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Superheroes and mainstream: January 2012

Rob Liefeld is a major figure in the ’90s revival currently unfolding in mainstream comics, working on three DC titles in the next year while spearheading the return of his Extreme Comics line for Image. Prophet #21 (Image) is the first of the new Extreme titles, and it’s a remarkable issue that succeeds by completely distancing itself from Liefeld’s initial concept for the character. A hybrid of Captain America and Jack Kirby’s O.M.A.C., the original John Prophet was a musclehead with permanently clenched teeth and comically large shoulder pads, innovative because he preferred giant knives to massive guns. Brandon Graham, creator of the alternative sci-fi title King City, is a surprising choice to write the new adventures of Prophet, but with the help of artist Simon Roy, he creates a fresh start for the character that is both sophisticated and overflowing with imagination.

The “man out of time” conceit is the only element that Graham keeps from the previous incarnation of the character, beginning the issue with Prophet emerging from a “hyber pod” into a strange new world. He vomits up a stimulant that he uses to charge his suit, then makes his way through the dangerous wilderness until he finds the rendezvous point transmitted to him in his dreams. Largely devoid of dialogue, Prophet’s story is told mostly through narration, and while there’s not much action, Graham succeeds in establishing a distinct tone and building a setting that begs for exploration.

Consisting of a simple jumpsuit, Prophet’s design is a far cry from his original appearance, and Graham and Roy create a weathered, quiet protagonist that would never fit in the initial Extreme line. Roy’s design work is fascinating and incredibly thorough, and his Moebius-inspired art paired with Richard Ballermann’s bold colors creates a lush environment brimming with life. The muted earth tones at the start of the issue give way to scenes saturated in deep reds and blues as Prophet moves from the wilderness to the jell city, and the colors become more prominent as the surroundings become more alien. One of the issue’s best moments is a in-joke for anyone who’s ever wondered what Liefeld’s characters keep in all their pockets: a panel in which Prophet does an inventory of every item on his person. Not only is it exceptionally clever, but it shows just how meticulously Brandon and Roy have developed even the tiniest components of the new Prophet.

Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Batman, Incorporated returns in May with an ongoing series set in the New 52 continuity, and Batman, Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes! (DC Comics) lays the groundwork for the final act of Morrison’s Bat-epic while shutting the door on the previous era of DC Comics. Collecting Morrison’s final stories in the former timeline, it’s potentially the last comic of the pre-relaunch DCU, and is the final time readers will see Stephanie Brown as Batgirl, Dick Grayson as Batman, and Barbara Gordon as Oracle. It’s a bittersweet goodbye, but Morrison doesn’t disappoint with his story, which showcases the best elements of his lengthy run on the Dark Knight. 

Leviathan Strikes! is divided into two parts, and each represents a different side of Morrison as a writer. The first, illustrated by Cameron Stewart and chronicling Stephanie Brown’s infiltration of an English finishing school for assassins, is Morrison at his most subdued, telling a clever superhero story that is tongue-in-cheek but still true to Stephanie’s character. Chris Burnham joins Morrison for the second part, which returns the focus to Bruce Wayne and the overarching Batman, Incorporated plot, and Morrison switches back into psychedelic, high-concept sci-fi. Morrison is a lot more versatile than people give him credit for, and this book shows how well he transitions between styles and adjusts his story for a specific artist.

Stephanie Brown is the rare female superhero who is actually a strong role model for young girls. Confident, smart, and willing to own up to her mistakes and grow from them, Stephanie’s popularity didn’t come from her appearance, but her spirit. Brian Miller wrote a fantastic conclusion for Stephanie in Batgirl, but Morrison’s final story is a reminder of all the qualities that set Stephanie apart. Cameron Stewart is the perfect artist for the story, and his pencils have a cheekiness that never turns into exploitation, a remarkable feat considering that he’s drawing a story about fighting schoolgirls. 

A major aspect of Morrison’s run has been embracing Batman’s Silver Age history and bringing that unbridled energy to the character’s modern stories, and he’s found a collaborator in Chris Burnham that is able to toe that same line between retro and contemporary. Burnham’s art is similar to Frank Quitely but with a stronger animation influence, and his pencils are finely detailed yet exaggerated to fit Morrison’s trippy narrative. As Scott Snyder takes control of the main Bat-line, Leviathan Strikes! is intended to drum up interest for the conclusion of Morrison’s long-running story. If it’s any indication of the variety of stories he’s prepared, May is going to be a good time for Batman fans. 

“It’s a state of mind,” is the tagline for Blue Estate Vols. 1 & 2 (Image), which is a lot easier than trying to simplify Viktor Kalvachev and Kosta Yanev’s intricate story into a single sentence. A D-list action star, his devious wife, Russian and Italian gangsters, an assassin A.A. sponsor, a real-estate agent and his stripper fiancée are just a few of the characters populating Kalvachev and Yanev’s vibrant Los Angeles setting, gorgeously rendered by a collective of impressive artistic talents. Blue Estate could easily be translated for the screen, with Andrew Osborne providing witty, rapid-fire dialogue, but the creators use the comic book medium to tell their story in a way that couldn’t be done anywhere else.

Applying the “graphic mixtape” style of anthologies like Popgun and Flight to a single narrative, Blue Estate employs a huge stable of artists who rotate depending on the tone and content of a scene, creating a unique visual experience that is constantly changing. While multiple art teams can often diminish the reading experience, art director Kalvachev has a clear vision that fits each artist with the scene best suited to his style. When the script calls for a stark, brutally realistic shootout, Kalvachev gets Tomm Coker to draw half an issue, a small commitment that garners spectacular results.  

Comic books are a collaborative medium, and Blue Estate takes that to the next level. Each new artistic voice expands the scope of the story and reveals a new facet of the character, turning the art shifts into storytelling tools. There are often multiple artists on a page, sometimes even in a single panel, and these visual contrasts are used to show the personal differences between characters. In one particularly creative scene, duplicitous housewife Rachel switches from telling the truth to performing a lie, and once her dialogue changes, so does the artist that draws her character. The art interacts with the script to reveal her true intentions, even though nothing is explicitly stated. The collections also contain loads of behind-the-scenes material, showing just how much work has gone into this project, from bust sculptures used for character design to page sketches and character tweets. 


A product of the abysmal “Clone Saga,” Peter Parker’s clone Kaine has seen a resurgence in popularity over the last few years, playing a key role in Joe Kelly’s “Grim Hunt” and Dan Slott’s summer blockbuster “Spider-Island.” Following the events of Slott’s story, Kaine is no longer a mentally and physically scarred instrument of rage, but has to now face the consequences of his past crimes. Scarlet Spider #1 (Marvel) catches up with Kaine in Houston, on the run from the law and heading for safety in Mexico. Like most of writer Chris Yost’s Marvel work, it’s a solid, traditional antihero story with a morally ambiguous protagonist who can’t deny the urge to help people. It’s nice to see a writer explore a new corner of the Marvel universe, but Kaine just isn’t a very interesting character, with a convoluted backstory that lacks an emotional hook. It will be interesting to see if he can sustain an ongoing series, especially considering the marketing push Marvel has given the title. The major appeal of this title is Ryan Stegman, a rising artist who has been waiting for a breakout project for Marvel, and he has a clean, dynamic style that is perfectly suited for a wall-crawler. It’s just a pity that it’s Kaine instead of Peter Parker.    

The blockbuster team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips brings its crime noir sensibilities to Image with Fatale #1 (Image), and the duo’s first foray into the horror genre is a tense mystery that continues to expand the scope of their work together. The issue begins with a funeral, a familiar setting for Brubaker and Phillips’ crime work, then rushes into an explosive action sequence that could have pulled out of Sleeper or Incognito. When the issue jumps back in time, it returns to the atmospheric, nuanced storytelling of Criminal, before suddenly changing the game completely with the introduction of Nazis and demons. Fatale reads like a culmination of the pair’s past work together, except now the focus is on the femme fatale, a character type present in nearly all of Brubaker and Phillips’ collaborations, but never the star. Sexy, exciting, and unpredictable, it’s more of the same from two creators, which means it’s a must-have. 

In a future where online gaming is a corporate tool for manipulating the younger generation, a group of teens born and raised for the sole purpose of testing media learn the truth of their existence and the horror that comes with leveling up. A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division (Vertigo) attempts to be profound commentary on the gaming industry and its effect on youth culture, but Douglas Rushkoff’s story is dragged down by stiff dialogue and bland characterizations. The characters speak in a future slang closer to Legion Of Superheroes than Spaceman, replacing ordinary words with nonsense terminology because that’s apparently what happens in the future. “You gotta dekh me, Matt. I think there’s a bigger bogey here,” is one of many goofy sentences intended to have dramatic weight, and the story isn’t strong enough to get over the hurdle presented by the dialogue. Artist Goran Sudzuka has a simple but expressive style, but his designs are lacking; the environments are generic, and the characters all look like they’ve stepped off the set of an ’80s sci-fi movie. For a book that’s supposed to be about the future of digital entertainment, it feels dated from the outset. 

After years as a DC exclusive, former Generation X writer Brian Wood returns to Marvel for Wolverine And The X-Men: Alpha & Omega #1 (Marvel), a five-issue miniseries pitting the Jean Grey Institute’s headmaster against his most unruly student, sociopathic psychic Quentin Quire. Wood has experience writing cynical, rebellious characters, and he’s an ideal fit for Quentin, who makes his first move against Wolverine by mentally trapping him in a futuristic city with fellow X-student Armor. Quentin’s dialogue has a cocky, wannabe badass tone reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, and his delusions of grandeur are his way of hiding his own crippling insecurity. Quentin is a boy who doesn’t understand the full extent of his power or its consequences, and the first issue’s cliffhanger of a feral Wolverine clawing his way out of his mental prison is a great way of setting up Quentin’s inevitable fall. Wood is joined by Roland Boschi and Mark Brooks on art, Boschi handling the real-world school sequences while Brooks pencils Wolverine and Armor in Quentin’s psychic construct. The styles are vastly different, but because each artist has specific story purpose, the shifts never interrupt the flow of Wood’s story.