Superhero & mainstream comics—Late August, 2011

Superhero & mainstream comics—Late August, 2011

With Barbara Gordon reclaiming the Batgirl mantle as part of the DC relaunch, Stephanie Brown’s fate in the DCnU remains unknown, along with that of current Batgirl writer Bryan Q. Miller. Batgirl #24 (DC) is the bittersweet finale to Miller’s exceptional run on the title, concluding the dangling plotlines from the last two years while giving readers a look at what could have been. 

Effortlessly balancing Stephanie’s personal life with her vigilante career, Miller brought a combination of wit and drama to the title, reminiscent of the best episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The story comes full circle with his final issue, revealing the big bad of the past year to be Stephanie’s father, Aaron Black. It brings a wonderful symmetry to Stephanie’s story, ending her superhero career with the man who compelled her to create her first superhero identity, the Spoiler. After her father drugs her with a hallucinogenic powder made from the Black Mercy plant, Stephanie wakes up three days later in a hospital bed watched over by her mother. Mrs. Brown’s heartwarming reaction to discovering Stephanie’s superhero identity begins the book’s joyful sprint to its feel-good finish. 

Stephanie shares the last scene with once and future Batgirl Barbara Gordon, who reaffirms her pride in Stephanie and asks her what she saw under the Black Mercy’s fantasy-inducing influence. A series of stirring splash pages by artist Pere Pérez gives life to the exciting stories that will never happen, beginning with a gorgeous art nouveau-inspired image of Batgirl’s core cast. A superheroine team-up in a fairy-tale world, Stephanie, Damien Wayne, and Barbara wielding Lantern rings, and an attack on the Gotham University commencement ceremony by the Royal Flush gang are just a few of the scenarios that will make readers curse DC for cutting Miller’s run short. 

The final two splashes show a future Stephanie balancing motherhood with her superhero life, giving her the happy ending that will never come to fruition.  A few of DC’s writers decided to go the meta route for their series’ finales, but Miller closes the book on an inspirational note, with Stephanie ensuring her loyal audience that this is far from the end for her. “It’s only the end if you want it to be,” Stephanie says, shooting her grappling hook at the Gotham skyline. “Here we go.” As she swings into a serendipitously purple sunrise, Stephanie embraces her uncertain future with a smile and optimism that will be sorely missed in the DC relaunch.


One of the best arguments for the DC relaunch can be found at the company’s rival, where the Amazing Spider-Man retcon frenzy “Brand New Day” gave the title a renewed sense of purpose by dialing the Spider status quo back a couple of years. Since taking on sole writing duties for the title, Dan Slott has been pushing Peter Parker to his limits, and Peter has never been happier. Along with his freelance vigilante work and membership in the Avengers and Future Foundation, Peter has a successful day job as a scientist at Horizon Labs, a manic-pixie-dream-cop girlfriend, and a surprisingly amicable relationship with a certain red-headed ex. Amazing Spider-Man #666-667 (Marvel) begins “Spider-Island,” a crossover event that brings New York’s heroes together when the civilian population gains Spider-Man’s powers, and it’s a strong start to a crossover that promises to make Peter’s perfect world fall apart fast.   

The “Spider-Island” prelude in #666 is what Marvel’s “Point One” issues should be: a primer to the multiple storylines Slott developed over the last year that doesn’t just catch readers up to speed, but lays down plot points to be expanded over the course of the event. Secret-identity intrigue, girl troubles, a poker game at the Thing’s place: This book has everything a Spider-fan could want. The subsequent issues dive deeper into the “Spider-Island” story, as Peter’s girlfriend reveals her powers to him while the Jackal begins the next phase of his evil plot. Giving the gangsters of New York a warehouse supply of Spider-Man costumes, he tells them to run wild, gaining the Avengers’ attention when a riot breaks out in Bryant Park.

In Stefano Caselli and Humberto Ramos, Slott has found two artists whose respective strengths complement each other perfectly. While Caselli has more control over the more nuanced, emotional storytelling, Ramos can draw a kinetic fight scene like few in the business. Caselli is no slouch in the action department, either, as shown by a spectacular two-page spread of Spider-Man training with Madame Web. The characters move up the walls and across the page, with Caselli creating a complex series of movements in one static image. Ramos can be sloppy sometimes, but his pencils in #667 are clean and confident. The cartoonish exaggeration of his characters works for Spider-Man’s cast, and it brings a heightened sense of energy to the action. Slott and his team have set a high bar for themselves, and with future developments including Mary Jane and J. Jonah Jameson gaining spider-powers, it looks like “Spider-Island” has no intention slowing down.  


“Whatever kind of joke they used to be, Booster… right now, that joke is over.” These words, spoken by Huntress as she prepares to lead a superhero assault on the Secret Six, perfectly summarize Gail Simone’s six-year run with Catman, Deadshot, Ragdoll, and company. Carrying the torch of John Ostrander’s classic Suicide Squad, Simone has been telling compelling, perverse, and often hilarious stories with her group of psychopaths and killers, and Secret Six #36 (DC) ends the writer’s tenure with the fan-favorite team. 

Since the announcement that Bane would be the main villain of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the character has taken a prominent role in the series, and his final act as team leader is orchestrating the murders of various Bat-family members in the hopes of crushing the Caped Crusader psychologically. When the Penguin betrays them, the Secret Six make their last stand, hopped up on Bane’s venom for a fight they’ll never win. Interspersed throughout are interludes dealing with Bane’s new romance, Catman and Deadshot’s feelings for each other, and Scandal Savage’s love triangle with cosplaying stripper Liana and newly revived Female Fury Knockout. The interludes keep the focus on the character relationships that have anchored the title, and seeing the characters get their “happy” endings adds to the book’s bitter conclusion. Heroes win, villains lose, and the Secret Six made their choice. 

J. Calafiore isn’t the flashiest artist, but he’s been consistently strong on this title, impressively balancing the action, drama, and humor of Simone’s scripts. He draws a huge cast of characters this issue, and he takes no shortcuts in rendering the group sequences, giving each character equal attention regardless of where they are on the page. This book has been a labor of love for Simone and Calafiore, and it’s comforting to know that the characters are going out the way they lived, bloodthirsty and bound in brotherhood. Simone’s thank-you to her characters and loyal audience for indulging her sadism comes just before the team charges into battle: As he hands them all vials of venom, Bane tells his team, “It’s been an honor to fight and kill with you.” The honor was all ours. 


Targeting comics to a female audience is a good thing, but telling strong stories with universal appeal is even better. Mystic #1 (Marvel), the latest book in Marvel’s revival of Crossgen properties, is a comic that can be appreciated by all audiences, a coming-of-age tale that reads like a long-lost reel from the Disney vault. In the magical city of Hyperion, teenage orphans Genevieve and Gisele secretly study the magical Noble Arts when they’re not washing laundry or scrubbing toilets for their cruel headmistress. While prim Genevieve passively dreams of becoming an apprentice one day, the rebellious Gisele becomes increasingly restless in their prison of an orphanage. Their intentions collide when they escape to the palace, just in time for the apprentice Choosing Ceremony. Unlike this year’s other teen-girl Crossgen book, Sigil, G. Willow Wilson’s characters sound like teenagers, albeit ones from a distant fantasy world. Wilson immediately establishes the girls’ relationship in the opening pages, and continuously builds their friendship until the final page tears it apart. 

The true star of Mystic is penciler David López, who turns in the best work of his career with his impeccably detailed renderings of Hyperion and its inhabitants. Channeling Jim Bluth, López gives the book a look reminiscent of cel animation, and the panels in Mystic #1 could easily be used as storyboards for a film. His control of facial expressions and body language brings the characters into reality, giving them distinct personalities even if they don’t speak. López’s storytelling is so strong that the words could be taken off the page and the main beats of Wilson’s plot would still be explicit. Nathan Fairbairn’s lush coloring completes the package, using a bright palette that contributes to the book’s Disney feel. It’s unfortunate that Mystic is only a four-issue miniseries, because the creative team on this book has crafted a modern fairy tale that would be joy to visit on an ongoing basis. 


Over the course of Punisher #1-2 (Marvel), the title character is rarely seen and never heard, but his presence can be felt on every page. The first issue begins with a massacre that mirrors the tragic creation of the Punisher, as new bride Rachel Alves witnesses her entire wedding party getting gunned down, innocent casualties of an escalating gang war. As Punisher is fed information from one of the detectives working the case, he begins his own blood-soaked path to justice, cutting through the New York underworld with no restraint or remorse. “Frank Castle died with his family,” reads the recap page, and Greg Rucka does nothing to humanize the antihero, giving the Punisher an otherworldly mystique that’s terrifying in its ferocity.

The first issue devotes a backup story to Detective Bolt’s history with the Punisher, making the lead story feel a bit slight, but the second issue brings the emotional weight that Rucka’s stories are known for. When Rachel wakes up from her coma, the slow return of her memories triggers a wave of raging anguish depicted on a page of four silent panels, her pain too deep for words. Marco Checchetto’s artwork is surprisingly clean for Rucka’s gritty story, and he could use an inker to give his pencils stronger definition. His art looks best in heavy shadows, and luckily, the Punisher tends to strike in darkness, creating arresting visuals for the shootout sequences. Checchetto’s Punisher is more studly than recent depictions, and hopefully the title character’s appearance will begin to reflect his emotional life as Checchetto and Rucka get more comfortable on the title. 


Killing Peter Parker was just the first step in Marvel’s overhaul of its Ultimate Comics line, with Ultimate Fallout #1-6 (Marvel) serving as a tribute to the fallen Spider-Man while setting up plotlines that will drive the next batch of Ultimate titles. Brian Michael Bendis is joined by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Spencer for a collection of short stories checking in with a number of characters, and some segments are more successful than others. Bendis’ contributions are easily the strongest, showing how those closest to Peter deal with his death. A devastated Aunt May takes the spotlight at Peter’s tearjerker of a funeral, slapping Captain America, collapsing in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and ultimately finding strength in the arms of J. Jonah Jameson. The emotional impact of Peter’s death is the primary focus of the first two issues, and when the book shifts to setting up Hickman and Spencer’s future titles, the quality of the stories takes a dip.

Hickman’s shorts are full of the big ideas he’s known for, but the brevity of the stories prevents him from getting as in-depth as he would otherwise. Spencer’s contributions are almost exclusively dialogue, but he has the talent to turn two characters sitting at a table into an intense power play. Fallout does exactly what it set out to do, building the foundation for future stories, but the format limits what the writers are able to achieve. In spite of the book’s occasional missteps, an all-star list of artistic talent ups the quality of the stories, with Ultimate mainstays Bryan Hitch and Mark Bagley turning in what could potentially be their final work with these characters. 

The big event of Ultimate Fallout is the controversial debut of new, multi-ethnic Spider-Man Miles Morales, who has the same fun-loving spirit and social awkwardness that made Peter Parker such an endearing character. Marvel’s decision to have one of their flagship characters reflect the diversity of their readership is an admirable move, and it creates the potential for truly progressive stories with one of the company’s most recognizable faces. 


A note from editor Stephen Wacker in the back of Spider-Island: Cloak And Dagger #1 (Marvel) makes it clear that this tie-in miniseries is essentially a backdoor pilot for a Cloak And Dagger ongoing. Hopefully sales will warrant more stories from this team, because Nick Spencer and Emma Rios have crafted one of the best first issues of the year. Familiarity with the rest of “Spider-Island” isn’t required to enjoy Spencer’s story, which is more focused on the title characters’ relationship than fitting into the larger event. His dual narration gives insight into both characters’ motivations and desires, with Cloak focusing on expanding the duo’s presence in the superhero community as Dagger becomes more enthralled by the idea of a normal life outside a costume. 

Rios uses the characters’ individual powers as a visual guide, creating gorgeous splash pages that fluidly explore the relationship between light and dark on the page. There’s a constant sense of motion in Rios’ art, but the focus and sophistication of her draftsmanship prevents the layouts from being chaotic. She cleverly incorporates Cloak’s garment into the art throughout the issue, beginning with a three-page history of the characters depicted on the sweeping waves of the cloak. As the story moves to the present, the cloak lifts over the final panel like the curtain before a show.

When Dagger leaves the Bryant Park spider-riot to make it to class, another dramatic splash page captures the characters’ conflicting situations with a yin-yang pattern. The pandemonium of Cloak’s battle with the spider-powered criminals of New York borders the page as Dagger’s walk to class is shown in the center spread, a remarkable depiction of the chaos of their current situation and the order that Dagger’s schooling brings to her life. 


Also...

Bowen, the hero of The Infinite #1 (Image), is a typical Rob Liefeld protagonist, a top-heavy old guy with a huge gun and occasional feet. When he travels back in time to recruit an earlier version of himself in the ongoing war against chronal despot Imperius, he convinces his younger self of his identity by saying, “Look at my face! Don’t I look familiar? Don’t I sound familiar?” Bowen does look and sound familiar. His face looks like every single other male character in the book, and he sounds like any of the extreme muscleheads that populated the dregs of ’90s comic books. Robert Kirkman is a talented writer, but Liefeld’s incompetence at emotional storytelling forces Kirkman to move away from his strength: character-driven drama. The script isn’t much better than the art, with cliché dialogue and a plot that doesn’t strive for coherence or originality. Rob Liefeld is drawing the book, so why should Kirkman waste his strongest stories on an artist who can’t competently illustrate them?

Scott Snyder’s American Vampire series has been a gruesome trip through American history, and with Severed #1 (Image), Snyder continues to explore the potential for horror in classic Americana. Snyder and co-writer Scott Tuft craft a gripping story about a runaway boy in 1916 New York and the child-eating demon that will eventually devour his arm. As Jack Garron rides the rails cross-country, Mr. Porter chomps on orphans, and the distance between their stories builds tension throughout the issue. Their intersection is inevitable, but it doesn’t come in this first issue, and Snyder and Tuft’s deliberate pace allows them to set an unnerving tone that heightens the suspense. Attila Futaki’s painted artwork evokes the work of classic horror artists like John Totleben, but with a more controlled line, and the colors are an invaluable help in setting the mood of each storyline. The soft oranges and blues of Jack’s pages turn the horizon into a glowing opportunity, while the muted shades of Mr. Porter’s scenes turn the horizon into an escape too far to reach, emphasizing the danger that lurks in the desolation.

As the first book of the Ultimate revamp, Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates #1 (Marvel) should be a much more accessible read than it is, saving introductions for later issues as Nick Fury’s superhero team immediately leaps into action. Taking care of exposition was the main purpose of Ultimate Fallout, but those who skipped the miniseries are thrown into the middle of the story without much explanation. Hickman’s story moves at a breakneck pace, but dividing the time between so many campaigns prevents any of them from being fleshed out enough to be fully captivating. Hickman’s track record suggests that eventually these plots will come together in a meaningful way, but as of now, there isn’t a sense that these characters are a team. Each member operates on his own track, making the book feel like a continuation of Fallout’s short-story format. While Hickman still needs to get his bearings on the title, artist Esad Ribic is immediately at home in the widescreen world of Ultimates. The global locales are captured in picturesque detail, while the artist gets to use his experience on the fantastic 2004 Loki miniseries in drawing Asgard and its godly residents. (Including a drinking bear.)


Finally, check back next Friday, and each Friday thereafter for a while, as we look at all 52 new titles from the rebooted DC Universe.

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