ADVANCE REVIEW: Deadly Class #7 – “An Exemplar of Creator-Owned Comics”

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 16, 2014.

DeadlyGridFinal

I’m increasingly sensitive to text in comics. Whenever dialogue and narration overwhelm a page or do something that an image could have done better, it sends up an instant red flag in my mind. That doesn’t mean that text is inherently bad, just that it’s often over or misused. One thing that is continually striking about Deadly Class is the balance between Rick Remender’s text-heavy scripts and Wes Craig’s tremendous visuals. It’s a balance that could easily go awry, but never does, and it’s one of the reasons why I am so excited for the return of Deadly Class.

Deadly Class #7 opens with a four-page sequence that summarizes several months of time. There’s a lot to be accomplished in a relatively small amount of space and it is loaded with both images and narration. Craig frames each set of pages with wide vertical white banners. Marcus’ narration primarily occupies this space. This sets the writing in direct juxtaposition to the related images. Readers are treated to how Marcus views these memories and how they actually occurred.

Craig crafts these panels with surgical precision in selecting characters, body language, and perspectives to tell the story. It would be possible to remove every word from this sequence and still capture the nuances of the complex recap. There is a six-panel sequence within it in which Marcus and Maria are shown acting in relation to hits of 1988 like Beetlejuice and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Even without Marcus’ narration, it could capture the manic-depression Maria is feeling and how it affects Marcus. On top of that it firmly places the story in a specific frame of time. Craig masterfully composes and relates all of this information in very little space.

The way in which Marcus’ weaves in and out of the wide margins also plays into the story. Some comments stand alone, but others need to be set side-by-side with a specific image for maximum impact. In that same six-panel sequence, there is a moment where Marcus writes, “She oscillates between suicidal depression…” The narration is set on the opposite side of a wide panel from Marcus and Maria. It reflects Maria’s feelings, but also acknowledges the loneliness of depression by forcing the reader to look across the distance from Marcus’ thoughts to where Maria sits.

The sequence also serves as a nice introduction to the series. It doesn’t read like a recap of the series, but it absolutely functions as one. Readers who don’t recall everything from before or who have decided to start the series here will be able to easily access the story without having to play catch up. Marcus’ narration isn’t solely used to recap the story so far and time jump either. It is reflective of his writing in a journal that plays into the plot itself. Remender uses his narrative tools to direct the action of the story as well as the reader.

This is all indicative of why I really love Deadly Class. You can pick out a single sequence and spend an entire review digging in to how it works (or very rarely doesn’t). The panel composition, Lee Loughridge’s colors, draftsmanship, narration; all of it is consistently complex and effective. It’s a comic book I could discuss every month and always find new things to explore. Remender and Craig have invented a story that is interesting simply by the virtue of how it is being told (although the story itself is also fascinating). It’s a comic that constantly challenges and reinvents itself, an exemplar of creator-owned comics.

Grade: A-

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ADVANCE REVIEW: Shutter #6 – “That Most Potent Comics Combination of Big Imagination and Impactful Storytelling”

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 16, 2014.

Shutter 6 - Cover

Any comic that contains a line like “Is that a triceratops?!” is pretty much right up my alley. I love imaginative comics because they reflect things that can only be accomplished in the comics medium. Nowhere else can you make any idea, no matter how big, impossible, or outright crazy come alive like you can in comics. There are no big budgetary requirements. All you need to get started is a few quarters for some paper and a pencil.

Joe Keatinge and Leila del Duca understand that there are no inherent limits on imagination in comics and have embraced that principle in Shutter. Together they have crafted one of the strangest and most exciting comic debuts of 2014. That comes across in not only the main story, but the wonderful backup comics included in every issue (like the ever-awesome Tiger Lawyer). The first collection of Shutter draws to a close in Shutter #6 on Wednesday, but this issue feels like the beginning of something larger and grander than what has come so far.

Every issue of Shutter has not just included, but reveled in a world that is fascinatingly odd. It’s difficult to pinpoint all of the differences between the settings occupied by the main character Kate and our own version of Earth. Although there are big battles with cat gangsters and ninja ghosts that are obviously strange, there are small details like a plant person working in a record store that simply exist in the background. It is a consistently interesting world, where every panel is capable of revealing some new facet.

That broad sense of creation defies the typical elevator pitches many comics receive where they can be summed up as “this TV show meets this other comic”. It is truly its own thing and that is present in both the big and small moments of the series. Shutter #6 brings examples of both, with some understated character beats and the most vicious confrontation in the series yet.

The aforementioned confrontation reflects Keatinge and del Duca’s approach to violence. Unlike the standard portrayal of fantastical conflicts found in superhero fare, they approach violence in a surprisingly realistic manner. The sequences are still thrilling, but the consequences are much more grounded. Gunshots and punches land with effect and are made to feel painful. Characters die and, even when those characters were stone cold killers, it’s never treated as a triumph. Del Duca understands that death and pain are not joyful experiences and treats them with appropriate gravitas.

Much of the impact in the battle and throughout the book comes through in del Duca’s facial expressions. Her characters’ faces are always clear in what they think and feel. Everything comes through, surprise, anger, joy, sadness, even in more subtle interactions. Keatinge recognizes his collaborator’s great skill with crafting emotion and uses it to the benefit of his scripts. Kate rarely talks about how she is feeling, but readers are always aware. There’s no unnecessary repetition of information to be found. This has allowed Kate to be portrayed someone reluctant to share her feelings, without leaving readers confused.

Del Duca’s clear conveyance of emotions and character interactions forms the foundation of the emotional resonance in Shutter. Connecting to Kate and the supporting cast has been a slow process, but in Shutter #6 I was fully invested in her and her friends and family. Kate and her companions are not a perfect family; they are far from it. This has been one of my favorite elements in Shutter. There has been an increasing trend of families being presented as relatively ideal units where flaws are played off as being minor side effects. The imperfect relationships and personalities found in Shutter trend closer to real life and are able to more easily evoke empathy.

Shutter has introduced an expansive cast, but has come to center on the imperfect family of Kate, her younger brother Chris, and Alarm Cat (the character find of 2014). They all have distinctive personalities, but that’s not the key to why they function at the core of the story. They work because each of their relationships is distinct as well. The way in which Alarm Cat interacts with both Chris and Kate is unique. It’s not only shown in his actions and words, but in his face and body language. The thought that goes into each page and line of dialogue is clear. Keatinge and del Duca are not simply focusing on individual character, but the relationships these characters share and how they would choose to express them.

All of that allows Keatinge and del Duca to craft moments that are truly impactful. Midway through Shutter #6 is a panel that will take your breath away and cause your eyes to well up. It’s not upsetting because it is visceral or shocking (although it is), but because the impact upon Kate and Chris is clear. You understand who these people are, what they mean to one another, and how their actions will affect them. That understanding has been carefully built over six issues, so when this one moment occurs it hurts.

The final two pages summarize much of what makes the series great and what the future holds. It’s a big cliffhanger, one that excites and frightens. Del Duca’s spread incorporates all the grandiose imagery present throughout the series and uses it to create a bold challenge unlike anything seen thus far. It’s a thesis statement for the series as it prepares for its next arc. This is a comic that is going to continue to expand its scope. This is a comic that will hold even bigger, more exciting challenges. This is a comic that will invest you in its characters, so that you actually care (and fear) for them. I want to post the image here, but that would be cruel. I don’t want to rob you of the moment where your jaw drops looking at what del Duca has created.

That two-page spreads marks the conclusion of the first collection of Shutter, a comic that has improved with every issue published. The series has grown bolder as it progresses and found an emotional resonance in its characters. Although I will praise the imagination of Keatinge and del Duca without end, the real power of Shutter lies in how it puts that imagination to work constructing a story that draws readers in and invests them enough to genuinely care.

Shutter is not returning until December. That’s bad news for me, but good news for anyone who hasn’t been reading this comic. It gives you plenty of time to order the first volume or track down these issues and catch up on dinosaurs, ghost ninjas, alarm cat, and all of the wonderful ideas found here. Don’t wait. Shutter is that most potent comics combination of big imagination and impactful storytelling.

Grade: A

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ADVANCE REVIEW: Edge of Spider-Verse #2 – “Face It Marvel, You Hit The Jackpot”

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 16, 2014.

Edge of Spider-Verse 2 - Cover

I’ve been predisposed to like Edge of Spider-Verse #2 for a long time. When the Robbi Rodriguez design for Spider-Woman (a.k.a. Spider-Gwen) was released, I fell in love. It was sleek, cool, and blended both classic and new elements. It popped in a way that most new costumes and re-designs never do. Everything from the functionality to the color scheme worked just right.

Then a batch of preview pages were released and I fell in love again. The two-page origin, the teenage characterizations, and facelifts to classic characters were all spot on. Rodriguez’s load, raucous energy poured off the pages. They were good, damn good, but only a small sample of an entire comic book.

Now the issue is here and I can’t help but falling in love once more. Edge of Spider-Verse #2, the debut of Gwen Stacy as Spider-Woman is an almost perfect superhero comic. The biggest flaw is that there’s no guarantee of Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez creating an ongoing series to follow this issue.

The issue is pure rock and roll. I didn’t get past page one before I felt the need to get up and turn on some music. I opted for the album One by One by the Foo Fighters. Your mileage may vary on that selection, but I recommend something loud that makes you want to move. Make sure it has lots of drums too.

I make that recommendation because the entire issue is built around music. Music has been structured into the plot and the very feel of the comic. The story starts at a rehearsal of The Mary Janes, a garage band with lead singer MJ and drummer Gwen Stacy. Rodriguez places the music into the story in the form of lyrics and the “DUN DUN DUN” of Gwen’s drums. Those elements scream on the page written and colored like they were on the cover a 90s punk album. They’re so loud that they shake with the volume of the amps and drum set. It’s impossible to read these pages and not want to turn up the volume of your favorite rock band.

That musical motif visually evoked by Rodriguez is structured into the fabric of this issue. It surfaces and resurfaces creating an important theme that helps to inform who Gwen is and what she is feeling. It’s not just one cool trick; it’s a fundamental aspect of the comic’s language.

Rodriguez and Latour set an eight-panel origin into the middle of this rehearsal. It’s an exercise in economy, selecting the right moments to establish who Gwen is and what the status quo is like. Latour is able to convey what he needs to in a few brief exchanges of dialogue, rather than bogging down the story in expository captions.

That origin also helps to establish that Gwen is not a direct analog to Peter Parker. She’s not even close. Latour writes Gwen as her own person. She may possess the old Parker luck, but her attitude and personality are vastly different. Extroverted, musically oriented, and a little uncouth, she reads like a brand new character because she truly is. Key elements of the Spider-Man mythos remain. Great power and great responsibility are still there, but the journey to reach that still inspiring concept is a vastly different one. It is restructured to reflect on modern themes and choices about education and work.

The other notable changes in this alternate Spider-Verse are exciting as well. A surprising figure has replaced Wilson Fisk as The Kingpin. The shock is half of the fun, so I won’t spoil it here. However, that twist alone leaves open a world of stories and other surprising changes that can only be hinted at in these pages.

Latour and Rodriguez provide re-designs for two other significant Spider-Man characters: Captain George Stacy and another classic villain. Rodriguez has altered Stacy to be a much sturdier figure, closer to Commissioner Gordon in appearance than the the Silver Age incarnation of the character. His changed appearance reflects a change in his personality too. Rather than the frail looking and wizened mentor of the 1970s, he is a strong, capable father figure. His frame and mass strikes a dichotomy with the thin, wiry figure of Gwen. Their designs highlight a key conflict of the comic. The Stacys are simultaneously opposed and aligned, seeking to do good, but set against one another by their roles as vigilante and law-enforcement.

Rodriguez’s revamp of a classic villain is not quite as visually invigorating as Gwen’s, but is still effective. Design, body language, and colors clearly inform the characters abilities and attitude. Even without any hints as to who this character is, it would be easy to guess in spite of some drastic changes.

The climax of the issue does parallel a classic Spider-Man sequence though, the climax ofAmazing Spider-Man #33, the final part of “If This Be My Destiny…!” That issue is, if not the best single issue of a superhero comic ever, at least the best Spider-Man comic ever. It embodies the heroic core of the character in a striking series of panels where Peter Parker forces himself to do the impossible purely because he must in order to protect those he loves. It’s responsibility, power, determination, and adolescence fused into a big operatic visual metaphor.

There is no better source of reference when constructing the conceit of a new superhero based upon Spider-Man. Gwen’s battle ends with her facing incredible pressure (quite literally) and she must overcome it in order to save those she cares for. The panels slowly expand as she fights back and succeeds in a spectacular finale. It pulls in everything set up earlier in the issue too from her family dynamics to the musical motifs.

In that sequence Latour and Rodriguez capture both the essence of what makes Gwen Stacy special and also how she captures the central conceit of the Spider-Man mythos. It’s a great ending, although hopefully not for long.

I want a series featuring Gwen Stacy, The Spectacular Spider-Woman written by Jason Latour and illustrated by Robbi Rodriguez. I really, really want it. Marvel Comics has captured lightning in a bottle with this issue. It’s sleek, smart, and so damn cool. I simply don’t have enough superlatives for what Latour and Rodriguez have created here. So I’ll leave it at this: buy Edge of Spider-Verse #2. And after you too fall in love, make sure to write in and let Marvel know that you want an ongoing Gwen Stacy, The Spectacular Spider-Woman series.

Face it Marvel, you hit the jackpot.

Grade: A

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REVIEW: Avengers Undercover #10

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 12, 2014.

Avengers Undercover 10 Cover

Avengers Undercover is a series that could have run for a long time. The first five issues introduced a unique setting in the underground city of villains called Bagalia. It came loaded with an expansive cast worthy of its size. That was in addition to the return of the central (surviving) cast of Avengers Arena, a group of teenagers who had plenty of baggage before they were forced into a kill or be killed tournament. With all of these characters, motivations, and ideas stuffed into a single comic there were ample stories to tell. Then it was announced that Avengers Undercover would be cancelled after ten issues, leaving the creative team a limited amount of space to wrap up everything up.

Even with that consideration in mind, the final issue is a mixed bag.

The ending itself is great. After the events of both series, it’s absolutely deserved and artist Tigh Walker does an excellent job of providing the right sense of enthusiasm and joy to some of the final pages. The story has never provided much room for fun; a focus on death matches and undercover villainy has left little room for levity. So when a few characters receive a reprieve, Walker lights up the page with their activities and smiles. It’s a brief sequence, but he knows exactly what to do with the surviving teens. This put a smile on my face because I was invested in the heroes of this series.

One thing that has been consistent throughout the entire story has been writer Dennis Hopeless’ characterization of the teenagers involved. They have always behaved like real human beings with distinct personalities. Even when they made mistakes, I found myself rooting for them because they felt like people, not caricatures of superheroes. That investment provides the conclusion with well earned emotional weight.

My biggest issues with the conclusion come with how it is reached.

The series has been building to Baron Zemo’s master plan over the course of ten issues. When it is revealed, it is actually impressive from both a technical and storytelling point of view. That’s the problem. Hopeless uses Zemo’s plan to present a very interesting idea, one that is worth exploring. It not only taps into something interesting in this fictional setting, but also reflects something about the world we live in. There’s no time to delve into it though. It has to be dispatched as quickly as it is introduced in order to conclude the series. The quality of ideas presented makes the presentation so much more dissatisfying.

Unfortunately, the characters that have earned an emotional investment over the course of 28 issues barely appear either. Most of what occurs here happens to people, not because of them. Of the central cast of seven teenagers, only one makes choices of significance in this issue. The rest are placed in the role of observers. Sub-plots are left unexplored and many of these young heroes are left without a chance to finish their character arcs.

Avengers Undercover and Avengers Arena have both been surprising highlights in Marvel’s lineup – consistently good comics. Yet the conclusion to this story doesn’t live up to what came before it. There are engaging characters and ideas present, but not enough space for most of them to do anything memorable. The series may have been forced to conclude earlier than planned, but that doesn’t make this rushed finale any more satisfying.

Grade: C

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REVIEW: Magneto #9

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 11, 2014.

Magneto 9 - Cover

There are some topics that are difficult to handle in any medium. They come with an air of gravitas and potency that is impossible to deny. So if they are mishandled the result is not only ineffective, but also often offensive. I say this because the decision to depict the Holocaust in a mainstream superhero comic cannot be easy to make. I’m glad that Cullen Bunn, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and Jordie Bellaire decided to address it though because it is very well done in Magneto #9.

The issue juxtaposes Magneto’s infiltration of a mutant concentration camp on Genosha with his time spent at Auschwitz as a young man. This format allows Magneto to compare himself now to whom he was in the camp, and then tests his current self-image against reality. The two settings are easily compared to one another. Each is designed to murder and mistreat a specific group of people and is run by a monstrous leader. That easy comparison allows Bunn to explore how Magneto believes himself to have changed in between. Magneto #9comments on the horror of the Holocaust and what it means to survive such an atrocity through its impact on a single character.

The key to this exploration of Magneto is that he is not a hero. He is not a villain either. In this story he is a survivor. Although he is shown narrating flashbacks to his time at Auschwitz, Walda separates the story from his words. Readers are allowed to assess Magneto’s younger self on their own. While Magneto may address his own actions with disdain, readers are able to empathize and evaluate the young man independently. This provides insight not only into how Magneto has changed, but how his remembrance of these events has become a tool of survival. The rage and hatred associated with Magneto become much more understandable and he is rendered human.

Bellaire colors flashbacks in black and white with only a splash of red to accentuate the violence of the camps. This sort of muted palette has been applied to many other stories about the Holocaust. It places the events in stark contrast to the present and emphasizes the numb, dispassionate setting. Walta and Bellaire translate that feeling to these pages very well.

Bunn provides the best explanation he can as to what is occurring on the island, but without the context provided in Uncanny Avengers it is difficult to understand at some points. The Red Skull’s transformation and his new group of henchmen are part of an upcoming event, but are extraneous to the ideas presented here. Somewhere a more streamlined version of this issue exists where the core analogies between Magneto’s past and present are unhindered by outside continuity.

I do need to say something about the print edition of this comic as well. The advertisements absolutely ruin the potent mood being crafted by Bunn, Walta, and Bellaire. It features colorful spots advertising motorcycles and superhero figurines next to pages depicting a Holocaust survivor’s memory. I found myself feeling jarred and pulled out of the story. Ads don’t always detract from comics, but in this instance I would highly recommend the digital version ofMagneto #9 over the physical one in order to avoid the advertisements.

Ignoring detrimental ads, Magneto #9 is very well done. It is a dark, brooding story that provides proper emphasis and empathy to the weighty topic that it addresses. Bunn, Walta, and Bellaire are taking the rich history of a character like Magneto and using it to tell a new story. They are reflecting on what makes him such a potent icon and will likely leave an indelible stamp upon the Master of Magnetism before this series is over.

Grade: B+

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Wytches #1 – “Turn The Lights On, Lock The Doors, And Don’t Look Outside”

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 11, 2014.

expo2014-previewbook2.indd

When I sat down to read Wytches #1 it was only 3 in the afternoon. I had to turn on a lamp though because it had quickly gotten dark outside; a big thunderstorm was blowing in. I was a few pages in when a torrent of rain began hammering the windows and thunder erupted across the sky. I’m not saying there’s a connection. That would be superstitious, silly even. I don’t believe in monsters. But that doesn’t change the fact that when I finished Wytches #1, every light in my apartment was on and the blinds were drawn shut.

Wytches is terrifying.

From the very start, Wytches seeks to set a potent, oppressive mood. The first two pages are the repetition of a single image, a definition of the word “witch” in an old, beaten typeface. Between the first and second page, the words are scratched and torn as if by fingernails. These are not pages of text. They are the first two panels of the comic. Something just out of sight reached out and defiled these old words. Something dangerous and ancient just happened, and you didn’t even see it. Those two pages set the tone for this series perfectly.

Clem Robins’ lettering in these opening pages and for the title itself is perfect. It’s no surprise to discover that he previously worked on Hellblazer for almost one hundred issues. His understanding of the power of design, and of letters specifically, makes this simple introduction tremendously powerful.

Scott Snyder has a reputation for being one of the best writers of horror working in comics today and it is completely deserved. He’s brought frightening overtones to some of his work on Batman, like in “Death of the Family”. American Vampire, Severed, and the first half of The Wake are all set firmly within the genre. Yet in all of his work, he has never veered too close to nihilism or outright pessimism. Even in darker stories like American Vampire and Severedwithout clear happy endings, protagonists at least have the ability to combat their monsters.Wytches presents no sense of optimism or hope. This is already the darkest tale Snyder has ever written. Nothing before it comes close.

The scope of this comic is much more personal than almost anything Snyder has written before. It is focused on the concept of family. Both the prologue and main story are introduced with a narrative caption announcing the family name and the year. The modern story centers around a family of three. Charlie and Lucy Rooks have just moved themselves and their daughter Sailor to a small town. They’re a tightly knit and affectionate family unit. Snyder composes small rituals that provides them with history and makes them easy to invest in. It even appears that Snyder has invested a little bit of his own family into this story. Charlie creates comics for a living and Lucy work in medicine, like Snyder and his own wife.

Wytches presents ideas, as well as characters, that are easily relatable. Much of the family’s conflict centers around attempts to create a better home in spite of the pressures of the outside world. Charlie, Lucy, and Sailor all have an intense desire to change their own world in a seemingly unattainable way. This reflects the desire of all parents to protect their children and of all children to be safe from harm. The first issue also introduces the concept of “pledging”, where humans are traded to wytches in return for some unnatural favor. That concept of wish fulfillment in relation to the strong wishes of a family creates an air of tension, one where evil may be able to prey even on good people.

The monsters in Wytches aren’t out to destroy the world. They’re here to destroy a family. Snyder understands that idea has far greater potential to be terrifying.

It does not take long for horrible things to start happening to the Rooks. Supernatural and very real tragedies are brought into the fold in rapid succession. The stranger elements read like a fever dream. When a person is attacked or an animal behaves oddly (an understatement to say the least), artist Jock pulls out the horror of these inversions of the natural order. What little is seen of the wytches themselves is exaggerated and grotesque. Their action and consequences on the natural world are far worse. Every form that is affected by these monsters is based on something real, but becomes twisted in their reach. This alteration of the real world and easily recognizable elements sets the horror close to home. Jock sets the story in a house near a woods that could potentially be projected onto almost any of the fifty states.

Jock focuses primarily on characters in most panels. Background and horror elements only come forth when they are required. His ability to focus on the mundane and human aspects of the story, portraying the Rooks family as a relatively typical, loving group, makes it all the more effective when sequences become surreal. He also has a keen eye for body language and expressions. Conversations between each of the Rooks are informed just as much by how they hold themselves and look at one another as by what they say. That adept understanding of human language also allows him to shift the visual tone of Wytchesdramatically when showing what is clearly unnatural.

Colorist Matt Hollingsworth plays a big role in setting the mood. Hollingsworth previously worked with Snyder on The Wake where he contrasted the dark, claustrophobic tones of one half of the series with the bright, open world of the second. He applies a similar set of palettes to Wytches, but uses them to quickly shift the tone of the book within a single issue. An early sequence that takes place next in the Rooks family’s front yard uses soft greens, blues and browns to create a world filled with life. There’s no room for fear or angst in this sequence. It creeps in from there.

The first hints of darkness emerge in the forest adjacent to the house when a mysterious man appears. The trees are laced with darkness, but there is still some daylight filtering into the panels. It’s not an overt tonal shift, but a quick beat of foreshadowing. It warns the reader that there is darkness here, resting just on the edge of town. From there, progressively more darkness leaks into the panels. Fans of The Wake will recognize Hollingsworth’s potent blues and blacks as they consume the light. The effect is chilling.

The result of all these distinctive creators collaborating together is a story that is truly capable of inspiring fear. Wytches constructs a world where things beyond human comprehension lurk in the shadows. They are monstrous in both form and nature and they are interested in you. As a parent or a child, they reach out and twist the love you feel and turn it into stark terror.

Wytches is the scariest thing you will read all year. You’ll want to look away, but will find it impossible. So turn the lights on, lock the doors, and don’t look outside. Wytches is coming.

Grade: A

Wytches #1 will be released October 8 from Image Comics.

The final date to pre-order Wytches #1 is Monday, September 15th.

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REVIEW: The Death of Wolverine #2

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 10, 2014.

Death of Wolverine 2 Cover

I was pleasantly surprised by The Death of Wolverine #1. It turned out to be an engaging debut issue that presented a story I was excited to read in spite of event fatigue and the cynicism associated with death in mainstream superhero comics. Charles Soule and Steve McNiven seemed to understand that there are expectations of a mini-series like this and wanted to defy them. McNiven’s art was distinctive and finely crafted. Soule composed a script that invested itself in the character of Wolverine, rather than pre-determined outcomes. The good news is that The Death of Wolverine #2 maintains those strengths. The bad news is that it starts to lose track of itself and the momentum it has built.

That’s not to say nothing happens in the issue. Plenty occurs, but it ultimately amounts to little consequence. The events of this issue serve to replace the conflict established at the end of the first issue with a new mystery. My problem with this bait and switch is that it doesn’t seem to serve the story. Wolverine’s dramatic situation doesn’t change significantly (yes, he is wounded, but I’m talking about character). Instead, it works to include significant elements of Wolverine’s past. Several of his greatest foes appear here, as well as a classic locale. Fans of the character may enjoy seeing these elements in play, but I’m uncertain as to what they contributed to the story.

This is all problematic because I’m uncertain as to what has changed since issue one. Multiple characters appear and disappear just as easily with hardly any explanation. Ideas and explanations are explained, and then dropped with little fanfare only a few pages later. When the issue concludes, there is another cliffhanger, but I’m unsure as to whether it’s actually important considering the anti-climactic conclusion of its predecessor. Soule’s deft grasp of Wolverine has been able to make me care about what he does and what happens to him. Wolverine needs to advance that story in order to keep readers engaged.

The many callbacks to Wolverine’s long history are made much more effective by McNiven’s art. His understanding of how to construct a grizzled and iconic Wolverine was made clear in the first issue. Here he is able to tackle the supporting cast and the results exceed expectations. Foes and allies both feel just like they should in a story that wants to capture essential representations. The perfect adjectives come to mind when examining every design.

The highlight of McNiven’s work in this issue comes in a two-page spread that separates itself from the story at hand with a painterly style. It creates a collage of Wolverine and Sabretooth’s battles that allows the eye to wander back and forth across its surface. This moment better eulogizes Wolverine than any number of references or character appearances. It calls out one of his most important character dynamics and presents it as a legendary collection of moments beautifully assembled into a single piece. More than any other page in the issue, this art pulls forth the sense of potential loss that the series is attempting to evoke.

The Death of Wolverine #2 maintains the strengths of the first issue, but begins to squander that momentum on tangents and cameos. It feels like the events of this issue could probably be skipped without any major effect on the overall story. However, McNiven’s art alone makes this issue worth picking up.

Grade: B-

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REVIEW: Hawkeye #20 – “Outrageously Fun and Surprisingly Potent”

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 10, 2014.

Hawkeye 20 Cover

After you read Hawkeye #20, go ahead and read Hawkeye #20 again.

That may sound a little odd, but this is a comic that requires at least two readings to understand. It’s not that the comic is poorly assembled. Everything that Matt Fraction and Annie Wu do here is purposeful. But it is the conclusion to a story that is steeped in West coast detective fiction and noir. Being a part of that mythology means that at some point it needed to jump into the metaphorical deep end and make ample use of non-linear story telling and framing devices. That point is now.

Hawkeye #20 starts at the ending, but that’s not clear until the story catches up with it on the very last page. It shifts throughout its timeline constantly, teasing hints of what is to come, jumping into new sequences, and then backtracking to provide necessary exposition. Not only does the issue build upon itself in interesting ways, but it connects the dots of the previous issues set in L.A. Everything comes together in a nice and neat (well, not so nice) package here. It’s an exciting read, but one that will require the reader be fully engaged.

The execution of this issue is a testament to Wu’s skill as a storyteller and designer. Wu relates the changes in time and place by tracking a variety of details. Kate’s appearance and outfit are constantly shifting and therefore providing visual shorthand as to how the various sequences connect. Without Wu’s keen eye for detail, the complex script could have easily become incomprehensible as a comic.

Hawkeye #20 really resonated with me as a fan of detective noir in its conclusion. It captures the mood of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett story. Everything has been explained, but not everything is okay. The system is broken and the people in it are corrupt. These are maxims of noir and hold true here. Kate tried to be a good guy, but there’s no big victory. She’s been on a rough trail and the ending doesn’t fix everything. It doesn’t fix much of anything at all and even calls out a similar sense of desperation at the end of Chinatown, a true noir classic.

James Ellroy captured that same mood in novels like White Heat, but moved further towards nihilism. Fraction and Wu opt to take a different route when exploring a deeply flawed world. They present the outcomes as they are with no room for romanticism, providing a sense of hope in the relationships formed along the way instead. Kate’s relationship with her neighbors and Clint are what ultimately provide momentum to this conclusion. Hawkeye #20 doesn’t pretend that everything will be okay, but it allows that fighting to make things better is still preferable to doing nothing at all.

Kate’s adventures in Los Angeles have been a thrilling interlude. They’ve managed to both maintain the overall tone of the comic, while telling a story that is entirely its own. It gave Fraction an opportunity to explore detective noir (in addition to his work on Satellite Sam) and Wu a chance to show off her design skills. This story has been outrageously fun and surprisingly potent, but it has come to a close. Now it’s time for Hawkeye to do the same.

Two issues left.

Grade: A-

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ADVANCE REVIEW: Copperhead #1 – “A Window to a Desolate Planet Rich with History and Ideas”

This article was originally published on September 9, 2014 at ComicBook.Com.

Copperhead 1 - Cover

I’ve been thinking a lot about creating a sense of place recently. What does it take to immerse a reader in a fictional universe? How do creators naturally imbue a sense of history within the context of a story? When done well, it can help to create a tale that inspires imaginations and makes its audience want to continue exploring. Reading Copperhead #1 I was struck by the rich mythos that seemed to be lurking just outside of every panel. It is a comic that occurs in a fully formed place.

Although it is set in a small mining town on a desert planet, Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski build a culture, a world, and an entire universe around it. Every panel acts like a carefully selected window. The opening sequence takes place on board of a mag-lev train. Only a single compartment is shown, but there is a feeling that if the window were to be shifted to the next car, then another story would emerge.

Godlewski and colorist Ron Riley craft the initial sense of place. Buildings and vehicles are all designed to be unique to this setting. Although some panels set in Copperhead may feature familiar elements, they are always at least slightly different. Everything about the town feels lived in too. From exterior walls to office settings, dirt and damage are apparent. Copperhead is a town with history scarred onto its surface. Riley applies burnt oranges and dusty yellows to make this planet feel truly desolate. There is life here, but the terrain never appears to be anything less than harsh and uncaring.

Faerber helps to construct a wider world around this desolate locale through his narration. References to technology (mag-lev trains), history (a recent war), and race relations (between humans and aliens) are peppered throughout the dialogue. These allusions to a wider world could easily be written in a hackneyed manner if forced. Faerber allows the flavor to seep into conversation naturally though. This intuitive cadence left me wanting to know more about small hints of conflict and history.

Part of this richness comes from being set in a potent blend of genres. Copperhead will be compared to Firefly for being a mash up of science fiction and Western tropes. That combination has existed for a long time though, ranging from the original Star Trek series to modern concepts like Cowboy Bebop. It’s a fusion of two genres that both rely on the concept of the unexplored frontier, a place where explorers must constantly confront new challenges and the unknown. This combination allows for a world with both a rich history and plenty of mysteries to uncover. Copperhead will receive plenty of comparisons, but everything in its first issue is a genuinely original exploration of these two genres.

Copperhead lacks some of that depth in its introductions to the cast though. Clara, Copperhead’s new sheriff, and her son Zeke arrive in town, but their background is left a mystery. I understand how Clara and Zeke behave and can extrapolate a sense of who they are, but why they are here and what they want is unknown. That mystery is purposeful though. There is clearly plenty to Clara and Zeke’s characters, but they are engaged in the action of the moment for most of this issue. There is an interesting twist on what initially appears to be a clichéd dynamic. The odd couple cop set up is altered in one sequence so that what initially appears to be simple rivalry becomes chilling indifference.

Copperhead #1 opens a window to a desolate planet that is rich with history and ideas. There is a lot occurring in the background and details of this comic. It’s a story I only expect to grow and improve as it delves further into the world created by Faerber and Godlewski.

Grade: B+

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REVIEW: COPRA: Round One – The Best Comic You Didn’t Know About

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 9, 2014.

COPRA Round One

How would you respond if I told you that the best comic being published right now is sold on Etsy?

With a high degree of skepticism? Utter disbelief? Laughter even?

That’s completely understandable. I responded the same way when I first heard that. Then I read COPRA. Now I’m here to tell you that the best comic being published right now is only being sold on Etsy and a select number of comic stores. Or at least it was until today with the release of COPRA: Round One, collecting COPRA #1#6.

COPRA is written, drawn, colored, and lettered by Michel Fiffe and published by Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn. It began as homage to John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and Luke McDonnell’s Suicide Squad published by DC Comics between 1987 and 1992. The story follows a group of misfits, assassins, and thugs who are all part of a government outfit used to take on dangerous missions. It’s a concept that creates endless opportunities for rich, diverse characters, stories, and settings. The original Suicide Squad is still one of the best ongoing series of the 1980s, a period that also produced Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing.

Some characters work as analogs to Ostrander’s greatest inventions and re-creations – Sonia Stone as Amanda Waller, Lloyd as Deadshot, Jorge Harkness as Captain Boomerang. Fans of the older series, like myself, will be able to pick up on various allusions. That knowledge is completely unnecessary though because every idea and character in COPRA enters the comic fully formed.

Fiffe is not scared to wear his influences on his sleeve. He’s proud to recognize the artists who helped shape him. The ideas of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Walter Simonson, and Frank Miller can all be seen flitting through these pages. Their mastery of composition, panel structure, and visual language are the foundation from which Fiffe constructs his comic.

COPRA is far more than homage or commemoration though. The series does not imitate Suicide Squad or reference the greatest artists of the past century. It uses these ideas and tools as its framework and uses them to springboard into a new comic that is entirely its own – into COPRA.

It’s difficult to pick a starting point when discussing COPRA. There’s a lot happening in this comic and it’s all very effective. The first issue starts the series with a literal bang, a very, very large bang. Half of the initial team is killed and the rest are framed for genocide when their assailants destroy an entire city with a mysterious artifact. The issue acts as a bold thesis statement. It declares that COPRA will feature big action, psychedelic storytelling, and authentic human drama.

There is not a single action sequence in this volume that doesn’t thrill. Fiffe plays with the comics medium to make the action of fisticuffs, shoot outs, and explosions land with the greatest impact. In the sixth issue, eleven distinct characters are involved in a brawl. It’s easy for even experienced artists to loose track of characters and momentum in a sequence like this. Fiffe keeps the reader aware of what individuals are doing and creates a cause-and-effect relationship between every panel. He applies novel compositions to tell multiple stories simultaneously. At the top of page three, Fiffe presents an overhead shot of nice characters and their current positions and interactions. From there the sequence focuses on individual interactions and cuts away to show new characters when they enter. A page with four horizontal panels each displays two people in combat, but includes other characters and details in the background. There is never the slightest amount of confusion about what is occurring despite the hectic nature of the combat.

Smaller action sequences are every bit as effective and sometimes even more masterfully communicated. A small scuffle between Gracie and Jorge takes place in two pages. The interactions between the two results in a constant tumble of motion. A peanut thrown into his mouth awakens him and he lurches forward. He lunges at her and she throws him, creating a perfect circle between their bodies in two panels. The circular effect of those moments is reinforced in the page composition, a slightly imbalanced 2×2 grid.

COPRA doesn’t rely on purely physical battles to create action though. Magic and science fiction play potent roles in the story. Ditko’s influence is shown here. He was praised for being one of the most psychedelic comics artists of the 1960s and Fiffe’s work in COPRA tests the very boundaries of reality. When Vincent and Xenia investigate the properties of the artifact discovered in the first issue, Fiffe experiments with the comic form itself. Panels overlap and replicate one another in multiple colors and shadings. A long panel folds in upon itself and twists the forms of characters within it. It is difficult to fully relate the experience.

Effects like this and others created by Fiffe are truly unique to the comics medium, impossible to replicate with the use of prose, film, or animation. He experiments with panels and geometry to reform pages and contort forms. Color, line, composition, no tool is out of bounds when science from other dimensions or sorcery is at play. Some of the sequences in COPRAdefy description; they must be experienced.

With all of the strange happenings and explosive action, it could be easy to overlook thatCOPRA is a comic with a lot of heart. Throughout the insanity of this adventure, Fiffe never once loses track of the characters experiencing it. They all have excellent designs and engaging powers but those things don’t actually create a character. Natural dialogue and internal monologues transforms them into fully realized people.

At the start of the very first issue, there is a conversation about what Dale (the armor-encased teen codenamed Wir) is getting his mother for her birthday. A friend chides him for being cheap and another reassures him that she would enjoy a cake. The entire conversation is small – tiny – both in scope and consequence. It’s also incredibly humanizing. Despite their odd appearances and powerful traits, the members of COPRA are never bigger than life or gods; they are always people.

And then there’s the ending of COPRA: Round One. Every time I reach the final pages ofCOPRA #6 I can’t help but let a few tears go. Fiffe is great at constructing complicated compositions that boggle the mind, but he is also aware of when simplicity will serve best. One page composed of only four panels, four colors, and ten words will break your heart and make you smile. It is an ending that is both shocking and, in retrospect, entirely inevitable. It is simultaneously brutal and beautiful, all because it encompasses a single human being’s doomed journey.

COPRA: Round One completes several characters’ arcs, but is only the first half of Fiffe’s first epic story. It is an introduction to Fiffe’s work that made me a fan immediately. It is well crafted and raw, beautiful and tragic, classical and contemporary.

It is that fusion of the old and the new that makes COPRA such an incredible comic. It recognizes the work of masters and builds from their legacy. Equal parts homage and invention, it is a comic that is unlike anything else being published.

This is it. COPRA is as good as comics get.

Grade: A

COPRA: Round One can be ordered from Bergen Street here.

You can read the first issue for free at Fiffe’s website here.

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