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.

Attacking the World's Psychics

Astonishing X-Men #2-7 (Marvel, October 2017 to March 2018, $3.99)
One of several X-Men team books coming out of Inhumans vs. X-Men, this comic—the fourth series with this title—is written by Charles Soule. It features a team led by Psylocke including Logan, Beast, Rogue, Gambit, Fantomex, Bishop, and Angel. That grouping's not too dissimilar from the 1994-1995 pre-Age of Apocalypse Uncanny X-Men team.

This run of issues, which includes the bulk of the Life of X storyline and kicks off the storyline A Man Called X, is not just a fun read, but an important event in the history of the X-Men. Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King, has been attacking the world's psychics to find one strong enough to help him bring his darkness completely to the world.

Professor X, believed dead since Cyclops killed him in Avengers Vs. X-Men, is in fact still active on the astral plane (!!!), and challenges Farouk to distract him. Meanwhile, Psylocke, protected by Angel and Bishop, sends the X-Men to find Farouk, as well.

Soule's writing is solid—he's one of my favorite superhero writers—and there's a different artist every issue. #2 is drawn by Mike Deodato, Jr., perhaps the best of the bunch. The other issues are drawn by Ed McGuinness, Carlos Pacheco, Ramon Rosanas (perhaps the next best in this run of issues), Mike del Mundo, and Phil Noto.

Without offering a play-by-play description of the issues, here are some highlights:

#2: The splash panel with Farouk and Professor X, seeing various team members cycle through the same dramatic roles in an imagined play, and Wolverine sniffing Beast
#3: Wolverine's goals ("Logan has built himself a reality. A very simple one, with only two elements. The lair of his enemy, and a path leading to it."), and Angel's forgiveness
#4: Carlos Pacheco's cover, Bishop's fall, and the temptations of the imagined realities
#5: The possessed Gambit and pp. 12-13
#6: The issue's dreamlike quality and the return of X
#7: Phantomex's choice, the return of Proteus, and a Marvel Value Stamp

This is an X series worth reading. Soule's up to some fun stuff, and even with the shift in story lines, there are still enough open threads that it's not entirely clear where things will go.

Availability: #1-6 will be collected in Astonishing X-Men by Charles Soule Vol. 1: Life of X in March this year. You can also buy these issues online.

Monday, January 08, 2018

An Unexpected Ally

Batman #332 (DC, February 1981, 50 cents)
"Fallout!" Writer: Marv Wolfman, Artists: Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin, Letterer: Ben Oda, Colorist: Adrienne Roy, Editor: Paul Levitz. (17 pages)

Fans of the current run of Batman would do well to return to this era of the title, as well. In the first chapter of the Lazarus Affair, a frightened Archer Templeton escapes Infinity Island in the Indian Ocean, only to be disintegrated by a crimson retriever. Meanwhile, in the Batcave, Robin leaves, distrusting Talia al Ghul's presence in Batman's life. Batman learns that Gregorian Falstaff is threatening Wayne Enterprise's business and that Bruce Wayne's secretary Caroline Crown has been "feeding him the numbers he needed to underbid us."

Batman encounters a "mutate," basically a muscular pinhead that is "anything but defeatable." Learning that Crown's daughter is being held hostage, Wayne goes to confront Falstaff—and Robin seeks assistance from an unexpected ally: Selina Kyle. Drugged by Talia, Batman goes to Falstaff, interrupting a meeting between the two before taking on a group of the pinheaded mutates. Batman defeats Falstaff and rescues Crown's daughter just before Catwoman arrives—just in time to see Batman kissing Talia al Ghul.

While Falstaff and the Mutates are pretty silly, the artwork on pp. 11 and 14 is excellent. The last three panels of p. 14 are particularly poignant and lead into the next story well.

"Cat's Paw!" Writer: Marv Wolfman, Artists: Don Newton and Steve Mitchell, Colorist: Adrienne Roy, Letterer: Todd Klein, Editor: Paul Levitz. (Eight pages)

A reformed Catwoman thwarts several crimes undertaken by colleagues of the defeated Falstaff. "We all have our masters... even Gregorian Falstaff! He was working for someone else... someone with true power." At the Northern Division Power Station, she finds a new batch of mutates and destroys them, perhaps uncovering a connection to Talia al Ghul.

This might be the first time I've seen a backup story not just include a character also featured in the main story, but also run parallel in terms of storyline. It's a practice that should be explored more often. The backup story in this case goes beyond the main story, filling in the cracks while progressing the plot importantly. Fascinating. The issue ends with a one-page letter column, "Bat Signals."

Availability: This issue has not been collected. We recommend Catwoman: A Celebration of 75 Years.

Barbarella Is Captured

Barbarella #1 (Dynamite, 2017, $3.99)
While I've not yet seen the 1968 movie Barbarella starring Jane Fonda, its place in pop culture is secure, and the film itself was based on a 1964 French comic by Jean-Claude Forest. Now, Dynamite is bringing a licensed comic adaptation to a new (perhaps) generation of science fiction fan and comics reader.

Written by Mike Carey and drawn by Kenan Yarar, this issue is mostly a straight-forward science-fiction adventure, with some mature elements. Barbarella is captured by the uber-religious (think Warhammer 40,000 reglious) Parosians after she drops into normal space because of a ship malfunction.

Because she is a healthy-bodied female—something the Parosians find sacrilegious—she is taken to the body looms and sent to a prison labor camp. There, she meets Quire, who is actually a spy.

Yarar's art is excellent for a science fiction story and reminiscent of a bande dessinee. There are some erotic moments bordering on the flip or gratuitous ("I have a fully functional vagina. That's not a crime."), and the sensual art (pp. 14-16)—though involving women—seems oriented toward a male audience. While not as subtle as the erotic undertones of Hack/Slash Vs. Vampirella, those aspects don't distract from the comic overall, and it can be read largely as a space adventure.

Recommended not just to fans of Barbarella, but to science fiction fans generally!

Availability: This issue is available online. We also recommend Barbarella : Barbarella and The Wrath of the Minute-Eater.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Team Up to Hunt

Hack/Slash Vs. Vampirella #1-3 (Dynamite, 2017, $3.99)
This is one of those crossover comics I was talking about. I've never read Hack/Slash; though I've been vaguely aware of it, I don't know anything about it at all. But I do enjoy Vampirella, so I sometimes pick up Vampirella material even if it's outside an ongoing series. It seems reasonable that someone who likes Hack/Slash might like Vampirella, and vice versa, but I'm not sure how big an audience such a crossover book will bring—or which reader is being brought to which property.

Regardless, the pairing works. Shawn Aldridge's writing is interesting and action-oriented enough that the comic reads well plot wise, and Rapha Lobosco's artwork is serious enough that it works for a horror comic—and light enough that it allows for the series' humor to come through. "Same s!@# used to happen whenever I'd see T-Boz in a TLC video."

The gist of the matter is this: Cassandra Hack is a monster hunter, kind of a cross between a movie-style Harley Quinn and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her partner in crime Vlad—the Slash of the pairing—might not be human and reminds me a little of Frankenstein by way of RanXerox. Vampirella, then, is Vampirella, alien vampire.

The three meet while in Las Vegas, as Vampirella hunts the Blood Red Queen of Hearts. They team up to hunt the villainess together, but things don't go entirely as planned. #1 is mostly setup, #2 features a funny meet cute between Slash and Vampirella—and identifies Hack as an unexpected threat—and #3 is mostly fight scene: fisticuffs and inner turmoil.

I'm not sure I'd read Hack/Slash on its own, but as a Vampirella comic, this is a fun series—worth picking up. As a crossover, while I think Vampirella is the stronger of the pairing, Hack/Slash holds up enough on its own that I can understand its existing as its own comic. This is no giant shouldering a lesser title, even if it's not an equal pairing.

Availability: You can buy the issues online. We also recommend Hack/Slash Omnibus, Vol. 1Vampirella: The Dynamite Years Omnibus Vol. 1, and Vampirella: The Best of the Warren Years.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Escape the Inescapable

Mister Miracle #1-5 (DC, November 2017 to February 2018, $3.99)
Now, this is a comic book. Written by Tom King and drawn by Mitch Gerads, this comic is more than just a new series featuring Jack Kirby's 1970s Fourth World character. In fact, it was somewhat difficult at first to read Kirby's naming while reading someone else's work. That soon changed as the series became its own thing, and a thing worth reading.

I'm not going to recount the plot or events of these five issues. Just know that the New Gods are here. Darkseid has returned, and Orion, erstwhile highfather, is leading the forces against him. He enlists—commands—the aid of Mister Miracle and his wife Barda, who soon fall short of his expectations.

But things aren't as they seem. Mister Miracle tries to escape the inescapable at the outset, and much of the series reads as though a fever dream. Is this real? What is the meaning of life? Is Funky Flashman John Byrne? (He contributed to New Gods in the mid-'90s.) For the most part, the comic book is a meditation on meaning, on love, on family. #4's trial and #5's couple's day out are particularly wonderful examples of modern superhero storytelling. More than a superhero comic, this is a very human comic—mundane and fantastic in equal measure.

Availability: You can buy individual issues online. The original 18 issues have also been collected.

Secret Ninja Soldiers

Ninja-K #1-2 (Valiant, November-December 2017, $3.99)
This is a new series featuring a character that first appeared in the 1993 Valiant Ninjak series, which ran 28 issues before being canceled mid-storyline. Already, this series featuring writing by Christos Gage and art by Tomas Giorello (along with several introductory pages by Roberto de la Torre in #2 that show promise), makes me wonder why the previous series didn't last longer. (The '90s Bloodshot, also recently relaunched, for example, ran 50-plus issues.) The character has legs!

Since the early 1900s, MI6 has used a line of secret ninja soldiers (starting with Ninja-A) to do things the usual British army couldn't—or wouldn't. Each trained its successor until the arrival of the Jonin, a dedicated teacher. This issue establishes that lineage, focusing mostly on Ninja-A, -B, and -D—undoubtedly the best"—before introducing the current iteration, Ninja-K.

After rescuing an ambassador's son. Ninja-K returns to the arms of his lover in London, a woman he served with in Unity (whatever that is). She gives him an ultimatum just before Neville arrives to inform him about a series of murders targeting other operatives in the ninja program. Ninja-K goes to meet with Ninja-D's backup D-3 in the Cotswolds, where he learns about Madame Charade, a mistress of disguise and Ninja-D's obsessive paramour before it all goes to heck.

Giorello's artwork is stellar. (Has he drawn Batman yet? He could.) Combined with Diego Rodriguez's colors, the visuals are detailed, dark, and well suited for a spy and ninja comic. Highlights of #1 include p. 2, 4, 6, the spread on pp. 8-9, and 32 (worthy of a Howard Chaykin pinup, that one!). Very solid and moody without getting muddy or overly violent or bloody—despite the violent nature of the comic.

#2 opens with five pages drawn by Roberto de la Torre to offer an interlude from 1952, perhaps setting up #1's less-mentioned Ninja-C as an antihero, enemy, or foil for the ninja program. Ninja-K survives the end of #1 and heads to Luxembourg to confront Madame Charade. Pp. 11-15 are among the best pages I've read in comics for some time—the very concept of the Madame Charade character over time is fascinating.

Ninja-K continues to the Birmingham facility where Ninja-D worked at the end of his career, where he makes a startling discovery and meets a new, perhaps old, enemy. This issue also includes an eight-page backup story (huzzah!) drawn by Ariel Olivetti showcasing an early mission from 1918.

This comic is more Master of Kung Fu than Usagi Yojimbo, and strikes me more strongly than I remember Steven Grant's Whisper.

Availability: A previous Ninjak series has been collected starting with Ninjak Volume 1: Weaponeer

Converts to the Kong Religion

Skull Island: The Birth of Kong #3-4 (Legendary, 2017, $3.99)
Kong: Gods of Skull Island #1 (Boom, October 2017, $7.99)
Kong on the Planet of the Apes #1-2 (Boom, November-December 2017, $3.99)

The release of the Kong: Skull Island movie last year brought a welcome rash of Kong-related comic books, of which these are three examples. Each comic or series does its own thing slightly differently, and all do it well.

Skull Island: The Birth of Kong comes closest to what an ongoing Kong series might feel like, similar perhaps to Godzilla in Hell or Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters. (Even with the recent issues of Hammer comics such as Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, the Godzilla comics are as close as we get to ongoing monster comics.) The series is a sequel/prequel of sorts to the Skull Island movie. Arvid Nelson's writing and Zid's art and colors combine well to capture the lush expanse of the island's foliage and geology, as well as its inhabitants, living and dead.

A party of armed explorers led by Aaron Brooks, following in the footsteps of his father, meets with the resident natives, and one, Riccio, converts to the Kong religion. Their journey takes readers to many of the major sites of the film, including the valley of the fallen gods, where the current Kong's origin is told, and includes the major creatures, as well, including the skull crawlers. Riccio decides the best way to test whether Kong is a protector is to destroy the wall protecting the village, opening it to threat.

The artwork is particularly impressive. Almost full-page panels delight, and the images of Kong in action are powerful, especially #4's pp. 9-10, 14, and 17. It is the combination of place—the land—and races—its inhabitants—that makes this comic most impressive. Skull Island is an awe-inspiring location.

Each issue includes several pages of "Monarch Declassified Field Notes," which offers background information on some of the new fauna of the island, including the magma turtle, swamp locust, spore mantis, and mother longlegs. The Godzilla comics makers could learn from that: Don't just roll call through the existing creatures, introduce others worth of inclusion in the mythos!

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Festive Fables

DC Holiday Special 2017 (DC, February 2018, $9.99)
Thank you, DC, for publishing this. Once major comics publishers stopped running backup stories (or tryout books) as a matter of course, annuals and one shots like this used to be the most effective tryout opportunities we had for new artists and writers looking to break into the Big Two. Now that even annuals and one shots are few and far between, books like this are a surprise. And this one—despite the mixed quality occasionally resulting from tryout opportunities—is solid and impressive.

Framed by a bookend piece written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Giuseppi Camuncoli—and featuring John Constantine and Superman, of all people—this holiday special includes nine "festive fables" featuring a mix of popular and promising characters, including Batman, Green Arrow and Black Canary, Sgt. Rock, the Flash, Deathstroke, the Atomic Knights, the Teen Titans, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman and Batman. The book also includes a reprint of "The Silent Night of the Batman," pairing Neal Adams and Dick Giordano artistically from Batman #219 in February 1970.

The special also includes a mix of well-known and less-established creators, as well—which helps result in the even-balanced context of the stories. Among the highlights of the issue are the moody Batman story written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Steve Epting; the amazing, largely muted-colored Sgt. Rock piece offered by Tom King and Francesco Francavilla (by far the best thing in the special—and perhaps a sign that the time has come for a Sgt. Rock return); and the Atomic Knights story from Dan DiDio and Matthew Clark (the Knights continue to intrigue and impress me; I wonder how well they do with other readers?).

Two pieces really surprised me. Joshua Williamson and Neil Googe's Flash item, while not sporting the kind of artwork I am usually drawn to, really affected me emotionally. And the Deathstroke item by Priest and Tom Grummett suggests that perhaps DC should just drop the silly costume and retool Deathstroke as a Quarry-like hit man or gun for hire.

Well done, DC. Thank you for continuing to give the gift of your comics. May 2018 bring only the best and brightest.

Availability: You can buy this issue online. The Batman reprint was also collected in Batman: Illustrated by Neal Adams Vol. 2.