Time once more for Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, that more-or-less weekly and rarely on-time feature in which I opine on various recently released publications of the sequential graphic nature, some of which may be sitting on the rack at a comics shop, or awaiting the click of a button on some online merchant’s web page near you right now, if you’re lucky. Or of you’re not, as the case may be.

Script/Art: Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez
Fantagraphics; $14.99

As usual, Gilbert works his ongoing movie-themed storyline, giving us a kinda-sly Avatar satire (well, it could be) as well as a further account of former child star Dora aka “Killer”, who’s now being approached to do a sequel to the movie in the first story. I won’t pretend to have a clue as to what Beto’s trying to do with this stuff; sometimes he seems to be paying tribute of sorts to junk cinema and/or comment on the current state of the movies, and sometimes it seems like he just wants to draw to naked dudes beating a cop to death with a rock. I don’t know. It’s no less well-dialogued or drawn for it, but the cumulative effect is somewhat wearying for me. Once more, though, it’s Jaime who really shines, returning to Hoppers after the deft superheroics last time out; any time spent with Maggie is time well spent. Not only do we get her date with Ray and one of the best-realized dream recreations ever set to paper, but also “Browntown”, a heart-rending story of Mag’s childhood, made even more so because we just plain old like her as a character and have practically grown old (maybe I’m speaking for myself here, but I’ve been reading this series for a long time) with her and her cast of characters. Then, to bring it all home, after “Browntown” and its awful resolution, we get the rest of Maggie and Ray’s date, and yet another revelation at the end. In lesser hands, this would be unbearable and insufferable soap opera; but here Jaime is note-perfect throughout, using every nuance and trick at his command to engage and move the reader. It’s a masterwork, and I’ll be damned if I can tell what he’ll do for an encore. I can’t imagine how the uninitiated will approach this; the Beto stuff is fairly straightforward but kinda needs the context of what’s gone before for full appreciation; Jaime’s dual narratives, however, will not have quite the same impact to the newbie as it will to those of us who’ve been along for the ride for some time now. Still, the characters are fleshed out enough that I wouldn’t think new readers would be completely in the dark; I would hope it would at worst inspire some collection-hunting to get up to speed. The first two New Stories editions were somewhat up and down, but this one brings the goods. If you care at all about this series and those characters, you’ll want to get this, as pricey as it is.

Script: Anderson Gabrych; Art: Brad Rader
DC/Vertigo Crime, $19.99

Fifties-era hard-boiled private dick with some definite skeletons in his closet gets mixed up in some nasty business involving prostitution and other unsavory goings-on on the streets of San Francisco, and of course it’s the religious leaders of the neighborhood that are mixed up in it…despite some novel twists, this is done in such heavy handed and obvious fashion that while it becomes somewhat engrossing the farther it goes along, one is exhausted by the time it’s done due to the writer constantly beating us over the head with perceived period slang and the desire to provoke and shock and announce loudly to the reader that “See! I’m so clever! I make all the junk that Chandler and Hammett only HINTED at and rub your collective NOSES in it!”. Sadly, he’s far from alone in that attitude, it seems to inform most of DC’s output these days. The art tends to be as ham-fisted as the script; appropriate, I suppose, for the material; it’s as ugly as the events it depicts, often looking like, oh, Al Milgrom inked lefthanded by Wally Wood using crayons. The girl Friday’s freckles look like cysts. Anyway, as I said earlier, though, this does gain some traction and momentum the farther it goes along, and Rader seems to get his feet under him as he goes, giving us some dynamic panel layouts and action shots (even though I scratch my head at the gymnastics required to strike the poses shown in a climactic gunfire scene) as well as some not-bad atmospherics via use of blackspotting and gray tones, courtesy of Rivkah, who I assume is this Rivkah, whose work I haven’t seen in ages. While some may be surprised and even mildly titillated by the twists Gabrych shoehorns into his noir, like so many stories of its type it proceeds in mostly expected fashion, and will be easily forgotten ten minutes after putting it down. Those who are fans of the genre will want to check this out, and those who remain unmoved are most likely to stay so.

Script: Fred Van Lente; Art: Mahmud Asrar, Scott Hanna
Marvel, $3.99 each

Given my ennui about current goings-on in Daredevil, I had pretty much decided to ignore the whole Shadowland tie-in event thang…but after reading David Brothers’ ecstatic-waxing blog post the other day, I got curious about this particular limb of that octopus-like construct. Then, I remembered writer Van Lente announcing that he was going to be writing Cage, and soliciting suggestions from people about old Hero for Hire-era villians from back in the day, and I remembered the second issue of the original series I read as teen, a Christmas-themed one that featured a malevolent cat named Marley as the badguy. I tweeted that one, Van Lente seemed to be impressed, and I kinda hoped he’d use him because of my suggestion. Well, so far, no good for your humble scribe on the old “villain suggestion” scoreboard…but there are two issues left so hope springs eternal, I guess. Anyway, the upshot is that I had kinda forgotten about it after that, and when this was solicited I looked right over it. My mistake, I guess. I don’t know from verisimilitude, as Dave so fervently describes (hopelessly white boy from the sticks here), but I do know an entertaining superhero story when I read one, an this on is well on its way. This Power Man isn’t Mr. Cage this time; no, he’s a mysterious youngblood from Cage’s old ‘hood who’s taken it upon himself to help the residents out of jams- for a price. He has seemingly limitless powers of strength and speed, etc., to achieve this goal; he can even absorb Iron Fist’s chi force when the two come to blows. But I’m getting ahead of myself. All these mercenary shenanigans, of course, come to the attention of the actual man who called himself Power Man, who doesn’t appreciate all this good-deed-doing-for-money in his name, and he joins up with Danny Rand to try and jerk a knot in his tail, or talk some sense into him, whichever comes first. Thing is, a bunch of Cage’s old foes from back in the day have assembled to take out this new threat, and the donnybrook ensues. This is all done with a minimum of fuss and a generous dollop of good humor (unsurprising, coming from one-half the team responsible for The Incredible Hercules), only peripherally tied in to the Shadowland thing as a whole (Danny and Luke have to bail on the fracas in order to get to a planned Daredevil intervention…long story, I guess), and that’s a good thing- too many of these crossover comic satellites seem only designed to fill spaces in the big picture, and this one can be taken as an entity unto itself. Asrar’s art isn’t bad; he aspires to the dynamics of a Gil Kane or at least an Ed Hannigan; more often as not he succeeds and Hanna’s inks lend an almost Rudy Nebres-like line to the work; of course, by the time the Photoshopped color is ladled on, it reduces a lot of it to murk…but all in all, it works well with the script and manages to not look quite as generic Big Two Superhero Art-ish as a lot of titles do these days. I don’t think this backward-looking approach is intentional, and perhaps I’m just seeing things that aren’t there. One way or the other, this turned out to be a lot better than I expected, and look forward to reading the rest, if nothing else but to see if Marley does make an appearance, as well as to find out where young PM gets those amazing abilities.

Short Takes!

EMPOWERED 6 (Dark Horse): Ever since Adam Warren upped the ante with the (let’s face it) exciting- and sobering- demise of a minor character last time, suddenly this playful and naughty sendup of superhero conventions takes on a whole new gravitas. And even more impressive, he introduces a typically clever twist on the whole superhero zombies craze that’s still getting play in comics. Not to worry, though, there’s still plenty of yuks to be had, including some sardonically good-natured tweaking of fantasy sports leagues and the people who call in to sports-talk radio shows, and of course, Warren’s art, worth the price of admission on its own. A

OUR FIGHTING FORCES #1 (DC): For some reason, license perpetuation perhaps, DC has been putting out a handful of war comics lately, and here’s the latest, a tale starring the original, non-Vertigo Losers. Biggest attraction for me here is a script by Hawaiian Dick‘s B. Clay Moore, who really should have a Big Two title or two of his own to play around with by now, and it’s a damn shame he doesn’t. On this one, he could have been better served art-wise (Chad Hardin didn’t impress me much on Zatanna either, but he’s better here. Maybe it’s the inker whose name I’m too lazy to look up), but it’s no deal-breaker. Check it out, unless you’re allergic to war comics in general. B+

BATMAN AND ROBIN #14 (DC): Many sing the praises of Grant and his recent Batman stint; while I agree there have been highlights (especially the three issues done with J.H. Williams a while back), I think by and large it’s been disjointed and chaotic, as incomprehensible as it is ambitious. I mean, Invisibles or Flex Mentallo is one thing, we knew going in that we were going to have to work for it, but this is Batman and Robin, for chrissakes- it comes across like Pynchon writing Dick Tracy. This time (and last ish, too) the revolving artist wheel stopped on Fraser Irving, who tries very hard with his poor-man’s Richard Corben style, but only adds filigree and nuance to the gnarly narrative, two things that are often welcome but not exactly needed here. Anyway, at least it’s not generic-looking and dull (that was a few issues ago) so there’s that. Me, I’ve pretty much abandoned all hope of being wowed by Grant ever again; I think he’s spread himself too thin and can’t get that old snap back, and WE3 seems like a hundred years ago. I ‘m sure most don’t agree with me, but I sure as hell don’t see any clothes on that Emperor.  B-

STARSTRUCK #13 (IDW): Well, I was wondering why 13 issues; turns out that rather than continue the main story, it’s given to fumetti (featuring the author herself as the lead character, talk about your Mary Sue scenarios!) and Galactic Girl Guides and text features and so on and so forth. Fair enough; I’d rather read that stuff, from this series, than the main stories of 90% of what’s out there today. That said, I’m a hopeless addict. Others may not be so favorably inclined. A-

Your Basic All-Purpose Review Writing Music Soundtrack: Yoko Ono- A Story; Tim Buckley- Sefronia; Neil Young- Le Noise; Strawbs- Hero and Heroine; Poco- Indian Summer.

Domo arigato for reading, as always. Review inquiries, mash notes, those little bottles of booze they have on airplanes: johnnybacardi AT gmail.