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Superhero & mainstream comics—June and early July, 2011

For the past 10 years, Ultimate Spider-Man has been the place for the most consistently entertaining Peter Parker stories in a wave of Spidey titles. In spite of attempts to revitalize the line post-Ultimatum, the Ultimate brand has become creatively stagnant, with only Brian Michael BendisUltimate Comics Spider-Man attempting forward-thinking stories grounded in honest emotion rather than cheap shock tactics. Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #160 (Marvel) closes the door on the first generation of Ultimate titles, killing the character who started it all, and setting the stage for the next round of Ultimate books, with Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer jumping in to help Bendis continue reinventing the Marvel Universe. 

The past year of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man emphasized Peter’s need to refine his tactics and mature as a hero, and “Death Of Spider-Man” has brutally exposed Peter’s weaknesses while showcasing the strengths that keep him fighting. That is, until Punisher shoots him in the back, and he has to face the combined strength of most of his rogues’ gallery. Now, Peter Parker is dead, and he goes out like a true hero, doing for his Aunt May what he couldn’t do for his Uncle Ben.

After a lackluster stint at DC, Mark Bagley returns to the title he helped create, and the synergy between Bendis and Bagley is as strong as it was when they first began. Bagley’s art lives and dies by its inker, and Andy Lanning’s tight work gives Bagley’s pencils a slickness that makes the chaotic action sequences smooth and easy to follow. For many, Bagley’s interpretations of these characters are definitive, and his return to the title for its tragic finale is bittersweet but deftly executed.

Bendis has his fair share of bad habits, but Ultimate Spider-Man has been the one book where the writer’s voice is completely in sync with his characters, and this last storyline has been a frenzied assault of explosive battles and emotional devastation while still retaining the sense of humor that made Ultimate Peter Parker such an endearing character. Only time will tell whether Peter’s death returns the Ultimate line to its former glory, but if “Death Of Spider-Man” is any indication of the quality of future Ultimate titles, it looks like things are going to work out just fine. Well, except for Peter Parker. 

As the line-wide DC revamp approaches, books like Supergirl #65 (DC) serve as reminders that there are still strong stories to be told with the current versions of these characters. All it takes is the right creative team. Kelly Sue DeConnick is the first female writer to pen a full-length story for a Supergirl ongoing series, and reading this issue, it’s difficult to understand why it took DC so long. 

When a student from Stanhope College is ambushed by a squad of Professor Ivo’s robotic M.O.N.Q.I.S. while riding the same air tram as Lois Lane, Lois asks Supergirl to go undercover as a prospective student to discover the truth behind a string of recent undergrad disappearances. The change in setting lets Kara interact with people her own age, but more importantly, gives her the opportunity to learn how to fit in as an ordinary Earthling. 

There’s a Gilmore Girls feel to the banter DeConnick writes between Lois and Kara, and combined with ChrisCross’ spectacularly expressive artwork, the dialogue becomes even stronger. DeConnick incorporates Supergirl’s JLA member status into the story by having her hang out with Starman, her new gay bestie, who offers advice on learning to accept her otherness, but unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast introduced this issue is going to be moot in a few months. There’s a distressing lack of female talent in the DCnU (Gail Simone is the only female creator currently attached to a title), but if DC is smart, it’ll find a book for DeConnick before the competition snatches her up.

The pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips may not have reached legendary status yet, but Criminal: The Last Of The Innocent #1 (Icon) solidifies their position in the golden pantheon of comic-book creative teams. A postmodern crime yarn that puts the archetypes of Archie Comics’ most popular characters through the Criminal neo-noir filter, The Last Of The Innocent is a stunning departure for the series, as Brubaker and Phillips use the graphic medium to comment on the nature of nostalgia and the ways memory transforms over time. When Riley Richards returns to Brookview to see his dying father after a five-year absence, he has to reevaluate his life as he reconnects with the friends who defined his youth. The present-day scenes in 1982 are broken up by segments set in the past, and Phillips mimics the style of classic Archie artist Dan DeCarlo to emphasize the rosy perspective from which childhood memories are fondly remembered. Except these childhood memories involve Riley getting stoned with his best friend Freakout, finding dead bodies in the park, and going down on his girlfriend on prom night underneath her bedroom vanity.

Trapped in a loveless marriage with wealthy bitch Felicity Doolittle, and risking two broken legs if he doesn’t settle a debt with a pair of city thugs, Riley returns home with his eyes opened to the opportunities he left behind. As he reconnects with girl next door Lizzie Gordon and his recovering-drug-addict best friend, he begins to consider how to escape his current situation, coming to the conclusion that if he wants to get back to the carefree, joyous days of his youth, all he has to do is kill his wife. The creative duo continues to push the boundaries of what crime comics can accomplish; Brubaker’s dialogue has never been stronger, and Phillips is reaching artistic heights that suggest this team has no intention of letting up any time soon. 

The first spin-off of Scott Snyder’s supernatural tour of American history, American Vampire: Survival Of The Fittest #1 (Vertigo) centers on half-vampire Felicia Book as she works to weed bloodsuckers out of positions of power in 1940s New York, while her nemesis, Skinner Sweet, fights overseas in the main American Vampire title. Sean Murphy handles art duties, and his sketchy yet intricately detailed style is in line with regular American Vampire artist Rafael Albuquerque, establishing a visual continuity between the two books that further unifies the two stories. Snyder doesn’t make Murphy’s job easy, especially once the story shifts to The Vassals’ secret headquarters under the Museum Of Natural History. Murphy takes advantage of Snyder’s challenge, showing an ambitious attention to detail that ratchets up excitement for when the action moves overseas next issue. 

Heavy shadows emphasize the vampires’ menace, particularly during a chilling scene where Cash feeds an adorable bunny to his vampire baby, and Dave Stewart does a typically strong coloring job throughout, washing Murphy’s pencils in sepia tones that make the moments of crimson violence especially eye-popping. Survival Of The Fittest is an intriguing expansion of the mythology Snyder has created, and the first-issue cliffhanger introduces a plot point that could be a game-changer for the series if followed through. Judging by American Vampire precedent, though, things are likely only going to get much worse for this group of demon-hunters, especially once they head into vampire-Nazi territory.

After moving Black Panther stateside to watch over Daredevil’s turf, novelist David Liss creates a new crew of pulp-inspired characters with artist Patrick Zircher in Mystery Men #1-2 (Marvel), a Depression-era thriller that unites an early generation of superheroes when young actor Alice Starr is murdered. The first issue sets up the plot with narration from The Operative, a Shadow-like antihero with the strongest ties to the core mystery, but unfortunately the least captivating backstory of the original characters: The standard “wealthy socialite turned dark avenger,” Operative steals from his own privileged social circle to give to the impoverished masses. When his fiancée is murdered, he’s forced to team up with two other heroes who share a relationship with the deceased: The Revenant and Aviatrix.

The Revenant, a black stagehand for the theater Alice was working at, and Aviatrix, Alice’s high-flying sister, introduce race and gender issues into the mix, and Liss’ decision to have a different narrator for each chapter broadens the story’s scope while giving each hero a moment in the spotlight. Patrick Zircher’s art has undergone a major evolution over the last few years, using photo references to ground the characters and locations in reality without sacrificing storytelling. Zircher’s linework occasionally gets too busy in the first issue, but the art gains a sharper focus with the second issue, minimizing extraneous inks while maintaining the dark atmosphere ideally suited for Liss’ script. As Liss’ profile expands, hopefully the characters introduced in Mystery Men will see further exposure in the Marvel Universe, because a female Rocketeer and a superhero in a white tuxedo who catches bullets in his teeth are just too awesome to fall by the wayside. 


Years after it was originally solicited, Kurt Busiek and Rick Leonardi’s lost Krypto story sees publication in Superman #712 (DC), following the mysterious delay of the most recent installment in the already sluggish “Superman walks across America” storyline. Taking place after Superboy’s death in Infinite Crisis, Busiek’s story finds Krypto searching the planet for his lost owner, evoking memories of the classic Futurama tearjerker “Jurassic Bark” as the super-dog waits for a return that will never come. But this is comics, and Conner Kent did come back, taking away some of the poignancy the story would have had when it was originally scheduled for release. The issue still hits hard after the long delay, a testament to Busiek’s ability to tell moving stories that find the emotional core of these fantastic characters, and the small moments have the strongest effect: Krypto staring longingly as a bird and a plane fly by, but no subsequent Super-anyone, and the final image of a forlorn Krypto cuddling up against the manhole cover Superboy uses as a Frisbee. These images perfectly capture Krypto’s role as a Superman’s best friend, as well as his unwavering devotion for his owners, even after they’ve left him on his own.  

The first openly gay character in Riverdale, Kevin Keller was so well-received when he was introduced last year that he’s headlining his own summer miniseries, and Kevin Keller #1 (Archie) continues to nonchalantly address Kevin’s sexuality while giving the character his own supporting cast and politically charged backstory. It’s comforting to see a publisher make a concentrated effort to bring a homosexual character to a primarily child audience, especially a publisher like Archie, which has maintained a traditional tone and appearance since its creation. Kevin’s sexuality is depicted without any controversy: The residents of Riverdale not only accept him, they actively support him and his dreams of joining the military like his retired colonel father. June is the perfect month to release this series, as there’s an overwhelming sense of pride throughout the issue, and Dan Parent’s story sends a positive message of hope to young readers who may be struggling with their own sexuality. Sure, it can get a little cheesy at times, but if any publisher can get away with overly precious storytelling, it’s Archie Comics, especially when the book is as good-natured as Kevin Keller.