Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, No. 39

Written by Books, Comics Reviews

Here we go again with CoCSJ, in which I opine of comics and graphic novel releases of recent vintage, most of which should be available at a brick-and-mortar or online merchant near you.

KNIGHT AND SQUIRE #1 (of 6)
Script: Paul Cornell; Art: Jimmy Broxton
DC Comics, $2.99

In which Cornell shows that he can bust out the U.K. slang and obscure comics characters just as well as Moz, Moore and Garth can. Of course, the titular pair (at least in this incarnation) are Morrison creations anyway, springing from the 50’s “Batmen of the World” story, so, as so many things with DC these days are, this is beholden to Mr. Morrison as well. You’d think this would be a good thing, but I’m not here to bitch about DC’s editorial direction or lack of same, I’m being positive this time. As he proved over at Marvel with his too-short Captain Britain and MI-13 series, Cornell’s a very good writer in his own right, and what he does here is excellent. Using the tried and true superhero/villain tavern scenario, Cornell lays the ground rules for what I believe he’s going to get up to in the next five issues: a little metatextual vis-a-vis the State of Comics Today shenanigans, updated classic British comics characters, and some tweaking of  ol’ Blighty, with her strengths, stereotypes, and all. We also get a Beatles parody, with a flashback appearance by “Black Wings”. Wildcat of the JSA also just happens to be knocking back a pint, too! Anything can happen- hey, a lot like Captain Britain! Hopefully this will fare better in the marketplace. I’m hoping he’ll define the Knight a bit more; he’s pretty much a personality-free British Batman type, this issue, at least, he has a couple of pretty good scenes, including the payoff to this particular issue’s storyline, in which “moderation in all things” plays a big part. Of course, the star of the show, so far (well, at least as far as I’m concerned) is his Robin, called the Squire; she’s a young lady who’s confident, attractive, spunky, and always prepared- she speaks British slang like a champ, and has a costume that’s truly Jack of Hearts-class in its degree of difficulty to draw. I know, I’ve tried. Artist Broxton, whom I’ve never heard of before, is up to the task, fortunately; while his Squire isn’t as gosh darn cute as, say, Ed McGuinness’, he handle a sprawling cast of characters very well, and does a really nice job suggesting the inherent claustrophobia in the pub where most of this issue’s action takes place. I see a little John McCrea influence, perhaps, or Mike Lark and Tony Harris in places…and I swear some of the poses and body english remind me of Mike Sekowsky. I don’t know if future issues will keep it up, but I honestly enjoyed this issue as much as pretty much anything I’ve read this year. Bloody good job, old chaps, and I’m not just extracting the Michael. You may need a glossary after reading this; there’s a brief one in the back, but here’s an extended one, along with art samples.

HOUSE OF MYSTERY HALLOWEEN ANNUAL #2
Scripts/Art: Various
DC/Vertigo; $4.99

These DC holiday annuals can often be dreadful affairs; lame, cliched stories written by neophyte or slumming writers, art by the same, just adding to the pile of mediocrity rather than shining any sort of meaningful spotlight on the holiday season it’s representing. I can recall at least two of them that I just couldn’t bring myself to spend time writing about, they were so dull and depressing. But this one- oh, now this is something else again! Let me preface by saying that I read the first dozen and a half or so issues of the Vertigo-relaunched House; while I was initially intrigued by its setup and characters, after the first twelve or so it seemed like writer Sturges had no real destination in mind, and after a while I decided I didn’t care what the mystery was behind the occupants of the House. However, months later, I saw the DC solicits for this issue, as well as some sample pages illustrated by Brandon Graham of King City fame…and I was definitely intrigued. I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed. The central thread tying the handful of stories in this issue (which recalls those Vertigo Jam samplers of the early days of the imprint) is a quartet of what appears to be trick-or-treating children…but this being the House there’s more than meets the eye. They’re actually many decades old, and under a gypsy curse which keeps them stuck trick-or-treating for all eternity, still kid-size though by now looking a bit past the sell-by date, and not at all happy about it. After the very-well-done opening sequence at the House, by Matt Sturges and Luca Rossi/Jose Marzan, Jr. (guest starring Cain, the previous series’ host- wonder when and how and why he became part of the mix? Either way, the Rossi/Marzan team draw him with panache), in which a lifting of the curse is attempted, we go on to follow the quartet on their rounds. Of course the Graham-illustrated/Matt Wagner-scripted Madame Xanadu story was very well done, no surprise there; Graham’s loopy style is surprisingly adept at depicting Madame X’s Greenwich Village neighborhood and shop. And despite Wagner’s often-flat prose, it’s a bit moving at the end as well. After that, we get a fair-to-middling John Constantine story by series regulars Pete Milligan and Giuseppe Camuncoli, in which Johnny spends an evening conversing with a succubus and reminiscing about something which happened in his childhood; next, an I, Zombie interlude by its regular team, Chris Roberson and Mike Allred; it reminds me a bit of a Stephen King short story I read years ago. I think I would have appreciated it more if I’d not been tradewaiting on this series. Last but not least is also the most surprising, a return to the world of the Lucifer book by its creators Mike Carey and Peter Gross. It focuses more on Lucifer’s demon partner/comic relief Gaudium, as he interacts with the cursed trick-or-treaters. It was nice to revisit the characters from a book I enjoyed a lot when it came out regularly. Then, it abruptly ends- a little coda with the quartet would have been appreciated, but it’s OK. For the first time I can remember, this is one of those anthology-type annuals that it well worth your money and your time, even if you haven’t been following the mother title.

STRANGE TALES II #1
Scripts/Art: Various
Marvel Comics; $4.99

Speaking of multi-creator anthology titles, here we go again with another round of Marvel superhero stories by people who don’t usually dip their toe in that particular pool; people like Nick (Perry Bible Fellowship) Gurewitch, Kate (Hark! A Vagrant) Beaton, Jhonen (Invader Zim) Vasquez, and so on. Usually, this sort of thing turns into a hipper-than-thou snarkfest as too-cool-for-the-room hipsters take the opportunity to show how above the material they are, and boy does that get tiresome after a while. This collection skirts that in places, but mostly comes off with some very imaginative and clever takes on these characters. After a cutesy intro by Nick Bertozzi that has the Watcher bailing out a smaller version of himself, dubbed “Fake-Watcher”, and going to a strip club, we get a bloody and somewhat grim rumination on the actual nature of the Wolverine character, done up Fight Club/The Wrestler style by Rafael Grampa. It’s a memorable story, enhanced by Grampa’s highly detailed art style. American Born Chinese‘s Gene Luen Yang contributes a story of the Frog-Man, son of one of Marvel’s lesser badguys…it’s cute, but par for the course. Indie darling Frank Santoro represents with a Silver Surfer story, all done in pastels and soft ficus in his crude art style; the sentiment is winning and the art is kinda pretty in spite of itself. Beaton’s next, doing a Spidey-Kraven story in her inimitable style; it’s every bit as amusing as her webcomics. I also thought Jillian Tamaki‘s hallucinogenic take on Dazzler was interesting, with some very arresting visuals; Shannon (Too Much Coffee Man) Wheeler’s reformed Red Skull is typically wry, and Wheeler’s art style does have a surprisingly pleasing Kirby/Chic Stone kinda look; Dash Shaw’s sloppy art comes to play in a Spider-Man vs. Mysterio story that frankly didn’t make much sense, except to point out that rain would likely run up Spidey’s nose when he kisses Mary Jane upside down, hanging from a web as in the movie. Thanks for that. Kevin Huizenga gives us a Wolverine/Silver Surfer fight with a twist that I’m not going to give away, thankyou; his just-a-notch-above-stick figure drawings give it just the odd look that people who dig superhero takes by indie cartoonists crave, I’m sure. Next up is an outstanding Jeff Lemire take on the Man-Thing, in which he encounters a group of Mounties in the wilds of Canada. I’ve been hot and cold on Lemire’s previous work- his crude style is hard to get acclimated to at first- but I thought he did a great job here. That same style works well with this type of story. Vasquez turns in yet another Wolverine-centric tale that shows him fat and sloppy, scarfing down hot dogs before fighting Sentinels with kids. This is one of those tiresome ones I mentioned earlier; Vasquez’s hyper style keeps it moving, but that doesn’t mean that it was all that great, unless you just dislike superheroes. Finally, Nick Gurewitch’s deadpan, color-pencil style brings us a tale of Galactus and Magneto that has one of his patented amusing twist endings. I guess these collections are worth checking out for the novelty value alone, so if you’re a fan of any of these creators, you can risk your hard-earned five bucks without feeling dirty or anything.

SOLDIER ZERO #1
Script: Paul Cornell; Art: Javier Pina
Boom! Studios, $3.99

Hey, whaddaya know, here’s Cornell again! This time, he’s running with a character supposedly created by none other than Martin Goodman’s son-in-law, the wandering minstrel-for-hire Stan (the Man) Lee, who just can’t be content to rest on his laurels, god bless him and his liver spots. Anyway, this has been launched with a lot of hoopla, but really, it’s just not that special. Now, I love the fellas over at Boom!, really I do, and they’ve been swell to me in the past. I can’t blame them at all for wanting to throw something out there in today’s anemic marketplace with the cachet that having Uncle Stan’s name attached still provides, even though, let’s face it, he hasn’t written or co-created much of anything of note since, oh, 1969. But I found this to be utterly mediocre in practically every way; just generic superhero comic books that we’ve all seen from a dozen different companies. After an opening in which a dude in a groovy spacesuit is having a laser-show battle outside of Earth’s orbit, we get introduced to a young man named Stewart Trautmann, who was disabled fighting overseas, comes back home, and is having difficulty adjusting to his new status. Those parts are handled with sensitivity, even though the dialogue rarely rises above Hallmark Channel movie-of-the-week sentiments. Anyway, one evening while he and his potential love interest are having a deep meaningful conversation on the roof of a building (they’re ostensibly there to witness the Leonid meteor shower, he lectures on astronomy at college), their getting-to-know-each-other is rudely interrupted by an object from space, which strikes the building beneath them. As he frantically tries to keep the rubble from flattening his friend, he sees the cause- that same dude in the groovy spacesuit, who apparently didn’t do so good in the battle. He says a few garbled alien words to the man, then passes on his suit, or powers, or whatever, Abin Sur-like, before he dies. This enables Stewie to save the girl, although his first (suit-mandated) impulse is to fly away. And that’s where this one ends, with Stewie encountering his brother James, and asking his help in getting away, suddenly weak now. We’ve seen much of this ordinary guy gets amazing powers and alien tech thing many times over the decades, from Green Lantern, the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle, X-O Manowar (I know, he was an alien to begin with), to Lee’s own Mandarin character and at least a hundred more that I can’t recall. As inspired as Cornell is on Knight and Squire, he’s professional and workmanlike here. A guy’s gotta pick up a paycheck somehow, and I don’t blame him for that. Art is provided by Javier Pina, whom I recall from Manhunter and whose work has popped up here and there in other DC comics I didn’t buy; he’s certainly competent, but his style is generic and ordinary, with little spark or imagination. He’s a good example of the mean when you evaluate today’s comics artists. This is not a bad comic by any stretch, but there’s very little here that we haven’t seen before, and seen done better. If, however, you just love Uncle Stan so much that you want to help support him in his endeavors, then here’s something you can read while waiting for his next media event.

HELLBLAZER: CITY OF DEMONS #1
Script: Si Spencer; Art: Sean Murphy
DC/Vertigo, $2.99

Right off the bat, I have to say that sometimes I don’t understand why something like this couldn’t have been part of the regular ongoing Hellblazer title, running to give regular writer Pete Milligan or artist Giuseppi Camanculo a breather. I guess rack and market share comes into play, but c’mon- it’s not like anybody’s mistaking this for an X-Men title or Brightest Day crossover; I guess maybe selling another 5,000 copies of a comic that usually sells in the low 10K to 9K range is viewed as a win-win situation in the Vertiginous Halls. Who knows. Anyway, what this is is a Conjob story with a decent enough idea- Johnny C gets hit by a car, has his soul dislodged from his body, and now, as a disembodied spirit, must not only deal with things he did immediately prior to his mishap, but must also find out who set him up for this in the first place. The main attraction for me here (besides the fact that I have been reading Hellblazer and its spinoffs since Alan Moore introduced the chap in Swamp Thing) was Spencer’s byline- he wrote a recent ongoing under the Vertigo imprint called The Vinyl Underground which I liked very much, and have been keeping an eye out for his next series. Like I said above, this is a not-bad idea for a Conjob story, and while Spencer occasionally lapses into some vulgarities that seem a bit forced in the name of making JC sound all badass, he does fine with the character. Rising star Sean Murphy, late of Joe the Barbarian (which I’m tradewaiting one), does a great job of illustrating the proceedings; wouldn’t mind seeing him do the book on a regular basis if the opportunity arises. I swear some of the facial expressions here look like early Kyle Baker. Anyway, good start, good to see Spencer writing something Vertiginous again (if only it was more Vinyl Undergound…), good art, good golly. This might read better collected, but one way or the other, it’s worth your while.

The All Purpose Review Writing Music List: Wilco- Wilco (The Album); Bodeans- Outside Looking In; Kansas- Point of Know Return; Nilsson- Duit on Mon Dei; Paul McCartney- The Alternate Red Rose Speedway; Joan Jett and the Blackhearts- Album.

As always, thanks for reading, sorry I posted it a day late. Coming soon: Harbor Moon from Arcana Publishing, Kathryn & Stuart Immonen’s Moving Pictures, Darwyn Cooke’s latest Parker GN, and more.