Welcome to The A.V. Club’s roundup of the latest in superhero and mainstream comics. Warning: There will be spoilers.
No matter how temporary the Human Torch’s death may be, there’s no denying its impact on Marvel’s first family after the emotional devastation of Fantastic Four #588 (Marvel). Jonathan Hickman’s run has been characterized by an emphasis on exploration, and with this issue’s main story, “Month Of Mourning,” Hickman takes his characters to new depths of despair as they struggle with Johnny Storm’s sacrifice. Despite the story’s almost complete lack of text, Nick Dragotta’s artwork is anything but silent, portraying the characters’ heightened emotional states in the exaggerated style of their creator, Jack Kirby. The contrast of the dynamic poses and bold linework with the somber subject matter takes the inner drama that follows personal loss and puts it on the surface as the characters’ spectacular abilities become their coping mechanisms: Sue Storm retreats into an invisible bubble, Ben Grimm clobbers Hulk and Thor, and Reed Richards stretches himself thin dealing with the ever-growing list of threats against Earth.
This “final issue” of Fantastic Four sets up this month’s FF #1, with the team rebranding itself “Future Foundation” and adding Spider-Man to the lineup. The transition feels natural after the last two years of Hickman stories, as the focus has shifted from the core four characters to the larger brood that has taken up residence in the Baxter Building. Hickman’s vision has been about expansion, and just as he revamped classic Lee/Kirby concepts with the Four Cities, he’s transformed the group from a superhero team into a tribe that speaks for all humanity (with a few hyper-evolved Moloids, mutants, and a Dragon Man thrown in). Valeria Richards has become one of the book’s most captivating characters, brokering power deals with Victor Von Doom and generally working her own secret agenda, and the developments of #588 take her to new levels of badassery. It will be interesting to see how her plot to kill Annihilus will pan out, especially after the scene where Annihilus flaunts Johnny’s tattered costume to an Ultimate Nullifier-wielding Reed. The lack of text leaves the scene’s details ambiguous, but Dragotta’s child Annihilus is incredibly creepy, and the contrast between the character’s size and power is similar to that of Reed’s own children.
In the Mark Brooks-illustrated back-up story, “Uncles,” Spider-Man cheers up a depressed Franklin Richards with a web-sling through the city and a rooftop hot dog date. Harboring guilt over not saving his uncle Johnny, Franklin shares his secret with Spider-Man, who consoles him by sharing his own origin story. After the heightened isolation of the main story, “Uncles” shows why Hickman’s run has been so successful, portraying an honest, emotional moment about the power of family in the midst of spectacular crisis. These may be the dark times, but FF looks to be a bright new day for Marvel’s flagship family, and not just because of the white costumes.
Bruce Wayne is back, but DC has thankfully decided to keep Dick Grayson as Batman in Gotham City, completing his evolution from Boy Wonder to Caped Crusader. Detective Comics has become a spotlight for Dick’s solo adventures with an ongoing subplot surrounding Jim Gordon. Scott Snyder, with rotating artists Jock and Francisco Francavilla, has solidified the title as the place for serious crime fiction in the Bat-universe. The back-up story from Snyder’s first two issues concludes in Detective Comics #874 (DC), as Jim’s son James Gordon, Jr. returns to Gotham City to confess to his father that he is a psychopath, but on some experimental drugs so he can get a job working for Leslie Thompkins. Nothing can go wrong there, right? Meanwhile, Red Robin worries that Dick’s exposure to fear gas during the last arc will get in the way of their crime-fighting, a concern that seems legitimate when Dick begins hallucinating a killer whale screaming “Eat you up, Dickie!!!”
Francavilla’s artwork is especially impressive considering he does triple duty on pencils, inks, and colors, and this issue allows him to show off his extensive skills. The talking heads sequence at the start of this issue is incredibly tense, with Snyder and Francavilla transforming a growing puddle of water into a harbinger of doom. When the action switches to Batman and Red Robin, Francavilla turns out some breathtaking double-page spreads of the pair in action, and the severe contrast of orange and blue hues intensifies the shadow-heavy artwork and reinforces the tone of Snyder’s script.
Grant Morrison made the relationship between Dick Grayson and Damian “Robin” Wayne a bigger selling point for Batman And Robin than the high-concept storylines, and their exploits as the Dynamic Duo continue in Batman And Robin #20 (DC). The Green Lantern Corps team of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason kick off their run with one of the best moments in recent Bat-history, as Bruce gets all the boys together for a family screening of The Mark Of Zorro. Seeing the group relax together is a nice change of pace, and Tomasi writes great banter that shows the characters’ comfort around each other. Whereas Bruce served as more of a father figure to his Robins, Dick takes on an older brother role with Damian, setting rules for him based on how Bruce Wayne treated Dick as a sidekick.
When an angel-winged dead man crashes onto the red carpet of an opera opening, Dick and Damian begin an investigation that gets interrupted by Man-Bat and a wave of luminescent bats, exquisitely illustrated by Gleason. Turning in the best work of his career, Gleason’s attention to body language (just look at the panel of the boys sitting in front of the television) and intricately detailed pencils call to mind a combination of previous Batman And Robin artists Frank Quitely and Andy Clarke. The two-page spread of Man-Bat attacking is an incredibly dynamic image, and Alex Sinclair’s vibrant coloring makes the rush of glowing bats a truly stunning visual. Gleason is equally skilled at capturing the smaller moments of Tomasi’s script, like Alfred tying Dick’s bowtie while driving and Jim Gordon manhandling Damian after he gets flippant around a dead body, and their creative chemistry helps return this title to Morrison levels of greatness.
An ensemble drama that requires no previous reading, has nary a costume in sight, and features a female-heavy cast, Morning Glories accomplishes the rare task of appealing to a wide teenage audience without sacrificing maturity in storytelling. With Morning Glories Vol. 1: For A Better Future (Image), writer Nick Spencer and penciller Joe Eisma have developed a cast of believable characters that are faced with a problem almost every teenager will encounter at some point: high school. A cross between Sunnydale High and The Village (McGoohan, not Shyamalan), the book’s sinister Morning Glory Academy becomes a metaphor for the pubescent experience, isolating new students from their parents and literally drowning them on their first day of school. And while the characters’ emotional struggles will bring in younger readers, the book’s overarching mystery is what will keep adults anticipating more.
Morning Glories was initially described as “Runaways meets Lost,” an apt comparison as it is probably the best teen comic since Brian K. Vaughan’s adolescent epic. Lost’s fringe sci-fi elements and storytelling techniques form a large part of Spencer’s script, but he moves the plot as a brisker pace, making the danger seem more immediate. The story succeeds because Spencer writes teenage characters that are intelligent, but still vulnerable to their raging emotions. All the feelings that come with starting at a new school are heightened exponentially by the school’s willingness to murder its students if they don’t produce desired results. The character types are familiar—spoiled heartbreaker, emo wallflower, badass loner, etc.—but these characters are more than their surface stereotypes. The first arc spotlights Casey, the blonde bombshell/physics buff who gets hit hardest by the Academy’s lethal persuasion tactics. When she devises a plan to rescue classmate Jade from the nurse, Casey uses the opposition’s expectations against them, and the illusion of helplessness leads her to success.
The looseness of Eisma’s art suits the youth of the characters, and he really impresses during the action sequences, capturing the brutality of the violence that goes down within the Morning Glory walls. While the faces and anatomy could be sharper at times, his art improves with every issue, expanding on background details and experimenting with camera angles to find more dynamic ways to tell Spencer’s story. This volume’s cliffhanger promises that things aren’t going to get any easier for the students, and there are a lot of questions that go unanswered in these first six issues, but Spencer lays out enough clues to inspire confidence that there will be some sort of logical payoff at the end of all the torture.
What defines a man’s life? By killing Brás de Oliva Domingos at the end of almost every chapter, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s Daytripper (Vertigo) determines that life isn’t defined by its duration, but by the passion with which it is lived. Dealing with fathers and sons, husbands and wives, best friends and worst fears, Daytripper is ultimately a story about love, and brothers Moon and Bá craft Brás’ character through his relationships. The non-linear plot structure allows them to show how these relationships change from Brás’ childhood to his senior years, and gaps in time are wisely used to bring suspense and drama to the down-to-earth proceedings. Despite each issue being self-contained, Moon and Bá set up thematic transitions between the stories that bring cohesion to the plot, with Brás’ death on the day he first sees his future wife followed by his death at their son’s birth then flashing back to his death as a 5-year-old boy, and so on. The inevitability of each chapter’s conclusion blankets each story in tragedy from the start, but the ways that Moon and Bá find the joy and beauty in life with death only pages away is what makes Daytripper such a moving read.
Moon handles most of the artwork for the book with Bá contributing dream sequences and covers, and their visuals enhance the lyricism of the script with beautifully lush landscapes and crowded city streets that depict the abundance of life no matter the environment. Moon’s work is characterized by strict attention to detail and realistic character models and surroundings, making him a perfect fit for the grounded story, while Bá’s abstract pencils provide an element of magical realism that fits the poetry of the narration. The recurring visual motifs of kites, water, and roots symbolize life, death, and family, respectively, and reveal the level of thought that has gone into each panel of Daytripper. The nature scenes are particularly stunning, and Dave Stewart’s rich colors instill warmth in these moments that eventually give way to the cool blue of death. Red is used sparingly, giving extra significance to the moments when the color appears (usually in blood), and rather than hammer in the emptiness of death with black, a soft color palette emphasizes the vitality of life. The brothers’ emotional storytelling in both writing and art is spot-on, and each chapter has a specific emotional anchor that details the moment’s importance for Brás. Beginning with a 32-year-old Brás whoresents his father for ignoring him, Daytripper ends with Brás achieving the spiritual contentment of a life fully lived.
Following the death of Marla Jameson two issues ago, Amazing Spider-Man #655 (Marvel) journeys into Peter Parker’s subconscious as he struggles with his feelings of guilt and contemplates the lethal methods of Wolverine and Punisher as an alternative to legal justice. Marcos Martin returns to the title to illustrate Dan Slott’s script, and this issue is a visual tour-de-force. The preparations and ceremony for Marla’s funeral at the start of the issue are completely silent, and like this month’s Fantastic Four, the absence of text gives the striking images even stronger resonance. Martin takes his Ditko influence to the extreme for the issue’s dream sequence, and his inventive layouts enhance the mercurial quality of the nightmare. This isn’t the first time Spider-Man has had a crisis of conscience and it probably won’t be the last, but it’s important to check in with the character’s core values and have him evaluate his life from time to time, especially after all the deaths since the “Brand New Day” revamp. Slott used to write Batman Adventures for DC, and this issue evokes that character, with Spider-Man taking an oath at the end vowing that however long he’s around, “No one dies!” Of course, that segues into the introduction of new villain Massacre, who likes to shoot people just because, so good luck with that one, Spidey.
The Legion creative team responsible for the classic “Great Darkness Saga” (recently reprinted in a snazzy deluxe hardcover), Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen reunite for Legion Of Super-Heroes Annual #1 (DC), featuring the return of classic villain Emerald Empress and the Emerald Eye Of Ekron. Considering the huge cast of characters the two worked with for “Great Darkness,” the small team amassed for this issue is a letdown, particularly because it would have been a treat to see Giffen depict the entire team’s roster in his current style. Levitz’s recent writing on Legion hasn’t been anything groundbreaking, and the Emerald Empress’ dialogue, which obnoxiously substitutes “eye” for “I,” is a chore to read. But Giffen’s artwork is this book’s main draw. It’s a rare treat to see him on art duties, and digital coloring adds new depth to his pencils while Kirby krackle and exaggerated figures give the art a throwback quality similar to his partner’s writing.
Another day, another X-crossover, as “Age Of X” begins in X-Men Legacy #245 (Marvel) and New Mutants #22 (Marvel), revealing an alternate universe where the X-Men never formed and mutants are illegal. The set-up is familiar, but Mike Carey forgoes the exposition in favor of showing redesigned characters hitting things, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Carey’s work on Rogue is probably his most notable contribution to the X-mythos, and it’s no surprise that she takes center stage in “Age Of X,” investigating the mystery of what lies outside the walls of Fortress X and the truth behind their reality. Clay Mann’s redesigns are stellar across the board, and his Legacy pencils have the look of a looser Olivier Coipel, while Steve Kurth interprets the characters in a more realistic style to reflect New Mutants’ shift to a more personal focus. Like most alternate reality stories, the events don’t necessarily feel consequential, but Carey drops hints that “Age Of X” may have more ties to the 616 than originally anticipated.
Two of Vertigo’s best books saw collections in February, with Brian Wood’s DMZ Vol. 9: M.I.A. setting up the book’s closing act leading up to next year’s final issue #72, and Jason Aaron’s Scalped Vol. 7: Rez Blues bringing the events on the Rez ever closer to boiling point. These collections both illustrate the strengths of their individual series: DMZ brings the focus back to Matty Roth’s internal struggle and evolution after the epic scope of the Parco Nation issues, while Scalped continues to be one of the best ensemble dramas on the stands. The artistic talent in these books is astounding, and DMZ features a slew of big names for its 50th issue, while Vertigo go-to Danijel Zezelj tackles Scalped for the first time on a surprisingly optimistic standalone story. It will be a sad day when these titles conclude, but these collections show that the creators have no intention of slowing down as they race to the finish.