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Superhero And Mainstream Comics—late March and early April

Joe Casey returns to post-modern superheroics with Butcher Baker: The Righteous Maker #1 (Image), a new ongoing starring a crass, hypersexual Captain America-meets-Comedian type who’s pulled out of retirement by Dick Cheney and Jay Leno to blow up a prison full of supervillains. The book is gratuitous in nearly every way, but Casey and artist Mike Huddleston have crafted one of the best first issues of the year, a grindhouse superhero comic where nothing is off-limits. Between orgies and highway terrorism, Butcher monologues away on his truck’s radio, meditating on the circumstances of his creation, the nature of his superhero lifestyle, and the possibility that one great final act might make it all mean something. Having already deconstructed the epic sci-fi of Jack Kirby with Godland, Casey’s created the kind of hero that would have been right at home with the macho personalities of late-’70s Marvel, and Huddleston apes the visual style of those comics to match the script.

Huddleston has been a staple of the small-press scene for years now, and Butcher Baker could easily propel him to stardom. He showcases variety of visual styles for the different scenes of the script: When Baker messes with a cop on the highway, the cartoon elements are at Looney Tunes levels, whereas the conversation in Baker’s sex-pit/lair is grittier and more realistic. He employs color sparingly but significantly, using deep, vibrant hues that demand attention when they appear. The black-and-white traffic sequence is broken up by the red-and-blue stars-and-stripes paint job on Baker’s truck, and the final page is fully painted, making sure the book lands the finish. It’s visually diverse, but never disjointed, and the second issue is even better, as Casey introduces Baker’s rogues and delves deeper into the soul beneath his tough exterior.

As Powers prepares to make the leap to television, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s new creator-owned graphic novel Takio (Icon) showcases the team’s unique chemistry for an all-ages audience. When sisters Taki and Olivia are caught in an explosion at their friend Kelly Sue’s house, they are gifted with extraordinary powers of “kung fu telekinesis,” as 7-year-old Olivia likes to call them. The prospect of patrolling in colorful costumes excites Olivia, but her older sister has a more realistic view of the situation: conflicted over whether to tell their mother and confused over the fate of Kelly Sue and her evil father. The concept is much simpler than Bendis and Oeming’s superhero cop drama, but the skills the duo honed on Powers make Takio unlike other all-ages fare. Bendis’ signature banter is in full force, and while it may not always work in an Avengers fight scene, it’s perfect for two sisters bickering on the way to school. Oeming’s exaggerated style uses a less-controlled line that fits the youthful tone of the script, and as the girls become more comfortable with their powers, his layouts and camera angles become more dynamic.

More than anything else, it’s nice to see Marvel continuing to explore comics specifically for a younger audience. The original graphic novel format is ideal for projects like Takio, which might not survive long enough in single issues to keep the collections circulating in bookstores. Female leads of different races make this one of the more diverse books on the stands, but Takio’s gender-neutral storytelling should appeal to both sexes. Marvel’s all-ages offerings—like Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s ongoing Oz books and the sorely missed The Mighty Thor—have been stellar recently, and Takio introduces a model that should be incorporated more often if comic companies hope to gain new readers when they’re at their most impressionable.

Nick Spencer’s Jimmy Olsen #1 (DC) was originally serialized as back-up stories in Action Comics, getting through half of “Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week” before DC cut the back-ups to keep prices down. With artist R.B. Silva, Spencer has created a story that might as well be called All Star Jimmy Olsen, embracing the silly history of Jimmy’s Silver Age incarnation to tell an innovative story in a modern context. Set during Superman’s time on New Krypton, the story turns Jimmy into the protector of Metropolis in an attempt to win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend, Smallville’s Chloe Sullivan (in her comic book debut). By expanding Jimmy’s supporting cast to include his own Lois and Lex in Chloe and Sebastian Mallory, Spencer gives Jimmy something to fight for and against, turning him into a younger, hipper Superman alternative. This becomes literal when Maggie Mxyzptlk turns Jimmy into Co-Superman to give him a taste of a hero’s life, but one without Chloe. 

Balancing relationship drama, Silver Age concepts, and a contemporary sense of humor, Spencer tells a story that is both hilarious and emotional, and Silva captures the nuances of the script with his versatile pencils. Jimmy Olsen is one of the funniest books of the year, and the humor of Spencer’s story comes through Silva’s understanding of body language and facial expressions. When Jimmy finds out the alien invaders are actually cosmic ravers that get drunk on oxygen, he plans to bore them out of Metropolis; the reaction shot of a group of aliens sitting in tortured silence as Perry White reads from his book The Rains Of San Luis Obispo is priceless—and then Supergirl shows up to teach them about the wonders of knitting. Oh, what could have been if Spencer hadn’t left Supergirl to sign exclusive with Marvel. Hopefully there’s a book at Marvel that will allow Spencer the creative freedom to mine past continuity and exploit it for its comedic value. Get this man on a lawyer She-Hulk revival!


Remember CrossGen? That company with all the genre books and a red-and-yellow symbol connecting them all together? Had a lot of great creators but no way to pay them? It’s back as an imprint of Marvel, and Mark Waid’s Victorian detective series Ruse (CrossGen) returns with it. One of the few CrossGen books that existed with minimal interference from the line-wide sigil storyline, Ruse follows the exploits of Sherlock Holmes analogue Simon Archard, adhering to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s model of narrating the events through Simon’s assistant, Emma Bishop. Waid makes great use of Victorian gender roles to bring humor to the book, as Emma puts in most of the work but receives none of the credit. Mirco Pierfederici’s digitally painted art is also true to the Victorian settings, and he excels at depicting the landscapes and fashions of the time. The details of his faces and figures are occasionally lost, especially during action sequences, but for the most part his art is clean and attractive, a fitting complement to Waid’s classic mystery plot.

As vampire romance hysteria is cooling down, Tomm Coker and Daniel Freedman’s Undying Love #1 (Image) puts a twist on the tired concept by casting the vampire as the victim. In the midst of the fantasy elements, Coker and Freedman keep their story grounded by emphasizing vampirism as a disease rather than a mystical metamorphosis, particularly in the scene revealing how John Sargent feeds his vampire girlfriend, Mei. To cure her, all Sargent has to do is kill one of history’s strongest vampires, but it’s a small price to pay for true love. Coker’s art is the main selling point of the series, and while his interiors are heavily photo-referenced, he keeps the action from feeling too stiff and posed. The look is more Alex Maleev than Greg Land, and the Japanese setting allows Coker to incorporate architecture and imagery not usually associated with Western vampire stories. The story moves quickly and deploys exposition without slowing down, giving even the quiet moments an ominous intensity. 

While serving his country in Iraq, Corporal Eugene “Flash” Thompson lost his legs in an act of heroism. In Venom #1 (Marvel), Peter Parker’s high-school nemesis becomes the latest host for the militarized Venom symbiote, regaining the use of his legs in exchange for performing covert operations for the government. Reuniting the Fear Agent/Frankencastle team of Rick Remender and Tony Moore, the first half of the book is a chaotic action sequence, as Venom touches down in the war-torn nation of Nrosvekistan. Moore is an expert fight choreographer, and the swift movement of his panels helps show Flash’s efficiency in the Venom costume, especially when he’s outnumbered and outgunned. Remender uses the Venom symbiote in creative new ways on the battlefield, like having it pick up surrounding machine guns to protect Flash as he runs for cover; but the book is really about Flash’s struggle to balance his personal life with his secret job as a government agent. His secret identity becomes further complicated by his alcoholic past, as his girlfriend accuses him of relapsing when he can’t explain his late arrival home. While the murderous symbiote threatens to permanently bond to him on the battlefield, Flash has plenty of other monsters buried within, just waiting for him to drop his guard.

Numbers can’t contain the growing brood within the Baxter Building as Jonathan Hickman begins the next act of his Fantastic Foundation epic with FF #1 (Marvel), adding Spider-Man, Nathaniel Richards, and Victor Von Doom to the regular cast. The characters are still reeling after Johnny’s death, but Hickman doesn’t let the book dwell on melancholy, jumping right into Peter Parker’s first mission in the black-and-white duds. Adding A.I.M. and a vengeful Wizard (whose clone is currently living with the Richards clan) to the list of threats is a smart move on Hickman’s part, as it believably pushes events to the point of desperation where Dr. Doom could be accepted onto the team. Steve Epting is back on art duties, and continues to show why he is the perfect artist for Hickman’s run with photorealistic pencils that still capture the imagination and grandeur of classic Fantastic Four artists. While Hickman excels at the big ideas and sci-fi elements, small moments, like the 15 members of Fantastic Foundation sitting around the dinner table (with an empty seat for Uncle Johnny) and Reed giving Franklin tips on how to beat his video game, make this book special. Ordinary moments of spectacular lives are the reminders that underneath the unstable molecules, these characters are human.

The recent Milestone revival at DC resulted in Static joining the Teen Titans for a while, along with a few guest appearances and mini-series, but Xombi #1 (DC) is the first ongoing since the characters returned two years ago, debuting well after the hype has died down. A shame, because John Rozum and Frazer Irving are beginning the sort of smart sci-fi story that needs whatever help it can to build a strong core audience. New readers don’t need any familiarity with the past Xombi series to understand David Kim’s current adventure, as Rozum provides any necessary exposition throughout the issue. The combination of sci-fi and religious elements creates a unique supporting cast for the book, and characters like Catholic Girl and Nun Of The Above lend their help as David tracks down the escaped physical manifestation of a fictional character. Rozum’s script is esoteric enough to make Irving a perfect fit on art duties, and his style is much better suited to horror than costumed fare. While fight scenes continue to be his weak spot, his high-contrast coloring and clever page layouts give the book a distinctive visual aesthetic to match its unpredictable story.