Roll up, roll up for Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, in which I attempt to spotlight several recent works of sequential graphic storytelling that I find noteworthy, and think you might too- many of which may still be purchased for your very own personal enjoyment at a comics shop, bookstore, or online merchant near you if you’re lucky. Or not, as the case may be.

Script: Grant Morrison; Art: Tony Daniel, Frank Quitely, Scott Kolins, Andy Kubert, David Finch, Richard Friend
DC Comics, $4.99

When Morrison gets in the mood to do time travel, look out. I haven’t been following the main Batman title since the R.I.P. storyline wrapped, so I don’t know if this expanded issue is a continuation of any particular part of previous stories, or if this is a Very Special Batman tale which serves as a 700th issue celebration as well as a prelude to Moz’s coming back to the book- all I can do is judge it on its own merits. I’ll tell ya straight up that my initial reaction was very negative; I think I’ve read too many Morrison scripts lately that evoke the same feeling of trying to listen to a radio broadcast on the outer fringe of the station’s signal range. I also found the art very unsatisfying- too slick and uninspired when it wasn’t chaotic and scratchily rendered, which made it even harder to enjoy. Even the normally exceptional Quitely seemed off his game, and shaky-handed. But I did re-read it eventually, and as a story, while Morrison’s crazy quilt barely hangs together, it does manage to provide some memorable moments and I can’t dismiss it completely. It’s all set in motion by a “Maybe Machine”, which provides “Time Hypnosis”, showing “visions of how things might have been” created by a Professor Nichols to serve as a reoccurring plot generator for Grant’s take on Batman past, present and two futures.Morrison even adds another McGuffin in the “Joker’s Notebook”

First one features the 60’s flavored, more colorful versions of the bad guys (it even has a David Wayne-inspired Mad Hatter), and is drawn by Tony Daniels; as always, it’s in that scratchy-inked imitation Jim Lee/Greg Capullo style that just hurts my eyes. Based on what I saw him do in previous issues, I think he’s improved somewhat- his anatomy, staging and perspective shots are better- but I’ll always hold that style against him…it’s exactly the opposite of what I like to see in my comic books and all wrong for a presumed Silver Age tribute. Bats is forced to experience visions of fighting hawk-men and such, until he manages to turn the tables with the help of Gordon and the GCPD. Next is the current Dick Grayson and Damien Wayne as Robin, drawn by Quitely, with the last few pages painted by  Kolins; The former’s work looks rushed, with an even more pronounced than usual shakiness in the inkline. Kolins’ painted section is nice, but doesn’t add much.  The back and forth between Dick and Damien does work as well here as it does in Batman and Robin, one reason why it’s the best of t he Bat-books coming out today. Third, the first of two futures gives us Damian as Batman, a freaky take on two established Bat-villains, Frank Miller-style Mutant Punks and a rain of Joker venom, by Andy Kubert. It’s full of action and Kubert’s up to the task (even though I’m not wild about his style either- it’s too tied in with the Lee/Image school) and is somewhat incongruously tied in with the first two, leading to the final David Finch-illustrated tale, which features Terry McGinniss (you remember, Batman Beyond), and will probably make fans of that show happy. Again, though, Finch’s sloppily-inked, Image-style art doesn’t make for a good fit. This is a mess, nothing new for Morrison- coming across as an opportunity to jam with a group of artists and falling back on previous ideas rather than advancing any sort of storyline forward. The Mike Mignola alternate cover (seen above left) is typically well done, but the other features- a gallery of pinups by random artists, diagrams of the Batcave, etc., don’t really entice. I can’t recommend this unless you’re a Batman and/or Morrison completest.

Script/Art: Mike Kupperman
Fantagraphics Books, $4.95

I’m not sure if I can accurately describe to you what Kupperman does in this series; at its most basic it’s absurdist, deadpan humor, depending on the incongruities of juxtaposing random ideas and characters, both real and fictional, into one big goulash.  I’ll also freely admit that the point of something like this issue’s “All About Drainage”, which on the surface gives us a faded former “It Girl” who is cast in a Broadway play called “Marshy Hillock”, which is basically all about, yep, “drainage”, freely escapes me, and I guess I just have to shrug my shoulders and concede that there probably isn’t one, except in Kupperman’s mind. We get another installment of “Einstein and Twain”, which yes, does star the two men together in adventures of a surreal and nonsensical nature, a longish tale to lead off about a Jungle Queen-type who, when not clearing waterholes of crocodiles, also serves as the editor of a beauty magazine in the city. She winds up busting a rhino trading racket and clashing with a tiger-headed gangster. Richie Rich satire, “Cowboy Oscar Wilde”…Kupperman’s all over the map, and manages to amuse with all the non sequiturs more often as not, sometimes delivering with the oddness of his stiffly posed, apparent cut-and-pasted-from-other-sources artwork. If you have a soft spot for this sort of shenanigans, kinda like much of Adult Swim but smarter than the run of that mill, you could do worse than to pick this up; there are chuckles scattered throughout. Heck, I think the first few are collected even, so you can chuckle frequently for a longer period of time. Somehow, though, I don’t think you’ll laugh out loud all that often, or for an extended period of time…and I don’t really think Kupperman gives a shit if you don’t.

Script: Peter Hogan; Art: Chris Sprouse, Karl Story
DC/Wildstorm, $3.99

It’s hard to believe that it’s been eleven years since the first issue of Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse’s Doc Savage-meets-Captain Marvel opus Tom Strong came out as part of the ill-fated America’s Best Comics line. Strong was a lot of fun when it first started, but in my opinion soon began to spin its wheels, focusing more and more on the burgeoning cast Moore had created, placing them all in increasingly contrived situations- and that’s not even getting into the ennui caused by spinoff titles like Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales and Terra Obscura. Eventually, Moore and Sprouse left and turned the scripting over to Hogan, and not long after I stopped buying.  The book soldiered on for several more issues, with a variety of big-name scripters and artists lie Brian Vaughan and Duncan Fregredo, but I didn’t buy again until Sprouse and Moore returned to wrap it up along with Promethea in one of what I thought was the best comics of 2006. Anyway, someone somewhere thought the time was right to revive Tom, and perhaps sell a book or two on behalf of the struggling WildStorm imprint, so here we have it! Fortunately, while a bit slight in the story department- Tom’s son, conceived in vitro with his enemy Hitlerella (aw, I know it’s not Hitlerella, but I’m too lazy to look it up. You can get the gist of what she’s about.), has contrived a way to alter time, secure the use of the titular robots, and essentially remake the world as a Leni Riefenstahl- designed Nazi paradise, disposing of Tom’s burgeoning family in the process and leaving our hero shackled in his dungeon, lost to despair. Nothing especially new here, but Sprouse and Story are so damn good that they completely sell it anyway- you really feel for Tom at the end of this issue, and I credit the art solely for that. One example: about a quarter of the way in, when the exposition stops and plot kicks in, Strong is doing some research with the ghost of his former enemy and colleague Paul Saveen (long story) as his family impatiently awaits (they’re going to fly to Attabar Teru, the old homestead of sorts, for his daughter’s wedding- can’t believe they didn’t already do that) when without warning, Saveen disintegrates in front of Tom, and Strong races outside to find his whole world already changed. Sprouse stages this marvelously, evoking the alarm Strong had to be going through, the concern for his friends and family, and the realization that things have changed for the worse. If Hogan and Sprouse can continue to provide moments like these, this could turn out to be an entertaining read.

Script:  Sean McKeever, Art: David Baldeon
Marvel Comics, $3.99

I’ll say this much for Marvel, they’re committed to developing the kid versions of their characters as much as possible- seems like they’re launching new legacy-hero related titles every week: another version of Runaways, Avengers Academy, etc., etc. This time out, they’re reviving the old 40’s concept, at least the title anyway (license perpetuation and copyright concerns perhaps a motivating factor? Dunno.) and uniting a handful of characters like Spider-Girl, the young female Nomad, and Firestar, who’s been hanging around with the older girls for a few years now, and whose inclusion is a headscratcher. I guess she’s supposed to serve as the mentor figure, but it’s difficult to imagine the cancer survivor settling back into a Young-this or Kid-that team book. Anyway, this is part one of the “building the team” story, as we’re shown our future cast in separate places (after a flashback with some Latino kids who wind up being experimented on to create super-soldiers…yeah, we meet at least one of them later) and how they react to the attack of a group of super bad-kids called “The Bastards of Evil”, ugh. They’re all related to or kids of established Marvel villains, get it get it. Towards the end, we get a scene set at Ground Zero that will try the limits of your “Too Soon?” instinct. I guess it does provoke a reaction, but it certainly seems in poor taste.  I’m not especially familiar with McKeever’s work; he always manages to write comics I don’t buy. He’s decent with dialogue, when he’s not writing exposition- this is one of the most explanation-heavy comics I’ve read in some time now.

Although the structure of the story is somewhat unorthodox with its scattered protagonists and flashback interludes, the events otherwise fall in the category of standard superheroics, lots of bragging and slugging. We do get a character that apparently jumps the entire height of the Statue of Liberty to catch another; in comic book logic I guess that’s possible but in real life logic, let’s say I’m skeptical. Baldeon’s art is that pseudo-manga style that Humberto Ramos helped make popular so long ago; guess Baldeon’s the right age to have grown up reading and copying pages from Impulse or Crimson. Everybody, including the older adults is drawn silky-smooth and baby-faced, and everyone has big feet, pointy chins and noses, and poses like they’re swimming in gelatin. Still, he does staging well, especially scenes like the full-page shot of two of the characters witnessing an explosion from atop the George Washington Bridge,  and the Photoshop coloring by Chris Sotomayor gives everything a nice colorful satiny sheen. I guess that’s exactly the sort of art we’ve come to expect from this sort of young-heroes comic, and this also features a script that’s pretty much exactly what we’ve come to expect from a young-superheroes comic. If you’re in the mood to have your expectations met, but not exceeded, then keep an eye on this book and let me know if anything changes.

Short Takes!

BLACK WIDOW #2: Ask and ye shall receive. After #1, I was intrigued but wished the storytelling was tighter, and with #2 my wish was granted. Long live Jambi. Interesting premise- that thing that was removed surgically from the Widow’s abdomen last time turns out to be comprehensive information about the Western superhero community, and now Natasha’s trying to find out who set her up for this revelation. Dan Acuna remains solid, and I even liked the effing Wolverine cameos. A-

iZOMBIE #2: Really, not much happens, this time out, mostly fleshing out of characters. Allred seems committed, and Roberson’s script engages. Stay tuned. B+

MYSTERY SOCIETY #1: Hm…I don’t know, I remember Midnight, Mass., and I certainly haven’t forgotten Perhapanauts, the B.P.R.D./Hellboy franchise, Umbrella Academy, even frigging Atomic Robo. This may not be any better than those titles, but it sure doesn’t look like it’s going to be all that different. C+

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

Music listened to during the writing (hey, it always comes back to music here at Popdose): James Brown’s  In the Jungle Groove, Chicago’s VII, Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Fleetwood Mac’s Fleetwood Mac (1975), Strawbs’ Hero and Heroine.

Review inquiries, love letters, rockin’ and rollin’ and whatnot: johnnybacardi AT gmail.