Brief Comic Book Reviews (Dec 19, 2018 to Jan 16, 2019)

I don’t do reviews that often and these are the first reviews of recent comics I’ve written since September 2018. My pull-list has not changed much, but even in places where I have dropped books I wasn’t enjoying anymore or ever (Black Panther, Captain America) other books keep popping in to take their places (Shuri, West Coast Avengers)  Meanwhile, series I love like Exiles are facing cancellation. Thankfully, getting Saladin Ahmed taking up G. Wilson Wilson’s torch and continuing Ms. Marvel (starting this spring) is some consolation. Speaking of Wilson, her writing Wonder Woman has me trying the book again, but I think I love the idea of Wonder Woman more than I’ve loved any of her actual comics except maybe the original wild and playful Marston and Peter run.

Most of the Marvel books that came out in this bunch include a banner memorializing Stan Lee (who passed away in November) and including some black pages within and a reprint of an old “soapbox” on the inside back cover. The soapbox expounds Lee’s oft-professed philosophy of making comics in terms of Marvel’s dedication to entertainment that also advances “the cause of intellectualism, humanitarianism, and mutual understanding. . .” it is a nice sentiment, but it is also very typical of Lee selling an image of a more sophisticated and progressive take than Marvel Comics really typically had (with a few exceptions). I am not a Stan Lee naysayer, but I also feel it is important to not slide into hagiography about him, something a certain element of fandom has been doing since the late 60s and that quite expectedly flared up upon his death.

Anyway, without further ado, some brief review of comics released on or between December 19, 2018 and January 16, 2019.

Astonisher #14 (released January 9, 2019)
Ryan o’Sullivan, Christopher Priest (writers), Al Barrionuevo (pencils), Matt “Batt” Banning (inks), Jaime Grant (colors), Willie Schubert (letters)

Over a year of this comic and I still can’t say for sure I know what is going on or what the protagonist’s powers might be. Hell, in this moment I can’t even remember his name or the name of most of the characters! And yet, there remains something about it I find fascinating. It’s fluidity. It’s sense of how the real and unreal fold in on each other and become indistinguishable, It has no traditional sense of the superhero narrative framework or morality. The hero is something like Iron Man meets Doctor Strange meets Cameron Hodge (from old X-Factor). The art can be pretty good, too. It can be dynamic. Electric in its suggestion of movement and power. But Barrionuevo needs to get better at character design and working to make characters distinguishable. I guess the writers could help out with that through voices as well. I recently joked on Twitter that I may be the only person buying this book because I haven’t even heard anyone so much as mention it. But as long as it keeps being weird and remains unafraid of not making sense (and they keep printing it), I will buy it. (I fear that it won’t last much longer).

Bitter Root #3 (released January 9, 2019)
David Walker, Chuck Brown (writers), Sanford Greene (pencils, inks, colors), Rico Renzi (colors), Clayton Cowles (letters)

I am going to fill you in on a secret. I have not read Bitter Root #1. By the time I had heard of the book the first issue was sold out and the second issue had been out a couple of weeks. However, since I take pride in my willingness to jump into serial narratives and eschew the necessity of completion, I grabbed issue #2 and it was so wild I was sold. Issue #3 has cemented the sense that this is a special book even if I am still not sure what the heck is going on. All I can say is that from what I can figure out this comic is part EC horror comic, part horror adventure in the tradition of Blade in Tomb of Dracula and all clearly inspired by the tradition of Black art in America. The story is engrossing. The action is frantic. And Greene’s art is at its best here. Wild in its use of space and layout and he draws great monsters. More people should be reading this book. This book both knows its history and plays with it. Great stuff.I had imagined nothing could make the book better but the issue includes an essay by one of my favorite current scholars Regina Bradley, entitled “Blood and the Rut.” There is another prose piece on the last page by John Jennings about Zora Neale Hurston.

Die #1 & #2 (released December 5, 2018 & January 9, 2019)
Kieron Gillen (writer), Stephanie Hans (art), Clayton Cowles (letters)

I kept hearing about this series on the periphery of my awareness, so when I found both issues while visiting New Dimension Comics on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, I snatched them up. The premise of this series is fantastic. Inspired by the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon from the 1980s, it imagines kids who have returned from such a fantasy game world made real after being gone two years and not being able to talk about it. Of course, twenty years later they end up back there as adults looking for the one kid who got left behind. It is a dark series that removes any cartooniness from the source material and replaces it with deep regret and pain. The art, when at its best, reminds me as painterly riffs on Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped The Lord of the Rings, but mostly it is too murky and stagnant. D&D is at least 35% about battles, but the first battle is a bunch of static scenes that don’t even follow a comprehensible throughline. When action is key to a genre, the comic artist needs to find dynamic ways to convey it. My hope is that if the artist can’t develop into a style, I hope at least that Gillen’s writing of the relationships and riffing on the tropes of the FRPG and the portal fantasy will keep me working at learning to like it. But for now, I will put it on the bubble.

Exiles vol. 3, #11 (released December 19, 2018)
Saladin Ahmed (writer), Javier Rodríguez (pencils), Álvaro Lopez (inks), Muntsa Vicente (colors), Joe Caramagna (letters)

I was sad to discover that this series was getting cancelled. As such, this is the penultimate issue. I guess I should be glad that the writer and artist get a chance to wrap up their story, but endings aren’t that important to me. I like ongoingness. In this issue, Ahmed and Rodríguez are playing with the common trope of the “evil” counterpart team, as Khan (aka dark future Ms. Marvel) appears with some silly variations on the characters: Iron Prince, X-2/3rds, some kind of hulked-out Steve Rogers, Shuri as a fiendish Black Panther, and skeletal Thor. Apparently, they are there at the behest of the shady Watchers who tried to put our heroes on trial a few issues back. Wolvie gets to save the day with his kindness and empathy, which is nice, but since it is leading to an untimely end the issue does feel a little too brisk in wrapping things up. As usual, however Rodríguez does great things with the art, and Vicente’s colors are bright and lovely.

Fantastic Four vol. 6, #5 (released December 26, 2019)
Dan Slott (writer), Joe Caramagna (letters), “4-Minute Warning:” Aaron Kruder (pencils, inks), Marte Garcia & Erick Arciniega (colors); “Change Partners:” Michael Allred (pencils, inks), Laura Allred (colors); “Guy’s Night Out:” Adam Hughes (pencils, inks, colors)

The 650th issue of a Fantastic Four comics (though after the recent lack of consistency in determining “Legacy Numbering” I have grown to be suspicious of such formulas) as many “anniversary issues” of the past, is a wedding issue, combining the tendency to reflect that comes with both the nuptial event and the arbitrary significance of some multiples of 25. Broken into three stories all written by Slott and handled by different artists, the issue succeeds in capturing some sense of classic Fantastic Four comics, in which their interpersonal familial drama is alternately interrupted and/or exacerbated by cosmic threats, giant monsters, and supervillains bent on world domination. The art is great throughout, though I was disappointed that Sara Pichelli, a big draw for my trying this new volume, did not contribute to this landmark issue. There are winking jokes throughout about how little the characters have changed despite how much time has passed, but at the same time Franklin and Valeria Richards are basically tweens, suggesting that some time has passed, some characters do age in superhero comics. They just age incongruently. I am still not sure if this is a series worth keeping up with, even if the special issue did its job of stoking nostalgia and providing the pleasure of reference recognition (Alicia’s first appearance, Johnny falling in love with an Alicia that turned out to be a Skrull while Ben was away on the first Battleworld, Ben’s status as Aquarian’s one-time legal guardian). I did appreciate that the re-telling of their origin in “Change Partners” focuses on the dynamic between Sue and Ben early in the series, and the quickly dropped plot point that Ben was jealous of Sue picking Reed over him. It creates an interesting opportunity to represent a maturing friendship between a man and a woman and doesn’t pretend that the tensions of the early days never happened. The issue ended with the FF heading to Latveria where Galactus has arrived to devour the world. Dr. Doom promises he will save the world, but also demands no one interfere. The upcoming issue seems like a better spot from which to evaluate the book’s status on the bubble of my pull-list. Thankfully, I have that one, too. (See below).

Fantastic Four vol. 6, #6 (released January 16, 2019)
Dan Slott (writer), Aaron Kuder (pencils, inks), Marte Garcia & Erick Arciniega (colors),  Joe Caramagna (letters)

I guess Sara Pichelli is already taking a break for an arc? Or is she off the book entirely? I don’t keep up with industry news enough to know these kinds of things. Aaron Kuder does a decent job filling in, but his Doom can look too cartoony.  That said, the three-dimensional effect used in a splash of Galactus reaching out to grab a Doom moving to intercept him is fantastic. And yes, the issue features both Galactus and Doom. Slott is coming in guns blaring for this run, but at this point these antagonists can feel more like expected set-pieces than actual characters or even stories. Slott is banging his FF against some foes and it is fun but not sure if it can move beyond being a played out self-reference. This remains on the bubble, but I will give this series until the end of this arc to earn its place on the pull-list.

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man vol.2, #1 (released January 9, 2019)
Tom Taylor (writer), Juann Cabal (pencils, inks), Nolan Woodward (colors), Travis Lanham (letters)

The last time I bought a comic titled Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man it was 2005, which goes to show that my sense of how long I have been back into comics is warped, because it seems simultaneously a long time ago (14 years!) and no time at all. Back then I groused that they were introducing a new series just to have it crossover with an “event” thus failing from the outset to set a distinct tone for that book. This time it seems Tom Taylor has the pull to establish a clear vision for his take on Spider-Man at the street level, literally dealing with his neighbors and other people in his neighborhood. The now cliche scene of Spidey saving a man and his daughter when their moving van falls of the Queensboro Bridge opens the book, but it is used as a set up to establish that Peter has been trying to help out some local homeless people. The rescued father wants to pay Spider-Man for his help, so Spidey directs him to give the money to those down on their luck and points out where to find them. The focus of the story however are events going on in his apartment building. Oh and for some reason the supervillain Boomerang is one of Peter’s roommates. I assume that is a consequence of something going on in another Spider-Man book. Whatever. The silliness is fine. I appreciate the small-stakes-can-be-big-stakes feel and it was for that reason that I even gave this book a try. Well, that and the fact that I loved (and still miss) Taylor’s All-New Wolverine. Juann Cabal’s art was also a big plus. There is also back-up story which looks like Taylor will be returning to the tried and true status quo of a sickly Aunt May, as the whole story is told through captions that are excerpts from a letter from May telling Peter about her cancer. She (of course) crumples the letter at the end of the story. Drama must be maintained, I guess. The art for the back-up was resolutely mediocre. I liked it distinctly less than the main story. Nevertheless, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man has earned a tentative spot on my pull-list.

Miles Morales: Spider-Man #2 (released January 9, 2019)
Saladin Ahmed (writer), Javier Garrón (pencils, inks), David Curiel (colors), Cory Petit (letters)

The cover of this issue is great and is the best way to include a reference to an old comic. While Marco D’Alfonso’s many-armed Miles references the time Peter Parker grew two additional sets of arms back in Amazing Spider-Man #100 (September 1971), even without knowing that reference, the image conveys Miles’s harried life. I guess, it is also using Hindu deity aesthetics. Ahmed’s writing for Miles Morales already has me ten times more invested in the character in two issues than any number of Bendis-written ones did. He seems to be giving Miles a real voice that is distinct and urban-inflected without being stilted or corny. The plot and its complications coming from Miles’s schoolwork and teachers is classic Spidey in the new era, and the unlikely team-up with the Rhino is Ahmed showing us his willingness to complicate the villains and portray them with some sympathy. The art could still use work. The panel-to-panel choreography of action (something crucial to most cape books, but especially crucial for good Spider-Man action) is weak, and what could have been very cool scenes – like Rhino doing some off the top of the ropes wrestling action off Miles’s webs – if they had been broken out and broken down some more. I would have loved to see it as a three-quarter page height two-page spread with three or four set-up panels above it. Javier Garrón is doing solidly mediocre work here. I can tolerate it, but this series would be better served by a Javier Rodriguez. Marcos Martin, or Javier Pulido. One last thing, I thought I found a coloring error on one the panels. It showed what looked to me like Miles’s skin through tears in his uniform. I read the paleness beneath as white skin and was irritated by the mistake. However, someone on Twitter suggested it is not skin at all, not even holes, just highlights on the back of the costume. I wanted to point out how what looked to me like an error betrays biases in assuming a default white identity for characters and we need to be cognizant of that. Now I just figure that those highlights are so poorly rendered my brain was looking for way to explain them and read them in a way that jives with my history of reading Spider-Man and his common wardrobe wear and tear. The only way I could makes sense of it was relying on the unintended biases of superhero comics.

Quincredible #2 (released December 19, 2018)
Rodney Barnes (writer), Selena Espiritu (pencils, inks), Kelly Fitzpatrick (colors), Tom Napolitano (letters)

I picked up this series after I saw Gail Simone describe it on Twitter and it sounded appealing. Plus, while I have dropped most of the Lion Forge books I’ve tried, I still give them a shot. This book seems more like what I wanted from Superb. It is something akin to early Spider-Man, in which our teen hero is trying to figure out for himself how to makes his powers work best and what he can do for his community, all while dealing with high school and its adolescent nightmares. Since Quin’s only power is invulnerability, figuring out how to use that proactively is a challenge in itself. As much as I like it, this issue gave me two things to keep an eye out for as I continue to read. First, that they are setting up a villain who seems to be the nth example of the progressive extremist turned to violence in a way that could easily become “bothsidesism” and discredit actual progressive politics. The second is that since this takes place in a black community, that even with good intentions, the effort to depict a “realistic” view of the hood, you end up representing black people as criminals constantly. That said, what I do like about the comic is that they have Quin consider in his own limited teen way the school-to-prison pipeline the trouble of making good choices in a compromised world. I like the use of color in this but the art itself is uneven. Espiritu’s figures are more interesting and expressive in her more traditional panel layouts. I tend to prefer seven or nine panel page breakdowns and think overlapping and/or skewed panels are overused throughout the superhero genre. I think she’d have even more success to hold back on those flashy moments and stick to more traditional paneling convention.

Runaways vol. 5, #16 (released December 19, 2018)
Rainbow Rowell (writer), Kris Anka (pencils, inks), Matthew Wilson (colors), Joe Caramagna (letters)

Man, I love this series and I love a Christmas issue! In this issue Rowell uses the occasion of the contentious family holiday dinner to have her characters play out their tense relations while discussing (or often just arguing about whether they should even discuss) their situation (being under house arrest awaiting the return of the Gibborim in two days to destroy the world). The simultaneous desire to encourage a time of peaceful communion, while holding on to deep grudges is what family gatherings are all about. This one just happens to involve two different people brought back from the dead, an ancient god captor, and a Doom Bot buddy who brought Baba Doom’s Thrice-Baked Potatoes as his potluck contribution.  The news is that Kris Anka is leaving the book soon. His art brings so much to this series that I worry that whoever fills his shoes just won’t be able to really fill those shoes. I am not expressly reviewing it here, but Runaways #17 (released January 2nd) was just as good and has me on the edge of my seat for #18.

Shuri #3 (released December 19, 2018)
Nnedi Okorafo (writer), Leonardo Romero (pencils, inks), Jordie Bellaire (colors), Joe Sabino (letters)

This series is so great and a refreshing change from the often dull and dour Coates-penned Black Panther from whence it springs. The Shuri in this comic has some of the trappings of Coates’s resurrected taciturn version, but has a hefty dose of the delightful Shuri of the Black Panther film. And thank goodness, because this comic feels more like an adventure. Teaming up with Rocket Raccoon while her astral form is trapped in the body of Groot and fighting sound-eating space bugs may sounds silly – and it is – but it is also fun and sets up an even bigger challenge for her and Wakanda coming down the road. The art style is lovely and the color palette is mostly bright with a few pages that are washed with a darker color tone over all, as needed. I look forward to seeing how this book evolves.

West Coast Avengers vol. 3, #6 (released December 19, 2018)
Kelly Thompson (writer), Daniele Di Nicuolo (pencils, inks), Triona Tree Farrell (colors), Joe Caramagna (letters)

I grabbed this series on a whim and have liked it so far, but this was something of weak issue. While I did appreciate the visual riffing on the original West Coast Avengers #2, who else besides old farts like me who were imprinting on mediocre superhero comics in the 80s are gonna get it? The story kind of turns its wheels in a generic supervillain deathtrap with cages hanging over shark tanks kinda way, while Madame Masque makes excuses for not killing them outright to her assembled cronies and wanna-bes (like Lady Bullseye and Satana Hellstrom). This series tends to be very self-aware (and with Gwenpool as a team member, that is to be expected), but the line between ironic use and pointless reference can get muddy. But I don’t mean to trash it (this is not Family Guy style endless riffing garbage). It is fun and light and has some good character possibilities. I am still not sure I will stick with it, though. It may not just be for me. So on the bubble it goes.

Wonder Woman vol. 5, #61 & 62 (released January 2 and 16, 2019)
G. Willow Wilson (writer), Xermanico (pencils, inks), Romulo Fajardo, Jr (colors), Pat Brosseau (letters)

I am reading this series because G. Willow Wilson took over the writing and because I am always holding out hope for a Wonder Woman comic I really love. I am not sure this is it. The art is certainly great. I am not familiar with this team, but the line and the colors are both wonderful. The movement and action are also well rendered. The story, as I have come to expect from basically any Wonder Woman stories these days, is steeped in the machinations of the Greek gods. Here we have an Ares trying to turn over a new leaf in his understanding and encouragement of war (and failing to do anything but cause more senseless conflict) and Aphrodite in a new body and collecting mythological creatures around her? Actually, that last part was established in issue #60 and quickly dropped by issue #61, so I am not sure what, if anything, will happen to the griffon and other creatures that served her.  Anyway, I think this comic could benefit from the establishment of a clearer status quo to work from. Instead, much like I remember from the brief and fractured Rucka run from 2016-17, Wonder Woman seems to not know what happened to her homeland of Themiscira or how the gods have come to be on Earth. In addition, there is a lot of military stuff going on, which I don’t like as much.  They’ve made Etta Candy into Amanda Waller-lite. I want to read more about Wonder Woman having adventures and helping everyday people, not dealing with prime ministers and gods. So this goes on the bubble. I am sticking with it for now for the art and the hope that Wilson can do something interesting before her time on the book (however long that will be) is up.

X-23 vol. 4, #8 (released January 9th, 2019)
Mariko Tamaki (writer), Diego Olortegui (pencils), Walden Wong (inks), Chris O’Halloran (colors), Cory Petit (letters)

Tamaki just seems to like to stretch things out a little longer than I like in my serial fiction. Her superhero work feels repetitive, like it is just spinning its wheels, without plot or characterization moving forward much. Everything that happens in this issue feels like it could have been covered in two pages. This is not to say that I want non-stop action or that the plot must always move forward at the same rate, but there also needs to be a sense of change. We get it that Gabby is all about saving her clone sisters and having deep empathy and that Laura is more cautious. This is a great tension! But that has been established in the last issue and several times before that in both series. We don’t need it re-established at length. It can just be referenced at this point or some complicating aspect added to it to make it a refreshing take. I like the story, but the pacing feels plodding. Olortegui does a pretty good job on the art, with some very nice action scenes aided by Wong’s inks and O’Halloran’s colors. In a couple of places, however, the look gets a little anime-inspired amateur, which is jarring.

Dropped/Cancelled or FinishedBlack Panther, Border Town, Exiles, Mister Miracle
On the Bubble: DieFantastic Four, West Coast Avengers, Wonder Woman
Current Pull-List:  Dark Horse: Black Hammer: Age of Doom, The Quantum Age; DC Comics: DC Nation, Wonder Woman;  Fantagraphics: Love and Rockets; Image: Bitch Planet, Bitter Root, Fix, Monstress, Paper Girls; Lion Forge: Astonisher, Quincredible; Marvel: Exiles, Fantastic Four, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Ms. Marvel, Runaways, Shuri, West Coast Avengers, X-23.

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