Friday, January 19, 2018

Adventure Comics

Adventure Comics #378 (DC, March 1969, 12 cents)
"Twelve Hours to Live!" Script: Jim Shooter, Layouts: Jim Shooter, Pencils: Win Mortimer, Inks: Jack Abel, Letters: Joe Letterese, Editor: Mort Weisinger.

A tale of the Legion of Super-Heroes, this comic book features Superboy and other members of the LSH. It is Brainiac 5's birthday, and because of some undetected poison—Rakurga—Karate Kid, Superboy, Duo Damsel, Princess Projectra, and Brainiac 5 himself have only 12 hours to live.

They spend their remaining time in different ways. Brianiac uses his twelfth-level brain to find an antidote. Superboy visits Smallville before saving a Martian city from a glacier, rescuing a Space Roc, and otherwise "devoting even the last hours of his life to the good of the galaxy!" Duo Damsel second guesses the value of her powers and spends time with her mother and father in the suburbs. Karate Kid goes on a suicide mission against the Fatal Five—a team of villains worth revisiting, perhaps. Pp. 11-17 are pretty incredible.

Princess Projectra moons over Karate Kid before going to a senso-theater. In Metro Square Park, she meets Myron Marks, park-bench philosopher, who shows her how to face death calmly. The group reconvenes to write their will on a steel tablet, bequeathing various items to the Legion before sinking into comas. The issue also features a one-page letter column, "The Letter Outpost," which features correspondence as prose rather than as discrete letters.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Brave Cavemen and Circus Clowns

World's Finest Comics #138 (DC, December 1963, 12 cents)
World's Finest wasn't always a Superman-Batman team up book, but at this stage in its history, it was—but hadn't yet turned into primarily a Superman book. As represented by the cover alone, this issue is pretty goofy. The cover, drawn by Dick Dillin and inked by Sheldon Moldoff, shows Batman, Robin, and Superman, bearded, clothing torn, and bearing caveman weapons, as frog-like aliens train zap guns on them.

"The Secret of the Captive Cavemen" Script: Bill Finger, Art: Jim Mooney. (15 pages)
An alien being discovers that its Z-beam doesn't work on Earthlings, so it goes to the public library to learn why. "The modern Earthling is not affected, so you must go into the past!" The heroes use the time-machine of their friend Professor Nichols after alerting Superman. "50,000 years in the past," Batman and Robin encounter a woolly rhinoceros before befriending some brave cavemen after Superman's arrival.

To trick the aliens, the superheroes tear their costumes and glue hairs cut from animal hides to their faces so they look more caveman-like. The aliens' Z-beam "robs the mind of will power" when used against cavemen, so the heroes act like they're under the aliens' control. They learn that the cavemen are being forced to mine drakkium from a quarry as slaves because unrefined drakkium is deadly to the aliens. The aliens also plan to take over the modern-day Earth by bombarding it with refined drakkium, which is harmful to humans. The aliens do not succeed.

"Little Pete" Written and drawn: Henry Boltinoff. (One-half page)
Pete hits a home run and breaks up the ball game because he broke Mrs. Brown's window.

"The Secret Face of Funny-Arrow" Script: Ed Herron, Art: Lee Elias. (10 pages)
The Green Arrow goes up against a criminal who either is or is not Funny-Arrow, a performing circus clown. Of the two stories in this issue, this is the more interesting, and Elias's artwork is excellent. Funny-Arrow's presence at the scenes of crimes is suspicious, and the character is just comic enough to not be obviously criminal.

"Peter Puptent" Written and drawn: Henry Boltinoff. (One page)
The explorer meets a business man while on safari.

The issue also includes a one-page text piece, "Build Your Own Universe," which focuses on astronomy-related models and hobbies.

Availability: The Superman, Batman and Robin story has been collected in Showcase Presents World's Finest Vol. 2. The Green Arrow piece was collected in Showcase Presents: Green Arrow, Vol. 1.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Gone Undercover

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie #4 and 6 (Dynamite, 2017, $3.99)

Even if you don't know or like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, this is a wonderful, straight-ahead mystery comic. It reminds me of Ms. Tree, Criminal, and 100 Bullets. It also reminds me a little of the Riverdale TV show and perhaps even Veronica Mars.

From these two issues, written by Anthony Del Col and drawn by Werther Dell'Edera, I gather that Fenton Hardy supposedly committed suicide (!!!). Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have gone undercover with a local gang, immersing themselves in Bayport's criminal underground to find the true killer.

Dell'Edera's art is semi-realistic and captures the noir of mystery well, but is cartoony enough to not become overly threatening. Of the youth detective characters, Drew is more of a strong presence than either Hardy, which struck me as odd but good. #4 includes some pretty neat elements, including the statue of General Jack Smith being a literal entry point to the criminal underground.

The return to the caves and "our old adventures" in #6 is a pleasant almost-callback to the original books—and the shadowy art on pp. 12-14 is pretty darn cool. P. 14 is almost all shape and silhouette—a technique that intrigues me.

A sleeper hit! The comic doesn't need the licensed characters. Perhaps the licensed characters need the comic.

Availability: These issues are available in Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys: The Big Lie.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Tough Pill

The Divided States of Hysteria #6 (Image, November 2017, $3.99)
Written and drawn by Howard Chaykin, this series follows up his relatively straight-forward noir comic Midnight of the Soul. While the first few issues of this new work felt slightly dense, busy, and difficult to parse, by this point in the series, the multi-layered story—though complex—is easier to read. Perhaps the reader becomes more literate in the comic's form and function with each successive issue.

It is a difficult comic structurally. Chaykin incorporates narrative elements not common to most comics today: little tweet icons and other social media discourse buttons and bugs, photorealistic panel design and elements, and a preponderance of sound effects. The end result is dense, cluttered, but meaningful pages and panels—and a comment of sorts on the age's overwhelming media soup surrounding us. How does one get signal through all the noise?

It is also a difficult comic thematically. It is not a nice, kind, or friendly comic. That doesn't mean it's a hateful comic, but it's not a considerate or patient comic. By this issue, if you made it this far, that might seem OK. But Chaykin pulls no punches on shedding light on some of the more problematic aspects of race, gender, sex, and  class relations and divisions in America today. "The freedoms this nation once promised to any and all... the rights once offered to a free people in a free country... have been supplanted and perverted by a national narcissism... redefining our rights as whatever we may feel like doing at any given moment."

Regardless of your politics, it's a tough pill to stomach, but medicine (more inoculation than curative) worth seeking. An impressive, challenging, important comic that's also fun to read. This issue also includes editorial comments by Chaykin in a column titled "Undivided Attention."

Availability: Divided States of Hysteria will be collected mid-month. You can also buy individual issues online.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Ragman's Rags

Ragman #3 (DC, February 2018, $2.99)
Chapter three of this new series written by Ray Fawkes and drawn by Inaki Miranda progresses the story in three important ways. First of all, Ragman encounters Batwoman, who tells him that other heroes in the city are watching him, that he's not alone. "Anyone who says he's got eyes on us in this mess is lying, sir."

Secondly, Rory's fellow Marine, Jim Fanshawe, emerges as a villain. Left limbless by a bomb while serving overseas, he is visited by a mysterious figure and turned into a force to be reckoned with. "His flesh is toxic, the ooze infernal." And third, a damaged summoning circle in an abandoned theater doesn't summon the expected invading lord Z'Dargill, but Etrigan, the Demon, who helps turn the tide. (The Demon also currently has his own series; does Ragman cross over to its pages?)

I haven't read the preceding series, but this new outing seems to have more in common with the '90s titles than the original 1976 series. Interestingly, Elaine Lee wrote the 1993 miniseries Cry of the Dead. More could be done artistically with Ragman's rags, but the art is enjoyable, particularly those pages portraying Fanshawe.

Availability: You can buy this issue online. This series will be collected in July.

Friday, January 12, 2018

To Topple the Kingpin

The Punisher Magazine #11-12 (Marvel, June-July 1990, $2.25)
I don't understand why they published The Punisher Magazine. I always thought the reason to go magazine format was to bypass restrictions from the Comics Code Authority, to do things you couldn't do in a comic book. You also benefit from a larger page size and the rich moodiness enabled by black and white on newsprint—perfect for horror and adventure.

As Marvel's answer to Mack Bolan, the Punisher seemed ripe for a more mature newsstand magazine, like the mid-'80s Savage Tales. But this wasn't it. Instead, the magazine reprinted issues of the comic book (these two issue reprint #15-18). That's fine—the comic's not bad—but colored artwork isn't always well suited for black-and-white reproduction, and Portacio's art is a little hash-marky for B&W.

#11: "To Topple the Kingpin" Script: Mike Baron, Layout: Whilce Portacio, Finishes: Scott Williams, Letters: Ken Bruzenak, Editor: Carl Potts, Under a Heavy Load: Tom DeFalco.

The Punisher goes after the Kingpin after routing a youth gang in a high school. Building his own Able Team, he enlists the help of Microchip ("Buckminster Fuller's my idol."), a high school student, a chemistry teacher, and too-fleeting love interest Conchita Ortiz. Meanwhile, the Kingpin brings in the specialist Mr. Kliegg.

"Escalation" Script: Mike Baron, Layout: Whilce Portacio, Finished Art: Scott Williams, Letters: Ken Bruzenak, Editor: Carl Potts, Editor with Ammo: Tom DeFalco.

Kliegg is quickly defeated, so the Kingpin turns to a high-school computer hacker, the Board, who discovers the computer bug planted by Microchip. The team takes their fight to the King's Inn, a hotel in which the Kingpin has momentarily moved his operations. "The Kingpin's got some kind of battle bus!"

The issue also includes a one-page pin up by Dan Reed, and a letter column, "Shoot Your Mouth Off!"

Read Also: The Punisher Magazine #6, 9, and 10. (Unless the issue reference captions went un-edited from the original comics, in which case, read also The Punisher #6, 9, and 10.)

DC's Hogwarts

Mystik U #1 (DC, January 2018, $5.99)
Inspired by a recent Zatanna appearance in Detective Comics #959,  I picked this up—and it might be the most fun comic I've read in awhile. Imagine, if you will, if Harry Potter existed in the DC universe. He'd go to Mystik University, natch, and Mystik U is DC's Hogwarts. The series—written by Alisa Kwitney and drawn by Mike Norton—takes place seven years pre-Malevolence, which smacks of the name of a big comic event, but I'm not aware of a Malevolence. Regardless, it doesn't sound good and is clearly worth avoiding.

A current-day Zatanna is sent into the past by Rose to "weave us a different beginning." There, she is sent to Mystik U after accidentally sending her father to hell while on stage. "You've just come into your power." At the school, she meets several new friends, including Sebastian Faust, Pia, Davit, and June Moone, the Enchantress. She also meets members of the university's staff and faculty, including Cain and Abel, a troll named Gerd, Merlin, Baron Winter, and Mr. E.

A "rampaging invertebrate" threatens the campus. It is found to be friendly, but not immediately. Along the way, characters are introduced, students hook up, and the emergence of a larger threat is identified. The comic is very promising. It has an interesting cast, a fascinating setting, and a firm but flexible footing in DC's mystical comics history.

What I think might be most interesting is the tenor and tone. Yes, the comic is grounded in DC's horror lineage: House of Mystery, House of Secrets, the Phantom Stranger, and Secrets of Sinister House. But the comic is anything but dark or heavy. It's light and breezy without being flip or dismissive, not at all dark or heavy—despite its subject matter. There are so many possibilities.

Availability: We recommend Zatanna by Paul Dini and Justice League Dark Vol. 1: In the Dark.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Promotional Comic

Raw Data: Ride the Wave (Survios, 2017, free)
The third in a series of seven promotional comic books, this issue focuses on the hero character Boss from the VR first-person shooter video game Raw Data, the first consumer VR game to sell $1 million in a month. It's a 10-page read written by Jonathan Callan and drawn by Darick Robertson.

Boss, a cybernetic mercenary, wakes in a hotel to discover that a reckless kid stole his stuff, including his coat. He gives chase, eventually catching up with the thief. "The fall is inevitable. There's no avoiding that. All you can do is manage the landing."

As a scene setter for a video game, the comic works. This is an effective way to communicate back story and develop characters beyond what might be possible in a VR game, and the comic is classic cyberpunk stuff: William Gibson by way of Shadowrun. There are some friendly in jokes, such as a billboard saying "Drink Emig," name dropping the comic's editor.

The true test of a promotional comic might be this: Does it make you want to try the product or service it promotes? Truth be told, it didn't make me want to play the game. But it did make me want to read the comic. I read this issue twice and will probably read it again. And—if the characters were more fully fleshed out—I could easily see this as an ongoing licensed comic published by Dynamite (publisher of Agent 47), Titan (which puts out Assassin's Creed Origins and Quake Champions), or even Dark Horse (which does Dragon Age comics).

The back matter includes several advertisements for Eden Corp. products.

Availability: The previous issues are available online. We recommend William Gibson's Neuromancer.

Interesting but Not Important

X-Men Blue #15, 17-18 (Marvel, January-February 2018, $3.99)
This is another X-Men comic series that emerged out of Inhumans vs. X-Men. It comprises the original X-Men—Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Angel, Beast, and Iceman—displaced in time and joined by Jimmy Hudson, son of a Wolverine from another universe. Confused yet? It's a fun read, although not the return to the original team I was looking for, and a good example of how complicated and convoluted an X-Men comic can seem if you haven't immersed yourself in the world for awhile.

#15 is the last part of the Mojo Worldwide storyline and was written by Cullen Bunn and drawn by Jorge Molina. Broadcast terrorist Mojo has left the Mojoverse to terraform New York as his new base of operations. Given that this is the last issue, most of the action is behind us, but a lot still happens. Iceman and Magog face off while others on the team get Longshot to the control room to disrupt transmissions. "Take the fight to these broadcast technicians!" The battle with Mojo himself takes a turn with the arrival of Danger, Magneto, and Polaris, but Mojo's defeat isn't complete—opening up a fascinating new opportunity for stories.

This was a great comic to read so soon after the Astonishing X-Men run featuring the Shadow King. Mojo and Farouk have a lot in common! I will have to seek out the preceding issues, as well as other Mojo greatest hits.

#17-18, then pick up in the Cross Time Capers storyline, again written by Bunn and now drawn by R.B. Silva. Because of the paradox that the X-Men Blue team represents, the time stream is crumbling, and the group has been thrown into 2099. There, they meet another X team, which includes Skullfire, Bloodhawk, Cerebra, Metalhead, and Krystalin. (It's awesome to see a writer creating new characters, even if it's in an alternative timeline or universe!)

The team learns that they—in this timeline—took over a company called Alchemax, which led to massive class division and suffering, Sentinel-like killer robots, and perhaps the destruction of Xavier's school, run in this timeline by Banshee and Emma Frost. (Confused yet?) Despite some interesting possibilities, it all feels a little unimportant and unreal given that it's in an alternative time stream. And if the team's very existence is having such deleterious effect on time itself, the group—and this title—might not be long for the world.

This series is kind of a What If? series, only focusing on the X-Men, and with a consistent roster. It's interesting, but perhaps not as important as Astonishing X-Men or X-Men Gold.

Availability: X-Men Blue #1-6 were collected in X-Men Blue Vol. 1: Strangest, and #7-12 are available in X-Men Blue Vol. 2: Toil and Trouble. Otherwise, you can buy the issues online. The Mojo Worldwide storyline will be collected in February in X-Men Gold Vol. 3: Mojo Worldwide. Cross Time Capers will come out as X-Men Blue Vol. 3: Cross-Time Capers in April.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Sound of a Skrull God Dying

Incredible Hercules #120 (Marvel, October 2008, $2.99)
Writers: Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente; Penciler: Rafa Sandoval; Inkers: Roger Bonet and Greg Adams; Colors: Gracia with Calero and Trevino; Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna; Cover: Romita, Janson, and White; Production: Joe Sabino; Assistant Editor: Nathan Cosby; Editor: Mark Paniccia; Editor in Chief: Joe Quesada; Publisher: Dan Buckley.

New Avengers: Illuminati might have been my first exposure to the Secret Invasion event. This strange Hercules comic book was my second. This title has an odd lineage. It's not so much a Hercules series in the sense that the miniseries published in the '80s were as it is a continuation of a Hulk title—with an ever-shifting name. The title was called at various times Hulk, Incredible Hulk, Incredible Hercules (for almost 30 issues!), and Incredible Hulks.

This issue sports an eye-catching John Romita, Jr., cover. Even though the book showcased Hercules, it was a team book of sorts, featuring the titular hero, Snowbird (of Alpha Flight), Ajak (one of the Eternals), Mikaboshi, Atum, and Amadeus Choi. Up against two Skrull gods, Kly'bn the Eternal Skrull and Sl'gur't of the Infinite Names, the team is floundering.

Snowbird is thought dead, and Ajak wrests the group's leadership from Hercules before attacking Kly'bn. Atum takes on Sl'gur't before dying at her, ahem, hands... before Amadeus himself falls. In the end, Kly'bn falls, but at the expense of many of these characters, some of whom I'd read of for the first time.

Given the awesome subject matter—gods and Skrulls? Lovely.—Pak and Van Lente have plenty of paper to play with. The issue's opening mythological exposition was very interesting, as was the story of Snowbird's return—and the destruction of the Book of Worlds. Ajak's criticism of Hercules is apt, and I'm sure we'll see him again. "Earthbound Eternals have a habit of resurrecting themselves."

Otherwise, it's a fight scene: blood, and bones, and entrails. Sound effects abound. My favorites include "Whakachakaboom!!!", "Shkkraakkkoww," "Qwfoosh!", and "Ga-Bloik!" For that is the sound of a Skrull god dying, impaled on the bone of an elder god.

Availability: This issue was collected in Incredible Hercules, Vol. 2: Secret Invasion. We also recommend Secret Invasion.

Roleplaying Game Comic Books

Dungeons & Dragons: Frost Giant's Fury #3-5 (IDW, February-April 2017, $3.99)
Dragon Age: Knight Errant #2, 4-5 (Dark Horse, June and August-September 2017, $3.99)
Pathfinder: Runescars #2, 4 (Dynamite, 2017, $4.99)

I haven't read roleplaying game comic books other than Knights of the Dinner Table for some time, and this batch of comics has been in my reading box for longer than I like admitting. All three series might be of interest to people who are already well versed—or active in—playing roleplaying games given their settings, characters, and concepts. Of the three, Dragon Age: Knight Errant might be best suited for someone interested in fantasy broadly, but not RPGs specifically. (That said, people interested in that series of video games might also be interested.) Even if these miniseries are no longer publishing, chances are good that each franchise has a new series going, so check the stands at your local shop.

Dungeons & Dragons: Frost Giant's Fury was intended to dovetail with release of the Storm Kings Thunder adventure module for the tabletop RPG and the related season of organized play in game stores around the world. If I remember correctly, the timing was off, and it was pretty far into the season before the comic shipped. Regardless, it's a fun read. Minsc the ranger and his space hamster Boo from the Baldur's Gate series of video games join several other adventurers—sorceress Delina, rogues Krydle and Shandie, and cleric Nerys—to investigate and thwart the intrigue among and between dragons and giants fighting to control Faerun.

Jim Zub's writing is good, but it's a little too transparent in the game lineage and mechanics. (This is an issue IDW's D&D comics have had from the beginning.) Delina might say something other than "Magic missile!" when casting that spell in #4, eh? Given that much of the comic is character driven, Netho Diaz's art concentrates on the humanoids, but in #3's pages with the white dragon in its cave during the snowstorm, readers get a little bit of the sense of wonder inherent in D&D. "Okay, lockpicker... talk." #5 goes a bit broader in its scale, offering several nice moments featuring the giants, including a two-page spread on pp. 4-5, and a face off between giant and dragon on pp. 12 and 15.

D&D players will be interested in the character sheets offered in each issue for the characters Krydle, Nerys, and Shandie, who are all sixth level, incidentally.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

An Imaginary Story

Action Comics #391 (DC, August 1970, 15 cents)
"The Punishment of Superman's Son" Script: Robert Kanigher, Pencils: Ross Andru, Inks: Mike Esposito. (15 pages)

I haven't read and don't really get the appeal of the idea behind the Super Sons, but they've returned. This older issue of Action Comics, featuring a cover by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, tells an imaginary story about the Super Sons in which Superman's son is overshadowed time and time again by Batman's son. "How can I think about wigs when I see Batman's son, everywhere I turn—doing the things our son should do!"

Superman, Jr., accidentally destroys a Flowering Fugue, the rarest plant in the universe, after his father collects it from a distant planet for the Metropolis Music Festival of Rare Instruments. He also races Batman, Jr., while Batman teases Superman—and Superman, Jr., decides not to help Batman, Jr., apprehend a gang because he mistook fake Kryptonite for real Kryptonite. (Wouldn't you be able to feel whether it was real Kryptonite?)

In the Fortress of Solitude, Superman, Jr., destroys a helper robot, accidentally freeing several dangerous beasts. At the end of the story, Superman is about to "destroy your superpowers forever" using some gold Kryptonite. Whatever, dude; it's an imaginary story. Who the heck cares?

Were you to determine your reading list based on the books on Superman's shelves on the first page, however, you'd be pretty well read. Text lettered on the spines of the books includes Art, Modern Art, Plato, Spinoza, Socrates, Space, Engels, Reid, Bacon, Ross, Ayer, Aquinas, Broad, James, Scotus, Zeno, Russell, Santayana, Spencer, Sartre, Einstein, and Taylor.

"The Ordeal of Element Lad" Script: Robert Kanigher, Pencils: Ross Andru. Inks: Mike Esposito. (10 pages)
In this tale of the Legion of Super-Heroes, Saturn Girl gets a job assisting Wandar, chief assistant for President Peralla on the planet Lahum—a cover to "get info on the mysterious chemical humanoids used by the dictator, Peralla." Meanwhile, Element Lad, Timber Wolf, Karate Kid, and Brainiac 5 confer with a rebel leader.

Chameleon Boy, disguised as a rebel lieutenant, determines that "his" girlfriend likes another rebel. "The revolution comes first, sweets!" The humanoids attack, but Brainiac has figured out the humanoids' formula, allowing Element Lad to make short work of the attackers. The rebel leader, however, is overly greedy. Pp. 6-7—especially the first panel on the latter page—are fun visually. The issue also includes a one-page letter column, "Metropolis Mailbag" including a letter from Martin Pasko.

Availability: DC has published at least two volumes of imaginary stories. The Legion of Super-Heroes story was collected in Showcase Presents: The Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 4 and Legion of Super-Heroes - Archives, Volume 9.