The Flash is a friendly guy. It’s part of the character that comes with wearing the red suit. Barry Allen is bland and pasty but he smiles a lot and is handsome in the generic way that every comic book character from that era is. He’s now saddled with an awful angsty retcon origin bestowed by Geoff Johns, because heroes can’t be heroes unless they see their parents killed. This retcon is an integral part of the mythology of the Flash’s TV show, so it’s sticking around.
The Flash’s rogues’ gallery is an interesting assortment. Setting aside the less sociable arch-villainy of Professor Zoom and Grodd, most of the Flash’s other villains eventually unionized into a team—six crooks against one super-cop. Over the decades the Rogues became a family of their own. The Flash’s villains believe in teamwork and cooperation and have managed to stick together (barring the occasional double cross or prison stretch) for a long time. These odd relationships form the basis of the story in The Flash #14, which showcases Barry exercising his detective skills to track down the supposedly missing Rogues after a recent crisis. Captain Cold and his crew sometimes fight in the proximity of the side of angels when it suits their purposes, such as when their city is under attack. Word on the street is that because the Rogues have been seen aiding the Flash in the recent past—such as when they assisted in defeating the Riddler a few issues back—they’ve gone soft. And the trail has gone (pardon the pun) cold.
The convivial tone places the Flash’s adventures back on a more familiar footing. Looking for the missing Rogues, Barry uncovers their homes and family history. As he goes further and further out on a limb trying to find his missing crooks, the crooks themselves appear to be setting a trap for Barry. What sticks out about this book is how well it tries to approximate the tone of a pre-New 52 era Flash comic. Joshua Williamson’s script offers pleasing callbacks to many past Flash runs, with nods to Mark Waid and Geoff Johns as well as the character’s earliest appearances by John Broome and Carmine Infantino.
There’s acknowledgment that the tone of the character’s adventures have changed while also illustrating the degree to which the Flash’s character practices a less draconian, slightly more compassionate approach to his enemies that sets him apart from, say, Batman or even Spider-Man. No one expects the Rogues themselves to develop more compassion, but Barry finds unexpected sympathy for the villains as he traces their family roots all the way back to the Silver Age itself. Carmine Di Giandomenico seems to have settled into his role of illustrating modernized versions of very old characters, although the excessive digital coloring effects used to illustrate the speed force can be tiresome.
So far DC’s Rebirth semi-reboot has sent many of the right signals in terms of trying to return the books to more familiar and friendly configurations for the benefit of long-time and lapsed readers. The Flash’s surging popularity is such that the character’s spotty recent solo history is inexplicable. The Flash should naturally be one of the company’s best-selling comics, but there hasn’t been a Flash series worthy of the character’s reputation in a long time. Williamson’s run hits all the right notes in terms of returning fans to the character’s most basic virtues. [Tegan O’Neil]
Motro was given the name of a great hero when he was born, and every event in his life has been grooming him to eventually assume that heroic role. The first three issues of the miniseries Motro (Oni Press) detail the lead character’s evolution from a lonely orphan boy to a warrior captain poised to become the one great king of Ashurr, and the creative team has created an incredibly rich fantasy world around Motro that begs to be further explored.
Co-written by Ulises Fariñas and Erick Freitas with art by Fariñas and colorist Ryan Hill, Motro reads a lot like a high fantasy version of the recently concluded Prophet from Image Comics, dropping readers into intense situations with little context and taking them on a compelling, surprising journey in each issue. Like Prophet, the action is dynamic, the thematic content is complex and thought provoking, and the settings are deeply immersive. Motro is a product of a world of barbarian violence, but there’s a part of him that laments the warrior’s life and yearns for the simple pleasures of being with the family he’s never known, creating an internal conflict that puts his devastating power in a more tragic personal context.
Significant jumps in time between chapters have allowed the team to pack a lot of story in these first three issues, but the most intriguing thing about Motro is the larger world of the series. It’s a spotlight for Fariñas’ off-kilter, wide-ranging design sensibility, and while the scope of the narrative is still fairly small at this point, the visuals provide an idea of just how expansive this world is in the variety of background characters, props, vehicles, plants, and animals. Motro #3 takes the hero and his companions on a mission to uncover the whereabouts of Motro’s absent family, and it’s the most spectacular issue yet, with especially striking designs for the White Tower and the ice dragon that protects it and its mystical loot. The first image of the dragon has Fariñas and Hill rendering the different textures on the creature in meticulous detail, differentiating between the dragon’s stony hide, leathery wings, sinewy flesh, and crystalline protrusions to heighten the impact of its introduction.
There are some extremely clever storytelling tricks employed in Motro #3, like the moment when Motro’s friend, Bathru, explains why he distrusts all members of the frog-race. The first three speech bubbles are small panels showing Bathru’s past interaction with a frog, breaking down the story through a sequence of images that leads to a final, regular word balloon. It’s a concise way of fitting an extra joke into a single panel, and Fariñas (who also letters Motro) is constantly exploring new ways to play with word balloons for specific effect. Later, when Motro is giving a rousing speech at the funeral of his adopted father, the text becomes obscured as his adopted half-brother stops listening and turns away, a movement that is layered on top of Motro’s dialogue in a small panel. The major joy of Motro is discovering these moments when the creative team offers a fresh way of layering visuals and text to enrich the story, and given the evolution of the story thus far, readers can expect even more formal experimentation as the miniseries continues. [Oliver Sava]
Spy stories are hard to pull off in comics. So much relies on detail and slight of hand that even small issues with art or pacing can create an unmanageable derailment. As Warren Ellis’ current run on James Bond demonstrates, having a familiar face and a plot that ties in with a movie franchise can be a huge asset, but it’s no guarantee of success. That makes Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s The Coldest City (Oni Press) remarkable for just how brilliantly it tells its story. Set in a still-divided Germany in 1989, the book tells the story of a British asset sent to Berlin to uncover information about the death of one of her associates. As both the name and the chronology imply, The Coldest City is an old-school Cold War spy caper. It could easily turn toward farce, but Johnston has proven before that he’s too skilled a writer to fall for that, and he doesn’t disappoint here. With Wasteland and the canceled-before-its-time Umbral, Johnston has carved out a niche for himself with layered characters and compelling mysteries.
It’s tempting to compare this book—and its main character, Lorraine—to Queen & Country by Greg Rucka, especially since both are published by Oni in black and white. And it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to do so, but The Coldest City is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Queen & Country’s Kingsman. Both books, and both movies, are thoroughly enjoyable adventures centered on spy craft. But The Coldest City is subtler in many ways, more focused on the parts of the job that require long-term strategy and expert secrecy than the flasher punching and shooting bits.
Sam Hart’s art drives this distinction home. It’s stark and sometimes brutally minimalist, with stretches of black or white that take up most of the page, demanding the reader pay close attention to the detail that is provided. Tight panels that concentrate on faces and reflections abound, a trick that makes the book feel cinematic; a good thing as the film adaptation, staring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy, comes out in summer 2017.
The premise is good and the art is great, but the most compelling reason to check out The Coldest City is the ending. Even the best spy stories sometimes whiff the landing by making the root of the mystery too obvious to guess or too unclear to understand. Johnston masterfully draws the story to a height, tension and speed rising as the reader comes to see the whole of things, and then in a few short, stark pages drops the proverbial hammer on the readers. It’s brilliantly and subtly done, enough so that even a panel from the final page wouldn’t spoil anything. The prequel, The Coldest Winter, came out in December 2016, and none too soon for readers who want to know what will happen to Lorraine. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Over the last few years, Study Group has carved out a space for understated, visually rich, oblique serials, and Kate Lacour’s The Disciple (Study Group) is no different. Mystical goings on remain mysterious to the reader: a robed skeleton consumes bezoars and excretes entrails to the delight of a floating eye; a flying hand longs for another flying hand; a golem experiences a strange pleasure as it rips its flesh off. While Lacour may clarify or unify her narrative threads at a later point, they currently operate as dreamlike hooks, luring in their prey with oddly relatable scenes and beautifully drawn images. Watching as a behemoth pricks its flesh with a pin—digging it deeply and slowly separating its skin from its musculature—stirs something primal. Lacour creates a melodic, hypnotic repulsion that begs you to look away but simultaneously ensnares you.
But Lacour’s haunting sequences would be nothing without her particular aesthetic sensibilities. Keeping mostly to some variation on a 2-by-4 grid, Lacour orients herself to, for lack of a better term, a wide aspect ratio. This gives her pages a significant horizontal berth, and she uses this layout to frequently bifurcate or trifurcate a space. In such sequences, a panel is a direct visual continuation of the previous one, creating an illusion of fluidity and movement, guiding the eye quickly from one image to the next. This is all part and parcel of Lacour’s overall aesthetic concern, which is a sense of immediacy, intimacy, and drawing herself and her work as closely as possible to her audience. She achieves this immediacy principally through her line and her coloring.
It’s clear that her inked lines are not ruled out. They waver, they are uneven, they move awkwardly in all different directions. They lack a certain mechanical precision, but her panels and pages are nonetheless striking, offering a distinct expressiveness. Her coloring similarly serves as a kind of connective tissue between herself and her audience, and her hand is present on every page in a tactile and tangible way. Her marks—sometimes appearing to be brushstrokes, other time those of a marker, and other times still, those of a pencil—are omnipresent, and they beautifully texture her pages. By not concealing her labor, Lacour makes the pages of The Disciple loud, personal, and humane—the unique product of her individual particularities and efforts.
These aesthetic details are particularly effective because of what Lacour chooses to draw—a figure set in the distance, their whole being appearing to shiver; two disembodied hands pushing toward one another, trying to breach the gutter between panels; the authorial gaze slowly, quietly drifting away from a decapitated golem. And it is with these visual choices that she is able to so effectively hook her audience. As she slowly unfolds her fantastical narrative, she offers readers an immediately satisfying experience that operates at some sub-articulate level. [Shea Hennum]