Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, No. 3: “Invincible Iron Man,” “Valentine,” and More

Written by Books, Comics Reviews

In which I continue to take a look at select bound-and-published sequential narratives of recent vintage, some of which may still be on sale in a comics shop, book store or online merchant near you, if you’re lucky…or not, as the case may be.

INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #22
Script: Matt Fraction
Art: Salvador Larroca and various
Marvel, $2.99

Fraction is an insanely talented and imaginative writer who, when left to his own devices via works for smaller companies such as Casanova, can write some of the most convoluted and hard-to-parse scripts that I’ve encountered, anyway. Too smart for the room and eager to prove it, and if clarity suffers, well, that’s your problem, buddy! But playing in Marvel’s sandbox, he’s adaptable enough to be able to play it straight and keep himself honest, and this reining-in makes his run on this particular Iron Man title, launched in the wake of and based on the hugely successful film you may have seen,  successful as not only action-oriented entertainment, but character-driven drama as well. This particular issue is the penultimate chapter of the “Stark: Disassembled” arc, which follows up on the “World’s Most Wanted” storyline, in which Tony Stark was forced to delete critical information from his brain (it’s a complicated procedure, just work with me here) in order to keep it out of the hands of the sinister government agency that wants it for no good reasons. Of course, I’m simplifying this- it’s really all a part of the whole company-wide “Dark Reign” thing, which itself was a continuation of “Civil War”…which, well, you get it, I think. All this information overload can be daunting, but believe me, it’s not really a problem with this particular series; plenty of explanation is given at various junctures. Anyway, the corporeal Stark is now in a brain-dead catatonic state, and Doctor Strange is tasked with entering his mind and bringing him out again. In the meantime, a super-powered mercenary killer is closing in.

I’m not quite as enthusiastic about the art; there’s a certain stiffness to Larocca’s sometimes underdrawn figures that calls attention to itself more often as not. Still, he does keep the action moving along  at a decent enough clip, with good layouts and staging, so he gets a pass. Fraction’s run on Iron Man is well worth your time; you probably won’t want to start with this particular single issue, though. The first two arcs are collected, and I’m sure this one will be soon as well. Recommended, especially if you liked the Downey film.

WONDER WOMAN #40
Script: Gail Simone
Art: Aaron Lopresti, Matt Ryan
DC Comics, $2.99

It can’t be easy writing Wonder Woman, DC’s most recognizable female character and one of the “Trinity” of characters that the erstwhile National Periodical Publications considers the axis around which its fictional universe revolves. Wonder Woman comes with a fanbase that is one of the most difficult to please of any of their licensed properties as well; ask any three Wondy fans about how the character should be portrayed in her comics, and you’ll get three different answers, maybe more if one or two of them can’t make up his or her mind. Writer Gail Simone, already a fan favorite thanks to a lengthy and well-regarded stint on Birds of Prey, which featured a rotating roster of many of the company’s other notable female heroes, as well as the cultish favorite Secret Six, another group book with c-list villains.

Some time ago, after leaving BoP, Simone assumed the writing duties on the relaunched for the umpteenth time WW title, doing a cannonball dive right into the middle of the whole bubbling WW-fan cauldron- and has seemed to have appealed to a wide section of this fractious group by simply not emphasizing one of her many aspects over another. Mythological background? Fine, it’s there. This very issue, she does battle with a Mayan deity. Role model for women all over the world? Simone’s Wondy is strong, compassionate, and resourceful, as we see in a nicely-done hospital drama scene with longtime WW foil Etta Candy, who has been repurposed from Golden Age woo-woo fat-joke comic relief to a badass government operative today. Spandex superheroics? There have been some, some this very issue, as it turns out, via a fight with a mind-controlled Power Girl, who is in the thrall of a group of mysterious malevolent beings of some sort who look like little kids, shades of The Midwich Cuckoos. In this issue alone, we get callbacks to not only the film Q: The Winged Serpent, but Village of the Damned also…could Simone be doing a Jack Kirby-Kamandi/The Demon thing, in which the King, in his ’70s run on those titles, would take elements from popular films of the day such as Planet of the Apes and Theatre of Blood and craft whole stories from them?

Nah, probably not. And besides, as a wise man once said, “Creativity is the art of disguising your sources”. DC hedges their bets a bit by tabbing Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan to do the art chores; they’re squarely in that Adam Hughes/Terry Dodson “good girl” tradition…but they do keep the posing to a minimum, and do a good job all around. I haven’t been what you could call a regular reader of anyone’s Wonder Woman over the years; the character just has never really appealed to me (I have a hard time taking that costume seriously, among other things). But of all that I’ve read, I’ve never read a better take than Simone’s, and if you’re curious about what’s being done with the character these days, you could do worse than to check this out, or at least one of the trade collections.

DEMO V2 #1
Script: Brian Wood
Art: Becky Cloonan
DC/Vertigo, $2.99

The first Demo series was one of the first “darlings of the comics internet”, released at the time when that phenomenon was getting its feet under it (and a year after I started blogging, myself), due in large part to the efforts of  Larry Young and AiT/PlanetLar, who was one of the first publishers of comics and graphic novels to reach out to those of us who were spending our online time blogging about comics and comics-related subjects, rather than where we went on or summer vacation or what the weather was like where we lived, etc. Demo, originally set to be taken as single issues and not to be collected, was among the AiT titles that Young made available to all of us, and it soon became a buzz book like several others at about that time. Originally an X-book pitch, the series, at first at least, dealt with twentysomethings with extranormal abilities, and their trials and tribulations, but eventually moved away from that, de-emphasizing or leaving the powers thing out all together. The one constant for me with the first series, was how Wood would, seemingly without fail, have his characters say and do things that would utterly defy logic and/or common sense, at least as I (admittedly tenuously) know it…and often the key part of the denouement would hinge on this irrational act…and if not that, that thing guaranteed to drive me up the wall, the ambiguous, make-your-own-because-I-don’t-want-to-think-of-one ending. Some people love that sort of thing, but it makes me insane.

Anyway, despite that, Wood still managed to make his situations novel and his characters compelling, because he’s just that good, and while I certainly liked some issues more than others (the “Mixtape” story was a personal favorite, as was the finale) the run as a whole was very memorable, not in the least because of the one constant throughout, the art of Becky Cloonan. At first, Cloonan tried to adapt her style to fit the feel of the story, a worthy experiment in and of itself and a difficult trick to pull off well, but eventually she settled in, abandoned the chameleon act, and grew up right before our eyes as an illustrator. So here we are now, several years later, and with Wood entrenched in his own little corner of Vertigo, writing DMZ and Northlanders and Cloonan at first doing the cancelled-just-when-it-was-getting-interesting American Virgin before moving on to other projectsand in 2009-10, someone felt like it would be a good idea to revisit their first collaboration. So far, so good. While “The Waking Life of Angels”, this issue’s title, is a bit slight storywise- young girl is troubled with Hitchcock-like dreams of someone being pursued in a large church-like building, and jumping off from a great height within the building, to the point where she’s unable to sleep- in fact, hasn’t done so for nine days. Eventually, she twigs on that it’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in London that she’s seeing, and fearing she’s seeing a vision of someone in trouble and needing help, she travels there…and makes yet another of the patented Demo pivotal character decisions that are dramatically valid but just don’t make sense to me. At the risk of spoiling, and bearing in mind that I have never been awake for nine days straight, I still don’t see how someone could arrive at the course of action our protagonist decides on at the end. Ah, deja vu all over again. Anyway, the real attraction is Cloonan’s unbelievably detailed drawings of the various landmarks, especially the interior of the cathedral, which- if anyone paid attention in Art Appreciation class- knows is quite a task to undertake. So yes, worth your while to see where Wood intends to go, and to take in Cloonan’s outstanding work. Good to see the Demo concept return, and I look forward to being frustrated and entertained in equal measure for the next eleven months.

VALENTINE
Script: Alex De Campi
Art: Christine Larsen
Available via various online outlets, including Comixology.com

Alex De Campi first showed up on my radar via the sharp and smart 2004-2005 miniseries Smoke, a super-spy saga slash political thriller that hit many right notes, and hit them often and true. After that, she dabbled in manga, then abandoned print comics for the world of music video direction, where she’s been responsible for several imaginative and clever clips for a number of musical acts, including Amanda Palmer and the Puppini Sisters.  All this time, I’ve been patiently awaiting (note the sarcasm?) for her byline to appear again on something that I could read…and that time has come, only in a different kind of format. Valentine is, as the press release says, a “serialized, digital-first graphic novel that is being translated and published simultaneously in 14 languages”, designed to take advantage of the still-nascent iPhone/Kindle/iPad, etc. technology, available for download to the protable reading device of your choice, or it can be read online via your browser. A print collection is planned eventually, but that would seem to be down the road. It’s the story of one Valentine Renaud, a soldier in World War I, fighting against the Russian Cossacks for the French. He and a compatriot are survivors of a battle in dead-of-winter Russia, and as they seek the rest of their platoon they encounter a older fellow with a dying female companion, and a task for them to undertake, namely, to carry a bundled sword to a certain party at all costs…and thus the adventure begins.

There are elements of Arthurian legend, concepts that remind me of the Day/Night Watch series of films, and I flat out love the setting; it’s certainly not an overexposed period in time or location. De Campi brings her refreshingly dry dialogue style to bear; it’s still early in the narrative so further examination really is hard to do. Larsen is new to me; she does a good job overall, with a style that reminds me a bit of people like Matt Wagner or Dylan Meconis, despite some awkwardness in the figure drawing. On a purely visual level, I must admit I really like seeing the captions and word balloons pop up with a click of the mouse; it’s an interesting interactive experience, better than the labored “motion comics” (which this is most definitely not) I’ve seen before. If you own one of these nifty devices, and are looking for reading content for your new toy, then you should seriously consider checking this out and getting in on the beginning of what certainly looks like an epic fantasy/adventure tale.

ARCADE OF CRUELTY
Script/art: Joseph Larkin
Also-Ran Press (2008), $18 postpaid

Nicely packaged, on very good paper stock (non-recycled, he notes with pride, an early warning sign) but very hit-or-miss collection of self-pubbed satirical humor strips, collages, and such, presented as a bio or document of sorts of and by Joseph Larkin, who has a crude cartooning style, a ton of attitude, takes feigned self-effacement to a whole new level, and sure doesn’t seem to like Jeffrey Brown, Art Spiegelman, or James Kochalka. Of course, it’s all in good fun, but of course, and there are scattered laughs to be found here and there – but after a while the cumulative effect is like that of the loud guy at the party that’s convinced he’s a wag and a truth-teller and is determined to prove it no matter what…and goes on and on and on and just won’t stop. I’d say his stuff works better in short doses. He also makes a LOT of 9/11 jokes, so if you think it’s too soon nine-plus years on, or just in plain old bad taste, act accordingly. Those who are looking for this sort of would-be outsider, edgy, Andy Kaufman-inspired kind of humor might want to check this out.

As always, thanks for reading, and see you next Tuesday!