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Superhero & mainstream comics—late October 2011

Brian Michael Bendis is becoming one of the most inconsistent writers in comics. The fantastic Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man shows that he can still tell emotionally rich, forward-thinking stories, and Moon Knight is an intriguing, albeit slow-moving, look at one of the Marvel universe’s most psychologically complex characters. Then there are Bendis’ Avengers titles, which have been treading water for quite some time now, with plot overtaking character-development in a constant stream of lineup changes and meaningless destruction. Unfortunately, it’s the latter side of Bendis that reunites with his original Ultimate Spider-Man collaborator Mark Bagley for Brilliant #1 (Icon), a disappointing book with a cast of generic characters and a plot that serves as cannon fodder for detractors of decompressed comics. There’s none of the charm of the team’s previous work, and without a strong script, Bagley’s bland, rushed art suffers.

The issue starts with a bank robbery, the kind that has been seen ad infinitum in pretty much all media: Amadeus walks in, uses his mind-control powers to make a teller give him money, deflects a bullet off his cheek, and tells a cop to shove a gun up his ass. (Preacher did that joke already, and it was funnier then.)The action then moves to a party scene with some of Bendis’ worst dialogue, as college students welcome their returning friend Albert from a six-month absence by celebrating his 21st birthday. The conversations flow illogically, and the dialogue crosses the line from stylized into puzzling: Characters speak in jilted sentences that don’t seem to connect, and while that could be Bendis’ version of drunk-speak, it doesn’t read as inebriated, just disjointed. Bagley draws college kids pulled out of the ’90s, and there’s a generally dated feel to his artwork. The book was originally going to be colored directly from Bagley’s pencils until someone remembered that Bagley needs a good inker to add depth and crispness to his art, and Joe Rubinstein clearly didn’t have much time to do his job. 

The plot starts moving during the last third of the book, as the undergrads begin discussing the relationship between science fiction and fact. It’s here that the characters start sounding like real humans, as Albert’s friends tell him that while he was gone they discovered how to create superpowers, but then the issue ends on a cliffhanger that is as unclear as it is anticlimactic. The final panel is a shot of a golf cart driven by a police officer who was hassling the group earlier, scrubbed down and left on top of a parking garage. Did they kill him? If they did, why are they all just sitting around talking about Philip K. Dick instead of reacting to what they did? The opening scene showed that Amadeus isn’t a good guy, but is this an entire ensemble of murderers? Or were they just scrubbing down a golf cart for the hell of it? There’s no big dramatic punch at the end of the issue, just an ambiguous image that might be symbolic, might be significant, or might simply be a golf cart on a parking lot.

“You guys are so obvious,” cat burglar Natalie Stack says when she’s introduced to the Asian twin allies of her partner, The Fixer. One panel later, a man with a giant Star of David tattoo across his face reveals himself, and his name is actually David. Natalie’s statement could be applied to the entirety of Frank Miller’s Holy Terror (Legendary), the long-in-development superhero-vs.-Al-Qaeda book from the man who reinvented Daredevil and Batman. Miller starts the book with a quote from Mohammed: “If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel.” Where this quote comes from is a mystery (Google brings up variations, but nothing quite so blunt), and it’s representative of the general attitude of this book: subtlety and Islam are twin evils that must be put down at any cost. 

Since The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller has steadily become a caricature of his former self, his artwork and writing getting uglier and less refined with each new project. All Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder could be read as parody of the grim and gritty superhero comics that Miller heralded with Dark Knight Returns, but Holy Terror is simply a mean-spirited, boorish book; Miller’s tongue isn’t in cheek, but rather hanging outside his mouth like a rabid dog. It reads like something a seventh-grader might write after 9/11, a story with bombs that fire nails and razor blades, a big-breasted woman in S&M gear, and lines like, “Give my regards to those 72 black-eyed virgins, you son of a bitch.” 

Most of the book is made up of splash pages, faint white outlines drowning in seas of black, with Miller reusing the poses and imagery of Dark Knight Returns but with a messier line. Then there are the two pages of empty panels symbolizing all the people killed in a terrorist attack. Even when working with blank white boxes, Miller is aggressive. As indecipherable as the art can be, it’s still the best part of Holy Terror. The architecture is impressive, especially in Al-Qaeda’s underground secret base (uh, what?), and there are some striking single images. They just lose their impact once applied to Miller’s tasteless writing. 

It’s crazy to think that DC once thought about publishing this with Batman as the main character. Miller doesn’t try too hard to disguise who the characters are really supposed to be, and it’s stangely fun to imagine Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in the main roles. Was Miller going to have Batman armed with two pistols, emptying rounds into terrorist skulls?

What if those old Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads actually worked? Such is the delightfully simple premise of Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore’s The Strange Talent Of Luther Strode #1 (Image), a story about a high-school student who suddenly finds himself with extraordinary powers—and then does incredibly violent things with them. This book isn’t hyper-violent, it’s hyper-mega-ultra-violent. It begins with a two-page spread showing a blood-and-gore-drenched room with a row of panels revealing how the carnage was inflicted, a series of dismemberments and disembowelments so exaggerated they become comedic. Arms are ripped off and used as weapons, two people literally get their guts kicked out, and the only word on the page is “talents.” Jordan balances comedy and drama impressively throughout the issue, aided by Moore’s artwork, which is both light and brutal. 

There’s an expressive, animated quality to Moore’s art that’s similar to that of Invincible’s Ryan Ottley, and the smooth lines make the moments of intense gore even more striking. Moore’s strong attention to detail also creates a fully realized environment: Luther’s bedroom is littered with comic books, discarded clothing items, and trash; the fridge is stocked with different bottles, cartons, bowls, and boxes; the kitchen cabinets are full of dishes, and the counters looked freshly used. It looks like the kitchen a single mom and her teenage son would have. The detail extends beyond the setting and to the anatomy, particularly when it comes to showing someone’s insides suddenly becoming very outside his body. The action has a fluid sense of movement, and Moore uses streams of blood to capture the impact and momentum of a dodgeball or Luther’s fist slamming into someone’s face. 

Beyond the violence, Jordan is crafting an intriguing mystery similar to what Mike Carey is doing in The Unwritten. There’s a malevolent secret organization with lots of dead (and dying) bodies in its closet, and Luther’s sudden strength is connected somehow. There’s also the threat of whoever it is that makes Luther’s mother jump when there’s a knock at the door, as well as a teen romance, because of course he’s doing it for the girl. By building Luther’s relationship with his mother and friends, Jordan creates an emotional skeleton for his story, and the wonderfully over-the-top violence is the muscle that moves it forward.

Former DC Comics President Paul Levitz’s Legion Of Superheroes was one of the weakest books of the DC relaunch, but he redeems himself with Huntress #1 (DC), an action-packed, character-driven story with superb artwork from Marcus To. DC got a lot of flak for the portrayals of its female characters in the relaunch, so it’s nice to see a character actually getting a sexuality downgrade here, starting with the redesign of Huntress’ costume: The midriff is finally gone, and her costume covers her entire body. (Batwoman must be having some influence on the rest of the Gotham girls, because they’ve started covering up.) Helena is confident and aggressive in her work—stopping a human-trafficking ring that pits her against a ruthless Italian crime lord—and while she uses her appearance to get what she wants, she does it by exploiting the weakness of men rather than objectifying herself. Marcus To began his career as a Michael Turner clone, but he’s grown immensely since starting at DC. The action moves quickly, the anatomy is precise, and his environments are clean and detailed. How this book connects to the rest of the DCU has yet to be seen, but it inspires confidence that DC will be moving in a better direction with its female characters. …

Roger Langridge’s The Muppet Show was one of the best humor comics of the past decade, and Snarked #1 (Boom) has the writer-artist trading Jim Henson for Lewis Carroll, venturing to Wonderland to chronicle the slapstick adventures Wilburforce J. Walrus, a dainty trickster of immense charm and wit, who partners with the oafish Clyde McDunk in various schemes to procure sausages and oysters. Beyond Carroll’s works, Langridge draws inspiration from cartooning classics in his interpretation of Wonderland: Walrus owes much to Popeye’s J. Wellington Wimpy in both demeanor and appetite, and the Cheshire Cat is part Garfield, part Felix The Cat. Langridge is remarkable with comedy because his characters are great actors. Their emotions read clearly in their faces and body language, and their reactions are appropriately exaggerated for a cartoon environment. Langridge also knows how to bring heart to his humor, and the issue ends with a sweet, quiet moment. As much fun as the gags will be, the real reason to read Snarked is to see how Langridge builds simple character relationships into something precious and meaningful. … 

After the events of X-Men: Schism, Cyclops and Wolverine are going their separate ways, with Wolverine returning to Westchester, New York, to reopen Professor Xavier’s school as the Jean Grey Institute For Higher Learning, while Cyclops remains on Utopia. X-Men: Regenesis #1 (Marvel) has the two figureheads choosing their allies as they head in separate directions, and while writer Kieron Gillen has a strong handle on the many voices of the mutant team, the bizarre framing sequence and ill-matched artwork by Billy Tan pull back the book’s emotional punch. This is largely a talking-heads book, and Tan is an artist that specializes in action. His characters have limited facial expressions and their body language is either “fighting” or “not,” which probably explains the framing sequence of Cyclops and Wolverine fighting in a tribal circle wearing only their underwear. As the various characters decide where they want to spend their future, they appear in their own tribal loincloths, and it’s a bit too melodramatic. There’s enough intensity in the actual situation without having to turn it into a symbolic wrestling match, especially because Cyclops and Wolverine just duked it out for real at the end of Schism. The insight into the decision-making processes of these characters is the reason to pick up Regenesis, but a stronger artist would have given the book a better emotional thrust. …

The DC relaunch meant the demise of two fan-favorite series, Batgirl and Secret Six, but Stephanie Brown, Catman, and company are still kicking in Tiny Titans #45 (DC), literally playing soccer for most of this Batgirl-centric issue. Art Baltazar and Franco’s Eisner Award-winning all-ages series is nearing its 50th issue, and this entry showcases the qualities that have made the book a treat for both kids and adults. The roll-call page has a whopping 28 headshots, a mix of heroes (and cows) from all corners of the DCU, each portrait more adorable than the last. This book is on the opposite end of the spectrum from DC’s core titles, a candy-colored celebration of the unbridled imagination and inherent silliness of superhero comics. Tiny Titans is a place to escape from the grim and gritty, where Pantha wasn’t decapitated by Superboy Prime, Barbara Gordon was never paralyzed, and Jason Todd wears a red bucket on his head instead of sleeping with a skanky Starfire. Casting Dick Grayson as Charlie Brown with Ace The Bat-hound as his Snoopy is an ingenious move, and it’s those callbacks to classic comic strips and DC continuity that give this book an extra layer of sophistication for the adults in the audience. And then there’s cows playing soccer, which kids just love. …

Fear Itself may be over, but the magic weaponry used by the villainous Worthy remains on Earth, waiting to be wielded once more. Fear Itself: The Fearless #1 (Marvel) follows Asgardian Avenger Valkyrie and Sin, the daughter of the Red Skull, as they search for the hidden arsenal, and the book reads much like its summer-event predecessor. Fear Itself was a fairly typical superhero epic: Major cities get destroyed, important characters die (likely temporarily), and there are pretty new costumes and big new weapons that disappear once the series ends. This follow-up miniseries is a by-the-numbers superhero story, but it’s a solid start from Cullen Bunn, who scripts from a plot by Matt Fraction, Chris Yost, and himself. It’s worth noting after last month’s DC female fiasco that The Fearless is a book with two female leads that doesn’t sexualize or objectify them in any way. It helps that Mark Bagley and Paul Pelletier are the artists, and neither really goes for cheesecake. With Andy Lanning’s inks, Bagley’s art is a massive improvement over his Brilliant pencils, and Pelletier turns in characteristically strong work. These are two of the most consistent artists in superhero comics, and having them split issues is going to ensure that this book maintains a bi-weekly schedule. The Fearless isn’t trying to break any new ground, but fans of Fear Itself will enjoy it, and it’s always fun to see lesser-known characters like Valkyrie take the spotlight.