Reviews of recent superhero comics include Happy!, Guarding The Globe, and Ghost

Reviews of recent superhero comics include Happy!, Guarding The Globe, and Ghost

In September, artist Cathy Leamy posted “Edgy Comics Bingo” on her Tumblr, and it’s very likely that by the end of the new Image miniseries Happy!, Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson’s newest will fill out every square on Leamy’s card. Happy! #1 (Image) is a vulgar, violent Christmas story about an assassin on the run from the mob, whose sole accomplice is a flying blue horse that only he can see. Yet while there’s plenty of gratuitous sex, violence, and profanity, this is actually reader-friendly Morrison, with considerably less mindfuckery than his usual work. Sure, there’s an image of a man in a cockroach suit getting shot in the head while being fellated by a woman in an angel costume, but at least its not an actual cockroach. What’s most notable about this title is that it’s Morrison’s first at Image, showing how top-tier comics creators have begun to move away from Marvel and DC in favor of Image’s more creator-friendly business model. 

Five years ago, Happy! probably would have been published at Vertigo, but now creators are taking their ideas to Image, where they’re guaranteed no editorial interference. That model has resulted in some incredible creator-owned titles over the past few years, and Happy! is just the latest example of two artists thriving when given complete freedom. Morrison’s story begins with sex, violence, and profanity to establish that this is a gritty, very adult world, amplifying the WTF factor when the airborne equine appears. Happy the Horse is the imaginary friend of an abducted little girl named Hailey (who was most likely taken by the creepy Santa at the start of the issue), and he needs the help of antihero Nick Sax to save Hailey’s life. It’s a tense, exhilarating start to the miniseries, and there’s no way to predict where Morrison will take the story next.

Darick Robertson’s artwork becomes more detailed and atmospheric with each new project, and the dirtiness of his pencils immediately establishes that Happy! is going to be anything but. Robertson became an expert at depicting dilapidated environments in Transmetropolitan and he utilizes that talent in creating Morrison’s world, only now his linework is even sharper. The added specificity works with Morrison’s script to bring a sense of reality to the issue’s early events—a reality that’s shattered when a Looney Tunes reject appears on the page. 

Robert Kirkman has built an expansive superhuman world in the pages of Invincible, and after penning the most recent Guarding The Globe miniseries, Kirkman hands over the reins of these characters for a new ongoing series. It’s a wise decision, as writer Phil Hester and artist Todd Nauck craft one of the most enjoyable first issues of the year with Guarding The Globe #1. Considering how massive this book’s cast is (the cover features 17 characters, and that’s not even everybody), Hester does a phenomenal job introducing the members without delving into too much exposition. Rather, he dives into the action, giving readers the opportunity to get to know the characters by watching how they act in and out of combat. Downtime is a major thing missing from the superhero-team titles of Marvel and DC, and showing the Guardians of the Globe when they’re not on duty makes them immediately more relatable. 

There are two scenes in particular that stand out for their emotional impact, both involving aging super-soldier Brit. The first is when Brit and his wife learn that their son is showing early signs of autism, followed by a touching scene where Brit plays catch with newly robotic Donald, who is having trouble adjusting to his life as a machine after losing his physical body in the field. These personal moments make these superheroes human, and Hester’s focus on character relationships in the first issue suggests good things for the future of this title. Todd Nauck’s artwork fits well with the visual aesthetic developed for these characters by Invincible artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, with a heavy cartoon influence that emphasizes the fun of the story even when the subject matter ventures into more serious territory. If that isn’t enough, there’s a smoking French bulldog named Le Bruiser and small Japanese robot girl named Japandroid to cement this book as a must-buy.

Christy Marx created Jem And The Holograms in 1985, and her script for the Amethyst segment of Sword Of Sorcery #0 plays very much like an ’80s Saturday morning cartoon, only with more attempted gang rape. Her high-school dialogue wouldn’t fly on an episode of Saved By The Bell, let alone a contemporary superhero comic book, and her generic fantasy plot is completely uninspiring. Amy is a high-school outcast (she has so many colors in her hair!) who is actually the exiled princess of a fantasy land called Gemworld, living in a trailer with her diner-waitress mother who trains her in sword-fighting after dinner. Amy doesn’t find it at all odd that her mother insists on her being trained in armed combat, instead lamenting how much of a freak she is when she’s criticized during sparring. That’s when Amy runs off to her school, where she saves her friend from being gang-raped behind the bleachers by the football team. 

Amethyst is one of DC’s most kid-friendly properties, yet the publisher thinks it would be a good idea to include a tasteless sexual-assault scene for added dramatic effect. When Amy shows up to stop the attack, one of the men actually comes after her and says, “I’d tap her.” It might be excusable if the execution weren’t so horrible, but Marx isn’t able to make the situation seem like anything other than a cheap ploy to make Amy look heroic. It’s a shame that the writing of the Amethyst portion is so weak, because everything else about Sword Of Sorcery is a success. Aaron Lopresti is producing the best artwork of his career on this title, with lush visuals that almost make up for the drab story. He’s a very clean artist, and his art has a shine to it that is appropriate for a story set in a place called Gemworld. 

The back-up story in this title is a reimagining of Beowulf by Tony Bedard and Jesus Saiz, serving as an intense introduction to a new science-fiction version of the classic hero. In this story, Beowulf is a technologically enhanced warrior who is awoken from stasis by Hrothgar’s scouts, who seek his help in taking down the monstrous Grendel. With a captivating concept and eye-popping artwork from Saiz, it’s much stronger than the Amethyst feature and half the length. It’s unclear what Beowulf’s story is here, but unlike Amethyst, this first installment actually leaves the reader wanting more. Without a major creative change, it’s unlikely that Amethyst will suddenly see a huge upswing in quality, but devoting more pages to the Beowulf story is the best way for DC to keep people buying this title.

For the past 60 years, the Phantom Stranger has been an enigma, a shadowy presence that lurks around the edges of the DC Universe without a name or history. One year into DC’s New 52, the character makes his debut in the new continuity with an explicit origin story, and it’s a doozy: He’s Judas. The Judas, who betrayed the son of God for 30 pieces of silver, silver coins he now wears around his neck as reminder of his past sins. Phantom Stranger’s robe? Worn by Jesus the day he was crucified, and now it gives its wearer supernatural powers. The names Jesus and Judas aren’t explicitly stated, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. Dan Didio’s plot for Phantom Stranger #0 (DC) is one of the most bizarre developments of the New 52, giving the classic DC character a biblical connection for no real reason. 

After a verbose opening sequence outlining Judas’ Phantom Stranger’s origin, the story jumps to the present for a haphazard introduction of the Spectre, speeding through events to guarantee they have no emotional resonance. After awakening the Spectre, Phantom Stranger learns that for each good deed he commits, one silver piece will fall off his costume. So what was he doing for the past 2,000 or so years? Completely avoiding any good deeds? This series is a combination of bad decisions, including Scott Hanna as an inker for Brent Anderson’s art. The crosshatched roughness of Anderson’s pencils makes him an ideal pick for a title with a horror pedigree (just look at the cover), but Scott Hanna’s smooth inks eliminate any sense of atmosphere from Anderson’s linework.  

Spinning out of Scott Snyder’s Batman and the “Night Of The Owls” crossover, Talon #0 (DC) follows an ex-assassin for the Court of Owls who is trying to escape his past. Snyder co-plots the new series with James Tynion IV, who tackles scripting duties, introducing a hero that has no connection to the previous DC continuity. Talon is the very first title of the New 52 to feature a brand-new character, which is a step in the right direction for DC. The New 52 has primarily featured rehashed versions of old characters, so it’s nice to see some effort put into creating something original. Well, maybe not completely original, considering Calvin Rose is a mix of various Batman characters. 

With the abusive parents of Jason Todd, the circus training of Dick Grayson, and the moral code of Bruce Wayne, Calvin Rose is an amalgam, but Snyder and Tynion IV make him an amalgam worth caring about in this first issue. It reads very much like an issue of Snyder’s Batman, overlapping narration with action to create an issue that is dense with story yet still moves at a brisk pace. Artist Guillem March has gotten a lot of criticism for his over-sexualized, anatomically questionable artwork in Catwoman, but his pencils for Talon are an aggressive proclamation of his talent. His character designs are varied, the anatomy is under control, and he shifts seamlessly from moody horror to dynamic action. Talon #0 does exactly what a first issue should do, introducing the character and concept with confident writing and clear artwork, and building a lot of good faith for the rest of the series. 

Marvel’s adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series have been some of the strongest all-ages reads on the shelves, and Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s Eisner Award-winning run continues with Road To Oz #1 (Marvel). The book has a bit of a slower start than the stories that preceded it, focusing on the cyclical conversations of Dorothy and the Shaggy Man as they roam a sunny, pastoral landscape. Shanower’s script is ever-faithful to Baum’s text, for better or worse, but Young’s art continues to be the main selling point. His linework has a classic Disney brightness with a Tim Burton-esque weirdness around the edges, creating a vision of Oz and its inhabitants that is welcoming yet foreign. Jean-François Beaulieu’s colors are not only beautiful, they play an essential storytelling purpose, with the palette changing from cool, natural blues and greens to warm reds, oranges, and purples when Dorothy, Toto, and the Shaggy Man take the road that leads to a fantasy world. There is one flaw that has been persistent throughout this series, and that is the endings of the single-issue chapters. Because these stories are collected without issue breaks, the singles tend to end on an underwhelming note, like the small panel of a fox soldier telling Button-Bright that he will escort them to the Royal Palace of Foxville. Ending the issues on a more dramatic image would help elevate interest for the next chapter.

One of September’s strongest #0 issues doesn’t come from DC, with Kelly Sue DeConnick and Phil Noto’s reviving Dark Horse’s spectral superheroine in Ghost #0 (Dark Horse). Collecting short stories originally published in Dark Horse Presents, this prologue to an upcoming miniseries features an intriguing concept and striking art, creating an introduction that gives all the characters ample room to grow. Vaughn Barnes and Tommy Byers, the creative minds behind ghost-hunting TV show Phantom Finders, suddenly find themselves in the midst of an actual supernatural event when they activate a device that summons a gorgeous woman clad all in white. When the silent but deadly female murders a thug hassling them for the device, the book takes a quick turn into more serious territory, with Vaughn, Tommy, and their new companion setting out on a mission to solve the mystery of Ghost’s identity and make amends for bringing her back from the afterlife. Noto, who is quickly becoming one of the busiest artists in comics, is a great fit for DeConnick’s script. He captures the alluring beauty of the title character, and the softness of her features makes it all the more chilling when Ghost reaches into a man’s chest and pulls out his heart. DeConnick has done great work putting Carol Danvers in the spotlight in Marvel’s Captain Marvel, and with Ghost, she’s becoming a go-to creator for bringing lost superheroines back to prominence. 

The Simpsons’ “Treehouse Of Horror” television episodes have devolved into vaguely horror-related pop-culture riffs, but the annual comic book has been a consistently strong showcase of talent. The Simpsons’ Treehouse Of Horror: 48-Page Chill-Tacular #18 (Bongo) features four short stories: A Cabin In The Woods parody by Reed Gunther creators Shane and Chris Houghton; “Margemary’s Baby” by The Infinite Horizon’s team of Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto; a Bartman tale courtesy of Chris Yambar and Tone Rodriguez; and a conversation in Moe’s Tavern by Image co-founder Jim Valentino with assistance from Shannon Wheeler. The stories are presented in declining order of quality, beginning with the Houghton brothers’ clever story, which shows a firm understanding of the Simpsons’ individual personalities and features expressive, fluid artwork. Phil Noto’s visuals are the highlight of his and Duggan’s take on Rosemary’s Baby, interpreting the signature Simpsons style through a monochromatic, ’60s pop-art filter. The Bartman story is charming, though forgettable, and Jim Valentino’s final story is the weakest of the bunch, featuring the patrons of Moe’s Tavern recounting an old horror film from their individually unreliable memories. The concept is solid, but the pacing is uneven and the jokes fall flat. Yet the best gag of the issue doesn’t happen in any of the stories, but in the backmatter: an image of Ralph wearing an Alien facehugger costume, holding a sign that says “Free Face Hugs!”