaimed but commercially shaky run on a B-list character, it needs to get epic fast… C+

Marvel is getting a little crazy with the relaunches nowadays. Only three months after the previous volume’s end, X-Force returns with an extra adjective, an updated roster (100 percent more Deadpool!), and a new mission statement: Track down and kill resurrected X-foe Apocalypse. Whether the changes are enough to merit a renumbering is yet to be determined, but Uncanny X-Force #1 is a strong start. Writer Rick Remender reunites with his Fear Agent and Punisher collaborator Jerome Opena, and the kinetic action sequences and unpredictable plots that characterized their previous projects make for a dynamic and suspenseful first issue. Deadpool is one of the most overexposed characters in the Marvel Universe today, but Remender uses him sparingly, giving him an important role in the plot but focusing the issue on characters that have a deeper investment in the mission. The addition of Psylocke and Fantomex to the team introduces the influence of their respective creators to Remender’s script: Psylocke revives the soap-opera elements of the franchise’s classic Chris Claremont days, while Fantomex provides the innovative weirdness of the Grant Morrison era. On art duties, Opena turns in the strongest work of his career as he expertly choreographs the fight scenes the title has become known for. The amount of detail in the pencils is astonishing, and the addition of Dean White’s rich coloring makes this the best-looking X-book on the stands. With stunning visuals, a briskly paced script, and a last-page reveal that takes the book in a completely unexpected direction, Uncanny X-Force has set itself up for success… B+ 

Marvel’s hit-or-miss Strange Tales, which pairs alternative and underground creators with the company’s mythic stable of superheroes, usually results in spoofs or wholesale deconstruction. So why is the lead story of Strange Tales II #1 one of the sincerely best Wolverine stories 2010 will likely see? Well, because Mesmo Delivery wunderkind Rafael Grampá wrote and drew it. With a poetic eye for hyperviolence, Grampá superbly balances Logan’s life as an underground pit-fighter with a continuity-be-damned take on the antihero as a troubled warrior mourning the loss of his sadomasochistic lover. Given room to breathe, this could be an all-time classic. There are plenty of other highlights to the issue—including a gorgeous yet goofy Dazzler story by Skim’s Jillian Tamaki and a hilarious two-page Galactus-and-Magneto gag from The Perry Bible Fellowship’s Nick Gurewitch—but it’s the stellar lead story that raises the question: Why isn’t Grampá being drafted out of the Strange Tales ghetto and given a mainstream Wolverine title of his own?... A-

The follow-up to The Hunter, Darwyn Cooke’s Parker: The Outfit (IDW) continues the creator’s hot streak, and it shows that there’s no one better suited to handling the gritty noir of Richard Stark’s novels. The beginning of the story finds Parker uncharacteristically living the sweet life after a big score. But he’s bound to fall, especially since he has a price on head from the syndicate. Anyone who’s read the previous installment, or any of Donald Westlake’s novels, knows that the scenario is bound to end in blood and pain, and Cooke paces the inevitable end with an adept storytelling sensibility that’s grown since his early work. The design and color are as strong as ever, and it’s one of the grittiest, most action-packed of the Parker stories, so returning fans will be satisfied and new readers will find a perfect entry point. If the next entries are as strong as the first two, this is a true crime classic in the making… A

Starting in 2006, the Best American series found its way to the world of comics, presenting readers with a inclination for literary fiction with some of the best of the comics world. The Best American Comics 2010 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), co-edited by Neil Gaiman, Jessica Abel, and her husband Matt Madden, doesn’t have a lot of surprises for comics devotees. Selections from Ben Katchor, James Kochalka, the Hernandez brothers, Chris Ware, R. Crumb, Peter Bagge, and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp will already be familiar to most people who follow the scene. But it’s not really meant for them; it’s meant for readers seeking an entry point to a world that’s not always easily accessible, although the fact that some stories are excerpts rather than full stories can be frustrating. But a helpful index lists many other works that weren’t included, and there’s no shortage of quality work, as well as some surprising choices like a chapter of Jonathan Lethem’s Omega The Unknown reboot… A- 

James Robinson didn’t have the novelistic brilliance of Alan Moore or the creative audacity of Grant Morrison, but he did share their aptitude for exploring the hidden corners of the expansive DC universe and shedding new light on some of its most valued characters and ideas. That’s what made his ’90s Starman series so appealing, and he stretches the idea to its outer limits in Starman Omnibus Volume 5. The story takes slacker legacy hero Jack Knight into space on a personal mission, and the story works well enough as a straight-up superhero adventure, but it’s really more of an excuse—in conjunction with a subsequent time-travel jaunt—to send him on a jaunt through the long history of the multiverse. It’s one of the best arcs on the long-running series, and the omnibus edition, with beautiful color and a glossy format, is the way to own it… B+

For the second year in a row, DC’s oldest super-team has been assembled in an old-school comics format for the kind of annual special that was a hallmark of the Silver Age. The Justice Society Of America: 80-Page Giant 2010 (DC) diverges from those old issues, though, because instead of presenting a single story about the WWII-era team, it follows a number of the individual team members—or their modern legacy equivalents—through solo adventures. These are all written and drawn by different creators, with predictably mixed results. The stories are, with very few exceptions, pretty mediocre, but the art (including entries by Bill Sienkiewicz and a cover by Jesus Merino and Allen Passalaqua) is much stronger. It’s fun to have the idea back in circulation, but this is a pretty inessential purchase…C+

The Green Woman (Vertigo) is a quick drop-in on a character from earlier Peter Straub novels, but even fans of the novels will likely wonder just what the hell is going on. The story, by Straub and Michael Easton, checks in on evil killer Fee Bandolier, who seems driven by demonic impulses that are hard to quantify, though it also spends a substantial amount of time with New York City cop Bob Steele, who finds himself inexorably drawn into Bandolier’s web. There are some haunting motifs here—like an Irish pub built from the bones of a cursed galleon and an isolated Midwestern bar that promises doom—and John Bolton’s art is a series of gorgeous paintings that suggest real life spun in a slightly more hallucinatory direction. But the story itself is largely incomprehensible, jumping from location to location with little sense of pacing and telling an awfully generic tale of evil men and the women they kill that mostly seems like an excuse to show off a lot of naked ladies... D+

The graphic novel A Sickness in the Family (Vertigo) suggests something of a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe tale in its dread-filled plotting, use of Gothic horror archetypes, and embrace of cavernous spaces as symbols of its characters’ souls. Written by Denise Mina, the story focuses on an outwardly pleasant and functional family that slowly loses its grip when the downstairs neighbor kills his girlfriend and the family patriarch buys the downstairs apartment, opening up a giant hole in the floor to link the upstairs and downstairs by staircase, a project that somehow never gets completed. Mina’s storyline makes great use of how this black hole plays havoc with the apartment’s acoustics, and her use of a Scottish dialect lends even more credence to the dialogue. Antonio Fuso’s black-and-white art gives the graphic novel a nicely sketched-in quality, particularly in the passages when it’s the black of night… and something is roaming the house. Mina makes the leap to “This family is CRAZY!” a little too readily, and it’s not clear that the twist at the end makes any sense whatsoever, but Sickness is ghoulish fun nonetheless... B

30 Days of Night creator Steve Niles was itching to write an anthology series in the mold of The Twilight Zone, but with anthology series selling like they do, it wasn’t really an option. His solution? Write a five-issue miniseries with standalone stories that all possess some as-yet-unrevealed throughline tying them together. Before Edge Of Doom #1 (IDW) is over, a Lilliputian army fashioned after Hellboy’s Hyperborean slaves has dragged a man through a hole in his lawn and onto the dinner menu. Prior to that, the titular doom is mostly psychological, depicting the fallout from a failed marriage more than things that go bump in the night. But once Kelley Jones (Criminal Macabre) finally unveils the curiously bloodless gore, it’s a toss-up as to whether the results land on the disturbing or the laugh-inducing side of the fence. Still, aside from a few off panels, this issue efficiently delivers its payload of creepiness, and Niles has hinted at some promising directions for the series... B-

A throwback to Marvel’s black-and-white Curtis Magazines imprint of the ’70s, Tomb Of Terror Super Issue #1 (Marvel) could have been something special. Instead, it’s a repository of good ideas squashed into too-short stories. The best of the four is “The Cure,” a Werewolf By Night story by Joseph Pruett and Jordan Raskin that pits Jack Russell against a lycanthrope-sniffing Cherokee man with more on his mind than communing with the animal spirits. Joe R. Lansdale punches the clock with “The Heist,” a generic mummy thriller in prose form with stark spot illustrations by Wolverine team Giuseppe Camuncoli and Onofrio Catacchio. And Rob Williams and Pablo Peppino bite off way more than they can chew with “Silence,” a cramped, rushed Son Of Satan tale that pits the damned Daimon Hellstrom against a serial killer who’s the son of a lost astronaut. The biggest disappointment, though, is “Descent Of The Beast,” a Man-Thing story that attempts to profoundly tie together the creature’s submerged humanity with a lynching-in-progress. Written by otherwise decent graphic-novelist Paul Hornschemeier (and drawn by veteran artist Mark Texeira) that’s too full of clichéd, convoluted internal monologue—not to mention an ending that’s little more than a cheap copout. Tomb Of Terror’s black-and-white format does indeed evoke the Curtis era’s moody grit. But these four attempts just don’t do the title justice… C+

As an homage to Steve Gerber—whose Howard The Duck debuted during the writer’s legendary run on Man-Thing in Adventure Into Fear in the ’70s—there’s a Man-Thing short stuck in the back of the new Howard The Duck one-shot, The Amazing Spider-Man: Back In Quack (Marvel). Unfortunately, the brief Man-Thing story is by far the best thing in the issue. Written by Stuart Moore and drawn with moody, grayscale atmosphere by Joe Suitor, the backup vignette is far more true to the character’s roots than Moore’s main feature. When the haplessly misplaced Howard teams up with Spider-Man in order to wisecrack and websling their way through a mass-brainwashing plot, all attempts at Gerber’s gonzo satire and zaniness fall sadly, soggily flat… C-