Welcome back to Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie,  in which I attempt to point out various offerings of a sequential graphics-type nature that I think might be worth your time to check out, or in some cases, avoid- many of which will still be on sale at various booksellers, both online and real-world, near you.

Script: Mark Schultz, Denny O’Neil; Art: Moritat, Bill Sienkiewicz
DC Comics, $3.99

The brain trust at DC just can’t let poor Denny Colt rest in peace, it seems, so here we have another relaunch in the wake of the failed Darwyn Cooke/Mark Evanier/diverse hands series of just a few short years ago. The difference this time, I suppose, is that Eisner’s concepts have been reconfigured and inserted into this whole “First Wave” shared universe thing, and that’s fair enough…

The Spirit as he existed in his heyday of the late ’40s and early ’50s existed mostly as a vehicle for Eisner and his assistants to work out their cinematic storytelling obsessions, and the best way to do that was via a likable and not especially remarkable (even though he sure could take a beating, was bemused by women, and wore a mask) protagonist, for all the distinctive supporting players to play off of and to populate the various stage settings that they amused themselves with. And thank God or the deity of your choice that he did so. I think perhaps that Kitchen Sink’s The Spirit: The New Adventures excepted, which hit as often as it missed, that’s why most modern attempts to revive the character and his world have failed — for trying too hard to simultaneously update and still pay respects to the old, creating a neither here-nor-there version that just wasn’t interesting enough on its own to maintain interest, no matter how beautifully drawn it was.

Even though this doesn’t really look or smell like the good old Eisner Spirit that we all (well, those of us of a certain age, anyway) grew up with, well, that’s OK- this version tilts the scales in more of a revamp direction, and it’s more interesting somehow because of it. Schultz tweaks such longtime standbys as Denny Colt’s underground Wildwood Cemetery base of operations; it’s now an aboveground cottage. So far, no sign of Ebony. The James Garner-like easygoing personality is there, but Schultz’s ongoing internal monologues give us a bit more serious-minded Spirit, and that’s reflected in the tone of the stories, something that I think was a shortcoming of the Cooke/Evanier takes, which tried to keep it light. I’m not so fond of his Octopus, a brutal crime boss more in line with Miller’s via Sam Jackson than the ruthless and hidden mastermind of Eisner’s stories. Not a deal-breaker, though.

I’m quite impressed with the one-named Moritat’s art; he doesn’t scrimp on backgrounds and mood-establishment, and his figures and facial expressions are all deftly lifelike. His stuff reminds me a bit of someone like Rick Veitch; loose and sloppy in places, but still reined in and tight when necessary. Quite impressive. The back feature gives us two old pros — Denny O’Neil, he of the Question and the Shadow, not to mention Batman, no stranger to crime fiction he — and Bill Sienkiewicz (I’m so proud I can spell his name without looking it up), another veteran of the masked urban crimefighter game.

It’s not a terribly original or imaginative tale, but Bill S draws the hell out of it in his loose, scratchy style and it goes down smoothly. Done in black and white a la Batman: Black and White, I hope this becomes a vehicle for other artists to try their hand. If Frank Miller hadn’t been so eager to piss on Will Eisner’s grave and instead committed himself to instead giving us an updated, (of course) stylized, and enjoyable screen version of the venerable character instead of pushing his own sour cynical agenda in that abortion of a film, this is what it might have looked like. So far, as skeptical as I’ve been before they hit the racks, I’m finding myself liking (by and large) these First Wave remake/remodels.

Script: Grace Randolph, Art: Craig Rousseau
Marvel Comics, $3.99

A contender for the worst title ever award, but as has been the case with most of Marvel’s well-meaning but clumsy attempts to woo that coveted young girls demographic, better than you’d think.

It takes archetypes (Archie-types? Heh) of various Marvel heroines such as Janet Van Dyne aka the Wasp, Jen Walters aka She-Hulk, Namora (!) as the requisite spoiled rich-bitch, land so on, and recasts them as early teens in a high school, all interacting exactly how you’d think they would, and the whole thing comes off like one of those strained yet earnest Disney Channel teen shows like Hannah Montana (sans singing pretensions…yet) or That’s So Raven, or something more cinematic like Clueless.

Now, I am far from the target audience, and I freely admit I have no clue what preteen and teenage girls want to read in their comics or fantasy fiction — Manga seems to be very popular with them, and Twilight, and Harry Potter, etc. I do recall that Marvel’s put out some books that were similar to this, such as Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, and one of the back pages also lists titles such as Black Widow and the Marvel Girls and X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back…so between these and Girl Comics, etc., who knows. This might make some inroads into the target group.

Grace Randolph writes in a breezy fashion and finesses the slang without sounding like she’s trying too hard; this version of Jan Van Dyne is certainly charming. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rousseau’s art, too- he has a nice, cartoonish (if angular- honestly, someone’s gonna get an eye poked out by an nose-tip or chin in one of his books someday) style that is obviously animation-inspired…he’s not an artist I’d go out of my way to buy, but his work is always welcome when it appears, and I’ve enjoyed checking his website and blog out for several years now.

I suppose this works pretty well for what it is; I’m sure the more knowledgeable among you can point me in the direction of a dozen or more comics and GNs and (certainly) manga that do the same thing even better, and don’t have to resort to repurposed Marvel superheroes to do it. Still, from where I sit, this would be a good comic to drop in front of that teenage daughter you’ve been trying to get to read for some time now. Good luck!

SIF #1
Script: Kelly Sue DeConnick, Art: Ryan Stegman, Tom Palmer, Victor Olazaba.
Marvel Comics, $3.99

A one-shot, or so I understand it, which focuses on a character that I don’t really know a lot about, not having read more than perhaps a half dozen, if that many, Thor comics since Walt Simonson wrapped his beloved 1980’s stint. She’s Thor’s warrior-woman gal pal. Had a fling (as I recall) with the horse skull-headed alien Thor Beta Ray Bill during Simonson’s run. I’m sure lots of amazing things have been done with her in the last 20-something years, but I’m pretty clueless about what they could have been.

Anyway, in the here and now we have the Lady Sif, fresh off having her body possessed by perennial badguy Loki as part of the Seige event, apparently now getting over the experience on Earth, and having a hard time of it (yes, kids, once more we have rape — of a sort — as a motivating factor for a female character) when she’s approached by none other than Beta Ray Bill again (girlfriend in tow, much to Sif’s consternation), looking for Thor (who’s apparently out of commission or gone somewhere or something) but willing to settle for Sif, who agrees to help him with his problem — his spaceship has been taken over by mind-controlling aliens.

What follows is a pretty good outer space adventure; short and sweet and it doesn’t drag. DeConnick keeps things moving along at a breezy clip. Stegman’s art owes a great deal to Art Adams; big, mooncalf eyes and lips, small waists and lonnng legs are the order of the day. But really, issues of imitation aside, he and his inkers present us with a very professional looking and quite competent visual accompaniment to DeConnick’s script, so who could ask for more?  If you’re keeping up with this whole Siege thing, you can buy this, read it, and respect yourself in the morning. If not, well, I guess if you’re looking for a comic that stars a sword-wielding babeazon, then this is better than Magdalena, see below, anyway.

Script: Mark Waid; Art: Jean Diaz, Horacio Domingues
Boom! Studios, $3.99

What with the Man of Steel being (apparently) de-emphasized, even phased out, at his own company, I’m not sure we need yet another “Bad Superman” series, in which we investigate what a world with a not-so-benign Super-guy would be like. Marvel/Miracleman, Maximortal, The One, even (more recently) SupergodThe Mighty and The Boys…, well, let’s just say that there’s little fresh left to say about the subject. I’m also reminded of Incognito, with its artificially created superpeople and protagonists with shifting moralities.

Be that as it may, apparently Waid doesn’t feel like he’s exhausted the subject, so here he is at Boom!, and here we have Incorruptible, which deals with (since this is a Boom! property, always with one eye on Hollywood and TV) a Clive Owen lookalike former supervillain named “Max Danger” who, when confronted with the threat of an insane Superman-like being, has decided to go straight in the hopes of averting the same fate that many of his peers, both presumed good guys and bad guys, have met — i.e., total obliteration. He’s accompanied in this task by a young girl in fetish gear, who aptly enough goes by the name of “Jailbait,” as well as a balding, cynical police captain he’s had an adversarial relationship with throughout the years.

We accompany this unlikely trio as Max goes around destroying former hideouts, looking up a mad scientist who’s been taking people’s money, offering to give them super powers to defend themselves against the Plutonian, and trying to get rid of Jailbait so she’ll be out of harm’s way. Nothing new under the sun, but Waid is a pro and writes like one, making a not-especially-inspired story readable. He’s not helped by Diaz, whose art is competent but bland and unexciting; one major problem is that he’s incapable of drawing a too-young girl that looks like a too-young girl…his Jailbait looks like every other ambiguously mid-late 20s comic book female. He also doesn’t stage the action very well; everything kinda lies there flat on the page. But lo and behold, along comes issue 5 and Horacio Domingues, and he’s everything his predecessor isn’t- dramatic, kinetic, dynamic, his style reminds me of something like Amanda Connor cross-pollinated with Steve Dillon, and it makes a HUGE difference in how this reads. I hope he sticks around. And yes, his Jailbait looks like, well, jail bait. You’ve read this all before, but as long as Domingues sticks around, this title suddenly becomes worth watching…by someone besides film and TV producers looking for properties to adapt, that is. ETA, 4/28: After receiving one of Boom!’s invaluable promo emails today, I noted that Incorruptible is a companion series to Irredeemable, another “Bad Superman” title to add to the list above, and probably something I should check out one of these days, to see if I (and you, too, don’t want to leave you, dear reader, out) can glean any insight into its satellite publication. And now you know…the rest of the story!

Short takes n’ letter grades:

AMERICAN VAMPIRE #2: The lead continues to impress; the tale of a young would-be starlet who gets more than she bargained for at a Hollywood party continues to engross, as well as gross-out. More on the apparent star of the show, always-grinning cowboy-vamp Skinner Sweet, too in both the lead and the Stephen King-penned backup, Again, King has nothing on Scott Snyder as a comics scripter. Star of the show is Rafael Albuquerque, though- he turns in dynamic, loose and exciting work on both stories. Needs to do some research on vintage photography, though. All said, this is looking like a keeper. A- (DC/Vertigo)

BATMAN: STREETS OF GOTHAM #11: Pretty much buying this for the Manhunter backup (yeah, I bought the ongoing before it got canned thrice), and it remains interesting and well-drawn, even though the backup format makes each chapter appear too short. The Dini lead is gruesome and pointless, like too many of his leads in this title have been. He’s better than this. B+ (DC Comics)

MAGDALENA #1: Well, looky here, it’s 1999 all over again and busty heroines in skintight costumes and dramatic capes are wielding swords all over the place (see Sif above). Unfortunately, some extraordinarily bland art totally defuses whatever momentum the uninspired storyline may have managed to muster. Like I said, just like 1999. A nice Ryan Sook cover does not translate into “you should buy”. C- (Top Cow Comics)

BRAVE AND THE BOLD #33: Every now and again you’ll see this in any comics series that features female characters; the “Ladies’ Night Out” story in which our heroines get their groove on and go dancing or something, and usually they wind up fighting this or that super-villain before it’s over. And that’s not what we get here. I’ll hand it to J.M. Straczynski; he really does try and do something different with a format that can become hidebound and stale real easy and real fast. What he does here is take Zatanna, Wonder Woman, and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl and place them in the Ladies’ Night scenario…but doesn’t go where you’d think he does, then brings it home with a twist at the end that some have found exploitative, or once more going over ground that’s been well-covered many times before, but for me (because this only-intermittent Bat-comic reader hasn’t seen it dealt with before) embellishes and adds another layer of resonance, poignance even, to a pivotal event in modern DC history. Trying hard not to spoil here, can’t you tell? Anyway, this is enhanced greatly by the smooth and assured hand of Cliff Chiang, whose work we don’t get to see often enough. You may or may not agree with me on this one, but I think it’s worth checking out anyway, and you may hate it like some do, but I guarantee you won’t be indifferent to it, and for me that’s a remarkable thing in these troubled times. A

AVENGERS VS. AGENTS OF ATLAS #4: Jeff Parker pulls off a double play here- he not only wraps up a convoluted time travel story in remarkably smooth fashion, but he also wrings some poignancy out of the resolution and makes five-year-old me, whose favorite super-hero was Giant-Man for a little while, quite happy. A-

Aaaand…that’s it! See you next week, and don’t forget to check out Free Comic Book Day this Saturday at a comics shop near you!

Love letters, correspondence, review inquiries, et cetera et cetera: johnnybacardi AT gmail.

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