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September 24, 2009

Did we need another version of Superman’s early years, what with Mark Waid and Lenil Yu’s Superman Birthright in the not-so-distant past, and Smallville still somehow on the air? Maybe not, but the first issue of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origin (DC) makes that easy to forget. Serving a practical purpose, Secret Origin reworks Superman’s early days to fit the new post-Infinite Crisis continuity. But it still finds a story worth telling in Clark Kent’s days as an angst-plagued teen struggling with his new, unpredictable powers. As the new Adventure Comics confirms, Johns has a gift for windswept, heartfelt Smallville stories, and his script is served well by Frank’s tendency to make characters look simultaneously heroic and neurotic… B+

Chris Onstad self-published several anthologies of his popular webcomic Achewood before jumping to Dark Horse for the single-storyline collection The Great Outdoor Fight. Onstad’s second Dark Horse book, Worst Song, Played On Ugliest Guitar, reprints a lot of the early Achewood strips that Onstad already self-published, adding strip-by-strip commentary and a partial history of Achewood’s fictional universe. Frankly, the book tries to do too much; between Onstad’s strip-titles, his reproduction of each online strip’s alt-text, and his often-negligible comments, the pages are needlessly cluttered, and the history, while impressively detailed, isn’t as entertaining as the now-abandoned Achewood character blogs. That said, the actual comics in Worst Song are some of Achewood’s funniest, taken from an era when Onstad was figuring out the tone and style of the strip, and doing more gags based on sheer whimsy or clever turns of phrase. Later the characters would come into focus more, and Onstad would let his imagination run wild on extended narratives both hilarious and bizarre. Here, he’s just drawing what makes him laugh, and keeping his rendering loose enough that the jokes survive the process… A-

Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson have previously teamed up for some short stories about pets who double as a neighborhood’s best defense against supernatural threats. (Samples are here.) Beasts Of Burden (Dark Horse) gives the scamps their own series, and the first issue features wisecracking animals and a fight with a giant frog. Dorkin’s script captures the well-meaning, dopey sentiments we attribute to our dogs and cats’ thoughts, and Thompson’s art finds a middle ground between storybook sweetness and EC Comics chills. It’s a lot of fun, and ideal for kids who don’t mind a little gore and ghosts with their adorable animals… B+

Marvel’s Ultimate Universe line occasionally feels like a greatest-hits-revisited project, a criticism reinforced by the new miniseries Ultimate Armor Wars (Marvel), an alternate take on a famous ’80s storyline that found Tony Stark’s Iron Man doing battle with the enemies who ripped off his technology. Still, there’s something to be said for greatest hits, especially when this new version features a script by Warren Ellis—who had a great but too-short run on Iron Man in the proper Marvel Universe a few years ago—and an alternate-universe Stark who remains an unreconstructed drunk. This could be both familiar and fun… B

Say what you will about his talents as a filmmaker; Kevin Smith definitely has his own distinct voice, which mixes pop-culture nods with a curious blend of vulgarity and sloppy sentiment. That’s always been a problem on the comic-book page, where his sensibilities never quite mesh with the square-jawed Spandex set he’s scripting. So Smith’s newest, Batman: The Widening Gyre #1 (DC) at least represents a step up from some of his earlier projects; Batman’s narration boxes pop up in nearly every panel, and for the most part, they read true to the character. The other guest spots in the book—Nightwing, Alfred, the Joker—are passable (Nightwing gets the lion’s share of bad references), with only Poison Ivy’s annoyingly literal attempts at seduction really killing the mood. Get past the toned-down tics, and it’s a mildly interesting story about the Great Detective facing off against old foes, leading to Arkham Asylum once again in danger from dark forces, and an assist from a mysterious new ally. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t exactly gripping, either. Stripping Smith of his obsessions may have made his work more palatable, but the gory result feels so old hat at this point that it doesn’t seem worth the effort… C+

During Brian Michael Bendis’ tenure at Marvel, he’s rescued a lot of underused characters from oblivion, none more successfully than Spider-Woman, who went from fourth-tier punchline to a complex character whose desire to do good often gets thwarted by a past littered with conflicting allegiances. The new ongoing series Spider-Woman (Marvel) gives her a title all her own, penned by Bendis with art by Alex Maleev, his collaborator on Alias. If there’s a problem with the title so far, it’s that it reads a bit like Alias redux, only with a tortured protagonist using investigative skills to track down aliens in exotic locales, rather than Jessica Jones’ close-to-the-streets adventures. Still, Maleev’s washed-out noir art and Bendis’ superheroine-as-hardboiled detective remains a formidable combination, making this a must-read (and far preferable to the motion-comic version that debuted before the print release)… B+

In the early years of the seminal art-comics anthology RAW, editor Art Spiegelman filled a few pages in each issue with the elliptical stories of Jerry Moriarty, a fine artist who drew thick-lined, woodcut-like strips about the mundane troubles and reveries of a dapper elderly man. Moriarty’s RAW works (and some related pieces) are now back in print in the oversized hardcover book The Complete Jack Survives (Buenaventura), a collection so significant that it warrants a preface from comics innovator Richard McGuire and an introduction from Chris Ware, the latter of whom writes, “As comic art reprints go, this may very well be the most important such book ever to appear.” That’s laying it on a little thick, but this is a well-packaged collection of some legitimately great comics, noteworthy for Moriarty’s simple evocation of small-town living and the way he wrings humor and poignancy out of arms falling asleep, or an unexpected nap, or how everyone in the neighborhood but our hero knows proper plumbing terminology… A-

As proof that it’s not the tale but how it’s told, Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld offers the 32-page shaggy-dog story The Gigantic Robot (Buenaventura), described on the back cover as “a wry fable concerning the production of an impressive secret weapon whose promise goes unfulfilled.” Which is, indeed, exactly what the book is about. Gauld draws page-sized panels of a robot being constructed, and on the facing pages, he writes short, wry text that describes the scene. It’s a funny, perfectly drawn little piece, and while it may not be worth the $17 list price (especially given that the book takes about a minute to read), The Gigantic Robot makes a nice addition to Gauld’s impressive oeuvre, and to the burgeoning genre of “children’s storybooks for adults”… B+

At a time when Italian directors and Hollywood hippies were transforming notions of the Western genre, DC Comics asked some of its top in-house talent to come up with their own versions of a Western hero to suit the times. The result was Bat Lash, a short-lived series about a foppish gunslinger who preferred flowers to firearms. Showcase Presents: Bat Lash (DC) collects all seven issues of Bat Lash, plus a few of the character’s appearances in other titles. Though the character is decidedly one-note, with his quick-draw, devil-may-care attitude and dandified tastes, the comics remain stunning just as pieces of commercial art. Penciler Nick Cardy did some of his best work on the title, using negative space and rounded panels to give the drawings a charmingly antiquated look that translates well to black-and-white reproduction. Meanwhile, plotter Sergio Aragonés and scripter Dennis O’Neil concocted fast-paced stories that moved Bat Lash from saloons to jails to horseback to trains, introducing him to a succession of pretty gals and their jealous, gun-toting suitors. Clichéd stuff, certainly, but as bright and dynamic as any comics of the era… B+

Picture an illustrator with an affinity for pre-Revolution France, the eternal battle between sin and innocence, and a more than a passing fancy for the macabre. Then imagine he gets dosed with some acid, slips into a fever dream that combines all his obsessions plus a healthy dose of philosophical soul-searching, and then, upon coming back down to earth, puts the whole thing into a beautifully detailed black-and-white comic. It’s hard to pin down what makes The Marquis: Inferno (Dark House), a collection of the first three arcs of Guy Davis’ ongoing series, such a compelling read. The story, about a nobleman tasked with destroying demons in a city run by the church, moves at a stolid, hypnotic pace—it’s more a fable than a traditional horror book, and the scripting revolves around discussions of faith that can border on monotonous. But Davis’ art is extraordinary, particularly in his conceptions of the damned; the grotesques the Marquis encounters in his hunt are inventive, unsettling, and squirm-inducing. At times, Inferno feels like a smaller part of a larger work, and apart from a revelation or two, there isn’t much resolution. But its grim wonders are not to be missed. It’s like a relic from a universe just a few steps off pace with our own… A-

The first part of The Brave And The Bold: Without Sin (DC), a collection of Brave And The Bold issues 17-22, is a routine programmer about Supergirl and Raven teaming up to fight a troubled young man whose daddy issues could wind up killing thousands. The story isn’t bad; writer Marv Wolfman captures both heroes convincingly, and their back-and-forth banter feels predictable but fun. The villain never really comes into focus, though, and Supergirl’s struggles with her past seem like the usual superhero angst. So it’s something of a shock that the second story in the volume, with Green Lantern and The Phantom Stranger facing down a planet-killing monster called the Purge, is so powerful. Doug Braithwaite’s art is gorgeously dreamlike, and the Purge makes for a dangerous threat, but in the relationship between a human doctor and a catatonic child, David Hine’s script really finds its soul. In what could’ve been a cliché, Hine manages to inspire deep feeling about the chance of redemption for a man who long ago gave himself up as damned. It’s a moving, surprisingly mature arc, in what could easily have been mistaken for just another throwaway team-up… A-

Remember that inventory we did last year, of unflattering moments in autobiographical comics? The entirety of Ken Dahl’s stomach-churning book Monsters (Secret Acres) could have fit nicely into that list. It’s a difficult, punishing read, just as it was clearly a difficult, punishing experience for Dahl, but his evocation of pain, horror, and self-loathing is nonetheless masterful. Dahl illustrates how he dismissed his ongoing problems with cold sores, until his girlfriend came down with vaginal herpes, and they both tested positive for the disease; from then on, he felt (and was occasionally treated) like a leper. Lacking health insurance or the money for expensive brand-name medicines, he shuffles through various stages of homeopathic and herbalist remedies while steeping in his own self-hatred—and occasionally earning it by drunkenly or selfishly putting uninformed partners at risk. Denial, desperation, and disgust weigh heavily on the book, which functions both as a detailed “So, you have herpes”-style STD informational pamphlet and a personal confessional in Jeffrey Brown mode. (Dahl’s art style finds a middle ground between Brown’s big-headed, awkward caricatures, the more fine-lined, detail-oriented work of Alex Robinson, and the loving grotesquerie of Basil Wolverton.) Dahl’s behavior and his angsty self-pity throughout the book can be frustrating, and the book’s narrow focus and repetitive obsession is exhausting, but there’s a deep fascination in the creative ways Dahl expresses his feelings, by turning his on-the-page avatar into a spiky, drippy bacteria, or showing him walking around after a particularly painful confrontation with his face pulped by a vengeful disease-god. And the story’s punchline is enough to send readers reeling… B