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October 8, 2010

There isn’t a lot in WildStorm’s four character-centric Red prequel one-shots for people who haven’t already seen the upcoming movie: Red: Victoria spoils a story that the movie means to be surprising, and Red: Frank and Red: Joe are passable enough, but generic to the point where these could be stories about any spies. There are no insights here, no key touches or significant moments that flesh out the film. That’s no great surprise; the movie isn’t that concerned with background either, and doesn’t give its characters much personality beyond the familiar charisma of the stars playing them (Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, and Morgan Freeman, respectively). Only Red: Marvin goes further, both by delving into some backstory dismissed in a single line in the movie, and by making its subject a unique person in a unique situation, something eerier and more unlikely than standard double-and-triple-cross spy hijinks. Jon and Erich Hoeber, who scripted the film (working loosely from Warren Ellis’ original three-issue comics series) are credited with the stories for all four one-shots; Jon scripted Victoria (the weakest of the four, since it just retells a story from the movie, with details that feel more like padding than revelations), Erich scripted Marvin, Red executive producer Gregory Noveck scripted Frank, and Ultraforce writer Doug Wagner handled Joe. And each comic has a different team of artists, but the results are all fairly basic and samey. Which is a shame, because the film didn’t have a lot of time or energy for background, so these tie-ins represent a lost opportunity to fill in some blanks, particularly with Morgan Freeman’s sadly underserved, ill-used character… Victoria: C-; Frank/Joe: C; Marvin: B-

Few comics of the past few years have been as memorable as the eye-catching, ubiquitous World’s Greatest Superheroes books, written by Paul Dini and illustrated by Alex Ross at the height of his powers. In the new The World’s Greatest Superheroes (DC), all six graphic novels—Superman: Peace On Earth, Batman: War On Crime, Wonder Woman: Spirit Of Truth, Shazam!: Power Of Hope, and two Justice League titles—are collected in one 400-page paperback. With uniformly excellent writing, Dini tackles big issues without ever getting too grandiose, and Ross is in his iconic phase here, without the elements of self-parody that would creep into his later work… B+

Like a collective nightmare (or a wet dream) conjured by David Lynch and John Waters, the opening scene of Prison Pit: Book Two (Fantagraphics) is one of Johnny Ryan’s most maniacally focused, luridly scatological visions ever. And for Ryan, that’s saying something. But the notoriously gore-happy creator of Angry Youth Comix pushes the second volume of his first original graphic novel into a deepening, darkening miasma of filth and injury. Basically a book-length, no-holds-barred smackdown between two grotesque feuding monsters, Prison Pit lavishes equal doses of perversion on its cast and its setting, the latter being a hellish realm in which blood, shit, and bile are the currencies of social order and sick pleasure. Ryan’s increasingly bizarre parade of creatures—not to mention his artfully jarring juxtaposition of vaginas, swastikas, impalements, and decapitations—owes plenty to Gary Panter’s angular absurdism and Mike Diana’s taboo cartooning. Ultimately, though, the book churns itself into a seething sludge of psychic toxicity that’s less a shockfest and more a satire of existence itself. Mercilessly graphic and superbly unspooled, Prison Pit funnels the fantastic, violent notebook sketches of the middle-school miscreant into a funny, pulsing, disgustingly purgative eruption… A-

Speaking of being simultaneously funny and disgusting, Adam Warren’s Empowered Volume 6 (Dark Horse) gets messier than previous installments, via a route that’s becoming pretty tired in comics: zombies. Granted, Warren has a reasonably unique explanation for his: Turns out that many of his world’s superheroes attained their powers by making mystical bargains which leave them still ambulatory after death, and at the whim of a supervillain who can command their rotting, unwilling carcasses. Empowered has been getting steadily more serious and horrific volume by volume, without ever abandoning its good-girl softcore, its panting bondage fetish, and its sometimes ribald, sometimes refreshingly silly sense of humor. But here, a mini-story about the bondage-related perils and tribulations of its oft-captured title heroine seems awkwardly sandwiched into an otherwise unrelentingly grim story that continues to explore the fallout of last volume’s superhero massacre. The emotions run extremely high in this volume, and there’s a lot of grotesquely graphic violence and intense action; even the sex is serious and miserable. Which is great if this is all building to something, but after the world-changing events of Volume 5, Volume 6 feels like it’s revving up the engine to dangerous RPMs without ever taking its foot off the brake: The many extant plotlines only barely move forward here, and more keep being introduced. Possibly the funniest touch in this book is that it’s so crowded and over-the-top, Warren casually reveals in the middle of it all how Emp got the ridiculously flimsy, fragile super-suit that gives her her powers and causes all her problems, and it serves as little more than a throwaway gag amid all the sturm und drang. From the bondage to the battles, it’s all rendered in meaty, muscular, ambitiously loving detail, and it’s no wonder this volume took a year to realize but at some point, the buildup has to give way to catharsis and at least one or two resolutions… B-

The first volume of Carol Tyler’s ambitious family history You’ll Never Know introduced the book’s premise—ostensibly Tyler’s attempt to take her mind off a bad breakup by documenting the World War II experiences of her reticent father. It also introduced Tyler’s offbeat approach to the material, which involves frequent digressions to cover her upbringing, her struggles as a newly single mother, and her parents’ various health issues. You’ll Never Know: Collateral Damage (Fantagraphics) continues the saga, rendered in Tyler’s muted colors and quirky page design. This time, the story reaches even farther, with more about Tyler’s troubled daughter and the early years of her parents’ marriage, including the loss of their first child in a tragic accident before Tyler was born. As always, Tyler avoids over-dramatizing her family’s problems; You’ll Never Know considers cancer, child-death, substance abuse, heartbreak, and dementia as part of a normal life alongside celebrations, public service, and the fleeting joys of an afternoon on the waterfront. There have been plenty of comic-book memoirs, but few with the complex structure of You’ll Never Know, which seems at times to be rambling from topic to topic with no clear direction, until it unexpectedly circles back to an earlier point and makes the purpose of one tiny anecdote clear. Because this is still a work-in-progress—and an idiosyncratic one at that—it’s too early to tag it as a masterpiece. But damned if it isn’t well on its way… A- 

It would be easy to dismiss Cuba: My Revolution (Vertigo) as the Cuban Persepolis. But there’s much more to it than that. The graphic novel—written by Cuban expatriate and fine-artist Inverna Lockpez, and drawn by Dean Haspiel (of Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter)—begins with a 17-year-old medical student named Sonya, a Lockpez surrogate who passionately supports Fidel Castro’s newborn revolution. As Castro’s regime begins to show itself to be something less than she’d hoped, Sonya’s idealism is turned against her, until one day she’s forced to choose between revolutionary solidarity and basic human compassion, and forced to deal with the horrific consequences. Like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Lockpez’s My Revolution filters world-shaking events and ideologies through a patina of human struggle and individual triumph. And Lockpez’s story—which only occasionally lapses into chunky exposition—is more candidly brutal. Since her protagonist is older, an unflinching weariness sets in as age and experience either erode Sonya’s convictions, or force them to evolve. Haspiel’s grim, black-white-and-red layouts are textured and expressive, and Lockpez picks the perfect points at which to start, punctuate, and end her nervy narrative… B+

Writer Mark Waid has been on a roll with his various Boom! series (like Irredeemable and Incorruptible), but the miniseries The Unknown: Volume One(Boom!) isn’t one of his most inspired. The story starts strong, introducing genius detective Catherine Allingham and her hulking new sidekick James Doyle as they plunge into a case where advanced science and the supernatural overlap. Both heroes are plagued by ghosts; Allingham’s deals with a doctor’s diagnosis that she’ll die within six months, so when she and James come upon researchers trying to measure the human soul, they’re intrigued. But after locking a rich, exciting premise into place in the first chapter, Waid and artist Minck Oosterveer turn the next three chapters of The Unknown into a disappointingly straightforward, monsters-’n’-mad-scientists adventure tale packed with action, but light on the character detail and philosophizing that made the book so initially intriguing. The good news? There are more Allingham and Doyle adventures to come, and more of their quixotic quest to understand the meaning of death… B- 

NBM’s The Broadcast looks strangely like the storyboards for a film-to-be; Noel Tuazon’s black-and-white art is often formless, with soft, abstract washes of gray standing in for details, and faces so sketchily rendered that they suggest positioning more than expression. The effect is expressive, but unfinished—a series of placeholders waiting to be filled in. Which is a shame, because Eric Hobbs’ story is sharply focused. As Orson Welles broadcasts his “War Of The Worlds” radio show in 1938, and a panicked rural populace takes the show for a news report, residents of an Indiana town gather at a house and find their latent prejudices, desires, and frustrations can’t handle the stress. Much like the Luna brothers’ Girls, the book balances a number of threads and characters, interweaving them all but following a single theme, about how stress and fear release the worst parts of people, as well as the best. It’s a powerful story that would benefit from a more polished presentation; Tuazon’s art ably suggests fading, sepia-toned photographs as well as storyboards for what would be a riveting film, but that approach proves distancing where the book should be immediate and compelling… B-

Garnering comparisons to Joe Madureira’s infamously unfinished Battle Chasers, Skullkickers #1 (Image) is a tale of swords, sorcery, and sarcasm starring a pair of unnamed mercenaries: one with sangfroid to match his size, the other a hotheaded dwarf with the weaponry and blood-red beard of Tolkien’s legendary dwarf Gimli. Jim Zubkavich’s script is punchy, establishing early on the disconnect between the heroes’ quip-happy outlook and their deadly serious situations—especially when a cornered werewolf snarls, “Humor is all you have left!” before being reduced to a lycanthropic puddle. Zubkavich, who built his name on the webcomic The Makeshift Miracle, knows how to write jokes that take full advantage of the sequential-art format. But even those who find the webcomic-y sense of humor a bit lame can find reasons to stick around, via the art of newcomers Edwin Huang and Chris Stevens. The pair divvied up the penciling duties this issue, and their styles are seamless, both exhibiting a flair for eye-catching, exaggerated character designs and dramatic angles that really show off the blood and guts. So far the series isn’t much more than an assassination attempt that hints at larger machinations and a zombified cliffhanger. But judged strictly as an action-comedy in a fantasy setting, this looks like a win… B+

Antumbra is a magnet for bad juju. Spend more than a few moments with her—or worse, actually make physical contact—and you’re as good as dead. Her twin sister Umbra is a sort of living embodiment of The Secret, a natural surplus of good luck that just attracts more fortune, vacuuming it out of the less deserving and transmogrifying it into college-acceptance letters, athletic stardom, and easy wealth. Shari Chankhamma’s The Sisters’ Luck (Slave Labor Graphics) features a premise with a capital P, one that easily could have served as the foundation for a strong story—especially when filtered through Chankhamma’s starkly dramatic visuals, which call to mind a manga-fied Paul Pope. Instead of developing a single nifty premise, however, Sisters gets greedy and starts construction on a second-floor addition before the first one’s complete. The parameters of luck-transference haven’t even been fully established when a pair of demigod albinos (in the mold of the twins from The Matrix Reloaded) enter the fray, seemingly impervious to the sisters’ powers. The story quickly refocuses on their galactic game of cat-and-mouse, which is too bad; before the overstuffed cosmic muddle of its last 15 pages, Sisters looks like a promising take on sibling rivalry carried into the supernatural… C

John Constantine isn’t exactly the marrying type. But the devious, demon-haunted paranormal instigator has proposed—acceptance pending—to alchemist Epiphany Greaves, which leaves him in a more-fragile-than-usual emotional state at the start of Hellblazer #271 (Vertigo). The first installment of Peter Milligan’s new Bloody Carnations storyline, the issue effectively juggles Constantine and his case of lukewarm feet with lengthy appearance of Shade The Changing Man, an old subject of Milligan’s who’s been popping up so frequently in Hellblazer, he deserves billing as a co-headliner at this point. (In fact, Constantine doesn’t even appear on this issue’s cover; it’s all Shade.) The characters’ threads converge when Constantine and Epiphany independently conjure Shade in hopes of harnessing his extradimensional madness—with poetically, morbidly hilarious results. Twenty-one issues into his Hellblazer run, Milligan has gotten a solid handle on Constantine’s gallows tone, pace, and voice, and penciler Giuseppe Camuncoli gets to stretch out a bit in Shade’s fluidly weird homeworld of Meta. Cover artist Simon Bisley even jumps in for a three-page time-travel coda which whisks the story back to Constantine’s punk days in 1979. For a character as scarred by his past as Constantine, it’s rich soil, in which Bloody Carnations promises to blossom… B+

A tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the quantum cosmology behind the existence of Asgard isn’t how writers typically kick off a new run on Thor. But Matt Fraction immediately stakes his claim on Thor #615 (Marvel), his inaugural issue of the series—and if this first impression is indicative of where he’s taking Thor, it’s a great omen. Fraction’s nerdy world-juggling isn’t gratuitous; he’s setting up the idea that the post-Civil War-and-Siege Asgard (which now sits as a crippled city in the plains of Oklahoma) has left a vacuum in the cosmos that needs to be filled. That metaphysical void doesn’t last long, of course; the subsequent invasion by a chilling new threat is underscored by Thor’s mournful rumination following the death of his former childhood friend, the villainous Loki. Veering from the elevated language of Norse sagas to sheer verbal slapstick, Fraction infuses his Asgard with the same splendor he did Iron Fist’s K’un L’un—and artists Pasqual Ferry and Matt Hollingsworth add a hazy, halo-like sheen to the story that breathtakingly (though stiffly) captures Thor’s mythic essence. Less successful is Valkyrie #1 (Marvel), the first in a series of Thor-related one-shots scheduled for the coming weeks. The Marvel Universe debut of writer Bryan J.L. Glass—whose work on Mice Templar shows he knows how to approach fantasy from a fresh angle—tries to flesh out the Secret Avenger and Norse demi-goddess Brunnhilde. The operative word being flesh: While recovering her submerged identity and lapsing into action-killing flashbacks, Brunnhilde spends half the story with her suit-jacket ripped open. Phil Winslade’s art is so bland, though, that it’s nowhere near as titillating as intended. And Glass’ oversimplified idea of women’s lib—that is, a strong, female warrior kicking the shit out of a one-dimensional woman-hater (played here by the stock villain Piledriver)—is more boring than empowering… Thor #615: B+; Valkyrie #1: C-

Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four tenure has done wonders in re-establishing the team’s roots as a family of adventurers, but Fantastic Four #583 (Marvel), the first issue of a new storyline, feels less grounded. The Three arc (the title insinuates that one of the Fantastic Four isn’t going to survive it) is off to a momentous but rushed start, with young Valeria Richards making a secret deal with a recently brain-damaged Victor Von Doom to save her father. Meanwhile, Reed and crew defend Earth from the risen minions of The High Evolutionary, and The Silver Surfer shares a stunning splash page with the corpse of Galactus. The buildup is here, and Valeria in particular continues to be a fascinating character in Hickman’s hands. But Hickman has too many balls in the air, and the issue feels like more like a placeholder than the kickoff of something big. And while veteran penciler Steve Epting ably marks his FF debut with a dynamic, immaculately polished showing, it’s not enough to get Three off first base… B

Brian Michael Bendis has been tweeting that Powers #6 (Icon), the first installment of a new story arc, is the “perfect hopping-on point” for the series. While he’s given to excessive self-promotion, he’s actually right this time. In spite of the rich, at times convoluted mythology that he’s built up around the superpowered Detective Christian Walker over the past few years, Bendis cuts to the chase and jumps headfirst into a tumultuous new mystery that involves the murder of one of the godlike Golden Ones, a crime with religious, society-shaking ramifications. Bendis’ dialogue is at its dense, snappy best, and Michael Avon Oeming’s pliable, eye-popping layouts—including a two-page homage to Steve Ditko’s M.C. Escher-on-acid panoramas from Dr. Strange—are note-perfect. Capping it off is a simultaneously funny, tender, ass-kicking battle involving Walker and his young sidekick-in-training, Calista, not to mention the dramatic return of a sorely missed former partner… A-

2010 has been a banner year for big, glossy, gorgeous books celebrating the lives and work of Golden and Silver Age comics artists. Cross Carmine Infantino off the list: With the publication of Carmine Infantino: Penciler, Publisher, Provocateur (TwoMorrows Press), the definitive book on his career has been written. Infantino has been in danger of being forgotten by the current generation of comics fans, although his influence is vast; while his art is still largely a love-it-or-leave-it proposition, he pioneered a lot of visual tropes—including action poses, speed lines, and stark, minimalist backgrounds—that became standard operating procedure in comics. The book also has an advantage over many of its peers in that Infantino is still alive to interview, and most of it consists of a long, broad, deep conversation between the reclusive artist and ex-DC boss and comics historian Jim Amash. Infantino’s anecdotes are a bit self-aggrandizing, but they’re also frequently a joy to read… B+

Another Silver Age artist fully deserving the deluxe career retrospective is Neal Adams, whose expressive faces and sophisticated design helped usher in a new era in comics. Unfortunately, The Art Of Neal Adams (Vanguard) isn’t quite it. While there’s plenty of annotation by the man himself, there’s almost no biographical information, as the book focuses squarely on the art. Not that this is a bad thing. His art, after all, is terrific. But copyright issues keep much of his most famous work out of the book, which instead features a lot of his commercial work, professional design, and advertising illustration. All of which, of course, is good, but not as satisfying as Adams’ maximum Batman and Green Arrow action. It’s no slight on Adams (who oversaw the project) that he wants to show off his admirable diversity and skill, but the resultant book is disappointing… B-

With each passing year, Bill Griffith’s venerable comic strip Zippy The Pinhead gets weirder, moving away from direct social commentary and toward a more abstract expression of Griffith’s worldview. The latest Zippy collection, Ding Dong Daddy From Dingburg (Fantagraphics), is dominated by a long tour through a town run by pinheads—an absurdist spin on consumer utopia that rivals Superman comics’ Bizarro World for its down-is-up jargon and attitudes. The joke? That this is more or less the America of the early 21st century, where the buzzwords of a failing economy and a pseudo-sophisticated popular culture have fused to give us “toxic frozen assets” and “hedge fund nutro-pellets.” The problem with this joke? It lacks the prescience and insight of vintage Zippy, and seems more like an especially blunt, despairing report from the front lines. (Then again, is it Griffith’s fault that modern life now so closely resembles the Zippy strips of two decades ago?) Ding Dong Daddy also contains some funny one-off strips, some of which are in color; another of Griffith’s occasional series on the eerie regality of roadside signs; and the surreal adventures of Little Zippy. Griffith hasn’t lost his imagination, it’s just that his bile seems a little more perfunctory these days… B

In the vast population of kiddie-comic sidekicks, few top Tubby. As written and drawn by John Stanley especially, Little Lulu’s portly pal is a superb comic creation: an inveterate bumbler and dissembler who gets embroiled in all manner of wild adventures—some of them only in his own head—and then works his way out through a combination of guile and dumb luck. Little Lulu’s Pal Tubby: The Castaway And Other Stories (Dark Horse) collects four full issues of Four Color Comics and Tubby’s own title, each featuring lengthy stories in which Tubby gets tangled up with pirates, is mistaken for a midget bank robber, tracks a lion, meets space aliens, invents a chemical that makes him irresistible, and confounds some grotesquely cartoonish Native Americans. The stories are delightfully inventive, guided by Stanley’s usual method of backing his characters into a corner and then coming up with the most improbable exit. Stanley’s knack for visual comedy is on full display, particularly in his use of silent panels where the characters pause before doing something nutty. If Dark Horse’s packaging was as keen as the comics within, this would be one of the year’s most essential vintage-comics releases. But as with the company’s recent Little Lulu books, The Castaway looks atrocious. The source material is hardly pristine in its sharpness and color separation, but the plethora of recent kiddie-comic anthologies have proven that it’s possible to maintain the original’s imperfections without sacrificing readability. For example: The John Stanley Library: Tubby (Drawn And Quarterly), which also collects four issues’ worth of Tubby comics, is every bit as funny and energetic as the Dark Horse book. (Just for the panel where a magician refers to Tubby as “this egg-shaped little boy,” this volume is priceless.) But the image quality in D&Q’s collection is so much cleaner, even though the original comics were no less cheaply produced. The Castaway only roughly approximates what it’s like to read a Tubby comic; The John Stanley Library is the real deal. Little Lulu’s Pal Tubby: B; The John Stanley Library: A-